Spartacist degeneration up close & personal: the 1980 Toronto purge

Excerpted from “Jimstown as we knew it” by Tom Riley

After returning to Canada [after participating in founding of the Spartacist League/Britain], [Cathy] Nason became Toronto organizer and I took over Spartacist Canada. In the autumn of 1979, the late Joe Vetter, a long-time SL cadre previously stationed in London for a few years was sent in to assume the role of New York’s Canadian plenipotentiary. Unlike Reuben Samuels, the American cadre he replaced, Joe had little political authority with the members of the Trotskyist League of Canada (TL), most of whom came to regard him as lazy and self-indulgent. Joe’s stock did not rise when Audrey M., the local treasurer, caught him cheating on his pledge. On advice from New York, this was hushed up and Joe was permitted to repay what he owed without any further repercussions. This was an example of what was known as “special protection” in the degenerating Spartacist tendency at the time—something only available to those favored by Robertson and his clique.

In early 1980, Nason and I were reluctant to support Joe’s proposal to have Stephanie P., a comrade with a rather abrasive manner, transfer to Toronto to train Alice S. to do production for Spartacist Canada. Alice, a working-class woman with two young children who already had plenty of stress, was extremely anxious about having to work under Stephanie. Nason and I assumed that Joe’s proposal was pre-approved by New York, if it had not originated there, but nonetheless proposed that given Alice’s (entirely reasonable) concerns perhaps it would be good to see if someone else might be sent instead. Joe refused to budge and put the question to a vote—something that rarely happened in our exec meetings. We did not vote for Joe’s motion, which failed as a result. In theory members of any body had the duty, as well as the right, to vote their conscience on any motion; but we knew we were violating the unwritten rule against opposing proposals from the center. We did not have to wait long for the blowback.

In March 1980, at a Midwest educational gathering in Chicago, Joe launched an unexpected, and unprepared, campaign to depose Nason as Toronto organizer. The Chicago local had recently been the scene of a “fight” that featured the organizer, Paul Collins, a former Coast Guard officer, being denounced for overworking the members and acting in a dictatorial and undemocratic fashion. This was how things generally worked in the SL at the time, but the Chicago local was reputed to be among the worst. As a rule, the central leadership found it pretty easy to gain the support of the members whenever it seemed convenient to launch an “anti-bureaucratic” fight against a particular local leadership.

Joe doubtless expected things to follow the usual pattern when he stood up in the midst of the Chicago meeting and, apropos of nothing, began denouncing Nason as an abusive bureaucrat in the Collins mold. Nason immediately approached the (now-deceased) George Crawford, an SL Central Committee member who previously served on the Political Bureau, to ask him to intervene. Crawford, who had considerable familiarity with the Toronto branch, responded simply that there was nothing he could do. This meant that Joe’s attack had been greenlighted by New York, or at least that Crawford thought it was.

But the Spartacist tendency, or at least its Toronto branch, had not at this stage been as thoroughly pulverised as the group that Carl and James were to join a year or so later, and Joe’s assault was met with serious opposition. The SL leaders present must have been taken aback as one TLer after another went up to the podium to defend Nason; many said they considered her to be the best organizer the Toronto branch ever had. Not a single comrade endorsed Joe’s allegation, while most said they had no idea what he was talking about. I was surprised, and of course pleased, by this response but I knew enough not to participate in Joe’s humiliation. This was the only time during my years in the Spartacist tendency that I witnessed anything similar—it may well have been a unique event. There were no (immediate) repercussions beyond a “proposal” (i.e., edict) from New York that the whole episode be shoved into the memory hole, and that there be no follow-up discussion when we returned to Toronto.

One factor in the surprising response of the Toronto members was that unlike in the SL/U.S., where the members were regularly rotated from one branch to another in a fairly deliberate policy of homogenization, the border complicated transfers. Many members of the TL knew each other from the days when they were leftist dissidents in and around the Pabloist Revolutionary Marxist Group, and had spent the previous four or five years working together in the Toronto branch. They were accustomed to the periodic rotation of different American cadres in the role of TL national chairman, but had no experience as yet with the egregious, and pointless, trashing of cadres that Carl witnessed as soon as he joined the SL/B.

The TL membership revolt in Chicago did not resolve things—indeed it likely heightened the apprehensions in New York about the potential for factional opposition north of the border. Within a few months the attack was renewed, but this time instead of leaving Joe to his own (inadequate) devices, New York took a more active role in the preparations. Several SL cadres who visited Toronto in the late spring and early summer of 1980 were (privately) asked for their assessment of the situation. Robin and Corky from the New York local, as well as Darlene Kamiura, then WV production manager, claimed to be alarmed by what they had witnessed. They were asked to submit written reports which provided “evidence” for the forthcoming purge. The third visitor, the late Ed Cliffel, an SL Central Committee member who served as the group’s resident psychologist and had also run the Chicago local for many years, was contacted by Joe and asked for his impression. When Cliffel said he could not see that there was anything seriously amiss he was advised that there would be no need for him to submit anything in writing.

The execrable Oliver Stephens, who briefly edited Young Spartacus after the clones were decimated, was transferred to Toronto a few months before the purge was launched. While he was ostensibly supposed to be writing for Spartacist Canada I could not help noticing that he managed to dodge assignments on one pretext or another and produced little or no copy. His real assignment, it turned out, was to gather “evidence” and provide a point of support within the Toronto local for the New York leadership’s attack. He as much as admitted this during one of the purge meetings when he briefly went off script and mentioned having been previously instructed, when given his Canadian assignment, not to start “the fight” prematurely.

The Toronto purge stretched over the entire month of August 1980 and concluded at the TL’s Fourth National Conference in early September. The list of charges against me (because this time I was the focus, not Nason) had to be revised several times, as various incongruities and factual discrepancies were pointed out. But the intensity and direction never changed. At the time, as previously mentioned, I regarded the whole exercise as a huge mistake; I was completely committed to Spartacist politics and regarded as one of the more energetic and effective members of the Toronto branch.

Initially I hoped to weather the storm by adopting a compliant posture—accepting whatever shreds of validity were contained in the generally outlandish criticisms, not punching back and willingly acknowledging that I could and should do better. I drew the line at confessing to anything I considered to be clearly false. Nason was both more prescient and far less optimistic about the ultimate outcome, as were several other comrades who sensibly observed that, since the whole exercise was being openly described as a “purge” by the initiators, the outcome was a foregone conclusion. They were of course proved right.

Once the “fight” began we batted down a few of the charges, but never offered any serious resistance, nor did we venture any analysis of what might be motivating the whole destructive and irrational campaign. While privately critical of various things we witnessed, Nason and I were both profoundly loyal to the organization and inclined to attribute its problems to the low ebb of the class struggle, which had led to a dramatic contraction of the entire left in North America at the time.

After a while those directing the purge shifted gears and suggested that I was being egotistical in refusing to bow to the clearly stated wishes of the tendency’s leadership that I simply resign. I was told that although the entire work of the organization in Toronto was being paralyzed by my stubbornness, the struggle to get rid of me would remain the top priority until I eventually relented. In the meantime, it was suggested, many members would become demoralized and drop out. If indeed I was as loyal as I professed to be, I was told, I could prove it by putting the interests of the group first and resigning. Doing so would signal my willingness to override my own short-term personal preferences in the interests of the common movement and thereby potentially open the door for my eventual reintegration. It slowly became clear to me that this time there would be no beating the rap and that I was not doing anyone any good by delaying the inevitable. Hoping that this would indeed prove the shortest route back to rejoining, I submitted my resignation, which was printed in Spartacist Canada No. 44, September-October 1980. My statement began:

“I never thought I’d be writing out a resignation from the iSt, the only revolutionary organization in the world, but here it is. At the request of the organization I am resigning from the TLC.”