On the recent IG-SL debate

The 13 January two-part public debate in New York City between the International Communist League/Spartacist League (ICL/SL) and the Internationalist Group (IG) offered few surprises, but it dramatically showcased the SL’s rapid movement away from the Trotskyist program it championed during the 1960s and 70s. The SL’s “Post Debate Statement” offers a snapshot of this devolution: their claim to have provided an “answer to the problem of revolutionary leadership and a road forward on key questions” was not at all evident to us. Nor did they make a convincing case that those speaking for the IG were “capitulating to liberalism, Stalinism and trade unionism.” Unlike the SL, we were not offended by the “sectarianism” of the IG’s “timeless Marxoid mantras”; for the most part they seemed apt and far more concrete than the SL’s nebulous claim to be charting an independent path forward for the working class.

We noted that many in the SL approve of marching under the flag of the Salvadoran popular front in 1981 (one of the issues we raised in the statement we distributed at the event). It also seems that they may be close to renouncing their dual defeatist position in the 1948, ‘67 and ‘73 Arab-Israeli wars—historically one of the SL’s most distinctive programmatic positions.

One point on which we agreed with the SL was their criticism of the IG’s description of Greece as a “sub-imperialist” power. “Sub-imperialism” is a category we associate with quasi-Marxist dependency theorists of the 1970s; as far as we are aware it was never used by Lenin, Trotsky or the Spartacist tendency in its revolutionary period. We view Greece as a dependent capitalist country that is indeed “under the boot of U.S. and German imperialism,” as the SL put it (see our 2013 article: “Greece – A Crisis of Leadership”).

Speaking for the BT during the first discussion round, Tom Riley (2:14:00) observed that the SL’s qualitative superiority “over every other current claiming the mantle of Trotskyism” during the 1960s and 70s makes it vitally important to “identify what went wrong and how it happened.” Riley suggested that the “moral corrosion” of the cadre was central to the SL’s degeneration, and cited, as an example, the Stalinist/Healyite-style slander of both the BT and IG as “provocateurs.” He proposed that the SL’s new leadership step up and correct this:

“You know that was wrong; if you tell the simple truth you will be setting a good example for the IG, which should also repudiate the slanders published in WV [Workers Vanguard] when it was edited by [IG leader] Jan Norden.”

The new SL leaders have signaled a desire to distance themselves from many of their group’s odious past practices. If the SL “does the right thing,” we would hope that the IG will follow suit. This, however, is far from certain as over the years Norden et al have been extremely reluctant to engage in any serious accounting of their own political history.[1]

The IG never replied to a lengthy letter we sent them in 1996 which addressed various important episodes in SL history that contributed to the erosion of its cadres’ revolutionary fibre. To date the IG has focused exclusively on the crooked practices employed against them in their 1996 purge. In a 27 September 2023 rebuff to an SL overture aimed at patching things up, Norden wrote:

“You state that you are ‘investigating the disciplinary measures taken at the time.’ [1996] Does this investigation include the travesty of a ‘trial’ of a comrade centered on outright fabrications, and the preparation of a second frame-up trial shortly thereafter?”

The trial Norden referred to was that of Socorro, a founding member of the IG and former partner of Abram Negrete (the IG’s speaker in the first debate). In his summary (3:06:10) Negrete mentioned “the filthy trial which you staged against her [Socorro],” admonishing the assembled SLers: “if it seems like ancient history to you, and not so important, perhaps that is because you were on the dishing-out end, and not the receiving end.” A good point, although, to its credit, the new SL leadership has admitted that Socorro’s trial was deeply flawed and promised to investigate it.

In his remarks, Riley reminded the IG that there had been plenty of frame-ups and purges in the Spartacist tendency prior to Socorro’s persecution, “including ours in Toronto and before that Bill Logan in 1979.” Bill Logan, who attended the debate, spoke during the first round of discussion (2:31:45) to pitch a conference of groups claiming some historic affinity with the SL. While there was little serious interest in his proposal, Logan’s appearance at a Spartacist event on behalf of the International Bolshevik Tendency was in itself significant, given that he was expelled at the international Spartacist tendency’s 1979 founding conference as a “sociopath” who “should never have been a member of a working-class organization.”

The case against Logan ostensibly revolved around the treatment of the members of the Australian SL which he headed between 1972 and 1977. In our 1982 founding declaration we commented:

“Logan was undoubtedly guilty of running a grossly abusive regime—but the nature of the abuse in his Australian operation was only a linear extrapolation of the internal regime of [James] Robertson’s American section. How else can one explain the fact that none of the SL/US cadres who lived under the Logan regime blew the whistle?”

None of the in-transfers from the US complained for the simple reason that life in the SL/ANZ under Logan was not so very different than what they were used to in the American parent group. In August-September 1974, an authoritative international commission met in the SL’s New York headquarters to evaluate complaints about the Logan regime lodged by John Ebel, a recent recruit who had previously belonged to the Australian affiliates of both the Hansenite and Mandelite wings of the United Secretariat. The commission gave Logan’s regime a clean bill of health. Four and a half years later the Ebel commission was consigned to the memory hole, as SL supremo James Robertson brazenly recycled many of Ebel’s complaints—including the handling of Vicky, a young woman pressured to consider having an abortion—in the indictment against Logan at his 1979 show trial.

The Spartacist leadership’s disingenuous claim to have been entirely unaware of Vicky’s treatment and other goings-on in far-off Australia, is shredded by evidence contained in their own two volume “Logan Dossier” (2007) as we documented in “On the Logan Show Trial” The SL compilation includes a 6 March 1973 letter by Logan to Robertson reporting that after “Vicky discovered she was pregnant by ‘mistake’” it had “proved impossible to get her to have an abortion” (“The Logan Dossier,” v1 p57). We outlined the essential features of the Logan frame-up in a recent letter to an IG contact.

In our 1996 missive to the IG we observed: “However uncomfortable it may be for the IG, the fact is that the proceedings against Logan set a precedent for many of the improprieties in Socorro’s trial,” and cited some of the parallels. We have the impression that SLers tend to regard the Logan trial as something that took place so long ago that it is hardly worth discussing—one comrade commented that had Logan been jailed on the charges he would have been released by now. This attitude is unfortunately consistent with the SL’s general disinterest in their own history prior to 1990.

Norden is not so dismissive; in his summary at the second debate (1:24:58) he indignantly contrasted Logan’s trial and Socorro’s:

“In terms of the comparison of the trial of Socorro [the first future IGer expelled from the SL in 1996] with the trial of Bill Logan: Bill Logan was guilty as charged; Socorro was persecuted.”

When a member of the audience interjected to remind Norden that he had voted for Socorro’s expulsion, (1:25:15) he did not respond—perhaps he did not hear the comment, but we would like to think that he was ashamed, as he should be.

Socorro was expelled for the following criticism of the juridical processes of the Spartacist leadership:

‘‘I was, a number of years ago, abducted and raped and the fucking bourgeois court gave the rapist more justice than I got [from the SL]. And that is the truth. That is the truth. And it is a travesty and it’s a shame on this party.’’

Norden declared at the time that Socorro’s was “not a fair trial,” while his partner Marjorie Stamberg, also a founding member of the IG, described it as a “travesty.” Yet they both voted for her expulsion from the SL. Even if Socorro had been mistaken about the relative fairness of the SL’s judicial processes circa 1996 and those of the bourgeois courts (which she was not) her comment would not have been cause for expulsion from a revolutionary organization.[2] Norden and Stamberg obviously did not vote to expel Socorro out of political conviction, but rather in a pathetic attempt to signal their loyalty to the Robertson regime and thereby perhaps retain their own memberships. When this politically cowardly maneuver did not work, and their own “bureaucratic purge trials” were set for a few days later, they did not bother to turn up, knowing that a guilty verdict was a foregone conclusion.[3]

Those IGers who were not around at the time may be unaware of this history. Over the years the IG has exhibited an aversion to undertaking any serious accounting of the course of the SL’s degeneration, presumably because their leaders are not particularly proud of the roles they played. In our 1996 letter we observed:

“Norden and Stamberg made a mistake to vote for Socorro’s expulsion. She was guilty of nothing more than telling the truth…. we suggest that a good place for the IG to begin its reassessment of the iSt/ICL is by coming out and forthrightly repudiating the expulsion.”

We hope that the IG leadership can somehow find the political courage to admit that Socorro was indeed telling the truth and that Norden and Stamberg were wrong to vote for her expulsion. Alternatively, they could try to explain why they think it was correct to do so. Either way, addressing this issue could open the door to a serious, materialist investigation of the process through which the revolutionary Spartacist League of the 1970s devolved into the nasty, introverted caricature of a Trotskyist organization it had become by the 1990s. We consider such a discussion to be long overdue.

  • As we wrote in 1998:

    “Norden, in his capacity as editor of Workers Vanguard, played an active part in concocting slanders against us. Yet—how much out of a conscious desire to save face, how much out of genuine self-delusion, we cannot know—the IG cadres have stubbornly resisted any re-evaluation or criticism of their own political past.”

    An example of this was an article in the 25 April 1986 issue of WV which claimed that BT supporter Howard Keylor advocated “union narcs” for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Bryan Palmer, the eminent Marxist historian who chaired the SL-IG debate, wrote to complain that WV had misrepresented the facts, “lifted quotations out of context and ignored the actual content of [Keylor’s] newsletter.” WV printed a truncated version of Palmer’s letter with two key passages deleted.

  • Socorro was not expelled for a disloyal act but merely for expressing an opinion critical of the SL leadership. The preface to Marxist Bulletin No. 4, described how the Dobbs leadership of the SWP expelled the Revolutionary Tendency, forerunner of the SL, “on the grounds that they had manifested a hostile and disloyal attitude toward the party”:

    “The purge reached its peak at the end of December 1963 when five members of the RT were expelled. Of the five, Lynne Harper, Larry Ireland and James Robertson were expelled on the grounds that they had manifested a hostile and disloyal attitude toward the party in written discussion circulated privately within their own tendency. The others, Shane Mage and Geoff White, were expelled in effect for association, for having been leaders in a tendency which held or permitted views such as those expressed by Harper, Ireland and Robertson. These expulsions were based on purely ideological grounds….”

    Myra Tanner Weiss, a leading SWP cadre, strenuously objected to the expulsion of the RT:

    “The ‘evidence’ of ‘disloyalty’ submitted in the report consists entirely of opinions and no one in the history of the Socialist Workers Party has ever been punished for thoughts that differ from those of the majority—nor ever can be if we are to remain a revolutionary force.”

  • In its initial publication the IG provided the following account of the trial of Socorro and the projected proceedings against Stamberg and Norden:

    “At the New York local meeting two days after the trial [of Socorro], there was a report and discussion on the trial. Stamberg described it as a ‘travesty’ and said it was a continuation of the campaign to oust the Mexican leadership [headed by Negrete]. Norden said the trial should never have taken place, that it was not a fair trial and the verdict was false. During the course of the heated discussion, Socorro made an unconscionable and false remark, comparing the trial to that of some men who had abducted her and raped her several years ago, saying they had gotten more justice from a bourgeois court than she had gotten from this trial, and calling it a kangaroo court. Later that night the Political Bureau was polled on a motion to expel Socorro for her statement. Norden voted for that motion, as did Stamberg later when the CC [Central Committee] was polled….

    “Now we have another impending ‘trial’ [of Norden and Stamberg]. Under the present circumstances, with frame-up charges based on a bureaucratic rewriting of our party rules, with this clearly intended as the dramatic culmination of the political fight that has gone on over the last several months, with a trial body consisting of a subset of the comrades who brought the charges, and with the recent example of the trial of Socorro in which any defense was totally hamstrung, we see no point in lending credence to this bureaucratic purge trial by our presence.” [p71-2]

    [7 June 1996, emphasis added]