Sclerotic Spartacists Unravel
SL Repudiates ‘Capitulation to Imperialism’
“In a statement following the Krushchev report [on the crimes of Stalin], Togliatti asked: ‘What made such grave errors possible? And why was it that around them should have been created an atmosphere of consent and acceptance…?’”
—Hershel Meyer, The Krushchev Report and the Crisis in the American Left
On 27 April, the International Communist League (ICL—headed by the Spartacist League/U.S. [SL]) publicly denounced its previous support to the U.S. military intervention in Haiti as a social-imperialist betrayal comparable to “August 4, 1914, when the German Social Democrats voted war credits to the German imperialist rulers at the outset of the First World War” (“A Capitulation to U.S. Imperialism”). The ICL statement (reprinted in Workers Vanguard [WV] No. 958, 7 May) declared: “In addition to justifying the U.S. imperialist troops as essential to the aid effort, these articles [in WV Nos. 951, 952, 953 and 955] polemicized against the principled and correct position of demanding the immediate withdrawal of the troops.” The polemics the ICL repudiated were directed at two organizations launched by former Spartacist cadres: the Internationalist Group (IG—whose founding members left the SL in 1996) and the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT).
The SL’s spectacular about-face has generated considerable buzz in the international left. Various individuals who are struck by the depth of the auto-critique and its “savage” tone have asked us what we think is going on. The statement forthrightly admits that the ICL was engaged in “promoting illusions in U.S. imperialist ‘democracy’ as the savior of the Haitian people. We all but echoed Barack Obama as he dispatched imperialist combat troops….” At a 20 March ICL meeting on Haiti held in Toronto, where the Spartacists announced they would henceforth demand the departure of occupation troops (without vacating—or even frankly acknowledging—their earlier position) an IBT comrade remarked:
“Tonight we are told that the ICL is now also calling for troops out because there is a changed ‘conjuncture’! The only thing that has changed is that the initial military ‘surge’ stabilized the situation for the imperialists. Now that Obama judges things ‘secure’ enough to pull some troops out (to be sent to Iraq, Afghanistan or wherever) the ICL chimes in to ‘demand’ they leave, and proclaim its (completely meaningless) ‘opposition’ to imperialist occupation.”
The ICL statement renounces not only its pro-imperialist capitulation, but also WV‘s earlier attempts to sidestep responsibility:
This kind of dishonesty was condemned by James P. Cannon, founder of American Trotskyism. In addressing a situation where the Trotskyist SWP at its 1954 convention needed to acknowledge mistakes, he noted: ‘You know, the Stalinists make more changes, and more rapid and drastic changes, than any other party in history. But they never say: “We made a mistake.” They always say: “The situation has changed.” We should be more precise and more honest.’”
The SL has certainly acknowledged making a big mistake. But what is missing is a serious attempt to explain how such a blatantly pro-imperialist position could have been adopted in the first place, and why it was not met with immediate, furious internal opposition. Nor is there any real account of how, after three months of defending a social-imperialist line, the ICL suddenly came to realize that “From the beginning the only revolutionary internationalist position was to demand that all U.S./UN troops get out of Haiti!”
When we first saw the SL’s position we could hardly believe our eyes. It was difficult to understand how the SL could possibly make such a grossly revisionist error when many groups to its right were calling for the removal of U.S. troops. There was not much in the way of popular illusions to capitulate to, nor was there any particular reason to fear the consequences of telling the truth about U.S. imperialism’s “humanitarian” intervention. Some of the bourgeois media and imperialist-linked “non-governmental organizations” were openly discussing the ugly reality of the occupation.
Leftists can be disoriented by unprecedented historical developments, but there was nothing about the situation in Haiti that posed any new or difficult political questions. The ICL’s self-criticism pointed out that its Australian section had correctly opposed imperialist military “humanitarian” intervention in 2005 after the tsunami hit Indonesia. In our 9 February statement we cited a series of other precedents, from the British intervention in Belfast in 1969 to the role of U.S./United Nations troops in Beirut in 1982, where the SL had correctly excoriated those who suggested the imperialists might somehow act in the interests of the oppressed.
The fact that there was no possibility of misreading the objective situation and that the political question was one that had been addressed many times in the past makes it a bit awkward for the SL tops to try to explain how they got it so wrong. A genuinely revolutionary organization simply could not have made this mistake. As the IG observed in its 8 May “Open Letter” to the ICL: “You admit to the crime, but fail to give a serious explanation of the reasons for it. And that virtually guarantees it will happen again.”
We do not pretend to know the details of how the ICL arrived at its pro-imperialist position. Perhaps Robertson was not having a good day, perhaps he was doing a little more stickbending than usual or perhaps one of his courtiers misinterpreted some throw-away remark he made. It is highly unlikely that the initial deviation (as well as the eventual correction) did not originate with Robertson one way or another. The ICL’s attempt to suggest that part of the problem was that “the SL/U.S. Political Bureau and the International Secretariat (the resident administrative body of the IEC) abdicated responsibility by not holding an organized discussion and vote, instead setting our line through informal consultation” explains nothing, as the same position was endorsed when a formal meeting was held in mid-March and WV admits that there was no internal opposition when the line was announced.
The hyper-centralized nature of “political authority” in the Spartacist tendency has for decades meant that all important line questions are determined in consultation with Robertson or his designate. On occasion Robertson has changed his mind on some question, and without exception the line of the organization was altered accordingly. ICL members may have had private misgivings about the Haiti position (indeed it was obvious that some we talked to were uncomfortable having to defend it) but it is highly unlikely that any overt opposition was expressed until after a signal from above—perhaps from the “one leading party comrade” obliquely referred to in the ICL statement. 
ICL Backtracking on Permanent Revolution
The SL’s position may, in part, have grown out of an attempt to attack the IG’s perfectly reasonable observation that the social chaos resulting from the Haitian earthquake might create a situation where the country’s “small but militant proletariat can place itself at the head of the impoverished urban and rural masses seeking to organize their own power” (“Haiti: Workers Solidarity, Yes! Imperialist Occupation, No!,” 20 January). In its initial polemic, WV asserted that “even before the earthquake, there was virtually no working class in Haiti” and claimed that the IG was suggesting that the “earthquake provides an opening for socialist revolution in Haiti.” The SL also attacked the IG’s assertion that “This huge military occupation is not intended to deliver aid, but to put down unrest by the poor and working people of Haiti” (emphasis in original). This view, shared by many on the left, was supported by much of the coverage in the bourgeois media, some of which we cited in our 9 February statement.
The SL still claims that there is no possibility that Haiti’s relatively compact working class (which includes some 24,000 workers in textile factories) can emerge as the natural leader of the country’s millions of desperately poor and oppressed citizens. This, as the IG has observed, amounts to an implicit rejection of the central axis of Trotsky’s theory of Permanent Revolution. The IG pointed out that the corrupt Somoza dictatorship’s manifest incompetence in responding to the devastating 1972 Nicaraguan earthquake laid the basis for a leftist resurgence that resulted in the mass Sandinista-led uprising seven years later:
“History shows that natural catastrophes that reveal the incapacity of the bourgeois regime to provide even minimal conditions for survival of the population, and whose toll of death and destruction are vastly intensified by conditions created by capitalism, can spur revolutionary organizing.”
—“SL Twists and Turns on Haiti,” 9 April
In its 30 January statement the IG noted that the SL’s dismissive attitude toward the Haitian working class was not unique:
“Haiti has now joined a growing list of places where, according to the SL, there is no working class. It started off with Bolivia in 2005, then came Oaxaca in 2006, now Haiti in 2010. Who’s next? […In] each case the SL proclaims there is no proletariat in country x just when there are explosive workers struggles there.”
Nepal is another country that can be added to this list. The 7 December 2007 issue of WV claimed: “in desperately poor Nepal…the proletariat is relatively insignificant.” Relative to what? According to the U.S. State Department, a million of Nepal’s 30 million people are members of a trade union—a ratio roughly double that of the U.S. In April 2006 a general strike by the Nepalese workers’ movement galvanized the vast majority of the country’s urban population. This powerful mass mobilization brought down the hereditary monarchy, creating a political vacuum that the former Maoist insurgents and mainstream bourgeois parties are still jockeying to fill. The SL leadership’s dismissive attitude toward the struggles of the workers’ movements of Nepal, Haiti, Bolivia and other neocolonies is an index of its profound political demoralization and the distance that separates it from its Trotskyist past.
The IG is quite right that the SL’s social-imperialist deviation on Haiti “didn’t come out of the blue.” A similar impulse was evident in the initial failure of the SL Political Bureau to distinguish between the Pentagon and the World Trade Center as targets of the 9/11 attacks. Only after we challenged them on this flinch did the SL issue a statement that the Pentagon, unlike the World Trade Center, was indeed a “genuine military target, representing the brutal attacks of U.S. imperialism on the world’s working class and oppressed.”  The SL’s rejection of defeatism toward U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2001, cited by the IG, can also be seen as a precedent for the subsequent capitulation over Haiti. Following the early success of the imperialists in scattering the Taliban, the SL leadership impressionistically echoed the triumphalism of the American bourgeoisie in declaring that “the call for a U.S. military defeat is, at this time, illusory and the purest hot air and ‘revolutionary’ phrasemongering” (WV, 9 November 2001). Nine years later, as the conflict drags on and defeatist sentiments are expressed even within the top echelons of the American military, the ICL’s 2001 posture stands exposed for exactly what it was: historical pessimism masquerading as realism.
In a public talk given the same week that WV pronounced U.S. imperialism unbeatable, we put forward a different view:
“The Taliban strategy apparently involves drawing out the conflict long enough and grinding up enough American soldiers, to force the U.S. to withdraw. This is the lesson then they have drawn from Reagan’s hasty retreat from Lebanon after the 1983 demolition of the Marine barracks, and Clinton’s withdrawal from Somalia a decade later when 18 U.S. soldiers were killed in a firefight with the forces of a local warlord.”
—“Imperialism’s Bloody Trail,” 1917 No.24, 2002
The Fire Last Time: Saving the U.S. Marines
The chief deficiency in the IG’s chronology of the SL’s degeneration is the refusal to acknowledge the connection between the Haiti deviation and similar errors that occurred prior to their expulsion in 1996. When an Islamic Jihad truck bomb leveled the U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon in 1983, Workers Vanguard, then edited by IG leader Jan Norden, called for “Marines Out of Lebanon, Now, Alive!”, i.e., for saving the survivors. 
The SL’s call to save the Marines flatly contradicted its entire prior history as well as the image it sought to project as a fearlessly revolutionary organization. Only a year earlier, during the Falklands/Malvinas conflict, WV ran an article entitled “‘Save Our Boys’ Socialists” attacking Sean Matgamna’s Socialist Organiser for publishing a sympathetic interview with Reg Race, a Labour Party “left”:
“Never has Lenin’s characterization of social democrats as ‘social imperialists’ been more fitting. Race calls for withdrawing the fleet and sparing the precious blood of Britain’s elite forces because he has another program to bring Argentina to its knees….”
—WV, 28 May 1982
The SL leadership’s announcement a year later that “sparing the precious blood” of the U.S. Marines had suddenly become an important Leninist tactic set off a series of sharp polemics between us, which are reproduced in Trotskyist Bulletin No. 2 “Marxism vs. Social-Patriotism.”
We pointed to the connection between the SL’s social-patriotic flinch in Lebanon in 1983 and its recent social-imperialist position on Haiti in our 9 February critique and noted that the IG’s “willfully blind allegiance to everything the SL did prior to their own departure in 1996” prevented them from acknowledging the obvious. The SL was not so shy, and in reply to us  recycled their standard argument that “there was no known force there [Lebanon] fighting against the U.S. imperialists.” Yet as we had pointed out, the 15 October 1982 issue of WV observed that the Marines in Beirut were not neutral observers: “They are there to shore up the new Gemayel regime which is based on the Phalange killers who carried out the Sabra and Shatila massacre.” Every serious observer of the Middle East agrees that the bombing of the Marine barracks was carried out by Gemayel’s Muslim opponents.  One need not take sides in an intercommunal conflict in order to support the blows that any of the combatants strike against imperialist occupation forces.
In a 7 February 1984 polemic we pointed to how the SL leadership’s “Marines Alive” position aligned it with the liberal wing of U.S. imperialism:
“Labelling Reagan’s Lebanon policy ‘stupid’ and ‘senseless,’ you counterpose the presumably sensible call for getting the Marines out now before more are killed. As we pointed out in our 12 November  statement, this position is by no means unique to the Spartacist League. ‘Senseless’ is precisely the way that Reagan’s Democratic critics in Congress perceive his intervention in Lebanon. ‘Senseless’ from the point of view of the best interests of U.S. imperialism. They also want to be sensible and smart and get them out now, while they are still alive. Your position can only be seen as a deliberate adaptation to this pro-imperialist sentiment—‘critical patriotism.’”
— Trotskyist Bulletin No. 2, “Marxism vs. Social-Patriotism”
Like the SL’s recent support to U.S. occupation forces in Haiti, the dive on the Marines was a conscious departure from a long-established “default setting” for Leninists:
“What makes this position so important is that it is not an accidental slip. It is not the result of disorientation due to some new historical development. It is a conscious and deliberate adaptation to the American ruling class. This social-patriotic rot must be cut out of the iSt [international Spartacist tendency] before it infects the entire cadre. That means a fight.”
But there was no fight and as a result the cadre was infected. This was highlighted a decade later when Jeff S., an “active” SL supporter, suggested in a letter to WV (2 July 1993) that in the communal conflict then raging in the Balkans, as in Lebanon a decade earlier, there was no “just” side, and therefore socialists should adopt a position of neutrality in any conflict between imperialist forces and the Serbs. 
In July 1984, less than a year after calling to save the Marines, the SL leadership, in a bizarre overture to the Democrats, suggested that their national convention in San Francisco might be attacked by a coalition of Reaganites and fascists. In offering to supply a dozen defense guards to protect the Democrats from this imaginary “threat,” the SL made the following absurd analogy:
“A fitting historical model for Reagan’s exploitation of a ‘terror scare’ to smash political opposition can be found in the 1933 Reichstag (German parliament) fire, which was probably set by the Nazis and then was exploited by them to repress political dissidence and consolidate the Third Reich.” 
—WV, 6 July 1984
A couple of years after offering to provide security for the Democrats, WV made an even more craven capitulation in response to the bourgeois media’s orchestrated outpouring of grief following the spontaneous destruction of the space shuttle Challenger and the military personnel aboard it whose mission had been to deploy a major spy satellite for U.S. imperialism:
“What we feel toward the astronauts is no more and no less than for any people who die in tragic circumstances, such as the nine poor Salvadorans who were killed by a fire in a Washington, D.C. basement apartment two days before.”
—WV, 14 February 1986
This “cringing bootlicking,” like the expressions of concern for the well-being of the colonial gendarmes in Lebanon, should embarrass any supporters of the SL (or IG) who possess even an ounce of class consciousness. What sort of “revolutionary” equates impoverished refugees from rightist terror squads with imperialist military cadres on a mission to enhance U.S. supremacy in space? Yet to this day neither the SL nor the IG has repudiated this shameful and cowardly statement. 
As we noted in our 2005 pamphlet Whatever Happened to the Spartacist League?, the ICL today is a very different organization than the international Spartacist tendency (iSt) of the 1970s, which attracted many of the best and brightest of the New Left:
“By the mid-1970s, the SL was a tightly disciplined organization with a talented, highly motivated membership cohered by agreement to the Trotskyist program. The pristine clarity of its sophisticated and internally consistent political line imbued the youthful Spartacist cadres with a self-confidence and determination that contrasted dramatically with their ostensibly Trotskyist competitors.
“But as opportunities dried up and the class struggle turned down in the U.S. during the late 1970s, the SL began to degenerate, Robertson’s lifestyle drifted upward and the group’s internal corrective capacity atrophied as a wave of purges swept the iSt aimed at those thought potentially capable of constituting a political opposition in the future. The results of this ‘Bolshevization’ campaign were soon evident in a series of erratic programmatic wobbles.”
The amplitude of these wobbles has tended to increase with time. In late 2003, the Fourth International Conference of the ICL decided that while the Spartacist tendency’s activity in the preceding period had included some “opportunist lunges,” it had chiefly been characterized by “sectarian moralism” and an “increasingly abstract and sterile approach to politics.” Two of the more egregious examples of this sterile sectarianism were the SL’s refusal to support or participate in demonstrations in defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal (ostensibly because the SL did not agree with all the demands put forward by the organizers) and its blanket denunciation of the massive 1999 Seattle “anti-globalization” demonstrations. In a parody of sectarian abstentionism, WV declared:
“Our opposition to the chauvinist mobilization in Seattle was an expression of our revolutionary, internationalist and proletarian program. Upholding the class interests of the proletariat requires drawing a sharp line between Marxism and social-chauvinism….”
—WV, 11 February 2000
The article complained that “the IBT denounces our principled opposition to joining the chauvinist, anti-Communist mobilization in Seattle” and attacked the IG for going “out of its way to avoid criticizing the Seattle mobilization,” although grudgingly conceded that, in a 21 December 1999 statement, the IG (which at that time was much more in the SL’s orbit) had dutifully denounced the Seattle mobilizations as “built on a chauvinist program of protectionism and proletarian internationalists would not participate in them.” 
The “anti-sectarian” zig at the ICL’s 2003 Fourth International Conference was followed by an “anti-opportunist” zag at its 2007 Fifth International Conference, which declared:
“The chief pressure operating on our party, especially in this period of post-Soviet reaction, is Menshevik, i.e., social-democratic, opportunism, not ultra-left sectarianism. And the essence of Menshevism in this period is capitulation to bourgeois liberalism.”
—Spartacist No. 60, Autumn 2007 (emphasis in original)
The conference adopted a new programmatic talisman to ward off social-democratic pressures: henceforth, the ICL would refuse as a matter of principle to stand candidates for “executive offices” (see “Of Presidents & Principles,” 1917 No. 30, 2008).
The characterization of the earlier period as one chiefly shaped by the “pressure” of Menshevism was paralleled by the report that the SL’s Thirteenth National Conference (held in the summer of 2009) had criticized “the political work of the 2004 SL/U.S. conference” because:
“a wrong emphasis was put on episodes of sectarianism in our work as the main problem….
“The stress on ‘anti-sectarian’ tactical militancy led to a series of opportunist lunges. There was also a systematic skew toward vowing to get around our problems through our own efforts….”
—WV, 4 December 2009
This, according to WV, resulted in “recurrent tendencies of successive regimes toward phony mass work and unrealistic expectations of recruitment or regroupment,” particularly in defense work for Mumia Abu-Jamal:
“A main task of the conference was to arrest the programmatic bending expressed in the course of vainly substituting the small forces of ourselves and our sympathizers for the absence of a mass movement to free Mumia Abu-Jamal, thereby letting our opponents off the hook as we pursued ‘united fronts.’”
The ICL’s concept of a “united front” did not extend beyond events it initiated and controlled (which others were invited to endorse), but even this was denounced as “reaching out for a bloc with those who are deadly enemies of principled class-struggle defense.”
We commented on the SL’s increasingly sectarian behavior in a 9 June 2008 letter to WV:
“While using the phrase ‘united front’ to describe events completely controlled by yourselves where others are ‘permitted’ to speak, you have on occasion come very close to overtly rejecting the very idea of joint activity with other leftists. This was particularly evident in your coverage of last October’s New York launch of Bryan Palmer’s biography of James P. Cannon, an event the SL co-sponsored with the IBT and four other groups. You specifically criticized a statement by one of our comrades at the meeting….:
“‘The BT’s Tom Riley spoke in support of Palmer’s call for regroupment: “When the left can work together on things we agree with, then it should be possible for us to discuss intelligently, seriously, and in a way that James P. Cannon would—inside his organization as well as with other organizations—what are the real substantial differences that stand between us. And on that basis, it may well be possible that many of the people in the room tonight who are in different opponent organizations may one day be in common organizations.”
“‘Riley was appealing for “unity” to an audience that consisted largely of groups that share the BT’s crass Stalinophobic appetites. For our part, we find such smarmy appeals for “unity” grotesque….’”
—WV, 23 November 2007
It was clear, even from WV‘s account, that we were not proposing that the existing groupings set aside their differences and simply “unite,” but rather projecting the possibility that joint work might lead to the sort of serious political engagement that could potentially result in a regroupment process of splits and fusions.
A year after we suggested that the ICL appeared to be moving toward “overtly rejecting the very idea of joint activity with other leftists,” the SL’s 2009 conference declared that the united-front tactic has little operational significance for propaganda organizations:
“It’s obvious that the use of the united-front tactic in elemental, day-to-day struggles of labor against capital by the early European Communist Parties is not relevant for us today, nor will it be tomorrow.”
· · ·
“What has happened, I think, is a deepgoing subjective drive to achieve organizational breakthroughs in order to demonstrate (mainly to ourselves) that we are not historically irrelevant, since everyone else in the world thinks we are historically irrelevant. We are historically relevant but we don’t have to and cannot now demonstrate that through substantial organizational breakthroughs or some other kind of external success. That’s just objective reality.”
—WV, 28 August 2009
The turn away from engagement with other political currents both reflects and reinforces the SL’s increasingly pessimistic and introverted character. Contrary to the ICL’s gloomy musings, the triumph of counterrevolution in the Soviet Union did not repeal the laws of the class struggle. Even in the U.S., the most politically backward country in the “developed” world, there have been significant opportunities for revolutionaries in the past two decades. The explosion of support for Mumia Abu-Jamal that averted his execution in 1995, the “anti-globalization” protests in Seattle in 1999, the enormous anti-war demonstrations that preceded the assault on Iraq and the massive 2006 Latino protest against reactionary immigration legislation all demonstrated that hundreds of thousands of American workers and youth are profoundly alienated by the capitalist status quo.
The palpable anger felt by millions of working people today in the U.S. as they lose their jobs and are thrown out of their homes by the “invisible hand” of the market has produced a widespread recognition that the “free enterprise” system is a game that is rigged against them. Conditions are ripe for the sort of massive social turmoil in the imperialist heartlands of Europe and North America that is already common throughout much of Asia and Latin America. The rise of the Tea Party and other forces on the right is a reminder that amorphous anger can assume very ugly forms if the left is unable to take advantage of it. In this context, the SL leadership’s insistence that nothing can be done except sit in their offices sorting through archives while waiting for “objective reality” to confirm their “relevance” is evidence of an advanced state of political sclerosis.
Perhaps the most powerful refutation of the SL leadership’s defeatist perspective is the work of a single class-struggle militant, Jack Heyman, in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. Working with a wide variety of other union activists, many of whom have sharply different political views, Heyman successfully sparked a shutdown of all the ports on the entire U.S. west coast in defense of Mumia on 24 April 1999 and a similar shutdown on 1 May 2008 to protest the war in Iraq. Heyman’s role in these exemplary actions, which were actively supported by both the IG and IBT, is particularly galling for the SL because they represent a continuation of work initiated by Spartacist supporters in the union, particularly that of Howard Keylor, a prominent IBT supporter. 
The self-isolating character of the SL’s sterile ultra-sectarianism is apparent in its denunciation of various Bay Area left groups (including the IBT) for participating in a series of militant demonstrations alongside thousands of youth to demand the jailing of Johannes Mehserle, the Bay Area Rapid Transit cop who murdered Oscar Grant, a 22-year-old unarmed black man (see “On Jailing Killer Cops,” 1917 No. 31, 2009). In a 28 July 2009 letter to the ICL’s Canadian affiliate, we criticized the glib assertion that “in the increasingly unlikely event that Mehserle is thrown behind bars, the purpose will simply be to give the state’s armed thugs a more ‘democratic’ facade” (WV, 24 April 2009).  We commented:
“This sectarian indifference toward the intense desire expressed by thousands of blacks and militant youth in the Bay Area to ‘jail the killer cop’ discredits the ICL and undercuts any claim to be a tribune of the oppressed.
· · ·
“When it was a revolutionary organization, the SL understood that bourgeois democratic rights can only be preserved by opposing egregious violations committed by state authorities. And it knew how to address such issues without creating illusions.”
In the early 1980s, the SL/PDC launched several successful lawsuits against the anti-communist Moonie cult, California Attorney General George Deukmeijian, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney General. By doing so it acted in defense of the democratic rights of the entire left and labor movement. In our July 2009 letter we asked:
“Does the ICL now consider that in launching them it was promoting illusions in the possibility of reforming the capitalist state? If not, what possible basis is there for objecting to the call to jail racist cops who murder innocent people?”
The ICL has not replied. Perhaps Robertson et al are not yet prepared to follow the logic of their idiot sectarianism to its ultimate conclusion, although it seems that they may be extending their rejection of participation in blocs for limited objectives (i.e., united fronts) to include anti-fascist mobilizations. A recent article in the press of the Spartacist League/Britain (SL/B) has at least a hint of this:
“The standard reformist answer to fascism is to unite all ‘democratic’ forces into a cross-class coalition. This is today embodied in UAF [Unite Against Fascism], whose strategy consists of using bourgeois ‘democracy’ as a bulwark against the fascists.”
—Workers Hammer, Winter 2009-2010
In our view the essential problem with UAF, which is led by the Socialist Workers Party, is not that it aims to unite disparate forces on the basis of a shared hostility to the fascists—but rather that it promotes impotent pacifist counter-demonstrations and reliance on appeals to bourgeois authorities. What is necessary is to organize mass mobilizations of working people and minorities to drive the fascists off the streets. The ICL once knew this and in the U.S. initiated several anti-fascist actions that succeeded in doing just that.
The SL/B’s article includes a particularly brainless attack on Workers Power, which correctly advocates “no platforming” the fascist British National Party (BNP):
“Workers Power defends the position ‘no platform for fascists’, saying: ‘Communists see fascist organisations as instruments of civil war against the working class. Their aim is to smash the workers movement’. They conclude: ‘we believe they [the fascists] have to be stopped from organising their forces. This is the policy of “no platform”. Wherever fascists seek to grow and develop their influence and support, communists seek to organise united action of workers, youth and anti-racists to stop them’…. Workers Power attacks UAF for its failure to physically stop the fascists in the streets, saying: ‘Though UAF sees the need to protest against the BNP, it suffers from having to limit its arguments and tactics to what the capitalist politicians and figures on the right wing of the labour movement will accept’. The problem with UAF is not that it lacks militant tactics, but its reformist programme, which Workers Power shares.”
Workers Power and members of UAF may agree on many things (like support to the Labour Party) but they certainly do not share the same strategy for dealing with the sinister threat posed by the BNP. The SL/B’s attempt to suggest otherwise is presumably intended to rationalize its aversion to any sort of joint activity with other left groups. In anti-fascist mobilizations dominated by UAF that we have attended, we have found that many participants are keen to go beyond the legalistic framework that the official leadership attempts to impose. 
The Workers Hammer article raises the abstractly correct call for “trade union/minority mobilisations to stop fascist provocations” but offers no suggestions about how such actions can be initiated. Nor is there any indication that it is vital to seek the participation of the widest possible variety of anti-fascist organizations. The article also contains a peculiarly one-sided characterization of fascism:
“But the counterposition between bourgeois ‘democracy’ and fascism is false. Parliamentary democracy, imperialism’s preferred method of rule, is merely the best disguise for the dictatorship of the capitalists. Fascism in power is another form of the dictatorship of finance capital, one which the bourgeoisie only resorts to under extreme circumstances such as when its rule is threatened by the proletariat mobilised for revolution.”
Parliamentary democracy and fascism are indeed two forms of the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie, but the difference between them can be a matter of life and death for workers and the oppressed, as Trotsky pointed out in 1932:
“The eleventh plenum of the [Stalinist controlled] ECCI came to the decision that it was imperative to put an end to those erroneous views which originate in ‘the liberal interpretation of the contradictions between fascism and bourgeois democracy and the outright fascist forms….’ The gist of this Stalinist philosophy is quite plain: from the Marxist denial of the absolute contradiction it deduces the general negation of the contradiction, even of the relative contradiction. This error is typical of vulgar radicalism….
“A contradiction does exist between democracy and fascism. It is not at all ‘absolute,’ or, putting it in the language of Marxism, it doesn’t at all denote the rule of two irreconcilable classes. But it does denote different systems of the domination of one and the same class. These two systems: the one parliamentary-democratic, the other fascist, derive their support from different combinations of the oppressed and exploited classes; and they unavoidably come to a sharp clash with each other.”
The apparent unwillingness of the SL/B to consider participation in united-front actions alongside other groups, taken together with the assertion that “the counterposition between bourgeois ‘democracy’ and fascism is false” because fascism is merely “another form of the dictatorship of finance capital,” is reminiscent of the fatal passivity of the Stalinist “Third Period.” A successful struggle to rout the growing fascist threat requires labor-centered mass mobilizations that draw in the widest array of fascism’s potential victims to deny the BNP and its ilk a platform from which to spread its poison. Small left organizations cannot do this on their own—but they can play a vital role both in initiating exemplary mobilizations and in combating attempts by reformists to neutralize effective action.
Senile Spartacism: ‘Pabloism of the Second Mobilization’
The rejection of united-front activity; the “principled” renunciation of participation in presidential and other high-profile bourgeois electoral contests; the refusal to participate in mobilizations to “Jail Killer Cops”—these are all symptoms of a generalized withdrawal from active participation in the class struggle into an introverted existence as “keepers of the flame.”
The flip side of the SL’s brittle “leftist” posturing is an increasing number of reformist positions of which the Haiti dive is only the latest. In each case the capitulations are presented as the result of a hard-headed willingness to recognize reality. Before it embraced the U.S. military as the savior of the Haitian masses, the SL leadership signed on as supporters of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) despite its provision for compulsory arbitration—i.e., state intervention to preserve “industrial peace.” We argued that “If the EFCA merely introduced a card check it would be a supportable reform, but it came with a poison pill: binding arbitration to impose an initial two-year contract if no agreement is signed within a month of certification.” The SL inverted this, warning that “binding arbitration is a trap” but nonetheless supported the EFCA on the grounds that the near-unanimous opposition of big business meant that it “represents a referendum on unionization” (WV, 30 January 2009). In response to the IG’s critique of its abandonment of working-class independence from the capitalist state, the SL misrepresented the position adopted by the American Trotskyist movement toward the 1935 Wagner Act—Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “New Deal” legislation imposing government control over trade unions (see “EFCA, Bureaucrats & Democrats,” 1917 No. 32, 2010).
The passivity and defeatism evident in the SL’s capitulation over the EFCA was earlier manifested during a December 2005 transit strike in New York City, when WV announced that it was suspending criticism of the local Transit Workers Union (TWU) bureaucrats: “Since we could not point to an alternative leadership of the strike, to do so would only have served to weaken the strike” (WV, 9 June 2006). We responded to this appalling anti-revolutionary drivel by reminding the SL that the primary duty of revolutionaries is to help the workers find a path to victory:
“In this case, the first step was clearly to remove control of the strike from [New York TWU leader Roger] Toussaint and his circle, and place it in the hands of a democratically-elected strike committee.
“Toussaint, like all union bureaucrats, is, in the final analysis, an agent of the bourgeoisie within the labor movement…. Defending him, and the strike, from capitalist attacks did not preclude attempting to advise the strikers, many of whom may have had illusions in Toussaint, of the possibility that their leadership might capitulate. Alerting the more militant layers to this danger would not have weakened, but rather strengthened the strike and improved the chances of victory.
“This same issue is posed by every major class battle. If criticism of reformists, bureaucrats and other misleaders during a struggle can only help the capitalists, what are we to make of Trotsky’s polemics against the popular-front government during the Spanish Civil War? Did his criticism weaken the anti-Franco fight? During the Vietnam War, did the then-revolutionary SL’s criticisms of Stalinist betrayals weaken the struggle to defeat U.S. imperialism?”
—“On Criticism of Misleaders,” 1917 No. 29, 2007
We are hardly surprised that we received no reply—there is no possible response that would not amount to a formal renunciation of any pretense of providing Marxist leadership, a step that the SL tops are not yet prepared to take.
The admitted capitulation to U.S. imperialism over Haiti has made the SL’s claim to represent the unbroken continuity of revolutionary Trotskyism difficult for any but the most gullible to swallow. Moreover, the ICL’s new emphasis—formally approved at the SL’s Thirteenth National Conference—on the role of the “objective historical process” in creating conditions for revolutionary breakthroughs in the indefinite future contains echoes of the passive objectivism that characterized the Second International:
“Workers and youth will be won to our program in the course of a process of politicization conditioned by class relations and class struggle—an objective historical process outside of the sphere of our small party’s influence or comrades’ wills.”
—WV, 4 December 2009
Revolutionaries must adjust their tactics in accordance with many factors that are largely beyond their control, but the subjective factor is itself a vital element in the “objective historical process.” A Marxist organization does not spend its time holed up in its own headquarters waiting for the masses to come knocking at the door—but rather seeks to intervene in the world in order to change it.
The SL’s “perspective” of patiently waiting for the “objective historical process” to create opportunities for revolutionary organization is rooted in a profound pessimism and lack of confidence in the working class similar to the impressionism that gave rise to Pabloist revisionism in the 1950s. Where the Pabloist liquidators projected various non-proletarian forces as the “blunted instruments” of an inevitably unfolding socialist “historical process,” the SL’s brand of historical pessimism is expressed in a tendency to write off the possibility of Trotskyists successfully competing to win the allegiance of radicalizing workers and youth. That such a morbid perspective should occasionally yield “opportunist lunges” and social-imperialist dives is hardly surprising.
The cancer that destroyed the SL as a Trotskyist organization has progressed to the point that most of its core cadres have been degraded into tired burn-outs, cynics and demoralized hacks. The irreversible character of this process is evident in the ongoing programmatic codification of its departure from the Bolshevik-Leninist heritage it once defended. The reversal on Haiti cannot change this trajectory any more than the renunciation of the crimes of Stalin could regenerate the Communist Party in 1956. The path back to Trotskyism for ICLers requires an unflinching repudiation of each step in the descent of what was once a vibrant revolutionary propaganda group into a near brain-dead Pavlovian sect where even the most grotesque revisionist deviations are routinely endorsed unanimously.
The SL/ICL today is an organization with politics that no longer make any sense, run by a leadership which, faced with a capitalist crisis unlike anything since the Great Depression of the 1930s, publicly proclaims that it is has no “perspective” and is incapable of achieving any “organizational breakthroughs.” While its residual connection to its revolutionary past is sufficient to attract the occasional subjectively revolutionary youth, the ICL’s political incapacity to equip them with a coherent, Marxist worldview means that most of them drop out or drift away before too long. The ease with which the ICL accepted the proposition that the U.S. Marines had a progressive role to play in Haiti is a powerful confirmation of our contention that the ICL is a profoundly diseased organism. The revolutionary flame that burned so brightly in the 1960s and 70s has long been extinguished.
1. The ICL’s mea culpa mentions the IG but not the IBT, despite the fact that one of the polemics alluded to (“The BT on Haiti: Postscript to IGiocy,”WV, 26 February) is a response to our 9 February statement condemning its position as social-imperialist. Some Spartacist League supporters have explained that this is because we are out to “destroy” the ICL. In 2003 the SL suggested that we are “opponents of revolutionary Marxism” whose method is to “kill an organization by chopping off its head” (WV, 1 August 2003) when we embarrassed ICL supremo James Robertson by mentioning a grossly chauvinist reference he had made to Kurds as “Turds” in a speech printed in a 1979 Spartacist internal discussion bulletin. The whole affair threw the ICL into turmoil. WV subsequently published an exquisitely ridiculous explanation of why Robertson’s chauvinist “joke” meant something other than what everyone (including the current leaders of the IG) knew it meant. The whole affair is documented in our pamphlet Polemics with the ICL: Kurdistan & the Struggle for National Liberation.
As we noted in Whatever Happened to the Spartacist League?, the IG has withheld comment on the controversy: “Unwilling to sign his name to WV ‘s ridiculous alibi, Norden sees no profit in unnecessarily antagonizing the SL membership just for the sake of telling the truth.”
In its 8 May “Open Letter,” the IG complains that the ICL attempts to identify it with the IBT: “You thereby try to equate us with the misnamed International Bolshevik Tendency, whose founders quit, and indeed fled from, the ICL at the height of Cold War II….” In fact our founding cadres were driven out in a series of apolitical purges that prefigured the similar treatment meted out to the IG a decade and a half later. The IG unintentionally confirmed this by publishing accounts of their purge that were virtually identical to our description of what happened to our comrades. The two accounts are compared in our lengthy 15 December 1996 letter to the IG (reprinted in Trotskyist Bulletin No. 6, pp 20-21) and also in “IG: Ex-Robertsonites in Denial—Willful Blindness,” 1917 No. 20, 1998).
2. The SL position was originally put forward in a polemic against the IG in an article in the 29 January issue of WV. A few days earlier, on 25 January, IBT comrades participated in a San Francisco Bay Area demonstration with signs calling for “Imperialist and UN Gun Thugs Out of Haiti!” On 28 January, in Toronto, we put forward a statement noting: “Nothing fundamental will change in Haiti until the imperialists are driven out and the property of the domestic ruling class is expropriated by a revolutionary workers’ and peasants’ government.” Contrary to suggestions made by several ICLers when they were still backing the occupation, we did not call for troops out to “get” the ICL or to “cozy up” to the IG–opposition to imperialist troops in neocolonies is a “default setting” for revolutionaries.
3. The formal leading bodies of the ICL have long operated as little more than rubber stamps for the founder/leader and his circle. In “The Road to Jimstown,” our 1985 account of the qualitative degeneration of the Spartacist tendency from Trotskyism into political banditry, we noted: “…the democratic aspect of ‘democratic centralism’ in the SL atrophied considerably through the 1970s. At the height of the transformation, in the two years preceding the departure of the Cunningham grouping in 1972, the political bureau (PB—the body which is supposed to constitute the day-to-day political leadership of the group) met 39 times, or once every two and a half weeks. Ten years later, over the same period of time, it met on the average only once every two months. Leaving aside the contents of the meetings, which in themselves reflect the depoliticization of the internal life of the SL, this signifies that the function of the SL’s elected leadership is simply to ratify the decisions of the real leadership—Robertson and whoever he chooses to ‘consult.’”
4. An example of this occurred in 1993, when the SL abruptly and inexplicably announced a reversal of an initially correct assessment of the falling out between Boris Yeltsin and Aleksandr Rutskoi as a “squabble between corrupt and cynical factions” of counterrevolutionaries (see 1917 No. 13, 1994).
A year earlier, in August 1992, Robertson had decided that it was no longer possible to maintain the position that Russia under Yeltsin remained a workers’ state—yet for reasons of prestige refused to admit that we had been correct that the August 1991 victory of the Yeltsinites had signaled the triumph of counterrevolution. Since that moment, the ICL (and IG) has awkwardly asserted that under Boris Yeltsin the Soviet degenerated workers’ state underwent a gradual process that turned it into a bourgeois state in “1991-92.” For a fuller discussion, see Whatever Happened to the Spartacist League? pp 10-12.
5. See our 9 February statement as well as the report posted on about the ICL public meeting on Haiti held in Toronto on 20 March.
6. The IG’s 8 May “Open Letter” asks: “What if no leading party comrade had said, ‘stop’–where would you be then?…. Why did this go down without a ripple and remain your line for almost three months?” These are good questions. The IG, which has tended to avoid discussing the relationship between the SL’s profoundly deformed internal regime and its formal programmatic deviations, may want to consider how it is that so much hinges on the opinion of a single “leading party comrade.”
7. See “Maoist ‘New Democracy’ or Permanent Revolution?—‘People’s War’ in the Himalayas,” 1917 No. 32, 2010.
8. In “The Fight for Revolutionary Continuity in the Post-Soviet World” (Spartacist No.58, Spring 2004), the ICL admitted that after 9/11 there had been: “opportunist flinches as well as empty bombast in our propaganda. The most pronounced example of the former was our failure for a full month to publicly state that Marxists draw a distinction between attacks on institutions like the Pentagon—which directly represents the military might of U.S. imperialism—and random terror against innocent civilians, as in the case of the World Trade Center.” Our 18 September 2001 statement “World Trade Center Terror Bombing—U.S. Imperialist Rule: An Endless Horror” drew a clear distinction between the Pentagon and the World Trade Center. The SL’s correction on the question took the form of a polemic against us. See “The Bolshevik Tendency and the Pathology of Renegades—On the Pentagon Attack,” WV 12 October 2001.
9. Norden has reportedly admitted that in hindsight the “Marines Alive” position was at least a tactical mistake. But the IG prefers to avoid the issue, as any serious discussion would soon call into question its contention that the SL had a consistently revolutionary history until the moment of the IG’s departure in 1996 (see also “IG & Revolutionary Defeatism: ‘A Blank Page,’” 1917 No. 28, 2006). In its “Open Letter” to the ICL, the IG advises: “Those genuinely looking for the roots of the SL’s pro-imperialist ‘politics of the possible’ over Haiti would do well to examine the real record of its adaptations and capitulations to ‘its own’ bourgeoisie over the past years.” Good advice—we would only propose that the timeframe should be measured in decades rather than years.
10. The SL’s response to us (“The BT on Haiti: Postscript to IGiocy,” WV, 26 February) was concerned that the identity between the IG and IBT critique of the SL’s “outright apology for imperialism” might produce movement in the direction of a broader political convergence that could potentially result in a formidable competitor. The political affinities between the IG and IBT are apparent, but so too is the importance of the chief issue that stands between us–the political history of the SL prior to the IG’s departure.
In its polemic the SL notes that the IG and IBT have both supported several important initiatives undertaken by longshore militant Jack Heyman and ties this to the IG’s lack of enthusiasm for defending the 1979 show trial expulsion of Bill Logan (now with the IBT) from the Spartacist tendency: “As a Spartacist spokesman intervened at the [ILWU-sponsored October 2007] event to expose Logan as a revolting and dangerous fraud, the BT’s and IG’s favorite labor bureaucrat, Jack Heyman of ILWU Local 10, tried to interrupt our speaker and defended Logan against what he called ‘personal slanders.’ Norden sat silent through all this and then took the floor, where his only mention of Logan was a brief, oh-so-comradely criticism of Logan’s description of a 1930s Australian labor boycott of pig iron to Japan as an example of working-class struggle against war.” The former SLers who lead the IG played no particular role in the Logan expulsion and probably did not spend much time studying the documentation. Anyone who investigates the materials now available will discover for themselves that Logan’s misdeeds were well known and at least implicitly approved by Robertson and the rest of the SL tops—until he was targeted for removal in what was essentially an intra-bureaucratic purge (see On the Logan Show Trial<).
As for the IG’s criticism of the pig iron boycott, we responded with a statement noting that Comrade Logan had merely repeated a position adopted by the founding conference of the Fourth International with Trotsky’s approval (see “Polemic with the Internationalist Group—Workers’ Sanctions & the Fourth International,” 1917 No. 31, 2009). We have yet to hear back from the IG on this and presume that they have reevaluated their position.
11. In the Spring 1993 issue of Foreign Policy, the editor, Charles W. Maynes, wrote: “The United States, in the hubris of the Reagan administration, forgot the fundamental nature of peacekeeping. It deployed U.S. Marines in Lebanon without understanding that it was essential for their safety that the United States not take sides in the Lebanese civil war. The Reagan administration decided to back the Christians and soon found its troops under attack by the Muslims and finally driven from Lebanon after the disastrous bombing of the marine barracks in Beirut.” The New York Times credits Hezbollah, the Lebanese “Party of God,” for the attack: “In recent years the Islamic group has grafted a new image as an above-ground political force onto its 1980’s past. Back then, Hezbollah, or groups to which it was closely linked, was notorious for brutal terrorist operations, including destroying the American Embassy in Beirut in 1983 and killing 241 Americans at a Marine compound later the same year.”
—New York Times, 14 February 2001
12. While the SL firmly rejected this mistaken suggestion, it was an entirely logical application of the social-patriotic “Marines Alive” position, as we observed in 1917 No. 13: “The situation in the Balkans today is closely analogous to that in Lebanon a decade ago. In both cases Marxists support no side in the fratricidal communalist warfare, while defending any faction against imperialist troops. When Bill Clinton was threatening military intervention against the Serbs last spring, a New York Times editorial advised him not to, and drew attention to the parallel with Lebanon: “‘Senator Ernest F. Hollings of South Carolina made a telling point, too. The Reagan Administration’s eagerness to bomb the Bekka Valley and inject marines into the chaos of Lebanon led to a disastrous loss of life.’
—New York Times, 29 April 1993 “Jeff S. is quite right that there is no reason for revolutionaries to take a different line today in Bosnia than a decade ago in the Levant. But he does not understand that the SL’s position on Reagan’s Lebanon disaster was a deliberate opportunist adaptation to the perceived exigencies of the moment. The SL leadership feared that defending the devastating blow struck against the American military in Lebanon might get them into trouble with the Reaganites. So instead they echoed the Democratic Party line and called for getting the marines out ‘alive.’ “The SL leadership’s disingenuous response to the letter of this miseducated comrade is a cynical mix of obfuscation and outright falsification. Asserting that any comparison of the conflicts in the Levant and the Balkans is a ‘misapplied historical analogy’ WV replies: “‘The few hundred U.S. Marines sent to “guard” the Beirut airport hardly constituted imperialist military intervention in Lebanon’s communalist warfare, nor was the fighting in Lebanon at that time primarily a civil war.’
—WV, 2 July 1993 “Everything is wrong here. Even a ‘few hundred’ U.S. gendarmes setting up a military base in a Third World country constitute an ‘imperialist military intervention.’”
13. “A fitting historical model” for this groveling to the Democrats can found in Farrell Dobbs’ condolences to Jacqueline Kennedy following the assassination of her husband in November 1963. The first issue of Spartacist (February-March 1964) responded by reprinting comments by leading members of the then-Trotskyist Socialist Labour League declaring “We do not mourn John F. Kennedy” and describing Dobbs’ letter as “cringing bootlicking” that “repudiates every principle that Trotsky and the Bolshevik Party fought for.”
14. See “Challenger’s ‘Major Malfunction’— No Disaster for the Working Class,” 1917 No. 2, 1986. Seventeen years later, when a similar mishap destroyed the space shuttle Columbia (and the military personnel aboard) we put out a statement (8 February 2003) noting that space shuttles played an essential role in the ability of the U.S. to deploy intelligence and weapons systems in space: “The loss of the Columbia, one of only four shuttles, represents a significant setback for the U.S. military as no replacements are available, nor are there any alternative systems.” We characterized the spontaneous abortion of the Columbia’s mission as a blow to the imperialist drive to militarize space and challenged the SL and IG to take the opportunity to repudiate their earlier social-patriotic salute to the lifers aboard the Challenger. Both chose to maintain radio silence on the issue.
15. See “Disagreeable Sectarians,” 1917 No. 21, 1999
16. After a few years in denial, the SL finally admitted that it had been completely wrong to boycott the Seattle demonstrations (implicitly conceding that our criticism had been correct). But the IG has yet to change its position. If the IG leaders have indeed changed their view, we suggest they follow the SL’s example and have the courage to say so publicly.
17. The high-water mark of the SL’s short-lived “anti-sectarian” turn was probably the decision to sell our pamphlet, The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, on the literature tables of the Partisan Defense Committee, the SL’s legal arm.
18. While the IG supported the 1999 and 2008 port shutdowns, it has yet to reassess the SL’s scandalous attempt to wreck the 1984 anti-apartheid boycott led by Keylor and actively supported by Heyman. At a September 2008 IBT forum in Toronto on the anti-war port shutdown Heyman said: “The first important campaign that I was involved in out there was in 1984, around the question of apartheid in South Africa. And from that struggle I learned a lot of my politics and how to function as a revolutionary within the trade-union movement. I credit a lot of what I learned—those lessons—to someone who’s here tonight, and I want to acknowledge him: Howard Keylor.” See “11-Day Anti-Apartheid Struggle on San Francisco Docks,” “Local 10 Shows the Way!” and “Third Period Robertsonism at Pier 80” in ET Bulletin No. 4, 1985 and “ U.S. Dockers Take Historic Step—Anti-War Strike,” 1917 No. 31, 2009.
19. In the past the SL frequently put forward the demand to jail killer cops. The IG, to our knowledge, has so far avoided comment on the whole question.
20. Workers Power and other groups have proposed the formation of a bloc to initiate actions aimed at dispersing fascist mobilizations. IBT comrades in Britain have responded to the various proposals by indicating our agreement in principle with such an approach. To our knowledge the SL/B has not expressed interest in exploring the possibility of participating in such an initiative.