SL Over the Brink – Trotskyists Out Now!
The Road to Jimstown
Originally published May 1985
In November 1984, cadres of the Spartacist League/U.S. (SL) donned witches’ hats, false noses, pigs’ faces and Nazi regalia and paraded around San Francisco State University (S.F. State) as the “Red Avengers of the Underground SYL.” With this the SL leadership announced to the left, to their own ranks and to whoever else was interested that the gradual molecular transformation of their organization into an obedience cult (a process which had been underway for some years) had reached the point of no return. Meanwhile, on the docks on the other side of town, the Spartacist League was doing its best to wreck an 11-day boycott of South African cargo–the most important political strike by any section of the American proletariat in decades (see articles elsewhere in this issue.) These two events came as the culmination of a long series of political departures from Trotskyism. Taken together they demonstrate that, while remaining formally “orthodox” on a wide range of historically derived political questions, in the real world the SL’s break from its revolutionary past is qualitatively complete.
The SL today is not what it began as–nor are those who lived through its evolution. Much of the past half-dozen years has been spent methodically grinding up the organization’s cadres–getting rid of many and attempting to morally break those who remain. The few trade-union fractions which ever acquired any roots have been largely dismantled in the process. The product of this internal wrecking operation is a membership that is pretty demoralized and pretty passive. So, when the “turn” to the costume shop was announced, there was little overt opposition–if little enthusiasm-from the cadre.
The peculiar emphasis of much of the “Red Avengers” material on clitorectomies, castrations, wet dreams and who is going to “fuck” who, reminds us of the propaganda of Lynn Marcus’s–now ultra-rightist–National Caucus of Labor Committees (NCLC) of a decade ago. (After his wife left him for a young “Trotskyist” in England, Marcus devoted most of an issue of his theoretical magazine to considering the impotence of Trotskyism.) The SL today is not so far gone as the NCLC of the mid-1970s, but then the SL had a lot further to fall. The revolting “jokes” about the “business end” of a female shark and the references to black feminist opponents as fascists and female doberman pinschers in heat certainly recall the NCLC “polemics” and suggest a similar pathology.
Because of its heavily petty-bourgeois composition, its isolation from the organized working class and its socially marginal character, the left in America has historically been subject to idiosyncratic manifestations of various sorts. The SL is not the first, nor for a left which spawned Tim Wohlforth’s Workers League (WL) and the NCLC, the worst. But it is the most important. The Spartacist League was not just one left grouping among many–it was the crystallization of the left-wing opposition to the political destruction by Pabloite revisionism of the revolutionary Socialist Workers Party (SWP)–a party built by James P. Cannon and trained by Leon Trotsky to carry forward Bolshevism amid the destruction of the Communist International by the syphilis of Stalinism.
Even before it was expelled from the SWP, the Revolutionary Tendency (RT), the SL’s progenitor, underwent a split. Gerry Healy, leader of the British Socialist Labour League (SLL) and erstwhile mentor of the RT, ordered his followers to sign their names to a lie. A majority of the group, led by James Robertson, refused to do so. They broke from almost half their tendency at the cost of substantially reducing their chances of winning over a section of the SWP cadre because telling the truth was more important. It was an honorable beginning.
For two decades the Spartacist League defended the essential programmatic positions of Leninism–often in isolation. On many occasions, the “sterile orthodoxy” of the SL was powerfully vindicated by events. In the heyday of black nationalism in the U.S., the SL fought for a perspective of revolutionary integration. When Salvador Allende’s Unidad Popular came to power in Chile in 1970, Spartacist warned that it would end in a bloodbath. More recently, the SL stood alone on the left in opposing Khomeini and his mullahs before they came to power in Iran, in defending the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and in intransigent hostility to the capitalist-restorationist clerical reactionaries of Poland’s Solidarnosc. So what went wrong?
The Early 1970s–High Tide
By the late 1960s virtually all of the founding cadres of the RT had departed and Jim Robertson was left alone at the top. The cadres who remained in the organization, particularly after the departure of Dave Cunningham et al in 1972, were products of the radicalization of the 1960s, and had pretty much been shaped by Robertson. The SL had become “Jim’s group,” or at least a group in which Robertson’s authority and experience vastly outweighed everyone else’s. Unlike Trotsky in the Fourth International or Cannon in the SWP, he came to like it that way.
There were seeds of the present authoritarian regime in the SL for a long time. But there were also seeds of a great many other potential developments. The disintegration of the New Left in the early 1970s opened up a period of explosive growth, both qualitative and quantitative, for the SL. In three years the organization tripled in size. Many of those who joined in this period were mature people with substantial prior political experience. The Communist Working Collective of Los Angeles, for example, insisted on the SL’s commitment to establishing a regular press, trade-union fractions and a black base as conditions of fusion.
The founding of Workers Vanguard (WV) in 1971 was a key part of the process referred to as the “transformation” of the SL. The previously loose membership norms were tightened up; the functioning of the national center was professionalized; and most importantly perhaps, the SL began a systematic intervention into the proletariat. There was considerable political openness in the group in those days and, while there were no factional lineups, there were instructive debates on a variety of questions, some of which found their way into the internal bulletins. In this period the Robertson regime was manifestly pushing the work of the group forward, winning dozens of new cadres to Trotskyism and was essentially correct programmatically on all the decisive questions which it confronted.
The centralization of the Spartacist League initially represented a significant step forward from the organizational amorphousness of the 1960s. It enabled the SL to become an effective fighting propaganda group and a real factor in the American left for the first time. Massive membership transfers, at first occasioned by the organization’s industrial turn, also provided an opportunity for the central leadership to shape and control the composition of each local. Particular care was taken in putting together the local leaderships. In and of itself, this procedure was not bureaucratic-it was part of the leadership’s mandate for setting up new locals. However, it established a precedent which quickly became a norm. Key figures in locals were regularly transferred, co-opted and demoted at the center’s suggestion. Before long the selection of local (and later international) leaderships had effectively become New York’s prerogative.
And even at the top, 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.”
Tightening the Screws
In the mid-1970s, while things were slowing down domestically, the SL began to invest a lot of resources, both human and material, in building toeholds internationally. By 1978 there were potentially viable groups with some real accumulation of cadres in Britain, Germany, and to a lesser extent, in France. The French were handicapped by the existence of sizable ostensible Trotskyist centrist competitors, but the German and especially the British groups seemed to have rather large opportunities on the horizon.
However, back in the U.S., things were pretty stagnant. The membership was contracting and there were no prospects of big breakthroughs by the trade-union fractions. In an article on a national gathering of SL trade unionists, WV reported that:
“Speaking at the opening plenary session, SL National Chairman James Robertson frankly addressed the `crisis of expectations’ of this layer of comrades, idealistic formerly young people shaped centrally by the radicalization of the Vietnam war era, whose experience in politics conveyed no gut-level awareness of the ebbs and flows of class struggle.”
“The `crisis of expectations’ had tended to weigh most heavily on the SL’s most vulnerable and submerged elements, our trade unionists.”
–WV No. 144, 11 February 1977
A companion piece noted that: “the SL’s practice of recruitment on a sound political basis and setting realistic organizational goals has enabled it to survive the present period without a major faction fight, split, or hemorrhaging of the cadre.” But this was clearly what was worrying the leadership–they believed that the SL possessed all the essential ingredients for a factional eruption of some sort. The answer? Tighten the screws.
In a piece written just after he was terminated as leader of the Workers League in 1974, Tim Wohlforth described democratic centralism a la Healy:
“Open discussion and political struggle was discouraged by Comrade Healy’s tendency to push every discussion to the most extreme point and to seek to break the person who disagreed with Comrade Healy.”
–“The Workers League and the International Committee”
This is roughly how things worked in the SL as well, on those rare occasions when someone would venture to disagree with comrade Robertson. For example, in early 1978, SL Political Bureau member Liz Gordon suggested in a WV editorial board meeting that a draft article which Robertson had co-authored was perhaps a bit “unbalanced” on the woman question. She also had the temerity to request that Robertson not interrupt her while she was speaking (a practice which denotes pecking order in the SL–Robertson routinely interrupts everyone and no one interrupts him). Robertson, who wasn’t accustomed to being contradicted on anything, went into a frenzy. He accused Gordon of being a liar and mentally ill, spat on the floor and stormed out of the room. This was followed by threats of a split–i.e., a purge of his critics. At a subsequent International Executive Committee meeting, with members flown in from the overseas sections, Gordon and others who had shared her criticism were duly trashed as an example to any others who might contemplate such lese majeste in future. The whole incident was considered so “educational” that it was printed up as part of an internal bulletin.
The Clone Purge and the “Second Transformation”
If Robertson did no more than humiliate and threaten to get rid of the cadres who produced WV, he felt fewer inhibitions in dealing with the editorial staff of Young Spartacus (YSp), the youth paper. Six months after the WV blowup, Robertson launched a purge of the young male writers of YSp (dubbed “clones”) whom he perceived as a potential base for someone’s faction somewhere down the line. The clone purge began the “second transformation” of the SL. In many ways nothing had changed–the group had been more or less run by Jim’s fiat for years. Yet this abusive and destructive purge did represent something new. For one thing, the leadership openly admitted it was “subpolitical.” More importantly, the clone hunt was deliberately intended to destroy and drive out an entire layer of talented young cadres. This was a significant new development. Before long, the treatment dished out to the “clones” was used on other elements of the cadre. Initially those hardest hit were the trade unionists. The common denominator of those who got the chop was that they were thought capable of becoming oppositionists at some future date.
The ranks were suddenly found to be full of “shits,” “pigs … .. male chauvinists” and “sexual manipulators.” “Proof” for these accusations was manufactured by going around the membership and collecting bits of conversations, casual remarks, or even impressions of people’s attitudes–anything which could be cobbled together into some kind of “case” against the designated targets. When no “evidence” was discovered, it was invented. Usually the leadership managed to get rid of whomever it wanted without having to resort to disciplinary proceedings. Only for exceptionally “hard cases,” like Fred Riker, who was falsely accused of cheating on his pledge and then tried in absentia, was it necessary to manufacture formal charges as a pretext for expulsion.
WV’s coverage of the concurrent purging and bloodletting in Jack Barnes’s Socialist Workers Party had all the freshness and immediacy that comes with intimate familiarity with the subject matter. One wag observed that the articles had the quality of a message in a fortune cookie reading: “Help, I’m trapped in a Chinese cookie factory.” Many former SLers were struck by how closely the lurid projections of life in “Barnestown” corresponded to the reality of “Jimstown.” The following account of the Barnes clique’s preparations for getting rid of the SWP old guard provides a perfect description of how purges are set up in the SL. They:
“had to be preceded by a good deal of sinister and conspiratorial lining-up activity…. Approaches have to have been made to individuals, probably to anybody that was anybody…. Those who didn’t pick up the cues and failed to smile and sneer in the right places would simply have been placed on a secret enemies list earmarked for later disposition.”
“In between: the slimy cliquist operation, feeling out the cadres, lining up those that were ready, marking out the others for the ax when the time was ripe.”
–WV No. 353, 27 April 1984
This same article criticizes Barnes for the “selective `reregistration’ ” of the SWP membership in 1983. It doesn’t mention that the SL has used similar procedures in its own internal purges. The difference is that Barnes is more straightforward. In the SL, reregistration occurs under the guise of setting up a pro-party faction; those who aren’t allowed to join are driven out of the organization, whereupon the “faction” is dissolved.
Obedience Training in the SL
Most of the techniques employed in the purges in the SL didn’t have to be improvised–the nightmarish internal meetings had long been a feature of life in the group. What was different was their intent and, consequently, the voltage. For the first time the “fights” were aimed at politically eliminating the cadres targeted, not just bringing them to heel. Thus the SL, which had long operated at the Healyite margin of what could be considered “democratic centralism,” propelled itself outside the parameters of Leninist practice altogether and set off on the road to Jimstown.
Cannon once remarked that if you get a few people in a room for long enough, they can talk themselves into practically anything. That observation increasingly guided the leadership as the SL’s internal political life atrophied and its degeneration proceeded in the late 1970s. The “fights” became outright psychological gang-bangs. Among Maoists, this technique was known as “criticism/self-criticism.”
Here’s how it works in the SL. A meeting is called where the designated comrade is called to account for mistakes which he allegedly committed. Each item on the bill of particulars is grossly exaggerated and extrapolated; perfidious motivations (political and/or personal) are attributed. Incidental personal criticisms of the individual’s mannerisms, lifestyle or demeanor are thrown in for good measure. Those leading the attack typically do a good deal of histrionic screaming and posturing in order to create the proper emotionally-charged atmosphere. The assembled membership is expected to provide the chorus: repeating and embellishing on the accusations. (A reluctance to participate is punishable by being made the next point on the agenda.) Attempts by the accused to agree with the substance of the charges are initially dismissed as disingenuous and insincere, unless the hapless “star” of the proceedings is prepared to exceed all the others in vilifying himself. There is no beating the rap. If you can prove that some of the allegations are false, new ones are quickly invented. Or you are charged with using “lawyer’s arguments” and attempting to obscure the overall picture by quibbling over “details.” In some cases, the refusal of individuals involved to “come clean with the party” (i.e, confess to the charges) is itself taken as evidence of an anti-leadership attitude. After all, if you don’t agree with the charges, then you must think the campaign against you is a bureaucratic atrocity!
Round after round, meeting after meeting, the “fight” continues until the object of the exercise gives up and hands in his resignation or confesses in what is deemed a suitably abject and contrite manner. Breaking down and crying is usually taken as evidence of sincerity, especially in men. The “fight” is then concluded with the unanimous passage of some harshly condemnatory motion. Anyone fortunate enough to be deemed worthy of one last chance can expect to spend at least the next few months as a pariah. Eventually there is a new victim and, with luck, the previous target can gradually recoup his status as a regular member. But the “lesson” is not quickly forgotten.
The leadership’s shock therapy techniques are deliberately intended to break the personal and political self-confidence of those subjected to them. Usually the “fights” are aimed at potential “troublemakers”–the idiots and yes-men can usually be integrated without difficulty. The choice posed: to crawl or to leave the group (known as opting for a “biological existence”) is only a difficult one for those who take the politics seriously.
These practices create enormous pressures within the organization. They have proved remarkably effective in shaping and molding (i.e., atomizing and intimidating) the SL membership. This in turn promotes among many a desire to ingratiate themselves with the leadership, a constant need to be assured that they are “doing well” and an acute sensitivity to subtle hints on how to do so.
The Poisoned Internal Life of the SL
Stalin is reported to have told the Lovestoneites in Moscow in 1929 that “When you get back to America, nobody will stay with you except your wives.” Robertson is more ambitious. Frequently in the course of SL purges, extraordinary efforts are directed at splitting couples and getting one to testify against the other. Conversely, those who refuse to split up with soon-to-be ex-comrades know that they will not long survive them in the organization. In one case, a woman who turned on her mate at the party’s suggestion won a gold chervonets. (The chervonets, or “golden dog biscuit,” is the SL equivalent of the Order of Stalin. It is awarded by Robertson to any member whose actions have particularly pleased him.)
The purges in the SL gave a lot of little people the chance to vent their frustrations and “get even” for petty grievances (real or imagined) against the victims. Some joined in with a mixed sense of fear and excitement, glad not to be on the receiving end and anxious to demonstrate their regime-loyalty. The most debased elements acquired new skills–interpretive accusation and cavalier disregard for the truth. They became masters of the art of the shrill and hysterical denunciation, and eagerly strained to be first on the round to jump on the back of each new victim. More experienced and decent people didn’t really believe much of it but kept their eye on the “big picture” and tried not to get their hands any dirtier than necessary. They suppressed their qualms and tried to focus on whatever grains of truth they could find in the indictments. Besides, they told themselves, the SL is the only revolutionary party in the world and this just isn’t worth going out over.
Among the casualties of the “second transformation” was the record of honesty long maintained by the Spartacist press. Today the poisoned internal life of the organization is reflected in Workers Vanguard’s brazen and cynical willingness to lie, just like Challenge, the Bulletin or the Daily World.
The shriekers and screamers who compose an ever-larger proportion of the SL/SYL have similarly learned to evaluate truth and falsehood in the light of the “party question” (i.e., “it’s alright as long as we do it because we know that we’re revolutionary”). Once widely regarded by the reformist and centrist left as honest, serious and “orthodox,” the SL today is perceived with equal justice as dishonest, nasty and nutty.
“Integrating” the International
The recomposition of the membership quickly extended outside the SL to its satellite sections. Here Robertson faced special problems. The European cadres regrouped by the SL tended to be highly political and generally possessed considerable experience as left-oppositionists in their former organizations. They were hardly predisposed to the commandism of the Spartacist “international.” Moreover, as many of these comrades had spent years working together, they couldn’t necessarily be counted on to carry out any and every instruction from New York. They had been won to the formal politics of the Spartacist tendency but had not been “integrated” organizationally.
For a time Robertson sought to solve this problem by personally homogenizing his international. To this end, he had an “International Secretariat” seat created for himself on the central committees of both the German and British groups, all the while retaining his post as National Chairman of the SL/U.S. Eventually the jet lag proved too much, so he opted for a series of brutal and pseudo-political purges, which eliminated the bulk of the experienced cadres and ensured that each section had a leadership in which reliable hand raisers predominated. This “solved” the problem of political differences arising in the overseas franchises.
Today the international Spartacist tendency is an “international” built around obedience to a single individual. It holds congresses about as frequently as Stalin’s Comintern. There is no discipline for the privileged leadership of the American section (which doubles as the international leadership), while complete obedience is demanded from all the others, down to the most trivial organizational details.
By the late 1970s the initial enthusiasm for “building the international” had worn off and the SL adopted a new motto: “charity begins at home.” The tap was turned off and the organization’s funds were poured into a new project–“the building” which, if nothing else, represents security for someone in his dotage.
Robertsonism vs. Cannonism
Robertson has always made much of his claim to represent the continuity of Cannonism in the contemporary American left. To the extent that the SL adhered to the Trotskyist program, there was a substantial basis for such a claim. But Robertson always meant more particularly that he represented Cannon’s organizational techniques, and in that he does Cannon a real injustice. Cannon was a serious factionalist. He fought hard and, on occasion, was doubtless guilty of bending a few sticks a little too far. But his organizational techniques were not those of Robertson and life in the SWP was a far different experience than in the SL. This is evident by even a casual reading of the SWP internal documents and can be confirmed by talking to SWP old-timers or reading their correspondence. From the formation of the Communist League of America in 1928 through the 1940 split with the Shachtmanites to the purge of the RT in 1963, Cannon’s organization had a vibrant internal life. There were many tendencies, several factions as well as a great number of political disputes within the organization which never assumed organized form. Oehler, Goldman-Morrow, Johnson-Forest, Cochran-Clarke, Vern-Ryan, Marcy and others all felt free to make harsh and blunt criticisms of the leadership. In many cases, they did so for years. In Cannon’s party, differences were not suppressed as in the SL, but fought out politically. In some cases this led to splits, in others not. Cannon ran a firm but democratic regime which recognized that internal political struggle was inevitable and even necessary and which treated its minorities loyally. Jim Cannon could live with a little dissent. In his party, up to the expulsion of the RT, you had to do something to get driven out.
Robertson adopted the conception which Cannon advanced in The Struggle for a Proletarian Party that organizational differences frequently mask latent political differences, but with a convenient corollary from Healy–that organizational grievances in the absence of formal “political” differences are only raised by anti-party wreckers looking to form rotten blocs. This handy formula boils down to the proposition that the organizational question is not a political question–particularly when it involves criticism of the leadership. Consequently it is an unprincipled question to fight over and those who make such criticisms deserve to be smashed. Within the SL, the argument that the organizational question is not a political question has functioned as the leadership’s license to abuse the membership.
Cannon knew that building a real movement meant there would inevitably be all kinds of shadings of difference. He didn’t go after them unless they had begun to express themselves in a counterposed program. It wasn’t that Cannon never thought of doing things Robertson’s way–he chose not to.
“It is perfectly possible for slick leaders to write ten constitutions guaranteeing freedom of criticism in a party and then create an atmosphere of moral terrorization whereby a young or inexperienced comrade doesn’t want to open his mouth for fear he will be made a fool of, or sat on, or accused of some political deviation he doesn’t have in his mind at all.”
–The SWP in World War II, page 329
Robertson set up precisely this kind of operation. Initially it was designed to cheat history by short-circuiting the factional losses which usually result from sharp political struggle in a revolutionary organization. Resolving to avoid such losses in his operation, Robertson spent a great deal of time–particularly after discovering in 1972 that a whole section of the SL leadership was disaffected and discussing mutiny–sniffing out potential opponents and hitting them before they could do any damage.
The Organizational Question as a Political Question
Such techniques have a price. They not only affect the quality of political life in the group, but also tend to develop a momentum of their own. Tomorrow’s dissident learns from the experience of today’s, and thus any expression of political difference tends to become increasingly covert. Ultimately in the SL the “shortcut” became its opposite as the very techniques which were designed to prevent costly splits, minimize cadre loss and safeguard the organization’s programmatic integrity ended up in a massive hemorrhaging of the membership.
The increasingly bureaucratic and eventually anti-political internal life of the SL (it is now seventeen years since the last faction fight) was both the first form of its departure from Leninism and the framework within which all of the subsequent revisionist departures have taken place. An organization with formally correct politics run by a leadership centrally concerned with maintaining its own absolute authority and willing to resort to abusive, anti-democratic internal practices to do so, is a deeply contradictory formation. Over time the tension between the mask and the face must inevitably express itself in programmatic revisions falling outside the organizational question because democratic centralism in a Leninist organization is not a desirable option but an indispensable necessity. The Spartacist League today, crippled by years of suppression of any and all dissident opinion, has lost the capacity to correct the errors of the leadership as it begins to attack the programmatic foundations of the movement.
The development of a rigid, authoritarian style of leadership in a communist organization reveals both a fundamental lack of confidence in the membership and, ultimately, in the revolutionary potential of the proletariat. One long-time Spartacist cadre recently wrote us: “I recall Robertson once telling me his ideal organization consisted of a cool, flexible leadership which could make turns and `do deals’ and a `foam-flecked’ (his words) rank and file.” This is of a piece with Robertson’s aphorism that “good Catholics make good communists,” i.e., they are familiar with the doctrine of leadership infallibility. The SL’s National Chairman, who has been heard to scream “I SHOULD BE THE RULER OF THE WORLD” while raging around the headquarters, has a somewhat lower estimate of the capacities of his followers. At a public meeting in New York in 1978, he remarked that he was often inclined to think of the membership as “a big bag of shit.” The ranks are encouraged to think of themselves in similar terms. The notion that “deep down I’m really a rotten, anti-party element who fears the anti-Soviet war drive and doesn’t sell enough papers” is constantly inculcated in every SLer, and the further outside of Robertson’s coterie, the more this is driven home.
Of course, in a historical sense, it is anomalous to have a tiny bureaucratic leftist organization with no necessary relation to the society within which it exists. This always provided the Healyites with a convenient axiomatic “proof” that their organization couldn’t be bureaucratic. Workers Vanguard (31 January 1975) noted:
“Wohlforth always dismissed the Spartacist tendency’s allegations about the grossly bureaucratic practices of the Healy/Wohlforth regimes with smug demands that we demonstrate upon what materially privileged stratum the WL regime is based.”
In the first (internal) polemic against the ET, SL leader Al Nelson responded to our charge of bureaucratism in the SL as follows:
“Ours is not a bureaucratic party. Bureaucratism, in a Marxist sense, arises when new policies and program representing alien class forces contradict the program and traditions of the revolutionary party. In order to impose such policies on the party, the leadership is compelled to suppress party democracy, to form the line through by bureaucratic coercion, and to concentrate all power in the party apparatus.”
–SL Internal Discussion Bulletin No. 40, page 63
How closely Nelson’s argument parallels Wohlforth’s. Both insist that bureaucratic practices within tiny socialist groupings must reflect some alien class force. Very neat and tidy. No room for the development of mini-personality cults or small group megalomania. But life is more complex–which is why we have the Posadases, the Healys and the Robertsons (not to mention the Marcuses).
Nelson also takes up the tricky problem of the Healyite regime of the mid-1960s:
“There is always a consonance between program and party regime. `But how to explain Healy circa 1966…’ shout the ETs, claiming to have found the exceptions that break the rule. In 1967, one year after our expulsion from the London IC conference, the Healyites came out for political support to Mao and the Red Guards…”
This really isn’t much of an explanation. The SLL’s revisionism in 1967 hardly accounts for the nature of its regime a year earlier. Healy’s 1962 demand that every member of the RT perjure himself as a condition for remaining in the SLL’s international faction is irrefutable evidence that there need not always be a consonance between formal program and party regime. Even within the iSt, the leadership has occasionally claimed to have discovered abusive and/or bureaucratic regimes which nonetheless functioned for years without overt programmatic manifestations. Bureaucratism is ultimately counterposed to the revolutionary program and must eventually express itself politically. But formal programmatic departures need not necessarily precede bureaucratic degeneration as the SL itself recognized in its contemporary comment on the 1966 IC expulsion:
“the Healy-Banda machine subordinates real political issues of agreement and disagreement to the exigencies of organizational issues and personal prestige politics. That organizational tendency is itself a political issue of the first order.”
–Spartacist No. 6, 1966
The Intervention of the External Tendency
The External Tendency was formed in 1982 by former members of the iSt. As we stated in our founding document, the SL was then an organization in contradiction:
“The critical aspect of the current stage of development of the iSt is that it is an organization with a deep contradiction between a coherent, rational, Marxist worldview and program and an increasingly abusive (and irrational) internal regime. And the process through which this contradiction will be resolved is incomplete.”
We projected a course of work to generate a political struggle within the iSt to restore the organization to revolutionary health, and held open the possibility that the group–or at least a significant portion of it–would be salvageable. We were well aware that the SL was at that point highly bureaucratic and had many cultish features, but we also recognized that at least externally it still represented a fair approximation of a Trotskyist propaganda group.
We hammered away at the SL every time it strayed from its Trotskyist heritage, whether it was ignoring the PATCO picket lines, carrying the flags of the Salvadoran popular front, designating its supporters the “Yuri Andropov Brigade” or dismantling its trade-union fractions. In each case, the SL leadership adamantly defended its mistakes as a matter of prestige and dared the membership to line up with us.
Many of the SL’s critics, noting the adulation of Yuri Andropov in WV, concluded that the organization had become definitively Stalinophilic. Yet when the Soviets justifiably terminated the KAL 007 spy-flight in September 1983, the SL’s immediate reaction was to drop the unconditional defense of the Soviet Union. Workers Vanguard proclaimed that if the Soviets had known that there were civilian passengers on board then “despite the potential military damage of such an apparent spying mission,” shooting it down would have been “worse than a barbaric atrocity.” This cowardly flinch was far closer to State Department socialism than Stalinophilia and illustrated that in breaking with its revolutionary past, the SL had become profoundly unstable politically. Such erratic programmatic gyrations in response to immediately perceived interests are characteristic of political banditry–a peculiar and particularly cynical form of centrism.
WV’s cowardly reaction to the demolition of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in October 1983 provided another graphic demonstration of the extent of the erosion of revolutionary will at the top of the SL/US. The reflex response of any decent socialist to the fate of the Marines in Lebanon should have been “so what, they had no business being there in the first place.” Instead of siding with the victims of imperialist intervention, the SL leadership raised the social-patriotic call to save the surviving Marines. With this it was becoming clear that what was at issue in the political battle between the ET and the SL leadership was not how best to apply the Trotskyist program, but the program itself.
The SL responded to the political pressure from the ET with a torrent of slander and abuse. Al Nelson set the tone in his internal polemic vilifying ETers as: “Liars, traitors, apologists for racism and genocide, petty bureaucrats, anti-Soviet popfrontists and wreckers.” The ranks were instructed to respond to us with “fanatical hatred” and individual members were encouraged to outdo one another in mudslinging. When our critique of “Marines Alive” struck a responsive chord in a section of the membership, the SL leadership responded with an ugly provocation. At a mass Greyhound picket in San Francisco in December 1983, several SLers loudly accused our supporters of being “Nazi-lovers” and “scabs” in a blatant attempt to incite militants in the crowd to attack them. When that didn’t work, two well-known SL supporters started elbowing one of our people.
In an attempt to reach those members who were uncomfortable with the leadership’s clear movement away from Trotskyism, we formally applied to rejoin the iSt as a tendency. This challenge to the SL’s fiction of a democratic internal life posed a difficult problem for Robertson et al. They didn’t want to appear politically afraid of a small group of former members and yet they had not spent the previous five years purging any and all potential critics in order to turn around and permit a disciplined oppositional tendency to rejoin. So they began to escalate the slander campaign with filthy insinuations that our protest of their behavior in San Francisco was derived somehow from COINTELPRO and that we therefore had some shadowy connection to the FBI.
The purpose of such slander in the left, whether practiced by Stalinists, Healyites or Robertsonites, is always the same–to discredit one’s opponents without having to answer them politically. It also has the effect of “locking in” those members who participate. Every time someone engages in slander or violence against an opponent, he is much more closely to the degenerate leaders who ordered it. Even when people break with such an organization, most feel themselves so deeply compromised by their own participation in such practices that they tend to leave politics entirely. This was always an important technique in cohering the Workers League and historically prevented all but a tiny handful from ever crossing over to the SL.
The Spartacist League as a Potemkin Village
The Spartacist League is increasingly coming to resemble a fake-revolutionary potemkin village. Events in the “big world” are of less and less interest. What really matters is that the dues base remains intact. This is reflected in a press which is often full of “in-house” news about SL activities and events, coverage of which is carried to absurd lengths. The SL has come to take great pride in its abstention from many of the important mobilizations by the rest of the left. In 1982 they boycotted a significant anti-Nazi demonstration initiated by the black community in Oroville, California. They also boycotted the massive 1983 anti-Cruise demonstrations in Canada. Last summer when a thousand protesters gathered to demonstrate against Jerry Falwell and the sinister Moral Majority in San Francisco during the week of the Democratic Convention, the SL refused to participate. Spartacist contingents have also been conspicuously absent from most of the recent demonstrations against U.S. intervention in Central America.
It is not stupidity or laziness that keeps the SL out of such demonstrations–this policy is a necessary concomitant to running a potemkin village. What would new recruits (who are joining what they are assured is the one and only legitimate group on the left) think if the SL participated in joint actions with other organizations, all of which are supposed to be involved in a murky, cop-infested “Big Lie” plot against “the party”?
The “second transformation” of the SL has also involved withdrawal from the trade unions. This began with the 1980 removal of leading spokespersons from phone and longshore/warehouse (the two unions in which SL-supported caucuses had won recognition as the chief opposition to the bureaucrats). In 1983 all the SL-supported stewards in the phone union resigned their posts citing first one pretext and then another. Meanwhile the organization has pulled out of auto and has nothing left in steel.
What union work remains is characterized by wild swings between left-posturing sectarianism and craven opportunism. The SL brazenly attempted to wreck the 11-day ILWU boycott of South African cargo this past November in San Francisco simply because ET supporters played a key role in organizing it. In a page taken straight from “Healy at Liege,” secondary tactical questions were elevated to “principles” in a cynical effort to provide a “left” cover for the SL’s attempts to derail the whole action.
In local elections in New York transit in 1983, it was a different story. The “leftism” was put on the back burner as SL supporters offered a no-contest agreement to Arnold Cherry, a black business unionist who WV openly admitted was no better than the incumbent. So we had the spectacle of SL trade-union supporters doing exactly what they had always chastised the opportunist fake-left for doing—trying to hitch a ride on the coattails of a popular out-of-office bureaucrat.
Gimmicks and Maneuvers
Instead of struggling for political hegemony within the left and the union movement, the SL leadership has sought to substitute a series of maneuvers and gimmicks, each of which is supposed to result in a spectacular breakthrough in the near future. When one fails to produce the projected result, then it’s on to the next, in the time-honored tradition of all fakers.
The first time the SL resorted to a “get-rich quick” scheme was in 1979 when Robertson himself announced the objectively unrealizable “200 recruitment” drive, launched in the wake of the clone purge. In 1981 there was another failed recruitment campaign, this one in the context of the “Anti-Imperialist Contingents.” This time there were short-term successes but the gains were quickly frittered away.
In November 1982 the SL pulled out all the stops and mobilized several thousand black workers and youth in a successful anti-Klan demonstration in Washington D.C. This was the climax of three years of anti-fascist mobilizations spearheaded by the SL. On the basis of the D.C. rally, the leadership decided that black recruitment was an easy shortcut to success. While continuing to rip up the trade-union fractions, the leadership announced a “turn” toward black work–at least in the pages of WV. In practice the black turn consisted mostly of announcing the creation of phantom front-groups (the “Labor/Black Struggle Leagues”–LBSLs) and then sitting back and waiting for them to fill up with members. Yet even with dues set at 25 cents a month, there were no takers for the LBSLs. The “70 percent black party” projected at the 1983 National Conference remains overwhelmingly white.
With the LBSLs stillborn, the leadership made a mini-turn toward strike chasing in the spring of 1984. The SL membership was sent out on a summer sub-drive to find isolated union militants in outlying areas who, it was hoped, would read a few issues of WV and then flood into the SL to take lessons on how to play “hardball.” This too turned out to be a flop. Effective strike-support work requires a solid trade-union base. Strike chasing cannot substitute for the long and difficult struggle to forge a revolutionary leadership in the mass organizations of the proletariat.
The gimmicks and the get-rich-quick schemes, the cynicism and the slander, are indicative of a profound political demoralization at the top of the SL. Like most of the rest of his political generation, Robertson was deeply marked by the period of defeats for the left in the 1950s. In a candid moment, he made the following observation:
“…my weakness comes from the fact that I have in some ways never transcended the first ten years of my political experience, in a little group in the midst of the witchhunt, where everything was contained in oral discussion, so I never developed the habit of writing. Even if this were not true, I can’t leave an unambiguous political estate; [I] am a product of the witchhunt, and [that] is a weakness I carry with me … I have a pretty deep political caution [I] treasure Lessons of October highly therefore, [I] am left with the feeling you can’t win, after year after year of people leaving the movement. In my experience this is normal. I try to fight it.”
–Expanded Political Bureau Minutes, 25 June 1972
For a long time Robertson did “fight it” but today the prospects of seeing a breakthrough in his lifetime must seem more remote than ever. He is burned out as a revolutionary. But he still has a couple of hundred followers, an established press, an extremely comfortable lifestyle and some valuable real estate–all held together by a political history which means less and less to him. Might as well enjoy things before he checks out.
Robertson has opted for the considerable pleasures of being a big fish in his own little pond. He is free to indulge his fancy as he chooses–playing Hugh Hefner one day and Robert the Bruce or “the Godfather” the next. And when he says put on the false noses, those SLers who “understand the party question” (the cynical euphemism for unquestioning obedience to the leadership), put them on without a murmur of protest.
Slipping Down the Vertical Axis
When plotting political tendencies, it is traditional to situate them on a left/right axis. Yet for the strange political effluvia generated by the North American left, one almost needs another axis–a vertical axis of correspondence to social reality. On this latter scale, the SL has moved at least as far down as it has moved to the right on the horizontal. Leftist groupings which move to the right usually do so because it seems “smart”–at least in the short run. But much of what the SL has been up to lately is not smart by any criterion–it is just plain weird.
WV’s predictions of impending fascism in the U.S. last July (with the Democratic Party convention providing Reagan’s “Reichstag fire” pretext) and the bizarre offer of a dozen SL defense guards to avert this “threat” were both so patently absurd that no one, including the SL cadre, really believed them. Thoughtful regime loyalists tried to explain their leadership’s Chicken Little scenario as a maneuver. In a sense they were right. But such “maneuvers” have a political logic. The SL’s offer to act as security guards for Mondale, like the flinch on the defense of Soviet airspace in the midst of the KAL 007 furor and the social-patriotic call to save the Marines in Beirut, was intended to indicate to the bourgeois state that, despite its hard-communist posturing, the SL is at bottom merely a harmless sect.
A few short months after the Reaganite “coup” lunacy, the leadership had its cadres running around San Francisco State dressed up as pigs, witches and Nazis in response to another “plot”–this one supposedly cooked up by the FBI and the S.F. State student council and aimed at the SYL.
SL Over the Brink
The bounds within which Robertson historically had to operate have been progressively stretched to the point where there is no longer any effective control on him within the organization. Yet the cult of Robertson the Great Man/genius-leader is peculiar in that it is not manifested in the public activity of the group (apart from the occasional bizarre and idiotic “angular” position). The analogy of which he is personally fond, is that of East Germany where everything is done by the book and a facade of collective leadership is maintained, as opposed to North Korea where the Divine Succession is literally written into the constitution. Robertson has definitely been taking the organization Korea-wards in recent years. The phrase “the party” has come to mean “Robertson.” But so far no one says this out loud inside the SL.
The SL can no longer be viewed as some sort of errant revolutionary organization with a bureaucratic regime. Rather it is the political equivalent of the pre-Qaddafi Healyites of the late 1960s; cynical former Trotskyist political bandits held together by obedience to an authoritarian lider maximo. Of course, history never repeats itself exactly, and while the Healyites’ route to political oblivion is probably the closest model for what is happening to the SL, it doesn’t correspond to it on every level. Healy never had his senior cadres dress up in witches hats. Nor did he publicly indulge in the psycho-sexual babble so typical of North American cults. The misogynist blather of the Red Avenger communiques is more reminiscent of the deranged rantings of Lynn Marcus’s NCLC.
The “clitorectomy/castration” propaganda of the Red Avengers would seem to signal a move by the leadership to close the gap between its formal political line and some of the more cultish features of the SL’s internal life. For several years Robertson has had his own little coven of sexual groupies with its own bizarre initiation rituals. They made a semi-official debut internally when, dressed in black and carrying candles, they appeared as “the Susanna Martin Choir” at a social held during the 1983 SL National Conference. (Susanna Martin was an early American witch.) In the report of the conference which appeared in WV (No. 342, 18 November 1983), it was noted that the choir’s “performance was received with wild and overwhelming acclaim.” What wasn’t reported is that running such an “informal interest association,” as WV coyly referred to it, is Robertson’s exclusive prerogative in the SL. Nor did WV mention that being one of Jim’s groupies confers great “informal” authority within the group.
In the old days one of the stories oft recounted in the SL to illustrate the limitless bureaucratism and all-round unpleasantness of life in the Workers League was how Wohlforth had once expelled several of his members because he had been made to sleep on a couch when visiting their branch. Today in the iSt comrades in European locals visited by Robertson sometimes have to spend several days hunting for a luxury hotel with a room large enough to accommodate two double beds. No one dares suggest that Jim spend a night on the couch!
The Struggle for Trotskyist Continuity
The SL is still able to present a facade of Trotskyist orthodoxy in its press when it wants to. Yet this is not so surprising–Healy’s SLL was characterized by a gruesome Caligula-style internal regime for years and yet retained the ability to produce fairly decent high-Trotskyist polemics for ceremonial occasions. Revolutionary theory has come to play essentially the same role in the iSt–a dogma which abstractly justifies the existence of the organization, but which bears increasingly little relation to its real activity.
One criterion for judging the health of an ostensibly communist organization is its ability to reproduce revolutionary cadres. The Spartacist League today is an organization which can only produce cynics. Subservience to authority is substituted for political consciousness in the membership who literally do not know what idiocy or betrayal they will be required to endorse next. All that those trained in the new school of Spartacism can really be sure of is that Trotskyism is whatever the leadership says it is. And it might be exactly the opposite tomorrow. What counts is doing what you’re told.
Many members of the Spartacist League have been badly damaged by their experiences under the Robertson regime and many are finished as revolutionists. Too many lies. Too much groveling. But there are others who embody the contradiction between the SL’s past and its present. Some of these comrades are doubtless hanging on in anticipation of a future faction fight which will produce a healthy split. But there is no inevitability of any such development. It never happened in Pierre Lambert’s Organisation Communiste Internationaliste nor in Healy’s SLL.
For a long time the SL led a kind of Dorian Gray existence. The face which was presented to the world in the pages of Workers Vanguard remained healthy, vigorous and clean, while the diseased and scabrous reality was only apparent to those on the inside. In that sense, the increasingly overt departure of the Spartacist League from its revolutionary past is a good thing as it tends to resolve the SL’s claim to represent the organizational continuity of Trotskyism. Yet we do not gloat over the self-destruction of the SL. It can only embitter and demoralize the decent people who remain within the group. More importantly, the SL’s activity discredits anti-revisionist Trotskyism in the eyes of leftists, workers, students, black militants and others who are exposed to it.
The great tragedy of the Spartacist League is that after two decades of swimming against the stream, its central leadership has ended up regarding revolutionary politics as just another cynical shell game. We respect the enormous political contribution which Robertson and his lieutenants have made in keeping alive the flame of revolutionary Marxism in our time. However under the pressure of isolation and failure, these same individuals have been transformed into an obstacle to the creation of a genuine Bolshevik vanguard.
The degeneration of the once-revolutionary SL leadership is by no means a unique historical event.
“On the basis of a long historical experience, it can be written down as a law that revolutionary cadres, who revolt against their social environment and organize parties to lead a revolution, can–if the revolution is too long delayed– themselves degenerate under the continuing influence and pressures of this same environment….
“But this same historical experience also shows that there are exceptions to this law too. The exceptions are the Marxists who remain Marxists, the revolutionaries who remain faithful to the banner. The basic ideas of Marxism, upon which alone a revolutionary party can be constructed, are continuous in their application and have been for a hundred years. The ideas of Marxism, which create revolutionary parties, are stronger than the parties they create, and never fail to survive their downfall. They never fail to find representatives in the old organizations to lead the work of reconstruction.
–James P. Cannon, The First Ten Years of American Communism, pages 29-30
As the Spartacist League decomposes into Yuri Andropov Brigades, Susanna Martin Choirs, Fritz Mondale Defense Squads and Red Avengers in its plunge toward political irrelevance, it is left to the External Tendency to struggle to ensure that the heritage which the SL carried forward from Cannon’s SWP is not lost. The critical task which we face in the next period is to regroup the cadres necessary to rebuild the nucleus of an authentically Bolshevik organization in North America and internationally, an organization that will be worthy of the heroic tradition of Cannon, Trotsky and Lenin.