On the Spartacist Tendency
On the Spartacist Tendency
[An excerpt from a 6/16/88 letter from Bill Logan on behalf of the Permanent Revolution Group (New Zealand) to the Communist Left (New Zealand). It was reprinted, with other related material, on January 1991 in “Against Centrism: An Exchange of Documents Between the Permanent Revolution Group and the Communist Left”. A subsequent edition was printed in May 1993 with some editorial expansions and comments. We are including the 1993 preface to the section of the letter dealing with the Spartacist Tendency and the 1991 footnotes. We are also adding a short afterword by Revolutionary Regroupment.]
(The following section contains an account of the process of degeneration of the international Spartacist tendency, however some of the specific aspects of the degeneration treated here are open to alternative interpretations. This document was written before the fusions with the Bolshevik Tendency and Gruppe IV Internationale in 1990 which formed the International Bolshevik Tendency, and the IBT has not taken positions on several questions dealt with here: the Ellens-Turner faction fight of 1968, the “Clique Fight” which occurred several years later, and the Spartacists’ 1979 call to sell off Chrysler. (For the IBT’s analysis of the degeneration of the Spartacist tendency, see: “The Road to Jimstown”, Bulletin of the External Tendency of the iSt, n 4, May 1985. The External Tendency of the iSt was the precursor to the Bolshevik Tendency.)
[For this pamphlet, some material at the end of this section on the Spartacist tendency has been omitted, and this omission is indicated by an ellipsis ( … ). We argued in that material that the Spartacist tendency had become consistently Stalinophilic, and had abandoned revolutionary politics in favour of pressuring the Soviet bureaucracy towards the left. We now believe, and it is the position of the International Bolshevik Tendency, that the Spartacists have demonstrated that they are as willing to bow to the US ruling class as to the bureaucrats in Moscow, as witnessed by their social-patriotic “Marines Out of Lebanon, Now, Alive!’ slogan. There is a capriciousness to the programmatic deviations of the Robertson clique, which acts primarily upon the impulse to preserve its position within the tendency and the left. The most appropriate label for its practice is “political banditry” – PRG, January 1991.]
The Communist Left quite appropriately need to have a sense of our understanding of our own political evolution out of the international Spartacist tendency.
We must be quite clear that we are not clear on that yet, or at least not completely clear.
The nature of the regime in the Spartacist tendency is very far from democratic-centralist, and the political writings of most people leaving it are dominated by organisational horror stories. We do not discount those. The organisation question is a political question.
However, it would be wrong to see the errors of the Spartacist tendency as only, or primarily, organisational.
Looking back over the internal bulletins of the Spartacist League of the United States (SLUS) it has now become clear to us that the Robertson regime was a bit strange from very early on. The first view we have of it is through the faction fight with Kay Ellens and Harry Turner in 1968. In the politics of that fight, the Spartacists were quite right, and at one level the struggle led the Spartacists to a useful political clarification and the beginning of a substantially more effective organisation.
However, the fight also exposed an unnecessary factional zeal on the part of the Robertson leadership. While they were organisationally completely correct, indeed as formal as a minuet, they got rid of Harry. There was a split, and the point is that the differences really were not sufficiently great to justify a split. Formally Turner was responsible for the split -after all he resigned. But in the real life of political organisation Robertson and the group around him were responsible for the split. They quite deliberately manipulated it.
Turner was a member of the Political Bureau, not very bright but older than Robertson and longer in the workers’ movement – though much of his history had been in Stalinism. And Turner was a bit of a critic. His criticism was often not very interesting or valuable, but he was persistent in it. In fact he was a pain. It was easier to get him out of the way. But getting rid of Harry created an external opponent who hung round mimeographing a respectable if rather boring journal for years and years, badmouthing the Spartacists and muddying the waters, giving the leaderships of different little tendencies moving in the general direction of Trotskyism excuses for moving away from the Spartacists.
And getting rid of Harry was also the beginning of a process of over-homogenisation of the Spartacist leadership. We need the likes of old Harry if we can possibly keep them. We need the interplay of different generations and different political histories in the leadership. Even old farts can play useful roles among more intelligent comrades if they can act as a control against the development of projects which are improperly idiosyncratic.
Earlier, perhaps unavoidable departures of more impressive figures (White, Mage) contriuted to this process of over-homogenization, but the departure of Turner was avoidable, and the actual process of that departure contributed heavily to a climate in which Robertson personally became effectively unchallengeable.
The split with Harry was a mistake, but it was not preordained to be a decisive mistake moreovever, it predisposed the organisation to deal with its next crisis in ways which took it further into the mud. The split with Harry was somewhere near the beginning of an unusually gradual process of degeneration.
The manner in which it was conducted was an important training experience for the consolidating cadre grouping of the organisation.
The next feature of this decline was the “Clique Fight”, and the departure of Cunningham, Treiger, Benjamin, Moore, Stewart, Rogers, et al. These were important parts of the organization: editors, writers, members of the Political Bureau, the central leader of an important ex-Maoist collective which had recently fused with the Spartacist League, a local organiser, a national office manager. They had a series of gripes about the Robertson regime, but no programmatic differences.
These people may have been wrong in many of their complaints, and their way of dealing with them was distinctly unhelpful, but it is a tragedy they were incapable of an open fight. Again, they were driven out. Again, the Spartacist leadership did everything in a formally proper way. Again, there was no proper programmatic basis for a split. Again, the tendencies to an over-homogenised leadership were strengthened.
The orthodoxy was developed that any nonprogrammtic argument with the leadership was improper, and as the inevitable minor conflicts of organisational life proceeded this orthodoxy was used against elements which did not sit easily beside the regime. Internal life in the Spartacist tendency in the 1970s, both in the United States and internationally, consisted of a series of nonprogrammatic conflicts which continually purged the organisation of any potential leadership which was not utterly assimilated into Robertson’s personal group.
This organisational style has an important and crucially political relevance. It embodies a devaluation of political consciousness in the organisation. Devaluation of political consciousness devalues the very essence of the party. It deforms and limits political struggle with other tendencies, and it is necessarily counterposed to the programme of working-class power.
Except in Australia and Britain the tendency also gradually ceased the tactics necessary to effective political combat with other tendencies, in united fronts, in handling work by friends in other organisations, etc. (1)
These tactics require self-confidence and initiative in the field, which in turn generally require an organisational ethos of comradely critical-tolerance towards tactical mistakes. The climate of fear in the organisation had simply destroyed initiative in the field. The management of relations with other tendencies and with political friends in other organisations was centralised to the point of inertia. Tactical competence had become incompatible with the regime.
Consequently the tendency ceased to grow, and frustrations developed as a result of stagnation, frustrations which were taken out in a series of largely manufactured internal crises and further purges.
One diversion in the 1978-79 period had to do with office accommodation in New York, where the rent bill had become prohibitive. The collection of massive financial resources from the membership for the purchase of a small office building in lower Manhattan, and then the devotion of an enormous proportion of the organisation’s energy to refurbishing it constituted further deforming pressures in its daily political life. At another level it turned the organisation into one in which major tactical turns, fusions and entries of the kind which built the Trotskyist movement in the 1930s became unthinkable.
It is possible that a careful reading of the documentary evidence will show that the qualitative change in the Spartacist tendency occurred around the time of its purchase of a building.
With a narrowly based leadership in a single country, isolated from real involvement in the class struggle, and incapable of carrying out the tactics of Bolshevism, the tendency was inevitably prone to programmatic idiosyncrasy. The amazing thing is that programmatic idiosyncrasy was so slow to develop.
However, in 1979, for example, when Chrysler was in trouble, the Spartacists opposed nationalisation and called for selling off the assets and distributing the proceeds among the workers.
There was also some funny stuff regarding the crossing of picket lines when members of the leadership continued to fly around the United States during an air traffic controllers’ strike.
The programme of the Spartacist tendency, however, remained essentially revolutionary until the November 1983 (2) bombing of the American military headquarters in Lebanon led to 239 deaths, the largest number of US troops killed in a single day since the height of the Vietnam war. This resulted in a Workers Vanguard slogan “Marines out of Lebanon, Now, Alive!” (3) This wretchedly social-pacifist position marks a qualitative political-programmatic point in the almost incredibly gradual degeneration of the Spartacists.
The long period of marginality of the tendency and its lack of growth was evidently becoming more deeply frustrating, and the narrowness and isolation of its leadership facilitated the beginning of a search for programmatic movement away from revolutionary politics as a way of getting out of the rut.
1 This paragraph is ill-phrased. The key point here is, as we savf that the Spartadsts became dunacterised by a super-centralism which stifles independent tactical initiative on the part of the local and national leaderships of the tendency, who fear of making decisions without first clearing them with New York. Of course the central leadership of the key American section remains capable in the area of united-front and other tactical work. They have however rendered the other layers of leadership in the tendency to be incapable of such work – PRG, January 1991
2 The bombing of the US Marine barracks in Lebanon in fact occurred, not in November, but on 23 October 1983 – PRG, January 1991.
3 Workers Vanguard, n 341, 4 November 1983. Workers Vanguard is the journal of the Spartacist League of the United States – PRG, January 1991..
The description given here of the SL’s history is one that closely parallels the IBT’s own evolution quite closely. It also closely parallels the ET/BT’s earlier descriptions of events such as the Harry Turner purge, Cunningham-Treiger-Moore “Clique Fight” and other events in documents such as the “Declaration of the External Tendency” and “Road to Jimstown.” By May 1993 however the Riley-Logan duo was itself orchestrating the behind the scenes destruction of the Bay Area local with tactics (subsequently also to be used on future critics) which they learned (and refined) from their former master Jim Robertson. The short IBT intro distancing itself from the essentially correct 1988 analysis no doubt reflected the leadership’s own awareness at the time, of whatever level of consciousness, that this was the road they themselves were starting out on.