The Spartacist League, the Minority and Voix Ouvriere
By Liz Gordon
[Key internal factional document with supporters of the Voix Ouvriere/ Lutte Ouvriere group in France. First printed in Spartacist League Internal Bulletin #7, December 1968. Reprinted and scanned from the SL publication “Lutte Ouvriere and Spark: Workerism and National Narrowness”.]
While the Turner-Ellens-Stoute Minority faction has not, at least yet, taken a formal position on the Voix Ouvriere group, the organizational methods of VO, at least as described by Comrade Ellens, have played an important role in the present factional dispute in the SL. Presumably the Minority has chosen not to take a position as a faction on the questions raised by Ellens’ report of 8 April 1968 on “Organizational Methods” of a European Trotskyist group which was circulated by Comrade Ellens nationally. The group in question, the French “Union Communiste,” has since been dissolved by government decree as a result of the May general strike and its organs, Voix Ouvriere and the bilingual Lutte de Classe/Class Struggle, no longer appear. (The document submitted by Turner on 17 July 1968 is-the first document to be signed by the Minority comrades collectively.) At the same time, the tendency of which Comrade Ellens is a leading spokesman has concentrated its fire heavily on questions of organization and so-called “Leninist functioning.” Comrade Ellens’ first documentary contribution to the discussion was an attachment to the PB minutes of 25 March 1968, as a statement qualifying her vote in favor of Comrade Robertson’s motions on how we seek to function politically and organizationally. These motions were presented and motivated in the PB meeting of 4 March. Her entire statement was, “The three motions on organization do not take into account that we are not functioning in a Leninist manner. This must be done in their implementation.” While Comrade Ellens’ justification for having circulated her report on VO’s organizational methods herself and over the head of the PB was that the report was not a factional document, her use of the time allotted her during her recent July trip to the Bay Area for a factional presentation to present the organizational ideas of VO has made it clear that VO is being used as a major factional issue by the Minority. This makes it necessary that the Majority respond to the issues raised.
It seems clear that the Minority, or Comrade Ellens at least, has been attempting to sell VO’s successes and impressive aspects, especially in lieu of a more concrete schema of proposals by them for what the SL should seek to be and to do. This is not to say that there has been no political basis of real differences in the founding of the Minority tendency. The general proposition of “getting to the masses” and an implied policy of proletarianization as the solution to the SL’s ills has become more and more clear, and poses legitimate political questions which must be discussed in their own right. But the question of VO and its organizational methods has been a second current running through the proselytizing of Comrade Ellens and, further, is one which ties in well, at least superficially, with the expressed concern with “getting to the working class,” since VO is presented as being the model of a proletarian Trotskyist organization with proper “Leninist functioning” which the SL should emulate. VO has been used as a prime recruiting device of the Minority and is therefore de facto part of the Minority’s program for change.
It is in a way unfortunate that VO has become a factional football. The necessity of answering the attributions and attacks of the Minority makes us insist here on the weak sides of VO. The comrades must keep in mind that VO is in many respects a fine and Trotskyist organization, and it is not an accident that the SL has chosen to maintain fraternal relations between our two groups. Further, VO has behaved towards the SL and the IC (the two opportunities we have had to observe VO most closely) in a serious, comradely and scrupulous manner. Likewise, the comrades must keep in mind that, despite the Minority’s attempt to suggest an implicit identity between itself and VO, the Minority is not VO. In choosing to wear the mantle of VO, Ellens is implicitly assigning to VO her opinions of the SL and her concept of what VO is. A VO’er, for exam]ile, might choose to accentuate some of its disagreements with the SL over political questions which Comrade Ellens has not chosen to treat in her representation of what is basic to that organization. For another example, Comrade Ellens has stated that VO’s position against having full-time political functionaries is not very important and flows from a specific difference between French and U.S. conditions, i.e., the allegedly greater ease of getting a part-time job in France. Judging from the whole of VO’s organizational outlook, it seems likely that VO itself considers this question of considerable importance and strongly disapproves of having full-timers whose only political assignment is party work. In short, we cannot exclude the possibility that VO views itself differently from the way Comrade Ellens views it and/or that she has chosen to emphasize those ideas and aspects of VO which would be most “saleable” to SL’ers, in order to recruit to her faction. Similarly, we have had rather little day-to-day contact with VO’s actual functioning and cannot judge whether Ellens’ picture of VO’s efficiency is idealized. One SL’er whose contact with VO was much more limited than Comrade Ellens’ points out that, despite Ellens’ assertion that “meetings start on time,” those which she [this other SL’er] attended started late, monthly meetings 45 minutes late, classes less so. Trivial reminders like this may serve to keep us within the bounds of reality. But the most important point, of course, is that we must not be misled by the spectre of VO being raised to lend weight to the arguments of the Minority; if Comrade Ellens has received the VO “franchise,” we are not aware of it.
One obvious point to be made about the use of VO as a factional point by Ellens is that the comparison is not particularly fitting. While the organizational theories of VO are certainly relevant points to be debated, as are VO’s political differences with the SL, VO certainly cannot be used as a measure of efficiency or effectiveness. According to Comrade Ellens’ report, the VO organization has four times as many full members as the SL, four times as many candidate members and again four times as many organized sympathizers. Using our membership criteria, this would give them eight times as many members as we have (we do not distinguish in counting our members between fulls and candidates) and four times as many of a category for which we have no equivalent, but would be roughly whatever close contacts we have regular working relations with in arenas and, in addition, have sufficient agreement with us to work with us to some extent as the SL, circulating the paper and the like. Thus the SL has at this point roughly one-twelfth VO’s strength in members and contacts. Clearly our existence is much more tentative, our standards for what makes a minimally acceptable member somewhat lower by necessity, and our expected efficiency of functioning in no way comparable. Further, while VO’s membership is overwhelmingly concentrated in Paris, ours is very lightly spread over an area which, translated into French terms, extends over the equivalent of Paris to the. Sahara to the Urals. Hence the effective force we can bring to bear on the main American center, New York, is in the range of one one-hundredth of VO’s sheer numerical impact in Paris! It is clear that the burdens on our national center include not only maintaining local functioning in the political center of the country with far less concentrated forces but. also attempting to service a national organization with local groups thousands of miles away. While we must concern ourselves with VO’s theories of organization, we must realize that to reduce them in our minds to being identical with VO’s more efficient functioning is to render them absurd.
Selection of Leadership
The actual organizational structure of VO is, in our terms, rather frightful. According to the information in Comrade Ellens’ written organizational report and verbal presentation to the PB of 30 January 1968, VO’s structure may be described as federated in the choosing of a national political leadership. (“Federated” in this context should not be taken to mean that locals are autonomous in their coordination with each other or with the central leadership.) Members of the VO equivalent of the Central Committee are chosen on the following basis: one member of each cell is elected by the cell to serve on the higher body. This is not necessarily undemocratic (cells are undoubtedly of roughly equal size; this system is not equivalent to our having, for example, one representative apiece from Berkeley and Austin) but it is most certainly not Leninist. In a Leninist organization like the SL, the central political leadership is chosen by the membership as a whole irrespective of what local they come from, on the basis of political positions. Attempts to make VO’s system more workable in practice (for example, by having a second CC-level person from a cell choose to attend CC meetings as an observer, or juggling the membership in the cells to be sure that there is somebody qualified in each one–and who would get to gerrymander the cells in this way anyway?) may rectify individual inequities but are in principle not enough to reconcile this structure with Leninist principles of organization. Such a selection of national leadership on the highest bodies of the organization is clearly incompatible with proportional representation for national minority factions. If one cell is in its majority in opposition on some question, it can of course send somebody representing its particular views to the CC. But what if a minority view is spread across several cells, without a majority in any? The selection of a leadership geographically, rather than on the sole basis of political views, does a fundamental injustice to the right of factional democracy in a Leninist organization. The right to factions is key in the Leninist method of determining the line of the organization. While it is quite likely that minority elements are given some leeway in the VO organization–we have no knowledge of VO’s provisions for internal discussion–and may well be positively encouraged by the leadership, VO’s structure means that any representation of minority views necessarily has the character of a privilege, not a right. To be permitted–if they are permitted–to discuss differences internally is not enough; part of the Leninist concept of internal discussion is the right to stand for election on the basis of views, have representation proportional to the strength of those views in the entire organization, and seek to become a majority and determine the line of the organization. Minority views should not simply be aired as criticisms; there must be a mechanism for their competing with the majority line, which means ultimately the right to elect leaders embodying the line.
A further aspect of the selection of the political leadership is even stranger. Three particular leading VO’ers are automatically put on the CC-type body, without standing for election by the membership in the cells or otherwise. While we have no evidence to indicate that the co-option of these particular leading comrades is anything but in accord with what would be the result if these designated leaders stood for election on the same basis as the others, it is certainly clear that such a provision leaves the door open to bureaucratic abuse of the worst sort. At best this feature is a kind of benevolent despotism, even if it is never abused.
Contact Work and Education
Other features of VO’s organizational practice are quite good. These features are not so much structural as practical, although there are theories behind the emphasis they are given. Undoubtedly the most touted of these practices has been VO’s systematic contact work. Another is the heavy emphasis on internal Marxist education of members. I would hope it is clear that the SL is strongly in favor of both these practices. Energetic pursuit of contacts and an attempt to make high Trotskyists of all members are mainly just common sense. The New York local has adopted a motion in favor of energetic and sustained contact with contacts, and has put Comrade Ellens in charge of this aspect of functioning. The local has also nominated Ellens for local organizer on two occasions in order to assist her in putting into action whatever practical improvements in functioning she had learned from VO or could think up. (She has repeatedly refused to accept the post, perhaps to avoid taking responsibility for making her schemas live up to the implied promises.)
At the same time there are features of VO’s emphases on systematic contact work and internal education which are not wholly positive. In our discussions in the PB following Comrade Ellens’ presentation, some comrades felt that the extreme emphasis on individual contacting seemed to produce an excessively linear assessment of tasks. A process of individual members discussing with individual contacts can proceed almost independently of the course of development of objective situation and struggle; each member should recruit a certain number of contacts per year by individually convincing individuals. Such a conception leads to a kind of theory of stages; everybody recruits contacts until we reach a size of x members, then we move on to a different stage. (There is no room in such a conception for the possibility that under some circumstances a group might get smaller rather than ever and automatically larger.) PB comrades also feared that such an approach, if overemphasized, could lead to VO’s ignoring political struggle with competing organizations and leftward-moving sections of other groups, the possibility of splits in opponent groups on the basis of Bolshevik politics. The struggle to become the vanguard party entails not only increasing one’s own forces but also combating whatever “ostensibly revolutionary organizations” are competing for the banner of revolutionary Marxism, by exposing them and seeking to win individual members and sections of such groups to one’s own program. Otherwise, all groups might grow by linear contacting, with little progress being made toward political clarification and the crystallization of a vanguard party.
Regarding internal Marxist education and a disdain for coffee-klatch, cafe-society politicking, this indicates first of all VO’s concern with being serious. But VO’s method of putting this desire into practice can be criticized. One of the features considered by VO, according to Comrade Ellens, as integral to this approach is the organizing of people according to their levels of commitment. The resulting division into full and candidate member cells has something of a hierarchical character. In the candidate member cells, each of which contains one full member assigned to it, a kind of student-to-teacher relationship could develop; instead of all members being considered as equals, the newer members would be second-class citizens. Great stress is put by Comrade Ellens on the advantages this type of organization offers for education and re-shaping the minds of new members in an anti-petty-bourgeois direction. However, such a concept of education is a very formalistic one. With the exception of the monthly political meetings and the contact with the one assigned full member, the candidate members are isolated from working contact with the real cadres of the organization on the living political questions. In addition, the Leninist concept of education is that the most important way in which comrades are educated is through internal factional struggle. Purely on educational grounds, then, the lack of this basic Leninist practice renders the VO concept of education purely formal in character. Education means to a Leninist far more than the study of texts.
Organization Tied to Politics
The function of organizational structure and methods is to safeguard against bureaucratic abuse and political stultification. While the leading cadre of VO may well lean over backwards to prevent these faults, whatever internal democracy exists in VO exists in spite of and not because of VO’s much-touted organizational procedures. We want our members to have rights, not to be constantly granted privileges by a benevolent and paternalistic leadership.
Thus we have severe criticisms of VO’s organizational practices. Before going on to examine VO’s intimately related theoretical positions on organizational and political questions, we would like to establish that they are extremely relevant to the present dispute within the SL. No doubt the Minority would like to disclaim responsibility for VO’s positions, pointing out that they have never tried to defend all of VO’s views. In fact, our Minority would probably like to avoid defending any of them. Our Minority would like to stand entirely on the basis of VO’s functioning. And certainly, if one seeks only to demonstrate that VO is a more effective organization than the SL (i.e., visits more contacts, holds more classes, has more union fractions, has a better publication schedule) then one need not defend VO’s theories. But, as shown above, to show that an organization twelve times the size of another is more effective is not very startling, and cannot exhaust the relevance of the VO example in the eyes of the Minority. In having made VO a factional point, Comrade Ellens has made it incumbent upon her faction to show 1) that the SL’s weaknesses relative to VO are a result of the SL’s political line and/or its organizational practices, and 2) that the Minority’s program and proposals have the answer. So far, with the exception of the question of energetic contact work (which suggestion has been widely accepted by the organization and the leadership), no other specifics of VO’s practices have been frankly suggested for the SL out of the totality of the VO example. Yet this cannot possibly exhaust the criticisms of Comrade Ellens or explain why she felt it necessary to make an extended report on VO’s functioning as part of the time allotted her in the Bay Area for a factional presentation. It is hardly necessary to form a faction in order to argue for systematic contact work. What Ellens seeks to capitalize on through raising the issue of VO is the non-success of the SL over the past year or so, during which time membership size has been about constant. The Minority attempts to lay these difficulties at the door of 1) our allegedly non-proletarian orientation and, 2) our allegedly non-Leninist mode of functioning. Both Ellens and Turner have submitted documents dealing with the first point; VO has been offered as the model of what we should be if not for the second. But to select a few gimmicks (e.g., systematic contacting) out of one’s model is not enough. Since VO is irrelevant as a quantitative measure of the SL (i.e., efficiency in functioning), the Minority must mean VO to be a qualitative measure–i.e., relevant for its principles of organization, its politics, since the question of who has the right line is always relevant to any organization no matter what its size. The theories and practices of VO form an integrated whole, and the Minority must take responsibility for the organizational and political theories of VO, not simply seek to take credit for its efficiency and its practical features.
Theory Behind Organizational Emphasis
Underlying VO’s emphasis on organizational methods is the proposition,. with which we heartily concur, that organizational questions are not separate from politics and that organizational theories are themselves political questions. According to Ellens, the concern with organizational questions began during and after the second World War, when the individuals who were to form VO reacted against the increasing social-patriotism of the formerly-Trotskyist organizations in France. VO’s founders sought to determine what practices and concepts of functioning had facilitated the deterioration into revisionism. From Ellens’ representation to the PB of 30 January 1968: “They decided that the policies taken by the other groups had come about in the absence of contact with working-class areas, as a way of meeting widespread petty-bourgeois sentiment. They wanted to avoid themselves coming under such strong petty-bourgeois influences. They saw that groups could change their policies very easily under pressure and concluded that this was a function of a lack of basic education and training and an attitude toward being a lifetime Trotskyist revolutionary….” Ellens’ presentation to the PB of 6 May also dealt with this point and stressed VO’s determination to avoid functioning like an unserious, dilettantish discussion group. Ellens’ organization report of 8 April deals with the necessity of rooting out petty-bourgeois hang-ups, proletarianization of the organization and of the minds of petty-bourgeois recruits and deepening seriousness and commitment. Through its internal education and organizational methods, VO, according to Ellens, is frankly trying to prevent the seeds of political degeneration from springing up in their organization.
At the London Conference of the IC in April 1966, the VO comrades submitted several documents dealing with the question of Pabloism and the Fourth International. Their view was that this revisionism stemmed primarily from the petty-bourgeois composition of the Trotskyist movement. To quote from their documents:
“…the the failure of the Fourth International was due to the refusal of its militants and of its leaders …to admit that the social composition of the sections in majority petty-bourgeois, intellectuals, necessitated strict political and organization measures to keep out corrupt elements, and, as far as possible, to escape from the influence of petty-bourgeois ideology by making a maximum effort to recruit within the working-class, and by obliging elements of petty-bourgeois origin to tie themselves to work in the factories…. Pabloism, in the form of liquidationism, was but the finished expression of this petty-bourgeois opportunism of all the sections of the International…. Pabloism was not the cause of the failure and the demise of the Fourth International; it was its product.”
“Our organization was born precisely of the necessity to separate physically from the petty-bourgeois environment with its Social-Democratic practices which made up the Trotskyist organizations in France at the beginning of the war, to be able to recruit, educate and form cadres capable of putting into practice Leninist and Trotskyist organizational principles and which were not content with ‘Bolshevik’ verbiage covering up opportunist practice. It is because we ran up against the sarcasm and incomprehension of the militants of the Fourth International with respect to these questions that we had to carry on an activity separate from the Fourth International, although we have always upheld its ideas and its program.”
Another document makes it clear that “petty-bourgeois ideology” is defined by VO by the class composition of those who hold the ideas; in another document they speak about seeing “the Pabloite degeneration as an elaborated form of the ideology of certain strata of the petty-bourgeoisie influenced by the apparatus of imperialism and of the bureaucracy” (our emphasis). In our opinion, Pabloism is a petty-bourgeois ideology because it denigrates the idea of a proletarian class party and a proletarian revolution in favor of revolutions made by petty-bourgeois or bureaucratic strata in the interests of a class other than the proletariat–e.g., Negroes as a multi-class nationality, peasants in Latin America, a petty-bourgeois bureaucratic elite. On the question of the roots of Pabloism, see Spartacist No. 6, the statement of the SL delegation to the IC conference. While one may argue with merit that the lack of deep roots within the working class is a built-in source of weakness and can in changing circumstances reinforce and even produce deep disorientation and a tendency to shift the axis of the party away from a revolutionary line, should one then conclude that a super-proletarian orientation is a safeguard against political error and revisionism? A number of questions are raised: Should one expel one’s members of petty-bourgeois origins? This would undoubtedly reduce the size and effectiveness of the organization, but surely it is preferable to have a small organization with the right line than a large group which is necessarily centrist. How completely can one revamp the consciousness of one’s petty-bourgeois members by formal Marxist education? Or, alternately, are one’s members of petty-bourgeois origins still petty-bourgeois despite having chosen to become “class traitors” in favor of the cause of the proletariat? What of Lenin’s concept of declassed professional revolutionaries? With such an analysis, how does one explain the conservative tendencies that have developed in the Russian Bolshevik party, or the CPUSA, or the SWP, among the party’s trade unionists? (Regarding the latter, see Cannon’s article on the Cochran group, “Trade Unionists and Revolutionists,” Fourth International magazine, Spring 1954.) Or, on the most serious note, what do you do in.an objective situation (which includes your size, composition and roots) in which you are not likely to have great success in reaching and recruiting workers? .
The Politics of VO
Continuing with the correct proposition that politics and organization are intimately related, we come to the political positions of VO. Let us note first of all that we are dealing here with the positions of difference between VO and the SL, which is to say, in our terms, with their wrong positions; we must continue to keep in mind that many of VO’s positions are correct. The Minority, ignoring the intimate connection between organizational and political questions, has chosen repeatedly not to deal with VO’s political differences with the SL. They have not chosen to defend VO’s positions; neither have they put themselves on record as being opposed to them. In fairness to the Minority, this should be taken to constitute not necessarily agreement on VO’s politics, but rather an elaborate non-concern over political questions. Yet we must assume that VO itself, unlike the Minority, would agree that political questions are important in evaluating an organization. And perhaps this document will at least cause our Minority to tell us where they stand on VO’s political differences with the SL.
In general, VO’s emphasis on class composition is indicative of its semi-syndicalist deviation from Trotskyism. In a letter to a comrade in Europe on 20 January 1967 I characterized VO as having “an excessive concentration on ‘the point of production”‘ and as having “semi-syndicalist tendencies.” This leads them to a de-emphasis of the importance of Marxist theory and the consequent over-emphasis on organization. It is not an accident that in the “Outline of Study-Week Session” reproduced in the Ellens document, of the 13 numbered points 11 of them, in her words, “elaborate points on organizational methods.” VO seems to feel that it is defined primarily as a tendency by its organizational theories rather than by its politics; and in the sections quoted above from the documents presented to the IC conference VO frankly defines its modes of functioning as the basis for its separate existence.
VO’s semi-syndicalist deviation from Trotskyism (which is not to say that VO has a semi-syndicalist perspective or that it is not Trotskyist) is the main methodological point which produces both VO’s political strengths and its political weaknesses. In its domestic line, VO was the only left-of-Stalinism organization with a significant base in the working class, but was limited in its influence in the radical student movement. Unlike the SWP’s orientation exclusively to the petty bourgeoisie, excessive concentration in the working class cannot be defined as a political sellout, but may well be a tactical error. When elevated to the level of a theory, it is a theoretical one.
In its international line, VO does very well indeed whenever the working class is a real factor in the situation; VO’s line on, for example, the Chinese “Cultural Revolution” made its primary insistence, correctly, on the need for the working class to act as a class in its own interests and the need for a Trotskyist vanguard party. Unlike the Healyites, Pabloites, Posadasites and their ilk, VO knew that the Shanghai general strike was important, that the working class is not a fascist class, that the Cultural Revolution is directed against the workers. They were not about to give any quarter to the enemies of the Chinese working class.
Yet in situations in which the ascension of the working class to power does not seem to be an immediate possibility, VO is disoriented. Their strong proletarian class instinct (the positive aspect of their emphasis on working-class composition and work in the mass movement) is not a sufficient substitute for consistent Marxist theoretical analysis in such cases. On a whole series of issues involving what seem to them to be national questions or sections of the population other than the working class (U.S. Negroes, Latin American peasants, petty-bourgeois guerrilla movements, the Viet Cong) VO’s line and essential methodology is not qualitatively different from that of the Pabloists.
VO on the U.S. Negro Question
Regarding the Negro Question, Class Struggle/Lutte de Classe of October 1967 (No. 8) stated: “If a Trotskyist organization appears within the black population this could, through a quirk of history, and our epoch abounds in such quirks, bring down the international citadel of capitalism through a class struggle in which the national and racial factor is predominant at the beginning.” VO here sees the Negro Question as a legitimate national question, although they nonetheless view the national question as ultimately secondary to the class question. Further, we have here the possibility that the black movement, or, by implication, any movement, can spontaneously generate a Trotskyist leaderhsip. In methodology, this is not different from the Pabloists’ abdication.
To quote further, “The white population can learn to forget its racism, half through solidarity with people who know how to defend themselves and half through fear.” Of the two criteria here, the first is sensible—i.e., respect. The concept of the white population’s increasing fear having any progressive, anti-racist aspect is wishful thinking and is dangerously wrong. White working-class racism can only be eroded by the opposite of fear, the realization of common interests with the black workers. Race fear, on the contrary, has only reactionary effects. In Algeria, the increasing predominance of the race-nationality question ended by the total eclipse of the class question and caused the total demise of the communist movement which had previously had strong holdings among the white workers in Algeria. The classic response of the racial or national grouping which is “on top” in the society to fear of the other race is a massacre. A fear reaction can only strengthen a reactionary solution. It is the recognition of common class interests which alone can heighten the tempo and intensity of class struggles and increasing consciousness on the part of the whites.
VO goes on, “The oppressed must build their own power to free themselves.” The lesson drawn by us here is an anti-nationalist one, the fight against lumpenization of the ghetto masses. To the extent that the Negroes have no economic power through unions and the possibility of strikes, etc., they become increasingly vulnerable to a fascist solution, in the worst case, of concentration camps, deportation, extermination. VO continues, “The most radical among the present leaders of the black movement [i.e., H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael] have already progressed a great deal. Will they, in the course of the struggle, come to a socialist consciousness, a clear vision of the antagonistic classes…? One cannot say.” Again the possibility of spontaneous development of socialist consciousness without the intervention of the Trotskyists is raised. Continuing, “The first necessary step is to create a black revolutionary organization, strictly independent on a national basis on all levels from American organizations including whites. It is not a matter of creating a mass organization. It is a matter of creating a Trotskyist revolutionary party, an authentic organization of the struggle of American blacks, since the black population has the highest level of consciousness.” This is a frank statement of a dual vanguardist position.
Examining VO’s conclusions, we find: “If the Trotskyists are incapable of taking the head of the black movement, as it is now constituted, and in a manner appropriate to the movement, they have only several years, if not several months, left before they can do nothing but support Carmichael and Brown unconditionally, attributing to them an unconscious and transcendent socialism in order to appease their own conscience. At the present time, the actions of Brown and Carmichael must be physically supported, while their limits must be pointed out unhesitantly.” Thus, to the extent that the present leaders are not supplanted, they must be supported. Having nothing to offer as transitional demands, with the exception of the question of self-defense, it is hard to see how VO could avoid this position which is essentially liquidationist and capitulatory to Black Nationalism. An active VO’er, informed on American conditions, with whom we discussed, agreed with our criticisms of this line and said that it flowed simply from lack of knowledge of the U.S. situation. Yet this issue is not the only example of .such disorientation.
VO took a position of support to the Arab side in the Arab-Israeli conflict. To be sure, their line was less obnoxious and more honest than that of the Pabloists; VO denied that there was any such animal as the “Arab Revolution.” Yet VO’s position, while more honest and therefore less consistent, shows again the inability to respond in a correct manner in a situation where the class question seems immediately less prominent than some other question, i.e., the national question. It is worth noting here that at that time Comrade Ellens held the VO position on this question. Despite the PB having raised political criticisms of this and other political positions of VO at two times (PB meetings of 30 January and 6 May), Comrade Ellens is evidently so little interested in VO’s politics that there has been no way to tell whether she still holds her former position on this question; she has never bothered to say.
VO on the Soviet Bloc
As VO would no doubt be quick to say, the Russian Question is paramount for Trotskyists. And on this question, VO has shown itself unable to develop and apply Trotskyist theory to the East European Soviet bloc countries, China and Cuba. As all comrades should already be aware, VO recognizes the Soviet Union as a deformed or degenerated workers state and China, Cuba and the East European Soviet bloc countries as capitalist. (From the logic of their analysis, they should not recognize the Soviet Union as a deformed workers state either.) The methodology here is again that of the Pabloists, with the important difference that VO chooses to take essentially a revolutionary state capitalist position while the Pabloist position is liquidationist of the Trotskyist vanguard party and essentially a capitulation to Stalinism regarding political revolution.
The underlying methodology of the VO position is made clear in VO’s comradely and serious critique of the SL’s Guerrilla Warfare Theses (Spartacist No. 11) which appeared in Class Struggle No. 15, May 1968. This critique is mainly concerned with the question of Cuba. VO shares with the Healyite IC the view that Cuba is a capitalist state, and for much of the same reasons. The view seems to be that if we grant that Cuba is a deformed workers state, there is no more reason for a Trotskyist party; if the petty bourgeoisie can ever be forced to break with the capitalist economic system and establish what is viewed as a deformed kind of socialism, Trotskyists can have no perspective except to become a left pressure group seeking to push the Stalinists to the left. A few quotations will make their position clear.
“In the last analysis, such a state will be a workers’ state only if the working class seizes power and builds its own state apparatus. And this holds true whatever the extent of the economic reforms carried out” (page 13). “And to consider that this state interference has the slightest ‘workers’ or ‘socialist’ character leads directly to abandoning the proletariat in favor of other social groups supposed able to play the same historical role. Indeed, this conception leads to openly admitting that bourgeois organizations (or petty-bourgeois organizations) can, by leaning on certain petty-bourgeois and in any case non-proletarian social layers, create workers’ states, even deformed ones, and lay the bases for significant economic progress in the underdeveloped countries. This is the very negation of the Communist Manifesto. It is also the negation of the reasoning which led Trotsky to characterize the USSR as a ‘deformed workers’ state’ because of the particular and decisive role played by the proletariat in its creation” (page 14).
It is clear that a kind of healthy attitude leads VO to this analysis: they fear that to grant Cuba (and by implication East Europe or any place where the workers never took power) a characterization of “deformed workers state” will cause them to sell out. And they don’t want to sell out. This is admirable. However, this position also leads them to deny reality. The East European states, and Cuba, and China, are identical in qualitative terms to what now exists in the Soviet Union as a result of its degeneration. The power of theory and a dynamic and creative approach to a changing world is that it is not necessary to falsify history in order to reach a revolutionary conclusion.
The basis of VO’s theoretical incapacity over these questions is a too close identification between a “workers state” and a “deformed workers state.” It is this error which leads the Pabloists to liquidationism: if the Stalinists or the petty bourgeoisie can ever, under the pressure of one of the two contradictory forces operating on them, actually create something which is “pretty good,” then what role is there for the Fourth International? What the VO comrades forget here is that in order for the Soviet Union to go from being a workers state, however seriously threatened and in crisis, to a deformed workers state, it required a political counterrevolution and the physical extermination of the old Bolshevik party. VO and the Pabloists see only a quantitative difference between the victorious Russian workers state and the product of its degeneration.
The Spartacist analysis has two virtues: it leads us to a revolutionary conclusion, and it is correct. We concur wholeheartedly that “such a state will be a workers state only if the working class seizes power and builds its own state apparatus.” But the VO comrades apply this same criterion to a deformed workers state. Is this criterion true now for the USSR? Certainly not. Yet VO considers it a deformed workers state. Their only reason must be that in the USSR the working class once did hold political power. This can be only a sentimental reason for characterizing the Soviet Union as a deformed workers state. Further, to hold that such a state does not have the slightest “workers” or “socialist” character is over-simplistic, and denies the fundamental contradiction facing the bureaucracies: that they are both the enemies of the working class in their own countries and internationally and at the same time rest on top of a state in which the economic system and the formal ideology constantly pose the issue of workers control. The renunciation of the recognition of this fundamental contradiction has been the basis for all third camp theories–Shachtman’s bureaucratic collectivism and J.R. Johnson’s or Tony Cliff’s state capitalism. Finally, VO’s semi-syndicalism leads them to write off the peasantry and petty bourgeoisie (for example, in the Cuban case) as fundamentally irrelevant to Marxists. In fact, the cause of intermediate classes can at times overlap to some extent the interests of working-class revolution; in such cases we will conclude an uneasy alliance with these forces–for example, the slogan of a workers’ and peasants’ government. Where we agree with VO is that the working class must maintain hegemony over the peasants and that the vanguard party is absolutely not a two-class party, but a party of the proletariat.
Further, let us not be too bemused by the fact that VO’s analysis is at present both incorrect and episodically revolutionary. Incorrect analysis takes its toll, and we may in the future find our positions dramatically counterposed. VO would critically defend the Soviet Union against imperialist aggression. But what line would they take in a war between East and West Germany? Let us hope that VO would find some inconsistent excuse to avoid being neutral about the reintroduction of capitalism into the deformed workers states. Or, what was their line on the India-China border war? Here is a clear case in which the logic of their position must lead them to be neutral.
The “Trotskyist Family”
Another political weakness of VO has been a too-fraternal and non-combative attitude toward other formally “Trotskyist” groups. At the London Conference in 1966 we raised the criticism that VO seemed to have a conception of a “Trotskyist family” (see Spartacist No. 6), that they seemed to have the conception that all groups calling themselves “Trotskyist” were actually Trotskyist. This criticism, at least, of all the ones we have raised, has been disputed by Comrade Ellens as a question of fact. She has stated that VO only recognizes a certain responsibility to new members of “Trotskyist” groups who may have joined such groups on the basis of their formal “Trotskyism” rather than their opportunist practices. If this is the case, of course, the SL has the same view, in insisting on the necessity for a continual struggle to expose the Pabloists and others as not really Trotskyists and for clarification and polarization in groups which are the only representatives of formal “Trotskyism” in their countries and therefore may include members who would choose a revolutionary position. Yet the present rather disturbing course of VO lends some preliminary support to our criticism of their “Trotskyist family” orientation.
Re-Unification with Pabloism?
Much concern has been voiced within the SL over the unity-of-action pact signed between the Pabloists and VO, and later also signed by the Pablo Pabloites, who are insignificant in France. The text of the pact is:
“In view of the development of the present situation, which cruelly points up the absence of a revolutionary leadership, and considering that it is essential to unify the struggle carried on by the organizations claiming to be Trotskyist, representatives of the Union Communiste [VO], the Parti Communiste Internationalists [Pabloist] and the Jeunesse Communiste Revolutionnaire [Pabloist youth] met on Sunday, May 19, 1968, and decided to form a permanent coordinating committee for their three organizations. This coordinating committee now calls on all organizations claiming to be Trotskyist to join in this move. The three organizations advise their members everywhere to come together to coordinate their activity.” –Reprinted in Intercontinental Press, 3 June 1968
While initially it was not clear whether VO viewed this agreement as the beginning of a reunification of the “Trotskyist” movement, the Healyites in their denunciations and the Pabloists in their applaudings of the pact certainly view it as such. Several comrades in the PB raised the fear that VO had been disoriented by finding itself on the same side of the barricades with the Pabloists and were reacting in an over-fraternal manner to this, and perhaps also as a reaction to the inability of the leftists to bring France past the negative situation of a general strike into a positive struggle for workers’ power. It was decided after discussion in the PB and NYC local to raise in the article for Spartacist No. 12 on the French events the criticism that VO had chosen the wrong axis to capitalize on the French events and the exposure of the PCF-CGT; that the comrades should have called upon all those who stand in favor of workers’ committees and workers’ power to come together to form the needed new vanguard party of the working class–that is, for regroupment based on the Bolshevik program, not only the basis of the formal protestations of Trotskyism of the various groups, which latter axis might include some who actually stood outside the actual basis for the formation of a new revolutionary party and might exclude sections of groups who had moved left under the pressure of the events and now stood for workers’ power. Although we consider it highly unlikely that VO now wishes consciously an unprincipled unification with the Pabloists, a group such as VO which has functioned on the basis of subjective revolutionary class instinct without much theoretical capacity could well find itself in such a situation despite its intentions.
Concern over this point has been strengthened considerably by the front-page editorial in the new Lutte Ouvriere No. 4, dated 17 July 1968, entitled “Towards the Revolutionary Party.” The article states:
“May ’68 has been a forceful demonstration of the validity of revolutionary ideas…. The future now depends on the capacity of the revolutionary movement to capitalize on this acquisition of confidence…. We have already written and repeated several times in our columns that this is only possible if the revolutionary movement is capable of surmounting its division into multiple indifferent tendencies however distrustful each is of the others…. To struggle for the fusion of the forces which, until now, have been fighting dispersed, and to surmount for that the obstacles, the misunderstandings, the dangers, this is the most imperative duty of all revolutionaries at this time. The objection which one meets most frequently among even those revolutionaries who are most sincerely desirous of seeing the far left possessing the organization strength equal to its ideas concerns the seeming incompatibility between effectiveness and the absence of centralism, the latter being understood as monolithism…. However it is not only that the unity of action doesn’t exclude the free confrontation of ideas= this is even the condition for action to stand on a sane base. The bolshevik party…has known in the course of its history numerous tendencies and sometimes even factions. Its militants have by all means the right and even the duty to publicly defend their own ideas even when [the ideas] are in contradiction with the official positions of the Party. (?)… Also it is not a question of hiding that the political differences which separate the revolutionary tendencies are important and sometimes grave… It is the experiencing of action and experience (of the facts) which will be charged with selecting the ideas. But in order for that to bet it is necessary that the revolutionary movement have a stake in the events and that will not really be the case unless they are united. What seems the most difficult [problem] to surmount is that the differences are not only political, but concern,even the conception of the Party. But even that is up to experience to determine, for if the different revolutionary currents wait, before uniting themselves, to convince one another only by the discussion, they can wait a long time. Events, by contrast, do not wait. Certainly the unification of the existing revolutionary forces will not give [us] ipso facto a party capable of leading the struggle of the proletariat to victory. Such a party will be forged through long years of struggle…. Unification is not an end, it is a beginning…. Revolutionary militants that are separated by important differences learned to struggle together in the factories, in the neighborhoods, in the different committees, and to make a common front against their common enemies. They discover, through the daily combat that they lead together that, although what separates them is sometimes very important, what unites them is fundamental” (our emphasis).
This seems to be a call for a unification among the ostensibly revolutionary organizations. Parenthetically, one might note that the most serious difficulty is conceived to be differing concepts of the party, i.e., of organizational questions, rather than political differences. No demands are raised as to the basis of such a unification–unification on the basis of what political program, workers power? formal Trotskyism? being left of CP?–except that all the revolutionary organizations (in this conception, there seem to be lots of them) should unite in order to make their combined force strong enough to influence the events. From having called for all Trotskyist organizations to get together on no particular basis except an implied opposition to the CP’s reformism (in the original unity-of-action pact), there is now a move to call for all “revolutionary” groups to get together on no basis whatsoever. Judging from VO’s past history of principled (and perhaps too standoffish) behavior towards other groups, we find it likely that Trotskyists will pull back from the present course before such a unification, or at least find itself compelled after such a unification to split out and reaffirm a program which is to be found nowhere in this editorial and a commitment to Trotskyism which is to be found nowhere in this publication.
What is pervasive to VO’s political errors is the syndicalist-related feeling (and resulting practice) that the working class is immune from anti-revolutionary deviations and a kind of narrow “workerism” which leaves them without a revolutionary line towards other struggles (U.S. Negroes, the Arab peasant masses) and without any axis towards social transformations in which the working class has been largely absent (East Europe, Cuba). This “workerism” is a current in the Bolshevik movement which has been fought since the Leninist amplification of Marxism, e.g., in “What is to be Done?”, written by Lenin in 1902. The working class is our class because it is the only class capable of decisively smashing the capitalist system and laying the basis for social progress in our epoch. The working class is not, however, a magic talisman to ward off evil and bring automatic success to the socialist movement.
The Minority and VO
As pointed out above, the Minority as a faction has not embraced the Ellens VO document as they have the Turner document. At the same time it is clear that VO is being used by Comrade Ellens as an at least informal recruiting device and an implicit comparison with the SL. Yet, Ellens has steadfastly refused to deal with VO in a serious and political way. She has sought to sell VO’s successes as a plank in the Minority’s program for the SL, but only covertly. She has created the image (perhaps somewhat idealized) of VO as an eminently serious (which it is) and efficient organization through propagandizing VO’s gimmicks–systematic contacting, orderly meetings, internal Marxist educational programs, proletarianizing the psyches of petty-bourgeois members–while only tacitly accepting VO’s essential and theoretical organizational precepts and ignoring VO’s politics. We are tacitly promised that we can be “as good” as VO if we will support the Minority, but since neither the organizational philosophy nor the politics is frankly pushed, her assurances can mean only that an organization of our size can be as effective as one twelve times larger through the institution of systematic contacting and the like. Ellens has sought to concentrate on the gimmicks of VO and ignore the basic questions. Further, the strengths of VO are certainly not employed and embodied by the Minority–any VO’er worth his salt would be horrified with the proposition that the situation for the SL in the New York hospital workers’ union was essentially unchanged by the departure of both party members in the union. If there is one thing which epitomizes VO’s strength it is the desire to be involved in real struggle, to have a caucus-building perspective in unions, to be above all serious and responsible in its work in the mass movement. Finally, there is no indication that a VO’er in the SL would concentrate so exclusively on the techniques of organization; in short, VO is not as non-political as our Minority.
The Spartacist League has very grave weaknesses–in its functioning, its resources, its human material. And it has a strength–its uniquely correct political line. It is the particular political ideas of the SL which justify its existence as a separate organization. Let us not be so eager, as is the Minority, to sell our strength down the river in exchange for phantom schemes and implied promises which cannot solve our problems. Those who support the Minority are headed for a political destination which they perhaps do not know yet, but which is liquidation of Trotskyism.
–6 August 1968