SL Over the Brink -- Trotskyists Out Now!
The Road to JimstownIn 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) asthe "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 transformationof 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, theSpartacist League was doing its best to wreck an 11-day boycott of South African cargo-the mostimportant political strike by any section of the American proletariat in decades (see articleselsewhere in this issue.) These two events came as the culmination of a long series of politicaldepartures 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'sbreak 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 thepast half-dozen years has been spent methodically grinding up the organization's cadres-gettingrid of many and attempting to morally break those who remain. The few trade-union fractionswhich ever acquired any roots have been largely dismantled in the process. The product of thisinternal 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 littleenthusiasm -- from the cadre.
The peculiar emphasis of much of the "Red Avengers" material on clitorectornies, 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 hiswife left him for a young "Trotskyist" in England, Marcus devoted most of an issue of histheoretical magazine to considering the impotence of Trotskyism.) The SL today is not so fargone 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 feministopponents 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 workingclass and its socially marginal character, the left in America has historically been subject toidiosyncratic manifestations of various sorts. The SL is not the first, nor for a left which spawnedTim 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 ofthe left-wing opposition to the political destruction by Pabloite revisionism of the revolutionarySocialist Workers Party (SWP)-a party built by James P. Cannon and trained by Leon Trotsky tocarry forward Bolshevism amid the destruction of the Communist International by the syphilis ofStalinism. Even before it was expelled from the SWP, the Revolutionary Tendency (RT), theSL'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. Amajority of the group, led by James Robertson, refused to do so. They broke from almost halftheir tendency at the cost of substantially reducing their chances of winning over a section of theSWP cadre because telling the truth was more important. It was an honorable beginning.
For two decades the Spartacist League defended the essential Programmatic positions ofLeninism -- often in isolation. On many occasions, the "Sterile orthodoxy" of the SL waspowerfully vindicated by events. In the heyday of black nationalism in the U.S., the SL foughtfor a perspective of revolutionary integration. When Salvador Allende's Unidad Popular came topower in Chile in 1970, Spartacist warned that it would end in a bloodbath. More recently, theSL stood alone on the left in opposing Khomeini and his mullahs before they came to power inIran, in defending the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and in intransigent hostility to thecapitalist-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 Robertsonwas left alone at the top. The cadres who remained in the organization, particularly after thedeparture 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 agroup in which Robertson's authority and experience vastly outweighed everyone else's. UnlikeTrotsky 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 werealso seeds of a great many other potential developments. The disintegration of the New Left inthe early 1970s opened up a period of explosive growth, both qualitative and quantitative, for theSL. In three years the organization tripled in size. Many of those who joined in this period werepeople with substantial prior political experience. The Communist Working Collective of LosAngeles, 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 asthe "transformation" of the SL. The previously loose membership norms were tightened up; thefunctioning of the national center was professionalized; and most importantly perhaps, the SLbegan a systematic intervention into the proletariat. There was considerable political openness inthe group in those days and, while there were no factional lineups, there were instructive debateson a variety of questions, some of which found their way into the internal bulletins. In thisperiod the Robertson regime was manifestly pushing the work of the group forward, winningdozens of new cadres to Trotskyism and was essentially correct programmatically on all thedecisive questions which it confronted.
The centralization of the Spartacist League initially represented a significant step forward fromthe organizational amorphousness of the 1960s. It enabled the SL to become an effective fightingpropaganda group and a real factor in the American left for the first time. Massive membershiptransfers, at first occasioned by the organization's industrial turn, also provided an opportunityfor the central leadership to shape and control the composition of each local. Particular care wastaken in putting together the local leaderships. In and of itself, this procedure was notbureaucratic -- it was part of the leadership's mandate for setting up new locals. However, itestablished a precedent which quickly became a norm. Key figures in locals were regularlytransferred, 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 atrophiedconsiderably through the 1970s. At the height of the transformation, in the two years precedingthe departure of the Cunningham grouping in 1972, the political bureau (PB-the body which issupposed to constitute the day-to-day political leadership of the group) met 39 times, or onceevery two and a half weeks. Ten years later, over the same period of time, it met on the averageonly once every two months. Leaving aside the contents of the meetings, which in themselvesreflect the depoliticization of the internal life of the SL, this signifies that the function of the SL'selected leadership is simply to ratify the decisions of the real leadership-Robertson and whoeverhe chooses to "consult."
Tightening the Screws
In the mid-1970s, while things were slowing down domestically, the SL began to invest a lot ofresources, both human and material, in building toeholds internationally. By 1978 there werepotentially viable groups with some real accumulation of cadres in Britain, Germany, and to alesser extent, in France. The French were handicapped by the existence of sizable ostensibleTrotskyist centrist competitors, but the German and especially the British groups seemed to haverather large opportunities on the horizon.
However, back in the U.S., things were pretty stagnant. The membership was contracting andthere were no prospects of big breakthroughs by the trade-union fractions. In an article on anational gathering of SL trade unionists, WV reported that "Speaking at the opening plenarysession, SL National Chairman James Robertson frankly addressed the 'crisis of expectations' ofthis layer of comrades, idealistic formerly young people shaped centrally by the radicalization ofthe Vietnam war era, whose experience in politics conveyed no gut-level awareness of the ebbsand flows of class struggle."
"The 'crisis of expectations' had tended to weigh most heavily on the SL's most vulnerable andsubmerged elements, our trade unionists.
Workers Vanguard No. 144, 11 February 1977
A companion piece noted that: "the SL's practice of recruitment on a sound political basis andsetting realistic organizational goals has enabled it to survive the present period without a majorfaction fight, split, or hemorrhaging of the cadre." But this was clearly what was worrying theleadership-they believed that the SL possessed all the essential ingredients for a factionaleruption 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, TimWohlforth described democratic centralism a la Healy:
"Open discussion and political struggle was discouraged by Comrade Healy's tendency to pushevery discussion to the most extreme point and to seek to break the person who disagreed withComrade Healy.
The Workers League and the International Committee
This is roughly how things worked in the SL as well, on those rare occasions when someonewould venture to disagree with comrade Robertson. For example, in early 1978, SL PoliticalBureau member Liz Gordon suggested in a WV editorial board meeting that a draft article whichRobertson had co-authored was perhaps a bit "unbalanced" on the woman question. She also hadthe temerity to request that Robertson not interrupt her while she was speaking (a practice whichdenotes pecking order in the SL-Robertson routinely interrupts everyone and no one interruptshim). 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 theroom. This was followed by threats of a split-i.e., a purge of his critics. At a subsequentInternational 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 otherswho 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 youthpaper. Six months after the WV blowup, Robertson launched a purge of the young male writersof YSp (dubbed "clones") whom he perceived as a potential base for someone's factionsomewhere down the line. The clone purge began the "second transformation" of the SL. Inmany ways nothing had changed -- the group had been more or less run by Jim's fiat for years. Yetthis abusive and destructive purge did represent something new. For one thing, the leadershipopenly admitted it was "subpolitical." More importantly, the clone hunt was deliberatelyintended to destroy and drive out an entire layer of talented young cadres. This was a significantnew development. Before long, the treatment dished out to the "clones" was used on otherelements of the cadre. Initially those hardest hit were the trade unionists. The commondenominator of those who got the chop was that they were thought capable of becomingoppositionists at some future date.
The ranks were suddenly found to be full of "shits," "pigs ... male chauvinists" and "sexualmanipulators." "Proof" for these accusations was manufactured by going around the membershipand collecting bits of conversations, casual remarks, or even impressions of people'sattitudes-anything which could be cobbled together into some kind of "case" against thedesignated targets. When no "evidence" was discovered, it was invented. Usually the leadershipmanaged 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 hispledge and then tried in absentia, was it necessary to manufacture formal charges as a pretext forexpulsion.
WV's coverage of the concurrent purging and bloodletting in Jack Barnes's Socialist WorkersParty had all the freshness and immediacy that comes with intimate familiarity with the subjectmatter. One wag observed that the articles had the quality of a message in a fortune cookiereading: "Help, I'm trapped in a Chinese cookie factory." Many former SLers were struck by howclosely 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 guardprovides 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 simplyhave 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."
Workers Vanguard, No. 353, 27 April 1984
This same article criticizes Barnes for the "selective 'reregistration' " of the SWP membership in1983. It doesn't mention that the SL has used similar procedures in its own internal purges. Thedifference is that Barnes is more straightforward. In the SL, reregistration occurs under the guiseof setting up a pro-party faction; those who aren't allowed to join are driven out of theorganization, 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-thenightmarish internal meetings had long been a feature of life in the group. What was differentwas their intent and, consequently, the voltage. For the first time the "fights" were aimed atpolitically eliminating the cadres targeted, not just bringing them to heel. Thus the SL, whichhad 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 toJimstown.
Cannon once remarked that if you get a few people in a room for long enough, they can talkthemselves into practically anything. That observation increasingly guided the leadership as theSL'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 knownas "criticism/ selfcriticism."
Here's how it works in the SL. A meeting is called where the designated comrade is called toaccount for mistakes which he allegedly committed. Each item on the bill of particulars isgrossly exaggerated and extrapolated; perfidious motivations (political and/or personal) areattributed. Incidental personal criticisms of the individual's mannerisms, lifestyle or demeanorare thrown in for good measure. Those leading the attack typically do a good deal of histrionicscreaming and posturing in order to create the proper emotionally-charged atmosphere. Theassembled membership is expected to provide the chorus: repeating and embellishing on theaccusations. (A reluctance to participate is punishable by being made the next point on theagenda.) Attempts by the accused to agree with the substance of the charges are initiallydismissed as disingenuous and insincere, unless the hapless "star" of the proceedings is preparedto exceed all the others in vilifying himself. There is no beating the rap. If you can prove thatsome 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." Insome cases, the refusal of individuals involved to "come clean with the party" (i.e, confess to thecharges) is itself taken as evidence of an anti-leadership attitude. After all, if you don't agreewith 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 exercisegives up and hands in his resignation or confesses in what is deemed a suitably abject andcontrite manner. Breaking down and crying is usually taken as evidence of sincerity, especiallyin men. The "fight" is then concluded with the unanimous passage of some harshlycondemnatory motion. Anyone fortunate enough to be deemed worthy of one last chance canexpect 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 andpolitical 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 choiceposed: to crawl or to leave the group (known as opting for a "biological existence") is only adifficult one for those who take the politics seriously.
These practices create enormous pressures within the organization. They have provedremarkably effective in shaping and molding (i.e., atomizing and intimidating) the SLmembership. This in turn promotes among many a desire to ingratiate themselves with theleadership, a constant need to be assured that they are "doing well" and an acute sensitivity tosubtle 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 toAmerica, 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 andgetting one to testify against the other. Conversely, those who refuse to split up with soon-to-beex-comrades know that they will not long survive them in the organization. In one case, awoman who turned on her mate at the party's suggestion won a gold chervonets. (Thechervonets, or "golden dog biscuit," is the SL equivalent of the Order of Stalin. It is awarded byRobertson 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 "geteven" for petty grievances (real or imagined) against the victims. Some joined in with a mixedsense of fear and excitement, glad not to be on the receiving end and anxious to demonstratetheir regime-loyalty. The most debased elements acquired new skills interpretive accusation andcavalier disregard for the truth. 'They became masters of the art of the shrill and hystericaldenunciation, and eagerly strained to be first on the round to jump on the back of each newvictim. More experienced and decent people didn't really believe much of it but kept their eye onthe "big picture" and tried not to get their hands any dirtier than necessary. They suppressed theirqualms 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 worthgoing out over.
Among the casualties of the "second transformation" was the record of honesty long maintainedby the Spartacist press. Today the poisoned internal life of the organization is reflected inWorkers Vanguard's brazen and cynical willingness to lie, just like Challenge, the Bulletin or theDaily World.
The shriekers and screamers who compose an ever-larger proportion of the SL/SYL havesimilarly learned to evaluate truth and falsehood in the light of the "party question" (i.e., "it'salright as long as we do it because we know that we're revolutionary"). Once widely regarded bythe reformist and centrist left as honest, serious and "orthodox," the SL today is perceived withequal 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 behighly political and generally possessed considerable experience as left-oppositionists in theirformer organizations. They were hardly predisposed to the commandism of the Spartacist"international." Moreover, as many of these comrades had spent years working together, theycouldn't necessarily be counted on to carry out any and every instruction from New York. Theyhad 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 centralcommittees of both the German and British groups, all the while retaining his post as NationalChairman of the SL/U.S. Eventually the jet lag proved too much, so he opted for a series ofbrutal and pseudo-political purges, which eliminated the bulk of the experienced cadres andensured 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 asingle individual. it holds congresses about as frequently as Stalin's Comintern. There is nodiscipline for the privileged leadership of the American section (which doubles as theinternational leadership), while complete obedience is demanded from all the others, down tothe most trivial organizational details.
By the late 1970s the initial enthusiasm for "building the international" had worn off and the SLadopted a new motto: "charity begins at home." The tap was turned off and the organization'sfunds were poured into a new project-"the building" which, if nothing else, represents securityfor someone in his dotage.
Robertsonism vs. Cannonism
Robertson has always made much of his claim to represent the continuity of Cannonism in thecontemporary American left. To the extent that the SL adhered to the Trotskyist program, therewas a substantial basis for such a claim. But Robertson always meant more particularly that herepresented 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 ofbending a few sticks a little too far. But his organizational techniques were not those ofRobertson and life in the SWP was a far different experience than in the SL. This is evident byeven a casual reading of the SWP internal documents and can be confirmed by talking to SWPold-timers or reading their correspondence. From the formation of the Communist League ofAmerica 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 factionsas well as a great number of political disputes within the organization which never assumedorganized form. Oehler, Goldman-Morrow, Johnson-Forest, Cochran-Clarke, Vern-Ryan, Marcyand others all felt free to make harsh and blunt criticisms of the leadership. In many cases, theydid so for years. In Cannon's party, differences were not suppressed as in the SL, but fought outpolitically. In some cases this led to splits, in others not. Cannon ran a firm but democraticregime which recognized that internal political struggle was inevitable and even necessary andwhich treated its minorities loyally' Jim Cannon could five [survive?] with a little dissent. In his party, up tothe 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 ProletarianParty that organizational differences frequently mask latent political differences, but with aconvenient 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. Thishandy formula boils down to the proposition that the organizational question is not a politicalquestion-particularly when it involves criticism of the leadership. Consequently it is anunprincipled 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 hasfunctioned as the leadership's license to abuse the membership. Cannon knew that building a realmovement meant there would inevitably be all kinds of shadings of difference. He didn't go afterthem unless they had begun to express themselves in a counterposed program. it wasn't thatCannon 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 ofcriticism in a party and then create an atmosphere of moral terrorization whereby a young orinexperienced comrade doesn't want to open his mouth for fear he will be mile a fool of, or saton, 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 byshortcircuiting the factional losses which usually result from sharp political struggle in arevolutionary organization. Resolving to avoid such losses in his operation, Robertson spent agreat deal of time -- particularly after discovering in 1972 that a whole section of the SL leadershipwas disaffected and discussing mutiny-sniffing out potential opponents and hitting them beforethey 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, butalso tend to develop a momentum of their own. Tomorrow's dissident learns from the experienceof 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 weredesigned to prevent costly splits, minimize cadre loss and safeguard the organization'sprogrammatic integrity ended up in a massive hemorrhaging of the membership.
The increasingly bureaucratic and eventually anti-political internal life of the SL (it is nowseventeen years since the last faction fight) was both the first form of its departure fromLeninism and the framework within which all of the subsequent revisionist departures havetaken place. An organization with formally correct politics run by a leadership centrallyconcerned 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 thetension between the mask and the face must inevitably express itself in programmatic revisionsfalling outside the organizational question because democratic centralism in a Leninistorganization is not a desirable option but an indispensable necessity. The Spartacist Leaguetoday, crippled by years of suppression of any and all dissident opinion, has lost the capacity tocorrect the errors of the leadership as it begins to attack the programmatic foundations of themovement.
The development of a rigid, authoritarian style of leadership in a communist organization revealsboth a fundamental lack of confidence in the membership and, ultimately, in the revolutionarypotential of the proletariat. One long-time Spartacist cadre recently wrote us: "I recall Robertsononce telling me his ideal organization consisted of a cool, flexible leadership which could maketurns and 'do deals' and a 'foam-flecked' (his words) rank and rile." This is of a piece withRobertson's aphorism that "good Catholics make good communists," i.e., they are familiar withthe doctrine of leadership infallibility.
The SL's National Chairman, who has been heard to scream "I SHOULD BE THE RULER OFTHE WORLD" while raging around the headquarters, has a somewhat lower estimate of thecapacities of his followers. At a public meeting in New York in 1978, he remarked that he wasoften inclined to think of the membership as "a big bag of shit." The ranks are encouraged tothink 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 constantlyinculcated in every SLer, and the further outside of Robertson's coterie, the more this is drivenhome.
Of course, in a historical sense, it is anomalous to have a tiny bureaucratic leftist organizationwith no necessary relation to the society within which it exists. This always provided theHealyites 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 bureaucraticpractices of the Healy/ Wohlforth regime with smug demands that we demonstrate upon whatmaterially privileged stratum the WL regime is based."
In the first (internal) polemic against the ET, SL leader Al Nelson responded to our charge ofbureaucratism in the SL as follows:
"Ours is not a bureaucratic party. Bureaucratism, in a Marxist sense, arises when new policiesand program representing alien class forces contradict the program and traditions of therevolutionary party. In order to impose such policies on the party, the leadership is compelled tosuppress party democracy, to form the line through by bureaucratic coercion, and to concentrateall power in the party apparatus."How closely Nelson's argument parallels Wohlforth's. Both insist that bureaucratic practiceswithin tiny socialist groupings must reflect some alien class force. Very neat and tidy. No roomfor the development of mini-personality cults or small group megalomania. But life is morecomplex-which is why we have the Posadases, the Healys and the Robertsons (not to mention the Marcuses).
SL Internal Discussion Bulletin No. 40, page 63
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 Healycirca 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 politicalsupport to Mao and the Red Guards..."This really isn't much of an explanation. The SLL's revisionism in 1967 hardly accounts for thenature of its regime a year earlier. Healy's 1962 demand that every member of the RT perjurehimself as a condition for remaining in the SLL's international faction is irrefutable evidence thatthere need not always be a consonance between formal program and party regime. Even withinthe iSt, the leadership has occasionally claimed to have discovered abusive and/or bureaucraticregimes which nonetheless functioned for years without overt programmatic manifestations.Bureaucratism is ultimately counterposed to the revolutionary program and must eventuallyexpress itself politically. But formal programmatic departures need not necessarily precedebureaucratic degeneration as the SL itself recognized in its contemporary comment on the 1966IC expulsion:
"the Healy-Banda machine subordinates real political issues Of agreement and disagreement tothe exigencies of organizational issues and personal prestige politics. That organizationaltendency 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 ourfounding 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 organizationwith a deep contradiction between a coherent, rational, Marxist worldview- and program and anincreasingly abusive (and irrational) internal regime. And the process through which thiscontradiction will be resolved is incomplete."
We projected a course of work to generate a political struggle within the iSt to restore theorganization to revolutionary health, and held open the Possibility that the group-or at least asignificant portion of it-would be salvageable. We were well aware that the SL was at that pointhighly bureaucratic and had many cultish features, but we also recognized that at least externallyit 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 wasignoring the PATCO picket lines, carrying the flags of the Salvadoran popular front, designatingits 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 themembership to line up with us.
Many of the SL's critics, noting the adulation of Yuri Andropov in WV, concluded that theorganization had become definitively Stalinophilic. Yet when the Soviets justifiably terminatedthe KAL 007 spy-flight in September 1983, the SL's immediate reaction was to drop theunconditional defense of the Soviet Union. Workers Vanguard proclaimed that if the Soviets hadknown that there were civilian passengers on board then "despite the potential military damageof such an apparent spying mission," shooting it down would have been "worse than a barbaricatrocity." This cowardly flinch was far closer to State Department socialism than Stalinophiliaand illustrated that in breaking with its revolutionary past, the SL had become profoundlyunstable politically. Such erratic programmatic gyrations in response to immediately perceivedinterests arc characteristic of political banditry-a peculiar and particularly cynical form ofcentrism.
WV's cowardly reaction to the demolition of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in October 1983provided another graphic demonstration of the extent of the erosion of revolutionary will at thetop of the SL/US. The reflex response of any decent socialist to the fate of the Marines inLebanon should have been "so what, they had no business being there in the first place." Insteadof siding with the victims of imperialist intervention, the SL leadership raised the social-patrioticcall to save the surviving Marines. With this it was becoming clear that what was at issue in thepolitical battle between the ET and the SL leadership was not how best to apply the Trotskyistprogram, but the program itself.
The SL responded to the political pressure from the ET with a torrent of slander and abuse. AlNelson set the tone in his internal polemic vilifying ETers as: "Liars, traitors, apologists forracism and genocide, petty bureaucrats, anti-Soviet popfrontists and wreckers." The ranks Wereinstructed to respond to us with "fanatical hatred" and individual members were encouraged tooutdo one another in mudslinging. When our critique of "Marines Alive" struck a responsivechord in a section of the membership, the SL leadership responded with an ugly provocation. Ata mass Greyhound picket in San Francisco in December 1983, several SLers loudly accused oursupporters of being "Nazi-lovers" and "scabs" in a blatant attempt to incite militants in the crowdto attack them. When that didn't work, two well-known SL supporters started elbowing one ofour people.
In an attempt to reach those members who were uncomfortable with the leadership's clearmovement away from Trotskyism, we formally applied to rejoin the iSt as a tendency. Thischallenge to the SL's fiction of a democratic internal life posed a difficult problem for Robertsonet al. They didn't want to appear politically afraid of a small group of former members and yetthey had not spent the previous five years purging any and all potential critics in order to turnaround and permit a disciplined oppositional tendency to rejoin. So they began to escalate theslander campaign with filthy insinuations that our protest of their behavior in San Francisco wasderived somehow from COINTELPRO and that we therefore had some shadowy connection tothe FBI.
The purpose of such slander in the left, whether practiced by Stalinists, Healyites orRobertsonites, is always the same-to discredit one's opponents without having to answer thempolitically It also has the effect of "locking in" those members who participate. Every timesomeone engages or violence against an opponent, he is much more closely to the degenerateleaders who ordered it. Even when people break with such an organization, most feel themselvesso deeply compromised by their own participation in such practices that they tend to leavepolitics entirely. This was always an important technique in cohering the Workers League andhistorically 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 baseremains intact. This is reflected in a press which is often full of "in-house" news about SLactivities and events, coverage of which is carried to absurd lengths. The SL has come to takegreat pride in its abstention from many of the important mobilizations by the Test of the left. In1982 they boycotted a significant anti-Nazi demonstration initiated by the black community inOroville, California. They also boycotted the massive 1983 anti-Cruise demonstrations inCanada. Last summer when a thousand protesters gathered to demonstrate against Jerry Falwelland 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 frommost 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 anecessary concomitant to running a Potemkin village. What would new recruits (who are joiningwhat they are assured is the one and only legitimate group on the left) think if the SLparticipated in joint actions with other organizations, all of which are supposed to be involved ina murky, cop-infested "Big Lie" plot against "the party"?
The "second transformation" of the SL has also involved withdrawal from the trade unions. Thisbegan 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 tothe bureaucrats). In 1983 all the SL-supported stewards in the phone union resigned their postsciting first one pretext and then another. Meanwhile the organization has pulled out of auto andhas nothing left in steel.
What union work remains is characterized by wild swings between left-posturing sectarianismand craven opportunism. The SL brazenly attempted to wreck the 11-day ILWU boycott of SouthAfrican cargo this past November in San Francisco simply because ET supporters played a keyrole in organizing it. In a page taken straight from "Healy at Liege," secondary tactical questionswere elevated to "principles" in a cynical effort to provide a "left" cover for the SL's attempts toderail the whole action.
In local elections in New York transit in 1983, it was a different story. The "leftism" was put onthe back burner as SL supporters offered a no-contest agreement to Arnold Cherry, a blackbusiness unionist who WV openly admitted was no better than the incumbent. So we had thespectacle of SL trade-union supporters doing exactly what they had always chastised theopportunist fake-left for doing-trying to hitch a ride on the coattails of a popular out-of-officebureaucrat.
Gimmicks and Maneuvers
Instead of struggling for political hegemony within the left and the union movement, the SLleadership has sought to substitute a series of maneuvers and gimmicks, each of which issupposed to result in a spectacular breakthrough in the near future. When one fails to producethe projected result, then it's on to the next, in the timehonored tradition of all fakers.
The first time the SL resorted to a "get-rich quick" scheme was in 1979 when Robertson himselfannounced the objectively unrealizable "200 recruitment" drive, launched in the wake of theclone purge. In 1981 there was another failed recruitment campaign, this one in the context ofthe "Anti-Imperialist Contingents." This time there were short-term successes but the gains werequickly frittered away.
In November 1982 the SL pulled out all the stops and mobilized several thousand black workersand youth in a successful anti-Klan demonstration in Washington D.C. This was the climax ofthree 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 continuingto rip up the trade-union fractions, the leadership announced a "turn" toward black work-at leastin the pages of WV. In practice the black turn consisted mostly of announcing the creation ofphantom front-groups (the "Labor/Black Struggle Leagues"-LBSLs) and then sitting back andwaiting for them to rill up with members. Yet even with dues set at 25 cents a month, there wereno takers for the LBSLs. The "70 percent black party" projected at the 1983 National Conferenceremains overwhelmingly white.
With the LBSLs stillborn, the leadership made a mini-turn toward strike chasing in the spring of1984. The SL membership was sent out on a summer sub-drive to find isolated union militants inoutlying areas who, it was hoped, would read a few issues of WV and then flood into the SL totake lessons on how to play "hardball." This too turned out to be a flop. Effective strike-supportwork requires a solid trade-union base. Strike chasing cannot substitute for the long and difficultstruggle 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 aprofound political demoralization at the top of the SL. Like most of the rest of his politicalgeneration, Robertson was deeply marked by the period of defeats for the left in the 1950s. In acandid moment, he made the following observation:
"...my weakness comes from the fact that I have in wine ways never transcended the first tenyears of my political experience, in a little group in the midst of the witchhunt, where everythingwas contained in oral discussion, so I never developed the habit of writing. Even it this were nottrue. I can't leave an unambiguous political estate; ill am a product of the witchhunt, and that is aweakness I carry with me ... I have a pretty deep political caution (I treasure Lessons of Octoberhighly therefore), I am left with the feeling you can't win, after year after year of people leavingthe 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 hislifetime must seem more remote than ever. He is burned out as a revolutionary. But he still has acouple of hundred followers, an established press, an extremely comfortable lifestyle and somevaluable 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. Heis 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 "understandthe party question" (the cynical euphemism for unquestioning obedience to the leadership), putthem 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 thestrange political effluvia generated by the North American left, one almost needs another axis-avertical axis of correspondence to social reality. On this latter scale, the SL has moved at least asfar down as it has moved to the right on the horizontal. Leftist groupings which move to the rightusually do so because it seems "smart"-at least in the short run. But much of what the SL hasbeen up to lately is not smart by any criterion-it is just plain weird.WVs predictions of impending fascism in the U.S. last July (with the Democratic Partyconvention providing Reagan's "Reichstag fire" pretext) and the bizarre offer of a dozen SLdefense guards to avert this "threat" were both so patently absurd that no one, including the SLcadre, really believed them. Thoughtful regime loyalists tried to explain their leadership'sChicken Little scenario as a maneuver. In a sense they were right. But such "maneuvers" have apolitical logic. The SL's offer to act as security guards for Mondale, like the flinch on thedefense of Soviet airspace in the midst of the KAL 007 furor and the social-patriotic call to savethe 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 runningaround 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 atthe SYL.
SL Over the Brink
The bounds within which Robertson historically had to operate have been progressivelystretched to the point where there is no longer any effective control on him within theorganization. Yet the cult of Robertson the Great Man/genius-leader is peculiar in that it is notmanifested 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 whereeverything is done by the book and a facade of collective leadership is maintained, as opposed toNorth Korea where the Divine Succession is literally written into the constitution. Robertson hasdefinitely been taking the organization Korea-wards in recent years. The phrase "the party" hascome 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 abureaucratic regime. Rather it is the political equivalent of the pre-Qaddafi Healyites of the late1960s; cynical former Trotskyist political bandits held together by obedience to an authoritarianlider maximo. Of course, history never repeats itself exactly, and while the Healyites' route topolitical oblivion is probably the closest model for what is happening to the SL, it doesn'tcorrespond to it on every level. Healy never had his senior cadres dress up in witches hats. Nordid he publicly indulge in the psycho-sexual babble so typical of North American cults. Themisogynist blather of the Red Avenger communiques is more reminiscent of the derangedrantings of Lynn Marcus's NCLC.
The "clitorectomy/ castration" propaganda of the Red Avengers would seem to signal a move bythe leadership to close the gap between its formal political line and some of the more cultishfeatures of the SL's internal life. For several years Robertson has had his own little coven ofsexual groupies with its own bizarre initiation rituals. They made a semi-official debut internallywhen, dressed in black and carrying candles, they appeared as "the Susanna Martin Choir" at asocial held during the 1983 SL National Conference. (Susanna Martin was an early Americanwitch.) In the report of the conference which appeared in WV (No. 342, 18 November 1983), itwas 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 coylyreferred to it, is Robertson's exclusive prerogative in the SL. Nor did WV mention that being oneof 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 bureaucratismand all-round unpleasantness of life in the Workers League was how Wohlforth had onceexpelled several of his members because he had been made to sleep on a couch when visitingtheir branch. Today in the iSt comrades in European locals visited by Robertson sometimes haveto spend several days hunting for a luxury hotel with a room large enough to accommodate twodouble 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. Yetthis is not so surprising-Healy's SLL was characterized by a gruesome Caligula-style internalregime for years and yet retained the ability to produce fairly decent high-Trotskyist polemics forceremonial 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 bearsincreasingly little relation to its real activity.
One criterion for judging the health of an ostensibly communist organization is its ability toreproduce revolutionary cadres. The Spartacist League today is an organization which can onlyproduce cynics. Subservience to authority is substituted for political consciousness in themembership who literally do not know what idiocy or betrayal they will be required to endorsenext. All that those trained in the new school of Spartacism can really be sure of is thatTrotskyism 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 underthe Robertson regime and many are finished as revolutionists. Too many lies. Too muchgroveling. But there are others who embody the contradiction between the SL's past and itspresent. Some of these comrades are doubtless hanging on in anticipation of a future factionfight which will produce a healthy split. But there is no inevitability of any such development. Itnever happened in Pierre Lambert's Organisation Communiste Internationaliste nor in Healy'sSLL. For a long time the SL led a kind of Dorian Gray existence. The face which was presentedto the world in the pages of Workers Vanguard remained healthy, vigorous and clean, while thediseased and scabrous reality was only apparent to those on the inside. In that sense, theincreasingly overt departure of the Spartacist League from its revolutionary past is a good thingas it tends to resolve the SL's claim to represent the organizational continuity of Trotskyism. Yetwe do not gloat over the self-destruction of the SL. It can only embitter and demoralize thedecent people who remain within the group. More importantly, the SL's activity discreditsanti-revisionist Trotskyism in the eyes of leftists, workers, students, black militants and otherswho are exposed to it.
The great tragedy of the Spartacist League is that after two decades of swimming against thestream, its central leadership has ended up regarding revolutionary politics as just anothercynical shell game. We respect the enormous political contribution which Robertson and hislieutenants 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 beentransformed 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 historicalevent.
"On the basis of a long historical experience, it can be written down as a law that revolutionarycadres, 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 influenceand pressures of this same environment....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 isleft to the External Tendency to struggle to ensure that the heritage which the SL carried forwardfrom Cannon's SWP is not lost. The critical task which we face in the next period is to regroupthe cadres necessary to rebuild the nucleus of an authentically Bolshevik organization in NorthAmerica and internationally, an organization that will be worthy of the heroic tradition ofCannon, Trotsky and Lenin.
"But this same historical experience also shows that there are exceptions to this law too. Theexceptions we the Marxists who remain Marxists, the revolutionaries who remain faithful to thebanner. 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, we stronger than the parties they create. and never fail tosurvive their downfall. They never fail to find representatives in the old organizations to lead thework of reconstruction.
James P. Cannon, The First Ten Years of American Communism, pages 29-30
Forward to the Rebirth of the Fourth International!