Polemics with the ICL:
Kurdistan & the Struggle for National Liberation
SL Founder/Leader Discovers
The Truth Hurts
8 August 2003 letter to Workers Vanguard.
8 August 2003
To the Editor:
In the 1 August Workers Vanguard (WV) you announce that the discussion on the Kurdish question initiated by comrade Bruce André’s polemic two issues earlier is no longer a “legitimate political dispute in the workers movement.” It apparently lost its “legitimacy” when it became clear that you were not going to come out on top. In that connection, we note that your 4 July rejoinder (WV No. 806) to our 12 June letter dropped André’s entire line of argument, while reiterating his conclusion. We take this as a tacit concession that his allegations were indeed nothing more than a “crude textual sleight-of-hand.”
Your 4 July piece used entirely different, but equally specious, allegations to smear us as chauvinists. You claim that, “the IBT is against the call for an independent Kurdistan,” that we advocate “the chauvinist status quo,” fail to give “unambiguous support for the national aspirations of the oppressed” in Kurdistan, and are “opposed” to any attempt by the Kurds to exercise their right to self-determination. These allegations are all completely false. As we have made clear repeatedly, we unconditionally defend the right of the Kurdish people to self-determination, which includes supporting any attempts they make to win their independence and establish a separate state.
We do not, however, currently advocate the slogan of an independent (bourgeois) Kurdistan. Neither, in fact, do you. This is because of the profound difficulties given present circumstances that would beset any attempt to realize such a goal, as we noted a decade ago:
As we noted in our 12 June letter, you use even more categorical formulations than we do to rule out the possibility of independence for Kurdistan short of a series of regional revolutionary uprisings. We fully support the perspective of a Kurdish workers’ state as part of a Socialist Federation of the Middle East, and see this as the most likely means for the Kurdish people to realize their national aspirations. But, as we have stated before, this is something that will ultimately be decided by the Kurds themselves.
In an article entitled “Kurdish Workers in the Iraqi Revolution of 1958-59” (WV No. 370, 11 January 1985) [see Appendix B on page 35], comrade Reuben Samuels recounted how, in 1959 in response to a rightist coup: “The ICP [Iraqi Communist Party which was ‘run from Kurdistan rather than Baghdad’] was able to unite Kurd and Arab soldiers against their officers….” If the experience of common class struggle were to result in a dramatic increase in mutual trust among workers on all sides, it seems conceivable that the Kurdish people might wish to modify aspects of the perspective we presently project. The essential point for revolutionaries is that the Kurds have the right to determine their own future.
* * *
The public slapdown of the editorial board in connection with its handling of our 12 June letter (WV No. 807, 1 August) rather caught us by surprise. The recantation confirms our assessment that the publication of a truncated version of our letter constituted an unprecedented (if only implicit) criticism of James Robertson, the group’s peerless leader. When comrade Robertson realized what was going on, WV’s errant scribes were subjected to a little of the criticism/self-criticism described in the “Obedience Training in the SL” section of “The Road to Jimstown,” our 1985 account of how the SL came to be the way it is.
A chastened ed board now feigns outrage that: “The BT smears Robertson with the scurrilous claim that he characterized Kurds as ‘turds’.” Being false in little things, as in big ones, WV decided not to capitalize “Turds” as it was in the original, to avoid lending credence to what they now claim is a “lying smear” about the SL lider maximo.
For those not present at the time, it may be useful to sketch in a bit of the background to Robertson’s remark. In early 1978 the Spartacist League/Britain (SL/B) recruited two Turkish comrades (E and F) as part of a major regroupment from Alan Thornett’s Workers Socialist League (WSL). The first issue of Spartacist Britain (April 1978) contained a document reprinted from the WSL’s internal bulletin entitled “Enough of opportunism, adventurism, Bundism—For a Trotskyist perspective in Turkey,” signed by “E and F.” [See Appendix A on page 31.] Their recruitment presented an important opportunity for the international Spartacist tendency (iSt), but there were concerns about their sensitivity on the Kurdish question, so the SL/B leadership (then headed by Bill Logan) scheduled an educational on Kurdistan. Reuben Samuels, the iSt’s expert on the national question and the Middle East, was assigned to make the main presentation.
Samuels’ talk, scheduled for the first weekend of October 1978, was preempted by more dramatic developments. James Robertson, who had decided to topple the Logan regime, used the projected educational weekend as a cover for flying to London, along with various hand-picked associates, to organize a coup. A week after successfully deposing Logan, Robertson was regaling the SL’s New York branch with an account of his triumph. In the course of his remarks, which soon appeared in an iSt internal bulletin, Robertson teased Samuels for having been left out of the loop and missing the excitement:
The WV article concedes that Robertson made the remark, but steers clear of any hint as to what it was supposed to mean. WV notes that: “Reuben Samuels, a leading cadre of our international…was in London at the time,” but does not mention that he had flown in from Toronto specifically to give his talk on the Kurds. Our explanation of what Reuben was studying in the library, previously too hot to touch, is now denounced as both a “contemptible lie” and a demonstration of our supposed chauvinism:
No one can accuse the SL of lacking chutzpah! But members of the International Communist League (ICL) and those WV readers whose minds are not “genuinely inspired by chauvinism” are left to work out for themselves what Reuben’s class could have been about. The SL leaders wisely avoid the subject, knowing that with every new lie they dig themselves into a deeper hole.
On 6 August, a former SL/B member sent us the following unsolicited comment:
As if anticipating that the attempted cover-up may fail, the WV article hints at a second, fallback defense:
Does this mean that not wanting to defend Robertson’s grossly offensive comment meant “bowing to petty-bourgeois sensibilities”? We can’t say for sure, but we are curious to find out what the SL claims “studying about the Turds” in the British Museum was supposed to mean.
The ed board’s mea culpa, which reads like something the peerless leader dictated, fails to explain why the full text of our letter was withheld from him. Was he thought to be too tired and emotional to handle a trip down memory lane? Did the ed board agree among themselves that his remark was so indefensible that it was best simply ignored? Would the founder/leader ever have found out had we not distributed our leaflet at the Socialist Workers Party’s (SWP) “Marxism” event in London? We do not know, but if comrade Robertson learns to log on to the internet for himself, in future he will be able to check our website like everyone else.
Unwilling, or perhaps unable, to provide any explanation for Robertson’s remark, WV fills two and a half pages with recycled material from “What is the IBT?,” a 1995 “own goal” polemic so lame that even Jan Norden and his Internationalist Group, who like to pretend the SL had a faultless record prior to their own excommunication in 1996, have little enthusiasm for it. WV readers who plow through the pastiche of stock slanders against the IBT in general, and comrade Logan in particular, can find a detailed, documented refutation in our Trotskyist Bulletin No. 5.
The hysterical tone of the WV article may well be seen by readers unfamiliar with the SL as evidence that it does indeed operate in a cultish manner—i.e., that the central organizing principle is that founder/leader Robertson can never be wrong (unless he says so). The conclusion of the screed recalls the 1973 pronouncements of Lyndon LaRouche (then known as Lynn Marcus) when he was winding up his devotees for their “Operation Mop Up” vendetta against the Communist Party:
Having failed to pin the charge of chauvinism on us, the SL tops now squeal that by revealing one moment in the decline of the Spartacist tendency, we are seeking to “destroy the nucleus of the indispensable Leninist vanguard” (i.e., Robertson’s claim to infallibility).
This is not the first time the ICL leadership has sought to seal off its members from our Trotskyist criticism by slander and hysteria. In the SL’s very first polemic against us, “Notes on the ‘External Tendency’,” published in SL Internal Bulletin No. 40, August 1983, Al Nelson, Robertson’s longest-serving lieutenant, wrote, “The ETs ought to inspire fanatical hatred in iSt members….”
During the first “fanatical hatred” campaign, the SL returned our donations to their defense campaigns, and generally treated us as Gerry Healy used to treat his leftist opponents. (See 1917 No. 3 “Defend Workers Democracy!”) But this policy ultimately proved counterproductive, and after a few years, the ICL leadership quietly shelved it, and once again accepted our money, contributed to an IBT defense campaign, and generally opted for a more political approach. We have had two organized debates with the ICL (one in New Zealand in 1994 and one in Canada in 1999) and have occasionally cooperated on issues of common interest: the IBT endorsed the SL’s 1999 anti-Nazi demonstration in New York City, and last year ICL comrades in Toronto participated in a united front for Mumia Abu-Jamal that we initiated.
WV’s absurd suggestion that our leaflet of congratulations for not attempting to defend Robertson’s piggish comment somehow set the SL up for persecution by “the goons and censors of the [British] SWP” in London is refuted by the fact that our comrades on the spot vigorously opposed the Cliffites’ exclusion policy and defended the ICL, as we have in every other case when they, or other member of the workers’ movement, have faced exclusion. WV also denounces us for trying to initiate discussions with members of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and for being seen talking to Al Richardson, the editor of Revolutionary History. Unlike the ICL, we do not make a principle of only talking to people we already agree with.
While the SL leaders think little of branding opponents as cultists and chauvinists, or even scabs and Nazi-lovers, they themselves are exquisitely sensitive to criticism. WV complains that displaying this particular skeleton from Robertson’s closet somehow sets up the ICL for “state repression”:
We will always defend the SL against false accusations, as we did recently in our 30 May letter to the League for the Revolutionary Party when they alleged “the Spartacists [have a] chauvinist position on immigrants.” As for killing an organization by chopping off heads, we can only observe that Robertson has done most of that himself in the ICL, which is why no one, including the future members of the IBT, was bold enough to denounce his “Turds” remark when he made it.
There is something comical about WV pretending to be so indignant that we dare cite an instance of the SL’s leader indulging in “self-satisfied great-power chauvinism,” the very charge originally tossed at us. The only difference is that we had some proof. If making such an allegation were, in itself, a set-up for repression, as WV now alleges, why did the SL make it in the first place? Our letter stung because it is true, and, as Robertson can attest, the truth can hurt.
There is a profound contradiction between the ICL’s revolutionary facade and its actual political record. Serious youth attracted to the hard-edged, Marxist-sounding line in the press are often surprised when they learn of the group’s record of wild swings between craven opportunism and absurd sectarianism. Spartacus Youth members are also frequently disturbed by the apolitical hysterics which many long-term residents of “Jimstown” use to avoid serious political discussion with opponents. The better ICL members also feel uncomfortable about the group’s tendency to produce polemics full of exaggerations and distortions, and, sometimes, outright fabrications.
The ICL tops have a dilemma—applying too much pressure risks losing talented young recruits before they are assimilated, but attempting to win them politically, particularly if they have been exposed to our critique, makes it necessary to justify positions that are obviously wrong. For example, today even the most mindless SL hacks have trouble rationalizing their infallible leader’s 1982 decision to name an SL contingent after Yuri Andropov, the Stalinist butcher of the 1956 Hungarian workers’ political revolution. (See Trotskyist Bulletin No. 1: “Only Trotskyism Can Defend the Gains of October.”) The adulation of Andropov, in turn, obviously conflicts with the ICL’s refusal to militarily side with the Stalinist conservatives in the August 1991 showdown with Boris Yeltsin and the forces of capitalist counterrevolution. (See 1917 No. 11: “Soviet Rubicon & the Left.”)
And then there was the SL’s absurd refusal to attend, or even sell papers, at the massive 1999 Seattle demonstration that WV denounced in advance as a festival of chauvinism, racism and counterrevolution. (See 1917 No. 22: “Seattle & the Left.”) The SL leadership’s 2001 announcement that it was not calling for the military defeat of the U.S. aggressors in Afghanistan (see 1917 No. 24: “Where is the ICL Going?”) also created enormous confusion among younger members of the group. (Regrettably most of the older ones are too depoliticized and cynical to worry about such things.) As we noted in our 12 June letter, the flinch on Afghanistan paralleled the earlier social-patriotic call by the SL to save U.S. Marines in the Middle East and its solicitousness for the Reaganite Star Warriors aboard the ill-fated Challenger mission. (See Trotskyist Bulletin No. 2: “Marxism vs. Social Patriotism” and 1917 No. 2: “Challenger: No Disaster for the Working Class.”)
The threats and bluster WV employs to defend the inexcusable publicly, will inevitably be accompanied by increased bullying and administrative pressure internally. While the public humiliation of the WV staffers signals that Robertson can still get his way, the very fact that his hand-picked successors and obedient scribes thought they might get away with putting one over on him, suggests that his grip has slipped.
Most intelligent ICL members will already have noted their leadership’s inability to explain Robertson’s remark, and some are doubtless aware that the new turn toward intimidation and agent-baiting is, at bottom, an attempt to avoid political debate. So what to do? As comrade Robertson himself observed in 1978, a “bad regime”:
In a 31 December 1978 postscript to his saga of “cauterizing” the Logan regime in London, Robertson posed the question of “who cauterizes the cauterizers?” It is a good question, and he provided a good answer from James P. Cannon:
Forty years ago Robertson played a critical role in preserving the thread of revolutionary continuity after the degeneration of Cannon’s party. Today the International Bolshevik Tendency is committed to ensuring that authentic Trotskyism survives the SL’s terminal descent into political banditry.