The report of the recent Seventh International Conference of the International Communist League (ICL – formerly the international Spartacist tendency [iSt]), which appeared in Spartacist (No. 65, Summer 2017), describes the event as “the culmination of months of intense internal struggle against a longstanding perversion of Leninism on the national question, particularly in relation to oppressed nations within multinational states.” This “longstanding perversion” in turn reflected decades of “capitulation to the pressures of Anglophone imperialism” and “adaptation to Great Power chauvinism [which] had contaminated our struggle to reforge the Fourth International” through, among other things, “the arrogant belittling of comrades from oppressed countries.”
Self-flagellation is becoming habitual in the ICL and its flagship section, the Spartacist League/U.S. (SL) – several times in recent years they have chastised themselves publicly and proclaimed the intention of turning over a new leaf. As the 2017 conference report reminds readers, “Since the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union, the ICL has faced repeated struggles to maintain our revolutionary continuity against a series of opportunist leaderships.” This “series of opportunist leaderships” (whose political shortcomings have generally been traced to disorientation resulting from the collapse of the USSR) now stretches back for more than a quarter of a century – something that sits oddly beside the ICL’s claim to unblemished revolutionary continuity.
In attempting to understand the group’s recent dramatic self-criticism as perverters of Leninism, and the reversal of one of its core defining programmatic elements in favor of garden-variety revisionist support for “progressive” bourgeois nationalism, it is perhaps useful to review some key moments in ICL history over the past quarter century.
Since 1991 the ICL has held six international conferences. The official account of the Second International Conference (Spartacist Nos. 47-48, Winter 1992-93) reported that “The main task of the conference was to assess the tasks of our party in the face of the demise of the former Soviet Union.” The coverage of the Third ICL Conference, held in 1998, was pretty upbeat: “Ours is not an international dominated by large sections with the smaller ones relegated to the role of passive onlookers.” The report described the “avid participation,” “political dynamism” and “determination” of young cadres from South Africa, Mexico and Poland whose “great impact at this conference” reflected the “maturation of many of the ICL sections.” The account of the event that appeared in Spartacist No. 54, Spring 1998, noted with pleasure: “The International Conference marked a qualitative political cohesion of our Leninist international which is vital in this period of heightened interimperialist rivalries and nationalism.”
The coverage of the Fourth International Conference (held in 2003) was less sanguine, and “soberly noted” that political fall-out from the destruction of the Soviet degenerated workers’ state (something the Second Conference was supposed to have sorted out) remained a problem:
“The pre-conference discussion was dominated by an attempt to grapple with the political drift from our revolutionary purpose.… Our main conference document soberly noted. ‘An inability to deal with the world created by the fall of the USSR, and the consequent retrogression in consciousness, lies at the root of the lCL's current crisis.’”
—Spartacist No. 58, Spring 2004
The Fourth Conference document lamented that:
“Frustration and impatience over the disparity between our small size and slender roots in the working class and our proletarian internationalist purpose have led both to opportunist lunges and sectarian moralism.”
And that was not all: “Accompanying this was an increasingly abstract and sterile approach to politics, and a pattern of breaches of our Leninist organizational norms by central cadre.” To balance this bleak assessment a few hopeful signs were identified:
“The conference was able to take some steps to clarify and rectify these problems through wide-ranging debate and discussion, and elected a new, significantly broadened international leadership.”
In a now familiar refrain the document reported that while the newly elected International Executive Committee (IEC) retained “elements from the old leadership” it represented an important step forward because: “It is both younger and has a broader geographical spread than the outgoing IEC.” Following a “substantial discussion” the main document was adopted unanimously (as leadership-endorsed propositions generally are in the ICL).
Yet even a combination of a younger/broader leadership and the unanimous repudiation of opportunist lunging and sectarian moralizing made little difference, as the report on the Fifth Conference in 2007 admitted:
“a comrade noted some time ago that the party had been ‘retreating from a newly alien world, into our castle, hauling up our drawbridge and hiding out.’ This was followed, the comrade observed, by adaptation to Menshevik opportunism, ‘by lowering the drawbridge, rushing outside to mingle with who we found out there, and leaving our banners in the castle.”
—Spartacist No. 60, Autumn 2007
Attempting to strike a brighter note, the report asserted that the “continued review and re-examination of unresolved questions and past and present party work” mandated by the 2003 conference to get to grips with “what lay at the root of our political disorientation” had successfully “restored and strengthened the internal corrective mechanisms.” At the very least it was hoped that the root of the problem had been identified:
“Comrades came to understand, as the Fifth Conference document states: ‘The chief pressure operating on our party, especially in this period of post-Soviet reaction, is Menshevik, i.e., social-democratic, opportunism, not ultraleft sectarianism. And the essence of Menshevism in this period is capitulation to bourgeois liberalism.’”
Much of the Fifth Conference was devoted to discussion of the ICL’s rejection of the traditional attitude of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky and Cannon regarding contesting bourgeois elections for executive offices (see “Of Presidents & Principles”). The report in Spartacist No. 60 (Autumn 2007) noted “the pressure to conform to bourgeois-liberal ideology is pervasive and intense. The question of the class nature of the state was, in fact, an overarching theme running through many of the conference discussions.” The article advised “We must guard against any tendency to embellish bourgeois democracy, as our opponents do routinely” and denounced their “appeal to the rapacious, blood-drenched imperialist rulers to conform to a bogus ideal of bourgeois democracy.” In a self-congratulatory assessment (soon revealed to be entirely unwarranted) the article asserted: “Since the last ICL conference, we have made progress in recognizing and fighting against the pressures to adapt to liberal-bourgeois consciousness.”
Spartacist expresses a degree of satisfaction with recent progress: “Today the ICL has an international cadre, including younger layers who have come forward in the process of the party's reconstruction.” Another supposed accomplishment of the Fifth Conference was the stabilization of the group’s formal leadership configuration:
“A Nominating Commission was established to consider proposals by the outgoing leadership and by the delegates for a new IEC, which is charged with leading the ICL until our next conference. Unlike the 2003 conference, when the party crisis led to significant changes in IEC composition, the IEC elected at this gathering saw much more continuity, reflecting the progress made in reconstructing the party and its leadership.”
This continuity proved short-lived when Rachel Wolkenstein, the central figure in the ICL’s resident leadership elected in 2007, was deposed the next year. The report of the ICL’s Sixth Conference, held in late 2010, took a parenthetical swipe at the “empty bombast, philistine moralism and egomania of these demoralized elements” [headed by Wolkenstein] and reported that “The conference characterized their politics as neo-Bernsteinite.”
But the 2010 conference had far more pressing concerns than merely dumping on former leaders. Earlier that year, in response to the devastation of Haiti by a massive earthquake, the ICL had been busily depicting the dispatch of U.S. military units as a humanitarian gesture. So much for “recognizing and fighting against the pressures to adapt to liberal-bourgeois consciousness” – even the wretched social-democratic leaders of the International Socialist Organization had enough sense to call for the immediate withdrawal of the U.S. military. The celebration of the imperialist intervention in Haiti made the “opportunist shortcuts and get-rich quick schemes to which prior party regimes have too often resorted” almost seem rigidly principled by comparison. For three months the Robertsonians defended their betrayal before finally confessing to “promoting illusions in U.S. imperialist ‘democracy’ as the savior of the Haitian people. We all but echoed Barack Obama as he dispatched imperialist combat troops.…” (“A Capitulation to U.S. Imperialism,” 27 April 2010).
In our comment on this belated correction we observed:
“The SL has certainly acknowledged making a big mistake. But what is missing is a serious attempt to explain how such a blatantly pro-imperialist position could have been adopted in the first place, and why it was not met with immediate, furious internal opposition.”
—“Sclerotic Spartacists Unravel,” 10 May 2010
The reason that there was no such opposition is pretty obvious – the ICL has no democratic internal political life after decades spent pulverizing any and all expression of opinion not authorized, or at least tolerated, by the líder máximo and his circle.
Thirty years ago the SL, commenting on Gerry Healy’s Workers Revolutionary Party, described an organization with an internal political life made up of “confessionals and denunciations”:
“There was the systematic destruction of cadres: abusing them and then holding them up to scorn as weaklings, breaking down their self-respect by extorting false confessions, using their loyalty to the professed ideals of socialism to make them complicit in crimes against their comrades and the comrades of other groups.”
—Spartacist, Nos. 36-37, Winter 1985-86
The moral fiber of the cadres of the ICL has been destroyed in much the same way as the Healyites. That is why the proposition that the U.S. military was a force for liberation enjoyed virtually unanimous support, until “one leading party comrade,” (i.e., James Robertson) changed his mind, whereupon it was instantaneously (and of course unanimously) repudiated.
The ICL’s overt social-imperialism over Haiti revealed an organization that operates essentially like a cult – a “Marxist” group that is incapable of getting even the most elementary questions right, if, and when, “one leading party comrade” gets them wrong. This must be obvious to anyone in the group still capable of thinking – yet of course it cannot be openly admitted. So, proclaiming that their “central purpose” was to dig down and identify the roots of this groveling social-democratic capitulation to U.S. imperialism, the delegates to the ICL’s Sixth International Conference ended up once again offloading responsibility onto the demise of the Soviet degenerated workers’ state two decades earlier:
“A central purpose of the international conference was to rearm the party by examining the roots of our disorientation over the Haiti earthquake. Discussions before and at the conference pointed to the ongoing pressures toward programmatic revisionism bearing down on revolutionary Marxists, particularly since the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union and the East European deformed workers states in the early 1990s.”
—Spartacist No. 62, Spring 2011
The condemnations in the conference article of their grotesque betrayal over Haiti were incongruously paired with boasting that: “The Spartacist tendency has succeeded in maintaining a revolutionary program for close to five decades, longer than any other Marxist formation in history.” Go figure.
The conference also decided that: “A major factor affecting us has been the concentration of much of our international leadership in the U.S.,” a problem they hoped to address by once again opting for a younger and more geographically diverse membership on the ICL’s nominal leadership:
“As an organizational measure toward addressing such pressures, the new IEC elected at the conference includes a greater proportion of members from sections outside the U.S. It also reflects a certain generational shift in the party leadership.”
Alleging that the “real politics” of the Wolkenstein leadership elected at the Fifth Conference were to “junk the old Spartacism,” the Spartacist article hopefully speculated that: “The Sixth International Conference was an important step in the ICL’s continuing efforts to put programmatic and theoretical rearming at the center of our tasks.”
But alas, it seems the comrades got it all wrong yet again – or at least that is what delegates to the 2017 Conference concluded (unanimously as usual) after profound mentation and careful deliberation. Far from the “theoretical rearming” of the organization, it seems that the Sixth Conference merely continued to wallow in the same chauvinist anti-nationalist cesspool into which the Spartacist tendency ostensibly plunged in the 1970s. The way the Seventh Conference saw things, the key to launching a “fight for Leninism” was indeed to “junk the old Spartacism,” in particular the approach to the national question.
The document unanimously approved by the Conference is vague about most milestones in the previous four decades of chauvinism and revisionism. But it does include the cryptic pronouncement that: “Up until 2008, successive regimes proved themselves unable to provide true Leninist, internationalist leadership to the ICL.” This is puzzling – what changed in 2008? There is no hint as to what exactly is supposed to have improved – in fact the leadership configuration introduced that year, after Wolkenstein’s removal, went on to preside over the social-imperialist fiasco in Haiti, which the ICL compared to “August 4, 1914, when the German social democrats voted war credits to the German imperialist rulers at the outset of the First World War.” This would hardly qualify as “true Leninist” leadership in anybody’s book.
In a bizarre piece of Orwellian newspeak, the issue of Spartacist that describes the ICL’s repudiation of fundamental elements of Lenin’s policy has a front-page banner declaring “The Fight for Leninism on the National Question.” While largely focused on Quebec, it is clear that the main conference document “The Struggle Against the Chauvinist Hydra” views petty-bourgeois nationalism more generally as “a motor force for revolutionary struggle,” which represents a wholesale repudiation of the Spartacists’ longstanding approach to the national question.
The impetus was apparently provided by the complaint of a few recently recruited Québécois youth that “since its inception, the Canadian section had an Anglo-chauvinist, assimilationist program for Quebec.” The introduction to the “Hydra” document characterizes the ICL’s record in Canada as an unbroken history of “grotesque Anglo-chauvinist contempt for the national and language rights of the oppressed Québécois people,” which the 1995 turn to advocating the immediate separation of Quebec did not correct. The 1995 shift represented a dramatic change of position, but not, at least formally, of methodology – the ICL claimed that their line changed in response to a new political reality in which national tensions between English-Canadian and Québécois workers ruled out any realistic prospect of joint class struggle.
The ICL’s decision to advocate immediate independence was initiated by the personal intervention of James Robertson, in an impressionistic response to the 1994 Canadian federal election in which former supporters of the conservative government jumped ship in massive numbers – in Western Canada moving to the right-populist Reform Party, while in Quebec opting for the pro-independence Bloc Québécois.
Nationalists advocate independence as an end in itself, whereas Leninists approach the national question from the perspective of how best to advance the class struggle. The position developed by the SL in its revolutionary period (which we uphold today) began with the recognition that the Québécois, as a nation, have an inalienable right to self-determination, i.e., the right to separate from Canada and form a new state. But the revolutionary iSt of the 1970s advised against exercising this right as long as there were reasonable prospects for common class struggle, because of the immense strategic significance of the linkages between the historically more militant Québécois workers and their English-Canadian counterparts (and through them to the American working class).
In February 1999, in a public debate with the ICL, we clearly spelled out our position:
“…the nub of the difference we are debating tonight is whether or not for the past 35 years, 25 years, or whatever it is, joint class struggle has been possible – or whether Quebec needs to separate before it is possible.
“There is certainly no question that among the most militant sections of the Quebec working class nationalist sentiment is popular and has been popular during the period that we’re talking about. But despite the fact that this nationalist sentiment has been popular, we have seen repeated instances of joint class struggle. I think this is extremely important. The first article that Spartacist Canada ever wrote on Quebec appeared in December 1976, and in that article the observation was made that:
“‘Quebec workers notably spearheaded militant action by the entire Canadian proletariat against [Liberal prime minister Pierre] Trudeau’s wage controls. Recent postal and railway strikes began on the initiative of Montreal locals of country-wide unions. With an independent Quebec, important links among workers of both North American nations such as international and cross-Canada unions might well be lost, thus retarding the struggle for proletarian power.’“Now I think that was true in 1976, and I think that remains substantially true today. We should remember that when this was written, at the end of 1976, approximately a month earlier there had been a Canada-wide general strike that had been largely occasioned, largely initiated, from the pressure of the militant working class in Quebec and had spread to English Canada.“
—Trotskyist Bulletin No. 7, “Marxism & the Quebec National Question”
The 14 October 1976 general strike against wage controls, in which a million English Canadian and Québécois workers walked off the job together, powerfully confirmed the SL’s original analysis, as we noted:
“the Trotskyist League comrades have decided that class unity along national lines, between English-Canadian workers and Québécois workers, is impossible, that it has been impossible and that it will be impossible until Quebec separates. How do they account for the 1976 general strike? They don’t. They can’t account for it.”
The 1995 position in favor of immediate Quebec independence, which the ICL now derides as “centrist,” nominally maintained a class-based approach, in that it claimed that separation was a necessary precondition for united class struggles across national lines. Yet, as we repeatedly pointed out, the actual historical record refuted the ICL’s pessimistic assertions about poisonous antagonisms between francophone Québécois workers and their Anglophone brothers and sisters. In the second edition of Trotskyist Bulletin No. 7, published in 2013, we appended an updated record of the major strikes since the 1999 debate, involving workers in Quebec and English Canada in the rail, postal and airline sectors. We also documented the spontaneous support by English-Canadian trade unionists for the massive 2012 Quebec student strike.
These events form a pattern – since the 1960s we do not know of a single instance in which linguistic/national divisions sabotaged any important working-class struggle. That record stands as an absolute refutation of the ICL’s preposterous claim that: “successful proletarian struggle demands separation into two independent nation-states” (Spartacist No.52, Autumn 1995). We have never denied that national tensions might, at some point, pose a major strategic obstacle to common struggle. But the evidence shows that no such obstacle exists today, nor has it for the past half century.
The ICL’s recent nationalist turn makes the historical record irrelevant, because for those who embrace the nationalist project, the issue of proletarian class unity is neither here nor there – the important thing is to establish a separate nation-state. While no longer pushing the claim that relations are characterized by bitter national antagonisms, the ICL now views the issue of tensions between Anglophone and Québécois workers as essentially a matter of indifference.
The ICL’s previous hybrid posture on Quebec was a contradictory mash-up of unqualified support for the nationalist independence project with lip service to the Marxist analysis of nationalism as a bourgeois ideology that binds workers to their “own” ruling class. The new, consistently nationalist, position no longer pretends to focus on removing potential obstacles to working class unity across national lines and instead projects national struggles as a revolutionary factor in and of themselves. This policy breaks no new ground – it merely retraces the descent of an earlier generation of Canadian Marxists (led by Ross Dowson and aligned with the International Committee of the Fourth International [IC] from 1953 to the early 1960s) from Trotskyism to revisionism. The Trotskyist League (TL – Canadian section of the iSt/ICL) described this process in a 1995 sketch of the history of Canadian Trotskyism on Quebec:
“Beginning in the 1930s, the Trotskyists in Canada did uphold Quebec’s right to self-determination, though the national question was far from the center of their propaganda and agitation. By the 1960s, when a serious reassessment of the question began in the League for Socialist Action/Ligue Socialiste Ouvrière (LSA/LSO), the organization had undergone political degeneration in the direction of tailing non-proletarian forces, denying the necessity of building a Leninist revolutionary party. In the ensuing splits, unifications and re-splits, all sides embraced Québécois nationalism.
“The LSA/LSO proclaimed that, at least for Quebec, ‘consistent nationalism leads to socialism.’ But Marxists understand that nationalism is a bourgeois ideology which asserts that one's own people has special, pre-eminent rights over others. Thus, in fact, consistent nationalism leads to fascism. In Quebec this century, this is personified by figures like the anti-Semitic bigot and clerical-nationalist Abbe Lionel Groulx, and Adrien Arcand, an intimate of Duplessis who led the fascist Blueshirt bands in the 1930s. And while Arcand may be currently out of favor in leading Quebec nationalist circles, Abbe Groulx retains an honored place in the bourgeois-nationalists' pantheon.
“The LSA/LSO championed mainstream Quebec nationalism, centering their agitation on the call for a unilingual French Quebec.”
—Spartacist No. 52, 1995
This adaptation to bourgeois nationalism in Quebec flowed from the political devolution of the LSA/LSO (closely following the lead of the U.S. Socialist Workers Party [SWP]) that resulted in the 1963 “reunification” between the IC and the revisionist International Secretariat led by Michel Pablo and Ernest Mandel (from whom they had broken a decade earlier). The TL’s 1995 description of the reactionary logic of bourgeois nationalism in general, and the unsavory history of Quebec nationalism in particular, is entirely absent from the Hydra article. Perhaps this is an oversight – perhaps the ICL stands by its previous characterizations. But the recent discovery of a supposedly inherently revolutionary dynamic in nationalist movements, as well as the embrace of “a unilingual French Quebec,” lead us to wonder whether the ICL may be moving toward the LSA/LSO posture that, “at least for Quebec, ‘consistent nationalism leads to socialism.’”
The Internationalist Group (IG), an organization formed by cadres pushed out of the ICL in 1996 which rigidly defends every ICL position taken before that date, has offered a sketchy, but essentially accurate, assessment of the Hydra text:
“This is one strange document. It asserts that many ICL leaders have been characterized by Anglo chauvinism (true enough), but also that the SL/ICL’s former Leninist position on the national question going back to 1975 was ‘chauvinist,’ and combines this with a purge of a whole layer of longtime cadres from the top leadership. In fact, the ‘Hydra’ document embraces bourgeois nationalism, and repeatedly tries to ‘extend’ Lenin by claiming he said the opposite of what he wrote.”
—“SL/ICL on Puerto Rico: Annexationist ‘Socialists,’” Internationalist, No. 50, Winter 2017
In the main document from its November 2017 international conference, the IG pithily describes the Hydra document as “a kind of suicide note and auto-obituary,” but has thus far sidestepped the ICL’s dramatic shift on Quebec – an event that supposedly warranted an entire reassessment of its past. Instead the IG has shown more interest in polemicizing with the ICL over Puerto Rico. The ICL’s shift on Quebec poses something of a problem for the IG leaders who, as we have noted in the past, have sometimes taken political positions on the basis of tactical convenience, rather than principle. The IG’s adherence to the ICL’s 1995 rejection of its original Leninist position on Quebec independence is a case in point – the tactical advantage of remaining in relative political proximity to the ICL was apparently thought to outweigh the advantages of returning to the position adopted in the 1970s, as that would not only mean admitting a mistake (as all IGers in the ICL had supported the change at the time) but also being identified with the IBT.
We have, on occasion, engaged the IG on this issue, pointing out that the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that the pattern of joint struggle the SL identified in the 1970s continues to this day, as does the strategic potential for Québécois workers to spark future revolutionary struggles across North America (see, for example, “Learn to Think,” our letter to the IG on the 2012 Quebec student struggle).
The ICL’s new line – unconditional advocacy of separation without regard for whether joint class struggle remains possible – puts the IG in a tricky spot. Presuming that it is not prepared to emulate the ICL in saluting the “revolutionary” potential of petty-bourgeois nationalism, does the IG leadership intend to continue to assert that joint class struggle is impossible in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary? There is a logic to Lenin’s approach (which the SL adopted in the 1970s) and there is a logic to the Pabloist approach (which the ICL has now embraced), but there is no logic to the hybrid stance the ICL adopted in 1995.
Consistent with their new nationalist position, the ICL avers that in the 1970s “our organization should have supported the language laws in Quebec” that give preference to French because this is “essential to the very existence of the oppressed nation.” The Hydra authors falsely attribute the iSt’s original opposition to the language legislation to their Canadian section: “To defend its opposition to Law 101, Spartacist Canada deformed Lenin, turning him into a champion of Trudeau-ite bilingualism, i.e., a champion of national and linguistic oppression.” In fact the policy did not originate in Toronto, but in New York. The position was approved by the SL Political Bureau, and published in an article entitled “Language Controversy in Quebec” (Workers Vanguard [WV] No. 50, 2 August 1974) a year before Spartacist Canada was launched. In that text, WV denounced the revisionist Trotskyists of the LSA/LSO for their “nationalism, protests against assimilation and calls for legally enforced unilingualism.”
Perhaps the reason the authors of the SL’s Hydra text incorrectly identified the source of the iSt’s position is because they were not present at the time and no one bothered doing any perfunctory research into their organization’s history. Yet that hardly explains why none of the dozens of current SL cadres who were members back then – including at least four members of the 1974 SL political bureau which made the decision – pointed out this obvious error. The reason, we suspect, is that this reconstruction of events was no mere oversight, but a more or less deliberate (if crude) attempt to cover the tracks of comrade Robertson by offloading responsibility for this (now repudiated) Leninist position on to his English-Canadian followers.
The ICL’s turn to Quebec nationalism closely parallels the position taken 40 years ago by the LSA/LSO, which supported Quebec’s language laws from the beginning. The 2 August 1974 WV article characterized the Hansenites’ position as being to the right of the bourgeois-nationalist Parti Québécois (PQ):
“For the LSA/LSO the problem with the PQ is that it is not nationalist enough. As part of a struggle against assimilation these fake Trotskyists advocate ‘strong protection in law against encroachment and degeneration [!] by English’ (Labor Challenge, 24 April 1972). Although somewhat discomfited by immigrant opposition to Bill 22, the LSA/LSO assures its supporters that immigrants ‘would not object to sending their children to French schools immediately, if the law were such that it applied equally to all, including the English’ (Labor Challenge, 10 June 1974). In other words: equal oppression for all non-French speakers.
“As against the PQ’s ‘timid’ attempt to impose French on immigrants, the LSA/LSO replies:
“‘Revolutionary socialists counterpose to this a policy of French unilingualism – full legislative protection for French as the sole language of education, work and government. Only in this way can the rights of the majority, which are under attack, be defended.”
The criticism of the SL’s 1974 position in the Hydra text is harsh:
“Fundamentally, our chauvinist programmatic framework on the national question meant a program of forcible assimilation of oppressed nations. This program was embodied in our defense of privileges for oppressor-nation languages and in our opposition to the language laws in Quebec and Catalonia. This conference reaffirms that the equality of languages lies in the struggle against privileges for the dominant language.”
No evidence is presented of pushing a “program of forcible assimilation” for the simple reason that nothing the iSt ever published could justify such a charge. “Equality of languages” obviously means opposition to “privileges for the dominant language,” because it means opposition to privileges for any language – as Lenin stipulated in a quote cited in the Hydra document:
“The national programme of working-class democracy is: absolutely no privileges for any one nation or any one language; the solution of the problem of the political self-determination of nations, that is, their separation as states by completely free, democratic methods.…”
—“Liberals and Democrats on the Language Question,” September 1913
Uneasily aware of the obvious disparity between Lenin’s “no privileges” policy and their own advocacy of preferential treatment for French, the Hydra scribes opt to ludicrously equate the imposition of Quebec’s language legislation to a military revolt by a colonial people against an imperialist predator:
“In 1975, SC called for Québécois workers to fight for the English of the same bosses that were screaming in their faces to ‘speak white’! At the same time, it was out of the question that the Québécois fight to defend their own existence with Law 101. For SC, the ‘problem’ was that the Québécois used the ‘force’ of Law 101 to prevent the English from exercising their ‘right’ to oppress. For his part, Lenin supported the use of force by the oppressed to defend their existence:
“By a “defensive” war socialists have always understood a “just” war in this particular sense (Wilhelm Liebknecht once expressed himself precisely in this way). It is only in this sense that socialists have always regarded wars “for the defence of the fatherland” , or “defensive”’ wars, as legitimate, progressive and just. For example, if tomorrow, Morocco were to declare war on France, or India on Britain, or Persia or China on Russia, and so on, these would be “just”, and “defensive”’ wars, irrespective of who would be the first to attack; any socialist would wish the oppressed, dependent and unequal states victory over the oppressor, slave-holding and predatory “Great’ Powers.”
—Socialism and War (1915)
The sheer absurdity of this equation suggests that if the authors are not stupid, they presume their readers are. In the first place, Quebec is not a colony. If it becomes independent it will be as a minor imperialist power in its own right (something that the ICL used to acknowledge, and perhaps still does). Secondly, throughout its existence the TL/ICL was always clear that if the Québécois voted to separate, the workers’ movement must defend their right to do so. During the 1992 national referendum on amending the Canadian constitution we once again spelled out this policy:
“If the Québécois decide to separate and form their own state (something that we do not advocate at present), we will support their right to do so. If the Canadian bourgeoisie attempts to forcibly retain Quebec, it would be the duty of class-conscious workers across English Canada to defend the Québécois with every means at their disposal, including protests, strikes and even military assistance.”
—“Spoil Your Ballot!”
Leninists oppose all forms of national oppression, while recognizing that nationalism is a bourgeois ideology and as such opposed to the historic interests of working people:
“Marxism cannot be reconciled with nationalism, be it even of the ‘most just’, ‘purest’, most refined and civilised brand. In place of all forms of nationalism Marxism advances internationalism, the amalgamation of all nations in the higher unity, a unity that is growing before our eyes with every mile of railway line that is built, with every international trust, and every workers’ association that is formed (an association that is international in its economic activities as well as in its ideas and aims).”
—Lenin, “Critical Remarks on the National Question,” 1913
WV’s observation in 1974 that the LSA/LSO was attempting to “curry favor with Québécois nationalists” now applies to the ICL itself:
“Just how much these supposed socialists’ paeans to ‘consistent’ nationalism, protests against assimilation and calls for legally enforced unilingualism have to do with Leninism can be seen by examining Lenin’s own writings on the language question:
“‘The development of nationality in general is the principle of bourgeois nationalism; hence the exclusiveness of bourgeois nationalism, hence the endless national bickering. The proletariat, however, far from undertaking to uphold the national development of every nation, on the contrary warns the masses against such illusions, stands for the fullest freedom of capitalist intercourse and welcomes every kind of assimilation of nations, except that which is founded on force or privilege.…
“The proletariat cannot support any consecration of nationalism; on the contrary, it supports everything that helps to obliterate national distinctions and remove national barriers: it supports everything that makes the ties between nationalities closer and closer, or tends to merge nations. To act differently means siding with reactionary nationalist philistinism.”
—“Critical Remarks on the National Question,” 1913
The SL’s 1974 article pointed out that Lenin’s policy of strict equality for all languages did not distinguish between those of the oppressed and the oppressors:
“Did Lenin make an exception here for oppressed nations, in the sense of implying that their nationalism was progressive, that their languages (but not those of oppressor nations) should have privileges, etc.? Not at all. In fact, he was arguing precisely against Ukrainian ‘nationalist-socialists’ and Jewish Bundists who were fighting assimilation in the Russian empire. Summarizing, he stated:
“‘The national programme of working-class democracy is: absolutely no privileges for any one nation or any one language; the solution of the problem of the political self-determination of nations, that is, their separation as states by completely free, democratic methods; … Working-class democracy contraposes to the nationalist wrangling of the various bourgeois parties over questions of language, etc., the demand for the unconditional unity and complete amalgamation of workers of all nationalities in all working-class organisations/…’
The ICL’s claims to be “re-establish[ing] a Leninist framework on the national question” boils down to abandoning Lenin’s policy in favor of adapting to petty-bourgeois nationalism, just as the Pabloites did in Quebec in the 1970s.
The question of state-imposed language preferences is not limited to Quebec. It is a living issue in Catalonia, as a London School of Economics (LSE) blog post of 22 April 2014 reported:
“According to the government of Catalonia’s most recent Survey on Language Uses (2008), 55% of the population have Spanish as their mother tongue; 31.6% have Catalan and 3.8% both languages, while other languages make up the remaining 9.6%.”
The authors of this posting expressed concern about insisting on the use of Catalan in schools, given that:
“more than 1,500 research studies have stressed the importance of teaching children in their mother tongue (and especially the skills of reading and writing), and that this is a right that is recognised by this organisation, [UNESCO] as well as by UNICEF, then it seems quite obvious that children’s language rights are not being respected in this region of Spain.”
The LSE post continues:
“the Generalitat (Catalonia’s autonomous government) has made a point of airbrushing the concept of ‘mother tongue’ out of the sphere of education. In the 1970s and ’80s, supporters of nationalism and left-wing parties in Catalonia called for children’s right to study in their mother tongue, given that under most of Franco’s rule, Catalan was banned in schools. Thus, in calling for the right to study in Catalan, they adopted the entirely valid argument that use of the mother tongue was important for children’s cognitive development. However, this argument was abruptly dropped following the introduction of the language immersion system (the obligatory use of Catalan as the sole medium of instruction for all school subjects, apart from Spanish and foreign languages).”
A few years ago, in an article advocating Catalonia’s independence, the ICL correctly criticized the Catalan-only language policy:
“We are against the imposition of any official languages. We demand equal language rights for all! We are for a public, secular, ethnically integrated school system with full provisions for instruction in Spanish, Catalan and other languages as needed by the local population. These rights apply to speakers of Arabic and Romanian as much as to those whose native language is Catalan or Castilian.”
—Workers Vanguard No. 1066, 17 April 2015
The ICL’s new-found enthusiasm for Catalan bourgeois nationalism has meant that all mention of equal language rights has disappeared from its coverage of the issue. A recent article mentions that in the 1980s “the regional government began to introduce Catalan as the language of instruction in public schools at all levels” and reports, without comment, that in 2010 Spain’s top court had “declared that Catalan could not be the ‘preferred language’ in Catalan administration, media and public schooling” (WV, No. 1112, 19 May 2017). The article also notes that “The question of language is also very important in France, where Basques and Catalans have absolutely no national or linguistic rights” and concludes by demanding: “For the right of all Basques and Catalans to study in their own languages! No privileges for Spanish or French!” These demands are fine of course. But the ICL seems to want to avoid spelling things out clearly. Does it, for example, still uphold its 2015 position that, “These rights apply to speakers of Arabic and Romanian as much as to those whose native language is Catalan”? If not, we suggest that the architects of the ICL’s new policy bite the bullet and to the two slogans cited above add a third: “Privileges for Catalan!”
The example of “Anglo-chauvinism” that alerted the ICL’s freshly recruited Montreal comrades to the ICL’s history of “capitulation to the pressures of Anglophone imperialism” was reportedly an article on the 1976 strike by air traffic controllers and airline pilots, in opposition to the Canadian government’s attempt to introduce bilingual (French and English) air traffic control at Quebec’s major airports. The ICL document repudiates “the racist article opposing the just struggle for language rights in Quebec (see ‘Dispute Over Bilingual Air Traffic Control Rocks Canada,’ WV No. 119 [23 July 1976] and Spartacist Canada (SC) No. 8 [September 1976])” without any explanation, much less any proof, of why they consider it to be “racist.” The reason is clear enough – because there is nothing in the article that could possibly justify such a characterization. Yet these days it seems that appeasing the young Québécois comrades trumps other considerations:
“The Montreal comrades were right to oppose the 1976 article on air traffic control. As they emphasized in their 24 October 2016 document:“‘This article was written for English-Canadian workers and feeds Maple Leaf chauvinism instead of fighting it. The whole framework of the article capitulates to anti-Québécois tendencies in the labor movement and mocks the just struggle of the Québécois to be able to work in French.’”—“The Struggle Against the Chauvinist Hydra”
Nothing is quoted to demonstrate any “mocking,” because it is another baseless accusation. The following excerpt from the article identifies the nub of the issue:
“The Quebec nationalists clamoring for bilingual air traffic control have charged that air safety is a bogus issue concealing a covert attack by English-Canadian diehards against the government's policy of bilingualism. This position was summed up by Roger Demers, spokesman for Gens de l’Air, a breakaway group of Quebec air controllers and pilots:
“The government has been blackmailed by English-speaking pilots and controllers guided by pure racism. Since they have traditional weight in numbers it was easy for them to sow confusion about our demands by conjuring up the fake problem of air safety. All over the world, except in Quebec, the language of the country is the prime language in air communications. What we want is nothing more than this fundamental right.”
—Globe and Mail [Toronto], 30 June 
The WV article identified the essential issue as air safety, not anti-French “racism,” and noted that many countries used a single language for air traffic control:
“Nationalist parochialism to the contrary, throughout the world the ‘language of air communications’ – which is not a language at all, but rather a technical lexicon of a few hundred words – is based on English. The use of a uniform terminology is imposed by the requirements of the internationally integrated, technically sophisticated aviation industry. That the lingua franca of commercial aviation is English is due to the historic dominance of the U.S. in international commercial aviation.”
The retrofitted denunciation of the “racist” 1976 article comes with a bizarre twist: the ICL continues to defend it as basically correct, at least in thrust:
“At the same time, this correct opposition to the article [by the young Montreal comrades] must be separated from the question of the language of air traffic control. On the basis of air safety, the CALPA [Canadian Airline Pilots Association] and CATCA [Canadian Air Traffic Control Association] strikes were supportable. For us as the vanguard, the essential point is that there be one language of the air.”
It is not clear why the Montreal dissidents should be mollified by this sort of “opposition” to the article – after all, CALPA and CATCA struck to oppose the introduction of French as a second language for air control. Ernest Mandel’s English-Canadian supporters in the Revolutionary Marxist Group (RMG), who saw some sort of revolutionary dynamic embedded in Québécois nationalism, were far more consistent. They opposed the strike as a “reactionary mobilization” comparable to the 1974 general strike by Orange bigots in Northern Ireland who opposed “power-sharing” with the oppressed Catholic minority:
“It was not a strike about ‘air safety’ and the violation of international language procedures. These issues were purely diversionary.…
“In fact the strike was geared to a very different objective – the defense of a job trust based on national privilege, the defense of the ‘right’ of a small number of Anglophone controllers in Quebec to work only in English at the expense of the Québécois majority of pilots and controllers. It was this goal which gave the strike the character of a fundamentally reactionary struggle and it should have been denounced by all working class organizations.”
—Old Mole, No. 30, July-August 1976
The July 1976 WV article argued that those who opposed the strike (including Quebec nationalists, “the Quebec section of the governing Liberal Party,” and “virtually the entire Canadian left”) were refusing “to recognize the very real safety issue posed by the dispute over bilingual air traffic control.” If the strike to abort French language air traffic control in Quebec was supportable because “the essential point is that there be one language of the air,” how does it follow that “The Montreal comrades were right to oppose the 1976 article on air traffic control”?
The RMG’s position was wrong, but it was at least logically coherent. The iSt line at the time was also consistent but it is very hard to see any logic in the ICL’s current posture. It is of course hypothetically possible for an article which is essentially politically correct to include one or more mistaken, or even racist, formulation. In that case it would be necessary to clearly identify and repudiate the erroneous formulations while making clear why the fundamental argument remains valid. But the ICL doubletalk about repudiating a “racist” article while upholding its central thrust leaves everything cloudy. Perhaps deliberately.
Like much else in the ICL, the key to this riddle may have something to do with the inclinations and proclivities of James Robertson, or at least the importance of preserving his reputation as the uniquely correct embodiment of revolutionary continuity. The Spartacist account suggests that Robertson took an interest in the issue as soon as the Montreal comrades raised it, and quotes an entirely fanciful account of the article’s genesis:
“As comrade Robertson noted in a ‘Letter on 1976’ (30 November 2016):
“‘There is a reason why the Canadian comrades at the time picked the Air Traffic Controllers strike to write what they did. There was a national upsurge in Quebec and the then TLC chose to write on the one excess that they could find in that political upsurge. The comrades should have hailed the upsurge while also noting the one question which fell outside the legitimate and praiseworthy liberationary political movement.’“The appetite that shaped our intervention at that time was defined by a capitulation to dominant Anglo-North American pressures.”
In fact the TL comrades addressed the issue for the same reason rest of the left and the bourgeois media did – it was a major national political crisis of comparable (or larger) dimensions than the 1981 showdown between Ronald Reagan and PATCO, the U.S. air controllers’ union. For nine days in late June 1976, on the eve of the Montreal Olympics, pilots and controllers in Quebec defied the courts and the federal government. Unlike PATCO, they were victorious and succeeded in blocking the federal government’s attempt to introduce bilingual air traffic control at major airports in Quebec.
The suggestion in the letter attributed to Robertson that the Canadian comrades’ coverage of the strike was chiefly aimed at disparaging the nationalist upsurge is transparently ridiculous. Not only did the confrontation dominate the national news for weeks, but the iSt’s position was diametrically opposed to that taken by the rest of the left, which made it all the more important to get into to print on the issue.
“The Canadian comrades at the time,” led by Libby Schaefer and Yossi, had originally taken a position of opposition to the strike and support for bilingual air control in Quebec, just like the RMG and the rest of the left. Robertson (supported by the rest of the SL leadership) furiously opposed this and, at a “Laterally Expanded West Coast CC [i.e., Spartacist League Central Committee] Group” held in the Bay Area on 5 July 1976, passed motions in support of the air controllers’ strike, all of which were subsequently endorsed by the SL Political Bureau on 14 July 1976. On 8 July Bill Logan, who had attended the Bay Area meeting while on his way from Australia to Europe, flew to Toronto for an emergency meeting to discuss the issue. Everyone in the TL, except Yossi and Libby (who soon decamped to the LSA/LSO), was won over to the SL leadership’s position of supporting the strike.
If Robertson’s once impressive ability to recall apposite political facts is not what it used to be, why did it not occur to one of the dozens of ICLers who were around in 1976 to correct his mistaken recollection? A quick perusal of the archives could easily have filled things in. Every meeting pertaining to the air traffic controllers’ dispute (as well as every other significant event) was tape recorded and many were minuted. We suggest that ICL comrades who have any doubt about our account seek access to the documentary record so they can confirm for themselves.
The Hydra document seeks to absolve Robertson from any responsibility for the development of the SL’s position on the national question in the mid-1970s. The founder/leader is celebrated for having “fought relentlessly to develop the consciousness among Anglophone comrades of the importance of learning other languages.” Yet:
“Despite all his efforts, part of the American leadership developed a chauvinist, anti-internationalist line, opposing national liberation struggles in multinational states. This line caused us incalculable damage, greatly limiting our ability to extend internationally, especially in non-Anglophone oppressed nations.”
Readers are left to work out for themselves how the “part of the American leadership [which] developed a chauvinist anti-internationalist line” managed to sneak it past comrade Robertson and his fellow internationalists who attended every meeting, voted on every motion and reviewed every publication. As far as we are aware, all line documents and virtually every article touching on any aspect of the national question that appeared in WV in the 1970s were approved without any major controversy. Did comrade Robertson or anyone else in his “part of the American leadership” object to anything or even express any reservations? How could such an outstanding internationalist have failed to notice a supposed turn toward overt Anglo-chauvinism? Or was he perhaps aware of it but unable or unwilling to challenge the perpetrators?
The authors of the Hydra document offer no explanation of Robertson’s opacity and/or passivity in the face of what they depict as a major revisionist assault on the organization’s revolutionary integrity. In our experience, Robertson was never shy about expressing his opinions within the SL, nor can we recall an instance in the mid to late 1970s when he did not get pretty much what he wanted. We vividly remember, for example, how in 1978 he threw a tantrum when a fellow political bureau member dared to suggest that a formulation or two in a draft he had co-authored might have made it somewhat “unbalanced.”
While vague about much, one thing the Hydra document is quite specific about is the date of the SL’s descent (or was it a leap?) into chauvinism:
“in 1974, as the ‘Declaration for the Organizing of an International Trotskyist Tendency’ was being signed (see Spartacist [English edition] No. 23, Spring 1977), a number of American cadres embraced an anti-Leninist position on the national question. This perversion of Leninism was both facilitated and exacerbated by the preponderance of the American section in the International.”
This is a story that is obviously ridiculous. An unnamed cabal of senior SL chauvinists decide, in their wickedness, to strike at the very moment that comrade Robertson was busy signing an important statement of internationalist intent. We expect that many readers would share our interest in finding out more about the mechanics of exactly how this “perversion of Leninism” was foisted on Robertson and his gormless fellow internationalists so easily. How was it, we wonder, that none of them noticed anything for decades? Did they not read Workers Vanguard?
It also occurs to us that if, as the Hydra document alleges, Robertson was indeed “opposed” to the Spartacist position on the national question, he must have found himself (secretly) agreeing with many, if not all, the criticisms levelled at the SL by its various leftist opponents, including the Hansenite SWP, their Mandelite rivals, all the assorted Maoists, and of course the pesky Shachtmanites of the League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP), whose orthodox Trotskyist posture always particularly galled Robertson. In the 1950s, when he and LRP founder Sy Landy were still both young men, Robertson broke from Max Shachtman’s state department socialist organization, while Landy stayed behind as a leftist dissident within it.
If, as the Hydra document suggests, Robertson always objected to the notion that all nations have equal rights, he probably had little criticism of the LRP’s assertion, in a major polemic against the SL, that: “To guarantee such rights to an oppressor can only mean equating the rights of oppressor and oppressed – and that always comes down to denying the rights of the oppressed” (Socialist Voice No. 3, Spring 1977). This is, of course, pretty much the view the ICL has now arrived at.
The LRP polemic was occasioned by a public forum the SL held at Columbia University in New York in late January 1977. Comrade Robertson, the featured speaker, must have experienced considerable distress as he stood at the rostrum and forcefully defended a proposition the ICL now considers a “perversion of Leninism,” if he thought that the principle of equal rights for all nations was just plain wrong:
“Responding to angry criticism from the audience, the Spartacists alleged that they, like Lenin and the Bolsheviks, supported the right of self-determination for ‘all’ nations. What a travesty! It would never have occurred to Lenin, nor to any other leftist until the Spartacists, that the ‘great’ imperialist oppressor nations were in need of self-determination.”
Four decades later those ICL cadres who have swallowed the new line (as opposed to those who voted unanimously in favor of it without actually agreeing) must look back with regret at all the time and effort they spent corrupting new recruits, long-time supporters and anyone else who would listen, with what they now consider to have been pro-imperialist, chauvinist propaganda.
The claim in the Hydra account that Robertson shares no responsibility for any mistakes (even before a comprehensive list of all the positions that must logically be renounced has been formulated) is clearly based on his supposed opposition to the group’s entire orientation on the national question in Quebec:
“This line was established in opposition to comrade Robertson: already in 1976, he proposed calling for Quebec independence, a proposal that was unanimously rejected.”
No one in the iSt at the time who we have consulted – including a number of Canadians – has any recollection of comrade Robertson or anyone else calling for Quebec independence in 1976. Given that a large proportion of the Canadian group at that point had been won over from the Pabloite RMG, and that issues involving Quebec had loomed large in debates with them (and the LSA) for years, such a sensational proposal could not have gone unnoticed. In 1995, when Robertson actually did propose to change the line to one of unconditional advocacy of independence for Quebec, there were several months of discussion before the ICL publicly announced the new line. Yet in the ICL’s International Internal Bulletin No. 37 (July 1995), which reprinted the written discussion over the issue, neither Robertson nor anyone else mentioned him floating such a proposal in 1976, nor its “unanimous rejection.”
We suspect that the reason it was not mentioned is because it never happened. To whom did comrade Robertson supposedly make his proposal? Who “unanimously” rejected it? Is there any documentary record? If he did not write a memo, surely he would have put forward a motion at the political bureau meeting or plenum, or wherever else he supposedly made his proposal.
Perhaps the single most ludicrous claim in the effort to put together a backdated cover story to absolve Robertson from any responsibility for the line on Quebec that he, more than anyone else, was instrumental in developing is the following:
“There was a sharp contrast between our approach in places where comrade Robertson was actively involved in the work, such as the British Isles and Ceylon, where we had a Leninist position, and places where he had very little involvement, such as Canada or Spain, where our line was openly chauvinist.”
Comrade Robertson, for all his faults, was never much for trying to market provable falsehoods so it seems improbable that he is the source of this. More likely it was fabricated by courtiers who are themselves ignorant of what happened and indifferent to the truth. The SL never had anything in Spain, and Robertson, who is monolingual, never had any significant political involvement there. But he was deeply involved, particularly in the early years, with the Spartacist operation in Canada which was both a lucrative source of valuable young recruits, and an important arena to engage Ernest Mandel’s International Majority Tendency of the USec via the RMG, its Canadian affiliate.
The RMG had a layer of serious and relatively experienced cadres who were open to discussion with the SL – former RMGers and RMG periphery made up more than half the membership of the Trotskyist League at its launch in 1975. The RMG leftists were important enough that Robertson personally made trips to both Toronto and Winnipeg in 1974 to talk to them. When the central figure in the RMG’s left wing (who never joined the Spartacists) travelled to New York in early 1974 to meet with the SL leadership, he stayed in Robertson’s apartment in Spanish Harlem.
At that time the SL was very interested in launching a British group, but had no indigenous members. As the Canadian group grew Robertson made the pleasing discovery that many of the new recruits (or their partners) were entitled to British passports. In fact, he was so interested that he married one of them and went off to live in London for a few months to help develop a Spartacist group there. During the summer of 1976, when Robertson was leading “London Station,” it had six members besides himself: four of these (including his wife) were from Toronto. Within a year another four Canadians arrived in Britain. Robertson took a great personal interest in this work and was actively involved in selecting the Canadian personnel for Britain.
Robertson also took an interest in political developments in the Canadian section. He had been closely involved in developing the “conditional non-support” tactic that was applied for the first time to candidates of the New Democratic Party in the 1974 Canadian federal election. In May 1975 when he felt that the fledgling Toronto branch was exhibiting too much of a New Left/Menshevik bulge in its functioning he dispatched two SL political bureau members with instructions to split the group if they encountered resistance. He also helped develop the SL’s overall strategic approach to Quebec as well as the positions on the language laws and air traffic control strike.
The first issue of Spartacist Canada features a photograph of the founding conference of the TL in 1975, with comrade Robertson (along with three other SL PB members) clearly visible in the audience. The 1995 decision to advocate Quebec independence, a position now judged to be “centrist,” was carried through at Robertson’s personal initiative – as is documented in the International Internal Bulletin No. 37 (July 1995) which the SL released publicly. Whether one considers the SL’s line in Canada in the 1970s to have been Leninist (as we do) or “openly chauvinist” (as the ICL now insists), it is simply a fact that comrade Robertson played a larger role in shaping it that anyone else.
In “The Road to Jimstown,” our 1985 description of the political degeneration of the once-revolutionary Spartacist League, we observed that Robertson’s status as unquestioned líder máximo was not obvious to those viewing the group from the outside:
“The bounds within which Robertson historically had to operate have been progressively stretched to the point where there is no longer any effective control on him within the organization. Yet the cult of Robertson the Great Man/genius-leader is peculiar in that it is not manifested in the public activity of the group (apart from the occasional bizarre and idiotic ‘angular’ position). The analogy of which he is personally fond, is that of East Germany where everything is done by the book and a facade of collective leadership is maintained, as opposed to North Korea where the Divine Succession is literally written into the constitution.”
This is clearly no longer the case. As Robertson’s days draw to a close and his capacities wane, he is receiving far more hagiographic treatment in the public press of the ICL – although still relatively restrained by comparison, for example, with the Revolutionary Communist Party’s promotion of Chairman Bob Avakian, the Maoist political mediocrity whose every commonplace utterance is celebrated as a profundity.
The authors of the ICL’s Hydra piece, while attacking fundamental elements of the Trotskyist program which once helped define the Spartacist tendency politically, simultaneously double down on the celebration of comrade Robertson, despite the fact that he took the lead in developing what they now consider to be a perversion of Leninism. It is a difficult act to pull off, and thus hardly surprising that at some junctures the narrative becomes a bit convoluted. At one point, Robertson’s retirement from the SL’s New York headquarters is melded into the fall of the Soviet Union, as the putative source of the ICL’s unending political disorientation and organizational disarray:
“The Trotskyist position on the Soviet Union was a central programmatic reference point for our tendency. The fall of the USSR marked a key turning point in history and also for the internal life of our organization. This event came after years of working-class retreat in the West, and these objective developments coincided with comrade Robertson, the main architect of our internationalist politics, leaving the center. These accumulated factors led a layer of cadres to become deeply disoriented and to call into question our revolutionary purpose. The loss of a revolutionary proletarian compass led successive party regimes to seek shortcuts through a series of opportunist campaigns.”
We have previously analyzed in some detail the ICL’s profound political failures in regard to the 1991 triumph of counterrevolution in the USSR and related events. But this is the first time we have seen the ICL link this world-historic defeat for the proletariat with Robertson’s move from New York to a well-appointed home on a Bay Area marina (purchased for that purpose by the organization). The sentence describing how the ICL’s “loss of a proletarian compass” resulted in a “series of opportunist campaigns” is somewhat ambiguous – was it Robertson, or the Kremlin Stalinists, or some combination of the two, that oriented the group’s political line prior to 1991? In fact, the SL’s distance from the Trotskyist tradition it once embodied was evident years earlier. 
Robertson, who for at least a half century played the central and decisive role in shaping the politics of the iSt/ICL, is decorously described as “the main architect of our internationalist politics,” implying that others bear responsibility for the “anti-internationalist” positions recently disowned. But the fact that Robertson was no longer resident in New York hardly absolves him of responsibility for the ICL’s record of fluctuating revisionist enthusiasms – he remained chairman of the SL and a full member of the ICL’s international leadership when the various sectarian and opportunist errors were being discussed, approved and carried out. He was no Gorbachev, isolated in his dacha during the coup, without any means of communicating to the outside world. If Robertson did not comment on any of the various deviations that took place while living on the marina, it was either because he saw nothing much to object to, or, as in the case of the grotesque social-imperialist capitulation over Haiti in 2010, because he initiated and/or endorsed them.
The inherent difficulty of developing a back story to explain how the iSt/ICL was unknowingly swallowed whole by anti-Leninism accounts for many of the incongruities in the Hydra document. The claim that the beloved founder/leader somehow maintained an unblemished record, and the organization as a whole can still claim to represent the unique embodiment of unbroken revolutionary continuity, despite decades in the hellish vortex of hideous chauvinism and craven capitulation to imperialism, seems almost as mysterious as the Christian doctrine of transubstantiation.
In attempting to square the circle created by dumping key programmatic positions while simultaneously maintaining the myth of the infallibility of their architect, the Hydra scribes have little choice but to serve up large portions of confusion. In addition to outright falsifications regarding Robertson’s role in Canada, the origin of the position on Quebec’s language laws and the “racist” 1976 air traffic controllers’ strike, essential elements of the story just do not hang together. One obvious thing that any serious person would want to know is when exactly the ICL is supposed to have gone off the rails. The Hydra document provides two conflicting answers (without attempting to substantiate either of them). Was it in 1974, when “a part” of the SL leadership supposedly introduced a chauvinist methodology on the national question while Chairman Robertson wasn’t looking? Or was it in 1991, when the combination of Robertson’s relocation to California and the triumph of counterrevolution in the Soviet Union permanently dislocated the ICL’s “revolutionary compass”?
The only indication in the Hydra document of how the new leadership intends to handle these challenges comes in a few, somewhat oblique, remarks from “one leading Québécois comrade.” Dismissing those who would “place the primary blame for our problems on the pressures of the unfavorable reality that we have confronted” (perhaps a reference to the well-worn alibi regarding the destruction of the USSR) the comrade asserts:
“The task of the upcoming conference is to elect a leadership that will be the most capable of confronting the challenges ahead with a Trotskyist program. We have no guarantee of success, but we have a chance. However, we cannot correct our course if we do not confront our past face on. This is the only way we can defend our continuity.”
Reading between the lines, this seems to be a proposal to defend the “continuity” of the ICL through repudiating much of the past 40 years of “chauvinism,” and electing new leaders who will not shrink from carrying out a hard nationalist turn, which, perhaps for old times’ sake, is disingenuously described as “a Trotskyist program.”
One of the more implausible claims advanced in the Hydra document is that the elderly “founding leader of our international tendency, Jim Robertson” played a central role in “waging the battle against Anglo-chauvinism.” In his prime Robertson combined hypersensitivity to any hint of anti-Americanism in the SL’s foreign affiliates, with a well-known proclivity for disparaging jokes about foreign nationals and ethnicities.
It was normally confined to in-house events and informal chats, but on one occasion this regrettable tendency went on public display. The event was the 29 January 1977 Columbia forum referred to above; in attendance were members of the LRP and other leftist opponents as well as scores of SL members and supporters. The subsequent issue of the LRP’s paper featured a polemical article that included some of the more offensive remarks Robertson sprinkled throughout his address:
“Robertson delivered a series of chauvinist epithets that insulted the revolutionary capacities of the working classes everywhere and denigrated almost every non-white, non-American and non-English speaking people that got in his way. His theme was to blame the working masses for the weak state of the revolutionary movement.”
—Socialist Voice, No. 3, Spring 1977
The LRP quoted Robertson as remarking: “The Greek population exists by selling its children or selling Swiss watches to one another.” They also reported: “Albania, the only ‘workers state’ Robertson saw fit to mention’ was a nation of ‘goat-fuckers’.” The LRP drew the following unflattering conclusion:
“In this case Robertson’s words spoke louder than his purported political message. One who claims to be an internationalist yet breathes contempt for every people but his own, is no internationalist.”
Workers Vanguard (16 September 1977) published a letter from a San Francisco leftist headlined “Shocked” inquiring about the LRP’s report of the meeting. Instead of addressing anything of substance, WV sidestepped, brazenly sneering: “If you believe what you read about the Spartacist League in Socialist Voice, you'll love the Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” The unmistakable implication was that the LRP had misrepresented or distorted Robertson’s remarks; but in fact the Socialist Voice report was substantially accurate, as every Spartacist who had attended was well aware.
Ultimately it proved difficult to sweep the whole episode under the rug because the Stalinophobic LRP had not been the only opponent to witness Robertson’s performance at Columbia. Also in attendance were members of Communist Cadre (CTC), an offshoot of Sam Marcy’s Stalinophilic Workers World Party. While the LRP had only scribbled down what they could with pen and paper, CTC had recorded the entire event and in due course published a pamphlet entitled “What the Spartacist League Really Stands For – A Self-Exposure by James Robertson,” with transcriptions of much of Robertson’s commentary.
The CTC highlighted Robertson’s comments on Albania, which he attributed to Marx. The idea that Marx had a low opinion of Albania was doubtless intended as a dig at the variety of U.S. Maoist groups, which, disenchanted that “capitalist roaders” ended up atop the Chinese Communist Party bureaucracy after Mao died, had embraced Tirana as the capital of their new socialist fatherland:
“We have had our comrades checking, and it is not yet assured, but we believe that Marx referred to Albanians as ‘goat-fuckers.’ Is that true? (loud laughter) But then he was prone to be ethnically pejorative of races (laughter rises) and it must be pointed out that, to this day, and under the conditions of the Fourth Five Year Plan, the production of goats is still the principal.… (here Robertson is cut short by laughing and whistling and applauding SLers)”.
The CTC’s transcript, and the fact that it could be verified with a recording, created something of a sensation on the left and made further SL attempts to avoid the issue pointless. So WV changed tack and eventually addressed the question head on in an article entitled “New Left Moralists’ Big Lie Campaign” :
“Last year Sy Landy’s Socialist Voice (Spring 1977) began hawking a diatribe against ‘The Spartacist League's Scandalous Chauvinism.’ The article claimed a January 1977 New York forum by SL National Chairman James Robertson ‘added a new, ugly, and damaging stain on the reputation of Trotskyism.’ The reason? ‘Robertson delivered a series of chauvinist epithets that insulted the revolutionary capacities of the working classes everywhere and denigrated almost every non-white, non-American and non-English speaking people.…’ To wit:
“‘The Greek population exists by selling its children or selling Swiss watches to one another.’“Whew! No one is safe it seems, from the SL’s acid comments.”
“‘Albania, the only ‘workers state’ Robertson saw fit to mention, was a nation of ‘goat fuckers.’
. . .“‘But Robertson saved his vilest spleen for the American blacks: ‘The black population burned down the ghettoes and it’s now waiting for the Jews to come back and open up the drug stores. High prices charged by storekeepers in the ghetto were attributed to the fact that ‘black kids rip them off’.”
—WV No. 218, 20 October 1978
Lenin, in criticizing similarly “acid comments” by Stalin and other Bolsheviks, observed: “nothing holds up the development and strengthening of proletarian class solidarity so much as national injustice; ‘offended’ nationals are not sensitive to anything so much as to the feeling of equality and the violation of this equality, if only through negligence or jest.” What a member of a dominant imperialist nation may consider light-hearted banter about this or that foreign ethnicity, is rightly perceived as a manifestation of chauvinist bullying by those on the receiving end.
Workers Vanguard’s defense of Robertson’s disgraceful performance included the following revealing passage:
“In the introduction, CTC queries:
“‘What can one say of a man who claims to be a revolutionary and who publicly refers to the Albanian peasants as “goatfuckers.” Who complains of the poor showing made by an SL candidate to student office even though “we ran a very pretty girl”? … And what can one say of the SL membership who did not sit through this shameless performance in embarrassed silence, but who roared their approval at every turn, cheering Robertson on to the next indecency, to the next slap at the oppressed?’“One can say of the SL that it does not mince words, that it is not afraid to speak frankly to the socialist public about any subject – including itself.”
Given the new eagerness to renounce “chauvinist” episodes from its past, anyone unfamiliar with how things work in the ICL might expect that, after a reevaluation, the defense of Robertson’s remarks at Columbia would be repudiated. A retraction of the 20 October 1978 article, which exhibited some of the more malignant tendencies operating in the revolutionary SL at the time, would represent a serious step in the direction of political regeneration. But this is virtually impossible to imagine.
In 1977, despite Robertson’s enormous political authority with the SL cadre, most of them were uncomfortable with his “goatfuckers” performance, which gave their centrist and reformist opponents a lot to work with. The fact that Robertson had (probably sincerely) attributed his chauvinist characterization of Albanians to Marx did not reduce the damage, particularly after an intensive review of Marx’s writings failed to turn up anything.
Overt criticism of Robertson’s appalling performance was out of the question (doing so would likely have resulted in severe censure if not expulsion) but there was an informal recognition within the organization that the Columbia forum had been at least a minor disaster and that the blowback it generated was not doing the SL any good. Everyone knew that similar remarks by any other member would be immediately repudiated and the perpetrator harshly reprimanded, but “Jim” had a license to do pretty much what he wished at that point in the SL’s history. However, there were limits, and while no motion was passed, nor any admission of error made, it was (informally) agreed that henceforth: 1) Robertson would not be asked to speak in public and 2) the SL would never again permit non-members to record its public events.
Robertson’s record of pejorative ethnic jokes was also the subject of a heated 2003 exchange that began with an ICL attack on the IBT as “self-satisfied great-power chauvinists” in relation to the Kurdish national liberation struggle (WV, 6 June 2003). We vigorously rebutted this slander and in a postscript (which was discreetly omitted when WV subsequently published our letter) asked the author of the polemic if he recalled:
“ICL líder máximo James Robertson’s reference to Kurds as ‘Turds’? Does he detect any hint of ‘self-satisfied great-power chauvinism’ in that? Robertson made this piggish remark in a 15 October 1978 speech to the SL’s New York branch in which he recounted how he had purged the leadership of the British Spartacist League. In the course of his talk, Robertson gently chided Reuben Samuels, the SL’s Middle East expert:
“‘Criticism of Reuben: the whole time, where was Reuben? He was off in the library, studying about the Turds for his class. [Reuben Samuels, who had been flown in from Toronto a week earlier had been in the British Museum preparing an internal educational on the Kurdish question.] Right? He wasn’t playing any role.’”“This remark cannot be explained away as a ‘joke’ or an ‘angular’ political characterization. It is simply vulgar chauvinism, yet because it was spoken by the SL’s founder/leader, it was duly transcribed and reprinted in the group’s internal bulletin without comment or criticism.”
—International Discussion Bulletin, No. 10, Part 1, January 1979, ‘Run, run, run, run, run, run, run … chop,’ p. 60
In subsequent exchanges the ICL twisted and squirmed as it attempted to exculpate their leader, but everyone who had been in the iSt at the time knew that we were telling the simple truth about the whole disgraceful episode. In the midst of the polemical exchanges on this issue we received the following unsolicited communication from a former Spartacist League/Britain cadre:
“Who indeed would think that Robertson was referring to the Kurds, when Reuben was away preparing his talk instead of taking part in the defence of the oppressed?
“Well, we all did. Why? Because Reuben’s talk was on – the Kurds. And if not to the Kurds, to whom, or what, did Robertson’s remark refer?
“In a normal organisation, the other senior leaders would say, comrade, apologize.… But in the SL, every whim, every drunken sally of the Leader must be defended.”
Rather than distance themselves from Robertson’s chauvinist excesses the ICL has routinely defended them, Turds, goatfuckers and all. Given this record, the ludicrous passages in the Hydra document portraying their líder máximo as having an exemplary record of combating chauvinism are just laughable. The claim that he had an unbroken record of championing Québécois nationalism is also not true – to his credit.
For 40 years, according to the Hydra document, the Spartacist tendency provided an ideological justification for chauvinism and national oppression. During all that time, according to the ICL, Robertson (secretly) opposed this policy, although for some unspecified reason was either unable or unwilling to openly express his true views. Robertson’s opposition was passive and subterranean until an influx of young Québécois nationalist allies finally levelled the field. Only then, according to the fanciful Hydra account, did Robertson, at that point an octogenarian, summon up the political courage to challenge the ICL’s chief theoretician, Joseph Seymour and his legions of neo-Luxemburgian supporters, who for decades had managed to cover their tracks by backing all their arguments with quotations from Lenin (see “In Defense of (Seymour’s) Marxism”).
In its prime the Spartacist League was distinguished from its centrist competitors by its fidelity to revolutionary principle and a willingness to call things by their right names. While ostensible Trotskyists – from Joseph Hansen and Ernest Mandel to Gerry Healy – were promoting illusions in the revolutionary socialist potential of Arab colonels and sheiks, Salvador Allende’s cross-class Unidad Popular, Ayatollah Khomeini’s “Islamic Republic,” and Lech Walesa’s anti-communist Solidarnosc, the SL insisted that only a politically-conscious working class, led by an internationalist Leninist/Trotskyist vanguard party, has the capacity to carry out a genuinely socialist transformation.
The revolutionary élan of the iSt at its highpoint in the mid-1970s derived from the coherence of its politics. This had begun to erode by the early 1980s as Robertson, having established his right to do pretty much whatever he felt like within the group, began violating the rigorously Trotskyist programmatic framework which long defined the Spartacist tendency. The first instance came in 1981 when the SL marched under the flag of the Salvadoran popular front in an anti-imperialist demonstration (see “Declaration of an external tendency of the iSt,” October 1982). The next year the SL named a contingent of its supporters after Yuri Andropov, then chief Soviet bureaucrat, who had played a central role in crushing the 1956 Hungarian workers’ political revolution. In an exchange with Robertson we expressed our surprise and disappointment with this blatant violation of the Trotskyist program:
“Calling yourselves the ‘Yuri Andropov Brigade’ was a mistake. All of your very considerable political experience as well as the talents of the capable and devoted Marxists who produce WV can’t change that. If we were to offer you some advice it would be this: don’t try to defend the indefensible, it can only produce bad results.
“For several decades you played a critical role in preserving, defending and even developing the Trotskyist program. But you didn’t thereby acquire proprietary rights to it. Adulation of a Stalinist bureaucrat can neither be squared with fidelity to Trotskyism in general nor with Soviet defensism in particular. We doubt that you would even have tried ten years ago.
“The fact that you find it so necessary to cling to this error, indeed the fact that it could occur in the first place, is evidence that the leadership of the SL/US, with you at the apex, is losing its political bearings. This can only be a reflection of the atrophying of confidence in the possibility of building a mass Bolshevik party capable of leading the seizure of power by the working class.
“There is a necessary and reciprocal relationship between the loss of communist cutting edge and the destruction of internal democracy in a revolutionary organization.”
—Trotskyist Bulletin No. 1, “Only Trotskyism Can Defend the Gains of October.”
These early departures were followed in October 1983 by a more critical programmatic error that foreshadowed the Haiti capitulation. Fearful of becoming a target of state repression by the Reagan administration after a group calling itself “Islamic Jihad” bombed a U.S. Marine barracks in Lebanon, the SL flinched and called for saving the survivors. During the 1984 presidential campaign WV openly repudiated the SL’s longstanding position that there is “not a dime’s worth of difference” between the twin parties of U.S. imperialism and, in an obvious attempt to sidle up to the Democrats, offered a dozen defense guards to help fend off an imaginary fascist/Republican attack on their convention.
In our 2005 pamphlet, “Whatever Happened to the Spartacist League?” we discussed how the degenerating SL increasingly determined “its positions on the basis of expediency and perceived organizational advantage, rather than Marxist principle.” The reason that the flagrant programmatic departures of the early 1980s failed to generate any overt internal resistance was because of the already highly bureaucratized nature of the group’s internal regime:
“Honest revolutionaries can make mistakes. The SL, however, lacks the capacity for correcting these mistakes that only a democratic internal life can provide. It is the doctrine of Robertsonian infallibility, and the adamant refusal to acknowledge that an opponent could be right where it was wrong, that drives the SL to persist in and compound its original errors, to play havoc with reality in the process, and finally to descend gradually into incoherence.”
—“A Dismal Symmetry”
Robertson is not the first former revolutionary who proved unable to remain true to the ideals of his youth. As a key figure in the Revolutionary Tendency of the SWP, and the central leader of the Spartacist tendency in its best period, he made some vitally important contributions; but, on balance, his record is not an honorable one – he was too petty, too self-indulgent, too cynical, and inflicted too much gratuitous pain on many who trusted him. His worst crime was the willful and capricious destruction of dozens of dedicated revolutionary cadres.
Robertson was always good at sizing up people and was attuned to detecting human weakness. He generally took a conservative approach to building the Spartacist tendency; tended to avoid taking too many chances and preferred to avoid risk rather than pursue opportunity. He wanted to scale up the operation, but was very reluctant to lose tight personal control. This is why, even in its best period, every foreign section of the iSt had one or more trusted American cadres in its top leadership.
Robertson cultivated individuals (usually women) as special friends who would pass along gossip and report to him on casual remarks or opinions informally expressed by other members in private conversation. Such people, sometimes referred to as “listening posts,” were often among the least politically engaged members. They were among those who enjoyed what was known as “special protection,” a status which meant that mistakes or transgressions were generally either overlooked or treated with leniency.
The top tier of the organization, which included Robertson’s inner circle, was, for the most part, composed of talented, energetic and committed cadres, most of whom were also, in various ways, partial, damaged or otherwise vulnerable. This made them less likely to pose any serious challenge to the líder máximo. Over the years cadres judged too independent or insufficiently submissive, or thought capable of developing an independent base within the membership, were frequently criticized, and often demoted and pushed to the margins, if not out of the group entirely.
Initially this was intended to insure the revolutionary SL against potential revisionist challengers and damaging splits, but the long-term effect was to gradually cement Robertson’s unquestioned supremacy within the organization, draining it of internal political dynamism. The relentless pruning of potential dissidents through heresy hunts, sub-political purges and show-trials in the late 1970s and early 1980s had the cumulative effect of destroying the morale and political integrity of both the victims and the bystander/participants while elevating mediocrities and sycophants to leading positions.
The result was an organization with obedient and depoliticized cadres who can turn on a dime, but who lack self-confidence and political integrity. This, not the fall of the Soviet Union, is why no one stood up to openly oppose the grossly social-patriotic support for U.S. military intervention in Haiti in 2010 (and why there had been no serious opposition to all the earlier revisionism that paved the way for the Haitian capitulation).
In his youth, in the 1950s, Robertson was a serious and self-sacrificing revolutionist whose careful study of the history of the Trotskyist movement propelled him steadily to the left in an arid period when almost everyone else was moving rightward. Although he ultimately proved unworthy of the big ideas he once ably defended, he, more than anyone else, shaped the politics of the Spartacist tendency which, during the 1960s and 70s, had the distinction of being the world’s only authentically Trotskyist organization.
In its best period the SL under Robertson’s leadership not only defended the Trotskyist program, but also made some important contributions to it, including the now repudiated approach to the national question, particularly the difficult and complicated challenges posed by situations of “interpenetrated peoples.” The renunciation of much of this history cannot detract from the clarity of the analysis put forward by the revolutionary SL in the 1970s.
Robertson lacked the character necessary to sustain revolutionary activity as American society drifted relentlessly to the right from the mid-1970s. As prospects of imminent revolutionary breakthroughs receded, he opted for the petty pleasures available to the big frog in the little pond of the Spartacist tendency. Gradually the unaccountable founder/leader’s materially privileged lifestyle was normalized within the group, while other full-timers were expected to eke out an existence on minimal subsidies. This all went hand in hand with the effective elimination of any real internal democracy in the iSt.
James M. Robertson will end up with a footnote in the history of American Trotskyism, but it will not be one he would have wanted. He will be remembered as a capable, but small caliber, person who, for a time, played a vital role as a link in the chain of revolutionary continuity. But also as someone whose intelligence and strong personality was combined with personal insecurities that led him to abuse many vulnerable, and often very young, revolutionaries, and ultimately to undermine the revolutionary program he once championed.
What’s left of the SL’s once impressive central cadre has now sunk low enough to unanimously approve (doubtless with plenty of gritted teeth and crossed fingers) a document celebrating the innate “revolutionary” dynamic of (some) bourgeois-nationalist formations. It is hard not to see this brainless and untimely revisionism as signifying that the ICL is entering its terminal phase. Once Robertson departs this mortal coil we expect to see the ICL membership immediately unite as one to mourn his passing and celebrate the genius of their deceased chieftain. Yet, even as tears flow, paeans of praise are heaped upon the blessed memory of the deceased el supremo, and pledges of eternal fealty to his work ring out, it seems likely that in the background knives will be sharpened and other preparations made for all the horse-trading, double-crossing and backstabbing that will likely accompany the determination of a new pecking order.
It is hard to imagine the ICL finding a viable niche in the already crowded ecosystem of pro-nationalist pseudo-Trotskyist flora and fauna. Presumably, for a period, it will continue to go through the motions of holding meetings and issuing propaganda. But the chief axis of any struggle for supremacy in the post-Robertsonian ICL seems less likely to focus on programmatic issues than gaining control of the group’s accumulated material assets, which are substantial enough to motivate a few rounds of an in-house “game of thrones.”
Such a struggle is not likely to be particularly edifying, nor would we expect a whole lot of “Trotskyism” to remain once the dust settles, outstanding legal challenges are resolved, the real estate portfolio liquidated and final payouts disbursed. Our hope is that in such an event someone in or around the Prometheus Research Library retains enough interest in Trotskyist history to find a new home for its valuable holdings. It would be a real tragedy if they were to simply be chucked into a dumpster in front of the headquarters, as happened with many SWP materials after Jack Barnes wrote off Trotskyism in the 1980s.
There is only one road out of the impasse humanity faces under the decaying system of global imperialism – the one blazed by the Bolshevik Revolution led by Lenin and Trotsky in October 1917. This political legacy has been defended and enriched by the contributions of generations of revolutionaries, from the founding cadres of the International Left Opposition, to James P. Cannon’s SWP, to the revolutionary Spartacist tendency of the 1960s and 70s. This history must be assimilated by all those seriously committed to the struggle for a reborn Fourth International. The International Bolshevik Tendency is dedicated to advancing this project, both through participation in the living class struggle and by contributing to the elaboration of a coherent analysis of how the Trotskyist movement arrived at our current predicament.
The contradiction between the overripe objective preconditions for a massive eruption of class struggle and the extreme weakness of forces even approximating a revolutionary leadership is more acutely posed today than at any point for well over a century. To resolve this contradiction in a historically progressive fashion it is necessary to begin by understanding its origin. Everything is possible – but only on condition that a new generation of revolutionary working-class fighters successfully absorb the lessons of those who have gone before. It is our profound conviction that the contributions of the SL in its best period will survive the self-immolation of the degenerate shell which remains, and play a critical role in politically equipping those whose struggles will result in the rebirth of the Fourth International, World Party of Socialist Revolution.
1 The “arrogant belittling of comrades” has long been a feature of the internal life of the Spartacist tendency (and hardly restricted to recruits from oppressed countries). See “The Robertson School of Party Building.”
2 The official leadership of the ICL (which substantially overlaps with that of its mothership, the Spartacist League/U.S.) has always been resident in New York. When SL “founder/leader” James Robertson, now in his late 80s, retired to a comfortable marina townhouse in the Bay Area decades ago, he lost day-to-day control, but did not relinquish his status as the ultimate political authority, and periodically intervened when it suited him. This relationship operated in roughly the same fashion as that which allowed Deng Xiaoping to remain “paramount leader” of the CCP long after his nominal retirement in 1989.
3 The report of the Sixth conference noted that articles in Workers Vanguard, the paper of the ICL’s flagship section the Spartacist League/U.S. had, “In addition to justifying the U.S. imperialist troops as essential to the aid effort.… polemicized against the principled and correct position of demanding the immediate withdrawal of the troops.” The polemics were addressed to ourselves and Jan Norden’s Internationalist Group (IG).
4 While the Seventh Conference unanimously approved the new nationalist turn, the official account openly expresses a suspicion that some of the old-time cadres may not have been entirely candid about their attitude to the new line. This is hardly surprising, given that they dedicated their entire adult lives to building an international tendency on the basis of a certain set of ideas, many of which are now rejected in favor of revisionist positions promoted by Joseph Hansen and Ernest Mandel in the 1970s. So, just to be on the safe side, the Spartacist article casually mentions that henceforth old-timers who had long served on the international leadership will be consulted, but will no longer get a vote on the ICL’s leading bodies. They will no doubt also be closely monitored for any sign of dissidence or even lack of enthusiasm for the new line. Yet, as difficult as life may be in the ICL these days for them, it is probably better than taking a chance on life outside “the party.”
5 In the ICL’s major article explaining its line change the only evidence cited of “poisoned relations” was the following bit of electoral impressionism:
“Our perception [previously] was that national antagonisms had not yet become so intense as to make Quebec independence the only means of cutting through these hostilities and bringing the class struggle against capitalism to the fore.
“But within the context of an Anglo-chauvinist unitary Canadian state, the national divide has poisoned relations between the working class of English Canada and Quebec. The depth of this schism can be amply seen in the parties that currently occupy the opposition benches in parliament.”
—“Independence for Quebec!,” Spartacist No. 52, Autumn 1995
The fact that Québécois and Anglo-Canadian workers continued to engage in joint strike action (as they do to this day) was passed over in silence because it contradicted Robertson’s hunch, and his proposal was duly adopted after some perfunctory discussion that is reproduced in the ICL’s International Internal Bulletin, No. 37 (July 1995).
6 In “SL/ICL on Puerto Rico: Annexationist ‘Socialists’” the IG is highly critical of the ICL’s shifting record as regards demanding independence for Puerto Rico. The IG points out that the policy of the Communist International under Lenin and Trotsky was to call for the immediate independence of all colonies. This was a position that the SL in its revolutionary period always upheld, as we do to this day, while recognizing that Puerto Rico’s relationship to its colonial master has some unusual features, notably the fact that Puerto Ricans have American citizenship, a status which many are reluctant to jeopardize. The IG recalls that in 1998 the SL cited this as a complication in raising the call for independence:
“Back in 1998 when the SL announced it did not ‘advocate’ Puerto Rican independence, it argued that most Puerto Ricans are ‘loath to relinquish the benefits of U.S. citizenship.’”
Dismissing this as a “bogus argument,” the IG nonetheless implicitly acknowledges that the question is a complicated one:
“If Puerto Rico becomes independent, that doesn’t mean Puerto Ricans automatically lose U.S. citizenship: witness the large numbers of U.S./Israeli dual citizens. At present it is extremely difficult to strip someone born in the U.S. of their citizenship, although the racists may certainly try.… This underscores the fact that the struggle against the colonial subjugation of Puerto Rico is a battle against racist reaction across the board, and that fight can only be definitively won through socialist revolution.”
The IG points out that when it first raised the call for Puerto Rican independence in a statement issued in 1998 it had:
“stressed the right to independence, as ‘an overwhelming majority of the Puerto Rican population does not presently favor independence’ and ‘the working class has no interest in forcing independence against the will of the Puerto Rican population.’”
This seems a reasonable approach to what is clearly a somewhat anomalous situation.
7 It seems unlikely that Robertson actually wrote the letter attributed to him – perhaps he agreed to put his name on something drafted by others on his behalf. The account it presents of how the TL arrived at its position on the 1976 air controllers strike is such a crude falsification that Robertson, when he was fully operational, would never have endorsed it.
This dispute was a major political event that resulted in the departure of two senior cadres. One of them, Libby Schaefer, the original editor of Spartacist Canada, went on to write “Case History of National Chauvinism, Bureaucratic Methods: The ‘international Spartacist tendency’” for the SWP’s Intercontinental Press (25 February, 3 March 1980).
Much of Schaefer’s attack on the iSt paralleled the self-criticisms of the recent Hydra document, including the iSt’s tendency to “to define ‘self-determination’ in negative terms only” ; its recognition that all nations have rights, not merely oppressed nations; and its opposition to Quebec’s language legislation:
“The SL’s chauvinism on Quebec was reflected again over language rights under the PQ government. Supported by the vast majority of the Québécois, the PQ sought to pass Bill 101 making French the official language of Quebec. The Spartacists opposed this bill.. This ‘misplaced emphasis,’ that is worrying about the rights of the oppressors, while the oppressed struggle for liberation, finds its echo in the SL position on the Middle East.”
Schaefer dumped the SL position of revolutionary defeatism on both sides in favor of supporting the Arab regimes in the 1973 Middle East war – a position implicit in the ICL’s recent turn but not, as yet, publicly announced.
8 Logan’s role in persuading the majority of the TL to support the air controllers’ strike was the only time he had any significant involvement in anything related to Quebec, so this is presumably the basis for the claim in the Hydra document that “Bill Logan … played a prominent role in the elaboration of our Anglo-chauvinist program on Quebec” . Since the ICL still upholds the position that Logan intervened on behalf of, the allegation (presuming it is based on his role in this dispute) is not only entirely baseless, but absurd.
9 We recounted this episode in our founding document:
“When [Liz] Gordon characterized as ‘unbalanced’ an article which Robertson had co-authored ‘He accused the critics, including Gordon, who was leading them, of being liars and sick, so sick that probably only analysis would help.’ (SL IDB No. 30, page 13). Robertson concluded this hysterical outburst by spitting on the floor and storming out of the room. This despite the fact that Gordon had explicitly stated in advance that articles were criticized every week in the ed board meeting on tone and balance without questioning the author’s motives.
“The fact that a minority of the editorial board had dared to raise a criticism of an article which he had co-authored was seen by Robertson as a split issue. (He reportedly arrived home and told his wife that they had better get ready to leave the CC apartment they lived in.) Of the charge of ‘liars’ nothing more was heard. The ed board, duly chastened, hastened to vote approval of the article in all its drafts.”
—”Declaration of an external tendency of the iSt,” October 1982
10 Robertson’s hands-on involvement in developments north of the border was evident at many points. When a recent Canadian recruit drafted a letter to a Winnipeg RMGer with whom he had previously worked as a Toronto New Leftist, the text was carefully reviewed and approved by the SLers running things in Toronto before it was mailed. A copy was automatically forwarded to the SL’s New York headquarters where Robertson read it, and liked it enough to have it reprinted in Workers Vanguard (see “Letter to an RMG Supporter,” WV No. 47, 21 June 1974).
11 In his 26 August 1978 “Comments to the Second National Conference of the SL/B” (iSt International Discussion Bulletin No.10, Part I, page 23) Robertson cast himself in the role of Dr. Frankenstein, committing “vivisection” on the Trotskyist League of Canada in order to create and infuse life into the Spartacist League/Britain:
“I said to several comrades with decreasing vehemence as I got used to the idea, ‘I personally, presently, am the British section.’
“Now many of you are familiar with the myth of Dr. Frankenstein and the monster.… the SL/B consists of bits and pieces culled out of the graveyards of the world … and we even took a small living creature and committed vivisection upon it for the benefit of the monster in Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. I refer to the Canadian section. So you know a bit of brain tissue from New Zealand, a toenail from Australia, some muscle from Canada, a few finger tendons from the United States.”
12 See “Whatever Happened to the Spartacist League?” and Trotskyist Bulletin No. 5, “ICL vs. IBT” (in particular sections Nos. 18-28).
13 See “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”
14 See Trotskyist Bulletin No. 1, “Only Trotskyism Can Defend the Gains of October,” and Trotskyist Bulletin No. 2, “Marxism vs. Social-Patriotism.”
15 “The Question of Nationalities or ‘Autonomisation’,” 31 December 1922.
16 The entire exchange is reprinted in “Kurdistan & the Struggle for National Liberation.”
17 This includes the handful of former SL cadres in the Internationalist Group. In “Whatever Happened to the Spartacist League?” we noted that:
“On many disputed issues the IG occupies a position somewhere between that of the IBT and ICL. For example, the IG has so far maintained strict radio silence on Robertson's chauvinist ‘Turds’ comment which so roiled the ICL. Unwilling to sign his name to WV's ridiculous alibi, Norden sees no profit in unnecessarily antagonizing the SL membership just for the sake of telling the truth. So the IG says nothing.”
18 Our vigorous polemical exchange with the SL over the bombing of the Marine barracks was published in Trotskyist Bulletin No. 2, “Marxism vs. Social-Patriotism.” For discussion of the 1984 overture to the Democrats see: “The Politics of Chicken,” Bulletin of the External Tendency No. 4, May 1985.
19 Another important contribution of the SL was its exemplary trade union activity during the 1970s. In our 1998 edition of the Transitional Program, we documented some outstanding examples of this work and reprinted several important historical articles on the history of communist activity in U.S. trade unions, written in the mid-1970s by Chris Knox with major inputs by Robertson. The ICL has formally repudiated these articles and the entire conception of building programmatically-defined alternative leadership formations in the trade-unions (see “Spartacists Repudiate Class-Struggle Caucuses”).