‘Fear and Obedience’ in the ICL

The Emperor Has No Clothes

After several weeks of ducking and diving, hurling threats and licking wounds, in its 29 August issue Workers Vanguard (WV No. 808) finally bites the bullet and advances an alibi for Spartacist League (SL) chairperson James Robertson’s 1978 grossly chauvinist reference to Kurds as “Turds.” But the explanation is so ridiculous that even hardened SL hacks appear mildly embarrassed by it.

WV concedes that in early October 1978 Reuben Samuels, the group’s expert on the Middle East, flew to London from Toronto “to give a ‘good educational’ on the struggle against Kurdish oppression–a need particularly posed by the recent recruitment of Turkish comrades to our British section.” Samuels’ talk was preempted by a purge of the British leadership (headed by Bill Logan—today a leading member of the International Bolshevik Tendency—IBT), as Robertson explained to the SL’s New York branch a week later:

“So, then, the factional opposition started. We hit the meeting on Friday night; it was a plenum of the Central Committee. Too big. It was half the membership. Because the membership was coming in for an educational weekend. Criticism of Reuben: the whole time, where was Reuben? He was off in the library, studying about the Turds for his class. Right? He wasn’t playing any role. George and I looked at each other and we said, ‘We don't think it's going to be exactly the kind of educational weekend that we had in mind...’. We're going back next month to have the educational. Good educational.”
International Discussion Bulletin No. 10, Part I, p 60

Samuels spent most of the week preceding the purge in the British Museum preparing his educational. WV absurdly pretends that Robertson’s comment about “studying about the Turds for his class” (on the Kurds) was an “indictment” of Samuels “for having his head in the toilet when what was posed was a fight to save our British section from Logan.” The only connection with a “toilet” was Robertson’s puerile and crudely chauvinist vulgarity.

There will undoubtedly be some Robertsonians who will eagerly swallow the official line. But those capable of making such a leap of faith must first embrace the credo of Saint Anselm of Canterbury: “I do not seek to understand in order to believe, but I believe in order to understand.” Even Jan Norden and his confreres in the Internationalist Group, who uncritically defend every egregious deviation by the SL leadership prior to their own purge in 1996, are unlikely to sign on for this one.

One former SLer commented in an email to us:

“I cannot imagine how anyone in the SL, even the most jaded cadre, can be anything but hideously embarrassed by the Turds issue. Surely their rationalization is, ‘This is an utterly minor peccadillo, our only weakness, in an otherwise flawless record. We’ve just got to put up with it and brazen it out’….They KNOW it’s wrong, but choose to hope it’s not too bad.”

The WV article seeks to shore up its explanation with several supplementary arguments. In the first place they complain that we are dredging up a remark Robertson made some 25 years ago (about the same time he falsely attributed a description of Albanians as “goat-fuckers” to Karl Marx at an SL forum in New York). WV also argues that it is implausible that Robertson could have said such a thing because:

“More than a hundred opinionated, argumentative young communists of many different ethnic backgrounds heard Robertson’s presentation. They understood it for what it was...”

They did indeed. Had anyone else made such a disgusting comment they would have been severely criticized, but by 1978 the SL cadre were very well aware that Robertson had a special license to do what he felt like. The process through which Robertson gradually freed himself of all constraints through purging imaginary dissidents was already well underway. The reason Logan was removed in London was because Robertson feared that the British section was developing into a potential counterweight to the hegemony of the SL/US within the international Spartacist tendency (iSt).

In the founding document of our tendency we noted that earlier in 1978 Liz Gordon, a widely respected member of the SL Political Bureau and the group’s leading female comrade, had been humiliated for daring to criticize the SL lider maximo:

“The ‘blow-out’ in the WV ed board in 1978 was another example of the Robertson school of nipping ‘factionalism’ in the bud. When 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

WV does make one legitimate criticism in its recent polemic, the observation that we too sat still for Robertson’s chauvinist slur:

“But then what does that make the BT’s own ‘founder-leaders,’ who were around at the time of Robertson’s New Yorkpresentation and said not a peep? They indict themselves on the charges they falsely fling at us.”

No member of the Spartacist tendency present for Robertson’s speech, nor anyone who read the text in the internal bulletin, including future IBT members, raised any objection. Nor did our comrades object to many other things that were not right. In part this was due to organizational loyalty and a mistaken conviction that the Robertson regime represented the living embodiment of the Trotskyist program. We have addressed this question in our May 1985 document “The Road to Jimstown,” and in Trotskyist Bulletin No. 5, “ICL v. IBT,” points 1-4.

WV’s shrill and irrational denunciation of us as “A Walking Provocation” and its frantic attempts to change the subject by rehashing various slanders against comrade Bill Logan (all of which we dealt with in detail in Trotskyist Bulletin No. 5, points 45-60) reflects the desperation of the SL’s head office in the aftermath of their public humiliation for attempting to sidestep Robertson’s “Turd” comment. The contradiction between the group’s Trotskyist pretensions and the unpleasant reality is starkly illuminated by the SL’s organic inability to simply admit that their founder/leader made a grossly chauvinist remark. The SL cadre is compelled instead to defend the indefensible and abase themselves by pretending to believe WV’s ludicrous and incoherent story.

But there is a price to pay for explanations that explain nothing. Many members of the International Communist League (ICL), particularly younger and more political ones, are obviously distressed by the whole affair. Contrary to WV’s allegation, we do not regard these comrades as “worthless” nor as “obedient tools, fools and perhaps racists themselves.” Over the years we have recruited a good number of former ICLers and we expect to recruit more.

Many ICLers know that Robertson’s remark should be repudiated, not defended. But they are also well aware that anyone who dares to criticize what is so obviously a mistake risks immediate excommunication. Serious people in the ICL should ask themselves whether genuflections to James M. Robertson serve any revolutionary purpose. In 1966, in his final statement to the London Conference of the International Committee, as he was being thrown out by Gerry Healy, Robertson proclaimed:

“This is an attempt to substitute for international democratic centralism for the American section a mechanism not of consciousness and discipline but of fear and obedience.”
Spartacist Nos. 17-18,

The same mechanism governs life in the Spartacist tendency today. Anyone in the ICL who remains committed to the Trotskyist program has a duty to act, as Robertson did in 1966, on the basis of consciousness rather than fear and obedience.

Posted: 12 September 2003