Third IC Conference: Defeat for World Trotskyism

Spartacist No. 6, June-July 1966

It is a bitter irony that the Newsletter (organ of the British Socialist Labour League) headlined its article on the April Conference of the International Committee "Rebuilding the Fourth International." The signal accomplishment of the conference: the Voix Ouvrière (a French Trotskyist group previously unconnected to either the I.C. or the United Secretariat) was driven away and Spartacist expelled. Thus the Fourth International was "rebuilt."

The break with Spartacist was accomplished over a transparent organizational pretext. Spartacist editor James Robertson, a delegate to the conference, excused himself from one afternoon session, and refused later to "confess" that his absence was either a violation of principle or the expression of "petty-bourgeois American chauvinism." His failure to make the "proper apology" was deemed a departure from democratic centralism. It was grotesque that an international split should be precipitated by an undeclared rule on attendance which was applied only to the Spartacist delegation; so grotesque, in fact, that no section of the I.C. has yet found the courage to make this fact public.

On the contrary, the American Committee for the Fourth International, which had formerly proclaimed itself ardent advocate of unity, has suddenly "discovered" that the positions of Spartacist are incompatible with participation in the I.C., fabricating a smokescreen of political accusations in the ACFI Bulletin of 9 May 1966, to explain the unexpected break.

A Critical Review

Since all supporters of a principled unification among revolutionary Trotskyists must be surprised and confused at this about-face, it is necessary to review critically the political contributions and events at the London Conference, in order to determine what precipitated the split.

The major report of the conference was given by Cliff Slaughter, secretary of the I.C., on "Rebuilding the Fourth International," the international resolution before the Conference. Incorporated in the summary by Slaughter was a vehement attack on the political activity and character of Spartacist and a special attack upon Robertson, as noted above. While our delegation voted in support of the resolution, they perforce abstained on the vote on the Slaughter report.

Where We Stand

Spartacist came to the conference because we were in basic political agreement with the main positions published by the International Committee. We remain in basic political agreement with the I.C. Resolution, despite particular exceptions.

Comrade Slaughter characterized the present objective context as one of "deepening crisis of imperialism," especially since 1956. He saw the working class as both increasingly restive the world over and rapidly exposing and rejecting the traditional labor bureaucracies. He described the rise of Pabloite revisionism as the reflection of conscious effort by the bourgeoisie to disorient and bridle the vanguard of the working class. Nevertheless, he declared, Pabloism has now been defeated decisively, and the struggle for leadership of the working class is the immediate task. The superiority of the I.C., he asserted, lies in its understanding of "Leninist methods of party-building and in Marxist theory."

The V.O. group stated a counter position that Pabloism has been the reflex of the petty-bourgeois composition of the Fourth International since World War II.

On the third morning of the Conference, Comrade Robertson’s turn on the speakers’ list was reached. He expressed Spartacist’s fundamental agreement with the line of the International Resolution and of the report, but he took the opportunity to make clear certain differences. (His remarks are printed in this issue, below.) Comrade Robertson then missed the session which followed the delivery of his remarks. Although three members of the Spartacist delegation were in attendance at the session, fully empowered to take part in the discussion, this absence by Comrade Robertson was made the excuse for a violent attack upon our organization.

Spartacist Expelled

During the session missed by Robertson, Michael Banda of the SLL chose as his comment on the Slaughter report a sharp political attack upon Spartacist’s positions. In the evening session which followed organizational issues of "indiscipline" were raised.

Attacks upon Spartacist continued for a twenty-four hour period during which the Healy group tried to create some political pretext for the expulsion. Finding none, they were left with the original shabby organizational pretext.

It should be noted that Robertson had informed Comrade Healy (National Secretary of the SLL) of his intended absence, and that furthermore upon returning to the conference he explained to the assembled delegates that he had known of no rule demanding his attendance, that he had had no intention of not following protocol and would certainly adhere to all rules in the future.

ACFI’s Feeble Effort

What was the reason for this vehement assault? The Bulletin makes a feeble effort to provide some motivation. Thus: "Robertson stated that he was in general agreement with the report (of Cliff Slaughter) but showed that he had no understanding and in reality no agreement with its fundamental method and line."

In evidence for this fantastic interpretation, the Bulletin points to Spartacist’s evaluation of the short-run stabilization of capitalism in the colonial world after the recent defeats sustained by the working class in the backward nations. Because Robertson has noted this temporary set-back for working-class forces, he is blind to the "unity of the crisis." If by unity of the crisis it is meant that despite interim advances the capitalist class cannot resolve or suppress the contradictions in society, then Spartacist vigorously concurs. But if the Bulletin and the I.C., whose line it represents, desires to translate every defeat into a victory, to treat the crushing reversal, say, in Indonesia, as a new, higher stage in the struggle for socialism, that is another matter: so the Comintern in 1933 viewed Hitler’s rise to power as the springboard for the proletarian revolution. The revolutionary conviction of Spartacist is based, not on euphoric optimism, but on confidence in the working class with the leadership of a revolutionary vanguard party to become conscious of its mission to liberate society from the stranglehold of capital.

Negro Question

In a similar vein, the Bulletin article suggests that Spartacist’s special approach to the Negro question disparages the white working class. This is especially dishonest of our ACFI comrades since it is they who went along with the SWP abdication to Black Nationalism in 1963. Spartacist comrades, then known within the SWP as the Revolutionary Tendency, voted for a revolutionary integrationist counter-resolution and have maintained a consistent position since then on the need for a class rather than national analysis of the Negro question.

To be fair, ACFI has since modified its line on this question, publishing in its Bulletin a revised position which characterizes the Negro people as a people-class, in analogy to A. Leon’s characterization of the Jewish people as a people-class. Strangely, the ACFI delegation in London remained silent while Spartacist was denounced by Greek and French delegates for having an ACFI-like people-class line on the Negro question.

Why this sudden switch in line by ACFI, this insensitivity to the special position of Negroes in the U.S.? Because ACFI, like puppets on a string, must now view American questions in British terms.

Propaganda OR Agitation?

With "inexorable logic," the Bulletin article plods to the inevitable conclusion: Spartacist is only a propaganda group, incapable of fusing theory with action. Yet Tim Wohlforth, the uneasy ACFI leader, missed his signals and submitted to the London Conference a revealing document, "Some Comments on Perspectives for the Fused Movement," which concluded: "The Spartacist comrades, while insisting on a propagandistic course, have done more to break out of an exclusive propagandistic existence than we have." While Spartacist comrades have been arrested some twenty times over the past three years as a result of our active participation in the civil-rights movement, we have yet to hear of one single ACFI member facing similar persecution! This striking difference reveals the truth.

The final argument, all others failing, is that Robertson "did not agree that the I.C. and only the I.C. represents the continuity of the movement." If the Spartacist comrades did not believe that the I.C. was a political heir of Trotskyism, why have they sought unity within a disciplined International? The Bulletin intends something more: servile subordination is demanded.

No Bolshevik Discipline!

Most ironical: the I.C. is not an International: it has no discipline, at least not for the privileged British and French sections. The I.C. has instead accepted the position that "The only method of arriving at decisions that remains possible at present is the principle of unanimity." Yet it demands complete, unquestioning "discipline" from its sympathizers, even on the level of organizational trivia. Our friends in ACFI recently refused debate with us without first "clearing it."

For Robertson to have "apologized" in London would have meant that Spartacist would have accepted ACFI’s puppet role in the international movement. This kind of subordination is political suicide.

It remains to answer why the Healy group in the I.C. chose to wreck the immediate prospects for rebuilding the Fourth International by driving out the V.O. group and expelling Spartacist. In the light of this how shall we evaluate the revolutionary potential of the Socialist Labour League despite its obvious achievements?

Behind the Split

In one sense, the remarks of Comrade Robertson did bring on the split. Clearly, the I.C. felt unable to tolerate a disciplined but vigorous and independent tendency within its ranks. This is the organizational reality behind the expulsion, behind the lies and distortions in the Bulletin. But what, in turn, is the political explanation for the monolithic bureaucratism of the I.C. and especially of its chief section, the SLL of Britain?

Rigid bureaucracy in a workers’ movement always reveals fundamental lack of confidence in party members and ultimately in the revolutionary capacity of the working class. The Healy group has demonstrated a fundamental incapacity to build a world revolutionary movement. It is up to Spartacist along with other sections of the International Committee to construct a leadership to that end.

Posted: 22 September 2004