The Baby & the Bathwater

Reforge the international Spartacist tendency!

1 January 2024

Open letter from the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) to:

Dear comrades,

We have entered a new period of global turbulence and potentially convulsive class struggle. Imperialism is dragging humanity down into the abyss, but the working class is showing signs it is finally starting to get back on its feet. We are all aware that the trade-union bureaucracy and the reformists will destroy every opportunity that presents itself if they are not politically defeated. A new Leninist-Trotskyist organization is desperately needed to provide leadership and serve as a pole of attraction for the politically advanced layers of workers and youth who could form the nucleus of a Bolshevik-type party. That organization will not simply spring into existence through the frenetic groundwork of an existing group; nor will it emerge from an amalgamation of tendencies in a mutually amnestying merger. Rather, it will be built through the hard work of dedicated communists in different organizations—with a central role played by the anti-Pabloite forces of the revolutionary Spartacist tradition—seeking to effect “splits and fusions” in the course of real-world interventions in the class struggle and, most importantly, the defense, development and application of the Marxist program.

James Robertson and his comrades in the Revolutionary Tendency were expelled from the SWP 60 years ago. A decade later, the international Spartacist tendency (iSt) was initiated. The goal was the reforging of Trotsky’s Fourth International. But by the mid-1970s—despite important opportunities, advances and the dedication of hardworking comrades—the general political climate in the US and elsewhere had shifted to the right, and the coming years were marked by Reaganite reaction, Thatcherism and their equivalents, culminating in the downfall of the USSR in 1991. The downturn in the class struggle internationally was expressed inside the iSt, which lost its revolutionary way despite the continued commitment of its self-sacrificing and talented members. This in turn led to a process of fragmentation resulting in multiple organizations claiming the Spartacist tradition—the renamed ICL, ourselves in the IBT, the LFI, BT, BLA and RR, plus many individuals who are not current members of a cadre organization but apply aspects of their Spartacist education as sympathizers, activists, writers and trade unionists.

Common Heritage

Despite the common heritage, these organizations have important differences in the understanding and application of the Bolshevik program (both historical and contemporary) as well as differing empirical assessments of national and global situations, developed over decades of independent existence and often hostile interactions with one another. It is neither desirable nor possible to gloss over those differences, yet we agree at least formally on some central programmatic points:

  1. Working-class independence and opposition to popular-frontism;
  2. Opposition to imperialism and the advocacy of military defeat of our “own” imperialist governments in war (and for the military victory of neocolonies attacked by the imperialists);
  3. Unconditional defense of the remaining deformed workers’ states (most significantly, China) and the call for proletarian political revolution to oust the Stalinist bureaucracy;
  4. Defense of the right to national self-determination and other democratic rights (including for those suffering from special oppression) combined with opposition to petty-bourgeois or bourgeois ideologies;
  5. Permanent revolution, i.e., the recognition of the total bankruptcy of the bourgeoisie everywhere and the need to struggle for proletarian revolution even in those countries of “belated” economic development; and
  6. The centrality of revolutionary leadership (i.e., the fight for a Leninist vanguard party).

These points grow out of the shared history and programmatic heritage of the iSt, rooted in the Bolshevik Party of Lenin and Trotsky, the first four congresses of the Comintern, James P. Cannon’s SWP, Trotsky’s Fourth International, the RT’s struggle against the SWP’s degeneration and a (critical) identification with the anti-Pabloite IC.

A Joint International Conference and Discussion

The ICL has recently made a new political turn and is in the process of re-evaluating much of its past, unfortunately in a direction away from our shared tradition. However, a side effect of this self-examination is a new openness and willingness to discuss politics, as illustrated by the debate with the BT in London in October, the debate with the LFI in New York City this month and the ICL’s recent acceptance of our proposal to debate in Australasia in the near future. We can only welcome these opportunities to further the process of programmatic clarification between claimants of the iSt tradition, but the gravity of the current world situation demands much more.

We propose that the organizations identifying with the iSt tradition hold, within the course of this year, a joint international conference at which key elements of the Trotskyist program and their application be debated. We furthermore propose a pre-conference discussion period during which formal documents are exchanged between the organizations in a transparent manner and published online. Alongside the formal, public exchange of documents, a secure online server could be established to allow interaction not only between the leaderships of the different groups but between the memberships as well, aiming to break down some of the non-political barriers that exist between us. All these exchanges should also be open to individual former members and current sympathizers loyal to the iSt tradition. Where possible in individual locations, the different organizations could also collaborate in principled united-front work in areas of agreement around specific demands, with the natural process of discussion that accompanies such work.

This would not be a series of privileged leadership-to-leadership talks, for which there is insufficient programmatic agreement. The conference we propose would bind none of the participants to anything, but would instead allow us to explore our differences and promote our ideas in a fraternal yet serious manner. It is clear that regroupment of all the iSt’s descendants around a program of genuine Bolshevism is most unlikely. We are under no illusions that the reforging of the international Spartacist tendency is possible through papering over differences or liquidating into a lowest-common-denominator lash-up. But clarification of differences and of areas of agreement would facilitate the process of splits and fusions that will frame the consolidation of the forces of genuine Trotskyism into a sizable fighting formation, with roots in the working class and a geographic spread around the world. Failure to seize opportunities to advance that process is an admission of political bankruptcy—the promotion of cliquism, ego or political cowardice over the needs of the working class.

Major Obstacles

There are major obstacles to regroupment. The new ICL leadership has moved away from the programmatic heritage of the revolutionary Spartacist tradition towards a kind of neo-Pabloism, though they reject this characterization. In our view, the ICL is throwing out the baby with the bathwater, seeking to liberate itself not only from its self-isolating sectarianism and more obvious political errors but also from those elements of Bolshevism it had managed to retain from its early, revolutionary phase. For the new ICL, it turns out that Jim Robertson was always a “sectarian” and even a “social democrat,” unable to grasp the central role of national-liberation struggles within the “anti-imperialist united front” as the “lever” for world socialist revolution. From the 1980s onward, Robertson’s organization did indeed engage in sectarianism (e.g., its deliberate sabotage of the 11-day anti-apartheid ILWU labor action initiated by ET supporter Howard Keylor in 1984) and social-democratic cravenness (e.g., its call to save the lives of those US Marines who survived the Islamic Jihad attack in Lebanon in 1983). However, these and the many subsequent deviations were departures from, not applications of, the revolutionary program that the iSt had embodied at its foundation. A thorough accounting of Spartacist history and its applicability for the tasks of today is long overdue, but a wholesale break from their revolutionary origins will leave the ICL floundering with no political compass, indistinguishable from many other false claimants to Trotskyism.

The leaders of the IG were wrongly kicked out of the SL in the mid 1990s, i.e., a full decade-and-a-half into what we consider to be the ICL’s period of degeneration, to which the LFI leadership were perhaps conflicted but nonetheless important contributors. Declining to debate or seriously engage with the IBT, the LFI have worked furiously to build their forces while refusing to acknowledge the parallels between their own expulsion from the ICL and previous bureaucratic handling of dissidents (or potential dissidents)—whether the Clone Purge of 1978, the show trial of Bill Logan in 1979 or the purge of the Australian section in 1981. Defending every error committed by the ICL until it was their turn on the chopping block, the leaders of the LFI have barreled ahead with blinders on, creating a more energetic, less bureaucratic version of the ICL circa 1996—one which has been less inclined towards political vacillation or major error but which inherited many of the political weaknesses of its parent organization. If the ICL is throwing the baby out with the bathwater, the LFI wants to keep the poor kid sitting in dirty water.

The BT split from the IBT five years ago over what was then a theoretical dispute over the nature of Russia in the 21st century. Their sectarian departure—capped off with a farcical appropriation of our name and the mysterious claim to have “dissolved” a 28-year-old fusion the way kings of yore sometimes had tiresome marriages “annulled”—reflected an unserious attitude toward Leninism and the question of the revolutionary party. Yet the actual outbreak of the proxy war in Ukraine created a genuine programmatic difference: the BT took the side of Russia (as did the LFI, eventually), while the IBT adopted a dual-defeatist position between Russia and the NATO aggressors acting through their Ukrainian pawn (as did the ICL, for different reasons). Only the IBT considers Russia to have become an imperialist power. While program trumps theory, the two are obviously closely related. Among the groups coming out of the iSt tradition, there are both theoretical and programmatic differences on one of the key questions of global politics today.

Urgent Necessity

The volatile world situation will no doubt be reflected in a shake-up of the “Spartacist milieu,” accelerated by the SL’s recent turn. Some comrades have moved to the right and more may follow, others may spin out of politics, but those who remain committed to building a Bolshevik nucleus need to let go of past petty grievances (real or perceived) and get on with the hard work of forging a revolutionary fighting force based on the Leninist-Trotskyist program.

We have no illusions that this will be an easy path. In fighting for the rebirth of the revolutionary iSt, we do not seek a clone of the old, but to reforge an iSt that transcends the flaws of the original—flaws that made it susceptible to degeneration in the way a weak immune system imperils the health of the body. We seek to rebuild an iSt that not only defends its revolutionary origins from the 1970s but extends and applies the Bolshevik program to address the state of the world as it is today, an organization that can become a factor in history, rooting itself in workers’ struggles and building the forces of a much larger Trotskyist international through a broader process of splits and fusions around the Bolshevik program.

We wish to begin undertaking the necessary practical measures to prepare the international conference. We await your response.

Communist Greetings,
Josh Decker,
for the International Executive Committee of the IBT
ibt@bolshevik.org