The Continuity of Spartacism?

Review of ICL/LFI Debate

5 February 2024

“The members of the Spartacist League and of the ICL do not know what their politics will be next week, or next month, or next year, because they're changing so rapidly. But in any event, that debate is over. The historic program of Spartacism is ours. They have renounced it. They say that it was a betrayal, they say it was a betrayal of one thing after another. They throw it into the garbage. But we maintain that the historic program of Spartacism is crucial and vital to reforging the Fourth International. So that's what the debate is about.”
Abram Negrete of the LFI, 13 January 2024

The question posed in the debate between the International Communist League/Spartacist League (ICL/SL) and the League for the Fourth International/Internationalist Group (LFI/IG), held on 13 January in New York City, was not whether the ICL has moved away from its founding program and principles—it freely admits that it has. The issue at stake is whether the LFI is justified in laying claim to that legacy.

Comrade Negrete is wrong—the debate is not over. The International Bolshevik Tendency agrees that “the historic program of Spartacism is crucial and vital to reforging the Fourth International.” But the LFI's understanding of that historic program is distorted by their leadership's inability to examine how, why and when the Spartacist League degenerated and to admit to their own role in this process. There is still much to discuss.

Until very recently, a public debate between the ICL and LFI would have been almost unthinkable. Under “new management,” the ICL is open to engaging with those groups emerging from the Spartacist tradition precisely as it moves away from that tradition. As Negrete noted, the Spartacists have spent the past few years engaged in a still-ongoing process of systematically discarding their political heritage and key elements of a revolutionary program (see our statement, “Spartacism Junked,” 3 October 2023). The LFI sees this as an opportunity simply to lay claim to the legacy its leaders believe is theirs since they parted ways with the ICL in 1996.

There is a fundamental problem with this approach. The pattern of degeneration the LFI identifies in the ICL from 1996 onwards is merely part of a process begun in the 1970s in the international Spartacist tendency (iSt). The LFI leaders stubbornly refuse to admit—at least publicly—that there was anything fundamentally wrong in the organization prior to their own exit and thus cannot account for earlier examples of the SL's degeneration (or, indeed, the deep bureaucratism of their own purge). These are not simply “historical” questions of no practical importance today, nor are they academic quibbles over secondary matters. The “organizational” question is, for Leninists, a political question—it is about what kind of organization we need to build today and how to build it. And it is a question that frames the programmatic gyrations of the iSt/ICL in its period of degeneration before 1996, touching on matters of principle with potentially decisive importance for major issues today, e.g., defense of the Chinese deformed workers' state.

To assess “the continuity … of the Spartacist tendency,” as the LFI's Jan Norden put it later in the debate, requires going further back in time. It requires looking not only at the important contributions made by the iSt and early SL and its forerunner, the Revolutionary Tendency, but also the reasons for the iSt's subsequent degeneration. This is crucial to the struggle to build an organization capable of applying the program of the revolutionary iSt to the problems revolutionaries face today. Comrades of the IBT attending the debate intervened from the floor during discussion, and handed out our “open letter” calling on those identifying with the revolutionary tradition of the iSt to organize “a joint international conference at which key elements of the Trotskyist program and their application be debated” (“The Baby & the Bathwater,” 1 January).

More Heat than Light

Moderated by prominent Marxist labor historian Bryan D. Palmer, the New York event lasted five and a half hours, featuring two separate debates. The first, “The Fight for the Fourth International Today,” had Perrault, Secretary of the International Secretariat of the ICL debating Negrete, previously the leading figure in the ICL's Mexican section, the Grupo Espartaquista de México, and a founding member of the LFI. The second, “On Permanent Revolution-The Fight Against Imperialism Today,” put Anna Mili, speaking for the International Executive Committee of the ICL, up against Norden, former long-time editor of Workers Vanguard and founder of the LFI.

Both the ICL and LFI clearly invested heavily in the debate and mobilized their memberships, giving those in attendance a glimpse of the current state of the two organizations as well as their positions on a range of key programmatic issues. The debate drew a crowd of over 200 attendees, roughly 100 of whom appeared to be supporters of the ICL and perhaps 75 for the LFI, mostly seated on opposite sides of the hall.

After initial presentations from the speakers, the floor was opened to (in rotation) supporters of the ICL, the LFI, then other organizations present (the IBT, Bolshevik-Leninist Australia, Bolshevik Tendency, Freedom Socialist Party and the Platypus Affiliated Society). Significant numbers of former members of the debating organizations were present, but there was only time for a couple of non-affiliated speakers to take the floor.

The LFI membership was younger on average and likely represented a greater percentage of the organization, given that the ICL has a wider spread internationally. The ICL also presented a layer of relatively young, serious and capable comrades, many of whom intervened during the debate, but there was quite a contrast in behavior. The LFI approach to those from other organizations retained the old stance of coolness and disinterest while the Spartacists seemed to relish their newfound permission to interact on a congenial basis with those outside their ranks. The ICL had booked a room at a local bar for informal socializing after the debate but disappointingly the LFI chose not to attend.

Neo-Spartacists: Pabloite Trajectory

Junking the nasty personalist approach of the old Spartacist League and embracing a softer and more open exterior are, however, no substitute for a revolutionary program. The “ICL Post-Debate Statement” bemoans the “ICL bashing [which] was the LFI's core platform” during the debate proceedings, complaining that “they [LFI] regurgitated timeless Marxoid mantras while at the same time capitulating to liberalism, Stalinism and trade unionism.” If the LFI was slightly strident and self-righteous, their interventions at times having a pre-packaged quality and seemingly more aimed at scoring political points than persuading, the Spartacists appeared out of their depth and floundered politically. Much of their speaking time was spent denouncing the LFI for its ostensible “sterile dogmatism,” denial of “US hegemony” in the imperialist world order, and refusal to recognize “bourgeois liberalism” as the main ideological-political obstacle in the post-Soviet period. Saddled with their new “program for the Fourth International,” the younger and less experienced ICL leadership often seemed ill-equipped and incapable of convincingly responding to the LFI's fundamentally correct critique of the program.

The so-called “timeless Marxoid mantras” the ICL now laments—whether on permanent revolution, national liberation, interpenetrated peoples, the “anti-imperialist united front,” etc.—constitute core elements of the revolutionary program and their application that made the iSt/SL of the 1960s and 1970s qualitatively superior to every other tendency claiming the mantle of Trotsky and the Fourth International—from Joseph Hansen and Ernest Mandel to Gerry Healy. The ICL's current neo-Pabloite trajectory leads it in the direction of these same revisionists and renegades, though the process is incomplete and likely troubling for some ICL supporters.

iSt/SL: What went Wrong?

The International Bolshevik Tendency stands on the political record of the iSt/SL during its revolutionary period. By the mid-to-late-1970s, with the wave of radicalism and revolutionary optimism from the previous period clearly ebbing, a process of decline and degeneration set in within the SL. The group's core leadership, always centered around founder-leader James Robertson, began eroding the Leninist norms of democratic-centralism that had defined the Spartacist tendency. This served as the premier pas towards hollowing out from within and undermining the self-corrective capacity of the organization, which soon began to gyrate programmatically.

During the discussion round on the first debate, our comrade Bill Logan noted:

“So there was an apolitical degrading of people—the most authoritative woman in the organization [Liz Gordon]. There was a similar apolitical degrading of the Marxist-intellectual cloned youth [Clone Purge]. There was the removing by fiat of the leadership of the Spartacist League of Britain [Logan and Adaire Hannah].
“This all left the organization seriously less capable of maintaining the revolutionary program.”
—”International Bolshevik Tendency at ICL/LFI debate,” 13 January 2024

The series of ruinous and largely apolitical purges and trashing of comrades ultimately paved the way for the Spartacists' subsequent political departures from the revolutionary program, however formally “correct” (at least for a time) on paper. The ICL's current liquidationism is the end result of that long drawn-out process. While the new-era ICL is clearly prepared to reassess its entire history—both the original programmatic “baby” and the political errors, bureaucratic abuses and slander that represent the “bathwater”—the LFI stubbornly refuses to move at all.

LFI: Middle Period Spartacists

The LFI's claim that all was more-or-less healthy in the iSt/ICL prior to the bureaucratic expulsion/purge of their founding cadre in 1996 is both factually inaccurate and simply implausible. Despite our efforts to engage the LFI/IG over the years, they have never seriously responded to our political criticisms, nor given a proper accounting of their origins as a political tendency (see Polemics with the Internationalist Group).

Presumably, doing so might unravel their internally inconsistent narrative and force the founding members of the LFI into the uncomfortable position of having to take some responsibility for passively participating in (or actively contributing to) the SL's eventual decline. Publicly the LFI remains tight-lipped about any criticism of the ICL before their abrupt departure, but it is reasonable to suppose that internally there is a slightly more critical attitude towards the SL's various political zigs and zags under Robertson's tutelage. However, this is no substitute for a serious and public reappraisal of the history of the iSt, which could play an important role in building a large fighting political force armed with a revolutionary program, democratic internal regime and sense of Leninist tactics.

No doubt the LFI leadership is somewhat squeamish about having to explain to its layer of younger members active on academic campuses and in the labor movement why the SL ripped up its programmatically based trade-union caucuses in the early 1980s (see “Stop The Liquidation of the Trade Union Work!”). Similarly, they are keen to avoid justifying the SL's scandalous attempt to sabotage the 1984 boycott (“hot-cargoing”) of apartheid South African cargo aboard the Nedlloyd Kimberley. That action, carried out by dockers in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) in the San Francisco Bay Area, and led by our comrade Howard Keylor, saw ILWU militants refuse to handle apartheid cargo for 11 days. At the time, the SL responded by setting up its own fake “picket line” in front of the ship and denounced the longshore militants carrying out the action as “scabs” for blocking only South African cargo. The SL-supported Longshore Militant then provided Exhibit No. 1 for the federal court injunction to smash the labor action (see “Class Struggle on the Waterfront”). The LFI's silence on this pivotal moment in the SL's degeneration is particularly awkward because Jack Heyman (who is now an IG supporter and whose attempt to intervene in the debate online was abandoned due to technical problems) played an important role in making the 1984 boycott a success.

A Joint International Conference and Discussion

At this point, the LFI leadership appears unwilling to engage in a deep programmatic discussion on, and an honest accounting of, the Spartacist legacy—warts and all. On the discussion round of the second debate, we challenged the LFI on their lack of response to our proposal for an international conference, while highlighting some of the more egregious examples on the SL's road to degeneration that perhaps require reappraising:

“The ICL actually seems to be open [to our conference call], although they are laughing at this. Very good.
“But will the LFI? So far they have refused to offer a serious account of their own purge from the iSt (the ICL at the time). But that actually matters. They claim that it was the demoralization caused by the destruction of the Soviet Union. But that can't explain why the trial of Socorro had so many parallels to the 1979 show trial of Bill Logan or the 1981 purge of the Australian section. And it doesn't explain why the SL liquidated its trade-union work in the 80s. And it doesn't explain why, under comrade Norden's editorship, Workers Vanguard called to save the lives of US Marines when a couple hundred were blown up in 1983.
“We have to talk about these things. Is the LFI self-confident enough to engage in that process?”
—“International Bolshevik Tendency at ICL/LFI debate

The answer, apparently, is: “No.” In his response, Norden attempted to alibi his rejection by deliberately mischaracterizing our conference proposal, sprinkling in some traditional SL-style nonsense about the supposed origins of our organization for good measure:

“On the IBT's proposal for some kind of a conference, I would say simply: There is no family of Spartacism, any more than there is a family of Trotskyism, or a family of the Left. And you're not going to build a revolutionary party by a Spartacist family reunion, but only by the intransigent struggle for the program that the Spartacist tendency was founded on which the ICL has now renounced, and which the two branches of the BT and IBT fled from at the start of the second anti-Soviet Cold War.”
—“ICL vs LFI Debate, Part 2: On Permanent Revolution—The Fight Against Imperialism Today” (our transcription)

Anyone familiar with our open letter knows we proposed no such “Spartacist family reunion.” Instead, we wrote:

“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….
“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.”
—“The Baby & the Bathwater” [emphasis in original]

As for Norden's accusations of having abandoned the class-struggle “at the start of the second anti-Soviet Cold War,” this is simply recycled mudslinging taken from the 1980s-era SL playbook designed to discredit the founding members of our tendency. Four decades later, these same smears as “anti-Soviet” deserters ring even more hollow, particularly since the LFI is fully on board with the ICL's refusal to bloc militarily with the ill-fated Stalinist coup that attempted to hold back the flood of capitalist restoration in the Soviet Union in August 1991 (see “Soviet Rubicon & the Left,” 1917 No.11). Ultimately, such vitriol seeks to deflect from serious engagement on the actual political issues, while sealing off and inoculating the LFI's membership from political opponents.

Socorro & Logan Trials: Bureaucratic Witch Hunts

Norden et al are also at a loss to explain exactly why the bureaucratic abuse the progenitors of the LFI/IG suffered at the hands of the ICL so closely mirrored the handling of other perceived internal dissidents. At the time, Norden and Marjorie Salzburg (both former leading cadres in the SL and founding members of the IG) characterized their own purge from the ICL in 1996 and the charges against them as:

“an entire fantasy of groundless assumptions, wild conjectures and filthy smears… and on that basis of speculation based on supposition based on lies, it calls for our expulsion from the ICL. This is a frame-up.”
—“From a Drift Toward Abstentionism to Desertion from the Class Struggle

Their account of the ICL's persecution and show trial of Socorro (an 18-year member of the ICL and later co-founder of the IG) followed a similar pattern. During the debate, Negrete spoke out against the unjust expulsion of comrade Socorro, denouncing “the filthy trial which you [ICL] staged against her”:

“Some of you are here in this room, we want to know what was unprincipled about that trial, and if you say everything, that's true, but you don't get away with just that. And if it's maybe ancient history to you and not so important, perhaps that's because you were on the dishing out end and not the receiving end.”
—“ICL vs LFI Debate, Part 1: The Fight for the Fourth International Today” (our transcription)

To their credit, the ICL has recently admitted that “The fights [in the 1990s] that led to the expulsions of the IG's founding members from the ICL” were “unprincipled”:

“[T]he LFI argues that our reassessment of these fights is not genuine and not complete. We have already conceded that these fights were unprincipled and have committed to investigating in more detail those that directly precipitated the split.”
Workers Vanguard, No.1180, 22 December 2023

At the debate, Perrault went even further than WV by acknowledging that the leaders of the IG were indeed the “victims of a bureaucratic purge”:

“Reading these documents by the LFI, actually, I got a fair amount of respect for the [LFI] comrades who at the time refused to capitulate under this bureaucratic witch hunt. Honestly.”
—“ICL vs LFI Debate, Part 1: The Fight for the Fourth International Today” (our transcription)

Fair enough. We look forward to the results of the ICL's forthcoming detailed investigations. We certainly hope they will also go back and investigate in more detail similar such victims of “bureaucratic witch hunts” with an eye to reassessing those as well (e.g., the trial of Bill Logan in 1979). For their part, the IG remains stubbornly unwilling to do so despite the blindingly obvious parallels.

It is interesting in itself that Logan was permitted to speak from the floor at the debate. A central figure in establishing two sections of the iSt in the 1970s (Australia and Britain), he was removed, first from the leadership of the British section, and then from the organization as a whole, because he was perceived as an authoritative leader not fully under the control of the clique led by Jim Robertson. His close collaborator, Adaire Hannah, who was on the IEC of the iSt and prevented from attending the trial as a defense witness, was simultaneously expelled despite being told that she, supposedly as Logan's main “victim,” was not on trial. Seventeen years later, Norden suffered a similar fate as Logan, despite his efforts to keep his head buried in the pages of Workers Vanguard.

At the debate, instead of acknowledging the similarities between the purge of the “Norden group” in the mid-1990s and that of Logan and Hannah some 17 years earlier, Norden woodenly insisted:

“In terms of the comparison of the trial of Socorro with the trial of Bill Logan: Bill Logan was guilty as charged [applause from audience]; Socorro was persecuted.”
—“ICL vs LFI Debate, Part 2: On Permanent Revolution—The Fight Against Imperialism Today” (our transcription)

We have always maintained that “Logan was undoubtedly guilty of running a grossly abusive regime—but the nature of the abuse in his Australian operation was only a linear extrapolation of the internal regime of Robertson's American section. How else can one explain the fact that none of the SL/US cadres who lived under the Logan regime blew the whistle?” (“Declaration of an external tendency of the iSt”). The abuses of the “Logan regime” of the Australian section were a product of an overzealous application of the Robertson model by talented young leaders (Logan, Hannah and others) trying to quickly build a sizable organization for a revolution they believed to be around the corner. And the US-based leadership, including Robertson, was kept fully abreast of how things worked in the SL/ANZ, which was not so different from how things worked in the SL/US.

Of course Logan could not be expelled for building an Australian replica of the American group. So his trial was not only full of irregularities but also exaggerations and false accusations, the manipulating of both real and perceived grievances, a leadership-generated hysterical atmosphere, endless diatribes by SL leaders directed against the accused, with the witnesses against the defendant fully pumped and primed for the proceedings and the results of the trial a foregone conclusion. We have thoroughly documented all of this in On the Logan Show Trial. The parallels with Socorro's trial are undeniable to anyone not blinded by personal interest or petty political prestige.

Logan has learned from his youthful mistakes and in recent decades has helped build an organization that has shed the cliquism and proto-bureaucratism of the revolutionary iSt while upholding its Marxist program. What has Norden learned? Is he at least willing to admit that it was a mistake for him (and Salzburg) to vote for Socorro's bureaucratic expulsion and explain why he made that mistake? Or to acknowledge that an organization in which that could occur was already in a process of degeneration?

Reforge the revolutionary iSt!

The truth is that the LFI is the continuity of the Spartacism of the mid-1990s, at a point when it had been going downhill for almost two decades. From this period, they have inherited a modus operandi that involves shutting out other organizations through slander and hostility, even as they decry the same methods being used on themselves. They defend to the hilt the mistakes that Norden printed in Workers Vanguard in the 1980s and 1990s, and they cannot explain what suddenly went wrong and why it was immediately necessary to form another organization. In contrast, materials published by the IBT have documented this degeneration for a much longer period (summarized, for example, in Whatever Happened to the Spartacist League?). We urge comrades of the LFI to study them in order to better understand the past and present of their own group and move beyond putting narrow concerns of organizational loyalty over those of program.

We are pleased with the ICL's willingness to engage in a process of political discussion and programmatic clarification, despite their obvious drift away from our common heritage. The LFI are closer to us programmatically, so their flat “no” is disappointing, although not unexpected. Also disappointing are our former comrades in the (confusingly named) Bolshevik Tendency, whose offhand comment in their review of the debate that “there was little serious interest” in our proposal gives no indication why they show no interest themselves and instead merely comment as observers on the action or inaction of others. Regardless of the level of interest at any point in time, it is clear to anyone who can look beyond their own organizational walls that such a conference and discussion is necessary.

Revolutionaries, and revolutionary organizations, are not infallible. Mistakes will inevitably be made. However, an essential quality of both is the ability to admit past errors and correct them, in an effort to learn from them in moving forward with the task of building a Leninist vanguard party based on the revolutionary program.

In “Program First: IBT to ICL,” our response to the ICL's accusations that we were putting organizational proposals ahead of program, we listed a number of our recently published articles that:

“represent our contributions in the past few years to applying the program of the Third and Fourth Internationals and the revolutionary international Spartacist tendency to the world we face today. Some mention your organization and some do not, but they all contribute to clarifying our differences on the role of a revolutionary organization in relation to the national question, the popular front, imperialist war, deformed and degenerated workers' states, liberalism and social democracy.”

We remain open to discussing these and other key programmatic questions with all organizations and individuals emerging from the Spartacist tradition in order to build a Bolshevik nucleus on the path towards reforging the Fourth International.

A selection of related documents are available here:
Reforge the international Spartacist tendency!