Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History
Although you’d never guess it from their letter in Revolutionary History, Volume 3 no.3, representatives of the so-called International Communist League (Spartacists) admit that I was the first on the Editorial Board to raise objections to the Ukrainian material. I expressed concern over the reference to “admissible” Fascist influences, and over the possibility that the Shachtmanites had been used in this case to purvey right wing material promoted by Western intelligence services. It was pointed out in reply that the reference I cited was from a summary, not the original material being considered; and that not only Shachtman and Draper’s Labor Action but also the Trotskyists of Cannon’s SWP had accepted material from the URDP.
Could Revolutionary History suppress this fact, however awkward, and remain true to our aims? There was clearly a need to look further into the Ukrainian articles, and have a fuller discussion. That’s what some of us voted for. The Spartacists meanwhile put on a disgusting performance of demanding people’s names, ostentatiously recording each person’s vote, threatening resignation from the Board, etc. I can’t honestly blame Dave Bruce for refusing to vote in that atmosphere.
Just how much the Spartacists themselves actually understood of the issues in the Ukraine may be wondered at. William Cazenave and Alastair Green say it is “clear” that Majstrenko and Ukrainian nationalists “apologised for Fascism in Poland”. Well, it isn’t ‘clear’ to me. The Ukrainian population were among the worst sufferers from the Polish colonels’ repression in the 1920s. The German Nazis were able to exploit not only Stepan Bandera’s OUN nationalists, but a vengeful, anti-Polish feeling among the Ukrainian masses (as well as the desperation of those who had suffered famine and mass murder under Stalinist rule). It occurred to me that this might be what was referred to as “‘admissible’ Fascist influences”. It’s since been made clear that the phrase wasn’t Majstrenko’s, anyway. But as the Spartacists elsewhere accused this “Ukrainian nationalist” not only of defending Polish Fascism, but with being a “Russian Fascist” to boot, one must not expect too sophisticated a grasp of the national question from them.
Although it includes Trotskyists like myself, the Jewish Socialists’ Group is not a Trotskyist organisation. When it agreed that I should join the Editorial Board of Revolutionary History, this was on the understanding that the magazine would never be the ‘front’ for any particular sect or tendency, but represented a rare coming together of comrades united, whatever their other political differences, in the determined pursuit of the historical truth, for the entire movement. If our struggle for a better future is to be guided by a knowledge of the past, then we must not let that knowledge be distorted to serve passing factional considerations of the day.
Among the main aims of the JSG is the revival of the revolutionary traditions of the Jewish labour movement. This means we must rescue the historical truth about this movement from bourgeois and Stalinist distortion and lies. Later this year we will be honouring the memory of Henryk Erlich and Victor Alter, leaders of the Jewish Workers’ Bund in Poland, murdered 50 years ago by Stalinism. We are sure the comrades of Revolutionary History will join us in demanding that the present-day Soviet authorities acknowledge the truth about these and other martyrs.
I recognise the contribution made at many times by supporters of the ICL, for instance by making available Hersh Mendel’s memoirs in English translation. It has nevertheless been my experience of them on the Editorial Board that they operate with a degree of factionalism that hovers between the pathetic and the ridiculous, as well as a political attitude which must prove inimical to the magazine’s aims. Perhaps we should have taken fair warning from their little statement in the very first issue. Objecting to a reference to “revolutionary groups”, they said: “Many are called, few are chosen. We cannot accept that the bulk of ostensibly revolutionary organisations are in fact such.” Theirs was the unique claim to be ‘chosen’.
Later, the Spartacists even objected to the general term ‘revolutionary’ applied to Trotskyist militants of the 1930s and 1940s (when discussing the Spring 1989 issue on strikes and leadership). Apparently anyone with the misfortune to have been active before the Spartacist Tendency was born is almost as undeserving of that accolade as those of us despicable enough today not to support it. Could we then have expected from them, consistent with such arrogance, a fair, objective approach to the movement’s history, or an honest willingness to work in genuine unity with the rest of us?
Typically, the ICL’s letter tries to fit everyone else into their sectarian frame of reference. Thus: “Bob Archer for the WRP (Workers Press), Charlie Pottins for the Jewish Socialist Group ... Bruce Robinson for Socialist Organiser ...” etc. We’re even told “Dave Bruce for the WRP (Internationalist Faction) refused to vote at all ...”
My vote on this issue was entirely my own responsibility. Never, since I have been on the Editorial Board, have the JSG, the WRP or any other organisation sought to instruct me how I should vote on the merits of material submitted for publication (nor indeed, on anything else). I expect something similar could be said by most comrades on the Board, especially as several have no particular current affiliation. Dave Bruce, I’m sure, can speak for himself, but it’s worth noting that he left the WRP some time ago, and so far as I’m aware the Internationalist Faction mentioned no longer exists. But to fit him into their frame, the Spartacists needed a label with which to tag him, and so we get told this comrade did not vote, on behalf of a faction that does not exist. There's logic there, somewhere, but it's the ‘Marxism’ of Groucho, not Karl, that the Spartacists are indulging in.
Notwithstanding the different viewpoints and political backgrounds of members of the Board, it is only from the ICL that we have seen such factionalism whereby they arrive at meetings with a prior decision, regardless of what discussion ensues; or alternately, have to fax documents to and from their international headquarters in New York before they can come back with an opinion. Among comrades collaborating on a historical journal, this performance is absurd.
There is more to them than sectarianism, however. They showed their hand a couple of years ago, when they of objected strongly to Revolutionary History carrying an appeal on behalf of the Vietnamese Trotskyists. They argued falsely that it was just “a manoeuvre by Ernest Mandel” (in fact, the initiative had little to do with him); and that Revolutionary History had agreed to abstain from present controversies. One had to wonder – what sort of revolutionary could separate the rescue of revolutionary documents from that of their authors; or would regard an appeal against murder and slander as being too controversial?
Hardly an issue of Revolutionary History has passed without the Spartacists exercising their right to insert a statement giving their official ‘line’ on the events and people dealt with, the language used, or the supposedly suspect motives of the other editors for including this or that article. The ICL/Spartacist interventions reached a nadir in Volume 3 no.1 (Summer 1990), the Eastern European issue, which had a 1966 article by the Hungarian revolutionary Balasz Nagy (Michel Varga) on the relevance of the Transitional Programme.
Without any pretence at commenting on the article, they abused the privilege of appending a statement simply to rake up some dirt against Nagy, using trumped-up charges which related to the 1950s – before he joined the movement – and which were already thrown out by an international inquiry in 1976. As Al Richardson commented, “even a bourgeois court does not call into question the character of its defendant after his acquittal”. Still, the Vietnamese Trotskyist Ta Thu Thau was shot by the Stalinists after twice having been found innocent of any crime by a ‘people’s tribunal’, so there are precedents ... if the Spartacists want to use them.
Would I be way out in guessing that, whilst the attack on Nagy had nothing to do with his article, it did have a more timely reason – the election of Nagy as Secretary of the Workers’ International [for Rebuilding the Fourth International] launched in Budapest this spring? As oppositionists in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe try to understand the divisions that have rent the Trotskyist movement internationally, must they also face rival factions behaving like capitalist traders and missionaries, trying to elbow each other out with smears and intrigues in this new race for the ‘Dark Continent’? It’s an unedifying spectacle, which only harm the movement as a whole.
A few years ago I was shocked to find a Spartacist publication referring in a routine, matter-of-fact way to “the scab Alan Thornett” as though it were common knowledge. As the only Alan Thornett I knew was a militant trade unionist and Socialist, whatever my differences with him, I asked people what this ‘scab’ business was about. Back in the 1970s, Alan Thornett had crossed an unofficial picket at Cowley to speak to workers in his section who were not on strike. Some comrades say he did right, in the particular circumstances. I’ve no idea. But for the Spartacists, with their vast industrial experience (forgive my sarcasm) there’s no hesitation. Once they’ve decided Alan Thornett is a political opponent, they’ll cheerfully smear his name with the epithet ‘scab’ across five continents.
Told their attack on Nagy was unfair, Cazenave and Green accuse the editor of being “provocative” (!) and plunge recklessly on further. A couple of odd remarks made three decades ago, and interpreted as racialist, now become proven “anti-Semitic and anti-black racist views”. An admitted mistake made by a political refugee from Stalinism, in accepting help from a US government-backed foundation, is turned into “a history of soliciting funds from the US State Department”. This is the method of slander and distortion we associate not only with Gerry Healy, whom they affect to despise, but with Stalin.
If the worst Nagy’s enemies can find to damn him with are these old second-hand charges, discredited long ago, then he may well feel they’re hardly worth bothering about. But the Spartacists chose to recycle their smears through our magazine, and that’s something for us to worry about. Of course, I daresay that in leaders like James Robertson, the Spartacists are blessed with paragons of revolutionary virtue, who never mistreated anyone, never made an offensive or ill-considered remark? I’ll leave that to those who know them. But if a couple of odd remarks made years ago, which someone decided to interpret as racialist, can then be used to condemn a person for life, I shudder to think what these Spartacist paragons might make of a certain Karl Marx. If they lack the necessary quotations I can supply them.
I doubt whether serious trade unionists, for whom words like ‘scab’ have a meaning, will have been impressed by the infantile name-calling against Alan Thornett. Working people in struggle have no time for sectarian in-fighting and intrigues. People who have struggled against Stalinism will regard with contempt those who imitate its methods of frame-ups and slander.
The Jewish Socialist Group is second to no-one in fighting anti-Semitism, and against anti-black racism, sexism, and all the other rubbish bequeathed by class society. We know that just because people call themselves Socialists, and even sincerely engage in struggle, that does not automatically free them of backward habits and prejudices. We fight within the working class and Socialist movement for unity of struggle, equality, and the raising of a genuine international Socialist consciousness.
Precisely because we take issues like anti-Semitism seriously, we cannot allow the struggle against them to be cheapened, and undermined, by being harnessed to anyone’s petty factional strife for sectarian advantage, or used for the spiteful witch-hunting of individuals. I have always opposed the misuse by Zionists of the fight against anti-Semitism. Considering the responsibility of the Stalinist bureaucracies for fanning much of the anti-Semitism now burning in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, I must oppose the use of denouncing ‘anti-Semitism’ as a flag of convenience by anyone moving towards reconciliation with Stalinism. Too much blood was shed.
We have to learn the lessons of history. What we have seen of the Spartacists’ methods and attitude make me doubt what use they would have for history. Now, having failed to make what use they wanted of Revolutionary History they have decided to go. Whatever the immediate damage they may cause in their departure, for the sake of our magazine’s aims, we should say ‘good riddance’!
Updated by ETOL: 23.7.2003