A Marxist seeker
From Maoism to the Sparts and beyond their sordid detritus. Alex Steiner remembers his friend and comrade Jim Creegan
James Creegan, a lifelong revolutionary socialist and a good friend and comrade, died on November 23 at the age of 76, following a lengthy illness. I had the good fortune to know Jim and I collaborated with him on educational and political projects over the last 10 years.
Over time, I learned something about where he came from and the forces that shaped him. Much of the material I present is taken from a memoir Jim wrote and circulated among a few friends. All quotations are taken from his memoir unless otherwise indicated.
Jim was a red-diaper baby, born on June 27 1947. Unlike many baby boomers, he did not rebel against his parents, but learned from them. Both were in the Communist Party in the 1930s and 40s. His father, Bernard (‘Barney’ to his friends), was more political than his mother, Selma. Bernard came originally from what is now Northern Ireland and joined the CPGB in Scotland in 1923. He came to the US in 1930, where he worked as a union organiser for the CP, but he fell out with the party in 1945 and was not active politically after that, though he maintained his sympathy for the party.
When the international Stalinist movement went into crisis, beginning with Khrushchev’s ‘secret speech’ in 1956, when the crimes of Stalinism were revealed (first to a select audience, and eventually to any CP member who had eyes to see), Jim’s father reacted by adopting a left-Stalinist orientation. His position was quite different from that of other former members disillusioned with the CP, who were turning to liberalism and anti-communism. When the Sino-Soviet split happened, he sided with China.
It was therefore no accident that Jim’s earliest political orientation as a young man leaned toward Maoism. His first political affiliation was at Penn State in 1965, where, as a convinced Maoist, he entered the network of the Progressive Labor Party. He was for two years chair of the campus Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) during the headiest days of the student anti-war and radical movements. In If I had a hammer, Maurice Isserman, a historian of the American left, argues that the children of communists were a more essential element of the New Left than is generally recognised. Jim’s experience bears this out.
He had his ‘road to Damascus’ moment in his senior year, when he read Isaac Deutscher’s Trotsky trilogy at the suggestion of a fellow member of SDS. As he put it years later, “This biography changed my political views more than any single work I’ve read, and I began to take more of an interest in Trotskyism.” This newfound interest, however, did not immediately translate into a political affiliation.
After graduating college in 1969, Jim returned to his hometown, Philadelphia. He remained there for two years, during which he became active in the local chapter of the New American Movement (basically a grouping of New Left refugees trying to reconstitute themselves politically). He entered graduate school in philosophy at the University of Colorado Boulder in 1972. He belonged to the NAM chapter there as well, but his main emphasis was on study - deepening his understanding of classical philosophy, Hegel and Marx.
Jim returned to Philly in 1977 as a more educated and convinced Marxist than before. He had it in the back of his mind that the next phase of his life had to include organised politics. He always believed abstractly that any Marxist worth his/her salt must belong to a party-type organisation. In his own words, Jim wrote about this period of his life:
I felt somewhat guilty about not having acted upon that belief by following the more serious refugees from the New Left, who joined various parties in the early 70s. But I felt the need for more knowledge at the time, so went to grad school instead. And I hadn’t burned my bridges to academia even after I left Boulder. I enrolled in the political economy grad program at the New School (which, as it turned out, was like what people often say about communism: appealing on paper, but disappointing in practice), and moved to NYC in 1979.
It was in this period that Jim began reading the newspaper of the Spartacist League (SL), Workers Vanguard. From the start Jim felt a kinship with its polemics. He wrote of his engagement with the SL publication:
… it reinforced much of what I felt about the rest of the left circa 1980: that most individuals and organizations had moved markedly to the right along with ruling-class-generated public opinion and emerged in far too flaccid a state to meet the challenges of the Carter/Reagan years.
Jim’s reaction was understandable. As a revolutionary socialist in formation, he had a gut reaction against the abandonment of radical politics by many of his contemporaries from the 1960s generation. The fact that his reaction coincided with his introduction to the Spartacist League is one of those contingent events in a life that nevertheless expressed a certain logic. The SL was vociferous in its denunciation of what they considered opportunism on the left - more so than any other organisation claiming to be Trotskyist - and it very much was in consonance with Jim’s uncompromising convictions as a Trotskyist. He later explained his affinity for this side of the SL:
I am by temperament a controversialist, who relishes the clash of ideas, the cut and thrust of polemic. The witty, pugilistic style of WV seemed to me to partake more of the authentic spirit of communism in its early pre-Stalinist incarnation, much of which my father had retained from his youth and passed on to me.
Once he became convinced of the correctness of a political stance Jim would brook no apologies for those misguided individuals on the wrong side of that issue, and he did not suffer fools. However, after a while Jim did have second thoughts about the Spartacist style that attracted him initially. He pointed to its “acerbic style” and “excessively abrasive and hectoring ‘interventions’ at the political meetings of other groups”. Such interventions often degenerated into what he described as “the accusation and insult that had become an SL trademark”.
Jim’s initial deep commitment to a political organisation that gave expression to his revolutionary impulses certainly had its admirable side. But it also harboured a fundamental problem. Once he became convinced of something, it was exceedingly difficult for Jim to pause and retrace his steps and consider that he may have been mistaken. That was my judgment, based on many discussions I had with him. No matter how much his original enthusiasm for the SL changed into a deep opposition - both to its policies and its internal regime - he always looked back to the SL of the 1970s as their golden age.
To cite one example, Jim indicated more than once that a fundamental issue which cemented his sympathy was the full-throated support the Spartacist League provided to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.
Jim and I never agreed on this issue. I found the SL’s slogan, ‘Hail to the Red Army’, repugnant. It created the pretence that the Russian tanks that went into Afghanistan in 1979 had a direct connection to the heroic Red Army of 1919 that defeated the counterrevolutionary forces arrayed against the newly established Soviet state. The Spartacist League, and Jim, had this notion that any military intervention by the Soviet Union was an expression of the Stalinist bureaucracy defending the gains of the October Revolution.
While it was true that the forces arrayed against the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul were reactionary Islamists backed by the CIA, it was also true that the Soviet-backed regime did not come into existence as a result of a popular uprising. Rather it was the inheritor of a series of coups backed by Moscow and had little popular support.
The SL by this point in its political evolution had elevated the Stalinist bureaucracy at the expense of the international working class. While it was incumbent on Trotskyists to defend the Soviet Union, despite the bureaucracy, against imperialism, it did not follow that the Stalinist bureaucracy had somehow become a progressive factor in world politics and it certainly did not follow that Trotskyists were obliged to support whatever global political manoeuvre the Stalinist bureaucracy involved itself in. Once you substitute a bureaucracy for the revolutionary potential of the masses, as the SL did, you wind up with some very bizarre - for a Trotskyist - positions. The most notorious expression of this was the publication by Workers Vanguard in 1984 of a black-bordered death notice on its front page, marking the demise of former KGB and Soviet party chief Yuri Andropov.
However, even when Jim was an enthusiastic supporter of the SL’s perspective, he never became an apparatchik who failed to question the leadership - the kind of person that inhabits every group, one who is content to follow orders. Exactly the opposite was the case. Jim always had a mind of his own and refused to become an obsequious follower, as other members of SL did.
Jim’s description of his duties when he was a member of the Spartacist League testifies to his unselfish spirit, sacrificing much of his personal life and income as a soldier for the cause of the revolution. Even years after he had left Jim still thought that those onerous work assignments were legitimate - though he also became angered by the unequal treatment meted out to different members. Jim was assigned numerous duties on a daily basis, involving sales of newspapers and literature, and meetings with fellow SL members - in addition to a regular and much-dreaded early-morning sale, where he had to arrive at 7am at a remote location in Brooklyn. By way of contrast, the head of the Spartacist League lived like a king.
Listen to Jim’s depiction of the corruption of the Spartacist leader, James Robertson, and the regime of exploitation built around his needs:
Maybe now you can better appreciate why those of us who joined the [Bolshevik Tendency] later on were so enraged that Robertson, however greatly he had sacrificed to build the SL in the past, was then having a basement playroom built with our labor for his nocturnal escapades, flying Concorde - many times more expensive than a regular passenger jet - having a hot tub installed (again with organizational funds and labor) in his NYC apartment, and demanding a special contribution over and above dues to buy himself a house in the Bay Area.
When Jim joined the SL, he came as part of a wave of new recruits inspired by their campaign for a victory for the Salvadoran rebels and opposition to a compromise with leaders of the death squads that had plagued El Salvador. But from the start the SL never fully trusted him, because he came to them as already formed politically instead of one of “the preferred tabula rasa minds, upon which the leadership could effortlessly inscribe its wisdom and ‘organizational norms’”.
As a result, Jim was given tasks that mostly segregated him from other comrades lest he ‘infected’ them with his independent spirit. He wrote:
… because of my reluctance to join full-throatedly in Robertson’s amen chorus, I was shunted off into the lowly position of lit director … isolated from other members on the second floor of the SL compound, where I occupied the only permanent work station. The other members were assigned to the upper floors, only passing on occasion the lit shelves where I worked.
The SL never recognised the asset they had in Jim and, instead of encouraging his political and theoretical development, they kept him occupied with lots of make-work tasks. In retrospect, the worst crime they committed was undoubtedly their refusal to allow him to contribute to their publications, given Jim’s enormous talent for political-historical analysis.
Jim remained in the SL for five years, from 1981 to 1986, until his inevitable break with them. He thereupon joined the Spartacist spawn known as the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT). Jim had developed differences with the SL position on various questions (the details are unimportant), but the real driving force for his break was undoubtedly his disgust with the cultish behaviour of its leadership and the endless series of purges of members who came into conflict with Robertson.
He thereafter found a home in the IBT, where he remained for the next 10 years. Like the SL, the IBT was obsessed with the ‘Russian question’ and felt that one’s position on the Russian question was the litmus test for whether one was a genuine Trotskyist. The IBT accused the SL of deviating from the “correct” position and the SL likewise made the same accusation against the IBT. In many ways the IBT led a parasitic existence off the SL. But Jim found a more congenial home with it, since he was finally able to publish, giving vent to his polemical talents.
In time Jim became disenchanted with the IBT. Years later he explained: “They believed that the program remained valid, regardless of what happened in the world. They had no clue in terms of analyzing newer developments in the class struggle and in politics.”1
It troubled Jim that, although the IBT had at that time existed for 20 years, it had failed miserably to attract members and was the same tiny group that it was at its inception. One would think that if your goal were to change the world and you remained a tiny group that had absolutely no influence on the working class, you should ask, why this failure? - and critique whatever practices you have engaged in that led to this sterile abyss. One would think that, but only if one were ignorant of the ways of the various grouplets that populate the extreme left. Such questions never occur to them, as they blithely ignore reality.
One incident stands out during Jim’s tenure in the IBT. He had worked for a number of years as a clerk at the office of the Village Voice, a famous New York weekly that featured some of the best journalists in the country. In 1996 the maintenance workers at the building went on strike - part of a city-wide action against the companies that were contracted by the building owners to do their maintenance. Jim was the shop steward of the United Auto Workers branch that represented Village Voice employees. The striking maintenance workers belonged to a different union and made it clear that their strike was against the company that employed the maintenance workers, not the Village Voice itself. The Voice employees, with the assent of management and the local UAW, took out the trash themselves.
The striking maintenance workers did not object to this accommodation - the only other option would have been to allow the building’s maintenance contractor to bring in scabs to do that job. The Village Voice owners also stopped all payments to the maintenance contractors for the duration of the strike. In addition, the UAW local, largely because of Jim’s efforts, raised $3,000 for the striking maintenance workers in an unprecedented show of solidarity.
The Spartacist League newspaper, Workers Vanguard - always ready to find something with which to trash their IBT rivals - said Jim was a “scab” for participating in the Village Voice’s attempt to keep their operations going. The IBT put out a pamphlet with the title, ‘Sectarians, “scabs” and socialists’, which defended Jim against the slanderous ‘scab’ charge. The union local also put out a bulletin, titled ‘Support to strikers, so long to scabs’, which explained that the actions taken by the Voice workers were in support of the strike. The management also came to an agreement with the union to stop paying the building maintenance fee until such time as the maintenance workers’ strike was settled.
This was back in 1996. Move forward 20 years to 2016. Jim is suddenly confronted with the news that the IBT, which had defended him in 1996, had now “repudiated” the pamphlet defending him and had concluded that Jim had been a scab after all. The IBT further (falsely) claimed ignorance of the details at the time as their rationale for having defended him in 1996! Jim responded to these slanders with a brilliant piece that skewers the IBT and the SL. It is worth quoting the beginning of Jim’s response to give you a flavour of his inimical polemical style:
The principal service that the microscopic and pompously named International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) has performed for the left was to expose the Spartacist League (US) and its affiliates in the International Communist League (ICL) as the personality cult that they are. Unable to answer the truthful testimony of the IBT (and its predecessors, the External Tendency and the Bolshevik Tendency), the Spartacists fired back with a cascade of lies about their accusers, worthy of the vipers’ nest this organization had become.
Now, in a turn more pathetic than pernicious, the IBT has taken to retailing one of the lies directed against me when I was a member of their group over 20 years ago. I hesitate to reply only because I fear that I might make myself look ridiculous by expending so many pixels over something that won’t matter a tinker’s damn to anyone outside the time capsule inhabited by the Spartacist League and its derivative groupuscules. But, as Trotsky said, the historical record should be accurately maintained, even in its minutest details.2
Jim was denounced not only by the SL and the IBT, but also by another Spart spawn, the Internationalist Group, as well as another groupuscule, the League for a Revolutionary Party. Anyone who could earn the wrath of all these small-minded sectarian outfits deserves a medal!
Without a party
After leaving the IBT in the mid-90s, Jim was finally able to flourish as a writer, an educator and a trenchant critic of contemporary culture. And, as I later learned, he was also a great raconteur, a poet and a competent singer. Yet ironically, in this most productive period of his life, Jim was not affiliated with any political group. For someone who always believed that “any Marxist worth his salt should be a member of a party” this was undoubtedly a bittersweet period for him.
As a result of Jim’s work as an activist in the UAW local and his outspoken politics, he was forced out of his job at the Village Voice in 2002 after new owners took it over. His next job was that of a substitute teacher in the New York City public school system. This was often very gratifying work, as Jim’s talents as a teacher made him an instant favourite in practically every school to which he was assigned. However, as much as Jim enjoyed teaching, the earnings of a substitute teacher in the New York public school system are quite meagre and the benefits even worse. But the job suited Jim, insofar as he often had the afternoons free to read or write.
It was in this period that Jim’s literary and polemical talents shone, as he became a regular contributor to the UK-based newspaper Weekly Worker. He wrote dozens of articles for the paper, starting in 2007 and ending in June 2022. Jim’s oeuvre was not confined to strictly political essays, which he did masterfully enough, but also touched on history and culture. One notable example was a review of a film by Ken Loach about the Irish war of independence and subsequent civil war.3
When the pandemic hit, Jim was assigned to the well-known science-oriented high school, Stuyvesant, where he made a huge impression on his colleagues and students - the students knew him as the teacher who sang the attendance call. He worked at Stuyvesant up until several weeks prior to his death.
Ironically, Jim outlived the Spartacist League. The SL’s founder-leader, James Robertson, died in 2019 at the age of 90. The cult he began did not survive his passing. Its newspaper, Workers Vanguard, ceased publication for over a year following his death. Eventually a group based in the UK attempted to revive the corpse of the SL. They held an “international conference”, where they attempted to diagnose the ills of the SL that led to its demise. Jim was following these events and noted wryly, that for all their “self-criticism”, the self-appointed resurrectionists of the SL never said a word about the corruption of the Robertson regime.
The International Bolshevik Tendency suffered a major split in 2018. The issue that precipitated it was, as you may have guessed, the Russian question. Following the split, the IBT was left with fewer members than it had when it started out almost 50 years ago. As Jim explained at a Left Forum panel in 2019, “Now the IBT, which was fewer than 20 members, has the rare distinction among Trotskyist grouplets that they managed to split over the Russian question 30 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union!”4
I met Jim 10 years ago in a seminar on the Russian Revolution organised by the Brecht Forum. When the Brecht Forum dissolved the following year, both of us continued with its successor organisation, the Marxist Education Project. Although we did not agree on every political and philosophical question, we had enough affinity on basic issues to collaborate on a number of projects. Among these was a walking tour in New York inspired by Trotsky’s nine-week sojourn in that city prior to his arrival in Russia in 1917. We also worked together, along with Marilyn Vogt-Downey, on a special broadcast on radio station WBAI commemorating the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution.
Jim was also a participant - and often a co-facilitator - in a series of classes on Hegel that I taught through the Marxist Education Project. Among his many contributions to that series, one that stands out for me was his masterful lecture on the French Revolution. I will certainly miss our back-and-forth sparring over our different interpretations of Hegel.
In addition to our political collaboration Jim and I developed a personal bond. Both of us came out of the 60s generation and both of us joined small Trotskyist groups following a flirtation with the New Left. It turned out that we knew several people in common. I learned that Jim had known my first wife before I met her, when they were both members of SDS at Penn State. It also turned out that the groups we joined - in Jim’s case the Spartacist League, in mine the Workers League - began life in the same opposition faction of the Socialist Workers Party in the early 1960s. And we both witnessed the toll that the years of Reaganite reaction inflicted on the 60s generation. Many did not survive the trauma when the optimism and utopian spirit of the 60s clashed with the dismal, self-centred culture of the 80s and 90s. We both knew people whose lives were cut short by mental illness, alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide.
Any account by me of Jim’s political life would not be complete if I did not mention that Jim and I had a fundamental disagreement about the very basis of Trotskyism. Jim, in his later years, had come to the conclusion that the premise behind the launch of the Fourth International by Trotsky in 1938 was a mistaken assessment of the nature of the epoch. Trotsky thought that we were living in a period of the decay and terminal decline of capitalism and that therefore the objective conditions were ripe for socialist revolution. He felt that Trotsky’s assessment of capitalism in the 20th century was mistaken and cited the post-war boom as evidence of that.
For my part, I thought that Jim was being too literal in his interpretation of Trotsky’s intent. While it was true that Trotsky did not anticipate the post-war boom (not that anyone else did either), his pronouncement on the nature of the epoch was not meant to only apply to the immediate situation capitalism faced in the 1930s and the decades following, but was a judgment of an entire historical period, whose length could not be predicted in advance.
I also felt that, while Jim’s commitment and active participation in the struggles that emerged in the last sixty years were second to none, he was at the same time overly pessimistic about the potential for the rebirth of a militant working class. Jim would undoubtedly have retorted that he was a realist, not a pessimist, and that my optimism was based on illusions I inherited from the Trotskyist groups with which I had been associated (Jim provided a detailed presentation on this topic in a panel at the Left Forum5). Yet, no matter how strong our disagreements I knew that with Jim I was dealing with an intellectual giant who was not easily dismissed.
I should also mention that he was a wonderful raconteur who had mastered the art of storytelling. I always enjoyed going to an Irish pub with him.
Jim’s memory will be cherished by his friends and colleagues, some of whom knew him since childhood, others more recently. He leaves a legacy of commitment and independence tempered by his wit and good humour.
Beyond sect or movement: What is a political center? (Platypus Affiliated Society, panel at Left Forum, June 30 2019: platypus1917.org/2019/09/01/beyond-sect-or-movement-what-is-a-political-center.↩︎
Excerpt from a private email from Jim Creegan (October 3 2016).↩︎
‘Ken Loach’s use of Irish history’ Weekly Worker April 18 2007: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/669/ken-loachs-use-of-irish-history.↩︎
Beyond sect or movement: What is a political center? (see note 1).↩︎