Robertson’s loyal opposition, part two: Degenerate cults

Ian Donovan concludes his discussion of the International Bolshevik Tendency and the ‘Spartacist tradition’

The International Bolshevik Tendency’s attacks on me go from the sub-political to the illogical.

On the question of the Socialist Alliances, they write:

“Many ostensible Trotskyists in Britain believe there is no role for a small group except as an entry inside some larger formation. It became apparent that one MB comrade, Ian Donovan, was uncomfortable with the developing consensus that the best means of propagating the programme necessary for socialist revolution was through reconstituting a British section of the IBT.

“... As the Marxist Bulletin comrades prepared to depart from the SLP, he began to express an intense desire to participate in the newly-revived Socialist Alliance. The other comrades did not share this enthusiasm, and tended to view the Socialist Alliance, in both conception and execution, as a propaganda bloc between a variety of ostensibly socialist formations ‘united’ on the basis of a lowest-common-denominator programme somewhat to the right of most of its components. In short: a swamp” (1917 No21, June 1999).

Sorry, comrades, but really any idiot can see that it would be perfectly possible to participate in the Socialist Alliances and re-establish a public political presence for an openly Marxist organisation. The IBT’s accusations of liquidationism here really show the substratum of sectarian brainlessness that underlies their politics, despite their attempts to project a more user-friendly image than the Spartacists. The leading role played by the comrades of the CPGB in the Socialist Alliance, which did not detract one iota from their ability to wage a principled, courageous and openly communist election campaign in the June Euro-elections when their bloc partners in the Alliance capitulated to Scargill, is proof positive that the project of involvement in the Socialist Alliance was in no way counterposed to the re-establishment of an open IBT organisation.

The IBT refuses to play any initiating role in struggles to fill the evident massive political vacuum on the left in British politics with a revolutionary programme, preferring to let the left reformists have it all their own way in this field - in favour of seeking to pressure the minuscule, hated and irrelevant Spartacists by being the ‘best builders’ of the campaign to free Mumia Abu-Jamal. While this is of course a worthy cause that revolutionaries should and do support, making it the main activity of a revolutionary group as against a wider project to address the working class ‘at home’ is hardly a sign of a proletarian perspective! And of course the IBT was too bound up with giving “military support” to Milosevic’s genocidal drive against the KLA to consider giving any support to the CPGB’s campaign. Which ironically came to mean that the IBT’s position on the elections (abstention) was similar to some of the softer and more reformist-inclined elements in and around ... the Socialist Alliance. I for one was proud to have been a supporter of this election campaign.

The IBT admit, however, that my criticisms of their ‘tradition’ inside their organisation constituted an ‘internal opposition’. And they are also forced to admit that they sought to prevent a full discussion of my criticisms:

“The IBT leadership proposed that ... a substantive discussion could be postponed until the next pre-conference period [in an organisation that holds conferences on average about every four years! - ID]. Comrade Donovan found this to be unacceptable and promptly left the IBT ...”

This is a somewhat damaging admission since they had earlier pooh-poohed my accusation that they attempted to stop political discussion with the smear that “Readers of Revolution and Truth are perhaps entitled to hope that the journal’s fact-checker will play a more active role in the future” (Marxist Bulletin January 1999), which to anyone who can read the English language constitutes an accusation of lying. No oppositionist with any backbone in any organisation could ‘accept’ a situation where their differences cannot be discussed in public, and a proper debate cannot take place in private through regular organisational channels either, thus creating a situation where the dissident view has no means of expression whatsoever!

This kind of micro-totalitarianism has nothing to do with Leninism, but it unfortunately is only too common in the IBT’s ‘tradition’ of so-called ‘anti-revisionist Trotskyism’. This tradition has produced such miniature Stalin-style bureaucratic monsters as Gerry Healy, Pierre Lambert, James Robertson and now their latest imitators, the IBT of Bill Logan and Adaire Hannah, who served their apprenticeship running a characteristically odious regime in the Spartacist League of Australia/New Zealand in the 1970s to lavish praise from Robertson (until he began to fear that they were too successful in this and a threat to his status as Spartacist guru, whereupon he arranged a miniature Stalin-style show-trial to get rid of them).

The truth is that any organisation that is arrogant enough to gag its members from publicly expressing their opinions on general political questions will sooner or later take the next logical step and begin to attack their right to fight for such opinions in a non-public manner also. The history and evolution of the IBT, as well as its more illustrious and successful forebears, is unfortunately a perfect illustration of this. And as the individual on the British left who has most seriously fought for the best aspects of this tradition, and its often very plausible claims to embody the continuity of the Bolshevik tradition, going through two organisations that both ‘embodied’ this same tradition, I think I am well qualified to draw these lessons. After all, no one can accuse me of not being prepared to give ‘anti-revisionist Trotskyism’ a fair crack of the whip.

The truth is that Trotsky himself in the 1930s, while fighting a heroic and progressive struggle against Stalinism and its betrayal of the October revolution, made the mistake in 1938 of declaring that the small international organisation of his followers constituted the ‘Fourth International’, the ‘world party of socialist revolution’, without having succeeded in winning over the vanguard of the world proletariat to its banner. An ‘international’ that does not have a mass base in the advanced elements of the proletariat is not really an international at all - its claim to be the reborn workers’ international is a pretence. This error was magnified by Trotsky adopting for the FI a rigid caricature of the ‘democratic centralism’ of the old Bolshevik Party in which centralism in pursuit of agreed party actions was extended to general political positions (which was not true in Lenin’s party - witness for instance the highly public exchanges between Lenin and the ‘imperialist economists’ - Pyatakov, Radek, Bukharin, etc - on the national question in the Bolshevik press right in the middle of the World War I!).

The errors of a great revolutionary can be all the more dangerous because of the authority that can be brought to bear to perpetuate such errors, particularly in circumstances like in the 1930s when unfortunately Trotsky had virtually no peers who could correct him. The errors of Rosa Luxemburg, also a great revolutionary, were considerable on the national question and the Party question, but had less crippling consequences since they could be corrected by those on a similar political level.

The legacy to Trotsky’s successors of his potent combination of errors has been a tendency to either opportunism or sectarian messianism, which is what has persistently dogged the partisans of the ‘Fourth International’ since World War II, with one wing (typified by the United Secretariat) continually trying to make the leap to the mass influence that they believe that their ‘international’ should have by riding on the back of other forces (dissident Stalinists, petty bourgeois nationalists: you name it); while the other wing, the ‘anti-revisionists’, seeking earnestly to re-create Trotsky’s ‘pure’ Fourth International, have instead created nothing but a series of bizarre despotic sects that repeatedly come to resemble unsavoury religious cults. And of course another sad legacy of this concoction is split after split after tragic and wasteful split, the fragmentation that cripples the left today.

The IBT’s use of personal attacks to fend off political criticism reaches a new low when they attempt to use the incident that took place on the Bloody Sunday march in January 1999 as a means to dismiss my criticisms. There was an extensive, fully documented workers’ inquiry into the background and specifics of the violent confrontation between myself and a leading member of the Spartacist League/Britain on that demonstration, whose conclusions and relevant evidence are available to the public online.

The IBT state: “We have a long history of defending any leftist, including members of the Spartacist tendency, against such physical attacks”; and in an earlier statement on the same incident they wrote: “We are certainly prepared to defend Eibhlin (or any other leftist) from similar attacks in future”; and “McDonald’s denunciation of Donovan as an RUC supporter, particularly at a ‘Bloody Sunday’ march, was provocative and unprincipled. Yet the SL’s abuses of workers’ democracy cannot be used to excuse Donovan’s violent assault.”

This was of course an unfortunate incident, and the physical response made by myself to McDonald’s provocative slander was a serious individual error, the product of repeated provocations against me by someone who had previously engaged in “gross abuse” (the IBT’s words, not mine) of myself when I was a member of the Spartacist League. The fact is that this incident was the result of the kind of fingerings that are regularly engaged in by the Spartacists, and which have resulted in physically violent confrontations between the Spartacists and virtually every major current on the international left (and quite a few of the minor ones as well).

The IBT’s statement about defending the Spartacists “or any other leftist” are belied by the fact that “any other leftist” would not falsely accuse someone of being a supporter of the Royal Ulster Constabulary on a march organised by the Irish republican movement. I would argue that the Spartacists do not have the ‘democratic right’ to make such false accusations, that are deliberately meant to endanger the safety of their political opponents, and that the left should take organised, collective action to stamp out such provocations.

After all, why would an “RUC supporter” be on a republican march anyway? The only purpose of such a person being there would be a sinister one, and republican militants have at times dealt with police and army provocateurs in a summary manner. One only has to remember the execution of two British army servicemen by Irish republicans after they ‘strayed’ into a republican funeral procession in the Six Counties in 1988. Would the IBT support the Spartacists’ ‘democratic right’ to make a similar false accusation against an opponent on a march in Belfast or Derry, knowing that such an allegation could lead to their opponent being targeted for attack by men with guns?

This is not the first time that the Spartacists have used slanders that are aimed at fooling larger leftist or nationalist guerrilla-type forces into ‘dealing with’ the critics of the Spartacists. An earlier case was in 1982 when the Spartacists falsely accused Ulrich Sandhaus (Sandler), a former leading member of their then German section, the Trotskyist League of Germany (TLD), of being an anti-Turkish racist and a “proto-fascist”. The forerunners of the German IBT section, the Gruppe IV Internationale, defended Sandhaus against these slanders, and were thus branded by the Spartacists as “Nazi-lovers”.

According to a report published by the IBT’s North American forerunners,

“First came the accusation to Turkish leftists in Germany that [former leading TLD member] Uli Sandler was a proto-fascist. Much more recently, in October 1983, during an attempted Nazi pogrom against the Turkish quarter in Kreuzberg in Berlin, the TLD provocatively accused members of the Gruppe IV Internationale (mostly former TLDers) of being indistinguishable from the Nazis and having swastika helmets at home. In each incident serious injury and even death could have resulted to the victims of iSt [ie, Spartacist] slander” (External Tendency Bulletin No2, January 1984).

Given the widespread use of violent methods on the largely Stalinist/Guevarist-influenced Turkish left in ‘resolving’ political differences even among each other (let alone with ‘fascists’), the murderous intention of the Spartacists in making these slanderous accusations is obvious.

The IBT’s willingness to ‘defend’ the Spartacists (“or any other leftist”) who engages in this kind of behaviour from responses in kind amounts to ‘unconditional defence’ of the right of the Spartacists to violate other people’s democratic rights, or even to endanger their lives. This has nothing to do with any principled defence of workers’ democracy by the IBT, but is rather a product of their political orientation and perspectives, the fact that fundamentally they are still an ‘external tendency’ of the Spartacists, and that their political universe is really confined to the orbit of the ICL. This is exposed by the fact that, breaking with the tradition and actions of Trotsky (and even the early Spartacists!) on such matters, the IBT opposed the setting up of a workers’ movement inquiry into the background of the Bloody Sunday incident, for its own petty factional reasons.

Thus the IBT wrote to the commission of inquiry:

“In general we do not think a commission of enquiry such as you propose is a useful way to proceed. In circumstances where the facts of the incident are not in question and the perpetuator initially apologised for his actions, it becomes a process of seeking an excuse or explanation for inadmissible violence. We particularly do not think a public enquiry into this incident should be set up by the body of which Ian Donovan is the chair” (letter from IBT to London Socialist Alliance commission, March 8 1999).

The slanderous inference in this statement (unpublished by the IBT) is that the commission of inquiry was somehow rigged by the broad inclusive body that provided the organisational vehicle to set it up. The fact is that representatives of four different left tendencies (not all of whom even supported the Alliance) took part in the commission, and the idea that the fact that I held the post of chair of the Alliance when the incident took place should affect the views of the members of the commission is preposterous - again the quite finely balanced conclusions of the commission are available to the public on the commission website.

The IBT’s position was, in the words of the national organiser of the CPGB,

“... thoroughly untenable and anti-democratic. The notion that, in circumstances where the facts of a particular incident are not in dispute, then any investigation can only be a feeble attempt to scrabble together ‘an excuse ... for inadmissible violence’ (IBT statement, March 8) is profoundly foolish. More than that, it is implicitly reactionary. Apply this logic to the proceedings in bourgeois law and you might as well do away with the right to trial in a large number of the most sensitive and complex of cases. After all, many battered wives that have turned on their abusers have not disputed the bald facts of the charges against them, but the trial has had the purpose of understanding the extenuating circumstances that have led them to commit the crime.

“The International Bolshevik Tendency appears to be positioning itself slightly to the right of the British judicial system on this one. According to your line of thought, once the ‘facts’ of the case were established - ‘she stuck a breadknife in him, m’lord’ - we can all go home. All apart from the condemned, of course” (letter from Mark Fischer to IBT, March 10 1999).

Since the IBT now admit that I was subjected to “gross abuse” by McDonald and others when I was in the Spartacist League, one can only assume from their opposition to and attempts to discredit this LSA commission of enquiry, that their view is that such “gross abuse” is no business of the wider workers’ movement. In other words the IBT were trying to protect their ‘tradition’ from discredit, and in this case this meant acting to politically protect their political parents, the Spartacists, from examination by a workers’ inquiry.

This is similar to their conduct in the Uli Sandler case, when, pursuing their ‘orientation’ as an ‘external tendency’ of the Spartacist milieu and desperate to remain respectable in this milieu, they confined their criticisms of the conduct of the Spartacists to the private domain, when in fact this was an extremely serious and vile matter that should have been the subject of a fully-fledged workers’ movement inquiry! In other words, keep it in the (Spartacist) family! The contrast between the IBT’s attitude to such matters and that of the IBT’s ostensible mentor, Leon Trotsky, is striking, as shown by this call for an inquiry into the revenge killing of an Italian Stalinist by a victim of the Stalinist frame-up system:

“The duty of workers’ organisations, without any regard for political banners, lies in one thing: in shedding the greatest possible light on this case, and thereby, insofar as is possible, to prevent the repetition of gunplay in revolutionary circles.

“... Naturally the interests of the case would be best served if the representatives of L’Humanité and of the central committee of the Italian CP were to take part in this committee. But we may safely predict that they will most certainly refuse: these politicians stand only to lose from an impartial investigation, and much more than would appear on the surface. But the investigation ought not to be wrecked by their refusal to participate. Every honest participant in the labour movement is deeply interested in seeing to it that this abscess is opened which can otherwise lead to gangrene. The tragic case of Montanari-Beiso must be brought before a labour jury” (‘A case for a labour jury - against all types of gangsterism in the working class movement; on the murder of the Italian Stalinist Montanari’, quoted in ‘Oust Healy! - an open letter to other supporters of the IC [International Committee of the Fourth International], in Spartacist No9, January-February 1967).

The similarity of the behaviour of the Spartacists (and to a lesser extent also the IBT) with that of the French and Italian Stalinists is striking. And there is another great irony here as well: while the ‘orthodox’ Trotskyists behave like treacherous Stalinists, the impetus for creating a “labour jury”-type body, similar to that advocated by Trotsky, came from the CPGB, a revolutionary current that emerged from Stalinism during the later period of its death agony. The fact that the CPGB have more in common with the progressive attitude of the revolutionary movement of Trotsky’s time to questions of proletarian justice and morality than the most ‘orthodox’ proclaimed Trotskyists of today speaks volumes about the sectarian degeneration of much of the contemporary ‘Trotskyist’ left.

As many have observed, the IBT have a strange symbiotic relationship with the Spartacists, and a great concern not to be seen as ‘beyond the pale’ by them. This is despite an incredible torrent of abuse and slander about them that has poured out of the Spartacists over the last couple of decades. It is strange that a grouping polemicising against the ICL should describe them as “disagreeable sectarians” (see 1917 No21, June 1999). This really misses something - rather like calling Jack the Ripper a ‘naughty boy’. The ICL are not just “disagreeable” - they are dangerous, and quite prepared to seek to enlist the aid of enemies, even deadly enemies, of the workers’ movement to witch-hunt and suppress other leftists.

When I was in the IBT in 1995, we became aware of an incident in which the Spartacists had approached a capitalist newspaper in New Zealand to try to get them to run a slanderous story about the New Zealand IBT group. The IBT leadership initially took a decision not to publicise this crossing of the class line by the Spartacists - only a good six months later, after considerable pushing by myself, was it eventually mentioned in an IBT pamphlet:

“In September 1995 … three members of the Spartacist League of Australia, including Bonnie Bradley, editor of Australasian Spartacist¸ visited Wellington, New Zealand. While there, they arranged an appointment with a reporter from the liberal bourgeois weekly City Voice (CV). Their ostensible purpose was to discuss the Partisan Defence Committee’s work in the campaign to free Mumia Abu-Jamal. The CV reporter informed them that there were already people campaigning for Mumia locally and offered to put them in touch with our New Zealand comrades. In response the PDC/SL representatives whipped out copies of the ICL’s internal bulletins slandering Bill Logan (a leading member of the IBT in New Zealand) and suggested that City Voice consider running a piece based on them. The paper turned down the Robertsonites, but this attempt to feed a capitalist publication material with which to smear a rival leftist group can only be characterised as a provocation” (ICL v IBT 1996).

The League for the Fourth International (LFI), the tendency led by Jan Norden, for 23 years the editor of the Spartacists’ American paper Workers Vanguard, whose supporters were brutally purged from the Spartacists in 1995, reported a similar but even worse incident in Brazil, regarding a Spartacist hate-campaign against the Nordenites’ Brazilian co-thinkers, a group of Trotskyist trade union militants who were facing persecution by the capitalist courts and brutal repression by police, working apparently with an alleged anti-union provocateur, one Artur Fernandes:

“... in its frenzy to dig up dirt against our comrades the ICL has engaged in grossly irresponsible behaviour. Thus there were at least two calls last May-June seeking to speak with authoritative spokesmen in the civil court in Volta Redonda, and on at least one occasion someone spoke with a judge. What did they talk about? In addition, Fernandes’ lawyer says she received ‘several’ calls from ‘journalists’ for a US paper during the same period asking for information about cases involving Geraldo Ribeiro [a leading supporter of the LFI’s Brazilian group]. This is the same lawyer who has now launched the ominous court suit against the CLC [Class Struggle Caucus], which the ICL [ie, the Spartacists] refuses to defend and whose defence it denounces as a ‘sham’. What was said in those conversations? The lawyer said she told her callers to speak with Geraldo [Ribeiro] himself. But the ICL never talked to Ribeiro” (The Internationalist No5, April-May 1998).

The Nordenites’ description of the ICL’s crossing the class line, appealing to the death squad-ridden Brazilian state to provide them with “dirt”, as “irresponsible”, like the IBT’s description of the ICL as “disagreeable”, reflects similar softness and concern not to become too alienated from the Spart milieu. A better description of this would be criminal, sinister, provocateur-like behaviour, the kind of thing that used to be associated with Stalin’s GPU. But this is too terrible a thing to say about one’s political parents - after all, ‘If they are really like that, then what are we?’ the Loganites and Nordenites must reason. ‘We carry their political DNA!’

Sooner or later the Robertsonites’ provocations are going to succeed in getting somebody killed - but the IBT and LFI do not want to think about that.

For all of these neo-Robertsonite cultist and semi-cultist formations, something important has been lost from the heroic period of the Trotskyist movement, which, despite its mistakes, represented in its time the only unambiguously revolutionary current emerging from the degeneration of the Comintern. Despite their frequent ritual repetition of the phrase, what these epigones of Trotsky cannot do is say what is - above all about their own movement.

When push comes to shove, whatever the IBT’s criticisms of the Spartacists, they will go so far and no further. They are not a revolutionary alternative to the ICL, but merely lackeys - Robertson’s loyal opposition.