Spartacist English edition No. 66
This article first appeared in Workers Vanguard No. 1162 (4 October 2019), newspaper of the Spartacist League/U.S.
James Robertson, a founding leader of the Spartacist League/U.S. and its longtime National Chairman, died at his home in Northern California on April 7, at the age of 90. A member of the workers movement for more than 70 years, comrade Robertson remained an essential component of the leadership of the SL/U.S. and the International Communist League until the last weeks of his life. He leaves behind his wife and comrade, Martha; his two sons, Douglas and Kenneth; two stepdaughters, Rachel and Sarah; and his grandchildren.
Historically, revolutionary Marxist parties have not outlived their founding leaders with their program and purpose intact. Comrade Robertson’s aim was to do his level best to reverse that verdict. In the last major political struggle of his life, Jim was key to the fight to correct a longstanding perversion of Leninism on the national question in the ICL, particularly as it applied to relatively advanced multinational states. Out of this struggle emerged a new generation of leaders who have become a key component of the ICL’s International Executive Committee, along with senior cadre who are critical to preserving our slender threads of revolutionary continuity.
Speaking at a memorial gathering of comrades and sympathizers following Jim’s death, the current National Chairman of the SL/U.S. noted that revolutionary continuity “is primarily programmatic but is also personal because program is embodied in human beings.” In party educationals and countless informal discussions, Jim gave a living sense of his political history and the factional struggles that were key to finding his way to the program of Lenin and Trotsky’s Bolshevik Party. This history took him from the Communist Party (CP) to Max Shachtman’s Workers Party/Independent Socialist League (WP/ISL), to James P. Cannon’s Socialist Workers Party (SWP), and then to being a central leader of the Revolutionary Tendency (RT). Expelled from the SWP in 1963-64, RT cadre went on to found the Spartacist League/U.S.
Later in his life, Jim remarked that what he learned, and had to learn, in the course of the factional battles he waged was that the “Russian question” is the defining criterion of revolutionary Marxism in the imperialist epoch. This issue encompasses both an understanding of the Bolshevik Party that led the conquest of power by the working class in the 1917 Russian Revolution and the need to defend the gains of that revolution despite the Stalinist degeneration of the Soviet Union.
From the early days of the SL/U.S., this programmatic understanding was central to our intervention into the Vietnam antiwar movement. Against the social-patriotic call to “Bring Our Boys Home,” we fought for the defeat of U.S. imperialism and raised the call “All Indochina Must Go Communist!” In a 7 February 1965 cablegram to Ho Chi Minh, sent the day the U.S. began bombing North Vietnam, we declared: “Heroic struggle of Vietnamese working people furthers the American revolution” (printed in Spartacist No. 4, May-June 1965). In the 1980s, when the winds of the imperialists’ anti-Soviet Cold War II drive were blowing red-hot, we stood out for our sharp-edged Soviet defensism, calling to “Hail Red Army in Afghanistan! Extend social gains of the October Revolution to the Afghan peoples!” and demanding “Stop Solidarność Counterrevolution” in Poland.
Comrade Robertson initiated some of our most hard-hitting and angular slogans, propaganda and actions. He was a central architect of the largest and most significant mobilization of our international tendency, as we intervened into an incipient proletarian political revolution in the East German deformed workers state (DDR) in 1989. As masses of workers, soldiers, students and others marched under banners reading “For Communist Ideals” and “No Privileges,” we raised the call for a “Red Soviet Germany” through socialist revolution in West Germany and proletarian political revolution to oust the Stalinist misleaders of the DDR.
We were in a political battle, although one marked by a disproportion of forces, with the abdicating Stalinist regime over the future of the DDR. We were defeated when Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev gave the green light for the capitalist reunification of Germany. But we fought with everything we had! Jim would later draw an analogy to Lenin’s intervention at a session of the First All-Russia Congress of Soviets in June 1917. After a Menshevik leader declared that there was no party prepared to assume power, Lenin yelled out, “Yes, there is.” As comrade Robertson remarked: “That was us in the DDR in 1989-1990. I do not believe that we should diminish or deny this simply because we were defeated. We will be defeated a lot.”
In 1991-92, the counterrevolution that had engulfed the deformed workers states of East and Central Europe destroyed the Soviet Union. Recognizing the devastating impact of this defeat on the struggles and consciousness of the working class, Jim underlined:
“We’re in an unusually deep trough, and the experiences that are immediately available to us are not very good. So we had better make very heavy reference back to the experiences of the workers movement when it could see much further: 1918 through 1921.”
Our quadrilingual theoretical journal, Spartacist, has been a central vehicle for keeping those experiences, embodied in the first four Congresses of the Communist International, alive. Jim, who was the founding editor and a crucial component of the editorial board of the English-language edition until his death, always stressed that this was not a matter of passing on received wisdom but of critical evaluation. He took particular satisfaction in our articles “Down With Executive Offices of the Capitalist State!” (Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 61, Spring 2009) and “Why We Reject the ‘Constituent Assembly’ Demand” (Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 63, Winter 2012-13). Having played a key role in motivating both, Jim saw these articles as vital extensions of Lenin’s The State and Revolution and The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky.
California, Calvinism and Communism
Born in Berkeley in 1928, Jim was a child of the Great Depression and often recalled its utter destitution. He also remembered the impact of the 1936-37 West Coast maritime strike from the vantage point of a young boy seeing the detritus thrown from unworked ships floating in San Francisco Bay.
Some 80 years later, Jim was a key impetus for our “Then and Now” pamphlet contrasting the 1934 victories of three citywide strikes waged amid the Depression—San Francisco longshoremen, Minneapolis Teamsters and Toledo auto workers—with the ongoing devastation of organized labor today. Seeking to arm a new generation of working-class fighters, the pamphlet drives home that a crucial difference is that the 1934 strikes were led by “reds” committed to mobilizing the class power of the workers as opposed to the current labor misleaders, who are committed to the interests and profits of American imperialism. In fighting to implant a class-struggle perspective in the working class, Jim had a keen appreciation of the relationship of the Leninist party to the proletariat: Unions mean the unity of workers, while the party means split—i.e., the fight to forge the vanguard of the class by winning over the most class-conscious workers.
Jim’s family, on all sides, was staunchly Presbyterian. The lessons inculcated by his Calvinist upbringing would continue to define him, even after he became an atheist in his teens. He maintained a commitment to knowledge and probity, as well as a keen appreciation of monetary matters. The battle against the ignorance, superstition and all-sided reactionary character of the Catholic church would also inspire him as a youth to side with the loyalists in the Spanish Civil War against Franco’s fascist-aligned forces. A polymath with a wide range of interests, Jim was an avid scuba diver and acquired an impressive collection of British coins; he had a fervent interest in Roman and Mediterranean history, including the transition from antiquity to feudalism.
The American Civil War and the fight to abolish black chattel slavery was another living issue for Jim from a young age. While his mother’s side of the family had been slaveholders, his great-grandfather fought on the side of the Union in the Civil War. In 1984, Jim was the moving force behind our tearing down the Confederate flag in San Francisco’s Civic Center. As a tribute to the inspiration of his great-grandfather, a picture of his gravestone was printed in Workers Vanguard accompanying our article “We Tore Down the Flag of Slavery!” (WV No. 353, 27 April 1984).
Raised mostly in the Bay Area and the Central Valley, where his mother taught in a series of small-town grade schools, Jim remained a Californian throughout his life. His idea of a good American meal was beef enchiladas, rice and beans. He also had a keen appreciation of the brutal oppression and degradation of Mexicans who labored in the fields of the Central Valley. The incarceration of Japanese Americans in concentration camps during World War II was also a living memory for him. When his mother taught in a small Mennonite community, his only friends were the Japanese American kids who shared many of his interests. The image of Japanese Americans being held in a pen in Merced, California, waiting to be shipped to the camps was indelibly imprinted on his consciousness.
In notes for memoirs taken by his wife Elizabeth Robertson, whose death from cancer in 2005 was a body blow to Jim, he spoke to the impact of these experiences in “incubating a communist conscience”:
“A pronounced revulsion to racism; the absurdly simple idea that the material requirements of life ought to be produced and distributed upon the basis of the need for them rather than according to profitability to the owners of industry; a hard-core atheism flowing fairly straightforwardly from immersing an unknowingly dedicated Calvinist into a year of Roman Catholic school where he got A’s in catechism and then back to a secular school; and with the sole exception of the beloved Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a thoroughgoing distrust of existing government and institutions.”
At 18 years of age, Jim joined the Communist Party in Richmond, California, in late 1946. At the time, he fully shared the Stalinists’ pro-FDR “anti-fascist popular front” politics.
Black and Red
Jim was assigned to work in the CP youth organization, which was overwhelmingly made up of young black workers, many of whom had come from the South to work in the Richmond shipyards during World War II and were now laid off. As Jim once remarked, the idea that the North was “promised land” had been dashed, and now these black workers looked to the Soviet Union. The stories of the daily racist humiliation and degradation his new comrades were subjected to deepened Jim’s awareness of the centrality of black oppression to both the foundation and maintenance of American capitalism.
Years later, in the late 1950s, veteran SWP leader Richard Fraser would win Jim to his program of revolutionary integrationism, which is counterposed to both liberal integration schemes and black nationalism. Rooted in a proletarian-centered perspective to fight against every manifestation of racial oppression under capitalism, revolutionary integrationism is based on the understanding that the only road to black freedom lies in shattering this racist capitalist order through proletarian revolution, and that black workers, as the most oppressed and also most conscious and combative layer of the working class, will play a leading role in that struggle.
Describing Fraser as his “last personal teacher” at a memorial meeting following his death in 1988, Jim described his impact: “I was really quite ready to run into comrade Fraser’s presentation and historical foundation, that one can achieve the abolition of racial division in this country only through a profound, pervasive, far-going social revolution in which the working class comes to power.” One of the founding documents of the SL/U.S., “Black and Red—Class Struggle Road to Negro Freedom” (1966), elucidated Fraser’s program of revolutionary integrationism, incorporating lessons from our early intervention into the black freedom struggle. This perspective animated the SL-initiated labor/black mobilization to stop the Klan in Washington, D.C., on 27 November 1982 and our other anti-fascist actions. The sight of 5,000 black people, unionists and other intended victims of Klan terror victoriously marching the KKK’s planned route in D.C. was one of our proudest moments.
During his two years in the CP, Jim took the first steps in what would be a lifelong study of the lessons of the Russian Revolution. His branch leadership did not encourage reading Lenin, so Jim went out and bought a copy of The State and Revolution. He was struck by the flagrant contradiction between Lenin and the class-collaborationist politics of the CP. This would later be amplified by his awareness of growing income and other inequalities in the Soviet Union, belying the Stalinists’ claim that the Soviet Union was steadily marching toward socialism.
As a chemistry student at UC Berkeley, Jim was introduced to Trotsky’s The Revolution Betrayed and other works by a young couple who supported Max Shachtman’s Workers Party. He would later often recall that when he “confessed” to being a “Trotskyite” (an experience he described as akin to telling your parents you were gay in the 1950s), he was told that it wasn’t so easy. There were two Trotskyist parties: one was “for Russia and against Stalin” and the other was “against Russia and against Stalin.” Having expressed a preference for the former, Jim was told that was “old fashioned” and was directed instead to Shachtman’s party. He joined its youth organization in 1948.
From the CP to the “Third Camp”
One of the founding leaders of American Trotskyism, Shachtman had split from the SWP in 1940, having repudiated the party’s defense of the Soviet Union. It would take some years for the full pro-imperialist implications of this defection from Trotskyism to play out. The Shachtman organization’s plunge into increasingly overt support for U.S. imperialism began not long after Jim joined, and it would propel him into opposition. In 1951, Shachtman floated the idea of supporting an American-led war against the Soviet Union under the condition that it would have some kind of labor cover. Shortly thereafter, Jim debated Shachtman in front of the Bay Area branch.
This took some guts, and it was an early marker of Jim’s political intransigence and audacity. At the debate, he used Shachtman’s 1941 article “Working-Class Policy in War and Peace.” In that piece, Shachtman had correctly excoriated the SWP’s “Proletarian Military Policy”—which advocated trade-union control over military training during World War II—as a concession to social-patriotism. Opposition to this policy remains a hallmark of our international organization, codified in our Prometheus Research Series No. 2, “Documents on the ‘Proletarian Military Policy’” (February 1989).
Jim also got a good education in Marxist classics in Shachtman’s organization, which he would refer to as a model for the education of new comrades in the SL. Unfortunately for Al Garber, who ran this educational program, it armed the student to polemically excoriate the teacher’s abject revisionism. Garber had argued that Stalinism could have been avoided if the Bolsheviks had called for new elections in 1921, at the end of the devastating Civil War, and handed over power to whichever party won. In a 1954 document titled “Should the Bolsheviks Have Surrendered State Power?” Jim argued that this would have been “a betrayal of the first magnitude of socialism and would have assured the defeat” of the October Revolution. Garber snarled that Jim belonged in the SWP, to which Jim retorted that Garber belonged in the Socialist Party. A few years later, those organizations were exactly where each of them ended up.
The 1956 Hungarian Revolution had a tremendous impact in puncturing the Shachtmanites’ position that the Stalinist bureaucracy was a new “bureaucratic collectivist” ruling class. In the face of a working-class uprising, the Hungarian Communist Party bureaucracy polarized and split. A sizable minority, including a central military commander and the Budapest chief of police, went over to the side of the workers. This confirmed Trotsky’s understanding of the Stalinist bureaucracy as an unstable caste, a parasitic excrescence sitting on top of the workers state. As Jim would later remark in a presentation on the antecedents of the Spartacist League, “Imagine a proletarian revolution in a capitalist country where one-quarter of the Republican Party or the Tories goes over to the side of the workers. This is a fantasy! Everything Trotsky said was right.”
The same year as the events in Hungary, Khrushchev’s “secret” speech on the crimes of Stalin propelled hundreds of shocked and disaffected Stalinists out of the Communist Party, breaking the dominance of the CP on the left. For his part, Shachtman was preparing to totally liquidate into the “State Department socialists” of Norman Thomas’s decrepit Socialist Party. As one of the leaders of the Shachtman youth organization’s Left Wing Caucus, which opposed the liquidation, Jim once again debated Shachtman. In the aftermath of the debate, Shachtman wrote that it was pointless trying to save Jim from “something he badly wants and badly needs—experience with a sterile, intolerant revolutionary phrasemongering sect like the SWP.”
And that is where Jim went, joining the SWP in 1957. He always fondly recalled his collaboration with veteran SWPer Murry Weiss, who was central to the party’s regroupment with the Left Wing Caucus. This regroupment would lay the basis for the founding of the SWP’s youth group, the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA). Comrade Robertson and other former Caucus leaders Shane Mage and Tim Wohlforth became leaders of the YSA. Although Jim described their view of the SWP as some kind of Trotsky memorial society, he thought that he would “rather be in an honorable irrelevant memorial association to Trotsky” than stay with the Shachtmanites.
The SWP, the RT and the Cuban Revolution
The SWP was pretty hollowed out by the time Jim joined, most immediately reflecting the impact of the stagnation and repression of the 1950s Cold War witchhunt. With the SWP having spent some years making little to no impact on society, the Trotskyist program had increasingly become irrelevant for much of the party leadership. Looking for something else to latch on to, the SWP found it in the Cuban Revolution led by Fidel Castro, whose petty-bourgeois guerrilla forces took power in Havana in 1959 and whose government expropriated the Cuban bourgeoisie in 1960-61. Jim often recalled longtime SWP leader Morris Stein enthusing that the Cuban Revolution was the best one he was going to see in his lifetime.
In embracing Fidel Castro as an “unconscious Marxist,” the SWP leadership dumped both the centrality of the working class as well as the need for a Leninist vanguard party to lead the struggle for power by the proletariat. In 1960, Shane Mage wrote an oppositional document, “The Cuban Revolution and Marxist Theory,” which was co-signed by Robertson and Wohlforth. In a 2014 presentation on “The RT at Conception,” Jim commented that since they were all new boys in the SWP, he didn’t think the document would have much impact. But they were also leaders of the SWP’s youth organization, and in January 1961 the party leadership called a plenum on the Cuban question. As Jim recalled: “The point of it was to bring us to heel, to stop us. They hit us pretty hard. We didn’t recant. Instead we called a faction meeting” (Marxist Studies for Cadre Education No. 10, June 2018). That was the beginning of the Revolutionary Tendency in the SWP.
A finished understanding that Cuba had become a deformed workers state in 1960 with the pervasive nationalizations and the liquidation of the bourgeoisie as a class is presented in an additional preface to Marxist Bulletin No. 8, “Cuba and Marxist Theory.” Written by Jim in 1973, the preface spelled out the exceptional circumstances that had led to this outcome: the absence of the working class as a contender for power, the flight of the Cuban bourgeoisie, the intransigent opposition of the Eisenhower administration and the existence of the Soviet Union as a military and economic counterweight to U.S. imperialism.
This analysis of the Cuban Revolution unlocked the process through which revolutions of insurrectionary peasant forces led by Stalinists had succeeded in smashing capitalism and establishing deformed workers states after World War II. It was a vital contribution, reaffirming Trotskyism against the disorientation and impressionism of the postwar Fourth International. The majority of Trotskyists, relying on sterile “orthodoxy,” initially insisted that without proletarian revolution there could be no social overturn of capitalism. Then, following the Yugoslav peasant-based revolution and Tito’s subsequent break with Stalin, many Trotskyists hailed the Yugoslav Stalinists as “comrades” and “left centrists.” Michel Pablo, who had emerged as leader of the Fourth International after the decimation of its central cadre in Europe during the war, generalized the embrace of the Yugoslav Stalinists into a broad revisionist course. He argued that the establishment of deformed workers states in East and Central Europe, most of which were created from the top down by the forces of the Red Army, demonstrated that the Stalinist parties “retain the possibility in certain circumstances of roughly outlining a revolutionary orientation.” Thus the very need for a revolutionary Trotskyist international was liquidated.
Although in a partial and limited way, Cannon’s SWP had fought Pabloite revisionism and united in the International Committee (IC) with other organizations that claimed to defend Trotskyism. But the SWP’s embrace of Castro’s guerrillas paved the way to its reunification with the Pabloites in 1963. The RT opposed this course. Jim was particularly proud of writing the following section of the RT’s 1963 resolution, “Toward Rebirth of the Fourth International”:
“Experience since the Second World War has demonstrated that peasant-based guerilla warfare under petit-bourgeois leadership can in itself lead to nothing more than an anti-working-class bureaucratic regime. The creation of such regimes has come about under the conditions of decay of imperialism, the demoralization and disorientation caused by Stalinist betrayals, and the absence of revolutionary Marxist leadership of the working class. Colonial revolution can have an unequivocally progressive significance only under such leadership of the revolutionary proletariat. For Trotskyists to incorporate into their strategy revisionism on the proletarian leadership in the revolution is a profound negation of Marxism-Leninism no matter what pious wish may be concurrently expressed for ‘building revolutionary Marxist parties in colonial countries.’ Marxists must resolutely oppose any adventurist acceptance of the peasant-guerilla road to socialism—historically akin to the Social Revolutionary program on tactics that Lenin fought. This alternative would be a suicidal course for the socialist goals of the movement, and perhaps physically for the adventurers.”
—printed in Spartacist No. 1, February-March 1964
Domestically, the RT, seeking to win black militants to revolutionary Marxism, fought against the SWP’s criminal abstention from the growing left wing of the civil rights movement. A July 1963 document written by Robertson and Shirley Stoute titled “For Black Trotskyism” recalled Trotsky’s admonition that “if it happens that we in the SWP are not able to find the road to this strata, then we are not worthy at all.” In December 1963, the SWP leadership expelled Robertson and four other leaders of the RT in the first political expulsions in the history of the party.
The Obligation of Revolutionary Internationalism
Following Cannon’s death in August 1974, comrade Robertson memorialized him in a presentation to an SL/U.S. national gathering the same month. He spoke to Cannon’s unique capacity, evolved out of his times and his political struggles, “to be the successful strategist and leader of a proletarian revolution in North America.” Jim noted, however, that Cannon had ducked the international responsibility that he ought to have taken up after Trotsky’s murder:
“Cannon had an abiding failure. He became the principal individual authority responsible for the world Trotskyist movement in August 1940 and basically didn’t do anything about it (though the SWP was internationalist and willing to commit energy, lives). I think the reason was pretty simple: Cannon felt he was not good enough to be a world leader of the Marxist movement, and he was right….
“So Cannon backed off, and we’re stuck with the job. He stuck us with it doubly. Because he was a lot better than we are—and when I say ‘he’ I mean not only Cannon personally but the immediate working crew that made up the ‘Cannon regime.’...
“There was a Cannon regime, and they were doing the best they could. But they didn’t accept the international challenge, and yet it is an obligation. Yes, if you know that you don’t know anything, go patiently, quietly, perseveringly; struggle with the greatest patience and attention for international collaborators. We have to go that way, not back off and wait in national isolation for somebody else to come forward and say, ‘I can do it,’ and then we say, ‘all right; we’ll give you our authority.’ We have to persist; we have to intervene.”
—Spartacist (English-language edition) No. 38-39, Summer 1986
From the beginning, our founding cadre understood that we would never survive as a revolutionary organization in national isolation, not least under the pressures of operating in the most powerful imperialist country on earth. We considered ourselves to be in programmatic agreement with the International Committee (until our definitive break with them in 1967). In particular, Gerry Healy’s Socialist Labour League in Britain had published very impressive and orthodox-sounding documents in defense of authentic Trotskyism. At the same time, the RT had had its own bad experiences with Healy’s bureaucratic organizational practices, which were aimed at coercing compliance with his dictates. In 1962, Healy’s American toady, Wohlforth, had split the RT, and he would later serve as the fingerman for our expulsion by the SWP leadership.
We also had a major political difference with Healy over Cuba. In what we would describe as “inverted Pabloism,” the Healyites answered the SWP’s embrace of Castro’s petty-bourgeois guerrillas by denying that capitalism had been overthrown in Cuba. Nonetheless, from what we could tell from their written documents, we had significant programmatic agreement, and that was central.
A Spartacist delegation attended the 1966 IC Conference in London, where comrade Robertson spoke on our behalf. He addressed our differences over Cuba, noting: “If the Cuban bourgeoisie is indeed ‘weak’ as the I.C. affirms, one can only observe that it must be tired from its long swim to Miami, Florida.” He criticized the IC’s enormous overestimation of the imminence of the final “crisis of capitalism” and argued that the IC had “not done very well” in fighting Pabloist revisionism. Healy’s response was swift. Charging that Robertson’s supposed “unexcused” absence from a Conference session was an act of petty-bourgeois American-chauvinist contempt, he demanded that Jim apologize. Jim refused to bow to the demand that he falsely confess.
In the Spartacist delegation’s final statement to the conference, Jim argued:
“We believe it is a violation of Leninist practice to demand that a comrade affirm to his comrades what he does not believe…. The Spartacist organization has been subjected to a series of slanderous attacks, despite our basic political agreement on the necessity of the fight against revisionism. This is an attempt to substitute for international democratic centralism for the American section a mechanism not of consciousness and discipline but of fear and obedience.”
A year later, the contradiction between Healy’s organizational practices and the IC’s professed program was resolved with its embrace of Mao’s “Cultural Revolution” and of the so-called “Arab Revolution,” which was composed of despotic nationalist regimes in the Near East.
Forging a Cadre Collective
Doubtless Healy thought that after our break with him, we would simply shrivel up and die. But we didn’t. From the first issue of Spartacist (February-March 1964), we had declared our intention to resolve the disparity between our size and our goal of forging a Leninist vanguard party through: revolutionary regroupment with leftward moving elements of other self-professed Marxist organizations and winning individual supporters from among radicalized youth and militants in the civil rights struggle, as well as seeking to intersect key sections of the working class.
It was a period of intense political ferment and tumultuous social struggle in the U.S. The civil rights struggles had shattered the reactionary 1950s Cold War consensus. Opposition to the pro-Democratic Party liberal pacifism of the Martin Luther King leadership had generated a left-wing split of young black militants. The impact of the Cuban Revolution was now combined with growing opposition to the Vietnam War. The New Left was growing by leaps and bounds.
Although our forces were small and in the early years somewhat amorphous, we fought to intervene to the best of our capacity. What comrade Robertson brought to bear were the lessons of Leninist party building, especially the training and development of cadre that he had learned in particular from the work and history of James P. Cannon. He understood that our recruitment would predominantly come from individuals and groups attracted to our program and analysis as expressed in our propaganda, not some phony pretense of “mass work.” At the same time, Jim looked for opportunities where we could, in an exemplary way, demonstrate our program in action.
In 1964, when black Harlem was under police siege following an upheaval of protest against the cop killing of a black teenager, the SL initiated the Harlem Solidarity Committee. Its purpose was to rally working-class support for the besieged black population. The response was a nearly 1,000-strong rally in New York’s garment district. Speaking to the crowd, Jim took on the cops’ campaign to charge communists with inflaming the upheaval in Harlem. As he defiantly declared, “Unfortunately there aren’t many Reds in Harlem now—but there will be!”
In 1968, in the course of an intense internal faction fight, Jim succeeded in forging a cadre collective of those comrades who had been won to the SL/U.S. in its early years. Then, after a series of regroupments and fusions, we were able to realize our perspective of being a fighting propaganda group with the establishment of Workers Vanguard as well as Women and Revolution. We founded a national youth organization, which in turn provided many of the young comrades who would go on to fight for a class-struggle perspective in key unions.
In notes for his own obituary written in 1990, Jim wrote: “He breached the gap from the old left under James P. Cannon and Max Shachtman to the New Left, bringing along several hundred at the time so they did not spend their lives in futile adventure or Yuppiedom.” And, by the time of our Third National Conference in 1972, we finally had the cadre, language skills and financial resources to systematically pursue our international extension.
Reforge the Fourth International!
The international Spartacist tendency was formally launched in 1974 with the “Declaration for the Organizing of an International Trotskyist Tendency” (DOITT). Adopted by the SL/U.S. and the Spartacist League of Australia and New Zealand, as well as supporters in Europe, the DOITT document stated:
“The international Spartacist tendency is just that, a tendency in the process of consolidation. But from its international outset it declares its continuing fidelity already tested for a decade in national confines to Marxist-Leninist principle and Trotskyist program—Revolutionary, Internationalist and Proletarian.
“The struggle for the rebirth of the Fourth International promises to be difficult, long, and, above all, uneven.”
From our first days, Jim was often part of international delegations that pursued opportunities for principled revolutionary regroupment. He personally focused particular effort on Britain, living in London in the mid 1970s. There he collaborated in the writing of our “Theses on Ireland,” a critical extension of a Leninist understanding of the national question especially in relation to geographically interpenetrated peoples. Jim was also central to winning an oppositional faction from Alan Thornett’s Workers Socialist League, which included several young Irish and Turkish members, laying the basis for founding the Spartacist League/Britain in 1978.
By the time of our first International Conference in 1979, we had sections in France, Germany, Australia, Canada, the U.S. and Britain. Of the nearly 300 delegates and observers in attendance who had been members of other organizations, the majority had been left splits from Ernest Mandel’s Pabloite United Secretariat. Others included former pro-Moscow and pro-Beijing Stalinists, anti-revisionist Trotskyists and former Third Campists, as well as ex-members of the Black Panthers and women’s and gay rights radical organizations.
Nonetheless, although we had won many youthful militants from self-proclaimed Trotskyist groups, we had failed to win veteran fighters whose experience would have helped shape a new generation. It wasn’t for lack of trying. Our most notable effort to find, in Cannon’s words, “the initiating cadres of the new organization in the old,” was a long fraternal experience with the comrades of Edmund Samarakkody’s Revolutionary Workers Party (RWP) in Sri Lanka. In 1960, Jim had written a letter to the SWP Political Committee protesting its public silence over the betrayals of the Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP), which had signed on to a popular-front electoral pact with the bourgeois-nationalist, Sinhala-chauvinist Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP). [See Spartacist (English edition) No. 62, Spring 2011.] In 1964, the LSSP joined the SLFP government, leading Samarakkody to split from the LSSP. Later that year, he and his comrade Meryl Fernando, both Members of Parliament, cast their votes in favor of a motion of no confidence, a principled act that brought down the coalition government.
The DOITT document outlining the prospects for revolutionary regroupment took particular note of Samarakkody’s RWP as having “emerged with integrity from the welter of betrayals perpetrated by the old LSSP” and abetted by the United Secretariat (as well as Healy’s IC). In the course of written and other discussions with Samarakkody’s group beginning in 1971, it became clear that they had not broken from a parliamentary framework. Evidence of this included Samarakkody repudiating his 1964 vote against the popular front. Relations had seemingly reached an impasse when in 1979 we received a proposal for fusion.
Comrade Robertson headed a delegation to Lanka for discussions. As another comrade who was part of that delegation recently wrote: “These ten days of intense political combat were a display of Jim’s capacities as a clear-headed political leader, combining steely programmatic firmness with a masterful sense of diplomacy. The trip was conditioned by many factors, but chiefly Jim’s well-known commitment to extend our forces internationally.” Attending our 1979 International Conference, Samarakkody made clear that he intended to maintain his provincial operation on the left fringe of the Sri Lanka popular front and would not allow his organization to be subject to the correctives of international democratic-centralism. The fusion was off, as Samarakkody packed his bags and left before the conference ended.
Nonetheless, we learned that we had polarized the RWP, and several of its younger comrades were won to our tendency. They were animated by Jim’s insistence that the struggle against Sinhala chauvinism by the working class of Sri Lanka “can be no less a precondition for successful revolution than the struggle against Great Russian chauvinism was for the Bolsheviks.” As our Lankan section, they fought with great determination and courage against the government’s escalating war against the Tamil population. Internationally, our sections organized and participated in protests with Tamil exiles protesting the terror in Sri Lanka.
We lost these comrades largely due to our inability to communicate in each other’s languages. Despite concerted efforts by our Sri Lankan comrades and comrades in New York, we never succeeded in breaking the Sinhala-English barrier. In a later document titled “Internationalism Is a Dead Letter If…!” Jim wrote: “Without the language capacity to bridge the gulfs between the people of the world we are not merely lost, we are non-starters.” Referencing himself as “the pathetic walking example of this problem” despite several years of studying Spanish, some French and a prolonged attempt to learn German, Jim ended with the salutation “For a Welders’ and Bilinguals’ Government!”
Maintenance and the PRL
Jim’s reference to “welders” was not meant jocularly. Throughout his political life, he fought against bourgeois society’s veneration of “intellectual labor” and contempt for those who work with their hands. In part, this reflected his study of, and work in, chemistry. In remarks at the 1994 SL/U.S. National Conference, he counterposed “unifying communist values” that seek to overcome the division between mental and manual labor to “the bourgeois dichotomy between the doer and the thinker, the blue and the white collar, work and leisure, dirty and clean, menial and advantaged.”
Jim dedicated his presentation (printed as “Maintenance and the Communist Movement,” WV No. 605, 2 September 1994) to Nina Hartley. A porn star and fighter for sexual liberation, Hartley, in Jim’s words, “personifies the struggle against a parallel kind of invidiousness and hypocrisy, in her case sexual, inherent in the bourgeois order.” Jim was a key contributor to Women and Revolution, which was published from 1971 to 1996. Women and Revolution was not only a tool for intervention into the 1970s women’s liberation movement but also a means to illuminate social questions arising out of the fundamental character of women’s oppression, taking up subjects like human origins and early society as well as culture and art.
Inside the party, Jim encouraged women comrades to become leaders of the organization. In part, this came from his experience in the SWP, where male National Officers had female secretaries. While these extremely competent and devoted women cadre shared their opinions with the national leaders, they did not speak at Political Committee meetings. As one of our early leading women comrades wrote: “Jim said he didn’t want me to be like that; he wanted women in our party to seek authority in their own right.” The leaderships of the SL/U.S. and the ICL have always been distinguished by their many Marxist women cadre.
On the book-learning side of the equation, Jim pursued a lifelong dedication to building a Marxist library and collecting archival material documenting the history and experiences of the workers movement, both in the U.S. and internationally. This started during his years in Shachtman’s organization, and it wasn’t easy as an impoverished student in the midst of the McCarthyite witchhunt. Thus, Jim was understandably quite proud when Louis Sinclair, the bibliographer of Trotsky’s works, found items in Jim’s library that he wasn’t aware of during his visit to the Bay Area in 1958.
Noting Lenin’s admonition that “he who takes somebody’s word for it is a hopeless idiot,” the tasks and perspectives document adopted at the Fourth SL/U.S. Conference in 1974 spelled out the importance of archival work:
“One of the crucial tasks of the vanguard of the proletariat is the struggle to function as the memory of the working class. An important component of this struggle for continuity is the systematic assembling, propagation and critical assimilation of the primary documentary history of the workers movement. Given the passage of time and the accumulation of distortions and vulgarizations, only the precise, verified reconstruction of past realities can serve as a true compass.”
Jim’s personal collection became the basis for the Prometheus Research Library (PRL), a working facility for Marxist and related studies and also the library and reference archives of the SL/U.S. Central Committee. He remained PRL director until his death.
From the beginning of the PRL, Jim pushed an ambitious publishing program to make available rare and important documentation from the history of the communist movement. Our earliest Prometheus Research Series bulletin (August 1988) published the first complete and accurate translation of the “Guidelines on the Organizational Structure of Communist Parties, on the Methods and Content of Their Work.” Adopted by the Third Congress of the Communist International in 1921, the document stands as a codification of communist organizational practice as it was forged by the Bolsheviks and tested by the 1917 workers revolution.
Given the early PRL’s very limited editorial experience, Jim approached George Breitman, one of the principal editors of Pathfinder’s series of Trotsky’s works, who together with other old-time cadre had been drummed out of Jack Barnes’s SWP in 1984. With Breitman’s help, the PRL began to collect Cannon’s writings from the 1920s, work that eventually led to James P. Cannon and the Early Years of American Communism (1992), which Jim co-edited. A PRL memo based on Jim’s notes contrasted such collaboration with one’s opponents in the workers movement to the record of Stalinism:
“By all historical accounts Stalinism ended the moral and political framework of the old radical movement where anarchists, Marxists, syndicalists, co-operativists and even single-taxers worked together on issues of mutual interest. One of Stalinism’s more poisonous qualities, and it is quite total, is the conviction that if you have serious political disagreements with someone you can’t give them the time of day, let alone a reference to an old document.”
In this spirit, Jim was also personally involved in providing documentation and commentary to historian Bryan D. Palmer when he was working on James P. Cannon and the Origins of the American Revolutionary Left, 1890-1928.
Most, but not all, of the Prometheus Research Series bulletins were conceived of (if not co-edited) by Jim, based on his years of research and reflection. This is also true of the PRL’s second book, Dog Days: James P. Cannon vs. Max Shachtman in the Communist League of America, 1931-1933 (2002). Jim had heard rumors of this factional battle from his early days in Shachtman’s organization, but it took him years to get his hands on the key documents. Jim realized that despite the absence of any principled programmatic difference, this early fight between Cannon and Shachtman presaged their 1939-40 battle over the Russian question. It was an early example of the petty-bourgeois impressionism that would lead to Shachtman’s break with Trotskyism. And it demonstrated Cannon’s commitment to programmatic integrity and proletarian centrality.
“We of the Older Generation…”
Dick Fraser once wrote that Robertson had appropriated the “worst aspects of Cannonism and Shachtmanism.” Jim hoped that Fraser meant Cannon’s political intransigence and Shachtman’s easy-going, democratic organizational practices. But he knew he didn’t. Despite political differences, Robertson and Fraser remained friends and political collaborators, particularly on the fight for black liberation, until Fraser’s death in 1988. Two years later, we produced a PRS bulletin containing a selection of his works as a tribute.
Other, unmitigatedly hostile opponents would present Jim as a raving megalomaniac surrounded by handraisers and hacks. These included Tim Wohlforth, who had contrasted his own putative status as a Marxist leader to Cannon, whom he called a vulgar “window-smasher.” The misnamed Bolshevik Tendency, an outfit started by embittered ex-members, joined this chorus. The subjective malice animating the BT was seen in its embrace of Bill Logan—a social and sexual psychopath who was expelled at our first International Conference—as its leader.
The truth of the matter is that Jim never aspired to be “the leader” and was keenly aware that he stood far in Cannon’s shadow. As he put it in his memorial to Cannon, Jim knew that he, and we, could not “wait in national isolation for somebody else to come forward and say, ‘I can do it’.” So he grasped the nettle. Not on his own, but through an ongoing struggle to forge a collective leadership.
Against those posturing as “100 percent” leaders, who were unable to tolerate any corrective or criticism, Jim argued that if you were right 70 percent of the time it was a pretty good track record. Jim often said that “the party flies on two wings,” underlining the value of comrades in the left and right wings of the party.
He also liked to quote Oliver Cromwell’s entreaty: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.” And when the party was wrong, Jim insisted that we publicly correct ourselves. Others, particularly of the líder máximo school, take this to be evidence of weakness and disarray. For our part, we recognize that frankly acknowledging our mistakes is, as Lenin put it, “the hallmark of a serious party” that seeks to both learn from its errors and impart these lessons to the proletariat.
Revolutionary politics is, as Cannon put it, “a devourer of men.” Against pretty big odds, comrade Robertson persisted in the struggle to forge a Leninist party. It took its toll. As part of coping with the stresses and to overcome a great personal shyness, he drank, a lot. By the late 1980s, he was also keenly aware of the impact of aging on his political capacities for central party leadership. He often spoke of the “Rickover Syndrome,” referring to U.S. Navy admiral Hyman Rickover, who was forced to retire at 82 after nearly sinking the nuclear submarine USS La Jolla during its 1981 sea trials.
In the early 1990s, Jim and his family moved to California, which he described as “semi-retirement.” Nonetheless, although removed from the administrative leadership of the party, he continued to be central to shaping our international line and to our propaganda, as well as to internal struggles in the ICL. With his health threatened by alcoholism, he stopped drinking and later also gave up smoking. This bought Jim, and us, some 25 more years of his life and political experience. In that time, he sought to pass on the lessons he had learned to newer party leaders.
In a 1977 internal educational on party history, Jim noted:
“The reason that we stress the continuity of international communism and Trotskyism is because we have so little…. It’s very thin, comrades, this continuity. And it seems to me and has always seemed to me that to be a good communist requires two components, each of which is necessary. One is akin to the university students, that is the mastery of the texts: to know, to read, to study, to be able to have the historic precedents through book learning at one’s fingers. And the other is analogous to the apprenticeship program where you learn by doing under the direction and supervision of those who know better than you. And without components of both I do not think it’s possible to build the Bolshevik party without having to start all over again which is unlikely.”
The founding leadership of the SL had the advantage of coming onto the scene at a time when society was erupting in the U.S. and internationally in social struggle. The current generation has to fight to persevere in a political climate that, since the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union in 1991-92, has overwhelmingly been defined by a dearth of class and social struggle and a great retrogression of consciousness.
One of Jim’s favorite quotes was from a talk by Lenin in January 1917, when he said: “We of the older generation may not live to see the decisive battles of this coming revolution.” The following month, the February Revolution in Russia opened the way for Lenin and the Bolshevik Party to intervene in a political struggle that would culminate in the October Revolution. Advising our younger comrades to not be taken in by pretenders to Marxism who denounce us for lacking immediate perspectives, Jim underlined: “Don’t pay so much attention to your immediate perspective, because you don’t know what’s going to happen in February! What is your program? That is the decisive question.”