Workers Vanguard No. 1167
13 December 2019
In Memory of James Robertson
The International Communist League recently held memorials for our comrade James Robertson, a founding leader of the Spartacist League/U.S. and its longtime National Chairman, who died on April 7. A private memorial in New York City in October drew around 200 people, as did a public memorial in the Bay Area on November 3.
A number of comrades paid tribute to comrade Robertson. Several representing sections in our international tendency spoke about his essential political role over the decades. These included Eibhlin McDonald on Britain, Phillipa Niland on Australia and Jeanne Mitchell on Japan. In the case of our German section, Renate Dahlhaus focused her comments on the centrality of Jim’s leadership during our intervention into the incipient proletarian political revolution in East Germany in 1989-90. Other speakers highlighted aspects of Jim’s wide-ranging and unique contributions to the party: Amy Rath spoke on Women and Revolution; Alan Wilde on Workers Vanguard; and Gene Herson on maintenance and trade-union work. The moderator described how Jim was a true polymath, and discussed his archival work.
We print below two presentations, edited for publication. The first is by George Foster, former deputy National Chairman of the SL/U.S. and one of Jim’s longtime collaborators; and the second by Skye Williams, current National Chairman of the SL/U.S. The full set of speeches is projected for publication in an upcoming Prometheus Research Series (PRS) bulletin.
Jim was politically active in the workers movement for over 70 years, and his legacy as a Marxist revolutionary is large. His obituary in Workers Vanguard (No. 1162, 4 October) is excellent, comprehensive and necessarily not short. To have remained a committed communist for so long is remarkable. To continue to be able to intervene on key programmatic issues facing the party when his health began to fail was even more remarkable. In that regard, we owe a lot to his wife and comrade, Martha, who vigilantly and diligently made sure he had adequate and timely medical care, this in addition to her many political and organizational responsibilities.
I, as well as many comrades here, go back with Jim a long way. I first saw him in action at an anti-Vietnam War teach-in at the University of Buffalo in 1965. Among the usual spectrum of speakers—pacifists, preachers, liberals and reformists—Jim’s remarks stood out. They were Marxist, wide-ranging, sober and clearly presented. But what I remember most was the question-and-answer period where members of the audience put questions to particular speakers. Early on, someone rose from his seat and addressed his question to Jim: “Sir, are you a member of the international communist conspiracy?” Jim responded: “Well, there isn’t one worthy of the name, but we’re doing our best to create one because it’s necessary to do so.” That got quite a few laughs.
When Jim’s son Ken heard the story, he looked at me and asked if I had considered that Jim had possibly planted the questioner in the audience. This is a case of the acorn falling not far from the oak. Jim had a wicked and mischievous sense of humor and often opined that the absence of a sense of humor reflected an inability to appreciate contradiction and hence Marxist dialectics.
Jim’s answer to the anti-communist was funny, but in its stated intent completely serious. He was committed to the struggle to build a Leninist-Trotskyist party, as part of a reforged Fourth International, a party that is revolutionary, proletarian and internationalist.
A 1986 article in Spartacist (No. 37-38) titled “The SWP—A Strangled Party” put it well: “Cannon clung to the SWP [Socialist Workers Party] through its degeneration, but the Revolutionary Tendency took hold of the thread of Marxist continuity, based on the heritage of Cannon and the revolutionary SWP. As opposed to the sentimental looking-back with centrist blinders…we look forward with the confidence that we are the continuators of revolutionary Marxism in the United States and internationally.” Simply put, Jim was central to the programmatic struggle that forged the Revolutionary Tendency (RT), which in turn led to the creation of the Spartacist League and, over time, to the International Communist League. This is his revolutionary legacy.
Forging such a party does not happen spontaneously, but must be consciously organized from the top down, based on Marxist program and embodied in a cadre committed to acting as a disciplined instrument of proletarian revolutionary struggle aimed at sweeping away capitalist society and its attendant state institutions.
Jim was the most determined, politically tenacious and conscious person I ever met. Early on, he took to heart Lenin’s injunction: “Would it not be better if the salutations addressed to the Soviets and the Bolsheviks were more frequently accompanied by a profound analysis of the reasons why the Bolsheviks have been able to build up the discipline needed by the revolutionary proletariat?” As Lenin noted, absent that discipline, the Bolsheviks would never have been able to lead the proletariat to victory over the bourgeoisie, nor able to hold onto power in the face of subsequent ferocious counterrevolutionary assaults.
If the FBI and the depredations of capitalism convinced Jim that the world needed communists more than chemists, ironically, the politically slow period attendant to McCarthyism gave Jim the time to critically study Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky and the corresponding history of the workers movement in the U.S. and internationally. By the time Jim regrouped with the SWP, he had very formed opinions of not only the SWP’s programmatic strengths but also of its weaknesses.
In addition to his very intensive study, Jim was also shaped by the particulars of his experience. His obituary in Workers Vanguard deals with these very well. But I want to underline his experiences as a young communist thrust into a largely black Communist Party cell in the Richmond, California, shipyards. It helped shape him as a passionate advocate of black liberation and also made him acutely conscious of the centrality of the proletariat as a class. The San Francisco Bay Area in the immediate aftermath of World War II bears little resemblance to what exists there today. In 1945, there were over 240,000 shipyard workers and probably more than 100,000 longshoremen in the area, as well as many thousands of seamen. There were additionally many scores of thousands of workers in other industries. In all, hundreds of thousands of workers moved to the Bay Area during the war, and many were black and from the South. The sense of proletarian power in the Bay Area was palpable, and underlined by both the longshore strike of 1934 and the Oakland general strike of 1946.
The Russian October 1917 Revolution was the signal event of the 20th century and still, over a hundred years later, marks the dividing line between reform and revolution. We proudly proclaim ourselves the party of that revolution, basing ourselves on the lessons of October and the first four congresses of the Communist International (CI). As well, we are the party of Leon Trotsky and the Left Opposition, which in the years after Lenin’s death struggled against the Stalinist degeneration of that revolution.
If comrades go back and look at both the Spartacist League and its antecedent, the RT, they will see that Jim insisted we be a fighting propaganda group seeking to intervene in class and social struggles to the extent possible, engaging in exemplary actions that highlight our program. Acutely aware of our meager resources, we fought as hard as we could, realizing that ultimately, “The only real test is in hard-driving, all-sided involvement in living class struggle” (“Declaration for the Organizing of an International Trotskyist Tendency,” Spartacist No. 23, Spring 1977).
In the SWP, a main axis of the RT’s struggle was for Marxist intervention into the black freedom struggle that had erupted in the South. The core of the RT’s position was that black equality could only be achieved through the victory of far-reaching social revolution in which the working class comes to power, understanding that black workers, as the most oppressed, conscious and combative layer of the working class, are destined to play a leading role in that revolution. The SWP majority instead uncritically embraced black nationalism and abstained from intervention in the struggle. In the words of the RT: “The systematic abstentionism and the accompanying attitude of acquiescence which accepts as inevitable that ‘ours is a white party’ are most profound threats to the revolutionary capacity of the party on the American scene.” The majority’s abstentionism foreclosed the possibility of building a revolutionary movement in the South, which would have led to a historic breakthrough in forging a black Trotskyist cadre linked to the struggles of the black proletariat.
Out of his experience with the SWP’s outrageous bureaucratic expulsion of the RT for being a faction that advocated Trotskyism, Jim had a very developed sense of workers democracy, the norms of democratic centralism and the rights of party oppositionists and minorities to argue for their positions. He also took care that key line questions be adequately discussed. I recall a Midwestern conference that had a very confused discussion on the Irish question and Ulster. Our proposed line carried by a small majority, but a plurality of the membership abstained. When Jim arrived at the end of the session, he demanded the vote be rescinded and that more written discussion and education be undertaken before taking another vote.
Jim and I began working closely together from 1971 onward. Many of the younger comrades have worked with Jim over the last decade; but, believe me, in his earlier days he was much more “intense.” Let me give you a flavor of these earlier years. In 1971, we learned there was a collective of ex-Maoists, the Communist Working Collective (CWC), in Los Angeles moving toward Lenin and Trotsky. We had to get to L.A. fast, as this seemed to be a very important opportunity for a regroupment. How to do it? Our finances were very limited. Jim was in NY and I was in Boston. He called and thought we could use my car to drive, first to the Bay Area and then, after consultation with comrades there, on to L.A.
So, I left Boston and arrived at his apartment several blocks above Harlem at 4:30 a.m. He was all set to go, and we were off. Jim did not want to waste time. We traded off driving when we needed to stop for more gas, and the sooner you used up your tank, the sooner you could curl up in the back seat to get some sleep (after a small nip of cooking sherry redolent of the dishwashing detergent bottle in which it was stored). This strategy proved very efficient. We made it to Berkeley—2,900 miles—in just over 53 hours.
As most of you know, the fusion with the CWC was a success, and it gave us the cadre to begin recruiting from the student left and opponent groups. I do recall of those discussions in L.A. that Jim was delighted to learn that CWCer George Crawford agreed with him about his take on the Fourth Congress (of the CI) discussion on the workers government, namely that for Marxists, the call for a workers government could only be understood as an algebraic slogan for the dictatorship of the proletariat.
Jim forged cadre by working with them, and during the period when we were regrouping with leftward-moving formations, he always sought the assistance of various comrades, feeling he did better if he worked with others and had the opportunity to consult and discuss rather than going it alone. This was his general approach to building the party, and it stretched from work on Spartacist and Workers Vanguard to finances, maintenance projects, youth work, trade-union issues, legal defense, international work and our labor/black mobilizations against the Klan and Nazis. He knew what he was good at and also learned what he was not so good at, and concomitantly learned the strengths and weaknesses of other comrades. Very importantly in this capacity, he helped comrades become better Marxists. Further, he always worked with a close-knit team to both keep himself informed and to focus and amplify his capacity to function as a Marxist leader.
Jim’s death leaves us weaker as a party not least because we lose his political acumen, programmatic firmness, historical knowledge and organizational experience. Significantly, we also lose his tactical and strategic audacity. I’ll give some examples.
In 1984, it was Jim who first noticed the Confederate flag flying in front of San Francisco City Hall and demanded we tear it down. He was subsequently very much involved in the legal defense of Ritchie Bradley, who was arrested and tried for taking down that flag multiple times. When Ritchie’s trial ended in a hung jury, Jim insisted that Ritchie’s attorney, Valerie West, and I meet with the D.A. to argue that Ritchie wanted his day in court and to demand a new trial! Needless to say, the D.A.’s office was flabbergasted and refused. Defeated, Democratic Party mayor Dianne Feinstein gave up on trying to fly that flag of slavery.
Yet in the midst of the campaign against the flag, Jim also proposed that we call for defending the upcoming Democratic Party National Convention, to be held in San Francisco, from right-wing provocateurs and attendant police violence. In a public statement, we wrote: “The Spartacist League, a Marxist political organization, is today announcing our offer of a security team contribution of a dozen trade unionists and SL supporters to defend the democratic rights of the Democratic Convention. The SL also calls on the AFL-CIO, the Teamsters, ILWU and other labor organizations to organize an additional labor defense guard for the Convention. The profound political and class difference between the Spartacist League and the Democratic Party in no way belies our position that the Democratic Party has the right to assemble and nominate its candidate.”
Jim was the main architect of our line on Afghanistan: “Hail Red Army in Afghanistan! Extend Social Gains of the October Revolution!” Further, it was on his initiative that the Partisan Defense Committee offered to organize international brigades to help fight the CIA’s mujahedin killers.
When Stalinist rule began to come apart in East Germany in October 1989, the choices posed for the workers in the DDR were proletarian political revolution or capitalist counterrevolution. Jim proceeded with great energy and focus to mobilize our forces internationally in a struggle for proletarian political revolution. By early December, we were publishing a near-daily Arprekorr (Workers Press Correspondence) and organizing youth and workers in the DDR to widely distribute Arprekorr to the working class.
Our call for a united-front demonstration against a fascist desecration of a Soviet war memorial and for defense of the workers state, taken up by the unraveling Stalinist ruling party, brought out some 250,000 people to Berlin’s Treptow Park. For the first time in 60 years, Trotskyists were able to address a mass audience of workers, while the Stalinists could only yowl episodic objections. Jim worked very closely with our speaker, Renate Dahlhaus, on her speech (also broadcast on East German TV), which highlighted our call for creating an egalitarian communist party and the rule of workers and soldiers councils.
In fact, we were getting warm welcomes not only from the working class, but also from DDR and Soviet military units. In the case of the latter, much interest was aroused by the distribution of our Russian-language material.
Frightened by the surge of the working class and the specter of Trotskyism, Gorbachev pulled the plug on the DDR. This, in short, opened the door to galloping capitalist counterrevolution. But, confronted with an incipient political revolution in the DDR and given the forces we had at our disposal, we did our duty instead of betraying it. The stakes were high, and to have stood passively aside would only have made us a small auxiliary component of demoralization before the subsequent counterrevolutionary onslaught.
All the above examples are measures of Jim’s capacity as a Marxist revolutionary. Perhaps his favorite work of Trotsky’s was The Lessons of October (1924). In it, Trotsky noted that the February Revolution posed a fundamental controversial question: “Whether or not we should struggle for power; whether or not we should assume power.” Trotsky explained the content of reformism, of not struggling for power: “By Social Democracy we are to understand the acceptance of a reformist opposition activity within the framework of bourgeois society and an adaptation to its legality—i.e., the actual training of the masses to become imbued with the inviolability of the bourgeois state.” Jim was all about training the proletarian vanguard to struggle for power, all about the lessons of October.
His last big struggle was waged along with younger comrades to reassert the Leninist understanding of the national question—absolutely vital to our small organization’s capacity to be a genuinely internationalist party. Jim was very fond of Victor Serge’s The Case of Comrade Tulayev. When he helped lead the Young Socialist Alliance (YSA), he would ask YSAers what party they were a member of; most would reply, “the YSA.” Jim would have them read Serge’s novel and then they learned the right answer, “the Fourth International.” Jim’s struggle for revolutionary continuity, an ongoing process requiring intervention, struggle and study, is today embodied in the ICL, which seeks to reforge the Fourth International, world party of socialist revolution. Jim’s was a life dedicated to the struggle for the communist future, where mankind has made the leap from its present state of exploitation, poverty, wars and oppression generated by capitalism to the realm of equality and freedom for all.
For the last eleven years, Jim and I were unorthodox political collaborators—he was nearly 45 years older than me. Plus, he lived on the West Coast, and I was in New York, so we worked together across generations and one continent. In 2008, we made a bloc against Rachel Wolkenstein, who had embraced liberal liquidationism in a quest to “revitalize” a mass movement for Mumia Abu-Jamal—subjectively desirable, but objectively infeasible. As the fight progressed, I became the central leader of the SL/U.S., and later, of the International. What started out as a principled political bloc with Jim became a kind of continual collaboration.
I think the most important thing that Jim did around the time he left the center was oversee the publication of the two Cannon books and PRS (No. 5) with Max Shachtman’s piece on “Unprincipled Combinationism.” The second Cannon book and Shachtman’s document give a thorough picture of the Trotskyists in the 1930s, and of a precursor to the 1939-40 fight. I was still living in France when Dog Days and “Unprincipled Combinationism” came out. Since I didn’t have access to the Prometheus Research Library (PRL), they allowed me to really wrap my mind around what revolutionary continuity is, to see Cannon’s evolution as a Leninist and to understand my own evolution as a leader in that framework. Jim brought his own three-dimensional experiences to what would have otherwise been an academic exercise.
For years, I flew to California and talked with him about Cannon and the SWP and everything he knew. Then, I would go back to the PRL and read up on everything he said. Eventually, we started looking at the period when the Communist League of America did an entry into the Socialist Party in 1936-37. It turns out there was another break between Cannon and Shachtman then that, like in 1931-33, presaged the 1939-40 fight but wasn’t decisive. That was new ground for both of us.
When I visited the PRL Western Station, I would always talk with Jim and Jane and Martha about what was happening in the party, and I counted on their collective feedback. Jane and Martha were crucial to Jim’s working collective. Jim would always show me his coins, and I would sometimes fix up Jane’s garden. There were always dogs around, which he enjoyed. Also, Jim used to collect aluminum cans and turn them in for the money, and so I used to bring my cans from the airplane with me.
Our struggle for continuity is not just a stale acceptance of what has come before, but entails active political thought and struggle. Jim was fond of pointing out that the future is not predictable and how Lenin, in January 1917, ended a talk saying, “We of the older generation may not live to see the decisive battles of this coming revolution,” but then, one month later, the February Revolution in Russia broke out. So, you never know what might happen. The UAW auto workers struck GM for over a month. We went to the picket lines, sold over 100 subscriptions and got a pretty good reception. Just as Marx and Engels laid it out, class struggle is integral to capitalism, and it produces its own crises.
In July 2015, after the Greek people had decisively voted “no” in a referendum against the European Union and against a starvation bailout, the ruling party at the time, Syriza, trampled on the referendum results and made a deal with the imperialists. In the ICL, we were heading to a leadership gathering in Europe. Late at night, I got a letter from Martha and Jim suggesting that we consider launching committees to mobilize workers, the unemployed, youth and others to tap into the mass anger in Greek society.
Our Greek section, the TOE, liked the proposal and so, within 12 hours, we sat down and worked out a program, using Jim’s language, starting with “ENOUGH!” We mobilized our resources in West Europe to help the TOE see if there was enough anger in society that our tiny intervention could lead to the formation of workers committees. We got a lot of interest and we made a mark, but our tiny spark didn’t prove to be enough of a lever to catapult the masses into motion.
I think Jim took a risk with me in a way, at a very old age. Unlike Cannon, who eventually gave up in his old age, Jim remained committed to a real future for the workers and the oppressed, the 1917 Russian Revolution being our only model. In contrast, Cannon blocked with Farrell Dobbs and gave the reins of the party over to him in the SWP’s 1952-53 internal fight, which was a real but partial and belated opposition to Pabloite revisionism in the Fourth International. Although Jim later rethought the proposal, he once said that he wished that Cannon had been willing to start over with the Weiss faction in L.A. and a couple hundred young people.
Our last big struggle in the ICL was in defense of the Leninist understanding of the national question. You can see today in Catalonia how people are insurgent due to the jailing of their independence leaders. We have a team there now, and we put out a supplement, including in Catalan. The struggle for national liberation is an integral part of proletarian internationalism and the struggle against capitalist exploitation. Correcting some of our past positions on the national question was integral to our programmatic survival, and correcting political errors is also integral to political continuity.
That fight started with the comrades in Quebec and me and Jim, but drew a whole new layer of cadres onto the International Executive Committee. We are dedicated to proletarian, revolutionary internationalism; we are racially integrated, quite multilingual, spread out on four continents and very committed to reforging the Fourth International. This international leadership embodies the kind of party that Jim fought for. It is the opposite of leadership in capitalist society—a leadership where the door is always open to workers and the oppressed based on their capacities and program, not a party led by snotty intellectual clones. The party came out intact in the struggle over the national question. Now, with our senior cadres, who are an important reservoir of knowledge and the traditions of the ICL, we have a future.
Over the years, Jim always motivated the first four congresses of the Communist International and the political lessons of the Bolsheviks and based our own methods and practices on them. He used to talk about how the proletarian vanguard in 1919-23 stood atop a mountain; one cannot separate the ability to know the world from the ability to change it. The Comintern in Lenin’s time represented the proletariat at the height of state power.
That now seems a high mountain that is far away, since we are down in the trenches of history, in the aftermath of the counterrevolutionary defeat of the Soviet Union. But it also underscores the vital importance of our task as revolutionists, the vital importance of our place in history: it’s our tiny fighting propaganda group that embodies the possibility of political revolutions in the deformed workers states and future October Revolutions. When Trotsky died, the SWP had a banner with his final message, which was only in English; I’ll also say it for others in the room: Go Forward! Vorwärts! En avant! ¡Adelante!