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John Sullivan on British Trotskyism

As Soon As This Pub Closes

John Sullivan

As Soon As This Pub Closes

Spartacist League

THE Spartacist League (Sparts for short) are a colony of an American group of the same name who split from the American SWP in the early 1960s, when the parent group became Castroites, lost interest in the labour movement, and became ardent supporters of armed struggle (except in the United States, where guerrilla war is illegal). Consequently, the SWP fired Gerry Healy, who had been their British concessionaire up till then, made it up with their old enemies Pablo and Mandel, and created the United Secretariat of the Fourth International. Those, mainly in the SWP’s youth wing, who could not accept the change in policy were expelled and eventually became the Spartacist League. They tried to work with Gerry Healy, who the Sparts’ leader, James Robertson, recognised as a kindred spirit, but Healy demanded unconditional obedience and worship at his personal shrine. If the group was to escape from national isolation it needed its own International, so teams of missionaries were despatched to strike at the revisionists’ European base. Although less successful than the Mormons, they managed to recruit some natives and now have a group of about 60 people, which publishes a journal named Workers Hammer.

The Sparts’ complete parasitism on other groups makes them very unpopular on the rest of the left, so, regrettably, little attempt is made to understand the theory which explains their behaviour. The Sparts’ core belief is that, for the foreseeable future, it is impossible for revolutionaries to address themselves to significant sectors of the working class, as anyone open to revolutionary politics is already a supporter of one of the groups which falsely claim to be revolutionary. The key task of revolutionaries is, therefore, to win over supporters of these Ostensibly Revolutionary Groups (ORGs), by heckling their meetings and hoping to be thrown out. The Sparts will in this way achieve the primitive accumulation of cadres which is a necessary stage to be gone through before proceeding to a direct involvement in class struggle. The belief in the long slow haul is combined with the view that there is not much time left to build the vanguard party before the final struggle between socialism and barbarism. Such a theory may be contradictory, but it is necessary if the group is to maintain revolutionary fervour while confining its activity to a propaganda onslaught on the ORGs.

Surprise is sometimes expressed that such an introspective strategy comes from a group born in the stirring 1960s, heyday of youth revolt and the movement against the Vietnam War. Are the Sparts not too kind to the ORGs, in spite of continually bad-mouthing them? As usual, an examination of the group’s own history and political predicament will provide an explanation which eludes us if we confine our attention to the realms of grand theory where the Sparts would like to contain it. The core of the Sparts joined the SWP in the late 1950s, after splitting from Max Shachtman’s Independent Socialist League, a formerly Marxist organisation which moved rapidly to the right during the 1950s. Shachtman had split from the SWP in 1940 and ended up supporting the Vietnam War, so the young men who joined the SWP were accepting that that party embodied the revolutionary tradition. They were almost alone in joining what was already an ossified liberal sect, which is why they immediately dominated its youth movement and breathed some life into a decrepit structure.

When the Sparts found themselves outside the SWP, they had, in order to justify joining it in the first place, to construct a myth that it had degenerated recently. The contention puzzled other American leftists. Some of the old SWP members were loyal and dedicated comrades, but the party’s intellectual level was abysmal, it had hardly any industrial clout, and young people, apart from those who were to become the Sparts, saw it as an irrelevance. So did their younger sisters and brothers, when the anti-Vietnam War movement developed in the 1960s. James P. Cannon, the Healy prototype, who the Sparts continue to see as the American Lenin, retired from active leadership but retained political solidarity with the subordinates who replaced him. The SWP, after the departure of the Sparts, acted as handboys of the liberal Democrats in opposing the more radical elements in the anti-war movement. Our indigenous Sparts are carefully brought up in a myth which dates the SWP’s degeneration a decade-and-a-half later than the facts warrant. The contradictions in the Spart view of the movement’s history conditioned their inability to understand British politics, once they stepped ashore. The antics of the American SWP’s co-thinkers here were appalling, so the Sparts slated them mercilessly. On the other hand, the theory said that such groups embodied the revolutionary tradition, in however deformed a fashion, so the Sparts could not abandon them and search for a healthier corpse to feed off.

Why stick with such a contradictory theory and live in such a repulsive environment? It is a more intellectually satisfying variant of the Mandelite belief in the revolutionary potential of the flotsam of that milieu, and fulfils the same function of providing a justification for avoiding the working class. No one unfamiliar with American society can appreciate the enormous difficulty in maintaining a hold on reality in an environment where student radicals have to compete with Hari Krishna and Lyndon La Rouche, a former Spart who is now a leader of a Moral Majority sect. It is surprising, not that the Sparts are crazy, but that they are not even madder. The Sparts’ belief that the ex-Trotskyist movement was healthy until the 1950s allows them to avoid any discussion of the much more important discussions of the 1940s. They cannot help but be aware that the British section of the Fourth International, the Revolutionary Communist Party, was one of the healthiest and most working-class and that their hero Cannon helped in its destruction when he imposed his clone Healy as its leader. Consequently, their anti-British chauvinism seems like a mirror image of Militant’s patriotism. The Sparts’ fixation on their very individual view of history and their chosen field of operations limit their interests. They found it easy enough to outrage your average middle-class trendy by reiterating traditional Marxist views on such issues as Black and Female separatism. As unusually learned Marxists, they are well aware that the founding fathers’ views on Gay Liberation are even more shocking to many of those who consider themselves their followers, but they wisely decided not to press that point. [1] It is more difficult to extend this method to cover areas such as political economy where the trendies do not have a view. In any case, the Spart heart was not in this. Once the overriding aim to zap the ORGs is understood, everything else about Spart activity falls into place. For example, a revolt in South Africa is intrinsically less interesting than the wrong response of the Dutch or German Pabloites to that event. As illusions in Eurocommunism, feminism and the youth vanguard crumbled in the mid-1970s and the radical left was thrown into crisis, the Sparts hoped to benefit from the decline of their softer rivals. In practice, the collapse of that milieu had a calamitous effect on them in the early 1980s. When the dog dies, the fleas also die. Unused to developing the independent activity which was clearly necessary, now that there was not much meat on the ORGs, the Sparts lost most of their cadre in Britain.

Because many of the Sparts’ formal positions are more acceptable to labour movement activists than the lunacies peddled by their competitors, there is the danger that people outside the radical middle-class milieu will want to join them. To prevent the inevitable tensions which would result from recruiting working-class militants, reasonable positions are expressed in an intolerably harsh manner that works quite well. American ex-Sparts describe a very Healyite organisation where Robertson sits behind a steadily growing pile of empty beer cans carrying on a rambling drunken harangue interspersed with senile laughter, yet we have found Robertson charming on his visits to London. It is true that many of the leading Sparts go in for a macho-man image of guns and swords. The perfectly reasonable call for the abolition of the licensing hours is elevated to a central demand, and there are signs of a flirtation with Scots nationalism. As befits its American origin, the Sparts are individually competitive. New ideas are floated, and if successful their originators get promoted, while if the idea is found to be revisionist they are demoted. If you believe that she who lives by the sword will die by the sword, you have probably guessed the Sparts’ destiny. In the early 1980s, a group of veteran Sparts in the Bay Area of California, where they had their only toe-hold in the labour movement, defected. The renegades, who originally called themselves the External Tendency, had absorbed their Spart training well. They re-classified their parent group as an ORG and turned up to intervene at its meetings, carefully restraining themselves against attempts to goad them into violence. Innocents in Bootle or Lyon can hardly be expected to understand that the main purpose of all Spart literature is to discredit that tiny group in California.

Goaded by the External Tendency, the Sparts became increasingly unbalanced, and now agree with the despised Pabloites that a wave of sexual repression is sweeping over Britain. If the External Tendency (now known as the Bolshevik Tendency) are able to smuggle a colonist with the requisite ethnic qualifications past Thatcher’s racist immigration police, so that she or he could do to the Sparts what they do unto others, they would lose control completely and go the way of the Healyites and accuse their rivals of working for the CIA. The Bolshevik Tendency is an extremely small flea, but its bite could well prove fatal.


1. See the letter from Engels to Marx, 22 June 1869.

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Last updated on 28.7.2007