Sunday, March 3, 2019

In defense of a sectarian program

I´m not sure if I can write a meaningful review of this material. “In Defense of the Trotskyist Program” is a bulletin published by the small Bolshevik Tendency, today known as the International Bolshevik Tendency (and probably even smaller). The pamphlet contains a polemical exchange between the BT (based in the United States) and a competing Trotskyist group, Workers Power (based in Britain). Workers Power had tried to recruit a third small group, the LTT, to its international network, then called MRCI. The LTT had fused with the BT instead, but subsequent political haranguing from Workers Power made the LTT-ers backslide and eventually join the MRCI. Today, nobody gives a damn, and very few people gave a damn even at the time. I have to say that sectarian Trotskyism is so far from my current preoccupations that I wonder whether this blog post serves any kind of purpose whatsoever, but since I review virtually anything, I decided to sink my teeth into this one, too!

The bulletin (published in 1988) contains three pieces. The first is the BT-LTT fusion platform, simply titled “For Trotskyism!” The second is Workers Power´s criticism of the platform and hence of the BT´s ideological positions in general. The third article is the BT´s belated response to the polemic, which restates the points already raised in the fusion document. I admit that the texts *do* give a clear overview of the political differences between the two groups, with the BT playing the “sectarian”, “Stalinophile” and “imperialist economist” role, similar to that of its parent group, the Spartacist League, from which the BT is a split. I obviously don´t support any side in this conflict, but if forced to chose, I would go with Workers Power, which were more tactically flexible and decidedly less pro-Stalinist. The MRCI backed Solidarnosc in Poland, while the BT (just like the Spartacists) supported Jaruzelski – surely a bizarre position for a Trotskyist!

I got two impressions from reading the BT´s side of the polemic. First, the group tries to play down the most “reactionary” traits of the Spartacist positions, without actually jettisoning them. Thus, the Spartacist League, perhaps uniquely on the left, opposed mass immigration from Third World nations to Western nations, arguing that such immigration could wipe out the identity of small countries such as Belgium and Netherlands. Imagine preaching this today! It was a hard sell on the hard left already back in the days, since both Belgium and Netherlands – while small compared to the US – had been colonial powers and were affiliated with NATO (they still are). The BT also oppose open borders, but mostly because it´s a “utopian” demand under capitalism and because oppressor nations such as the Han or the French could take over colonized territories using mass immigration as a tool. But the Spartacist League didn´t care about the Tibetans or the Kanaks – they were more interested in defending poor little Belgium. The BT has similar problems with the intractable Spartacist position concerning “interpenetrated peoples”. In its original version, this was really a defense of the national rights of peoples usually seen as colonial settlers by leftists: Jews in Palestine, Protestants on Northern Ireland, and in some formulations even Whites in South Africa. The BT, while keeping the theory of interpenetrated peoples, soften it considerably by offering “military support” for the IRA or the PLO against their respective enemies. However, they still uphold some other “pro-imperialist” positions of the Spartacists: neutrality during the “squalid” Falkland-Malvinas War (really a pro-British position since the BT explicitly defends British possession of the islands) and the (surreal) opposition to the 1979 Iranian revolution, which both the SL and the BT identifies solely with Khomeini and his fanaticized Islamists, as if the rest of the Iranian people weren´t at least tangentially involved.

The other thing that struck me was the strongly “ideologistic” tendency of the fusion platform – I use that word for lack of a better one. The BT are a propaganda group, and they seem to view ideas and abstract ideology as paramount in a way that sounds almost idealist, although I don´t think this is their intention, being dogmatic Marxists. I was reminded of Frank Richards´ RCP in this respect. It´s almost as if the BT wants to say “Before the working class can get up on the barricades, we [the small group propagandists] have to start winning the battle of ideas”. Bourgeois ideology is said to be the main bulwark of capitalist rule, and the most important task of revolutionaries is therefore to fight said ideology in the workers´ movement and inside the revolutionary party itself. Since the BT hardly has a union presence, this really means fighting other leftist groups by “exposing” them ideologically through literary polemics. Bourgeois ideology in the form of sectoralism is also strong within the Black, women´s and gay movements. So once again the BT´s most important task is to argue against Black nationalism, feminism and such – another de facto intra-mural leftist conflict. The constant emphasis on Stalin´s theory of “Socialism in One Country” also sounds ideologistic, as does the opposition to voting for reformist workers´ parties participating in popular fronts, since this supposedly suppresses the contradiction between their “bourgeois” leadership and the proletarian base. It doesn´t of course – to a Marxist, that contradiction is a objective material fact, but BT´s strongly sectarian propaganda apparently cannot intersect it if a popular front is formed.

The BT´s defense of the International Committee against the International Secretariat (the two competing wings of the Trotskyist world movement during the 1950´s and 1960´s) is also premised on a kind of ideologism. The BT is impressed by the IC´s doctrinaire verbiage, and also by their defense of independent Trotskyist organizations as against the “entryism sui generis” of the more openly revisionist IS. Of course, in order to spew purist ideological propaganda, one needs an independent “vanguard”, hence the BT´s siding with the IC (also, the Spartacist League came out of the IC tradition). Ironically, on this basis it becomes impossible to explain why the BT split from the Spartacist group, since the programs of the two groups are very similar! The BT-ers left the Spartacist tendency when its leader maximo James Robertson turned it into a kookish cult, but still with the same revolutionary program. Thus, the BTs left the Sparts because they (the BTs) were psychologically sane individuals, while the Robertson faithful were either super-cynical or downright mad. This eminently sensible line of action, alas, doesn´t square with the ideology-centered approach of the BT worldview…

The BT has quote-mined Trotsky and Cannon for proof-texts which sound just as sectarian as BT´s own politics. I say they are quoting the Old Man and his bulldog out of context! Still, the quotations *are* interesting. Here is James P Cannon, the long-time American Trotskyist leader:

On the basis of a long historical experience, it can be written down as a law that revolutionary cadres, who revolt against their social environment and organize parties to lead a revolution, can—if the revolution is too long delayed—themselves degenerate under the continuing influences and pressures of this same environment....

"But the same historical experience also shows that there are exceptions to this law too. The exceptions are the Marxists who remain Marxists, the revolutionists who remain faithful to the banner. The basic ideas of Marxism, upon which alone a revolutionary party can be constructed, are continuous in their application and have been for a hundred years. The ideas of Marxism, which create revolutionary parties, are stronger than the parties they create and never fail to survive their downfall. They never fail to find representatives in the old organizations to lead the work of reconstruction.

‘‘These are the continuators of the tradition, the defenders of the orthodox doctrine. The task of the uncorrupted revolutionists, obliged by circumstances to start the work of organizational reconstruction, has never been to proclaim a new revelation—there has been no lack of such Messiahs, and they have all been lost in the shuffle—but to reinstate the old program and bring it up to date.’’ 

Hallelujah! If taken at face value, Cannon is saying that Marxists are exceptions to the historical laws, that the revolutionary program exists sui generis in a Platonic world of ideas, and that the orthodox faction can draw it down von oben by constructing a new exceptional organization. And while this is explicitly said not to be Messianic, that´s exactly what it is. Cannon is sounding like a Baptist preacher here. Somehow, I doubt Cannon really believed this.

The BT just might.


  1. Today, Workers Power are pro-Stalinist. Or at least pro-Russian. They are Nimps.

  2. I noticed during the Euro-Maidan and Crimean crises that a surprisingly large amount of Trotskyists de facto backed Putin. Since Trotskyism is a very "Western" thing, this could be seen as "biting the hand that feeds you". Not sure what they say today. Perhaps they have become more enamored of Bernie Sanders and AOC...