Friday, April 10, 2009

Conversations with Wohlforth - Preface

Marxist Bulletin No. 3 (Part IV - 1965)


The 8 sessions of unity negotiations between Spartacist and the American Committee for the Fourth International (ACFI) took place from 18 June to 8 October 1965. The minutes, taken by the secretary in shorthand, are correct and complete almost to the word; the first six sets of minutes were adopted by the two negotiating committees during the course of the talks.

As transcripts of the spoken word, the minutes may be somewhat confusing to the reader, to whom the specific incidents debated may not be common knowledge. Other numbers of our Marxist Bulletin series provide explanation and documentation of the earlier history of relations between Spartacist and ACFI. To summarize briefly here: The two groups were originally a united Revolutionary Tendency (RT) within the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), and both looked for political leadership to the International Committee for the Fourth International (IC) whose leading section was the British Socialist Labour League (SLL). In 1962, while still inside the SWP, two leaders of the RT, Tim Wohlforth and Art Philips, under the guidance of the SLL's Gerry Healy, deliberately forced a split in the RT ostensibly over the dispute within the RT over the nature of the SWP. Because of the fraudulent nature of the split and the organizational atrocities of Wohlforth-Philips, the majority of the RT comrades refused to be part of Wohlforth's "Reorganized Minority Tendency" (RMT). In 1963-4 the Wohlforthites were instrumental in deliberately bringing about the expulsion of the RT from the SWP. Shortly thereafter the RMT (having split internally, the unstable bloc with Philips having blown up) engineered its own expulsion from the SWP. The former RT majority around Robertson-White-Mage organized around the publication of the Spartacist and later became the Spartacist League. The RMT changed its name to ACFI, publishing the Bulletin of International Socialism; this tendency now calls itself the Workers League.

Negotiation and Its Aftermath

The negotiating sessions themselves have something of an abstract quality. To the Wohlforthites they were just a game, as Wohlforth did not seriously intend to unify. The negotiations were begun at the insistence of Spartacist on the basis that the formal political positions of the two groups were too similar to justify separation on organizational grounds. ACFI replied by attempts at fraternization which were no more and no less than an attempted raid, while refusing to state that unity was possible or principled. It was not until the 5th session that Wohlforth made this admission, and throughout, the ACFI negotiators continued to insist that splitting the RT in 1962 had been "principled". Relations between the two groups deteriorated visibly throughout the last few negotiating sessions, culminating in a frank show-down in the 8th meeting over the 1962 split and the wretched record of ACFI. Logically, this might well have meant the cessation of all attempts to unify. At this point, Gerry Healy instructed ACFI to proceed with unity forthwith. In this sense, the negotiations are unreal: they actually had little to do with bringing about the Northern (Montreal) joint unity conference which followed them. The Spartacist side had from the start been willing to unite; ACFI had no control over its policies, having as an article of faith entrusted absolutely and in advance all decision-making to the British.

Following the Northern conference, both groups sent delegations to the April 1966 IC Conference in London at which the united U.S. section was to have been set up. At that Conference, however, occurred what is undoubtedly one of the most hilarious organizational atrocities ever: James Robertson, Spartacist's senior delegate, was expelled from the Conference ostensibly for failing to apologize for missing a session (see Spartacist #6). What lay behind the facade was that the Spartacist delegation had presented to the Conference, in the context of general political agreement and willingness to accept international democratic centralism, our differences with the SLL's position on Cuba, the roots of Pabloism, etc. As had been shown earlier by the 1962 split, the IC leadership would not permit U.S. Trotskyists to fight for their political positions inside the IC. Following the IC Conference, the political deterioration of the IC line (its embracing of Mao's "Cultural Revolution" purge and of the Arab militarists of Egypt and Syria as leading an undefined "Arab Revolution") rapidly reached the point that seeking to heal the organizational rupture was no longer posed.

History is Bunk?

Throughout the negotiations, Spartacist's careful and scrupulous attitude toward our record is belittled by ACFI as "bookkeeping", "archaeology", etc. Their own attitude seems to be a kind of learn-by-doing, as an excuse for their history of opportunist zigzags and political gutlessness. "The net effect from all this is to learn once again it is not very worthwhile to go over old documents," Wohlforth (who, by the way, likes to style himself a theoretician!) says in the 4th session. Confronted with ACFI's vacillations, Mazelis replies: "we're very proud of the fact that what we're saying now is not what we said then. We have developed, there's nothing wrong with that." (8th session) The opposite approach characterized the Spartacist negotiators. In the words of Al Nelson:

"'If you don't learn from history, you are doomed to repeat it.' This is the basis for our raising "old" questions (they aren't old).... You said there are formulations in our '63 documents we should both forget. No indeed! The truth is that on almost every major point and tactic in dispute between us over the last years, you have been in error -- mostly by your own admission: on the youth question, nature of the SWP (which resulted in our split), on PL, on your assessment of the level of struggle and tasks of the revolutionary party. In '63 you supported the party majority on Black Nationalism and submitted only an action amendment. On the American question your position was that now was the time for the conquest of the masses. We have to agree on what the mistakes were in order to come to a position now." (4th session)

It is because our actions and positions have stood the test of time that we have brought out the actual documents of both sides in the 1962 split (Marxist Bulletin #2 "Nature of the SWP--Revolutionary or Centrist?--Discussion Material of the RT"; and #3 Part I "The Split in the Revolutionary Tendency") while Wohlforth cringes and hopes nobody will notice.

1962 Split

The Wohlforthites sought to justify splitting the RT by alleging its majority intended to quit the SWP. Their claim is given the lie by the fact that we remained in the SWP -- until the RMT framed up and then informed on our comrades and continued to act as the attorney for the party Majority in expelling the RT from the youth (for a scathing and accurate account, see Nelson's remarks to the 5th session, pages 4-5). In the same session Wohlforth admitted he forced the split to avoid abiding by RT decisions: "We and the British came to a common judgment at the time of our split. We had no intention of carrying out your line."

Several salient facts about the 1962 split are dealt with elsewhere. The issue, whether the SWP was still a revolutionary party or had become centrist (see M.B. #2), is now clearly resolved in our favor. The organizational atrocity resorted to by Healy-Wohlforth is discussed in detail in M.B. #3. Neither of these points (i.e., the nature of the SWP Majority, the mechanics of the split ultimatum) is debated much in the negotiating sessions. What is discussed herein is who "struggled" inside the SWP. It must be understood that the practical result of Wohlforth's insistence that the SWP was still a solidly revolutionary party and possessed a "proletarian core" was to justify his bloc with the Pabloist central party leadership of Dobbs and Co., defining the largely impotent right-wing oppositions (Weiss, Swabeck) as the main enemy. That this analysis of the party was a cynical fabrication became clear almost immediately, when the ACFI group left the SWP and proceeded to deny that it had ever been a truly revolutionary party at all! As Robertson pointed out: (8th session)

All through 1962 Wohlforth oscillated back and forth, doing something very peculiar to the word "centrist". "Centrist" means nothing if not flux, change, motion, heterogeneous elements lumped together. You insisted that centrism was a finished category, and to say the party is centrist is to say it's finished, that everyone in it is a centrist. Yet centrism means that in the minds of the members are all sorts of contradictory ideas. You made a mockery of the meaning of centrism for the sake of polemical convenience, at the same time carefully avoiding comrade Dobbs. You labelled Weiss and Swabeck the main enemy in the SWP, aided and abetted by the hirelings Hansen and Warde, but not the central party leadership, not Cannon and Dobbs. You worked this angle for only a little while, until the fall of 1963. Since nothing happened in the SWP between the spring and fall of '63 you became dispirited and ready therefore to walk out of the party (maybe you decided the party didn't have a proletarian core after all)....

The Wohlforth tendency continued to exhibit its characteristic lack of backbone and principle at the 1963 SWP Convention. The main issue facing the SWP was Black Nationalism; their capitulation to it was the first application of their Pabloism to the terrain of the domestic class struggle. The SWP defined itself as a "white party" which could have little role in the recruitment of Blacks to revolutionary consciousness. At the 1963 Convention the SWP started on the course of enthusiastically tail-ending the Black Nationalists from Elijah Muhammed to Rhody McCoy. In these negotiating sessions ACFI constantly insisted that the "American Question"--divorced from the Black question, a separation which is artificial in any case-was the important fight. The RMT's long counter-resolution on the American Question declared that the trouble with the SWP was that it had lost contact with the American proletariat, predicted imminent economic crisis and insisted now was the time for the conquest of the masses. In their analysis they were, of course, hopelessly disoriented. But more importantly, what the Wohlforthites would love to overlook now (with their present oversimplified, grossly insensitive position toward Black oppression) is that in 1963 they supported Black Nationalism. Were it not for the fake super-proletarianism of their British mentors, they would probably be supporting it still.

Admits Left/Right Difference

For even when our political similarities were most striking, differences between ACFI and Spartacist tended to follow a pattern: Spartacist showed political seriousness, principle and spine, while ACFI caved in at any opportunity. In the 8th session ACFI spokesman Mazelis expounded a policy of conciliation:

We would have no objection as part of a struggle in a living movement to distribute this welfare workers committee leaflet, calling for negotiations or indicating some confidence in the U.N., as part of a struggle, making it clear where we stand but not refusing to go along with these people. The same thing goes in part for the Fifth Avenue Peace Parade next week. The same thing goes for PL.... You take an Oehlerite line on tactics.

In the same session he was forced to admit that the Spartacist tendency was discernibly to the left of ACFI.

As part of our continuing insistence that a Leninist organization must take responsibility for its past, we are publishing these minutes. In the long run, opportunist, unprincipled conduct will hang its perpetrators by their own rope.

24 April 1970