Sectarian hilarity for the left-wing trainspotter! The UK Spartacist League’s papers from 1978-2011 now digitised and online

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Taking a break from writing book chapters and ARC proposals, I have been plunging into bizarre world of the Spartacist League (UK) through the recently digitised Spartacist Britain (1978-84) and Workers’ Hammer (1984-2011), made available online through the Riazanov Library Digitization Project and the Encyclopedia of Trotskyism Online. The Spartacist League were a breakway group from the Workers Socialist League (led by Alan Thornett) who had broken away from Gerry Healy’s Workers Revolutionary Party in the mid-1970s. The SL joined up with other Spartacist groups in the United States, Australia and New Zealand, forming the International Communist League – a version of the Fourth International that opposed the Mandelite Fourth International which the IMG belonged to. In his 1984 work, John Sullivan described the Spartacist League as ‘very unpopular’ and ‘increasingly unbalanced’ and are probably best known nowadays for their absurd defence of regimes such as North Korea (accompanied by unintelligible placards announcing their position – see here).

Flicking through these SL journals bring the reader the joys of reading some of the most sectarian and rant-filled material ever created by the British left. The first issue of Spartacist Britain, published in April 1978, claimed that the fusing of the London Spartacist Group and the breakaway Trotskyist Faction of the WSL into the Spartacist League was the ‘rebirth of British Trotskyism’, calling the gathering of less than 60 people ‘one of the largest and most important in the 15 year history of the Spartacist tendency’. 001_1978_04_british-spart_Page_01

In October 1978 (p. 3), the paper railed against the IMG for being Eurocommunist, declaring:

The IMG, as it tails the rab-bag around the NLR — which itself flutters about with every wind from Paris, Rome and Madrid — will never advance either the theory of programme of Marxism.

Despite its often ragged and dog-eared appearance, however, the IMG is the British section of the largest world organisation claiming to be Trotskyist. Within its ranks are scores of subjectively revolutionary militants, now deeply cynical, clinging to this burlesque of Marxism only because of the United Secretariat’s size and reputation. The road to the rebirth of the Fourth International necessarily passes through the political destruction of the United Secretariat and the winning of its best militants to the authentic Bolshevism of the international Spartacist tendency.  005_1978_10_british-spart_Page_3In the aftermath of Thatcher’s 1979 electoral victory, the SL accused ‘Labour traitors’ of helping pave Thatcher’s way to power, singling out the SWP and the IMG for calling for a Labour vote, stating that ‘In contrast the Spartacist League emphatically insisted that the workers had no interest in returning the Labour strikebreakers for another five years of anti-working class attacks’. (June 1979, p. 2) The SL acknowledged that during the 1974 elections its previous incarnations had ‘called for critical support to Labour candidates’, but declared:

But to call for votes to Labour at a time when it had thoroughly demonstrated its treachery and was running on its openly anti-working class record and programme would have been to junk Leninist tactics designed to win militant workers away from social democracy, in favour of unvarying and de facto unconditional support for the reformist betrayers.

In opposition to the pro-Callaghan electoral machines, both official and pseudo-revolutionary, we said in our leaflets and interventions through the election campaign: ‘No vote to the Labour traitors, any more than to the bourgeois parties’.

012_1979_06_british-spart_Page_2In the same June 1979 issue (p. 5), the SL wrote its verdict on the counter-demonstration against the National Front in Southall in April 1979 where an anti-fascist protestor, Blair Peach, was killed by the police. The SL complained that the tactics of the Anti-Nazi League and the SWP had ‘been tried and found wanting’:

suicidal attempts to battle the cops to get at the fascists; popular-frontist alliances and calls on the state… to outlaw the fascists; candy floss, toffee apples and the music of Tom Robinson; the wads of paper, cheap tin badges, the throw-away placards churned out in place of the thousands of workers who need to be brought out to confront the fascists in the streets. All these — and nothing substantial or lasting to show for it.

The SL instead called for ‘defence guards’ to combat the NF on the streets:

[T]he way to throttle the Front is through drawing on the mass strength of the working class. Workers defence guards drawn from the car factories, the steel works and the coal mines, experienced in common struggle and backed by thousands of organised workers, are the force that can pulverise the National Front into the ground. Such defence guards will only be established by waging a sharp struggle inside the unions, against the bureaucrats who do nothing but thump the social-democratic pulpit and sermonise on the evils of racialism. They must be ousted from the leadership of the labour movement and a revolutionary party forged to carry forward the struggle for a new social order — workers government and a planned socialist economy. This is the only road for ending for good the anarchy of capitalism which, in its death throes, inevitably spawns and nourishes the fascist scum.

012_1979_06_british-spart_Page_5In May 1981, as Thatcher’s popularity waned in the wake of the Brixton riots and the death of Bobby Sands (and Tony Been challenged Dennis Healy for deputy leader), the SL warned against viewing Labour as an alternative to Thatcher. Once again, the SWP and the IMG were singled out for the capitulations to social democracy:

Cliff & Co. long ago sold their soul to the bourgeoisie, but they have carved out a sort of niche as a small, organisationally independent, virulently anti-Soviet ‘militant’ syndicalist competitor to the Labour ‘lefts’. But the IMG is centrist, and by virtue of that incapable of any consistent perspective and orientation. (p. 2)

032_1981_05_british-spart_Page_02In the same issue (p. 3), the SL proclaimed their support for the Soviet Union against ‘US imperialists’ and ‘clerical-nationalist reaction’ of Solidarity, stating:

Revolutionaries and all class-conscious workers must oppose this imperialist provocation [the emergence of Solidarity] and unconditionally defend the Soviet bloc states against counterrevolutionary attack.

032_1981_05_british-spart_Page_03The support for the Soviet Union remained steadfast as Gorbachev’s reforms were introduced and the the Eastern Bloc started to break-up. In January 1990, the Workers’ Hammer (the now bimonthly paper of the SL) claimed that the position of the ‘British fake left’ on East Germany, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, was a ‘spectrum of betrayal’, documenting how each publication of the various leftist groups had ‘sold out’ the DDR, calling Militant ‘present-day Scheidemann and Noskes’, the SWP supporters of ‘some of the darkest forces of imperialist reaction’ and the Communist Party of Britain (publisher of the Morning Star) ‘prostrate before the historic betrayal of Gorbachev’s announcement that re-unification [of Germany] under capitalism is “inevitable”. (p. 3; p. 11)

112_1990_01-02_workers-hammer_Page_03These are just some snippets of the sectarianism and ideological contortionism that the Spartacist League has indulged in since the late 1970s. I’m sure if you read these digitised copies, you will find much more hilarity and bizarreness. If anyone finds any more howlers worth mentioning, please post them in the comments below.

PS – if this is public face of the Spartacist League, imagine what craziness you could find in their internal documents! Researchers interested in the sectarianism of the British far left can find the archival records of the SL at the University of Warwick’s Modern Records Centre.

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23 comments

  1. Whilst the description of them as having members who had been in the WSL is correct, they are better understood as those who had left the (US) SWP in the early 60s; that SWP having been, at one time, the most important Trot organisation internationally.

    I think you are quite correct to remark on the very different furrow that they plough and they are said to have followed a policy of ‘primitive cadre accumulation’ by directing all their ire at fellow ‘ostensible Trotskyists’. e.g. they once printed a unsolicited letter from the cops to Alan Thornett asking for him to lecture for them, as evidence of some sort of plot even though it was a unwanted approach which he either ignored or, in reply, told them to piss off (I forget which).

    I do though kind of like the way they often sacrifice sacred cows e.g. a big campaign was fought in NYC in the 70s against the Westway road project. Sadly Lefts trailed the Greens here (as usual) with their ‘no to redevelopment/economic growth’ argument. It is to their credit the Sparts have no time for ‘anti-science’ and in their usual (and inspired) fashion responded using another Green bugbear in their slogan: ‘Land Concorde on the Westway!’.

    1. Whilst the Sparts may have touted the letter sent from the Police College to Alan Thornett (which asked him to contribute to a course on public order!!), it was the WRP who first took up this story as the letter in question was one of a number of documents they obtained in a burglary during the split which led to the formation of the WSL! It is reprinted in the WRP pamphlet The Thornett Clique. As Southpaw says, it was a completely unsolicited letter which Alan simply ignored.

  2. If I recall aright, the original Spartacist split was from the SWP(US) in 1964, in the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. I think the SWP had sent condolences to Mrs kennedy, and the Spartacists regarded this as such a crime that they formed a new organisation. They always did have a gift for picking the key issue.
    Luckily they don’t impinge much on the activities of the rest of the left. They are rarely seen other than at demonstrations in central London. They are mostly American visitors, and while we welcome our brothers and sisters from overseas, I don’t think they’ve mastered the tube system and therefore they are unable to attend events outside central London.

    1. I was in the Sparts in the 90s and this is how I always heard the story:

      The Sparts were expelled from the SWP for “dual recruiting.” IIRC, they were recruiting members of the youth to their faction within the party.

      The issues under contention were Cuba (was Castro an :”unconscious Trotskyist”) and the civil rights movement (the Sparts wanted the SWP to intervene more heavily into the movement).

      They denounced the SWP for the Kennedy telegram, but I think they’d already been expelled.

      Twenty years after leaving them, I’ve been ruined for all other commie newspapers which have always, imho, seemed dull and lifeless in comparison.

    2. Ian is being mischievous. The Sparts split from the SWP (USA) on a umber of issues but the nub of the entire thing was Russia. The Sparts viewing the reunification of the two wings of so called Fourth International as a capitulation to what they call Pabloism. Being principled sectarians they also decided that the minority of the ICFI that refused to fuse with the ISFI was also Pabloite!

      Most of the original cadre of the London Spartacist Station, their terminology, consisted of Canadians and Australians and was led by a pair of Kiwis. Logan, one of the Kiwis in question, being expelled from the International Spartacist tendency for the crime of sexually manipulating members and breaking up relationships. The Sparts have issued a number of volumes on this historic affair!

      It’s all been downhill for them since. Their own splinters have been even less entertaining. The RWL in the USA which might be defunct, the IBT an international tendency of less than a score of people, the IG, Revolutionary Regroupment a group of perhaps one person in C
      Canada and a tiny group in Brazil and the lovely Platypus Affiliated Society.

    3. Boy, you sure have no idea what you are talking about. For those interested in the history of Trotskyism, the split with SWP developed over a period of several years with many of the pertinent documents available to the public. The key issues were the nature of the Cuban revolution and the Castro regime, attitude toward the struggle for civil rights and the what was then termed “The Negro Question” in the US, and political attitude toward the International Secretariat led by Ernest Mandel. The Revolutionary Tendency was expelled from the SWP for the politics, as they scrupulously adhered to party discipline while waging a faction fight against the majority. The SWPs grovelling regarding Kennedy’s assassination was a symptom of the rot in the organization, nothing more.

  3. There is an article denouncing me in one of them, “Bully Boy Coates”.

    I became something of a cult figure afterwards (I am 1,75 metres high).

    If I could be arsed I’d look in this archive.

  4. Joseph Hansen’s telegram to Mrs Kennedy was necessitated by the fact that Lee Harvey Oswald had been photographed at a Fair Play for Cuba (a US SWP front) demo holding The Militant. Hansen’s cable was a way of dissociation. I remember the Healyites in Britain also made a great deal of this and later denounced Hansen as an FBI agent. If this had been the case, the telegram would have been unnecessary.
    Pity the US Spart tyro, James Robertson, never fully elaborated on one of his more sophisticated anthropological observations, to the effect that ‘the Albanians were a nation of goat-fuckers’. Perhaps his diehard hostility to the right of nations to self-determinations stems from this insight.
    Was Private Eye’s Dave Spart a reference to the real Sparts or to the far-left as a whole or simply an attempt to curb Paul Foot’s Spartist impulses.

  5. ‘probably best known nowadays for their absurd defence of regimes such as North Korea (accompanied by intelligible placards announcing their position’.
    I presume, as you present yourself as a serious academic, there is no typo here? Yes, the placard is ‘intelligible’.
    What the Spartacist League placard is, in crystaline form, the defining Trotskyist position of defence of the ‘deformed workers states’ against imperialism. Granted, North Korea is probably the most difficult case to make… but Trotskyists emphatically do not ‘defend the regime’ in North Korea. The entire history of Trotskyism was born in a struggle against the Stalinist regimes in such countries – for which many, including Leon Trotsky, gave their lives – even when western liberals, such as GB Shaw, were lauding the regime of ‘Uncle Joe’.
    North Korea, no matter how vile or absurd the government is, is a country in which socialised property has replaced capitalism. The government and the caste it leads is a bureaucratic parasite. The regime is the problem in North Korea – not the property relations. Trotskyism is for unconditional defence of the socialised property on which states such as North Korea rest and for overthrow of the regime (which threatens those very same property relations) through political revolution. The same applies to China, Vietnam and Cuba. Hey, come on, I bet you know this!
    The Spartacists placard puts forward the right of deformed workers states to defend themselves against imperialism – in a most angular way. That takes chutzpa – born of principles – and for that reason alone should be discussed seriously. I get the impression, though, that you are not very serious about politics?
    Yes, years ago I was a Trotskyist (or thought I was) I am not now a member of any political organisation.
    I could happily discuss the many other distortions in your piece. Are they deliberate?
    Anyway, thanks for pointing me (maybe others as well) to the Spartacist’s literature.

  6. I am delighted to see the work I did creating the digital archive of the public newspapers and journals and assorted pamphlets and leaflets of the Spartacist League USA and of those groups associated with its ICL (“International Communist League”) has been found to be of interest, and sparked here the above quite cogent discussion.

    Since making that digital archive (the first I attempted… It took me about 3 years and was quite a learning experience for me) I’ve gone on to create digital archives of many other left groups, tho nearly exclusively those in the USA (where I live and thus have best access to the material… and limited to the English language for the most part, for that is the only language I speak with any real fluency). Primarily those who are self-described “Trotskyists”, tho I’ve also covered the period in the USA of the formation of communist groups (1912 – 1934) to some extent. And some of the material of the early post Stalinist CP USA. [I put together a nice folder of about one or two dozen digitized pamphlets put out around 1936 and 1937 explaining what a great and just thing the Moscow Trials were, put out by the CP USA at the time,]

    Among our bigger projects: The Riazanov Library has produced a complete digital archive (scanned entirely from original paper) of the original US Trotskyist paper “The Militant” in its various incarnations between 1928 and 1966 (every issue, every page), and of every issue, every page of the paper of Max Shachtman’s (“Workers Party” of 1940, Independent Socialist Leage after ate 1949) “Labor Action”. One that I most put my heart into was the creation of a complete and high quality digital archive of the USA left publication “THe Liberator’ 1918 – 1924, all scanned from original paper, all art work (including the strikingly beautiful color covers) digitally preserved and now avaiilable to all at relatively high resolution.

    https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/culture/pubs/liberator/

    I am in the process at this time of creating a similar type of archive of the art and literary communist publication in the USA of “New Masses” (its early years, 1926-1930 and perhaps to 1934). That archive, in progress, can be found here:

    https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/new-masses/index.htm#j28

    In making these archives I’ve had help from many sources, but have worked most closely with the Holt Labor Library of San Francisco, which has made its extensive colletion full available to me to do whatever it takes to make the best possible quality scans.. I’ve also worked very closely with the USA left scholar Tim Davenport, who has with phenomenal generosity and dedication to making this material available to all loaned me much of his extensive personal collection of this sort of material. Marxist Internet Archive is currently the place with most of what I’ve created is presented. In working with both Holt Labor Library and Marxist Internet Archive, I have worked closely and extensively with David Walters, director of Holt Labor Library and also administrator on the Marxists.org (MIA / Marxist Internet Archive) web site. He’s a key part of this project, and in some important respects critically involved in its coming into being. This project would not have become what it is today were it not for Rod Holt (creator and founder of Holt Labor Library, and a former Vice President of engineering at Apple Computer), whose commitment to making the material in Holt Labor Library available digitally was a key aspect of the creation of this project in its current form.

    My goal is to preserve and make freely and widely available the history of the workers movement to the extent I am able. This is for the benefit of scholars and researchers, but also to provide an unvarnished record of that history… with all its successes, good ideas, mistakes, and at times really nutty digressions… in hopes of assisting others now and in the future in trying to guide our species to a more just and rational social framework.

    Note that both I and Marxist Internet Archive offer, pretty much at our cost in media and mailing, a portable hard drive with the entire Riazanov Library and Marxist Internet Archive collections. Unfortunately, the Riazanov Library collection is long overdue for a very major update to its distribution hard drive. I hope to have this out later this year, perhaps around July.

    I’m a life long electronics tinkerer, and an early retired physician, who came of age during the social upheavals in the USA during the 1960s and early 1970s.

    —marty

    Martin H. Goodman MD
    director, Riazanov Library digital archive projects
    associated with Holt Labor Library of San Francisco
    associated with Marxists.org web site

    martygoodman@sbcglobal.net

  7. I should add that I would especially be delighted to share my 7+ years of experience (during which I’ve personally scanned tens of thousands of pages, some brown and brittle, some broadsheet (18 24 inches) newspaper in size, some both) in creating digital archives of this sort with any others who wish to embark on similar projects. —marty

  8. I’m a couple of years late to this discussion, but as they say …

    I was an early member of the Sparts, having joined in the late 1960s when the expulsion from the SWP was still a fresh memory and the SL and the ACFI (later the Workers League) were still having confabs about possible reunification. The SL was tiny, with a total of about 80 members worldwide, with maybe a few dozen in our section in New York. Before making a commitment I had attended as a guest both SL and ACFI meetings, and knew both Jim Robertson and Tim Wohlforth.

    I had graduated to Trotskyism from the anti-Vietnam War movement, where I had been active in Walter Teague’s Committee to Aid the NLF of South Vietnam, which I left when I came to perceive it as being too neutral on Ho Chi Minh’s Stalinism.

    At the SL, I eventually ended up in the Kay Ellens faction, which was heavily influenced by Voix Ouvriere in France and was impatient with what we perceived as the purely petty-bourgeoise orientation of the SL. We left the SL voluntarily, but I came to regard that in the end as a mistake, as nothing much came of the faction, whereas the SL continued to endure and grow, and whose literature I still read.

    Robertson always struck me as a volatile and impatient man, but I respected his analyses of world events, and still do, despite his tendency to ironic hyperbole that can seem inappropriate to the humorless, of whom there seem to be far too many among serious Marxists.

    To me, one who has always been a bit of an outsider even when I was inside, the splits in the Trotskyist movement have felt to me to be more a clash of personalities than of substance. I exclude, of course, the revisionist organizations like the SWP that long ago abandoned Trotskyism.

    I have no problem reading the stuff on the Websites of both the the ICFI and the ICL, and find little justification for their being separate. Their differences in policy seem small to me in light of the virtually insurmountable goal of a socialist revolution in the advanced capitalist countries.

    Fraternally,
    Jerry Engelbach

    1. Hi Jerry. I was very involved with the ISt and ICL for about 15 years into the early 90s. Thank you for your interesting comments. Your timeline seems a bit off, as, at least to my understanding, the last serious unification talks between the SL and ACFI/WL happened in 1965. After the Sparts were basically thrown out of the ICFI congress in ’66 there was still some interest in unifying with major elements of the ICFI until Healy came out for Maoism in 1967. I certainly could be wrong about this, that’s just what I had learned. As for the current differences, the ICFI, has been an absolutely unprincipled group, politically supporting bonapartist strongmen like Saddam Hussein, Quadaffi, and the “Arab Revolution.” Whatever their formal positions, they are not to be trusted — I have had contact with them over the years and agree with the ICL characterization of them as “political bandits.”

      1. Thanks, David. Yes, my memory could be a bit off.

        However, there were informal talks going on about possibly reconciling Spartacist and ACFI when I first joined, even though it was a while after Robertson had been ejected, as it appeared that the two groups had no real differences of any consequence. Robertson characterized it as such, maintaining that his expulsion had been a power play rather than based on political differences. I attended meetings of both, and they seemed virtually identical.

        My decision to go with Spartacist rather than ACFI was based on impressions rather than policy. Wohlforth seemed to me more of an academic, and Robertson a doer, and I had a friend in the Sparts. Of course, I was quite a bit younger and new to Marxism and may not have appreciated the nuances.

        (A small sidelight: In 1969 I first came to Mexico, and made it a point to visit Trotsky’s house in Coyoacan in Mexico City. Of course, it had not yet been converted into a museum and had been sealed up since his death, and was certainly not a tourist destination. It was sobering to see what should have been a monument to one of the world’s great thinkers allowed to practically disintegrate with time. Since living in Mexico I’ve been back to see it transformed.)

        Healy was disliked by the Spartacists, but I don’t recall his leaning towards Maoism during that time. There was great hostility between the Trotskyists and the Maoist/Stalinist Progressive Labor Party in the States.

        Be that as it may, I came across this Website by chance and just thought I’d throw in my two cents. Despite any criticisms I may have had of the Spartacists, they were responsible for bringing me to Marxism and Trotskyism. Since I’m retired now and am only peripherally involved, if at all, I’m more interested in Marxist political analyses of world events than in sectarian infighting between groups.

  9. Not familiar at all with hatful of history…but the notion that Blair doesn’t make Labor Party commitment look doubtful is amazing. The belief that the overthrow of socialist governments in central Europe and Russia was liberation may explain the merriment at defensism. But it is equally amazing.

    This post reminds me of a story Gore Vidal attributed to his grandfather. Supposedly, William Jennings Bryan started to tell Senator Gore the secret of his political success. Grandfather supposedly told young Eugene Vidal that he could never remember what Bryan said, because he couldn’t stop wondering what political success he imagined. I can’t help but wonder what political wisdom hatful of history imagines informs hatful’s opinion.

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