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ICL versus LFI: Who won . . . what?

Daniel Lazare

Platypus Review 165 | April 2024

FOR AN INTERNATIONAL MOVEMENT supposedly fading into irrelevance, the gathering on New York’s Upper West Side on Saturday, January 13, was remarkable: an auditorium overflowing with hundreds of people arguing passionately about where Trotskyism is going and how to get there. On one side were the Spartacists and the International Communist League (ICL), whose U.S. outlet, Workers Vanguard, has long been known for its wit, high intellectual tone, and pugilistic style.

On the other were the Internationalist Group (IG) and the League for the Fourth International (LFI), led by Jan Norden, who edited Workers Vanguard for more than two decades before being purged in 1996. The IG puts out The Internationalist, which comes out four times a year or so and carries forward the slashing, take-no-prisoners style of the old WV.

The two groups debated for five hours with occasional breaks for comments from the floor.[1] The exchanges were fierce. Anna Mili, a member of the ICL’s Greek section, accused the LFI of running for cover during the 2015 Greek financial crisis. “The LFI, rejecting the Leninist distinction between oppressed and oppressor nations, refused to oppose American and German imperialism, the main oppressors of Greece,” she said. “This clearly shows that its struggle against imperialist oppression is, like Lenin said, a dishonest façade such as we see in the parties of the Second International. When LFI sectarianism confronted reality, it transformed into social chauvinism.”

To which Norden replied that the ICL/Sparts “have abandoned, renounced, denounced, and vilified one key plank after another in the revolutionary Trotskyist program that the Spartacist tendency upheld against all manner of opportunists for three decades. . . . With its new leadership, the ICL has now reached terminal degeneration so that it renounces the very program on which it was founded.”

Basically, it was a debate over who was more loyal to the original Spartacist mission, who has deviated from it, and, if so, why. Also leading the charge were G. Perrault, a Spartacist leader from Quebec, and Abram Negrete, who formerly headed the Grupo Espartaquista de México,[2] but who was also expelled and is now with the LFI / Internationalist Group.

So who won? And what, exactly, does winning mean in such a context?

The answer to the first is clear: the LFI. Five years after the death of long-time Spartacist leader James Robertson, the ICL is a sorry spectacle. The movement has been wobbling out of control for years. In 2016, it lined up with the British far Right in backing Brexit. In 2017, it joined the Italian ultra-Right in calling for an “Italexit,” a position that not even a Euro-skeptic like Giorgia Meloni holds to anymore. In April 2020, it posted a cryptic message on its website: “Due to the COVID-19 crisis and the restrictions on movement imposed in New York City, where we are headquartered, the Political Bureau of the Spartacist League/U.S. has temporarily assumed direct administration of Workers Vanguard in place of the Editorial Board and reduced the newspaper to four pages instead of the usual eight. We will maintain WV’s biweekly frequency.”

Then, except for two or three brief supplements issued by Spartacist, its theoretical journal, the group disappeared. When Workers Vanguard finally emerged from the rubble nearly three years later, it was vastly different. Its pages fairly brimmed with apologies and confessions. It blamed itself for having gone soft on Bernie Sanders. It said that the entire organization had begun to “implode” and was only now pulling itself back together. After supporting emergency lockdowns at the start of the pandemic, it expressed “revolutionary opposition” to the entire concept.

“It is no secret that the ICL has been politically disoriented for decades,” Spartacist announced in another episode of self-flagellation six months later.[3] “The pandemic triggered the collapse of our party, but this was only the straw that broke the camel’s back.”[4] Then came something even more startling: “The fight against Norden was unprincipled, and the expulsions led to two organizations, the IG and the ICL, sharing the same fundamental centrist program and disorientation.”[5] Where the ICL admitted it was wrong to kick Norden out, its position was that both parties had suffered as a consequence. Now that the Sparts were pulling themselves back up by the bootstraps, it was therefore time for Norden’s League for the Fourth International to do the same. The ICL issued a request for reunification talks — in effect an offer to work with Norden & Co. on a joint program of mutual self-rectification.

Needless to say, it didn’t work. After nearly three decades in exile, the LFI was in no mood for compromise. To the contrary, since the ICL had admitted it was wrong, it knew it had the advantage and was determined to make the most of it. Rather than negotiations, the LFI demanded a debate, the upshot of which was January’s gathering of the tribes.

Much of the discussion on January 13 centered on an incident that precipitated the 1996 rupture, a fracas that erupted when a Brazilian Trotskyist named Geraldo Ribeiro, leader of a local municipal workers’ union in Volta Redonda, an industrial city 80 miles northwest of Rio de Janeiro, moved to expel local police officers from the membership at the urging of the Spartacists back in New York. When local officials raided the union in response and initiated legal proceedings against both Ribeiro and the union, the ICL got cold feet and broke off relations. By way of explanation for its precipitous withdrawal, it published a half-dozen articles contending that the union was never serious about throwing the cops out and that, far from being sued, it was Ribeiro who had sued the union instead.

Both charges were false as the ICL now admits. “The fight that took place against the founding cadre of the IG in 1995-96 was politically unprincipled,” Spartacist said in September.[6] “Regarding the organizational measures taken against these former members, the record must be set straight. A proper investigation is mandated.”[7]

LFI’s response was to plunge the knife in further. Negrete pounded away during the debate: “Unions around the world were signing up to defend them in South Africa, in El Salvador, and elsewhere.” Yet “the ICL tried to stop people from defending them. . . . They called the defense campaign a cynical sham . . . and they called the comrades . . . ‘dangerous hustlers.’”[8]

“What’s your line on this? Please respond,” he demanded of Perrault, the ICL leader sitting next to him on the platform. When Perrault failed to answer, Negrete continued mockingly: “‘Well, we’re investigating it.’ One certainly hopes so. One looks forward to seeing the result of those investigations.” It was not a good moment for the ICL.

Nationalism was another topic. Previously, the Spartacist line had been classically Leninist, i.e., hostile to nationalist ideology and Third World national bourgeoisies, but supportive of national equality and independence and convinced above all that self-determination can only be achieved through international socialist revolution. As Workers Vanguard put it in 1976:

If the working masses of the various nations are so hostile to one another that it makes unified class struggle virtually impossible, then separation into independent states is called for. Where national minorities choose to coexist within the same state framework, the task of Leninists is to break down all the barriers separating the working masses of the different nationalities. While championing the equality of languages and related democratic rights, we work for the gradual, organic assimilation of the various nationalities making up the working class.[9]

But the Spartacists had chucked all that. In keeping with its pro-Brexit stance, it had adopted a policy of almost hyper-fragmentation. Spearheaded by members from Quebec, it issued a document in 2017 entitled “The Struggle Against the Chauvinist Hydra,”[10] which endorsed Quebec independence, called for all schools to be French, and for all shopkeepers to be required to speak French as well. It accused the “Anglo-Canadian elite” of “bringing to Quebec a steady stream of non-Francophone immigrants in order to submerge the Francophone population in a sea of Anglophones. Just as we are opposed to the call to ‘open the borders,’ we oppose this reactionary policy that contravenes the right to self-determination. We are in favor of immigrants in Quebec integrating through learning the French language.”

Tightened immigration controls? Forced integration? Quebec for the Quebecois? The document also endorsed Basque, Catalan, Scottish, and Corsican independence and called for Belgium to be broken up along Franco-Flemish lines. It even said that Brussels would have to be made over as well because its presence as a French-speaking enclave is somehow an affront to the surrounding Flemish region. “It is hard to predict what will happen to Brussels if the country is broken up,” the document said, “and several possibilities are conceivable.”[11] But what could they be — expulsion, mandatory language classes, or what? For some reason, “Chauvinist Hydra” was silent about Switzerland with its four official languages — German, French, Italian, and Romansh — or the Russian Federation with its 190+. It said nothing about Ethiopia with its 70 or more linguistic groups or New Guinea with its 1,073. Do the Sparts believe they should also be broken up? If so, medieval Europe with its thousands of overlapping feudalities, some no bigger than a few city blocks, would be simple by comparison.

“The main enemy of the proletariat in oppressed nations is imperialism and not the national bourgeoisie,” Mili declared at one point in the debate. “Historically, class struggle in Greece is defined and pushed forward by the struggles of the proletariat and the broader masses of the oppressed against imperialist subjugation. It is this oppression and national humiliation that moves the masses.”

The implication is unmistakable: the national struggle comes first, the class struggle second. Said Norden,

Whereas the Pabloites, Mandelites, and so on capitulated to bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalists and populists, this new crop of revisions actually are nation-building nationalists masquerading in Trotskyist garb. . . . We saw this already in their 2017 “Hydra” document where, in the name of defending oppressed nations, they tried to present their advocacy of discriminatory, anti-democratic language laws as Leninism on the national question when Lenin emphatically said the opposite.

Pabloites,[12] Mandelites — for those unfamiliar with Trotskyist history, it may all seem obscure. But Marxists have no choice but to deal with the national question since it has only grown bigger and more complex since Marx and Engels began wrestling with it in the 1840s. It was thus the Spartacists who had veered off in a dangerous direction and the LFI which remained true to Leninist principles.

But as to the second question — what winning means in such a context — the answer is more complex. So what if the LFI is coming out on top? What does it matter after so many denunciations and splits? Adding to the confusion was a third faction in the room, the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT), founded by ex-Spartacists who had left the group in the 1980s. Although not formally part of the debate, an IBT founder named Bill Logan intervened from the floor to bring up an elephant in the room that neither the ICL nor LFI were eager to acknowledge. This was Robertson, the Spartacist founder who led the movement out of the Socialist Workers Party in 1962 and dominated it from then on.

Logan — whom the Spartacists kicked out in 1979 for what they said were abusive practices — began by “propos[ing] a deepening of the programmatic struggle amongst us to reforge and develop the international Spartacist tendency.” He continued:

To understand the programmatic problems of today, you must understand their origins in the past. In the 1970s, fueled by a kind of apocalyptic optimism characteristic of that period, we did some very fine work. . . . But you know by the mid-70s there was a collapse of the optimism, and the contradictions of Jim Robertson loomed larger. He was actually acutely aware of his own increasingly disproportionate role and also of his alcoholism. He sometimes became irresponsible when disinhibited by alcohol and sometimes peremptory and abusive. . . . So there was an apolitical degrading of people. . . . This all left the organization seriously less capable of maintaining a revolutionary program. And we — we — must find some way to get beyond the problems that had their origin back then. We must look at the whole thing, however, as a whole.

This was an understatement. In fact, there was no doubt that the Spartacists had gone through an extremely bad patch. Parallels with Gerry Healy’s Workers Revolutionary Party in Britain are unavoidable. After years of heady expansion, Healy had panicked when it suddenly stopped in the early 1970s. Desperate for funds, he approached Muammar Gaddafi, Saddam Hussein, and the Ayatollah Khomeini for support while promoting a leader cult at home based on physical violence and sexual exploitation. Ironically, Robertson had refused to kowtow to Healy, one of the most pathological figures to ever take part in the Trotskyist movement, when he had tried to bully him into compliance in the mid-1960s. But with remarkable synchronicity, Robertson a decade or so later began tracing the same arc downwards.

To be sure, physical violence does not appear to have been an element, at least not within the organization. But the details are still lurid. In 1998, the IBT published a 7,000-word article detailing the “psychological gang bangs, pre-emptive strikes against potential opponents, frame-up trials, and cop-baiting” that marked Robertson’s later years.[13]

“Norden, in his capacity as editor of Workers Vanguard, played an active part in concocting slanders against us,” the article went on. “Yet . . . the IG cadres have stubbornly resisted any re-evaluation or criticism of their own political past. Thus, the Internationalist Group seeks to defend itself against the slanders and unprincipled attacks of the Spartacist League, while at the same time uncritically defending all previous uses of similar techniques by the Robertson regime against others.”[14]

The IBT’s argument, in short, was that Norden’s account didn’t make sense because it failed to acknowledge the lengthy pre-history leading up to the expulsion. A 2021 manuscript[15] by another veteran named Jim Creegan painted a picture of the Spartacist movement’s internal life that was even worse. Creegan, who died recently at age 76,[16] described it as an existence marked by overwork, exhaustion, and heavy drinking, one that, ironically, left members with “little time . . . to read or think about politics.” Dues, he said, were

exorbitant, consuming about one quarter to one third of the meagre salary I earned working as a clerk at the Village Voice. . . . The local deliberately maintained a regressive dues structure, claiming a higher percentage of earnings the lower they were. This, it was thought, would encourage members to seek better jobs, and hence pay more in dues. . . . Maybe now you can better appreciate why those of us who joined the BT later on were so enraged that Robertson, however greatly he had sacrificed to build the SL in the past, was then having a basement playroom built with our labor for his nocturnal escapades, flying Concorde — many times more expensive than a regular passenger jet — having a hot tub installed (again with organizational funds and labor) in his NYC apartment, and demanding a special contribution over and above dues to buy himself a house in the Bay Area.

Creegan went on: “Drinking parties and orgies (this isn’t a lurid exaggeration) . . . were an important medium of ‘social integration’ in the SL, especially for female members.”

Orgies?!? If every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, then the bizarre quasi-families that comprised the Healyites in the UK and the Robertsonites in the U.S. were plumbing depths that were absolutely unique.

Given all this, what are we to make of the January 13 debate, so high-minded on one hand and so evasive on the other? Here is a quick stab at an answer:

The Left paid for a decade of dramatic growth in the 1960s with three decades of neoliberal stagnation from the 70s on whose only parallel is the three decades of reaction that followed Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo. The wilderness years were devastating for the workers’ movement in all its various forms and manifestations — workers’ states, workers’ unions (the OECD[17] unionization rate plunged 59% between 1975 and 2019), and workers’ parties. The last include everything from the official Communists to Maoists, Trotskyists, and social democrats like the British Labor Party or Germany’s SPD.[18] All came through the experience weakened, distorted, and demoralized — if, that is, they came through at all. While many fought against the tide, all eventually succumbed in one way or another. No matter how tight the organization, strong the ideology, or dedicated and disciplined the cadre, it didn’t matter. If anything, such qualities insured that the crash in the end would be even worse.

But the times are a-changing. 2008 ushered in an entirely different period, one marked by war, recession, economic polarization, and an accelerating shift to the Right that socialists have so far been too weak to stop. The dangers are growing, but so are the opportunities. The international proletariat tripled in size from 1980 to 2000 due to population growth in the industrialized West and the outsourcing revolution in the neo-colonial world and the ex-Soviet bloc. Instead of one billion workers engaged in capitalist production, there were now three — and the years since 2000 have undoubtedly seen further growth as well. The working class expanded even as the socialist movement continued to contract. It’s a contradiction that continues to intensify, yet which must resolve itself one way or another the more explosive political conditions grow.

Given all this, it’s remarkable that the LFI is in as good shape as it is. There were important signs of regeneration and growth at January’s debate — greater energy, greater numbers, and more young people who appear to be solidly working-class as opposed to the Ivy Leaguers who were so prominent in the 1960s. But the Internationalist Group and its various sympathizers must face up to the movement’s troubled past before it can advance to a new stage of development. |P

[1] “ICL vs LFI Debate, Part 1: The Fight for the Fourth International Today,” available online at <>; “ICL vs LFI Debate, Part 2: On Permanent Revolution — The Fight Against Imperialism Today,” available online at <>.

[2] Spartacist Group of Mexico.

[3] “Editorial Note: Eighth International Conference of the ICL,” Spartacist 68 (September 2023): 21, available online at <>.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] “The ICL’s Post-Soviet Revisionism,” Spartacist 68 (September 2023): 12, available online at <>.

[7] Ibid.

[8] See “Lies, Damned Lies and Anti-Union Lawsuits: IG’s Brazil Fraud Exposed,” Workers Vanguard 669 (May 30, 1997): 6–7, 9, available online at <>; “IG’s Brazil Cover-Up: Dirty Hands, Cynical Lies,” Workers Vanguard 671 (July 11, 1997): 12–13, available online at <>; The Internationalist’s pamphlet Responses to ICL Smear Campaign Against Brazilian Trotskyists (May 2010), which reproduces articles from the time, available online at <>; The Internationalist’s pamphlet Class Struggle and Repression in Volta Redonda, Brazil (February 1997), available online at <>; and “Recent Correspondence Between the International Communist League and the League for the Fourth International,” The Internationalist (October 2023), available online at <>.

[9] Joseph Seymour, “The National Question in the Marxist Movement, 1848-1914,” Workers Vanguard 123 (September 3, 1976): 6–7, and Workers Vanguard 125 (September 17, 1976): 6–7, 11, available online at <>.

[10] “The Struggle Against the Chauvinist Hydra: Document of the Seventh International Conference of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist),” Spartacist 65 (Summer 2017), available online at <>.

[11] Ibid.

[12] See “The SWP and the Fourth International, 1946–54: Genesis of Pabloism,” Spartacist 21 (Fall 1972): 1, 4–13, available online at <>.

[13] “IG: Willful Blindness: Ex-Robertsonites in Denial,” 1917 20 (1998), available online at <>.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Currently unpublished.

[16] For an obituary of Creegan, see Alex Steiner, “A Marxist seeker,” Weekly Worker 1470 (December 7, 2023), available online at <>.

[17] Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

[18] Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (Social Democratic Party of Germany).