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The Spartacist League (or, usually pejoratively, the Sparts) is a Trotskyist political grouping. They are officially called the United States section of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist), formerly the International Spartacist Tendency, but the term Spartacist League is popularly used by members as well as non-members. This Spartacist League named themselves after the original Spartacus League of Weimar Republic in Germany, but the current League has no formal descent from it. Depending on the context, the League will often self-identify as a "revolutionary communist" organization.
In the United States, the group is small but very vocal, and its activities within leftist-activist coalitions and wide-scale social justice protest movements usually focus on trying to portray themselves as the most authentically communist group present at that activity. In response, most comparable far-left groupings specifically deride the "Sparts" by name as being a nuisance, an allegation not often repeated against other US Trotskyist groupings. They are also notable for their defense of the North American Man/Boy Love Association and Roman Polanski, and defending North Korea from capitalist restoration. They have also criticized the bombing of Islamic State targets by the US military: "Cynically launched in the name of 'humanitarian' assistance to Shiites, Kurds, Christians, Yazidis and others threatened by the ISIS cutthroats, the imperialist onslaught is aimed at reinforcing the U.S. hold over the Near East."
The Spartacist League stresses its Trotskyist orthodoxy and places a great deal of importance on being ideological adherents of James P. Cannon. However, reflecting the political background of its founder, James Robertson, the SL still supports the criticisms from the left made by Max Shachtman against Cannon's SWP in the 1940s and early 1950s. For example, it still openly rejects the Proletarian Military Policy associated with both Leon Trotsky and Cannon in the early years of the Second World War. That is best summarized in the Prometheus Research Library's 1989 publication Documents on the "Proletarian Military Policy." On some issues, notably the tactic of "critical support" for labor and socialist parties running in electoral blocs with bourgeois or petit-bourgeois parties, the SL retroactively criticizes the tactics of parties in Trotsky's Fourth International from the left.
The origins of the Spartacist League go back to a left-wing tendency within the Young Socialist League, which was linked to the Independent Socialist League led by Max Shachtman, in the 1950s. This group objected to Shachtman's plans to merge the ISL into the Socialist Party-Social Democratic Federation and the YSL into the Young People's Socialist League. This "left wing caucus" was then persuaded to join the Socialist Workers Party's youth group, American Youth for Socialism, in a larger, theoretically independent, Young Socialist Alliance in 1960.
A central influence in the recruitment of the former Shachtmanite youth leaders to the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) was Murray Weiss who, together with Myra Tanner Weiss, would be among the few older members of the SWP to speak up when the newly recruited youth were later expelled. Another important influence on the emerging tendency was Dick Fraser, who developed the theory of revolutionary integrationism, later adopted by the Spartacist League, which argued that Blacks in the USA constituted a color-caste who could only be fully integrated into society as a result of a social revolution overthrowing capitalism. Like the Weisses, Fraser would exit the SWP in the mid-1960s, going on to lead the Freedom Socialist Party. Also important in the early days were Shane Mage and Geoff White, who had a background in the Communist Party.
By 1960 this grouping, mostly active in the youth group associated with the SWP, had become worried by what they saw as the opportunism of the leadership of the SWP headed by Farrell Dobbs and by overtures by the SWP to the International Secretariat of the Fourth International. Particular issues in the dispute included the character of the Cuban revolution, characterized by the majority as a "healthy workers' state", and proper orientation towards the Civil Rights Movement, where the majority attitude was that of uncritical support from afar.
Rather than continue as leadership of the youth group, faction leader James Robertson and the others formed an opposition caucus named the Revolutionary Tendency and made clear their loyalty to the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) in 1962. Differences developed in the Revolutionary Tendency as to how to characterise the SWP, leading to a split within the caucus. A minority closer to the ICFI left to form the Reorganised Minority Tendency (RMT), led by Tim Wohlforth, just as the Robertson-led grouping was being expelled from the SWP. The RMT played a role in the expulsion of the Robertson grouping, on grounds of "party disloyalty".
Under the party name "Lyn Marcus," Lyndon LaRouche was briefly a member of the Revolutionary Tendency and then of the American Committee for the Fourth International (ultimately, opposed to the Spartacist League) as he circulated through various groupings on the Left in the 1960s. LaRouche and the Spartacists were at odds no later than early 1972, when the SL published a two-part article declaring LaRouche's Labor Committee to be "Crackpot Social Democracy,"  followed in the spring of 1973 by a polemic against the LaRouche organization as "Scientology for Social Democrats."
Having been expelled in 1964, the Robertson group were swift to publish a theoretical journal entitled Spartacist, from which they would later take their name. They still stressed their loyalty to the International Committee for the Fourth International, and attended that body's conference held in London, England, in 1966, only to find themselves shut out from the conference's ranks.
Following founding of the Spartacist League the small group found itself isolated and failed to recruit new members. This resulted in a degree of demoralisation on the part of some members including the group's leading West Coast figure, Geoff White, who resigned in 1968. By this time another leading figure, Shane Mage, had also quit the group.
Meanwhile, the New York branch was developing work in the unions through the Militant Labor Civil Rights Committee. This work being advocated by Harry Turner, real name Tanzer, and Rose Jersawitz, aka Kay Ellens, who had spent a year working with Voix Ouvrière in France. Robertson opposed the MLCRC and a faction fight developed which ended when a most of the minority, that is those who supported Ellens, resigned from the League in time founding The Spark group. Harry Turner tried to forestall this split and briefly remained in the Spartacists and formed a faction. Turner and his remaining two supporters split off within a few months and began publishing Vanguard Newsletter. By the end of this split, James Robertson was the only leader of the former Revolutionary Tendency to remain central to the League.
Another group, many veterans of the SL "Revolutionary Contingent" and active in the Coalition for an Anti-Imperialist Movement, split to form the Revolutionary Communist League in 1968. Sympathetic to the idea of "armed self defense" and "unconditional defense of the workers states" the RCL merged with the Workers World Party later that year. They left the WWP in 1971, and reconstituted themselves as the Revolutionary Communist League (Internationalist).
Initially the Spartacists sought to intervene in the Civil Rights protests, on the basis of their support for the idea of revolutionary integrationism, but as small as they were, this activity floundered. They also developed a small presence in the Students for a Democratic Society; within the SDS they opposed all the major factions that developed from that body as these factions turned more and more towards Maoist ideas by 1969.
As the student and anti-Vietnam war movements passed their late 1960s peak the Spartacists did begin to recruit from the then large milieu of radicalised students. This led to substantial growth and the development of a national presence as they expanded from their initial branches in New York and the San Francisco Bay Area. In part this process involved the recruitment of former students who had formed local Maoist collectives which had then come across Trotskyist ideas, including the Communist Working Collective, led by Marv Treiger, in southern California and Buffalo Marxist Collective, led by Jan Norden, in Buffalo, New York.
Some years time later they recruited a not dissimilar "Gay Left" group based in Los Angeles called the Red Flag Union (formerly known as the Lavender and Red Union). Throughout the 1970s the Spartacists did develop a series of what they described as exemplary interventions in industry and the trade unions. For example, there were supporters involved with the ILWU in the Bay Area, the automotive industry in California, the telephone industry and others.
Modest growth continued through the early to mid-1970s. In 1975, the Spartacist League founded the Partisan Defense Committee as "a class-struggle, non-sectarian legal and social defense organization that champions cases and causes in the interests of the whole of the working people" working in accordance with the political positions of the Spartacist League and working in the tradition of the International Labor Defense organization established by the Communist Party in the 1920s.
The late 1970s saw the growth of the league stalled as the radical tide of the 1960s began to ebb. Major internal factional struggles in the group have developed from time to time. These tended to lead to the departure of the dissenting minority.
In 1972, the life of the organization was punctuated by the loss of several leading cadres. Dissatisfied with the group's regime, some senior members gathered around Moore, Stewart, Dave Cunningham, and Marv Treiger. They challenged Robertson only to find themselves expelled from the SL. They then formed a short-lived organization, the International Group, which issued a single pamphlet and then dissolved. The SL reissued the dissidents' pamphlet as part of their series Hate Trotskyism, Hate the Spartacist League. That split did not interrupt the growth of the League. Critics have argued that the unchallenged domination of Jim Robertson dates from the 1972 purge.
In 1978 a number of leading young male members, including Young Spartacus editor Sam Issacharoff, were targeted by Robertson, who nicknamed them "clones" because they were supposedly of the same ilk as longtime SL "theoretician" Joseph Seymour (real name Mark Tishman). There were no political issues in dispute, but Robertson saw them as independent-minded petty bourgeois intellectuals who might eventually become a dissident faction. Issacharoff (who later became an NYU law professor) and several others subsequently left the organization. This episode was later referred to by the International Bolshevik Tendency as "the Clone Purge".
For the Spartacist League these were years of retrenchment in the face of what it saw as a worldwide offensive on the part of the capitalist class. While it maintained its (sometimes intensive) polemical efforts directed at the members of what they described as Ostensibly Revolutionary Organisations, ORO's for short, it began to withdraw its members from union work. In time the union fractions, once the most boasted-of element of the SL's work, were dismantled as detailed by the IBT in their second bulletin Stop the Liquidation of the Trade Union Work in 1983.
A number of former members of the SL, united by their distaste for Robertson's heavy-handed leadership style, regrouped at this time to found the "External Tendency" (ET) of the SL. Initially based in the San Francisco Bay area and Toronto the ET was to define itself as a public faction of the SL and sought to be readmitted to the ranks of the parent organisation. Said efforts were rebuffed by the SL who have since waged a polemical war with the ET and its successor groups the BT and IBT.
In 1996, Workers Vanguard editor Jan Norden and other founders of the League for the Fourth International were expelled, allegedly for maneuvering with a group from Brazil involved in bringing court suit against a trade union.