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The 1973 Debate with Ernest Mandel
[ Introduction ] [ Mandel ] [ Hansen ] [ Riddell & Young ]

Dragon Hunting in the North

By Joseph Hansen

Excerpt from "The Underlying Differences in Method," dated July 24 1973. International Internal Discussion Bulletin, Vol. 10, No. 12 July 1973. "Germain" was the pen-name used by Belgian Trotskyist Ernest Mandel for internal Fourth International documents.

For information on the context in which this document was written and published, see Introduction to Debate with Mandel on this website.

Dragon Hunting in the North

In one of the literary flourishes in his counterattack, Comrade Germain has me turning a "strangely blind eye" to the "tail-endist" currents that are "developing today inside the world Trotskyist movement." The cause of this strangely blind eye, according to him, is that I have been seized by an "all-consuming passion for tracking down and slaying the dangerous dragon of `rural guerrilla warfare’ and `terrorist Guevaraism.’"

Comrade Germain, I must admit, is right on target. I can only plead guilty and see what can be done about that strangely blind eye. But Comrade Germain should not have stopped after catching me. My bad example is spreading in the International. Comrade Germain, for instance, has now himself been seized by an all-consuming passion for tracking down and slaying dangerous dragons. The difference is that instead of trying to spot the head, as I have done, he examines the other end of the beast and insists on a distinctive anatomical feature. The animal must have a tail end.

In Canada he has found a hunting ground teeming with game of this kind. He bagged two specimens in short order. One was a leaflet issued under the name of the Young Socialists. The other was an editorial in Labor Challenge. The two items appeared during the 1972 general elections in Canada in which the LSA/LSO called for critical support to the New Democratic Party. To believe Comrade Germain, these two items constitute damning evidence that in adopting a stand of critical support for the Canadian version of a labor party and asking the workers to vote for it, the LSA/LSO tail-ended "reformism."

The leaflet and the editorial do contain bad formulations. Comrade Germain quite properly put down two points for his side on his debater’s scorecard. One hopes that the Canadian comrades will draw the proper lesson about carefully checking every single item they publish. Careless or ill-thought-out formulations can not only distort or misrepresent the position of the LSA/LSO, they can be seized on by factionalists to make out a case that otherwise would have nothing to stand on.

Comrade Germain omits mentioning that the leaflet and the editorial were exceptions; he did not point out that the general line of the LSA/LSO was correct, as shown by resolutions and by the general editorial policy of the LSA/LSO press. The cause of his oversight, Comrade Germain will agree, is the strangely blind eye possessed by dragon hunters.

With two dragons in his bag, Comrade Germain stalks another one, an article by Comrade Beiner in an issue of Libération. This contains formulations that, to believe Comrade Germain, would show that Beiner holds a two-stage theory of revolution, putting him in the camp of Menshevism. Comrade Beiner, of course holds no such position.

On this slim basis, Comrade Germain delivers a lengthy lecture on nationalism, the national liberation struggle, and their relation to the theory of permanent revolution. If you abstract the factional bias, you can hardly be against some of this educational material, particularly the excellent quotations from Lenin and Trotsky. Other parts are wrong or self-contradictory.

Inasmuch as the Canadian comrades are preparing a detailed answer to Comrade Germain, I will not pause on these points, but proceed to his attack on Ross Dowson and the majority of the leadership of the Canadian section. Here is the tale as told by Comrade Germain:

During the summer of 1972, we were confronted with an extraordinary spectacle. Within the space of a month, the Central Committee of the Canadian section, the LSA/LSO, first nearly unanimously adopted the general line of a political resolution expressing support for "Canadian nationalism" as against "US domination of Canada," and then rejected the very same line by an overwhelming majority.

We don’t want to concentrate on the somewhat disturbing formal aspects of this development. How is it possible that without a word of explanation a majority of Trotskyist leaders can adopt two completely conflicting positions, within a few weeks of each other, one of which is totally alien to the traditions of Leninism? ...

How could an experienced Trotskyist leader like Comrade Ross Dowson, trained for decades in the Trotskyist program, arrive at such a gravely wrong position? Why did the large bulk of the Central Committee of the Canadian section follow him at first on that line?

Good debater that he is, Comrade Germain has his answers already: "Because," he says,

the method of approach to the national question in an imperialist country was wrong — and had been wrong too in the approach to the Quebecois question. Because, contrary to Lenin’s advice, the Canadian comrades did not start from "a clear notion of historical and economic circumstances," i.e., from an analysis of objective class relations, but from speculations about the moods of the masses. What inspired Comrade Dowson to move to this wrong position was the fact that growing mass support seemed to manifest itself for concrete demands oriented against U.S. imperialism. At the root of his revisionism is the same deviation of tail-endism.:

The problems facing our Canadian comrades were not as simple — or as mysterious — as Comrade Germain would have us believe. And the solutions they found through their own independent efforts were completely in accordance with the program and principles of Leninism and Trotskyism.

Our movement has been confronted in recent years by the rise of a new current among the Canadian masses and particularly the vanguard. It has been labeled "Canadian nationalism." The term, in my opinion, is rather misleading although the movement has assumed some nationalist aspects. The phenomenon is contradictory. One of its prominent aspects was opposition to U.S. intervention in the Vietnamese civil war. It is antiwar, and antibomb — features that were especially outstanding in the mass protest actions against the nuclear bomb testing at Amchitka. These components, along with others, have given the movement a decidedly anti-American coloration — a phenomenon to be observed in comparable movements in many countries besides Canada.

These features alone compelled our Canadian comrades to pay increasingly close attention to this developing movement in view of its relation to their work in mobilizing mass actions in defense of the Vietnamese revolution around the theme of opposition to the complicity of the Canadian government in the U.S. intervention in Vietnam.

The division in the leadership of the LSA/LSO began to occur when the "Canadian nationalist" movement reached such proportions as to require theoretical assessment as something new in Canadian politics. The precise details as to how the various comrades came to appreciate this were largely accidental — as in all such turns in our movement anywhere in the world — and hardly affect the substance of the process.

At first sight, Comrade Dowson’s position appeared to be an extension of an earlier stand taken by the LSA/LSO. This gave it a great deal of weight. But other members of the leadership were uneasy about some of Comrade Dowson’s conclusions. These appeared to contradict other positions long held by the LSA/LSO. At what point had Comrade Dowson gone wrong?

They felt that they faced a small crisis in reaching a correct and rounded position and they set out to resolve it. This decision was completely to the credit of the Canadian section, testifying in actuality to the solid foundations laid down by Comrade Dowson in particular in building the section.

A discussion, preparatory to a convention, was opened up. The discussion was thorough and democratic; in fact it was a model discussion well worth study by the entire Fourth International.

"In the space of 11 months, some 58 issues of the English-language Internal Discussion Bulletin were published, containing 91 contributions — for a total of 1,665 pages of typewritten material and approximately 675,000 words. Of this, about half consisted of minority views in opposition to the line resolutions submitted by the Political Committee." [Intercontinental Press, May 21, 1973]

The convention itself was conducted in exemplary fashion, the majority making a number of organizational concessions not called for in the rules of democratic centralism in order to assure various tendencies or special points of view the maximum opportunity to express their opinions.

The vote on the question of special interest to Germain, the position of Comrade Dowson on "Canadian nationalism," was 5 for, 48 against, 0 abstentions. The resolution presented by the majority of the Political Committee was adopted by a wide margin.

Comrade Dowson and the comrades who agreed with him fought hard for their position in the internal bulletin, in branch discussions, and on the floor of the convention. When the vote was in, they announced that they would abide by the decision of the majority. They dissolved the tendency they had formed to advance their viewpoint, although in the next internal discussion they may submit new material in defense of their position.

Taking the discussion as a whole, it marked an advance for the LSA/LSO in clarifying the problems facing Canadian Trotskyism, educating the membership, and in developing a new layer of cadres and leaders.

To anyone really acquainted with the Canadian section of the Fourth International this outcome was not unexpected. To anyone whose knowledge does not go beyond what appears in Comrade Germain’s attack, the outcome may have appeared surprising. It does not fit in with Comrade Germain’s description of an organization that no longer uses the Leninist method and is incapable of doing anything better than paddling a canoe in the wake of reformism.

Comrade Germain’s description is misleading because he failed to describe the positions taken by the majority of the Political Committee that were presented for discussion by the membership. His one-sided presentation left the impression that the line advanced by the leadership of the Canadian section consisted of a reformist, tail-endist mess. He associated this mess with Comrade Dowson’s position on Canadian nationalism. The truth was that Comrade Dowson stood in a minority in the leadership on this particular question. From Comrade Germain’s biased presentation you would never guess that the leadership of the Canadian section of the Fourth International is of high level and quite capable of standing on its own feet and learning from its mistakes.

Comrade Germain’s factional attitude — for that is what it is — has an explanation. He is interested, as is his right, in advancing the international tendency he represents. In the Canadian section, a minority grouping that calls itself the Revolutionary Communist Tendency has been in opposition to the "regime" for some time. It got in touch with the leaders of the IEC Majority Tendency, who asked the RCT to send documentation as to its views. In return the RCT received advance copies of "In Defence of Leninism: In Defence of the Fourth International."

The document was circulated privately among the members of the RCT during the preconvention discussion. The intensive barrage leveled by Comrade Germain in this document against the leadership of the Canadian section was not without effect among the members of the RCT. To the inexperienced or unwary, its seemingly unanswerable criticisms and charges appeared all the more unanswerable because the author withheld release of the document until ten days before the convention. The Canadian Trotskyist leaders under attack by Comrade Germain had no opportunity to defend themselves during the preconvention discussion.

One of the consequences was that the RCT developed an extremely factional attitude. At the convention they pictured the Québec wing of the Canadian section of the Fourth International as having "degenerated," a process they held to be "irreversible." The real Trotskyists in Québec, according to them, were to be found outside the Canadian section of the Fourth International; that is, in a small group headed by Michel Mill, who had split from the LSA/LSO. According to the RCT, the process of degeneration in the rest of the organization was entering its "final stage" but was not yet complete. Here some of the rank and file could still be "saved." In addition to this, the RCT maintained that the views of two other small groups on the fringe of the Trotskyist movement were genuinely Trotskyist. These groups, called the "Red Circle" and the "Old Mole," have been engaging in unity maneuvers in hope of attracting some members from the LSA/LSO.

Comrade Germain indicated his attitude on this question in the following passage:

"There is no justification for comrade Mill’s group’s split from the LSA-LSO. In our view, comrades who have serious differences with the majority line of their national sections should fight for their political views inside these sections."

They really should, shouldn’t they? The language could hardly be called cutting; lest feelings had been wounded, however, Comrade Germain thoughtfully spread soothing salve on the splitters:

"But this being said, objectivity demands to state unequivocally that Comrade Mill has been proved right against the majority leadership of the Canadian section in both instances where he differed with it on the national question."

Let us not forget that Comrade Germain failed to include a presentation of the four majority resolutions that were placed before the membership for discussion and a vote. (Three were available before he finished his contribution; the other became available before it was published.) Let us not forget, too, that Comrade Germain’s document circulated only among the members of the RCT prior to the convention, so that the badge of approval pinned on Mill did not come up for objective examination. In short, Comrade Germain got away with it.

This helps us to understand better why, immediately following the convention, a number of members of the RCT split from the Canadian section of the Fourth International. It would have been a fitting exit had they lined up for a tap on the wrist and a kiss on the cheek as they tail-ended toward the camp of the man who "objectivity demands to state has been proved right."

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