Jim Robertson: A Fragmentary Retrospective

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07/10/2019 by socialistfight

By Stephen Goodman 11/06/19

In the long run a harmful truth is better than a useful lie.
Thomas Mann

Now that Jim Robertson has left the scene, it is only fit and proper for those who knew him, even ever so slightly as I did, to share our memories of him. I will present two conversations I had with him over the years. No one else was present then, so I remain the only witness to and participant in these events. But first I wish to offer a rather startling observation.
At Dick Fraser’s memorial on 8 January 1989 Jim Robertson said, “I first ran into Dick Fraser about 31 years ago, and he was my last personal teacher. ……… Dick Fraser is supposed to have said, ‘One of the best things I ever did in my life was sit Jim Robertson down at a kitchen table and pound at him for a few nights.’ Well it’s funny, because I’d just said across the country, at the same time, ‘The last guy that ever convinced me of anything in an argument was Dick Fraser.”
So we learn directly and indisputably from Robertson’s own words that in the course of the 31 years after Dick Fraser’s “pounding” no one could ever get Robertson to change his mind on anything. One reads these words in jaw-dropping disbelief! That means Robertson was always right on everything and that his intellectual opposition was always wrong on everything. Seriously? Did any member of the Spartacist League ever dare to challenge this monstrous megalomania and gross grandiosity?
In very modest contrast, the Pope is hailed by the faithful as “infallible,” but only when he speaks on Catholic doctrine. Yet Robertson soared far above the Pope. He was, in his own eyes, infallible across the board. Did Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Darwin, Einstein or any other genius ever lay claim to intellectual infallibility either on one subject, or, still less, on all topics in the world? Hubris seems far too humble and puny a word to have embraced Robertson’s titanic superego. This self-proclaimed unfailing infallibility falls in squarely with the following two encounters I had with him.
Robertson certainly could evince a most revolting sense of “humor.” About 1978 we were talking in the Prometheus Research Library. He said he wanted to play me a song on his stereo. I asked him sarcastically if it was the Horst Wessel Lied, the marching song of the Nazis. “Nah, it‘s not that,” he replied dismissively. I felt ashamed for having said this. But, as it turned out, my suspicion was spot on. It was an unknown German song which I asked him to identify. “It’s a song of the Nazi submariners,” he explained smirking broadly.
“Why are you playing this?” I asked, light years beyond astonishment.
“I play this for our maritime fraction and our Jewish comrades.” (I was only an SL sympathizer, but still I qualified for this “special” treatment.)
“Why?” I persisted.
“I like to see them get angry,” he replied with a broad and self-satisfied grin. He saw absolutely nothing wrong in this outrageous and utterly contemptible behaviour. On the contrary, he joyfully exulted in it. Can anyone imagine any Bolshevik from Lenin and Trotsky on down engaging in such an egregiously obnoxious act? Why would any self-respecting Marxist even own such a record, let alone play it just to infuriate others, especially potential victims of fascism? But then, no one could convince him of anything in an argument.
The second event occurred when I met him by chance about 1982 whilst in London. I challenged him on why the SL defended Sara Jane Moore who had attempted to assassinate U.S. President Gerald Ford. I told him that she was an FBI fink and clearly deranged, a thoroughly repulsive character by anyone’s reckoning. This argument had zero effect on him. He defended her thoroughly unpolitical and maniacal act as a legitimate protest against (in his own words) “the growing imperial presidency.” I found this to be bizarre politics, besides being utterly divorced from reality.
I then asked him if he defended Arthur Bremer, the man who had shot ultra-racist Alabama governor George Wallace. “No,” he replied, “That guy was just a nut!” As opposed to Sara Jane Moore? What was the difference? Where was the logic?
Yet I persisted. I told him that a defense of such an unsavoury lunatic and her unhinged act would bring nothing but opprobrium and ridicule to the SL. His amazing answer was that had I lived at the time, I would not have defended Alfred Dreyfus. Presumably he meant that though Dreyfus was an agent of French imperialism yet he still should have been defended, so likewise FBI fink Sara Jane Moore should be defended. This vacuous “logic” was worthless. I countered that I would have defended Dreyfus because he was the victim of a massive wave of anti-Semitism. Here the argument stopped cold as Robertson had nothing more to offer. He just couldn’t be wrong about anything or be convinced by anyone in an argument. Magister dixit, the master has spoken!
Robertson was the most well-read man I’d ever encountered. Bakunin once said of Marx, “He read widely and intelligently.” That was Robertson all over. One couldn’t reference an historical personage or event, however arcane, obscure or esoteric, that he hadn’t read about and knew thoroughly. Innumerable times I’d heard his brilliant public discourses. They were dazzling arabesques all. His mental landscape was breathtakingly broad and prolifically populated. Robertson was intellectually unique.
Robertson broke in turn from Stalinism, Shachtman, the SWP and Healy. He worked sedulously and patiently to restore and build Trotskyism in America and abroad. As far as I can judge, he never capitulated to reformism or anti-communism, two nearly impossible feats for the American left. For all of this he deserves to be remembered with honor.
But alcoholism warped his mind. That’s the inevitable mental end-product of that psycho-physical disease. Furthermore, his ego was both inflated and deformed by his near-apotheosis as the object of an uncritical, adoring, obsequious and worshipful personality cult. When the people around you chorus for decades on end that you are always right, you start believing in your own infallibility. Louis XIV’s regal conceit “I am the state” found a modern incarnation in Robertson’s egotistical boast “I am never wrong.”
There was a dialectical relationship between his rampant alcoholism and titanic egotism, on the one side and the cloying cultism of his membership on the other. They exacerbated each other and were the twin black holes that dragged Robertson down inexorably to his cringeworthy degeneration. They inexorably led the Spartacist League into the twilight of inconsequentiality. That was a great loss for the Spartacist League and Trotskyism. It is a sad object lesson and dire warning for the future. Alcoholism and personality cultism can be tolerated only at a Marxist organization’s greatest peril.

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