An extract from Down the Long Table, a novel by Earl Birney
Introduction by Bob Gould
Back in 1970, along with several documents putting the point of view of the group opposed to Jim and John Percy during the split in Resistance and the International Marxist League in Sydney, I printed and distributed two small pamphlets. One was an article Lenin in 1905 by Marcel Liebman from Monthly Review, about the Committee Men, and the other one a chapter from Earl Birney’s book, Down the Long Table, to which I gave the title, How to Split.
Even some of my supporters were uneasy about throwing Earl Birney’s chapter into an already tense atmosphere, but I took the view that satire was a good way of looking at some situations, and a sense of humour was a useful thing, even in serious matters like Marxist politics.I had in the back of my mind a precedent during the Bolshevik-Menshevik split in 1903, during which a talented Bolshevik supporter produced a kind of comic strip about the split, which stands the test of time and which immensely amused Lenin, despite the fact that he took such political conflicts deadly seriously.
The virtue of Earl Birney’s chapter is that he telescopes as caricature a number of the contradictory tactical considerations at work on the Trotskyists in the 1930s. He provides thumbnail sketches of political types in the movement that will be familiar to anyone who has been active in small revolutionary organisations, and Birney telescopes the point that splits and explosions often leave more wreckage than forces intact, and sometimes destroy organisations and groups completely.
Earl Birney’s little chapter is of some interest in Australia at the moment, given the impending further split in the International Socialist Organisation and the enforced departure of the main leaders of the loyal opposition from the Democratic Socialist Party after the rather tense political discussion in that organisation late last year and the national conference at Christmas-New Year 2003-04.
TIME 7pm Friday 18 August 1933PLACE The “Educational Institute”, rear of Halloran’s Grocery. Right and Left, the pictured walls of propaganda; Rear, sacks and shelves of bulk groceries, interrupted by a dusty window and an open doorway framing tall backyard weeds against the soft sundown. Centre, two pew-benches lead Up, facing each other, to a high packing case and chair.PERSONS The seven members of the Executive Committee of the Vancouver Branch of North America of the International Left Opposition (Bolshevik-Leninists) of the Third International. On the left bench: Hughes, Hansen and Green. On the facing bench: Lennard, Merivale. Behind box-table: Halloran.Scene one
Halloran: (redfaced and grim): Everybody here. Where’s Smith?
Green: He couldn’t make it. Flat on his back with asthma.
Halloran: Okay boys. Let’s start. The reason for this emergency session, ye might call it, will be clear enough in a shake. Green here has got a long crazy bitchin’ communication from the East, which I’m asking him to read to ye.
Green: I’ll try to read it, but it’s in a kind of Marxist shorthand. (He stands up, takes a big breath and translates the following):
12 Aug 33
Cde Paul Green,
Re orgzl report, Vanc area
i. immed intensive educ yr own mbership in prncples, tactics, strategy 4th Intrntl as set forth in attd Mfsto & previously outlined in recent articles of Cdes Bauer (Paris), Field (NY), Baumling (Tor). Cdn Sec denounces rightist delaying tactics of Trotsky in our intrntl org, declares world situatn now requires immed formatn 4th Intrntl & denunciation all parties 2nd and 3rd Intrntl as bankrupt.ii. Establment immed sales outlet our Toronto New Spark (1st issue pending). Yr sales quota 200.iii. Coordtn & dirctn remaining energies to advance prop & fund-raising campaign for visit Cde Baumling, Natl Orgzr, during his hitch-hiking tour Sep next.
a. Yr so-called “Vancouver cadre” was never formally accepted into CLNA.
b. Acceptance this cadre plus SVEA as “British Colombia Branch” is withheld pending signed statements of all mbres, including y/self, solidarity with attch Manifesto for a 4th International issued by new Cdn Exec here this week. This Mfsto supersedes previous Draft-Program of so-called Intrntl Left-Opposition, whose historcl utility now terminated; continued adherence to latter will be regarded as treacherous centrist compromising with Thermidorean Stalinism and prevent admissn yr cdes in Cdn sec 4 Intrntl.
c. Yr statement “immediate tasks” not acceptable; revise as follows in order priority:
W. BaumlingNatl Sec & OrgzrCdn Sec
4th Intrntl (formerly CLNA of ILO)
1. Yrs of 29 July addressed Leo Sather has bn forwarded to u/s & brot attention this Exec.
2. All yr cdes warned that Leo Sather now expelled renegade this org together with his burocratic-centrist Menshevik clique. New natl exec elected. Adr further comments to u/s.
3. You are directed call immed meet yr org to inform mbrs:
4. Redirect Cde Merivale break immed with YCL, denouncing it as hopelessly corrupt organ of counter-revoltry Stalinism & urging all honest workr youth follow him into 4th Intrntl.
5. Redirect Cde Lennard break immed with CCF, denouncing it as hopelessly corrupt organ of Cdn social-patriotic bourgeois-reformism & urging all honest wkrs follow him into 4th Intrntl.
6. Direct Cde Halloran study att. Mfsto intensively & revise accordingly his “Origin & History of SVWEA” to reflect proper Marxist self-criticism esp of his own Bonapartist-adventurist ldrship and reformist-pacifist tendencies in past activities this org.
7. Natl dues now 25c wkly all employed mbrs with income to $15 wk, rising 5c each extra dollar-wk income, with special levies (see attchd sheet) for incomes over $30 wk. Unemployed cdes will now also pay dues 5c wkly. Direct yr Treas to forward 50% all dues wkly to Natl. Treas, now Cde Rose Romanuk, c/o this office. Also $10 cash advance order for 200 New Spark.
8. Contingent to successful applicant a/m program, & after 3 mos probatn, applicant yr gp for full mbrship will be reconsidered. Revolutnry greetings.
Gordon drops letter sadly on packing box under wrathful face of Halloran and sits down.
Halloran (flamboyant as ever, though dismayed): Well ain’t that a goddam peacheroo of a letter!
Lennard (a small middle-aged man with perpetually puckered lips and a dreamy uplifted face): Absolutely shocking!
Gordon (pale and miserable): Comrade Chairman, may I …
Halloran: Before I hear any comments from you, Paul Green, I’m making a statement meself, chairman or not, be the holy Jazus, I want ye to know Comrade, and you can write and tell these snotty bastards you’ve got for friends in Toronto that the good old South Vancouver Workers Educational Army hasn’t pooped out yet and …
Merivale (a lank and intense filbert-eyed pointed-faced youth): Hear, hear!
Halloran: … begod it’s not taking a thing like this lying down, not putting itself on probation to some hoity-toity Bumboy down east writin’ letters like he was Morgan sendin’ telegrams from Wall Street if ye please, even if you Trotskyists …
Gordon: Please, Mike …
Halloran (bangs a fist on his box): … are you willing to lick the boots of some upstart we never heard tale of before that says we’re to be drummin’ up a visit for him if ye please and …
Hansen (poker-faced and seemingly unperturbed so far): Yoost a minute … (everybody is now trying to talk at once, except Hughes, who sits silent, scarred head clutched in his hands as if he had once more been slugged. Whatever Hansen is saying is lost in the rise of Halloran’s voice).
Halloran: … sendin him half our rightful dues for God and Marx’s sake …
Lennard (drums his fingers on his knees): Completely shocking!
Gordon: Comrades, I want to explain my side of …
Merivale: Order, let the chair …
Halloran: All right, all right, explain away! But before ye came wheedlin’ to us with yer Terontah talk, Paul Green, I’ll remind ye, we had our dealin’s direct with the top boyos in New York and it’s them we’ll go back to …
Merivale: Back! We’re not going back to any more Trotskyites after this kind of letter! We’re …
Hansen: Iss good idea her because …
Halloran (trying to hold the throne): As I was about to say, Comrade Merivale, New York’s what we’d go back to if indeed we went back at all but I’m thinking with you our boys will be wantin’ no more truck with Trotskyites at all, for …
Lennard: Certainly not! I’m … really quite stunned by …
Halloran: For aren’t we wonderin’ now what kind of an outfit you Trotskyists have at all, Paul Green, what could have sonsabastards like this … whatshisname? Bumleg? in it?
Merivale: Hear, hear! Green telling us all about their internal party democracy! Why, they’re worse than the YCL. Reversing the whole international policy overnight without consulting anybody.
Gordon: Oh, he’s just a stupid kid. Let me ex…
Halloran: All right then, explain (he switches histrionically to a mournful tone). Tell us now what kind of a trick ye’ve played on the good old South Vanners, mixing us up with a crazy outfit ye didn’t even belong to.
Gordon: I did! I belonged when I came here. It’s just that Toronto didn’t get around to admitting the rest of us before this Baumling got local control.
Hansen: Yaw, Paul iss right dere.
Halloran: Well, they don’t want ye no more then, nor us, so tell us, I hope ye will, just what I’m going to say to my own boyos, the honest rank and file of the old SVWEA, Comrade Green, now just explain what me and Lennard and Merivale here are going to say to them?
Gordon: I haven’t played tricks on anybody, please, believe me. I’m as much the goat as you. More. This Baumling is nothing – if you could see him you’d understand – he’s just a goggly-eyed clumsy pedant, a kind of thwarted little rabbi who thinks he’s a new Trotsky. He managed to start a tiny little ultraleftist faction in our Toronto organisation last winter. And now somehow, because of Mac’s death and – other things – he’s got a majority there – just at the moment when we’re organising out here – and he’s apparently staged a purge of those who are loyal to Trotsky. But our international organisation’s certain to turf him out on his ear as soon as they hear of this. He’s just pulling a bluff with us.
Merivale (sceptically): Yeah? What about Field in New York and that guy in Paris. Paris is your centre, ain’t it? I’ll bet they’ve shot Trotsky already, and you talk about Russia and purges. Balls!
Halloran: And why don’t we hear from the great Leo Sather, tell us?
Gordon (embarrassed): I hope we will – hear from his group and from McCraddock’s too. But Sather himself is – well, he’s temporarily out of the movement too, I understand.
Halloran: Holy mother! Sather too?
Lennard: Ah, so you’ve heard from him?
Gordon: No, from – from his mother in law.
Merivale: Sather out? The Canadian Lenin you kept on boosting to us, he is a renegade! Then there’s truth in this fellow Baumling’s letter after all. And why haven’t we heard from those TU fellows you told us McCraddock had? Has Baumling gobbled them too? What does Sather’s mother in law say about them? And who the hell is she?
Gordon: She’s &emdash; it doesn’t matter.
Halloran: Saints and Engels. Will ye hear him now? I’m thinkin’ there’s nothin’ left this day of all this Trotskyism ye talked us into but a cloud of hot air.
Hansen (almost to himself): Yaw, maybe all of you talk too much dat kinda air.
Gordon: It’s not true, Mike, you know it isn’t; there’s the International Left Opposition still, with the Old Man at the top of it. That hasn’t been broken up because of the ructions of a dozen fools in Toronto.
Merivale (sharply): A dozen! Is that all? And they’re the majority. For god’s sake you made out there were thousands.
Gordon: I made out no such thing and you damn well know it.
Merivale: Well, you talked so big …
Hansen (judicially): He never talk no bigger dan you fallahs.
Merivale: I wasn’t speaking to you – you …
Halloran (bangs on his box): Order, order, ye pack of fools. Finish what ye’ve got to say, Paul Green.
Gordon: Oh Mike, don’t you see, we’re falling into a trap when we quarrel like this. This is what little Willy Baumling wants. He’s gone and jumped the gun, committed himself to a Fourth International before the rest of the labour movement’s ready for it – and the only way he can keep his local prestige is to get rid of the steadier comrades and stampede the rest into following him. If we do that, Trotsky and his whole cause will be lost. I’ll make a motion that we wait, that we table this letter. I mean, don’t show it to the membership, send it on to New York, along with a copy of the original report we sent to Toronto. And let New York use this as evidence against Field there and against Bauer in Paris. This way we can start a chain of lightning going that will blast every ultraleftist out of the Trotskyist movement and give us a chance to get on with the real fight, the fight against capitalism and against Stalinism.
Merivale: Wa, hire a hall. You and your two-bit ILO ain’t a damn bit better than the Stalinists. You’re a bunch of burned-out squabblers spending your time thinking up ways to cut each others’ throats.
Lennard: Quite right, Comrade Merivale. I’m stunned, simply stunned by this letter. Comrade Chairman, how could you ever have led us into the hands of these arrogant, foolish people?
Halloran (full of defensive indignation): I? What do you mean I led ye? Didn’t ye all vote fair and square and unanimous to join? Ye want to blame anybody, blame Gordon here, he’s led us all up the garden with his fancy plottin’s, foxin’ even his own comrades so far as I can see. You now, Hughes, the way yer sittin’ I’m thinkin’ ye never knew till this hour that ye’d never been baptised with Toronto’s holy water, eh?
Hughes: (black head in hands, he does not even indicate he has heard).
Gordon: If I’ve let any of you down, it’s because I’ve been let down myself. I never knew this would happen, and I’m sorry, but the important thing is that we still have an unbroken organisation. Let’s keep it together, whatever happens. And I made a motion …
Merivale: Whatever happens! That’s an unprincipled approach to politics if ever I heard one.
Gordon: Oh, for god’s sake, we’re all choking to death from a surfeit of principles. I’ll give up a few of mine for a change if it’s the only way left to keep our group together.
Halloran: Will ye give up yer Trotskyism then and help us build up the old South Vanners again?
Gordon: But that’s asking me to give up all my principles!
Hansen: What you fallahs going to build South Vanners up to? You ain’t got principles, you ain’t got no International.
Hughes (suddenly jumping up, red-faced on the pew’s end): Shut your stupid gobs, now, the lot of you! Talk-talk-talk and never do nothing’. Crocks and has-beens and goddam longhairs you are and that’s all, and I’m through with you, with all of you! (He raises a fist savagely.) Revolution in the head it is only, and treachery in the belly. (Suddenly, he falters, his eyes uncertain; he moves his scarred head in an odd, dazed way, and begins to shake as if with palsy. Gordon, seeing this gets up and gently pulls him down on to the bench again. Hughes sinks his head once more in his hands, moaning faintly.)
Halloran (after a startled silence): What the hell bit him?
Gordon: He’ll be all right in a minute. He’s been getting these spells lately. Would you like me to take you back to the floathouse, Fred?
Hughes (muffled): Leave me alone.
Hansen (still on his own track, as if there had been no interruption): On odder hand yoost because dis fallah Bauer throws out Trotsky, ve don’t have to go tew. Trotsky hafta make Fift’ International. Maybe better ve stay in Fourt’.
Merivale (laughs, suddenly, almost hysterically): Yeah, a Fifth! And then a Sixth and a Sixty-Sixth! You crazy bastards! Me, I’m sticking with the Third.
Gordon: You can’t, you know it. It’s too corrupt.
Merivale: Well then, for Christ sake, why are you against the Fourth?
Gordon: I’m not against it, but a handful of people can’t declare themselves an International.
Merivale: No, you’re right there, and that’s all you’ll ever be, a handful, a handful of crackpots. At least the Stalinists have workers following them, thousands here, millions in Russia. But I’ll bet there aren’t more than a hundred honest-to-God Trotskyists in the whole world.
Gordon: I don’t know how many there are and what does it matter?
Lennard: Matter. Of course it matters, unless all you want is a sewing circle. You just said it mattered?
Gordon: I mean what matters right this minute is that we go on together fighting for socialism.
Hansen: Yaw, but mebbe dis Toronto fallah make sense too. Time ve pulled everybody outta dat CCF outfit, like he said, dey never make a ravvalution.
Halloran: That Bumling makes sense! What kind of sense is it I’m asking ye when a man writes all the way from Ontario to say that me, Mike Halloran, been acting like Napoleon out here in Vancouver where he never was and couldn’t see me? It’s that lad thinks he’s Napoleon, and the infant Jesus too, I’d lay a bet, they ought to send the dogcatcher out and put him where he’ll do no harm to himself. Writin’ and tellin’ the old South Vancouver Workers Educational boys we got to start educatin’ ourselves if ye please, and intensively too it seems, Christalmighty, it’s …
Lennard (squeaky with the violence of his disapproval): What was that ye said, Hansen? Pull everybody out of the CCF? Out of the coming mass party of Canadian socialism? Pull them into what? It’s time you and the rest of you, and you too Mike Halloran, got into the CCF with me, where I’m fighting a lone battle, as I’ve told you before. All of you, the whole organisation, should be in pushing the CCF towards a truly Marxist line.
Hansen: Yoost a bunch a skewlmarms.
Halloran: He’s right. You wouldn’t make Reds outa them even if you boiled ’em.
Lennard (rising with over-great dignity): You, you, Hansen, you’re just and anarchist! I’ve always suspected it. You’d strangle the Canadian revolution in its cradle just to have your own way. You hate organisation and you can’t take discipline. And you, Green, you and your Trotskyists ordering me to leave the CCF just – just when the whole West End branch is swinging over towards a Marxist position. You’ve got no understanding of tactics. And you, Mike Halloran, I’ve had enough of your one-man rule. Either you quit this Trotskyist adventurism and bring the whole SVWEA into the CCF or I’m through with all of you.
Halloran: To hell with you. I’m not puttin’ my boys into any more political straitjackets. To hell with all your parties. To hell especially with the CCF.
Lennard (buttons his coat offendedly): I hope we shall all meet on the same side of the barricades (he heads for the back door).
Gordon: Don’t go, Lennard! There’s no reason … (but he is out the door).
Halloran (shouting): Pinko! Reformist! Good riddance!
Hansen (as if nothing had happened and everyone had been agreeing with him): Time ve pulled comrade Merivale here outa Young Commies too, like Baumling says alla Commies iss a bunch of tieves.
Gordon: Ole, you don’t agree with Baumling on this, do you?
Hansen: Soore, wy not? Wy keep on pretendin’ ve iss reform skewl for dose Black Monks? Dey’s all criminals for life.
Merivale: Who the hell you callin’ thief and criminal, you big squarehead? I’m still in the YCL and I ain’t no thief. I want an apology outa him, Comrade Chairman.
Halloran: Orderr, Orderr. Hansen, you sayin’ Comrade Merivale here’s a thief.
Gordon: Oh, what childishness, of course he wasn’t.
Halloran:: I’m asking the Swede.
Hansen (unemotionally): He ain’t one he shouldn’t be wit dem.
Merivale: That’s no apology.
Hansen: Soore, soore. Ay poligize. (He nods serenely at Merivale.) You iss only Commie ain’t a tief.
Merivale: Okay, but – hey, I still don’t like …
Gordon: Comrade Chairman, for god’s sake, let’s stop this and pass my motion.
Halloran: What motion?
Gordon: That we forward the letter to New York, for guidance. Fred, you’ll second that, won’t you? (He looks appealingly at Hughes, who has begun to sit up since Lennard walked out.)
Hughes (after a silence, begins speaking calmly): No, Paul Green, I won’t. It doesn’t matter a damn what you do now for, look you, the damage is done. There’s nobody here is going to trust the Trotskyist leadership again after this. If we don’t do what that little Toronto punk says, some other deluded workers he’ll find to peddle his paper out her, see, and we’ll all be in it, branded as renegades from whatever number of international he decides to name it. And supposin’ we do string along with him, man, we’ll be renegades to all the other Trotskyists for sure. And if we keep to ourselves, we’ll have to be, as Hansen tells us, a Fifth International, for every man to laugh at. (He stops, clasps his black paw and then, with a sudden change of voice and countenance glances murderously up and down the two benches.) Shit! (Yelling) The truth is there’s not the sense nor the guts of a single old IWW in the whole goddam lot of you and I – I’ve wasted all my time. (He begins to fall into a Welsh sing-song.) The truth – the truth is it’s too late for revolutions now. Things are run by kids now, but little boyscout troops of rattin’ kids they are, bringin’ in the age of counter-revolution, of fascism, fascism black and fascism red, and then war, ye fools, and more fascism, look ye, and more war, till we’ve wiped ourselves off this stinkin’ planet, and good riddance. (He stops.) I – I’m not feelin’ – (He stops, puts his hands over the long scar on the top of his head, and holding this pose stumbles towards the backyard door.)
Gordon: Fred, wait. I’ll go back to the floathouse with you. (Gordon jumps up. But no-one else speaks and Hughes continues silently and in silence to the door. Then he turns and glares, red-eyed, at Gordon.)
Hughes: You. With you I wouldn’t walk to the pisshouse again. (He wheels and stumbles out.)
Merivale: Crowstamighty, the guy’s rum-dum.
Gordon: He’s not well. It’s that blow …
Halloran: Hell, what’s a slap-happy Wobbly here or there? Now we’ve got rid of those two, I’ll accept a motion, since no-one would second Comrade Green’s, that the old SVWEA reorganise, withdraw its offer to the Trotskyites, and resume independent life.
Merivale: Subject to our continuing fraction work inside the YCL, I’ll so move.
Halloran: Subject to nothin’! We’ll keep our skirts clean, haven’t I been tellin’ ye? Hansen’s right, tis time you broke with the stinkin’ Communists, Merivale.
Merivale: Then I resign. (He stands up and walks quickly to the same door.) And I’ll see ya on the other side of the barricades.
Halloran: Get out. (Merivale does.)
Hansen: (serene as ever): Point a order, comrade chair …
Halloran: (stands): Look, the meetin’s over, it’s adjourned, the executive’s dissolved. You can both beat it. I’m not interested.
Hansen: Okay. (Stands.) You comin’ wit’ me Paul?
Gordon: Mike! I’m sorry. Let’s save what we can, Mike. Let’s the three of us stick together anyway. We’ll build your group up, retain the SVWEA name if you like, and …
Hansen: Naw, naw, we call it Fourt’ International, or I …
Halloran: To hell with both of ye. Ye’ve wrecked the only decent, law-abidin’ revolutionary organisation was ever created in this benighted country of anarchists. Ye’ve left old Mike Halloran sittin’ wonderin’ what he can say to his own boyos that they won’t all give him the back of their hands for life. I don’t want ye. Get out. Get out, get out!
Gordon: Mike, please …
Halloran (inclines ironically): Unless you gentlemen have something you want to buy in my store. A packed of firecrackers maybe, was left over from the King’s birthday?
Gordon (looks at Hansen, then at Halloran): Okay Ole. (Exeunt Hansen and Gordon. Halloran stands alone and proud behind his packing box in the empty, crowded room.)