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Spartacist English edition No. 59

Spring 2006

Elizabeth King Robertson


Our comrade Elizabeth King Robertson died at home on October 12 after a six-year battle with cancer. Over the course of more than 30 years as a professional revolutionist, Lizzy excelled as an organizer, propagandist and editor. A patient mentor and inspiration for younger comrades, Lizzy provided a vital link in the fight to preserve our revolutionary heritage going back to Lenin and Trotsky’s Communist International. At the time of her death, she was a full member of the Spartacist League/U.S. Central Committee and of the International Executive Committee of the International Communist League. Her loss is incalculable both to our party internationally and to her family—Jim Robertson, Martha and Martha’s children Rachel, Sarah and Kenneth—as well as her father Henry and mother Mary King and the rest of the King family.

Lizzy grew up in a large family in New York City. Following the death of her mother, Barbara, her father Henry King, a successful corporate lawyer, remarried. Mary King raised Lizzy as her own daughter, and for Lizzy she became “mom.” Lizzy attended Brearley private school for girls in New York. She always valued the education she received there and many of the friendships made at Brearley endured until the end of her life. As a teenager she was sent to Miss Porter’s, an exclusive finishing school for “old money” society girls. Her first-hand experience of anti-Semitism and class snobbery there played a role in her becoming a passionate fighter against racism and inequality.

Lizzy first encountered the Spartacist League in the early 1970s while a student at Boston University. Under the impact of the Vietnam War, Boston campuses were a hotbed of New Left radicalism. Lizzy was active in the Cambridge Tenants Organizing Committee, a group trying to defend working-class families from being pushed out of their homes as the universities expanded. She was recruited to Trotskyism, joining the Revolutionary Communist Youth, the SL’s youth group, in 1973. For many students, the brush with radical activism was just an episode of youthful rebellion on the road to an eventual comfortable career. But Lizzy’s recruitment to the fight for international socialist revolution was for keeps.

Lizzy was accepted into party membership in July 1974. She had by then transferred to Detroit, where the SL was seeking to intervene among the largely black proletariat of the auto factories. She impressed comrades as the youth organizer as well as by her participation in the lively debates that took place as the party began to get more experience in trade-union work. Here she also began the difficult training to become a legal stenographic reporter, a profession in which she was active until her debilitation by cancer.

Around 1976 she transferred to New York in order to be part of the national leadership of the youth organization (renamed the Spartacus Youth League). Lizzy was elected to the SYL National Bureau in July 1976 and was a member of the editorial board of the monthly Young Spartacus from October 1976 through September 1978. She served for a year as the SYL National Organizational Secretary. Her experience as youth organizer and leader was crucial to Lizzy’s understanding of the importance of a youth organization in the training of party cadre.

In August 1978, she resigned her leading positions in the youth organization in order to take on the job of secretary of the Political Bureau. Not only did Lizzy fulfill the demanding assignment of getting out regular and accurate minutes throughout her years in New York, but she turned the job of PB secretary into a nexus for organizing political discussions. Her close personal association with SL national chairman James Robertson began at this time, and she remained his loving companion and closest party collaborator until her death. After serving on the party Central Committee as a representative of the SYL, Lizzy was co-opted in her own right in 1979 and elected a full CC member at the August 1983 national conference. She also took charge of the subject indexing for the bound volumes of our press, which are the documentary record of our political line and our work. Lizzy transferred to the San Francisco Bay Area at the beginning of the 1990s. She tirelessly guided the local leadership, was secretary of the West Coast CC group and also took continuous responsibility for our local in Los Angeles.

Lizzy’s strength was in tackling the intersection of political principle with concrete social reality, coming up with tactics and slogans to express our program. She closely followed the work of Spartacist supporters in the trade unions and her counsel was highly valued by those involved in such work. She was a longtime member of the Bay Area Local executive committee and fought to remain on this body despite her many other responsibilities because she understood so well that making political decisions real means daily choices of “what to betray” in order to focus on the most important things; it means finding the right comrades for the concrete tasks and preparing them politically to carry out those tasks.

Lizzy was unsurpassed as a Leninist political organizer. After a party gathering, she was inevitably involved in figuring out how to shift personnel or assignments to make the political priorities just established actually happen. She had a profound understanding of how our organizational functioning corresponds to our revolutionary purpose. For decades, Lizzy was one of a handful of comrades who took initiative in formulating, refining and codifying our internal norms and practices as the party came across new situations or as problems were seen with the existing rules.

At the ICL’s Third International Conference in 1998, she gave a presentation, “On the Origins and Development of Leninist Organizational Practices.” Published in Spartacist No. 54 (Spring 1998) along with our revised “Organizational Rules and Guidelines,” Lizzy’s presentation educated both young comrades and experienced cadres by providing the historical background, beginning with the first Marxist organizations founded by Karl Marx himself, to enable the conference delegates to consider the Rules. In this presentation, she explained: “Living organizational rules are one of perhaps a half-dozen elements that characterize an organization; in that sense, they are political. But they are not determinate. A sound set of organizational rules is not a guard against political departures, although departures from our organizational norms are generally a signal of political problems. In the absence of Bolshevik practices, an organization is necessarily amorphous, that is, Menshevik.”

Though she rarely raised her voice, Lizzy was a powerful speaker at party gatherings. Her astute judgment and forthrightness made her a uniquely authoritative voice in the deliberations through which the party selects a leadership. Numerous times she was chosen to chair the nominating commission charged with recommending a slate of candidates to the party conference that elects the leading body (the CC in the SL or the IEC in the ICL). Lizzy was clear-eyed in seeing the weaknesses as well as the strengths of comrades, including her closest friends, and she was renowned for her fairness. This ability is crucial in a Leninist party, which aims to build its leadership as a collective that is stronger than the sum of its individual parts.

Lizzy was also her own harshest critic. Although in great pain, she authored a document on October 7 addressing her role in a political fight in the Los Angeles Local that had been marred by extreme characterizations of comrades and bureaucratic practices. Her purpose was not a mea culpa but a statement of conscientious regard for clarity, drawing the political lessons necessary to strengthen the party.

Beginning in early 1979, Lizzy was a mainstay of the editorial board of Women and Revolution, the journal of the SL CC Commission for Work Among Women, for which she often wrote under the last name Kendall. Lizzy particularly enjoyed this assignment, and she excelled at it, as it brought to the fore her acute understanding of Marxist materialism. She authored or co-authored articles on the most sensitive subjects, defending human sexuality and exposing the barbarous cruelty of the bourgeois state as it destroys the lives of people whose only “crime” is that their sexual proclivities and needs vary from the repressive, religion-based strictures of hypocritical bourgeois moralism. Her area of expertise was the thorny issue of human sexuality in its diversity, articles like “Something About Incest,” “The Uses of Abuse” and “The ‘Date Rape’ Issue.” She once explained:

“The reason that we talk about questions of sexuality is that often these questions are politicized, usually not by us but by the bourgeoisie, by some element of society, that takes questions that are normally of a secondary interest and makes them political questions that we not only can comment on but, in certain circumstances, must comment on and must take a position on.”

When publication of W&R was suspended after the Spring 1996 issue, Lizzy continued to contribute to the articles published under the W&R masthead in the press of the national sections of the ICL, including Workers Vanguard, and in Spartacist. During the last weeks of her life, Lizzy was intensely involved in editing, in collaboration with W&R pages editor Amy Rath, “The Russian Revolution and the Emancipation of Women,” which appears in this issue of Spartacist.

The final undoing of the October Revolution in 1991-92 was a historic defeat for the workers of the world, ushering in a difficult period for revolutionists. Our difficulties in coming to grips with the new period have been expressed in political disorientation and corresponding internal difficulties (see “Spartacist League 12th National Conference—A Hard Look at Recent Party Work and Current Tasks,” WV No. 841, 4 February 2005). Nobody has been immune to these problems, but comrade Lizzy played a forward role in trying to get the party out of this morass. Several times during the past five or six years, our internal bulletins have featured a document by Lizzy, submitted early in the discussion, often less than one page in length, which became a touchstone for subsequent contributions. Often her document would begin from a concrete, seemingly tactical question of a particular projected intervention somewhere, and would proceed logically to illuminate programmatic and principled issues.

After Lizzy’s cancer was diagnosed, she undertook surgery, chemotherapy and, finally, radiation. Her father ensured that she obtained high-quality care, which was ultimately unavailing. She continued to do her biweekly sales and other public political activity. In April 2003, she was wounded by a “non-lethal projectile” fired from a cop shotgun during the vicious police attack on antiwar protesters, longshoremen and port truckers at the Port of Oakland.

Memorial meetings for comrade Lizzy were held around the world, including in New York City on November 12 and Oakland, California, on November 20. The New York meeting was attended by more than 20 members of her family, as well as former schoolmates from Brearley. Elsewhere, as is the custom in the communist movement, comrades gathered at memorials to past revolutionaries—Karl Marx in London, Rosa Luxemburg in East Berlin, Leon Trotsky in Coyoacán, heroic Soviet spies Richard Sorge and Ozaki Hotsumi in Tokyo—to lay wreaths or raise a glass in Lizzy’s honor.

Her comrades, family and friends will miss Lizzy’s presence in our lives for as long as we have consciousness. We will miss her fine mind, her humor, her warmth and compassion. We will always remember her beauty and courage. Even in the midst of our grief, we celebrate her life and find comfort in knowing that she lived as she chose to and never wavered in her belief that fighting for the liberation of all the exploited and oppressed was the right way for her to live. For us, she has been a very strong link in the chain of continuity that goes all the way back to Marx and Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, and Cannon. We resolve to honor our beloved comrade Lizzy by carrying on her struggle.

English Spartacist No. 59

ESp 59

Spring 2006


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Elizabeth King Robertson, 1951-2005