Monday, June 1, 2009

Confessions of a Renegade (1975)

Workers Vanguard No. 61 (31 January 1975)

Wohlforth Terminated

In an account reminiscent of Jay Lovestone's recitation of the crimes of Stalin, ex-Workers League National Secretary Tim Wohlforth has now surfaced with a long document about his frame-up and purge at the hands of Gerry Healy, boss of the British Workers Revolutionary Party and godfather of the Workers League. After more than a decade of glorying in his role of fawning American junior partner to Healy, Wohlforth was unceremoniously dumped and replaced by his long-time lieutenant, Fred Mazelis (see “Workers League Crumbles,” WV. No. 56, November 1974). The ouster was carried out personally by none other than Healy himself.

While Wohlforth's lurid 39-page account (“The Workers League and the International Committee,” 11 January 1975) is evidently truthful as a description, it betrays a stunning lack of political understanding. Throughout his reign as tinpot despot of the Workers League Wohlforth slavishly emulated his mentor's organizational practices of suppression and slander, the deliberate destruction of cadres and the invocation of the absolute authority of the “International Committee” to intimidate any stirrings of opposition among the membership. Now that Healy has turned the notorious Wohlforthite “method” against Wohlforth himself, the deposed former accomplice finds the only possible explanation to be that Healy has suddenly lost his mind:
“He is seized by at times what approaches madness for subjective idealism is a form of madness as it rearranges the world according to the individual. He becomes convinced that he is surrounded by CIA agents and proceeds on that basis. Anyone who objects is denounced for being an anti-internationalist....”
Subjective idealism must be pretty rampant in Healyite circles. Wohlforth makes the following modest assessment of the import of his removal as National Secretary: “The explosion which has taken place between Comrade Healy and the Workers League is of great historic significance. Condensed within this experience is all the past experience of the Fourth International.” By way of contrast, the Spartacist tendency was compelled to break from Healy in 1962 in order to maintain our political integrity, but we refused to characterize Healy/Wohlforth's unprincipled organizational maneuvering as politically definitive (much less world-historic) until 1967 when it acquired a clear programmatic basis.

Wohlforth's testimony amply confirms every organizational allegation ever made by the Spartacist tendency, but for Wohlforth commencing only on 30-31 August 1974 when the skies fell in on him. Wohlforth's fundamental response to every exposure by us of the Workers League's cynical opportunism, Stalinist-style gansterism and fraudulent “mass” posturing has always been that Spartacist is no good because it is “anti-internationalist” i.e., that we refused to unquestioningly accept the “discipline” of the International Committee. We replied that the IC is no Marxist international, and “the IC” is but an empty abstraction to cover rotten politics, akin to the Stalinists' abuse of "the Party."

The Horse's Mouth

Now let us see what Wohlforth has to say today about the International Committee:
“.. It never was allowed to go beyond the level of small groups basically functioning as appendages of the SLL/WRP [Socialist Labour League was the earlier name of the Workers Revolutionary Party, Healy's British group]. More precisely, the IC never went beyond being an international organization around a single individual, Gerry Healy....

“...That these differences were not openly confronted and fought out within the U.S. and internationally reflected the atmosphere which prevailed in international relations within the IC. Open discussion and political struggle was discouraged by Comrade Healy's tendency to push every discussion to the most extreme point and to seek to break the person who disagreed with Comrade Healy. Only a most muted discussion ever took place in the international movement under such conditions....

“...There are no elected bodies. The IC is, as we shall see, whatever the Workers Revolutionary Party wants it to be. It is the WRP which writes whatever statements are occasionally issued. It is the WRP which calls whatever meetings of the IC that are held and which determines what sections should attend. It is Comrade Gerry Healy who determines what the WRP determines....

“...To Gerry Healy there is a complete identity between the international movement and his national party, the Workers Revolutionary Party. Internationalism stops at the frontiers of Britain. It is seen as a 'principle' which requires the subordination of other parties to the international which is seen as identical with the WRP. To what is the WRP subordinate?”
Well, former head of the American section, you should know. Only, we always thought you liked it that way!

Healy as Big Daddy

Wohlforth always dismissed the Spartacist tendency's allegations about the grossly bureaucratic practices of the Healy/Wohlforth regimes with smug demands that we demonstrate upon what materially privileged stratum the WL regime is based. In his present document, however, Wohlforth (never one to worry too much about consistency) makes no attempt to locate any "material base" for Healy's conduct. He simply declares that the Workers League has reverted to centrism (a term, incidentally, which he employs for every variety of political animal, including Max Shachtman in 1956 as the latter prepared to liquidate into CIA-influenced American social democracy). Yet there is a certain sociological logic to the Healyites' practices.

The Healy organization's attempts to work within the British labor movement have been uniformly sterile and disastrous. At one or another time over the past twenty years they have amassed a certain following among dock workers, construction workers, coal miners and auto workers, and have nothing but their ex-supporters' bitterness at the Healyite oscillations between adventurism and opportunism to show for it. (Their present "mass base" in the television and film industries can be expected to go the same route, although perhaps somewhat more eccentrically considering the vision of social reality as refracted through a television camera.)

But the Healy organization has been quite successful in maintaining a relatively large, flashy, high-turnover youth operation which every year draws in sizeable numbers of militant British youth by offering them pageants, dancing, rock bands and sports events together with a dash of "socialism," miscellaneous marches and lots of newspaper selling. The British masses are infused virtually throughout with a relatively very high degree of class consciousness, so that even the semi-lumpenized youth from whom the Healyites recruit characteristically share a strongly class-conscious outlook, even if their capacity to intervene in the class struggle is marginal and episodic.

But since such layers lack both the discipline of the labor process and any obvious immediate personal use for knowledge, a high-volume, high-turnover operation aimed at them necessarily requires a strong dose of authoritarianism and the manipulative use of dogma as a substitute for program. Thus we can attribute to the Healyites a lumpen proletarian component as the context for their opportunist/ adventurist oscillations and systematic organizational abuses.

Wohlforth as Huey P. Newton

Beginning in the summer of 1971 Wohlforth, evidently in association with Healy, launched the Workers League on a sharp turn "to the youth" intended to parallel the British technique. But the attempt to import the WRP style of semi-lumpen youth organizing intensified the contradiction between "Trotskyism" and the requirements of such an operation. The corresponding layers in American society to the raw material of Healy's Young Socialists are overwhelmingly ghettoized black and Spanish-speaking youth, a generation or two removed from rural isolation and poverty, very heavily chronically unemployed, in a country with no political class consciousness and themselves with so little access to the labor movement that economic class consciousness often appears as a privilege of older white workers aimed against minority-group youth. While Healy's pseudo-Trotskyism associated with a semi-lumpen base makes a certain kind of sense in class-conscious Britain, a nationalist or Maoist rhetoric corresponds far more closely to the ideological proclivities of American raw ghetto youth.

Very serious and dedicated revolutionists can indeed be recruited from such strata, but under prevailing conditions only by the individuals' involved breaking, through a difficult, lengthy (and often unsuccessful) process, from ghetto existence and its dominant ideologies. But the Healy/Wohlforth approach – which is strikingly analogous 'to government summer programs for restless youth – is not intended to lead to the crystallization of black and Spanish-speaking communist cadres but to supply a "mass" base for a mock-extremist political operation. Therefore the Workers League found itself forced to parallel the techniques of, for example, the Black Panthers: an infallible leader and a militarized regime to impose discipline.

The Workers League turn toward "youth in the neighborhoods" was evidently seen by Wohlforth as a bulwark against "liquidation" into “trade union work.” He explains that political backwardness “makes it so easy for demagogic forces to maneuver within the unions disguising themselves as militants. Union policy alone is insufficient to flush them out.” This is, of course, true given the Wohlforthites' crassly opportunist line in their every encounter with the union bureaucracy, which Wohlforth defends at some length over the example of support to Arnold Miller of the Mine Workers.

Not surprisingly, Wohlforth is unable to grasp what is wrong with his organization's incursions into the labor movement. For example, his only criticism of the “Trade Unionists for a Labor Party” operation is that the Workers League liquidated its public face into this front group; there is no mention of the fact that the front group's program deliberately omitted any mention of the crucial political issues facing the working class at that time, racial oppression and the Vietnam war. No wonder Wohlforth thinks that the only way to avoid opportunist trade unionists – i.e., cynical but articulate cadres who will sooner or later abandon the small change of the Workers League to carve out careers within the union bureaucracy – is to build a base in a milieu which is deeply alienated from the labor movement.

The document is full of vituperative attacks against “conservative,” “abstract propagandist” forces in the Workers League who “represented a centrist retreat from the construction of a revolutionary youth movement” and counterposed a call for more trade union work. (Before accepting the bogeyman of a Workers League totally submerged in the unions, we should point out that in the entire document the only trade-union fraction mentioned, although there are references to journalistic coverage of other industries, is a white collar fraction in the SSEU composed of college graduates.) These elements are castigated for holding themselves aloof from the militants drawn around the youth organizing; at the summer camps, for example, they even “hid behind bushes to keep away from the youth.”

What these summer camps were actually like is testified to by Wohlforth:
“...the first days of the [1974] camp became preoccupied with the question of discipline. It actually took longer this year than last to get some agreement on the rules which governed the camp. Even after this agreement was reached the disciplinary problem would plague the camp to its last day.... Anyone who now dismisses this experience as a 'disaster' dismisses the real material struggle to build a movement' of workers.... The United States is the center of the capitalist crisis. A peaceful, orderly camp would reflect only the unreal, idealist distance of such a camp from the class struggle in America.”
It may be surmised that some of the Workers League members balked at serving as wardens for restless youth lured to these events by means such as those of which Wohlforth boasts in explaining the great "success" of the 1973 YS conference:
“We held talent shows and bazaars and other events during. the course of building for the conference... . At the end of the conference, a highly successful dance was held with a well-known band.”
The Ax Falls

Internally in the Spartacist League around 1966, the following historical analogy was presented: Stalin/Healy, Foster/Wohlforth, Browder/Mazelis. Yet now even after the fact Tim Wohlforth is obviously unable to make head or tail of the reason for his dramatic fall from grace.

The first intimation of trouble occurred in 1973, when Wohlforth received a letter from the WRP's Mike Banda criticizing his draft resolution on American perspectives and insisting on “the primacy of the European Revolution-particularly in England” in apparent counterposition to Wohlforth's emphasis, allegedly based on Healy's remarks to a Workers League plenum, on the "understanding that the center of the world capitalist crisis was the crisis of American capitalism." In the present document Wohlforth criticizes Banda for the latter's infatuation with the Vietnamese and Chinese Stalinists, an astute observation coming a mere ten years or so after our tendency had noted that self-same fact. Wohlforth's response to becoming the recipient of two different lines from England was to try "as best we could to straddle the contradictory positions put forward by Healy in January and Banda in March."

But the ax was first unsheathed in conjunction with "a series of classes which we opened up to the Spartacist group" (i.e., the Workers League violated its long-standing practice of excluding Spartacist members from publicly advertised events). Wohlforth describes his peremptory summons to England:

"In late June the British comrades called me over for consultations. They were particularly upset by a reference in one of the classes which suggested that the relations between the British and French movements had been one of compromise.... The British intervention, however, took on an extreme character. Every even potential difference was magnified to an absurd degree. I was even attacked as being an American pragmatist for purchasing an American rather than a British web offset press: As the week progressed the hyperbola progressed. By the end of the week's visit the British comrades-more exactly Comrade Healy-threatened to break a 12 year political relationship with the League over this single sentence.

"The night before I was to fly back the discussion – actually a one way shouting match – went on until 2:30 a.m. I was sent to bed with all political relations broken. A public statement was to appear in the Workers Press [Healy's newspaper]. Then at 5:30 a.m. I was awakened for one last meeting with Comrade Healy at which I was told I would be given one last chance. I was to fight for the very life of the League against centrism within it. . . . Particularly I had to break with the centrist elements around me in the leadership and drive the movement forward into the working class. Special mention was made of Comrades Lucy St. John, Dennis O'Casey and Karen Frankel.

"I returned to the United States shell-shocked. I immediately launched a bitter struggle within the leadership of the party and throughout all the branches in the country...."

Having evidently interpreted his instructions as a license to undertake a wholesale purge, Wohlforth proceeded to drive out of the Workers League virtually every prominent experienced cadre (see "Whatever Happened to the Workers League?" in WV No. 53, 27 September 1974). How hollow now ring Wohlforth's pious words about the preservation of cadres: "Such individuals embody great experience. This is why we must proceed with such care, with such restraint and caution, when moving organizationally with a cadre."

Apparently Healy had not anticipated such carnage, because he intervened again claiming that "the very struggle he had urged me to take up within the party leadership was 'factional'." But he apparently was not yet prepared to move against Wohlforth, for at the April 1974 International Committee conference he held up the Workers League "as a model" and squelched the Greek delegate who requested a full discussion on the hemorrhaging of leading Workers Leaguers.

A Method in Healy's Madness?

Wohlforth was finally removed at the 1974 Workers League summer camp. Wohlforth's own recitation of the events indicates that here was a man who was prepared to capitulate time after time over any political or organizational question, until he was brought face to face with the ultimate insult: Healy's charge that Comrade Fields, Wohlforth's close companion, was an agent of the CIA.

Wohlforth recounts that two weeks before the camp he was again summoned to England. When he arrived:

"I was whisked to a special meeting with Comrade Healy also attended by Comrade Banda and other comrades. The following was immediately proposed: (1) the whole past year had been a mistake, a turn into community politics and a retreat from the working class; (2) the former party members who had left were driven out by myself and Comrade Fields who represented a clique leadership; (3) Comrade Fields was probably a CIA agent; (4) there was to be no national conference this Fall; (5) the group of former party members was to be urged to come to the camp for discussions and brought back into the party without discussion with the PC....

"I returned to the United States a bit shell shocked. The British comrades, I thought, had always been right. They must now be right. I did my best to hold to that position while I proceeded to build the summer camp-now less than a week away....

"Comrade Healy sent Comrade Slaughter ahead of him to make sure it was 'safe' for him to come. Comrade Slaughter was to call England to reassure Healy. A special Political Committee meeting of the WRP was scheduled to decide whether or not Comrade Healy would be allowed to come to the camp without risking his life...

"Immediately upon arriving in Canada Comrade Healy began on the question of the CIA.... Comrade Healy was now convinced he was in the midst of a nest of the CIA. He even considered the thought that the whole Workers League was a CIA front....

"A meeting was immediately organized of IC comrades at the camp. I was accused of harboring and covering for a CIA agent. It was stated that I had failed to report on Comrade Fields' past CIA 'connections'. ... I tried as best I could to accept everything Comrade Healy stated in the way of criticism of the League and my functioning. I no doubt accepted more than I should have. But I simply could not accept this charge against Fields....

"The Political Committee was taken in a large van across to the other side of the lake. There we sat silently with the former party comrades and Comrade Healy proposed their readmission. Without so much as a word being said the Political Committee voted the comrades back into
the party....

"On Friday night Comrade Healy, at the suggestion of the German comrade, called a special meeting of the Central Committee of the Workers League, attended also by IC members present at the camp. At this meeting everyone was encouraged to denounce the leadership of the party in order to bolster the characterization of the past year of party work as liquidationism. Comrade Healy called the session 'Christmas' and thoroughly enjoyed it. It was at this meeting that Comrade Healy first proposed that I be removed as National Secretary of the party. In actual practice, the shift in leadership was already well underway... .

"Comrade Healy started the discussion [at the next Central Committee] meeting with his charges that Comrade Fields was an agent of the CIA. I was held complicit in the situation [by] not reporting it to the "IC....In the middle of these proceedings I stated that I disagreed with the whole proceedings. This produced an extreme' reaction in Comrade Healy.

“It was this mild resistance on my part which encouraged Comrade Healy to go ahead with the already well developed plans to remove me as National Secretary. Comrade Healy proposed that Comrade Mazelis put forward a motion to remove me as National Secretary and to suspend Comrade Fields from party membership pending an investigation into the CIA charges. This Mazelis did and it passed unanimously receiving even my vote and that of Comrade Fields. Then Comrade Healy proposed that I nominate Comrade Mazelis as National Secretary. I proceeded to do so and it passed unanimously.... I shortly discovered that the action taken on August 31 was definitive in character. A special meeting of the IC was called which after the fact: (1) endorsed Comrade Healy's totally unauthorized actions; (2) specifically barred me from any role in the day to day political leadership of the party; (3) barred Comrade Fields from any contact with the League of any sort. I offered my resignation from the League in response to this action. To continue in the League would have been a mockery of the entire struggle which had preceded August 31."

Subsequently a commission of inquiry consisting of two people including Mazelis cleared Fields of the charge of being a CIA agent (although, with typical arbitrariness, after being acquitted she was barred from holding office for two years). On the commission's invitation, Wohlforth reapplied for membership. Healy, however, ruled that Wohlforth must first appear before the IC, which Wohlforth refused to do.

Stalin is reported to have told the Lovestonite leaders in Moscow, "By the time you get back only your wives will support you." Is it possible that Healy was pursuing an analogous method in his choice of technique for the disposal of Wohlforth – finding in Wohlforth's relationship with Fields the key to one abuse which even Wohlforth, with his apparently limitless appetite for political self-abasement, would be unable to swallow?

What is even less clear in the Wohlforth document are the precise reasons for Healy's decision to heave his American epigone over the side. One can speculate about the role of Banda or the possibility that Healy felt threatened by an occasional twisting of his tail by Wohlforth who had actually achieved junior partner status after the rupture with the French made the Workers League a correspondingly larger component, of the IC operation. But it is likely that Wohlforth's wholesale destruction of the Workers League cadre was a prime mover in the process, and thus Wohlforth is a victim primarily of his own gratuitous organizational brutality.

The prognosis for the Workers League is not good. The comparison of statistics Wohlforth adduces to document its decline is unreliable since the earlier counts were originally concocted with Wohlforth's well-known proclivity for mendacious multiplication, but it is obvious that the Workers League membership is shrinking. Healy/Mazelis' efforts to win back the separated brethren will have at best limited success, as the human material is badly damaged by its earlier experiences in Healyite "democratic centralism."

The new leadership is uninspired; even granting Mazelis a certain flair for legalistic stabbing-in-the-back, as demonstrated particularly at the 1966 London Conference (which Wohlforth sat out, sulking), he is so colorless as to be almost invisible. The disruption of the pecking order should continue to produce a lot of scrambling among ambitious WL cadres, among them David North, who figures prominently in the Wohlforth document. And the Healy organization in Britain has itself recently suffered a serious blow with the reported departure of some 200 members around one Alan Thornett.

No Tears for Wohlforth

As for Wohlforth, we can say with sincerity: it couldn't happen to a nicer guy. Wohlforth has spent twelve years masquerading as a Trotskyist and helping Healy to do the same, in the process politically destroying whatever serious elements from among militant minority-group youth his organization has encountered, repelling most of them; convincing them that "socialism" is just another con game whose purpose is their manipulation, and converting a few into cynical fellow operators.

Wohlforth's greatest crime – in which he was abetted by Healy and Art Phillips – was that, in pursuit of supreme authority for himself and shortcuts to influence and numbers, he broke up the left wing within the SWP in the 1961-62 period. He split the opposition to the SWP's sharp right turn, cut it off from the possibility of winning valuable comrades from a section of the old-time SWP membership, set up our tendency for expulsion from the SWP in a situation of weakness and isolation which almost destroyed us, certainly setting us back a number of years. No amount of new-found empirical "wisdom" on Wohlforth's part can undo the enormous objective service he rendered the Pabloists at that crucial juncture, nor his continued service to them as foil and horrible example of what happens to those who break away to the "left."

But his ignominious departure from the Healyite fold at least accords us an opportunity to display to him a little piece of Wohlforthite viciousness. One of the practices at which Wohlforth excelled was the art of gratuitous denunciation. He always insisted that any individual leaving the Marxist movement for any reason must be denounced as a "renegade." In particular he waxed eloquent over a statement circulated internally within the Spartacist League in response to the resignation of Geoff White, formerly a founding leader of our tendency. Our statement replied to the evolved anti-Trotskyist political positions of White but also expressed recognition of his years of collaboration during which, recognizing his increasing political distance (the product in part of the demoralization engendered by Wohlforth's wrecking operations), he sought to train younger cadres to carry the movement forward.

Now Wohlforth has become, in his own terms as well as ours, a "renegade." With his usual pomposity, and lavish use of the imperial "we," Wohlforth pontificates:

"It is true we lost the skirmishes with the centrists but we won the theoretical fight at each point. We have left a priceless heritage in this theoretical struggle. This now passes on to the new generation of revolutionary fighters who face the big battles with the capitalist class itself."
Roughly translated, "I quit." And a final irony is that it was Geoff White who rendered the Marxist movement's verdict on Wohlforth when he remarked years ago, "Wohlforth is the living proof that crime does not pay."