Sunday, May 3, 2009

Wohlforth Brings "The Method" to Buffalo (1972)

From Revolutionary Communist Bulletin No. 1, "Documents of the Buffalo Marxist Collective" (January 1973)

Wohlforth Brings "The Method" To Buffalo:


The Buffalo Marxist Collective (BMC) is a group of 30 youth, primarily students, formed by the determination to break with class-collaborationist popular-front strategies and to aid in the formation of a Leninist party in the United States. We have recently entered into a period of fusion negotiations with the Revolutionary Communist Youth, youth section of the Spartacist League. During the past summer the BMC resolved to break with the circle spirit of its subjective Leninism, and its confused and ineffectual centrist practice through a study of Trotskyism and the historical development of the world Trotskyist movement.

Some of us had broken with the confrontation politics of the New Left, while others (in and around-he Progressive Labor Party) had found themselves politically adrift after PL's ultra-left oscillation in the summer of '71, Road to Revolution III. Breaking with political infantilism from two directions, but without roots in the Trotskyist movement, we were easy pickings for the social-democratic charlatans of the National Caucus of Labor Committees, as 7 of our members split after sampling a little of Dr. Marcus's reformist cure-alls, the "common-interest program" for the "political working class ,' to 'lick depression in a day." Our conscious rejection of the NCLC led up to intensive political contact with both the Workers League and the Spartacist League. Many of us, convinced that the International Committee (led by Gerry Healy's Socialist Labour League in Britain) represented the "historic continuation of the Trotskyist movement, almost joined the WL. Yet, after protracted struggle with comrades of the RCY, we rejected the Workers League. Why? Their opportunist toadying to the labor bureaucracy, their abstention on the woman question and their cynical mystification of the dialectic to justify every error, every appetite and every capitulation, persuaded us that their proud "internationalism " must be hollow, without foundation, a form without content, a fake. We felt that it was not possible that a group with such profoundly anti-Marxist positions could, somehow be right on the question of the Fourth International, and later examination of this did indeed coincide with the WL's cynical opportunism on other political issues.


Unable then to transcend the historic left, we renewed our study of Marxism, not however as a collection of classic texts, but as the history of the Left Opposition and the Fourth International in its struggle to construct the vanguard party on the basis of the Transitional Program. After our first exposure to the Workers League, several of us went down to New York and spoke with Lucy St. John, raising in a private discussion collective doubts and criticisms about the nature of their work in the SSEU, their notorious support of the New York police strike and their abstention on the woman question. St. John's answers, however, were not particularly clarifying, but we felt at the time that this was not decisive, and were assured that it would all be "straightened out" in further discussion. All that counted, we were told, was our agreement that the IC represented the historic continuation of the Fourth International.

The magnet of the Transitional Program exerts a powerful attraction. The comrades of the BMC were drawn to the Workers League for precisely the reasons that propelled us a few weeks later into fusion discussions with the RCY. Therefore, although comrade Wohlforth's presentation at the WL's Arrow Park Educational was dull and uninstructive, reflecting a tendency to abstract methodology from the fight of the party for its program in the class, we did not dwell on this. Although many of the comrades in the workshops seemed to be mechanically reciting the. formulas which the presentation provided, we made on the whole a favorable report to the BMC expecting all our questions to be answered in forthcoming discussions. The dishonesty of Wohlforth's method and the "practical Trotskyism" of his trade union work were not yet apparent. And the Stalinism of his organizational practice had not yet emerged from dim existence and rumor. We arranged for a visit of comrades Wohlforth and St. John to Buffalo.


Since we had made a collective decision to thoroughly investigate the Trotskyist left we invited two members of SL/RCY to make a presentation. While at first we were hostile to the SL based on WL statements about SL "abstentionism" in the class struggle, we found that we could not defend political points that we advanced from the WL perspective. This was brought to a focus around the WL's "mass press." The Bulletin, the RCY argued, did not reflect the limited reality of the WL's work in the trade unions which was confined primarily to one white collar union. Most of the articles are written from the outside, many of them re-writes from the bourgeois press, while the centerfold features destined for the Bulletin pamphlet series are reserved for methodological profundities. To this conception of a "Bolshevik" press SL counterposed its own: They demonstrated the way in which Workers Vanguard was an organizing tool, directly related to the tactic of posing themselves as a pole of communist attraction in the trade unions on the basis of a full program. Workers Vanguard did not pretend to be the mass organ of a mass party.

Things must be called by their right names. Rather, Workers Vanguard was mainly directed towards advanced workers with whom SL had contact through implantation in the trade unions, and towards ostensibly revolutionary organizations, students and intellectuals. Polemics were directed against other left tendencies SL intersected in its actual trade union work, work on campus and in political events on the left, and was thus connected with SL's Leninist perspective of regroupment through splits and fusions. The SL compared the Bulletin to PL's Challenge, pointing out that real mass work was the penetration of the working class through its most advanced layers, not tailing the class at its present level of consciousness. Trotsky's comments on communist press policy are very much to the point:
“What is a ‘mass paper’? The question is not new. It can be said that the whole history of the revolutionary movement has been filled with discussions on the ‘mass paper.’ It is the elementary duty of a revolutionary organization to make its political newspaper as accessible as possible to the masses. This task cannot be effectively solved except as a function of the growth of the organization and its cadres who must pave the way to the masses for the newspaper--since it is not enough, it is understood, to call a publication a "mass paper" to have the masses accept it in reality. But quite often revolutionary impatience (which transforms itself easily into opportunist impatience) leads to this conclusion: The masses do not come because our ideas are too complicated and our slogans too advanced. It is therefore necessary to simplify our program, lighten our slogans--in short, to throw out the ballast. Basically this means: Our slogans must correspond not to the objective situation, not to the relation of classes, analyzed by the Marxist method, but must correspond to subjective appreciations (extremely superficial and inadequate) of what the "masses" can or cannot accept. But what masses? The mass is not homogeneous. It develops. It feels the pressure of events. It will accept tomorrow what it will not accept today. Our cadres will blaze the trail with increasing success for our ideas and slogans which prove themselves correct, because they are confirmed by the march of events and not by subjective and personal appreciation.”
-- "What Is a 'Mass Paper'?" Writings of Leon Trotsky, 1935-36, pp. 58-59
After the SL/RCY comrades left, we called the WL offices in New York and told them that we had spoken with SL and were unable to answer SL's criticisms. When the WL delegation arrived, Wohlforth's first remark was that he was speaking to us under protest, and that after our discussions any further contact with SL would mean a break in our relations with them. Wohlforth refused to answer any of our questions about Bangladesh, women, Cuba and what we had come to believe was the reformist and disorienting nature of their work in the SSEU -- forming an electoral bloc with a section of the union bureaucracy, after having previously characterized them as sellouts in the pages of the Bulletin.

As for women's liberation, screamed Wohlforth, "the working class hates faggots, women's libbers and hippies, and so do we!" The WL hates McGovern because he likes "faggots, women's libbers and hippies." We found this strange, since we hated McGovern because he is a representative of the ruling class.

Refusing to deal with our questions, Wohlforth resorted to verbal intimidation and smokescreen arguments about "method." We were, he shrieked, nothing but a small circle of friends who "hated the working class" and were only interested in "picking" at the authority of the "Fourth International (i.e., the IC). We replied that our reason for contacting the WL in the first place was precisely our desire to overcome the limitations of our localism, and we insisted that our questions were serious and legitimate. "Pick, pick, pick," Wohlforth answered. Did we agree with the IC on the '53 letter and the '63 reunification? -- that was all that mattered. Being Marxists we rejected this merely documentary claim to represent the continuity of the Fourth International. We asked Wohlforth how his "correct" evaluation of '53 and '63 led dialectically to his position, for instance, on the police strike.

From this point on, Wohlforth's only tactic was intimidation and slander, abandoning completely "Trotskyist " principle for Stalinist practice. As for women's liberation, screamed Wohlforth, "the working class hates faggots, women's libbers and hippies, and so do we!" The WL hates McGovern because he likes "faggots, women's libbers and hippies." We found this strange, since we hated McGovern because he is a representative of the ruling class. This tirade we felt was a reflection of, and a capitulation to, the most backward prejudices of the working class. Wohlforth argued that our attraction to the SL/RCY represented a petty-bourgeois desire to sit around and talk about politics, and that if we really wanted to be "hard communists" we would join the WL. We rejected the WL's anti-Marxist attitude toward political debate ands clarification and their slanders about "discussion-group" behavior against the SL, whose trade union work is both politically principled and real, unlike the WL's. We subsequently broke off all relations with the WL.


Wohlforth's claim to "historic continuity" and the asserted correctness of his "dialectical method" is loose talk--dangerous and disorienting. How is it that the WL/YS has supported the police strike, the Indian invasion of Pakistan, the Newton wing of the Black Panther Party, etc.? "Impressionists" and "empiricists" might ask: What is the "process" by which cops become workers, the Indian army becomes liberators and Huey Newton takes up Marxism (prior to taking up black capitalism)? Here is the answer: Dialectics. Congratulations, comrade Wohlforth! Fortunately, Lenin rejected this sort of rubbish:
"But the great Hegelian dialectics which Marxism made its own, having first turned it right side up, must never be confused with the vulgar trick of justifying the zig-zags of politicians who swing from the revolutionary to the opportunist wing of the party, with the vulgar habit of lumping together particular statements, and particular developmental factors, belonging to different stages of a single process. Genuine dialectics does not justify the errors of individuals, but studies the inevitable turns, proving that they were inevitable by a detailed study of the process of development in all its concreteness. One of the basic principles of dialectics is that there is no such thing as an abstract truth, truth is always concrete And one more thing, the great Hegelian dialectics should never be confused with that vulgar worldly wisdom so well expressed by the Italian saying: Mettere la coda dove non va il capo(sticking in the tail where the head will not go through)."
-- "One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, " Selected Works, Vol. I, p. 437.
For Lenin dialectics is more than a few impressions of disconnected aspects of development, but is a totalistic understanding of an object or a process "in all its sides, connections and mediations." Wohlforth's pronouncements about "developing the Marxist dialectic " represent a qualitative regression into the Joseph Stalin-Mao Tse-Tung school of dialectical hocus-pocus, whereby bureaucrats and Stalinist misleaders become "objectively revolutionary " since "objective conditions" that hover above the class struggle turn "bad things into good things" (as Mao so aptly put it).

Wohlforth is also proud of the fact that the "Workers League takes sides," as in the police strike and the India-Pakistan War. SL's Leninist position of revolutionary defeatism in regard to the Indian invasion of Bangladesh was labelled "abstentionist" by the Bulletin. When, however, SL/RCY raised the question of excluding the bourgeoisie at NPAC/SMC conferences, the WL has abstained on the vote!

We believe in taking sides too, that is, picking the right side of the class line.


Two recent examples of "bad things turning into good things" are George Meany and I. W. Abel, formerly bad, now good. Joyfully touting Meany's and Abel's right-wing maneuvering vis-a-vis the Democratic Party, the Bulletin proclaims this to be genuine evidence of Labor's imminent move towards political independence. Uncritically reporting Abel's remarks at the Democratic Convention, the WL enthuses over Abel's disgruntled chatter about a labor party, failing to add that these remarks were made in a nominating speech for Henry Jackson!

The methodological premise underlying this bureaucratic vanguardism is the conception that the forward movement of the class can push the Meanys and Abels in a revolutionary direction. This is a fundamental revision of the Leninist thesis that the bureaucracy must be overthrown in political struggle through the intervention of communists in the trade unions. It is, rather, typical of Pabloist methodology. As Marxists, we recognize the contradictory nature of the union bureaucracy. On the one hand, the bureaucrats are the conscious agents of the capitalist class in the labor movement; on the other hand, their base of power is the mass organizations of the working class, organizations built through years of militant struggles. The question of calling upon union bureaucrats to form a labor party, as the question of whether or not to extend critical support to a Labor Party or Communist Party electoral candidate, revolves around the question of making or breaking illusions in the working class about its "leadership. " It was in this manner that Lenin explained "critical support, " likening it to the way in which a rope supports a hanged man. If a left-talking bureaucrat with real influence in the rank and file has been paying lip service to the need for a labor party, we would try to expose him by calling upon him to act concretely on his words -- i.e., initiate campaigns in other unions toward calling a congress of labor to construct its own party -- all the while pointing out that we do not expect him to do it, and publicizing his real record of betrayal of the ranks. To uncritically tail the actions of the most reactionary section of the union bureaucracy and to put leftist meanings into the words of Meany et al. is nothing but cynical maneuvering, treacherously bolstering the sagging credibility of these fossils in the eyes of the rank and file. If successful, the result is precisely the creation of new illusions, new false consciousness in the working class, rather than the breaking of illusions and the building of class, and socialist, consciousness among workers.

Thus the WL has given up any semblance of communist opposition in the unions to become yet another of many centrist and reformist groups competing for the role of left pressure group on the bureaucracy.


And what of that much-vaunted internationalism of Wohlforth/Healy? The recent OCI-SLL split in Healy's "International" demonstrates the hollowness of this claim, proving the IC since Cannon's '53 Open Letter to be nothing more than a mutual non-aggression pact between national parties desperately clutching their "spheres of influence" and unable to wage a thoroughgoing international struggle against Pabloism. The IC (since the OCI split) has acknowledged the incompleteness of the 1953 split, done a 180-degree turn on their evaluation of Cannon, now arguing that Cannon's Open Letter was not a reflex of "American pragmatism" (their old position) but a great act of internationalism!

The SLL finds itself able to maintain its international credentials only through a combination of Stalinist-like hooliganism and active myth-making--such as Wohlforth's statements at a meeting with the BMC: "I loved that man Cannon, I loved him!" Wohlforth has never given the reason for the change from his 1965 position, when he 'stated: "We are not Cannonites. We do not want to return to Cannonism. We want the destruction of Cannonism. " (Conversations with Wohlforth, Marxist Bulletin No. 3, part iv-1965, published by Spartacist, 3rd session, 9 July 1965)


To the comrades of the YS we say: You were recruited into a cynical and opportunist organization. Healy's and Wohlforth's "internationalist" pretensions notwithstanding, the WL/YS is the most deceitful of dead ends, irrevocably incapable of providing Leninist leadership for the working-class movement, a "Trotskyist" outsider having nothing in common with the Transitional Program of the Fourth International and the first four Congresses of the Communist International.

We, members of the Buffalo Marxist Collective, have consciously and definitively rejected the WL/YS and are presently engaged in discussions leading to fusion with the RCY. Unlike the WL which pretends to be leading the working class through get-rich-quick schemes like the "Labor Party Now" conference and has proved totally incapable of consistently upholding Leninist principles, the SL/RCY is constructing the nucleus of a mass vanguard party in the United States, and struggling for the rebirth of the Fourth International through splits and fusions based on principled programmatic agreement. We have made a decision to be part of that struggle and we call on all serious revolutionaries in the YS to do the same.

--Buffalo Marxist Collective, 20 October 1972

(Distributed to WL "Labor Party" Conference, Chicago, 21-22 October 1972)