Friday, May 1, 2009

Wohlforth League: Counterfeit Trotskyists (1970)

Spartacist #17-18 (August-September 1970)

The Wohlforth League:

is a strong objective need to deal with the Workers League of Tim Wohlforth at this time. The WL, like the Spartacist League, claims to embody authentic Trotskyism and to oppose the Pabloist revisionism of the Socialist Workers Party-Young Socialist Alliance (SWP-YSA) from the left. But the WL by its many indefensible, anti-Trotskyist positions, actions and gyrations helps to stabilize the YSA on its rightward course by serving as a ready-made "horrible example" for the Pabloist leadership and hardens in anti-Trotskyism young militants who take the WL as good coin. We have written at length in the past about the opportunistic course and conduct of the Wohlforth group and have documented its origin and development extensively in Marxist Bulletins. This article will therefore center on some of the more significant recent extensions of the WL's course.

The WL for its part has been devoting an extravagant amount of space to us in recent weeks in its organ, the Bulletin. We want to defer consideration of the Wohlforth series, "What is Spartacist?" (which at this writing has reached 5 parts, each 4 pages in length!), which is so full of grotesque misrepresentations, deliberate obscurantism and out-and-out lies that our reply must of necessity be detailed and documented at greater length than is suitable here. In addition, we hereby challenge Wohlforth, as we have many times in the past, to a public debate on the history of our two groups and their political differences. We must say, however, that we do not expect it at this late date; the Wohlforth group has never dared to emerge from the security of its own organ to combat us politically on neutral ground.

But leaving aside definitive treatment of the Wohlforth "What is Spartacist?" series, his characterizations of the SL are absurd on the face of it. We are portrayed as selling out simultaneously to every left current under the sun – the SWP, Stalinism; Black Nationalism, the International Socialists, Lynn Marcus, Posadas, etc. – while carrying on throughout our additional task as "the fingerman for the world capitalists." The sellouts attributed to us are so all-sided that one is left only a pattern of conduct so incomprehensible as to recall the absurd and contradictory accusations leveled by Stalin against the Trotskyist "counter-revolutionary wreckers" in the 1930's. The WL's substitution of slanderous nonsense for polemical criticism is integrally related to the same pattern of conduct they undertake elsewhere.

"Only the Workers League ..."

To a casual Bulletin reader the immediately striking quality of the WL is its strident sectarianism. They sneer at women's liberation as non-proletarian and boast, "The Workers League is proud of the role it has played in relationship to SDS. We have had absolutely nothing to do with that mess" (Bulletin, 14 July 1969). As if isolation from the ideological battles of this country's most radical youth were something to be proud of! They blow their own horn even at the expense of destroying their credibility; thus reporting a trade union conference where several tendencies (including the SL) called for a political party of labor, or an anti-war protest where several tendencies (including the SL) demanded military victory to the NLF side, characteristically the Bulletin will complacently state that "Only the Workers League" called for the labor party demand, or Viet Cong victory, or what have you. But within this sectarian framework, the striking quality of actual political work by the WL is gross, even childish, opportunism.

Cops and Bosses Do Not a Labor Party Make

Most Bulletin trade union reportage is based solely on a hasty reading of the New York Times, not on WL union involvement. The WL's real union work is concentrated almost exclusively in the New York white collar field, where they have several leading supporters. Their conduct here is archtypical of all their practices. Against even the qualms of local union officials, the WL supporters have insisted on supporting and upgrading as "fellow workers" the despised welfare guards whose main appetite is to get the legal right to carry guns, the better to intimidate and attack the desperately abused welfare recipients. These are the same guards who have helped to physically break a series of welfare workers' strikes. The WL supporters even defend the "right" of welfare directors - i.e. high-level management - to be members of the union and even run for union office! The 13 July Bulletin also solidarizes with the grievances of campus cops, whose job it is to "protect" campus property against radical students and "outside agitators." Behind the WL pro-cop line stands the most fundamental reformist belief. To support the cops' aims of better pay and better conditions (e.g. guns) to do better their job of oppressing all but society's property owners, of enforcing capitalist "law and order" is a fundamental betrayal of a class line. Cops are not workers - no more than Army generals or FBI informers, who also work for wages. We want neither hungry cops nor well-fed cops, but their replacement by workers' voluntary patrols, drawn from union members, welfare clients, students, etc., to protect not the bosses' order but the masses. The WL position shows they are in favor, not only of the racist and murderous status quo, but even of the racist murderers.

On the Black question itself, the WL has swallowed its earlier appetites to conciliate the SWP's Black Nationalism and, under the tutelage of Healy, adopted a position which caters to white racism. In the name of the very real need for working-class unity, the WL adamantly concludes that "Black Caucuses Are Reactionary" (headline from 21 April 1969 Bulletin) regardless of the circumstances of the particular Black workers or the program of the given caucus. But it is not just racial consciousness that cuts across class unity; it is racial oppression. The WL demands class unity on a reactionary basis and tells Black workers they must wait to struggle against their exploitation and oppression until the consciousness of all workers reaches the same level. This entirely belies the whole thrust of Trotsky's concept of transitional organizations.

"Hard Hat" Conciliation

What this cops-bosses-whites accommodation adds up to is gross conciliation to the "hard hat" mood of conservatized sections of the labor movement. This conciliation is not new to the Workers League. When two years ago they launched their "Trade Unionists for a Labor Party" the essence was already there. The TULP 5-point platform deliberately omitted any reference to either racial oppression or the Viet Nam war, and the Bulletin (18 December 1967) explicitly defended these omissions when SLers protested that these questions were central to the class interests of workers. In a similarly opportunist manner, the WL's West Coast supporters walked out of the Bay Area "Committee for a Labor Party" over the CLP's principled opposition to militants relying on the bourgeois courts to fight union bureaucrats.

At the recent Chicago "Rank and File" union conference the WL representatives, in refusing to sign the SL oppositional statement, finally admitted that we each mean a different thing when we call for a labor party. The WL looks towards pressuring the existing union bureaucracy on their present basis to build a labor party, a purely anti-Trotskyist, reformist approach. A political party representing the interests of workers can only be built on the struggle against the treacherous labor "leaders" and for the Trotskyist program. The cynics of the WL would have us think that more backward workers and ambitious bureaucrats will be the driving force to politically counterpose labor to the capitalist class. A party such as TULP's projected formation which did not fight racism and imperialism is a far cry from the labor party which Trotskyists have always fought for.

Most recently, the WL has committed yet another betrayal in the labor movement. In that same white collar union, when a coalition of liberals, Black Nationalists and right-wing Stalinists emerged to oppose the incumbent union leadership, the WL supporters called for a vote to this slate in the runoff on the grounds that when it was elected it would prove to be no better than the incumbents! (27 April 1970 Bulletin) Their rationale was that they wanted them elected to expose them in office before those who had illusions. This argument, one of the standard Leninist arguments explaining critical support to e.g. the British Labour Party against the Tories, has precisely no meaning here, for it rests upon the existence of a class difference between the contenders. No doubt many union militants did have illusions about the hustlers of the more left-talking slate, just as many anti-war militants had illusions about McCarthy or Kennedy. But Trotskyists do not play "lesser evil" politics unless there is a real, i.e. class difference between the alternatives, like Labour vs. Tory. The WL was just maneuvering in the two-bit game of union politics, for the sheer organizational advantage of telling their followers they held the "balance of power" at the cost of any claim to principle.

SWP and PL - A Conflict of Appetites

In 1967 the WL, which had appetites toward the Maoist Progressive Labor Party (PL), offered a defense of PLers who, in a fit of anti-Trotskyism, physically assaulted SWPers distributing election literature at a rally: "they [PL] are not incorrect in assuming that these are people who are scabbing on the Chinese Revolution. Their hostility is quite understandable." (Bulletin, 25 September 1967) The WL, for petty factional advantage, thus justified gangsterism instead of political debate within the radical movement. (Somewhat later, in a typical WL somersault, they declared themselves gung-ho for the self-same SWP election campaign they had denounced.) Now, following recent incidents of PL violence against SWP-YSAers in Boston, the WL piously avails itself of all the principled arguments against gangsterism and exclusionism within the movement. In their appetites toward the YSA, they praise themselves to the skies as the defenders of free speech on the left, hoping nobody will remember their earlier shameful conduct.

That the WL's attitude toward exclusionism and gangsterism is determined not by principle but by appetite is further shown by their conduct at the Cleveland conference of the Student Mobilization Committee, run of course by the YSA. When the PL-SDSers were suppressed and justifiably raised a clamor against the bureaucratic manipulations of the conference leadership, the WL solidarized with the YSA (on the grounds of "Stalinism vs. Trotskyism") and denounced the victims for their unruly conduct. And this despite the fact that the criticism of the PL/SDS contingent was from the left and in the main correct, in opposition to the overwhelmingly class collaborationist nature of the SMC! It makes no sense at all for the WL to pose its behavior as "Stalinism vs. Trotskyism" when the essence of Stalinism, as of all anti-Marxist revisionism, is the subordination of the interests of the working class to alien class forces - precisely the role of the SMC in the anti-war movement, precisely that which the PL forces, for all their deficiencies, are correct in opposing.

Of a piece with this conduct is the 15 June Bulletin, which comes out for Mao and Sihanouk (the "patriotic prince") in Indochina. It might be thought that this line is just a continuation of their "Red Guards," "Arab Revolution" line and their soft, anti-Trotskyist attitude toward Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Cong. But given the WL's long-term pattern of making international principles of out miniscule factional appetites, their real aim is evidently to rally round Bill Epton and other PL dissidents who believe PL goes too far to the left in criticizing Sihanouk and, by implication, the Chinese government. To be sure, PL has deep contradictions - and these, flowing from their Stalinist heritage, are, without resolution, ultimately decisive in disqualifying them as a revolutionary tendency - but the WL is seeking to embarass PL for one of its strengths, a strength which tends to isolate PL from more orthodox Maoists. Thus the Bulletin has recently made much of PL's expulsion of Bill Epton, one of its founders, but in the process has suppressed half of the Epton group's case against PL. Along with a catalogue of PL organizational atrocities, no doubt most of them accurate in the main, Epton berated PL for its criticism of Sihanouk and its polemics against "Marxist-Leninist" parties and "liberation movements." Thus, for petty factional reasons the WL has again falsified, neglecting to point out that the main political thrust of the Epton document is criticism of PL from the right.

The Sherwood Affair, Or How to Defend the Indefensible

The 5 June 1967 Bulletin carried a front-page editorial entitled "No Individual Cop Outs" presenting there the standard Leninist position, which we hold, that anti-war militants must not evade military service by individual draft resistance which ensures their isolation from the mass of working-class conscripts. Well and good. But the WL was willing to betray this principle the first time the opportunity presented itself, in the person of one Robert Hartley Sherwood (who had earlier left the SL by signing one of the usual wretched pacifist-Stalinist-SWP popular front "peace" calls). On his way through New York, Sherwood joined the WL, then continued to Canada to avoid the draft. There he acquired the status of a landed immigrant and became the WL spokesman there. Such an action, while fully legal, was a gross betrayal of the WL's public stand. The SL publicly pointed out the rotten opportunism of the WL, and they gritted their teeth, until they found an out. The Canadian authorities found an omission in Sherwood's papers and for a brief period threatened to deport him. The WL immediately declared that we had deliberately "fingered" him by our exposure of their rotten private turnabout, stating in an article entitled "Spartacist Aids Rulers": "We state unequivocally that the Spartacist League acts as the fingerman for the world capitalists." (Bulletin, 2 December 1968) However outrageous, such a serious accusation must be dealt with.

The WL's inability to pass up the recruitment of one (badly tarnished) member, just because of one major Leninist principle, could not be ignored. And like the WL, the Stalinists have often sought to retreat behind charges of "red-baiting" inside unions when Trotskyists exposed them for their sellouts, but despite these anguished guilty cries the necessity to call the CP to account for its betrayals remained.

While Sherwood's legal case was still pending (and after the WL had made its scandalous accusation) the SL, in keeping with our principled policy of defending all radicals against ruling-class repression whatever our political differences, sent the WL-Sherwood defense committee an official statement of support and a $10 donation. And the WL of course readily accepted the money! Thus either the WL knowingly accepted money from "police agents" or else they acknowledge that their accusation was of course a vicious, baseless slander.

The pattern here is a very simple repetition 'of that of their mentor Gerry Healy in England, when he had an opponent (Ernie Tate of the SWP-affiliated United Secretariat) beaten, then compounded his outrageous conduct by threatening to take Tate to the bourgeois courts for protesting. To further justify themselves, the Healyites then escalated this to a general defense of their using the courts against opponents and union bureaucrats ("IC Statement on Tate Allegation," February 1967). (This reliance on the repressive apparatus of the capitalist state is cut from the same cloth as, but is more self-serving than, the SWP 's 1963 call for U.S. troops to the South to protect Black civil rights!) Caught by a public revelation of an overt betrayal of principle, the WL, like Healy, tried to take refuge in deepening the worst consequences and implications of their action, seeking to silence. us and playing right into the hands of the Stalinists, who have sought to slander the Trotskyists as police agents since before the Moscow Trials.

Characterization of the conduct of the WL is not exhausted by noting its ever-increasing opportunism in a sectarian shell. The opportunism itself contains two characteristic parallel streaks: 1) working both sides of the street at the same time (e.g. "Only the WL has fought for the victory of the Viet Cong" while denying the war is an issue of interest to TULP); 2) complete 180° reversals in line even every few months (e.g. conciliating the SWP, then PL's beating of SWPers, then back again). The deep-seated contempt of Healy-Wohlforth for their followers, and their mockery of any semblance of Marxism, has been seen before. Comrade Lenin's term for such people was political bandits.


To be sure, under pressure a knowledgeable WL cadre might be forced to admit the factual and essential truth of everything we have written about his organization and still be unperturbed. When all else fails, the WL always invokes its crowning glory - its "internationalism." The argument runs something like this: We are part of the Fourth International and you are not; the IC is lineally descended from Trotsky himself; its core, the British Socialist Labour League, has a daily paper; we have never opposed Gerry Healy on any subject; you oppose the IC and are therefore anti-internationalists, petty-bourgeois American chauvinists who refuse to subordinate yourselves to international discipline. Thus our not-so-hypothetical WL member, armed on a micro-scale with the same assurance of a Stalinist apparatchik in the Comintern, asserts as self-evident exactly that which experience disproves: namely, that international connections are the only proof, and are sufficient proof, of internationalism.

But organizational loyalty to the Healy-Banda group (and their politically far superior but internationally quiescent French allies, the Lambert group) simply evades the struggle which we of the SL face: to rebuild the Fourth International through a complex process of splits and fusions among existing "Trotskyist" groups combined with intervention into the working-class struggle directly. The Healyites simply despaired of the outcome of such a struggle, and contented themselves with being big fish in small ponds, in setting up the IC as yet another competing spurious "Fourth International" like the United Secretariat and numerous others.

Factually pivotal to the spurious nature of the Healyite assertions are two points from the London 1966 IC Conference, from which we were expelled on the transparent organizational pretext that comrade Robertson, a member of the Spartacist delegation, refused to satisfactorily apologize for having missed a session of the Conference without prior permission. But comrade Robertson did offer, not a groveling admission of petty-bourgeois American nationalism, but a genuine apology for genuine ignorance of an alleged, unannounced "rule" (which was of course never applied to other delegates who had missed sessions), thus exposing the Healyites' fraudulent, calculated aim to create a servile U.S. appendage. To make absolutely unambiguous the real character of the Healy "apology" campaign – to which he devoted the main attention of 1 1/2 days of a 4-day international gathering! – we are reprinting below comrade Robertson's complete final statement to the IC Conference:

"Comrades: We believe that it is a violation of Leninist practice to demand that a comrade affirm to his comrades what he does not believe. I have in substance said several times that if I had known of the rule I would certainly have abided by it. I wish to assure the comrades that my action was in no way intended to constitute a violation of the procedures governing the conduct of individuals participating in the Conference. However, this has been deemed not good enough. Instead, in the guise of discipline, the Spartacist organization has been subjected to a series of slanderous attacks, despite our basic political agreement on the necessity of the fight against revisionism. This is an attempt to substitute for international democratic
centralism for the American section a mechanism not of consciousness and discipline but of fear and obedience. Hence an incident without significance of an unintentional violation of protocol has been uniquely singled out and inflated into an accusation of petty-bourgeois arrogance and American imperial chauvinism. If the comrades go ahead to exclude us from this Conference, we ask only what we have asked before -- study of our documents, including our present draft on U.S. work before you now, and our work over the next months and years. We will do the same, and a unification of the proper Trotskyist forces will be
achieved, despite this tragic setback."

And these are the words of a supposed arrogant petty-bourgeois nationalist!

That the Healyites found this statement manifestly unacceptable and excluded the Spartacist delegation from the Conference forthwith shows that they were seeking not a recognition of supposed rules but a cringing demonstration of organizational and political subservience.
The other factual point is that the Conference itself admitted with reference to the relations between the British and French IC groups (the IC's only significant sections) that "the only method of arriving at decisions that remains possible at present is the principle of unanimity." This admission that the IC does not have international democratic centralism means that the IC as an organized body is essentially illusory. Its real nature is a bloc between two national groupings. It is not an International at all, "Fourth" or otherwise!

But the Wohlforthite travesty on internationalism goes even further. The WL prides itself on its loyalty to the Healy leadership. Typical of their cynical attitude toward political questions, the WL tendency has never fought for its political positions even inside the IC. For example, at one point virtually every member of the Wohlforth cadre held a position akin to ours on Cuba – that Cuba is a deformed workers state, not a capitalist state, as Healy asserts – yet they never for an instant opposed Healy on that or any other point. What kind of "internationalist" joyfully embraces a "discipline" which is not mutually binding on all sections, which is not based on democratic centralism, in an "International" where the only proof of internationalism is renunciation in principle and in advance of all political differences? This is the "internationalism" of Lovestone and Browder toward the Stalinized Comintern, not of Trotskyists.

The Unspeakable In Pursuit of the Inedible

One principal real reason for our expulsion from the 1966 IC Conference was our assertion that the anti-revisionist forces in the Trotskyist movement had not yet done very well in smashing Pabloism organizationally, and that a further process of splits and fusions would have to take place before the political lines would be' clear. The IC, however, asserted that the victory over Pabloism had been definitively won and the continuity of the Fourth International on a revolutionary basis assured.

But, four years later, the self-same Healy, representing a badly degenerated IC, has now come to the United Secretariat with a proposal for common political discussion and common work, hopefully to result in a "joint international conference"! What can one say? In the four years the Pabloists in their substance have gone from bad to worse, but the IC (with Wohlforth trailing behind with an article of oh-so comradely criticism of the SWP in the 20 July Bulletin) proposes unity! What is apparently really happening is – as we insisted in 1966, and before, and after - that some individuals and groupings in the United Secretariat formation have, in the light of events and experience, begun to genuinely move left in opposition to the United Secretariat leadership. And Healy, in a clumsy effort to ingratiate himself with these forces, commits the grossly unprincipled act of authenticating and bolstering the Trotskyist credentials of the whole Pabloist gang - Frank, Mandel, Maitan, Hansen - by a unity maneuver, after years of declaring them already defeated and committing even provocation and violence against their organizations.

Healy will certainly not succeed in his wooden maneuver. But what we have before us is a pristine example of why political differentiation along clear lines has not taken place among alleged Trotskyists over the last 20 years. Anyone who believed Healy's unity protestations would have to conclude that there is indeed a "family of Trotskyism," as centrists have long suggested, and that the questions separating erstwhile Trotskyists into their separate organizations are not decisive. This only deepens the confusion which has served to retard political polarization and the rebirth of a real Fourth International. Thank you, Gerry Healy.

Healy applied the same method to the 1963 fight inside the SWP. Our comrades correctly saw that the party had become a rightward-moving centrist organization whose central leadership was now Pabloist and must be fought from within the party. To Wohlforth, this characterization could mean only one thing: we were in the way and had to be gotten rid of - first from the common faction, then out of the party. For the Healyites could conceive of only two possible courses of action. Either the United Secretariat would reunify with the IC and Wohlforth and his minions would continue to play the role of left cover and party policeman for Dobbs and Co., or the fight would be over and they would split. Healy's recent revealing turn-about toward the Pabloists shows the same false dichotomy: either conciliate the Pabloist leadership or else declare the fight over. Principled struggle is their excluded middle.


Faced with such a history, the much-vaunted "Marxist method" that Wohlforth teaches his members is of necessity a profound cynicism which cannot but erode and destroy the backbone of those who start out by seeking revolution and end up following Wohlforth ever deeper into the mire. A cadre which learns to cover up the embarassing old opportunism while embracing the new, to proclaim "Only the Workers League . . ." in defiance of self-evident realities, to excuse the 180° shifts in line by reference to the frequency of the Bulletin, cannot, whatever its intentions, build consciousness and make a revolution. Thus even when the formal political positions of the WL and the SL have closely impinged, as they have at times in the past, the cadres of our two organizations are fundamentally incompatible; we have been educated in two different schools, the one in cynicism, the other in Trotskyism.

The example of the Healy-Wohlforth grouping provides an important lesson. Even the most revolutionary ideas of our epoch – Trotskyism – in the hands of a corrupted counterfeiter like Wohlforth lead straight to an organization like WL. And that is why we are compelled to mercilessly expose, combat and destroy such a trend in the working-class movement. Nothing less than the construction of an authentic revolutionary vanguard in the citadel of imperialism hinges on the outcome.