Friday, May 8, 2009

Phony “Dialectics” and Impotent Opportunism (1973)

Workers Vanguard No. 19 (25 May 1973)

Phony “Dialectics” and Impotent Opportunism

In a desperate attempt to harden up his organization against the impact of Spartacist League criticism, Wohlforth of the Workers League has been holding over the past two months a class series in New York centered almost exclusively on the SL. In an unprecedented reversal of WL policy, Wohlforth has permitted supporters of the SL to attend the public series and to speak even in several instances granting SL spokesmen extended floor time to make brief presentations. SL supporters have actively intervened in the classes and have succeeded in turning them into sharp political confrontations – of course, on unequal terms, with Wohlforth making presentations of one to one and a half hours and having the only summary. The SL has continued to press for a real, equal-time debate between the two organizations, but without success.

If the WL had ever maintained even lip service to the principle of workers democracy, its observance of standard democratic discussion procedure in this class series would be unremarkable. But the WL has a long history of excluding opponent tendencies (especially the SL) from its "public" meetings; in fact, only the night before the fifth WL class was held in New York, the SL was excluded from a public meeting called by the WL in the Bay Area.

Even the temporary suspension of the WL's usual exclusionism in the New York classes proved too much for Wohlforth to sustain. At several of the sessions SL supporters were prevented from entering the building by a WL goon squad until all WLers had been ad mitted. Inside the hall the atmosphere resembled a miniature deformed workers state, with Wohlforth revelling in his total power: Any protest by SLers to even the most vicious slanders (such as the accusation at the fourth class that a former member of the SL was probably now working for the CIA) was met with threats of immediate forcible expulsion. At the end of every session SL supporters were instantly herded into the elevator and every conversation with WL supporters cut off by the goons. At one point Wohlforth called on his thugs to "sit down" a member of the audience who simply wished to go to the bathroom. Then, at the end of the sixth class, after refusing in typical fashion to answer the numerous criticisms raised by SLers during the discussion period, instead devoting most of his summary to reading aloud for a half hour from Lenin's Philosophical Notebooks, Wohlforth flew Into a rage when two SL supporters were detected reading the Bulletin instead of respectfully paying attention to this force-feeding. He proclaimed that, as punishment, these ingrates would be excluded from subsequent meetings, and, when the SL supporters at that point indignantly rose in protest to leave the hall, they were physically prevented from doing so.

Is Workers Democracy "Stupid"?

Wohlforth's fundamental stand on the crucial question of workers democracy was made crystal clear at the fifth session of the New York class. He shrilly denounced the Bay Area SL comrades for picketing in protest of their exclusion from the WL San Francisco meeting, terming the action “anti-communist,” and repeatedly made implicit but unmistakable threats of physical violence any time our comrades again publicly protest the WL's exclusionism. Going so far as to allege that the SL's protest demonstration had been intended to get the WL barred from the future use of public meeting hall facilities, Wohlforth stated that the WL had also often been kept out of similar meetings called by other organizations and that exclusionism is to be expected. He then went on to make the astounding remark that if the SWP is stupid enough to let us into a meeting, we will use the opportunity; if they are smart enough to keep us out we will never picket them. This revealing remark-delivered with appropriate pounding on the table-shows the real "method" of the Wohlforth tendency: sneering at Trotsky's fight for proletarian democracy, the WL considers exclusionism (like opportunism in general) “smart.”

To the Workers League, principles are “stupid” because they get in the way of temporary organizational appetites. The entire history of the WL demonstrates that it has never been restrained in pursuing its shameless opportunist zigzags by any consideration of elementary Marxist principle. To revolutionaries, however, it 'is opportunism which is stupid because it subordinates the historic interests of the international proletariat to short-term parochialism. Proletarian morality is not based on bourgeois moralism but rather on the understanding that only a conscious working class can make the proletarian revolution. Opportunism may "build" an organization like the WL, but it can never build an authentic working-class vanguard party. Thus the practice of exclusionism, preventing the open confrontation of different political programs, enables the misleaders to strengthen their hold over their followers and is inherently a weapon of the reformists and centrists against the revolutionists.

What has apparently prompted Wohlforth to permit even these limited and stacked debates with spokesmen of the Spartacist League has been the WL's inability to continue to seal off its membership from SL politics. Finally forced to confront the SL after years of relying solely on slander (such is his infamous "What is Spartacist?" pamphlet), Wohlforth wants to take his followers from, naive acceptance of his characterizations to hardened cynicism – to weed out any who might be disturbed by the exposure of their organization's abandonment of Marxism and to make of the rest fully corrupted opportunists who do know what authentic Trotskyism is-and simply don't care.

Organizational Stalinism

The purpose of these carefully controlled political confrontations with the SL (a full discussion of the issues raised in the WL class series will follow in the next issue of WV) is to harden up the membership of the Workers League/Young Socialists at a time when the organizational stagnation of the WL, combined with the recent striking growth of the SL, has rendered the Wohlforth organization vulnerable despite its characteristic use of typically Stalinist organizational methods intended to quarantine its members from authentic Trotskyist criticism. Recently, several New York WL/YS members were castigated as "SL agents" and summarily expelled (naturally without a trial) almost before they had time to investigate whether the SL does indeed offer the answer to their developing programmatic criticisms of the WL.

Through the liberal use of gross falsification of the positions of opponent organizations and the total suppression of internal democracy in the WL, Wohlforth has in the past been quite successful in preventing the emergence of any serious political opposition within the organization. Members of the WL are in practice denied the right of factional communication with other members, and are virtually prohibited from familiarizing themselves with the literature of other political organizations. As is also common in the Stalinist movement, the WL is divided up into "locals" which typically consist of half a dozen or ten members, so that any comrade with questions or differences can be effectively isolated and prevented from learning if there are other WL members who might share his views.

In the WL there is no real provision for the circulation of critical, let alone factional material to the general membership. Even members of the leading bodies of the organization have no real access to information, and their “rights” are mainly confined to the receipt of circulars which begin with pompous declarations of the ever-deepening crisis of capitalism and end with exhortations about fund-raising or circulation drives. WL members who raise differences are immediately assigned to make “reports” on such items as Wohlforth’s big-lie “What is Spartacist?” pamphlet or the WL’s supposed continuity with the Fourth International, knowing that they must reaffirm the line of the WL on precisely the questions on which they disagree, or be summarily expelled. The holding of oppositional views on any significant question is likely to lead to immediate expulsion without recourse to trial.

Political education in the WL is systematically precluded by a frenzied level of deliberately mindless activity, which leaves the members almost no time for study, even of the written materials of the WL, let alone a chance to read Lenin or Workers Vanguard. Wohlforth's elaborate falsifications are the only version available to WL members of their own history – the actual documents of the formation of the Wohlforth tendency in the 1962 split or of the policies pursued by this tendency inside the SWP, for example, are not accessible to WL members except through the Spartacist League’s Marxist Bulletin series. Even back issues of the WL’s own Bulletin are virtually inaccessible, not an unimportant precaution, since they are the skeletons in the closet which demonstrate incontestably that the WL has at various points in its history pursued diametrically counterposed lines on virtually every significant political question.

The fruits of this years-long practice of undermining the creation of cadres were apparent in the classes. SLers were able to dominate the discussion period due to the simple fact that, despite glares and prodding from meetings’ chairman, only a handful of WL supporters raised their hands and attempted to defend the line of the organization. Those who did dare to take the floor responded only with vague denunciations of the SL speakers exposures of the concrete opportunism of the WL over specific programmatic points. “SL hates the working class”, “SL is Pabloist”; “SL does not understand dialectical materialism”; ”SL rejects internationalism;” “SL has no economic analysis” – this was the litany. What was missing from the interventions and from Wohlforth’s summaries was any attempt to respond to any concrete programmatic points or to defend the WL’s wretched opportunist history.

Phony “Dialectics”

The “method" which Wohlforth constantly invokes like a talisman to ward of evil is precisely this: the systematic denial of the importance of program. Simply to proclaim oneself and anti-revisionist or a dialectician does not make it so. Trotskyism and internationalism are fine words, but the test is the concrete positions and practice of the organization and its consistency over time. Oh, Wohlforth will admit that the SL has “lots of positions” but refuses to discuss those positions – or the WL’s own positions.

The “method” of Wohlforth is completely counterposed to the method of Lenin and Trotsky, who struggled ceaselessly to draw the political lines over concrete programmatic issues. The basis for the foundation of the Communist International was not the vague protestations to solidarity with the Bolshevik revolution on the part of erstwhile revolutionists impressed by the accomplished fact, but the “Twenty One Points" by which Lenin attempted separate the real communists from centrists and reformists on the specific and overwhelming programmatic issues facing the working-class movement, in order to struggle concretely to overthrow the bourgeois order and to achieve socialism. And the founding document of the Fourth International was -- the Transitional Program!

The WL's pervasive "method" of' belittling program as a mere collation unimportant "bits and pieces" having no relationship to the organization's purported revolutionary capacity is all that stands between Wohlforth and disaster. When confronted with the wretchedly opportunist history of his tendency, Wohlforth takes cover beneath a barrage of idealism masquerading as dialectical materialism. Wohlforth's ultimate dodge for every concrete programmatic question raised by SL speakers at the classes was that the SL refused to recognize the primacy of “Marxist philosophy” over program. An SL spokesman who was granted extended floor time to present a position on “the Marxist method” began by citing SLL's own Cliff Slaughter, whose pamphlet “Lenin on Dialectics” explicitly attacks the view that Marxism be considered a philosophy as such:
"The science of society founded by Marx has no room for philosophy as such, for the idea of independently moving thought, with a subject-matter and development of its own, independent of reality but sometimes descending to impinge upon it."
The Slaughter pamphlet quotes Marx in The German Ideology: “When reality is depicted, philosophy as an independent branch of activity loses its medium of existence.” And the pamphlet concludes that "we shall follow the path of Lenin in using theory as a guide to action, not as a system.”

Wohlforth is compelled to caricature Marxism as a closed “philosophy” unconnected to reality precisely in order to prevent consideration of the WL's history and program. It is certainly true that a grasp of the living method of dialectical materialism is vital to an organization's ability to preserve and creatively extend Marxism; it is equally true that there must be a relationship between theory and practice. The writings of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky on dialectical materialism certainly demonstrate that Wohlforth is no more a philosopher than he is a Marxist. But an exploration simply of the WL’s history on almost any political question would be sufficient to expose the Wohlforth leadership as cynically unprincipled political bandits.

Thus it does not require a knowledge of dialectics to understand that the WL's position on the 1971 New York police strike was a shameless betrayal of Marxism. The WL line that cops are in effect part of the working class (see WL Bulletin, 25 January and 15 February 1971) was an abandonment of the elementary Leninist position on the state, dictated by the WL's constant policy of sucking up to the labor bureaucrats (who, as usual, crossed the class line to hail the racist cops as their brothers). Every militant class-conscious worker should have been revolted by the WL's disgraceful capitulation. The purpose of Wohlforth’s constant abstract appeals to “the Marxist method” is precisely to dodge the political questions and drown any inchoate class instinct among his membership in a sea of mystical obscurantism.

“Philosophical” obscurantism and organizational Stalinism may be sufficient to prevent the development of any hard, cohesive or extensive oppositions in the WL, but they are not sufficient to insulate the WL from its inherent contradictions. Far from being able to build a mass Trotskyist party with these deliberately anti-consciousness methods, the WL is not even able to stave off disaster for its own little sect. Over the past year the WL/YS membership has been substantially contracting. The Potemkin Village-WL continues to shrilly proclaim the expansion of its apparatus – the acquisition of a new national office and an $88,000 press, the expansion to twice-weekly of its "mass" paper which (fortunately) is read by nobody and has no influence in the working class because the organization which it represents has none – but the reality behind the facade is becoming increasingly an empty shell.

The Old Shell Game

The WL has always pursued a policy deliberately counterposed to the creation of politically conscious cadre. Far from seeking to create a body of lifetime professional revolutionists who can acquire the theoretical knowledge and experience in struggle which enables them to develop authority among the workers as the carriers of the party's program, the WL has always pursued a burn-out policy which takes willing young revolutionaries and works them for a couple of years at fever pitch with promises that the revolution is around the corner, fully expecting that in a year or two they will drop out – politically uneducated, exhausted from the feverish make-work pace and demoralized by the empty promises of instant success – to become at best nonpolitical and at 'worst cynical anti-communists, having however in the meantime recruited two or three others to take their places. Those who do last must learn to accept and even glorify the WL's shameless opportunist zigzags and finally become as cynical as the WL leadership.

The operational motto of the WL has always been, “nothing succeeds like success.” The working class is presumed to be as cynical and non-political as the WL, to be won to “revolutionary” politics through admiration of a going concern and impressed by constant opportunist zigzags as “smart.” Thus the apparatus for a mass party – dozens of branches, a daily paper – will be established and the masses will roll. Like any group of cynical advertizng men, the WL leadership aspires to maintain a high profile at the expense of any real mass work. In 1968 the WL explicitly affirmed that there was no time to seek trade-union implantation and the consolidation of significant industrial fractions because the crisis of capitalism was imminent. Today the WL maintains virtually no trade-union presence with the exception of a couple of white-collar caucuses and a few scattered militants in industry whose sole purpose is to be featured in the newspaper. The organization is little more than a sales and promotional apparatus for the Bulletin, and the Bulletin' is nothing more than a radical rewrite of the bourgeois press. The WL's youth organization, currently named the “Young Socialists,” makes no attempt to train young militants as Trotskyists and future communist workers, but simply seeks to draw in, through various youth-culture activities, undifferentiated radical youth suitable for photographing for the paper.

Political Bandits

Behind this organizational charade, however, lies a-political method – the method of cynicism. Behind the WL's hysterical opportunist zigzags (which have included a nearly simultaneous chase after the Black Panthers and the New York City cops in 1971), certain features of the WL-have remained constant: crisis-mongering to keep the members going for another month or two (Wohlforth seems unaware of the absurdity of proudly proclaiming in one recent article that, unlike the SL – which recognizes ebbs and flows within the context of a world system which has been fundamentally unstable at least since 1914 – the WL has insisted that the final crisis of capitalism has been at hand since its inception as a tendency in 1962); crisis-mongering as the implicit excuse for the abandonment of the Trotskyist transitional program (the "logic" is that since the capitalist system has exhausted every option for maneuver and reform, therefore even the most purely reformist demands are revolutionary because they cannot be granted); an organizational practice which is a mockery of Leninist democratic centralism; the substitution of organizational apparatus for politics; the invocation of thoroughly phony “dialectics” to obscure political issues and explain away bizarre zigzags in line; the use of deliberately mystical appeals to “continuity” or “method” to substitute for the elementary Leninist understanding that the basis of the party is its program (thus Wohlforth's meaningless attack on the SL as “having lots of positions but no perspective” while dismissing crucial programmatic differences raised by SLers as “tertiary questions”); a subservience to the British Socialist Labour League of Gerry Healy, which has about as much in common with real internationalism as Browder's subordination to Stalin; gross capitulation to the Peking and especially the Hanoi wing of Stalinism, which reached its height (or depth) in an adulatory obituary for Ho Chi Minh, the murderer of the Vietnamese Trotskyists; the vilest trade-union opportunism, flowing out of appetites toward even the Meany wing of the racist and American-chauvinist trade-union bureaucracy, focused around endless empty campaigns for a "labor" party -deliberately stripped of Trotskyist programmatic criteria; the systematic use and defense of physical gangsterism within the working-class movement, exemplified by constant exclusionist “public” WL forums and the employment of incredible slander in the WL press.

Were it not for the destruction of subjectively serious revolutionary militants drawn to the WL by its professed “Trotskyism” only to be plunged into a cynical anti-Trotskyist whirlpool of fake “mass” activity and then discarded, we would be tempted to hail the WL's mushrooming organizational expansion – "Forward to the daily Bulletin!" – based on a declining pool of human material as inevitably hastening the collapse of this fraudulent pretender to the continuity of the Fourth International. A house of cards can only be built so high before it must inevitably topple. But as serious Marxists we can only deplore the political fact that the necessary destruction of the Workers League and other obstacles to the construction of the U.S. section of a reborn Fourth International means that the dedication and self-sacrificing work of many who began as subjectively revolutionary militants has served only to build a hideously deformed diversion which can play no role in the principled combat of the world working class for socialism.