Bolshevik Tendency reply to Workers Vanguard No. 449
The following letter, dated 8 April 1988, was written in response to Document 2b.1
In reading your latest anti-BT screed (Workers Vanguard No. 449, 25 March) we are reminded of James P. Cannon’s complaint that “Lenin said: ‘It is very hard to find a conscientious opponent.’ That was in Russia. In America it is impossible.” Plus ça change…
No one reading your piece would have any idea that what you are polemicizing against is our decision to adopt the slogan “Military Victory to the Soviet Army in Afghanistan” in place of “Hail Red Army in Afghanistan.” Your polemic is deliberately intended to convey the impression that we are changing sides in Afghan conflict—rather than changing the formulation expressing our military support to the Soviets and their allies.
You quote bits of comrade Tom Riley’s intervention at your 5 March forum in Toronto, but carefully edit out the clear and unambiguous reiteration of Soviet defensism which formed the framework for his remarks. Of course, had you accurately reported the content of his intervention, it would have completely disproved your conclusion that the BT is “preparing to set up its tent in the Third Camp.”
As cde. Riley pointed out, “Trotskyists never hail Stalinist traitors or their state” because doing so obscures the treacherous and anti-revolutionary character of Stalinism. The intervention of the Soviet army in Afghanistan was historically progressive inasmuch as it contributed to the defense of the USSR. It also represented a possibility of significant social progress for the Afghan masses—particularly women. Trotskyists are not indifferent to this. The reason that it was a mistake to “hail” Brezhnev’s army in Afghanistan—while at the same time necessary to defend it militarily—is because it possessed at every moment the capacity to betray the Afghan women, workers and leftists who placed their faith in it.
The SL’s stunted branch in Toronto, which styles itself the “Trotskyist League of Canada,” gave your Afghanistan line its crudest expression when they marched in an International Women’s Day demonstration on 5 March, proudly holding aloft a banner with giant letters a foot high proclaiming “Hail Red Army in Afghanistan!” The fine print at the top of the banner qualified this slightly with an observation to the effect that a “Red Army Withdrawal Would Mean Horrible Bloodbath.” Comrade Riley’s intervention at the TLC forum that night pointed out the obvious absurdity of “hailing” an army which was on the verge of setting up a “horrible bloodbath.” He explained that the Stalinists’ evident willingness to betray the Afghan women and leftists who had trusted them was proof that the SL’s “hail” formula had been flawed from the beginning. On the demonstration earlier in the day, the TLC members chanted, “Down with Khomeini in Iran—Hail Red Army in Afghanistan!” The BT contingent counterposed, “Down with Khomeini in Iran—Oppose Gorbachev’s Sell-Out in Afghanistan!” This slogan the TLCers idiotically denounced as “Shachtmanite!”
You rhetorically ask whether the Soviet army’s struggle against the Nazis was “just ‘Stalinist treachery’.” Perhaps you think that the Trotskyists should have been “hailing” the Stalinist apparatus in that struggle as well? Trotsky thought differently:
Far from “hailing” the Stalinist military apparatus, as you propose, Trotsky proposed to combine military defense of the property forms with preparations for the political revolution against the bureaucracy. This is how Trotskyists defend the Soviet Union.
Your polemic contains one of the subterfuges which you used in 1983 to defend your decision to call yourselves the Yuri Andropov Brigade, after the Stalinist hatchet man who played a key role in the counterrevolutionary suppression of the Hungarian workers uprising of 1956. Unable to attack our Soviet defensist position then or now, in both cases you clumsily ascribe to us a position which you know we do not hold—i.e., “Stalinism is counterrevolutionary through and through and to the core” and then flail away at the straw man you created. Who do you hope to fool with such shoddy debaters’ tricks?
Your assertion that the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan “goes against the grain” of “socialism in one country” is, on its face, simply stupid. Was Stalin “going against the grain” of Stalinism when he intervened in Finland in 1939? Or when he decided to expropriate the East European bourgeoisie after the war? Of course not. On another level though this formulation is perhaps not so accidental. Those who despair of the historic possibility of the working class, led by a conscious Trotskyist vanguard, intervening to change the world have often in the past looked to one or another alternative agency for social progress. This is the political significance of your inclination to “hail” the Stalinist bureaucracy and identify yourselves with Andropov et al.
However, as we have pointed out before, the most dramatic evidence of the political demoralization of the ex-Trotskyist leadership of the Spartacist group is its fixation on acquiring various material assets—particularly real estate. When this conflicts with the militant phrase-spouting and/or adulation of Stalinists there is no question which has precedence. The SL’s cowardly flinch on saving the U.S. Marines in Lebanon in 1983; its denial of the Soviets’ right to defend their airspace at the height of the KAL 007 flap; and its characterization of the loss of a handful of Star Warriors aboard the U.S. spy shuttle “Challenger” in 1986 as “tragic,” are all evidence of this.
In view of your apparent interest in the implications of the correction in our formulation of Soviet defensism in Afghanistan, and your insistence that those who refuse to “hail” the Stalinists are headed for the Third Camp, we propose a public debate on the question—in either New York or Toronto—at the earliest mutually convenient date. Unlike the Toronto forum in March, where we were permitted only a single speaker for three minutes, a public debate would permit a thorough airing of the relative merits of our respective slogans: “Hail Red Army in Afghanistan!” vs. “Military Victory to Soviet Army in Afghanistan!”
Given your politically cowardly record of refusing to debate us in the past we are not anticipating a positive response to this challenge. Still, you did publish a retraction of your earlier erroneous report that we had participated in your exclusion from a San Francisco Palestinian demonstration (WV No. 446, 12 February), so perhaps you will once again surprise us.
We look forward to your reply.