Bolshevik Tendency reply to Workers Vanguard No. 453
The following letter, dated 21 June 1988, was written in response to Document 2b.3
You evidently had difficulty in responding to the political criticisms raised in our letter of 8 April regarding your “Hail Red Army in Afghanistan!” slogan (“BT Protests Too Much,” Workers Vanguard No. 453, 20 May). It was obviously for political reasons, and not considerations of space, that you found it necessary to delete major portions of our letter.
However, even by printing the selections which you did, you implicitly correct the deliberate distortion of our position which appeared in your original article on the subject (WV No. 449, 25 March). No doubt you omitted the account of the 5 March International Women’s Day demonstration in Toronto to avoid further humiliating your ailing Canadian branch. A leading SL comrade, Keith Douglas, freely admitted at the Lutte Ouvriere [LO] Fete in France last month that it had indeed been a “mistake” for the comrades of the Trotskyist League [TL] to have carried a banner inscribed “Hail Red Army in Afghanistan!” (We note that WV No. 451, 22 April, features a photo of a member of your Ithaca branch carrying the same slogan on March 12 so it would appear that this was not simply a local error.) Douglas also agreed that the slogan which we counterposed to the TL, “Oppose Gorbachev’s Sell-Out in Afghanistan!,” was correct.
But even if you are now prepared to concede “the obvious absurdity of ‘hailing’ an army which was on the verge of setting up a ‘horrible bloodbath’”—a point which you also deleted from our letter—you are still not off the hook. As we pointed out, “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.” Your slogan contained no anticipation of Stalinist treachery, and could only disorient those who embraced it.
“In Defense of a Revolutionary Perspective,” a founding document of the Revolutionary Tendency—progenitor of the Spartacist League—attacked the Socialist Workers Party [SWP] leadership for “minimiz[ing] the danger of Stalinism as a world counter-revolutionary force.” It went on to quote approvingly from the SWP’s 1953 fight against the Pabloists:
The political logic of “hailing” the Soviet military in Afghanistan led you, in your 25 March article, to announce that Brezhnev had been going “against the grain of the reactionary dogma of ‘socialism in one country’” in deciding to intervene. Our criticism of this idiotic position was deleted in the version of our letter which you printed, an omission that saved you from the embarrassment of having to retract it publicly.
In the Transitional Program Trotsky states, “In supporting the colonial country or the USSR in a war, the proletariat does not in the slightest degree solidarize either with the bourgeois government of the colonial country or with the Thermidorian bureaucracy of the USSR.” He concludes that, “giving aid in a just and progressive war…strengthens there the authority and influence of the Fourth International, and increases its ability to help overthrow the bourgeois government in the colonial country, the reactionary bureaucracy in the USSR.” You will not find the Trotskyists “hailing” Haile Selassie’s army in its just struggle against the Italian fascists. Nor should we “hail” the Stalinist military.
Your citing the “Hail Red Russia!” banner on the November 1932 issue of Young Spartacus indicates that you have a pretty low opinion of the political sophistication of your readership. If one of the talented archivists of the Prometheus Research Library was to have a look at the preceding issue, he/she would find the headline “Vote Communist! Support the Revolutionary Candidates, Foster and Ford, in the Coming Elections.” We need hardly point out that in 1932 the Left Opposition still considered itself a faction within the Comintern.
Nor do we imagine you have forgotten that in 1933, after Hitler’s accession to power in Germany, the Left Opposition denounced the Comintern as a lifeless corpse and proclaimed the necessity for a new International and for the Soviet workers to take up arms in a political revolution to overthrow the Stalinist caste. We very much doubt that anything comparable to “Hail Red Russia!” can be found in the Trotskyist press after this definitive political break. Apparently for you, historical accuracy is less important than the opportunity to score a bogus polemical point.
You quote a passage from Czervony Sztandar, the publication of the Trotskyists in the Warsaw Ghetto. We do not have access to this material and can therefore say very little about it. Yet, for the most part, the quotation which you cite reiterates the defensist position advocated by Trotsky: “The war of the Soviet Union against Hitler is the war of the international proletariat; it is our war.” You report that their declaration ends with three slogans: “Long live the Red Army! Long live the Russian Revolution! Long live the international revolution!” If indeed these are the slogans which they raised, it would appear that the necessity of political revolution—i.e., of conducting “revolutionary propaganda against Stalin”—is absent from this declaration. In another passage which you chose to delete from our 8 April letter, we quoted the slogans which Trotsky proposed for this situation: “Our defense of the USSR is carried on under the slogan: ‘For Socialism! For the World Revolution! Against Stalin!” This formulation is politically superior.
While sputtering indignantly that we “won’t even hail the Red Army’s fight to smash Nazi barbarism” you deleted Trotsky’s advice—which we quoted—on the question. He instructed the Fourth Internationalists to establish “the closest possible comradely relations with the rank-and-file fighters of the Red Army. While arms in hand they deal blows to Hitler, the Bolshevik-Leninists will at the same time conduct revolutionary propaganda against Stalin….” This is a proposal for splitting the Stalinist military apparatus, not hailing it. (At the same time, as Trotsky remarked, the struggle to overthrow the Kremlin oligarchs must be subordinated to the defense of proletarian property forms.)
You buttress your polemic against us with ridiculous assertions like, “for the last six years you’ve remained conspicuously close-mouthed on Afghanistan.” Who do you expect to fool with this lie? As you well know, for the past six years we have repeatedly made it clear at demonstrations and public interventions, as well as in our literature, that we side militarily with the Soviets and their allies in Afghanistan. Your casual disregard for the truth is an index of your political degeneration.
And what is the meaning of your suggestion that raising the slogan of military victory to the Soviet intervention is somehow part of “paying the admission price to crawl into the all-Canada popular front”? In the twilight of the Reagan years, what kind of “popular front” would demand that its participants militarily support the Soviet army? As Trotsky remarked, even slander should make some sense.
In the midst of the uninspired hack-work which constitutes the bulk of your reply, there is one correct criticism. We refer to the formulation used by comrade Tom Riley in an oral intervention at a Trotskyist League forum in Toronto on 5 March when he stated, “Trotskyists never hail Stalinist traitors or their state.” While we endorse the sentiment regarding the perfidious character of the Stalinists, the phrase “or their state” is imprecise and could be taken to imply that we see the Soviet bureaucracy as a social class, which we do not. The Stalinist caste which rules from the Kremlin is a parasitic growth on the workers state, which is why Trotskyists call for a political as opposed to a social revolution in the USSR. The correct formulation for the idea which comrade Riley sought to convey would therefore be: “Trotskyists never hail Stalinist traitors or their state policy.”
As we commented in our 8 April letter, your 25 March polemic conveniently omitted “the clear and unambiguous reiteration of Soviet defensism which formed the framework for [Riley’s] intervention” at your Toronto forum. Naturally, you omitted this objection in WV. Instead you seize on a single misformulation and claim that it “wipes out the whole basis for Soviet defensism.” This is a profoundly dishonest way to conduct a polemic, as your own revered comrade Robertson once explained to the neo-Marcyite CommunisTCadre (CTC) when they levelled a similar charge at the Spartacist League in 1977. The CTC claimed to have discovered the phrase “Stalinist state” in a 1966 issue of Spartacist and handed out a leaflet at an SL public meeting suggesting that this was evidence of a Shachtmanite deviation. Robertson, who apparently did not know at the time that the CTC reference was erroneous, responded as follows:
We could hardly have put it better ourselves. Comrade Robertson was quite right, it can serve no useful purpose to attack your political opponents for positions you know they don’t hold. We advise any SLers who are unsure about our position on the Russian question to take Robertson’s advice and check with the state-capitalist LRP.
The correct Trotskyist attitude to the events in Afghanistan, from the moment the Soviets initially intervened, was to offer military, but not political, support. The problem with the “Hail Red Army” slogan is that it obscures this vital distinction. The fact that it enraged various reformist and centrist pseudo-Trotskyists is neither here nor there. What they really objected to was the position, not the formulation.
You now seem willing to admit that it is absurd to proclaim this slogan while Gorbachev is in the process of pulling the Soviet army out of Afghanistan. But could not such a betrayal have been as easily perpetrated by Brezhnev, Andropov or Chernenko? If so, why was the slogan any more correct in 1979 when the Russians first intervened than it is today when they are in full flight?
Some of your newer members have suggested that the call for military victory is half-hearted, and that real revolutionaries are distinguished by the unqualified support implied by “Hail Red Army!” They may not know that “military victory” was the position of the Spartacist League throughout the Vietnam war. At that time SL comrades patiently explained to various subjectively revolutionary New Leftists and Pabloists, who were waving NLF flags, why it was necessary to call for “military victory” rather than simply “victory,” as the latter implies an element of political support.
The SL did not “hail” Ho Chi Minh and his army because at that time it still took seriously the struggle to forge a Trotskyist leadership for the international working class. This entailed educating the political vanguard about the treacherous nature of Stalinism, while militarily supporting the North Vietnamese army in its heroic struggle against imperialism.
The Spartacist League of today has a character very different from the SL of the Vietnam War era. Then, the SL believed that the revolutionary program could only be served by respecting the truth and seeking maximum clarity in political debate, even if that meant publicly admitting to its errors. Today’s Spartacist League, having despaired of the possibility of seriously influencing political reality, is mainly dedicated to maintaining the organizational supremacy and material privileges of its infallible founder-leader James Robertson and the sycophantic clique of personal devotees that surrounds him. To this end the SL does not hesitate to subordinate the Trotskyist program, Marxist theory and even the most elementary regard for the facts. It is because the Bolshevik Tendency has exposed the Spartacist League’s degeneration, both in its despotic internal regime and its increasingly erratic external political zig-zags, that the SL has called us racists, insinuated that we are police agents, and is now going to contorted lengths to read into our recent pronouncements on Afghanistan a desire “to set up [our] tent in the Third Camp.”
At the LO Fete this year, comrade Douglas predicted the SL would “politically smash” us over our change of slogan for Soviet defensism in Afghanistan. We responded by offering him the opportunity to do just that. We proposed to cancel our scheduled forum on the counterrevolutionary danger posed by Solidarnosc in 1981 and instead hold a debate over the implications of our different slogans for Afghanistan. Comrade Douglas took our offer back for consideration, but the next day informed us that you could not accept our challenge. We were not surprised. Since it was obvious that your comrades were having considerable difficulty defending this Stalinophilic deviation in informal discussion, a public debate could have been devastating. Your lack of political courage, though hardly commendable, is at least understandable. Nevertheless, our offer, which you deleted from our 8 April letter, still stands.