BT Says Don’t Hail Red Army in Afghanistan
Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 449 (25 March 1988)
… or anywhere else. Looking down the barrel of Cold War II, the crew of sour ex-members who now make up the “Bolshevik Tendency,” formerly External Tendency, fled the Spartacist League. They found our forthright Soviet defensism too hot to handle. As we pointed out in “The ‘External Tendency’: From Cream Puffs to Food Poisoning” (WV No. 349, 2 March 1984): “If the ET were more honest, they would admit that they hated it when we hailed the Soviet Red Army’s military intervention in Afghanistan.” “Not true” carped the ET/BT, who at the time were ever so modestly posturing as the sole repository of authentic Spartacism against the supposed “degeneration” of the organization they quit. “We do hail the Red Army’s intervention against the barbaric Afghan reactionaries,” they said in the May 1984 “Bulletin of the External Tendency of the iSt.”
But claiming to stand on the red side in Afghanistan doesn’t go down well in the anti-Soviet swamp in which the BT mingles. Not that anyone ever took their purported politics seriously (to wit, the BT was never excluded from any of the pop-front meetings or mobilizations for its proclaimed Soviet defensism, in contrast to the treatment we’ve been handed). Nonetheless even the pretense of defending the Red Army intervention in Afghanistan has become an obvious encumbrance to the BT’s appetites to share the sheets with the rad-libs and social democrats. Now the cards are on the table.
At a March 5 public forum of the Trotskyist League of Canada [TLC] entitled “Finish Off CIA’s Afghan Warriors!” Tom Riley, leading light of the Canadian BT, gave full vent to what has always been their deeply felt position. On the occasion of a meeting to celebrate International Women’s Day, in particular in defense of Afghan women against the inevitable bloodbath that will come if the Soviets pull out, Riley declared: “Trotskyists never hail Stalinist traitors or their state…. The slogan ‘Hail Red Army’ is not a Trotskyist slogan, because what it tells workers is to trust the Stalinists, put your faith in the Stalinists, hail the Stalinists. It disappears the political treachery of Gorbachev and the other parasites he represents….” So what about the Red Army’s heroic struggle to crush Hitlerite Nazism—just “Stalinist treachery”?
What the BT “disappears” is the contradictory character of the Stalinist bureaucracy. The line of “Stalinism is counterrevolutionary through and through and to the core,” a more concise and eloquent expression of the BT position, first appeared as a one-sided formulation during the Socialist Workers Party’s 1952-53 internal struggle against the pro-Stalinist Cochran-Clarke liquidators (Joseph Hansen repeatedly defended this formulation in internal documents). But who in the USSR could really fit this description? Only a native Russian Pamyat fascist, or a CIA “mole” in the KGB. In fact, in the Transitional Program Trotsky described the contradictory nature of the bureaucracy: “all shades of political thought are to be found among the bureaucracy: from genuine Bolshevism (Ignace Reiss) to complete fascism (F. Butenko).” But Riley & Co. do not want to know these things; they prefer the image of soul-destroying, monolithic Stalinist totalitarianism.
According to Riley: “It’s not possible to make a meaningful distinction in the Marxist sense between an army and the state which controls it, in this case a degenerated workers state. The state is an armed body of men defending a particular set of property forms.” But the property forms in the Soviet Union are, despite its Stalinist degeneration, proletarian. Riley’s syllogism is hardly original. In arguing against defense of the Soviet Union at the start of World War 11, Max Shachtman, leader of the petty-bourgeois opposition within the SWP, wrote: “We have never supported the Kremlin’s international policy… but what is war? War is the continuation of politics by other means. Then why should we support the war which is the continuation of the international policy which we did not and do not support?” Trotsky replied: “we are presented here with a rounded-out theory of defeatism…. Then why not say it?” Shachtman the doubtist soon became Shachtman the confirmed Third Camp Soviet-defeatist, claiming that the Soviet Union was ruled by a new “bureaucratic collectivist” class. For years, the ET denied being Shachtmanite because they still endorsed “Hail Red Army.” What next for the BT?
The Red Army intervention in Afghanistan was a defense of these property forms against a counterrevolutionary, imperialist-sponsored Islamic insurgency on the Soviet Union’s crucial southern flank. Moreover, the Soviet intervention offered the possibility of extending the gains of the October Revolution to the hideously oppressed Afghan peoples. But that was never the intention of the Kremlin, for it goes against the grain of the reactionary dogma of “socialism in one country.” The Stalinists never hailed the Red Army in Afghanistan, only the Trotskyist Spartacist tendency did.
As comrade Trotsky put it in the 1939-40 fight against Shachtman/Burnham’s opposition to the defense of the Soviet Union in the Socialist Workers Party, “in the final analysis, through the interests of the bureaucracy, in a very distorted form the interests of the workers’ state are reflected. These interests we defend—with our own methods” (“From a Scratch to the Danger of Gangrene,” In Defense of Marxism).
In our 1984 article on the External Tendency, we noted that “These characters logically would fit right in with the Weinsteinites, late of the Socialist Workers Party, behind whom stands the lure of America’s ‘mainstream’ social democrats, the Democratic Socialists.” Now the BT has qualitatively accelerated their march on this course. The most chemically pure rendition was translated on “Canadian soil,” long dear to Tom Riley. On February 2, the BT hooked up with the Alliance for Socialist Action (the latest incarnation of Canadian Mandelism) to initiate a popular-front demo over Central America around the sole demand “Oppose U.S. Contra Aid!”
A BT letter [reprinted below as an appendix to Document 2b.2], complaining that the TLC refused to join in peddling this as a “single issue” slogan for a “united front,” read like an SWP textbook defense of its “Out Now” slogan during the Vietnam War. The SWP argued that its “antiwar coalitions” were not pop-frontist because they were built on this “single issue” (although it soon became the rallying cry of bourgeois defeatism once the more farsighted elements of the ruling class realized that the U.S. wasn’t going to win). The BT wrote: “there were no bourgeois participants in the 2 February demonstration—but your position seems to be that it was ‘unprincipled’ because there hypothetically could have been.”
Hypothetically?! Opposition to U.S. contra aid is the on-again, off-again position of a hefty chunk of the war-mongering Democratic Party in the U.S. itself. But in Canada this line sells at really bargain basement prices. Indeed, Tory prime minister Brian Mulroney could have marched under this banner. He opposes “U.S. contra aid” as well (as has the bourgeoisie of virtually every other imperialist country from the get-go). Where Reagan boosts the loser contras, the Canadian imperialists propose instead to send “peacekeeping” troops to Central America to hold the line against “Communism.” The key to fighting the imperialist war moves is to defend Nicaragua by united working-class action.
But that would be beyond the pale, because it would mean facing the question of revolution. Ingratiating themselves with the Mandelite surrogates of Canadian social democracy, the BT wasn’t about to oppose their “own” ruling class. Indeed, even the BT’s own placards, chants and speech at the demo contained not so much as a hint of Soviet defensism in Nicaragua. Nor, for that matter, will one find any call for defense of the Soviet Union today in their articles in 1917 on Central America, Poland and Gorbachev—and that takes conscious effort!
So the BT is preparing to set up its tent in the Third Camp. In light of their whole trajectory, this was quite predictable. But some questions remain. Why does the BT continue to claim in its press that it upholds long-standing principles of the Spartacist League in flat contradiction to its political appetites and sought-for political allies? And why does it have a nasty tendency to create provocative incidents in our presence and then howl about it? Or as we headlined in WV, “Garbage Doesn’t Walk By Itself, What Makes BT Run?”