On “the Pathology of Renegades”

Reply to Workers Vanguard

(First published 21 October 2001)

The 12 October issue of Workers Vanguard (WV), newspaper of the Spartacist League (SL), devotes half a page to a denunciation of, among other things, the “bloodthirstiness” of the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT). (Article available online here) We seem to have upset the SL leadership by referring, in our 18 September statement on the terror-bombing of the World Trade Center, to a social-patriotic flinch by WV in 1983 when the demolition of the Marine barracks in Beirut terminated an attempt by U.S. imperialism to establish a military garrison in the Muslim world. At that time the SL leadership called for getting the surviving Marines out “alive.” In a 5 July 1984 letter to the SL, we commented:

“Quite a few of the Marines who went to Lebanon to kill Muslims didn’t come back. That sometimes happens to those who sign up to fight the dirty colonial wars of imperialism. We don’t think it’s such a bad thing either–apparently you do. We don’t care how many Marines walked out of Beirut and how many were taken out in coffins. All we care is that they left. You wanted them out alive. So we have a difference.”

In addition to their “Marines Alive” position, the SL tops seem a bit concerned about our observation that their initial statement on the 11 September events, like those of most other centrist and reformist left groups in the U.S., focused exclusively on the World Trade Center and ignored the attack on the Pentagon. The SL’s current polemic, entitled “On the Pentagon Attack,” addresses this oversight, and correctly observes:

“Unlike the World Trade Center, which was simply a complex of buildings housing various businesses employing tens of thousands of working people, the Pentagon is the command and administrative center of the U.S. imperialist military, and rather quintessentially represents the military might of U.S. imperialism, the main enemy of the working people and oppressed of the world.”

Fair enough. The SL also makes clear, as we did in our original statement, that the murder of the planeload of civilians in the attack on the Pentagon was completely indefensible. To explain the initial omission, WV refers to the Pentagon attack as a “sideshow” that “barely gets a mention by the capitalist rulers or their media mouthpieces.” This seems a tad exaggerated.

But the SL leadership is not content to merely correct their earlier omission, or alibi it. They go on the offensive and attempt to discredit their Bolshevik critics with a couple of gratuitous inventions. The first of these is the claim that in Canada some of the SL’s young co-thinkers had “IBT members pressing them to agree that all those killed in the attack on the Pentagon ‘deserved to die.'” None of our comrades said any such thing, although we did make it clear that we shed no tears for the Pentagon brass. This first fabrication is supplemented by a second: “Today, the IBT amnesties the ‘war is not the answer’ reformists in the U.S.” Again, a malicious invention without any basis in fact.

The SL leadership feels compelled to resort to such tactics because some of their younger (and healthier) members, who believe they have joined a revolutionary organization, are uncomfortable with the “Marines Alive” position. This is not the first time the SL tops have had to revisit this question (see 1917 No. 13).

The SL’s current polemic tries to justify its 1983 flinch by portraying it as a smart tactic designed to “intersect” the supposed “widespread outrage within the American population against the Reagan administration.” This is a bogus argument. Defeats are never popular and Reagan’s poll ratings certainly dipped after the bombing, but there was no “anti-government frenzy and outrage” as the SL claimed at the time (see: Young Spartacus, November 1983.) And even if there had been, Leninists stand for the immediate and unconditional removal of imperialist troops from neo-colonies as a matter of principle. We do not specify that they must be brought out “alive.”

WV’s recent polemic asserts that: “at the time, no side in the squalid inter-communal conflict in Lebanon was fighting imperialism!” But the 23 September 1983 issue of Workers Vanguard, published just a few weeks prior to the bombing, had noted:

“the U.S. is now committed to defending the [Christian] Phalangist gangsters with…a total of 14,000 Marines both on shore and off with 12 warships standing off the coast and 100 warplanes.”

The overall conflict certainly had a reactionary inter-communal character, but this does not change the fact that the blows struck against the imperialist presence in Lebanon by the “Islamic Jihad” truck bombers were defensible acts which resulted in the speedy evacuation of the imperialist garrisons. As we wrote in 1984:

“You say that you do not have a side in the fight between the present configuration of backward, oppressed and politically reactionary semi-colonial Muslim peoples of Lebanon (who do not even constitute an independent state power) and the bodies of armed men of your ‘own’ imperialist government….In the battles there between the Muslim militias and the U.S. Marines imperialism is the issue.

“The military struggle by the various Muslim forces in Lebanon (including those linked to the reactionary governments of Syria and Iran) against the imperialist presence in their country is a just one….Leninists are not neutral in such conflicts.”
“Marxism and Social-Patriotism,” 7 February 1984

“Marxism and Social-Patriotism” was written in response to a January 1984 attack on us entitled “Marxism and Bloodthirstiness,” which WV quotes in its current polemic. In our reply, we pointed to the political logic of the flawed formulations it contained:

“Labelling Reagan’s Lebanon policy ‘stupid’ and ‘senseless,’ you counterpose the presumably sensible call for getting the Marines out now before more are killed. As we pointed out in our 12 November [1983] statement, this position is by no means unique to the Spartacist League. ‘Senseless’ is precisely the way that Reagan’s Democratic critics in Congress perceive his intervention in Lebanon. ‘Senseless’ from the point of view of the best interests of U.S. imperialism. They also want to be sensible and smart and get them out now, while they are still alive. Your position can only be seen as a deliberate adaptation to this pro-imperialist sentiment–‘critical patriotism.'”

Eight months later the SL leadership made the bizarre suggestion that the Democratic Party’s national convention in San Francisco could be attacked by a coalition of Reaganites and fascists. In offering a dozen defense guards to protect the Democrats from this supposed “threat” the SL drew the following absurd parallel:

“A fitting historical model for Reagan’s exploitation of a ‘terror scare’ to smash political opposition can be found in the 1933 Reichstag (German parliament) fire, which was probably set by the Nazis and then was exploited by them to repress political dissidence and consolidate the Third Reich.”
Workers Vanguard, 6 July 1984

The SL’s cowardly flinch over the Marines in Lebanon, like the grovelling offer to “defend” the Democrats a few months later, was motivated by the leadership’s fear of incurring the displeasure of their rulers. WV‘s current polemic, the latest in a long series of attempts to alibi this flinch, demonstrates that in politics mistakes that are not honestly accounted for tend to have long half-lives.

All the documents mentioned above and other related material are available on this site.

Trotskyist Bulletin No. 2, published by the IBT’s predecessor, the External Tendency of the international Spartacist tendency, contains all the contemporary polemics on “Marines Alive.” It is now available online.

Spartacist Principles Betrayed,” a 1983 statement by former Spartacist cadres Adaire Hannah and Bill Logan who independently drew similar conclusions to those of the External Tendency.

The Politics of Chicken” contains the Workers Vanguard offer to defend the Democratic Party National Convention in 1984 and the ET’s reply.