Fourth International 1992: The end of the Soviet Union

Subjectivism and Spartacist

This article first appeared in the Bulletin on May 22, 1992. The Workers League is the predecessor of the Socialist Equality Party in the United States.

On February 9 of this year, a leading member of the Spartacist League, Martha Phillips, was found murdered in her Moscow apartment. In statements published in the February 28 and March 27 issues of the Bulletin, the Workers League called on the working class to oppose this bloody crime. Notwithstanding the fundamental and irreconcilable character of our differences with the Spartacist group, the Workers League warned that the murder in Moscow of an individual who presented herself as a Trotskyist demands the attention of socialists all over the world.

From this principled standpoint, the Workers League statements sharply criticized Spartacist for its offhand and evasive announcement of the murder of Phillips, which came in a single paragraph inserted towards the end of a lengthy obituary tribute published in its newspaper, Workers Vanguard. The Workers League rejected Workers Vanguard’s claim that nothing could be done to identify the killers and demanded that Spartacist provide a coherent account of the circumstances surrounding Phillips’s death.

In the April 17 issue of Workers Vanguard, the Spartacist League responded to these criticisms with a hysterical article which rehashed virtually every slander against the Workers League which the Spartacist League has concocted over the past 25 years. The purpose of this factional tirade was to avoid answering the questions raised by the Workers League.

The diatribe included one passage which deserves special comment here. Spartacist denounced the Workers League’s expression of concern over the murder of Martha Phillips as “crocodile tears,” maintaining, “everyone who knows the Workers League knows full well that they would gleefully break open a bottle of champagne over news of an SL leader’s death.”

The Spartacist leaders measure the Workers League by themselves, and attribute to our party the kind of frenzied subjectivism which prevails in their own organization. However, Marxist politics is based not on personal hatred but on the scientific analysis of class relations in capitalist society. The decisive task facing the Marxist party is to educate workers to recognize the class nature of all political phenomena, to evaluate every political tendency from the standpoint of what social forces it represents.

The conflict between the Workers League and the Spartacist League is not personal but political. The Workers League fights for the historical interests of the working class, as consciously grasped by its revolutionary vanguard. This requires a struggle to combat the political influence of the radical petty bourgeoisie over sections of workers and to establish the political independence of the working class. Workers must learn to distinguish between genuine Marxism and those tendencies which mouth socialist and Trotskyist phrases while covering for the trade union bureaucracy, social democracy and Stalinism.

The Spartacist League is a political party of sections of the American petty bourgeoisie; and its program and activities reflect the instability, frustrations and despair of the more bohemian and declassed elements of the middle class. The fight against Spartacist does not consist in hoping that bad things happen to its members, but of overcoming, through a protracted process of political education, the influence of the radical petty bourgeoisie over the working class.

There is no place in this process of political education for the kind of personal hatred voiced by Spartacist against the Workers League. Indeed, class-conscious workers must understand that such subjectivism is itself a hallmark of politically disoriented middle class elements who seek to identify a personal demon as the cause of their perpetual crisis.

Personal hatred blinds rather than clarifies. Even in the case of the death of a direct representative of the bourgeoisie—presidents, prime ministers, corporate bosses—there would be no reason for a Marxist party to indulge in gloating; for such a response would only disarm the working class by turning its attention away from its historic task. The death of even a particularly odious bourgeois politician cannot fundamentally alter the system of class domination. The working class must liberate itself not merely from individual exploiters, but from the social relations of the capitalist system which have developed historically over many generations.

Millions of workers “hate” a George Bush or a Ronald Reagan. But that instinctive sentiment does not necessarily express an insight into the nature of capitalism as a social system. The social conditions of capitalism, as the events in Los Angeles have demonstrated, continuously fuel the rage and anger of workers and youth. What is lagging behind, however, is the development of the political consciousness of the working class, which requires the struggle for a new political program and leadership, based on Marxism.

This same Marxist objectivity that determines the forms of struggle against the open representatives of the capitalist state is no less necessary when conducting the struggle against middle class political tendencies that claim to be socialist. It is entirely possible to combine intransigent and implacable hostility to the politics of the Spartacist League with sympathy for the personal fate of one of its members, a woman murdered at the age of 43, who leaves behind a handicapped son.

Spartacist operates by a different yardstick, and the remark about bringing out the champagne bottle over Phillips’s death only reveals their own attitude to the Workers League. This has already been demonstrated in practice. In 1977, when Workers League leader Tom Henehan was assassinated in Brooklyn, New York, at the age of 26, Spartacist never denounced or condemned the killing.

Instead, it hewed to the political line set by the police and the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, joining in the blackout imposed by the capitalist and middle class radical press, which refused even to report Henehan’s murder. When Workers Vanguard finally did comment, long after the assassination, it was to denounce the Workers League for exaggerating the significance of Henehan’s death and to echo the police claim that the murder of Comrade Tom was nothing but a “senseless killing.”

The Workers League took no satisfaction from the death of Martha Phillips, nor from the suicide of another Spartacist leader, Noah Wolkenstein, who became despondent after the collapse of the East German Stalinist regime in 1989-90. There was an element of personal tragedy in each case. But these deaths have a common political thread.

The hallmark of Spartacist’s politics has been its slavish subservience to the Stalinist bureaucracy. This is an organization which has given the most extreme expression to the pro-Stalinist apologetics of Pabloite opportunism. Its enthusiastic support for the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (“Hail Red Army”) and its call for the bloody suppression of the Polish Solidarity movement in 1980-81 were only the most notorious expressions of its belief in the socialist mission of the Stalinists. At an even more profound level, its devotion to the bureaucracy reflects the thoroughly cowardly position of the middle class radical, who has for many years depended upon the Stalinist regime to protect him from imperialist reaction on the one hand and from an insurgent working class on the other.

From this standpoint, the demise of the Stalinist regimes was the political equivalent of the sky falling in; and it has unleashed a mood of despair and desperation inside the Spartacist group of which Wolkenstein’s suicide was the most gruesome expression. While it appears that Wolkenstein had suffered from bouts of depression, the facts of his death make clear that he was utterly demoralized by the collapse of the East German regime. The Spartacist leadership, through its longstanding orientation to the Soviet and East European Stalinist bureaucracy, contributed politically to his tragic end and shares the responsibility for it.

The murder of Martha Phillips must also be seen as a byproduct of this decades-long adaptation of Spartacist League to the Stalinist bureaucracy. The Spartacist leadership politically disarmed the cadres which it sent into the Soviet Union. It instructed them to look for political allies in the right-wing milieu of military officers, ex-CPSU officials and neo-Stalinists, who rub shoulders with Russian nationalists and fascist anti-Semites. Phillips herself was the target of violent attacks by these forces in the months before her murder.

The same political orientation to Stalinism which left Martha Phillips vulnerable to provocation and murder underlies the continued refusal of Spartacist to make public all the details about her killing. It is politically inconvenient for the Spartacist leadership, while it seeks to form relations with neo-Stalinist groups like the Russian Communist Workers Party (RKRP), to carry out an aggressive exposure of a political murder motivated by hatred of Trotskyism.

The precondition for any serious investigation into the murder of Martha Phillips is a complete accounting of the circumstances of her death, including the political relations entered into by the Spartacist League with neo-Stalinist and right-wing forces in the former USSR. The Workers League reiterates its demand for the fullest disclosure of all the facts of this case and calls on the Russian and international working class to be on their guard against Stalinist provocations and attacks on the Trotskyist movement.