Stealth Trotskyism and the Mystery of the WWP
by Kevin Coogan
One of the many ironies of the IAC/WWP story is that a group now aligned with some of the most dogmatic elements in what’s left of the Left is itself most likely run by secret Trotskyists. Given the hermit-like quality of the WWP, it’s hard to know for sure. Even accurate estimates of the group’s members are hard to come by.
In the 1980s most conventional estimates were that it had somewhere between three and four hundred followers. Thanks to the IAC in particular, the WWP’s recruiting efforts over the past decade have met with some success, especially in New York and San Francisco. If both actual WWP members and fellow travelers are counted, the group may now deploy up to a thousand cadres, if not more.
Insofar as the WWP has had difficulty in recruiting, it may be due in part to the extremely closed and clannish nature of its leadership. Nowhere is this fact more evident then when it comes to discussing the group’s origin. For some reason the WWP exercises great circumspection when it comes to acknowledging its origins as a faction inside the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP).
The WWP’s leaders even obscure their background to their own members. In the May 6th, 1986 WW, for example, the paper began a lengthy four-part series ostensibly dedicated to explaining the WWP’s history. Not once in the entire series was it ever mentioned that the WWP first emerged out of the Socialist Workers Party or that the group’s founders had spent over a decade as a faction inside the SWP.
Yet the WWP’s analysis of the Soviet Union strongly suggests that the sect never abandoned the worldview that its founding leaders first acquired while still inside the SWP. This issue, however, remains so sensitive that following the death of WWP founder Sam Marcy on February 1st, 1998, not one WWP memorial speech mentioned that Marcy had ever been in the SWP, much less a former member of the party’s National Committee.
The bizarre nature of the WWP’s attempt to conceal its origins is only heightened by the fact that virtually everything written about the group by outside commentators notes its beginnings inside the SWP. One of the rare academic discussions of the WWP’s history comes in a survey book by Robert Alexander which is aptly titled International Trotskyism.
The mystery of the WWP begins with Sam Marcy, who dominated the organization from its official inception in 1959 until his death at age 86 in 1998. Born in 1911 in Russia into an extremely poor Jewish family, “Comrade Sam” grew up in Brooklyn. After spending time in the CPUSA’s Young Communist League (YCL), Marcy joined the SWP in either the late 1930s or 1940s.
Trained as a lawyer, he served as a legal counsel and organizational secretary for a local United Paper Workers Union. During this time he met his wife Dorothy Ballan, who also came from an immigrant Russian-Jewish family. Although Ballan (who died in 1992) graduated from Hunter College with a degree in education, she joined the United Paper Workers to spread the Marxist gospel. Following traditional Left “industrial colonization” tactics, Marcy and Ballan next moved to Buffalo and began recruiting workers in industrial plants there into the SWP. By the late 1940s, however, the anti-communist backlash that would culminate in McCarthyism made their work inside the trade union movement virtually impossible.
Despite these political setbacks, Marcy and his fellow Buffalo SWP comrades (most notably Vince Copeland) became increasingly convinced that the world had entered a new period of revolutionary class struggle, particularly following the Chinese Revolution. The outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 hastened the emergence of what was known in the SWP as the Marcy/Copeland “Global Class War” tendency. The Buffalo-based “global class warriors” called on the SWP to downplay its differences with Stalinist regimes and forge a joint front against “U.S. Imperialism.”
Global Class War’s fundamental point was that the geopolitical defense of “really existing socialism” took priority over the Trotskyist argument that put a premium on promoting class struggles inside the Soviet bloc against the dominant Stalinist bureaucracy. Marcy and Copeland’s position might be best described as “semi-entrist” because although they very much wanted to court the Stalinist states, they rejected any argument that called on Trotskyists to enter the CPUSA en masse.
What the Global Class War argument meant in practice became clear during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. The SWP majority supported the uprising as a student and worker-led revolt against Stalinist oppression. The Global Class War faction, however, completely disagreed. A Trotskyist named Fred Mazelis recalled Marcy telling him in 1959 that “the Hungarian workers were hopeless counterrevolutionaries and that we should support the Stalinists in their crushing of the Hungarian workers councils.”
According to another former SWP’er named Tim Wohlforth, “Marcy had decided that the Hungarian Revolution was basically a Fascist uprising and that as defenders of the Soviet Union, Trotskyists had a duty to support Soviet intervention.” The WWP’s 1959 founding statement (reprinted in a 1959 issue of WW under the heading “Proletarian Left Wing of SWP Splits, Calls for Return to Road of Lenin and Trotsky”) explained that while it was OK to support demands for “proletarian democracy,” once the Hungarians began demanding “bourgeois political democracy,” the correct Trotskyist policy was to support “the final intervention of the Red Army which saved Hungary from the capitalist counterrevolution.”
In other words, if 99.9% of the Hungarian people wanted to overthrow Russian domination and prevent Hungary from being a satrapy of Moscow, introduce a democratic parliamentary system, and adopt an economic system that worked, they were morally wrong; in contrast, the Soviet troops who shot down unarmed Hungarian student and worker protesters were morally right.
In its founding statement, the WWP also denounced the SWP’s attempts to engage in coalition electoral campaigns with a group of former CP“ers (known as the „Gates faction“ after its leader, John Gates) who had broken from the CPUSA after the 20th Soviet Party Congress partial revelations about Stalin’s massive crimes.
According to WW, however, the real “rightwing” trend inside the Soviet Union actually began after Stalin’s death with the rise of Khrushchev! The WWP’s founding statement further noted that while Stalinism “may be theoretically as wrong as social democracy,” social democrats were “considered friendly to American imperialism and the Stalinists are considered hostile.” Ergo, Stalinism was better than social democracy.
After breaking with the SWP, the tiny WWP sought to ally itself with pro-Stalinist and anti-Khrushchev elements still inside the CPUSA who were angry about American CP leader William Foster’s refusal to openly criticize the Khrushchev “revisionists.” Around the time that the WWP was created, a splinter group called the Provisional Organizing Committee to Reconstitute a Marxist-Leninist Party in the United States (POC) “better known as the “Vanguard” group” split from the CPUSA and embraced China’s anti-Khrushchev, “anti-revisionist” line. Although the WWP supported the Chinese position, the Vanguard group refused all of its political overtures because they viewed the WWP as treasonous “Trotskyites”! Not long thereafter, the WWP began removing Trotsky’s picture along with any references to him in party publications.
Now thoroughly isolated from the rest of the Left, Marcy led his little group with a strong hand. Tim Wohlforth met Marcy in 1959 at an SWP convention held at a New Jersey summer camp shortly before the Global Class War clique broke with the SWP.
As Wohlforth later recalled in his memoir, The Prophet’s Children, while at the camp he had come upon a small mass of people “moving like a swarm of bees” and deeply engaged in conversation. In the middle of the mass “was a little animated man talking nonstop” who had a “high-pitched voice” and “spoke in a completely hysterical manner.” Yet Marcy’s devoted followers seemed “enthralled by his performance. . .It was my first experience with true political cult followers.”
From its inception, the WWP attacked any and all liberalization tendencies in Communist Bloc nations and scrambled to be first in line to applaud crackdowns on dissident movements. The April 1959 issue of WW even ran an editorial praising the brutal Chinese suppression of Tibet’s independence movement. As for the Soviet Union, the WWP regularly attacked the entire spectrum of dissident thinkers from Solzhenitsyn to Sakharov. The WWP line was that the dissidents really reflected broader „rightwing forces“ percolating inside the Soviet CP itself. In a February 22nd, 1974 essay, Marcy noted that Khrushchev’s ‘so called democratization“ had „opened up a Pandora’s box of bourgeois reaction, not only in the Soviet Union but even more virulently in Eastern Europe.“
The WWP fully supported the 1968 Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, when Russian tanks crushed the Dubcek Regime and with it „Prague Spring.“ Needless to say, it also fiercely opposed the Polish Solidarity movement in the 1980s. The WWP’s true love throughout the 1960s was Maoist China, with North Korea a close second. The WWP even opposed the signing of the 1963 U.S.-Soviet Test Ban Treaty because it would bar China from acquiring nuclear weapons!
When the Chinese exploded their first H‑bomb in 1967, WW declared it to be „a major victory for socialism.“ The party was particularly enthusiastic about China’s disastrous „Cultural Revolution,“ so much so that as late as the WWP’s 1986 party conference, Mao’s wife Chang Ching (a Cultural Revolution enthusiast and „Gang of Four“ leader) was singled out for special praise.
As much as the WWP admired China, it despised Israel. WWP cadre proudly carried signs in support of al-Fath that read “Israel = Tool of Wall Street Rule” and “Hitler-Dayan, Both the Same.” A June 24th, 1967 WW editorial following the Six Day War stated that Israel “is not the state of the Jewish nation,” but a state “that oppresses Jewish workers as well as Arabs.”
The fact that Israel was largely created by Socialist Zionists and in 1967 was led by Labor Party Premier Golda Meir (a woman something unthinkable in the Arab world), whose political base was the Social Democratic Israeli trade union movement, did not matter. Nor did it matter that every Arab state that opposed Israel had systematically crushed all independent labor unions or that “progressive” Arab governments like Jamal ‘Abd al-Nasr’s Egypt had a long record of employing Nazis both to train its military and security forces and to spread anti-Semitic hate propaganda throughout the Middle East.
As the WW editorial explained, “The fact that many of the Arab states are still ruled by conservative or even reactionary regimes does not materially affect this position” of support, because the Arabs “are struggling against imperialism, which is the main enemy of human progress,” whereas Israel “is on the side of the oppressors.”
This same editorial went on to assert that “When the bosses on a world scale” i.e., the imperialists “ go to war with the oppressed colonial and semi-colonial nations, it makes little difference who fires the first shot, as far as the rights and wrongs of the matter are concerned. . .Naturally, the imperialists were the original aggressors in every case.” Some two decades later, the WWP would use virtually identical arguments to justify supporting Saddam Husayn.
The WWP’s remarkable capacity for Orwellian “double think” was by no means limited to the issue of the Soviet Union or Israel. Take gay liberation, for example. Starting in the early 1970s the WWP actively recruited many gay and lesbian followers, since paradoxically enough the group had a fairly advanced position on this issue.
The sect’s recruitment successes in this area came about in part because most of the other ultra-left groups competing with the WWP were orthodox Maoists who endorsed the Stalinist/Maoist line that homosexuality was a sexual perversion caused by decadent capitalism that would be swiftly cured come the revolution. Yet even though WWP cadres frequently promoted themselves as gay or lesbian, the WWP refused to criticize the notoriously repressive practices directed against homosexuals in China, North Korea, and Cuba, much less in Serbia or Iraq.
Perhaps the ultimate absurdity of the WWP, however, is that the stealth Trotskyism of its leadership actually saved the sect from collapse in the late 1970s. In the 1960s the WWP, primarily through two key front groups, Youth Against War and Fascism (YAWF) and the American Servicemen’s Union (ASU), managed to recruit a fair amount of new members who were drawn to the group less by its theories than by the extreme militancy of its street actions. Indeed, YAWF’s one notable contribution to the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was that it was the only group which supported the Weatherman at the disastrous SDS convention in Chicago in the summer of 1969.
YAWF also participated in the Weatherman-organized “Days of Rage” protest that same autumn. With the end of the Vietnam War, however, the entire American Left began to suffer an enormous downturn, and the WWP was no exception to the rule. The cadre-based Left was further weakened by the rise of new social movements like women’s liberation, gay liberation, and the anti-nuclear and ecology movements, all of which operated organizationally and ideologically outside the traditional framework of orthodox Marxism, much less that of authoritarian Marxist-Leninist sects.
Faced with the challenge of widespread de-radicalization, as well as the growth of new social movements, the WWP (like many other Marxist sects) took an „industrial turn“ and ordered its followers back into the labor movement. The WWP even created the Centers for United Labor Action (CULA) to help coordinate these efforts.
Yet ironically, what ultimately gave the WWP a second lease on life was the death of Mao and the subsequent ideological crisis inside post-Mao China that finally resulted in the defeat of the „Gang of Four.“ The WWP’s competitors in orthodox Maoist grouplets like the October League rapidly ran out of ideological steam as the new post-Mao Chinese leadership moved even closer to the United States. After China began aiding American and South African-backed movements like UNITA, and Chinese troops tried to invade Vietnam, orthodox Maoism became even harder to rationalize.
Thanks to the WWP’s stealth Trotskyism, however, the group managed to escape political oblivion by reorienting itself away from China and toward the Soviet Bloc with relative ease.
The WWP’s great advantage in the post-1977 period was that throughout its entire history it only concealed „ but never abandoned „ its basic Trotskyist ideology. Orthodox Maoism, it should be recalled, maintained that with the death of Stalin the Soviet Union had ceased to be socialist state. Maoists even went so far as to claim that, thanks to „Khrushchevite revisionism,“ the USSR had been transformed into „a social-imperialist state“ not unlike Tsarist Russia.
The WWP, however, completely rejected this view even while it was busily glorifying ultra-Maoist groups like China’s „Gang of Four“ for their revolutionary zeal. In a May 1976 WW article, for example, Marcy reasserted the Trotskyist position (naturally without identifying it as such) against the standard Maoist argument. More specifically, he rejected
the idea „that there is a new exploiting class in the Soviet Union,“ and that there had been a „return to the bourgeoisie to power there.“
The reality was that the USSR still remained „a workers“ state“ whose „underlying social system. . .is infinitely superior to that of the most developed, the most „glorious“ and the most „democratic“ of the imperialist states.“ At the same time (again following Trotsky) he admitted that Russia had undergone „a severe strain, deterioration, and erosion of revolutionary principles, and [was] moreover headed by a privileged and absolutist bureaucracy.
Marcy’ later rejection of Gorbachev as a “capitalist restorationist” in the late 1980s was not all that dissimilar to Trotsky’s attack on Bukharin not Stalin in books like The Revolution Betrayed as the main threat to socialism in the Soviet Union in the 1930s.
The WWP’s brand of covert Trotskyism would prove crucial to its future growth. In the late 1970s, its ideology allowed the sect to attach itself like a pilot fish to Soviet and Cuban-allied organizations and avoid political annihilation either from the atrophy of its membership or from a devastating political schism.
The WWP’s switch from Mao’s China to Brezhnev’s Russia was so remarkable that in 1984 the sect, which not long before was singing the praises of the Gang of Four, now publicly endorsed Jesse Jackson for President! Finally, when the CPUSA itself split into pieces in the late 1980s, the WWP was in a position to exploit the new situation for maximum political profit.
Given the WWP’s worldview, the notion that a group as closely linked to the WWP as the International Action Center could ever be taken seriously, either as a „human rights“ or „peace“ organization, seems comical as well as grotesque. The all too „resistible rise“ of the IAC/ WWP, however, only makes sense when it is viewed in the context of the broader collapse of Soviet-style Marxism and all of its ideological variants. Left to its own devices, the WWP would have remained on the political margin as a quirky Left sect whose weirdly messianic ideology combined the worst aspects of Trotskyism, Maoism, and Stalinism into a unique and utterly foul brew.
That a bizarre outfit like the WWP could become a serious player in American left-wing radicalism in the year 2001 is above all a testament to the existing ideological, intellectual, and moral bankruptcy of the broader Left, which still insists on living in a decrepit fantasy world where criminals are good, the police are evil, blacks are noble, whites are all racist, heterosexual men are sexist, all women are victims, Israel is always 100% wrong, the Palestinians are always 100% right, America is „objectively“ reactionary, and America’s enemies are “objectively” progressive and therefore worth defending. If this were not the case, the IAC never could or would have emerged as a serious force.
There is no reason, at least in theory, why a new movement from the Left could not both support a U.S.-led war against Islamist fanatics and fight to preserve civil liberties and social justice, both at home and abroad. The entrenched knee-jerk anti-American mindset of so many on the Left, however, makes such a development highly unlikely. At the very least, however, the rational elements within the Left should be willing to critically examine the propagandistic claims emanating from a variety of self-styled „human rights“ and „anti-war“ groups that are as politically compromised and morally dubious as the IAC, ANSWER, and the WWP. While the future role of the Left after 9/11 may not be clear, surely that much ought to be obvious.