Since it is quite likely that the Workers World Party is the largest "Marxist-Leninist" group in the USA today, it is of some consequence that its founder Sam Marcy died last week at the age of 86. Marcy's childhood was spent in a Russian shtetl, where extreme poverty forced his parents to dress their infant son in potato sacks. He came to the United States in his youth and became a good student. He entered law school, passed the bar, and began a career as a labor lawyer. As with so many of this generation, Marcy became a revolutionary. Unlike others, he joined the dissident Trotskyist movement during the 1930s instead of the Communist Party.
Marcy became a leader of the Buffalo branch of the SWP. Differences with the SWP leaders over the Hungarian uprising of 1956 led him to split. Marcy argued that the Hungarian revolt could only serve imperialism.
We should understand that Trotskyist groups often split over how to interpret events in distant countries, especially all the "betrayals" that occur with dismaying frequency. Since frequent splits tend to keep Trotskyist parties small and powerless, it inoculates them against betrayal. Small propaganda groups tend to betray nobody except their own members, who, like myself, often leave in disgust after many years spent in futility.
When I joined the SWP in 1967, I received a crash course in "opponents." The CP was Stalinist; the Progressive Labor Party was Maoist and the Workers World Party was a "cult around Sam Marcy." I had never heard the term cult applied to socialist groups before and tried to imagine what this meant. Did WWP members keep portraits of Marcy on their living-room wall? I only discovered years later that nearly all Trotskyist groups were cults.
The explanation for this is not in the psychology of the leaders, but in the methodology of the groups which they have inherited from Zinoviev's Comintern. There is a revolutionary program which the party leadership, especially the supreme leader, has to defend from petty-bourgeois challenges. There is enormous peer pressure to internalize and agree with the party line at all times, since nobody wants to be an instrument of "alien class influences." Thus, the party becomes a cult around the leader, who is "the Trotsky of today," and can be trusted to keep the purity of the program intact Trotsky himself allowed cult tendencies to develop while he was alive and his disciples merely followed his example.
My first encounter with WWP members was at the mass Vietnam antiwar demonstrations. My own group was in a coalition with the CPUSA and radical pacifists, which the WWP viewed as "reformist." They regarded mass demonstrations around the slogan "Out Now" as a betrayal. They brought their own banners to the march and often forced their way to the front ranks. The banners had a day-glo orange background you could spot a mile away, upon which slogans like "Victory to the Vietcong" were printed in huge block letters. They often sought out confrontations with the cops, using their banner poles as clubs. Film footage of these provocations often became the lead-in to the evening television coverage. There is little doubt that the FBI encouraged such behavior since it made the antiwar movement look like a bunch of lunatics.
Marcy would need no encouragement from the FBI to stage such confrontations, since it was an integral part of his ultraleft approach to politics. The 1960s radicalization had disoriented many Marxists into thinking that revolution was on the agenda. Many, including Marcy, had adopted a variation of the "spark" theory. They theorized that bold, even violent, action by students could inspire the rest of the population to rise up. The 1968 May-June events in France led many to this conclusion, but what was lacking in their analysis was the state of the American working-class. Since there was almost zero working-class sympathy for socialism, such hopes were a self-delusion.
The other thing that must be understood is that Marcy was in his fifties when the Vietnam antiwar movement was at its peak. There is strong pressure on any Trotskyist, or quasi-Trotskyist like Marcy, leader to "go for broke" when they reach this age. There is the knowledge that they are in the tradition of Lenin who led the Bolshevik revolution when he too was in his fifties. The idea that they might let this opportunity escape them is almost too horrible to imagine. So they take all sorts of gambles. Such pressures must have weighed on David Koresh, who like Jesus, was in his early 30s when the Waco confrontation developed.
(What happens sometimes is that when ultraleftism hits a brick wall, the cult leader will often lurch in the opposite direction. Lyndon Larouche is one such example. This quasi-Trotskyist attempted a breakthrough in the working-class with cadre recruited from Ivy League universities, my employer Columbia University first and foremost. When this failed, he made his fascist pitch to the capitalist class. This is the only explanation for Frank Furedi's alliance with right-wing think-tanks after 20 years of ultraleft obscurity.)
As everybody who reads a newspaper must know, there was no revolution in the United States in the 1960s. Or 1970s. Or 1980s. Or 1990s. This seems to have had a sobering effect on Sam Marcy, who dumped the ultraleft approach long ago.
What took its place ironically was the approach taken by the SWP during the Vietnam antiwar movement. The WWP mechanically adopted the "united front" tactic and built major demonstrations in Washington against intervention in Central America and Iraq. Former Attorney General Ramsey Clark works closely with the Marcyites on these sorts of actions. The SWP had long ago dumped this type of politics and had sent their membership into coal mines or garment shops to preach socialism. So the WWP simply dusted off the tactic that the SWP had abandoned and made good use of it. The problem is that the coalitions tend to be much narrower than those of the Vietnam antiwar movement, since the WWP is much more sectarian than the 1960s version of the SWP or the CPUSA. While the SWP retreated into "workerism," the CPUSA has been wracked by dissent and lost nearly half of its membership when people like Angela Davis launched the Committees of Correspondence (CofC). Gus Hall had supported the coup against Gorbachev while Davis and others had denounced it.
Groups like the WWP and the "state capitalist" International Socialist Organization, a cult around the Englishman Tony Cliff, are now growing, while nonsectarian formations like the CofC and Solidarity remain stagnant. The problem is that radicalizing young people are likely to join up with groups who promise them that the revolution is around the corner rather than ones that make no such commitment. What "Marxist-Leninist" groups offer is a crash course in Marxism. Upon entering such groups, you are put through a whirlwind of classes where you study the basics of Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, etc. Within two years, you will be indoctrinated in a highly one-sided version of Marxism. You will swear that Sam Marcy or Tony Cliff are the latest incarnation of Lenin or you will simply swear at having wasted two years of your life.
The other feature of such groups is that they can have an impact on politics all out of proportion to their numbers. When 1000 people act in unison around a line that they have fanatical belief in, the results can be impressive. The style of groups like Solidarity or the Committees of Correspondence is much more laid-back, as befits the aging membership.
As the American class struggle continues to meander in its lazy fashion, it is of no great consequence that groups like the WWP are at the center stage since the audience is nearly non-existent. It walked out after the first act. However, if in the coming decades there is a sharp rise in the class struggle, it will be imperative to create an alternative to groups like these. Young people who demand serious, militant and well-organized action should be able to learn their Marxist theory and how to organize from a group that is free from cultism. Looking at the problem dialectically, the only way such an organization can begin to develop is when the class struggle is much sharper than it is today. When millions of workers awaken to the type of militancy that characterized the 1930s, a revolutionary organization will not just be a good idea but something with enormous magnetic powers. We are simply in a preparatory period right now and the only thing we can do is weed out the theoretical and organization dead wood of the past. For all of Sam Marcy's dedication to the working class and to socialism, the group he left behind him belongs to this dogmatic and sectarian past.