Ukraine Con Game: Opportunism, Crime and Punishment

IG’s Potemkin Village Idiocy Ad Absurdum

Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 828, 11 June 2004.

“In order to impress Tsarina Catherine with his self-promoting efforts at developing the barren Russian steppes in the 18th century, Prince Potemkin supposedly constructed elaborate facades of artificial villages for her to see when her carriage passed through the region. A ‘Potemkin village’ is what came to mind when we saw the first issue of the Internationalist (January-February 1997), a 64-page, two-color journal recently published by a handful of defectors from our organization who call themselves the ‘Internationalist Group’ (IG).”

— “Potemkin Village Idiocy,” WV No. 663, 7 March 1997

That’s what we wrote nearly seven years ago. In that time the little Potemkins of the IG have been busy constructing the facade that is their international. In cyberspace they present long, turgid articles in multiple languages intended to give the grand impression that they swim deep in the “boiling water” of the worldwide class struggle. On the ground, the reality is quite different.

A case in point: the “Revolutsionnaya Kommunisticheskaya Organisatsiya” (RKO—Revolutionary Communist Organization) of Ukraine. In July 2001, with much fanfare, the IG published a “Declaration of Fusion” between their “League for the Fourth International” (LFI) and the RKO. They solemnly vowed to “uphold Bolshevik-Leninism” and to “further the struggle to reforge an authentically Trotskyist Fourth International as the world party of socialist revolution.” Fine words, but there was one problem: the RKO never existed.

Last summer, after a two-year marriage, the IG declared annulment when it was revealed that (surprise!) their mail-order Ukrainian bride of a “section” was a bunch of con artists scamming Western leftists for money. The hustlers, who had long been the Ukrainian section of Peter Taaffe’s “Committee for a Workers’ International” (CWI), were able to sell themselves off as the “sections” of as many as ten different self-professed revolutionary organizations, including the grotesquely misnamed International Bolshevik Tendency (BT) and the League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP).

As we explained in Workers Vanguard when the scandal broke (see “Chickens Come Home to Roost in Kiev,” WV No. 808, 29 August 2003):

“We are not privy to the sleazy details, and we have no confidence in anybody’s account of what happened. But by their own words these so-called ‘victims’ stand condemned as utter frauds and co-conspirators with their Kiev con men! Now they scream, ‘We wuz robbed!’ But they were more than happy to perpetrate their con on the left public by trumpeting their fraudulent Ukrainian sections.”

That the IG ended up in the embrace of a gang of brazen con artists should not come as a surprise to those who have followed its political trajectory. From its inception the IG has accommodated itself promiscuously to alien forces, seeking “regroupments” with politically distant elements as a substitute for the necessary struggle to forge a programmatically cohesive, Leninist international organization. In 1995-96, while still a member of our organization, Jan Norden (now the IG’s supremo) sought a phony regroupment with elements of the Communist Platform of the German Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), claiming that the PDS maintained “attachments” to what was by then the long-since defunct East German deformed workers state. Indeed, the Communist Platform/PDS had been junior partners with Gorbachev in the sellout of East Germany to the West German imperialists. Upon their defection from the ICL, Norden et al. linked up with the Liga Quarta-Internacionalista (LQB) in Brazil, an organization with which we had just broken fraternal relations when it became clear that they were simply trade-union opportunists. Subsequently the LQB went on to cross the class line repeatedly by suing a trade union in the bourgeois courts.

We recognize that revolutionary regroupment—principled splits and fusions with other tendencies in the workers movement—is an important tactic for constructing a Leninist vanguard, including on international terrain. The Spartacist League/U.S. emerged out of the Revolutionary Tendency, an opposition in the American Socialist Workers Party. Over the course of years we recruited from groupings that originated in ostensibly Trotskyist, Maoist, New Leftist, feminist and other tendencies. The essential basis for such regroupments has been a common programmatic framework—tested in practice through exemplary actions and involvement in social struggle; vigorous internal debate and rigorous cadre education.

But the purpose of Norden’s LFI is not this but to impress the unwary with cyberspace boasting of “international connections.” Lofty statements are written for public consumption and to create an umbrella of “orthodoxy” to shield the very alien practices carried out on the ground. To believe the IG, Norden himself had little clue what his “Ukrainian section” had been doing for two years! The BT now claims to have recruited the IG’s Dutch affiliate—which by the BT’s account consisted of one individual (1917 No. 26, 2004)!

Mutual Amnesty

At the time of our previous article on what happened in Kiev, the IG had yet to comment on the con game. A response appeared in the October-November 2003 Internationalist. Notwithstanding the differences the IG claims with the state-capitalist LRP or the dubious Stalinophobic BT headed by the sociopath Bill Logan, Norden’s response was virtually identical. They all attempted to salve their wounded egos, pontificating that, after all, the Bolsheviks were infiltrated by Roman Malinovsky, a secret agent for the tsar, and the Trotskyist Left Opposition by Mark Zborowski (Étienne), a Stalinist agent. There is no relationship in these comparisons to what actually happened in Ukraine. Far from being a deep dark secret of the invisible espionage netherworld, the real nature of the Kiev scam artists was known to the Ukrainian left, and the IG were among the laughing stocks:

“Kiev left-radical circles ever since the mid-90s have been following with interest the scams of a group led by the well-known cde. V.... Since all of these political sects wanted a Ukrainian section for prestige, this group set up ties and easily passed itself off as co-thinkers.... ‘Oh, it’s so easy to fool me, I myself wanted to be deceived’ [Pushkin].... This looks a little like provocation, but in Kiev no one would fall for it—it was all too obvious.”

—, Article #5744, “Anarchist from Kiev,” 5 September 2003 (translated from Russian)

Wouldn’t any politically observant person have noticed that in the space of a few months, several political tendencies were acquiring Ukrainian “sections” in Kiev, including quirky groups like the De Leonists in the American Socialist Labor Party? The IG and others didn’t ask questions because they didn’t want to know the answer. Like Pushkin’s love-struck fool, they refused to see what was there because they did not want to see.

When the Kiev hoax was exposed, the IG acted like pious politicians, who, when caught with their pants down in a den of iniquity, claim they were carrying out “their own independent probe.” They have the nerve to cite Victor Serge’s excellent 1921 handbook, What Every Revolutionary Should Know About State Repression:

“In his conclusions, Serge wrote: ‘Provocation is much more dangerous in terms of the distrust it sows among revolutionaries. As soon as a few traitors are unmasked, trust disappears from within the organizations. It is a terrible thing, because confidence in the party is the cement of all revolutionary forces’.”

— “A Band of Political Impostors and Swindlers in Ukraine,” 27 August 2003

In a revolutionary organization “trust” is based on verification in common political work. Bolshevism was born of a split over Lenin’s insistence in 1903 that no one be extended the trust and responsibility of party membership without direct systematic work in a party committee. By being compelled to carry out systematic revolutionary work under the eye of the party, Serge wrote, “The agent provocateur is a policeman who serves the revolution in spite of himself. Because he must always appear to be serving it. But in this question there are no appearances.... There is no way you can be a member halfway or superficially.” For the Kiev con artists, their only “obligation” as members was to cash the checks as they came in.

Along with Zborowski, Malinovsky and other provocateurs, in its article on Ukraine the IG mentions the name of Raymond Molinier, a member of the French Trotskyists in the 1930s. The IG says that Molinier “came up with one opportunist gimmick after another, and made his living through bill collecting,” and then mentions that he was expelled from the Fourth International. But contrary to the impression left by the IG, that was not the reason for Molinier’s expulsion. No charges were ever presented against him on these grounds. Perhaps the reason Norden does not give the straight story on Molinier is because he bears some political resemblance to the latter. Molinier was a political adventurer who was all too willing to cut corners programmatically for short-term organizational advantage. Despairing of the hard political struggle which had to be waged against popular-frontism in France, he set up his own newspaper in 1935 and was expelled for this by the Trotskyists. When the Molinier group launched its fake “mass paper” which promised to “speak the language of the factories and the fields,” to “tell of the misery which reigns there,” to “express its passions and rouse to revolt,” Trotsky had the following scathing comment:

“This is a very laudable intention, although the masses know perfectly well their own misery and their feelings of revolt (stifled by the patriotic apparatuses with the aid of the [centrist] Pivertists). What the masses can demand of a newspaper is a clear program and a correct orientation.

— Leon Trotsky, “What Is a ‘Mass Paper’?” (1935)

IG Spits on Revolutionary Continuity of ICL

Stalin noted that paper would take anything printed on it, but the IG was so anxious to rush through a fusion that they didn’t even bother to check their putative marriage partner’s paper positions. The Fall 2001 Internationalist ran a graphic captioned, “RKO posters raised LFI’s call for Arab/Hebrew workers revolution.” The accompanying fusion declaration boasted: “Late last year, as courageous Arab youth armed with nothing but stones were being slaughtered in the West Bank and Gaza, the LFI and RKO coordinated our participation in protest actions denouncing the Zionist murderers, including putting out posters calling to ‘Defend the Palestinian People’ and ‘For Arab-Hebrew Workers Revolution! For a Socialist Federation of the Near East!’” But the placards appearing in the graphic contain neither the slogan “For Arab-Hebrew Workers Revolution!” nor “For a Socialist Federation of the Near East!” Now, after the scandal has been publicized, Norden acknowledges that his bloc partners “did send us leaflets they claimed to have issued in antiwar protests, but they did not have the position of the LFI on Israel-Palestine, which had been a subject of considerable discussion.” A little late!

But at least they had a formally correct line on Chechnya, right? After all, military defense of Chechnya against the Russian-led bloody colonial war is the cutting edge issue for Marxists in the region. Russia’s war against the largely Islamic population in Chechnya has been central to ideologically reinforcing Great Russian chauvinism, which is a key prop for the new capitalist regime. This ideology asserts itself as well in much of eastern Ukraine, where centuries of tsarist Russian domination had far deeper roots than in western Ukraine, and where today a substantial Russian population resides. But the IG’s fusion statement not only failed to take a stand on the side of the Chechens’ just war against Putin’s genocidal onslaught, it said not one word on the war at all!

At the time of their Ukrainian fusion, the IG boasted that it was the “first realization” of their perspective of international revolutionary regroupment. Indeed! While the IG occasionally likes to claim that it stands on the work of the ICL when their leaders were members, their fusion statement with the RKO was premised on the rejection and disappearance of the ICL’s proud history in the former Soviet Union, including Ukraine. The fusion statement proclaimed that the RKO was composed of people who “publicly announced their intention to establish the Fourth International section” in 1989. But the IG could not, and did not, say what the members of the “RKO” were doing at this time, a period in which the ICL was actively fighting against counterrevolution and for the program of revolutionary Trotskyism. In the summer of 1989, spontaneous strikes which erupted in the Soviet coal fields against the ravages of Gorbachev’s “market socialism” dramatically demonstrated the potential for militant working-class struggle. A year later, two comrades of the ICL intervened at a conference of Soviet miners held in Donetsk, Ukraine. Politically it was the ICL on the one side and, on the other, British embassy representatives, the AFL-CIO’s Freedom House, the Russian fascist NTS and the scab British “Union of Democratic Miners” (UDM), an anti-Communist outfit formed and financed in an attempt to break the British coal strike of 1984-85 led by Arthur Scargill’s National Union of Mineworkers (NUM). The ICL spiked an attempt by the UDM and their imperialist advisers to get the Soviet miners to denounce Scargill.

When the hour of mortal danger to the USSR arrived in August 1991, the ICL was unique on the left in seeking to mobilize the Soviet workers against the counterrevolutionary coup of Yeltsin and George Bush Sr. As capitalism consolidated itself, we sought to drive home to the working people of the ex-USSR the lessons of this catastrophe. In June 1993 the ICL intervened in a massive strike of coal miners and other workers in Ukraine, selling over 2,400 pieces of Spartacist literature at one rally alone at the peak of a strike that represented the first proletarian challenge to the capitalist states erected in the wake of the counterrevolutionary destruction of the USSR.

The IG concluded its fusion statement with the empty boast that in Ukraine it would “continue the work of the tens of thousands of Bolshevik-Leninists who fell under Stalinist, fascist and bourgeois-‘democratic’ repression.” Shamefully, the statement made no mention of the murder in February 1992 of Martha Phillips, the ICL’s leading spokesman in Moscow. The authorities stonewalled while we tried in vain to find out who killed our comrade. Nor does the IG say anything about the ICL’s expulsion from Ukraine in 1995. The ICL was lyingly accused by the Ukrainian government of seeking “the overthrow of the government” and our members were banned from the country. The banning of the ICL was splashed across television screens and the press throughout Ukraine and Russia. This was done not only to muzzle us but to further intimidate the left and workers movement. We organized international protests, urging leftists and workers organizations to take a stand in defense of our rights and theirs.

Presumably the leaders of the IG, who were members of our organization throughout this period, ought to have at least been interested in what their bloc partners had done in response to this state repression of the ICL, and in fact this would be one way of testing the authenticity of any group that claimed to have been Trotskyist since 1989. But the IG fusion statement was smugly silent on this, as it was on the other work of the ICL in Ukraine. As irony would have it, the Ukraine hustlers of today were then, as the Ukrainian section of the CWI, the ICL’s main leftist opponent in Kiev, where we were engaged in regular political debate at Kiev University. They not only did not protest our expulsion, but they were somehow able to continue their operation at Kiev University, where longtime CWI honcho Oleg Vernik is evidently now an assistant lecturer, without a hitch for almost another decade!

In the fusion statement the only comment made by the “RKO comrades” about the ICL and its work is that we allegedly refused “to debate programmatic questions.” No one who has ever met with a member of the ICL would believe this statement! What this really shows is that the IG blindly embraced these dubious elements precisely because they denounced the ICL!

“League for a Fraudulent International”

The IG’s methods are hardly new, as attested by their very origins in breaking from the ICL. A case in point was their embrace of Luta Metalúrgica (LM), now the LQB, as they were departing the ICL. LM had originated as a proletarian formation with a militant history in the steel industry center of Volta Redonda (near Rio de Janeiro). But future IG leader Norden and his sidekick Negrete sought to undermine our struggle with LM for programmatic clarity from start to finish, from the September 1994 Declaration of Fraternal Relations to their constant attempts to obstruct political fights, to their ultimate bloc with LM’s amorphous centrism against the ICL.

The 1994 declaration—wholly drafted by Norden and Negrete, who went on to become líder mínimo of the IG—was deliberately cast to portray a broad, deep and synthetic programmatic agreement that simply did not exist. At the same time it virtually ignored issues such as permanent revolution, the Trotskyist program as it applies to countries of combined and uneven development. This meant that the declaration did not probe areas in which one might likely discover differences, such as possible adaptations to Latin American nationalism or, for that matter, insufficient vigor in opposing the depredations of imperialism. Had we accepted the methodology of Norden and Negrete, we would have accommodated to a bogus “internationalism” in which claimed political agreement is simply a cover for the various national sections to carry out whatever opportunist line they see fit, varying according to the differing terrains on which they do work. As Trotsky noted:

“By its very nature opportunism is nationalistic, since it rests on the local and temporary needs of the proletariat and not on its historical tasks. Opportunists find international control intolerable and they reduce their international ties as much as possible to harmless formalities....”

— “The Defense of the Soviet Republic and the Opposition” (September 1929)

The idea that fraternal relations are a testing process for solid programmatic agreement, requiring ongoing political struggle, was completely alien to Norden. For more than a year after we initiated fraternal relations with LM, there was no progress toward a programmatically based fusion. We then invited a leading representative of LM to an authoritative January 1996 meeting of our International Executive Committee. LM agreed on the need to transform itself from a trade-union fraction without a party into a Trotskyist propaganda group in Brazil, through an agenda of common work—publishing a party propaganda organ, extending LM’s presence to a major metropolitan center and seeking to win new recruits from the younger generation. At this meeting we learned that a municipal workers union whose leadership was braintrusted by LM included a substantial proportion of cops. Indeed LM’s slate in the union had received the vote of the majority of these same cops. We fought with LM to wage a campaign to get the cops out of the union and invested significant resources to maintain an ICL representative in Brazil.

After months of intensive discussion, it became clear that what LM/LQB wanted was a Potemkin village “International” which would finance and otherwise support their unprincipled trade-union maneuvers, including an LM leader’s position as an unelected “adviser” to this cop-ridden union. (See “A Break in Fraternal Relations with Luta Metalúrgica,” WV No. 648, 5 July 1996.) But for the IG the idea that we would break with a Latin American group with a “base” in the trade unions on the basis of principle was unthinkable.

Pabloites of the Second Mobilization

In their article on the Kiev fiasco, the IG asserts: “The appearance of shady characters is particularly frequent after a defeat of the proletariat, when the workers movement is in a phase of decomposition. This is the situation today in the countries of the former Soviet Union.” It is indeed likely that there is a link between what happened in Kiev and the fact of capitalist counterrevolution in the USSR. But since its inception, the IG itself has made it a cardinal point of principle to deny the enormous negative impact that the restoration of capitalism in the former Soviet Union and East Europe has had on the consciousness of the working class of the world.

Our aim is the fight for new October Revolutions. But the disproportion between this purpose and the current political consciousness of the working class, youth and the left internationally is great. Today the mass of workers and even most leftists do not connect their struggles with the goal of proletarian revolution. For Norden, the gap between what we strive for and the current consciousness of the working class became a yawning abyss, leading him to defect from our organization.

In a letter to Norden a couple of months before his exit from our ranks, comrade Joseph Seymour pointed out:

“I believe you do not accept that, beginning in the late 1970s, there has occurred a historic retrogression in the political consciousness of the working class and left internationally. This development both conditioned the counterrevolution in the Soviet bloc and has been reinforced by it. That’s why we now encounter anarchists rather than ostensible Trotskyists or Maoists among the mainstream of young radicals in France....

“The main point is that organizational affiliation follows from and is based on political understanding and agreement, which cannot be achieved at an arbitrary or forced-march pace. Stop trying to get rich quick. It ain’t that kind of period.”

— “Norden’s ‘Group’: Shamefaced Defectors from Trotskyism,” International Bulletin No. 38, June 1996

Norden evidenced a deepening pessimism about the ability of our organization and its revolutionary program to have any impact in the post-Soviet order, expressed in ever more frequent broadsides against the ICL’s supposed “abstract” or “passive” propagandism. In reality Norden saw elements of communist consciousness where none existed, leading to an increasingly desperate chase after alien social forces.

We have described this as “Pabloism of the second mobilization,” referring to the liquidationist current that destroyed the Fourth International in the early 1950s. Faced with the onset of the Cold War and the creation of Stalinist-ruled deformed workers states in East Europe, the Pabloites denied the need to construct Trotskyist parties and instead sought to pressure the Stalinists to outline a “roughly” revolutionary course. Norden’s latter-day Pabloism reflects despair over the destruction of the USSR and imperialist gloating over “the death of communism.”

Building an international in the wake of the worldwide destruction unleashed by the collapse of the workers states in East Europe and the former Soviet Union is extremely difficult. There are no shortcuts. But there is no alternative, either. This struggle must be based on firm adherence to the Trotskyist program. The IG was conceived out of the rejection of the fight for Trotskyism. Their only grounds for complaint in Ukraine is that they thought they had purchased the exclusive rights to the services of some political hucksters, only to find out that the latter were simultaneously working for the competition.

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