International Committee of the Fourth International
Fourth International Vol. 20 (1994): Capital, Labor and the Nation-State

A Letter to Simon Pirani of the WRP from Vladimir Volkov

We publish below the reply by Vladmir Volkov to documents which he had been sent by Simon Pirani of the Workers Revolutionary Party. Volkov has received no reply to his letter.

March 16, 1993

Dear Simon,

I received an envelope with three copies of issue No. 3 of International. Thank you very much! The other comrades also received what they were due.

Without digressing, I would like to turn immediately to the main issue which has prompted me to write this letter. I had already begun to fill out documents in order to receive a visa when several circumstances forced me to bring a halt to these preparations for a while. I would like to immediately explain a number of questions which have principled significance for me.

These questions are bound up with the relationship between the Workers International and the International Committee, with the history of the struggle and split in the IC in 1985-1986.

You know very well, Simon, that I have never tried to conceal my sympathy for the IC. However, in a situation when we in Russia knew practically nothing about the inner-party struggle and the history of the Fourth International abroad, any sympathies might be more or less accidental; in any case, they could not have truly serious foundations. I was therefore equally ready to listen to anyone who declared himself to be a representative of a tendency claiming to continue the classical revolutionary tradition. You will agree, Simon, that this was rational and justified. However, when you listen to the opinions of various sides, you gradually begin to arrive at some definite conclusions. At the present I would like to share with you in a comradely fashion the first conclusions which I have made and perhaps some of the doubts which I have.

Let us therefore begin with the moment when we met each other here in Cheliabinsk. By that time, Aleksei Gusev had already managed to tell me quite a bit about everything today’s IC and Comrade North personally have been accused of. The essence of these accusations can be reduced to the following: North is a dangerous man, he is a sectarian and a scandalmonger; he hangs labels on people indiscriminately and, in general, he is extremely unscrupulous in his political behavior. (Similar characterizations with regard to D. North were given to me by all the other groups which I knew in Russia at the time who acted in the name of Trotskyism: S. Biyets, the Spartacists, and so forth.) I tried to find out from Aleksei the political reasons which make it necessary to renounce North, but I didn’t obtain the slightest clarification from him.

Then Aleksei calls me in Cheliabinsk and says that a person might come who could tell me firsthand who North really is. I agreed. You came here, Simon, and made the necessary assessment from your side. I think that I am not mistaken if I transmit your words in the following manner: In words North says all the right things, but in actual fact he conducts himself not as a Trotskyist. His methods of discrediting his political opponents are Stalinist; this is a result of the pressure of Stalinism on Trotskyism. North, therefore, cannot be taken at his word; the Trotskyists can be anyone you like, but not North.

Below, I will try to touch upon the questions I have raised, but for now I want to remind you what I said then about these things. I said that the facts you related are very important. However, in the first place, they once again do not give a political assessment of North’s line, and, secondly, all this differs so much from what I had read with my own eyes that I am under the impression that the North about which you have spoken and the North whom I know through his works are different people. I then proposed to leave the question open. You agreed and with that we parted.

In the documents which you then sent to us, there was not a single word about the events which led to the split in the IC in 1985-1986 and there was no attempt to explain the reasons for the split. Having become acquainted with the documents which you sent, I found them indisputable, since there was nothing for me to object to in the basic ideas outlined in these documents. However, I could not help but notice that the Workers International emerges in them as something which suddenly and inexplicably appeared. I now have some grounds to assume that you did not set out to give a clear and exhaustive picture of the crisis in the IC in 1985-1986.

All the greater was my surprise when, having arrived at the seminar organized in Kiev by the IC, I discovered a persistent desire on Comrade North’s part to place at my disposal any material relating to the latter crisis in the IC. How can one not think in such a situation: Probably, unlike others, North has nothing to hide! In any case, it was only here that for the first time I heard a political explanation of the crisis in 1985-1986.

I carefully acquainted myself with part of the documents relating to this question. Of course, it is impossible to take in everything so quickly. However, Simon, you must agree that there exists a critical moment, a saturation point, when things begin to become clear and, from random pieces there begins to arise a completed picture.

Here is the conception which I developed about the events which took place.

At the beginning of the 80s the political line of the WRP became severely eroded, which was bound up to no small degree with the abandonment of a class evaluation of the Middle East regimes from the point of view of the interests of the international working class. The political degradation of the WRP found its expression also in the personal degeneration of Healy, which was uncovered in the summer of 1985. When it became clear that it would not be possible to suppress the scandal, the majority fraction of the WRP led by Banda and Slaughter decided to get rid of Healy and his supporters. Slaughter and Banda did not want, however, to open up a discussion directed at explaining the political reasons lying at the base of the scandal, for they fully shared the politics being carried out by Healy. Hence was born the thesis about how the crisis was connected with problems of “revolutionary morality,” but by no means with problems of the party’s strategy and tactics. Here are the actual words spoken by Banda: “For the first time, and possibly the last, the party has been split not on tactical and programmatic issues, but on the most basic question of revolutionary morality” (News Line, November 1985 in Fourth International, Vol. 13, No. 2, Autumn 1986, p. 55). As a supplement to this, and in opposition to it, in my mind, there was also created the thesis about how the crisis embraced all the sections of the IC without exception, and not only the WRP.

That part of the ICFI which was headed by Comrade North and which tried to reveal the political roots of the history with Healy threatened the position which Slaughter and Banda occupied in the leadership of the WRP. In order to protect themselves from an honest and thoroughgoing party analysis, the latter were forced to resort to actions which are alien to the spirit of the international revolutionary movement. (I have in mind in the given instance the situation which arose on February 8, 1986, with the opening of the Eighth Congress of the WRP, when the British police guarded the building where the congress was taking place against the supporters of North inside the WRP.)

A split was inevitable, and it took place. The question now remains of understanding its causes and drawing lessons from it.

The ICFI has written quite a lot about this matter. Has the opposing side presented anything of a similar nature? I can, in any case, state that the Workers International clearly does not want to return to these events.

The WI refuses in the very documents which it presents as founding documents to define where it came from and what tradition it continues. There is always talk about how the FI must be built, but what then has happened to the more than forty-year postwar history of the FI? Probably you might object that the question of history is a question of history and nothing more. The history of the inner-party struggle, despite all its importance, is a secondary question in comparison to the problems of the movement today. To a certain degree I am prepared to agree with such an opinion. But the problem is in actual fact much more complex. Is it possible, in general, to look at the current movement in isolation from its history?

I will allow myself to make a small digression and to illustrate my thoughts with an example from the classics. Hegel, in the introduction to his lectures on the history of philosophy, in trying to give a definition of philosophy, came to the conclusion that to define philosophy means to lay out its history. And, vice versa, the history of philosophy gives us simultaneously its object and its definition. They are one and the same. “In the history of philosophy,” writes Hegel, “we are dealing with philosophy itself. The activities undertaken by the history of philosophy constitute no more simple adventures than the degree to which world history is simply romantic; it is not a collection of accidental events, the travels of wandering knights, who engage in battle and labor without any goal, and whose deeds disappear without a trace; just as little does one capriciously dream up one thing here, and someone else dreams up something else there; no: in the movement of the cognizing spirit there is substantial interconnection, and within it everything is accomplished according to reason” (Hegel, Lectures on the History of Philosophy, Works, Volume IX, [M.: 1932], p. 25).

Hegel’s summation: “the study of the history of philosophy is the study of philosophy itself’ (ibid., p.35). I do not have such a poor opinion of the revolutionary socialist movement that I consider it wrong to apply to it that which Hegel felt could be applied to philosophy. I propose that the study of the history of the revolutionary movement is the study of the revolutionary movement itself, its inner essence, content, its political strategy and tactics.

On this basis I consider it not only desirable, but simply necessary to study the history of the struggle and split within the FI, for it expresses not only and not so much the struggle of personal ambitions, but fundamental shifts in deep layers of social relations.

It should also be added that revolutionary thought by its very definition develops in a relentless struggle with revisionism and opportunism. You yourself expressed this idea, Simon, in an article on the history of the FI. You said there that “the continuity of Marxism and the FI was guaranteed to the degree in which the struggle against ... revisionism was waged.” Here, of course, we are in full agreement. But how can you explain, in light of this statement, the unwillingness of the Workers International to begin a discussion of the split, which, after all, serves as the basis for the idea of creating the WI?

I would now like to touch upon the theme of “Stalinist methods” in politics, which you ascribe to North. What, in my opinion, do these methods represent? First of all, the use in politics of filthy means which are criminal from a moral (and, often, from a legal) point of view, such as listening in on telephone conversations, spreading slanders which are known to be lies, etc. Did North engage in this? I think that here the answer will be a categorical no.

Second, Stalinism is the unceasing falsification of history, which is rewritten according to the demands of the present moment. Stalinism is the denial of historical continuity, of any historical connection, of any responsibility for earlier words and promises. In other words, Stalinism is the complete denial of historicity. Can one direct this reproach at Comrade North, whose entire position is permeated with historicism through and through? On the other hand, such a reproach inevitably arises with regard to the WI, for it clearly is in no hurry to reveal the secret of its appearance in the world.

Third, one must consider a necessary symptom of Stalinist methods in politics to be the attempt to simply take refuge behind principled considerations when what is actually involved are absolutely unrelated concerns over career, personal success, etc. Can you seriously accuse Comrade North of such inclinations? I will not take it upon myself to judge about this, if only because this so strongly differs from the impression which I formed about Comrade North during our personal acquaintance.

I, of course, do not intend to cover all the possible symptoms of what might fall under the rubric of “Stalinist methods.” But I do not see the possibility of ascribing even the characteristics I have described to Comrade North. If you have someone in mind, then it is someone else. I therefore do not see a basis for the arguments which you present against North. Perhaps I am mistaken. If so, then please dispel my errors. In any case, it’s not enough to make a bare declaration about North’s “methods.”

In trying to understand the situation, I have come to the conclusion that the IC emerged as victors in the crisis of 85-86 and therefore one must give them the right to continue the historical continuity of the FI. I also feel in connection with this that, for the Workers International to somehow justify its legitimacy, it must place in doubt the historical continuity of the FI and IC, for only in this case does the departure from this continuity become justified. In reading your article, Simon, dedicated to the postwar development of the FI up to 1953, I see in it an attempt to present the situation of the movement as having already seriously degenerated by 1948. In comparing this evaluation with the analysis made in D. North’s work, The Heritage We Defend, I am inclined to take the side of North. The struggle which J.P. Cannon waged in the FI and the positions defended until the beginning of the 1950s by Pablo and Mandel do not allow one to consider that the FI abandoned the historical continuity of Marxism or did so in the next few years. Of course, I am far from the idea of presenting matters as if they were without a hitch. On the contrary, opportunism deeply penetrated the FI in the postwar period. However, this nevertheless cannot change the indisputable fact, in my opinion, that the historical continuity of Marxism was not broken in the world arena. This historical continuity continues through the “Open Letter” of 1953, the refusal to join with Mandel at the beginning of the sixties, and, finally, through the struggle against opportunism and revisionism in the ICFI, which found its highest expression in the middle of the eighties.

Insofar as the Workers International arose as a consequence of the defeat of the leadership of the WRP in the IC in 1985-1986, it feels uncomfortable in remembering the struggle against opportunism and revisionism which was conducted in the FI in the postwar period. To a certain extent, this brings it close to the “27 reasons” of Banda in which the historical continuity of Trotskyism in the postwar period is completely denied.

As a person who has only recently come into contact with the world Trotskyist movement, and who has not yet lost his powers of perception, I can by no means agree with the idea that the FI has no heritage which it has carried through the whole time of its existence, which it has defended, preserved and developed. The FI undoubtedly has a heritage which should be defended. This is especially valuable to us here in Russia, who have been forced to remain in isolation for long years under the yoke of the increasingly decrepit Stalinist regime, who have been forced to conceal our convictions and views, for it has been correctly said: Marxism in the Soviet Union was a forbidden form of thought.

Here in Russia we have been compelled to exert much effort in order to make contact with the world revolutionary movement, while resisting the isolation and pressure from all sides during the epoch of the collapse of the world Stalinist order. Those of us who found the strength to join with this courageous, dangerous, but most noble cause, have come to the movement not out of calculation, but because of deep conviction and irresistible inner necessity. Our natural yearning is to belong to the best which the world socialist movement has preserved within itself. We want to link up with that heritage which has been left to us by generations of courageous fighters; we want to master this heritage and not renounce their heroic and instructive experience.

We have been looking for the historical continuity of Marxism and we have seen that it exists. In its documents the Workers International proposes that we virtually overlook the entire postwar history of the FI; it recognizes without qualification the “heritage” only of the period leading up to and including the transitional program of 1938.1 propose that this is a mistake.

You might object that perhaps the victor in the struggle within the ICFI in 85-86 was nevertheless not North. Very well, let us agree that this is so. But then explain, Simon, how am I to evaluate the words which you spoke during that period and which, I must assume, were not expressed by accident? They are quoted in the Resolution of the CC of the Workers League from January 27, 1986: “Of all the damaging misconceptions of Bolshevism flaunted in the WRP the most dangerous one appears in the 6th Congress resolution: ‘One of the central premises of the revolutionary party and its press is the necessity to bring socialist consciousness into the working class from outside it’” (Fourth International, Vol. 13, No. 2, Autumn 1986, p. 126).

I always assumed that the conception of the need to bring socialist consciousness into the spontaneous workers movement is one of the cornerstones of revolutionary Marxism. I don’t understand the way in which this idea can be seen as having become outmoded. It is a part of the “heritage” which I, in any case, defend unconditionally. Perhaps I was in error when I said that the WI fully accepts the “heritage” up through 1938? Perhaps the WI is not pleased with some other aspects of the earlier achievements of Marxism? If that is the case, Simon, then we are talking in different languages. But I hope that this is no more than a regretful misunderstanding.

I will try to sum up what I have said:

1. I do not see how D. North can be incriminated with “Stalinist methods.” I do not understand how his personal struggle and then struggle of the IC as a whole for the continuity of the founding principles of Marxism can be assessed as the result of the “pressure of Stalinism on Trotskyism.”

2. It is unclear to me what exactly the Workers International is trying to “restore.” Should I understand the words about “restoration” as a recognition that the FI was buried by Stalinism as a result of the split in 1985-1986? Or must I understand them in the sense that the FI in actual fact completely degenerated even in the immediate postwar years? Neither the first, nor the second supposition is correct in my mind.

3. The Workers International arose as a result of the split in the ICFI. It must therefore give the most exhaustive explanation of these events, uncovering the reasons why it was necessary to form the WI. In order to present itself as something serious, the WI must define its historical roots, and show what traditions it continues, “what heritage it defends.” I have found no clarity regarding these issues in the documents of the WI. I have grounds to believe that such a position of the WI is not accidental, but deliberate.

I agreed to participate in the conference of the WI to no small degree because no preliminary conditions were set down. There is therefore all the more reason that ethical duty demands from me a preliminary declaration of the conceptions and doubts which I would feel myself to be wrong in concealing and which have arisen after I agreed to participate in your conference.

Perhaps the WI has some materials which have been beyond my purview and which would allow me to change my mind? I would be very glad to receive them as soon as possible. But at the present moment I am forced to say that I find it impossible to participate in the conference of the WI. In addition, I ask forgiveness for any difficulties I have caused the organizers.

I feel that my decision is based on a desire to stand on principled considerations. Therefore, I will definitely let my friends know about it and explain the reasons which have compelled me to act this way.

I anxiously await your speedy reply.

With socialist greetings,

Vladimir Volkov