Ukranian scam

Ian Donovan asks what the real lessons are.

The political scam perpetrated on sections of the left internationally by a group of corrupt conspirators in the Ukraine has exposed, like little else in recent years, the ridiculous consequences of the chronic disease of sectarianism that paralyses the left’s conception of ‘internationalism’.

The creation of sterile carbon copies of particular nationally-based organisations has certainly long been the bane of post-Trotsky Trotskyism. The roll call of organisations scammed by this crew of joker-provocateurs only underlines the ridiculous state of the left. Apart from the apparent origins of this scam in the Ukrainian and Russian groupings loyal to the Committee for a Workers’ International, the international grouping based around Peter Taaffe’s Socialist Party in England and Wales, the following international currents were conned into engaging in fake ‘fusions’ with phantom Ukrainian groups:

Most crucial of all for the working class movement is not so much the fate of various small international groupings of Trotskyists and others who now have egg on their collective faces. Rather, it is the status of the CWI’s operation in the former USSR. For evidence is now in the public domain that implicated one Ilya Budraitskis, one of the main leaders of the CWI’s Russian organisation, in the scam. (Incidentally Budraitskis has been nominated as a plenary speaker at November’s European Social Forum. He is described as “Attac-Moscow, activist against the war in Chechnya” in the list of speakers for Paris supplied by the Central and Eastern European Social Organisations.)

What exactly was the role of the CWI in the scandal? How far into the organisation beyond the Ukraine did the scam go? This is important for the future of the CWI. While few of course would believe that the historic cadre of the organisation are likely to be implicated, the fact that the organisation has expended effort in various places around the world producing these sects - clones of itself - means that it is a legitimate question as to how deep and how widespread this rot and corruption is.

Without a full accounting, even given the expulsions that have been engendered as a result of the investigation, the CWI will not be able to clean its reputation of the stain engendered by these fraudsters. Surely it is obvious that it cannot be left to closed sects to investigate themselves and the failings that led to this political scandal.

An international investigation and commission of enquiry, organised by socialist and communist organisations not involved in this murky business, on an open and non-sectarian basis, would be the only really definitive and principled means of getting to the bottom of the matter and defining the real causes and extent of this serious problem that has affected the international left. The joint statement that has been mooted by several of the left organisations who were scammed by these people - such as the IBT, AWL, Workers Power’s L5I and COFI - is a step in the right direction, but cannot substitute for a comprehensive international investigation.

In all, it seems that up to 20 different small organisations around the world may have been scammed - in some way touched for money, equipment or the like. As a money-making plan it is pretty small beer, of course - some estimate that the crooks concerned may have got off with around $40,000, which of course is a lot more money in Ukrainian terms that it would seem in the west. Nevertheless, there are rumours that the conspirators may have planned rather more lucrative prey - their pursuit of the Torranceite WRP, which once of course was linked to Gerry Healy’s money-making schemes involving Libya and other bourgeois regimes in the underdeveloped world, may have given them ideas.

Thus it is believed by many on the left in the region that this crew may have been stalking richer prey. Approaches may have been made to Libya: it is alleged that the CWI group in the Ukraine has been organising sessions at a summer camp where Colonel Gaddafi’s ‘green book’ was studied. Doubtless the motives were exactly the same - money.

As Mark Fischer stated in a recent article, these individuals wrote to us over a year ago in the guise of the “Communist Struggle Group (Ukraine)”, claiming to be in agreement with our politics and evidently seeking some kind of coming together on the lines of the various other ‘fusions’ they had attained with other hapless ‘internationals’ (Weekly Worker August 28). We wrote back to them explaining that we do not believe a genuine international can be built in this way. We advised them to strive to build a viable organisation in their own country through seeking a genuine unity of the left, rather than aiming to be yet another Ukrainian clone of a foreign, nationally-based left organisation. The exchange was published in the Weekly Worker:

 “Groups that can barely reproduce themselves in this country expend gargantuan amounts of time, resources and energy attempting to construct ‘Potemkin village’ versions of themselves in other parts of the globe. Entertainingly, members of these sects will castigate our organisation for not being interested in this sterile and pointless work - ‘You’re not internationalists,’ they taunt us. In fact, their understanding of ‘internationalism’ is thoroughly degenerate.

 “Our comrade, Marcus Ström, has cuttingly dubbed their efforts as constructing ‘oil-slick internationals’. Given time and tide (and the internet), it is possible to spread yourself over a wide geographical area and pick up small knots of (supposed) co-thinkers across the world. There is no depth to the phenomenon, however. It is all on the surface and, given the non-permeable nature of the material, it can never go any deeper. A sect internationalising itself is not ‘internationalism’” (Weekly Worker June 20 2002).

These people saw a weakness in the international left that in reality was just begging to be exploited by some intrepid set of hucksters, satirists or tricksters. The number of like-sounding, like-named Trotskyist ‘internationals’, all competing for the mantle of the real continuators of Trotskyism, or something along those lines, has reached ridiculous levels in recent years. Even some of the victims, including ex-Spartacists like the IBT and the League for the Fourth International (L4I), are able to see the funny side - comparisons with Monty Python’s Life of Brian spring effortlessly to mind, as do some of the wilder moments of Tariq Ali’s classic novel Redemption about the bizarre doings of semi-fictitious Trotskyists.

The actual purpose that many of these tiny, semi-religious sects actually serve is questionable, to say the least - nuances of difference on a range of questions, and the personal prestige of individual, often highly egotistical leaders are turned into the programmatic bases of entirely separate organisations. All it took was a troupe of intrepid actors to turn this into a pastiche and make a mockery of the entire ethos.

Thus we learn from Jan Norden’s Internationalist Group that “We had had suspicions for the last nine months that something was amiss with the ‘RKO’ [the IG’s phoney Ukrainian ‘section’ - ID] when we repeatedly requested that they send us a copy of the alleged second issue of their paper, which they claimed was published last November. In December, a European comrade of the LFI visited Kiev for a number of days, but was unable to meet with any of the leaders, although he had been invited.

 “In response to our inquiries about this strange absence, we were informed that their leader ‘Vasily’ had suffered a heart attack, and was reportedly hospitalised for months, during which time we were not able to correspond with or speak with him. Moreover, those who responded to our messages used different names than those we were familiar with; when we sceptically queried them, they blithely said that they had just changed pseudonyms. They did send us leaflets they claimed to have issued in anti-war protests, but they did not have the position of the LFI on Israel-Palestine, which had been a subject of considerable discussion. When we questioned this, there was no response” (Internationalist Group Band of political impostors and swindlers in the Ukraine August 27).

Similar absurdities are legion throughout the other statements of the scammed leftist international groups. COFI, centred on the US League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP), commented: “We know that such an unprecedented and filthy charade could only have arisen in the thick atmosphere of cynicism which dominates the reformist-centrist groups around the world today. It is quite likely that this crew thought that robbery of foreign workers was only a small step beyond the norm in their circles. We also know that, as word of the scandal spreads, it will add to that cynicism and fatalism. However, hiding the fraud will only make it worse. We will do everything in our power to tell the truth and fundamentally to rely upon the coming revolutionary upsurge of the world proletariat to sweep away scum like the present conspirators, as well as the ordinary cynical reformists and centrists who unconsciously give them sustenance” (Second statement by the LRP and COFI on the Ukrainian fraud September 4).

Here is at least the beginning of wisdom, in recognising at some level that the questions involved in this affair need to be addressed openly, that hiding such matters can only do more harm. The IBT on this question has likewise somewhat redeemed itself by the extensive and non-sectarian use of its website to publicise details of the conspiracy, the conspirators’ photographs, etc, in order to warn the workers’ movement internationally against being taken in.

However, the IBT has also - understandably in some ways, but nevertheless wrongly - reacted somewhat defensively to criticism over the underlying political problem that produced this absurdity. After correcting some anecdotal inaccuracies in comrade Fischer’s article on this question last week, the IBT’s Alan Davis wrote: “As for the substance of the accusation of ‘oil-slick internationalism’, I quote our statement on the Ukraine scandal: ‘We will learn from this experience as we continue to work to extend the IBT internationally, but we do not expect to be able to avoid all risks’. The CPGB takes no such risks, and is content to build an organisation only in Britain. That is your choice, comrades, but it is not internationalism. It was not Lenin’s internationalism, and nor is it ours” (Letters Weekly Worker September 4).

The problem is, apart from the unfounded claim that Lenin favoured cloning micro-sects across the world, that the L4I takes the same “risks”. So does the L5I. So does COFI. So does News and Letters. So does the AWL. So does the PTS. Etc, etc, almost to the point of ad infinitum (well, around 20 groups altogether are reckoned to be involved, so this is only a slight exaggeration). We see this duplication (or perhaps duodeciplication?) of effort as utterly absurd, and have no desire to add to it by building our own Mickey Mouse ‘international’. Better to build something genuinely broad that can develop in a partyist direction, such as a European Socialist Alliance. Or similar ‘left unity’ initiatives in other regions and countries, etc, that can lead to genuinely fruitful international organisation and collaboration, rather than another string of tiny sects.

It was precisely this absurdly wasteful paradigm that gave these cynical jokers the opportunity to carry out their no doubt very satisfying scam in the first place. What, after all, is the fundamental programmatic difference between, say, the IBT and Norden’s L4I? Even on a formal level, they are microscopic - just a matter of nuances in terms of politics and the mutual antagonisms of rival cliques within the Spartacist tradition separate them. The differences between the Shachtmanite LRP, or Workers Power/L5I, and others may seem marginally greater, but there is nothing that could not be argued out much more constructively within an open, democratic regime based on the Leninist position of ‘freedom of criticism, unity in action’. Ditto for the others.

For most of these sects, members are not allowed to interact with other leftists and engage in the kind of free and open debate through which a genuinely revolutionary programme and praxis can become rooted in the masses, or even in the broad milieu of the left.

In most cases, they are forbidden by rule from arguing anything other than the line of the majority of their particular sect at a particular time, irrespective of consonance with reality. In one case where this is not formally the case, the AWL, the leadership uses a different method - the elaboration of grotesque caricatures of the positions of rival groupings (‘anti-semitism’, everyone else being in some way ‘Stalinist’, etc) as a test of loyalty for its own organisation and a means of producing constant, sectarian conflict with other leftists, thereby sealing off its members from real political interaction in a different way.

The aim, however, in all these cases is the cohesion of the individual sect, not the creation of a genuinely broad, partyist, revolutionary movement. Perhaps this description may be a little unfair to some groupings (eg, News and Letters) caught in the web that was spun by these tricksters, but the fact of their common entrapment in a scam that took advantage of this very paradigm suggests such a picture may not be so far off the mark.

Cynicism on this scale is generated not merely by the objective situation, but also by the sterile and pointless existence, and lack of real perspectives, of these sects. Such cynicism is not purely a phenomenon caused by the “reformists and centrists”, as the LRP asserts in its statement, or a product of the hostile external world (it is a product of the inability of today’s far left to deal with the phenomena of this difficult period - though that is a slightly different proposition).

Genuine internationalism must involve the overcoming of the sect divisions that run through the revolutionary left, both on a national and international scale. The creation of a real international can only proceed in a parallel manner to the creation of national revolutionary communist parties. Through a process of international rapprochement, common work and the overcoming of sectarianism though collective political struggle within as unitary a framework as can be achieved.

That, and not further fragmentation - or a war of sect against sect for hegemony in a world of sects - is the road to the renaissance of internationalist communism.