Media Circus: Sect Appeal

An ugly family feud cleaves a Trotskyist publishing empire in twain.

Published February 6, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

it is never difficult to spot the Spartacist League at a demonstration. They are the ones with the most intricate (not to say unchantable) slogans. To the consternation of many who opposed the Gulf War, television cameras invariably zoomed in on the Spart banners reading "Defend Iraq! Defeat U.S. Imperialism!" And though the League itself has always been tiny, it maintains a vigorous publishing empire. The Spartacist literature table offers a biweekly newspaper, the Workers Vanguard, plus two or three issues a year of the magazine Spartacist (which also publishes in French, Spanish and German). There are other journals and pamphlets too numerous to mention, much less read. Yet a consistent tone runs throughout the whole catalog -- an in-your-face quality, Camille Paglia meets Lenin.

Now, there is no accounting for taste, to be sure, but the five bucks a year it used to cost to subscribe to the Vanguard always seemed to me like a bargain, given the entertainment it provided. The Spartacists, who may best be termed "fundamentalist Trotskyists," have a flair for logic-chopping, and for mercilessly ridiculing their opponents, who are many. It has long been a point of pride for the League never to agree with anyone else -- least of all the several other, virtually indistinguishable, Trot organizations spread thinly across the globe. Their means of differentiation have been curious indeed: For a long time, the League showed a strange enthusiasm for the Soviet military (exemplified by the unforgettable Spart headline/banner/slogan "Hail Red Army in Afghanistan!"). And in recent years, various Spart journals have been adorned with pictures of Nina Hartley, a socialist activist somewhat better known for her pornographic videotapes.

When the Sparts doubled the subscription price, I had to let the Vanguard pass me by -- capitalist austerity being what it is. But then, last July, a particularly exciting issue hit the newsstands. Nearly half of it was devoted to explaining the expulsion, a few weeks earlier, of Jan Norden, the Vanguard's editor for almost a quarter century. It was as if Regis had tossed Kathy Lee out of the studio amid angry recriminations. In contrast to the shrill but lucid quality of most League polemics, the denunciation of Norden seemed very odd. The charge on which he was bounced from his post had no precedent in the rich and varied history of Spartacism: "For some eight months, he had stopped asking the party for reimbursement for bills incurred in discharging his political responsibilities from his home by phone, or through fax and computer equipment that had been supplied by the organization."

Anyone intrigued by all this could order from the League a sizable work entitled "Norden's 'Group': Shamefaced Defectors From Trotskyism." The Nordenites, undaunted, promptly replied with a tract of their own ("From a Drift Toward Abstentionism to Desertion From The Class Struggle"), of only slightly less elephantine proportions. Scarcely had the photocopiers cooled when a manifesto announced the birth of Norden's Internationalist Group (with membership in the one-digit range). Then, in January, the Group launched "The Internationalist," a bimonthly magazine, with Norden at the editor's desk. And so the periodical literature of U.S. Marxism was enriched by one more publication.

Even 10 years ago, when the family tree of the American left was a bit leafier than today, a new magazine would not have been that big a deal. Every organization, no matter what size, had its "mass organ" -- usually a tabloid paper, though a mimeographed or photocopied newsletter would do in a pinch. And usually it also had a theoretical journal, where party cadres and "advanced workers" were instructed in revolutionary concepts (applied to information gleaned, very often, from The New York Times). The groups and their publications were numerous, and various: A hundred flowers bloomed.

Which isn't really the case so much anymore. Sure, there are a few. Stay around a college campus long enough these days and you will eventually see Socialist Worker, the coy imitation of a Murdoch paper issued by the International Socialist Organization. In the past five years, the ISO has gone from around 200 members to something under 1,000 -- in consequence of which, numerous slightly deluded student-Leninists now expect to take state power sometime late in the Clinton administration. The labor and sacrifice of aging revolutionaries in other Marxist formations keep a few of the other established papers alive. But new groups today are far more likely to concentrate on building a Web page -- like those of the Canadian New Socialist and the Detroit-based Workers Voice.

But the Spartacists (both paleo- and neo-) have valiantly fought the seductions of the Net. The League does not have a Web site, nor does The Internationalist. In recent months, the Vanguard has taken notice of alt.politics.socialism.trotsky -- only to characterize it as a "fever swamp." (Not a bad description of Usenet as a whole, come to think of it.) And there is something nicely retro about The Internationalist, which looks and feels just like a Spart publication from decades past.

As well it might: Between them, Norden and his associates have accumulated about one century of membership in the League, and written many thousands of pages for the party press. At this stage, grasping the political differences between the Internationalist Group and the organization that spawned it requires a microscope. The first issue of their magazine contains its share of revolutionary boilerplate: Free Mumia, support the South Korean strikers, cops are racists, the Indonesian government is brutal. Doubtless, Norden and his associates can write such articles while in a light sleep, and probably did.

Still, for the magazine's premier, the Internationalists also put together some interesting coverage of Mexico (a blend of bourgeois sources and palpable outrage at the condition of the maquiladora workers). And a group of cothinkers in Volta Redonda, Brazil, report on their struggle to throw the police out of their union -- which has become a very sore point indeed between the IG and the Sparts. For here, at least, the line of distinction between the groups is clear.

It seems that a couple of years back, the Spartacists established fraternal ties with a group of Brazilian metalworkers. In the Southern Hemisphere, there are no branches of the International Communist League, which is what the Sparts call their network of mailboxes around the world. Nor, for that matter, are there all that many industrial workers in the League, either. So the Liga Quarta-Internacionalista do Brasil/Liga Metalzrgica was quite an addition to the extended family.

In the friendliest possible way, the Spartacists encouraged the Brazilians to purge the cops from their union -- until just about the time Norden and his dinner companions were expelled. Suddenly, the League decided that active support for their Brazilian associates "presents unacceptable risks to the vanguard." (Perhaps the Brazilian cops proved more frightening to deal with in person than they had on paper.) The Spartacist League vowed never to let its shadow fall on Volta Redonda again.

As for Volta Redonda contingent, it has cast its lot with the IG juggernaut. As far as Brazilian Trotskyist metalworkers are concerned, the Spartacist League reposes in the trashcan of history. Long live Jan Norden and the intransigent revolutionaries of the Internationalist Group! For the communism of Lenin and Trotsky! Defend the advanced positions of Nina Hartley!

E X T R A !

Not exactly rocket science There's nothing quite so satisfying to behold as the outrage of the clueless. In its Jan. 6 & 13 issue, The New Republic, possibly inspired by noted physicist/prankster Alan Sokal, published what it said were excerpts of letters by none other than Albert Einstein himself -- letters that were so crude and nasty that TNR suggested he had proved himself "a bigger schmuck than ever." The letters, which made rather anachronistic references to "Native Americans" and "people with disabilities" were, of course, a joke. But not to certain readers, some of whose outraged letters the editors printed in the current (Feb. 7) issue. And speaking of clueless: A few pages later in the same issue of TNR, New Republic Online coordinator Brian Hecht suggests that President Clinton's plan to connect every classroom to the Internet is "optimistic, ambitious and naive" because the Net is home to ads and junk and pictures of Jenny McCarthy -- as well as to lots of misleading information. "As access to the Web has widened, legitimate information has been subsumed by a deluge of vanity 'home pages,' corporate marketing gimmicks and trashy infomercials," Hecht sniffs. We don't imagine he thought much of his magazine's Einstein hoax either.

-- David Futrelle

By Scott McLemee

Scott McLemee, a contributing editor at Lingua Franca, writes regularly for Salon.

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