A '60's Socialist Takes a Hard Right

by Tim Wohlforth

I met Lyndon LaRouche Jr. when we were both members of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the main Trotskyist group in the U.S. and about as far left as you could be in those days. I was an SWP member from 1957 until 1964, and so was LaRouche. At that time he went by his party name, Lyn Marcus. He told me that he had visited India as a soldier at the end of World War II and the revolutionary ferment he had witnessed there convinced him to become a radical. After a short period around the Communist Party, he joined the Trotskyists in Boston. When I first knew him, LaRouche was inactive in the SWP and was earning a living as an economic consultant in the shoe industry.

In the summer of 1965 I headed a small group of Trotskyists, the American Committee for the Fourth International (ACFI), which had split from the SWP in September 1964. LaRouche and his new wife, Carol, left the SWP and joined our small group. For about six months thereafter I met with LaRouche almost everyday.

The LaRouches lived in a small, cluttered apartment in Manhattan's West Village that was filled with books, documents and a portable typewriter. I saw no signs that he was holding a job. LaRouche churned out lengthy typewritten documents. He had already developed many of the basic ideas that flowered in his days as an independent leftist and that he later adapted to his rightist politics.

LaRouche had a gargantuan ego. Convinced he was a genius, he combined his strong conviction in his own abilities with an arrogance expressed in the cadences of upper-class New England. He assumed that the comment in the Communist Manifesto that "a small section of the ruling class cuts itself adrift, and joins the revolutionary class..." was written specifically for him. And he believed that the working class was lucky to obtain his services.

LaRouche possessed a marvelous ability to place any world happening in a larger context, which seemed to give the event additional meaning. but his thinking was schematic, lacking factual detail and depth. It was contradictory. His explanations were a bit too pat, and his mind worked so quickly that I always suspected his bravado covered over superficiality. He had an answer for everything. Sessions with him reminded me of a parlor game: present a problem, no matter how petty, and without so much as blinking his eye, LaRouche would dream up the solution.

He was one of us for only six months. He then moved to another Trotskyist group, the Spartacist League. Unable to win this group over to "LaRouchism," the LaRouches left after a few months. Later the SWP received a letter from him pompously announcing that all factions and sections of the Trotskyist Fourth International were dead, and that he and Carol were going to build the Fifth International.

Flash-Forward to 1966

In early 1966 the couple joined a relatively broad coalition of New Left Intellectuals called the Committee for Independent Political Action (CIPA). He organized a West Village CIPA branch and, after the November election, attracted a coterie of young intellectuals. He had finally discovered his milieu.

Through a combination of challenging classes and spirited polemics, LaRouche won over a group of graduate students, most of whom were members of, or around, Progressive Labor. At the time Progressive Labor (PL), a left, pro-Chinese splinter from the Communist Party, was at the height of its strength within the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). This group of young intellectuals included Ed Spannaus, Nancy Spannaus, Tony Papert, Paul Milkman, Paul Gallagher, Leif Johnson, Tony Chaitkin and Steve Fraser, who led his work at Columbia University.

The Columbia occupation and the student strike in 1968 really established LaRouche on the Left. SDS, which led the student movement, contained, in addition to PL's supporters, two main factions - Mark Rudd's Action Faction and a more moderate group known as the Praxis Axis. The Rudd group, which soon emerged as the Weathermen, was interested only in "demos" and fighting with the cops. The Praxis group was influenced by the French intellectual Andre Gorz, who held that modern technology was creating a working class with students in the vanguard. This gave the group a kind of mainstream, student-power perspective.

LaRouche captured most of the PL-SDS group at Columbia and presented a relatively strong third alternative: a program for linking student struggles with those of the surrounding poor black community. Since this was a period when many students, radicalized by the Vietnam war and the black struggle, were looking for a way to reach beyond the campus gates, LaRouche's approach was appealing.

He quickly regrouped his followers into the SDS Labor Committee - later to become the National Caucus of Labor Committees - and began holding meetings, which from time to time I attended, in the Columbia area. Twenty to 30 students would gather in a large apartment and sit on the floor surrounding LaRouche, who now sported a very shaggy beard. The meeting would sometimes go on as long as seven hours. It was difficult to tell where discussions of tactics left off and educational presentation began. Encouraging the students, LaRouche gave them esoteric assignments, such as searching through the writings of Georges Sorel to discover Rudd's anarchistic origins, or studying Rosa Luxemburg's The Accumulation of Capital. Since SDS was strong on spirit and action but rather bereft of theory, the students appeared to thoroughly enjoy this work.

The Supreme Goal

During this period LaRouche perfected a series of ideas, derived from the classical Marxist tradition, which he has transformed, rather than abandoned, in his present right-wing phase. Most important was his Theory of Hegemony, which he drew from his interpretation of Lenin's What is to be done? In it Lenin speaks of intellectuals bringing the workers social consciousness. LaRouche expanded it, drawing from Antonio Gramsci's notion of "hegemony." LaRouche's goal was to forge an intellectual elite corps that would gain hegemony on the left, and then capture the allegiance of the masses from on high.

The second strand of LaRouche's thought was his Theory of Reindustrialization. He began with a rather orthodox theory of capitalist crisis derived from Marx's Capital and Luxemburg's The accumulation of Capital. He was convinced that capitalism had ceased to grow, or to grow sufficiently to meet the needs of poor Americans. This created an economic crisis that would only worsen.

In order to overcome stagnation at home and revolution abroad, the metropolitan countries needed a new industrial revolution in the Third World. LaRouche expected this to take place in India. The advanced nations would use their unused capacity to make capital goods and export them to India, to be combined with the surplus work force to carry through this worldwide transformation. LaRouche called this the "third stage of imperialism." Today it remains at the heart of his economic theory.

LaRouche believed his program to reindustrialize America - and, through capital exports to the Third World, the world as a whole - would draw popular support so that he could personally resolve the crisis of capitalism. During the Vietnam war his idea was to reconvert the war industries to this peaceful reindustrialization process.

This scheme, which shaped LaRouche writings and agitation in the late '60s and early '70s, was presented in an increasingly frenetic manner, bolstered by predictions of economic doom. LaRouche was a crisis-monger of the highest order. LaRouche and his followers became increasingly convinced that the fate of the world rested with their group and their great leader. The problem lay with the stupidity of the nation's leaders and the boorishness of the masses. If only LaRouche were in power, all the world's troubles - perhaps even the rats problem in New York City - would be resolved swiftly.

The Labor Committee quickly ran into trouble. It revolved around the issue of the movement in the black community for control of the school system and other aspects of community life. An experiment in community control was established in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville school district in New York City. Almost immediately a fight between the United Federation of Teachers (UFT), led by Albert Schanker, and the black community group began. It was one of the sadder episodes in the history of the labor movement, during which some legitimate worries over union rights became transformed into a strike that appeared to many as racist.

The SDS Labor Committee - not previously a strong supporter of unions - suddenly began campaigning in defense of the UFT. Viewing the whole community control movement as a "counterinsurgency" program, LaRouche saw it as a conspiracy: "...[T]he immediate issue of the [New York] teachers strike, the Ocean Hill-Brownsville demonstration project incidents, is the result of a particularly clever 'CIA-type' plot engineered by the Ford Foundation and visibly directed by its black 'Uncle Toms'..." (from the Campaigner newspaper supplement, "The N.Y.C. School Crisis," no date).

The LaRouche group's polemics became increasingly strident and directed against liberals. Of course, liberal-bashing was quite popular in left student circles during those days, and LaRouche excelled at it. I remember private discussions I had with him in 1965 when he expounded on Kennedy, Rockefeller and the Trilateral Commission. LaRouche believed that there was a network of foundations and agents of the more moderate, internationalist, Eastern capitalists who sought to avoid unrest at home through reform projects and revolution abroad through development programs like the Alliance for Progress. Even as a radical, LaRouche believed liberals were the main enemy.

Going After the Enemy

LaRouche, like most of the rest of the left, expected the '70s to be a period of growing discontent in the U.S., a continuation of the student movement of the '60s, this time extended and reinforced by a labor radicalization. Instead, a conservative mood engulfed both students and workers.

Many groups - LaRouche's among them - turned inward, rejecting a world that rejected them. Factions, splits and personal groups became the order of the day. For some the "party" became home, family and cause all wrapped up in one cozy and often frightening package. Those who knew how to manipulate people's emotional needs prospered; devotees turned over inheritances; apparatuses grew as audience and membership shrank. This did not happen all of the left, but it did occur among the Chinese-oriented "New Communist" descendants of the SDS breakup as well as among the Trotskyists - including my own group, the Workers League. LaRouche excelled in this new and unfriendly atmosphere.

I next heard of him in 1973 when his supporters launched some 30 physical attacks on members of the SWP and the Communist Party. He called it "Operation Mop-Up" and announced to the world that he intended to remove these two parties as competitors.

It was at this time that people on the left began to wonder whether LaRouche could any longer be considered one of them.

Tim Wohlforth is a longstanding left political activist and author of  The Prophet's Children: Travels on the American Left.

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