Lyndon LaRouche’s March to Nowhere

The crises and anxieties of our age gave Lyndon LaRouche a lot of material to work with, to create his theories and control his followers. Now, his aimless and contorted reign has come to an end.

An international political tendency that first began to crystallize some fifty years ago is most likely coming to a close: the movement created by by the self-proclaimed genius and elder statesman Lyndon Hermyle LaRouche, Jr, who died Tuesday.

The seeds of LaRouche’s “movement” first took root in New York City and Philadelphia in the mid-1960s, when student radicals began to attend courses on Marxist economic theory by a lecturer known as Lyn Marcus. This had been LaRouche’s pen name for many years in the Trotskyist movement.

It has often been said that the pseudonym derives from “Lenin Marx,” though there is no evidence for this, and “Lyn” is simply a familiar contraction of his first name. LaRouche joined the Socialist Workers Party in Boston in 1949 and remained in it until 1965. Throughout his years of membership LaRouche followed in his father’s footsteps as a “time-motion” (efficiency) engineer hired to speed up production on assembly lines; he also worked as a consultant to companies on how to use computers to manage their accounts. His work left LaRouche plenty of time to write letters and documents on Marxist theory. The Trotskyist leadership seems to have ignored him, and various accounts by longtime members suggest that he was regarded as peculiar or perhaps mentally unbalanced.

LaRouche himself saw things differently, of course. He wrote in 1970 that no one in the SWP could serve “as a qualified revolutionary leader.” He “viewed them as rather a custodial staff keeping premises warmed and aired out for the arrival of actual revolutionary leaders.” Only he had the command of Marxist theory to train them, and beginning in 1965 he attempted to assert his authority among disgruntled members and ex-members of the SWP.

He managed to attract a few, but in the process began exhibiting a knack for writing poisonous denunciations of opponents, often using bits and pieces of psychoanalytic terminology he had picked up in his reading. Perhaps the most striking testimony to this habit came from the British Trotskyist leader Gerry Healy — a figure who often subjected his own comrades to brutal verbal and even physical abuse.

Responding to LaRouche in 1966, Healy wrote: “In all our experiences of polemics and discussion with political opponents here and internationally, we have never read a letter or document which included such vicious subjective characterizations of one’s opponents.” Perhaps it gave Healy something to which to aspire.

In any case, LaRouche decided that he would need to build a whole new movement to his own specifications. McCarthyism had effectively destroyed any Marxist presence among professors in the United States, and this put LaRouche in an opportune position.

He started teaching a course on Marx’s Capital at the Free University of New York (an important “counterculture” institution appealing to the milieu of young people being radicalized by the struggle against racism and the Vietnam war) and by 1967 he had attracted an enthusiastic following. He was by most accounts an effective speaker and began lecturing to members of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) at Columbia University and elsewhere. At Columbia, LaRouche’s supporters formed a faction called the Labor Committee which played an important role when students occupied the university president’s office during a mass protest in 1968.

By the following year, the LCs existed on a number of campuses, and LaRouche began to build a small following in Europe. The formal statement of principles put forth by the National Caucus of Labor Committees in 1971 shows a definite strain of Hegelian Marxism combined with bits of psychoanalysis; it also has a certain technocratic quality, surely reflecting LaRouche’s experience as a computer enthusiast. But there are also moments when the theory follows quite strange tangents:

The revolutionary intelligentsia is thus the embryonic representation of a new human species, a Promethean species which seeks to reproduce its own kind from the ranks of the working class. This includes, in part, the development of individuals as such, but more general and essential is the work of calling the new species of humanity into being through every possible approximation of political class for itself forms. It is those forms of struggle-organization around approximations of socialist program which transform the consciousness of individual working people and thus transform a majority of the working class (ultimately) into revolutionary socialists with the same world-view and principled commitments as the founding group of revolutionary intelligentsia.

The LCs attracted a number of graduate students and young faculty, including some with scientific training. In the early years of the movement, its theoretical journal, The Campaigner, published translations of Rosa Luxemburg’s Anti-Kritik and Georg Cantor’s “Foundations of a General Theory of Manifolds.” In this respect, it was quite different from the philistine anti-intellectualism typical of the rest of the American left. But LaRouche himself constantly made apocalyptic predictions of an impending global economic collapse, and he rallied his membership around manifestos with titles such as “Our Direct March to World Power.”

Aristotle vs Plato

By 1973, the mixture of intellectual stimulation and manic grandiosity had grown increasingly volatile. LaRouche announced that the LCs had established “left hegemony” and launched a campaign against the Communist Party that he called “Operation Mop.” For several weeks, LC squads armed with lead pipes and other weapons attacked CP members, many of them elderly. Members of the SWP began attending CP events to defend them, and soon the Trotskyists were targets of “Mop Up” as well.

LaRouche also began putting the leadership of his national sections through intensive “therapy group” sessions to overcome their difficulty in understanding his ideas or carrying out their Promethean duties. In an internal document called “The Politics of Male Impotence,” LaRouche revealed his most recent theoretical breakthroughs:

I shall be making clearer to you both what you have to do with yourselves to become effective organizers, and how this knowledge is to be used as a terrifying new political weapon ensuring our victory…. I shall show you that your pathetic impotence in your sexual life is a mere aspect of the same impotence you experience in political work — such that you will know that you can not cure the one without solving the other. I will take away from you all hope that you can flee the terrors of politics to the safety of “personal life”. I shall do this by showing to you that your frightened personal sexual life contains for you such terrors as the outside world could never offer you. I will thus destroy your rabbit-holes, mental as well as physical. I shall destroy your sense of safety in the place to which you ordinarily imagine you can flee. I shall not pull you back from fleeing, but rather destroy the place to which you would attempt to flee.

What this meant in practice was long meetings in which “blocked” cadres were forced to reveal sexual fantasies or personal anxieties, until they broke down into sobs and (once “unblocked”) experienced euphoria at the power of the leader’s genius.

It was also during this period that LaRouche became convinced that he was the target of assassination attempts by the CIA and the KGB. He wrote long treatises on “the secrets known only to the inner elites,” which explained world history as an ongoing struggle between two groups. On the one side were the followers of Aristotle who hated technology and would take the economic crisis as an opportunity to return all of mankind to feudal conditions, and in the meantime were encouraging homosexuality, drug use, rock music, and the ecology movement. On the other side of the barricades were the Platonists who were pro-technology, enjoyed Beethoven, and understood that human progress required constantly increasing population density.

(It seems that the British royal family is part of the Aristotelean conspiracy, which is why they are involved in drug smuggling. You probably didn’t know any of that!)

Denounced as fascist by everyone on the Left and even by parts of the mass media, LaRouche’s movement soon discovered that the extreme right was much more open to his ideas. Many of those initially drawn to the LCs were from Jewish families, but by the late 1970s they often found themselves working alongside members of the Ku Klux Klan or repeating LaRouche’s claim that the Holocaust was largely a Zionist hoax.

To be sure, many members broke with LaRouche as his alliances with racist and fascist groups became more brazen. But others have been with him for decades and have been through hundreds of “emergency mobilizations” against the Aristotelean apocalypse.

LaRouche first ran for president in 1976 and did so again every four years through 2004. The campaigns brought him publicity and donations, if never many votes. In the early 1980s, people contributing to LaRouche’s campaign or buying subscriptions to his publications began complaining that the organization was making unauthorized charges to their credit cards.

Nor was that the group’s only unusual, not to say unethical, fundraising practice. Members worked long shifts soliciting donations by phone, often pressuring elderly supporters to turn over enormous sums to LaRouche as “loans,” which were never repaid. In 1988, LaRouche and six leading figures in his organization were convicted of mail fraud and tax evasion and sent to federal prison for a number of years.

The movement’s political trajectory throughout its first two decades went from the far left to the far right. But the message was always remarkably consistent. It involved support for technological development and predictions of immanent economic and social collapse (made so frequently that LaRouche could claim confirmation whenever the news was dire) combined with conspiratorial explanations of world events and a penchant for violent rhetoric and scatology. The genius of its leader was, of course, the prime and unquestioned invariant.

The group seemed much weakened and dispirited for a number of years after LaRouche’s release from prison in 1994. With the launch of the LaRouche Youth Movement in the early 2000s, it began recruiting from college campuses again, particularly among students opposed to the war in Iraq. More recently, it even responded to the financial crisis by featuring references to Rosa Luxemburg in its videos online.

Not a swing to the left, perhaps, so much as a wobble. But LaRouche also directed patently racist insults at Barack Obama. In the end, he was expressing confidence in the demagogic and thuggish ignoramus now in the White House.

Come what may, LaRouche’s most devoted followers always remained by his side. No matter what — whether LaRouche was calling for nuclear war against the Soviet Union, advocating the quarantine of AIDS patients, or circulating conspiracy theories about the British aristocracy — his closest loyalists followed their master’s voice faithfully. Now, it seems, their “direct march to world power” has come to a halt.

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Scott McLemee has served on the board of the National Book Critics Circle and received its citation for excellence in reviewing. He writes the weekly column “Intellectual Affairs” for Inside Higher Ed.

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