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Fourth International 1990: The end of the Soviet Union

The Murder of Martha Phillips

This article first appeared in the Bulletin on March 27, 1992. The Workers League is the forerunner of the Socialist Equality Party in the United States.

The Workers League calls for the fullest disclosure of all information on the murder of Martha Phillips, a member of the Central Committee of the Spartacist League, who was stabbed and strangled in Moscow on February 9.

Phillips was the senior leader of the Spartacist tendency in the former Soviet Union, having moved to Moscow from the San Francisco Bay area in 1991. Only 42 years old at the time of her death, she leaves behind a handicapped son.

In the March 6 issue of its fortnightly newspaper, Workers Vanguard, the Spartacist League states, “The murder of our comrade Martha increasingly seems to have been of a political character.”

This remains to be established, but if true, it would have enormous objective significance. A leading member of an organization claiming to be Trotskyist has been murdered in Moscow, the political center of the Stalinist bureaucracy which murdered Trotsky and for 60 years conducted a worldwide campaign of extermination against his followers.

But the Spartacist League has so far failed to carry out what is its elementary responsibility in such a situation: to provide a coherent account of all the facts surrounding the killing of Phillips.

The original Spartacist report on the death of Martha Phillips, published in the February 21 issue of Workers Vanguard, raised many more questions than it answered. The assertion that she had been murdered was confined to a single paragraph, inserted toward the end of a long article which was otherwise written as a conventional obituary, with no other indication that a political murder had taken place.

There was no explanation of why it required an autopsy to disclose that Phillips was the victim of a stab wound. If the wound was not obvious to those who found her body, this strongly suggests that the murder was carried out with a level of skill and an absence of haste that would be characteristic of professional killers.

The March 6 issue of Workers Vanguard contains a series of tributes to Phillips given at memorial meetings. Only the remarks of James Robertson, the longtime leader of the Spartacist League, provide any additional details on her killing. Phillips had been with her political associates until 11 p.m. the night of February 8, Robertson says. When they returned the following morning, at 8 a.m., to pick her up for a scheduled anti-Yeltsin demonstration, “She was lying in bed apparently peacefully dead.” A bottle of vodka, unopened the previous night, “had been ripped open in an unusual way....”

The Spartacist leader says that the autopsy conducted by the Moscow militia (local police) showed that Phillips had been both stabbed and strangled. The initial report in Workers Vanguard referred only to stabbing. It is not clear whether the autopsy determined which was the cause of death. Robertson also reveals that the US State Department advised Phillips’s family not to have the autopsy—a recommendation which would have led to the dismissal of her death as due to “natural causes.”

Robertson then makes the observation: “It could have been somebody within our milieu for personal or provocateur reasons.” Does this mean that members or sympathizers of Spartacist are themselves suspects in the killing? Or is Robertson making a cryptic reference to the relations between Spartacist and various Russian nationalist, anti-Semitic and outright fascist tendencies with which it rubs shoulders in the political swamp of disintegrating Soviet Stalinism? The Spartacist League has an obligation to explain this astonishing remark and give a public accounting of the “milieu” in which it carried out its activities in Russia.

Robertson presents a series of rationalizations for why it is difficult to investigate the cause of Phillips’s death, complaining that “one cannot do much from 7,000 miles away,” that “the circumstances are really quite obscure to us,” and that as far as the identity of the killers, “There are many other possibilities.”

There is no other term for this position than gross political irresponsibility. The representative of an organization claiming to be Trotskyist has been murdered while conducting political work in Moscow, and the principal leader of this organization wrings his hands and declares that the whole affair is an impenetrable mystery and nothing can be done!

Robertson’s arguments smell of political cover-up. His rejection of an investigation into Phillips’s death carries with it the unavoidable inference that Spartacist has something to hide. Whether her death was caused by a tragic personal encounter or was related to her political activities in Moscow, all the facts must be brought out and made available to the workers movement.

The same issue of Workers Vanguard reveals that the Spartacist League has rejected calls within its own ranks for a full investigation into Phillips’s murder. It contains a long letter from a member or close supporter of the group, Rick B., calling for a major effort to publicize the killing and organize an international commission of inquiry, modelled on the campaign conducted by Leon Trotsky over the Stalinist murders of figures such as Ignace Reiss and Erwin Wolf in the 1930s.

The letter-writer observes: “It is clear that in cases involving assassinations by organizations such as the GPU (and here I refer to the modern CIA, FBI, and to whatever the KGB is calling itself these days), ‘secrecy’ maintained by the victims’ associates only serves the assassins. The people who killed Martha, of course, know everything about her murder. It is up to her comrades to let the world know.”

The reply by Workers Vanguard is politically indefensible. It passes over in silence the appeal to make all the facts known. It rejects the precedent of Trotsky’s struggle against Stalinism, not because Phillips cannot be compared in stature to Erwin Wolf or Ignace Reiss, but with an argument that distorts both the 1930s and the present situation. The Workers Vanguard editors claim that in the 1930s, it was “transparently clear” that the crimes were committed by the Stalinists, while today “it is not an easy task to identify the culprit(s).”

This argument is so specious and flimsy that it invites suspicion. In the 1930s, it was only Trotsky’s tireless work of exposing the GPU which made Stalin’s guilt in the murders of Wolf, Reiss, Rudolf Klement and Leon Sedov “transparently clear” to the most advanced sections of the working class and socialist-minded intellectuals. This work was carried out in defiance of the most powerful campaign of lies in history waged by Stalin’s worldwide propaganda machine.

As for the contention that a commission of inquiry into Phillips’s death is unwarranted today because the circumstances are uncertain and there are many possible motives, this is ludicrous on its face. The facts of the case are unclear and the killers as yet unknown—that’s precisely why an investigation is necessary!

The Workers Vanguard concludes by rejecting the letter-writer’s appeal for a commission of inquiry and declaring, “We are not now in a position to do much beyond trying to identify potential suspects and seeking to put appropriate pressure on the Moscow police authorities. We will continue, as we have been, to undertake such measures as are apparent and seem feasible to us.”

This pathetic apology for doing nothing is, to put it bluntly, a lie. There would be no lack of interest in Moscow if the murder of Martha Phillips were shown to be politically motivated. There is no indication as yet that Spartacist has attempted to publicize her death either in the international media centered in Moscow or in the American media.

The maudlin tributes to Phillips which have filled the pages of Workers Vanguard are thoroughly hypocritical under conditions where Spartacist has not published a single coherent explanation of the circumstances of her death. If Phillips was the victim of a political killing, her death is of concern not merely to the Spartacist League, but to the entire working class movement.

The political differences between the Workers League and Spartacist League are well known and unbridgeable. The Spartacist League is neither Trotskyist nor a working class organization. It is a middle class radical group with a long record of adapting to the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union. But there is no reason to believe that the killer or killers of Martha Phillips made such distinctions. If Phillips was killed for political reasons, it was because she claimed to be a Trotskyist.

The Workers League raises the issue, not as a question for factional dispute, but because a political murder in Moscow would have the gravest implications. Such a horrifying and shocking event would be a warning to the working class, both in the former Soviet Union and internationally. If political activists are once again being murdered in the USSR because of their public identification with the ideas of Leon Trotsky, the working class must go into action and prepare accordingly. The first step is to demand that all information on the death of Martha Phillips be made available to the workers movement.