Believe it or not!
I Want to Believe: Posadism, UFOs and Apocalyptic Communism by A. M. Gittlitz published by Pluto, reviewed by Ian Parker
In 1962, just as the Fourth International was preparing its reunification congress, which took place the following year, an Argentinian Trotskyist Homero Cristalli seized control. His Buró Latinoamericano (BLA), the FI’s Latin American Bureau, expelled all European sections of the International and replaced them with a ‘European Bureau’ which he personally directed. A new Fourth International was declared at an emergency congress in Montevideo, Uruguay, and it was from here that Cristalli ran his operation under the pseudonym ‘Juan Posadas’; thus was born the Cuarta Internacional Posadista.
A. M. Gittlitz tells the story of the rise of Cristalli from being a shoemaker, union organizer, league footballer and singer of tango classics to being leader of an international organisation that implanted itself in most countries of Latin America and many others around the world, with local leaderships that were usually Argentinian or Uruguayan. There were sections in Europe including, in Britain, the Revolutionary Workers Party led by miners, and the book traces the emergence and disintegration of these groups as Posadas became increasingly erratic, taking us up to his death in 1981 and beyond, to his son León Cristalli’s attempts to keep his thought alive and to a strange afterlife of Posadism on the Internet.
What Gittlitz does so well in weaving the life of Posadas with the enclosed parallel universe of Trotskyism he created is to embed that life in the particular conditions of possibility for the development of revolutionary movements in Argentina in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Not everyone ended up like Posadas and not every group became Posadist, but we can understand what happened better if we understand that context. Gittlitz describes the local context, the global situation and some of the key debates in the main Trotskyist organisations.
These were times of imminent threat of nuclear war intensified by the Cuban missile crisis after the successful unexpected revolution, and of a space race between the United States and the Soviet Union, which had succeeded in sending Yuri Gagarin up in a rocket in 1961 and which, as Gittlitz describes in some detail, had a long history, back to Lenin and Trotsky, of intense engagement with technology and even speculation about life on other planets. The US SETI (Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence) programme included advocates not only of communicating with alien life forms but also with dolphins. There were many sightings of UFOs in Argentina, and much popular discussion about what they were and what they portended, and there was Peronism, a peculiar blend of quasi-fascist populist rhetoric and incorporation of trades unions into state power that divided the revolutionary left.
There are plenty of amusing anecdotes in this well-researched book, one of which indicates the high stakes and macho braggadocio that ran through the rival revolutionary organisations bidding to become sections of the Fourth International in Latin America after the Second World War and before 1962. One contender for leadership of the Latin American Bureau, who eventually became part of the mother-ship, Nahuel Moreno, claimed, in a meeting with Posadas during a meeting of the Argentinian POR, that he had read all three volumes of Marx’s Capital; not to be outdone, Posadas shouted that he had read six. The underlying question was who would rule the roost.
Populism and power
It was that last aspect of Peronism, authoritarian populism, that fed the imagination of Posadas, and so one of his most powerful and lasting deviations from Marxist organisational practice was what he called ‘monolithism’. In place of democratic centralism – democratic debate and application of a common line by the organisation – was the direction of the party, and all parties in the Cuarta Internacional Posadista, by the leadership, by Posadas himself. That leadership was abusive and dictatorial, entailing humiliation and expulsion of dissidents and control of women, including the demand that wives and girlfriends must be members of the party and, almost inevitably, that they be available to sleep with Posadas.
Gittlitz weaves another technological element into his story of the rise and fall of Posadas, the invention of the tape recorder, which enabled the great leader to speak for hours on end and to dream up new theoretical innovations as he spoke. It was something like the opposite of psychoanalysis; here it was free association driven by the belief that everything that was said was true, and must be told to the world. It was not Posadas who began to speak about flying saucers, but one of his followers Dante Minazolli who insisted on the question; one that Posadas answered with the suggestion that other planetary civilisations advanced enough to arrive on Earth must, by definition, be socialist. The suggestion became a fetish, and made the Posadists the laughing stock of the rest of the left, and out of that spun other SETI-like ideas, about talking with dolphins, for example. That is what he is most remembered for now. Minazolli continued to propagate these ideas, and there were radical attempts to intervene in UFO-watching circles, after Posadas’ death.
It is here that Gittlitz spins a little too easily into common characterisations of the Posadist problem as to do with his mental health, something that leaders of the Fourth International who had to deal with him before 1962 had already rehearsed. We are told that the tape recorder allowed Posadas to convey his ideas more easily, for example, because writing was hindered by his ‘attention deficit disorder’; later his ‘mania’ increased, and his paranoia, and the narrative leads logically to his later ideas being plain ‘crazy’, culminating in his death-bed claim that although he may die, he would, he assured his followers, rise again.
In some ways Gittlitz is too hard on Posadas and in others too easy. From his own account we can see that the melange of weird ideas that made up the stuff of Posadism was quite understandable. In other times in other contexts, some of them could be articulated with revolutionary Marxism. Posadas’ signature claim, one that really underpinned the formation of his own Fourth International based in Montevideo, was that nuclear war was going to happen, and that it would be better if the Soviet Union was to launch a pre-emptive nuclear strike so that from the wreckage some socialist future might be built. It was a stupid political line, and one that led to a break with the Cuban regime, of course, where the Posadists, the only Trotskyists in the island, were then suppressed.
But, for all this exaggerated threat and fervent belief in the onward march of humankind, it was actually a line that was not so very far from that argued by Michel Pablo, secretary of the Fourth International. The world was changing fast, and was under threat, and revolutionaries were struggling with what to make of that situation. Posadas ability to take complete control is something that ran contrary to the dynamic of Trotskyist politics, and we do not need to resort to diagnosis of him being ‘mad’ to formulate a thorough critique of his methods, something that would be helped by a good dose of revolutionary socialist feminist theory of organisation.
León Cristalli is still churning out stuff in memory of his father in Argentina, but the only functioning Posadist political organisation in the world now is in Uruguay. I visited the headquarters of the Partido Obrero Revolucionario (Trotskista, Posadista), POR, in Montevideo last year, and had a friendly chat with comrades there. The POR was founded in 1944, with continuous existence, the very same organisation that was seized by Posadas in 1962, and which became an active part of the progressive Frente Amplio which governed the country from 2004 until a few months ago. They were happy to meet someone from the International they had left so many years ago, but blanked me when I asked them about revolutionary nuclear war.
What Gittlitz omits from his account, and there is the very briefest mention of the group in Montevideo in which he indicates that they didn’t want to wax lyrical about Posadas to him either, is the very difficult journey that some leftists have had to make through Posadism and out the other side, back into socialist politics again. Posadas’ homophobia, his misogyny and his moralistic control of the personal lives of party members is now but a bad memory. The POR shop-front was sprayed with fascist graffiti; the organisation had recently come under attack because of its support for progressive Frente Amplio legislation over LGBT rights.
Although it was buried deep in that broad front, the POR also sold Posadist pamphlets, including those that claimed that the nuclear war had happened, but through other means like Swine Flu, and it called for support for the ‘regenerating’ socialist states, including Russia, China, Cuba and Venezuela. One Posadist publication edited by León Cristalli included two articles by Vladimir Putin. Again, these are political questions, mistakes and debates that cannot be written off as signs of madness, for there is much the same in much propaganda among our divided left.
This book is zippily written, more engaging than most histories of the Fourth International, but with some political formulations that will jar for some, including the brief description of the Bolsheviks seizing power and establishing a dictatorship. No, it is not as simple as that. The Russian Revolution was contradictory; an opening, which was fought for by Lenin and Trotsky and present in the later debates about democratic centralism, and a closure around Stalin and the bureaucracy in which the centralist aspect took precedence and blotted out democracy altogether.
Overall the political tone and line of the book is not so much concerned with retrieving a revolutionary history from the Posadas debacle but transcending it. Gittlitz looks back, sometimes with a too-mocking journalist gaze, on these sorry episodes in the history of our movement and the lessons they hold for the way we organise now, finding some redemption only in whimsical intergalactic Posadist memes that circulate on Facebook, seeing in those an opening to the ‘otherness’ of other forms of life. It is as if Homero Cristalli did all these bad things but at least he made for some good jokes about old Marxism.
The book is well worth a read, and might even bring some new activists into first contact with Trotskyism, which is what Gittlitz does claim at some points, but is rather too quick to play up the ‘fun’ aspect of Posadism. You will learn many things about Posadas that you didn’t already know. Posadas, apparently, had his own theory of humour, declaring that while jokes are a function of contradictions under capitalism, under socialism jokes would no longer exist. Posadism itself was not funny, but tragic, and when we laugh at it we do need to ask ourselves what we are doing and what we are failing to learn in the process.
Ian Parker, 1 May 2020
I haven’t run into them recently, but a small band of Posadists were/are still active on the fringes of the Labour party.
See this obituary to Bryan Lynam – his wife is quite nice really.
If you were to hold a vote on the chances of extra-terrestrial life on the “Infinite Monkey Cage”, it would be probably be overwhelmingly in favour, although I doubt that any of them have ever visited earth!
Phil Plait explains why the latest story about this is false here:-
BTW the “POR” was a general name for all Trotskyist groups in Latin America from the 1930’s, including the one in Cuba, that was banned.
Your former comrade Hugo Gonzalez Moscoso belonged to Bolivian POR faction (POR-Lucha Obrera) , which became POR Combate in a failed attempt to fuse with Che Guevara’s ELN.
The other faction (POR-MASAS) was led by Guillermo Lora, a significant Marxist author and Labour Historian, who played a leading role in the 1952 Revolution and the 1971 Peoples Assembly.
Unfortunately only a fraction of his work has been translated into English.
The POR-MASAS still exists, produces a regular newletter and has sections in Argentina and Chile– although it’s hard to judge what their influence is from this distance.
S. Sandor John has written a good book about their history, with interviews with many of the participants, called “Bolivia’s Radical Tradition- Permanent Revolution in the Andes”