A Bolshie Born Every Minute

Defrauding the left


On August 14, 2003, two British Trotskyists made an unnerving discovery. One, part of a group called Workers Power, had been showing off a photo of himself with two comrades from Ukraine. The other, from the rival International Bolshevik Tendency, realized he recognized the Ukrainians: They were part of his party's revolutionary network. The two groups compared notes, the story spread, and it soon became clear that a small group of con men had been bilking at least half a dozen Leninist sects based in Britain and the United States, pretending under different names to be each organization's comrades in Kiev.

According to one report, the con men had originally met in an amateur acting troupe. According to another, they were actually loyal to one of the would-be vanguards, the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI), but had decided to make some money off their intimate knowledge of socialist sectarianism, posing as members of rival parties in order to raise money for their own. (The larger CWI denies involvement in such a scheme, and it has purged its Ukrainian affiliate for its entrepreneurial activities.) Yet another report suggests the fraudsters were hatching plans to move past the penny-ante world of the Marxist fringe and see if they could grift Muammar Qaddafi.

The scam began back in the 1990s, a longevity that suggests both how gullible and how splintered the red remnant can be. The episode also has also revealed that some portions of the Leninist left have a measure of pop culture savvy. The Spartacist League, which was not among the conned, compared the scandal to the 1960s movie Billion Dollar Brain, while the International Bolsheviks invoked both Shakespeare and Monty Python. The most appropriate description of the affair, though, came from the comrades at the Communist Party of Great Britain, who had been approached by the Ukrainians but rebuffed their overtures. They called it "The Sting meets Life of Brian."