Spartacist Canada No. 143
TL/LT Tenth National Conference
Communist Intervention and Radical Activism
The Trotskyist League/Ligue trotskyste, Canadian section of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist), held its Tenth National Conference in August. Members of the TL and the Spartacus Youth Clubs assessed our work since our last conference four years ago, examined developments in the left and labour movement over the same period, and discussed our future perspectives. In particular, comrades cast a critical eye on our work toward the activist youth milieus that grew rapidly in the wake of the November 1999 Seattle anti-WTO protests and the April 2001 Quebec City anti-FTAA demonstrations.
The conference registered modest but important growth: nearly 40 percent of TL and SYC members joined in the last three years, and we now have vibrant youth clubs in Toronto and Vancouver. Most were won to Trotskyism from anarchist or other "direct action" milieus, underlining both the opportunities to accrue new forces and the need to assess and improve our interventions in the various activist arenas.
A main resolution drafted by our outgoing Central Committee was adopted unanimously following extensive discussion and amendments. It situated our work in a "challenging international context, one still shaped by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the deformed workers states of East Europe." The final undoing of the USSR—the world's first workers state, product of the 1917 October Revolution—was a world historic defeat for the proletariat. This has produced an increasingly dangerous imperialist order, highlighted by the post-September 11 "war on terror," the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq, and a global offensive against the working class and oppressed. At the same time, it has ushered in an ideological climate dominated by widespread belief in the "death of communism."
At the crucial hour, in stark contrast to most of the left, the ICL stood at our post in defense of the gains of the October Revolution. We understood, in the words of the Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky, that "Those who cannot defend old positions will never conquer new ones." Where we could, notably amid the incipient proletarian political revolution in East Germany (the DDR) in 1989-90, we threw all our resources into this struggle, fighting for a "red Germany of workers councils."
Today, we emphasize the urgent task of defending China, the most powerful of the remaining bureaucratically deformed workers states, against the threat of capitalist counterrevolution. The conference included a short report on China, which noted how the Stalinist rulers' pro-market policies have brought increased social inequality and vastly heightened the counterrevolutionary threat, and how this is meeting widespread resistance among the working class. The question of who will prevail—imperialist-backed capitalist restoration or a proletarian political revolution that topples the bankrupt Stalinist bureaucracy—hinges on the fight for an authentic communist party rooted among China's working masses. The widespread, false belief among left-wing activists in this country that China is already capitalist further underscores the need to keep this question at the forefront of our work.
Another conference session addressed the U.S. occupation of Iraq. This built on ongoing discussions in the ICL aimed at refining our slogans against the occupation, a necessary part of making our interventions among antiwar activists more effective. The reporter explained that we stand for military defense of the Iraqi "resistance" forces insofar as they strike blows against the imperialist occupiers or their local puppets; such blows against the U.S. war machine are in the interests of workers and the oppressed in Iraq and internationally. At the same time, we sharply politically oppose the Islamic and Ba'athist forces who appear to be leading much of the current struggle against the occupation, and we denounce the attacks on innocent civilians and other religious and ethnic groups.
We fight for a proletarian perspective in the region and the imperialist centers, with particular stress on opposing our "own" bourgeois rulers. While feigning opposition to the "unilateral" U.S. war and occupation, the Canadian rulers have ably assisted their senior partners in Washington, notably by heading up the NATO occupation force in Afghanistan. The banner we have carried on anti-occupation protests in Toronto—"U.S. out of Iraq! Canada out of Afghanistan! For class struggle against Canadian capitalism!"—effectively captures the road forward, in counterposition to the pacifism and Canadian nationalism pushed by the reformist left.
A Fighting Marxist Perspective in a Difficult Period
Our perspective is the fight for new October Revolutions worldwide: the understanding that authentic Marxism—not its nationalist-bureaucratic Stalinist perversion or the denatured social-democratic caricature pushed by the reformists—is the only road to human liberation. But, as the conference resolution underlined, there is a huge disproportion between this goal and both our small forces and the current level of consciousness among workers and radical youth, and we ourselves have not been immune to the negative effects of the post-Soviet period.
This point was highlighted in several of the greetings received from other ICL sections that opened the conference, and in the report by a representative of the ICL's International Secretariat (I.S.) that followed. The Spartacist League/U.S. greetings addressed the crisis that the ICL has undergone in the past period. They noted that an intensive re-examination of aspects of our work began after Workers Vanguard, the SL/U.S. central organ, printed a sanitized version of a letter by the "International Bolshevik Tendency" (BT), excising a vile "P.S." that slandered long-time ICL leader James Robertson—and by extension the party as a whole as a "vulgar chauvinist." This represented an implicit acceptance of the BT's crude anti-ICL slanders, and thus an attack on our own revolutionary integrity.
The SL/U.S. greetings noted, "Given that the BT has its longest standing operation in Toronto, we recognize that the Canadian section of the ICL has a special duty in combating this organization," which is run by embittered ex-members whose overriding purpose appears to be our destruction. As comrades noted during the conference, the BT's own "vulgar chauvinism" is amply shown in its opposition to independence for Quebec, which included lining up with the Canadian bourgeoisie to call for a No vote in the 1995 sovereignty referendum.
Our conference deliberations were informed by the Fourth Conference of the ICL in late 2003 and an SL/U.S. conference several months later. The current Spartacist (No. 58, Spring 2004), the ICL's documentary and theoretical journal, includes an extensive report on the ICL conference. The main resolution adopted there succinctly captured the ICL's recent difficulties:
"Failure to recognize the period we are in and the necessary relationship of our small revolutionary vanguard to the proletariat, and the absence of the Soviet Union as an active and defining factor in politics, have led to disorientation. Frustration and impatience over the disparity between our small size and slender roots in the working class and our proletarian internationalist purpose have led both to opportunist lunges and sectarian moralism."
The ICL conference noted that such errors were rooted in an increasingly abstract and sterile approach to politics, and that this was accompanied by a pattern of breaches of our Leninist organizational norms by leading cadre centered in the I.S. The TL conference continued a process of re-examining and rectifying aspects of our recent work, noting: "To chart a course forward, we must first look soberly back at our mistakes. The Canadian section was deeply scarred by the political drift of the ICL."
Both the main resolution and individual contributions to pre-conference discussion focused heavily on our work toward the new activist groupings that have proliferated in recent years. An increase in leftist activism is a good thing, however the worldview of even the most radical youth in struggle today is generally far removed from Marxist historical materialism and a working-class perspective. Anarchism and other forms of left-liberal idealism have gained significant currency among such activists, who broadly accept the idea, propounded by the bourgeoisie's ideologues, that Marxism is at best a "failed experiment," a relic of the past.
Thus we have the crucial task of motivating, not simply asserting, the fundamentals of a Marxist worldview. In some ways, we have done this effectively, e.g., with the wide distribution of our "Marxism vs. Anarchism" pamphlet and other relevant propaganda. At the same time, comrades felt strongly that our on-the-ground activities toward radical youth milieus have, until recently, been marred by a pattern of sectarian abstentionism.
For our political opponents, "sectarianism" is an all-purpose epithet aimed at denigrating the struggle to forge a revolutionary party that embodies and applies the lessons of past proletarian struggles. Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Rosa Luxemburg—the foremost revolutionary leaders of their time—were reviled as sectarians by reformists and others who had made peace with their own bourgeois rulers. Today as well, pro-NDP left groups like the International Socialists label as sectarian our fight to break the workers and oppressed from their pro-capitalist misleaders. Trotsky addressed this question in a 1935 article, "Sectarianism, Centrism and the Fourth International":
"Reformists and centrists readily seize upon every occasion to point a finger at our 'sectarianism.' Most of the time they have in mind not our weak but our strong side: our serious attitude toward theory; our effort to plumb every political situation to the bottom, and to advance clear-cut slogans; our hostility to 'easy' and 'comfortable' decisions which deliver from cares today, but prepare a catastrophe on the morrow. Coming from opportunists, the accusation of sectarianism is most often a compliment."
However, Trotsky continued, while "Marxism has built a scientific program upon the laws that govern the movement of capitalist society," abstract propaganda for socialist revolution is vastly insufficient: "It is not enough to create a correct program. It is necessary for the working class to accept it." The conference took note of instances where we have failed to intervene thoughtfully into living struggles with our Marxist program and perspective, retreating instead into abstract formulas and at times abstaining altogether, most egregiously around the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle.
Correcting Our Errors Over Seattle
A motion of the SL/U.S. Political Bureau mandated a boycott of the Seattle protests on the grounds that they would be "dominated by national chauvinism, racist protectionism and counterrevolutionary attacks on the Chinese deformed workers state" (see WV No. 725, 10 December 1999). It was correct to draw a sharp political line against the reformist left groups who cheered uncritically for the "battle of Seattle" and tailed after the China-bashing union bureaucracy. But the way to do this was by intervening with our communist propaganda addressed to those drawn to Seattle out of a desire to protest the worst excesses of capitalism—not to equate them with the chauvinist labour tops. Indeed, a generation of youth came to see Seattle as the inauguration of a new period of radical activism.
The decision to boycott the WTO protests had an especially negative impact on the TL's Vancouver local, which had been set to lead a sales intervention into Seattle. The local had earlier undertaken effective work toward the "anti-globalization" milieu, including an intervention at protests against the 1997 APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation) summit, as well as polemical combat with anarchists and others (see, for example, "TL Debates Vancouver Anarchists," SC No. 117, Summer 1998). Our Toronto local carried out similar useful work in this period, combining polemical exchanges with co-ordinated activity around issues of common concern to leftists—notably demonstrations in defense of black U.S. death row political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal that were co-initiated by the TL and activist groups including Anti-Racist Action and the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP).
Instead of pursuing a clarifying discussion over different assessments of the anti-globalization and related milieus, then a relatively new phenomenon, our international leadership concocted an abstract, sterile reality on what Seattle represented—a reflection of disorientation in the post-Soviet world—and rammed through a line. Then, a historically valid concern about pervasive social-democratic pressures in NDP-dominated B.C. was wielded against comrades in Vancouver to paint their desire to intervene in Seattle as a capitulation to social democracy. Our recent conference decisively repudiated this, noting this false characterization was itself an expression of a broader political problem in the ICL and the TL: increasing withdrawal from struggle. Renouncing the idea that it is "unprincipled" to intervene in so-called "alien milieus," the conference resolution added:
"The decision where and how to intervene with sales, speakers or contingents must be overwhelmingly a tactical one, based on an assessment of our available forces and priorities, together with judgment about motion in society and how best to use our program as a lever on consciousness."
The resolution noted that the approach exemplified by the Seattle boycott "cut us off from whole layers of political youth" as well as handing a gift to our reformist opponents. The boycott line was corrected internally in the SL/U.S. by the spring of 2000, and the TL's Ninth National Conference that summer also formally repudiated it. But the failure to examine more deeply the political roots which underlay the problem continued to distort aspects of our work. And the failure to make a public accounting of this error was disorienting and damaging for both our cadre and those who follow our activities.
In examining our work after Seattle, the conference identified our intervention around the 2001 Quebec City protests as a big step forward. We wrote effective propaganda directed at the more radical elements and concentrated on intersecting the thousands of mainly anarchist-inspired youth who faced down riot police near the summit venue. Meanwhile the union tops and other "respectable" elements were marching tens of thousands of people in the other direction.
We also intervened effectively at other junctures where the left/right divide in the anti-globalization milieu was drawn sharply, e.g., at protests over the killing of anarchist militant Carlo Giuliani by the cops during the summer 2001 anti-G8 protests in Italy. While various reformist groups denounced supposed "violence" by the anarchist Black Bloc, we forthrightly defended these militant youth against the bourgeois state. Outfits like the International Socialists mimic the essentially liberal anti-globalization ideas held by many anarchist youth, while simultaneously maligning and setting up for repression the most militant among these protesters. Our stance is the exact opposite: we polemicize against the anarchists' politics while standing with them against the capitalist state.
Comrades also assessed our record concerning local direct-action groups like OCAP, which by 2000 had become the main locus for youthful activism in Toronto. We have a record of consistent principled defense of OCAP, the Montreal-based CLAC (Anti-Capitalist Convergence) and similar groups against both state repression and slanderous attacks by housebroken "leftists." But until fairly recently we failed to address seriously why radical youth were attracted to such groups and their often audacious actions on behalf of the poor. Our early polemical material on OCAP amounted to little more than empty dismissals of "militant reformism," and too often we failed to join OCAP actions that were very much in the interests of working people. We have turned this around in multiple ways more recently, for example by participating in OCAP housing occupations. As one comrade put it during pre-conference discussion, "our interventions should seek to be pedagogical not denunciatory, and we should seek to be known as activists who participate as appropriate in OCAP-initiated activities."
The fraternal greetings from our comrades of Spartacist South Africa usefully addressed from another angle the question of how a small Marxist nucleus can maximize its impact:
"We should also be vigilant of an inherent possibility of moving from one extreme to another i.e. from sectarianism to trying to intervene in every political event. Proposals about what to do should not have an ultimatist character, as there will always be both internal and external constraints acting on our small organisation. There is reality in the discrepancy between our huge historical tasks and our small forces. Clarifying political fights, in a comradely way, are going to be an important tool in moving forward."
In discussion, a number of comrades pointed to the danger of over-correction through politically adapting to milieus that are distant from a proletarian revolutionary outlook. Relatedly, the conference resolution underlined the need to effectively address young activists at the ideological level. Some of our polemical material—e.g., against the views of Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky and the anarchists during the Iraq war—has been effective, but there is room for improvement. Several older comrades related recent developments on the left to ideas prevalent in the "New Left" of the 1960s and early '70s, e.g., the resurrection of "direct action" and "affinity groups," as well as the rejection of the centrality of the working class. Comrades emphasized that the current level of consciousness is necessarily shaped by the defeats of the recent past. There is no Soviet Union, there is no Vietnamese Revolution taking on and defeating U.S. imperialism, there have been no working-class upsurges posing point blank the revolutionary capacity of the proletariat as in France in May 1968 or even the 1972 Quebec general strikes.
Reclaiming Our History
A highlight of the conference was an educational panel on TL history from our founding in 1974-75 to the early 1990s, geared especially for newer members. Given by comrades whose experiences centered on different periods of TL history, the panel drew lessons from past work while tracing the continuity of our struggle to forge a revolutionary Marxist vanguard in Canada as part of a democratic-centralist international organization.
One panelist, a TL founding member, cited the importance of our recruitment of youth from the New Left in the early/ mid-1970s, particularly those won from in and around the pseudo-Trotskyist United Secretariat (USec) of Ernest Mandel. This work had an impact on youth in various left groups in the U.S. and Europe who were similarly seeking a consistent revolutionary alternative. A few years later, a number of TL cadre moved to Britain and other European countries to assist our fledgling sections there—a conscious assertion of international priorities which at the same time weakened our work in Canada for a period.
Another panelist gave examples of work undertaken over the years by TL supporters in the trade unions. These ranged from struggles in the 1970s and early '80s to put the labour movement on record against Anglo chauvinism and in defense of Quebec's right to independence, to attempts to mobilize union power against fascist and racist attacks. Comrades noted our extensive history of initiating principled united-front action: from successful defense campaigns for anti-fascist unionists, to co-initiating (with Toronto-area Arab groups) the first demonstration against the U.S. blockade and looming war on Iraq in 1990, to our years-long fight to mobilize labour power to free Mumia. Much of this work was undertaken by our fraternal defense organization, the Partisan Defense Committee.
The final panelist was a younger comrade who had been part of a left opposition in the USec group in Edmonton in 1990. He and other comrades, whose group went on to fuse with the TL, were attracted by our fight against counterrevolution in the Soviet Union and East Europe, noting how this stood in sharp contrast to the USec's support to imperialist-backed "democratic" counterrevolution. To these comrades, this showed that the ICL represented the continuity of Trotskyism, the revolutionary Marxism of our time.
Conference Debates and Decisions
The conference situated our tasks in the context of broader political developments in Canada. As in the U.S., the Canadian rulers have stepped up their attacks on immigrants, particularly Muslims, as the cutting edge of an offensive against the entire proletariat and fundamental democratic rights. Defense of the rights of immigrants—who are not simply helpless victims but a powerful, growing proportion of the Canadian working class—will remain key to much of our work. With Toronto and Vancouver being among the most heavily immigrant cities in the world, including hundreds of thousands from China and other Asian countries, a continued orientation toward leftist elements of diverse immigrant backgrounds is crucial.
The conference, and especially the youth commission organized by the SYCs, also discussed our work around the Quebec national question. This included a struggle with some SYC members who, amid a widely publicized wave of Anglo bigotry earlier this year (Don Cherry, Conan O'Brien, the sponsorship scandal), were hesitant to build an emergency campus speak-out to highlight our opposition to Anglo chauvinism and support for Quebec independence. The justification raised by one, that "youth are not interested in Quebec," was an adaptation to prevailing indifference to the national oppression of Quebec among English Canadian youth, which extends into the activist milieu and is itself a reflection of the chauvinist status quo.
As one comrade noted during pre-conference discussion, "For the first time in a while, young radical activists (and others), who typically denied that the national question had any special significance in Canada, were confronted with the fact that it obviously did." The fact that the Quebec national question remains the central strategic question for would-be proletarian revolutionaries in this country was shown again in the federal elections, where the Bloc Québécois won nearly three quarters of the seats and half the popular vote in Quebec.
In Quebec itself, many in the anarchist/Maoist "far left" also dismiss the national question and oppose independence. They reject Quebec nationalism, which is correct, but this is vastly insufficient as a program for combating and ultimately replacing the rule of capital. As the conference document noted:
"The Quebec working class, which despite defeats over the last two decades remains the most militant in North America, cannot be broken from nationalism through pious wishes. Proletarian revolutionaries have to identify with the workers' opposition to national oppression and support the struggle for an independent Quebec as the only evident means to bring to the fore the crucial class question of labour vs. capital."
The youth commission affirmed that the main venue for SYC work would remain the campuses, where we aim to win dissident intellectual youth to the side of the working class and the struggle for communism. Given our size and social composition, work toward youth and other radical activist milieus has to remain our central orientation.
At the same time, the conference noted the need for more attention to our work toward the organized proletariat. The recent period has seen significant union battles against austerity and privatization. This includes the mass Day of Disruption in Quebec last December and a near general strike in support of embattled B.C. hospital workers this spring that was flagrantly sold out by the labour bureaucracy and NDP. Our Vancouver comrades' intervention into the hospital workers strike, including bringing students to the picket lines, shows the kind of union-focused work that even a largely student local can undertake. In Toronto, while we have supporters in a fairly wide array of unions, we need both more systematic work and a concentration of forces.
The conference reaffirmed the centrality of producing Spartacist Canada as a high-quality quarterly paper. Comrades felt that in the recent period the press has better addressed the actual arguments of youth who have a hatred of capitalism but look to perspectives other than Marxism as the answer. There has also been notable improvement in our coverage of social issues like women's and gay oppression.
The conference concluded with the election of a new Central Committee to direct the work of the organization until our next national conference. It was noted that the TL today consists essentially of three political generations: cadre with 20 to 30 years of experience who mainly comprise our evolved leadership, a layer of young activists recruited out of recent struggles, and a small but crucial component of comrades in their early 30s who somewhat bridge the gap. Education, internal political debate and active intervention into social struggles are the means to make useful the tension born of very different political experiences, which in turn point to a potentially healthy mixture for building a Leninist vanguard.
We firmly believe that the only road forward lies through forging revolutionary Marxist parties in Canada and around the globe, the essential instruments for liberating the working class and oppressed. This remains a difficult political period for proletarian revolutionaries, as it has been for the proletariat as a whole. An organization of our small size and lack of roots could simply have been blown away, or decisively capitulated, in the face of a defeat as cataclysmic as the overturn of the only proletarian revolution in history. Look at pseudo-Marxist groups like the USec, now little more than left-talking social democrats. We have made our share of errors and have suffered damage, but we have fought to understand and rectify and reconstruct, while maintaining our fundamental programmatic integrity. We are determined to continue the fight for revolutionary continuity, including through intervening, recruiting and educating a new generation of Bolshevik fighters.