Spartacist Canada No. 155
TL/LT Eleventh National Conference:
Fighting for a Revolutionary Perspective in a Reactionary Period
Members of the Trotskyist League/Ligue trotskyste and the Spartacus Youth Clubs gathered in Toronto in late summer for our Eleventh National Conference. The national conference, the highest body of the TL/LT, assessed our work since our last conference in 2004, resolved some outstanding disputes and laid out some future perspectives. The delegates discussed, amended and adopted unanimously a main document submitted by the outgoing Central Committee (CC), and elected a new CC to lead the organization until the next conference.
This conference came several months after the Fifth International Conference of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist), of which the TL/LT is the Canadian section. The ICL conference included a critical reconsideration of the Marxist movements earlier practice of running candidates for executive offices like mayor or president (as opposed to running for legislative or parliamentary office), and resolved that we categorically oppose running for executive positions in the capitalist state.
The wide-ranging discussion on this question made clear that this is not simply a matter of electoral tactics but goes to the root of the Marxist view of the bourgeois state as an instrument of class oppression. The understanding that the proletariat cannot lay hold of the capitalist state and wield it for its own class interests is the dividing line between Marxism and reformism. A comprehensive report on this and other subjects addressed at our international conference has since been published in the English edition of Spartacist, the ICLs theoretical journal (see Maintaining a Revolutionary Program in the Post-Soviet Period, No. 60, Autumn 2007).
The deliberations of the ICL conference necessarily shaped those leading up to and at the TL/LT national gathering. As our conference document stressed, the political context in which we intervene as a revolutionary propaganda group continues to be shaped by the devastating effects of the 1991-92 capitalist counterrevolution that destroyed the Soviet Union, the worlds first workers state. At the crucial hour, in sharp contrast to most of the left, the ICL stood at our post in defense of the remaining gains of the 1917 October Revolution. But the destruction of the USSR was an unparalleled defeat for working people that has decisively altered the political landscape on the planet. As the Spartacist article explains:
The bourgeoisies ideologues seized on the collapse of the Soviet Union to proclaim the death of communism and to pronounce Marxism a failed experiment. These falsehoods were parroted by the former Stalinist bureaucrats whose betrayals and misrule had paved the way for capitalist restoration, as well as by the many reformist leftists in the West who had aided and abetted the imperialist-led drive for counterrevolution. That world-historic defeat led to a profound retrogression in proletarian consciousness, albeit uneven in its impact around the world: today, even more politically conscious workers in the capitalist countries by and large no longer identify their struggles with the ultimate aim of achieving a socialist society.
Accepting the death of communism proclaimed by the bourgeoisie, most of the left, in Canada as elsewhere, barely even gives lip service to socialism. In practice, groups like the International Socialists (I.S.), Socialist Action, Fightback et al. function as left appendages of the pro-capitalist NDP and trade-union bureaucracy. In his seminal 1924 essay Lessons of October, Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky characterized the politics of reformism as oppositional activity within the framework of bourgeois society
i.e., the actual training of the masses to become imbued with the inviolability of the bourgeois state. Such accommodation to capitalist class rule by organizations nominally claiming to be Marxist is even more pronounced today in a world defined by the final undoing of the October Revolution. There is a huge gulf between such opponents of revolutionary Marxism—and the radical-liberal youth they may attract—and our program of proletarian revolution.
Trotsky stressed that in a reactionary period, the task of the vanguard is above all not to let itself be carried along by the backward flow: it must swim against the current. If an unfavorable relation of forces prevents it from holding the positions that it has won, it must at least retain its ideological positions, because in them is expressed the dearly purchased experience of the past (Stalinism and Bolshevism, August 1937). Thus the most crucial task we face today is the maintenance of our programmatic integrity. At the same time, as the TL/LT conference document noted, we are a fighting propaganda group. Defending our program also means figuring out its application and extension to new situations, testing it in active polemical engagement and exemplary intervention.
The conference discussed the key issues around which we polemicize and intervene: from our defense of China against imperialism and counterrevolution, to our fight against the reactionary Maple Leaf nationalism that pervades this society and our advocacy of independence for Quebec. We agreed on some overarching priorities for the next period: youth and campus work, assisting our Vancouver branch in consolidating its layer of new members, a continued focus on propaganda—centrally the quarterly Spartacist Canada—and cadre education. Noting our increased attention to class-struggle defense work, the conference affirmed that this will continue to center on the fight to free U.S. death-row political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal.
The opening session featured greetings from other ICL sections, followed by an international report by comrade D. Ames of the ICLs International Executive Committee (IEC). Much of this focused on South Africa and Mexico, where the level of social struggle has been greater than most other countries where we have sections. The reporter emphasized the centrality of the fight for proletarian class independence against all manner of class collaboration. The latter is expressed in Mexico chiefly as bourgeois populism, and in South Africa through support to the bourgeois Tripartite Alliance government, a nationalist popular front led by the African National Congress that includes the South African Communist Party and COSATU union federation.
Subreports were given by two members of our outgoing CC. Comrade John Masters addressed the new issue of Spartacist, then in production, and ongoing discussions regarding China. The conference document affirmed the centrality to our work of our stance of unconditional military defense of China—by far the strongest of the remaining bureaucratically deformed workers states—combined with proletarian political revolution to oust the ruling Stalinist bureaucracy.
The stakes in China are high. Capitalist counterrevolution would have a devastating impact on Chinas workers and peasants and would further embolden the imperialists in their attacks on working people worldwide. Conversely, a political revolution by the Chinese proletariat, which has engaged in a high level of struggle against the ravages of the bureaucracys market reforms, would extend the gains of the 1949 Revolution and provide a beacon for revolutionary struggle by workers throughout Asia and beyond. As the document noted, defense of China against imperialism and counterrevolution is crucial for highlighting opposition to our own capitalist rulers and their labour lieutenants, who push anti-China protectionism while whipping up an anti-Communist hue and cry over human rights. It is also key in our political combat with those reformist socialist groups who have written China off as capitalist as part of their accommodation to the bourgeois order.
The other subreport summed up the extensive discussions at the ICL conference and in the TL/LT locals on our intervention into the unfolding workers political revolution in the East German (DDR) deformed workers state in 1989-90. This was the most sustained intervention in the history of our tendency, showing powerfully the impact that even a small revolutionary organization can have in a situation of mass social upheaval.
The power of our program was particularly evident in the 250,000-strong demonstration on 3 January 1990 against the fascist desecration of a monument in East Berlins Treptow Park honouring the Soviet soldiers who died liberating Germany from the Nazi scourge in 1945. We initiated the call for that mobilization, which was then taken up by the ruling Stalinists because they feared how much our program resonated among East Berlin workers and felt compelled to mobilize their base. Despite the disproportion of forces, there was a real contest in the DDR between the ICLs program of workers political revolution and the Stalinists program of capitulation and counterrevolution.
The conference document cited a motion passed by the ICLs International Secretariat earlier this year: We learned through our intervention that we alone were unequivocally opposed to capitalist reunification and alone fought against it, which underscored that we are the only organization on the globe with the program to fight for new Octobers. At the same time, our ongoing assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of our intervention is vital to preserving our revolutionary purpose and arming us for future struggles.
Fighting Menshevik Adaptation, Forging a Marxist Vanguard
The main report on the draft conference document, given by comrade Miriam McDonald, addressed some of the debates in the TL/LT in the period since our Tenth National Conference. She noted how during and immediately after the 2004 conference we tended to identify our errors as flowing in the main from sectarian withdrawal from struggle. In fact, as discussions throughout the ICL have shown clearly, the main danger we face in this period is not sectarianism but Menshevism—opportunist accommodation to the prevailing bourgeois liberalism.
One of the most clarifying discussions concerned our attitude to the World Social Forum and its regional offshoots, which have been championed by a host of reformist left groups including in Canada. Prior to 2005, we had failed to characterize the social forums as popular-frontist—i.e., class-collaborationist—alliances run by bourgeois liberals and pro-capitalist social democrats and directly funded by capitalist governments and institutions. Correcting this stance, the IEC adopted a memorandum that made clear that any political interventions into such events must be from the standpoint of forthright and irreconcilable opposition. The Spartacist League/Britain then produced a sharp polemical article, Social Forum Con Game, which we reprinted in SC No. 146 (Fall 2005).
This assisted us in pursuing parallel fights in the Canadian section. The most important concerned the anarchoid direct action milieu, specifically its Dont Ask, Dont Tell immigrant rights campaign. We adapted to this milieu by endorsing its campaign to lobby the Toronto mayor to defend immigrants, a campaign that promoted base illusions in the bourgeois state. After a clarifying discussion on this and related issues we published a letter in SC No. 145 (Summer 2005) that corrected our stance and reaffirmed our perspective for the independent class mobilization of the integrated labour movement in defense of immigrants and minorities.
Discussion on the conference document ranged from the imperialist occupation of Afghanistan to developments in Quebec and the current state of working-class struggle. We affirmed that our interventions around Afghanistan and Iraq will continue to center on calls for all U.S. and Canadian forces to get out now and for class struggle against the capitalist rulers at home. While giving not a shred of political support to the reactionary resistance forces, we assert that military blows against the imperialist occupiers coincide with the interests of the working class. As the document noted, This is the polar opposite of the antiwar movement who show their loyalty to the capitalist order in Canada with social-patriotic slogans such as: Peace is Patriotic—Support our Troops: bring them home.
The conference affirmed the continued importance of advocating independence for Quebec. This is vital for advancing the class struggle in a country where Anglo chauvinism, and the Quebec nationalism that it generates and reinforces, has deeply divided the working class on national lines. As the document explained: In advocating independence we seek to lay the basis for the workers in both English Canada and Quebec to see that the enemy is their own exploiters, not the French or les anglais. Advocacy of independence is equally important at times like the present when active enthusiasm for it in Quebec is at a relatively low ebb. As the document noted:
From the late 1960s to today there have always been ebbs and flows in active support for sovereignty, and we should avoid impressionism about the durability of the current conjuncture. The national question continues to inform and shape virtually every political question in this country—it will not go away. Harper will make deals with Quebec in order to get votes and stay in office, but he is an Anglo chauvinist who would not hesitate to use the sword against the Québécois attempting to exercise their legitimate national right to separation. His current gambit of concessions to Quebec will backfire at some juncture, just as it did for the Mulroney Tories in 1989-90.
Since the TL/LT is currently based in English Canada, our propaganda necessarily emphasizes opposition to the dominant Anglo chauvinism. Within Quebec, while still advocating independence, we stress opposition to the bourgeois nationalists of the Parti and Bloc Québécois. Our left opponents, in contrast, embrace the Maple Leaf chauvinists of the NDP in English Canada while, in the main, tailing the nationalists in Quebec. The conference reaffirmed our political opposition to Québec Solidaire, the petty-bourgeois populist party that is championed by just about every Quebec left group.
The most sustained labour struggle in the country in the recent period has been in B.C., including strikes by teachers, hospital, city and forestry workers. While in Ontario and Quebec hundreds of thousands of industrial jobs have been axed, contributing to the further weakening of the unions, in Alberta the oil industry has undergone massive expansion and the B.C. Lower Mainland has seen a pre-Olympic construction boom. This has generated a certain sense of social power among sections of organized labour in Western Canada. Interventions by our Vancouver local have stressed the need for political struggle against the NDP social democrats, whose attacks on workers and the poor while ruling B.C. for the capitalists in the 1990s paved the way for the austerity onslaught of todays provincial Liberal government.
The conference reasserted our understanding that the NDP is a bourgeois workers party—thoroughly pro-capitalist in program but with organic links to the unions via the union bureaucracy. This had earlier been questioned by some comrades, who posited that the NDP was severing its remaining ties with labour. Several documents, including a particularly useful one by a leading Vancouver comrade, showed how this argument was impressionistic and superficial. Its ultimate logic—that the bourgeoisie has no more need for social democracy as a mechanism to divert and betray the class struggle—would serve to politically disarm us. The conference document noted:
Insofar as there have been ruptures between the NDP and sections of the union bureaucracy, it has been the latter who have taken the initiative, notably in the CAW tops embrace of the bourgeois Liberal Party. Our strategic task regarding the NDP remains unchanged: we seek to break workers from the politics of social democracy as part of the necessary fight to split the working-class base of the NDP from the pro-capitalist leadership and forge a revolutionary party.
A Leninist Tribune of the People
We fight to forge a party that acts, in Lenins words, as a tribune of the people—fighting against all manifestations of capitalist oppression and state tyranny, from police repression of black youth to the war on terror attacks on Muslims and more. Comrades addressed particular proposals for further propaganda on the fight against Native oppression, as well as on the struggles for gay rights and womens liberation.
The document noted how the latter questions get less and less attention from the fake left, and affirmed that for us such social questions form a vital part of our liberating Marxist outlook. The rulers anti-sex witchhunt is a particularly explosive issue, especially where it intersects youth. Our opposition to state interference in consensual sexual relations—a stance that should be elementary for Marxists—has brought howls of outrage from reformist leftists whose hysteria dovetails perfectly with the bourgeoisies moral crusade to reinforce the family, the central instrument for the oppression of women and gays.
The work of the Partisan Defense Committee, the legal and social defense organization associated with the TL/LT, has expanded in the past period, and the conference took steps to further strengthen it. The PDCs annual Holiday Appeal for class-war prisoners has been held publicly in Toronto since 2004 alongside more informal events in Vancouver. Representatives of unions and black and Native rights groups have addressed these events, which have focused on the fight to free Mumia Abu-Jamal. Our efforts have resulted in a number of unions, other groups and prominent individuals adding their names to a widely circulated statement initiated by the PDC in the U.S. that demands the immediate freedom of Mumia Abu-Jamal, an innocent man.
Throughout, we have emphasized how Mumias case exemplifies the oppressive racism and national chauvinism of capitalist North America. In Canada, we fight for the working class to take up the cause of immigrants and minorities, Native people and the Québécois, and stress that only workers revolution can create an egalitarian socialist society. In the U.S., the fight for Mumias freedom is part of our struggle for black liberation through socialist revolution. The Spartacist League/U.S. fights for revolutionary integrationism—the full integration of black people, an oppressed race-colour caste segregated at the bottom of society, into an egalitarian socialist America.
The conference document noted how, as in other ICL sections, reviving systematic defense work required a political struggle against a tendency to denigrate it as not political or as a species of liberal social work. In fact, Mumias case poses point blank the character of the capitalist state and the need for class-struggle defense, as opposed to the reformist program of reliance on the courts expressed in the calls for a new trial that are the stock-in-trade of reformist groups like the I.S. and Socialist Action.
In this regard, the document noted the role of the International Bolshevik Tendency (BT), whose longest-standing operation is in Toronto:
The BT remains what it has always been: a walking anti-Spartacist provocation whose occasional left pretensions mask typically social-democratic politics, notably their opposition to independence for Quebec. The BT assiduously retails its slanders against us as an entrée to other milieus. This is crystal clear in their role around the Mumia Abu-Jamal case. From Oakland to Toronto to London, the BT works to build unity with the liberals and reformists who call for a new trial, thereby building illusions in the justice of the capitalist courts which have upheld the racist frame-up of Mumia for a quarter of a century.
The Logan Dossier, a newly published ICL bulletin, documents in detail the crimes against communist morality of the BTs central international leader, Bill Logan, which led to his expulsion from our international tendency at our First International Conference in 1979 (see article, page 6).
Steeling Our Cadre for Struggles Ahead
Two educational sessions were held during the conference. One was a panel discussion on the impact of significant immigration over the past few decades and its intertwining with prospects for proletarian struggle against North American capitalism. An overarching theme was that defense of immigrant rights is key to the unity and integrity of the working class as a whole. This is further elaborated in the front page article of this issue.
The other educational dealt with the early years of the Communist Party of Canada, based in large part on Ian Angus excellent 1981 book Canadian Bolsheviks, which has recently been republished. The preparations for this educational paralleled broader discussion in the ICL around Bryan Palmers valuable new biography of founding U.S. Communist leader James P. Cannon, which laid the basis for a review in the new Spartacist.
In his presentation, comrade Andrew Shilling noted that many lessons, positive and negative, can be drawn from the work of our revolutionary forebears of the 1920s for the forging of a communist vanguard today. These range from the need for a programmatic split with the reformists, to the need for class opposition to bourgeois Canadian nationalism, to policies for communist work in the trade unions, and much more.
A Nominating Commission was appointed to solicit opinions on the composition of a new Central Committee and recommend a slate to the conference. The reporter for the commission noted the challenge we face in developing a new generation of party leaders. While comrades at the conference spanned several political generations, our evolved leadership is largely composed of older comrades with 25 and more years of political experience. We are proud to have a number of women cadre, including from non-European backgrounds, playing a central role throughout the organization. TL/LT cadres also play important roles internationally, especially in the generation of propaganda for Spartacist and for the SL/U.S. biweekly paper, Workers Vanguard, which plays a politically cohering role for the entire ICL. The new CC, elected by secret ballot, includes a component of younger comrades who have come forward to lead areas of work.
Since the last TL/LT conference, we have made progress in recognizing and fighting against the pressures to adapt to liberal-bourgeois consciousness and in maintaining a proletarian revolutionary perspective. Nonetheless, as the document from the ICL Fifth International Conference soberly noted, We need to do a lot better when it comes to instilling a sense of purpose that our small forces through the power of our program have an impact on social struggles, and that we are the only ones with a program for abolishing capitalism, the source of exploitation, imperialist wars, racist discrimination and womens oppression.
The challenge ahead is to continue the struggle for authentic revolutionary Marxism—through external intervention and polemical engagement, internal political struggle and clarification, and not least, systematic cadre education to instill and critically review the lessons of historical experience. Our conference marked our commitment, alongside our comrades throughout the ICL, to reforge a Trotskyist Fourth International to lead the struggle for communism worldwide.