Workers Vanguard No. 903
23 November 2007
Dubious BTs United Front Fraud
The Fight for Class-Struggle Defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal
We reprint below recent letters from the International Bolshevik Tendency (BT) to sections of the International Communist League and the Partisan Defense Committee, along with replies. The first letter was addressed to the Trotskyist League of Canada. A similar letter was sent to our comrades in Britain.
25 September 2007
At the Trotskyist League (TL) public forum on 22 September a representative of the Partisan Defense Committee (PDC) spoke about the continuing struggle to free Mumia Abu-Jamal. During the discussion round I agreed with the idea of organizing a demonstration in Toronto in the event that the U.S. Third Circuit Court of Appeals upholds the death sentence or denies Mumia’s appeals.
I also agreed with Comrade Tynan of the PDC who proposed that the slogans for such a demonstration should be “Mumia is Innocent!”, “Free Mumia!” and “Abolish the Racist Death Penalty!” These same slogans were in fact the basis of unity for the 75-person demonstration on 17 May that we helped initiate, which was endorsed by a number of organizations. At your meeting we suggested that the PDC’s projected protest be organized on a similar basis, i.e., as a united front, and stated our willingness to co-sponsor such an event and seek endorsements from the dozen-odd groups that backed the 17 May demonstration. We believe that the relative success of that protest provides the basis for building a larger mobilization this time.
The TL/PDC speakers did not seem to appreciate the advantages of broadening the appeal of the projected protest by including other groups. TL spokesperson John Masters did say that the IBT and others would be “more than welcome to get involved” with the PDC event, and stated that any groups that participated would be allotted three minutes to speak. This is reasonable enough, but we think that an important opportunity is being missed. Prior to the 17 May demonstration there had been no significant public event for Mumia in Toronto for almost five years. The sponsorship of a broad range of student, black, socialist and anarchist organizations was, in our view, responsible for attracting many individuals to the May demo who might not have attended an event held by only one of the participating groups.
While the 17 May protest had to be organized at the last minute, this time there is an opportunity to hold a preliminary organizing meeting where a basis of unity could be agreed upon (we would push for the same slogans you propose) and a division of labor worked out for publicizing the event and carrying out other practical tasks.
We believe that in any future united-front demonstration each participating group should have a chance to put forward its own distinctive views and criticisms. While the TL/PDC had the largest single contingent at the May event, accounting for almost a third of the crowd, many participants were there because of the endorsements by other organizations.
In our view, a united front involving a number of different groups will broaden the protest’s appeal and produce a larger demonstration with more impact. We urge the comrades of the TL/PDC to carefully consider such an approach, rather than attempting to organize an event where you are the sole sponsor.
Yours for Mumia’s freedom,
for the International Bolshevik Tendency
* * *
10 October 2007
Bolshevik Tendency, Toronto
We are responding to your September 25 email addressed to the TL. Our call, issued on September 3, to prepare for an emergency protest in Toronto on the slogans “Mumia Abu-Jamal is an innocent man! Free Mumia now! Abolish the racist death penalty!” is one of several initiated by the PDC and its fraternal defense organizations internationally in the absence of evident preparation for protest action by other groups, including in Toronto. Subsequently, some other organizations have called protests in other cities, which we have publicized as the information becomes available.
We have long fought for the broadest possible mobilization for Mumia’s freedom, centered on the social power of organized labour and with full freedom of criticism for participating organizations. That has entailed political struggle against those who foster deadly illusions in the “justice” of the capitalist state and, correspondingly, seek to denigrate or censor our class-struggle perspective. This is in contrast to your own record of conciliating such forces, including at the May 17 Toronto demonstration where, for example, your speakers declined to mention, much less argue against, the reformists’ “new trial” calls that have undermined mobilizations for Mumia’s defense. It is in this context that we must take your demand for a “preliminary organizing meeting” to agree a “basis of unity” for Mumia protests.
As our spokesmen reiterated at the September 22 TL forum “Immigrants and minorities: Key to working-class struggle,” all groups who agree with the rally slogans—as you say you do—should do their part to build the protest, including by publicizing it, bringing out their members and supporters and distributing their own propaganda if so desired. Groups that do this will of course be granted speaking time, as has always been the norm at such PDC-initiated demonstrations. That is exactly what a united front is. We urge you to direct your efforts to building what will be an urgent action in fighting for Mumia’s freedom. Freedom now for Mumia Abu-Jamal—an innocent man!
An updated version of our leaflet calling for the emergency protest is attached.
Partisan Defense Committee, Toronto
* * *
9 November 2007
Partisan Defense Committee/International Communist League
We regret your decision to reject our proposals for united-front demonstrations in Toronto and London in the event of an unfavorable ruling on Mumia Abu-Jamal’s current appeal before the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. Rather than seeking to work with other organizations which support Mumia, you seem intent on holding events under your own banner. On 17 May we helped organize an effective united-front emergency action in Toronto to coincide with Mumia’s hearing on the basis of three slogans: “Mumia is Innocent!,” “Free Mumia!” and “Abolish the racist death penalty!” We believe that this demonstration, in which you participated, provides a model for how “the broadest possible mobilization for Mumia’s freedom” can actually be built.
Almost by definition, a demonstration co-sponsored by several organizations working together will have a broader appeal than a protest organized by a single group. As we noted in our 25 September letter, “The sponsorship of a broad range of student, black, socialist and anarchist organizations was, in our view, responsible for attracting many individuals to the May demo who might not have attended an event held by only one of the participating groups.” You did not comment on this in your 10 October reply, perhaps because you have a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward the May demonstration. While your supporters made up a third of the crowd, your reason for not co-sponsoring it was pretty odd (see “A New Spartacist ‘Principle’,” www.bolshevik.org, 27 May).
Instead of a united front, you propose that everyone simply follow the International Communist League (ICL) and its Partisan Defense Committee (PDC):
“[A]ll groups who agree with the rally slogans—as you say you do—should do their part to build the [PDC] protest, including by publicizing it, bringing out their members and supporters and distributing their own propaganda if so desired. Groups that do this will of course be granted speaking time, as has always been the norm at such PDC-initiated demonstrations. That is exactly what a united front is.”
Not quite. A real united front is a joint initiative by two or more organizations for a common purpose. In a united front one component does not “grant” the others the right to speak. Your comrade Joseph Seymour put it like this:
“A united front does not refer to any and every kind of cooperation with other political organizations. A united front is essentially a common action characteristically around concrete, usually negative, demands on bourgeois authority. The characteristic organizational form of the united front is a technical coordinating committee.”
—“On the United Front Question,” 1974
Your approach smacks of a “united front from below” in which one group calls for everyone to unite under its leadership. The problem with this is that people who do not politically identify with a particular tendency often lack enthusiasm for taking its direction, and as a result, mobilizations organized in this fashion tend to be smaller than those that are more broadly based.
It is clear that we have substantial agreement on the essential questions regarding Mumia’s case. We have publicly acknowledged the PDC’s very important contributions, particularly your role in proving Mumia’s innocence by unearthing the truth about how and why Officer Daniel Faulkner was killed. In The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal we saluted the PDC’s opposition to “attempts by liberals and reformist leftists to change the political axis of the campaign from a fight to free Mumia to one of re-trying him.”
Unfortunately, your record has, at times, been marred by sectarianism. An outstanding example was your refusal to march in the large 24 April 1999 demonstrations for Mumia in San Francisco and Philadelphia (see “Disagreeable Sectarians,” 1917 No. 21 and Whatever Happened to the Spartacist League?). While you later acknowledged that this was indeed a mistake, your current rejection of a united-front approach reveals the same sectarian impulse.
In the letter from your Toronto comrades rebuffing our proposal, you refer to “those who foster deadly illusions in the ‘justice’ of the capitalist state,” and claim that we have a:
“record of conciliating such forces, including at the May 17 Toronto demonstration where, for example, your speakers declined to mention, much less argue against, the reformists’ ‘new trial’ calls that have undermined mobilizations for Mumia’s defense. It is in this context that we must take your demand for a ‘preliminary organizing meeting’ to agree a ‘basis of unity’ for Mumia protests.”
While we have co-sponsored events to demand Mumia’s freedom with people who do not share our view of the capitalist “justice” system, we have never raised or supported the demand for a “new trial,” as you well know. At the 17 May Toronto protest our spokesperson explicitly criticized the idea that working people and the oppressed can expect justice from the bourgeois courts:
“[Mumia’s] case is a political one and it is through a political struggle in the workers’ movement and oppressed that his freedom can be won. We should have no faith in the capitalist courts. That said, every possible legal avenue must be pursued to save Mumia’s life, but the best way to protect him is by using the frame-up to expose the entire corrupt capitalist judicial system.”
No reasonable person could interpret this as “conciliating” those “who foster deadly illusions in the ‘justice’ of the capitalist state.”
In a 10 October letter to our comrades in London, Kate Klein of the PDC claimed that the “Mumia Must Live!” (MML) united front that we participated in had also “conciliated” advocates of a new trial. In fact, every MML event was organized on the basis of two slogans: “Free Mumia Abu-Jamal!” and “Abolish the Racist Death Penalty!” We did not seek to exclude those who push the demand for a new trial, though we have a record of consistently arguing against it. MML organized a rally of 1,000 on 4 March 2000—by far the largest demonstration for Mumia in Britain to date. As we reported in 1917 No. 22, the question of adding the demand for a “new trial” was proposed and rejected by the united-front committee:
“In the course of building the March demonstration there were several intense discussions within Mumia Must Live!, particularly after the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) joined. The SWP contributed significant resources, and has given MML a much higher profile. At the same time, SWPers have made several attempts to include, as part of MML’s basis of unity, a demand for the U.S. courts to retry Mumia. Our comrades and some of the anarchists were opposed to including this demand, and after some to-ing and fro-ing, the SWP relented, and agreed to only raise it in their own name.”
While we think that united-front efforts are preferable, we will actively participate in events in defense of Mumia, regardless of how, or by whom, they are organized.
Yours for Mumia’s Freedom!
for the IBT
Mumia Abu-Jamal’s life hangs in the balance as the Third Circuit Court of Appeals decides whether to uphold the death sentence, keep him in prison for life or grant him a new trial or further court hearings. Recognizing the urgency of the situation and with no evidence of any actions being planned by others, in late August the Partisan Defense Committee in the U.S. issued a call for emergency protests in the event of a negative decision as several of our fraternal legal and social defense organizations internationally did subsequently. Since then, other organizations have also called protests which we have advertised, including a national demonstration to be held in Philadelphia on the third Saturday after a negative decision.
Several weeks after we first put out the call for emergency protests, our comrades in Toronto and London received letters from the International Bolshevik Tendency arguing that a united-front committee be established, or alternately “a preliminary organizing meeting” be held, in order to “produce a larger demonstration with more impact.” In responding, we noted the BT’s professed agreement with the central slogans of these protests—“Mumia Abu-Jamal is an innocent man! Free Mumia now! Abolish the racist death penalty!”—and pointed out that the BT should do its part to publicize the protests, bring out its own members and supporters, with its own signs and banners, distribute its own propaganda and have its own speakers. The whole purpose of the united front is to mobilize in action, and that is precisely what we urged the BT to do.
But actually mobilizing for Mumia was not the intent behind the BT’s letters. The proof is the simple fact that the BT has not produced a single written announcement or flyer mobilizing support for Mumia in the run-up to a court decision. It does seem that the BT was shamed by our challenge at an October 12 New York City meeting featuring Bryan Palmer, author of a recent biography of James P. Cannon, to put its money where its mouth was (see article page 4). At a subsequent BT meeting in Toronto, it announced the PDC’s emergency protest. But as of now you can click “Mumia Abu-Jamal” or look under “what’s new” on the BT’s Web site and not find a word about the protests called by the PDC or anyone else for that matter.
On November 5, the PDC in the Bay Area received an e-mail from the Labor Action Committee to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal (LACMAJ), in which the BT is a prominent player, announcing, as if it were late-breaking news, that there could be an imminent negative decision in Mumia’s case and urging emergency protests. Nary a mention was made that such protests have already been called in the Bay Area—by the PDC in Oakland and by the Mobilization to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal in San Francisco. More than a week earlier, at an October 27 Bay Area “Labor Conference to Stop the War” which was mainly organized by International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10 executive board member and LACMAJ spokesman Jack Heyman and which heard taped greetings from Mumia, PDC and SL supporters had agitated for participants to come out for the emergency protests. Then on November 17 we received an e-mail from LACMAJ announcing both the San Francisco and Oakland protests. Go figure. For our part, we welcome the mobilization of all those committed to the fight for Mumia’s freedom.
In the meantime, on November 9—two months after we first issued our protest calls—we received the above letter from the BT denouncing the PDC for rejecting their “proposals for united-front demonstrations in Toronto and London”! The cynicism is mind-boggling, but the purpose is clear: to portray the PDC as “sectarian” saboteurs of mobilizations for Mumia’s freedom.
This is hardly the first time we have been on the receiving end of such charges by the BT, an organization led by the twisted sociopath Bill Logan that has throughout its existence pursued an unnatural and hostile obsession with our organization. Significantly, in August 1995, at the height of the mass protests nationally and internationally that were key in winning a stay of execution for Mumia, WV received a letter from the BT accusing us of undermining “the effort required to save Mumia from the executioner’s needle” (see “Poison Pen Pals,” WV No. 627, 25 August 1995). The PDC and International Communist League had been fighting for eight years to spark an international campaign in Mumia’s defense while supporting legal means pursued on his behalf. This effort, together with that of others and, not least, Mumia’s own powerful writings, was successful in igniting the mass protests that stayed the executioner’s hand. At the time, one of the few organizations on the left that had not made Mumia’s cause a banner headline was the Bolshevik Tendency.
The BT had, however, made a press splash around Mumia’s case—in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. In a 16 June 1995 article, this house organ of U.S. finance capital retailed the BT’s slanders of the Spartacist League as a deranged “cult” in order to smear the efforts of the PDC and others on Mumia’s behalf. The Wall Street Journal’s intent was transparent enough. How and why the minuscule BT was readily wielded as a tool for the Wall Street Journal is not. In any case, this anti-communist smear job did not bother the BT, whose response was to write a treatise attacking...the PDC and SL for “sectarian behavior” that “truly sabotages the fight for Mumia’s freedom”!
And to whom is the BT playing today? They cry foul at our indictment of their conciliation of the reformists’ call for a “new trial” as the basis of demonstrations for Mumia. The BT’s defense? They cite the words of their speaker at a May 17 Toronto rally for Mumia who never mentioned, much less politically exposed, the call for a “new trial”—a demand that was explicitly raised by other speakers at the protest. This is not simply a question of words. As the PDC speaker at that protest explained, as new evidence of Mumia’s innocence came out from 1995 to 1999, “the reformist left groups
started to call for a ‘new trial’ for Mumia. Instead of mobilizing to free this innocent victim of a racist frame-up, they mobilized on the basis that he could get a new and fair trial from the same courts that put him on death row in the first place. But they’re wrong!” (“Class Struggle to Free Mumia!” Spartacist Canada No. 153, Summer 2007).
What is posed is a contest of two fundamentally counterposed strategies. The first sows deadly illusions in the capitalist courts—illusions that have served to demobilize a mass movement in his defense. The second is our class-struggle fight to re-ignite mass protests for Mumia’s freedom centered on the social power of the multiracial working class. Our policy of class-struggle defense is based on the Marxist understanding that capitalist society is fundamentally divided into two classes—a tiny minority that owns the means of production and the workers whose labor they exploit—and that the capitalist state serves to defend the rule and profits of the exploiters. We fight for mass protest based on labor’s social power, which lies in its ability to choke off the profits that are the lifeblood of capitalism. Our fight for Mumia’s freedom is predicated on opposition to the racist cops, courts and prosecutors of the capitalist state who conspired in a monstrous frame-up to silence forever this eloquent and defiant fighter for the oppressed.
In regard to our self-criticism over the April 1999 “Millions for Mumia” protests, we wrote in “A Hard Look at Recent Party Work and Current Tasks” (WV No. 841, 4 February 2005), “We should have made clear our political opposition by organizing ‘Free Mumia’ contingents in the demonstrations organized by liberals and reformists.” In other words, while mobilizing our forces to participate in the protest we missed an opportunity to politically combat those who subordinate the fight to free Mumia to the call for a new trial. That includes the Labor Action Committee to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal—an organization that from its inception has been supported by the BT—which issued an international appeal to build rallies on 24 April 1999 around two central demands: “Stop the execution of Mumia Abu-Jamal” and “A new and fair trial for Mumia Abu-Jamal.”
On the united front, James P. Cannon
—the founder of American Trotskyism and secretary of the early International Labor Defense (ILD), whose class-struggle, non-sectarian defense work is the model for the work of the PDC—put it well: “The united front, as Lenin taught it, is a means of mobilizing the masses and leading them in the direction of the revolution. It is not a ‘partnership’ with reformists, but a form of struggle against them” (“Limits of the United Front,” Militant, 1 April 1931).
This is a far cry from the BT’s notion of the “united front,” which is devoid of the struggle of counterposed political programs and strategies aimed at advancing the consciousness of the working class. What the BT has in mind, rather, is a peace treaty with the reformists and liberals against a common enemy—us. Its letter to the Trotskyist League of Canada gives the game away with its call for a “preliminary organizing meeting where a basis of unity could be agreed upon.” Since the BT claims to agree with our slogans centered on Mumia’s innocence and the fight for his freedom, what is there to “negotiate” as a “basis of unity” other than to conciliate the “new trial” reformists and liberals?
We can’t resist noting that the rules of the BT’s cynical “united-front” game were different when it was a matter of determining the “basis of unity” for the May 17 Toronto protest. We were never invited to any meeting—the first we heard of the protest was an e-mail with a draft flyer from something called the “May 17th Committee to Free Mumia.” But that was of no consequence for us. We agreed with the central slogans, which were those that the PDC has historically fought for, and set out to help build this protest with our own call for people to mobilize.
The BT now darkly intones that “perhaps...you have a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward the May demonstration,” and then in the next breath points out that the PDC contingent was a “third of the crowd”! So what is the evidence of our purported “ambivalence”? That we did not add our name to the call by the “May 17th Committee.” As our comrades in the Trotskyist League wrote in “Class Struggle to Free Mumia!” the condition for doing so was to endorse “a lowest-common-denominator ‘statement’ which, reflecting the BT’s longstanding indifference to the fight for black freedom, could not even choke out that Mumia was a former Black Panther and a supporter of the MOVE organization.”
This is hardly surprising. The BT also could not choke out a word of protest against the firebombing of the MOVE home in Philadelphia in 1985, carried out by the Philly cops under black Democratic mayor Wilson Goode in collusion with Reagan’s FBI. Eleven black people, including five children, were killed and an entire black neighborhood burned to the ground. When the Spartacist League organized a New York memorial meeting in solidarity with the victims of this racist atrocity, the BT attacked us for not polemicizing against MOVE’s philosophy!
Since its inception in the early 1980s as a clot of embittered ex-members of our organization, a defining feature of the BT has been its sneering contempt for the fight for black freedom. The BT, for instance, generally absented itself from our mass united-front labor/black mobilizations to stop fascist terror. But it did spill a lot of ink denouncing us for abandoning trade-union work in favor of “community organizing” when we initiated labor black leagues linked to the SL building on the success of these anti-fascist actions. To counterpose organized labor to the black plebeian masses echoes the reactionary trade-union bureaucracy, whose support to this racist capitalist system and the Democratic Party has served to shackle the unions to the exploiters. The fight for black liberation and the class independence of the proletariat is key to mobilizing the power of labor for Mumia’s freedom. This understanding has animated the PDC’s work in Mumia’s defense for the past two decades.
Unlike the BT, which currently is handing out an anonymous leaflet in London calling to “Free Mumia: Organise Now!”, we do not conceal our political identity. The PDC openly declares that its purpose—class-struggle, non-sectarian legal and social defense, championing cases and causes that are in the interests of the whole of the working people—is in accordance with the political views of the Spartacist League/ICL. But agreement with our openly Marxist politics is not a condition for participating in the PDC’s united-front actions. We welcome all those, whatever their political views, who agree with our fight to free Mumia and abolish the racist death penalty to participate in united-front actions with their own propaganda, placards, chants and speakers—including the BT.
But to believe the BT, what stands in the way of mobilizing for Mumia’s freedom is the PDC’s “sectarianism.” This serves the “new trial” liberals and reformists who are hostile to our purpose and would be only too happy to get rid of the PDC and ICL’s involvement in Mumia’s fight. The BT supplies the arguments for them by insinuating that the PDC merely seeks to advance its own purpose in its defense work. This line comes straight from the annals of anti-communism and was answered by Cannon in addressing those who declared his motives in the ILD “not altogether philanthropic”:
“My motives were not ‘philanthropic’ at all. I really believed in the principle of solidarity with all class war prisoners
. To be sure, I was an undisguised communist, and I thought and said that the honest work of solidarity practiced by the ILD would bring, at least indirectly, some credit to the Communist Party. But don’t people who represent all kinds of causes and organizations do what they consider their good works with this double motivation?”
—The First Ten Years of American Communism (1962)
And what of the BT’s motivation? Here’s an organization with a record of dismissing our labor-centered mobilizations to defend the black masses and denouncing our solidarity with victims of the government’s racist terror. Now they lecture us on building “real” united-front actions in defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal, whose cause they did not take up in their press in any real way until after mass protests broke out in 1995. So you can’t blame us for smelling a rat here, particularly given the propensity of the BT’s slanders of our organization to find their way into the hands of larger forces who would like to do us harm.