Workers Vanguard No. 904
7 December 2007
The Speak Out Now! Group
Ordinary Reformists for "Ordinary People"
(Young Spartacus pages)
We reprint below an October 24 Bay Area Spartacist League/Spartacus Youth Club leaflet that was distributed at the October 27 San Francisco antiwar demonstration.
Over the past couple of years, antiwar protests in the San Francisco Bay Area have brought out contingents of youth in red T-shirts with “Speak Out Now!” emblazoned on them. A self-proclaimed Marxist outfit, Speak Out Now!—a.k.a. the Revolutionary Workers Group (SON/RWG)—also exists, albeit semi-clandestinely, at Bay Area campuses, particularly San Francisco State University. In its public appearances, SON/RWG distributes leaflets that would not offend any middle-class liberal, complaining of the misuse of “our tax dollars” by the “wealthy minority” and appealing for “a system run democratically by ordinary people.” Indeed, this refrain has more in common with populist currents in the U.S. than anything resembling Marxism.
What makes SON/RWG a bird of a different feather is that it is affiliated with a factional minority of France’s Lutte Ouvrière (LO—Worker’s Fight), a reformist party that falsely, albeit rarely, lays claim to Trotskyism. While anyone meeting them for the first time won’t hear much about their relationship to Trotskyism, a lie spoken even occasionally is still a lie. For the initiated, SON/RWG offers a cynical school of phony Marxism, while in practice peddling a program of liberal reformism. Its “Where We Stand” statement, which on occasion accompanies SON’s leaflets and pamphlets, declares: “We base ourselves on the ideas and actions of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, on the model of the Russian Revolution of 1917 when the working class showed its capacity to take over and exert its power, and on the revolutionary ideas of the Fourth International in its struggles against Stalinism.”
This claim is belied by the whole history of LO, which was born in rejecting Trotsky’s Fourth International and marked by its refusal in practice to defend the gains of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Its day-to-day work is based on an economist adaptation to the present consciousness of the working class, accommodating the backwardness and bigotry imbued by the bourgeoisie and its labor lieutenants. In polemicizing against the Russian Economists in the early 1900s, Lenin outlined the central characteristics of this trend: a vulgarization of Marxism; sensitivity to opportunist criticism; the restriction of political activity to economic struggles to improve the conditions of the working class; and worshipping the “spontaneity of the masses” in opposition to building a centralized vanguard party to bring revolutionary consciousness to the proletariat, steeling its most advanced elements for the conquest of power.
Economism arose in Russia in response to the awakening of struggle among a new, young working class. Today, the consciousness of the working class has been thrown backward under the impact of the counterrevolutionary destruction of the former Soviet Union, the world’s first workers state. In this context, tailing the “spontaneity of the masses”—or in SON/RWG’s words, reaching people where they are at—means adapting to “death of communism” reaction. Transported to the ivory tower of American campuses by SON/RWG, this opportunist practice takes the form of condescending leaflets, devoid of an iota of Marxism much less partisanship with the working class, aimed at petty-bourgeois liberals. When confronted by members of the Spartacus Youth Club they argue that people aren’t ready for socialist ideas.
The SYC takes a very different approach because we’re looking for a few good communists. We tell the hard truth: This is a class-divided society, run into decay and ruin by a system based on production for the profits of the few and the exploitation of the many. We fight to win youth to the understanding that there will be no end to imperialist war short of the socialist eradication of the capitalist system. We expose and combat every manifestation of oppression and state terror meted out by the racist rulers. In political solidarity with the Spartacist League, we work for the formation of a revolutionary vanguard party of the working class to lead the struggle here and internationally for a successful communist revolution, which will lay the basis for freeing the energies of all of humanity toward creating a truly free society. This task necessitates a struggle to make the working class conscious that it has both the revolutionary class interest and the social power to overthrow capitalism and institute its own class rule. An essential part of this struggle is the fight, in opposition to all forms of backward, false consciousness, to win the working class to champion the cause of all those oppressed by capitalism. We mean it when we say we fight to carry forward the ideas of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky and the tradition of the 1917 Russian Revolution!
Looking for a Piece of the Reformist Pie?
SON/RWG’s leaflets at antiwar demonstrations are standard condemnations of arrogant politicians and greedy oil companies. Together with a panoply of journalistic bullet points against the lies the Bush administration told in the lead-up to the war, they also distribute a “where your income tax money really goes” pie chart from the pacifist War Resisters League. Taken together, there is nothing that distinguishes SON/RWG from the International Socialist Organization, ANSWER/Party for Socialism and Liberation or other “butter not guns” reformists and their lies that the “people united” can pressure the imperialists to “stop war.” In a January 2007 leaflet titled “Now Is The Time To Say NO To War,” SON/RWG opines that “wishing, hoping and voting is not enough.” It concludes with classic “movement” mongering:
“A demonstration, even a small one can be a start. But we can’t stop here. We can use this demonstration to do more than protest in the streets. We can organize ourselves to go back to our schools, workplaces and communities, to begin to educate people about the facts of the war. We can bring more people to the next demonstration on March 18. That can be a real start.”
At the March 18 antiwar protest, they were whistling a somewhat different tune, obviously appealing to those increasingly disgruntled with peace crawls that have done nothing other than boost the electoral fortunes of the Democratic Party. Here the SON leaflet declaimed: “Despite our anger, demonstrations are never enough to stop a war.” It even went on to call for “revolutionary change” and further declared that there can be no “lasting future unless capitalism is replaced.” The goal, concludes SON, is “a world system that is democratically run in the interests of and controlled by the majority of people.” Thus, “revolutionary change” is simply used to promote the bourgeois-liberal notion of classless “democracy,” a myth which has so effectively been used to mask the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.
The SYC intervenes in the mass antiwar demonstrations to forthrightly argue that the struggle against the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan must be a proletarian revolutionary struggle against the capitalist system that breeds such wars. We took a side in defense of Iraq and Afghanistan against the U.S. imperialist invaders, while politically opposing Saddam Hussein’s bloody regime and the Taliban reactionaries. Today we have a side with the Iraqi and Afghan peoples against the U.S. occupiers, their allies and Iraqi and Afghan lackeys. Our slogans and revolutionary contingents at these protests call for “class struggle against U.S. capitalist rulers!”
As the Spartacus Youth League, the American Trotskyist youth organization of the 1930s, from which we take our name, stated:
“For youth, as for other workers, it is imperative that he learns the class nature of society and of government and of warfare. When he learns these lessons he will have made headway in the fundamental question. Between classes there can be no peace till one or the other is vanquished. The workers have to understand that the road to peace lies through war: class war, class struggle.”
—“Disarmament and Pacifism,” Young Spartacus No. 3, February 1932
SON/RWG meticulously avoids any such class analysis, much less its revolutionary conclusion. This only plays into the pro-Democratic Party pressure politics peddled by the reformists and liberals at the mass antiwar protests. Their call to “bring the troops home now” confines these demonstrations to social-patriotic appeals to that wing of the bourgeoisie, mainly the Democrats, which wants to cut its losses in Iraq in order to better pursue its aims and interests in Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere, with an eye on the huge prize of restoring capitalism in China.
We fight to break activists from illusions in the Democrats and their Green Party sidekicks, pointing out that you can’t fight the imperialists and their predatory wars while supporting the political parties that represent their interests. The lie that the Democrats are the “friends” of the working people and the oppressed, promoted by the trade-union tops, has long served to shackle the power of labor to their capitalist class enemy. Breaking those chains is central to the fight to bring revolutionary consciousness to the working class, a precondition to the socialist emancipation of all the exploited and oppressed.
SON/RWG: Color-Blind “Socialists”
In France, LO’s economist adaptation to the existing consciousness of the working class has long meant rejecting the fight against special oppression. Applied to the American terrain this means consciously avoiding the fight against black oppression, which is a cornerstone of capitalist exploitation. One of the rare times that SON/RWG even mentions the question of anti-black racism is in its leaflet on Hurricane Katrina. Titled “Natural Disaster or Man-Made Catastrophe?”, it notes in passing that New Orleans is “primarily African-American” and describes the wretched living conditions for blacks in the city before the storm. But they still can’t state the obvious: The abandoning of the masses of the poor, overwhelmingly black population in New Orleans to die was a racist atrocity!
Instead, the leaflet complains that “40% of the Louisiana National Guard, the front line of defense in the case of national emergencies, is serving today in Iraq along with a major share of their best equipment.” This stance perfectly captures SON’s liberal illusions in the capitalist state. In fact, the National Guard was sent into New Orleans after the storms —with “equipment” to crack down on the suffering black population! When some 300 Arkansas National Guardsmen were sent into the city, Democratic Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco said: “These troops know how to shoot and kill
and I expect they will.” And they did.
It’s elementary Marxism that the capitalist state consists of bodies of armed men—the police, courts, prison guards and army, including the National Guard—whose purpose is to maintain the bourgeoisie’s dictatorship over the working class and the oppressed. This means suppressing strikes, as when riot police break up a picket line, or “restoring order” against starving poor folk clamoring for housing and bread. As Marx and Lenin taught us, the working class cannot wield the machinery of the capitalist state in its interests; the state must be smashed through workers revolution, replacing it with proletarian rule.
Despite Hurricane Katrina’s exposure of racial oppression, class exploitation and their intertwined roots in capitalist America, petty-bourgeois liberals and most of the left, including, manifestly, SON/RWG, buy into an “end of racism” ideology that blunts the hard truth about the deep-seated racist oppression of black people. SON’s leaflet on Katrina doesn’t speak of, much less put forward a program for fighting, the racist segregation and starvation policies aimed at the black population of this country. Instead, the best it can offer is that people follow the example of the “heroic acts on the part of many ordinary people during this tragedy.” The actions taken by many to rescue people and provide clothing, food and medicine to those who had been left to starve and die were indeed heroic. But for SON/RWG to offer this as the answer is to accept the desperate conditions faced by black people in this country, merely offering some alleviation through charity.
The utter contempt for black and poor people demonstrated at all levels of the U.S. ruling class before, during and after Hurricane Katrina is a harbinger of the murderous capitalist system’s impulse toward genocide of black Americans. The segregation of the mass of the black population at the bottom of this society has long served as a key prop for maintaining the rule of capital in the U.S., where the color bar is used to obscure the fundamental class divide between labor and their exploiters. Today the racist rulers see no reason to spend money on the black poor, who are increasingly seen as expendable to this system of production for profit. At the same time, black workers continue to be a strategic component of the American proletariat.
The situation cries out for a class-struggle fight for black rights, mobilizing the social power of the labor movement. That potential power was seen in the shipyard strike in Pascagoula, Mississippi earlier this year, where integrated strikers, many of whom had lost their homes in Katrina, shut down one of the world’s largest naval shipbuilders. In answer to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the Spartacist League called for the unions to mobilize for the rescue effort and to demand a massive program of public works, at good union wages and under the control of workers committees, to rebuild New Orleans. That there was little to no mobilization of the unions, despite wide sentiment in the ranks, is due to the accommodation of pro-Democratic Party union misleaders to the racist, capitalist status quo.
Our call to mobilize the unions was a concrete expression of our perspective of revolutionary integrationism, the understanding that the fight for black liberation in this country is central to the fight for the socialist emancipation of the working class as a whole. This program is counterposed both to the liberal integrationist notion that black people can achieve social equality within the confines of the capitalist profit system, and to black nationalism, which capitulates to and helps perpetuate the racist segregation fostered by this country’s rulers. Won to a revolutionary program, black workers will be the living link between the dispossessed masses in the inner cities and the social power of the multiracial proletariat. The only road to black freedom lies through sweeping away this racist capitalist system, and the only road to socialist revolution lies through a united struggle of black and white workers led by a multiracial vanguard party. We are committed to building that party.
LO Reformists and Anti-Immigrant Attacks
Across the Atlantic we find the same color-blind faith in the racist capitalist state with SON’s mentor, LO, in France. Racism against ghettoized immigrant and minority youth serves to profoundly divide the working class. Yet LO consciously evades the issue, talking only of “poor neighborhoods” and avoiding the key question of racial oppression.
From the outset, LO has refused to oppose the French bourgeoisie’s longstanding “Vigipirate” campaign, a massive mobilization of the police and military to sow terror in minority neighborhoods and to patrol train and Metro stations and airports hunting for supposed “terror suspects.” LO’s silence over Vigipirate goes hand in hand with its leading role in pushing the racist campaign to expel young women wearing the headscarf from school. The headscarf represents a reactionary social program that confines women to the home in a position of servitude. But in France, Islam is a religion of the oppressed and of the ghettos. The expulsion of Muslim girls from school can only reinforce their isolation and oppression, and fuel racism against all immigrants. Our comrades of the Ligue Trotskyste de France oppose these racist campaigns and defend the girls who wear headscarves against the bourgeois state. In contrast, LO welcomed Jacques Chirac’s law banning the headscarf, a law which is part and parcel of the daily attacks against Muslims.
While silent on Vigipirate, LO came out in solidarity with police “strikes,” arguing that these armed thugs of the capitalist state “carry out functions that are useful to society as a whole, by doing security tasks that are necessary to collective life, for lousy wages” (Lutte Ouvrière, 7 December 2001)! This was echoed on the eve of the 2005 revolt of youth in suburban ghettos (banlieues) in France, when LO attacked the country’s top cop, then-Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, for reducing the number of police in the ghettos. In its press, Lutte Ouvrière (8 July 2005), LO complained: “In complete contradiction to his promises, the minister Sarkozy has conducted the same policy on his turf as his colleagues: playing tricks with the numbers to hide the decrease, closing police precincts, budgets without funds.” These criticisms of Sarkozy from the right find an echo in SON/RWG’s whining over the absence of National Guard “equipment” in New Orleans.
SON/RWG touts LO’s 2006 intervention in the broad-based student and labor struggle against the CPE (First Contract Law) stripping young workers of any job security. During these protests, the bourgeoisie and its media whipped up a racist hysteria against ghetto youth. For its part, LO served in daisy chains to “protect” student contingents from supposed “hooligans” [“casseurs”] from the banlieues. Similarly, during the 2005 ghetto upheavals in France, LO signed on to a declaration by the League of the Rights of Man calling to re-establish “order.” LO later issued a mealy-mouthed retraction, saying that their signature had been “an idiocy of course, but a minor one.” A “minor” one for LO, but not for those on the receiving end of police “law and order,” which was aimed at minority youth of North African and African origin.
LO: Cheerleaders for Counterrevolution
In the words of James P. Cannon, the founding leader of American Trotskyism, from the time of the 1917 October Revolution the “attitude taken toward the Soviet Union...has been the decisive criterion separating the genuine revolutionary tendency from all shades and degrees of waverers, backsliders and capitulators to the pressure of the bourgeois world” (“Speech on the Russian Question,” 15 October 1939). Despite its degeneration under the nationalist misrule of the Stalinist bureaucracy that usurped political power from the working class, the Soviet workers state, based on the collectivized economy ushered in by the Bolshevik Revolution, remained a tremendous gain for the workers of the world. Our tendency, the International Communist League, fought to the end in defense of the Soviet degenerated workers state and the deformed workers states of East Europe against imperialist-inspired counterrevolution. This defense was despite and in political opposition to the Stalinist bureaucracy, which undermined the foundations of the workers state and opened the door to the forces of capitalist restoration. We fought for proletarian political revolution to oust the Stalinist bureaucracy and establish the rule of workers councils, based on soviet democracy and proletarian revolutionary internationalism.
Despite a paper position professing a Trotskyist defense of the former Soviet Union, in practice LO came down on the imperialist side of the barricades. During Cold War II in the 1980s, France was the cockpit for anti-Soviet mobilizations in Europe under Socialist Party president François Mitterrand’s popular-front government. LO joined the social democrats’ anti-Communist hysteria over Afghanistan, grotesquely comparing the Red Army’s intervention against CIA-backed Islamic cutthroats to French colonialism in Algeria and U.S. imperialism’s dirty war in Vietnam. In contrast, we hailed the Red Army intervention, which opened the possibility of extending the gains of October to the hideously benighted Afghan peoples, particularly offering the perspective for the liberation of women from Islamic reaction. The withdrawal of these troops by the Soviet Stalinist regime of Mikhail Gorbachev, in a futile attempt to appease the imperialists, betrayed the Afghan masses and paved the way for the capitalist counterrevolutions that swept East Europe at the end of the 1980s and destroyed the Soviet Union in 1991-92.
Although claiming to recognize the Soviet Union as a workers state, LO denied the social transformations in East Europe (and later in China, North Korea, Cuba and Vietnam) that created bureaucratically deformed workers states based on collectivized property. Rather, they falsely claimed that these countries were, and are, capitalist. On this basis, they supported Polish Solidarność, which was backed and bankrolled by the CIA, the Vatican and Western bankers, in its counterrevolutionary bid for power. Although admitting that the leadership of Solidarność was animated by “nationalist, clericalist and reactionary political ideas,” LO concluded, “it goes without saying that even if the Polish workers struggle on the basis of a program which does not lead to their social emancipation, revolutionaries must be in complete solidarity with their struggles” (Lutte de Classe, 22 December 1980).
This year at its annual Fête, LO welcomed Cai Chongguo, from the Hong Kong-based journal China Labour Bulletin (CLB). The CLB claims to defend workers’ rights and the fight for “independent” trade unions. But like Solidarność, this is an imperialist-backed outfit that seeks to cynically manipulate the discontent and legitimate grievances of Chinese workers to foster capitalist counterrevolution in China, the largest and most powerful of the remaining deformed workers states. Our comrades of the LTF intervened to protest Cai’s appearance at the LO Fête (see “France: Chinese Counterrevolutionary Feted by Lutte Ouvrière,” Workers Vanguard No. 896, 3 August). The unconditional military defense of the Chinese deformed workers state against capitalist counterrevolution, which would immeasurably strengthen imperialism while devastating the Chinese workers and peasants, is the central question posed for the working class internationally. And again LO finds itself on the other side of the
For the Party of Lenin and Trotsky!
LO began as a tendency in opposition to the founding in 1938 of Trotsky’s Fourth International to carry forward the revolutionary internationalist program of Bolshevism against the Stalinist betrayers. LO’s repudiation of the need for an international Leninist vanguard party, the critical instrumentality for making the working class conscious of its revolutionary purpose as the agency for the eradication of the capitalist order, is at the root of LO’s economist adaptation to the existing consciousness of the working class, burdened by all the backwardness, bigotry and religious superstition inculcated by the institutions and ideology of bourgeois society. For its part, SON/RWG can barely bring itself to utter the words “working class” in its leaflets for fear of offending petty-bourgeois sensibilities in its campus haunts.
Similarly, neither the destruction of the gains that existed for the world’s working class in the former Soviet Union, nor the defense of the proletarian gains remaining in China, Cuba, North Korea and Vietnam, are of evident concern. Despite its rare claims to defend the tradition of the 1917 Russian Revolution, SON/RWG’s more common appeals to “ordinary people” play straight into anti-Communism, offering that previous “struggles have almost always left a ruling minority still in power.” Here they also fall in line with the imperialists’ cry that the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union proved that Marxism was a “failed experiment.”
With its mantra of the need to meet people where they are at, SON/RWG goes with the regressive ideological flow. As fighters for new October Revolutions, the SYC swims against the stream. As the youth auxiliary of the Spartacist League, we fight to break the proletariat, youth and others from the false consciousness that ties them to the rule of the bourgeoisie. Polemical combat to expose the pretensions to Marxism of other tendencies is crucial to removing the obstacles on the road to proletarian socialist revolution for those actually seeking a revolutionary alternative to this system of exploitation, poverty, war and racism.