Workers Vanguard No. 948
4 December 2009
Thirteenth National Conference of the SL/U.S.
Dog Days of the Post-Soviet Period
The Spartacist League, U.S. section of the International Communist League, held its 13th National Conference in New York last summer. The National Conference is the highest body of the SL, charged with reviewing the work of the organization in the period since our last conference, thrashing out questions in dispute and electing a Central Committee, which oversees the party’s work between conferences. The gathering was preceded by a period of intense pre-conference discussion, formally opened with the issuance of a Conference Call by the outgoing Central Committee three months before the conference and leading to the election of delegates at local membership meetings on the basis of a political platform.
The document adopted at the conference noted that this gathering took place “in the midst of a worldwide economic crisis, the most substantial since the Great Depression, and in the aftermath of the election of a Democratic president following eight years of the despised and somewhat demented Bush administration.” The document pointed out that Barack Obama is a “Wall Street Democrat whose economic advisers, Summers and Geithner, are direct representatives of banks and financial interests. They aim to make the working class and oppressed pay in order to restore the profits of the American bourgeoisie while preserving and extending U.S. overlordship abroad.”
The conference had to grapple with a number of our opportunist lunges in the preceding period. Placing these problems in their historical context in the post-Soviet world, the main resolution passed by the conference cited the following statement by one senior comrade: “In the aftermath of the fall of the USSR, it’s very difficult to maintain our revolutionary continuity and very easy to have it be destroyed.” The document added:
“The period that the SL/U.S. has confronted in the last decades is characterized by a dearth of class struggle and the proletariat’s defeat with the counterrevolution in the USSR, which has resulted in a throwback in consciousness where communism is considered utopian at best. The party’s internal struggles have reflected the impact of this reactionary period on us.... A failure to recognize the most fundamental difference between us and the rest of the left—that they do not share the same ultimate goal, world communism—has been an underlying factor in the recurrent tendencies of successive regimes toward phony mass work and unrealistic expectations of recruitment or regroupment.”
In 2007, the ICL’s Fifth International Conference codified corrections to some manifestations of these tendencies within the ICL (see “Maintaining a Revolutionary Program in the Post-Soviet Period,” Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 60, Autumn 2007). This year’s SL/U.S. National Conference had to deal with a growing political adaptation to the liberals, reformists and black nationalists claiming to fight in defense of black death row political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal.
From the time the SL and Partisan Defense Committee—a class-struggle, non-sectarian legal and social defense organization associated with the SL—first took up Mumia’s case in 1987, we have fought, often virtually alone on the left, to expose the racist frame-up of this innocent man as widely as possible within the international labor movement and among all opponents of racist, capitalist injustice. Mumia’s threatened execution in the summer of 1995 provoked an outpouring of protest internationally, leading to a stay of execution while also drawing in an array of liberal and reformist forces that had previously been uninterested in his case. While we had worked to get larger forces on board, we also recognized that the involvement of these forces, virulently hostile to our proletarian and revolutionary purpose, would necessarily mean a diminished role for us. However, in the past few years, this understanding was increasingly subverted, as we committed ourselves to being the best builders of a campaign to “revitalize” the (nonexistent) “mass movement” to free Mumia.
The political liquidationism inherent in this false perspective became particularly acute when it intersected the first serious presidential candidacy by a black man in this deeply racist society. Not surprisingly, after years of bleating “anybody but Bush” our opponents on the left, including the dominant liberal/reformist elements in the Mumia defense milieu, wholeheartedly embraced Barack Obama. Alarmingly, this sentiment found an echo at a meeting in our New York center attended by members of the resident bodies, the SL Political Bureau and the International Secretariat, following Obama’s vaunted “More Perfect Union” speech in March 2008. Notwithstanding an attempted corrective by leading comrades outside the party center stressing the centrality of our class opposition to this black bourgeois politician, Obama’s speech was applauded as a “turning point” for “acknowledging race and racial oppression in the U.S.”
In fact, Obama had lauded the original slaveholders’ Constitution and disavowed his erstwhile mentor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, for simply asserting that racial oppression remained a central factor in American society. Had we gone to press with the main political line advanced at that meeting, it would have been a public betrayal of our principle of proletarian class independence, a lurch toward the Democratic Party of racist American imperialism. Following reconsideration by comrades in the center, our press rightly characterized Obama’s message as “‘National Unity’ in Service of U.S. Imperialism” (WV No. 911, 28 March 2008).
As the party sought to come to grips with the roots of this opportunist departure, resistance from a small section of the leadership developed into a full-fledged factional opposition in the period before the conference. While repeatedly stating their agreement that the resident leadership had taken the party to the brink of liquidation, this minority continued to cling to the politics and methods that had paved the way to such liquidationism. The minority submitted a platform counterposed to the majority document, and delegates were elected on the basis of one or the other of these two factional documents, in proportion to their support in the party membership. Other groupings and individuals also presented documents on disputed questions before the conference. After a full debate in the pre-conference period and at the conference itself, delegates voted overwhelmingly in favor of the majority document, “Fighting for Programmatic Continuity in the Dog Days of the Post-Soviet Period.” At the end of the conference, the majority and minority caucuses formally dissolved, though the minority did not change its views.
Members of the ICL’s International Executive Committee participated in the conference deliberations as fraternal delegates with voice and consultative vote. The greetings from the Italian section, the Lega Trotskista, were especially appreciated for their incisive summary of the situation facing us:
“This Conference takes place at the intersection of the deepest economic crisis in the last 70 years, which is hitting the working class and downtrodden masses worldwide and will shape the political landscape; and the election of black Democrat Barack Obama, a gift to U.S. imperialism and the capitalist classes abroad, raising renewed illusions in the capitalist system amongst workers and minorities. In this context, the ICL and the SL/U.S. faced a political crisis marked by a series of capitulations to the Democratic Party and its liberal and reformist tails, centered on a practice of increasingly turning the party into a civil defense organization for black political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal and a pressure group on the Democratic Party. Underlying these failures was an idealist subjectivist methodology that ‘yes, we can’ break out of political isolation, by entering a permanent campaign mode and finding ‘convergence’ with other forces at the expense of our communist program. The fact that the party regime pushing this methodology found wide support speaks to our current political isolation and the willingness to follow a leadership which proposes an apparent easy breakthrough and has the strength to pursue it.”
At the same time, the Italian greetings noted:
“The last four years have seen major political correctives and advances...[including] the historic correction of our position on executive office, which has vindicated and completed the fights of our predecessors from Marx and Engels to Lenin and Luxemburg against reformism [see ‘Down With Executive Offices of the Capitalist State!—Marxist Principles and Electoral Tactics,’ Spartacist (English-language edition) No. 61, Spring 2009]. That we were able to carry on a task left to us by such revolutionary giants speaks to the strength of our party, which will remain in the future.”
Pressures of the Period
Founding American Trotskyist and Socialist Workers Party (SWP) leader James P. Cannon wrote that factional struggle is always a reflection of the class struggle, and so it was with this fight. The immediate pressures on us have been the election of a black Democrat as president against the backdrop of the financial crisis. Notwithstanding that Obama is a Wall Street Democrat who, moreover, made escalation of the U.S.-led war and occupation of Afghanistan a centerpiece of his campaign, his election generated renewed illusions among the working class in liberal reformism, including the notion that government intervention in the economy can better the conditions of the working people. The current bureaucratic, pro-Democratic Party misleadership of the trade unions has mostly been prostrate before and in some cases complicit in a range of attacks by the capitalists accomplished under successive Democratic and Republican administrations, from the rollback of gains of preceding workers struggles, to the increasingly restricted access to higher education, to attacks on the remaining gains of the civil rights movement.
While there seems to be some increased interest in Marxism now that the anarchy and instability of the capitalist system have again been exposed by the financial crisis, the bottom line is that workers and the oppressed have been taking it for a long time because they do not see any alternative. Following the final destruction of the USSR in 1991-92, even more politically advanced workers generally accept that the historic struggle for a socialist society proved to be at best a failed experiment. The reformist left has been increasingly abandoning even lip service to the liberating ideals of communism and revolution.
Emblematic of this is the French Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (LCR), once the exemplar of the radicalization of the New Left generation. In the 1960s-early 1970s when the Vietnamese liberation forces were giving the American imperialists a black eye, the LCR spurned the proletariat in favor of petty-bourgeois radicalism and guerrillaism, seeking to be associated with the Vietnamese Stalinists as well as others who, at that time, militantly resisted imperialism and capitalist oppression. Albeit with opportunist politics, Alain Krivine and his fellows fought the cops on the barricades of May ’68 in Paris. Today they exult in the “death of communism” and are in the business of being the “left wing” of the Cold Warrior social democracy, which considers Stalin’s Russia to have been no better than Hitler’s genocidal fascism. The LCR put the final touches on a long process of reconciling itself to its own bourgeois rulers when it dissolved into its newly founded “New Anti-Capitalist Party,” thus excising both “revolutionary” and “communist” from its self-description (see “‘Death of Communism’ Leftists in New Guise,” WV No. 934, 10 April). The very term “anti-capitalist” was carefully chosen to avoid any hint of identification with the Bolshevik-led October Revolution of 1917 and to be ambiguous on whether or not one is for socialism.
In the U.S., which has never had even a mass social-democratic party, the reformists openly embrace the Democrats and/or their Green Party shills. Typically, the International Socialist Organization celebrated the election of a black Democrat as the new Commander-in-Chief of U.S. imperialism because “Obama’s victory convinced large numbers of people...that something different is possible” (Socialist Worker, 21 January).
Many of these organizations, having lined up behind imperialist-backed anti-Soviet forces from Jimmy Carter’s “human rights” crusade to Polish Solidarność and the Afghan mujahedin, bear a share of the responsibility for the catastrophic defeat for the world proletariat represented by the capitalist counterrevolutions in the former Soviet Union and East Europe. Decades of Stalinist lies and bureaucratism had so eroded the socialist consciousness of the Soviet proletariat that it failed to rally in defense of the historic gains embodied in the workers state. We are proud that we swam “against the stream” and remained at our posts in defense of the gains of the October Revolution. Meanwhile many organizations falsely claiming to be Trotskyist lent their support to “democratic” counterrevolution in the train of their own bourgeoisies, which were determined to finally roll back the gains of the October Revolution. As we wrote in the “Declaration of Principles and Some Elements of Program” adopted by the ICL’s Third International Conference in 1998:
“The ‘Russian question’ has been the defining political question of the 20th century and the touchstone for revolutionaries. We Trotskyists stayed at our posts and fought to preserve and extend the revolutionary gains of the working class while every other tendency on the planet capitulated to the ideological pressure of imperialist anti-communism. Above all our defense of the USSR was expressed in our fight for new October Revolutions around the world.”
—Spartacist (English-language edition) No. 54, Spring 1998
Today, as part of our continuing struggle for world socialist revolution, we uphold the Trotskyist program of unconditional military defense of the remaining deformed workers states (China, Cuba, Vietnam and North Korea) while fighting for proletarian political revolution against the sellout Stalinist bureaucracies. But the disproportion is very great between our revolutionary purpose and the current political consciousness of the working class internationally.
Liquidationism and Subjective Idealism
Rejecting the idealist notion underlying party work in the recent period that objective limitations can be overcome through sufficient force of will, the National Conference upheld the position that “the basic problems we face are objective and therefore cannot be resolved simply through internal political struggle.” We also reject bourgeois objectivism, embraced by classical Social Democracy, which at bottom denies the possibility of transforming society through a revolutionary struggle led by a proletarian vanguard. As Trotsky pointed out in Lessons of October (1924), if the Bolsheviks had failed to take power in October 1917 there would be no lack of social-democratic academics and “Marxists” who would have come forward to “prove” the objective impossibility of that revolution ever taking place. The main conference resolution stressed:
“Bringing revolutionary consciousness to the proletariat is not supra-historical. Our ability to impact the world, to significantly recruit or to achieve an organizational breakthrough is not the result of subjective effort or force of will alone. Workers and youth will be won to our program in the course of a process of politicization conditioned by class relations and class struggle—an objective historical process outside of the sphere of our small party’s influence or comrades’ wills. As Marx noted: ‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past’ (Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte).”
Lenin fought against subjective idealism and a rise of religiosity (“god-loving”) in the ranks of the then-Bolshevik faction after the defeat of the 1905 Revolution in Russia. His most famous polemic against this is Materialism and Empirio-Criticism (1908). But unlike the Bolsheviks, experienced and steeled in the course of several very different kinds of struggles—offensive and defensive—wars, defeats and revolutions between 1905 and 1917, we are in a particularly long and deep trough. As our founding national chairman, James Robertson, noted in a talk at the Fourth ICL Conference in 2003 on the revolutionary antecedents of the Spartacist tendency: “It is an unfortunate fact of life that individual life spans do not necessarily correspond to the rhythms of political developments.” Impatience and impressionism are characteristics that contribute to opportunism.
The pressures of the period have helped to generate attempts to find a way to “get rich quick,” i.e., liquidating our revolutionary, internationalist and proletarian program in order to latch on to larger forces, hostile to the working class and to our revolutionary purpose. There were several early expressions of liquidationist pressures on the party. In our Canadian section in 1994, a small faction was formed by Y. Rad and Marie Hayes, who glorified various nationalist, ex-Stalinist formations in post-Soviet Russia and wanted to support the bourgeois African National Congress in South Africa. In the case of the tendency led by Jan Norden, which defected from the SL in 1996 to become the Internationalist Group, we characterized them as “Pabloites of the second mobilization.” Norden and his cohorts retrospectively denigrated our intervention into the DDR (East Germany) in 1989-90, as they pursued some of the Stalinist has-beens of the former ruling party (SED-PDS) that had helped sell the DDR out. In exchange for this illusion of an opportunity, Norden wanted to disavow Trotsky’s fight for revolutionary leadership against Stalinism and popular-frontism (see the publicly available ICL International Bulletin No. 38, “Norden’s ‘Group’: Shamefaced Defectors from Trotskyism,” June 1996). He and his co-factionalists also conciliated a group of Brazilian trade unionists who took another faction of the union bureaucracy to court. At our 2003 ICL conference, we fought against yet another series of opportunist lunges (see Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 58, Spring 2004).
If we had not fought back against these explicit challenges to our program and defeated them inside our party, the ICL would not be here today as, however small, the programmatic continuity of revolutionary Marxism. Nonetheless, it is profoundly idealist to behave as though a correct fight, correctly assimilated, will protect the cadres against being sucked off base by new pressures...or by the same pressures expressed again in periods such as this one.
Problems in the Mumia Campaign
While some of the political work of the 2004 SL/U.S. conference was correct and necessary, particularly codifying a sharp fight to reassert our crucial revolutionary continuity as against appetites to accommodate in the direction of some of our most despicable political enemies on the left, a wrong emphasis was put on episodes of sectarianism in our work as the main problem. At the recent conference, the party minority hotly contested the majority’s conclusion that the 2004 “conference document contained the roots of problems that subsequently found full flower” and gave “a political justification for opportunism and disdain for theory and program by urging ‘intervention’ and ‘tactics’ in the direction of liberal activism.”
The stress on “anti-sectarian” tactical militancy led to a series of opportunist lunges. There was also a systematic skew toward vowing to get around our problems through our own efforts, which meant especially substituting exhortation for reason and micromanaging party branches from the center for political guidance. The concomitant to this was the disparaging of the party’s theoretical, material and human resources, not least our precious, and aging, senior cadre.
That we endorsed that document at the 2004 conference speaks at bottom to the difficulty in getting oriented in the post-Soviet period. As part of our determination to reverse course, the 2009 conference resolved: “The main weapon we have to guard against opportunist zigzags and lurches under our current adverse historical circumstances is to struggle to understand our place in history. This renders all the more important Spartacist as the ICL’s theoretical organ and the Prometheus Research Library, which contains holdings of our party and of the workers movement that are truly priceless in political terms.”
A main task of the conference was to arrest the programmatic bending expressed in the course of vainly substituting the small forces of ourselves and our sympathizers for the absence of a mass movement to free Mumia Abu-Jamal, thereby letting our opponents off the hook as we pursued “united fronts.” We were increasingly trying to create a “movement” for Mumia through our own subjective efforts, despite the lack of objective basis for such a movement. This meant that the party was increasingly liquidating politically and organizationally into a movement that barely existed.
For example, after two SL supporters representing the PDC were physically excluded from an event by the New York Free Mumia Coalition, the PDC wrote an “Open Letter to Fighters for Mumia’s Freedom” (WV No. 912, 11 April 2008) appealing to these political opponents for a “united front.” While naturally making many good points against them, the “Open Letter” failed to even mention the question of the Democratic Party (and their shills, the Greens), which was in fact the real concern of these pseudo-leftists. In effect, we were reaching out for a bloc with those who are deadly enemies of principled class-struggle defense. Another example of adaptation, which did not make it into the public arena, was expressed in initial resistance in New York to the need for the SL to carry a banner in the PDC/Labor Black League contingent at a Mumia rally in Philadelphia—held on the eve of the state’s Democratic primary election—making clear our opposition to the Democratic Party.
Our articles on Mumia in recent years have emphasized the need to “revitalize” or “rebuild” a mass movement that had been “demobilized” by the reformists with their appeals for a “new trial.” Relatedly, WV coverage of the united-front protests initiated by the Partisan Defense Committee in the spring of 2008 tended to describe these as “exemplary actions that pointed to what is necessary to win Mumia’s freedom: the mass mobilization of the working class independent of and in opposition to its capitalist class enemy” (WV No. 927, 2 January). This vastly inflates the importance of these modest demonstrations, which, moreover, were carried out in the political framework of an opportunist orientation.
At the conference there was debate and clarification over the role and purpose of the united front in general. Prior to the conference, some comrades, including a subsequent member of the minority, had argued that the united front is in and of itself a counterposition to the pro-capitalist politics of our opponents. While the minority did not continue to defend that precise statement, they did continue to fetishize the united front—particularly brandishing it as a solution to our purported “withdrawal from opponents combat” in defense work in the 1990s—and the question of the united front remained at the center of the debate during the conference. The united front is nothing more than a means, a tactic, with the aim of embedding the revolutionary program in the masses. In 1973, we wrote, “Any form of fetishism toward the mere form of united fronts...means abdicating as revolutionists because at bottom it is the dissolution of the vanguard party into the class through the substitution of such forms (and other politics!) for the role of the revolutionary party” (“Letter to the OCRFI and the OCI,” Spartacist No. 22, Winter 1973-74).
An educational presentation at the conference by comrade Joseph Seymour was valuable in reasserting the purpose of the united-front tactic and the conditions for its implementation in broad historical terms (see WV No. 941, 28 August). As conceived by the Communist International at its Third Congress in 1921, the united-front tactic was intended mainly for large Communist parties with a sizable base in the proletariat. It is only under exceptional circumstances, usually where there is a defensive situation and a widely shared sense of urgency, that a small Leninist vanguard can compel larger reformist forces to engage in a united front.
As evidenced by the small turnouts at the 2008 Mumia protests, such circumstances did not exist at the time. In a period already marked by a dearth of class struggle and the rollback of consciousness, the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon were a godsend to the bourgeoisie, reinforcing appeals to chauvinist “national unity” and facilitating the so-called “war on terror”—in reality, a recipe for imperialist plunder abroad and for terrorizing the population domestically, beginning with immigrants, the most vulnerable sector of the working people. Many liberal Mumia supporters had turned tail after Mumia’s lead attorney, Leonard Weinglass, was fired from the defense team in March 2001 along with Weinglass’ co-counsel, Dan Williams, who had published an unauthorized, lying account of the defense, Executing Justice, which aided the courts in suppressing evidence of Mumia’s innocence. Then in December 2001, while affirming Mumia’s conviction, Judge Yohn overturned the death sentence, undercutting the perceived urgency of the threat to Mumia’s life.
That said, our opponents on the left have contributed to the extent of their capacities to politically demobilizing any serious campaign for Mumia’s freedom. Rather than insisting on the straightforward point that Mumia is innocent, they do everything to appeal to the liberals, for whom the demand for a new trial is as much about cleaning up the embarrassing unconstitutional “excesses” involved in his blatant frame-up trial as it is about Mumia. At the same time, winning people to the demand to free Mumia in counterposition to the reformists’ “new trial” slogan does not in itself lead them to understand that the American state is an instrument of class as well as racial oppression. Yet we acted as though those who agreed with our defense slogans were thereby closer to us programmatically and that a class-struggle defense strategy somehow expressed the totality of our revolutionary-internationalist program.
A false perspective that we could “rebuild” a “mass movement” for Mumia Abu-Jamal was related to a false self-criticism central to our last national conference in 2004. The WV article reporting on the 2004 conference correctly noted:
“In the summer of 1995, after a death warrant was signed against him, a powerful movement demanding that Mumia’s life be saved erupted across the U.S. and around the world. His scheduled execution was stayed by the courts in August of that year. And while we succeeded in our efforts to galvanize much larger social forces to fight on behalf of Jamal, we recognized that those same forces were far removed from our communist outlook and would inevitably seek to marginalize our involvement in this struggle.”
—WV No. 841, 4 February 2005
But the article went on to wrongly charge that this correct recognition “became a rationale for increasingly withdrawing from political combat with groups such as Socialist Action and the Workers World Party who tailored their appeals to liberals who were agnostic on Mumia’s innocence and thus would not rally around a call to free him.... Our disengaging from political combat with these forces meant we were not as effective as we could have been in exposing their demobilization of support for Mumia.”
Far from “disengaging from political combat” after 1995, we continued to expose the state frame-up in our press and to polemicize against the illusions in the “justice” of the capitalist state that our opponents embody in all their activities. While the WV article presented an accurate picture of the thinking at that conference, it was wrong. In August 1995, the SL/U.S. Political Bureau motion had determined:
“The PDC’s involvement in Jamal’s legal defense should not cloud a clear assessment of our diminishing role in the case. Larger forces have finally come on board and they seek to silence our revolutionary views. We will continue our propaganda and agitation around this case as the cutting edge of the fight against racist capitalist oppression, among minorities, and in the labor and youth arenas where our party will be built.”
Having larger forces take up the case flowed from the recognition that we are a tiny communist propaganda group lacking the social weight needed to build a class-struggle movement to defend Mumia. Nonetheless, the party and PDC threw massive resources into assisting with Mumia’s legal defense. Every professed defender of Mumia today is forced to rely on one or another aspect of the work done by attorneys for the Partisan Defense Committee who also worked on Mumia’s case in the mid to late 1990s. From the ballistics evidence to the state’s coercion of witnesses to the numerous constitutional violations, virtually every legal argument that Mumia’s defenders raise is based on the tremendous work of investigation and legal argumentation advanced by PDC attorneys and publicized by the PDC and SL. And, as our recent conference reaffirmed: we will continue to fight for his freedom “in the framework of our real capacity with our propaganda and tasks adjusted accordingly,” which means “investing our resources in accordance with the ebbs and flows of Mumia’s case and with the activities of the party as a whole.”
For us the fight for Mumia’s freedom is part of the struggle to do away with a social system based on vicious class exploitation, all-sided oppression and state terror. But in seeking to “revitalize” a single-issue “movement,” our purpose began to shift in a revisionist direction, in the vein of the German arch-reformist, Eduard Bernstein. In continuing to defend the political methodology that led to this shift, our party minority, as a leading comrade noted, advanced a species of neo-Bernsteinism. As Lenin wrote in “Marxism and Revisionism” (1908):
“A natural complement to the economic and political tendencies of revisionism was its attitude to the ultimate aim of the socialist movement. ‘The movement is everything, the ultimate aim is nothing’—this catch-phrase of Bernstein’s expresses the substance of revisionism better than many long disquisitions. To determine its conduct from case to case, to adapt itself to the events of the day and to the chopping and changing of petty politics, to forget the primary interests of the proletariat and the basic features of the whole capitalist system, of all capitalist evolution, to sacrifice these primary interests for the real or assumed advantages of the moment—such is the policy of revisionism. And it patently follows from the very nature of this policy that it may assume an infinite variety of forms, and that every more or less ‘new’ question, every more or less unexpected and unforeseen turn of events, even though it change the basic line of development only to an insignificant degree and only for the briefest period, will always inevitably give rise to one variety of revisionism or another.”
In another example of trying to find some kind of original sin that, once corrected, would prevent future problems, the 2004 National Conference also embraced an argument that we had never had an evaluation of our intervention in the DDR and that a lack of evaluation was a root of problems in the party. The WV article on the 2004 conference stated that “the ICL failed to conduct a synthetic assessment of either our intervention in the DDR or the work of Moscow station. The failure to critically evaluate these interventions helped set a pattern over the next period that major party interventions did not have to face real scrutiny inside the organization.” Politically wrong and factually absurd, this statement was re-examined as part of wide-ranging discussions in the ICL on our DDR intervention.
Beginning immediately after our DDR intervention and continuing through to the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union, we engaged in an intensive internal discussion to arrive not only at a synthetic evaluation of our work but also at an analysis of the terminal collapse of Stalinism. The undoing of the October Revolution was an unprecedented event in history which posed new questions that Marxists had to answer. These events powerfully confirmed the essential analysis and program of Trotskyism with respect to the USSR. Only months after the defeat in the DDR, the International Executive Committee agreed to publish in our international journal, Spartacist ([English-language edition] No. 45-46, Winter 1990-91), the two most politically comprehensive documents issuing out of that discussion, “On the Collapse of Stalinist Rule in East Europe” by Joseph Seymour and “For Marxist Clarity and a Forward Perspective” by Albert St. John. These documents were only the tip of the iceberg of our internal discussions in 1990 and were part of an eight-part bulletin series, “Documents and Discussion on the Collapse of Stalinism.” Those discussions served as preparation for undertaking an organized presence in the USSR.
In 1992, we published in Spartacist (English-language edition) No. 47-48 (Winter 1992-93) the main resolution adopted at the Second ICL Conference that year: “For the Communism of Lenin and Trotsky!” That conference determined that the Soviet Union had been destroyed, a world-historic defeat for the proletariat. The detailed evaluation of our intervention in the DDR made in that document drew the fundamental conclusion that “from the beginning we were in a political struggle with the abdicating Stalinist regime.... Although shaped by the disproportion of forces, there was in fact a contest between the ICL program of political revolution and the Stalinist program of capitulation and counterrevolution.”
To the limits of our modest resources, the ICL sought to intervene where we were able on the basis of the Trotskyist program of unconditional military defense and proletarian political revolution, which we called for unceasingly in our press. The fact that we already had a German section made it possible for us to intervene heavily in the DDR after the opening of the Berlin Wall. We fought against capitalist reunification and for “a red Germany of workers councils” through socialist revolution in West Germany and political revolution in the DDR. But our efforts were overtaken by the Gorbachev-led bureaucracy in the Kremlin, aided and abetted by the abdicating East German Stalinists, which handed the country over to the revanchist forces of German imperialism.
Some Concrete Programmatic Issues
Much of the work of the recent conference involved concrete tasks of propaganda and other essential political work. Our continuing internal educational series devoted to examining the evolution of the black question and the labor movement in this country from the colonial period onward has been reflected in WV through the publication of some of the presentations. Additionally, letters by comrades and other readers concerning the Civil War have also been published in recent issues. A discussion over the ahistorical question, “Was Abraham Lincoln a racist?” underscored the dangers of looking at history through a lens of contemporary “political correctness.” The conference document favorably cited a document by a comrade published in WV No. 938 (5 June) that observed: “The American Civil War was a bourgeois revolution, and Lincoln was both bourgeois and revolutionary at the same time
—with all the contradictions this implies.” The comrade continued: “The impulse to denounce Lincoln and to minimize his monumental role in history denies that political people—even great ones—are constrained by objective reality.”
The conference deliberations included commissions constituted to discuss and report to the conference on the work of the Labor Black Leagues, which are fraternally associated with the SL, and on work in the trade-union movement, as well as a working meeting which discussed the vast increase in black and Latino incarceration. The conference reaffirmed recent line articles in WV on reactionary anti-immigrant strikes and on the Employee Free Choice Act (see “Why Marxists Support the EFCA,” WV No. 929, 30 January, and “The IG and National Association of Manufacturers Oppose the EFCA,” WV No. 935, 24 April). While warning the workers against any reliance on any government-prescribed mechanisms of class collaboration, we would support the EFCA in its original form because the card-check provision would make it somewhat easier to organize unions—which is precisely why Democratic Party politicians have recently called this provision into question. The conference document noted that “we cannot always choose the conditions under which we conduct struggle; hence, we oppose arbitration but sometimes workers are compelled to resort to it as a means to defend their interests against the class enemy. This approach to arbitration parallels the SWP’s, as reflected in their 1940 draft resolution on the trade-union movement.”
The document noted that, in response to the economic crisis, “There is great popular anger directed at the banks but this does not necessarily take a leftward direction. We are confronting increased economic nationalism, including protectionism and a rise in anti-immigrant chauvinism: the reactionary construction worker strikes in Britain are an ugly warning of how this is infecting the organized labor movement.” The ICL has been virtually unique on the left in forthrightly opposing these strikes, which have been directed against the hiring of Italian and other foreign workers. A conference motion emphasized the general point on “outsourcing” from a recent WV article: “The way to undercut attempts by the bosses to ‘level down’ the wages and working conditions, including safety standards, of all workers, by playing off one nationality against the other, is for the unions to demand: Full union pay for all work at the prevailing rate, no matter who does the job! Equal pay for equal work!” (“Down With Reactionary Strikes Against Foreign Workers!” WV No. 930, 13 February).
The conference motion underlined:
“Our approach to the bosses’ outsourcing of jobs to other capitalist countries is not fundamentally different from our approach to outsourcing jobs within the workplace. Marxists fight for industrial unions and to ‘organize the unorganized’ in the struggle to build unions as inclusive organizations of class struggle, not job trusts for shrinking pockets of better-paid workers.”
The main conference document noted the renewed popularity of Keynesianism as a supposed solution to the financial crises which are endemic to capitalism. In the immediate aftermath of the onset of the global recession, spokesmen across the bourgeois spectrum embraced fiscal policy based on increased deficit spending, bailouts of bankrupt corporations and partial nationalizations of banks, and greater government intervention and regulation of the economy. But contrary to the impressions given by much of the liberal and reformist press, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal did not put an end to the Depression; what got the U.S. out of the Depression was military spending and production for World War II (see Spartacist pamphlet, Capitalist Anarchy and the Immiseration of the Working Class, May 2009).
The conference document sharply contrasted our party’s position on the current economic difficulties of U.S. imperialism with that of many of our opponents on the left who call for the capitalist state under the Democratic Party administration to come up with a version of the bailout schemes that will “serve the people” rather than the giant capitalist concerns:
“Obama’s bailout of Wall St. is a massive financial redistribution to banks, insurance companies and hedge funds, which we oppose. We also oppose the protectionist bailout of the auto industry bosses, which necessarily comes at the expense of the working class: contracts in the auto industry are already being torn up
. Some comrades and sympathizers objected to our line on the UAW bailout as being ‘defeatist,’ wanting us to raise more immediate trade-union solutions. But there is no simple answer in the framework of trade-union militancy right now. Our task is to demonstrate that the capitalist system is inherently irrational and must be replaced through workers revolution with a planned socialist economy. We have raised appropriate transitional demands in a propagandistic fashion, keeping in mind that an emphasis on agitation in the period of the onset of an economic crisis, when the workers are numbed by mass layoffs, would be disoriented and fake.”
Though recognizing that there are important differences between the current period and that of the Great Depression, the conference document emphasized that Trotsky’s Transitional Program (“The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International,” 1938) is of great relevance today. The purpose of the Transitional Program, including such demands as the call for a shorter workweek at no loss in pay to spread the available work, is to bridge the gap between existing consciousness and the communist program. As Trotsky emphasized:
“‘Realizability’ or ‘unrealizability’ is in the given instance a question of the relationship of forces, which can be decided only by the struggle. By means of this struggle, no matter what its immediate practical successes may be, the workers will best come to understand the necessity of liquidating capitalist slavery.”
Factional Struggle and Revolutionary Continuity
The National Conference was conducted according to democratic-centralist norms as set forth in our party’s Organizational Rules and Guidelines. It was preceded by a three-month period of organized internal discussion. The internal discussion bulletins were open to contributions by all members of the SL/U.S. and, as appropriate and with the approval of the Political Bureau, by members of the Spartacus Youth Clubs and the Labor Black Leagues. Some of the differences expressed in this discussion eventually coalesced into the two factions defending counterposed documents. On the basis of the votes for and against these two documents, a majority and minority were defined and delegates were elected on the basis of proportional representation. Another aspect of political preparation was the participation in the written discussion of comrades of other sections of the ICL, leading up to a plenum of the International Executive Committee preceding the SL/U.S. conference.
Factional rights are integral to democratic-centralism and our organizational rules are unique in spelling out those rights. The different factions had the right to circulate their own correspondence among themselves and caucuses met separately in the lead-up to and at the conference. At the same time, our rules are explicit that binding instructions cannot be placed on conference delegates, who must be free to change their views in the course of the discussion. Counterposed conference documents, amended by each caucus, were thus debated and voted on in the final session. The minority decided to forego its right to present a leadership slate counterposed to the slate recommended by the majority caucus. Nonetheless, the minority was integrated into the Central Committee with a weight generously disproportionate to the support for its views in the party as a whole.
In the course of the recent party debates, there was a dispute over whether a prior internal party fight had been “partial.” This can be said of almost any factional struggle in the Marxist movement. Revolutionary continuity does not occur seamlessly or in a straight line, but in jagged struggles of trying to apply the program of Marxism to reality. The Socialist Workers Party was for many decades the Trotskyist organization in the U.S. During World War II, an argument began with a grouping that became the Goldman-Morrow faction, which made an empirically correct assertion that illusions in democracy would be increased in West Europe with the re-stabilization of the bourgeois order under the occupation of American troops. The Goldman-Morrow faction had a better grasp of empirical reality, but they were also capitulating to it, writing off the need for a revolutionary working-class program and justifying a concentration on “democratic” demands. While their analysis of the situation was empirically flawed, the SWP majority upheld the correct and essential programmatic conclusions of Trotskyism.
Later, Cannon and the SWP were belated in taking up the fight against Pabloism in the Fourth International. Arguing that objective conditions in the post-World War II world would cause the Stalinist parties to pursue a “roughly” revolutionary course, Michel Pablo and cothinkers in the European Trotskyist movement obviated the need to build a Trotskyist leadership in the struggle for international socialist revolution. These politics were reflected inside the SWP in the Cochran-Clarke fight in 1952-53. That fight was partial and focused on the issues as they were posed on the SWP’s national terrain. But despite the limitations, the SWP majority under Cannon crucially did take a stand against Pabloite liquidation.
Cannon and the SWP are our revolutionary continuity, carried forward through the factional struggle of our founding cadres as the Revolutionary Tendency inside the SWP. The RT fought against the SWP’s reconciliation with the revisionism it had once opposed. Embracing Pabloite tailism of whatever was in motion and was popular, the SWP in the early 1960s politically supported the Cuban Stalinist bureaucracy under the guns of U.S. imperialism, as well as American black nationalists and/or the liberal preachers of the civil rights movement. This centrist degeneration was a short-lived way station to the SWP becoming the reformist “best builders” of the social-patriotic, pro-Democratic Party wing of the antiwar activism thrown up by the losing U.S. imperialist war against Vietnam. Fighting for the victory of the Vietnamese Revolution, despite its Stalinist leadership, the early Spartacist League defended the elementary Leninist understanding that imperialist war is endemic to the capitalist system and can be ended only by socialist revolution.
The recent struggle in our party has been a sign of the ideological pressures of our times. Every internal fight tends to have errors, partial understandings and overcorrections; a Marxist evaluation of reality can be achieved only through successive approximations. In the past period we have certainly made errors, which we struggle to understand and correct without demonizing comrades. These have included sectarian errors; however, we have mainly had to struggle against opportunist departures that, if not fought and reversed, undermine our whole revolutionary purpose.
The program of Trotskyism remains the indispensable means for finding a proletarian way forward out of the impasse of capitalism. Without this the crises of capitalism will bring nothing but more mass misery, racist reaction and war. As the Italian comrades’ greetings to the conference emphasized:
“The economic downturn of capitalism and its outcomes—from reactionary strikes in Britain aimed at Italian, Portuguese and other foreign workers; to the ominous growth of racist reaction in Europe; or to the joint efforts of U.S. and Italian capitalists, aided by trade-union bureaucrats and reformists, to save the profits of failing automakers (Chrysler, GM or Fiat) through state funding, massive layoffs and cutbacks—cry out for a class-struggle response based on the program of proletarian revolutionary internationalism embodied by the ICL.”
Our experiences of the past period only emphasize the danger of looking for new “get rich quick” schemes as a way out of our current impasse. We may not have an immediate “perspective” but we have plenty of essential tasks, centering on the maintenance of the biweekly Workers Vanguard as the chief expression of our propaganda perspective and on cadre education. We must continue to probe for openings, especially in areas of the world where the regression of consciousness is more uneven. But our central task, including and especially in those endeavors, is to arm the party programmatically and theoretically, from Spartacist to the maintenance of our Central Committee archive, the Prometheus Research Library, and education of all kinds in the course of our work. More than anything we must continue to patiently fight for the program of authentic Trotskyism and the building of a proletarian vanguard party in the U.S. as a disciplined section of a reforged Fourth International.