Opportunism and War

The Internationalist Group: Centrist Pathology

Reprinted from Workers Vanguard No. 767, 26 October 2001.

“Great conflicts sweep away all that is halfway and artificial and, on the other hand, give strength to all that is viable. War leaves room only for two tendencies in the ranks of the working class movement: social patriotism, which does not stop at any betrayal, and revolutionary internationalism, which is bold and capable of going to the end. It is precisely for this reason that centrists, fearful of impending events, are waging a rabid struggle against the Fourth International.”

— Leon Trotsky, “Sectarianism, Centrism, and the Fourth International” (22 October 1935)

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, every section of the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist) published the statement of the Spartacist League/U.S. Political Bureau titled “Oppose Domestic Repression, Imperialist ‘Retaliation’—The World Trade Center Attack” (see Workers Vanguard No. 764, 14 September) with an introduction taking up the crimes of their “own” bourgeois ruling classes, seeking to galvanize the workers movement to defend the besieged Arab and Asian minorities and to punch through reactionary “national fronts” pushed in their respective countries. In the next issue of WV (No. 765, 28 September), newspaper of the ICL section operating within the “belly of the beast” of murderous U.S. imperialism, we wrote: “‘National Unity’ Jingoism: Bosses Profit, Workers Pay—Repression, Recession and War” and prominently called for, among other things, “U.S. Hands Off Afghanistan, Iraq!” When Washington commenced its war against Afghanistan, we headlined: “War-Crazed Imperialists Stalk the World: For Class Struggle Against U.S. Capitalist Rulers—Defend Afghanistan Against Imperialist Attack!” (WV No. 766, 12 October).

The reformist “left” in the U.S. is meanwhile engaged in crass, faith-based appeals to U.S. imperialism along the lines of the call raised by the International Socialist Organization (ISO) for “No Blank Check for War” (as opposed to a specified check for war?) or of the ISO-influenced “San Francisco Town Hall Committee to Stop War and Hate,” which called on the U.S. rulers to “work with the international community to identify & locate all those responsible & bring them before a court of law.” Reformists such as the Workers World Party (WWP) have their tactical differences with, and varying appetites from, the ISO. But they are equally looking to build an “antiwar movement” that is hospitable to a wing of capitalist (read: Democratic Party) politicians “critical” of the Bush White House’s rampage at home and abroad, when and if such a wing should emerge. Thus the classless, “pacifist” bleat by WWP’s ANSWER coalition that “war is not the answer” (see “Spartacus Youth Clubs Say: Only Workers Revolution Can End Imperialist War!” WV No. 766, 12 October).

Between the overt social-patriotism of the fake left and our revolutionary, proletarian, internationalist program stands the Internationalist Group (IG), a small outfit composed of defectors from the revolutionary Trotskyism of the ICL. Despite some orthodox-sounding criticisms of the reformists on paper, the IG has lent its services, such as they are, to playing the role of a left-sounding “loyal opposition” to the reformist-led “antiwar movement”—a service fulfilled not least of all by attacking the ICL. A special issue of the IG’s Internationalist (27 September) contains its 14 September statement titled “After Indiscriminate World Trade Center Attack—U.S. Whips Up Imperialist War Frenzy, Drives Toward Police State” and its 27 September article, “Capitalism = War, Racism, Economic Crisis—For Workers Revolution!” The latter charges us with opportunism akin to that of the renegade German ex-Marxist Karl Kautsky, who provided a left prop for the chauvinist Social Democrats during World War I.

Charging us with being “defeatist” and “abstentionist” and the like has been the stock in trade for the IG. At the time of its defection from the ICL in 1996, we were supposedly “passive propagandists” because we opposed a bogus “regroupment” perspective pushed by Jan Norden—until then a leading member of the ICL and now IG supremo—toward the Communist Platform of the German Party of Democratic Socialism, the very forces that had sold out the East German deformed workers state. Denying the retrogression of consciousness that accompanied the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union, the IG prettifies the existing consciousness of the working masses in order to embrace alien class forces.

While the objects of its political coquetry vary from place to place, the IG’s specialty has been aggrandizement of a “hardline” wing of the Stalinist bureaucracies in Cuba and China, as well as genuflection before petty-bourgeois nationalists (and worse) in the colonial and semicolonial world. Shortly after departing the ICL, the IG consummated a fusion with a Brazilian organization with whom we had broken relations because they proved to be garden variety trade-union opportunists. The IG’s Brazilian comrades ran an ex-cop for president of a cop-infested public employees union, and then wielded lawsuits to drag the union through the bourgeois courts in order to hold on to their positions in the union (see “Lies, Damned Lies and Anti-Union Lawsuits: IG’s Brazil Fraud Exposed,” WV No. 669, 30 May 1997). Elsewhere, such as in Puerto Rico and Mexico, they rushed out to flatter petty-bourgeois nationalist forces.

Playing the Counterfeit Card of Anti-Americanism

In its 27 September statement, the IG writes of the Spartacist League: “Thus the SL put out a statement dated September 12 with the innocuous title, ‘The World Trade Center Attack.’ While a superhead called to ‘Oppose Domestic Repression, Imperialist Retaliation,’ the beginning of the statement focuses on denouncing the terrorists, as does most of the end of the statement. Nowhere does the SL statement call to defend the countries (notably Afghanistan and Iraq) which were already targeted by Washington in the first hours after the WTC/Pentagon attack.”

As for the IG’s fulminations that we have failed in our internationalist duty to defend Afghanistan and Iraq: a glance at the headlines of our newspaper repudiates such absurd slander. It is all the more ridiculous for those who know something about the record of our international tendency, including our forthright statement in the ICL’s “Declaration of Principles and Some Elements of Program”: “In wars of imperialist depredation against colonial, semicolonial or dependent nations, the duty of the proletariat in every country is to aid the oppressed nations against the imperialists, while maintaining complete political independence from bourgeois and petty-bourgeois nationalist forces” (Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 54, Spring 1998). Indeed, as soon as the U.S. imperialists started raining down bombs on Afghanistan, we raised the call to “Defend Afghanistan against imperialist attack!” not only on our front page but also on our banners and signs at demonstrations and in our interventions at “antiwar” meetings.

We noted in our 12 September statement on the World Trade Center attack: “Those who perpetrated this horrific attack (and there is no evidence at all as to who that was) embrace the same mentality as the racist rulers of America—identifying the working masses with their capitalist exploiters and oppressors!” Indeed, the hideous massacre of thousands of working people who perished in the attack on the World Trade Center was an enormous tragedy. Around the world, millions of people watched in gut-wrenching horror as live television showed people jumping to their deaths from the burning twin towers moments before they collapsed. This attack was a gift to the American rulers, who seek to manipulate widespread and justifiable outrage in the interests of forging “national unity” and pushing U.S. imperialist war aims.

Why then does the IG berate us for our straightforward denunciation of an act that was a crime from the standpoint of the working masses? In fact, the IG talks out of both sides of its mouth, reflecting the effort to capitulate simultaneously to different audiences. In the third paragraph of their 14 September statement, the IG themselves stated that they “categorically oppose the indiscriminate terror used by the hijackers, who in grotesquely taking the lives of several thousand ordinary working people thereby equate them with the American government that oppresses workers and minorities in the U.S. along with peoples around the world.” But by the time of their next statement, the IG is denouncing us for telling the Marxist truth. Typical of centrists, their occasional use of orthodox formulations is meant only for the unwary. Certainly the IG doesn’t believe its own rhetoric. As we have stressed in our propaganda, American imperialism must be shattered from within, by mobilizing the proletariat against the capitalist order. Anyone seeking to win the American proletariat to this perspective would have to face reality squarely and acknowledge the wave of chauvinism and jingoism that the ruling class is manipulating.

But the IG’s purpose is otherwise; it is playing to a different audience, one of “Third World” nationalists for whom the “only good American is a dead American.” One can search their two statements in vain for anything of substance dealing with how the fake left in Europe and Latin America manipulates the counterfeit currency of anti-Americanism to reconcile itself to its own bourgeoisie, or any sober assessment of the increasing role of political Islam in large parts of the world.

One will find at most a bare, passing reference in the IG material to the escalation of interimperialist rivalries in the wake of the destruction of the USSR, which is the context for the machinations in Afghanistan and Central Asia by the U.S. and other imperialists. In such countries as France and Germany, where the IG (dubiously) claims to have supporters, reformist and centrist forces have accepted the war aims of U.S. imperialism, such as driving out the Taliban, while making much ado about not following U.S. diktats and arguing instead for more powers for their own capitalist rulers, or for a war directly administered by the giant condom for U.S. imperialism, the United Nations. In Berlin, the Nazis have tried to outflank the social-chauvinist “leftists” by denouncing the war in Afghanistan because it is in the interests of American—not German—imperialism. Burning an American flag in Berlin—or for that matter in Peshawar—does not make one a proletarian revolutionary.

In the economically backward world, where mass poverty prevails as a result of the economic and military depredations of U.S. imperialism over the years, it is hardly surprising that many people would feel satisfaction over the attack on the World Trade Center. In such countries, nationalists and sometimes even “leftists” play to their audience by seeking to paint the slaughter of thousands of innocent people as an act of “anti-imperialism.” This is a gift to the venal and brutal rulers of their own countries for whom nationalism—the lie that all Americans or all Mexicans have the same fundamental interests—is key to keeping the oppressed masses in line. The statement issued by the ICL’s Mexican section, the Grupo Espartaquista de México (GEM), sharply polemicized with a local nationalist organization that hailed the attack on the World Trade Center, falsely claiming that it weakened imperialism. The GEM stressed that in contrast to all variants of nationalism, Trotskyist internationalists draw a class line: against the capitalist rulers at home and in solidarity with the American proletariat in the fight for world socialist revolution.

Nothing better captures the bankruptcy of the IG’s fraudulent “international” than the fact that for weeks its Mexican co-thinkers handed out the IG’s U.S. statement without a single word against the Mexican ruling class. Meanwhile, the right-wing government of Vicente Fox had been using the World Trade Center atrocity to jack up its attacks on Near Eastern immigrants, indigenous peoples and rebellious peasants like the Zapatistas, as well as its witchhunt against activist students at Mexico City’s National Autonomous University. But the performance of the Mexican IG here is quite logical coming from a group that denies that the main obstacle in Mexico to revolutionary proletarian consciousness is bourgeois nationalism.

Afghanistan and Religious Fundamentalism

The woeful performance of the IG’s “international” did not fall from the sky. Even before his flight from the ICL, the IG’s founder-leader (and former WV editor) Norden had a strong tendency toward impressionism and vicarious adventurism, animated by an often fatuous optimism about the capacity of forces very distant from Trotskyism, or from the proletariat for that matter, to “struggle” in some successful measure against the depredations of the imperialist bourgeoisie. At the time of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, these tendencies began to find expression in the pages of the party press. Following the defection of Norden and a handful of others, we wrote in “A Shamefaced Defection from Trotskyism” (WV No. 648, 5 July 1996):

“From the question of the survival of Sandinista Nicaragua against U.S. imperialism in the 1980s, to the capacities of the army of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to inflict serious damage against the imperialists during the Persian Gulf War, Norden always stood at the extreme end of a tendency to impressionistically overdraw (and often fantastically so) the military factor. Correspondingly, this meant conjuring up an anticipated flood of anti-imperialist struggle while seriously downplaying the crucial and related factors of political consciousness and material economic reality.”

In the mouths of opportunists, “military support” is often the cover used to express political confidence in anti-working-class regimes and parties. In contrast, we called to defend Iraq while giving no quarter politically to the Ba’athist regime of Saddam Hussein, the nationalist butcher of millions of workers, Communist militants and Kurds. Norden took as good coin Hussein’s vows to wage “the mother of all battles” against the U.S. because, having despaired of the prospect of defeating U.S. imperialism by workers revolution from within, he was desperate to find some other agency to whom he could subcontract the task. Norden’s inflation of Hussein’s military capacities presumed that the Gulf War was akin to the Vietnam War two decades earlier. But the Vietnamese workers and peasants were fighting for a social revolution, which gave the military struggle a huge impetus. At that time, the SL called for “Victory to the Vietnamese Revolution!” while calling for proletarian political revolution to oust the Stalinist bureaucracies in Moscow, Hanoi and Beijing. During the Gulf War, uncritical enthusing over Hussein’s armies could only serve to embellish bourgeois Arab nationalism.

Over the last two decades, disappointment in bourgeois nationalism has fueled the growth of Islamic fundamentalism. In turn, Norden & Co. have lurched very far in the direction of chasing such alien class forces. A case in point is the IG’s article “Algeria: Kabylia in Revolt—For a Workers and Peasants Government!” (Internationalist No. 11, Summer 2001), which denounces the ICL as “defeatist” because of the statement in our international Declaration of Principles that “the 1979 ‘Iranian Revolution’ opened up a period of ascendant political Islam in the historically Muslim world.” In a recent polemic over Algeria (“Algeria Rocked by Mass Protests,” WV No. 761, 6 July), we noted:

“The IG obscures the danger of religious reaction the better to capitulate to the ‘mass movement’ under its existing leadership. Denying the enormous impact capitalist counterrevolution in the Soviet Union had in setting back the consciousness of the proletariat internationally, the IG adapted to that lower level of consciousness, willfully misidentifying the will of the workers to struggle with the revolutionary consciousness needed to triumph over the bourgeoisie. In practice, this leads to prettifying and pursuing alien class forces.”

Proving the truth of this statement, at a recent public event we held at New York University, Norden scoffed at the Spartacists as “the biggest fighters against Islamic reaction”! That’s right! Just like the atheistic Bolsheviks who led the 1917 October Revolution in Russia, we Trotskyists are in the vanguard of the struggle against all forms of religious reaction and obscurantism, whether Christian, Jewish, Islamic or anything else. We militantly stand for the liberating goals of the Enlightenment (see our 1998 pamphlet Enlightenment Rationalism and the Origins of Marxism). That Norden considers this anything other than a badge of honor is a devastating self-indictment. Those with no perspective of a proletarian revolution are left with the ersatz “anti-imperialism” of nationalists of every sort, and even Islamic fundamentalists. This applies not only to the “state capitalist” ISO but to the IG as well.

Today, of course, it is fashionable on the left to point out that the likes of Osama bin Laden were subsidized and groomed by the American government. But what the fake left seeks to avoid at all cost is any discussion of where they stood when the Afghan mujahedin, and their allies like bin Laden, were being financed by the CIA in an attempt to bring down the Soviet degenerated workers state. Trotskyists then said: “Hail Red Army in Afghanistan!” while calling to extend the social gains of the October Revolution to that country. In contrast, anti-communists like the ISO stood with the imperialists and the counterrevolutionary mujahedin against the USSR.

When we bring this unpalatable truth to members of the left and workers movement (many of whom are too young to remember the Red Army intervention in Afghanistan), the fake left goes into a frenzy, howling that “that’s over the limit” and trying to shout us down. On paper, the IG may well include a paragraph or two claiming to be in agreement with what our tendency fought for in Afghanistan, but that is not what they push on the ground. At a large September 20 teach-in at New York University featuring the ISO, the IG speaker oh-so-politely avoided confronting the fake left’s shameful history on the question of Afghanistan.

In raising the call to defend Afghanistan against imperialist attack, the ICL makes clear that this does not involve an iota of political support for the thoroughly reactionary Taliban, or any version of “Third World” nationalism. Not so with the IG, which rushed to call to “defend Afghanistan” even before the bombs started falling. “Genuine communists,” writes the IG, “defend semi-colonial countries against imperialist attack as we fight for socialist revolution against their bourgeois and, in the case of Afghanistan, feudalistic leaders” (“The Left and the War Drive,” 27 September). To put it mildly, this is totally demented. Socialist revolution is made by an insurgent proletariat that seizes the means of production, expropriates the capitalist class and establishes the dictatorship of the proletariat. Afghanistan is a devastated and backward country with no industry, no working class and not even much agriculture.

Not least of our reasons for hailing the Soviet military intervention in 1979 was that only the victory of the Red Army and a prolonged military occupation by Soviet forces gave the Afghan peoples the possibility of leaping over centuries into the modern world. The IG’s dimwitted formulation obliterates any class distinction between the proletariat and the oppressed peasant masses, as is typical of petty-bourgeois nationalists. One might note that the call for “socialist revolution in Afghanistan” was used in the 1980s by various “third campists” (like Workers Power) who wanted to avoid a clear choice between the Red Army and the CIA-backed mujahedin.

“Radical” Renegades from Trotskyism

At demonstrations in New York City, IG supporters have ranted about our statement that “to her credit, black Oakland Congresswoman Barbara Lee, a protégé of former liberal Congressman Ron Dellums, registered the sole vote against the resolution giving Bush a blank check for war” (WV No. 765, 28 September). They claim that this statement amounts to a political capitulation to the Democratic Party, akin to the role played by the U.S. Socialist Workers Party during the Vietnam War when it tailored the politics of its “National Peace Action Coalition” to curry favor with the Democratic “doves” who called for stopping that losing war in order to stop the damage it was causing U.S. imperialism. In its propaganda, the IG wisely refrains from such absurdities, restricting its attacks on this matter to the CP and Workers World—both past masters at promoting “peace” Democrats. Our party has an unbroken record—not simply on paper—of struggle to break the working class, the black masses and all the oppressed from illusions in the Democratic Party of war and racism.

Perhaps the oh-so-radical IG would prefer no cracks in the bourgeois edifice and for there to be total—as opposed to near-unanimous—support for Bush’s war measures. We are not so flippant. For taking even a partial step against the prevailing jingoism, Lee received several death threats. The IG makes noises about the “drives toward a police state,” but their dismissal of Lee’s dissenting vote, which reflected the lack of enthusiasm for this war from many black workers and youth, gives the lie to this. Marxists are not indifferent to bourgeois-democratic rights, which provide some room for the working class and the population generally to dissent, organize and struggle. Moreover, we know that if reactionary forces are given free rein to muzzle even a capitalist politician, moves to repress revolutionary Marxists will not be far behind.

In its 27 September statement, the IG sneers at the SL/U.S. statement on the attack on the World Trade Center:

“For that matter, it doesn’t even call to defeat the mounting war drive, only to ‘oppose’ it. This is no minor difference: as Lenin emphasized against ‘social pacifists’ like Karl Kautsky in World War I, at issue is whether you are calling for a different policy for the imperialists or taking a stand for their defeat.”

The IG’s charge against us contains, unwittingly, a kernel of truth about what divides these centrists from the program of Trotskyism. The IG’s call to “defeat” a particular imperialist drive toward war partakes of the view—which the reformists like the WWP and the ISO are pushing for all they are worth—that imperialism is a “policy” which can be altered by means of pressure, presumably by some “movement” on the streets. From a Marxist perspective, however, there is no way to “defeat” the inevitable drive toward war by the capitalists short of their being expelled from power through victorious workers revolution, such as the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 which ended Russia’s participation in World War I by expropriating the capitalists and landlords and establishing the dictatorship of the proletariat. The entire thrust of our propaganda has been to imbue the proletariat and subjectively anti-imperialist youth with a clear understanding of how to defeat imperialism through class struggle at home. As Trotsky taught us, it’s the revolutionary party which is the necessary instrument to lead the proletariat against all obstacles, not least the centrists who direct their fire against the Bolsheviks and peddle their wares in the shadow of the reformists.

We have noted before a certain symmetry between the Bolshevik Tendency (BT) and the IG, which are decomposition products that fled from revolutionary Trotskyism at the beginning and the end of the period of Cold War II. Both resort to extremist rhetoric and “chicken”-baiting of the ICL, but this is but a mask for their impulse to be at one with the fake-left swamp. For years after departing our organization, the BT’s line on the Russian question on paper represented a blurred caricature of our own. Of course, we understood and pointed out that this posture was a total fraud, as demonstrated by the fact that the BT was welcome at meetings organized by every variety of virulently Soviet-hating “left” organization and their “peace” front groups, while the SL was excluded. And the BT knew the rules—the reformists who called on the cops to keep us out had no problem with the BT, which voiced “constructive criticisms” in keeping with the “unity” of the “movement.” Eventually the BT proved our point, formally retrospectively repudiating the call to “Hail Red Army in Afghanistan” in order to be palatable to the reformist milieu. The IG similarly feels quite comfortable with today’s red-white-and-blue, pro-Democratic Party “peace” swamp.

In his September 1935 polemic against the British centrists of the Independent Labour Party (“The ILP and the Fourth International—In the Middle of the Road”), Leon Trotsky wrote that Marxism and Leninism “are absolutely irreconcilable both with an inclination to radical phraseology, and with the dread of radical decisions.” Comrade Trotsky’s polemic captures the essence of the IG today: a pseudo-radical outfit that flinches when and where it counts.

ICL Home Page