Workers Vanguard No. 920
12 September 2008
The Vietnam Antiwar Movement and the National Peace Action Coalition
Icon of Sellouts and Renegades
(Young Spartacus pages)
We print below, slightly edited for publication, a class on the Vietnam War-era National Peace Action Coalition (NPAC) given by comrade T. Marlow at a gathering of youth doing work in our center this past summer. One of several educationals given there, this class helped to arm our young comrades to combat the pro-Democratic Party politics pushed by our various fake-socialist opponents, including in preparation for the National Assembly to End the Iraq War and Occupation held in Cleveland June 28-29. The National Assembly models itself on the class-collaborationist NPAC, and aims to revitalize the moribund antiwar movement (with protests in December, safely after the elections) by uniting the “antiwar majority” on the politics of the wing of the capitalist class that wishes to cut its losses in Iraq and withdraw its troops.
On the National Assembly’s coordinating committee, phony socialist groups including the International Socialist Organization and Socialist Alternative rubbed shoulders with politicos from the Democratic Party and the small-time capitalist Green Party. We noted in a July 1971 polemic against NPAC that capitalist politicians “come to these conferences as they go to livestock shows and state fairs—to garner votes” (“For Class Action Against the War,” Spartacist supplement). At this summer’s Cleveland conference, one-time NPAC coordinator Jerry Gordon and Socialist Action’s Jeff Mackler, once on NPAC’s National Committee, policed the conference, attempting to bureaucratically suppress anything that might offend their Democratic and Green Party bloc partners. The League for the Revolutionary Party struggled unsuccessfully to find some way to make the conference seem more radical, including arguing passionately to remove the dove from the National Assembly logo!
Going into their Cleveland “antiwar” conference, the forces behind the National Assembly attempted to disappear any mention of the bloody U.S. occupation of Afghanistan. Although ultimately unsuccessful, the attempt was made because the Democratic Party, while making various oppositional noises about the occupation of Iraq, overwhelmingly supports the occupation of Afghanistan. Our comrade denounced this to scattered applause and stated, “We take a side and defend Iraq and the peoples of Afghanistan against U.S. imperialism and stand for the unconditional, immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops.” Our purpose in intervening was to win youth to the understanding that war cannot be ended short of ending the capitalist system that causes it.
The National Assembly’s model, NPAC, represented the right wing of the movement against U.S. imperialism’s dirty, losing war in Vietnam. NPAC was the culmination of a series of popular-frontist blocs the once-Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party (SWP) attempted with a wing of the same capitalist class that was prosecuting the war. The first major test of how far the SWP was willing to go in seeking an alliance with bourgeois liberals came during the preparations of the Fifth Avenue Peace Parade Committee for the October 1965 protest against the Vietnam War in New York City.
The Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy (SANE), one of nearly 40 organizations forming the Fifth Avenue Peace Parade Committee, threatened to withdraw unless it was agreed that everyone at the parade carry only the slogan “stop the war in Vietnam now” and that the speakers list exclude all but the most moderate viewpoints. The SWP acted as a broker for SANE’s demands. We refused to tolerate this political censorship and walked out. At the demonstration, we carried slogans linking the 1960s’ ghetto upheavals against racist repression with the Vietnam War, among others: “Vietnam, Watts, it’s the same struggle!”; “Victory for the Vietnamese Revolution No negotiations!” and “Unconditional withdrawal of all American troops.”
The SWP’s betrayal in the Fifth Avenue Peace Parade set the stage for what was to come. In NPAC, they consolidated their class-collaborationist alliance against those more left-wing elements who solidarized with the social revolution in Vietnam.
* * *
NPAC is what this class is about—first of all, what was it? It was something called the National Peace Action Coalition, and it came out of a Cleveland-area group of similar name in June 1970 at a conference at Cuyahoga Community College, during U.S. imperialism’s bloody war in Indochina (Indochina because it wasn’t just Vietnam—Laos and Cambodia were also involved). From its inception, NPAC was devoted to building mass mobilizations centered around a single issue of peace.
The SWP led and dominated NPAC. The July 1971 Spartacist supplement [“For Class Action Against the War”], which is in the first bound volume of Spartacist, described how this SWP-dominated conference
“ attempted to reassemble from the wreckage of various Mobilizations, Coalitions, Committees, Conferences, Caucuses, Congresses, Conventions and other concoctions an even newer, broader, more indivisible peace-group-to-end-all-peace-groups . NPAC is a Popular Front combining the SWP with the liberal bourgeoisie and Cold Warrior ‘socialists,’ through which the SWP can ‘lead’ masses of people and rub shoulders with Vance Hartke and Victor Reuther. The SWP is able to ‘lead’ these masses through the oldest opportunist sleight-of-hand in the world—by adopting the liberal bourgeoisie’s program!”
Vance Hartke was a U.S. Senator who was a scheduled speaker at the NPAC conference in New York in July 1971. Also speaking there was Victor Reuther, brother of longtime UAW president Walter Reuther, and himself an anti-Communist fixture in the labor officialdom. This was essentially NPAC’s labor cover. Walter Reuther was a founding member of the Cold War anti-Communist Americans for Democratic Action—that gives you an idea of how far he was to the right. Victor Reuther was of similar ilk.
At this 1971 conference in New York City, our comrades attempted to put forward a motion to exclude ruling-class politicians from the conference. This is an antiwar conference—how can you have representatives of the ruling class that’s prosecuting the war? When the SWP would not entertain the motion, together with supporters of Progressive Labor and SDS [Students for a Democratic Society], our comrades heckled Hartke during his speech. We chanted “labor strikes against the war” when Victor Reuther began his speech. We didn’t attempt to drive them off the stage or anything like that. In response, the SWP went ballistic and sent their goon squad with Fred Halstead in charge, literally, on a vicious assault against the protesters, some of whom were beaten, one PLer reportedly thrown through a glass door. Assisting the SWP thugs were the minions of—guess who—Tim Wohlforth’s Workers League [now the Socialist Equality Party].
The SWP’s resort to physical violence in 1971 was somewhat of a new step in their political degeneration, but their espousal of outright reformism over the war was nothing new. Class collaboration masquerading under the classless demand for “peace,” which the SWP had fought in the 1930s and 1940s, became the program of the SWP’s Dobbs leadership in the 1960s.
It certainly wasn’t from ignorance of the Marxist attitude toward pacifism. A year and a half after Hitler was appointed Chancellor in Germany, Trotsky wrote in the article “War and the Fourth International”:
“As an independent current, petty-bourgeois ‘left’ pacifism starts from the premise that it is possible to insure peace by some particular, special means, outside of the class struggle of the proletariat, outside of the socialist revolution. By articles and speeches, the pacifists inculcate ‘aversion to war,’ support the conscientious objectors, preach boycott . The more ‘revolutionary’ pacifists are not averse even to talking at times of insurrection against war.”
But this is all for show—they don’t intend it seriously. The Stalinists in the 1930s were leading a significant layer of militant workers in the United States back to the Democratic Party under the rubric first of “peace” and then of a middle-class, democratic “struggle against fascism.” When it was a revolutionary organization, the SWP pounded on the criminal betrayals of the Peoples’ Fronts. There is a famous pamphlet by James Burnham, then a Trotskyist, called The Peoples’ Front: The New Betrayal .
Of course the differences are great in scale. In the 1930s the Communist parties, even in the U.S., actually had something of a working-class base to sell out, and internationally they had revolutions they could sell out, like in Spain. In the 1960s, the bourgeoisie didn’t exactly need the SWP to control the unions—they had the AFL-CIO and the Democratic Party for that. But the SWP could still do service to the bourgeoisie by diverting radical-minded youth back into the fold of coalition politics, and keeping what passed for the organized antiwar movement out of the hands of the revolutionary Marxists.
You know the contributions of the late comrade Dick Fraser on the black question [see “In Memoriam—Richard S. Fraser,” Prometheus Research Series No. 3, August 1990]. You may not know that he was also an opponent of the Dobbs-Kerry leadership in the SWP in the 1960s. He opposed their class-collaborationist politics as early as 1965. And in fact, if you look in PRS No. 3, we reprint a letter that he wrote to the Political Committee [resident leadership body of the SWP] objecting to the grotesque spectacle that the SWP and Young Socialist Alliance presented at a Thanksgiving antiwar conference in 1965. He says:
“Here the party and youth carried on an unprincipled, disruptive and politically reformist struggle against the entire left wing of the antiwar movement. They disrupted the conference around tertiary organizational demands and ended in isolation and national disgrace. They also emerged as the only tendency present able to ignore and snub the civil rights movement.”
As Fraser noted, there were two fundamental problems with the SWP’s course. First was the reformist notion that an imperialist government will cease to operate militarily simply due to mass pressure. He says:
“The PC has the totally false impression that the capitalist class has no fundamental stake in this war, and would pull out of it in response to a little more pressure .
“The Militant [SWP weekly paper] says, ‘Bring the GIs Home.’ But this only raises another question—how? The party and youth line is that an enlarged peace movement can do it by nationally directed pressure and agitation.
“In reality, a more tangible and quicker possibility for the withdrawal of U.S. armed forces from Vietnam could be accomplished if the National Liberation Front can drive them into the China Sea.”
Needless to say, the bourgeois liberals such as Hartke and the labor Cold Warriors like Reuther would never stomach any hint of support for the Vietnamese side in the war. The SL called for the military victory of the National Liberation Front [NLF] and Viet Cong and carried the banner “All Indochina Must Go Communist!” at antiwar protests from 1970 onward. Then as now, the reformist organizers of the “official” protests sought to quarantine our revolutionary program, including by physical exclusion for the crime of holding those slogans. But mainly, it was impossible for them to successfully police the thousands and thousands of subjectively anti-imperialist protesters.
Fraser mentioned the civil rights movement. This struggle for black equality had begun a decade earlier and helped break the anti-Communist consensus of the post-World War II period. Not a few activists in the ’60s were beginning to make the connection between racism at home and imperialist slaughter abroad, that these were both rooted in the capitalist system. Instead of utilizing the war and the civil rights struggles to further the construction of the revolutionary party, the SWP expended its efforts to limit the antiwar movement to the single issue of “peace.” It was no accident that the SWP leadership rejected Fraser’s program of revolutionary integrationism, instead arguing that the struggle for black liberation was primarily the task of the black population. He says:
“Has the party forgotten that the tenacity with which previous peace movements clung to reformism was rooted in part in the liberal-Stalinist compulsion to isolate war and peace from the other great social problems? And don’t they similarly isolate civil rights from the questions of war and peace, poverty, imperialism?
“The upshot of this traditional limitation of the antiwar movement to peace only and the civil rights movement to civil rights only has been the incarceration of both movements inside the Democratic Party .”
For the “crime” of circulating his critical letter inside the party outside of the National Committee, Fraser was censured in February 1966. Shortly afterwards, he and most of the Seattle branch of the SWP quit. Fraser and his cothinkers formed the Freedom Socialist Party.
Now it seems that Socialist Action is trying to reincarnate another NPAC for the Iraq war, or actually Iraq occupation since the war was over a while ago. Marx said that history repeats itself, first as tragedy, then as farce. This is the third round—I’m not sure what happens after farce. All of the flotsam ejected from Jack Barnes’ SWP in the purges that began in the early ’80s look back to the halcyon days of the 1960s and ’70s when the SWP was the power broker of the antiwar movement. This is their positive idea. We cite that same NPAC as positive proof of the SWP’s descent into outright reformism. Socialist Action thinks it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread.
I want to be clear about one thing: the mere presence of a Democratic Party politician on the rostrum of an antiwar event does not in itself signify class collaboration, although it’s a pretty good indication. In our Mumia events, we actually got endorsements from people like Cynthia McKinney, and she’s a bourgeois politician. We didn’t throw that endorsement in the trash—it’s her contradiction. The class character of any political formation is primarily determined by its program. As Trotsky noted in his article “The Lessons of Spain: The Last Warning” (17 December 1937):
“Politically most striking is the fact that the Spanish Popular Front lacked in reality even a parallelogram of forces. The bourgeoisie’s place was occupied by its shadow. Through the medium of the Stalinists, Socialists, and Anarchists, the Spanish bourgeoisie subordinated the proletariat to itself without even bothering to participate in the Popular Front. The overwhelming majority of the exploiters of all political shades openly went over to the camp of Franco .”
They knew that the mass mobilization of workers and poor peasants posed a threat to their class rule.
Just to ask a question: Let’s say at the next ANSWER or United for Peace and Justice demonstration against the war, there’s no Democratic Party politician. Maybe Teddy Kennedy had a cold. Does that make it not a popular front? Does that change the class character of a mobilization that didn’t defend Iraq and refuses to say a peep about something called Afghanistan? That gives the game away right there.
For the SWP, and I guess for the latter-day SWPers in Socialist Action, the Vietnam War was ended by some sort of a political action committee, which threw the U.S. out. Well, actually it was called the North Vietnamese army and the NLF, and they came into Saigon with tanks. That was a good thing. We supported them militarily, not politically, because we knew that it would lead to the formation of a deformed workers state. There was a social revolution, which we defended. The SWP basically was doing everything to obliterate the idea of social revolution from a whole generation of antiwar activists. It’s our job to make sure that the latter-day SWP ejecta don’t do the same thing.