Workers Vanguard No. 991

25 November 2011


Black Struggle, the Vietnamese Revolution and the Working Class

From 1960s New Left to Trotskyism

Recollections of a Participant

Part Two

We print below the second part of a presentation, slightly edited for publication, by Spartacist League speaker Diana Coleman at an October 15 forum in Los Angeles. Part One appeared in WV No. 990 (11 November).

At the same time that Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) was growing, the ghettos were exploding. With the civil rights movement unable to change the hellish conditions of black life in the North, there was a rising level of frustrated expectations. There were a whole series of ghetto upheavals in the mid to late ’60s that were repressed with extreme police/National Guard violence. Young militants were breaking from the Democratic Party and the liberal pacifism of MLK. The Black Panthers (BPP) were the best of a generation of young black activists who courageously stood up to the racist ruling class and its kill-crazy cops. Unfortunately, the Panthers, along with most of the New Left, rejected the organized working class as the agent of black freedom and socialist revolution. The Panthers looked to black ghetto youth as the vanguard of black struggle.

The underlying ideology of the Panthers was that the most oppressed are the most revolutionary. But in fact the lumpenproletariat in the ghetto, removed from the means of production, has no real social power. The Panthers’ glorification of ghetto rage and rejection of the Marxist understanding of the role of the working class left them more vulnerable to state repression. They faced a systematic government campaign of assassination, police provocations, frame-ups and imprisonment, including through the FBI’s notorious Counter-Intelligence Program. Mumia Abu-Jamal, a former Panther and talented journalist known as the “voice of the voiceless,” has been on death row on frame-up charges for decades now. In the face of this repression, the Panthers turned to the right, into the orbit of the reformist Communist Party (CP), its lawyers and concomitantly the Democratic Party.

But let me give some quotes from Black Panther leader David Hilliard’s speech to an antiwar demo in San Francisco in the fall of 1969. It says something that by ’69 and ’70 the speakers at these mass marches included a Black Panther and the Democratic mayor of SF. Hilliard says he had been warned by the BPP leadership not to curse and not to get mad because that would alienate the white liberals, but as you can see he did both. Like Hilliard, I usually try not to curse in speeches, but I will read this quote as it appeared in Phil Foner’s The Black Panthers Speak (1995):

“There’s too many American flags out here and our Minister of Information, Eldridge Cleaver, says that the American flag and the American eagle are the true symbols of fascism.…

“So then, we would like to ask the American people do they want peace in Vietnam. Well, do you? (audience) ‘Yes.’ Do you want peace in the Black communities? (audience) ‘Yes.’ Well you goddamned sure can’t get it with no guitars, you sure can’t get it demonstrating. The only way you’re going to get peace in Vietnam is to withdraw the oppressive forces from the Black communities right here in Babylon.”

As the crowd became restive and some started to boo, Hilliard got mad:

“We say down with the American fascist society. Later for Richard Milhous Nixon, the m-----f----r. Later for all the pigs of the power structure. Later for all the people out here that don’t want to hear me curse.… Because Richard Nixon is an evil man. This is the m-----f----r that unleashed the counter-insurgent teams upon the BPP.… This is the man that sends his vicious murderous dogs out into the Black community.… We will kill Richard Nixon. We will kill any m-----f----r that stands in the way of our freedom. We ain’t here for no goddamned peace, because we know that we can’t have no peace because this country was built on war. And if you want peace you got to fight for it.”

While the liberals were booing, my friends and I were cheering his opposition to pacifism. The Panthers had become broadly popular. There was a real convergence between the white left and the black left. Black people are not a separate nation but an integral part of American class society while at the same time forcibly segregated at the bottom as a race-color caste. Hilliard was subsequently brought up on charges for threatening the life of the president. Later the charges were dropped—perhaps because it was obvious that no one plans an assassination attempt in a speech in front of upward of 150,000 people in Golden Gate Park!

The Limits of Student Radicalism

Just as the Panthers came up against the dead end of their lumpen vanguard strategy, SDS came up against the dead end of student vanguardism. As I said earlier, the New Left had been very anti-working-class. Trotsky’s biographer Isaac Deutscher, who considered himself a classical Marxist, toured the U.S. in 1966, speaking at Vietnam antiwar protests. He was appalled by the intellectual elitism he found among young radicals who considered themselves anti-capitalist. Deutscher said:

“Do you really take such a contemptuous view of your working classes that you think that you alone are so sensitive or so noble as to be dissatisfied with this degrading society and that they cannot find it in themselves to be dissatisfied? Do you really believe that they are so much more prone, and by nature conditioned, to be corrupted by the meretricious advantages of this war-flourishing capitalism than you are?”

Well, that is pretty much what many did think. Deutscher also said something to the effect that he would exchange all the peace marches for one good dockworkers strike. Most of the New Left didn’t understand that, either.

What happened was that the very success of the student strikes demonstrated their impotence. In the spring of 1970, President Nixon ordered American troops in South Vietnam into neighboring Cambodia. In the ensuing campus protests, the Ohio National Guard killed four students at Kent State. Ten days later, cops killed two black students at Jackson State. Of course, the second murderous assault didn’t get as much coverage, black life being cheap for the bourgeoisie, then as now. These events triggered protests involving four and a half million students—half the U.S. student population—and many colleges remained shut through the rest of the semester. But this did not stop the Vietnam War.

If this protest demonstrated the impotence of “student power,” the May-June 1968 events in France demonstrated the actual power of the working class. Leftist student protest there triggered a workers general strike that shook the de Gaulle regime to its core. France was engulfed in a pre-revolutionary crisis that the French CP barely managed to stabilize and sell out. The incipient workers revolution in France reaffirmed in real life the revolutionary potential of the working class. This made a lot of us think twice, especially since there was a strike wave in the U.S. in ’69 and ’70—a General Electric strike, a nationwide postal wildcat strike (the first major strike against the federal government), a Midwest Teamsters wildcat and a General Motors strike.

Needless to say, this was not news to the Spartacist League. As Marxists, the SL understands that the motor force of history is the class struggle—today between the capitalist class and the proletariat. The capitalists own the means of production like the land, mines and factories, while the workers have nothing but their labor power, which they sell to the capitalists in order to live. Because the working class turns the wheels of production, it has the social power and the organization to overthrow the capitalist rulers. But the working class has to understand its power in order to use it. For that you need a revolutionary vanguard party that can bring communist consciousness to the proletariat.

A key prop of capitalism is to keep the working class divided along ethnic and racial lines, which in this country means foremost the segregation of black people. The SL fights for black freedom on the program of revolutionary integrationism: the working class must fight against all instances of racist oppression and discrimination, while at the same time genuine equality for black people in the U.S. will only come about through socialist revolution that smashes capitalism. There will be no socialist revolution without the working class taking up the fight for black freedom.

Our model is the Bolshevik Party of V.I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky, which led the October Revolution in Russia in 1917. This was the greatest victory for the working people of the world: it gave the program of proletarian revolution flesh and blood. The proletariat seized power and created a workers state based on collectivized property and soviets (workers councils). The young workers state eliminated laws discriminating against women and homosexuals and recognized the right to self-determination of the many nations oppressed under tsarist/capitalist rule. The Soviet government proclaimed the right of working people to jobs, health care, housing and education.

The Russian Revolution was not made solely for Russia but was seen as the opening shot of a necessarily international struggle of labor against the rule of capital. It was an inspiration to the oppressed masses of the world and had a direct impact on the struggle of black people in the U.S. The American rulers have always seen a connection between the Russian Revolution and the struggles of black people in the U.S.—and rightly so. The Bolshevik Revolution was popular among wide layers of urban blacks and even among moderate black newspapers and organizations of the time. “Black and Red” is the American bourgeoisie’s greatest fear.

The SL attempted to convey some of this understanding in various leaflets written at the time and in sporadic interventions into SDS. In 1967, as young radicals turned to confrontation with the cops, the SL wrote: “Personal sacrifice can never substitute for a mass movement…this does not mean reverting to the simple pacifist humanitarianism of the official peace movement in order to get middle-class liberals on the picket line. What it does mean is tapping the fundamental discontent and conflicts in American society; the black ghetto uprisings and rash of militant strikes indicate the depth and explosiveness of this discontent.”

The SL fought for a one-day general strike and raised the slogan: “Labor strikes against the war!” The SL also controversially opposed the draft resistance campaign and insisted that if drafted, young radicals should go. In a position paper put forward in SDS, we argued that the voluntary purging of radicals from the army would only strengthen the ideological purity and political reliability of the army. We said that young militants should go with working-class and minority youth and continue their political agitation in the army.

Stalinism Versus Trotskyism

Another question that the SL took up in this period was the question of Maoism-Stalinism. The New Left didn’t want to deal with these old, musty debates, but these questions come after you. Stalinism versus Trotskyism, the nature of the workers states—these questions cannot be avoided. SDS liberals of the mid 1960s were poring over Mao’s “Little Red Book” of quotations by 1968.

One thing that caused this change was the tremendous authority of the Vietnamese Stalinists. They looked like they were going to and then did beat U.S. imperialism, and they made no bones about being old-line Stalinists. Since Ho Chi Minh didn’t claim to have his own ideology, it was Maoism that was the beneficiary of New Leftists looking for some kind of “new” Marxism that would be more radical than old-line Soviet Stalinism and its practice of “peaceful coexistence” with U.S. imperialism, which meant betraying social and class struggles internationally. China was under the gun of U.S. imperialism, so the Chinese Communist Party leadership was talking more left at that moment.

On a sociological level, some of the Stalinists in the American Communist Party who hadn’t simply quit to become liberals became Maoists—for example, Progressive Labor (PL)—and influenced the New Left. Maoism did not represent a break from Stalinist class collaboration but rather was what we called “Khrushchevism under the gun.” (Khrushchev was the Soviet premier at the time.) Seeking to win young radicals to a Trotskyist program, the SL exposed the repeated attempts by the Chinese Maoists to form a reactionary anti-Soviet bloc with U.S. imperialism at the expense of social struggles around the world. This alliance was sealed by Mao’s 1972 meeting with U.S. war criminal Richard Nixon in Beijing as American warplanes were raining death and destruction on Vietnam.

In the article “NLF Program: Fetter on Victory” (Spartacist supplement, May 1968) about the National Liberation Front (NLF) the SL wrote:

“There has been an understandable but nevertheless unfortunate tendency on the part of the American left to idealize Ho Chi Minh and the leadership of the NLF, and for radicals to turn their correct demands for military victory against imperialism and its puppets into uncritical political support for these leaders and their politics. This is a grave error, for not only do these would-be revolutionaries not understand the deformities of those they support—and are extremely likely to feel personally betrayed when the inevitable occurs—but are likely to carry over the Stalinist hallmarks of class-collaboration and murderous opportunism into the American revolutionary movement. It is vitally necessary to keep in mind that Ho Chi Minh and his co-thinkers have already sold out the Vietnamese revolution twice before.”

This article also presciently predicted that in the best of circumstances the “NLF will simply bypass its program and will then set out to make a limited, distorted and bureaucratic revolution from the top.” That is exactly what they did. And this is also why the SL began to raise my favorite slogan of all time: “All Indochina Must Go Communist!” This slogan cut not only against liberal pacifism at home but also against the limits of Vietnamese Stalinism. Uniquely on the left, today we uphold the same Trotskyist program of unconditional military defense and proletarian political revolution for the remaining bureaucratically deformed workers states of China, North Korea, Vietnam, Cuba and Laos.

And that point from the Spartacist article, about the carrying over of class collaborationism and opportunism into the American movement, was so true. One of my old friends went to a conference in Vancouver in ’67 or ’68 and met with Vietnamese women, not only women in the CP of Vietnam but also women combatants in the NLF of South Vietnam. Of course, she was very impressed by the presence of these women who were actually fighting U.S. imperialism with gun in hand. And, of course, the Americans wanted advice on how to build an American revolutionary movement.

But the Vietnamese kept steering the conversation away from that subject. Instead, all the Americans got were reformist clichés about building the biggest possible movement on the broadest possible basis—watch out when people start telling you that, it’s code for class collaboration—and helping elect whomever would help end the war, i.e., the Democrats, who else. My friend was very disappointed by this, as were the people like myself whom she told this to. We couldn’t figure it out and filed it away as one of those things that you better not think about too hard.

The New Left Turns to the Working Class

I do want to give one example of the New Left meets the working class from my own history. In 1969, I was in a women’s liberation group, and we were so impressed by the working-class struggle in France and so frustrated by student struggles and peace marches that we decided that we had to get out of Berkeley and organize the workers. We got together a group of men and women, husbands, boyfriends, friends in the movement (as it was called). We were planning on organizing white workers because we were very much imbued with the black nationalist idea of polyvanguardism—that blacks should organize blacks, whites should organize whites, and so on.

We did a demographic study of the Bay Area and decided that the place where we could find the most young white workers was Hayward. What a boring suburb, but we all moved there, 20 or 30 of us. Later, one of our people got a job at the General Motors auto plant in Fremont, and we decided that we would start a radical caucus there. We thought you had to do something flashy to get working people’s attention, start off with a bang. So we printed up a leaflet about the birthday of BPP leader Huey Newton, which we thought was very appropriate to jolt white people out of their racism. And there were a lot of blacks working there, too, who probably did know who Huey Newton was.

We took the plant’s tour train with the leaflets stuffed under our coats. At a pre-arranged moment, we leapt off and ran around like maniacs, handing out leaflets and throwing them in the cars. Whether the workers were convinced by our politics, I don’t know, but they thought it was wild. The bosses stopped every assembly line in the plant and proceeded to chase us around. Workers hid us and showed us where to go. They figured that as long as we were there the lines would stay down. Assembly line work is hard and boring, and we were an interesting diversion that had never been seen before. It took a long time before management could round us up. They didn’t even think to stop us when we announced that we were leaving and walked out and got in our cars.

Meanwhile, during this exact period in ’69, SDS was splitting due to the real inadequacy of New Left politics in the face of the general social crisis of the late 1960s. In the summer of 1969 at the SDS National Convention in Chicago, facing the prospect of PL’s positions gaining a majority, a clique within the SDS National Collective (NC), including Bernardine Dohrn and Mike Klonsky, engineered a split, lining up Black Panthers and others to race-bait PL supporters. When this didn’t work, the NC splitters led their followers out of the conference.

The SL remained with the PL-led Worker-Student Alliance wing of SDS due to its orientation, however crude, to the proletariat. The SL referred to PL, more leftist at this time than now, as “Trotskyists with a prefrontal lobotomy.” The SL issued position papers within SDS, arguing for a Leninist vanguard party to bring the power of the working class to bear in the interests of all the oppressed (reprinted in “‘Racial Oppression and Working-Class Politics’,” WV No. 897, 31 August 2007, and “‘The Fight for Women’s Liberation’,” WV No. 910, 14 March 2008). PL was vulnerable to our Trotskyist criticism, but ultimately they clung to their “minimum/maximum program,” combining “communist” rhetoric with reformist practice.

The SL’s Trotskyist program won a hearing within SDS, and the forebear of today’s Spartacus Youth Clubs was founded as the Revolutionary Marxist Caucus (RMC) in SDS in early 1970. The RMC sought to win radical students to a revolutionary, internationalist and proletarian communist program. This included fighting for an understanding of the lessons of the 1917 Russian Revolution and Trotsky’s understanding of the material roots of its bureaucratic degeneration.

The Futile Strategy of the Weathermen

Even in Hayward, we felt the effects of the SDS split. We had been organizing the working class for at least six months and had put out a ton of leaflets. Actually, there was more interest in our politics than you might imagine, the working class being very restive. We did some high school organizing at a working-class high school in Hayward. After passing out some leaflets protesting the war in Vietnam, we stood outside the school with a bullhorn and shouted: “Come out of your prisons!” The most surprising part was that several hundred did, and we led a march all over Hayward.

But some of the people in the Hayward Collective began to feel that the working class just wasn’t responding sufficiently. So they got ahold of the Weathermen, who were part of the anti-PL side of the split in SDS. The Weathermen—named, I believe, after a Bob Dylan song which includes the line: “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”—had a policy of confrontation with the armed forces of the state. They practiced terrorism in the name of Third World nationalism.

Lacking a proletarian strategy, and desperate to do something, the Weather Underground would conduct acts of individual terrorism that were self-defeating and, more times than not, far more dangerous to themselves than to the bourgeoisie. Such a program was no break from liberalism but a logical conclusion, in extremis, of the liberal program of bearing “moral witness” to government crimes. The Weathermen’s strategy was futile. At the same time, their targets were representatives of imperialism and capitalist oppression. While politically opposing the Weathermen, the SL fought for their defense, insisting that they were “an integral part of the radical movement.” The rest of the left turned its back on them.

The Weathermen came to visit the Hayward Collective to win us to their variety of Third World nationalism, arguing that the American working class was totally bought off and could never make a socialist revolution. They presented their views, and then they sang us some songs. You think I’m kidding. Believe me, I’m not. First they sang, “We all live in a Weatherman machine” to the tune of “Yellow Submarine.” Then they sang “Bad Moon Rising” by Creedence Clearwater Revival. “Looks like we’re in for nasty weather” sort of captured their perspective. Those of us who believed in the revolutionary potential of the American working class decided maybe our theme song should be the Creedence song “Lodi” about the small, remote California town, as in “stuck in Lodi again” boring. This forum seems to include a lot of discussion about music—maybe it should have a soundtrack to go with it.

Since there was a minority of us who were not convinced, several others from our collective and I went to meet Bernardine Dohrn, a leader of the Weathermen who was on the “Ten Most Wanted” list in the U.S. I had seen her “Wanted” picture up in the local post office. We were supposed to meet on Telegraph Avenue in front of Cody’s Bookstore. Dohrn was late, and everyone was worried. She claimed that she had been up the street stealing a pair of earrings. Meeting in such a public place as Telegraph Avenue was dumb enough, but even I thought that was crazy when you were underground. But it was all a part of the “outlaw” image.

Finally, we sat down to meet, and she asked me what I was going to do when the North Koreans sailed in to Puget Sound, presumably to take over since the American working class was supposed to be so bought off. Perhaps not answering this on a very deep level—and I was kind of intimidated since she was a big shot—I just said that I didn’t think that was going to happen. She said that just showed what an American-chauvinist racist I was. So I didn’t join the Weathermen, and Dohrn and her hubby Bill Ayers eventually went back to Chicago, where they hang out in liberal circles and know such unsavory people as Barack Obama.

Breaking with Feminism

The women, two others and myself, who didn’t join the Weathermen then began a sort of feminist working-class organizing collective in East Oakland together with women we had known from the Berkeley Women’s Liberation group and others. Why we became more feminist, since the Hayward Collective certainly did not split along gender lines, I’m not quite sure. In any case, we had our East Oakland Women’s Collective, and we worked with other women to set up a citywide Oakland Women’s Liberation Group, which probably included a couple hundred women over the years. I was among those who went to work in a glass-bottle-blowing factory in East Oakland, and others went to work as operators at the phone company. There are a million more ridiculous stories from this period—“socialist feminists meet the working class”—but you don’t want to be here until midnight.

At the phone company, we saw in living color where feminism led—that is, right across the class line. We were radical feminists with a working-class bent, but the bottom line is that Marxism and feminism are counterposed. Feminism is a bourgeois ideology that asserts that the main division in society is between men and women rather than class versus class. Its logic is that all women have more in common with each other than they do with men, regardless of class. Feminism is politically incapable of resolving the most basic aspects of women’s oppression because it functions entirely within the framework of bourgeois rule. In contrast, Marxism looks to the power of the working class as the motor force for social progress. The private property system, backed by the capitalist state, and the family are the most basic and deeply intertwined aspects of class society. They cannot be “reformed” away. The inescapable conclusion is that the entire capitalist system must go.

Our collective was working through the Operators Defense Committee, which featured an eclectic combination of New Left, Maoist and workerist politics, with a heavy overlay of feminism and male exclusionism. But we were quite shaken up when there was a strike of electrical workers, who were mostly men, at the phone company. We saw that many of the women whom we had helped to recruit to women’s consciousness were recruiting others to cross the picket lines, using all the feminist arguments we had told them. “Well, we’re more oppressed, what have they ever done to fight for women’s rights? So, therefore, it’s OK to cross the picket line.” We were horrified. We were somewhat ambiguous on unions, but we knew one thing: you never cross a picket line. We had been following a feminist strategy of organizing women around their own oppression, and it didn’t lead them to a broader understanding or socialist consciousness. It led to strikebreaking.

There was a Spartacist-supported caucus in the Communications Workers of America (CWA) called the Militant Action Caucus (MAC). The MAC was based on class-struggle politics and a series of transitional demands, which are designed to link current consciousness to the necessity of the conquest of power by the proletariat. Over a period of a couple of years, culminating in the 1971 national CWA strike, we were able to test out in action our feminist strategy versus the revolutionary strategy of the SL and the class-struggle politics of the MAC. Having had some negative experiences with other groups like PL and the Revolutionary Union (predecessor of the Revolutionary Communist Party), I came grudgingly to the conclusion that only the Trotskyists of the SL seemed to know how to do working-class organizing.

Finally, even in the feminist Oakland Women’s Liberation Group, the dreaded question of Maoism versus Trotskyism came up when we helped set up what was essentially a Marxist study group. With some push from women around the SL, Trotskyist works like The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution by Harold Isaacs were included as readings. What an eye-opener! Stalinism led to the bloody defeat of the Chinese Revolution of the late 1920s and betrayed many other revolutionary opportunities, as did Maoism. All that Maoist class collaborationism, the belief that in the underdeveloped countries you should work with your own bourgeoisie—whether called the “bloc of four classes” or the “united front against imperialism”—could no longer be ignored. Trotsky’s program of permanent revolution really is the only alternative to placing confidence in the backward, imperialist- dependent bourgeoisie of an oppressed country as the vehicle for liberation.

A bunch of us East Oakland women, after hard, sometimes bruising, political discussions with the SL, decided in the summer of 1972 that we needed to join an internationalist Leninist vanguard party, embodied, at least in its nucleus, in the SL. Our eclectic wanderings on the path to Leninism are mainly important in the context of the SL’s call in 1969 for revolutionary regroupment. Here the Spartacist League called for “political and theoretical polarization of the ostensibly revolutionary groupings, leading ultimately to a left-communist regroupment of all organizations, factions, tendencies and individuals who stand on an anti-revisionist Marxist program, toward the formation of a Leninist vanguard party.”

What was proposed was not a non-aggression pact but, if anything, an intensification of political struggle. This perspective embodied the Leninist conception that a party is built through a series of splits and fusions. It worked. The SL tripled in size between 1971 and 1974, regrouping with subjectively revolutionary elements breaking from Maoism, Socialist Workers Party (SWP) reformism and New Leftism: for example, the Communist Working Collective of L.A., the Buffalo Marxist Caucus, elements of the Leninist Faction of the SWP and the Mass Strike group in Boston, as well as assorted feminists and former black nationalists, among others.

Today is not 1972, and there aren’t many subjectively revolutionary organizations or groupings around. I don’t think we are going to regroup with “Occupy Wall Street,” and there don’t seem to be any inchoate revolutionary tendencies in the International Socialist Organization or Workers World Party. Recruitment of thoughtful, unusual individuals is the order of the day, and it is hard mental work. But things change, capitalism breeds class struggle. However, the precondition for a socialist revolution is a party. As Trotsky said in Lessons of October (1924): “Without a party, apart from a party, over the head of a party, or with a substitute for a party, the proletarian revolution cannot conquer.” We urge you to join us in the struggle to build the party necessary to lead international proletarian revolution.