Spartacist English edition No. 60
Fifth International Conference of the ICL
Maintaining a Revolutionary Program in the Post-Soviet Period
Corrections, Comment Appended
The International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist) held its Fifth International Conference in Europe early this year. As the highest body of our democratic-centralist international tendency, the conference was charged with assessing our work in the period since the last conference, in late 2003, and charting our course in the coming period, resolving outstanding political differences and electing a new International Executive Committee (IEC) to lead the organization until the next conference. The conference was preceded by three months of vigorous pre-conference discussion, which included the production of ten internal bulletins containing contributions by comrades throughout the organization. Elections for conference delegates, based on political positions, were held in all the national sections of the ICL. The delegates debated, amended and adopted the main conference document, “Maintaining a Revolutionary Program in the Post-Soviet Period.”
While soberly acknowledging the strains and pressures on our small Marxist vanguard in this generally reactionary period, the conference registered a number of significant steps forward. Notable among these was the decision to reconstitute the Spartacist Group of Poland, dissolved in 2001, as a sympathizing section of the ICL. The conference took note of the significant improvement in the quantity and quality of our propaganda regarding the Chinese deformed workers state, as well as in our intensified efforts internationally to win freedom for U.S. death row political prisoner Mumia Abu-Jamal. As part of an ongoing review mandated by the previous conference, an entire agenda point was devoted to a fuller assessment of our intervention in the incipient political revolution in East Germany (DDR) in 1989-90.
Most significantly, the conference reconsidered the earlier practice in the Marxist movement of running candidates for executive offices like mayor or president, as opposed to running for legislative or parliamentary office. It resolved that we categorically oppose running for executive positions in the capitalist state. The wide-ranging discussion on this question before and during the conference made clear that this is not simply a matter of electoral tactics but goes to the root of the Marxist view of the bourgeois state as an instrument of class oppression. As stated in the relevant section of the conference document reprinted in this issue, “In adopting the position against running for executive office, we are recognizing and codifying what should be seen as a corollary to Lenin’s The State and Revolution and The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, which are really the founding documents of the Third International
. Thus we are continuing to complete the theoretical and programmatic work of the first four Congresses of the CI [Communist International]” (“Down With Executive Offices!”, page 20).
The understanding that the proletariat cannot lay hold of the capitalist state and wield it for its own class interests is the dividing line between reformism and Marxism; all the more is this the case today, when the bulk of the reformist left barely gives even lip service to the aim of socialism or communism, and the pressure to conform to bourgeois-liberal ideology is pervasive and intense. The question of the class nature of the state was, in fact, an overarching theme running through many of the conference discussions, not least in addressing our perspective for labor-centered mass mobilizations to free Mumia Abu-Jamal as against the liberals and leftists who counterpose reliance on the supposed justice of the capitalist courts. This question also figured centrally in reviewing our fight against capitalist counterrevolution and for defense of the DDR and Soviet workers states, and in hammering out differences over our program for unconditional military defense of and proletarian political revolution in China. Reaffirmation of the Marxist view of the state is central to maintaining our programmatic bearings in this period of post-Soviet reaction.
Imperialist Depredations, Defensive Struggles
The conference document laid out the international political context in which we struggle and intervene as a revolutionary propaganda group. This continues to be defined by the impact of the 1991-92 capitalist counterrevolution that destroyed the Soviet Union, the homeland of the October Revolution of 1917. The destruction of the USSR, following decades of bureaucratic Stalinist misrule, was an unparalleled defeat for working people all over the world, decisively altering the political landscape on the planet. It benefited the strongest and most dangerous imperialist power, the U.S., enabling it to extend its dominant influence over the world. In collaboration with Japan, the American imperialists have built up a strong military presence in the Pacific region, primarily threatening the Chinese and North Korean bureaucratically deformed workers states. This poses with increasing urgency our call for unconditional military defense of those states—and of the Vietnamese and Cuban deformed workers states—as well as the need to mobilize the proletariat internationally in opposition to the U.S.-led occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan and other imperialist depredations.
Unlike in 2003, however, when the Bush administration was gloating over its easy win against the Saddam Hussein regime, U.S. imperialism now finds itself mired in a hugely unpopular and bloody occupation of Iraq. Moreover, as we have noted, “The unchallenged global military hegemony of the U.S. stands in sharp contradiction to its declining economic base. The tendency of the Bush administration and correspondingly wide sections of the American ruling class to view the world through the apocalyptic theological lens of Armageddon has its roots in this objective contradiction” (“Defend China, North Korea! U.S. Hands Off the World!”, Workers Vanguard No. 843, 4 March 2005). More generally, the document noted, the future of the world economy is unpredictable and murky, with numerous signs that we are on the edge of a depression or major recession.
The Iraq war brought to the surface fissures between the U.S. and its militarily far weaker European rivals, particularly France and Germany. Seeking to improve their competitive position, the European imperialists have targeted the “welfare state,” which they regard as economically expensive and politically superfluous in the post-Soviet world. Workers in West Europe have resisted these attacks through significant defensive struggles, and France has also seen combative mobilizations by students and by oppressed minority youth of North African origin. The conference document underlined the need to combat economic protectionism and anti-immigrant chauvinism in the imperialist countries.
In Latin America, resentment over escalating impoverishment, privatization, debt bondage and the other ravages of imperialism, combined with Washington’s difficulties in Iraq, have propelled a substantial growth in populist nationalism, exemplified by the Chávez regime in Venezuela and López Obrador’s bourgeois-nationalist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) in Mexico. Mexico has seen a series of protracted and bitterly fought strikes and massive protests, including a huge plebeian upheaval against increases in the price of basic foods. That upheaval came to a head even as our conference was meeting. The delegates resolved to assist our comrades in Mexico in intervening in the volatile social struggles erupting in that country with the aim of breaking workers and radical youth from illusions in the PRD and other populist nationalists.
Swimming Against the Stream of Post-Soviet Reaction
The point, to paraphrase Karl Marx, is not simply to interpret the world, but to change it; and to effect revolutionary change requires the forging of a revolutionary leadership. Necessarily so, the principal focus of the conference delegates was on the state of our own organization, the nucleus of the Leninist vanguard party needed to lead the proletariat in the struggle for state power and a global egalitarian, communist society. Our last international conference took place amid a crisis in the ICL (see “The Fight for Revolutionary Continuity in the Post-Soviet World,” Spartacist No. 58, Spring 2004). That crisis stemmed from a failure to fully assimilate the material and ideological impact of capitalist counterrevolution. As our article on the Fourth International Conference explained:
“At the crucial hour, in sharp contrast to much of the left, the ICL stood at our post in defense of the gains of the October Revolution of 1917. Nonetheless, the weight of this world-historic defeat has affected us as well, serving to erode the understanding of our revolutionary purpose in the fight for new October Revolutions.”
The bourgeoisie’s ideologues seized on the collapse of the Soviet Union to proclaim the “death of communism” and to pronounce Marxism a “failed experiment.” These falsehoods were parroted by the former Stalinist bureaucrats whose betrayals and misrule had paved the way for capitalist restoration, as well as by the many reformist leftists in the West who had aided and abetted the imperialist-led drive for counterrevolution. That world-historic defeat led to a profound retrogression in proletarian consciousness, albeit uneven in its impact around the world: today, even more politically conscious workers in the capitalist countries by and large no longer identify their struggles with the ultimate aim of achieving a socialist society. Even a leading spokesman for the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP), which cheered most loudly over the “collapse of Communism” in 1991, recently had to admit in an SWP internal bulletin that the SWP had misjudged the “effects of the collapse of Stalinism” and that in fact “it was perceived by millions, indeed hundreds of millions, as the defeat of socialism” (John Molyneux, “Why I Intend to Stand,” published in Weekly Worker, 5 January 2006).
Accepting the “death of communism” proclaimed by the bourgeoisie, most of the so-called “left” no longer sees socialism as possible and instead promotes liberal democracy and the “welfare state” as the aim of social struggle. There is a huge gulf between such opponents of revolutionary Marxism—and the radical-liberal youth they may attract—and our program of proletarian revolution. The main document of the Fourth ICL Conference noted: “Failure to recognize the period we are in and the necessary relationship of our small revolutionary vanguard to the proletariat, and the absence of the Soviet Union as an active and defining factor in politics, have led to disorientation. Frustration and impatience over the disparity between our small size and slender roots in the working class and our proletarian internationalist purpose have led both to opportunist lunges and sectarian moralism.”
The 2003 crisis posed a sharp fight to maintain and defend our programmatic integrity, i.e., our revolutionary continuity with the Bolshevism of Lenin and Trotsky. Regaining and retaining a Marxist compass in this reactionary period has not been automatic or uniform. The 2003 conference mandated continued review and re-examination of unresolved questions and past and present party work in order to get a better sense of what lay at the root of our political disorientation. Through these reviews, and internal debates over disputed questions as they arise, we have restored and strengthened the internal corrective mechanisms that are the essence of our democratic-centralist practice. Comrades came to understand, as the Fifth Conference document states: “The chief pressure operating on our party, especially in this period of post-Soviet reaction, is Menshevik, i.e., social-democratic, opportunism, not ultra-left sectarianism. And the essence of Menshevism in this period is capitulation to bourgeois liberalism.”
Writing in 1937, Trotsky stressed that in a reactionary period, “the task of the vanguard is above all not to let itself be carried along by the backward flow: it must swim against the current. If an unfavorable relation of forces prevents it from holding the positions that it has won, it must at least retain its ideological positions, because in them is expressed the dearly purchased experience of the past” (“Stalinism and Bolshevism,” August 1937). In speaking of the centrality of this struggle to maintain our revolutionary continuity in this period, we have referred to ourselves as a “programmatic holding operation.” As our Fifth Conference document states, “Program is decisive. Without our programmatic integrity our intervention into the world can only be revisionist.”
But defending our program also means figuring out its extension to new situations, testing it in active polemical engagement and exemplary intervention. There can be no “finished program” for a living, fighting party. The reconsideration of our earlier attitude toward running in elections for executive office was an example of this. Our central purpose in such discussions is to arm our party to intervene more effectively into such class and other social struggles as arise. As a recent resolution voted by our Mexican section and reaffirmed by the conference stated:
“The most profound attitude of communists is to struggle, right now, as in the past and in the future. Although we are living in a reactionary period since the fall of the Soviet Union, a period characterized by a general throwback of consciousness, we are a fighting propaganda group. Central to maintaining our programmatic compass is our intervention into existing struggles with our program.”
Continued Struggles to Reorient the Party
Discussion on the main conference document opened with reports by two members of the outgoing International Secretariat (I.S.), the IEC’s resident subcommittee in our international center. Comrade J. Blumenfeld drew a balance sheet of the struggle to reorient the ICL in the years since our last conference, addressing issues where we have made substantive correctives and pointing to areas where a re-examination of past work is underway or remains necessary. Combatting the pressures of bourgeois ideology as they manifest themselves is an ongoing necessity for a Leninist vanguard; our sections are made more permeable to such pressures insofar as earlier unclarities are not reviewed and resolved. The second reporter, J. Bride, focused on an important debate over our stance toward the Chinese deformed workers state today, relating this to the lessons of our fight for proletarian political revolution and against capitalist counterrevolution in the DDR in 1989-90, and addressed our tasks in intersecting the social struggles taking place in Mexico. In their remarks, both comrades spoke to the importance of the proposed line change on running for executive office, which was taken up in more depth under a separate agenda point later in the conference.
Comrade Blumenfeld noted how “a major pressure on our party leadership is the wide gulf that exists between us and our program and that of the opponents.” One of the most crucial fights to reorient the ICL in the recent period was over our attitude to the World Social Forum and its regional offshoots in Europe and elsewhere, which have been championed by a host of reformist left outfits including the British SWP and the fake-Trotskyist “United Secretariat of the Fourth International” (USec). This fight was key to deepening our understanding that, particularly in this period, adaptation to Menshevism is the chief danger facing our party. Prior to 2005, we had failed to characterize the social forums as popular-frontist—i.e., class-collaborationist—alliances run by bourgeois liberals and pro-capitalist social democrats and directly funded by capitalist governments and institutions.
A memorandum adopted by the IEC that year corrected this and affirmed: “We do not give critical support to nor enter the popular front. We don’t peddle our wares in the shadow of the popular front. Therefore, we are not part of and do not organize activities under the auspices of these social forums.” We made clear that our political interventions into such events must be from the standpoint of forthright and irreconcilable opposition. Following this clarifying discussion, the Spartacist League/Britain produced a sharp polemical article in Workers Hammer (No. 191, Summer 2005), “Social Forum Con Game,” which was translated and reprinted in other ICL publications.
The reporter addressed a debate over formulations in our press that implied that the retreat in political consciousness we see today grew out of a more or less continuous process beginning in the late 1970s. For example, our Spartacist polemic against “anti-globalization” ideologues Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri stated: “Hardt and Negri are representative of what we have described as a profound retrogression in political consciousness—especially pronounced among the leftist intelligentsia—which prepared and was in turn deepened by the final overturn of the October Revolution and imperialist triumphalism over the supposed ‘death of communism’” (“The Senile Dementia of Post-Marxism,” Spartacist No. 59, Spring 2006). Running counter to the thrust of the article itself, this statement greatly underplays the impact of the counterrevolution. The article compounded the problem by favorably quoting an argument against post-modernist idealism by British historian Eric Hobsbawm:
“Most intellectuals who became Marxists from the 1880s on, including historians, did so because they wanted to change the world in association with the labour and socialist movements. The motivation remained strong until the 1970s, before a massive political and ideological reaction against Marxism began. Its main effect has been to destroy the belief that the success of a particular way of organising human societies can be predicted and assisted by historic analysis.”
—Guardian (London), 15 January 2005
There was indeed a shift to the right beginning in the 1970s, one manifestation of which was the advent of Eurocommunism, a rejection of even nominal allegiance to the Soviet Union by some Communist parties in West Europe. The Spartacist article failed to point out that Hobsbawm himself supported the Eurocommunists around the journal Marxism Today in Britain, which alibied then Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock’s strikebreaking against the 1984-85 British miners strike. But such ideological shifts in the late 1970s were quantitative and could have been reversed if, for example, the British miners had been victorious in their bitter year-long strike or, obviously in a more profound way, if we had succeeded in leading a political revolution in the DDR. The end of the Soviet Union had massively greater consequences. As a comrade argued: “The reversal of October turned quantity into quality, not just on the ideological but on the material, military and political terrain as well.” Comrade Blumenfeld noted, by way of example, “The Soviet Union was really the powerhouse, economically speaking, in East Europe, but it also made it possible for a Cuban workers state to come into being and to exist. Now that is not the world we live in anymore.”
The conference document noted that prior to the 1991-92 Soviet counterrevolution, the other historic nodal point after the October Revolution was the failure of the 1923 German Revolution. This “marked the end of the post-WWI revolutionary wave and signified a temporary stabilization of the capitalist order. This signified the isolation of the besieged and economically impoverished Soviet workers state for the next period and led the Soviet workers to despair over the prospects of international proletarian revolution, ushering in the rise of the Stalinist bureaucratic caste, whose policies deeply undermined the consciousness of the proletariat over the following decades. By the mid 1930s [when the Comintern openly embraced the popular front], the Stalinist parties internationally were reformist props of the bourgeois order. This was qualitatively more significant than the Eurocommunism phenomenon of the 1970s.” It bears repeating, however, that the current reactionary period is uneven and will not last forever; the workings of capitalism continually give rise to class and other social struggle and will lead to new revolutionary upsurges.
The 1960s and early ’70s had seen several proletarian revolutionary upheavals—notably the May ’68 general strike in France—and an international radicalization, especially among petty-bourgeois student youth, out of which most of the left grew enormously. This dissipated rapidly with the end of the Vietnam War, which was followed by Washington’s drive under Democrat Jimmy Carter for “human rights” rearmament against the Soviet Union. Over the next period, huge numbers of once-radical “children of ’68” became anti-Communist social democrats who actively promoted capitalist counterrevolution in the USSR and East Europe. In the ’60s and early ’70s the pseudo-Trotskyist USec, then led by Ernest Mandel, argued impressionistically that the march to socialism was irreversible, portraying “red universities” as revolutionary bastions while discovering multiple “new mass vanguards” to replace the need for a Leninist-Trotskyist party. Today the USec et al. are abject reformists who act as though capitalism is irreversible.
The conference document cited a 2000 Spartacist League/U.S. document, produced to accompany the SL/U.S. programmatic statement, which succinctly described our current left-wing competitors as “Opponents of the Revolutionary Internationalist Workers Movement” and noted:
“All of our party’s activity is directed to organizing, training and steeling the proletarian vanguard party necessary for the seizure of state power. In contrast, the politics of the reformists and centrists consist of oppositional activity completely defined by the framework of bourgeois society. The latter was sharply characterized by Trotsky as ‘the actual training of the masses to become imbued with the inviolability of the bourgeois state.’ Such accommodation to capitalist class rule by organizations nominally claiming adherence to Marxism is, if anything, more decisively pronounced today in a world defined by the final undoing of the Russian Revolution and the triumphal assertion by the imperialist rulers that ‘communism is dead’.”
—Spartacist pamphlet, For Socialist Revolution in the Bastion of World Imperialism! (November 2000)
The predominant consciousness among today’s political activists—spanning the so-called left and the anti-globalization milieu—is bourgeois-liberal ideology. But the clear implications of this understanding for our opponents work were not followed consistently and were sometimes disregarded. In particular, conference delegates re-examined our work around the anarchoid youth milieus that grew substantially starting in the late 1990s. We correctly projected that anarchist tendencies would experience a recrudescence in the post-Soviet period, given the pervasiveness of “death of communism” ideology. But we ended up investing these radical liberals with a leftist character they do not have, falling into a pattern of opportunist conciliation. This came out most sharply in our propaganda around the protests against the 2001 Group of 8 imperialist summit in Genoa. Unlike most of our fake-Trotskyist opponents, we defended the militant Black Bloc anarchists against vicious state persecution. But, in the course of this elementary defense of militants under state attack, we prettified their politics.
We wrote of “a clear left-right division—written in blood— within the ‘anti-globalization’ movement. That division is not primarily over protest tactics, or ‘violence’ versus ‘nonviolence.’ Rather, at root what is at issue is the question of the ‘democratic’ legitimacy of the existing parliamentary capitalist government. On that question, we stand with the anarchists against the left social democrats, including those who occasionally masquerade as Marxists or Trotskyists” (Workers Vanguard No. 762, 3 August 2001). The assertion that modern-day anarchists reject the legitimacy of the bourgeois order is an invented reality. In the U.S., for example, most self-described anarchists join the “Anybody but Bush” crowd in voting for the Democrats or the bourgeois Greens in elections.
The political signature of today’s anarchists is pure anti-Communism: they all hailed triumphant counterrevolution in the Soviet Union and East Europe. The conference took note that our 2001 pamphlet Marxism vs. Anarchism, an otherwise excellent historical exposition, failed to deal substantially with the October Revolution, or with the anarchist hue and cry over the necessary crushing by the Bolsheviks of the 1921 Kronstadt mutiny and the counterrevolutionary Makhno movement. (For more on this question, see “Kronstadt 1921: Bolshevism vs. Counterrevolution,” Spartacist No. 59, Spring 2006.) The living experience of the Russian Revolution won the best of the anarchists and revolutionary syndicalists in Russia and elsewhere to the Bolsheviks’ side. In sharp contrast, a multitude of muddle-headed liberal anarchists chose to bloc with the monarchists, imperialists and other unsavory forces against the Revolution. Our propaganda needed to explicitly distinguish between today’s passionately anti-Communist anarchists and the anarcho-syndicalists who solidarized with the Russian Revolution.
We must guard against any tendency to embellish bourgeois democracy, as our opponents do routinely. Buying into the lie that communism is the embodiment of totalitarian brutality, they appeal to the rapacious, blood-drenched imperialist rulers to conform to a bogus ideal of bourgeois democracy. An example in this regard is the widespread use by liberals and leftists of the term “gulag” to describe what they see as “excesses” of capitalist state repression and torture. This term—referring to Soviet labor camps during the Stalin era—has long been a Cold War anti-Communist battle cry. That it found its way into an article defending victims of the U.S. “war on terror” in Workers Vanguard (No. 842, 18 February 2005) was a warning sign that we had to maintain utmost vigilance against getting inured to pervasive “death of communism” ideology. Acknowledging our error, we wrote in a polemic against the liberals and leftists for whom anti-Communism is common coin:
“The Soviet Union may be gone—but the necessity of defending the Russian Revolution is as vital as ever. The imperialists and their liberal torchbearers seek to rewrite history in order to ensure that the rule of capital is never again challenged. They would like to wipe out of the consciousness among the proletariat and the oppressed any attachment to the program or ideals of communism.”
—“U.S. Torture Machine,” Workers Vanguard No. 863, 3 February 2006
Down With Executive Offices of the Capitalist State!
Comrade Bride began his report by noting the importance of our discussion on communists running for executive office: “The fundamental point that’s posed here is the line between reform and revolution, between the reformist strategy of taking hold of and administering the bourgeois state apparatus versus the revolutionary strategy, which means smashing the existing state organs and replacing them with organs of workers rule. Communists do not join, support or take responsibility for the administration of the bourgeois state. And when you run for, as well as hold, executive office, you are legitimizing exactly that—the executive authority.”
The position that communists should under no circumstances run for executive offices of the bourgeois state is an extension of our longstanding criticism of the entry of the German Communist Party (KPD), with the support of the Comintern, into the regional governments of Saxony and Thuringia in October 1923. The KPD’s support to these bourgeois governments run by “left” Social Democrats—first from outside the government and then from within—helped to derail a revolutionary situation (see “A Trotskyist Critique of Germany 1923 and the Comintern,” Spartacist No. 56, Spring 2001). Our new line clears up a confusion in the communist movement that has been present since the CI Second Congress in 1920. The reporter noted: “We are trying to do what in the main the Third International did do, which is clean up the act of the Second International on the state; they just didn’t finish the job. Because when they had that discussion at the Second Congress, they were doing battle with the Bordigists and ultralefts, who in principle didn’t want to run for office. But no distinction there was made between running for parliament and running for executive office.”
Our earlier line, affirmed at the 2003 ICL Fourth Conference, was that Marxists could run for executive posts so long as we made clear in advance that we would not assume office if elected. Comrade Bride noted that this issue had first been raised internally in 1999, when the party was deeply disoriented, then was raised again after the 2003 conference, leading to the reopening of discussion. He commented, “I think our slowness to grapple with this has a lot to do with the state of the party and the prevailing conception, in fact, that the overriding problems were sectarianism and not Menshevism.” The subsequent fights and discussions to reorient the ICL have greatly strengthened our ability to address such questions, drawing crucial lessons from the history of the workers movement to apply to our work.
The executive office question was a major subject of debate in the buildup to our Fifth Conference, with many contributions by comrades at pre-conference meetings and in internal bulletins. A number of research documents were produced, examining a variety of historical situations, among them the ministerialism (holding positions in bourgeois governments) of the Second International; the electoral work of the Bolshevik Party and its attitude toward bourgeois municipal administrations during the period of dual power in 1917; the work of the Bulgarian Narrow Socialists in the years before and after the Russian Revolution; and of early Communist parties in France, Mexico and elsewhere. Further historical research remains to be done, with an eye to publishing more extensive propaganda on this critical question in the future.
Our change of line remained controversial up to the eve of the conference. Some comrades initially argued for running for president in “exceptional” circumstances as a means of gaining a broader hearing for Marxist ideas. Another comrade, pointing to the practice of early Communist parties in running local administrations, even wrote that if we won a majority in a municipal council, we should take office or risk being seen as “abstentionist.” A comrade responded sharply: “Our position is not abstention, as suggested by some, it’s opposition. Please be very clear, we’re not neutral, we’re opposed to the executive of the capitalist state.” The comrades who initially argued against changing our line eventually saw that their argumentation skirted dangerously close to reformism, and in the end the conference voted unanimously for the new position.
A recent polemic by the Internationalist Group (IG) provides a crude rehash of the worst arguments in favor of running for executive office. The IG’s article, “France Turns Hard to the Right” (Internationalist supplement, May 2007), deals with the recent French presidential elections, where the USec’s flagship group both ran a candidate and, after he was eliminated in the first round of voting, called to elect the candidate of the pro-capitalist Socialist Party. In the name of “fighting the right,” in 2002 the Mandelites even called to re-elect France’s right-wing bourgeois president, Jacques Chirac, against his opponent, the fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen. Citing our new position as summarized in an article on the French elections (Le Bolchévik No. 179, March 2007; translated in Workers Vanguard No. 890, 13 April 2007), the IG ludicrously charges that our policy of refusing to run for president or other executive office “reveals a parliamentary cretinism similar to that of the Mandelite pseudo-Trotskyists”—because we recognize a difference between parliamentary and executive positions!
The IG shows touching faith in the capitalist state and its democratic trappings. Marxists have always distinguished between executive offices like president or mayor, which by definition entail administering the bourgeois state, and legislative positions like parliamentary deputy, which communists can use as a tribune to help rally the masses against the bourgeois order. Not so the IG, which obliterates that distinction in favor of one between “democratic” and “anti-democratic” bourgeois institutions. They write: “We are also opposed to the existence of a second, supposedly higher, legislative chamber as inherently anti-democratic. Should we therefore also refuse to run candidates of the Senate?” To base participation in elections on how democratic the institutional facades of the capitalist state are is truly parliamentary cretinism. Does the IG think the lower chambers of bourgeois parliamentary republics are truly democratic institutions? If they think the French Senate is undemocratic, they should look at the Russian tsarist Duma, which the Bolsheviks effectively utilized to propagate their revolutionary program. As far as the IG is concerned, communists can run “for whatever post.” Judge? Sheriff? Indeed, if it’s OK to run for commander-in-chief of the imperialist military, why not for local sheriff?
As our conference document states: “The problem with running for executive offices is that it lends legitimacy to prevailing and reformist conceptions of the state.” When you run for such offices, workers will understand that you cannot be but aspiring to administer the capitalist state. For the IG, running candidates for president or mayor “in no way implies that they intend to occupy these positions within the framework of the bourgeois state.” After all, “In the unusual case in which a revolutionary candidate had enough influence to be elected, the party would already have begun building workers councils and other organs of a soviet character. And the party would insist that, if elected, its candidates would base themselves on such organs of workers power and not on the institutions of the bourgeois state.” With this line, the IG leaves open, and certainly does not disavow, the possibility of not only running for executive office but of taking such office in a revolutionary situation, as in the Saxon and Thuringian bourgeois governments in 1923. And what if a “revolutionary candidate” wins a municipal post like mayor in a local party stronghold in the absence of a nationwide social crisis that poses the question of proletarian power? This was the not-so-unusual case with the early Bulgarian and French Communist parties, among others, which controlled hundreds of such local administrations. The IG is mum on what its winning candidate should do in such circumstances.
The IG upholds the tradition not of Lenin but of Karl Kautsky. Amid the revolutionary upheaval that swept Germany at the end of World War I, the Kautskyites claimed to support both the workers councils and the bourgeois provisional government, the Council of People’s Representatives, which they joined in November 1918. They thus played a key role in co-opting and defeating the revolutionary upsurge. It is precisely in revolutionary times that illusions in the capitalist state are most dangerous. After Lenin laid out the Marxist perspective of the revolutionary overthrow of the bourgeois state in The State and Revolution (1917), he was furiously attacked by Social Democrats who accused him of going over to anarchism.
The IG—whose core cadre defected from our Trotskyist organization in 1996 in pursuit of their opportunist orientation toward various Stalinists, Latin American nationalists and other petty-bourgeois milieus—sees our new position as further evidence of our break with “the continuity of genuine Trotskyism.” What they mean here, without saying it, is that in 1985 we ran Marjorie Stamberg, now an IG supporter, as the Spartacist candidate for mayor of New York (see, for example, “Vote Spartacist!”, Workers Vanguard No. 390, 1 November 1985). The IG’s line that it could accept executive office in certain “unusual” cases, as we have noted elsewhere, “is not in ‘continuity’ with our earlier position of ‘run but do not serve.’ It is, rather, a rightist resolution of the contradiction inherent in that line” (“The IG and Executive Office: Sewer Centrism,” Workers Vanguard No. 895, 6 July 2007).
In a document written during our pre-conference discussion, one comrade drew a useful analogy between the past practice of Marxists running for executive office and Lenin’s pre-1917 slogan of a “revolutionary democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and peasantry” (RDDPP) for tsarist Russia. Noting that “some policies can serve revolutionaries for a long time before they are ultimately revealed in the development of the class struggle to be unfit,” the document continued:
“Lenin had not been a class traitor when he wielded that defective slogan against the Mensheviks and Liberals. And nor had Trotsky, Cannon, or we ourselves, crossed the class line in seeking to oppose Menshevism with a latently defective policy.
“But after the successful 1917 Revolution and the strangled 1927 Chinese Revolution, the earlier ‘latent’ defect of Lenin’s RDDPP formula took on an overt, conscious and redirected character. To uphold it then against Trotsky’s program of permanent revolution was a betrayal. And the same can be said of clinging to a past practice inherited from our predecessors that had not yet had its built-in defect revealed. We had the responsibility, and now we have the benefit, of learning from the disastrous consequences of the German (and Bulgarian) failures of 1923. To deny the connection between the Comintern’s unfinished break from social-democratic ministerialism evident in Bulgaria and Germany 1923, and the ECCI’s [Executive Committee of the Communist International’s] simultaneous promotion of campaigns for executive office, is to be willfully blind.”
Or, in the IG’s case, willfully confusionist and centrist.
Historically speaking, the idea that communists should campaign for administrative positions in the state of the ruling class they want to overthrow is grotesque. The fact that this is defended in the workers movement today is a measure of the success of democratic duplicity, directly reflecting the political strength of the capitalist order. History is littered with examples of self-professed Marxists who have gone over to directly administering the capitalist state against workers and the oppressed. An example is the British Labourite Militant Tendency (now Socialist Party), which was the employer of over 30,000 Liverpool municipal workers when it controlled the local council there in the mid 1980s. At one point, these “socialist” bosses actually threatened to lay off the entire city workforce, claiming this was a “tactic” to deal with a budget crunch imposed by the central (Tory) government. More recently, a leader of the Brazilian USec group accepted a portfolio as minister of agriculture in the bourgeois Lula government, thus taking direct responsibility for evicting militant activists of the Landless Peasants Movement.
During our discussion on executive office, one comrade noted a crucial distinction between capitalism and previous class societies like feudalism. Those societies were marked by clear class and caste relationships that defined one’s place in the social order. Capitalism disguises the nature of its class exploitation behind concepts like “the market,” “supply and demand” and, especially in the more advanced industrial world, the trappings of “democracy” that supposedly afford equal rights and opportunities to exploiters and exploited alike. Our task as communists is to tear off this mask and expose the reality of a brutal social system that is nothing other than the dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.
Lessons of the DDR, 198990
The conference agenda point devoted to reviewing our intervention into the incipient political revolution in East Germany in 1989-90 was a part of our efforts toward a fuller evaluation of this largest and most sustained intervention in the history of our tendency. The two reporters were comrade F. Zahl, a senior leader of the ICL’s German section, the Spartakist Workers Party (SpAD), and R. Henry of the outgoing I.S. Referring to the revolution in Spain in the 1930s, comrade Henry cited a 1931 passage by Trotsky that countered the defeatist view that victory is impossible absent a pre-existing mass party: “The advantage of a revolutionary situation consists precisely in the fact that even a small group can become a great force in a brief space of time, provided that it gives a correct prognosis and raises the correct slogans in time” (“The Character of the Revolution,” June 1931, in Trotsky, The Spanish Revolution ). She added: “What I want to say here is that we were that organization. We had the correct program for intervening into the DDR.”
We unconditionally opposed capitalist reunification with imperialist West Germany and called for proletarian political revolution in the East and socialist revolution in the West, as the road to a red soviet Germany in a Socialist United States of Europe. The power of our program was particularly evident in the 250,000-strong demonstration on 3 January 1990 against the fascist desecration of a monument in East Berlin’s Treptow Park honoring the Soviet soldiers who died liberating Germany from the Nazi scourge in 1945. We initiated the call for that mobilization, which was then taken up by the ruling Stalinist SED/PDS (Socialist Unity Party/Party of Democratic Socialism) because it feared how much our program resonated among East Berlin workers and felt compelled to mobilize its base. As the main document of our Second International Conference in 1992 asserted:
“As Treptow later showed, from the beginning we were in a political struggle with the abdicating Stalinist regime over the future of the DDR. While we were calling for a government of workers councils, the Stalinists were consciously acting to prevent a workers insurrection by demobilizing all army units that had formed soldiers councils as a result of our early propaganda. 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.”
—“For the Communism of Lenin and Trotsky!”, Spartacist No. 47-48, Winter 1992-93
This was the overriding point, notwithstanding numerous problems and difficulties in implementing our program at the time, many of which were forthrightly addressed in the 1992 document. These include the lateness in setting up local Spartakist Gruppen (Spartacist Groups) as transitional organizations for all the many political activists throughout the DDR who identified with our program and wanted to distribute Arbeiterpressekorrespondenz (Arprekorr—Workers Press Correspondence), our Trotskyist paper published almost daily during December 1989 and continuing once or twice a week through early April 1990.
We stand on the 1992 assessment and seek to deepen our understanding of those events in light of the histories and memoirs that have been published since then. To this end, we put out six new internal bulletins on the DDR intervention before the conference. One of these was a compilation, in English, of all 30 issues of Arprekorr. Other bulletins contained eight research papers produced by comrades, based on our own documentary record of the period and newly published materials, on subjects such as: developments in the abdicating Stalinist SED/PDS; our political work in various factories; efforts directed to Soviet and NVA (East German army) soldiers; and the crucial March 1990 election campaign in which we ran the only slate of candidates unambiguously opposed to capitalist reunification. One topic of discussion was the underestimation in our work on the ground of the importance of the factory militias (Betriebskampfgruppen), which could have been the military/political locus for a proletarian political revolution. In light of the discussion at the conference, several additional research papers were commissioned.
Not surprisingly, comrades have shown some unevenness regarding an appreciation of our impact in the DDR; this discussion is very much a work in progress, with a number of questions still to be resolved. Our aim is to deepen the understanding of our own comrades of the 1989-90 events, and also to produce propaganda for a future issue of Spartacist. In motivating the review, the conference document noted:
“The ICL’s struggle in Germany for workers political revolution and for revolutionary reunification of Germany was a direct challenge and the only challenge to the sellout of the DDR to West German imperialism by the Moscow and East Berlin Stalinists. But communists, who seek to learn from history—not least of all their own—should understand that that means being able to critically assess the strengths and weaknesses of how we intervened as revolutionaries.”
And the Fight for Political Revolution in China
That assessing our intervention in the DDR is not simply a matter of historical interest but of direct relevance to our tasks now and in the future was made vividly clear by a sharp dispute during the discussion on the main conference reports earlier in the agenda. Much of the first round of that discussion focused on differences raised by one comrade regarding our program for unconditional military defense and proletarian political revolution in China. He had first raised his differences over a year ago, provoking considerable written discussion. Shortly before the conference, he submitted a second document linking his views on China to his appraisal of the lessons of the defeats in the DDR and the Soviet Union. Though not a delegate to the conference, the comrade was granted presentation time by the body to defend his views in order to allow for the greatest possible clarity on the issues under dispute. At the end of the discussion, he stated that he was reconsidering his views in light of the arguments.
In his document, the comrade cited a statement we had made in our article, “How the Soviet Workers State Was Strangled” (Workers Vanguard No. 564, 27 November 1992), which indicted the Stalinist bureaucracy for poisoning the consciousness of the Soviet proletariat with lies, bureaucratism and nationalism. In the article, we observed that the Soviet working class didn’t rally to defend the workers state because of its atomization in a political sense, reflected in the absence of an anti-capitalist leadership, and its lack of coherent and consistent socialist class consciousness, including profound skepticism about the possibility of revolutionary struggle in the advanced capitalist countries. The comrade seized on this observation to argue that the working class in China today, as earlier in the DDR and the Soviet Union, lacks any understanding of the need to defend the social gains embodied in the workers state. From there, he argued that since the workers lacked such consciousness, the Stalinist bureaucracy remained the only conscious force defending the workers state, if only in order to defend its own power and privileges. By this logic the call for proletarian political revolution would become a call to overthrow the only remaining conscious factor defending the workers state!
Trotsky noted in the 1930s that the Stalinist bureaucracy—a parasitic caste resting on the collectivized property forms—no longer defended the USSR out of subjective identification with socialism but only insofar as it feared the proletariat. In the end, far from defending the collectivized property, the Stalinists gave away the workers states. The Stalinist bureaucracy in the DDR disintegrated in the face of a political revolution. The East German Stalinists went along with the Soviet bureaucracy under Mikhail Gorbachev when it gave a green light to the DDR’s annexation by West Germany.
In a somewhat confused manner, the comrade also asserted that, based on our experience in the DDR and the Soviet Union, our call for unconditional military defense of the Chinese workers state, however bureaucratically deformed, would not apply during a political revolution. He added that a political revolution would destroy that state, arguing that “at bottom what we defend is not the ‘Special Bodies of Armed Men, etc.,’ but the social structure of those societies,” in other words, the collectivized property. This poses a false distinction between the armed bodies of men that defend the workers state and the collectivized property forms on which that state is based. At bottom, this argument dismisses the central importance of the proletarian conquest of state power, i.e., the need for the working class to establish its own class dictatorship. Moreover, it contradicts our own experience in the DDR, where our propaganda had a huge impact on East German and Soviet soldiers, many of whom were very conscious of being the front line of defense of the workers states, facing the NATO troops across the border in West Germany.
In his report on the conference document, comrade Bride recalled Lenin’s insistence that “politics is concentrated economics,” meaning economic questions are subordinated to political ones. He said: “The political question is: what class rules, which means whose state is it, and not how much property is in the hands of the government at any given time.” The October 1917 Revolution created a workers state, but the bourgeoisie was not expropriated at the economic level until later. As Trotsky put it, “The victory of one class over another signifies that it will reconstruct the economy in the interests of the victors” (“Not a Workers’ and Not a Bourgeois State?”, November 1937).
Refuting the notion that the DDR proletariat lacked sufficient consciousness to act in defense of its workers state, comrades pointed to the massive turnout for the pro-Soviet Treptow rally, to the enormous resonance our propaganda had among thousands upon thousands of workers and youth, to the emergence of soldiers councils in various NVA units under the impact of our slogans. And unlike in the DDR, workers in China already have a pretty good idea of what their future capitalist masters will look like should there be a social counterrevolution. China has witnessed huge and convulsive strikes and protests in recent years, as workers, peasants and others fight to defend themselves against the ravages and inequalities produced by the inroads of the capitalist market. “Consciousness” is not something static and permanent. The question of proletarian consciousness cannot be separated from the question of a Leninist-Trotskyist workers party, which is the most conscious expression of the socialist aspirations of the working class. Our program is the basis for breaking the proletariat from the Stalinist dogma of “socialism in one country” and winning it to revolutionary-internationalist consciousness.
This fight graphically confirmed the programmatic danger of looking at events in the DDR through the prism of determinism in hindsight: that because we were defeated, defeat was the only possible outcome. As comrade Bride pointed out, to accept the notion that workers in the Soviet bloc could not achieve the consciousness necessary to defend the workers states is to imbibe the falsehoods manufactured by anti-Communist ideologues like Hannah Arendt in the 1950s that workers in the Soviet bloc were simply victims of Stalinist “totalitarianism,” which reduced them to mindless, soulless slaves forever incapable of struggle. This is essentially the view of the so-called Bolshevik Tendency, which argued in 1990 that there never really was any possibility of a proletarian political revolution in the DDR. In his summary, comrade Bride cited Trotsky’s comment in The Lessons of October (1924) that if the Bolsheviks had failed to lead the working class to power in 1917 there would have been reams written about how it had been impossible for the Russian workers to take power in any case. As we wrote in our conference document:
“We threw our small revolutionary forces into a struggle for power. We were defeated, but we fought. What is crucial is to learn to apply the lessons to future struggles.”
As the section of the Fifth Conference document dealing with China (see “China and the Russian Question,” page 22) indicates, the dispute at this conference was only one of a number of internal fights and discussions on that question in recent years. Only through such internal struggle and constant re-examination of the empirical situation can we clarify and refine our understanding of the deeply contradictory situation in the Chinese deformed workers state today. Many of these fights have centered on a tendency to telescope developments in China, falsely seeing the “market reforms” introduced by the Beijing bureaucracy as leading imminently to capitalist restoration. Such a view buys into the outlook of our reformist opponents, who have largely written off China as already capitalist in order to justify their refusal to call for its unconditional military defense against imperialist attack and internal counterrevolution.
Already in June 2000, we acknowledged in an I.S. motion that a proclivity to premise our conclusions exclusively on the actions and intentions of the bureaucracy “relegates the proletariat in China to the role of being merely the passive object of either the Stalinist bureaucracy or the imperialist bourgeoisie, not a force capable of its own independent action.” The market reforms have fostered and emboldened the forces of capitalist counterrevolution, but they have also helped produce significant economic growth and a further development of the industrial proletariat, thus sharpening the contradictions in China. While a fledgling capitalist class exists on the mainland, it is not a politically conscious class with its own political party or the equivalent. Sooner or later, the explosive social tensions will shatter the political structure of the ruling bureaucratic caste. Then the choice will be starkly posed: capitalist restoration or a proletarian political revolution under the leadership of a Leninist-Trotskyist party, section of a reforged Fourth International.
Mexico and the Fight Against Bourgeois Populism
While the current period is reactionary, this by no means forecloses opportunities for intervention in social struggle. We are not sealed off from a potential audience through repression or intense anti-communism, and in every country where we have sections defensive struggles have created openings for our communist propaganda and, on occasion, exemplary actions. Indeed, an important part of being a fighting propaganda group is to scan for such opportunities. The conference document cited the mobilization of forces internationally to assist our French section during the mass student-centered protests in 2006 against government attempts to further erode the rights of young workers. More generally, the document stressed the need for sections to revive and reinforce party youth fractions with the task of carrying out consistent campus work.
The conference document noted how Mexico in particular has been extremely volatile over the last several years. A special commission involving delegates from the Grupo Espartaquista de México (GEM) and other knowledgeable comrades was convened to discuss our intervention there. This discussion was then brought into the conference as a whole.
The mass protests against a sharp rise in the price of food followed other struggles against the hardships created by U.S. imperialism and the domestic bourgeoisie. There is considerable ferment in the rural south, shown dramatically in the months-long occupation of Oaxaca by striking teachers, peasants and students. There have been important workers struggles, and PRD candidate López Obrador’s loss in the presidential elections last year saw huge protests by his supporters against vote-rigging by the ruling right-wing party. As one delegate noted, the policies of the Bush administration and the Mexican regime have had the effect of welding together in struggle the proletariat, the urban poor and peasantry. All proportions guarded, there has been a certain radicalization in Mexico, dating back with ebbs and flows to the 1999 student strike at Mexico City’s UNAM university.
However, the perceived radical wing of recent struggles has been petty-bourgeois nationalist populists such as the Zapatistas and the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca (APPO), who are in turn tailed by most Mexican left groups. As the conference document stated, “The main thrust of left-populism is to liquidate the strategic centrality of the working class, dissolving the proletariat into the ‘people’—in order to subordinate it to the bourgeoisie.” A leaflet issued by the GEM shortly before the ICL conference elaborated:
“Populists confine their program to democratic reforms within a capitalist and narrow nationalist framework. Regardless of their militancy and intentions, the ‘radical’ populists such as the EZLN [Zapatistas] and the APPO end up orbiting around the PRD and trying to put pressure on it.”
—“For Labor Mobilizations Against Starvation Policies, Repression!”, Workers Vanguard No. 891, 27 April 2007
In turn, organizations like the IG or the Morenoite LTS orbit around the “radical” petty-bourgeois forces pulled in by the PRD. The conference document noted that the GEM’s recent polemics against the Zapatistas are “a de facto correction to the overestimation of consciousness of the Zapatista movement that we published in 1994 in Spartacist [No. 49-50, Winter 1993-94], where the article “Rumblings in the ‘New World Disorder’” glorifies the Zapatista struggle as a refutation of the bourgeoisie’s ‘death of communism’ lie, without addressing that the Zapatistas consciously reject a program for proletarian revolution.”
In contrast to the reformists who tail the bourgeois populism that is currently resurgent in much of Latin America, the ICL fights for the Trotskyist perspective of permanent revolution. As Trotsky stated in a 1938 discussion: “The working class of Mexico participates, cannot help but participate, in the movement, in the struggle for the independence of the country, for the democratization of the agrarian relations and so on
. It is necessary to lead, to guide the workers—issuing from the democratic tasks to the taking of power” (“Latin American Problems: A Transcript,” November 1938). This perspective is necessarily linked to the fight for proletarian revolution in the U.S. and other imperialist centers, the only ultimate guarantee of socialist advance. The conference voted to produce an article on Trotsky’s development of the theory of permanent revolution to assist the GEM in addressing young activists in Mexico today.
Fighting Protectionist and Anti-Immigrant Chauvinism
Several controversial or otherwise important questions facing our organization were first thrashed out at a number of special commissions convened by the conference before being presented to the body as a whole. One commission discussed the status and struggles of women workers in China with the aim of informing future propaganda. Another examined the ICL’s work in Poland and recent disputes leading up to the decision to reconstitute a Polish section of the ICL (see “Spartacist Group of Poland Refounded,” page 2). A third, dealing with class-struggle defense work, focused on international efforts to mobilize a proletarian axis in the fight to free Mumia Abu-Jamal. Another dealt with the work of our trade-union supporters in the various sections. A meeting of members of the Editorial Boards of the quadrilingual Spartacists discussed plans for future issues.
The most controversial of these was the Trade Union Commission, which took up a lively pre-conference discussion on harbor union-busting schemes in Europe. As part of a “port package” intended to attack the dockers unions in Europe, the harbor bosses proposed to use predominantly foreign seamen to load and unload ships (“self-handling”). The Hamburg dockers union opposed this measure from the standpoint of chauvinist protectionism, raising the job-trusting slogan, “Harbor work for harbor workers.”
The line of the labor bureaucracy found an echo in the ICL, as shown by a January 2006 leaflet of the ICL’s German section, the SpAD, which had been written in collaboration with comrades in our international center. The leaflet had two counterposed positions. Against the union bureaucracy’s attempt to exclude and segregate the foreign seamen, it correctly demanded that work done loading and unloading ships, no matter by whom, should be paid at Hamburg Harbor union wages, opening up a perspective of international collaboration between German dockers and foreign seamen. At the same time, the leaflet asserted that “self-handling means destruction of the harbor workers unions and even worse working conditions for seamen,” meaning that harbor work should not be done by seamen! The SpAD national conference in August 2006 had voted to correct this adaptation to the chauvinist protectionism of the reformist labor bureaucracy, but the question was not fully resolved until the discussions around the international conference.
The slogan “Harbor work for harbor workers” is nationalist and protectionist, not just potentially so, as was previously stated in our propaganda. In context, it means: “German work for German workers.” As one speaker at the conference remarked, an internationalist perspective starts from the standpoint of reaching out to the heavily Filipino seamen with our revolutionary program and seeking to unite them with their German class brothers and sisters in struggle against the capitalists. The conference document reaffirmed our opposition to protectionism in imperialist countries: “For the bourgeoisie, protectionism and ‘free trade’ are options that it can debate. For the proletariat to choose protectionism is to reject the program of internationalism, i.e., to renounce revolution. The solution to the crises produced by capitalism can only be an international socialist planned economy.”
The adaptation to protectionism over the Hamburg “port package” was another expression of the increased pressures of bourgeois liberalism, as refracted through the prism of labor reformism. Capitalist restoration in East Europe and intensified imperialist exploitation of the semicolonial world have precipitated new waves of immigration to the metropolitan centers of the West. Sections of the bourgeoisie and the social-democratic and trade-union bureaucracies promote economic nationalism as a means of channeling discontent over unemployment and declining living standards into hostility toward foreign workers and immigrants. In Germany, a prime exponent of protectionist poison has been Oskar Lafontaine, leader of the left social-democratic Electoral Alternative for Work and Social Justice (WASG), which has now fused with the ex-Stalinist, social-democratic PDS to form Die Linke (The Left, also known as Left Party). Both the WASG and its successor party have been embraced by much of the fake-Trotskyist left.
We fight instead for an internationalist vanguard party to act as a “tribune of the people,” championing the defense of immigrants and ethnic and national minorities. Our call for full citizenship rights for all immigrants is critical for defending the integrity of the working class, undercutting the ability of the capitalists to subject the more vulnerable layers of the population to superexploitation and serving as a measure in defense of all working people. But much of the minority populations in West Europe are not immigrants, but the children and grandchildren of immigrant workers who were brought in to fill the labor shortages resulting from the devastation of World War II. Today these youth bear the brunt of joblessness and racist police repression. Thus, addressing oppression of ethnic minorities is not simply a matter of fighting for democratic rights but a struggle for economic survival based on the Transitional Program—e.g., organize the unorganized, for decent jobs for all through a sliding scale of hours and wages—which poses a struggle against the capitalist system itself.
The alternative to this revolutionary perspective is a form of vicarious reformism that seeks to somehow reapportion the misery capitalist exploitation inflicts on those at the bottom of society. This is reflected in the debate in the U.S. labor movement over whether immigrant workers drive down the wages of other low-paid and specially oppressed sectors of the working class, particularly black people. The main conference document noted: “From our vantage point the question of immigrant rights is a political not an economic question. Our demands are negative, encapsulated in the demand for full citizenship rights for anyone who has made it into this country, in opposition to the policies of the bourgeois state. We do not have a positive program. That is, we do not advocate a different set of immigration policies under capitalism
. We will worry about the ebbs and flows of the world economy when we run it.” The document reaffirmed “the progressive role that foreign workers play in breaking the labor movement out of its national insularity.”
Campaigning to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal
Discussion at the Legal/Defense Commission centered on the urgent need to redouble our international efforts to win freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal, whose case is now ominously on a judicial “fast track.” A supporter of the MOVE organization, Mumia was a Black Panther Party spokesman in his youth and went on to become an eloquent journalist who speaks out powerfully on behalf of the oppressed. He was framed up by the racist American “justice” system for the December 1981 killing of a Philadelphia policeman. The U.S. rulers are determined to kill Mumia or bury him alive in prison forever as a way to send a message of intimidation to anyone who would dare defy their system.
We fight for a class-struggle defense strategy, seeking to mobilize labor’s unique social power and to bring to workers the understanding that Mumia’s fight is their fight, which has to be a fight against the capitalist state. Comrades stressed that key to mobilizing the mass labor-centered protest movement needed to win that fight is combatting the efforts of the bourgeois liberals and reformist leftists who promote illusions in the capitalist courts. These types subordinate the fight for Mumia’s freedom to the demand for a “new trial” by the same legal system that railroaded him to death row. This call is a deliberate break from the generations of past protest movements that demanded “Free Sacco and Vanzetti,” “Free the Scottsboro Boys,” “Free Angela Davis,” etc. Many of these same groups and individuals have sought to denigrate and bury a particularly powerful piece of evidence of Mumia Abu-Jamal’s innocence, the sworn testimony of Arnold Beverly that he, not Mumia, killed the Philadelphia policeman and that Mumia had nothing to do with the killing.
The liberals and reformist hangers-on look to clean up the image of America’s judicial system; thus they must paint the state vendetta against Mumia as an aberration and “miscarriage of justice.” They find the Beverly confession “incredible” because they do not want to believe what millions of people around the world have no trouble understanding: that Mumia was the victim of a concerted government frame-up. There could be no clearer example of how our reformist opponents have become overt proponents of bourgeois democracy in this period, working to block the development of anti-capitalist class consciousness that could come out of mobilizations to free Mumia. By peddling deadly illusions that the capitalist courts could bring “justice,” these forces demobilized the mass protest movement that must now be revitalized.
The need for us to politically combat the demobilizing efforts by the liberals and reformists was posed urgently from at least the late 1990s. But it took the clarifying internal struggles that followed our 2003 party crisis for us to be able to effectively take this on. The precondition for reinvigorating our campaign to free Mumia was reversing a previous denigration of defense work as somehow inherently opportunist. As the conference document noted, this “required a review of our work, going back to 1987, when we adopted Mumia’s case, at the  SL/U.S. conference. It was we and we alone who made his case an international cause that focused not just on Mumia, but on the barbarity of the racist death penalty in the U.S.” We succeeded in our efforts to galvanize much larger social forces to fight on behalf of Mumia: it is not an overstatement to say that our work, including our assistance to others who took up Mumia’s case, is responsible for prolonging his life.
At the same time, we recognized that these other forces were hostile to our communist politics and our involvement in the case. However, this understanding was then used as a rationale for withdrawal from political and polemical combat with our reformist opponents around Mumia’s case. Speaking of a number of such instances of sectarian withdrawal in the years following the destruction of the Soviet Union, a comrade noted some time ago that the party had been “retreating from a newly alien world, into our castle, hauling up our drawbridge and hiding out.” This was followed, the comrade observed, by adaptation to Menshevik opportunism, “by lowering the drawbridge, rushing outside to mingle with who we found out there, and leaving our banners in the castle.”
In politically rearming the party, our recent internal fights have enabled us to make important progress in the campaign to free Mumia. The Partisan Defense Committee and other fraternal defense organizations associated with ICL sections have initiated “Free Mumia” rallies in the U.S., Canada, Britain, Germany and other countries, featuring a wide array of speakers from the labor movement and elsewhere. Pamphlets have been produced in English, French and German documenting his innocence and the years-long fight for his freedom, including polemics against our opponents’ reliance on the bourgeois state; brochures on Mumia’s case have been distributed in a wide range of languages. The PDC and the other fraternal defense organizations have obtained many hundreds of signatories, especially from the labor movement, to a PDC-initiated statement, “We Demand the Immediate Freedom of Mumia Abu-Jamal, an Innocent Man,” which cites the Beverly confession and has been published in ads in black and liberal publications in a number of countries. Mass labor organizations such as the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the Scottish Trades Union Congress have adopted resolutions championing Mumia’s innocence and demanding that he be freed.
We have organized public meetings explaining how the fight to free Mumia is part of our struggle for black liberation through socialist revolution in the U.S. Mumia’s case is a microcosm of capitalist class rule and the black oppression that is intrinsic to it. In the U.S., the barbaric death penalty is the legacy of chattel slavery, the lynch rope made legal. Mumia was framed up and sentenced to death because of his history as a fighter against racist and capitalist injustice, going back to his teenage days as a member of the Black Panther Party.
The Panthers attracted the best of a generation of young black militants who recoiled at the crawling conciliationism of the mainstream pro-Democratic Party civil rights leaders. But the Panthers’ black nationalism, which despaired of the possibility of integrated class struggle against racist American capitalism, was no less a dead end than the liberal-integrationist pipe dream that black people can achieve social equality within the confines of American capitalist society.
Black people in the U.S. are not a nation. They are an oppressed race-color caste: from the earliest days of the slave system, they have been an integral part of American class society while segregated at the bottom. The road to black freedom lies in the struggle for revolutionary integrationism—the full integration of black people into an egalitarian, socialist America. Forty years after the civil rights movement, black people in the U.S. face mass incarceration and immiseration, worsening health care and increasingly segregated schools. But black workers remain a key component of the multiracial U.S. proletariat. The fight for black freedom is the strategic question of the American proletarian revolution. There can be no socialist revolution in the U.S. unless the proletariat takes up the fight for black freedom—opposing every manifestation of racist repression and discrimination—and there can be no liberation of black people short of the overthrow of this racist capitalist system.
The conference document noted that our fight to free Mumia “has provided the rare instance where our intervention can change the course of events in a matter of great concern to masses of people.” Discussion at the conference emphasized that much more is needed in the fight to win Mumia’s freedom. Our central task in the course of this work is to draw the political lessons—from the nature of the capitalist state to the black question in the U.S.—and win workers, minorities and youth to a perspective of class-struggle defense and the broader program of fighting for socialist revolution to sweep away the capitalist system of injustice and repression.
The Struggle for Revolutionary Continuity
The refounding of a Polish section of the ICL was a highlight of the conference. The section was dissolved in 2001, and a correction of false positions taken by the international leadership around that time was crucial to reforging the group. Most important was clarifying the evolved role of Solidarność following the restoration of capitalism in Poland as both a right-wing political organization and a trade union that has led economic struggles. A further important discussion in consolidating the group was on the Trotskyist position on World War II—revolutionary defeatism toward the imperialist combatants, and by extension toward allied Poland, combined with unconditional military defense of the USSR. The refounding of our Polish group gives us a crucial, if slender, toehold in East Europe.
The conference affirmed the centrality of defending our Marxist programmatic integrity—through external intervention and polemical engagement, internal political struggle and clarification and, not least, systematic cadre education to instill and critically review the lessons of historical experience. The main document noted: “Given the nature and difficulties of the period, we cannot anticipate substantial growth right now. The ICL is stretched very thin.” Nonetheless, it is important to maintain our geographical spread, since it is not possible to know where outbreaks of class struggle will occur. This underlines the need to establish and stick to priorities. Crucial in this regard is maintaining the biweekly Workers Vanguard, newspaper of the Spartacist League/U.S., which serves an important role in politically cohering the entire ICL.
A Nominating Commission was established to consider proposals by the outgoing leadership and by the delegates for a new IEC, which is charged with leading the ICL until our next conference. Unlike the 2003 conference, when the party crisis led to significant changes in IEC composition, the IEC elected at this gathering saw much more continuity, reflecting the progress made in reconstructing the party and its leadership. The new IEC, elected by secret ballot following discussion in the final conference session, does contain a layer of younger comrades from sections throughout the ICL.
Since the last ICL conference, we have made progress in recognizing and fighting against the pressures to adapt to liberal-bourgeois consciousness, and in applying the norms of democratic centralism to our internal deliberations. Nonetheless, as the main document soberly noted, “We need to do a lot better when it comes to instilling a sense of purpose that our small forces through the power of our program have an impact on social struggles, and that we are the only ones with a program for abolishing capitalism, the source of exploitation, imperialist wars, racist discrimination and women’s oppression.” We spent several decades searching for co-thinkers among ostensible Trotskyist groupings from France to Sri Lanka, Greece and other countries. But at the end of this we realized that we are in substance the only Trotskyist organization in the world.
We won many revolutionary-minded cadre from in or around various centrist and reformist groups internationally, allowing our tendency to break out from national isolation in the U.S., first to Australia and Europe and then to Japan, South Africa, Mexico and elsewhere. Such international extension was and remains absolutely critical in enabling the ICL to survive politically against the deforming pressures that weigh down on any nationally limited political organization. Today the ICL has an international cadre, including younger layers who have come forward in the process of the party’s reconstruction. The challenge is to pass on to those who will lead our party in the future the accumulated programmatic experience of earlier party generations. This includes education in the Marxist classics and the study of our own history, and also continuing struggle to hone and further develop our Marxist program in this period of post-Soviet reaction. In this, as in all the work of the ICL, our aim is nothing less than the reforging of an authentically Trotskyist Fourth International to lead the proletariat in sweeping away capitalist barbarism through new October Revolutions around the world.
In “Maintaining a Revolutionary Program in the Post-Soviet Period” in Spartacist No. 60 (Autumn 2007), we observed that “France has also seen combative mobilizations by students and by oppressed minority youth of North African origin” (p. 7). It would have been more accurate to refer to “minority youth of North and West African origin.” On page 15, again referring to France, we should have noted that the “student-centered protests in 2006 against government attempts to further erode the rights of young workers” rapidly expanded to include mass workers demonstrations and strikes. On page 16, we incorrectly referred to an article published in Workers Vanguard No. 891 (27 April 2007) under the headline “Mexico: For Labor Mobilizations Against Starvation Policies, Repression!” as a leaflet issued by the Grupo Espartaquista de México. The piece in WV was translated not from a leaflet but from the GEM’s newspaper Espartaco No. 27 (Spring 2007). (From Spartacist [English edition] No. 61, Spring 2009.)
Following the Fifth ICL Conference in 2007, there was further discussion and reconsideration of our appraisal at the conference that, as reported in the article “Maintaining a Revolutionary Program in the Post-Soviet Period” in Spartacist No. 60 (Autumn 2007), Mexico had witnessed “a huge plebeian upheaval against increases in the price of basic foods.” There were indeed massive protests and bitterly fought strikes in Mexico in the year leading into the ICL Conference. But as a subsequent plenum of the International Executive Committee noted, the description of the response to the price increases was “an impressionistic exaggeration of political motion in Mexico.” In fact, there was only one significant demonstration against increases in the price of tortillas, and the situation was defused. (From Spartacist [English edition] No. 61, Spring 2009.)