SL/U.S. National Conference: Return to Road of Lenin and Trotsky!
In this period of growing turmoil, many have been driven to action, but despite their efforts, everything just keeps getting worse. After nearly a decade of BLM protests, not a damn thing has changed for black people, with the vicious and deadly beating of Tyre Nichols being but the latest reminder. Although millions were mobilized by the Sanders presidential campaign, health care remains a miserable joke for the masses, who lack access and coverage and are plagued by colossal costs. Access to abortion continues to evaporate despite widespread protest sparked by the overturn of Roe v. Wade, and the status of women has only declined since many were thrown out of work and forced back into the home during the COVID-19 lockdowns. Union organizing efforts at Amazon, Starbucks and elsewhere are all caught in an endless web of legal battles, and Biden spiked the rail strike with the flick of a pen. For all the anger against the Trump regime and the state of society, the only outcome of the “resistance” was the installment of yet another bourgeois overseer.
Why haven’t conditions improved, but have only worsened for black people, workers, women and youth? The heart of the matter is leadership. The current disastrous situation is the result of the bankrupt strategy of the treacherous union bureaucracy and the fake socialists. At every step, they have betrayed the aspirations of workers and the oppressed by building trans-class alliances, searching for saviors among the political representatives of the class enemy, relying on the repressive apparatus of its state and always staying within the bounds of the capitalists’ social and economic system. Any and all such alliances with liberal bourgeois forces are guaranteed to bury struggle in defeat.
Enough of these sham, dead-end solutions! There is a way forward. This seminal issue of Workers Vanguard provides the answers and the way out of this impasse. It is the product of the recent SL/U.S. conference, which crucially reaffirmed the need to provide revolutionary leadership of today’s struggles against the SL/U.S.’s previous abdication of this duty. To meet even the most basic urgent needs of workers and the oppressed, an independent class struggle must be waged in opposition to the capitalists and their state, which defends their rule. All the liberal and reformist roadblocks must be cleared, because they hamper the struggle, pull its punches, mislead, disorganize and undermine. A non-revolutionary leadership will only disarm any movement in the face of its inevitable clashes with the capitalist state. It will be taken in by the promises of the bosses’ lying politicians and hamstrung by its quest for a courteous compromise with capital. Workers need their own party, a revolutionary vanguard party leading their struggles today in a way that will further their fight for power and an end to capitalist wage slavery and oppression.
For a Communist Opposition to the Popular Front
The main conference document “The Leninist Vanguard Party vs. the Anti-Trump Pop Front” (see page 3) powerfully reasserts that only a communist leadership can advance the major struggles facing the workers and oppressed—the struggle for black liberation, the trade-union struggle, the struggle for women’s emancipation, the struggle for health care—by exposing how liberalism is a complete dead end. Years of economic ruin of the working class under Democratic Party rule paved the way for the election of the overtly reactionary Trump. Layers of white workers and the petty bourgeoisie were taken in by the right-wing populism of Trump.
The Democrats pushed at a fever pitch, and still push today, the false polarization that society is divided between “progressives” and “reactionaries.” To alibi themselves, Democrats put the blame for racism and the other ills of capitalist society on Trump and his supporters. The document shows how the Democrats used hypocritical moral outrage over real fears of Trump to win back support: “because Trump is a racist, vote for the Democrats…who preside over the wanton police murder, mass incarceration and forcible segregation of the black masses in every major city, who deported record numbers of immigrants during the Obama administration, destroyed busing and welfare, and require racial oppression for the stability of their rule.”
The Democrats’ opposition to Trump merely represented tactical disagreements with the Republicans over the most effective way to carry out the exploitation of the working class, racial oppression and imperialist plunder. Their purpose was to propel themselves back into the White House. The Democrats’ objections to Trump don’t represent the interests of the workers and oppressed, which are counterposed to the perspectives of both bourgeois parties.
Trump reaction needed to be fought. It was the duty of Marxists to counterpose a communist program of action that would set class against class. The main conference document demonstrates that a communist movement against Trump was what was necessary to break through the false polarizations, to defend the working class against Trump’s attacks and to split the popular front, which is a political bloc of the left with the bourgeoisie. It was a criminal betrayal that those who claim to be “socialists” and say they stand for “class independence” supported the liberals’ “resistance,” explicitly or implicitly. Centrist organizations like Left Voice, the Internationalist Group and the Spartacist League/U.S. (at the time) all screamed “revolution” and “break with the Democrats” in words, but in deeds sought to mobilize labor as part of the “resistance” and push movements, like BLM, which they recognized as liberal, to the left. They refused to mobilize workers and youth on a counterposed communist program, which criminally left the leadership of the masses in the hands of the liberals.
Centrist calls to “break with the Democrats” and for an “independent workers party” are entirely compatible with a pro-capitalist social-democratic program. An organizational break with the Democrats without a political break with the programs of the trade-union bureaucracy, BLM, Sanders and all the treacherous tendencies pushing a non-revolutionary program would lead the struggles of the workers and the oppressed into the same dead end. A nominally independent, social-democratic party would necessarily betray the working class because seeking to reconcile the irreconcilable interests of the exploited and the exploiters always means sacrificing the needs of the workers. The only way to chart an independent road forward for the working class is under a leadership that knows that the interests of the capitalists must be defeated and will organize all the struggles of the working class to prepare its fight to take control of the whole society.
After years of capitulating to the “anti-Trump” popular front, the SL/U.S. began to implode when it crossed the class line with the article, “For Socialized Medicine” in WV No. 1170 (21 February 2020), opening up a protracted struggle by the non-resident International Secretariat against the section’s revisionism. This article was published at the height of the Democrats’ primary battle over the best candidate to defeat Trump. Bernie Sanders and his main campaign slogan “Medicare for All” were wildly popular among many workers and youth angry at the lack of access to and the poor quality of health care. The role of “progressive” Democrats like Sanders is to prevent social explosions by pushing false promises to channel discontent back into the confines of the Democratic Party.
Instead of counterposing the struggle for free, quality health care to Sanders and the popular front around him, WV built support for his campaign. While the article had many criticisms of Sanders and called for a revolutionary workers party, it never said, “Don’t vote for Sanders,” or that support to him was an obstacle to advancing the fight for better health care. WV’s lame headline “No Illusions in Sanders’ ‘Medicare for All’” was so opportunist that people buying the paper said they also supported Sanders with criticism. The article went so far as to denounce the Nevada Culinary Workers Union tops as divisive to the workers movement because they opposed his health care campaign promise in favor of Biden’s scheme (see page 6).
The health care monopolies are one of the most powerful sectors of the U.S. bourgeoisie and aren’t about to give up control over their markets and profits. From the workplace to home, in every way workers’ need for safe conditions and good health runs up against the interests of the entire capitalist class. To get any real improvement to health care requires a struggle that goes outside the bounds of what is acceptable to liberals like Sanders, who defend the underlying property relations that are the source of the problem. Sanders’s liberal program of trying to amicably curb the worst excesses of the capitalist medical system amounts at best to the most limited and ineffectual measures and ensures that he capitulates to the slightest opposition. Only a leadership committed to the overthrow of bourgeois rule can advance the health care struggle, drawing the class line in opposition to the fake socialists and labor misleaders who betray this fight by tying workers and the oppressed to Sanders.
Supporting the Sanders campaign was just the straw that broke the camel’s back. The root of the SL/U.S.’s implosion was the conscious rejection of the fight for revolutionary leadership today. This was done with the justification that the current period is too backward and the level of class struggle too low. So, until the period changed and revolution was on the agenda, the role of the party was relegated to being a pressure group on non-revolutionary forces. Reducing the role of the party to fighting for more militant trade-union struggle and being left critics of liberal-led struggles as supposed first steps forward is the very definition of fighting for reformist leadership. The backwardness of the period, the betrayals by the reformist leaders of the working class and the retreat of the workers movement in the Trump years only underscore that workers need not only more struggle but communist leadership of those struggles.
The utter betrayal of labor and the left during the COVID-19 pandemic starkly showed that the struggle for communist leadership is a matter of life and death. Workers needed to fight for more health care, better conditions, and control of their safety against the bosses, who made the workers bear the burden of the crisis and locked everyone at home as a cheap and reactionary way to stave off the collapse of their completely decrepit health care system. This conflict of class interests posed only two paths with no centrist option: struggle against the capitalist state’s monopoly on health and safety and combat the “national unity” blackmail that forced workers to submit and sacrifice, or support the bourgeoisie’s reactionary health measures.
Union bureaucrats and the left went the latter route, imbibing in the bourgeoisie’s blackmail and serving up workers to suffering and slaughter. After a year of capitulating, the International Communist League issued a statement of revolutionary opposition to the lockdowns that kicked off the protracted struggle to rearm the entire International, including the SL/U.S.
Black Liberation Requires Communist Leadership
The conference presentation “For Black Trotskyism” (see page 1) shows how only a multiracial Leninist vanguard party can advance the struggle for black equality and achieve the unity of the working class across racial lines. This is the decisive question for the success of the American revolution. The bourgeoisie keeps black people forcibly segregated at the bottom in order to keep society divided along race lines, obscure the class line and maintain its rule. The struggle for black freedom requires going up against fundamental capitalist interests, and that won’t happen under the leadership of the liberals who defend the capitalist order. A prime example is BLM, a bourgeois-liberal movement that appeals to capitalist politicians to recognize that “black lives matter.” The whole basis of BLM’s program is cop reform, which leads black people to defeat because it involves them in the machinery of the capitalist state that enforces racist repression and segregation. All BLM was successful at was channeling black protest into the arms of the Democratic Party.
The presentation explains how anti-racist liberalism, which was pervasive during the Trump years and underlies BLM’s program, is the Democratic Party’s preferred method of divide-and-rule. The program of the liberal anti-racist activist is to seek alliance with the supposedly “anti-racist” wing of the bourgeoisie against the “unenlightened” white people and the more openly bigoted bourgeois politicians, and thereby reinforce the source of racial oppression: capitalism. Anti-racist liberalism is an obstacle to the black struggle that deepens the racial divide by blaming white workers for racial oppression, driving them into the arms of reaction. White workers become resentful for being blamed, and black people become resentful for the failure of liberalism to achieve any real gain. As a result, black people go down non-revolutionary roads, like identity politics, despairing of the prospect of winning white people to the fight for black liberation, because they know spineless white liberals won’t defend them.
It was a criminal betrayal that much of the left, including the SL/U.S. for a time, pushed the Democrats’ line that the white “deplorable” workers who voted for Trump, i.e., “Trump’s base,” are responsible for racial oppression. This liberal poison—which wrote off large swaths of the white working class as a bunch of irredeemable racists, reinforcing the vicious cycle of racial division—needed to be smashed. It pushed Trump supporters further into the arms of the Republicans and anti-racist activists deeper into the arms of the Democrats. Both political parties of capitalist rule are responsible for enforcing racial oppression and segregation. Both are responsible for driving down the conditions and wages of the entire working class. The Democrats are just hypocritical and lie about it. The liberal hysteria about Trump’s base is a vicious tool to further the ruse that the Democrats are the good “anti-racist” party.
What is posed is not to make black people like white people or to make white people empathize with black people, but to win black people and white workers to communism, because black people need white workers to liberate themselves, and white workers must champion black liberation to liberate themselves. To make that happen requires a struggle against liberalism in all its forms—black liberalism as well as guilty white liberalism.
Racial divisions and the liberal poison that fuels them can only be combated with the program of revolutionary integrationism. That is the understanding that the need to unite black and white requires communist leadership. The needs of the black population and the working class go beyond what the capitalist class will ever provide. It is impossible to fight to get rid of capitalism without fighting against the racial segregation and special oppression of black people and for their integration into society on an equal basis. On every front—health care, housing, women’s liberation, unionization, etc.—the proletariat in the U.S. requires a communist program for black liberation to advance. Winning the white working class to the struggle against black oppression is a necessary lever to advance the fight for socialist revolution.
The Struggle at the SL/U.S. Conference
To pursue its emancipation, the working class requires a revolutionary party that can lead it in struggle against the capitalist class. That party can only be built through an intransigent fight against every obstacle that binds workers and the oppressed to the capitalist order and sells out their struggles. Centrism, which masks its accommodation of liberalism with revolutionary rhetoric, is the most dangerous of these obstacles. But to clear these obstacles, just as the class requires the revolutionary party, the party as well requires a revolutionary leadership.
The principal struggle at the conference was between those who fought for communist leadership based on a complete break with liberalism and the centrists, who refused to fight for such a break and avoided directly attacking liberal illusions. As the conference progressed, there was less and less room for centrism. This came to a head at the session on the black question, which is the strategic question for the American revolution and the one where the pressures of liberalism are most intense.
The “For Black Trotskyism” presentation confronted head-on the longstanding anti-racist liberalism of the party, explained the different pressures operating on different comrades, frankly detailed liberalism’s corrosive effects inside as well as outside the party and insisted that both black and white comrades break with their own accommodation to anti-racist liberalism. Many comrades defensively responded with guilty white liberalism, as if openly grappling with these topics was fueling the racial divide. Rightist elements regurgitated WV mantras, denying that liberalism has been the main pressure on the SL/U.S. and offering that a few more trade-union slogans would put us back on course. They assured the body that they cared about black people and made empty appeals for black and white unity. This response was possible only if viewing the report through a liberal lens, that is, viewing its analysis of liberalism’s corrosiveness as assigning moral blame rather than pointing to the communist way forward. A revolutionary party must be able to recognize liberal pressures in order to combat the illusions and false consciousness that are obstacles to winning both black and white workers to a communist program.
The International Executive Committee delegation was the active factor insisting that it was necessary to wage war against this liberalism inside the party and that centrist conciliation of the liberals would not be tolerated. There is no middle ground: either you are with the liberals or you are a revolutionary. The way to break unity with the liberals and win black people and workers to our party is through actions, not words. A political split between the conciliators and opponents of liberalism was posed.
The response of the centrists was to tick the boxes—just like WV articles did—and raise abstractly correct arguments about revolutionary integrationism, the dangers of liberalism and the fight for communist leadership. But they refused to break unity with the right wing of the party by making a sharp Marxist counterposition to the liberalism permeating the discussion. Instead, the empty revolutionary bombast of the centrists served only to bridge the two irreconcilable programs present on the conference floor. This non-aggression pact was shattered by the left wing, which exposed the right wing as well as the centrist conciliators—including many who had been instrumental in elaborating the program fought for throughout the conference. The left wing made clear that there would only be unity on the basis of a revolutionary program and acceptance of the need to break with centrism. The conference was a victory: it endorsed the revolutionary program of the documents and elected a leadership based on those who stood up and demonstrated a commitment to fight for it (see page 9).
The liberal pressures inside the party did not disappear after the conference. It was necessary for the new leadership to continue the fight against centrist conciliation of liberalism. Instead, almost immediately after the departure of the IEC delegation, the newly elected sectional leadership capitulated to the prevailing pressures and pushed a liberal anti-racist revision of the conference, abandoning its commitment to implement the revolutionary program. The resident Central Committee reduced the conference to the discussion on the black question and moralistically condemned comrades for being “bad” on that question, essentially blaming white comrades for the section’s abdication of the fight for leadership of the black struggle.
This capitulation reflected how liberal pressures play out by race in society at large. Leading black comrades, facing a sea of paternalistic liberalism inside the party, responded with their own liberal moralism, and the rest of the leadership, deferring to them without question, embraced the same program and acted as their white allies.
The CC’s backlash against the conference divorced the black question from the question of communist leadership. In the U.S., the black question, party question and question of revolution are fundamentally intertwined; to separate the black question from the fight for leadership on the basis of a revolutionary program is inherently liberal. It is essential to recognize how divisive liberalism is and the pressures it exerts in order to defeat it with a program to unify the class. But such recognition of these pressures in the absence of providing the communist answer is just a form of soul-searching.
It would have been a centrist lie to publish this issue of WV while the SL/U.S. CC was defending a liberal program internally. The sectional leadership had to be reconsolidated around the revolutionary program through additional struggle waged by the non-resident CC and I.S. As a result of these fights, the CC convened a plenum to correct its course, making it possible to bring out our press.
The successful defense of the SL/U.S. conference places our party in a unique position on the American left. No other organization offers a Marxist alternative that can break the working class and oppressed not just from the Democrats but from all liberal movements. We strongly encourage anyone who seeks to be a revolutionary to carefully study the articles in this WV, which are an application of the fundamentals of Leninism to the U.S. today. The next issue of WV will feature more conference documents and reports addressing other burning questions: a revolutionary program in the pandemic, the fight for a communist movement for women’s liberation and the fight against trade-union economism. Re-establishing the revolutionary Marxist SL/U.S. is part of the programmatic rearming of the ICL in order to make it a contender for leadership of the international proletariat and to reforge the Fourth International—world party of socialist revolution.