“Workers Vanguard” Brings Up the RearThe Opportunist Left and the Port Strike Against the War: The Sound of One Hand Clapping
Longshore union shut down all 29 West Coast ports on May 1 in first-ever workers action against U.S.
imperialist war. ILWU contingent at head of May Day labor march in San Francisco. (Internationalist photo)
On May 1, ports up and down the Pacific Coast were shut down by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) to demand an end to “this bloody war and occupation for imperial domination.” For the tame American labor movement, dominated by pro-capitalist “business unionism,” this is a first. Not only in recent times, it is the first time ever that an American union has taken industrial action against a U.S. war. News of the ILWU’s strike against the war has reverberated among labor militants internationally, while many antiwar activists hailed it. It can be a vital first step toward defeating the imperialist war abroad and the bosses’ war on immigrants, oppressed racial minorities, poor and working people “at home,” not by begging the bourgeois politicians but by mobilizing the power of the workers and their allies.
When we first reported at the beginning of March that the ILWU Coast Caucus had voted to undertake this historic action to demand an end to the war and occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, and the immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from the entire Near East, many were incredulous. Who was the Internationalist Group, and weren’t they making this up? But then the ILWU posted an official announcement confirming the Caucus’ action and a two-month tug-of-war between the workers and the bosses began. Predictably, the labor bureaucracy tried to maneuver between these two forces, trying to play down its importance, pitching it as a patriotic “support the troops” act, declaring it an individual action by the members. But faced with rank-and-file support, the union tops couldn’t call it off. So on May 1, West Coast ports stood still.
While the maritime employers threatened legal action and trade papers denounce reds under the beds (see “All Out on May Day,” The Internationalist special issue, 19 April), most of the left aside from the Internationalist Group was notably silent on the most significant working-class action in the U.S. against the war in memory. The number of articles on the ILWU’s bold stand appearing in the publications of the organized “revolutionary” left in the month leading up to the strike can be counted on the fingers of one hand. And those who deigned to notice it were at best lukewarm. Over at libcom.org, a few anarchists greeted the initial announcement with sneers. The ILWU had the contractual right to take a day off for a seminar anyway, said one pundit, this wasn’t really a strike. So how come the bosses pulled every legal lever to have it stopped? You have to wonder if they would really have minded if the longshore and warehouse workers had bowed down to the bosses’ arbitrator.
On the social-democratic left, Socialist Alternative (affiliated to Peter Taaffe’s Committee for a Workers International) reported in its newspaper, “Strike Against the War – Dockworkers to Shut Down Ports May 1” (Justice, March-April 2008). But Socialist Alternative had another axe to grind:
“It's very understandable that many feel a certain ‘protest fatigue,’ as mass antiwar demonstrations have brought what seems like very limited results. ... However, mass antiwar demonstrations still serve a crucial role in expressing public opposition to the war, radicalizing many of those who attend, and translating passive opposition into active protest. But these demonstrations need to be combined with bolder, more powerful tactics if an effective antiwar movement is to be built.”
So they want overcome “protest fatigue” by spicing up the “antiwar movement” with some bolder moves. Yet politically, they still want to chain it to bourgeois politicians. The rest of the issue is full of articles arguing for support for Ralph Nader, whom they also supported in the 2000 and 2004 elections. Claiming that this bourgeois populist represented a “left challenge for the White House,” as Socialist Alternative does, is pulling the wool over the eyes of its readers. Nader is an immigrant-bashing populist who went out of his way to curry favor (and rake in dollars) from the rightist Reform Party, dissident Republicans and the fascistic Pat Buchanan.
Another group of past Nader backers, the International Socialist Organization (ISO), took note of the dock workers’ port shutdown in passing and published a day-after account on its Internet site. The thrust of the ISO’s reportage was to treat the ILWU’s action as one more antiwar event, noting the support from would-be Green Party presidential candidate and former Democratic Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney and Cindy Sheehan, running against Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Yet for the ISO, with its gaze fixed on bourgeois electoral politics and its patented method of taking positions one step to the left of the liberals, labor action is a sideshow. Despairing that “this will be a very tough year for independent, left-wing candidates” like Nader and McKinney, the ISO sees “opportunities for the left, but of a different kind,” namely by sidling up to the Democratic front-runner Barack Obama: “Anyone committed to fighting for change today should see how Obama's campaign has raised hopes and expectations,” it writes, adding that “those hopes will be important in the struggles of the future – after the election and before it, too” (quotes from Socialist Worker, 25 January, 7 March and 15 February).
Various denizens of the San Francisco reformist swamp had little or nothing to say about the ILWU’s unprecedented port shutdown. Nat Weinstein’s Socialist Viewpoint (March-April 2008) ran a routine piece simply reprinting union resolutions, while Alan Benjamin’s Socialist Organizer couldn’t be bothered to even mention it: S.O.’s presence at the S.F. rally was solely to build support for McKinney. Jeff Mackler’s Socialist Action (affiliated with the United Secretariat, formerly led by the late Ernest Mandel), from which Weinstein and Benjamin split a while back, likewise hasn’t seen fit to comment on the antiwar strike. Socialist Action is focused on brokering an “Open U.S. National Antiwar Conference,” to be held in Cleveland this summer. This is likewise the current focus of the Socialist Appeal group (affiliated with Alan Woods’ International Marxist Tendency), which also said nothing about the ILWU action, nor did it merit a mention in the IMT’s report of May Day events internationally.
When it comes down to it, the reformist social democrats of various denominations (Socialist Alternative, Socialist Worker, Socialist Viewpoint, Socialist Organizer and Socialist Action) could care less about the ILWU’s dramatic action. (Dock workers shut down the Coast to stop the war? Ho, hum.) Their aim is to revive, rebuild or resuscitate the exhausted “antiwar movement.” At most, they might throw in “workers” as one more “sector” in their miniature “popular fronts” chaining opponents of the war to one or another bourgeois politician. This is precisely the program of the various antiwar “coalitions,” whose entire strategy is, has been and must be to pressure the Democrats. Whether they have some Democrat on their speakers’ platform or not, and mostly they do, the purpose of the endless and dwindling peace parades of the various competing antiwar groups is to “get Congress to act.” Otherwise they have no point at all. And militant labor action gets in the way.
When the Democrats won control of both the Senate and House in the 2006 mid-term elections, largely on the basis of an antiwar vote, these opportunist leftists thought their time had come. United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), and International ANSWER and the Troops Out Now Coalition held competing demonstrations in Washington, the first (January 27 ) circling Congress and the second (March 17) marching to the Pentagon. The more “militant” pop-fronters staged some guerrilla theater in order to take some arrests, but it was still entirely in the framework of bourgeois pressure politics: it’s lobbying in the streets. Yet once in control of the purse-strings, the Democrats kept on funding the war. Moreover, Congressional Democrats have been spearheading the drive to take the “war on terror” to the docks, in the form of the Transport Worker Identification Card (TWIC), which would produce a racial purge on the waterfront.
In contrast, the
Internationalist Group proclaimed: “For
Workers Strikes Against the War! Don’t
Beg Congress!” (The Internationalist special
January 2007). As
we laid out in our article, “Why
We fight for Workers Strikes Against the War
(and the Opportunists Don’t),” in The
Supplement (October 2007), the reformist left is wedded to a
chaining the working class and antiwar activists to the Democrats, who are now the main war
Washington. It is the votes of
Obama and Clinton that keep the warmongers in the White House and the
Congress is not about to stop the
imperialist war, and no peace parades, however large, are going to
This has already been demonstrated, as millions marched against the
and occupation of Iraq, which continues to this day. The capitalist
classes will take action only when they are forced to, by defeats on
battlefield and the prospect of sinking deeper into the quicksands of
East, or by working-class action in the imperialist homelands. And
that class war, not impotent peace crawls, is the
revolutionaries in the U.S., Europe, Japan and elsewhere.
West Coast longshore workers called to “stop work to stop the war.” This is an important beginning, but as we have said before, in the fight to put an end to imperialist war, “strikes are not enough.” The bloody slaughter in the Near East will not be halted by one huge general strike, the grand soir (big night) that anarchists and syndicalists imagined, in which the whole capitalist edifice comes tumbling down because the workers stop working. It will take much more than that. The importance of this first antiwar strike is that it indicates the road to be followed, of mobilizing the power of the proletariat. It was the Russian October Revolution of 1917 that signaled the end of World War I and the German November Revolution of 1918 that brought it to a close. But because German workers lacked a revolutionary leadership forged in years of struggle like the Russian Bolsheviks of Lenin and Trotsky, and because capitalist rule was not overthrown, within months German imperialism, under social-democratic management, was back in the war business.
The reason the resolution for a “No Peace No Work Holiday” passed the Longshore Caucus is that, even as the union tops are still in the pocket of the Democratic Party, many in the union ranks sense the bankruptcy of banking on the Democrats. The ILWU voted to stop work because the delegates felt that workers have to take action on their own, that they can’t trust the politicians. That places many a militant dock worker to the left of the opportunist left. But seeing the need for independent action by the working class against the bosses and the bosses’ government is only the beginning of class consciousness. It is necessary to cohere that in the struggle to build a revolutionary workers party that can bring down the imperialist system which produces endless war, poverty and racism. History shows that only international socialist revolution will put an end to imperialist war.
On Charlatans, Imposters and Mountebanks
That will take a struggle to break the working class from the stranglehold of capitalism’s “labor lieutenants.” This is where the political double-talk from some opportunists who strike a more “critical” pose is particularly pernicious, as they equate the ranks with the union misleaders. David North’s “World Socialist Web Site,” at the end of an article on the longshore work stoppage remarked that at the rally “organizers and union officials promoted the very policy of channeling popular antiwar sentiment behind the Democratic Party that has led all efforts to end the war into a blind alley.” WSWS goes on: “The contradiction between the official demand of the walkout – the immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq – and the ILWU’s political perspective is expressed in the union’s endorsement of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama.” But the ILWU does not have a uniform political policy, and the Northite claim that it does has far-reaching consequences.
Since our first article on the May Day port shutdown, The Internationalist has stressed the contradiction between the union delegates’ action and the union leadership’s pro-capitalist political perspective. The WSWS fails to note that the motion voted at the ILWU’s Coast Caucus condemned the Democrats’ complicity in the imperialist war as a central reason for the stop-work action. It was the union tops, headed up by ILWU president Bob McEllrath, who did not initiate this strike but couldn’t simply disappear the decision taken at the Caucus, who tried to put a “social-patriotic” spin on the whole thing and bind the dock workers to the Democrats. Rather than resolving the contradiction by fighting in the unions to oust the labor fakers, WSWS declares trade unions everywhere to be mere capitalist tools. This sabotages workers’ struggles. The Northites call on auto workers to reject union organizers of the United Auto Workers, as do the auto bosses. And it turns out that the maximum leader of the WSWS, who also claims to head the “International Committee of the Fourth International,” is simultaneously CEO of Grand River Printing & Imaging – a non-union printing company, which according to its website makes a cool $25 million a year.
Same tune, slightly different lyrics from the centrists of the Spartacist League. The SL doesn’t label the unions bourgeois, as the WSWS does, but it repeatedly uses the leadership’s betrayals as an excuse not to fight for workers action. For weeks after the ILWU call for a stop-work action against the war was announced, we kept asking SLers if they supported it, to which they lamely replied “we don’t have an article,” and tried to change the subject: What about the presence of one Bill Logan at the October 20 Labor Conference to Stop the War called by ILWU Local 10? What’s that got to do with it, a Marxist (or for that matter, any sane person) would respond (see box, “The Strange Case of Bill Logan”). The next subterfuge was to say that it was only a “stop-work” meeting authorized by the contract, so no big deal.
Finally, Workers Vanguard (No. 912, 11 April) came out with a brief mention, buried in the back of an article on Iraq:
“Now the ILWU longshore union is calling for an eight-hour work stoppage on May 1 in opposition to the war. We are all in favor of a work stoppage to demand that all U.S. troops get out of Iraq. But this action is being built by the ILWU International bureaucracy through social-patriotic appeals to ‘express support for the troops by bringing them home safely,’ and comes together with the ILWU’s endorsement of Barack Obama.”
Then, on the eve of the walkout, buried at the end of a speech about Mumia Abu-Jamal, there is a second two-liner: “Likewise, a work stoppage on May 1st, the international workers holiday, could be a powerful blow against the bloody imperialist occupation of Iraq. But the ILWU international leadership has wrapped the call for this stop-work action in ‘support our troops’ jingoism” (WV No. 913, 25 April).
Thousands of longshore workers are set to shut down every port on the Pacific Coast against the war. Where do you stand? “Yes, but,” says the Spartacist League: yes, a work stoppage “could” be a blow against the imperialist occupation, but the leadership has wrapped it in jingoism. Conclusion? For the SL, this was an excuse to do nothing. When you get down to brass tacks, it didn’t lift a finger to fight for the first-ever industrial action by a major U.S. union against the imperialist war. WV says it is “all in favor” of such a work stoppage? Nonsense. The SL supporter in the union didn’t say a word in favor of the stop-work action in three separate union meetings, and only got up in the last meeting to say that the position of the ILWU International in opposing a union march in San Francisco on May Day meant that it was all over.
Ever vigilant to “pull [its] hands out of the boiling water” of the class struggle, as spokesmen for the SL’s International Communist League (ICL) said in justifying their flight from a sharp battle against the police in Brazil in 19961, here they don’t even bother to take their hands out of their pockets.
After the event, Workers Vanguard (No. 914, 9 May) comes out with a back-page article, “ILWU Shuts West Coast Ports on May Day,” which has a downright schizophrenic quality to it. The front of the article says, “We salute the more than 27,000 longshoremen, both registered men and casuals, who withheld their labor. The ILWU port shutdown points the way to the kind of working-class action that needs to be mobilized against the bloody U.S. imperialist occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan.” It continues, “But the ILWU leadership politically undermined this action by channeling the ranks’ anger at the Iraqi occupation and desire to defend their union into pro-Democratic Party ‘national unity’ patriotism.” That’s certainly what the ILWU tops sought to do, as we showed. The entire last half of the article, however, consists of attacking Jack Heyman, the Local 10 longshoreman who authored the resolution for the “No Peace, No Work Holiday,” and the Internationalist Group that supposedly “downplayed the pro-capitalist politics of the May Day protest organizers and uncritically enthuses over left-talking bureaucrat Jack Heyman.” What a travesty, particularly coming from the left-talking centrists of the SL who did nothing whatsoever to fight for a strike against the war!
As James P. Cannon, the founder of American Trotskyism, used to say about the opportunists he had to deal with, you need to get out your hip boots and a shovel to remove the piles of filth the anti-Trotskyists pile up. In the first place, in our March 1 article announcing the stop-work action against the war, we warned: “The ILWU leadership could get cold feet, since this motion was passed because of overwhelming support from the delegates despite attempts to stop it or, failing that, to water it down or limit the action.” Later on in the same article, we wrote:
“The efforts to undercut the motion continue, as is to be expected from a leadership which, like the rest of the pro-capitalist labor bureaucracy, seeks ‘labor peace’ with the bosses. In his letter to [AFL-CIO president John] Sweeney, ILWU International president [McEllrath] tried to present the action as an effort to ‘express support for the troops by bringing them home safely,’ although the motion voted by the delegates says nothing of the sort. Playing the ‘support our troops’ game is an effort to swear loyalty to the broader aims of U.S. imperialism. It aids the warmongers, when what’s needed is independent working-class action against the system that produces endless imperialist war. Yet despite the efforts to water it down and distort it, the May 1 action voted for by the ILWU delegates is a call to use labor’s muscle to put an end to the war.”
So we denounced the pro-capitalist politics of the bureaucracy from the outset, almost six weeks before Workers Rearguard said a word about McEllrath’s “support our troops” line, or for that matter wrote anything at all about the projected port shutdown against the war.
Internationalist Group contingent at May Day immigrants' rights march in New York City. (Internationalist photo)
According to the WV smear job, “the IG ... obscures the fact that the trade-union bureaucracy criminally subordinated the May Day work action to pro-Democratic Party pressure politics.” We hardly obscured the fact that this is what the ILWU tops tried to do. In addition to the quote above, and the ILWU Caucus resolution attacking the Democrats for funding the war, in our second article (19 April), we wrote that what was required was working-class action independent of the bosses, and “What that takes is a fundamental break from the Democratic Party and the pro-capitalist politics that infuse the labor bureaucracy.” But WV is saying something else: if “the May Day work action” itself had been decisively subordinated to the Democratic Party, then it was not a working-class action but bourgeois pressure politics, so says the SL.
Shutting down all 29 West Coast ports to demand an end to the war funded by the Democrats and immediate withdrawal of the troops that the Democrats plan to leave in the area is a pro-Democratic Party action?! Since when? And in that case, how does the ILWU port shutdown “point the way to the kind of working-class action” needed against the war (as WV states a few paragraphs earlier) if it’s just one more tactic to pressure the Democrats. The schizoid character of the article would be positively clinical if it weren’t political. The SL is a centrist organization which says one thing when trying to gain favor with the ILWU ranks, who are justly proud of their historic action, and something quite different when going after opponents to its left. It zigs and zags depending on the pressures it is subjected to by the bourgeoisie. And above all, its sometimes revolutionary-sounding words do not match its often opportunist deeds.
WV takes us to task for allegedly not polemicizing against the ILWU’s support for Obama, although our first article was written before the ILWU leadership’s endorsement was announced. This is a pink herring if ever there was one. The first article repeatedly attacks the Democrats, and in our second article, we noted: “The ILWU leaders’ endorsement of Obama hurts rather than helps the struggle against imperialist war and undercuts the May 1 work stoppage.” (“How delicately put,” WV sneers at our statement, yet 18 paragraphs earlier it wrote that “the ILWU leadership undermined this action” with its pro-Democratic Party politics.) And while the SL only attacks the union tops’ support for the Democratic front-runner, we also criticized Green Party presidential hopeful Cynthia McKinney, saying that she was a essentially a homeless Democrat. McKinney, who spoke at the rally, has much more support among the organizers of the port shutdown than Democrat Obama, who wants to keep tens of thousands of U.S. troops in the Near East and Iraq. But WV barely mentions her.
Where we have sought to combat the political illusions among the most militant sectors of the union and overcome the obstacles to a powerful workers action, the SL wants to use the leaders’ Democratic Party politics as an excuse to wash its hands of the whole thing. Even the bosses’ press noted that the motion was passed by the rank and file delegates over resistance from the leaders. While the bureaucrats endorsed Obama, the Longshore Caucus delegates loudly denounced the Democrats in the discussion. There is not a social-patriotic word or an ounce of support to the Democrats in the ILWU resolution. But rather than fighting against the bureaucrats, the SL used their attempts to distort and defang the port shutdown, in order to downplay the fact that one of the most militant unions in the United States is for the first time ever using its industrial power to fight against imperialist war.
comrades of the Liga Quarta-Internacionalista do Brasil won
endorsements of the ILWU port shutdown by Conlutas and Intersindical
labor federations and Sepe teachers union in Rio de Janeiro.
Why? Because for years now the SL – like the other opportunists – has maintained that workers action against the war is not going to happen. Now that it has, they must try to minimize it. In part this is motivated by petty concerns for their own prestige. More particularly, it is because they rightly identify the slogan of “Workers Strikes Against the War” with the Internationalist Group. But most fundamentally, the reason is programmatic: any real fight for workers action against the war goes against the political line and outlook they have adopted over the past decade. These days it is often hard to distinguish between WV and the other left-opportunist papers over the issue of the war: they all call for “Out Now!” Back in the days when the SL stood for revolutionary Trotskyism, it used to criticize this slogan as an appeal to defeatist sectors of the bourgeoisie who want to cut their losses on the battlefield. The SL claims it is distinguished by calling for “Class Struggle at Home,” which could mean just about anything. But one thing it clearly does not mean, coming from the SL, is organizing to shut down the West Coast docks to demand immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Near East.
The SL and its supporters in the unions didn’t lift a finger to fight for workers action against the war – not in the ILWU or anywhere else – while IG supporters worked overtime to build actions in support of the West Coast longshore work stoppage (see the report on solidarity actions at the City University of New York). Our comrades of the Liga Quarta-Internacionalista do Brasil obtained endorsements for the ILWU action from the Sepe teachers union in the state of Rio de Janeiro, and from the Intersindical and Conlutas union federations. As the union march stepped off on May Day in San Francisco, ILWUers chanted “Ready to fight? Damn right!” The SL, if it were honest, would reply, “No way!” But honesty is not a virtue of imposters.
WV seeks to use the fact that ILWU dispatchers sent a few longshoremen to the Concord Naval Weapons Station to beat the IG over the head. That only shows exactly what we have argued all along, that the union tops were trying to undercut the action. While the SL long ago abandoned any real fight for the hot-cargoing of military cargo, we reprinted Jack Heyman’s April 17 leaflet that clearly warned against any attempt to move any kind of cargo:
“No work should be done in any port on the Coast Thursday May 1st, nothing moves. If any port works, it undercuts the whole purpose of our action and shows a divided ILWU to PMA. We had a democratic vote to stop work and mobilize for a ‘No Peace No Work Holiday,’ remember? No work means no work, period.”
Did the SL and its supporters try to do anything to stop the dispatching to Concord? Hardly. At least the organizers of the port shutdown were out on the Oakland docks that morning stopping an attempted scab operation at Stevedoring Services of America. And the fact remains that shipping was shut down up and down the West Coast on May 1 against the U.S. war.
In its usual “gotcha” politics, the WV article absurdly claims that “the IG conveniently omits any mention of taking a side with Afghanistan or Iraq against the U.S.” This is ludicrous! In “All Out on May Day!” (Internationalist special issue, 19 April), we “conveniently” wrote:
“In order to defeat the imperialist war abroad and the bosses’ war ‘at home,’ class-conscious workers must oppose all the capitalist parties and politicians, and build a class-struggle workers party. Revolutionaries fight to drive the U.S. out of Iraq and Afghanistan – which will be anything but orderly, as the U.S.’ exit from Vietnam showed – by workers action . We would like to see the ‘diplomats’ (spies) and ‘contractors’ (mercenaries) clambering onto the roof of the U.S. embassy desperately trying to helicopter out of the ‘Green Zone’ in Baghdad. A defeat there would put a damper on U.S. imperial adventures around the world, and would aid the struggle of working people, immigrants and oppressed minorities in the United States itself.”
And in the article “May Day Strike Against the War Shuts Down All U.S. West Coast Ports” (3 May), we again declared: “Now it is necessary to go beyond this vital beginning to generalize the struggle for working-class action to defeat the imperialist war abroad and on the home front..” The idea that calling to drive the U.S. out of Iraq isn’t “taking a side with Afghanistan and Iraq against the U.S.” is laughable. But WV’s aim is to cover up the fact that the SL of today has abandoned the call to defeat U.S. imperialism in this war, pumping out one bogus justification after another for this betrayal of basic Leninist politics (see below), whereas the IG says it loud and clear.
The Latter-Day Spartacist League: Left Centrists Lurching to the Right
There is a whole history behind the Spartacist League’s flimflam on workers action against the war. Back in 1998, when the Clinton administration attacked Iraq, the SL dropped its longstanding call for workers strikes against the war, ridiculing the IG for raising this and claiming it had no “resonance” among the workers (see “SL Rejects Calls for Labor Strikes Against Imperialist War Moves,” The Internationalist No. 5, April-May 1998). When last May the Oakland Education Association put up a union picket outside the docks calling not to handle war cargo and ILWU longshoremen honored the picket, WV dismissed it with a wave of the hand, saying “it’s not clear that any war materiel was stopped that day.” Questioned by IG supporters over whether they call for workers strikes against the war today, SLers have said flat-out, “No.” Why not? Because there supposedly is “no instrumentality,” no one to carry this out.
Coming off of the May 2007 picket of war shippers on the Oakland docks, ILWU Locals 10 and 34 called a Labor Conference to Stop the War, held in the Local 10 hall in San Francisco last October 20. The meeting drew some 150 labor and left activists from California and around the country. Out of it came a resolution: “Therefore be it resolved that this conference calls for participants to go back to their unions committed to the urgent task of organizing actions, including strikes where possible, at the workplace against the war, recognizing that only an independent mobilization of labor can stop these wars and withdraw the troops immediately.” The SL dismissed the conference as a “talk shop,” but the members of the ILWU actually carried out the motion, called the May Day work stoppage, and shut down the entire West Coast in an industrial action against the war – something no other union in the U.S. has done. That doesn’t amount to an empty talk shop in our book.
As an aside, one of WV’s arguments in trying to write off the conference was that the head of the San Francisco Labor Council, Tim Paulson, got up there to hail Democrat Barbara Lee, and that at a subsequent antiwar march, a labor contingent chanted “Barbara Lee speaks for me.” This takes a lot of chutzpah coming from the Spartacist League. In the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, WV (Nos. 765 and 767, 28 September and 26 October 2001) itself repeatedly and uncritically hailed Lee, saying that she was the only Representative to vote against “giving Bush a blank check for war.” The SL echoed the entire Bay Area popular front (and the ILWU leadership) in praising the Democratic Congresswoman. So after 9/11, Barbara Lee spoke for thee, SL, as well as for the WWP, CP, ISO, etc. While opportunists of every stripe all applauded the bourgeois politician, we pointed out that, although Lee voted against the declaration of war on Afghanistan, she voted for the $40 billion “emergency” war credits bill that literally contained a blank check (an unspecified appropriation) for the CIA! (See our article, “SL/ICL Flinches on Afghanistan War,” in The Internationalist No. 12, Fall 2001)
“No resonance,” “no instrumentality,” Bill Logan, Barbara Lee – the SL has had one excuse after another for why it doesn’t fight for workers action against imperialist war. Now that thousands of longshore workers from San Diego to Seattle have actually struck against the war, you might think that this demand would hum for them. Nope. These people are in serious need of a resonator – and a refresher course on the SL’s own history. Challenged by the IG right outside the Local 10 hall on the day of the port shutdown over their renunciation of the long-standing Spartacist call for workers strikes against the war, two members of the SL Central Committee insisted that the SL didn’t raise this demand until very late in the Vietnam War, when workers were beginning to go into action. One cited the date 1970. Wrong. We urged them and their office-bound comrades to go back and read the bound volumes of Spartacist where they will find a 21 October 1967 leaflet, “From Protest to Power,” with a subhead “For Anti-War Strike Actions.” (Or they can read it here.) We can assure them that workers strikes against the war were not busting out all over at the time. The then-revolutionary SL did not make its demands dependent on the present consciousness of the workers, whereas the centrist SL of today uses this as an excuse to renounce key elements of its former program.
Thus in the midst of the post-9/11 war hysteria the SL’s paper Workers Vanguard (No. 767, 26 October 2001) accused the Internationalist Group of “Playing the Counterfeit Card of Anti-Americanism” because we continued to uphold the revolutionary defeatist program of Lenin and Trotsky (see “ICL Refuses to Call for Defeat of U.S. Imperialism, ‘Anti-American’ Baits the IG,” The Internationalist No. 12, Fall 2001). After this shameful flinch before U.S. imperialism, and ominous smear against the IG, the next fall, as the Bush administration was gearing up to invade Iraq, the Spartacist League suddenly dropped its decades-long call for “hot-cargoing” war materiel. With the West Coast docks already shut down because of a PMA lockout, when stopping the flow of war materiel was directly posed (and more possible than ever), the SL decided it was too dangerous to call for this because of the threat of repression in the form of an injunction under the Taft-Hartley Act (see “SL: Hard to Starboard,” The Internationalist No. 15, January-February 2003).
While the Internationalist Group called to “Strike Against Taft-Hartley! Hot-Cargo War Materiel!” and raised these demands on the Oakland docks, the Spartacist League dumped them. In response, we recalled some SL history:
“Back in 1971, when a national longshore walkout was ended when President Richard Nixon issued a Taft-Hartley injunction, WV denounced ILWU leader Harry Bridges for ‘whip[ping] the men back to work under the excuse of the Taft-Hartley injunction’ and urged ‘defiance of Taft-Hartley.’ A five-point program for longshore prominently highlighted the demands: ‘For labor strikes against the war: Halt the flow of all war goods’ (Workers Vanguard No. 3, November 1971). That was then, this is now, we can already hear the SL say.”
Stung by our attack, the SL replied, “OK, we’ll say it: That was then, this is now. What agitational slogans are raised are not divorced from political context and social reality” (WV No. 797, 14 February 2003). The article went on: “in this country where the working class has little even elemental class consciousness, the call for political strikes is only a few steps short of calling for a proletarian insurrection.” The political context and social reality in 2002 was that Bay Area workers were incensed over the government’s Taft-Hartley threats against the ILWU. At a labor rally of thousands there were calls for strike action to shut down the Bay Bridge. What stood in the way was the sellout labor bureaucracy, and the now-centrist Spartacist League didn’t say boo. The same WV article justified refusing to call for a vote against the sellout contract with the pseudo-“leftist” argument that the ILWU leadership was so rotten that what could one do?
But it’s not the first time the ex-Trotskyist SL has adopted such a shameful position. Over the years the West Coast dock union has undertaken a number of praiseworthy labor actions, some of which are cited in the ILWU resolution, including refusing to load bombs bound for the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile in 1978 and blocking military cargo to the Salvadoran military junta in 1981. In April 1999 the ILWU shut down the entire Pacific Coast demanding freedom for the foremost class-war prisoner in the U.S., Mumia Abu-Jamal, the former Black Panther and world-renowned journalist who has sat on Pennsylvania’s death row for the last quarter century, sentenced to die for a murder of which he is entirely innocent. This action was taken in conjunction with the teachers union in the state of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, who the day earlier held a work stoppage demanding Mumia be freed.
The response of the Spartacist League? Well, they had several responses. Before the ILWU action, WV claimed it was just a “two-hour” union meeting; afterwards it said it was nothing but “regular monthly union meetings,” and denounced those, like the IG, who “tout[ed] these as ‘work stoppages’.” Two years later, WV (25 May 2001) did an about-face and declared that, “The April 1999 stopwork by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) did point to the sort of powerful labor action needed to strike a giant blow against the capitalist frame-up system.” It took this supposed “vanguard” quite a while to figure that out. The SL’s response was an example of what it later characterized as “stodgy demoralized sectarianism” (“A Hard Look at Recent Party Work and Current Tasks” (WV No. 841, 4 February 2005). And it’s no less stodgy or demoralized today.
Meanwhile, WV has remained silent to this day about the simultaneous April 1999 work stoppage by the Rio de Janeiro teachers, as well as the subsequent actions of the Rio state CUT labor federation, bank workers, teachers and postal workers in raising the demand for Mumia’s freedom. Why the silence? Because our comrades of the Liga Quarta-Internacionalista do Brasil sparked these actions (see “SL Zigzags on Port Shutdown for Mumia’s Freedom,” The Internationalist No. 10, June 2001). The Rio teachers union Sepe just did it again, striking on May 7 for two demands, defense of public education and freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal, again at the initiative of the LQB, and published a four-page issue of its newspaper dedicated to Mumia. Wait and see if WV recognizes this, but don’t hold your breath.
The Spartacist League first raised Jamal’s case to public awareness and for years played a major role in his legal defense. It also rightly opposed calls by the reformists who focus protests on the demand for a new trial, implying faith in the capitalist “justice” system. The calls by the Partisan Defense Committee (PDC) on trade-union leaders to come out for Mumia’s freedom are also praiseworthy. We have praised this work and defended the SL against smears and exclusion attempts by the “new trial” reformists/liberals, as well as endorsing and speaking at PDC Mumia demonstrations (as has Jack Heyman). But while the SL/PDC calls in the abstract to “Mobilize Labor’s Power – For Mass Protest!” when it comes to actually mobilizing the ranks to use their power in strike action, it has done precious little, if anything at all.
So we will re-raise a question we have posed to the SL many times over the years:
Words and Deeds
One of the characteristics of centrists is the gulf between what they say and do: revolutionary in words, reformist in deeds. Very occasionally, buried deep in an interminable speech by some SLer, you may find a statement that, of course, they are for the defeat of U.S. imperialism. (Incidentally, the same is true of the ISO, WWP, PSL, SWP and other reformists.) They may whisper it, sotto voce, stage left, but they do not raise the banner of the fundamental Leninist and Trotskyist position that revolutionaries must fight for the defeat of “their own” bourgeoisie in an imperialist war. Nor do they fight for workers strikes against the war. If some workers do it, like the British train drivers, Italian railroad workers and Japanese dock workers in 2003, or on a far larger scale, if the ILWU shuts down the entire U.S. West Coast against the war, then well and good, the SL/ICL will mutter some faint words of praise after the fact. Thanks for nothing.
This brings up an important aspect of the sterile abstract propagandism and abstentionism into which the Spartacist League has sunk as its leaders and much of the membership became demoralized in the aftermath of the world-historic defeat represented by the restoration of capitalism in the Soviet Union and the East European bureaucratically deformed workers states. It’s not just that the SL hasn’t fought for workers strikes against the war, they actually end up aiding the bureaucrats. Their arguments were clearly laid out in response to a letter by Jack Heyman to Workers Vanguard (see WV No. 873, 7 July 2006). Heyman pointed to WV’s earlier justification for not raising a word of criticism of New York transit union leader Roger Toussaint in a leaflet on the 2005 transit strike. “The [SL] leaflet did not directly attack Toussaint,” wrote WV, adding: “Since we could not point to an alternative leadership of the strike, to do so would only have served to weaken the strike.” What a capitulation!
In response to Heyman’s letter, the WV editors go on at length as to why “we do not currently urge our supporters in the unions to launch oppositional caucuses.”
“Today we are faced with a different conjuncture than in the ’60s and ’70s. Decades of capitalist attacks, combined with the effects of deindustrialization in the U.S., have greatly set back the unions. The counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union in 1991-92 has served to throw back proletarian consciousness generally, albeit unevenly. Under these conditions, for two or three supporters lacking a solid programmatic base of support to form a caucus would serve to unnecessarily set them up for victimization and/or lead to their accommodation to the labor tops, likely through a bloc with trade-union careerists.”
So let’s add this up.
According to the Spartacist League, the workers’ consciousness has sunk
an abysmal level (from what?) that to build opposition caucuses would
set up SL
supporters for victimization or lure them into selling out. Therefore, the
SL doesn’t wage an oppositional struggle against the bureaucracy inside
unions. And since they couldn’t point to an alternative
union where they have several supporters, who are not engaged in
struggle), the SL doesn’t criticize the union leadership from
either during a hard-fought strike which the leadership criminally sold
out. This self-serving argument justifies
pro-capitalist union bureaucracy. Having
capitulated to the ILWU bureaucracy during the 2002 longshore lockout
(as detailed above), and then justified this capitulation “theoretically,” they extended the rationale and the “theory” to cover their capitulatory line on the TWU and unions in general.
The latter-day SL/ICL’s line is, and has been for the last dozen years, that in the post-Soviet period any oppositional activity and/or serious labor struggle will be either adventurist or opportunist. This is the excuse to abandon in practice their former class-struggle program in the unions. In 1997 the ICL fled from the struggle to remove police from the unions in Brazil on the grounds that it posed “unacceptable risks to the vanguard” (meaning itself). In 1998 it abandoned the call for workers strikes against the war, because it supposedly lacks “resonance” among the workers. In 2001 they dropped the call for the defeat of “their own” imperialist bourgeoisie in the war over Afghanistan, and later Iraq on the grounds that it is just “rrrevolutionary phrasemongering.” In 2002, it dumped the call to “hot-cargo” war materiel because of the threat of a Taft-Hartley injunction. And in 2008 the SL sat out the first workers strike against a U.S. imperialist war in the history of the United States, on the grounds that the bureaucracy would inevitably sell it out. Thus it helped out the ILWU tops who never wanted the port shutdown in the first place and did all they could to wriggle out of it. In practice, this means that these rightward-moving left centrists act, if not as capital’s labor lieutenants, then as small-time “labor corporals.”
Bottom line: The Internationalist Group fights for workers’ strikes against the war. The Spartacist League doesn’t. Everyone who compares the two groups’ press over the past ten years can verify this for themselves. Not only that, but the SL has repeatedly attacked us for upholding this position, which they used to hold before they turned their backs on Trotskyism (i.e., genuine Marxism).
While West Coast longshore workers rightly believe they did a very good thing by shutting down 29 ports against the war on May Day, the Spartacist League perceives that the action was very bad for it. The SL never called for it, never thought it would happern, did nothing to make it happen – and now the hapless writers at the misnamed Workers Vanguard have the thankless task of trying to cover the SL's tracks. Thus they hurl smears and distortions, and throw cold water on the action.
People are often puzzled by the SL’s focus on us. If the Internationalist Group is as irrelevant as it says, why devote so much space to us? Many think it is an obsession, which it is. In attacking the IG the present-day SL is trying to exorcize its own revolutionary past. But it is also political. In this case, they denounce the Internationalist Group and League for the Fourth International precisely because of our role in pushing for the first strike against a U.S. war in the history of the American labor movement.
There is only one
thing to be said to all these prattlers about Marx, Engels, Lenin,
class struggle, proletariat or socialist revolution – those that
ILWU strike, those who contented themselves with a “gee-whiz, isn’t
squib from the sidelines, those who denounce social patriotism in the
but never, ever, either advocate or organize class struggle action
imperialist war – Roget had your number. n
1 See our bulletin From a Drift Toward Abstentionism to Desertion from the Class Struggle (July 1996) and “The ICL Leaders' Cover Story: Smokescreen for a Betrayal,” in The Internationalist No. 1, January-February 1997.
To contact the Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International, send e-mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org