No. 5, April-May 1998 

"Resonance" vs. Revolutionary Struggle

SL Rejects Calls for Labor Strikes 
Against Imperialist War Moves

According to Workers Vanguard (No. 687, 27 March), a sign of the Internationalist Group at a Mexico protest calling to “Break with the Popular Front! Forge a Revolutionary Workers Party!” is “deep-sixing opposition to bourgeois-nationalist PRD of Cárdenas.” Of a piece with this sophistry is WV’s hue and cry in the same article about the call made by our Brazilian comrades for international workers action against the imperialist war moves against Iraq. A motion by the Class-Struggle Caucus (CLC) was printed together with the 27 February IG statement on the Persian Gulf war moves, “Defend Iraq Against U.S. Imperialist Attack” (see article this issue). 

According to the ICL, the CLC motion supposedly shows our “touching faith in the ‘anti-imperialist’ credentials of the Latin American bourgeoisies and promotes illusions in a class-collaborationist ‘anti-imperialist united front’ with bourgeois nationalists.” How is that? Because, “while denouncing ‘Yankee imperialists’,” the CLC resolution “call[s] on our class brothers and sisters in Argentina to carry out a labor boycott against the scandalous material support by the Menem government to imperialist aggression.” Evidently, what WV finds scandalous is “denouncing ‘Yankee imperialists’” but not Menem sending materiel to aid Uncle Sam in killing Iraqis. 

As has become its norm of late, WV simply lies about the IG’s propaganda. It claims that our call for a revolutionary workers party “on the front page of its statement and in signs carried at protests was conspicuously not linked to the need to break workers and minorities from the capitalist Democrats.” Yet Internationalist Group signs conspicuously declared “Democrats/Republicans Murder Iraqis, Starve Welfare Moms & Kids,” and far from showing “appetites to tail after liberal/reformist ‘antiwar movements’,” as WV claims, the IG statement repeatedly said that “most of the left is desperately seeking Democratic doves to ally with,” that the protests were organized by “a classical antiwar popular front,” etc.

As for WV’s new criteria, counterposing the call for socialist revolution to “phony agitation for trade-union actions–like the boycott of military shipments,” we encourage SLers to take a look at the Spartacist July 1971 supplement, “Against NPAC Pop Fronts: For Class Action Against the War,” which (like the Internationalist Group leaflet on the Persian Gulf war moves) called for a revolutionary workers party, for labor strikes against the war, no popular fronts, for defeat of U.S. imperialism. Or try applying the SL’s new checklist to most of the leaflets and articles on the Vietnam War included in the first bound volume of Spartacist

We might note that there was nothing in the Spartacist League statement on Washington’s war moves against Iraq (WV No. 685, 27 February) calling for defense of China, North Korea or Cuba–a notable absence in an extensive declaration about U.S. war threats. Nor did SL signs in previous demonstrations from November to late February call for military defense of Iraq. In fact, their signs were indistinguishable from those of the reformist Workers World and SWP. We asked why there was no sign defending Iraq and were told that they didn’t find one around the office. Quite possibly true, we figured.

Unlike the ICL today, our method is not puerile point-scoring and inventing straw men to knock down. We prefer to discuss the real politics of those we polemicize with, and here there is a glaring omission in the SL statement: nowhere does it call for workers action against the imperialist war build-up. Nor is this accidental: challenged by the Internationalist Group, Spartacist spokesman stated that they deliberately did not call for workers strikes over the imperialist war measures against Iraq. Even more interesting is the SL’s explanation for why they aren’t raising such demands today.

At a March 28 Spartacist forum in New York City, an IG member noted that WV’s hullabaloo over the word “scandalous” was to divert attention from the next sentence in the CLC statement, in which our Brazilian comrades called “on our brothers and sisters, the workers of the United States, to use their class power against imperialist aggression.” He asked whether ICL supporters in the trade unions had fought for this, and if so how? ICL international secretary Parks responded by saying that the party’s trade-union fractions had been decimated in the late 1970s mass layoffs in auto, steel and other industries. True, but hardly an explanation, since sitting in the audience were supporters of the SL in two different public transport unions.

The second “argument” was to demand where the CLC motion had been passed, as if this were the criterion for whether revolutionaries raise particular demands. Another SL spokesman, a member of the central committee and WV editorial board, said that if the Persian Gulf War of 1990-91 had gone on a little longer, the call for labor strikes against the war might have had some “resonance” among U.S. workers. Again, this was a rather strange argument, since the Spartacist League did repeatedly call, for example in the SL statement “Defeat U.S. Imperialism! Defend Iraq!” (15 January 1991), “For labor political strikes against the war!

Outside the New York forum another long-time SL cadre argued that Spartacist had not called for labor strikes against the Vietnam War at first, because it would not have had “resonance” then. IG members responded that it would have been perfectly correct to call for labor strikes against the Vietnam War in 1965. 

These were clearly not chance remarks, but a political line: the SL was not calling for labor action against Washington’s latest war moves. So when the forum was given again in Boston on March 30, in the discussion period an IG speaker attacked the SL’s new policy, saying: “What is this ‘resonance’?  It is bowing down before the accomplished fact. The ICL [International Communist League] abstains from concrete struggle against U.S. imperialism’s social-patriotic trade-union bureaucracy.” 

A Spartacus Youth Club supporter responded that “you couldn’t call for labor strikes against the war” as the U.S. went up to the brink of war with Iraq. Why? Because, “if you talk to the workers, most of them supported the bombing.” The Spartacist speaker at the forum, Joseph Seymour, went on:

“Why just limit yourself to something piddling like labor strikes against the war? Why don’t you call for insurrection now? After all, what would a labor strike against the war be? A more or less effective protest. That’s not a defeat for U.S. imperialism.
“We don’t call upon workers to do stuff where they’ll say ‘you’re crazy.’ When we call for things we’re serious about it.”

The SL’s national organizational secretary, also present at the Boston meeting, raised the same objection: “When you raise these demands, you have to be serious.” Over the Vietnam War, Seymour argued, the SL didn’t call for labor strikes until 1967, when the mood in the U.S. army was mutinous and the ghettos were aflame with unrest. To call for labor strikes today would be “adventurist” and would “discredit” revolutionaries.

What does it mean to say that it is wrong to call for concrete workers action against imperialist war moves because this would not have “resonance”? It means that the workers don’t want to hear it, so the SL won’t say it. This is the classic argument for opportunism: tailing after the existing consciousness of the workers, which is bourgeois consciousness. In this case, it’s even worse, because the SL is tailing its own defeatist caricature of that consciousness. It’s not true that American workers in 1998 were all for bombing Iraq. In fact, the Clinton administration was having a hard time convincing anyone, from imperialist allies to the U.S. population, to back its plans to bomb Iraq.

Today, poll after poll shows that three-quarters of the American population doesn’t trust “their” government. It’s called the “Vietnam syndrome,” and more than 20 years after the end of that losing imperialist war, U.S. rulers still haven’t been able to kick it. As Clinton’s threats to unleash massive bombing against Iraq escalated, there was rapidly mounting opposition in the United States. And elsewhere in the world, the U.S. threats to rain death on Iraq were hardly popular.

It is also not true that calls early on for labor political strikes against the Vietnam War would not have found “resonance” in sections of the working class. Already by late 1965, there was considerable sentiment against the war in the United Auto Workers; in Chicago, protests against the war were organized out of the union hall of the Meat Cutters and Butcher Workmen; and on the West Coast, a delegation from the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) Local 34 participated in the 20 October 1965 Vietnam Day march in Oakland.

Nor is it true, as WV No. 687 claims, that “In fact, the SWP was not able to consummate a popular front with bourgeois politicians like [Indiana senator Vance] Hartke in 1965, because at that point no significant bourgeois politician opposed the war.” In fact, already by that time significant sectors of the U.S. ruling class were worried about getting “bogged down” in Vietnam. Following the February 1965 U.S. bombing of North Vietnam, Oregon Senator Wayne Morse came out against the war, as was noted in 17 April 1965 Spartacist “Statement on Vietnam” (included in the first bound volume of Spartacist). Shortly after, Alaska senator Ernest Gruening began speaking at anti-war protests. 

No SWP-brokered popular front in 1965, says the Spartacist League in 1998? Here’s what the SL wrote three decades ago: “The first major test of how far the SWP-YSA  was willing to go to implement their ‘pop-front’ strategy came during the NYC preparations for the October 1965 International Days of Protest.... To further strengthen its ‘pop front,’ the SWP began wooing the Stalinists in debates across the country” (see “Anti-War Sellout” in Spartacist No. 10, May-June 1967). But this is not an arcane debate about dates, it is about program. WV’s ham-handed attempts at historical falsification are intended to justify the SL’s new line of abstaining from the struggle to mobilize the workers in action against the war moves of “its own” bourgeoisie.

As Trotsky noted in discussions on the 1938 Transitional Program, “The program must express the objective tasks of the working class rather than the backwardness of the workers.” When Karl Liebknecht voted against war credits to the Kaiser’s government in December 1914 and the Gruppe Internationale was founded by only four leaders of German social democracy–Liebknecht, Rosa Luxemburg, Franz Mehring and Clara Zetkin–their call did not immediately find “resonance” among the German workers, who were caught up in the war hysteria. The first antiwar demonstrations in Germany, in April 1915, consisted of a few hundred women gathered in front of the Reichstag. Yet workers’ consciousness can develop rapidly under the impact of historic events.

When Liebknecht was tried before a court martial for his revolutionary opposition to the imperialist war on 28 June 1916, some 55,000 Berlin workers went out on strike. A second strike against the war took place in April 1917, influenced by the February Revolution in Russia, again drawing about 50,000 workers in the German capital. In February 1918, a mass anti-war strike broke out involving more than half a million workers in Berlin, lasting for an entire week, leaving six workers dead and thousands of strikers drafted. This did not end the war, but it was hardly “piddling.” In fact, it set off mounting opposition to the imperialist war and their example sparked growing anti-war sentiment among the troops and sailors, leading nine months later to the fall of the monarchy.

What is most significant about the SL’s new line against calling for workers action against the war build-up in the Persian Gulf until the workers are ready to hear it is how it dovetails with their increasing abstentionism and their open revision of the fundamental thesis of the Transitional Program, that the crisis of humanity comes down to the crisis of  revolutionary leadership. This is no longer “adequate,” says the SL today, because of a supposed retrogression in the consciousness of the workers movement that is described as “qualitative,” “historical” and “deep” (see “In Defense of the Transitional Program” in this issue). 

Now the SL argues that because the workers don’t yet “resonate” to calls for labor action against imperialist war moves, revolutionaries should not call for it. This makes clear the profoundly rightist logic of the SL/ICL’s new abstentionist course. The abstentionism and revisionism of the SL/ICL lead straight to capitulation before “their own” bourgeoisie. 

Spartacist CC members argue in Boston against calling for labor strikes because you have to be “serious” about it. The ICL international secretary asks where the Brazilian CLC resolution was actually passed. And in a letter (7 November 1997) attacking the comrades who formed the Permanent Revolution Faction in France, Parks wrote: “When we do propose tactics we are serious about proposing things that actually have a possibility of winning, and not posturing as the most militant windbags on the left” (see Internationalist special supplement, “Crisis in the ICL” [March 1998]). 

In France, this argument was raised in rejecting a call to put out propaganda calling for extending the French truckers strike, for the formation of workers defense guards, for turning the strike into an open fight against the popular front Jospin government. Now the same argument is used to oppose calls for workers strikes against imperialist war moves. Add it up, and in the guise of “seriousness” you have a capitulation by the SL/ICL to the bourgeoisie and its labor lieutenants, from France to the U.S. 

So for all the ICL’s talk of “economism” in attacking the PRF, the IG and the Brazilian LQB, redefining this concept to mean any active participation to fight for a revolutionary program in economic struggles of the working class, this latest capitulation by the ICL leadership is the real thing. Its new line opposed to calling for labor strikes against war moves is a genuine application of economism, which determines tasks by measuring the workers’ “moods” with the thermometer of tailism.

This worship of the accomplished (or invented) fact is then covered over with leftist verbiage, separating the fight to mobilize the proletariat against the imperialist war build-up today from the struggle for socialist revolution in the distant future. Lenin and Trotsky noted that for the pre-World War I Second International, socialist revolution (its “maximum program”) had been reduced to a subject for empty “Sunday speechifying.” For the SL/ICL today, on the road to “maximalist” social democracy, every day is Sunday.  n

To contact the Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International, send e-mail to: internationalistgroup@msn.com