Response to “Left Voice” Supporters
Real Reds Don’t Bow
to Anti-Communist Bans
Students protest anti-communist Rapp-Coudert Committee’s witch hunt against instructors and staff at CCNY, Brooklyn and other NYC colleges, 1941.
Anti-communist bans and restrictions on free speech rights have been attempted by City University of New York (CUNY) authorities many times, from the 1930s down to the Board of Trustees’ push to curtail “expressive conduct” amidst protests (initiated by the CUNY Internationalist Clubs) against war criminal David Petraeus, the former CIA chief and Iraq/Afghanistan war commander they hired in 2013 as a sinister provocation.1 Sometimes they have succeeded for a time, but in almost all cases, determined activists have been able to either defeat these proscriptions outright or eventually overturn them.
Such censorship attempts are if anything even more alarming when carried out or backed by students or faculty themselves. This aspect features in historian Andrew Feffer’s recent Bad Faith: Teachers, Liberalism, and the Origins of McCarthyism (2019), which documents the role of liberal and even “socialist” professors in the infamous Rapp-Coudert hearings that targeted hundreds of “subversive” and Communist faculty members, students and staff at Brooklyn, Hunter, Queens and City colleges (today all part of the CUNY system) from 1940 to ’42.
In a previous issue of Revolution, we discussed the drive to impose blatant anti-communist censorship at an organizing conference on key issues facing CUNY faculty, students and workers, held in March 2019.2 As the faculty/staff union’s campaign for a new contract highlighted the unbearable inequalities of CUNY’s “two-tier labor system,” the “7K or Strike” conference was slated to discuss strategy and perspectives in the fight for a minimum starting salary of $7,000 per three-credit course for the over 15,000 adjuncts teaching most of CUNY’s courses. Yet as the date for the event drew near, intensive organizing efforts were disrupted by an anti-communist backlash against the Marxist activists who had initiated it – and it was suddenly demanded that participants adhere to an outright ban on all leftist literature. Of course, we refused.
CUNY Contingents Unite and CUNY Internationalist Clubs demand $7K per course for adjuncts at December 2017 PSC protest outside Grad Center.
Revolution’s report on these events included an account of the role of “Left Voice,” (LV – part of the international “media network” of a current that calls itself the Trotskyist Fraction).3 LV had allied with a grouping based out of the university’s Grad Center called “CUNY Struggle,” which had a track record of anti-communism and was the main force pushing adherence to the ban on leftist literature at the 7K conference. So, shamefully, LV helped ram through the anti-communist ban. After two Left Voice reporters spoke with comrades at a CUNY protest earlier this year, they exchanged correspondence with a CUNY Contingents Unite and Class Struggle Education Workers activist, whose 15 April letter to them is reproduced below. The title and footnotes have been added by Revolution.
I had asked whether you had read the materials on the leftist literature ban at the “7K or Strike” conference in the CUNY Contingents Unite bulletin.4 Having not heard back, I am responding to the points that [you] raised in reply to the email I sent on February 15, after our conversation at a PSC-CUNY protest. I am taking the time to respond in detail to your email, because I think that fundamental principles are involved here, and that clarity on such questions is crucial.
The basic points I would like to emphasize are:
(a) There was an actual ban on leftist literature at the 2 March 2019 conference. This was stated and reconfirmed in unequivocal terms. Such a ban violated the basic principles of workers democracy and hard-won rights gained and defended in struggles by generations of activists, notably at CUNY as referred to in my February 15 letter.
(b) The ban was embraced as a means of excluding the Internationalists, as it was clear that we would not go along with such anti-leftist censorship. No genuine leftist, let alone communist, could.
(c) The ban was virulently defended by the leaders of the “CUNY Struggle” group, notably its founder and central organizer Jarrod Shanahan, who also upheld the use of an anti-communist song by a band that [your letter] accurately refers to as white-supremacist, in response to the posting of a statement from a group of immigrant workers explaining why they could not agree to the literature ban.
(d) The role of Left Voice went beyond going along with the ban “without mentioning” it at the conference. In fact, James H. emphatically supported and justified the ban, in writing; demanded that “everyone” agree to adhere to it; and moreover demanded assurances that “every organizer of the conference agrees to respect the rules” there as a condition for his participation, when the “#1 rule” laid down was precisely the ban on leftist literature. This was not only explicit support to the prohibition of communist literature but a call for exclusion of those who did not agree to it.
And (e) Left Voice indeed did consistently promote CUNY Struggle (CS) specifically, including in the wake of the ban and of the methods CS used to impose it, as I will go into below. Left Voice has continued this as CS and its bloc partners formed “Rank and File Action” (RAFA).
Now I would like to go through the numbered points in your letter.
“1. Shortly before the conference was scheduled to happen, a time-limited vote happened to change the location from the GC to the People’s Forum.”
CUNY Contingents Unite first called for the conference in November 2018, initiating plans for it and building for it heavily over the following two months. In agreement with others involved in organizing for the conference, we reserved two large Graduate Center rooms where innumerable CUNY conferences have been held. In late January 2019, CUNY Struggle and its allies began to push to move the event to the People’s Forum. On 30 January 2019, the CS member who initiated that push posted a message to the “Adjuncts for 7K” organizing group listserv, stating that at the People’s Forum, the “#1 rule” would be that no “outside” groups could “pass out fliers, put them on the tables or sell newspapers. If anyone does, they will be removed from the space by staff immediately.”
It was because of this that the in-person 7K organizing meeting of 1 February 2019 passed a motion to “uphold the right of all in the labor and left movement to put forward their views, including by distributing or selling literature” at the conference. After that was approved, CS and its bloc partners pushed for a motion to move the location to the People’s Forum, which passed amid claims that no actual ban on left literature would be imposed. But on 2 February 2019, a CS member posted quoting the Forum: “to be as clear as possible. We do not allow for left political formations to distribute their newspapers or literature in our space regardless of where they fall on the left political spectrum.” After this, another CS leader administered the “vote” on the 7K listserv to override the principle of the right of all to distribute literature at the conference that had been voted three days previously. Subsequently, those identified as Internationalist supporters were thrown off the listserv.
“2. IG-affiliates were surprised to learn that the People’s Forum doesn’t allow literature to be distributed in their space.”
Correct, we had no knowledge of this until the CS member announced the ban (the “#1 rule”) on 30 January 2019. CS and its allies then went all-out to move the conference no matter what, unleashing a barrage of anti-communist vilification, red-baiting, “outing” activists’ affiliations and work locations, and treating African American comrades as “invisible,” as one of them noted. It was absolutely clear at the time that embracing the ban was being used as a factional club to oust the Internationalists. The tone for the hate campaign was set by postings such as those by Shanahan reviling us as “seasoned CUNY wreckers”; his response to an African American comrade stating “Some of us have read beyond the Manifesto. Cut the crap. Your behavior and that of your sect is the best evidence I can think of for the wisdom of PF’s policy,” designed to “keep unprincipled wreckers like you from doing what you do best” (3 February 2019), etc.
“3. IG-affiliated people representing various workers’ groups chose to not participate on principle, due to this ban.”
Due to the ban, CUNY Contingents Unite and Class Struggle Education Workers withdrew from the conference, on principle as you state. So did the CUNY undergraduate students from the CUNY Internationalist Clubs who had been scheduled to be part of one of the panels. So did Trabajadores Internacionales Clasistas (TIC), as well as the Laundry Workers Center (the LWC is not affiliated with the IG), both of which were scheduled to participate in a panel on “Other unions and immigrant workers organizing”; as a result, the latter aspect was eliminated from the conference entirely. A number of unaffiliated individuals, including by far the best-known scheduled speaker, also withdrew.
I will address points 4 and 5, on the role of Left Voice, below, but would first like to address point 6.
1964: UC Berkeley “on strike for free speech.” When administration banned “outside” political activities, historic Free Speech Movement erupted.
“6. Someone affiliated with CUNY Struggle used music by and supports the music of a white supremacist.”
A number of things are left out here. The “music of a white supremacist” was from the xenophobic “Cock Sparrer” band, which is part of the fascistic “oi” music milieu. This outfit is virulently English-nationalist, with a fan base of British football hooligans and songs like “England Belongs to Me,” including lyrics about “fighting all the way for the red, white and blue,” and other titles such as “Secret Army,” “Take ’Em All” (“put ’em up against a wall and shoot ’em”), etc. The song in question here rails against leftists who try to sell “your press” to put forward a “party line.” It was used by a CS spokesperson in direct response to the posting of the immigrant workers’ letter that explained why distributing “leftist literature” is vital to their struggles.
An adjunct wrote to the listserv, describing the nature of that band and its connections to fascist violence here in New York, where two leftists were badly beaten by fascist skinheads outside a Cock Sparrer concert after-party. In response to this posting, CS leader Shanahan wrote to the listserv on 21 February 2019 raging against the posting of these facts, calling for the adjunct who posted them to be “removed” from the listserv, proclaiming himself a “life-long Cock Sparrer fan” and upholding the xenophobic band as “a beloved fixture of working-class street culture.”
“4. James (with Left Voice) chose to still participate on his panel and still covered the conference in an article, without mentioning the literature ban.”
Left Voice did not mention the literature ban at the conference, where James H. was on a panel with the CS member who had first announced the ban, and another Left Voice editorial board member was on a panel with CS leader Shanahan.
However, Left Voice’s role regarding the ban was by no means confined to saying nothing on or against it at the conference itself or in articles on the LV site. To the contrary, at the decisive moment in the controversy, the day after CS announced that the People’s Forum did “not allow for left political formations to distribute their newspapers or literature in our space,” James H. posted to the “Adjuncts for 7K” listserv (3 February 2019) to “support having the event at the Peoples Forum” and “abiding by the policies of the Peoples Forum while using their space.” This escalated in his post on the following day, headed to “Sandor and All” (4 February 2019), demanding, “regardless of any other votes, or any seeming contradictions inherent in those votes,” that the conference be held at this venue that prohibited leftist literature, and that “everyone” agree to adhere to the literature ban, as a condition for attending the conference.
In that post he asserted: “This is not censorship, It is not a gag order, it is not anti-communist, and it is not a violation of any principals of workers’ democracy, as you suggest.” It most certainly was censorship, a gag order, and a violation of the most elementary principles of workers democracy. A ban on communist literature is an anti-communist ban. To deny that means justifying and facilitating such a ban, which was exactly what the Left Voice spokesman was doing.
Denouncing us for “railing against this simple rule” – i.e., the ban that had been announced as the “#1 rule” – he justified the ban as “obviously meant to create a non-sectarian environment in a space where they have probably had problems with sectarian groups.” And he wrote:
“I am sorry, but before I can proceed to provide my support for this conference, I need to be assured that every organizer of the conference agrees to respect the rules of the space. That’s a pretty low bar. Anyone who cannot commit to that should abstain from attending the conference. If organizers can’t agree to commit to this simple agreement and insist on attending, then I will not attend. It’s as simple as that.”
In response to a recent request from a Left Voice member for documentation, I sent these quotations and noted: “This posting by someone prominent in CUNY activism for quite some time, author of many articles on the topic, with some involvement in discussions on conference planning, and even claiming the political authority of being ‘also a Trotskyist,’ most definitely had an effect in fulsomely backing the drive to steamroll through ‘agreement’ to the ban – despite and against ‘any other votes’ and contradictions.” It wasn’t some random blip. Writing publicly about the controversy months after the conference, James H. branded us – echoing Jarrod Shanahan – as “wreckers,” while characterizing the Revolution articles on it as “a pile of shit.”
After hiring war criminal David Petraeus, CUNY tops repressed student activists, then tried to curb “expressive conduct.” Protests stopped them.
It goes on. In October 2019, the CUNY Struggle member who had posted the Cock Sparrer song in response to the immigrant workers’ letter published a “story” online about [CCU activist Sándor John] presenting “a leftist’s wet dream” against a “commie-ban.” The adjunct who posted the facts about the white-nationalist band is described as having “jumped in bed with Sandork” (sic); our papers are referred to as “your rags”; and the piece goes on: “Cock Sparrer sang, You get your press with a pocketful of lies.” The publication of this item was met with public approbation by James H.
“5. We (Left Voice) still sometimes cover and promote events in which CUNY Struggle is involved.”
It’s not a question of reporting on events in which some group happens to be involved. Left Voice has specifically promoted CS, as far back as the 2017 GC PSC elections in which it hyped the CUNY Struggle slate (see “CUNY, Where Do We Go From Here?” 20 May 2017). For its part, CS returns the favor, routinely promoting materials from what it describes as “our comrades of Left Voice.”
The mutual promotion actually increased immediately following the bitter struggle within the CUNY adjunct milieu over the anti-communist literature ban. In April 2019, a few weeks after the postings from Shanahan quoted above, he and another CS leader were featured as Left Voice launch party speakers (see “Left Voice Launches New Magazine in New York,” 10 April 2019). An LV interview then promoted Shanahan and other CS spokespeople as the voice of “Rank and File Revolt at CUNY” (13 April 2019). An LV piece on the PSC contract went out of its way to hail “CUNY Struggle, the rank and file caucus that launched the $7KOS movement” (25 October 2019). And so forth, continuing apace when CS and its bloc partners formed “Rank and File Action,” and each new RAFA gimmick is hailed by Left Voice.
One of the most significant of all these articles was published shortly after the ban: “What Is the Role of Socialists in the Unions?” (25 March 2019), in which LV’s founding leader denounces the “closed shop” or “union shop,” citing for this position CUNY Struggle’s two most virulent red-baiters: Shanahan and Andy Battle. Given their record and positions, it’s not surprising that they would oppose the closed shop – which the notorious anti-labor Taft-Hartley Law outlawed in 1947.5 What’s astounding is that a “Trotskyist” group would echo this too.
Regarding the query as to whether CUNY Struggle actually is anti-communist, this has been addressed above. I will just add here that, as described in the CCU bulletin on 7K, red-baiting was already a pattern for CS long before the struggle in 2019: it was how they responded to our emphasis on the importance of adjuncts voting “Yes” in the union’s 2016 strike authorization vote; and to our calls in 2017 for activists to forthrightly oppose threats made on the CUNY Struggle listserv to try to get the union decertified and to take it before the New York government agency that enforces the Taylor Law.
In your letter, you refer to the ban at the 7K conference as an “isolated event,” noting that there is no CUNY-wide or union-wide ban on distributing leftist literature. But just as we emphasized then, a terrible precedent was being set by imposing such a prohibition at a CUNY organizing conference. (When the “#1 rule” was announced, one of the ban’s enthusiastic backers wrote that it was going to be “refreshing” to have a CUNY event “without sectarian lit peddling.”)
But how and why had the freedom to distribute leftist literature become the established norm until that point? Because of the whole history of struggles to reject and defeat anti-leftist censorship – from CUNY in the 1930s and ’40s (when elements from the Socialist Party went along with anti-red censorship and purges) to the Free Speech Movement in 1964, to subsequent upheavals, down to the defeat of the CUNY administration’s attempts to limit “expressive conduct” in 2016.
Two last points that I think are important: The first is about the term “wreckers.” This is not just an insult or epithet, it is a phrase with a history, and a conclusion, namely exclusion. (The implicit logic: if they are just there to wreck, then throw them out.) It goes back to the time of Stalin’s Moscow Purge Trials of the 1930s against “Trotskyite splitters and wreckers.” But it isn’t just used by Stalinists; social democrats have used it, too, to get rid of “reds.” British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock railed against “wreckers” in 1985 as he drove out the Militant tendency and went after the British mine workers leader Arthur Scargill, leading Labour to scab on the miners strike. The term was used in the CUNY adjunct milieu in the same way, to justify excluding the so-called wreckers who had initiated the conference, i.e., the communists.
The second is that we don’t put an equal sign between CUNY Struggle (and its representatives in RAFA), whose spokespeople like Jarrod Shanahan positively revel in red-baiting, as you have seen, and Left Voice. Rather I would describe LV’s role, tailing and promoting such supposed “rank-and-file leaders,” as that of enabler and apologist for these anti-communists.
The issues I have sought to address here aren’t about an “isolated” event but about principles which (like that of the picket line) must be defended in the here and now, if they are not to be blotted out. Many groups today claim the legacy of Leon Trotsky. Yet those that sacrifice hard-won principles of the revolutionary movement, in their eagerness to get in on what seems expedient and popular at the moment, have no legitimate claim to it. Opposition to anti-communist censorship, and defense of workers democracy, are among the most basic of those principles.
Trabajadores Internacionales Clasistas members helped build unionization campaign of immigrant B&H workers, who marched on May Day 2017 calling to “strike against deportations.”
I am appending the letter from Trabajadores Internacionales Clasistas, followed by links to the CUNY Contingents Unite bulletin and Revolution articles referred to above.
* * *
Letter from TIC; Spanish original sent 8 February 2019, English translation sent 10 February 2019.
From Trabajadores Internacionales Clasistas to the organizers of “CUNY-wide 7K or strike conference.” This letter to you was discussed and approved at our meeting tonight. We request that you confirm to us that you have received this. A translation will be sent to you soon.
To those in charge of the “CUNY-wide 7K or strike conference and organizing day”:
We are writing to you because we have found out that the conditions of our scheduled presentation and participation at this conference have changed, given that now it is required that we accept and abide by a rule that specifically prohibits the left from distributing, selling or even “putting on tables” any type of literature, on pain of being “immediately removed” from the space where the conference will be held.
When we were invited to participate in the conference, we were very glad to accept, because we know that the struggle of the adjunct professors of CUNY, who are badly paid and are lacking job security, is connected in a thousand ways with the hopes of our own sons and daughters, and of so many immigrant families, of receiving an education that is worthy of them. We have gone to many CUNY marches to give our support and connect our struggles together. So when we accepted the invitation, we never imagined that this would mean accepting this kind of condition of exclusion.
The program of our organization and its very name, Trabajadores Internacionales Clasistas, show that we are a “left formation”. Our word and our program, our activities and our opinions, these we make known through printed materials as well as in presentations, speeches, etc. At this time that is the case of our fliers and our pamphlet being prepared on the struggle of the taxi workers, the ones about our demand for full citizenship rights, and about solidarity with the Mexican teachers, with the Haitian immigrants, with Ayotzinapa, and also with the new campaign of the women laundry workers.
Industrial Workers of the World speaker Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (later of International Labor Defense and Communist Party) addressing Paterson silk strikers, 1913. Acclaimed novel The Cold Millions (2020) is based on Flynn and other reds’ groundbreaking “free speech fights” across the U.S., including Spokane and Everett, Washington, where in November 1916 the bloodiest battle in Northwest labor history occurred, in which cops and deputies killed as many as twelve IWW “agitators.”
(Photo: New York Times)
We have never seen this kind of prohibition at the conferences and events we have participated in, notably at CUNY, which have always welcomed us fraternally and without conditions. Obviously, no such thing was demanded of us in March of last year at the “Conference in Defense of Immigrants and Muslims” that was held in the CUNY Graduate Center, where those speaking for the TIC were our compañeras the domestic workers Margarita and Rocío and the taxi worker Lucio, sharing the table with Mahoma López of the Laundry Workers Center, who is widely known in the workers’ movement for his role leading the Hot and Crusty/Brod Kitchen struggle. At that conference, we placed our fliers on a table, we gave out copies of them, and we invited people to become acquainted with them.
So how can we now accept being required to surrender the rights of workers’ democracy, for ourselves or for any other formation in the labor and left movement? These are some of the only rights we have in this society, which excludes us as pariahs, calling us illegals and criminals, and deprives us of almost every form of expression because it wants to suffocate and silence our rebeldía (rebelliousness or rebellion) against this exploiting system. Almost all the founders of our organization have been repressed, discriminated against, or thrown out of their jobs for not obeying unjust rules and prohibitions, when we try to organize unions, workers’ committees, protests against wage theft, against sexual abuse, etc. (things which require distributing fliers where it is “forbidden” to do so).
A labor movement conference is almost the only “space” in this society where we would assume the norm to be that these rights are respected, not violated. We do not accept violating the principle of workers’ solidarity. As workers with consciousness and dignity we do not give up our rights, nor those of anyone else – not to anyone, much less to you. ■
“Ni ilegales, ni criminales, somos obreros internacionales”
- Charlie M., TIC, student at Hostos Community College from 2006 to 2011; fired (from Hot & Crusty restaurant) for being vice president of the Hot & Crusty Workers Association, 2012
- Antonio E., TIC, dismissed from Vegetable Garden restaurant when it closed in reprisal for the formation of a workers’ committee, 1996
- Lucio, TIC, taxi worker
- Rocío, TIC, house cleaning worker
- Margarita, TIC, house cleaning worker, fired after asking for higher pay
- Daniel, TIC, taxi worker
- Lizette, TIC, fired after asking for payment of back wages in a NY laundry
– February 8, 2019
P.S. Comment by Rocío: It is ironic that people from a casa de estudios (educational institution) would carry out this ban.
- 1. See “David ‘Death Squad’ Petraeus, Out of CUNY Now!” and other articles in Revolution No. 10, October 2013, and “Would-Be Witch Hunters Cannot Silence Protest at CUNY,” November 2015.
- 2. See “Massive Class Struggle Needed to Win ‘7K’ for CUNY Adjuncts” and “How They Rammed Through Anti-Red Ban,” Revolution No. 16, May 2019.
- 3. See “Left Voice of Social Democracy,” The Internationalist No. 50, Winter 2017.
- 4. This refers to the CCU bulletin “For a Class-Struggle Strategy in the Fight Against Adjunct Poverty” (April 2019).
- 5. “Closed shop” union contracts specify that union membership is a condition of employment. In the U.S., as part of the backlash against the post-World War One strike wave and the Russian Revolution, “the red scare was the heart of the open-shop drive of the National Association of Manufacturers,” which worked with American Legion vigilantes “in the breaking of strikes, and in the saving of the country from the Bolshevism of the closed shop,” notes left labor history classic Labor’s Untold Story by R. Boyer and H. Morais (1955). The hated Taft-Hartley law was passed by Congress after the post-WWII strike wave as part of waging the Cold War on labor and reds “at home.”