Spectre of Shachtman as SL/LRP Centrists
Revolutionaries and the Test of War
The utterly reformist politics of the bulk of “the left” in the United States were laid bare. Once again, various social democratic, Stalinist and Stalinoid outfits devoted themselves to building an “antiwar movement” bringing together “everyone who wants to say no to Bush’s war,” as the International Socialist Organization put it. What that comes down to is offering Democratic politicians a podium and a “peace” program that the most mealy-mouthed liberal could support, while policing the “movement” to keep “militants” in line. This is an example of what Trotskyists refer to as a “popular front,” whose purpose is to chain the workers, minorities, students and leftists to one or another section of the bourgeoisie. Such class-collaborationist alliances are directly counterposed to sharp class struggle, and serve as a roadblock to revolution.
The pseudo-socialists who run the various competing coalitions try to lay low so as not to scare off the liberals. The Workers World Party, a Stalinoid group currently doing business as ANSWER (also via the International Action Coalition), organizes the more traditional liberal-left lash-ups, featuring former Attorney General Ramsey Clark and black Democrat Jesse Jackson. The Maoists of the Revolutionary Communist Party set up Not In Our Name (NION), a “peace movement” for the “me generation.” The social-democratic ISO specializes in campus peace groups. Despite the organizational wrangling, the coalitions are barely distinguishable politically with their social-patriotic slogans – jobs not war, books not bombs, no (American) blood for (Iraqi) oil. Yet they have often been outflanked on the right by the flag-waving “peace is patriotic” crowd, such as United for Peace (UFP) and Win Without War (WWW), who call for “UN inspections” of Iraq, “support our troops,” etc.
All of these coalitions (ANSWER, NION, UFP, WWW) pose as peace doves opposing the war hawks on the bourgeois political terrain. A headline in the ISO’s Socialist Worker (11 April) sums it up: “A look at the twisted priorities of Washington’s war machine: Guns vs. butter.” They say of Bush ignoring antiwar protests, “And he calls this a democracy?” (SW, 28 February) and wonder “What happened to the ‘liberation’?” (SW, 4 April). In the face of the relentless U.S. war drive, they lamely chant, “Stop the War.” But the liberals who talk of “our government” only worry about a losing colonial war. So once Baghdad was taken and it appeared that Bush could get away with it, the “movement” disappeared. The same happened in Vietnam as soon as U.S. troops were withdrawn, though the war lasted two more years. Sow bourgeois “peace” politics and this is what you reap. Their answer to the endless wars of U.S. imperialism is “2, 3, many antiwar movements.” They quibble about policy and priorities instead of a revolutionary fight to bring down the capitalist system that generates the wars.
To the left of the reformists and liberals there are a number of groups which criticize the politics of the leaders of the “antiwar” movement. Two of them are debating in New York City on May 10, the Spartacist League (SL) and the League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP). Both say they defend Iraq against the U.S. invasion, they talk of socialism and workers revolution, and claim to be Trotskyists. However, in both cases they are centrists whose words do not match their deeds, and who do not present a revolutionary class opposition to the imperialist war. In important ways, they conciliate “their own” capitalist rulers. Although the SL and LRP have disputes, one standing to the left of the other on different issues, they also have an increasing number of common elements, which may help explain why this debate is taking place. Interestingly, behind the opportunist stances taken by one and the other one can discern the ghost of the anti-Trotskyist renegade Max Shachtman.
LRP: Shachtmanism and Tailism
The LRP’s lineage, methodology and politics place it squarely in the Shachtman/Cliff “Third Camp” of those who refused to defend the Soviet Union against imperialist attack when the chips were down: Shachtman in WWII, Cliff in the Korean War, and the LRP at the onset of the second anti-Soviet Cold War. Today the LRP strikes a militant pose, proclaiming in a March 21 leaflet “Defend Iraq – Defeat U.S. Imperialism!” But in Afghanistan in 1980, where Trotskyists hailed the Soviet military intervention there against the counterrevolutionary onslaught of Islamic fundamentalist mujahedin (holy warriors) financed, armed and led by the CIA, the Shachtmanite LRP condemned Soviet intervention and refused to defend the Soviet army and the weak Afghan reform regime in what it pretended was a fight between “two imperialist superpowers” (see the LRP’s “Afghanistan and Pseudo-Trotskyism,” Socialist Voice, Summer 1980).
The May 10 LRP-SL debate has been preceded by some polemics, in which the SL newspaper Workers Vanguard (17 January) takes the LRP to task for tailing after imperialist liberals in the “peace” movement and apologizing for Arab nationalism over the Palestinian struggle. The LRP responds with its usual classless paeans to “mass struggle.” To be sure, it criticizes Democrats like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton who appear on the podiums of “antiwar” demonstrations. But the LRP just wants to be up there on the platform with Jackson and Sharpton, giving a left cover to this class collaboration. Thus the LRP calls for building antiwar protests “to be built as genuine united fronts, where all voices are heard, including that of revolutionaries – not just those who support the Democrats and other pro-imperialist liberals. We also fight within the movement for proletarian leadership” (Proletarian Revolution, Spring 2003). In other words, the LRP declares that it helps build “united fronts” with pro-imperialist liberals who simply have tactical differences on the particulars of the war.
Where Trotskyists call to drive the bourgeois politicians out of protests against imperialist war, counterposing class war to their coalitions for class peace, these latter-day Shachtmanite worshippers of the mass movement want to get in on the action, “fighting” for “proletarian leadership” of these bourgeois “peace” coalitions. The LRP’s fundamental objection to the ISO/RCP/WWP crowd is that they’ve been left out in the cold. Not to worry, if the LRP behaves and doesn’t cause too many waves, the demo organizers will occasionally let them up there to spout off a little empty leftist rhetoric. The LRP, which was willfully blind to the class line dividing the Soviet Union from imperialism, doesn’t see it anywhere else either. It’s in the nature of Shachtmanism, and it would get in the way of their opportunist sidling up to the leaders of “mass struggle.” Their line on the antiwar pop front is the same as their line everywhere else. In New York City, the LRP has repeatedly called on Sharpton to organize protests against this and that, chanting his trademark slogan, “No justice, no peace” while occasionally adding “no profits” and tacking on a few criticisms of the Democrats as a fig leaf.
It’s all bourgeois pressure politics, and it’s the same program the LRP pursues in its work in the unions. Responding to the SL’s polemics, the LRP boasts of “our well-known leadership in struggles within trade unions,” which is a lot of baloney. What is true is that, in contrast to the SL, which hasn’t undertaken struggle inside the mass organizations of the working class in years, the LRP does do some. But their work in the New York City subways is essentially that of left-talking bureaucrats. In February 2000, the LRP gave “critical support” to the New Directions slate in Transport Workers Union Local 100, a bunch of out-bureaucrats who got into office by suing the union in court, and got its supporter elected as a mid-level bureaucrat as a quid pro quo. The LRP made some pro forma criticisms of the ND suit, but it doesn’t oppose dragging the unions into the bosses’ courts on principle. Both in 1999 and against last year, the LRP called for a transit strike. But when two track workers were killed on the job in one week, the “Revolutionary Transit Worker” did not call for union safety committees to close down unsafe areas, and did not fight for immediate strike action to shut the system down – a glaring failure considering that their main supporter in the NYC subways is a vice-chairman of the Local 100 Track Division. Our criticism seems to have struck a nerve, since they responded with a frenzy of silly name calling.
As for tailing after Arab nationalism, the LRP has been doing this for years. The LRP does in fact call for “united Arab struggle,” and even though it makes some criticism of Arafat & Co. (like it does of the leaders of the antiwar movement and the unions), this is a formula for “unity” with bourgeois Arab leaders – it can’t mean anything else. The particular bone of contention in its polemic with the SL was the LRP’s call on Arab governments to “put up or shut up – send arms to the Palestinians!” It argues that this was a “tactical exposure slogan,” to expose the refusal of Egypt or Iraq to send guns to the intifada. But if the Arab bourgeoisies did send arms to the Palestinians, as they have in the past and Israel claims Iran recently attempted to do, how does that expose them? As opposed to the bourgeois politics of pan-Arabism pushed historically by former Egyptian leaders Gamal Abdel Nasser et al., the working masses of the Arab countries can assist the embattled Palestinians only if they wage revolutionary class struggle against their own bloody bourgeois rulers.
Particularly interesting in all this is the LRP’s explanation that it had previously opposed the call on Arab capitalist governments to arm the Palestinians, but that it dropped its opposition because the “mass protests in solidarity with the Palestinians that swept the Arab states, burdened by illusions in their rulers’ potential opposition to imperialism, showed us that we were mistaken”! So if nationalist and Islamic fundamentalist-led protests lead Arab masses to pressure their bourgeoisies, the LRP goes right along! This is a chemically pure expression of the tailism that is the lodestar of the LRP’s politics: the masses’ illusions spoke, and the opportunists answered. The LRP talk of “united Arab struggle” is a call to return to the more militant posturing of the Arab nationalists of yesteryear. It also consciously excludes the Hebrew-speaking workers of Israel; and the LRP’s line that they have no national rights can only assist the Zionist rulers. The revolutionary proletarian program in this pivotal region is to defend the Palestinian people and fight for Arab-Hebrew workers revolution, for a common workers state in a socialist federation of the Near East. This is the program of the Internationalist Group and League for the Fourth International.
Where Is the ICL Going?
In fact, since the 11 September 2001 indiscriminate attack on the World Trade Center, the SL/ICL has not raised the slogan for the defeat U.S. imperialism in its war on Afghanistan and now Iraq. This places the SL to the right of the LRP on the Iraq war. It is also in direct contradiction with the SL’s position on the Gulf War of 1990-91, when Workers Vanguard ran numerous headlines calling to “Defeat U.S. Imperialism, Defend Iraq!” (WV Nos. 516, 517, 518, 519). Before that it called to “Break the Blockade of Iraq! Defeat U.S. Imperialism!” (WV Nos. 512, 513). No more. To be sure the SL/ICL are still centrists and they call to defend Iraq, and after several weeks of hesitation in the fall of 2001 they called to defend Afghanistan against the imperialist attack. But what does defense of Iraq mean if it is not connected to a conscious struggle for the defeat of the imperialists, in Iraq and “at home”? The SL’s paper “defense” of Iraq is essentially empty of content: WV neither called on Iraqis to resist (and barely mentioned it when they did) nor did it call for workers boycotts of war materiel and workers strikes against the war until after they had already occurred.
In 2001 and 2002, WV positively frothed at the mouth in attacking the Internationalist Group and League for the Fourth International for calling for defeat of U.S. imperialism. First they claimed that our call “partakes of the view” that “imperialism is a ‘policy’ which can be altered by means of pressure, presumably by some ‘movement’ on the streets,” such as the antiwar parades. Simultaneously, it accused us of “Playing the Counterfeit Card of Anti-Americanism” and pandering to “‘Third World’ nationalists for whom the ‘only good American is a dead American’”! Accusing the IG of “anti-Americanism” in the middle of a war was a vicious smear that “partakes of” McCarthyite and Stalinist red-baiting of Trotskyists. Beyond that grotesque quality, it is quite remarkable that over the past two years, as the U.S. attacks and occupies first Afghanistan and now Iraq, the SL/ICL and the American bourgeois press have this obsession about combating “anti-Americanism.” The LFI has fought politically against Third World nationalism while solidarizing with just outrage against Yankee imperialist oppression of semicolonial countries. We have polemicized against pseudo-leftists in Europe who denounce only U.S. imperialists, while exonerating and even appealing to the likes of Chirac in France and Schröder in Germany. But we do so in underlining our fight to defeat “our own” imperialist rulers and their war.
Not so the SL, which accuses the IG/LFI of “rrrevolutionary phrasemongering.” WV (17 January) sneers that over Afghanistan “the IG loudly and indignantly took us to task for supposedly ‘flinching’ in the face of jingoist war-mongering because we did not emblazon ‘Defeat U.S. Imperialism!’ across the front page of Workers Vanguard.” Buried deep in the inside pages of the same issue, in a speech by WV editor Alan Wilde, we read: “Now, why do we fight for the defeat of U.S. imperialism in this and all its military adventures?” Oh, do they now? Much of the speech is devoted to explaining why it was okay for Lenin to call for a policy of revolutionary defeatism in World War I, but it’s not for them today. “Revolutionary defeatism (that is, fighting for the defeat of all belligerent powers in a war through socialist revolution) and revolutionary defensism (standing for the military defense of a backward country against an imperialist or predatory power) are generalities that help to guide Marxists, but they are not dogmas,” the speaker sagely observes.
Where have we heard that before? This is the classic subterfuge of those who would revise the revolutionary policy of Marxism. And the SL is not alone in its aversion to forthrightly calling for defeat of its own imperialism. In a pamphlet on Afghanistan, Islam and the Revolutionary Left (February 2002) Peter Taaffe, the leader of Britain’s Socialist Party, writes:
“To call baldly and crudely for the ‘defeat of US imperialism’ and its coalition allies as an agitational slogan is wrong. When Lenin used the term ‘revolutionary defeatism’, as Trotsky subsequently explained, it was in order to clearly delineate revolutionary Marxism from opportunism following the betrayal of the German social democracy and their opportunist international co-thinkers at the beginning of the First World War. It was primarily a policy for the cadres to draw a clear line of separation between the revolutionaries and the opportunists. It was not a policy that could have won the masses to the banner of Bolshevism or to the revolution….
“Many ultra-left organisations are organically incapable of understanding the approach of Lenin, Trotsky and the Bolsheviks. They take what have been essentially formulations used within the Marxist movement to sum up, delineate and clearly differentiate one idea or conception from another as an expression of what should be stated publicly.”Not baldly or crudely but privately (or perhaps on the inside page of a newspaper somewhere) one can be for defeatism, says this arch-opportunist, but heaven forbid that it should be “stated publicly.” Any readers of the SL press will be struck by the similarities here.
Taaffe’s former comrade in the British Militant tendency, Alan Woods (now a leader of Ted Grant’s Socialist Appeal group), in his book Bolshevism: The Road to Revolution (1999) likewise denounces “the caricature of ‘revolutionary defeatism’ that is so often presented by empty-headed ultra-lefts,” claiming that Lenin considered it “a fatal error to confuse the way revolutionaries see things with the consciousness of the masses.” We might add that not only does the SL/ICL agree with Taaffe and Woods on deep-sixing the Leninist call for revolutionary defeatism, it also agrees with these out-and-out reformists in pooh-poohing any fascist danger in France or elsewhere (see “Pseudo-Trotskyist Lullabies,” The Internationalist No. 14, September-October 2002).
To justify its blatant revision of the Leninist policy on fighting imperialist war, the SL argues that since “Iraq hasn’t the military might to defeat an American invasion,” the SL’s call for “class struggle at home” is the “instrumentality” to achieve the defeat of imperialism, so it’s okay not to call for its defeat. Where did Lenin or Trotsky ever say that the slogan of defeat of “one’s own imperialism” depends on the military strength of the other side? In fact, they raised this call in innumerable cases (including impoverished Morocco vs. imperialist France, Ethiopia vs. Italy, etc.). As we have pointed out, when it comes to actual class struggle in the imperialist countries, the ICL has not fought to mobilize workers action against the war. We documented how the SL dropped the call for “hot cargoing” war materiel during the West Coast dock workers lockout last fall. WV responded with a lot of flim-flam about how they did too call for it (earlier), but finally admited that they dropped it, blaming the workers’ backward consciousness. In Scotland, train drivers refused to move munitions trains with cargo bound for Iraq in January, and the next month Italian unionists and antiwar activists blocked “trains of death” bound for NATO bases. The line of the ICL was not to fight for such actions beforehand but, as good tailists, to hail them after the fact.
The SL/ICL line on defeatism is not about “instrumentality” but about worship of the accomplished fact and bowing down before supposedly all-powerful imperialism, which are everywhere and always hallmarks of opportunism. And their tailism is not limited to the issue of the war, but now characterizes the SL’s approach overall. In the New York subways, while the LRP called for a strike in 2002 (as did the IG), WV did not call for a strike until after the workers voted for it. Moreover, with its new policy of “passive radicalism” (as Karl Kautsky characterized his own centrist politics), the SL has dutifully followed the dictates of the bourgeois courts. Thus when a New York judge in December 1999 issued an edict banning anyone from calling for a subway strike, the SL dropped its earlier strike call and put out a special leaflet calling to “Defend Labor’s Right to Strike” (see “The Fight for a Class-Struggle Leadership in NYC Transit,” The Internationalist No. 15, January-February 2003).
The Spectre of Shachtman
But beyond their differences, there are a growing number of similarities between the Spartacist League and the League for the Revolutionary Party. Behind this commonality stands the spectre of Shachtman. Recently, as the SL/ICL drops its longstanding programmatic positions on one issue after another, we have noticed that it has taken up in their stead a number of characteristic Shachtmanite positions. Thus in refusing to call for revolutionary defeatism in the present imperialist war against Afghanistan and now Iraq, it has taken over the arguments against this Leninist position put forward by the editor of the ISL’s newspaper in the ’50s, Hal Draper, in a three-part article on “The Myth of Lenin’s Defeatism” published in Shachtman’s New International between September-October 1953 and January-February 1954.
Draper’s long and convoluted piece (used as internal education material by the ICL recently) argues that Lenin’s call for defeatism was a conjunctural slogan inapplicable today. As the editors of WV borrow lines from Draper, they must know what they are doing. Shachtman’s sidekick argued that defeatism was turned into a dogma as part of the anti-Trotsky campaign in 1924 and “canonized” by Stalin in 1928, and that in the 1930s Trotsky, who had opposed Lenin’s line in World War I, now wishing to appear orthodox, tried to sidestep this by “bowdlerizing” Lenin and “juggling words” to redefine defeatism to mean not “wishing defeat” for “one’s own country” in imperialist war (as Lenin argued) but instead referring to “military defeat resulting from the growth of the revolutionary movement.” And Draper ends his article saying:
“Bury the dead. The tradition of Lenin’s defeatism was born in a political mistake in 1904-5; it was revived in confusion in 1914, to be shelved without stock-taking in 1917; it was revived in malice and reaction in 1924; it was turned into a hollow phrase by ‘explaining away’ in the ’30s; it was ignored in the ’40s; and now in the ’50s any war policy based on it can only be disorienting – or worse. It can only stand in the way of a clear, ‘full,’ uncompromising Marxist anti-war position, the position of the Third Camp.”The Shachtmanite “Third Camp,” as we have written, was only a way station on the road to the “first camp” of support for imperialism.
Discussing the ICL’s post-1995 discovery that the Stalinists supposedly “led” the counterrevolution in East Germany and the Soviet Union during 1989-92, and were allegedly poised to do so again in China, we noted that this was fundamentally counterposed to the Trotskyist analysis of the Stalinist bureaucracy as an unstable layer that capitulates to the pressure of imperialism, preparing the way for and opening the door to capitalist restoration. The SL’s new line effectively wiped out the contradictory dual character of the bureaucracy, turning it into a purely counterrevolutionary force, we wrote, and pointed to the parallel to Shachtman’s 1940 discovery of a “Stalinist counterrevolution” that destroyed the workers state through “the seizure of power by a counterrevolutionary bureaucracy.” We headlined our article, “ICL Still Caught Between Shachtman and Trotsky” (The Internationalist No. 11, Summer 2001). First over Stalinism and counterrevolution, now over Leninism and defeatism: but these are not the only instances in which the SL has taken over elements from Shachtmanism.
At the core of Shachtman’s break from Trotskyism was his capitulation before American imperialism as it became the strongest imperialist power in the world before and after WWII. Similar pressures are at work today in the U.S.-dominated New World Order. In the 1950s, another example of the Shachtmanites’ progressive evolution toward outright embrace of U.S. imperialism was their line on Puerto Rico. We have written about how the SL abandoned its longstanding demand for unconditional independence for the U.S.’ Caribbean colony, which until the recent invasion of Iraq was the largest remaining colony in the world (see “ICL Renounces Fight for Puerto Rican Independence,” The Internationalist No. 6, November-December 1998). Basing themselves on the results of colonial plebiscites in which pro-independence forces received few votes, the SL now argues that it is only for the “right” of Puerto Rico to self-determination and no longer “advocates” independence. It turns out that the very same line was taken by Hal Draper in an article on “A Socialist Policy on Puerto Rico” (Labor Action, 29 March 1954), from which the “new” Workers Vanguard takes key arguments. Draper writes:
“The fundamental demand on behalf of the Puerto Rican people which cannot be argued away by any genuine democrat or liberal (not to speak of socialist) is the continuing right to self-determination. A U.S. socialist organization cannot put independence for Puerto Rico in its own platform…. An American socialist government’s duty would be to make it possible for the Puerto Rican people to express their desires in a free and unfettered vote on their relationship to the mainland…
“Independence, many Puerto Rican fear not without justice, would deprive it immediately of the benefits, which are now necessary to its distorted economy, of its present inclusion in the U.S. economic structure.”What this comes down to is an acceptance, supposedly in the name of “democratic” respect for the will of the Puerto Rican people, of the continuation of colonial domination of the island. Such “socialist” colonialism as advocated by Shachtman/Draper’s ISL in the 1950s and now by the SL/ICL today is a pro-imperialist policy contrary to everything Lenin and Trotsky stood for. It is directly counterposed to the program of the Communist International, whose famous “21 conditions” included requiring of parties in countries that possess colonies that they demand “that their imperialist compatriots should be thrown out of the colonies.” With their new line, the SL/ICL would not have made it past the door of the Comintern. And it should by now come as no surprise that the SL shares its social-colonialist line on Puerto Rico with the LRP. Indeed, the LRP’s article “Self-Determination, Independence and Revolution” could have been ghost-written by WV, for it contains identical phrases, e.g.: “Today, while we defend the right of self-determination, we do not advocate secession” for Puerto Rico (Proletarian Revolution, Winter 2000). In reality, it all goes back to Shachtman.
This is underlined by the fact that the same position on Puerto Rico is taken by the ISO, the other group in the U.S. whose heritage goes back to Shachtman (via the International Socialists). While the LRP and the SL pose as “hards,” the mushy social democrats of the ISO show where such lines lead. While the SL and LRP criticize the Democrats on the “peace” rally platforms, the SL no longer characterizes them as popular fronts (having now decided that this is impossible in the absence of a mass workers party) and for weeks uncritically praised black Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee, the darling of the San Francisco Bay Area pop frontists, for voting against war on Afghanistan (WV failed to mention that Lee voted for the $40 billion war budget).
We are reminded of Lenin’s remark in “The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution” (April 1917):
“Only lazy people do not swear by internationalism these days. Even the chauvinist defencists, even Plekhanov and Potresov, even Kerensky, call themselves internationalists. It becomes the duty of the proletarian party all the more urgently, therefore, to clearly, precisely and definitely counterpose internationalism in deed to internationalism in word.”That is what the Internationalist Group and League for the Fourth International has sought to do in raising the Leninist program for defense of Afghanistan and Iraq and defeat of the imperialist invaders. We not only call for but also have sought to organize, within the limits of our forces, working-class action against the imperialist war. We seek to build a party that embodies the revolutionary program of Lenin and Trotsky and fights to reforge the Fourth International as the world party of socialist revolution. n
To contact the Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International, send e-mail to: email@example.com