“Heterogeneous Movement” or
Revolutionary Class Struggle?
Why History Matters in the
Fight for Abortion Rights
Karl Liebknecht (left), at 1918 Berlin rally, and Rosa Luxemburg (right), addressing meeting during 1907 Stuttgart Congress of the Socialist International. Revolutionary internationalists imprisoned for opposing imperialist World War One, Karl and Rosa were murdered in 1919 at the behest of Social Democratic leaders.
The abortion rights crisis highlights a point revolutionaries consider crucial: political clarity is essential for action that advances the cause of the oppressed.1 Thus genuine revolutionary education has always included learning to unravel significant political differences on the left. Today, as since the origins of the Marxist movement, it’s an important part of the work of organizing and agitating for a revolutionary future.
An often-cited motto goes: “Educate, agitate, organize.” Some reformist groups repeat this today, but the slogan’s origins lie in efforts to propagate (publish “propaganda” for) Marxist ideas in the late 1800s. Radical artist and poet William Morris and other leftists put it forward when they set up a group for that purpose in Britain; Karl Marx’s youngest daughter, Eleanor, soon became a leading member. Liking the motto, Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin used it in one of his earliest polemical pamphlets (exposing populist leftists),2 in which he quoted the German version popularized by veteran Marxist organizer Wilhelm Liebknecht.
A historic leader of revolutionary internationalist youth work was Liebknecht’s son Karl. He became a close comrade of Rosa Luxemburg, who was famous in the Marxist movement worldwide for her devastating attack on reformism and “the opportunist method,” Reform or Revolution (1900). Imprisoned for opposing the imperialist First World War, which the opportunist leaders backed, Karl and Rosa were later killed in January 1919 on their orders.
Practitioners of the Opportunist Method
To get to the bottom of differences on the left that shape counterposed approaches to the abortion rights struggle, it’s important to grasp a basic, long-standing fact about the U.S. left: what most of it keeps trying to do, on one burning issue after another, is pressure the Democratic Party. This characteristic American application of what Rosa Luxemburg called the opportunist method went into overdrive in recent years.
It takes a range of forms among different groups and currents. Numbers-wise, the biggest is the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), whose reason for existing is to rejuvenate and rope people into U.S. imperialism’s Democratic Party. (For a brief period, some tried to claim that wasn’t the case, but few stick to such pretenses today.) While the DSA has generally taken a back seat in recent abortion rights protests, its growth amidst Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns and the 2016 election of Donald Trump had a big influence in accentuating and deepening the opportunism of the bulk of the left.
We of the Internationalist Group/Revolutionary Internationalist Youth have forthrightly told the truth about the DSA all along, including when youth enthusiasm over its icons Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez et al. was at its height. In contrast, seeking to grow organizationally by ignoring basic principles of Marxism they claimed to uphold (like the political independence of the working class), a spectrum of groups to the left of the DSA opportunistically jumped on the bandwagon, helping spread illusions in the Democratic (Party) Socialists of America. Those groups include Socialist Alternative, the International Marxist Tendency and others.3
Then there is the grouping called Left Voice (LV), affiliated with an international current that calls itself the Trotskyist Fraction (FT from its initials in Spanish), whose main claim to fame is its role in a left electoralist front in Argentina. As the DSA’s growth spurt took off after Trump’s election, LV too sought to benefit from the illusions this entailed. As a number of LV members joined the DSA (heading up its New York Socialist Feminist Working Group for a while), they published pieces like “Anti-Trump Elections Signal Opening for Socialist Politics” (Left Voice, 10 November 2017), which begins with a blurb stating: “Progressive candidates and even socialist candidates did well in Tuesday’s election. How can we use this to build a mass socialist movement?”
There was nothing in the slightest bit “socialist” about these candidates, DSA Democrats who help chain workers and youth to U.S. imperialism’s Democratic Party of war and repression. But seeing a spike in enthusiasm for them in 2017, LV sought to “use this to build” its own niche. In pursuit of that goal, it combined leftist criticisms with helpful suggestions for the latest “movement” based on bourgeois politics.
This is the SOP (standard operating procedure) of a political current that since its origins has substituted maneuvers and gimmicks for basic Marxist principles.4 The modus operandi is to present a package of opportunist politics and practices inside a shiny wrapper of “revolutionary” images and phrases.
Reformist Coalitionism on Abortion Rights
Today, LV hopes that applying this modus operandi to the issue of abortion rights will help it hit the big time. While seeking to carve out a niche a bit to the left, it upholds the strategy of building a “mass heterogenous [sic] movement,” pointing to the “green wave” for abortion reform in several Latin American countries (“We Need a Mass Movement for Abortion Rights and We Need It Now,” Left Voice, 4 September 2021). This cannot mean anything but class collaboration. That is what it has meant in Latin America.5 And that’s what it means in the U.S. context.
Democratic National Convention, July 1972. NYC Congresswoman Bella Abzug (in hat), Ms. magazine founder (and CIA “asset”) Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan (speaking) at Women’s Caucus meeting. Earlier that year, they featured as endorsers of the popular-front Women’s National Abortion Action Coalition built by the ex-Trotskyist SWP.
Let’s take a look at how this plays out. When the draft decision overturning Roe v. Wade was leaked in May, the Democratic Party moved into high gear to use this to round up votes, particularly for the midterm elections. Non-profits and NGOs (“non-governmental” organizations) loyal to the Democrats built on previous such efforts like the Women’s March held after Trump’s election in 2017. On May 14, they organized protests around the country, including a large “Bans Off Our Bodies” protest in New York City, called by Women’s March, MoveOn, etc., which marched across the Brooklyn Bridge. The Internationalist Group and Revolutionary Internationalist Youth did not march in this pro-Democrat mobilization, instead selling our revolutionary press with literature tables under the banner “Free Abortion on Demand – Women’s Liberation Through Socialist Revolution – Break with the Democrats, Build a Workers Party.” We distributed a leaflet headlined “To Win Abortion Rights Fight, Pro-Democrat Marches Are a Dead End,” which emphasized:
“Democrats are ‘faux’ friends of women. This party of war and mass incarceration seeks women’s votes, but buries legislation to defend their rights. As Internationalist youth emphasized at recent speak-outs in New York and Los Angeles, what’s needed is mass mobilization bringing out the power of the multiracial working class, fighting for the full and unrestricted right to abortion. For free abortion on demand!”
In contrast, Left Voice and several other groups built a “Socialist Feminist contingent of the #BansOffOurBodies protest,” marching in the May 14 pro-Democrat demonstration in NYC. The contingent centered on a political bloc between LV and Socialist Alternative (SAlt). A much bigger, aggressively reformist group, which has partly joined the DSA, SAlt is best known for its frenetic promotion of Bernie Sanders’ Democratic presidential campaigns. Many abortion rights activists are angry at the Democrats for not enacting a pro-abortion law, so LV carried glossy green printed banners reading “We won’t go back! For a federal law for free safe abortion on demand.” (It’s doubtful even LV actually believes free abortion on demand will be won by campaigning for such a federal law, which has a snowball’s chance in hell of going through the U.S. bourgeois political set-up, but the idea is to build on the illusions...)
The whole panorama at this march manifested the underlying political reality: pressuring the Democrats remains the name of the game. As they march in demonstrations tailored to the program and goals of feminist Democrats, LV, SAlt & Co. – despite sometimes vociferous critiques of the Dems – build a de facto alliance with them. As for LV’s bloc with the Bernie boosters of SAlt, it has continued, and was on full display on the platform during the large NYC protest their bloc built on June 24.
Lest LV claim that the above exemplifies unjust exaggerations by “ultraleft sectarians” (the standard opportunist term for actual Trotskyists), let’s take a look at what they themselves wrote on the day after the Brooklyn Bridge march.
On May 15, Left Voice published a statement that combined enthusing over the pro-Democratic protest with some left criticisms of its organizers. “This massive protest was part of the #BansOffOurBodies nation-wide day of action called for by the Women’s March Foundation and Planned Parenthood. These nonprofits that are allied with the Democratic Party were forced into action due to the immense rage and desire to mobilize by people all over the country,” LV wrote. It stated: “Despite what Planned Parenthood and the Women’s March organizers say, voting Democrat in November is a losing plan; voting Democrat hasn’t worked and it won’t work.”
But then came the actual political punchline:
“The non-profits, unions, and left-wing organizations who mobilized yesterday will need a national plan of action that includes more mass mobilizations, walkouts, sickouts, strikes, and direct action to defend Roe v. Wade.… [This] means demanding that Planned Parenthood and other non-profits put their immense resources at the service of a massive battle in the streets for abortion rights like we saw in Argentina and Ireland. That is the only serious plan of action to defend the national right to an abortion.”
–“Over 20,000 March in New York City for Abortion Rights,” Left Voice, 15 May
So while criticizing non-profits that the Democrats use to subordinate protests to bourgeois politics, LV then calls for making a “national plan of action” with those very same organizations, and for them to use their “resources” for (i.e., fund) the resulting movement. The call for class collaboration is clear. This kind of politics has major real-world consequences, as seen in innumerable social movements here (and in the 14-week limitation on the right to abortion gained in Argentina).
In all such cross-class, “heterogeneous” alliances, what is and isn’t acceptable to bourgeois forces will determine the direction, limits and eventual outcome of the movement. When some leftist language is included in the mix, its actual political function is to make pitches for class collaboration appear more palatable to those unenthused by standard liberal mainstream appeals.
Left Voice was founded not as an organization seeking to build a Leninist party on a clearly delineated programmatic basis, but as an “independent media outlet” giving voice to “activists with many viewpoints and from many traditions” – a kind of broad tent pitched to the left of the DSA’s while adjoining it. After carrying out a variety of entrism into the DSA, backing a red-banning clique that LV promoted as leaders of a supposed “Rank and File Revolt at CUNY,”6 and other exercises in rank opportunism, LV now hopes to get rich quick organizationally in the abortion rights milieu.
A striking aspect is that the opportunist method they apply in this effort is the same as what the ultra-reformist Socialist Workers Party did in the Vietnam-era antiwar movement, which Left Voice hails.
Some Lessons from the Vietnam War
Heroic National Liberation Front (“Viet Cong”) and North Vietnamese combatants fought and won against U.S. war machine. Vietnam’s victory against imperialism inspired workers and oppressed around the world.
In the U.S. left, the question of what political lessons should be drawn from the Vietnam War, and the mass protests against it, remains a key dividing line between reformism and revolutionary politics.7 The implications and lessons have remained highly relevant, and this is definitely the case today.
As the United States escalated its genocidal war against social revolution in the mid-1960s, and endless marches for “peace” failed to stop it, many young people began to grasp the nature of U.S. imperialism. Increasing numbers came to see that the war of the heroic Vietnamese workers and peasants was just, and to desire the defeat of “our own” rulers in Vietnam.
Reformist sectors of the left pushed back hard against this. They worked to build an “antiwar movement” tailored to bourgeois “doves” – capitalist politicians who, seeking votes, said they opposed the war – and the patriotic appeals to U.S. national interest that were the liberals’ stock in trade. This approach was nothing new for the old-line Communist Party, which echoed the fruitless appeals for peaceful coexistence with imperialism pumped out by the Soviet bureaucracy in line with Stalin’s dogma of “socialism in one country.” But in the antiwar field during the 1960s and early ’70s, the CP was often outstripped by the Socialist Workers Party (SWP).
Formerly Trotskyist but by then a stone-cold reformist organization, the SWP made building such a movement its trademark strategy. In 1970 they established the National Peace Action Coalition (NPAC). Calling for “the broadest coalition possible,” the SWP pitched this as a movement that would bring in all those who accepted the call for the withdrawal of U.S. forces (“Out Now”) from Vietnam. In other words, it was designed to be “heterogeneous” in class terms, uniting liberal bourgeois forces with ostensible socialists. NPAC was a popular front of class collaboration, made to fit the goal of bringing in bourgeois forces. Cynically, the SWP was then still claiming to be Trotskyist – but the program of Lenin and Trotsky is based on intransigent revolutionary class struggle.8
Through NPAC, the SWP reached what it saw as the big time, getting to share the platform with Democratic “doves” at mass demonstrations. This meant keeping everything strictly “peaceful, legal” and respectable, while anything that would challenge the class interests of bourgeois allies was denounced as “ultraleft.” Meanwhile, the insistence on “Out Now” as the common denominator for protests reflected the fact that some Democratic pols – and some liberal Republicans (there was such a thing back then) – had begun talking about withdrawal from Vietnam to cut U.S. losses as the prospect of defeat there grew. In this context, the nature and parameters of the official “antiwar movement” were going to have major consequences.
Starting in the late ’60s and early ’70s, right-wing Republican president Richard Nixon began withdrawing U.S. troops from Vietnam – while intensifying mass murder from the air through the intensive bombings first ordered by his Democratic predecessor Lyndon Johnson. The draft was winding down. And with more and more U.S. troops “out,” now the large-scale antiwar movement ebbed away. Its activists largely flowed into the presidential campaign of Democratic imperialist “dove” George McGovern.
The dirty U.S. colonial war against Vietnam was not “stopped” by the liberal/reformist antiwar movement, despite appeals to “Give Peace a Chance” and the sickly-sweet mythology we’re so often taught. The U.S. imperialists were finally defeated by the heroic Vietnamese fighters, and this defeat for imperialism was an enormous victory for the working class and oppressed people all around the world. Upholding Vietnam-era coalition politics as a supposed model for radicals isn’t just drawing wrong lessons from past history today. What it means in practice is laying the groundwork and rehearsing the pretexts for class collaboration tomorrow.
Popular Frontism in Practice
Socialist Workers Party’s Militant (4 September 1967) launches social-patriotic presidential campaign of Fred Halstead. In sharp contrast, revolutionaries stood for victory to heroic Viet Cong. Halstead later headed SWP’s antiwar popular front NPAC, led goon squad against reds.
With the growth of a new women’s movement demanding an end to anti-abortion laws, the SWP sought to create a new “broadest coalition possible” in the mold of the NPAC popular front. In 1971, it launched the Women’s National Abortion Action Coalition (WONAAC). Here again, seeking respectability with Democratic politicians was key to the strategy. Thus, WONAAC helped set the pattern of tailoring language to “choice” while limiting demands to “Repeal All Abortion Laws” – rather than unrestricted, free abortion on demand.
As 1972, an election year, began, WONAAC’s endorsers list was headed up by liberal Democrat Bella Abzug. It also featured prominent Georgia Democrat Julian Bond as well as Shirley Chisholm, who like Abzug was a congresswoman from NYC (Chisholm unsuccessfully sought the Democratic presidential nomination that year), together with the Southern California branch of the Women’s Political Caucus, “Dear Abby” advice columnist Abigail Van Buren – and two of the bourgeois feminism’s most famous icons: Betty Friedan and Ms. magazine founder Gloria Steinem.9
In July of that year, Abzug, Friedan and Steinem met up in Miami Beach at the 1972 Democratic National Convention. There, floor leaders of liberal South Dakota senator George McGovern’s quest for the party’s presidential nomination quashed all efforts to include a reference to reproductive rights (even when omitting the word “abortion”) in the party platform, arguing that it would cost the candidate votes. When a woman delegate interrupted a speech by McGovern to protest this, and he drowned her out, “Bella and Gloria stared glassily out into the room, as if they were deaf or entranced” notes Germaine Greer’s lengthy cover story on the episode in Harper’s Magazine (October 1972). As the convention went on, Friedan and others pitched in to give “tactical” cover for waiting ’til the next convention, in order to ensure smooth sailing for McGovern (who got the nomination but lost to Nixon). Of course, abortion rights remained a political football for the bourgeois politicians. And in ’76, as discussed in our front-page article, the Dems’ made abortion opponent and Hyde Amendment backer Jimmy Carter their candidate.
As for WONAAC, to the SWP’s disappointment, it never got as much traction as NPAC. In part this was due to some of the SWP’s desired feminist bloc partners launching a red-baiting campaign that essentially read the SWP out of the abortion rights movement led by the National Organization for Women and National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (now called NARAL Pro-Choice America). After the Supreme Court’s Roe decision in 1973, that movement basically dissipated, except for the eternal push to vote Democratic. The Dems even abandoned the Equal Rights Amendment, which passed both houses of Congress in 1972, even though by 1977 the ERA had 35 of the 38 necessary ratifications by the states.
Yet the class-collaborationist model trademarked by the SWP in those years continues to resonate with opportunist groups today, including most of those falsely claiming to be Trotskyist. It’s really no accident that Left Voice repeatedly harks back to it.10 To pick one pretty incredible example, it used a long piece titled “Leon Trotsky Lives on in Our American Struggle” (Left Voice, 21 August 2020) to rhapsodize about how “the SWP was the force behind the largest anti-war mobilizations during the Vietnam War – organized on a clear anti-imperialist line without succumbing to the ultraleft sectarianism of some small groups....” Overcome with enthusiasm for the good old days of NPAC peace crawls, it says “the spirit of Trotsky was marching beside us.” Beyond ludicrous, this is grotesque. Not only was the SWP’s class collaboration with bourgeois politicians the opposite of what Trotsky stood for, but it regularly excluded forces calling for the victory of the Vietnamese Communists against U.S. imperialism from antiwar marches.
Another Left Voice piece (4 May 2020) goes out of its way to hail “Fred Halstead, a Trotskyist [sic], SWP leader, longtime activist at the center of the antiwar movement, and the party’s presidential candidate in 1968.” Author of the SWP’s official story of the antiwar movement, Out Now! A Participant’s Account of the Movement Against the Vietnam War ), Halstead was a key organizer and leader of NPAC. To say that he was a virulent proponent of its class-collaborationist strategy would be an understatement.
The same May 2020 LV article lauds the SWP for insisting that “Bring the Troops Home Now” and “Out Now” be the basis of its “antiwar movement.” It even characterizes these as “anti-imperialist slogans.” This is the logic of apologists for reformism seeking yet again to put a left spin on class collaboration. There’s a political purpose for prettifying this history: preparing the next round of such “mass heterogenous movements.” Additionally, the kind of politics pushed by Halstead’s SWP in the Vietnam era, which Left Voice advertises as a model today, can run into problems with youth who start checking out for themselves what Lenin and Trotsky stood for – and against. Slapping on a left-sounding label can sometimes divert them, at least for a while. (This too is from the SWP playbook: NPAC is no popular front, they swore; it may be a coalition with bourgeois politicians, but it’s ... a “united front”! And “Out Now” is ... “anti-imperialist”!)
As for Left Voice harking back to Fred Halstead’s SWP presidential campaign, this too speaks volumes. Halstead’s 1968 campaign was launched with a photo of him carrying a poster reading “Support Our Boys – Bring Them Home Now.” This was a classic example of what Lenin called “social-patriotism”: supposed socialists appealing to the patriotism pushed by their “own” bourgeois rulers. NPAC even made sure that its National Steering Committee included a number of bourgeois politicians; the most prominent was Vance Hartke, Democratic senator (1959-77) from Indiana.
But building a coalition with bourgeois forces requires clamping down on leftist opponents of class collaboration. In the summer of ’71, SWP/NPAC leader Halstead achieved a new level of notoriety on the radical left. It was then, during an NPAC conference held at Hunter College, that Halstead led a bloody goon squad assault against leftists – whom the reformist SWP constantly denounced as sectarians and ultraleftists – for loudly objecting to Senator Vance Hartke of the imperialist Democratic Party being a keynote speaker at the “antiwar” conference.
Against the SWP’s class collaborationism, genuine Trotskyists fought for “Labor Strikes Against the War.” Needless to say, this was anathema to bourgeois politicians. While the SWP hewed to “Out Now” in its quest to bring more bourgeois “peace”-talkers into NPAC, actual anti-imperialists refused to limit slogans to withdrawal and took a side in the class war of revolution vs. counterrevolution. Trotskyism – represented at that time by the Spartacist tendency – meant drawing the class line and raising the banner of “Victory to the Vietnam Revolution” and “All Indochina Must Go Communist!” Against collaboration with imperialist “doves,” revolutionaries explained that “our boys” were the heroic workers and peasants of the Viet Cong (National Liberation Front).11 And in that period, within even the ranks of the imperialist armed forces, growing numbers of working-class, African American and Latino soldiers and sailors were saying that the “other side” should win.12
The lessons of this history are of great importance today. Clarity on the political issues posed by these struggles is crucial. The call for a common “national plan” with Democratic Party “nonprofits” et al. (fueled by these bourgeois organizations’ “resources,” no less) has a long tradition – of class collaboration – counterposed to what is needed to win the fight for full abortion rights.
Our task is to help put into practice the Marxist program, as this is essential to defending the most basic rights – and gaining the actual liberation – of all the oppressed. That program highlights that winning the unrestricted right to free abortion on demand requires unchaining the power of class struggle. Breaking the chains that bind the workers and oppressed to politicians, parties and institutions of the ruling class is crucial in the fight for women’s liberation through socialist revolution. ■
- 1. This longstanding Marxist understanding was underscored by the first Trotskyist youth paper in the U.S., Young Spartacus, which, beginning with its first issue (December 1931), proclaimed “Clarity! Action!” on its masthead.
- 2. Lenin’s biting 1894 polemic against radical populism, then the dominant trend in the Russian left, is still instructive today; see “What the Friends of the People” Are and How They Fight the Social-Democrats (as Marxists were still known at that time). Lenin ends the pamphlet with a call for “open political struggle” to achieve “the victorious communist revolution” (all in capitals in the original).
- 3. See Internationalist Group pamphlets DSA: Fronting for the Democrats (2018) and Left Reformists in Existential Crisis (2019).
- 4. The FT’s origins are in the Argentine pseudo-Trotskyist current led by the late Nahuel Moreno, notorious in the Latin American left for his endless unprincipled maneuvers going back to the 1950s, when the “Morenoites” joined and helped build the bourgeois nationalist party of General Juan Perón. While the FT claims to have transcended Morenoism, its political outlook, approach and methods continually show that it has not.
- 5. In Argentina, partial legalization of abortion was carried out in 2020 through a bill introduced by the governing Peronist party. It was backed by the “Green Tide” movement led by bourgeois feminists, including followers of Argentina’s Peronist Vice President Cristina Fernández Kirchner, with the left in tow, including the Partido de los Trabajadores Socialistas, which leads the FT, and its “socialist feminist” group Pan y Rosas (Bread and Roses). In such “heterogeneous” class-collaborationist movements, the bourgeois elements hold the reins. The reform was a limited gain, but the 14-week limit on the right to abortion stipulated by the Argentine law is more restrictive than that of the Mississippi law (“Act to Prohibit Abortion After 15 Weeks”) approved in the Supreme Court’s recent decision overturning Roe v. Wade, and far less than the 23-24 week standard in the U.S. prior to the court’s reactionary ruling. See “The Struggle for Full Abortion Rights, From Latin America to the U.S.,” The Internationalist No. 66, January-April 2022.
- 6. See “How They Rammed Through Anti-Red Ban,” Revolution No. 16, May 2019, and “Response to ‘Left Voice’ Supporters: Real Reds Don’t Bow to Anti-Communist Bans,” Revolution No. 18, September 2021.
- 7. See “Vietnam: A Historic Defeat for U.S. Imperialism,” Revolution No. 15, September 2018, and “U.S. Imperialism’s War Crimes and Mass Murder in Vietnam,” Revolution No. 10, October 2013.
- 8. See Internationalist pamphlet, The Popular Front: Roadblock to Revolution (2007); and The Road to Peace: According to Stalin and According to Lenin (1951) by U.S. Trotskyism’s founder James P. Cannon.
- 9. Steinem, who founded Ms. magazine in 1972, was eventually exposed (among others by the radical feminist Redstockings collective in 1975) as a CIA “asset.” Her well-documented, years-long activities for the spy agency included fingering student leftists during the anti-Soviet Cold War. See Hugh Wilford, The Mighty Wurlitzer: How the CIA Played America (2008) and “‘Democratic Socialism’ in the Service of U.S. Imperialism,” in the Internationalist Group pamphlet DSA: Fronting for the Democrats (February 2018).
- 10. It is relevant to note here that up to the late 1970s, the SWP was closely aligned with Nahuel Moreno’s group in Argentina.
- 11. See the chapter on “The Struggle Against Class Collaborationism in the Anti-War Movement” in the 1976 Spartacist pamphlet Stalinism and Trotskyism in Vietnam. Established by leaders of the SWP’s Revolutionary Tendency expelled from the party in 1963-64, the Spartacist League (SL) upheld the Trotskyist program for three decades. Its sharp degeneration in the wake of the destruction of the Soviet Union later led it to abandon and largely renounce its own revolutionary past, and it currently seems close to collapse.
- 12. This is shown in the documentary Sir! No Sir! The Hidden History of the GI Movement Against the Vietnam War (2005).