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The Internationalist
August 2013

Abstentionism, Lies and (Somewhat) True Confessions

ICL Clueless and Gutless
in the UNAM Strike

In Their Own Words

In open defiance of threats by a bourgeoisie united against them, thousands of strudent strikers march on Mexico City’s main plaza, the Zócalo, on 4 February 2000, demanding freedom for the hundreds arrested by the militarized federal police. Two days later, police arrested hundreds more, breaking the strike. Nevertheless, the ten-month strike and occupation of the National University defeated the attempt to introduce tuition. (Photo: John Moore/AP)

Internationalist Group/LFI

“One organization which has played no role in the UNAM strike – which takes some doing, given the scope and duration of the strike – is the Grupo Espartaquista de México (GEM), section of the International Communist League. The GEM’s main activity during the strike at the University, which is its only arena of activity, has been the publication from time to time of leaflets with passive commentary from afar ... and mountains of lies against the Grupo Internacionalista....

“[T]he new line of the ICL which was spelled out in its desertion from the class struggle in Brazil was abstentionism and passive propagandism in the face of the hard blows of the class struggle. Its new motto is: when the class struggle gets hot, the ICL gets out. And here, too: as the government’s hounding of the UNAM strike intensified, the ICL demonstrated in Mexico the treacherous policy it first displayed in Brazil. When hundreds of students marched on the United States Embassy on December 11, the GEM was intentionally absent, even though it was the first big demonstration in Mexico for freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal.... And not by accident, the GEM once again was absent from the CGH ... at the session of February 6 when the police burst in, arresting a thousand students. For this rearguard, the water was boiling and it was time to pull their hands out....

“The GEM’s absences and slanders are not accidental. The key aspect of its politics is that it does not fight for revolutionary leadership in the struggles of the working people and the oppressed. True to this line, at the UNAM the GEM did not fight for a class-struggle program in the assemblies of the strike committees and the Strike General Council [CGH]. At most some of its members would occasionally drop by to read a communiqué, make a sale, and then leave.”

– “ICL/GEM Pull Their Hands Out of the Boiling Water,” in Internationalist pamphlet, Mexico: The UNAM Strike and the Fight for Workers Revolution (March 2000)

ICL Internal Documents

“After an early outburst of opportunism, the GEM leadership throughout the [UNAM] strike had a policy of sectarian abstentionism. The epitome of this came when on 29 January 2000 the GEM passed a motion ... that we not go on campus in situations of risk because ‘we could not substitute for the social power of the working class,’ i.e., the strike should have ended already. This social-democratic, demoralized position led to the GEM being absent when Federal Police occupied the campus and broke the strike.”

–“Conference Document,” Fourth International Conference of the ICL (December 2003), ICL International Internal Bulletin No. 62, February 2004

“[W]e basically abstained from the strike... We abstained to the extent we were foolish enough to follow the ‘priorities’ you [ICL International Secretariat] had imposed on us....

“On 17 February 2000, I wrote: ‘Our interventions at the CGH assemblies had become routine. We would get there, give a speech emphasizing the centrality of the proletariat, sell some lit and leave..’...

“We should have called for workers guards at UNAM. The IG took the initiative and actually made that happen....”

–“Can You Lead by Posturing? The I.S.’ Intervention Into the Mexican Section in 1999” (8 June 2004), by the main leader of the GEM, ICL International Internal Bulletin No. 67, August 2004

“When in current discussions with the IG they denounce us for having been absent the 6th of February, I can't avoid thinking that this day was a great mistake, but was only one day; with highs and lows our abstentionist and defeatist crimes lasted, directly under the eyes of the IS, almost ten months...”

–“On the GEM, the IS and the UNAM Strike,” ICL International Internal Bulletin No. 67, August 2004

Recently we have had occasion to refute the ignorant lies propagated by the International Communist League (ICL) about corporatist pseudo-unions in Mexico. We noted that, “With supreme imperialist arrogance (and ignorance) they claim that Mexico is no different than the U.S., that ‘unions’ with death squads killing scores of their members (over 100 teachers in Oaxaca alone) are the same as the Teamsters under Jimmy Hoffa” (see “SL on Corporatism in Mexico: Games Centrists Play,” The Internationalist, July 2013).

This incapacity to formulate and carry out a revolutionary policy for Mexican workers’ struggles is not an isolated phenomenon. It is a direct reflection of the abandonment by the latter-day Spartacist League (SL) and ICL of key Leninist-Trotskyist programmatic positions it once defended. We are now in a position to prove how in one of the key struggles of recent years in Mexico – the ten-month strike by students at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM) in 1999-2000 – the SL/ICL’s policies admittedly amounted to defeatist abstentionism.

We said so at the time, in a 64-page Special Supplement to The Internationalist, “Mexico: The UNAM Strike and the Fight for Workers Revolution” (March 2000). In addition to reproducing numerous leaflets issued during the strike and analysis by the Grupo Internacionalista, Mexican section of the League for the Fourth International, the bulletin included several articles detailing the SL/ICL’s flight from this momentous struggle, which they tried to shield through prevarication: “Workers Vanguard’s ‘Virtual Reality,’” “ICL/GEM Pull Their Hands Out of the Boiling Water” and “Lies By the Bushel.”

Now we can offer confirmation. You don’t have to take our word for it, you can read what the ICL and members of its Grupo Espartaquista de México (GEM) wrote for internal consumption. Their own words validate everything that we wrote about the GEM’s role (or non-role) in the UNAM strike 13 years ago, and give the lie to their own self-aggrandizing public claims, at the time and a decade later. They confirm that this policy came directly from the ICL leadership. And they confirm that by its own admission, the ICL didn’t have a clue about social reality in Mexico.

Yet these stunning revelations and soul-searching documents (four, five and six years after the fact, in response to a deep-going crisis and regime change in the ICL) didn’t stop the GEM from doing a repeat, when once again they did their utmost to be absent from the convulsive worker-student struggles in Oaxaca and elsewhere in Mexico from June 2006 on. This recidivism, repeating the crime even after it is exposed, is proof positive of the political bankruptcy of any tendency. It should spur any remaining revolutionary-minded militants in or around the ICL to do some serious reevaluation.

In a tenth anniversary retrospective “Marxist Analysis of the UNAM Strike of 1999-2000” (Espartaco, No. 31, Spring 2009), published in translation a year later as filler in Workers Vanguard (No. 958, 7 May 2010), the ICL wrote:

“During the course of our intervention in the strike – helping to extend the strike to the Universum [Science Museum] on the first day, defending the facilities, building barricades, intervening constantly in CGH [General Strike Council] assemblies – we struggled for a strategy centered on mobilizing the social power of the working class and against illusions in the bourgeois populism of the PRD.”1

What GEM members stated five years earlier is the opposite, giving the lie to these claims fabricated for public consumption. One wrote:

“the abstention from the UNAM strike implied in fact a capitulation to the anti-strike PRD…, an implicit conception that all democratic change must pass through the channels approved by the PRD, a negation of permanent revolution.”

–“On the GEM, the IS and the UNAM Strike” (21 June 2004), ICL International Internal Bulletin No. 67, August 2004

No one contested this, and the same was said in a GEM motion immediately after the end of the strike (February 2000). But these episodic confessions to the evident truth have been exclusively internal, in the service of pinning the blame on the scapegoat du jour, whether it be the GEM itself or disgraced ICL leaders. Soon enough it was back to normal, as internal “cannibalism” (their word) and ever-changing rectifications of rectifications produced reams of pompous obfuscation.

GEM on Itself: A Centrist “Obstacle” That “Betrayed” During Strike

The mass student strike that broke out in April 1999, against the attempt – ordered by the World Bank – to impose tuition at the National Autonomous University of Mexico was at the time the biggest social struggle in years to shake this volatile country. The scale of the battle was unprecedented: up to 40,000 students occupying the main campus, Ciudad Universitaria, at the high point, with mobilizations of up to half a million protesting repression. And unlike the heroic but isolated Mexican student struggle of 1968 – cut short when the army shot down hundreds of students in the October 2 Tlatelolco Massacre – it was also notable for the active support and participation by key sectors of the working class.

During the strike, despite being (very) few in number, the Grupo Internacionalista tirelessly put forward a class-struggle program to win the strike through mobilizing workers’ power. This required a head-on political fight against the bourgeois popular front, which subordinated the “independent” unions – and entire sectors of the UNAM strike leadership – to the populist politics of the bourgeois-nationalist PRD. It was the effort of the GI that got the powerful electrical workers union (SME) to send several hundred members to join in forming worker-student defense guards to hold off army intervention in July-August 2009.2

Grupo Internacionalista played key role in mobilizing workers defense guards of the Mexican Electrical Workers Union (SME) at the National University, July 1999. Banner reads: “The Electrical Workers Support the Demands of the University Students for Free Education.” (Photo: SME)

As we noted at the time, the ICL’s Mexican section, the GEM, had a policy of determined abstention from the struggle, rooted in political capitulation to the PRD, which led the forces seeking to break the strike. Far from representing the program of Trotskyism during the strike, the GEM was a centrist obstacle. And once again, it is striking indeed that in their own internal documents, the GEM and ICL confirmed everything we wrote about them at the time. One GEM member wrote retrospectively:

“a major opportunity for the implementation of our program and the subsequent transformation of our party was betrayed big time.”

‍–“From Treptow to the UNAM Strike” (12 June 2004), in ICL IIB No. 67 [emphasis in original]

Another commented bitterly:

“More than a lost opportunity, the abstention from taking any initiative during the UNAM strike was the worst political deviation in the history of the ICL in Mexico. The GEM was, in this sense, a small obstacle in the evolution of consciousness of the most advanced students.”

–“On the GEM, the IS and the UNAM Strike,” Ibid. [emphasis in original]

Even in 1999-2000, while sneeringly slandering the Grupo Internacionalista, GEM members knew they had screwed up badly – their own international leadership told them so, often after reading our exposés. But at the time, it was the GEM that was blamed, as a succession of high-handed international poobahs traipsed through the section finding “further evidence of our seemingly never-ending succession of betrayals and lies,” as the main GEM leader belatedly complained.

One such inspector wrote, accurately:

“The GEM has acted either actively or passively – in a classically centrist manner throughout the UNAM strike, that is revolutionary in words, opportunist in deeds.”

–from a report on a February 2000 inspection tour quoted in “On UNAM” (13 June 2004), in ICL IIB No. 67

Yet the origin of the abstentionist policy came straight from the ICL’s International Secretariat in New York. On the day the strike started (19 April 1999), International Secretary Spencer wrote to the GEM rejecting its request for reinforcements in view of the burgeoning protests against privatization and the introduction of tuition at UNAM. Instead, she said, the section’s priorities should be, first, to move one of two senior cadres to New York, and second, “TAKE IT EASY AND READ IN MEXICO CITY!!!” (emphasis in original).

But that didn’t stop ICL leaders from blaming the young Mexican leadership. At a meeting of its International Executive Committee in June 1999, the same International Secretary complained that the GEM had “capitulated to the students’ demonstrations or ... run and hid while the IG has grown” (quoted in “Can You Lead by Posturing?” ICL IIB No. 67, August 2004). Five years later, after Spencer had been deposed, a GEM member noted that the “conservative, sectarian and social-democratic attitude of the section was rampant and transparent to the IS,” but it “was out of the question” for the international leadership to take responsibility (“On the GEM, the IS and the UNAM Strike”).

Where Did It All Come From?

So how did this self-admittedly “disastrous” state of affairs come to pass? As a GEM member asked: “How did we go from being the party of Treptow which despite numerous problems, did act as a fighting propaganda group, throwing everything we had into intervening into a possible proletarian political revolution [in East Germany in 1989-90] to the sectarian response to the UNAM strike in 1999 where the IS turned its back and sabotaged one of the best opportunities we had in the ICL to intervene into social struggle?” (“From Treptow to the UNAM Strike”). Good question.

In the first place, the mass demonstration of a quarter million people at Treptow Park in East Berlin in January 1990 against fascist provocations, initiated by the then-revolutionary ICL, was a united-front action together with the former Stalinist ruling party. But in 1996, in order to purge cadres who were key to bringing you Treptow, a reconfigured ICL leadership declared that the Stalinists led the counterrevolution in East Germany. This line, raised by a host of anti-Trotskyist groups that backed the forces of counterrevolution, would have made the Treptow mobilization impossible. Yet as the ICL said at the time, after Stalinism paved the way, capitalist reunification was in fact led by the imperialist German bourgeoisie and its Social-Democratic lieutenants.

More broadly, the 1996 purge was motivated by a policy of headlong flight from the class struggle, from Germany and France to Brazil and Mexico. Meanwhile, the Mexican section was decapitated and its leaders expelled, joined later that year by expelled Mexican youth cadres. The expelled comrades founded the Internationalist Group in the U.S. and the Grupo Internacionalista in Mexico, sections of the League for the Fourth International. Their documents are available in our bulletin From a Drift Toward Abstentionism to Desertion from the Class Struggle (July 1996) and, buried in a mountain of slanders and smears, in ICL International Internal Bulletin No. 42 (August 1997) on Mexico.

Thus the Mexico purge was part of a broader drive to oust long-time ICL cadres seen as obstacles to a program of withdrawing from the class struggle, a program largely driven by demoralization in the wake of the destruction of the USSR and the resulting bourgeois triumphalism. The latter-day ICL has gone back and forth on the anti-Marxist claim that the Stalinist bureaucracy – not a class but a brittle, contradictory caste as Trotsky characterized it – supposedly “led the counterrevolution,” first extending this to the USSR and claiming the Stalinists were leading it in China, then declaring this (and the claim that “we were the revolutionary leadership” in East Germany) to be “polemical excesses in the heat of battle.”

Subsequently the SL (and ICL) dropped the call for defeat of U.S. imperialism over the invasion of Afghanistan following the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. This abandonment of the Leninist position on imperialist war reached its culmination when the SL/ICL supported the U.S. invasion of Haiti on supposed “humanitarian” grounds following the January 2010 earthquake. Although it later issued a shamefaced admission that this was a betrayal, it was not a momentary blip and was reflected elsewhere, as in its refusal to denounce the U.S.-engineered Honduran coup for over a year, even after “renouncing” its infamous Haiti line (see a series of articles on the SL/ICL’s social-imperialist line in The Internationalist No. 31, Summer 2010).

Contingent of the Internationalist Group at 2 October 1999 march commemorating 1968 massacre of striking students. "Break with the Cardenista Popular Front – Forge a Revolutionary Workers Party." (Photo: El Internacionalista)

In Mexico, three crucial positions had been key to building the GEM in the late 1980s and early ’90s: forging a “fighting propaganda group” to bring a genuinely communist program into crucial struggles, laying the basis for a Leninist party to mobilize the power of the working class against every form of oppression; upholding the Trotskyist position on the “Russian Question,” notably in the struggle against capitalist reunification of Germany; and the fight against the popular front of class collaboration subordinating key sectors of labor and the oppressed to the bourgeois-nationalist PRD. The GEM’s debacle in the 1999-2000 UNAM strike drove home how after the 1996 purges, all three of these axes were abandoned, resulting in massive confusion.

Having had their leadership decapitated, the headless Mexican section of the ICL spun around like a top, its members never knowing what was the right thing to do. Not long after the purge, the GEM suddenly declared that there was not, and could not be, a popular front in Mexico. This discovery was made just before PRD leader Cuauhtémoc Cárdenas took office as head of the Federal District government. So the GEM junked its signature position on the struggle against the popular front in Mexico precisely at the moment when that position became most crucial in practice – a pattern displayed with its other revisions. As we wrote at the time,

“In denying even the existence of the popular front, the leadership of the GEM and the ICL shows they are not interested in fighting for revolutionary leadership of the working class.”

–“To Fight the Popular Front You Have to Recognize That It Exists,” The Internationalist No. 3, September-October 1997

Denying the existence of the popular front was a “theoretical” mask for bowing to the PRD, refusing to fight in the workers and student movements to break the class-collaborationist alliance subordinating them to this bourgeois party. The ICL screamed bloody murder when we made this elementary observation, but only a couple of years later, during the UNAM strike, the capitulation to the PRD was so blatant that the GEM itself admitted it – but only internally, since in public the ICL claims to be the embodiment of revolutionary continuity even as it throws one aspect after another of the revolutionary program overboard. If the issue weren’t so serious, the ICL’s threadbare pretensions to be the vanguard could serve for a modern remake of “The Emperor’s New Clothes.”

The Fish Rots From the Head

At the time (1999-2000), the abject capitulation in the UNAM strike was blamed entirely on the GEM leadership, which although inexperienced was certainly complicit, as its rule of thumb since serving as hatchetpersons in the 1996 purge was to spout whatever nonsense being dished out at the moment. They were following policies imparted to them by the all-knowing ICL leaders who in fact were complacently, aggressively clueless about what was happening in Mexico. Following the GEM’s debacle in the strike, demoralization in the section was rampant, and the leadership put in place in the ’96 purge fell to pieces, with two of three main leaders winding up outside the ICL.

Then, in 2003, the ICL’s International Secretariat collapsed, unleashing a torrent of recriminations. By the ICL’s own (internal) admission, the implosion followed endless political/organizational crises, one regime fight after another, and self-described “cannibalism” (cadres being eaten up by endless, vicious internal conflicts). This was the “new I.S.” cohered through what, in ICL lingo, they call “the Norden fight” of 1995-96. Following the fall of the I.S., members were encouraged to “speak bitterness” about the disgraced leaders. This led to a spate of items on the attitude of the ICL and its Mexican section towards the UNAM strike.

The remaining leader of the ICL’s Mexican group declared that as a result of complete disorientation during the UNAM strike, “The GEM had worked in a classically centrist fashion....” Specifically, “Throughout the strike, the GEM leadership oscillated between opportunist liquidation into the petty-bourgeois student milieu and sectarian abstention.” This abstentionism was not at all “ultra-left” but an expression of opportunist capitulation. This was epitomized in a motion the GEM passed on 29 January 2000. The GEM leader later commented:

“[The motion stated] that we would not go to campus in situations of risk because ‘we could not substitute for the social power of the working class,’ i.e., the strike should have ended already and it wasn’t worth it to take so many risks for it. This social-democratic position was clearly a capitulation to the pro-PRD anti-strike forces. Thus, when on 6 February the Federal Police occupied the campus and broke the strike, the GEM was the only left group that was not present.” [our emphasis]

– “GEM Report, 1998-2003” (2 October 2003), ICL International Internal Bulletin No. 60, November 2003
Some of the 996 students arrested during the last week of the UNAM strike. Unique on the Mexican left, no one from the GEM was arrested, because they had decided they “would not go to campus in situations of risk.” A declaration of political bankruptcy. (Photo: Francisco Gómez/El Universal)

Earlier, a motion passed at a GEM meeting on 13 February 2000 stated: “The policy of the GEM exec … was a direct capitulation to the anti-strike line of the PRD and its supporters in the trade union bureaucracy. Although not codified in writing until 29 January, this policy in fact dates back to last summer” (quoted in ICL International Information Bulletin No. 71, February 2005).

However, the capitulatory abstentionism was far from a mere flinch by the Mexican group – as another GEM member noted, a motion on perspectives voted after “approval by the IS” (his emphasis), two weeks after the UNAM strike began in April 1999, “numbered the priorities of the section” in a list of eight fields of activity, of which “UNAM” was No. 8, i.e., the last (“On the UNAM Strike,” SL Internal Discussion Bulletin No. 84, June 2004). And as the strike neared its end, the GEM’s absence was encouraged by a letter from the International Secretary “on January 24, saying that at that point, for all the I.S. knew, the CGH could end the strike and claim victory, and warning we should not be the last men defending the last barricade of the last school.”

According to the ICL, disorientation had in fact been the norm for its hapless Mexican group since the 1996 purge. The international leaders sought to blame and browbeat the GEM for its disorientation – but as we have consistently stressed, the wild zigzags of the entire ICL are the oscillations of a centrist organization that cut itself adrift from its programmatic moorings under the pressure of the bourgeoisie’s “death of communism” crusade. With the ICL incessantly banging the drums about a supposed worldwide historical “regression of consciousness” – an all-purpose justification for its own retreat from real struggle for the communist program – major battles like the UNAM strike were not supposed to happen.

The GEM’s abstention and capitulation to the bourgeoisie in 1999-2000 was not only fostered by the I.S. and its emissaries, it was the direct result of the overall policy of the post-purge ICL. And it wasn’t the first time. In December 1995, the French working class exploded in a massive strike movement involving millions. But the French section of the ICL, the LTF, having absorbed the abstentionist line of the “Norden fight” over Germany, then at its height, sank into total paralysis, unable to produce a single piece of propaganda or to intervene in the strike movement. Naturally, the reconfigured ICL leadership blamed the LTF for having assimilated too well the policies emanating from New York.

Still, the collapse in Mexico was extreme. When the ICL was confronted with a convulsive ten-month occupation of Latin America’s largest university, which drew active support from the working class and plebeian poor, this was treated as an unfortunate annoyance (no doubt a distraction from the crucial priority of endless internal score-settling, which had become the main activity of the ICL). The strike posed the terrible danger, ranted the ICL leadership, of “student vanguardism.” This in a situation where tens of thousands of workers were marching together with the striking students.

When we accurately stated that the GEM played no role in the strike, they screamed in fake indignation that oh yes they had – at the Universum university museum. In its first statement on the UNAM strike, three months after it began, the GEM said it had “participated in the protests, including building occupations, barricading and guarding occupied buildings, spreading the strike in its initial days to the University Museum” (Workers Vanguard No.727, 6 August 1999). Internally it was a different story. “On the UNAM Strike” (SL IDB No. 84) notes that when a GEM sales team went to the museum, students there decided to elect a GEM member as their delegate to the General Strike Council, but the GEM member refused the nomination: “we rejected this proposal on the spot.”

Even so, the GEM youth were sharply criticized for being part of the Museum takeover. A document by an international visitor noted, “The reaction of the GEM leadership [to the action at the Museum] was to berate the comrades for having spent so much time on this ‘side show’...” Thereafter, “the GEM continued to boycott the museum.” As for the claim of the GEM joining occupations, barricading and guarding occupied buildings, etc., the writer noted: “So we pulled out. The Museum strikers set up guard duties, an assembly elected delegates which were recognized by the CGH and so on. We were not around to be part of anything” (“On UNAM” [13 June 2004], ICL IIB No. 67, August 2004 [emphasis in original]).

Grupo Internacionalista fought from the beginning of the UNAM strike to get strike council to mobilize demanding freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal. Demonstration (right) outside U.S. embassy on 11 December 1999 was boycotted by "moderate" strike leaders and viciously attacked by police (below) under orders of PRD federal district government. GEM didn't show up at the march, didn't mention demand for Mumia's freedom in statement and boycotted mass protests over arrests. (Photos: El Internacionalista; AP)

So at the time and later, the public statements by the ICL about the supposed involvement in the strike by the GEM were a pack of lies and cover-ups. But the abstention was not just due to the Mexican group’s leadership. The “advice explicitly given” to the GEM by the I.S. was to avoid a “forward posture on tactics during the strike,” as an I.S. spokesman stressed to the Mexican group in a 22 April 1999 phone call, three days after the strike began (reported in the same document). The external story was blatant falsehood designed to “fight the IG” – the one enduring keystone of the GEM and ICL’s ever-shifting priorities.

Or take the claim, in the GEM’s tenth anniversary retrospective on the strike, that it was “constantly intervening in CGH assemblies.” Not so, according to a motion passed by an 18 July 1999 meeting of the GEM: “As an act of political cowardice, stemming from lack of confidence in our revolutionary program, we have boycotted the CGH [Strike General Council] meetings.” The motion added, “instead we are building the IG, ceding the political field to them.” When the GEM occasionally showed up, as its main leader noted in a quote reproduced at the beginning of this article, it was as we said: “Our interventions at the CGH assemblies had become routine. We would get there, give a speech emphasizing the centrality of the proletariat, sell some lit and leave.”

And what about the ICL’s flim-flam about the 11 December 1999 demonstration at the U.S. Embassy, called by the CGH to protest police repression at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle and to demand freedom for Mumia Abu-Jamal, a demand that the Grupo Internacionalista had fought for since the start of the strike? The Mexico City protest was brutally attacked by police, but neither the GEM nor the “moderate” strike leadership seeking “dialogue” with the PRD city government were there. Take a look at the welter of lies published by the ICL about this (see “Workers Vanguard’s ‘Virtual Reality’,” in our bulletin Mexico: The UNAM Strike and the Fight for Workers Revolution), and then read this by the GEM’s main leader:

“After the arrests of that day there were a number of protests and CGH assemblies (at least one) that took place outside the ‘public ministry’ (something like a courthouse and police station) where the CGH students arrested were being held. That’s when our demoralized abstentionist policy took an open character. We decided not to go to any of these events with the excuse that it reflected illusions in the bourgeois state that students were arguing their politics and plans outside the courthouse-police station. It should be clear that we’re not talking about a dozen students protesting outside a police station, but hundreds of them (maybe more – we don’t know because we were not there).”

–“Letter to I.S.” (17 February 2000) in ICL IIB No. 71

More than once in our articles about the UNAM strike, we took the GEM to task for “Sunday speechifying,” talking of socialist revolution in the abstract but not intervening in struggle to fight for it in the real world. A GEM member likewise complained: “There is no worse condemnation of a party that that of Sunday socialist speechifying and refusing to give that leadership when students are begging us for leadership” (“From Treptow to the UNAM Strike,” ICL IIB No. 67).

Looking back, a GEM member said plaintively that what was needed was “a political perspective to win the students to a coherent plan to win the strike, primarily through its extension to the working class and other campuses” (“On the UNAM Strike,” SL IDB No. 84 [emphasis in the original]). The GEM never presented such a plan, but the Grupo Internacionalista did, and sought to carry it out, with the important achievement of bringing about hundreds-strong worker-student defense guards for several weeks at a crucial moment in the strike (July-August 1999).

“Complete Ignorance” of Mexico’s Social Reality

“Mexican Electrical Workers Union Supports UNAM Students in Their Just Struggle.” Workers march on 23 April 1999, while ICL leadership warned GEM against “mindless activism” in National University strike because of danger of “student vanguardism.” (Photo: SME)

By its own admission, the ICL was not only incapable of providing any kind of leadership in this convulsive battle – incapable even of indicating the most basic elements of how to win the struggle – but incapable even of understanding what the struggle was about. “On the UNAM Strike” reports: “Meanwhile, there was a real incapacity in the section to deal with the demands of the strike ... in our leaflets and articles, which were edited in collaboration with the IS.” At a meeting of the ICL’s International Executive Committee in June 1999, “nothing was done, except for empty exhortations to ‘intervene with our program.’ It also showed a complete ignorance by the IS on the reality and the developing events in the country” (our emphasis).

The international leadership was, for example, quite mystified to hear that in Mexico the university was supposed to be autonomous, interpreting this as some kind of “ivory tower” and denouncing “student vanguardism.” It was evidently unaware that “university autonomy” was established there, and in other parts of Latin America, through massive struggles against military and police control that erupted immediately after the Russian Revolution and were in fact a seedbed for the leadership of young Communist parties from the Caribbean to Argentina. Trying to make sense of this remote phenomenon, one pedant from the SL/U.S. leadership sagely mused that, even so, federal cops going onto the campus is probably something one would oppose.

Since for the last decade and a half the ICL leadership has vociferously dismissed the previous ICL position – upheld by the LFI – that corporatist pseudo-unions in Mexico are not workers organizations, it’s interesting to read what they had to say about this internally. In her 19 April 1999 letter to the GEM, then-International Secretary Spencer noted that “the section is plagued by confusion and unfinished debates on the union movement, the nature of the corporatist union structure in Mexico and the independent splits.” Moreover, “The I.S. comrades in New York do not in fact know very much about the union movement in Mexico.” So by her own admission, the ICL on Mexican unions is the blind leading the blind – while proclaiming to the world that they alone can see.

But the policies of the ICL leadership in Mexico were and are not just born of ignorance, it is willful and arrogant ignorance – based on the conceit that the entire world is essentially the same as the United States – in the service of an abstentionist program of flight from the class struggle. Since that is not entirely possible, even for such an office-bound tendency as the ICL, this “appetite” (in SL-speak) is reflected in one capitulation after another to their rulers. And in order to carry out this program, it is their own members who pay the price, grievously damaging their own political integrity. One GEM member commented ruefully on “the fear that existed of making our own conclusions and our constant waiting for a response from the I.S.”:

“At least in Mexico, this translated to an I.S. that avoided understanding reality, carried out false discussions, and smashed and humiliated any impulse that both the leadership and the youngest members had to make decisions.”

Today, the ICL leadership – who stand accused by their own Mexican members of “complete ignorance on the reality and the developing events” in Mexico, of deliberately “avoiding understanding reality” and of carrying out “false discussions” – tries to lecture us that corporatist “unions” in Mexico are the same as bureaucratically run unions in the U.S. Yet Mexican workers know from their own bitter and bloody experience that these are instruments of state control whose job is to prevent the rise of genuine unions. Why should anyone take the self-confessed ignoramuses and charlatans of the latter-day ICL seriously? They themselves are all too aware of their own empty posturing and political bankruptcy, as the documents show.

“False, Abusive, Demagogic and Humiliating”

Ah, but that was then and this is now, we will be told: a new leadership was put in place. But for the ICL, then is now, as the infighting goes on and on. The “old I.S.” was replaced by a new team which was also drawn from those who carried out the 1996 expulsions, and after a few years in office, the “new I.S.” too was sent packing. And as the ICL’s 2010 Haiti betrayal shows, the “new, new I.S.” was – to put it mildly – no more capable than its predecessors of carrying out a revolutionary policy. And since getting to the root of this decay would require, for starters, admitting that their years-long vendettas against the IG/LFI are based on lies and the revision of one Trotskyist concept after another, they can only stagger from one crisis to another.

Following the mid-2003 blow up in the Spartacist League/U.S., which we will deal with in a subsequent article, the ICL’s December 2003 international conference was supposed to settle accounts with its most recent crisis on the basis of the latest rectified rectification, with a newly reoriented orientation to overcome the deep disorientation of this demoralized self-proclaimed “vanguard,” which has time and again been a rearguard. No crystal ball was required to predict how that would go. Instead of stanching the denunciations of the “old” International Secretariat, what happened instead was payback time, and it wasn’t pretty.

For the Mexican group of the ICL, the unspoken rule had been for the GEM to blame itself and grovel in response to each new accusation. Now the erstwhile accusers of 1999-2000 became the accused. Those who had made their way up in the organization by echoing and executing each new line change, each fabrication, each new fight against the enemy within, now hastened to get in some belated kicks once the mighty I.S. leaders of yesteryear had fallen. Beyond the nastiness of this spectacle, the bottom line politically is that people trained to act this way in internal conflicts – including those within the ICL’s increasingly surreal and solipsistic universe – are rendered incapable of playing a revolutionary role during class struggles in the real world.

In June 2004, with the former I.S. leaders safely out of office and in disgrace, the remaining leader of the GEM launched a broadside against them, writing:

“I charge that the old I.S.’ intervention into the Mexican section in May 1999, barely a few days after the strike had started, smashed the section into abstentionism, and, at the service of its abstentionist politics, carried out a false, abusive, demagogic and humiliating ‘fight.’ Then in July 1999, having lost three precious months, the I.S. in deeds corrected their own previous abstentionist directives, though of course blaming it all on the section and further humiliating and baiting us all.... Our zigzags corresponded to yours.”

– “Can You lead by Posturing?” (8 June 2004), ICL IIB No. 67

He goes on to detail how the I.S. secretary “dismissed our plea for help with a wave of the hand, and ignored the UNAM strike”; how the I.S. sent a delegation during the strike, leading a May 1999 meeting where the “main motion of that meeting, over two pages long, does not even mention the UNAM strike”; followed by “an abusive, baseless fight” in which “the I.S. bullied me, imposed some ‘priorities’ entirely removed from reality, and then left town.” The “fight” only “served the purpose of poisoning the section and was false, abusive, demagogic and humiliating... It was a diversion from what we really needed to discuss: the UNAM strike.”

All this “meant we basically abstained from the strike,” he noted. A subsequent meeting of the ICL’s International Executive Committee, attended by “almost all” members of the GEM, “was also useless to help the Mexican section intervene into the strike.” In fact, “an exhortation was launched for young Mexican comrades to move” out of the country (original emphasis); when two did so, “with disastrous effects on the Mexican section and themselves,” an I.S. leader “came to Mexico a month later to urge others to follow their example!” It is telling that only five years after the events and a change at the top is the GEM’s remaining leader emboldened to utter some disgraceful truths. Soon enough, the disgraced I.S.ers admitted pretty much everything.

In the same document, we read: “We should have called for workers guards at UNAM. The IG took the initiative and actually made that happen....” (our emphasis). Knowing full well that the Grupo Internacionalista initiated the workers defense guards set up by the SME electrical workers in July 1999, for years the GEM refused to acknowledge this. Similarly, not once has any ICL publication so much as mentioned the 23 April 1999 work stoppage for Mumia Abu-Jamal’s freedom initiated by our comrades of the Liga Quarta-Internacionalista do Brasil. That first-ever action played a vital role in sparking the U.S. West Coast port shutdown the next day, which the ICL arrogantly dismissed (even though it now admits that was a sectarian error), and led to the demand for Mumia’s freedom being adopted in one strike (and state-wide general strike) after another in Brazil. But you won’t read about that in WV.

The new-old ICL “leadership” now in ascendance owed its very existence to jumping on one bandwagon after another – beginning with the 1996 purge when the very same I.S. leaders used the very same techniquesto purge the GEM of its founding leadership. The difference is that we fought against it at the time and went on to help found an organization that “says what is” in the service of the Trotskyist program. The one central admission that the entire cast of characters in what they themselves call a “mutual protection racket” can never make is that the entire basis for their crusade against us – and one after another, the documents give voice to a veritable obsession with the Internationalist Group – is cut from the same cloth.

The sneering arrogance of the International Secretary, who positively enjoyed tormenting her underlings (addressing a 23 April 1999 letter to the GEM, “Dear Hannibal and his cannibals” and signing it “Exterminating Angel”), was staggering. The GEM membership, in addition to swallowing this crap, had to swear a loyalty oath against the “Negrete regime” that founded the section and renounce the Trotskyist politics they had been won to. And like the rest of the ICL, it has been spinning around ever since on fundamental issues ranging from the Russian Question to standing for the defeat of imperialism.

Survival in such a house of horrors could only breed cynicism, and it certainly couldn’t educate the members to think for themselves. As the GEM member who was nominated as a strike committee delegate from the Universum museum, only to have the group reject the nomination, commented truthfully: “After this I felt incapable of speaking in the CGH meetings, because I never knew if I would correctly state our entire program” (“The Case of Universum in the UNAM Strike” [15 July 2004], in ICL IIB No.71). Such fearfulness is antithetical to communist consciousness, breeding subservience rather than the ability to critically evaluate reality and formulate a revolutionary response.

Above all, far from clarifying the underlying issues, the brutal fights over the UNAM strike were just another bout of cliquist infighting far removed from genuine Trotskyist politics. In the inwardly focused universe of the ICL no question is really resolved, but at most held in abeyance until the next round. And even when external reality is occasionally referenced in the perpetual internal crisis, it does not denote any fundamental change. No one who wades through the voluminous documents produced in 2003-05 about the UNAM strike and then reads the GEM’s tenth anniversary “Marxist analysis” can miss the fact that it is repeating the same lies as before.

And when in 2006 Mexico exploded in class struggle, what did the GEM do? After a brief foray to a Michoacán steel plant in April, it once again relapsed into abstention. Even as peasants fought off cop attack in Atenco, and hundreds of thousands of teachers, indigenous people and workers in Oaxaca expelled the police and government from the state capital for six months, erecting barricades against death squads, the GEM didn’t publish a single piece of propaganda from May to September, and then mocked our headline, “Revolution Brewing in Mexico” (The Internationalist No. 27 (January-February 2007).

There is much more to be said about the degeneration of the International Communist League, which for three decades upheld the banner of revolutionary Trotskyism, only to abandon it, wallowing in defeatism in the wake of the counterrevolutionary destruction of the Soviet Union. For the Grupo Espartaquista de México which has always led a tenuous existence, the true story of its shameful abstention from the UNAM strike, internally admitted but never publicly acknowledged, its continued lies and its failure at every crucial point to put forward anything even approaching a Trotskyist program mean that its crisis can only be terminal.

Where the UNAM strike is a source of shame to the GEM and ICL, it was a baptism of fire for our comrades, who were determined to uphold the revolutionary program on which the GEM was founded. As the ICL sinks ever further into despair and decay, it adopts the outlook of “complete defeat and the decline of the international proletariat, the perspective of the most profound historical pessimism” finding itself ever more remote from Trotsky’s “right of revolutionary optimism” (Leon Trotsky, “Again and Once More Again on the Nature of the USSR,” in In Defense of Marxism). In carrying forward the program of Trotskyism, the vibrant Grupo Internacionalista, Mexican section of the League for the Fourth International, continues to earn that right. The contrast could not be clearer.

P.S. (11 August): In a new polemic, “IG Brief for Anti-Union Drive in Mexico” (Workers Vanguard, 9 August), the ICL presents a pro forma rehash of claims we have answered in detail in our article on their apologias for the corporatist “union” apparatus of the Mexican bourgeois state. Escalating its frenzy, WV states our article includes “a dash of libel” as well as “poisonous slanders” such as the statement that they have “have ‘aided and abetted’ state repression against the IG – not even bothering to cook up the when, where and how of this ‘aid’.” They add, “Conscientious readers will not be fooled.”

Like its phony indignation, WV’s claim not to know what we are referring to is thoroughly fake. Fifteen years have passed since we meticulously documented exactly what we are referring to. For starters, when the bourgeois courts ordered the “search and seizure” of every copy of a trade-union bulletin published by our Brazilian comrades, also threatening to seize all the belongings of the Class Struggle Caucus on the basis of an injunction request that demanded a list of all its members (see “Denounce Ninth Court Action Against Brazilian Trotskyist Workers” [6 April 1997], reproduced in The Internationalist No. 5 April-May 1998), the ICL actively tried to stop people around the world from supporting the international defense campaign, which Workers Vanguard (2 January 1998) denounced as a “cynical sham.”

Moreover, as we wrote in our response: “the WV article vilely attacks the targets of this repression as ‘dangerous hustlers.’ This filth is hurled at a largely black group of working-class militants with decades of struggle, many of whom were fired and blacklisted and who have been hit by endless state repression for fighting against class collaboration and racist oppression” (see “ICL Seeks to Sabotage Defense of Brazilian Trotskyist Workers” (30 January 1998), The Internationalist No. 5, April-May 1998). In fact, Liga Quarta-Internacionalista do Brasil (LQB) spokesman Cerezo had been placed on a death list by the Brazilian army (see “Army Death List Targeted Brazilian Worker Militants,” in The Internationalist No. 8, June 2000), which WV has never seen fit to mention.

The ICL falsely accused the LQB of dragging the union into the bourgeois courts when our comrades were in fact the leadership of the union who were sued by pro-cop elements (whose lies the ICL repeated) over our campaign to remove the police from the municipal workers union of Volta Redonda, Brazil. The LQB comrades were dragged in handcuffs to the police station, repeatedly beaten, threatened by a gun-wielding thug, and thrown out of the union hall by court order. And not content the smear the embattled Brazilian Trotskyist workers in the pages of WV, brand them as “dangerous hustlers” and actively seek to block the international defense campaign, the ICL sent a team to a national meeting of the CUT labor federation for the sole purpose of distributing a leaflet smearing the LQB.

Yes, the ICL aided and abetted bourgeois state repression against the LQB. All of this is documented in our 63-page dossier, Responses to ICL Smear Campaign Against Brazilian Trotskyists, containing more than a dozen articles with ample illustration and detailed refutations of the WV/ICL lies. Conscientious readers can indeed judge for themselves, keeping in mind that Workers Vanguard has never sought to deny, dispute or answer these facts stated 15 years ago. Like smear artists everywhere, they figure that if they just sling enough mud, some of it will stick, and the truth be damned. As for the fact that they have made systematic lying a routine part of their degraded arsenal, their own internal documents are quite eloquent in that regard. ■

Internationalist Group dossiers detailing repression against Brazilian Trotskyist workers (left) and answering ICL slanders (right). The SL/ICL has never answered these facts. Available for US$2 each from Mundial Publications, Box 3321, Church Street Station, New York, NY 10008, U.S.A.

  1. 1. The PRD is the Party of the Democratic Revolution, originating in a split from the long-ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party. Having won control of the Federal District (Mexico City) government in 1997, it led efforts to break the 1999-2000 strike at UNAM.
  2. 2. See “Worker-Student Defense Guards Formed” (19 July 1999), in Mexico: The UNAM Strike and the Fight for Workers Revolution.