Workers’ Sanctions & the Fourth International
Polemic with the Internationalist Group
Some important groundwork for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union’s May Day 2008 anti-war strike was laid seven months earlier at an October 2007 “Labor Conference to Stop the War,” held in the San Francisco dockers’ union hall. During one session, a brief political exchange took place between representatives of the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) and the Internationalist Group (IG). Bill Logan, speaking for the IBT, informed conference participants that, “In the 1930s the Australian maritime unions defied the government to stop the export of pig iron to feed Japan’s imperial expansion into China,” an initiative he characterized as an example of “workers’ political action against imperialist war.” Jan Norden, a leading member of the IG, sharply disagreed, as the Internationalist subsequently reported:
“And what he [Norden] said was that what Logan had hailed as an example of workers action against war actually fed into the imperialist embargo of raw materials to Japan that paved the way to World War II. He [Norden] underlined that workers action by itself is not enough, it has to be based on a program of defeating imperialism. In other words, we fought the IBT politically, in the framework of a conference to discuss workers action against the imperialist war….”
—“The Strange Case of Bill Logan,” Internationalist, No. 27, May 2008
We replied to the IG’s criticism in a letter dated 23 July 2008:
“We suspect that you may not be sufficiently familiar with what actually occurred on the docks in Port Kembla, and that upon further investigation you may modify your view. It is clear that the leaders of the Australian dockers’ 1938 action were Stalinists with a mélange of popular-frontist, Soviet-defensist and social-patriotic notions. At the same time, the Australian wharfies who boycotted the cargo were primarily motivated by opposition to Japanese imperialism’s brutal, and unpopular, assault on China—a struggle in which revolutionaries had a side.
“Disrupting the supply of pig iron and other critical inputs for Japan’s armaments industry limited the capacity of the Imperial Army to pursue its savage colonial war. A corollary of a revolutionary defeatist attitude to Japan’s attempt to conquer China was support for workers’ actions that impeded the Japanese war machine. Today, for the same reason, we support labor action against the imperialist occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. In neither case would we withhold support for such actions because inter-imperialist conflicts loomed on the horizon.
“In response to calls from various reformists for the —democratic’ imperialists to implement League of Nations sanctions to counter Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia, Trotsky advocated workers’ sanctions:
“‘The truth is that if the workers begin their own sanctions against Italy, their action inevitably strikes at their own capitalists, and the League would be compelled to drop all sanctions. It proposes them now just because the workers’ voices are muted in every country. Workers’ action can begin only by absolute opposition to the national bourgeoisie and its international combinations. Support of the League and support of workers’ actions are fire and water; they cannot be united.’
—‘Once Again the ILP,’ November 1935
“Trotsky’s analysis was borne out in Australia, where the imperialist rulers treated the waterfront workers’ boycott as a direct challenge to their authority. The company involved was BHP (Broken Hill Propriety—at that time probably Australia’s biggest corporation, and now, as BHP Billiton, the world’s largest primary resources conglomerate). The conservative government of the day backed BHP to the hilt in its attempts to crush the dockers’ action with legal sanctions and a lockout. The boycott received mass working-class support, which was particularly strong in Wollongong, a traditional center of trade-union militancy. (For a summary of these events, see http://www.mua.org.au/journal/julaug_2005/Pigiron.html.)
“During the Spanish Civil War, Trotsky addressed the issue of conflicts where rival imperialist powers were supporting different sides:
“‘It can be objected that the two imperialist camps (Italy and Germany on one side, and England, France, and the USSR on the other) conduct their struggle on the Iberian Peninsula and that the war in Spain is only an —episode’ of this struggle.
“‘In the sense of a historical possibility, it is true. But it is impermissible to identify a historical possibility with the actual, concrete course of the civil war today. The intervention of the imperialist countries has indisputably great influence upon the development of the events in Spain. But until today it has not changed the fundamental character of these events as a struggle between the camp of the Spanish bourgeois democracy and the camp of Spanish fascism.’
—‘Answer to questions on the Spanish situation (A concise summary),’ 14 September 1937
“When various ultra-lefts criticized the Fourth International for this position, Trotsky replied:
“‘Certain professional ultraleft phrasemongers are attempting at all cost to “correct” the thesis of the Secretariat of the Fourth International on war in accordance with their own ossified prejudices. They especially attack that part of the thesis which states that in all imperialist countries the revolutionary party, while remaining in irreconcilable opposition to its own government in time of war, should nevertheless mold its practical politics in each country to the internal situation and to the international groupings, sharply differentiating a workers’ state from a bourgeois state, a colonial country from an imperialist country.’
—‘Learn to Think,’ 22 May 1938
“We think that in 1938, it was correct for revolutionaries to support the Australian wharfies’ action, despite the mixed motivations of its participants and initiators, because, at that point, the —fundamental character’ of the conflict between semi-colonial China and imperialist Japan had not changed.”
After sending our letter, we recalled that one of the documents adopted at the September 1938 founding of the Fourth International had explicitly called for “workers’ sanctions against Japan”:
“The perspectives outlined above obligate the workers in all countries, and especially the revolutionary vanguard, to support China’s struggle against Japan by all possible means….Revolutionary support for China’s struggle does not, however, mean that revolutionists must furnish cover for the bankrupt Kuomintang regime and the Chinese bourgeoisie. Nor does it mean calling upon the —democratic’ imperialist governments to intervene against Japan and save China, or support of these governments if and when they do intervene against Japan. This is the line of the Stalinist traitors….The international revolutionary campaign for aid to China must proceed under the banner of workers’ sanctions against Japan and find its full expression in the promotion of the class struggle and the proletarian revolution.”
—“The War in the Far East and the Revolutionary Perspectives” (emphasis added)
A few months later, the dockers in Port Kembla implemented exactly the sort of “workers’ sanctions against Japan” advocated by Trotsky’s Fourth International. We hope that this gives the comrades of the IG sufficient reason to reconsider their position on this issue.