SL Over the Brink–Trotskyists Out Now!
The Road to Jimstown
In November 1984, cadres of the Spartacist League/U.S. (SL) donned witches’ hats, false noses, pigs’ faces and Nazi regalia and paraded around San Francisco State University (S.F. State) as the “Red Avengers of the Underground SYL.” With this the SL leadership announced to the left, to their own ranks and to whoever else was interested that the gradual molecular transformation of their organization into an obedience cult (a process which had been underway for some years) had reached the point of no return. Meanwhile, on the docks on the other side of town, the Spartacist League was doing its best to wreck an 11-day boycott of South African cargo–the most important political strike by any section of the American proletariat in decades (see articles elsewhere in this issue.) These two events came as the culmination of a long series of political departures from Trotskyism. Taken together they demonstrate that, while remaining formally “orthodox” on a wide range of historically derived political questions, in the real world the SL’s break from its revolutionary past is qualitatively complete.
The SL today is not what it began as–nor are those who lived through its evolution. Much of the past half-dozen years has been spent methodically grinding up the organization’s cadres–getting rid of many and attempting to morally break those who remain. The few trade-union fractions which ever acquired any roots have been largely dismantled in the process. The product of this internal wrecking operation is a membership that is pretty demoralized and pretty passive. So, when the “turn” to the costume shop was announced, there was little overt opposition–if little enthusiasm-from the cadre.
The peculiar emphasis of much of the “Red Avengers” material on clitorectomies, castrations, wet dreams and who is going to “fuck” who, reminds us of the propaganda of Lynn Marcus’s–now ultra-rightist–National Caucus of Labor Committees (NCLC) of a decade ago. (After his wife left him for a young “Trotskyist” in England, Marcus devoted most of an issue of his theoretical magazine to considering the impotence of Trotskyism.) The SL today is not so far gone as the NCLC of the mid-1970s, but then the SL had a lot further to fall. The revolting “jokes” about the “business end” of a female shark and the references to black feminist opponents as fascists and female doberman pinschers in heat certainly recall the NCLC “polemics” and suggest a similar pathology.
Because of its heavily petty-bourgeois composition, its isolation from the organized working class and its socially marginal character, the left in America has historically been subject to idiosyncratic manifestations of various sorts. The SL is not the first, nor for a left which spawned Tim Wohlforth’s Workers League (WL) and the NCLC, the worst. But it is the most important. The Spartacist League was not just one left grouping among many–it was the crystallization of the left-wing opposition to the political destruction by Pabloite revisionism of the revolutionary Socialist Workers Party (SWP)–a party built by James P. Cannon and trained by Leon Trotsky to carry forward Bolshevism amid the destruction of the Communist International by the syphilis of Stalinism.
Even before it was expelled from the SWP, the Revolutionary Tendency (RT), the SL’s progenitor, underwent a split. Gerry Healy, leader of the British Socialist Labour League (SLL) and erstwhile mentor of the RT, ordered his followers to sign their names to a lie. A majority of the group, led by James Robertson, refused to do so. They broke from almost half their tendency at the cost of substantially reducing their chances of winning over a section of the SWP cadre because telling the truth was more important. It was an honorable beginning.
For two decades the Spartacist League defended the essential programmatic positions of Leninism–often in isolation. On many occasions, the “sterile orthodoxy” of the SL was powerfully vindicated by events. In the heyday of black nationalism in the U.S., the SL fought for a perspective of revolutionary integration. When Salvador Allende’s Unidad Popular came to power in Chile in 1970, Spartacist warned that it would end in a bloodbath. More recently, the SL stood alone on the left in opposing Khomeini and his mullahs before they came to power in Iran, in defending the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan and in intransigent hostility to the capitalist-restorationist clerical reactionaries of Poland’s Solidarnosc. So what went wrong?
The Early 1970s–High Tide
By the late 1960s virtually all of the founding cadres of the RT had departed and Jim Robertson was left alone at the top. The cadres who remained in the organization, particularly after the departure of Dave Cunningham et al in 1972, were products of the radicalization of the 1960s, and had pretty much been shaped by Robertson. The SL had become “Jim’s group,” or at least a group in which Robertson’s authority and experience vastly outweighed everyone else’s. Unlike Trotsky in the Fourth International or Cannon in the SWP, he came to like it that way.
There were seeds of the present authoritarian regime in the SL for a long time. But there were also seeds of a great many other potential developments. The disintegration of the New Left in the early 1970s opened up a period of explosive growth, both qualitative and quantitative, for the SL. In three years the organization tripled in size. Many of those who joined in this period were mature people with substantial prior political experience. The Communist Working Collective of Los Angeles, for example, insisted on the SL’s commitment to establishing a regular press, trade-union fractions and a black base as conditions of fusion.
The founding of Workers Vanguard (WV) in 1971 was a key part of the process referred to as the “transformation” of the SL. The previously loose membership norms were tightened up; the functioning of the national center was professionalized; and most importantly perhaps, the SL began a systematic intervention into the proletariat. There was considerable political openness in the group in those days and, while there were no factional lineups, there were instructive debates on a variety of questions, some of which found their way into the internal bulletins. In this period the Robertson regime was manifestly pushing the work of the group forward, winning dozens of new cadres to Trotskyism and was essentially correct programmatically on all the decisive questions which it confronted.
The centralization of the Spartacist League initially represented a significant step forward from the organizational amorphousness of the 1960s. It enabled the SL to become an effective fighting propaganda group and a real factor in the American left for the first time. Massive membership transfers, at first occasioned by the organization’s industrial turn, also provided an opportunity for the central leadership to shape and control the composition of each local. Particular care was taken in putting together the local leaderships. In and of itself, this procedure was not bureaucratic-it was part of the leadership’s mandate for setting up new locals. However, it established a precedent which quickly became a norm. Key figures in locals were regularly transferred, co-opted and demoted at the center’s suggestion. Before long the selection of local (and later international) leaderships had effectively become New York’s prerogative.
And even at the top, the democratic aspect of “democratic centralism” in the SL atrophied considerably through the 1970s. At the height of the transformation, in the two years preceding the departure of the Cunningham grouping in 1972, the political bureau (PB–the body which is supposed to constitute the day-to-day political leadership of the group) met 39 times, or once every two and a half weeks. Ten years later, over the same period of time, it met on the average only once every two months. Leaving aside the contents of the meetings, which in themselves reflect the depoliticization of the internal life of the SL, this signifies that the function of the SL’s elected leadership is simply to ratify the decisions of the real leadership–Robertson and whoever he chooses to “consult.”
Tightening the Screws
In the mid-1970s, while things were slowing down domestically, the SL began to invest a lot of resources, both human and material, in building toeholds internationally. By 1978 there were potentially viable groups with some real accumulation of cadres in Britain, Germany, and to a lesser extent, in France. The French were handicapped by the existence of sizable ostensible Trotskyist centrist competitors, but the German and especially the British groups seemed to have rather large opportunities on the horizon.
However, back in the U.S., things were pretty stagnant. The membership was contracting and there were no prospects of big breakthroughs by the trade-union fractions. In an article on a national gathering of SL trade unionists, WV reported that:
“Speaking at the opening plenary session, SL National Chairman James Robertson frankly addressed the `crisis of expectations’ of this layer of comrades, idealistic formerly young people shaped centrally by the radicalization of the Vietnam war era, whose experience in politics conveyed no gut-level awareness of the ebbs and flows of class struggle.”
“The `crisis of expectations’ had tended to weigh most heavily on the SL’s most vulnerable and submerged elements, our trade unionists.”
–WV No. 144, 11 February 1977
A companion piece noted that: “the SL’s practice of recruitment on a sound political basis and setting realistic organizational goals has enabled it to survive the present period without a major faction fight, split, or hemorrhaging of the cadre.” But this was clearly what was worrying the leadership–they believed that the SL possessed all the essential ingredients for a factional eruption of some sort. The answer? Tighten the screws.
In a piece written just after he was terminated as leader of the Workers League in 1974, Tim Wohlforth described democratic centralism a la Healy:
“Open discussion and political struggle was discouraged by Comrade Healy’s tendency to push every discussion to the most extreme point and to seek to break the person who disagreed with Comrade Healy.”
–“The Workers League and the International Committee”
This is roughly how things worked in the SL as well, on those rare occasions when someone would venture to disagree with comrade Robertson. For example, in early 1978, SL Political Bureau member Liz Gordon suggested in a WV editorial board meeting that a draft article which Robertson had co-authored was perhaps a bit “unbalanced” on the woman question. She also had the temerity to request that Robertson not interrupt her while she was speaking (a practice which denotes pecking order in the SL–Robertson routinely interrupts everyone and no one interrupts him). Robertson, who wasn’t accustomed to being contradicted on anything, went into a frenzy. He accused Gordon of being a liar and mentally ill, spat on the floor and stormed out of the room. This was followed by threats of a split–i.e., a purge of his critics. At a subsequent International Executive Committee meeting, with members flown in from the overseas sections, Gordon and others who had shared her criticism were duly trashed as an example to any others who might contemplate such lese majeste in future. The whole incident was considered so “educational” that it was printed up as part of an internal bulletin.
The Clone Purge and the “Second Transformation”
If Robertson did no more than humiliate and threaten to get rid of the cadres who produced WV, he felt fewer inhibitions in dealing with the editorial staff of Young Spartacus (YSp), the youth paper. Six months after the WV blowup, Robertson launched a purge of the young male writers of YSp (dubbed “clones”) whom he perceived as a potential base for someone’s faction somewhere down the line. The clone purge began the “second transformation” of the SL. In many ways nothing had changed–the group had been more or less run by Jim’s fiat for years. Yet this abusive and destructive purge did represent something new. For one thing, the leadership openly admitted it was “subpolitical.” More importantly, the clone hunt was deliberately intended to destroy and drive out an entire layer of talented young cadres. This was a significant new development. Before long, the treatment dished out to the “clones” was used on other elements of the cadre. Initially those hardest hit were the trade unionists. The common denominator of those who got the chop was that they were thought capable of becoming oppositionists at some future date.
The ranks were suddenly found to be full of “shits,” “pigs … .. male chauvinists” and “sexual manipulators.” “Proof” for these accusations was manufactured by going around the membership and collecting bits of conversations, casual remarks, or even impressions of people’s attitudes–anything which could be cobbled together into some kind of “case” against the designated targets. When no “evidence” was discovered, it was invented. Usually the leadership managed to get rid of whomever it wanted without having to resort to disciplinary proceedings. Only for exceptionally “hard cases,” like Fred Riker, who was falsely accused of cheating on his pledge and then tried in absentia, was it necessary to manufacture formal charges as a pretext for expulsion.
WV’s coverage of the concurrent purging and bloodletting in Jack Barnes’s Socialist Workers Party had all the freshness and immediacy that comes with intimate familiarity with the subject matter. One wag observed that the articles had the quality of a message in a fortune cookie reading: “Help, I’m trapped in a Chinese cookie factory.” Many former SLers were struck by how closely the lurid projections of life in “Barnestown” corresponded to the reality of “Jimstown.” The following account of the Barnes clique’s preparations for getting rid of the SWP old guard provides a perfect description of how purges are set up in the SL. They:
“had to be preceded by a good deal of sinister and conspiratorial lining-up activity…. Approaches have to have been made to individuals, probably to anybody that was anybody…. Those who didn’t pick up the cues and failed to smile and sneer in the right places would simply have been placed on a secret enemies list earmarked for later disposition.”
“In between: the slimy cliquist operation, feeling out the cadres, lining up those that were ready, marking out the others for the ax when the time was ripe.”
–WV No. 353, 27 April 1984
This same article criticizes Barnes for the “selective `reregistration’ ” of the SWP membership in 1983. It doesn’t mention that the SL has used similar procedures in its own internal purges. The difference is that Barnes is more straightforward. In the SL, reregistration occurs under the guise of setting up a pro-party faction; those who aren’t allowed to join are driven out of the organization, whereupon the “faction” is dissolved.
Obedience Training in the SL
Most of the techniques employed in the purges in the SL didn’t have to be improvised–the nightmarish internal meetings had long been a feature of life in the group. What was different was their intent and, consequently, the voltage. For the first time the “fights” were aimed at politically eliminating the cadres targeted, not just bringing them to heel. Thus the SL, which had long operated at the Healyite margin of what could be considered “democratic centralism,” propelled itself outside the parameters of Leninist practice altogether and set off on the road to Jimstown.
Cannon once remarked that if you get a few people in a room for long enough, they can talk themselves into practically anything. That observation increasingly guided the leadership as the SL’s internal political life atrophied and its degeneration proceeded in the late 1970s. The “fights” became outright psychological gang-bangs. Among Maoists, this technique was known as “criticism/self-criticism.”
Here’s how it works in the SL. A meeting is called where the designated comrade is called to account for mistakes which he allegedly committed. Each item on the bill of particulars is grossly exaggerated and extrapolated; perfidious motivations (political and/or personal) are attributed. Incidental personal criticisms of the individual’s mannerisms, lifestyle or demeanor are thrown in for good measure. Those leading the attack typically do a good deal of histrionic screaming and posturing in order to create the proper emotionally-charged atmosphere. The assembled membership is expected to provide the chorus: repeating and embellishing on the accusations. (A reluctance to participate is punishable by being made the next point on the agenda.) Attempts by the accused to agree with the substance of the charges are initially dismissed as disingenuous and insincere, unless the hapless “star” of the proceedings is prepared to exceed all the others in vilifying himself. There is no beating the rap. If you can prove that some of the allegations are false, new ones are quickly invented. Or you are charged with using “lawyer’s arguments” and attempting to obscure the overall picture by quibbling over “details.” In some cases, the refusal of individuals involved to “come clean with the party” (i.e, confess to the charges) is itself taken as evidence of an anti-leadership attitude. After all, if you don’t agree with the charges, then you must think the campaign against you is a bureaucratic atrocity!
Round after round, meeting after meeting, the “fight” continues until the object of the exercise gives up and hands in his resignation or confesses in what is deemed a suitably abject and contrite manner. Breaking down and crying is usually taken as evidence of sincerity, especially in men. The “fight” is then concluded with the unanimous passage of some harshly condemnatory motion. Anyone fortunate enough to be deemed worthy of one last chance can expect to spend at least the next few months as a pariah. Eventually there is a new victim and, with luck, the previous target can gradually recoup his status as a regular member. But the “lesson” is not quickly forgotten.
The leadership’s shock therapy techniques are deliberately intended to break the personal and political self-confidence of those subjected to them. Usually the “fights” are aimed at potential “troublemakers”–the idiots and yes-men can usually be integrated without difficulty. The choice posed: to crawl or to leave the group (known as opting for a “biological existence”) is only a difficult one for those who take the politics seriously.
These practices create enormous pressures within the organization. They have proved remarkably effective in shaping and molding (i.e., atomizing and intimidating) the SL membership. This in turn promotes among many a desire to ingratiate themselves with the leadership, a constant need to be assured that they are “doing well” and an acute sensitivity to subtle hints on how to do so.
The Poisoned Internal Life of the SL
Stalin is reported to have told the Lovestoneites in Moscow in 1929 that “When you get back to America, nobody will stay with you except your wives.” Robertson is more ambitious. Frequently in the course of SL purges, extraordinary efforts are directed at splitting couples and getting one to testify against the other. Conversely, those who refuse to split up with soon-to-be ex-comrades know that they will not long survive them in the organization. In one case, a woman who turned on her mate at the party’s suggestion won a gold chervonets. (The chervonets, or “golden dog biscuit,” is the SL equivalent of the Order of Stalin. It is awarded by Robertson to any member whose actions have particularly pleased him.)
The purges in the SL gave a lot of little people the chance to vent their frustrations and “get even” for petty grievances (real or imagined) against the victims. Some joined in with a mixed sense of fear and excitement, glad not to be on the receiving end and anxious to demonstrate their regime-loyalty. The most debased elements acquired new skills–interpretive accusation and cavalier disregard for the truth. They became masters of the art of the shrill and hysterical denunciation, and eagerly strained to be first on the round to jump on the back of each new victim. More experienced and decent people didn’t really believe much of it but kept their eye on the “big picture” and tried not to get their hands any dirtier than necessary. They suppressed their qualms and tried to focus on whatever grains of truth they could find in the indictments. Besides, they told themselves, the SL is the only revolutionary party in the world and this just isn’t worth going out over.
Among the casualties of the “second transformation” was the record of honesty long maintained by the Spartacist press. Today the poisoned internal life of the organization is reflected in Workers Vanguard’s brazen and cynical willingness to lie, just like Challenge, the Bulletin or the Daily World.
The shriekers and screamers who compose an ever-larger proportion of the SL/SYL have similarly learned to evaluate truth and falsehood in the light of the “party question” (i.e., “it’s alright as long as we do it because we know that we’re revolutionary”). Once widely regarded by the reformist and centrist left as honest, serious and “orthodox,” the SL today is perceived with equal justice as dishonest, nasty and nutty.
“Integrating” the International
The recomposition of the membership quickly extended outside the SL to its satellite sections. Here Robertson faced special problems. The European cadres regrouped by the SL tended to be highly political and generally possessed considerable experience as left-oppositionists in their former organizations. They were hardly predisposed to the commandism of the Spartacist “international.” Moreover, as many of these comrades had spent years working together, they couldn’t necessarily be counted on to carry out any and every instruction from New York. They had been won to the formal politics of the Spartacist tendency but had not been “integrated” organizationally.
For a time Robertson sought to solve this problem by personally homogenizing his international. To this end, he had an “International Secretariat” seat created for himself on the central committees of both the German and British groups, all the while retaining his post as National Chairman of the SL/U.S. Eventually the jet lag proved too much, so he opted for a series of brutal and pseudo-political purges, which eliminated the bulk of the experienced cadres and ensured that each section had a leadership in which reliable hand raisers predominated. This “solved” the problem of political differences arising in the overseas franchises.
Today the international Spartacist tendency is an “international” built around obedience to a single individual. It holds congresses about as frequently as Stalin’s Comintern. There is no discipline for the privileged leadership of the American section (which doubles as the international leadership), while complete obedience is demanded from all the others, down to the most trivial organizational details.
By the late 1970s the initial enthusiasm for “building the international” had worn off and the SL adopted a new motto: “charity begins at home.” The tap was turned off and the organization’s funds were poured into a new project–“the building” which, if nothing else, represents security for someone in his dotage.
Robertsonism vs. Cannonism
Robertson has always made much of his claim to represent the continuity of Cannonism in the contemporary American left. To the extent that the SL adhered to the Trotskyist program, there was a substantial basis for such a claim. But Robertson always meant more particularly that he represented Cannon’s organizational techniques, and in that he does Cannon a real injustice. Cannon was a serious factionalist. He fought hard and, on occasion, was doubtless guilty of bending a few sticks a little too far. But his organizational techniques were not those of Robertson and life in the SWP was a far different experience than in the SL. This is evident by even a casual reading of the SWP internal documents and can be confirmed by talking to SWP old-timers or reading their correspondence. From the formation of the Communist League of America in 1928 through the 1940 split with the Shachtmanites to the purge of the RT in 1963, Cannon’s organization had a vibrant internal life. There were many tendencies, several factions as well as a great number of political disputes within the organization which never assumed organized form. Oehler, Goldman-Morrow, Johnson-Forest, Cochran-Clarke, Vern-Ryan, Marcy and others all felt free to make harsh and blunt criticisms of the leadership. In many cases, they did so for years. In Cannon’s party, differences were not suppressed as in the SL, but fought out politically. In some cases this led to splits, in others not. Cannon ran a firm but democratic regime which recognized that internal political struggle was inevitable and even necessary and which treated its minorities loyally. Jim Cannon could live with a little dissent. In his party, up to the expulsion of the RT, you had to do something to get driven out.
Robertson adopted the conception which Cannon advanced in The Struggle for a Proletarian Party that organizational differences frequently mask latent political differences, but with a convenient corollary from Healy–that organizational grievances in the absence of formal “political” differences are only raised by anti-party wreckers looking to form rotten blocs. This handy formula boils down to the proposition that the organizational question is not a political question–particularly when it involves criticism of the leadership. Consequently it is an unprincipled question to fight over and those who make such criticisms deserve to be smashed. Within the SL, the argument that the organizational question is not a political question has functioned as the leadership’s license to abuse the membership.
Cannon knew that building a real movement meant there would inevitably be all kinds of shadings of difference. He didn’t go after them unless they had begun to express themselves in a counterposed program. It wasn’t that Cannon never thought of doing things Robertson’s way–he chose not to.
“It is perfectly possible for slick leaders to write ten constitutions guaranteeing freedom of criticism in a party and then create an atmosphere of moral terrorization whereby a young or inexperienced comrade doesn’t want to open his mouth for fear he will be made a fool of, or sat on, or accused of some political deviation he doesn’t have in his mind at all.”
–The SWP in World War II, page 329
Robertson set up precisely this kind of operation. Initially it was designed to cheat history by short-circuiting the factional losses which usually result from sharp political struggle in a revolutionary organization. Resolving to avoid such losses in his operation, Robertson spent a great deal of time–particularly after discovering in 1972 that a whole section of the SL leadership was disaffected and discussing mutiny–sniffing out potential opponents and hitting them before they could do any damage.
The Organizational Question as a Political Question
Such techniques have a price. They not only affect the quality of political life in the group, but also tend to develop a momentum of their own. Tomorrow’s dissident learns from the experience of today’s, and thus any expression of political difference tends to become increasingly covert. Ultimately in the SL the “shortcut” became its opposite as the very techniques which were designed to prevent costly splits, minimize cadre loss and safeguard the organization’s programmatic integrity ended up in a massive hemorrhaging of the membership.
The increasingly bureaucratic and eventually anti-political internal life of the SL (it is now seventeen years since the last faction fight) was both the first form of its departure from Leninism and the framework within which all of the subsequent revisionist departures have taken place. An organization with formally correct politics run by a leadership centrally concerned with maintaining its own absolute authority and willing to resort to abusive, anti-democratic internal practices to do so, is a deeply contradictory formation. Over time the tension between the mask and the face must inevitably express itself in programmatic revisions falling outside the organizational question because democratic centralism in a Leninist organization is not a desirable option but an indispensable necessity. The Spartacist League today, crippled by years of suppression of any and all dissident opinion, has lost the capacity to correct the errors of the leadership as it begins to attack the programmatic foundations of the movement.
The development of a rigid, authoritarian style of leadership in a communist organization reveals both a fundamental lack of confidence in the membership and, ultimately, in the revolutionary potential of the proletariat. One long-time Spartacist cadre recently wrote us: “I recall Robertson once telling me his ideal organization consisted of a cool, flexible leadership which could make turns and `do deals’ and a `foam-flecked’ (his words) rank and file.” This is of a piece with Robertson’s aphorism that “good Catholics make good communists,” i.e., they are familiar with the doctrine of leadership infallibility. The SL’s National Chairman, who has been heard to scream “I SHOULD BE THE RULER OF THE WORLD” while raging around the headquarters, has a somewhat lower estimate of the capacities of his followers. At a public meeting in New York in 1978, he remarked that he was often inclined to think of the membership as “a big bag of shit.” The ranks are encouraged to think of themselves in similar terms. The notion that “deep down I’m really a rotten, anti-party element who fears the anti-Soviet war drive and doesn’t sell enough papers” is constantly inculcated in every SLer, and the further outside of Robertson’s coterie, the more this is driven home.
Of course, in a historical sense, it is anomalous to have a tiny bureaucratic leftist organization with no necessary relation to the society within which it exists. This always provided the Healyites with a convenient axiomatic “proof” that their organization couldn’t be bureaucratic. Workers Vanguard (31 January 1975) noted:
“Wohlforth always dismissed the Spartacist tendency’s allegations about the grossly bureaucratic practices of the Healy/Wohlforth regimes with smug demands that we demonstrate upon what materially privileged stratum the WL regime is based.”
In the first (internal) polemic against the ET, SL leader Al Nelson responded to our charge of bureaucratism in the SL as follows:
“Ours is not a bureaucratic party. Bureaucratism, in a Marxist sense, arises when new policies and program representing alien class forces contradict the program and traditions of the revolutionary party. In order to impose such policies on the party, the leadership is compelled to suppress party democracy, to form the line through by bureaucratic coercion, and to concentrate all power in the party apparatus.”
–SL Internal Discussion Bulletin No. 40, page 63
How closely Nelson’s argument parallels Wohlforth’s. Both insist that bureaucratic practices within tiny socialist groupings must reflect some alien class force. Very neat and tidy. No room for the development of mini-personality cults or small group megalomania. But life is more complex–which is why we have the Posadases, the Healys and the Robertsons (not to mention the Marcuses).
Nelson also takes up the tricky problem of the Healyite regime of the mid-1960s:
“There is always a consonance between program and party regime. `But how to explain Healy circa 1966…’ shout the ETs, claiming to have found the exceptions that break the rule. In 1967, one year after our expulsion from the London IC conference, the Healyites came out for political support to Mao and the Red Guards…”
This really isn’t much of an explanation. The SLL’s revisionism in 1967 hardly accounts for the nature of its regime a year earlier. Healy’s 1962 demand that every member of the RT perjure himself as a condition for remaining in the SLL’s international faction is irrefutable evidence that there need not always be a consonance between formal program and party regime. Even within the iSt, the leadership has occasionally claimed to have discovered abusive and/or bureaucratic regimes which nonetheless functioned for years without overt programmatic manifestations. Bureaucratism is ultimately counterposed to the revolutionary program and must eventually express itself politically. But formal programmatic departures need not necessarily precede bureaucratic degeneration as the SL itself recognized in its contemporary comment on the 1966 IC expulsion:
“the Healy-Banda machine subordinates real political issues of agreement and disagreement to the exigencies of organizational issues and personal prestige politics. That organizational tendency is itself a political issue of the first order.”
–Spartacist No. 6, 1966
The Intervention of the External Tendency
The External Tendency was formed in 1982 by former members of the iSt. As we stated in our founding document, the SL was then an organization in contradiction:
“The critical aspect of the current stage of development of the iSt is that it is an organization with a deep contradiction between a coherent, rational, Marxist worldview and program and an increasingly abusive (and irrational) internal regime. And the process through which this contradiction will be resolved is incomplete.”
We projected a course of work to generate a political struggle within the iSt to restore the organization to revolutionary health, and held open the possibility that the group–or at least a significant portion of it–would be salvageable. We were well aware that the SL was at that point highly bureaucratic and had many cultish features, but we also recognized that at least externally it still represented a fair approximation of a Trotskyist propaganda group.
We hammered away at the SL every time it strayed from its Trotskyist heritage, whether it was ignoring the PATCO picket lines, carrying the flags of the Salvadoran popular front, designating its supporters the “Yuri Andropov Brigade” or dismantling its trade-union fractions. In each case, the SL leadership adamantly defended its mistakes as a matter of prestige and dared the membership to line up with us.
Many of the SL’s critics, noting the adulation of Yuri Andropov in WV, concluded that the organization had become definitively Stalinophilic. Yet when the Soviets justifiably terminated the KAL 007 spy-flight in September 1983, the SL’s immediate reaction was to drop the unconditional defense of the Soviet Union. Workers Vanguard proclaimed that if the Soviets had known that there were civilian passengers on board then “despite the potential military damage of such an apparent spying mission,” shooting it down would have been “worse than a barbaric atrocity.” This cowardly flinch was far closer to State Department socialism than Stalinophilia and illustrated that in breaking with its revolutionary past, the SL had become profoundly unstable politically. Such erratic programmatic gyrations in response to immediately perceived interests are characteristic of political banditry–a peculiar and particularly cynical form of centrism.
WV’s cowardly reaction to the demolition of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in October 1983 provided another graphic demonstration of the extent of the erosion of revolutionary will at the top of the SL/US. The reflex response of any decent socialist to the fate of the Marines in Lebanon should have been “so what, they had no business being there in the first place.” Instead of siding with the victims of imperialist intervention, the SL leadership raised the social-patriotic call to save the surviving Marines. With this it was becoming clear that what was at issue in the political battle between the ET and the SL leadership was not how best to apply the Trotskyist program, but the program itself.
The SL responded to the political pressure from the ET with a torrent of slander and abuse. Al Nelson set the tone in his internal polemic vilifying ETers as: “Liars, traitors, apologists for racism and genocide, petty bureaucrats, anti-Soviet popfrontists and wreckers.” The ranks were instructed to respond to us with “fanatical hatred” and individual members were encouraged to outdo one another in mudslinging. When our critique of “Marines Alive” struck a responsive chord in a section of the membership, the SL leadership responded with an ugly provocation. At a mass Greyhound picket in San Francisco in December 1983, several SLers loudly accused our supporters of being “Nazi-lovers” and “scabs” in a blatant attempt to incite militants in the crowd to attack them. When that didn’t work, two well-known SL supporters started elbowing one of our people.
In an attempt to reach those members who were uncomfortable with the leadership’s clear movement away from Trotskyism, we formally applied to rejoin the iSt as a tendency. This challenge to the SL’s fiction of a democratic internal life posed a difficult problem for Robertson et al. They didn’t want to appear politically afraid of a small group of former members and yet they had not spent the previous five years purging any and all potential critics in order to turn around and permit a disciplined oppositional tendency to rejoin. So they began to escalate the slander campaign with filthy insinuations that our protest of their behavior in San Francisco was derived somehow from COINTELPRO and that we therefore had some shadowy connection to the FBI.
The purpose of such slander in the left, whether practiced by Stalinists, Healyites or Robertsonites, is always the same–to discredit one’s opponents without having to answer them politically. It also has the effect of “locking in” those members who participate. Every time someone engages in slander or violence against an opponent, he is much more closely to the degenerate leaders who ordered it. Even when people break with such an organization, most feel themselves so deeply compromised by their own participation in such practices that they tend to leave politics entirely. This was always an important technique in cohering the Workers League and historically prevented all but a tiny handful from ever crossing over to the SL.
The Spartacist League as a Potemkin Village
The Spartacist League is increasingly coming to resemble a fake-revolutionary potemkin village. Events in the “big world” are of less and less interest. What really matters is that the dues base remains intact. This is reflected in a press which is often full of “in-house” news about SL activities and events, coverage of which is carried to absurd lengths. The SL has come to take great pride in its abstention from many of the important mobilizations by the rest of the left. In 1982 they boycotted a significant anti-Nazi demonstration initiated by the black community in Oroville, California. They also boycotted the massive 1983 anti-Cruise demonstrations in Canada. Last summer when a thousand protesters gathered to demonstrate against Jerry Falwell and the sinister Moral Majority in San Francisco during the week of the Democratic Convention, the SL refused to participate. Spartacist contingents have also been conspicuously absent from most of the recent demonstrations against U.S. intervention in Central America.
It is not stupidity or laziness that keeps the SL out of such demonstrations–this policy is a necessary concomitant to running a potemkin village. What would new recruits (who are joining what they are assured is the one and only legitimate group on the left) think if the SL participated in joint actions with other organizations, all of which are supposed to be involved in a murky, cop-infested “Big Lie” plot against “the party”?
The “second transformation” of the SL has also involved withdrawal from the trade unions. This began with the 1980 removal of leading spokespersons from phone and longshore/warehouse (the two unions in which SL-supported caucuses had won recognition as the chief opposition to the bureaucrats). In 1983 all the SL-supported stewards in the phone union resigned their posts citing first one pretext and then another. Meanwhile the organization has pulled out of auto and has nothing left in steel.
What union work remains is characterized by wild swings between left-posturing sectarianism and craven opportunism. The SL brazenly attempted to wreck the 11-day ILWU boycott of South African cargo this past November in San Francisco simply because ET supporters played a key role in organizing it. In a page taken straight from “Healy at Liege,” secondary tactical questions were elevated to “principles” in a cynical effort to provide a “left” cover for the SL’s attempts to derail the whole action.
In local elections in New York transit in 1983, it was a different story. The “leftism” was put on the back burner as SL supporters offered a no-contest agreement to Arnold Cherry, a black business unionist who WV openly admitted was no better than the incumbent. So we had the spectacle of SL trade-union supporters doing exactly what they had always chastised the opportunist fake-left for doing—trying to hitch a ride on the coattails of a popular out-of-office bureaucrat.
Gimmicks and Maneuvers
Instead of struggling for political hegemony within the left and the union movement, the SL leadership has sought to substitute a series of maneuvers and gimmicks, each of which is supposed to result in a spectacular breakthrough in the near future. When one fails to produce the projected result, then it’s on to the next, in the time-honored tradition of all fakers.
The first time the SL resorted to a “get-rich quick” scheme was in 1979 when Robertson himself announced the objectively unrealizable “200 recruitment” drive, launched in the wake of the clone purge. In 1981 there was another failed recruitment campaign, this one in the context of the “Anti-Imperialist Contingents.” This time there were short-term successes but the gains were quickly frittered away.
In November 1982 the SL pulled out all the stops and mobilized several thousand black workers and youth in a successful anti-Klan demonstration in Washington D.C. This was the climax of three years of anti-fascist mobilizations spearheaded by the SL. On the basis of the D.C. rally, the leadership decided that black recruitment was an easy shortcut to success. While continuing to rip up the trade-union fractions, the leadership announced a “turn” toward black work–at least in the pages of WV. In practice the black turn consisted mostly of announcing the creation of phantom front-groups (the “Labor/Black Struggle Leagues”–LBSLs) and then sitting back and waiting for them to fill up with members. Yet even with dues set at 25 cents a month, there were no takers for the LBSLs. The “70 percent black party” projected at the 1983 National Conference remains overwhelmingly white.
With the LBSLs stillborn, the leadership made a mini-turn toward strike chasing in the spring of 1984. The SL membership was sent out on a summer sub-drive to find isolated union militants in outlying areas who, it was hoped, would read a few issues of WV and then flood into the SL to take lessons on how to play “hardball.” This too turned out to be a flop. Effective strike-support work requires a solid trade-union base. Strike chasing cannot substitute for the long and difficult struggle to forge a revolutionary leadership in the mass organizations of the proletariat.
The gimmicks and the get-rich-quick schemes, the cynicism and the slander, are indicative of a profound political demoralization at the top of the SL. Like most of the rest of his political generation, Robertson was deeply marked by the period of defeats for the left in the 1950s. In a candid moment, he made the following observation:
“…my weakness comes from the fact that I have in some ways never transcended the first ten years of my political experience, in a little group in the midst of the witchhunt, where everything was contained in oral discussion, so I never developed the habit of writing. Even if this were not true, I can’t leave an unambiguous political estate; [I] am a product of the witchhunt, and [that] is a weakness I carry with me … I have a pretty deep political caution [I] treasure Lessons of October highly therefore, [I] am left with the feeling you can’t win, after year after year of people leaving the movement. In my experience this is normal. I try to fight it.”
–Expanded Political Bureau Minutes, 25 June 1972
For a long time Robertson did “fight it” but today the prospects of seeing a breakthrough in his lifetime must seem more remote than ever. He is burned out as a revolutionary. But he still has a couple of hundred followers, an established press, an extremely comfortable lifestyle and some valuable real estate–all held together by a political history which means less and less to him. Might as well enjoy things before he checks out.
Robertson has opted for the considerable pleasures of being a big fish in his own little pond. He is free to indulge his fancy as he chooses–playing Hugh Hefner one day and Robert the Bruce or “the Godfather” the next. And when he says put on the false noses, those SLers who “understand the party question” (the cynical euphemism for unquestioning obedience to the leadership), put them on without a murmur of protest.
Slipping Down the Vertical Axis
When plotting political tendencies, it is traditional to situate them on a left/right axis. Yet for the strange political effluvia generated by the North American left, one almost needs another axis–a vertical axis of correspondence to social reality. On this latter scale, the SL has moved at least as far down as it has moved to the right on the horizontal. Leftist groupings which move to the right usually do so because it seems “smart”–at least in the short run. But much of what the SL has been up to lately is not smart by any criterion–it is just plain weird.
WV’s predictions of impending fascism in the U.S. last July (with the Democratic Party convention providing Reagan’s “Reichstag fire” pretext) and the bizarre offer of a dozen SL defense guards to avert this “threat” were both so patently absurd that no one, including the SL cadre, really believed them. Thoughtful regime loyalists tried to explain their leadership’s Chicken Little scenario as a maneuver. In a sense they were right. But such “maneuvers” have a political logic. The SL’s offer to act as security guards for Mondale, like the flinch on the defense of Soviet airspace in the midst of the KAL 007 furor and the social-patriotic call to save the Marines in Beirut, was intended to indicate to the bourgeois state that, despite its hard-communist posturing, the SL is at bottom merely a harmless sect.
A few short months after the Reaganite “coup” lunacy, the leadership had its cadres running around San Francisco State dressed up as pigs, witches and Nazis in response to another “plot”–this one supposedly cooked up by the FBI and the S.F. State student council and aimed at the SYL.
SL Over the Brink
The bounds within which Robertson historically had to operate have been progressively stretched to the point where there is no longer any effective control on him within the organization. Yet the cult of Robertson the Great Man/genius-leader is peculiar in that it is not manifested in the public activity of the group (apart from the occasional bizarre and idiotic “angular” position). The analogy of which he is personally fond, is that of East Germany where everything is done by the book and a facade of collective leadership is maintained, as opposed to North Korea where the Divine Succession is literally written into the constitution. Robertson has definitely been taking the organization Korea-wards in recent years. The phrase “the party” has come to mean “Robertson.” But so far no one says this out loud inside the SL.
The SL can no longer be viewed as some sort of errant revolutionary organization with a bureaucratic regime. Rather it is the political equivalent of the pre-Qaddafi Healyites of the late 1960s; cynical former Trotskyist political bandits held together by obedience to an authoritarian lider maximo. Of course, history never repeats itself exactly, and while the Healyites’ route to political oblivion is probably the closest model for what is happening to the SL, it doesn’t correspond to it on every level. Healy never had his senior cadres dress up in witches hats. Nor did he publicly indulge in the psycho-sexual babble so typical of North American cults. The misogynist blather of the Red Avenger communiques is more reminiscent of the deranged rantings of Lynn Marcus’s NCLC.
The “clitorectomy/castration” propaganda of the Red Avengers would seem to signal a move by the leadership to close the gap between its formal political line and some of the more cultish features of the SL’s internal life. For several years Robertson has had his own little coven of sexual groupies with its own bizarre initiation rituals. They made a semi-official debut internally when, dressed in black and carrying candles, they appeared as “the Susanna Martin Choir” at a social held during the 1983 SL National Conference. (Susanna Martin was an early American witch.) In the report of the conference which appeared in WV (No. 342, 18 November 1983), it was noted that the choir’s “performance was received with wild and overwhelming acclaim.” What wasn’t reported is that running such an “informal interest association,” as WV coyly referred to it, is Robertson’s exclusive prerogative in the SL. Nor did WV mention that being one of Jim’s groupies confers great “informal” authority within the group.
In the old days one of the stories oft recounted in the SL to illustrate the limitless bureaucratism and all-round unpleasantness of life in the Workers League was how Wohlforth had once expelled several of his members because he had been made to sleep on a couch when visiting their branch. Today in the iSt comrades in European locals visited by Robertson sometimes have to spend several days hunting for a luxury hotel with a room large enough to accommodate two double beds. No one dares suggest that Jim spend a night on the couch!
The Struggle for Trotskyist Continuity
The SL is still able to present a facade of Trotskyist orthodoxy in its press when it wants to. Yet this is not so surprising–Healy’s SLL was characterized by a gruesome Caligula-style internal regime for years and yet retained the ability to produce fairly decent high-Trotskyist polemics for ceremonial occasions. Revolutionary theory has come to play essentially the same role in the iSt–a dogma which abstractly justifies the existence of the organization, but which bears increasingly little relation to its real activity.
One criterion for judging the health of an ostensibly communist organization is its ability to reproduce revolutionary cadres. The Spartacist League today is an organization which can only produce cynics. Subservience to authority is substituted for political consciousness in the membership who literally do not know what idiocy or betrayal they will be required to endorse next. All that those trained in the new school of Spartacism can really be sure of is that Trotskyism is whatever the leadership says it is. And it might be exactly the opposite tomorrow. What counts is doing what you’re told.
Many members of the Spartacist League have been badly damaged by their experiences under the Robertson regime and many are finished as revolutionists. Too many lies. Too much groveling. But there are others who embody the contradiction between the SL’s past and its present. Some of these comrades are doubtless hanging on in anticipation of a future faction fight which will produce a healthy split. But there is no inevitability of any such development. It never happened in Pierre Lambert’s Organisation Communiste Internationaliste nor in Healy’s SLL.
For a long time the SL led a kind of Dorian Gray existence. The face which was presented to the world in the pages of Workers Vanguard remained healthy, vigorous and clean, while the diseased and scabrous reality was only apparent to those on the inside. In that sense, the increasingly overt departure of the Spartacist League from its revolutionary past is a good thing as it tends to resolve the SL’s claim to represent the organizational continuity of Trotskyism. Yet we do not gloat over the self-destruction of the SL. It can only embitter and demoralize the decent people who remain within the group. More importantly, the SL’s activity discredits anti-revisionist Trotskyism in the eyes of leftists, workers, students, black militants and others who are exposed to it.
The great tragedy of the Spartacist League is that after two decades of swimming against the stream, its central leadership has ended up regarding revolutionary politics as just another cynical shell game. We respect the enormous political contribution which Robertson and his lieutenants have made in keeping alive the flame of revolutionary Marxism in our time. However under the pressure of isolation and failure, these same individuals have been transformed into an obstacle to the creation of a genuine Bolshevik vanguard.
The degeneration of the once-revolutionary SL leadership is by no means a unique historical event.
“On the basis of a long historical experience, it can be written down as a law that revolutionary cadres, who revolt against their social environment and organize parties to lead a revolution, can–if the revolution is too long delayed– themselves degenerate under the continuing influence and pressures of this same environment….
“But this same historical experience also shows that there are exceptions to this law too. The exceptions are the Marxists who remain Marxists, the revolutionaries who remain faithful to the banner. The basic ideas of Marxism, upon which alone a revolutionary party can be constructed, are continuous in their application and have been for a hundred years. The ideas of Marxism, which create revolutionary parties, are stronger than the parties they create, and never fail to survive their downfall. They never fail to find representatives in the old organizations to lead the work of reconstruction.
–James P. Cannon, The First Ten Years of American Communism, pages 29-30
As the Spartacist League decomposes into Yuri Andropov Brigades, Susanna Martin Choirs, Fritz Mondale Defense Squads and Red Avengers in its plunge toward political irrelevance, it is left to the External Tendency to struggle to ensure that the heritage which the SL carried forward from Cannon’s SWP is not lost. The critical task which we face in the next period is to regroup the cadres necessary to rebuild the nucleus of an authentically Bolshevik organization in North America and internationally, an organization that will be worthy of the heroic tradition of Cannon, Trotsky and Lenin.
Forward to the Rebirth of the Fourth International!
The Zen of Spartacism
Perhaps the most crucial element in perpetuating the internal regime in the SL is the unwritten law that a member must report to the organization any remarks or behavior of another member which is suspect in any way of deviating from the true essence of Spartacism or indicative of an “anti-party” attitude….
Although, in the abstract, this rule might seem reasonable or inoffensive, in practice it has proved to be otherwise. In reality it creates a compulsory “fink” obligation upon each member which is responsible for an atmosphere in the organization akin to that in a workplace under capitalism where management successfully imposes a policy of “divide and conquer” upon the workers by rewarding those who report their fellows to the boss for any real or imagined dereliction of duty.
The effect of this policy within the organization is quite pronounced: everyone is afraid to talk honestly to anyone else for fear that their remarks will be reported (behind their back, of course) to the local hierarchy or (perhaps worse) kept in reserve as ammunition by the other party to the conversation to be fired with deadly effect at some inevitable future criticism session of the errant member….
As a consequence of the “fink” rule, it is extremely rare for anyone in the organization to have any real friends because communication and trust are severely limited by the prevailing mutual paranoia.
An interesting variety of the betrayal/counter-betrayal behavior encouraged by the rule is that any member who hears or sees anything that should be reported, but does not do so, may later find himself or herself denounced by the “guilty” party for not reporting the latter to the Party!
The by-products of the situation are many and dangerous. People who may harbor doubts, questions or disagreements are forced to repress them or, at a minimum, keep quiet about them for fear of being branded in the organization as a deviationist or anti-party element who would then be subject to further bureaucratic victimization.
Needless to say, given the inhibition of even informal social conversation, the amount of free debate at internal meetings is rather paltry. This is further exacerbated by the “ad hominem” polemical style popular in the organization in which, rather than attacking the ideas of an opponent, one is encouraged to attack the person who advances the ideas and attribute to them various derogatory labels as a substitute for analyzing their views.
The significance of the foregoing factors is that they effectively eliminate the preconditions for forming factions in the organization — if members are too mistrustful of being “turned in” to the party bureaucracy to be able to talk to each other, how can they ever get together to form factions?
Thus, the Robertsonites have their cake and eat it too; formally, the written rules of the SL guarantee factional rights, informally, the unwritten rules eliminate the practical possibility of factions forming.
There are additional aspects of the internal Spartacist social norms which should not be underestimated in their deleterious effects on party democracy. The imposition of abject poverty on members by the /pledge/ schedule and the destruction of cadre by overwork should need no comment for those who have experienced it first-hand….
The “ad hominem” nature of polemics in the SL has been discussed above. What I would like to comment upon here is the attitude of the hierarchy toward mistakes made by members. It should be obvious that it is inevitable that mistakes will be made and that even the most tyrannical and oppressive party leadership will not be able to keep mistakes from being made. Therefore, any rational personnel policy, in the Party or any other organization, should be to help the errant person learn from their experience not to repeat the same mistake and, hopefully, to avoid too many others. It serves no legitimate purpose to crucify people who make mistakes. Members deserve to be treated with respect by their comrades and by the organization as a whole. This principle should apply to leaders of the group as well as lowly rank-and-filers and it is particularly incumbent on the leadership to set a proper example. The practice of the SL in this regard is too horrific even to require comment, except to say that perhaps the practice derived from a combination of insensitivity and a manipulative desire to use any opportunity to smash the self-respect of members so as to keep them more firmly under control.
— Grosz, September 1984
The Test Jim Didn’t Pass
Sycophancy is encouraged in the SL not through flattering speeches about the “genius” or the “infallibility” of Robertson and the rest of the leadership. It is encouraged by promoting a psychology of deference, occasionally reinforced by overt intimidation. Why must one defer to New York’s judgement on even the most trifling of matters? Because the central leadership is a repository of great political experience and capacity. Because they have “passed far more tests” than anyone else in the organization. Because to defy their “authority” is tantamount either to rejecting the political tradition which they “embody” or failing to understand the organizational question.
The central leadership (and Robertson in particular) is the guardian of the Trotskyist program. No one else has earned the right to be the Guardian of The Program. No one else has passed The Test. It’s my party, says Robertson; and he’s right. I am not unsympathetic to J.R. I don’t think there’s a psychiatrist in the world that can help him, but I think his psychology is pretty transparent. He’s a big fish in a small pond, a victim of small-group megalomania.
The disproportion between the tasks of the SL and its actual resources got to him a long time ago. The Trotskyist program must be preserved, he reasoned; it is the “last, best hope” for humanity. And who, in our time, has done more to preserve it than anyone else? Unquestionably, it has been Jim. He fought the SWP leadership; he fought Wohlforth; he fought Healy; he fought impressionism, revisionism, bureaucratism, liquidationism like no one else. And against great odds he managed to construct a real, if fragile, international tendency which has managed to preserve the Trotskyist programmatic heritage. The point is: that accomplishment is the justification for the peculiar form of bureaucratization which the SL has undergone. It is a bureaucracy based not on the preservation of privileges (although there are privileges involved); it is a bureaucracy based on a megalomaniacal psychology geared to the preservation of the Trotskyist program. Paradoxical, maybe; but I think it’s the case.
But Jim did fail to pass one test. He didn’t, and probably couldn’t, construct a revolutionary internal regime. The internal regime is unhealthy. The authority invested in Jim and his closest associates is absurd and dangerous. It is not enough to have a formally correct program; one needs a revolutionary party capable of producing real cadres. Jim never rose to this challenge, because of his excessive preoccupation with formal programmatic integrity and political homogeneity. The right balance was not struck. He certainly didn’t even try to strike the balance that Lenin achieved in the Bolshevik party, that Trotsky achieved in the Fourth International, and that Cannon achieved in the SWP. And I think that the reason is plain, and has even been alluded to by J.R. himself. Lenin, Trotsky and Cannon’s organizations all ultimately degenerated. So it was up to J.R. to come up with a new formula (a new balance between democracy and centralism, between program and organization) which would ensure, above all, the integrity of the program. If the SL is evincing programmatic wobbles now, it is the consequence of our failure — the failure of those of us who ate shit out of deference and an acute awareness of our own fallibility — to say what had to be said while we were still members. I hope the ET has the courage to do it now.
— a former leading member of the iSt, January 1984
From Trotskyism to Halloween
“Xandra’s Red Avengers”
The following is an exchange between the External Tendency (ET) and the Spartacist League (SL) on the “Red Avengers.” Red Avengers “Communique No. 1” was distributed at San Francisco State University on 12 November and subsequently reprinted in both Workers Vanguardand Young Spartacus. On 22 November we published a critique of the Red Avengers entitled “Did You Join the iSt For This?” Young Spartacusreplied in its December 1984 issue with “ET Blanches Over Red Avengers” which, to our way of thinking, confirms that there is indeed something pretty strange going on in the SL these days.
We defend the Spartacus Youth League’s right to function at S.F. State and to be allocated rooms and funding without harassment by student bureaucrats or administrators. We oppose any and all attempts by the administration, the student council, the women’s center and/or rival leftists to suppress the SYL even if, in the memorable words of Alexander Cockburn, they often insist on “acting like assholes.” But we aren’t ready to go all the way with Xandra and her “masked and merry” crew in their hysterical depiction of their persecutors (including the blacks among them) as fascists in league with the FBI.
Such slanders have unfortunately become all too common from the Spartacist group as “ET Blanches” demonstrates. In addition to the thinly veiled threat that “Reading the works of the ET is not the road to mass suicide, but authoring them is something else again,” the article cynically imputes fascist tendencies to one of our supporters with the reference to “gestapo-belted Uschi.” If the shoe were on the other foot, and the ET (or for that matter the Socialist Workers Party or the New York Times) had published a reference to the “Klan-hooded James Robertson,” we can imagine the outraged protests (or perhaps even litigation) that would ensue. It is an index of the irreversible rottenness of the Spartacist League that it thinks nothing of printing such loathsome lies about its leftist opponents.
The other outstanding example of the “Big Lie” contained in “ET Blanches” is the allegation that our leaflet “owes more than a little to COINTELPRO,” and specifically that we are guilty of “fingering [SL] members.” The “proof” for this vicious slander is that we reported that SL honcho George Foster (whose name has appeared in the editorial box of every issue of Workers Vanguard for the past twelve years)lurked in the background during the Red Avengers performance.
Beware Lady Dobermans in Anti-Soviet Heat—Your Ass Could Be Bitten Next!
The Spartacus Youth League of San Francisco State University has been driven underground by gestapo persons and rabid doberman pinschers of the female persuasion crawling between the toes of the FBI. We go underground because sinister elements in the student government and the Women’s Center, book burners inspired by sentiments at bottom not different than those of CIA tool Pinochet of Chile, leave us no recourse if we are to distribute our Marxist literature—especially our newspapers Young Spartacus and Workers Vanguard and the writings of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky.
As an underground organization we will invite people to campus meetings to discuss Marxist politics. As for the female doberman agents of the bourgeoisie in the grip of anti-Soviet heat, they are going to have to face the just political rage of those driven under ground. Beware of the Red Avengers!
Certainly the SF State student government and Women’s Center have made a spectacle of themselves during the sorry events of the last few weeks. They would do well to ponder the Amerikkkan CIA’s long tradition of using student governments as dupes and pawns in their global campaign of anti-Soviet disinformation and terrorism in the service of imperialism.
Perhaps we are witnessing the rebirth of something like the National Student Association, a CIA creature whose cover was blown in 1966. That’s how Gloria Steinem got her start as a CIA spy on Communist youth. SF State’s “Women’s Center” may be the breeding ground for a new crop of Steinems. To find out, we might ask the local Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) chapter whose mentor, Michael Harrington, has a similarly “comfortable” history with the likes of the NSA.
As it is, events at SF State over the past period read too much like a William Buckley CIA spy novel about a mythical Midwest college where anti-freedom feminist CIA agents dupe the campus cops and student government into acting as tools to get the reds.
Behind the farce at SF State lie some fundamental points. The SF State campus is not the bourgeois state but a derivative of it. Money disbursed by student governments is thus only indirectly money of the state. But he who pays the piper calls the tune. The power of the purse is the power to control or destroy. The Democratic Party-ensconced Harringtonite DSA, of the shabby history cited above, makes a career of living off this largess.
The underground SYL defends the struggle for legality, but refuses to take one dime from the paid agents of bloody Yankee imperialism. We demand the de-funding of all political organizations except those groups who are agents of the bourgeois state—e.g., Young Republicans will get their money from the FBI and the Young Democrats from the CIA. We note with satisfaction that the excellence of our proposal is only underlined by the fact that the Workers World Party/People’s Anti-War Mobilization, Unity, John Brown Anti-Klan Committee, et al. are up to their ears in the imperialist filth of the Democratic Party. Amen!
For our part we happen to be old-fashioned Marxist-Leninists who don’t think that smoking in an elevator merits being stabbed (as happened to black SF State student Doris Collum by an eco-freak in February, 1982) or that distribution of Marxist literature merits castration.
We know that this is an uncivil statement, we only wish that it was also inaccurate. It takes two to be civil. To our rabid opponents we offer a deal: you catch the unwary looking for a good fuck and we’ll catch the ones looking for an understanding of the world . . . you’re bound to give yours a real screwing.
Speaking of which (witch?) Women’s Center guru Judy Moore (a.k.a. Baby HUAC) informs us, “I’m not impressed with police brutality, nor do I care in the least what’s happening in Nicaragua.” But Moore likes to throw her considerable weight around, and doesn’t want State students to read Karl Marx. Well, in lieu of Marx, we recommend that Ms. Moore read Miss Manner’s Guide to Rearing Perfect Children—A Primer for Everyone Worried About the Future of Civilization.
To those students at State who do care about stopping U.S. imperialism’s counterrevolutionary schemes in Central America the Red Avengers of the underground SYL invite you to a rally of the effete legal SYL on Thursday, November 15 at noon on the plaza for military defense of Nicaragua against Yankee imperialism. We will be soliciting funds for the Nicaraguan government to purchase the most advanced antiaircraft missiles from the Soviet Union, especially the Soviet equivalent of the Stinger. Join the Red Avengers at the A.S. meeting at 4:00 Thursday to protest the two-bit Führers’ attacks on the SYL (camouflage provided upon request).
Red Avengers—friends of the rights of the Underground SYL Venceremos!
Address all correspondence to:
c/o Underground SYL
Felix Dzerzhinsky Square
corner of Karl Marx Street at Fourth International Avenue
SF State University
Workers Vanguard No. 367, 23 November 1984
Underground With Xandra
Did You Join the iSt for This?
Spartacist League/Spartacus Youth League supporters wearing witches’ hats and false noses distributed the attached leaflet at San Francisco State University on 12 November. The leaflet is positively weird. It is a milestone in the SL leadership’s turn away from its orthodox Trotskyist past toward a future of political banditry and cultism with—or without—a Trotskyist veneer.
This is certainly not opportunism. It appeals to no one. The “Red Avengers” have made the SYL more unpopular than ever on campus. As far as we could see there was not one student who wasn’t already a member of the SYL involved in the ludicrous play-acting. Middle-aged SL cadres dutifully substituted themselves for the absent youth as young reformists stood around advising them to “grow up.”
On November 15, as advertised, the costumed “Red Avengers” reappeared on campus sporting red bandana masks and red T-shirts bearing the inscription “Go Underground With Xandra the Red Avenger” in white letters. Keith D., SL District Organizer, provided on-the-spot tactical leadership while SL Deputy National Chairman George Foster lurked in the background. Waving red flags, Xandra and her “masked and merry” avengers marched into a student cafeteria and began to harangue the assembled masses with a bullhorn. The students shouted them down and screamed for the cops. One right-winger provocatively set fire to a “Red Avenger” leaflet. Before long the cops arrived and the rally was over.
The S.F. State student bureaucrats, the feminists of the Women’s Center and various liberals and Stalinists are running a nasty red-purge against the self-styled “effete legal” SYL. What’s worse, the SYL is objectively cooperating! It sent only one representative to the student council meeting on 15 November. The student bureaucrats read a series of unsubstantiated charges that SYL supporters had “violently disrupt[ed]” meetings, carried out “physical assaults” on “students, faculty and staff” and proposed to “not support future funding [or] space allocation” for the SYL. They then offered the SYL spokesman time to reply. He responded that the SYL had been “bound and gagged” and that he had “nothing to say.” Such passivity is a gross departure from the Trotskyist policy of vigorous political defense against harassment and persecution. It provides a dangerous precedent for further McCarthyite attacks on the SL/SYL and the rest of the left.
At San Francisco City College in 1972 the RCY built a broad-based defense campaign which included everyone from the Young Socialist Alliance to the president of the campus chapter of “Young Voters to Re-Elect President Nixon”! This was a formative fight in the RCY and firmly established the tradition of aggressive, united-front defense of the SL/SYL’s legal rights (see WV No. 13, November 1972). Similar defense campaigns have since been conducted on other campuses, including one at Oakland’s Laney College in 1981 (see YSp No. 91, May 1981).
The newly-discovered idiotic “principle” of not taking money from student councils is also a regression from the SYL’s past practice. Why not also refuse room allocations, speakers fees, etc. from bourgeois universities? (See “On Obtaining Campus Funding for the RCY,” RCY Internal Discussion Bulletin No. 15, 19 August 1974.)
Much of the leaflet is fundamentally anti-political personalist abuse. The misogynist description of the SYL’s feminist opponents as female doberman pinschers in heat and the business about “castration” and who is going to give who “a good fuck” is clearly bizarre. “Old-fashioned Marxist-Leninists” use a different approach, as the Spartacist League used to.
And then there is the charge of “fascism,” which the iSt uses with increasing frequency against various political opponents. In a revolting bit of “guerilla theatre” outside the student council meeting, the “Red Avengers” marched in a column, singing the “Internationale,” led by comrade Jeannie, dressed in a Nazi military uniform complete with swastika armband! She wore a sandwich board reading “Women’s Center” on one side and “A.S.A. [student council] Stooges” on the other. The leaflet makes substantially the same charge by referring to the SYL’s persecutors as “two-bit Fuhrers.” Women’s Center honcho Judy Moore is an anti-communist feminist. But she is no fascist. She is black, a fact which is curiously omitted from the SYL’s leaflet. As far as we can tell, the student bureaucrats (a number of whom are also black) aren’t fascists either.
The leaflet bears another trademark of the degenerated Spartacist League: a paranoid scenario featuring the SYL at S.F. State as the target of a gigantic web of FBI/CIA conspiracy. This may be the result of too much time spent reading “William Buckley CIA spy novels” on the fourth floor of Warren Street. Is it really surprising that in Reagan’s America in 1984 feminists and student council bureaucrats are trying to run their own little sandbox red purge? Do they necessarily have to be “crawling between the toes of the FBI” to do so? Trotskyists don’t label their opponents as cops (or fascists) unless they have some proof.
In the past we have pointed to the SL leadership’s tendency to deliberately falsify social reality in order to alibi their flinching under the pressure of the Reagan years. In October 1983 the SL called for saving the U.S. Marines who survived the Beirut barracks bombing. This social-patriotic flinch was sold to the ranks as a brilliant tactic to intersect “mass frenzy” in the streets and split the armed forces. But there was no “mass frenzy,” and a few months later even comrade Samuels had to admit as much. Last July Workers Vanguard projected a rightist terror attack by Reagan, the Klan and San Francisco’s Democratic mayor against the Democratic Party convention. WV made an analogy to the Reichstag fire of 1933 which Hitler used to crush all opposition to the Nazi regime! The whole phantasmagoria was created to rationalize the cowardly attempt by the SL leadership to cozy up to the Democrats with an offer of a dozen defense guards.
We have been saying for several years now that there is something deeply wrong with the leadership of the iSt. But when we first saw it we literally could not believe that this was a Spartacist leaflet. We suspected that it was either some kind of COINTELPRO-type provocation or the product of some smart aleck anti-communists on campus. We were wrong. We underestimated the extent of the anti-Trotskyist cancer in the SL/US leadership.
We hope many Spartacist comrades felt uneasy about the performance of the Susanna Martin choir (an “informal interest association” of participants in Jim Robertson’s midnight “Black Masses”) at the SL national conference last year. “Xandra the Red Avenger” indicates that something plenty strange is going on in the SL. Can anyone believe that this has anything to do with Cannonism? There are precedents for this kind of stuff, but not in Lenin’s party, nor Trotsky’s, nor Cannon’s.
We warn those Spartacist comrades who still believe in the validity of Leninism that the “Red Avengers” leaflet is something else. It is the road to Jimstown. It won’t go away if you try to downplay it, ignore it or close your eyes to it. If you are willing to take responsibility for this kind of thing then you are breaking deliberately and consciously from Bolshevism. To those of you who still want to fight for the program of Trotskyism instead of playing out the second-adolescent fantasies of an impotent, cynical and degenerate leadership, the time to fight is now!
BREAK WITH THE ROBERTSONITE GANG OF DEGENERATE ANTI-TROTSKYISTS!
JOIN WITH THE EXTERNAL TENDENCY TO SALVAGE THE CADRES AND TROTSKYIST TRADITION OF THE iSt!
FOR THE REBIRTH OF THE FOURTH INTERNATIONAL!
ET Blanches Over Red Avengers
In the wake of Reagan’s first election when Bolshevism in this country necessarily meant mobilizing the black proletariat against resurgent racist terror and swimming against the anti-Communist stream to defend the Soviet Union, a number of our members chose to resign their party memberships. While some maintained a loyal friendship to the organization, not so for those who later coalesced as the “External Tendency” (ET). At a time when the party undertook the urgent task of labor/black mobilizations to stop KKK/Nazi threats in major Cities from Detroit to Chicago to Washington, D.C. those who now call themselves the “External Tendency” fled our ranks at various points, fearful or indifferent to our perspective of black and red. Like many discouraged renegades from Marxism, who figure they’ve given their “best years” to the struggle, personal pique and bitterness dominate the ET’s “politics.” In self-justification and retrospect, the ETers cook up increasingly horrific stories about the monstrous machinations of the party from which they “unjustly” quit. But one has to ask: if it wasn’t our black work and the Russian question—what was it you quit over?
So when we noticed members of the External Tendency lurking about San Francisco State lately we suspected they weren’t there to aid in the just struggle of the Underground SYL. Sure enough, an ET leaflet surfaced in several cities entitled “Underground with Xandra—Did You Join the iSt for This?” in which the ET thrills with horror over the Red Avengers: “positively weird,” “clearly bizarre,” “paranoid,” “misogynist” and “something pretty strange” not to mention “a milestone in the SL leadership’s turn away from its orthodox Trotskyist past toward a future of political banditry and cultism with—or without—a Trotskyist veneer.” The ET solemnly warns “those Spartacist comrades who still believe in the validity of Leninism that the ‘Red Avengers’ leaflet is something else. It is the road to Jimstown.” Frankly we doubt the ET really believes that guerrilla theatre equals counterrevolution or even “cultism,” it’s just that Xandra’s Underground SYL does not appear stodgy and sober and would not find favor with the AFL-CIO executive board.
The ET should know that, as proof of our descent into the maelstrom of “Jimstown” we believe that this is the best leaflet you ever wrote—the highest contribution to our well-being thus far. It is also the highest expression of yellow journalism on your part and owes more than a little to COINTELPRO. The inclusion of names and organizational posts of certain leading Spartacist members and other similar information in your leaflet is presumably not of much interest to SF State students. If we were to interpret this unkindly, which we do, we would call it red-baiting and fingering our members. Reading the works of the ET is not the road to mass suicide, but authoring them is some thing else again.
Carefully left out of the ET’s polemic are the questions of thrust, purpose and program. Conceding that we face a “nasty red-purge” at SF State, the ET’s own contribution to the witchhunt is to denounce in no uncertain terms the reds in question. Assuring all who care to hear that the ET wouldn’t be caught dead in masks or red bandannas, they testify from their own peculiar vantage point (i.e., as embittered white ex-members) that the SYL is indeed worthy of repression. Now we all know that “cults” and “political bandits” are not bound by political program or principle: cults therefore are apt to do anything—dangerous people who by most standards ought to be locked up. This is exactly the picture of us that our lying pro-Democratic Party opponents try to paint. Not innocently, the ET leaflet omits incidents well known to them of police violence against our comrades at SF State. And while the ET sneers that we are “paranoid” to raise the spectre of FBI machinations behind the witchhunt, they write that upon reading the first Red Avenger Communiqué “we suspected that it was…some kind of COINTELPRO-type provocation.” A curious double standard: lying charges of violence, repetitive arrests and witchhunting against us do not indicate to the ET any secret police involvement, but our own propaganda against the witchhunt does.
This is all the ET’s way of getting and staying friendly with the popular front “progressives” who in fact are spearheading the attack on us at SF State. What happened there this fall was a mobilization of the Democrats/Rainbow Coalition/fake-left to elect Mondale. We stood in the way, partly because the campus was a main center of activity for the Spartacist campaign for SF Board of Supervisors. Under the slogan “Finish the Civil War!—For Workers Revolution!” our campaign drew a hard class line against the Democrats. Candidate for SF supervisor Richard Bradley was particularly well known and respected for his action in ripping down the Confederate flag—banner of slavery and racist terror—from the city’s Civic Center. That action exposed the city’s Democratic administration as the racist, anti-working class gang they are and in turn earned us the active enmity of those seeking to paint the Democrats in “progressive” rainbow hues. (The ET didn’t think much of our successful fight to rid the city of the Confederate flag either: uniquely they credit mayor “Dixie Dianne” Feinstein for taking it down. Indeed, we suspect the straight-laced ET found Bradley’s heroic action embarrassingly flamboyant.)
The liberals’ witchhunt, backed up by the SFSU administration and cops, began in earnest when, at a supervisors candidates debate sponsored by the campus Women’s Center, Spartacist literature was “banned” by hysterical feminists. Our announcement that the SYL, in order to distribute its Marxist literature, had been driven underground by “gestapo persons and rabid doberman pinschers of the female persuasion crawling between the toes of the FBI” was our way of mocking these Mondale lovers. But of course the ET hates this, being themselves Mondale lovers of the second mobilization.
Among the benefits of the Red Avengers tactic is that it has promoted physical fitness among our young comrades who have to run from the cops every day. No wonder prominent ET supporter Howard Keylor doesn’t like this—he might fall on his pipe. He enjoys the manner of the genial leader, smoking a pipe like Stalin while he soberly reviews with popular frontists and labor bureaucrats how to break up a picket line which was, in fact, a deadly thrust against the South African apartheid regime. Which brings us to the story of how the ET stabbed black longshore workers in the back. In the predominantly black longshore union (ILWU) Local 10 in SF, Keylor “distinguished” himself as the left cover for the bureaucrats and Stalinists who were intent on sabotaging a potentially powerful union action against South African cargo aboard the Nedlloyd Kimberley. Militants supported by the SL fought for solid union action, including an official union picket of the ship and shutting down the entire port in response to any attempts by the employers to penalize the union or its members. The ET went along with the officers’ gambit of setting up the longshoremen to act on personal “conscience” and individually refuse to touch the cargo. Of course Keylor has no trouble sleeping at night because he’s loyal to his program, his pipe and then there is the gestapo*-belted Uschi. (*Uschi of the ET—unlike Uli the ET cause célèbre—is not of course a “fascist.” She simply believes that the Social Democrats who are currently living well in Germany experienced the same tragedy under Hitler that the Jews did.)
It is thus no accident that Keylor was seen on the docks conferring with one Julianne Malveaux, Democratic Party politico and central figure in the attempted purge of the SYL at San Francisco State. Professor Malveaux submitted, along with various “progressive” campus organizations, a written complaint against the SYL in time for the student government meeting which had been carefully planned in advance to go after us. Someone ran a solicitation racket among political opponents of ours, and produced a number of depositions all dated on or around the same day. Only Malveaux had the maliciousness and poor judgment to include in her statement a lying charge of physical assault against her by an SL supporter (see “Statement to the ORC Hearing,” page 9).
Afflicted with terminal anti-Spartacism, the ET pretends not to see that behind the anti-red mobilization at SF State is the attempt to intimidate and regiment youth for war. Reagan is setting up Nicaragua for something horrible, and setting up the Soviet Union—and all of us—for something really horrible. The Mondale lovers, scared witless over Reagan’s landslide re-election, figure the least they can do in that worthiest of all causes, the saving of their own hides, is to place themselves at the head of an anti-red witchhunt such as is occurring at SF State. So we have said “nuts to you” in an ostentatious fashion to our “progressive” persecutors.
In the course of our underground work, we have learned a thing or two. One is that combining outrageous mockery and our serious politics in the same communiqué is very difficult. So we have adopted the “counter-communiqué” which is written in the “voice” of our beansprout and feminist opponents (see Counter-Communiqué No. 1-1/2, page 11). Another is that it’s fun under these mock conditions and has been well received by students bored to death by Mondale lovers.
The ET has no more stomach for the Red Avengers than it did for the “Yuri Andropov Brigade”—the New York City contingent of Spartacists and other anti-fascist militants who traveled to Washington, D.C. for the 5,000-strong Labor/Black Mobilization which stopped a threatened Klan march in November 1982—a victory at which the ET was conspicuous by its absence. From D.C. to San Francisco—where there is Spartacist-led struggle, the ET is nowhere to be found.
The Red Avengers recognize that student governments, as indirect agents of the state and training grounds for tomorrow’s bourgeois politicians, use their disbursements as a means of control over campus political life. For the ET, this simple statement of fact is “idiotic” and yet another example of our “outrageous” behavior so alien to the housebroken “family of the left.” They duly refer us to a 1974 internal SYL document on obtaining campus funding. Well, in our internal discussions on a range of questions, nobody was ever right all the time. What matters for a revolutionary organization is whether or not, when a question comes into sharp dispute, there is the necessary programmatic basis to correctly decide it. For years, liberal and reformist organizations have made off with large amounts of student government funding precisely because of services rendered to the “orderly functioning” of the university. And for years the communist SYL has waged fights on the democratic principle that if they get it, we should get it too. But we get peanuts and the price is too high.
At SF State, we refused to accept the legalities of people who offered us $10 and castration/clitorectomies. We certainly don’t need the former, and don’t propose to undertake the latter. We are, of course, reasonable people and as soon as they stop going after us because they are so upset that Reagan won against St. George the Mundale and Lady Ferraro we are perfectly prepared to reach a modus vivendi. But we won’t take their money. At our recent SYL National Committee plenum, we discussed and reaffirmed this policy.
The ET also objects to a plethora of heuristic devices used by the Underground SYL to mock our beansprout totalitarian opponents. No, one would not describe the ET as having a sense of playfulness. How could they; from their inception their real program has been defeatism, tiredness and sour grapes. The ET’s attempt to serve up a pseudo-“Spartacism” without the “Spart” makes them not only camp followers of the popular front, but about as exciting as “Flipper” re-runs.
Using an analogy which should be understood by most ETers, one could describe them as the Harry Turner Brigade. A humorless lot, the ET cannot be expected to grasp the fact that liberation is also play—an enormous release of revolutionary energy. If you’re standing in resolute opposition to the repressive modus operandi of a sick society, why not occasionally have some fun at its expense? In the liberal totalitarian stronghold of San Francisco, our comrades of the Red Avengers seek to do precisely that. If the ET doesn’t like “Go underground with Xandra” how about “Have fun with the deeply humanist Thorfinn, the Raven Feeder”?
Finally, we are gratified that a number of students at SFSU don’t suffer the geriatric disabilities of the ET and get a kick out of the Red Avengers and their communiqués. We really don’t think that the world has ended because Reagan got elected. Non-dear ex-comrades: the working people should take over this country and if that happens, you’ll be astonished.
Viva Vanessa! Viva Xandra! Long live the just struggle of the Underground SYL against the fascist insect that preys upon the students!
Young Spartacus No. 123, Dec. 1984/Jan. 1985
Militant Longshoremen “Hot-Cargo” South African Goods
11-Day Anti-Apartheid Struggle On San Francisco Docks
For eleven days last fall the Nedlloyd Kimberley sat and rusted in San Francisco harbor as 300 longshoremen refused to touch the South African cargo on board. This dramatic act of militant labor solidarity with the embattled black masses of South Africa by members of Local 10 of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) reverberated throughout the Bay Area, up and down the west coast and beyond. Many thousands of people were inspired by this demonstration of the power of working-class political action. Throughout the boycott, hundreds of opponents of apartheid rallied at the gates of Pier 80 to show their support for the longshoremen.
The action originated with a motion put forward at a Local 10 Executive Board meeting in October by External Tendency (ET) supporter Howard Keylor. The motion called for the local to refuse to touch the next ship which entered San Francisco carrying South African cargo and for Local 10’s officers to publicize and seek to spread the action. Keylor’s militant proposal was watered down at a subsequent membership meeting by Leo Robinson who amended it to make it a boycott of only the South African cargo aboard the ship. (A boycott of cargo on board a ship, as opposed to a boycott of the ship itself, means that the workers involved take the job from the hiring hail, board the ship and work as instructed, refusing only to touch the designated cargo. The Nedlloyd Kimberley carried some Australian cargo which the ILWU members unloaded. They only stopped work when they came to the South African goods. From then on, two gangs a day were dispatched to the ship, ordered to unload the “hot” cargo and then fired when they refused to do so.)
Robinson’s amendment was popular with the bulk or the membership because they thought that by giving the appearance of a non-union action (i.e. acts of conscience by the individuals involved), they could forestall legal action and extend the boycott over a period of days. This notion played into the hands of the officers of the largely black local who did not want to come out openly against the boycott but also didn’t want to have to take any responsibility for it. The Local 10 bureaucrats had no intention of spreading the boycott or engaging in any showdown with the courts if they could avoid it.
Keylor warned that Robinson’s amendment would, at best, only briefly delay the intervention of the arbitrator and the courts. He argued that if the union openly initiated a boycott of a ship with South African cargo, aggressively publicized it and attempted to spread it to other longshore locals (as his motion called for) it would be quite possible to both extend the boycott and generate the trade-union and public support which would enable the longshore division to successfully defy Reagan’s courts and arbitrators.
Keylor was unable to swing the vote and the amended motion passed overwhelmingly. Even though this was less than he had originally advocated, Keylor recognized that any longshore boycott of South African cargo was entirely supportable and so he threw himself into help in organize it.
Despite the limited nature of the action and the refusal of the local officers to openly take any responsibility for it, the political impact of the strike in its first few days was great enough to partially disorient the employers. They knew they had a potentially explosive situation and so they moved cautiously. It took ten days for them to decide what to do and go through the legal steps to get an injunction. Meanwhile support for the longshoremen grew as word spread.
Most of the ostensibly revolutionary left, as well as many of the Bay Area’s black organizations, enthused about the initiative shown by the militant dockers. Even the black congressional caucus got behind the boycott. Representative Charles Hayes of Illinois, who had been arrested at the South African embassy in Washington a few days earlier, gave a press conference at a noon-hour demonstration in front of the offices of the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA—the employers’ association) on 28 November in an effort to help break a partial media blackout. Black Democrat Ron Dellums, a congressman from Oakland, sent a statement of solidarity and donated the time of several of his staff to help publicize the action.
How the Action was Organized
The publicity, organization and logistics of the action were handled by a united-front rank-and-file committee of Local 10 members. (The committee was expanded during the course of the strike to include several non-Local 10 members.) The politics represented in this body ranged from Keylor’s class-struggle program to black nationalism and Communist Party-style reformism. Many on the committee supported liberal divestment schemes. Some advocated protectionism. Many posed the action not in terms of proletarian class solidarity as Keylor did, but rather in terms of individual conscience. Nonetheless, despite the differences, the basis of unity was a commitment to “hot-cargoing” the South African goods aboard the Nedlloyd Kimberley.
Militants in Local 10 actively sought to get in touch with contacts in other ports. The committee also held two special meetings prior to the arrival of the Nedlloyd Kimberley to build support for the action. Each meeting was attended by approximately 50 people representing left tendencies, community groups, solidarity committees and black organizations. Many of these people later played an important role in mobilizing for the demonstrations of outside support.
At a public forum held by the ET in Berkeley on December 1, at the height of the action, Keylor explained how it was organized:
“The very effort to get the boycott approved by the overwhelming, almost unanimous, membership of the longshoremen in this port was a united-front movement from the beginning where those of us who spoke on it and pushed it to some degree compromised on what we thought perhaps were better tactics or different tactics in order to get something that we knew that we had a chance of implementing. And the implementation of it, the rank-and-file committee, is a united front…That united front extends over to the officers [of Local 10] who we’re able to hold from gross betrayal…and be quiet while we do the best we can.
“So you have a series of overlapping united fronts so to speak, united fronts within united fronts, and then of course, it goes to the outside as you saw today. Pacifists, Democrats, ostensibly revolutionary organizations, peaceniks and what have you. It’s o.k. So you maintain the momentum of an action like this; maintain the morale of the workers and you maintain the united front.
“Sure, united fronts split, and this one’s going to split too. As soon as the injunction comes down, probably Monday…we’ll start seeing this series of overlapping united fronts splitting. You’ll see probably first the Democrats fading away. You’ll most certainly see many of the ostensibly revolutionary organizations fading away in this period….So the united front will split.
“Quite possibly even the rank-and-file committee that’s carrying it out will split. But we’re going to carry this action as far as we can and come what may, it’s a historic action when a group of workers carry out a political strike in this country.”
The United Front Splits
On Monday, 3 December when the Executive Board of Local 10 was faced with a federal injunction, the united front did indeed split. The officers proposed a motion to capitulate. When a motion to openly defy the injunction (put forward by Spartacist League supporter Stan Gow and seconded by Keylor) was ruled out of order, Keylor put up another motion to call a special stop-work mass membership meeting at Pier 80 to decide how to respond to the injunction. This too was ruled out of order and the motion to scuttle the boycott passed with Keylor, Gow and two others opposed. (One executive board member later changed his vote and was officially recorded as also being opposed.) At this point the rank-and-file committee also split, as Keylor had predicted, with a majority (including Leo Robinson) deciding to go along with the executive board’s capitulation.
The next morning, Tuesday 4 December, Keylor and a handful of other militant longshoremen did what they could to rescue the action. Keylor appeared at the longshore hall at 6:00 a.m. where he addressed the men with a bullhorn and called on them to defy the feds. He then went down to Pier 80 where he organized supporters of the boycott into a militant picket line. This picket (which soon grew to a couple of hundred) succeeded in stopping traffic in and out of the pier for an hour. The tactic of militant picketing was opposed by the reformists of the Communist Party who wanted to turn the picket into an impotent protest demonstration. This led to some heated exchanges between the CPers and ET supporters and other militants who had closed the pier. The picket line was ultimately broken by the San Francisco cops (who made a couple of arrests) while Communist Party supporters shoved militants aside and waved traffic in and out.
The boycott was defeated—but for eleven days the South African cargo had been stopped cold. The key to victory, as well as the most effective counter to the attempts by Leo Robinson and the Communist Party to project the whole affair as the moral witnessing of a few individuals, lay in escalating the scope of the action through class-struggle tactics. Even a relatively small formation of a half-dozen or so class-conscious union members—like the Militant Caucus of a decade ago—properly organized, and functioning as the left wing of the bloc which carried out the boycott, could very well have initiated measures which would have extended and broadened the hot-cargoing to the point where the union could have defeated the employers and their courts.
The first step would have been contacting and attempting to organize the 300 longshoremen who volunteered for the dispatch and then refused to work the cargo. A larger active base of support in the local would have greatly increased pressure on both the local and the international bureaucrats to come out and officially sanction the boycott. It would also have made it possible to send delegates to other key ports where Nedlloyd ships dock to spread the action, as well as to more effectively mobilize outside support in the Bay Area. A few longshoremen in a couple of sound trucks cruising through the largely black community around the docks and a few more speaking at area campuses could have swelled the hundreds of supporters who turned out at the pier into thousands. A class-struggle caucus would also have sought to mobilize support for the action from other Bay Area unions, simultaneously deepening the trade-union axis of the cargo boycott and popularizing the idea of working-class political strike action.
The Ignominious Role of the Spartacist League
During the course of the boycott, the formerly Trotskyist Spartacist League took a break from playing “Red Avengers” on campus to come down to Pier 80 where they provided a textbook example of impotent, left-posturing, sectarian wrecking. Having done nothing to initiate or build the action, the SL and a few of its trade-union supporters turned up the first night the company ordered gangs for the Nedlloyd Kimberley and demanded that the dockers forget about the cargo boycott and instead boycott the whole ship. To enforce this, the SL threw up a “picket line” with two longshoremen and a dozen or so other SL supporters which was designed to prevent the twenty-five (mainly black) militant unionists (all of whom had purposely taken the dispatch to ensure that the cargo boycott was enforced) from boarding the ship. This so enraged many of the longshoremen that there was considerable sentiment to forcibly remove the SL’s “picket line.” Fortunately for the SLers, Keylor and others managed to diffuse this sentiment. When the longshoremen went in to implement the boycott, the SL supporters proclaimed that they were “scabbing”!
Like the Stalinist Communist Party during the 1934 Trotskyist-led teamster strikes in Minneapolis, the SL was so blinded by factional malice that it was incapable of orienting correctly to the events at Pier 80, or even telling the truth about them in hindsight. We recognize that it must have been galling for the SL leadership to see the most important political strike in at least a decade in the U.S. take place in a city where the SL has its flagship local, in an industry where it once had a substantial base and to see it led, in part, by its arch-rival, the External Tendency. It was clear that many of the SL cadres at the pier were uncomfortable with and confused by their organization’s refusal for almost a week to participate in, or even critically support, the action. (Eventually the SL recognized reality to the extent of changing its line and giving the action grudging support.)
Since the end of the boycott, Workers Vanguard has made several attempts to rationalize the Spartacist League’s shameful role. WV’s initial account (7 December) was so convoluted that readers could not make head nor tail of what was supposed to have happened. The passages denouncing Keylor and the ET were clear enough, at least in intent, but the story just didn’t hang together. Apparently we weren’t the only ones to notice this, so another account of the same events had to be cranked out three months later (WV No. 374, 8 March). This one was just as full of falsifications and distortions as the first one but it appeared to be more internally consistent—at least for those readers who didn’t know any better.
WV now “hails” the initiative shown by the militants in Local 10 even as it continues to slander the initiator. This retrospective enthusiasm contrasts starkly with the SL’s attempts to wreck the boycott while it was going on. Paper will indeed take anything that’s written on it, as WV’s coverage of the events at Pier 80 demonstrates, but editor-in-chief Wilner and his stable of hacks will have trouble selling their version to any of the hundreds of activists who supported the boycott or the longshoremen who carried it out.
Keylor and other boycott leaders commended by black South African unionists.
To win the decisive struggles there must be international solidarity. For that reason we honor those who have demonstrated the highest type of solidarity and sacrifice. This certificate is awarded, together with our heartfelt thanks, to Howard Keylor.
Council of Unions of South Africa
What’s My Line?
The following exchange took place at Pier 80 on Wednesday, 28 November between Tom Riley of the ET and SL supporters Sam H. and Pepe. In the course of the proceeding discussion, after persistent questioning by Riley, Sam H. stated flatly that “We are not supporting this [the boycott] at all.” (This remained the stance of the SL and its co-thinkers until Friday, 30 November when they suddenly reversed themselves and decided that it was supportable after all.) Sam H. predicted that “the bureaucrats are going to knuckle under” and argued that therefore the SL had been correct to counterpose its own “picket line” to the official union action from the outset. Riley replied that the ET regarded the cargo boycott as supportable and would only attempt to counterpose itself to the official Local 10 decision in the event of an attempt to scuttle the action by the bureaucrats and/or elements of the rank-and-file committee.
Tom R.: “We will throw up a picket line. We are willing to split on that.”
Sam H.: “You will not.”
Tom R.: “We will contravene the official union decision [if bureaucrats fold].”
Pepe: “Oh yeah, we’ll see.”
Sam H.: “You’ll only do it if it’s following the CP.”
Tom R.: “Well, if the CP is in on it, that’s fine too. Are you guys going to be in on it?”
Sam H.: “We’ll be in on it.”
Tom R.: “Okay, we’ll have a united front on it.”
Six days later, when the bureaucrats (and a majority of the rank-and-file committee) knuckled under, and ET supporters and other militants set up a picket line which blocked the pier for an hour, the SL (contrary to Sam’s expectation) refused to participate.
Local 10 Shows the Way!
(The following article is excerpted from Militant Longshoreman No. 13, 7 January 1985, published by Howard Keylor in Local 10 of the ILWV.)
Our eleven-day boycott of South African cargo has done this local proud. We pointed the way to effective international labor solidarity by reviving the “hot cargo” tactic. The unions used this tactic throughout the organizing drives of the 1930s and the bitter battles in 1946-48 to isolate struck employers. By refusing to transport or handle cargo from an anti-union employer workers even thousands of miles away and at widely dispersed locations could exert pressure to help other unions or oppressed workers. That’s why the infamous Taft-Hartley law passed in 1947 made “secondary boycotts” illegal. Our dramatic and effective action brought hundreds down to the docks in our support. We won the admiration of tens of thousands, showing that when the labor movement acts against apartheid, the black community and trade unionists will rally to its support. We sparked a wave of anti-apartheid protests in the Bay Area which are still continuing, and we proved that concrete labor solidarity can have vastly greater impact than picketing embassies. Our union’s action was the longest political strike in memory on the West Coast. When the next ship carrying South African cargo comes in; if Reagan invades Nicaragua; or the next time the bosses try to break a union like PATCO or the Hotel and Restaurant workers, we should wage a solidarity strike again, appealing to other unions to join us in mass strike action. Actions which defend other workers give us strength and make real the ILWU motto “An Injury to One is An Injury to All.”
At the same time, we should face squarely the shortcomings in the boycott, particularly since the local is about to elect its officers for the next year. The South African cargo was finally unloaded, the local lost PGP [pay guarantee], ILWU-IBU member Jack Heyman was suspended by Crowley Maritime for approximately two weeks as a result of his participation in the embargo, and Local 10 is under a preliminary injunction which will be used against us when we act again.
We Could Have Defeated the Injunction
None of this had to happen. If Local 10 had officers and an Executive Board worthy of our fighting membership, officers willing to risk jail if necessary, we could have won outright. From the moment the membership voted to act, our officers should have been inviting union and community support and publicly demanding that International President Herman sanction the action and extend it coastwise. Instead, our officers were telling the media that our action was unauthorized and individual. Our officers should have sent delegations to the other ports to meet with other local officials and to appeal directly to all longshoremen to refuse to work the blood-stained cargo. When PMA proposed to unload the Nedlloyd Kimberley in Stockton, Local 54 told them to go to hell. With support like that, and backed by the thousands of Bay Area residents who wished us success, we could have defeated the injunction, like we did at Levin. Instead, the officers and the Executive Board caved in and ordered us to work the Nedlloyd Kimberley.
Make no mistake about it: the PMA and the capitalist government were scared. They recognize how deeply black Americans feel about the oppression in South Africa and how popular our union action was. That’s the main reason why they were so slow in arbitrating and in imposing an injunction, and that’s why so far the fines/damages have been suspended. When the continuing rebellion of the black trade unions and the South African masses stirs us to act collectively again, it is precisely that community support, properly organized in our defense, and spread to other unions which can help us smash the injunction.
Some union members, particularly Brothers Leo Robinson and his closest supporter, Dave Steward, who played an important role in the boycott, honestly believe that Local 10 had no choice but to give in to the injunction. The difference here is that they don’t understand that the working class’ ability to stop the economic machinery of the capitalist system and their government makes us uniquely powerful, whether in the U.S. or in South Africa. Leo and Dave have a commitment to individual acts of consciousness and a belief that community action can force the multinational corporations to forego their enormous profits extracted from the superexploited black South African workers. This belief is combined with a lack of confidence that the organized labor movement can lead political struggles to victory, and can be won to successfully defy and defeat government/court repression.
For the same reason, during contract fights over the past ten years Brother Leo Robinson, in particular, has failed to go beyond calling for a no vote, and has refused to advocate organizing coast-wide strike action to defeat bad contracts and get what we need.
People’s World No-Win Strategy
If Leo and Dave want to engage in something more effective than symbolic acts of protest, they should reexamine their strategy and especially that of their allies around Archie Brown and the People’s World. Their strategy of pressuring the liberal Democratic wing of the capitalist class rather than trying to overturn the capitalist system has led the working class to disastrous defeats for the past 50 years. The People’s World supporters played a large role in sabotaging an attempt to continue the boycott by other means after the local Executive Board had agreed Monday night, December 3, to capitulate to the injunction. When I and others encouraged the several hundred supporters present at Pier 80 Tuesday morning to set up an effective picket line and shut down the pier, Franklin Alexander panicked the crowd by telling them that they faced six months in jail. People’s World supporters acted in conjunction with the SFPD [San Francisco Police Department] to open up the picket line when we had the trucks stopped and the pier effectively closed. They managed to turn the picket line into an impotent demonstration, and thereby destroyed it.
Jimmy Herman Stabs Local 10 in the Back—Again!
International President Jim Herman should be thrown out of office for his back-stabbing. During the Levin strike, he sided with the employers. During the ILWU-IBU tankerman’s strike, he ordered longshoremen to cross the picket line. During the South African boycott he agreed with the PMA that our action was an “illegal work stoppage” in violation of the contract, and thereby Herman laid the legal basis for PMA being able to get their apartheid injunction. Recently, in describing Herman’s disapproval of cargo boycott actions, the Pacific Shipper (December 24, 1984), an employers’ magazine, said: “Despite the fact that it was a local of his union that ignited the controversy in the Bay Area, Mr. Herman believes that the ‘proper place’ for demonstrations against South African apartheid are at that nation’s consulates, or by way of organized public demonstrations of limited duration.” We haven’t noticed him getting arrested along with the other labor “leaders.” While all actions against the apartheid regime are welcome, particularly those in support of the labor movement, it’s clear that many of the congressmen, clergymen and labor bureaucrats picketing the embassy are motivated by a desire to clean up the image of the Democratic Party after the Mondale fiasco.
Divestment and Protectionism
As I said in Militant Longshoreman No. 12:
“Some brothers favor a policy of divestment of shares of corporations which invest in South Africa. Personally I regard this as ineffective and potentially even counterproductive. It also creates the illusion that the big banks and investment houses, which make billions of dollars of blood-money from the racist exploitation of black labor in South Africa, can be pressured into becoming friends of the black masses in that racist hell-hole. The only kind of ‘divestment’ which I’m interested in pushing is the divestment of the white supremacist rulers and their international investors by the black workers of South Africa and the establishment of a black-centered [workers] government.
“Protectionism is another issue where there are differences. Some brothers think that we shouldn’t unload South African steel because so many American steel workers are laid off. This action is aimed solely at providing a blow against the apartheid regime. That is why we shouldn’t unload that steel. The answer to the unemployment of U.S. steel workers is not to side with the shareholders of U.S. Steel, etc., to export unemployment, and thus divide American workers from workers of other countries. It is by fighting with steel workers and other sections of the labor movement against the banks and the corporations for a shorter work week at no loss in pay. Nonetheless, despite my differences with other members of the committee on these and other questions, we can all agree to work together to build this fight and spread it coastwise.”
Stan Gow Calls Longshoremen “Scabs”
Finally, Stan Gow merits special mention. As ILWU members are aware, Stan and I worked together for years. Until now, I have urged longshoremen to vote for him despite my criticisms because on paper his program was largely correct. However, his actions during the boycott have drawn the line. Together with Peter Woolston and other Militant Caucus supporters in Local 6, and fully backed by the Spartacist League, Stan did everything he could to divide, confuse and disrupt our action.
We noted in Militant Longshoreman No. 4 that Stan and the Militant Caucus had begun to abandon their orientation to the organized working class. During his El Salvador stunt Stan substituted himself for the union with his one-longshoreman picket line, a sign of growing disorientation and disbelief that union members could be won to action. But at least he was on the right side on the El Salvador question, and I defended him. Now his actions served to split and confuse the most important political strike in years.
On Saturday night, November 24, he and a handful of others picketed the Nedlloyd Kimberley despite the membership’s decision to work the Australian cargo. When Keylor originally opened the discussion on the South African boycott he urged that longshoremen refuse to work the ship, but when it became clear that the overwhelming majority consensus of the membership was to not work the South African cargo, he found that quite supportable, and actively worked to make the boycott a success. Stan says that’s “treachery!” Success is treachery! Sabotage is militance! Stan and the Militant Caucus attempted to counterpose their fake-militant picket line to the real activity of the union. Stan and his friends were aiming to split the union action that should have been automatically supported by all genuine labor militants. In fact, the Militant Caucus and Spartacist supporters became so deranged that they called the unionists who came out to carry out the South African boycott “scabs,” and those in the crowd who were supporting them “racists.” Stan’s attitude was: adopt my program or I spit on you—even though you’ve stopped the South African cargo cold. Then when the injunction came down, after a lot of bluster about defying the injunction, Stan and his cohorts refused to join the picket line which I and many others had established in order to try to force the Nedlloyd Kimberley to leave port.
Stan makes much of the difference between working the cargo and working the ship. Why? He knows it’s just a matter of tactics. The membership decided on what they thought would be most effective. After two days the ship sat perfectly idle anyway. In 1974 the union refused to handle Chilean cargo but worked the ship. Stan and I helped to initiate the action and considered it a real victory. In 1977 we argued for more extensive action but still supported and helped build the South African cargo boycott. What’s new this time?
Slanders and Lies
Similarly Stan accused the union, and me in particular, of treachery around the Nedlloyd Kyoto off-loading pig iron at Richmond Yard 1. First of all, the ship was diverted, and we didn’t know it was arriving until two hours prior to starting work. Secondly, when you are planning a battle, you pull it where you are strongest. The ILWU has full and uncontested jurisdiction at Pier 80, San Francisco. At Richmond/Levin we had to wage an all out battle just to reestablish our toehold, and the right to ghost riders when the dockside cranes are used. If we had had sufficient time we could have appealed to the Operating Engineers to stop the cargo at Levin’s, but in San Francisco we were able to rely on our own forces. Without adequate preparation the local’s action could very easily have ended as unsuccessfully as Stan’s isolated attempts.
What lies behind this sorry story is that Stan’s Militant Caucus has given up on the working class. In 1974 and 1977, during the Chile cargo boycott and the first South African cargo boycott, Stan, the Militant Caucus and the Spartacist League played a principled role in trying to support the ILWU action and extend it coastwise. This time, shamefully, they tried to wreck it. No vote for Stan Gow.
Letter from South Africa
“I am deeply impressed…”
The following letter from a black South African trade-union leader arrived during the boycott of the Nedlloyd Kimberley and was read out in the Local 10 dispatch hail. It is a powerful testimony to the enormous international significance of such exemplary trade-union solidarity actions.
26 November 1984
“…I am deeply impressed by your compassion, solidarity, love for the underdog, the oppressed, exploited masses of our land. Your contribution, dedication and determination for social change is indeed a morale booster for me and the millions of our brothers and sisters who continue to face the armed might of the South African government through the barrel of the gun. Botha’s new constitution is shedding more and more blood. And mind you, this is only the beginning. I shudder to think what is going to happen next year when the constitutional apparatuses are in motion.
“The Rajbansis, Reddys and Hendrickas have remained silent at the detention of our leaders. They now become co-responsible for all acts perpetrated by this government. With economic recession hitting us so badly, thousands of our people continue to get retrenched and to live in poverty. The streets in Soweto and in the Vaal Triangle have turned into battlefields. Thousands of school-children are on boycott refusing to accept Bantu Education and the high rent increases which are burdening an already impoverished community….
“I am terribly sorry for not responding formally to your call. There were some problems….”
(The following resolution, put forward by Howard Keylor, was passed by Local 10 in March and sent to the ILWU convention. The bureaucracy prevented it from getting to the floor.)
WHEREAS: The South African government recently arrested the leading activists of the anti-apartheid movement, including United Democratic Front and trade-union leaders, charging them with treason. If convicted they face the death penalty; and
WHEREAS: Labor has the power to strike a major blow against the racist Botha regime by cutting off trade with South Africa; and
WHEREAS: Local 10 led the way by carrying out a successful eleven-day boycott of South African cargo in the port of San Francisco in November/December 1984; and
WHEREAS: Local 10 was isolated and the boycott ended under court injunction, and this injunction could have been defeated if all ILWV longshore locals and other transport unions had followed suit and expanded the boycott;
THEREFORE BE IT
RESOLVED: That during the month of May no ILWU local will handle cargo to or from South Africa, demanding the release of the arrested UDF and trade-union leaders and the dismissal of all charges against them, AND BE IT FURTHER
RESOLVED: That all ILWU locals will organize and work to persuade other unions to join us in this boycott.
Howard Keylor’s speech at Pier 80, Friday 23 November 1984:
Labor is united behind this labor action in solidarity with the oppressed people of South Africa. Labor has enormous potential power. We hope that this action will spread. We hope that other transportation unions—longshore, seamen, railroad workers—will refuse to handle cargo and goods to and from South Africa. If the labor movement had acted with strikes during the Vietnam war, the Vietnam war would have come to an earlier end.
I would hope that if Reagan moves into Central America in a military fashion that there will be labor strikes against that action.
One of the developments in South Africa that is of extreme significance to us as workers is the fact that for the first time the black labor unions are taking political strike action in solidarity with the black masses. I would hope that they take the leadership in that rebellion and overthrow that government and create a real workers state in South Africa which would change the whole complexion of Africa.
A Letter to Workers Vanguard
Third Period Robertsonism at Pier 80
The letter to Workers Vanguard from Mike Anton, Chris Knox and Jeff Hayden which we publish here sets the record straight on the Spartacist League’s appalling role throughout the South African cargo boycott in San Francisco. Hayden and Anton were both trade-union fraction heads in the Spartacist League. Knox was a long-time SL leader and was the national trade-union director through most of the 1970s. He was one of the architects of the SL’s trade-union implantation and also the author of many of the key articles on the history of Trotskyist trade-union work published in Workers Vanguard.
Their letter points out that the SL-supported Longshore Militant (19 November) provided the crucial evidentiary material for the maritime employers’ injunction which ended the action. One point which they omit, however, is that the SL supporters knew perfectly well what they were doing when they published their report of the Local 10 boycott motion. This was the only ILWU-associated documentary material which the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) could lay its hands on which mentioned the motion. Such evidence was critical for the PMA to pin responsibility on the local for violating the terms of the contract and the Taft-Hartley law. To cover its perfidy Longshore Militant claimed that Local 10 president Larry Wing had already blown the action by sending a letter to Indies Terminals in Oakland “notifying the company of the union’s proposed action.” This is not only a lie (for no such letter was ever sent) but also a particularly inept one. It was public knowledge on the waterfront at the time that Nedlloyd Lines had rescinded their contract with Indies Terminals and was moving to San Francisco!
To date the authors have received no answer.
27 January 1985
As active participants in support of the recent longshore “hot cargo” boycott of South African goods in San Francisco, we have followed WV coverage of this event with interest. In No. 369 (21 December 1984), you state,
“When Bay Area longshoremen, despite the victimization by maritime bosses and sabotage by union tops and their ‘left’ flunkeys, refuse to unload South African cargo which sat in the SF harbor for ten days, this must fortify black toilers suffering under the U.S.-backed apartheid police state.”
Your lengthier analysis began by “saluting” the longshoremen for refusing “to move South African cargo on the Kimberley” (“Battle Over Union Action at South Africa Ship,” No. 368, 7 December 1984). How is it that the actions of SL supporters on the scene never reflected the view that this was a supportable action, and in fact conveyed the exact opposite message in no uncertain terms?
We are former supporters of the Spartacist League who in the past were involved in a leading way, in one capacity or another, in trade-union work on the basis of the Trotskyist program as then espoused by the SL. We are amazed by the public coverup of the scurrilous actions, not to mention flip-flops, taken by SL supporters during the boycott. Trotskyists historically have always been for a true reflection of the vanguard organization’s actions in its press. This the SL has apparently abandoned.
The facts may come as a surprise to most readers of Workers Vanguard, who are accustomed to being able to believe what they read there, whether or not they agree with it. Perhaps if the late Peter Kihss, a New York Times reporter hailed by WV for his honesty, had been doing your reporting, at least it would have been accurate.
A very close reading of WV coverage indeed is required to discern that the motion which began this historic labor action was made by ILWU exec board member Howard Keylor, a supporter of the External Tendency of the iSt (ET)—an opponent of the SL who is generally maligned throughout WV’s coverage. Keylor’s motion to refuse to work the next Nedlloyd line ship to hit port passed the exec and was referred to the Local 10 membership. There it was watered down by an amendment put up by Leo Robinson, that only the South African cargo not be touched. Belying the SL’s later actions, the favorable membership decision on this watered-down motion was hailed by WV as “concrete union action in defense of South Africa’s embattled black toilers,” and an “opportunity” which longshoremen “must seize…and fight to stop all shipping for the South African apartheid butchers” (“Longshoremen: ‘Hot-Cargo’ South African Apartheid Butchers!” WV No. 365, 26 October 1984, emphasis yours).
As in the similar anti-apartheid boycott by longshoremen in 1977, an action which the SL supported, this action had been limited to one of “hot-cargoing,” rather than striking the whole ship, through the intervention of misleadership. The action would have been stronger had picketing the ship been decided upon, or better yet, picketing the whole pier complex (which would have tied up other ships until the Nedlloyd ship departed unworked). But as any reader of WV knows, “hot-cargoing” is an acceptable and supportable action of labor solidarity. In such situations, revolutionists seek to expose the misleadership by united-fronting the action, that is by showing, from the standpoint of being the best supporters of the workers engaged in the concrete struggle, how the misleadership weakens and lays plans to betray the action. This scenario repeats itself in every strike—in every concerted action by workers against the capitalist class—which is not already led by revolutionary leadership. Lenin aggressively fought for such tactics, because it is in this way that the revolutionists can become the leadership of the working class as a whole. This is where the SL, unable to admit it, shamefully departs from Leninism.
As a result of their union decision, longshoremen went to work on the dock with the understanding that they would only work the non-South African cargo. At the beginning, SL supporters were strangely non-interventionist, not trying to speak, and not even selling WV at the first rally at Pier 80 that began support for the action (Friday, 23 November). Then on Saturday evening, a handful of SL-backed trade unionists set up their own “picket line,” making no attempt to change the union tactic beforehand. All who “crossed” this “picket”—including the longshore militants going onto the dock to carry out the boycott—were denounced as “scabs” by SL supporters!
While the longshoremen were working Australian cargo on the ship, an SL supporter was asked whether it mattered if the longshoremen worked the South African cargo or not, since the action at that point, according to the SL, had been “sabotaged” by “scabbing.” He said, “They’ll work the [South African] cargo.” A long-time SL-backed trade-unionist then said, “Given what happened, this action is not supportable.” As the longshoremen were fired from the job for refusing to touch the South African cargo, they were cheered as they came through the gate by all the numerous supporters, except the SL.
WV readers are forced to read between the lines—and still can’t figure out what the SL was really up to. In “Battle Over Union Action at South Africa Ship,” you state that the misleaders of this action from day one “refused to throw up a union picket.” Has the SL forgotten that picket lines mean don’t cross? In order to carry out the “hot-cargoing” action they had decided upon, longshoremen had to be on the Kimberley. You then quote a Longshore Militant, which says that, “After Keylor and Robinson worked them over for a half-hour, the men were reluctantly persuaded it was for the good of the union to cross the [SL-initiated] picket line.” But nowhere does the article repeat the SLers’ slanderous characterization of those who “crossed” as “scabs,” nor acknowledge that it was even made!
The entire article is rife with fabrications on the question of this spurious picket. Gang 35 didn’t go in Saturday morning because it hadn’t been completely filled and it was ordered not to by the union bureaucrats, not because the men “refused to touch” the ship. While it may be true that many longshoremen refused to take dispatch to the Kimberley, WV ignores the fact that some of the best militants in the union were taking the dispatch in order to make sure that the boycott was effectively implemented, and not sabotaged by more backward elements. We saw no “working over” of the men to go in by Keylor, because there was none. Actually, Keylor had to restrain some longshoremen who wanted to trash the “picket line.” Finally, the SL-initiated “picket” had exactly two longshoremen on it, and got virtually no support from the large numbers of boycott supporters present. If there was such a groundswell in the union ranks against the tactics decided upon and for the SL’s position, as WV implies, why wasn’t there a real showing by the ranks on the picket? And where were the militant longshoremen ready to “work over” anyone who wanted to go in, and convince them not to?
The SL supporters in fact made no effort to mobilize longshore militants for their action, nor was their any reason to expect that it would be honored. With significant numbers of determined union members, SL-backed unionists possibly could have seized leadership of the action on the spot by picketing, and changed the tactics to more militant ones. Revolutionists do not always stick to official union channels when an opportunity to raise the level of struggle presents itself. However, this action was not that—it was a cynical maneuver in which the SL tried to substitute its own small band of immediate supporters for the union.
There is unfortunately more to this gruesome, but true, tale. We cannot emphasize too strongly that for six days following the SL-initiated “picket”—i.e., throughout most of the boycott action hailed and “saluted” by WV both before and afterwards—we were unable to obtain any statement of support for the action from anyone associated with the SL. This is because there was no support! The longshore militants had, after all, been turned into “scabs” by the SL’s magic wand…until the following Friday, that is, when a new issue of Longshore Militant appeared. Finally, the action was again rendered supportable, albeit “minimal and tokenist.” And what of the charge of “scabbing”? Like WV, Longshore Militant chose to remain silent. To this day, that charge has not been acknowledged in print or retracted by you at all! Yet there were far too many witnesses for you to deny it.
This “minimal and tokenist” action drew a support rally of over 500 at 7:00 a.m. at Pier 80 on the following Saturday, 1 December. While there were many ministers and liberals pledging to go to jail, etc., there were also union activist speakers of varying degrees of militancy. The best called for defiance of the expected court injunction against the action, then in its eighth day. One militant and former SL supporter from the Inland Boatmens Union [IBU], an ILWU affiliate, spoke of the need for similar action, up to and including a port shutdown, when Reagan invades Nicaragua. He pointed out that there’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the two capitalist parties, Democrats and Republicans, and called for a workers party based on the trade unions. SL supporters were there in force, this time unsuccessfully trying to address the rally (while the hated ET fought against SL supporters’ bureaucratic exclusion from the podium by Robinson & Co.)—and yet there is not a word in WV on any of this!
When the injunction did come down three days later, it was no surprise that the Local 10 exec board, with Leo Robinson’s blessing, called for cowardly compliance. The following morning, Stan Gow and other SL supporters, without taking back the charge of “scabbing,” nevertheless joined with Howard Keylor and other militants in calling for defiance of the injunction. This took place in the ILWU hall. Only an hour or so later down at the dock, however, the story was considerably different.
From the back of a flatbed truck which had been stopped by pickets, Keylor and others called on the 200-strong anti-apartheid demonstrators to defy the injunction. Opposing this class-struggle determination were Communist Party supporters who spoke in support of the exec board’s capitulation. Meanwhile, the SFPD [San Francisco Police Department] was shoving pickets from in front of trucks waiting to enter the pier. Only one truck made it through in over an hour. At one point a longshoreman who had joined the picket was arrested, and other longshoremen who were waiting in anticipation just inside the gate refused to budge until he was released. The militancy of the picket was eventually broken when CP supporters went into action alongside the cops, shoving and herding demonstrators away from the path of the trucks.
During the entire morning’s picket, however, the SL was shamefully abstentionist. SL supporters, Stan Gow and Ritchie Bradley in particular, refused to address the demonstrators, and even refused to join the line! WV was sold on the picket, but when questioned as to whether they were part of the picket line, the salesmen refused to answer. SL supporters were seen inside the gate, and their signs remained in plastic bags on the sidelines! By their abstention, SL supporters were in a de facto bloc with the CP to sabotage the picket. And once again, there is nothing in WV on any of this! Militants can only conclude from SL abstention during this, the real picket, that while “Labor’s got to play hardball to win,” the fondest desire of the SL is to warm its backsides in the bleachers.
This criminal record of abstention, zig-zags, scandalous accusations and impotent stunts is still not the whole story on the SL and the boycott. Howard Keylor and Leo Robinson were both named as co-conspirators in the injunction, which used the SL-supported Longshore Militant as exhibit no. 1, state’s evidence. In the middle of this militant act of international working-class solidarity, which WV finds “fortifying” to the victims of apartheid terror, SL supporters did not even exhibit the elementary trade-union common sense to phrase their propaganda defensively, so that it could not be used by the PMA bosses against the union! And in a most despicable footnote to the action, SL supporters blamed the loss of the longshoremen’s pay guarantee (PGP) on Howard Keylor to other longshoremen, and even claimed Keylor made money by tieing up the Nedlloyd Kimberley and Kyoto! These are bald-faced lies, indicative of the levels to which the SL will now stoop to discredit an opponent.
A weird final twist to your tortured path was provided by leading SL public spokesman Al Nelson, when he said at an SL public forum after the event that the boycott action had been a “victory!” It was the longest political boycott on this coast in over 30 years, a significant blow which sparked other protests as well as pointing the way toward working-class solidarity with black workers of South Africa, rather than moral posturing and embassy sit-ins—all facts which seemed to escape Nelson and your other supporters at the time. However, it could not be called a victory, since it was broken in the end by the PMA and Reagan’s courts, through bureaucratic betrayal by the ILWU union tops.
After yourselves providing the main evidentiary material for the injunction, and then blaming Keylor for the loss of the PGP, it is dishonest in the extreme for you to state that “Leo Robinson, Howard Keylor & Co.” were “setting up the individual longshoremen” by making the action a matter of “individual conscience” in order “not to jeopardize the contract in the face of the PMA’s hard line” (“Battle Over Union Action at South Africa Ship,” emphasis yours). While Keylor, unlike your supporters, did attempt to avoid victimization of the union and its members as much as possible in the course of a political action, he was clearly and openly for union action throughout—as at the initial support rally on 23 November, where he spoke for extending the boycott up and down the coast. It was chiefly Robinson who foisted the liberal “personal conscience” line, which WV correctly denounces, onto the ranks. Perhaps part of the reason for the SL’s abysmal ignorance of Keylor’s real role was your supporters’ abstentionist refusal to be on the ad hoc union committee charged with implementing the boycott.
Your sickeningly repetitious lumping of “Robinson/Keylor” is most dramatically belied, of course, by the fact that Keylor fought for defying the injunction, while Robinson capitulated. But your attitude of petty rivalry with Keylor and the ET blinds you to the facts completely. When Stan Gow issues a clarion call for shutting down the port against employer victimization, you report it in glowing terms; but when Keylor calls for defying the injunction, to you it is [calling] for continuing the charade” (WV No. 368)! And while the watered-down version of the motion initiating the boycott was hailed by you as “concrete union action” when it passed Local 10, Keylor’s more militant original motion was a “modest proposal for nice words and ‘publicity’ rather than determined union action” (WV No. 365, emphasis yours). You can’t have it both ways, comrades.
Indeed, your chief motivation throughout this event seemed to have nothing to do with international working-class solidarity with the black toilers of South Africa, or even with showing how the action was weakened and endangered by betrayal and misleadership within the ILWU leadership; since SL actions were focused almost entirely on finding new ways to “expose” (read “get”) Howard Keylor and, to a lesser extent, various other former SL supporters. Even your interest in the much more vulnerable Leo Robinson seemed to be mainly to use him as a brush with which to smear Keylor. In general, SL intervention in this event reminded one more of the paparazzi or the New York red squad than a left organization, as squadrons of SL photographers and people with tape recorders were mobilized to catch the ET or some other target in some unprincipled action or statement. This might be acceptable if your own actions were principled, and this opponent-hunting was secondary to them, but neither was the case.
This petty sectarianism is a marked departure from SL actions around longshore boycotts historically. A year after the coup in Chile which brought the butcher Pinochet to power, the SL called for implementing a two-day ban on Chilean transport called by the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), despite the fact that this limited call was “only a promising beginning” (“Hot Cargo Military Goods to Chile!” WV No. 53, 27 September 1974). In this action, an SL-initiated, united-front picket line in Los Angeles was removed when the longshoremen who were honoring it were faced with a direct order from then ILWU-head Harry Bridges to go to work on the ship. Thus despite strong sentiment in the ranks for the boycott and the need for strong union action against the Chilean cargo, longshoremen who thought under the circumstances that they had no alternative but to go to work were not put in the position of having to cross a picket line.
South Africa was the focus when in 1977 Stan Gow and Howard Keylor, acting together and backed by the SL, called for implementing a similar “token” boycott call by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), even though the ILWU leadership under Jimmy Herman intervened to make sure that whatever action did happen—and these bureaucrats were trying to avoid having any—would be limited to the South African cargo, while other cargo on the ship was worked (WV No. 142, 28 January 1977).
While covering up the sectarian crimes of SL supporters in San Francisco, WV becomes opportunist when discussing distant events in which no close opponents of the SL are involved. In “Australian Dockers Hot-Cargo Ship to South Africa” (WV No. 364, 12 October 1984), you hail reformist-led unions in Australia for putting 24- or 48-hour bans on South African ships. How is it that the indefinite boycott in San Francisco is “minimal and tokenist,” and its militants called “scabs,” while these temporary protest actions led by cynical if somewhat left-posturing Stalinists, are uncritically supportable?
Against these examples, the excuses we heard from SL supporters for your non-support to the boycott were ludicrous and damning. You allegedly did not participate, for instance, because there were Stalinists on the committee charged with running the boycott! You also were not involved because the action was being carried out on the flawed basis of “personal conscience,” and thus there was a danger of victimization! And the reason you supported the anti-apartheid boycott of 1977, but not the 1984 version, was purportedly that the black unions of South Africa were just beginning then! Does this mean these unions do not need international labor solidarity now? As we said, the SL’s chief concern in this action lay elsewhere.
SL members and supporters everywhere must ask themselves: why this abstentionism, why the abandonment of elementary Leninist tactics, why the dishonesty and criminal fingering of opponents to the bourgeois state? Why did the SL try to substitute itself in classic third-period Stalinist fashion, instead of struggling within the action/union to change the tactics and replace the leadership? The SL has long been accused of “sectarianism” by its reformist opponents for defending its Trotskyist program. But here, your supporters abandoned the program, and earned Lenin’s characterization of “an infantile disorder.” Your supporters also earned the distrust of the best militants in the longshore union, some 300 of whom took part in this action. After so many years of hard principled work, your recent bizarre departures from Trotskyism have helped set back for years the struggle for class-struggle leadership in Local 10. Ultimately, it is the SL-backed trade unionists themselves who will pay the biggest price for this cynical political maneuvering.
The SL’s errors in the San Francisco boycott were unfortunately not an isolated glitch in an otherwise solidly Trotskyist machine, but part of an expanding pattern of political departures destabilizing and changing the organization’s political course. Instead of mobilizing students to come down to the docks in support of the boycott (with critical awareness of its leadership weaknesses, of course), the SL/SYL pursues “Red Avengers” fantasies on campus, where it voluntarily surrenders time to speak in its own defense, and changes its line on student fees with blithe disregard of its own history. Zig-zagging to the right, the SL proffers defense to the Democratic Party convention against an imaginary Reaganite coup, and finds a historically unique excuse to place a Marxist label on pleading for the lives of elite imperialist occupation troops (“Marines Out of Lebanon, Now, Alive!”). And under the banner of the “Yuri Andropov Brigade,” it virtually tosses Trotsky’s call for political revolution to overthrow the Kremlin bureaucracy out the window (but it can still use the presence of Stalinists as an excuse for abstentionism!).
These errors point, in our opinion, at nothing less than the abandonment by the SL of the struggle for revolutionary leadership of the working class. We hope there are still cadres in the iSt with a sufficiently serious commitment to the Trotskyist program to which they were originally recruited to make a fight for that program now, inside the SL. Perhaps there are those who, seeking to avoid confrontation with the top leadership, think that what the SL is doing is holding the revolutionary line firmly through the difficult Reagan years, for unnamed future generations of revolutionists to pick up and carry to fruition. But this is a defeatist fairy tale. The revolutionary program must be applied in order to remain revolutionary—you can’t seal it in a vault while you wait for things to sort themselves out.
The boycott is a case in point. When for eleven days in Reagan’s racist America longshoremen refused to handle South African cargo, thus “fortifying” black toilers of South Africa, the SL was nothing but a substitutionalist, sectarian obstacle.
Yours for Trotskyist honesty,
Defy the Injunction!
Keylor’s call to set up a picket line at Pier 80 on Tuesday, 4 December 1984:
There was a court order and an injunction yesterday to supply men to work this ship. The executive board of the union voted last night eleven to five to comply with the court order. Longshoremen were told this morning that we had to work the ship. I personally am not going to work this cargo. I’ve encouraged my brother longshoremen not to work it, and I encourage you to put up a picket line. With a picket line I don’t think the ship will work.
In the court order I was named as one of the co-conspirators. That doesn’t make any difference. If there is a picket line here, I’m going to be on it. I would encourage you to set up a picket line over here at the gate, now!
Reply to WV
On Uli Sandler
November 11, 1984
international Spartacist tendency
In Workers Vanguard No. 365, 26 October, you published a heavily edited version of the article on Uli Sandler which originally appeared in the October issue of Spartakist, the publication of your German sympathizing section. In the introduction to this piece you ask what we think of Sandler in the light of your most recent accusations. We have not been able to thoroughly investigate the incident in question but we will say this—even if your account of what happened in the Karl Marx subway station on the night of 22 August is substantially accurate (and with your penchant for lying, particularly about your former members, we are not necessarily prepared to take your word for it) there is still no reason to think that Sandler is a Nazi.
In the Trotskyist movement one does not lightly charge someone with being a fascist. Such a charge can literally be a matter of life and death, particularly in a city like West Berlin. If you cannot substantiate it, you risk being exposed as slanderers. Perhaps you have additional evidence on Sandler which, for reasons best known to yourselves, you are not presenting? In the absence of such proof we can only conclude that your accusation is baseless.
Why is your account of Sandler’s relation to the iSt so incomplete? You neglect to mention that he has been an active leftist since the early 1970s. In 1974 he joined the Gruppe Internationale Marxisten, the German section of the United Secretariat. In 1979, after a protracted period of working “under contract” with the iSt in the GIM, Sandler joined the TLD.
In the series of purges which wracked the TLD in 1981 (some of whose victims are today members of the Gruppe IV. Internationale), Sandler sided with the international leadership and was elevated to the Central Committee as a result. Less than a year later he resigned from the organization. The TLD subsequently (i.e., retroactively) expelled him. Two and a half months later your comrades refused to admit him to a public forum in Berlin on the grounds that he was a “proto-fascist.” This charge was so preposterous and so scandalous that a significant cross-section of the German left (including Oskar Hippe, the last surviving member of the German Left Opposition, and Aydemir Guc, a Turkish leftist in Berlin and a former TLD contact) signed a petition protesting it. We are proud to have also signed this protest.
The WV adaptation omits a rather interesting admission by Spartakist on the 1982 exclusion: “Our disgust with what he [Sandler] was and what he was going to become, led us to falsely (because prematurely) exclude him from a public forum in the autumn of 1982.” It was indeed a mistake to exclude Sandler from your public meeting—because he was not a “proto-fascist” and your attempts to smear him as one backfired. The pressure of public opinion in the West German left forced you to make a partial retreat from your characterization and to offer to admit him to future meetings. Why didn’t WV choose to include this highly significant sentence in its version?
The WV version also left out that Gisela “freed herself more than two years ago from her increasingly humilating relationship” with Sandler. It is at least an interesting coincidence that Gisela “freed herself” just at the point that Sandler had fallen out of favor in the TLD. As many of your present and former members can testify, attempts to break up couples are a routine practise in the iSt’s periodic membership purges.
We rebutted your “case” against Sandler as a “proto-fascist” in some detail in our reply to your “Creampuffs” diatribe (“Warren Street: ‘Home of the Whoppers,’” ET Bulletin No. 3). We noted that every TLDer had known about Sandler’s World War II fireman’s helmet for years. We pointed out that having once sung “Deutschland Uber Alles” (the German national anthem from 1922 to 1952) in the bathtub to annoy Gisela did not make him a fascist. We challenged you to tell us where and when he allegedly made derogatory remarks about Turks and Tamils so that we might investigate them. (We have yet to get an answer.) We also reminded you of iSt lider maximo James Robertson’s disgusting practise of ordering “Steak a la Auschwitz” in a German restaurant. What about comrade Robertson addressing German comrades with: “Hi ya comrade, Heil Hitler”? Or the fact that leading TLDer Silvia Lenz attends Nazi war movies? Anyone with mendacious intent could easily put together a “case” against these comrades of the sort which you have constructed against Sandler.
In February you were still claiming that Sandler was a mere “proto-fascist” whom you would still admit to your public events. By October in the pages of your press he had become a full-fledged Nazi who must be driven out of his union and “rendered nil.” What changed? You claim that Sandler crossed the Rubicon when he stood and watched Elisabeth, his current girlfriend and also a former TLDer, attack Gisela, his former girlfriend and a current supporter of the TLD. By your own account, the attack was touched off when Elisabeth “grabbed the young woman [Gisela] and screamed: ‘If you guys call Uli a fascist once more, something’s going to happen to you!’” This sounds rather like someone outraged by hearing her boyfriend called a fascist. And yet you want your readers to conclude that it somehow “proves” Sandler is a Nazi. Seems like doublethink to us. (Your story would make more sense had she threatened Gisela with dire consequences if ever she revealed Uli’s communist past.)
As for the incident itself, we don’t know who attacked who. Had we been there we would certainly have defended your comrade if she was indeed the victim of an attack by Sandler, Elisabeth or anyone else. But you have lied too many times in the past for us to take your unsupported word for what happened. And even if your account is entirely accurate, it would no more make Sandler a fascist than Healy’s beating of Tate made him one.
Most of the accusations hurled at Sandler in the article are simply vituperation. You claim that he is in “fluid transition between the ‘no future’ generation and the ‘master race’ ideology.” You assert that his “head is full of German eagles and swastikas” and that “he belongs in one of the more squalid sections of Hitler’s SA.” This is very vivid and very nasty, but it doesn’t prove a thing. What is to prevent Sandler, or anyone else, from turning around and saying exactly the same of the members of the TLD? You can’t prove that someone is a fascist by the sheer subjective intensity of your accusations. What is required is proof and so far you haven’t produced any.
Apart from the altercation in the subway station, your “evidence” against Sandler chiefly consists of his behavior while still a member of your organization. This includes owning pilots boots and army pants, listening to punk music, dressing in punk style and getting “ever-shorter haircuts”! If you think that everyone in Germany (or for that matter in the U.S.) who likes punk music and short hair is a Nazi (neo-, proto- or otherwise) then you are simply not in touch with reality. As you may recall TLD National Chairman Fred Z. was, at least until recently, a devoted punk music fan himself.
The TLD comrades seem to recognize that there are a few empirical difficulties presented by the equation between punks and Nazis. They attempt to reconcile reality and the “line” from New York with the following ridiculous explanation:
“The ‘left/right differentiation’ in the skinhead-punk milieu is in reality a myth. The difference is only whether some punks still appear at left demonstrations, or whether they, as in Gummersbach on 28 April, beat survivors of the Third Reich’s concentration camps half to death.”
(emphasis in original)
In other words the “only” difference between leftist punks and fascist punks is that some are leftists and some are fascists! One might make exactly the same observation about country music fans, dentists or men who sport goatees. (Workers Vanguard prudently deleted these two sentences from its adaptation of the article.)
You seem rather determined to make us into a co-defendant in your allegations regarding the altercation between Gisela and Elisabeth. WV reports that we gave Sandler “the green light for this violent assault.” Spartakist goes a little further and claims that we carry “concrete responsibility for this attack.” Your attempt to attribute “concrete responsibility” to us for an alleged attack that none of our members were within five hundred miles of, carried out by two people with whom we had no contact for the preceding year and a half, casts a rather strange light on your entire account. It seems that a prime objective of your charges against Sandler is to draw a line of blood between your membership on the one hand and the Gruppe IV. Internationale and ourselves on the other.
We note also that your allegations about Sandler occur as you are in the process of abandoning the Trotskyist criteria for determining who is (and isn’t) a fascist. Mayor Koch of New York is a racist and a nasty fellow, but he is not a fascist as J. Horowitz pointed out so nicely in his recent letter to WV (No. 365, 26 October). Among Third Period Stalinists the term “fascist” was indiscriminately applied to all those who were designated “enemies of the party”—from Klansmen to social democrats. More typically, such imprecision is characteristic of reformists with popular-frontist appetites to unite with one wing of the bourgeoisie (the “lesser evil”) against a qualitatively identical section of the class enemy. Your projection of an imminent rightist terror attack on the 1984 Democratic Party convention in San Francisco by Reagan in conjunction with the Klan (a scenario which was supposed to justify your abject offer of defense guards to Mondale) is reminiscent of the latter.
Yet when dealing with genuine fascists, like Tom Metzger of the Klan, you seem in some cases to be softening your stance. Last summer you attempted to subpoena Metzger as a witness at Richard Bradley’s trial (WV No. 357, 22 June). As you must have been aware, his appearance at the trial would inevitably have received wide coverage in the media. You were therefore in effect offering him a platform to spew forth his program of race terror. Perhaps you felt that this was justified by your anticipation of some cheap publicity for yourselves in a courtroom confrontation with this advocate of genocide. Whatever your motivation, calling on Metzger was a shameful act for anyone who claims the mantle of Trotskyism.
Our position on Sandler is quite straightforward. We take no responsibility for anything he or his companion (or for that matter his grandmother) have done or will do. We denounce as a despicable slander your attempt to attribute any responsibility, “concrete” or otherwise, to us for any attack on any of your members anywhere and in particular for the attack which you claim took place against Gisela B. in Berlin. At the same time we note that you have produced no evidence which would indicate that there is any more substance to your charge that Sandler is a Nazi than there was to your 1982 slander that he was a “proto-fascist.” Finally, we would remind you that slander is not a revolutionary weapon.
External Tendency of the iSt
The lines they are a-changing
1980: SL denounces SWP for debating Metzger on TV
“Reformist SWP boasts of providing platform for terrorist Klan’s Tom Metzger.
‘The Socialist Workers Party candidate for U.S. Congress in California’s Forty-Third District, Mark Friedman, confronted his Democratic Party opponent, Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon Thomas Metzger, on NBC’s ‘Speak Up America’ show September 5.’ (The Militant)”
—Workers Vanguard, 19 September 1980
1984: SL subpoenas Metzger to appear at Bradley trial as a publicity stunt
“…attacks on union organizers. In response to the D.A.’s initial threat of a retrial, West subpoenaed KKK terrorist and virulent racist Tom Metzger to come into court to demonstrate what the Confederate flag means, a living symbol of bloody terrorist suppression of blacks…”
—Workers Vanguard No. 357, 22 June 1984
SL On Democratic Party Convention
The Politics of Chicken
Reprinted below are three items relating to events surrounding the 1984 Democratic Party National Convention held in San Francisco last July. In the weeks that preceded the convention there were persistent reports in the Bay Area press of a planned Ku Klux Klan provocation outside the Democratic confab. The first item which we reprint is a letter from the External Tendency (ET) which suggested that the Spartacist League (SL) should take the lead in initiating a broad-based anti-Klan rally. In it we addressed ourselves to the enormous political pressure surrounding the convention and noted that without significant organizational commitments from other endorsers, the proposed action might well have to be called off. Several black and labor activists known to the Spartacist League endorsed this proposal and offered to work to make it a reality. The SL ignored our approach and instead publicly pledged to abstain from any and all demonstrations during the week of the convention.
Shortly thereafter an extremely bizarre article appeared in the 6 July issue of Workers Vanguard (WV). This article (the second item reprinted below) projected an imminent rightist attack on the Democratic convention orchestrated by Ronald Reagan and S.F.’s Democratic mayor Dianne Feinstein in conjunction with the Klan. To avert this hallucinated “threat” the SL offered a dozen security people and called on the rest of the labor movement to do likewise. We responded to this projection in our letter of 11 July, the third item which we reprint.
The feverish speculations about bonapartist conspiracies in San Francisco were so ludicrous that a welter of reformists, who have traditionally tried to conceal their own bankruptcy by avoiding political combat with WV, seized the opportunity to ridicule the SL. Workers Vanguard lamely responded to them, as well as to ourselves, in a piece entitled “Cold War ‘Terror’ Scare and the Democratic Convention” (26 October 1984).
As part of the defense of its absurd scenario, the article inexplicably quoted SL spokesman Al Nelson’s pledge to abstain from demonstrating in San Francisco the week of the convention on the grounds that it “will be a monumental bore.” We aren’t sure if Al meant that: (a) he didn’t take WV’s projections of a rightist conspiracy to attack the convention any more seriously than we did, or (b) that he found the prospect of a fascist/Reaganite coup d’etat in the U.S. “boring.” We invite him to clarify his position.
WV’s anti-critique is a rambling piece of pedantry in favor of democratic rights in general. It includes a whirlwind tour of times and places when such rights have been attacked in the last ninety years. Readers can learn about the Tsankov coup in Bulgaria in 1923, the Dreyfus case in France in the 1890s and the political situations in both Weimar Germany and imperial Japan in the twenties. All that WV could report about San Francisco in 1984 however, was that the cops had attacked leftist demonstrators assembled in the vicinity of the convention, just as they had in Chicago in 1968 and Miami in 1972.
We wonder how the SL explains the fact that S.F. mayor Dianne Feinstein, a supposed co-conspirator in the fascist/Reaganite “plot” against Mondale, had her cops pick up the handful of KKK creeps who came to picket the Democrats as soon as the Klansmen set foot in town. Perhaps the Spartacist League credits WV’s timely exposé with aborting the Reaganite plan to impose fascism last summer. Why not—Lynn Marcus’s New Solidarity used to foil similar plots by Nelson Rockefeller and the CIA almost every week!
United Front Proposal
Mobilize to Stop KKK Provocation!
June 26, 1984
Bay Area District Committee
As you are aware, it has been reported that the KKK will be marching in San Francisco at 12 noon, July 17. So far the locale has been kept secret by the police while the event itself has been widely publicized by the bourgeois press, both of which could contribute to the Klan’s success. We urge the Spartacist League to initiate a labor/black mobilization involving Latin, gay, Jewish and left organizations to stop the Klan. The victorious mobilizations which stopped the Nazis in San Francisco on April 19, 1980, and the KKK in Washington, D.C., on November 27, 1982, show that the Spartacist League is the only organization with both the strategy and contacts to successfully initiate a mobilization by July 17.
We believe that the situation is different from and probably more difficult than either April, 1980, or November, 1982. With the Democratic Party Convention coming up, enormous pressure will be brought to bear to abort any genuine effort to stop the Klan. The mayor’s police have already demonstrated with their massive and pre-emptive arrest of one-fifth of the anti-Kissinger demonstrators that the Democrats are prepared to clear the streets of those they consider politically dangerous. Simultaneously, the SL has been singled out for particularly vicious terrorist-baiting and red-baiting, both in the Bay Area and Los Angeles.
We urge the SL to aggressively approach ANCAN endorsers and participants to ensure that through a combined effort the largest possible number of organizations turn out to a meeting to be convened within the next ten days. The meeting should aim to produce a united front in which significant organizations commit their forces to all the efforts necessary to ensure a broad and disciplined turnout July 17th. Endorsements alone, while providing a certain cover, could leave the SL and those who turn out due to its efforts dangerously exposed. If the meeting fails to produce real organizational commitments, and if the actual locale of the KKK provocation cannot be ascertained, we believe it would be responsible to consider aborting the effort before any general publicity has begun.
A widely publicized mobilization with scant organizational forces behind it and with no specific locale at which to confront the Klan, could easily lead to a defeat for the anti-fascist forces. However, a successful united-front mobilization could not only stop the Klan but provide an opportunity to expose the Democratic Party, including its Jackson-wing. We pledge our full and unstinting support to such an effort.
for the External Tendency of the iSt
Spartacists Offer to Defend Democrats’ Rights
Are Cops, Reagan Planning Violence at Democratic Convention?
SAN FRANCISCO, July 2—A barrage of recent major newspaper articles, from the San Francisco Chronicle to the New York Times, is claiming that the upcoming Democratic Party National Convention is in danger of being disrupted by violence. The articles claim that unidentified “police sources” and the Democratic Party National Committee are worried about the possibility of supposed terroristic actions and provocations against the police, intended to disrupt the Democratic Convention and prevent its nomination of a presidential candidate. Under the cover of this scare-mongering campaign the cops propose to themselves disrupt the convention, turning it into a militarized zone and unleashing their own real violence against the tame liberals and reformists who are expected to demonstrate in SF in conjunction with the Democrats’ gathering. In response the Spartacist League, a Marxist political organization, is today announcing our offer of a security team contribution of a dozen trade unionists and SL supporters to defend the democratic rights of the Democratic Convention. The SL also calls on the AFL-CIO, the Teamsters, ILWU and other labor organizations to organize an additional labor defense guard for the Convention. The profound political and class difference between the Spartacist League and the Democratic Party in no way belies our position that the Democratic Party has the right to assemble and nominate its candidate.
The need for this labor defense squad does not arise from the estimated 30 liberal and left groups planning to protest administration policies, over anything from gay rights to nuclear freeze to El Salvador to jobs. Equating these peaceful demonstrations with “terrorism” is a blatant example of Orwellian doublespeak which serves the forces of Reagan reaction. Police “concerns” about “violence” are a bald attempt to exonerate themselves in advance for cop riots, to send a clear message of intimidation to the whole populace. Labor defense guards are necessitated by the embracing of the Reagan administration’s anti-“terrorism” scare, if not by the Democratic National Committee itself, then at least by the city administration of Dianne Feinstein, the ambitious union-busting. Confederate-flag-waving Democratic mayor. Implementing Reagans’ anti-“terrorism” campaign at the Convention constitutes an open invitation to the Ku Klux Klan/Nazi racist terrorists and incites cop violence and ultraright1st assault against protesters and against the Convention itself.
On June 25, the SF police department announced preparation of a detention center for hundreds, who will be arrested for “minor legal infractions” by “special arrest teams.” The cops announced the purchase of hundreds of disposable handcuffs, towels and hygiene kits for 1,000, and 500 army cots for detainees. As a “security precaution,” state delegations will be bused from hotels to the Convention site “with police escorts and sheriff’s deputies riding ‘shotgun’ in the buses”; “secret contingency plans” to deal with purported terrorists have been devised. In furtherance of the war-crazy Reaganites’ drive against “state-supported” (meaning Russian-supported) “terrorism,” SF city administrators refused to grant press passes to the Soviet news agency TASS.
Speaking for ourselves, the Spartacist League has no intention of demonstrating at the Convention or even selling our newspaper there. As SL spokesman Al Nelson told the Chronicle:
“For our part, we think the Democratic Party convention will be a monumental bore. We have no interest in seeking to lobby or pressure this party of racism and imperialist war. To do so would only serve and strengthen the unfortunate illusion that this party has something to offer working people.”
Nevertheless we emphatically uphold the right of those who do wish to demonstrate at the Democratic Convention to exercise that right without being subjected to police violence, “terrorism” smears or ultrarightist assault.
On 26 April 1984, the SL general counsel sent a letter to the Democratic National Committee protesting the false characterizations in the bourgeois press labeling the Spartacist League as violent and as intending to disrupt the Democratic Convention. The letter described these lying accusations as “a renewed governmental COINTELPRO-type effort.” And a question was posed: “one wonders if an object of this provocative and false reportage is the Democratic National Convention itself?”
The hysterical and self-serving prophecy of violence at the Democratic Convention is a dangerous weapon against all critics of the Reagan administration, those within the Democratic Party as well as those outside it. Defining lawful political protest as support for “terrorism,” Reagan demands “preventive or preemptive actions against terrorist groups before they strike” in the U.S. and abroad. Senator Howard Metzenbaum of Ohio has called Reagan’s anti-“terrorism” laws a “throwback to the McCarthy era” and “clearly unconstitutional.” New FBI guidelines provide for investigation, harassment, infiltration, disruption, prosecution and incarceration of political opponents on the basis of their lawful political activity. The Spartacist League has filed suit against its inclusion under these new guidelines, in defense of the basic constitutional rights of free expression, association and assembly, as part of our fight against what we have called “McCarthyism with a drawn gun.”
This new witchhunt has as its objective the mobilization of opinion behind the anti-Soviet war drive and the repression and destruction of all perceived political opponents. To this end Reagan in his April 5 news conference reiterated his lament that there was no formal declaration of war over Vietnam, thereby constraining the government from charging antiwar critics with “lending comfort and aid to the enemy”—i.e., with treason.
A fitting historical model for Reagan’s exploitation of a “terror scare” to smash political opposition can be found in the 1933 Reichstag (German parliament) fire, which was probably set by the Nazis and then was exploited by them to repress political dissidence and consolidate the Third Reich.
The Democrats’ embracing of Reagan’s “terrorism” scare serves to intimidate, neutralize and discredit all opposition to the administration. The method of McCarthyism is all too familiar. Those anti-communist liberals who want their witchhunt and civil liberties too should know that the witchhunt doesn’t stop with Marxists or black and labor activists. Indicative of the Cold War climate was Senate witchhunter John East’s smear of Congressional critics of El Salvador’s Roberto “Blowtorch” D’Aubuisson, terming their references to D’Aubuisson’s well-known connection to the death squads “left-wing McCarthyism” and “Big Lie.”
The beneficiary of this “fears of violence” campaign, which claims the intention of protecting the Democratic Convention, is going to be the Reagan administration—not those who claim to oppose Reagan’s policies and certainly not those who defend the democratic rights of the American people. This campaign has already inspired the threat of right-wing provocation, with Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority announcing a “Family Forum” conference one week before the Convention and the KKK threatening to march during the Convention. Against the real instigators and perpetuators of political disruption and violence, against the Watergaters and Cold Warriors, against the witch-hunters and their shock troops marching under the terror banners of the swastika and the Confederate slavery flag, the SL stands ready to defend the democratic rights of the Democratic National Convention and calls on the labor movement to do so as well.
Workers Vanguard No. 358, 6 July 1984
From Hubert Humphrey, Dead at Last—To Fritz Mondale, Save his Ass!
July 11, 1984
We read with considerable interest your bizarre offer to send a dozen security people to defend the Democratic National Convention against “Reagan reaction” (Workers Vanguard No. 358, 6 July). Much of our recent experience with your marshalls has been when they have been used to prevent us from discussing politics with your members at the conclusion of your public events. This would at least be a new assignment for them.
How do you imagine your people would be deployed? Perhaps Richard Bradley, dressed in his Union army outfit, would be assigned to push George Wallace around in his wheelchair while the rest of the SL/LBLSD marshalls stood by to ensure that he and the other Dixiecrats and war criminals in attendance weren’t bothered by Confederate flag-waving hooligans.
If you are really serious about your defense proposal, why not call on the Soviet consulate to supply some manpower? They’d surely oppose any seizure of power by the Reaganites, and if the Democrats asked them nicely they’d probably be able to come up with at least another dozen marshalls. Such a call would be no more absurd than your own offer and would do far more, if it were accepted, to cut against the anti-Soviet terror-mongering. Your proposal is predicated on the claim that by “implementing Reagan’s anti-‘terrorism’ campaign at the Convention” the Democrats are inviting “ultrarightist assault against…the Convention itself.” Who do you think is moronic enough to believe that Reagan and Feinstein, “if not…the Democratic National Committee itself,” are jointly engineering a situation in which one of the twin parties of U.S. imperialism is set up for an attack by ultrarightists? Have you forgotten that just as the anti-Soviet war drive is based on a bipartisan consensus so is its domestic reflection? Your conclusion that because the Democrats have gone along with Reagan on this it is somehow necessary for the SL to offer to spearhead labor defense guards to protect them against their own “anti-terrorists” is so ludicrous that it defies comment.
The mock-heroic announcement that “the SL stands ready to defend the democratic rights of the Democratic National Convention” against “the real instigators and perpetuators of political disruption and violence, against the Watergaters [i.e., Republicans and Cold Warriors, against the witchhunters and their shock troops marching under the terror banners of the swastika and the Confederate slavery flag” echoes the CP’s “unite against the right” crap. “The real instigators and perpetuators of political disruption and violence” are just as much a part of the Democratic party as the Republican. (Ever heard of Lester Maddox? What about Tom Metzger!) “Not a dime’s worth of difference,” remember?
The Klan and the Nazis are not just the shock troops of the “Watergaters”—they are the last resort of the entire American bourgeoisie to preserve its class rule. As for those who march under the “terror [banner] of…the Confederate slavery flag”: need we remind you that a good chunk of the delegates in San Francisco will be Deep South racist Dixiecrats, including the governors of Georgia and Mississippi, states which both fly that banner as their flag?
Some of the liberals who presently endorse Reagan’s witchhunt measures against the left may some day have their own toes stepped on. Some of them may even have their careers ruined in the event of a new wave of McCarthyism. But to assert as you do that “a fitting historical model for Reagan’s exploitation of a ‘terror scare’ to smash political opposition can be found in the 1933 Reichstag…fire, which was…exploited by [the Nazis] to repress political dissidence and consolidate the Third Reich” is positively weird. Have you so lost touch with social reality that you believe that Reagan plans a totalitarian coup d’etat to “repress political dissidence” in the Democratic Party and consolidate an American Reich?
We are inclined to suspect that the inspiration for this dramatic and “angular” proposal may have come from a little over-indulgence in some fine vintage one night at the CC library. Either that or just plain fear. Whatever the origin, the “angle” is off the wall. The fact that the new editor-in-chief could have let it get into print in WV stands as a shocking indictment of the political disintegration of the present leadership. What the SL should be doing, as we suggested in our letter of 26 June, is attempting to initiate a labor/black mobilization against the threatened fascist provocation. The reformists predict that hundreds of thousands will march in the labor, gay, peace and sundry other demonstrations scheduled for outside the convention. Many of these people recognize the threat which the Klan poses to them and potentially could be mobilized in a broad ANCAN-type rally. Instead the SL leadership has chosen to spend its time making unrequited (and idiotic) approaches to “Fritz” Mondale’s party of racism and imperialist war. It must be enough to make the serious political people in the SL wonder if their leadership is playing with a full deck.
External Tendency of the iSt
ET Protests Moral Majority—SL Abstains
A Case of Mistaken Identity
During the week of the Democratic Party National Convention in San Francisco, Jerry Falwell’s sinister rightist Moral Majority held a provocative anti-homosexual confab. Supporters of the External Tendency participated in a counter-demonstration of a thousand. Although the Spartacist League (SL) refused to attend the demonstration, the San Francisco Chronicle nonetheless mistakenly reported that they had been among the participants. The SL immediately protested and obtained a partial retraction from the Chronicle. Leading SLers also attempted to defend their organization’s cowardly abstention against our criticisms with the preposterous allegation that we had set them up for repression by marching in the anti-Falwell protest with our own signs! We responded with the following letter.
8 August 1984
New York, NY
At your forum in New York, 20 July, CC member Seymour charged that “you [the External Tendency] set us up” and that we were “literally helping the bourgeoisie” by carrying signs with our name on them at an anti-Falwell demonstration in San Francisco on 12 July, 1984.
This is a despicable Healyite slander. Our slogans closely paralleled those which you have raised on similar demonstrations in the past. Perhaps that was why the San Francisco Chronicle reported that you were in attendance, or perhaps the press mistook us for you because of our name. We vehemently reject your accusation that we were responsible for either the mistaken or deliberate action of the Chronicle in reporting your presence in the demonstration near the Holiday Inn.
In any case, we will gladly explain to anyone in the workers movement the difference between us. You are the “staid Marxists” who are trying to curry favor with the Democratic Party of “racism and imperialism” by volunteering to defend George Wallace (or perhaps the Jackson delegates) against a mythical “Kornilov” putsch. We will explain that, fearful of state repression, you were too cowardly to join the thousand or more anti-Falwell protesters; that we are the ones who put forward the Trotskyist program to those who had assembled to oppose this sinister rise of the reactionary “Moral Majority.”
On July 28, outside your San Francisco forum, two of your comrades accused us of “trying to influence the Democratic Party” by participating in one of three anti-Falwell demonstrations that took place July 12. The Falwell/Schlafly meeting was explicitly a provocation aimed at San Francisco gays and was the largest public gathering of the extreme right in San Francisco in the recent period. To those who understand the significant ties between the “Moral Majority” and the outright fascists, mobilizing against the Falwell meeting was a political obligation. It is you who claim that Reagan is modelling his anti-terror tactics on Hitler’s Reichstag fire (the pretext with which he smashed all political opposition and consolidated the Third Reich) who abandoned the streets on July 12. Had it not been for the assorted left, gay and liberal organizations plus the revolutionary External Tendency, the fascist-linked right would have assembled in San Francisco unchallenged.
Surely, there was repression against the demonstrators by the bourgeois authorities that week; but that is the norm under bourgeois democracy. Feinstein’s cops, of course, chose to bust those whose protests didn’t merely seek to pressure the Democrats. No one got arrested for participating in the huge Vote Mondale/Ferraro labor parade; nor for marching in the equally large gay demonstration aimed at getting a “full” gay rights plank adopted by the Convention; nor for demonstrating in the radical-liberal (mostly pro-Jackson, pro-Freeze) “Vote Peace in 84” rally. But anti-Falwell demonstrators got busted, as did the largely youthful punk demonstrators who disrupted San Francisco’s financial district protesting America’s largest imperialist corporations (shades of the New Left!), and as did several hundred for having the audacity to mobilize to protest these arrests in front of San Francisco’s “Hall of Justice.”
While there was indeed a massive police mobilization, nothing was seen like the unending violence unleashed against the San Francisco State College strike in 1968 nor the infamous Tac Squad riot against a mere 500 anti-Cabot Lodge demonstrators in early 1968.
The San Francisco cops’ attempt to imitate the pre-emptive preventive arrests used by Washington, D.C., police against thousands of May Day demonstrators in 1971 was foiled. While preventive detention centers were established and the San Francisco police tried to keep the demonstrators off the streets by imposing high bails through use of felony conspiracy charges, a judge released the demonstrators almost immediately (they were back on the streets protesting in short order) and dismissed the conspiracy charges against everyone so far as we know.
Finally, our presence at the Committee Against the Moral Majority (CAMM) demonstration exposes your abstentionism and gives the lie to your disingenuous projection that you would have been excluded because you “advance political positions not to their [CAMM] taste—in particular our penchant for defending the legitimate interests of the Soviet Union against assaults by U.S. imperialism” (SL press release, July 13, 1984).
We carried signs with slogans such as “Reagan’s Anti-Soviet War Drive Abroad Means Nazi/KKK Terror at Home,” “Break With the Democrats—Build a Workers Party to Fight for all the Oppressed,” and other slogans not to the taste of some of the organizers.
We can’t prevent you from using this letter to “prove” to the bourgeois state your own cowardly abstentionism; however, we are proud that we took part and have no intention of posing as “obscure and esoteric red[s].”
External Tendency of the iSt
ET Intervenes at Mexican/U.S. Border Conference
U.S.: Hands Off Central America!
The External Tendency intervened in the third annual “Mexico/U.S.A. Border Conference Against U.S. Intervention in Central America and the Caribbean” in Tijuana, Mexico last October to support a motion for 48-hour coordinated political strikes by unions on both sides of the border in the event of direct U.S. military action against Nicaragua, Cuba or the leftist insurgents in El Salvador.
The bilingual conference was attended by over 250 representatives of organizations involved in “solidarity” work in the United States and Mexico. Participating Mexican organizations included the Mexican Communist Party (PSUM), affiliates of both Pierre Lambert’s and Ernest Mandel’s ostensibly Trotskyist tendencies, Corriente Socialista as well as several Mexican labor unions. From the U.S., the Los Angeles branches of CISPES, the Communist Workers Party, the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL), the Socialist Workers Party and various Central American refugee organizations were among those sending delegates. Representatives of the Nicaraguan government, the Salvadoran FDR/FMLN as well as a few Honduran leftists also attended.
The political strike resolution was the focus of the sharpest floor fight of the weekend. It was counterposed to the conference organizers’ toothless (and misnamed) “plan of action” which called for trying to stay Reagan’s hand with another round of demonstrations, a “musical festival for peace” and a marathon race! An RSL supporter from the Los Angeles teachers union who spoke in opposition to the motion for political strikes complained that she would be “laughed off the floor” if she raised such a proposal in her union. She tried to gut the motion by amending it to substitute for the call for 48-hour strikes the creation of impotent “labor committees” to “educate” workers about Central America.
CISPES supporters were visibly annoyed that any debate of the political strike resolution was being permitted by the chair; they were overheard asking each other: “why is he letting this go on?” One incensed CISPES-ite rushed up to the speaker’s platform and moved to close debate. The chairman, a prominent PSUM supporter from Mexico City, gave CISPES an unexpected and well-deserved lesson in how to conduct a meeting democratically, and ruled the motion to close debate out of order under the conference rules.
When Bob Mandel took the floor and identified himself as a supporter of the External Tendency of the international Spartacist tendency, he was greeted by a chorus of boos and catcalls from the American reformists. In response to the RSL supporter, Mandel cited his experiences in the Militant Caucus of the ILWU. He pointed to the successful 1974 boycott of Chilean cargo by the ILWU in San Francisco and a similar 1977 action against South African shipping as examples of how workers can be won to militant tactics of international labor solidarity. Mandel also reported that the ILWU Executive Board in San Francisco had just unanimously passed a motion to boycott the next South African ship to dock and argued that this was further evidence that the 48-hour political strike motion was in fact a realistic proposal.
Predictably, several reformists rose to attack as “impractical” the idea of workers staging political protest strikes. In doing so they were only expressing their own deep-seated petty-bourgeois pessimism. When the vote was called, the motion was overwhelmingly defeated. However, many delegates, particularly those from Mexico, continued to discuss the idea of political strikes with ET supporters for the rest of the conference.
We distributed the following leaflet at the conference.
Nicaragua and Cuba are in immediate danger of invasion by Reagan. Reagan may not even wait until after the November elections. If Mondale is elected, the scenario will not be much different since the Democrats disagree with the Republicans only on the best tactic to defeat socialist revolution in Central America.
U.S. military action will very possibly be directed against Cuba as part of Reagan’s anti-Soviet war drive which threatens the nuclear holocaust of World War III. The recent contra declaration, that they will be targeting Cubans in Nicaragua, is a key signal of the Reagan administration’s intent to move militarily against Cuba. Reagan will use the contras’ threat as a justification for “going directly to the source” and imposing a blockade against Cuba as Kennedy did in 1962. The U.S. administration has already threatened that it will take direct military action to prevent Nicaragua from obtaining MiGs or Mirage fighter planes.
Labor, particularly in the U.S. and Mexico, has the power to stop U.S. imperialist aggression dead in its tracks. First, militants in all U.S. and Mexican transport unions (teamsters, longshoremen, railroad, shipping, etc.) must fight for an immediate embargo against any and all military shipments to the El Salvadoran junta, to the contras, or to U.S. troops stationed in Honduras. Second, a drive should be mounted in all U.S. and Mexican unions for coordinated 48-hour political protest strikes if Reagan launches direct military action. U.S. west coast longshoremen in the ILWU have twice in the past ten years undertaken such internationalist actions: first, in October 1974 to protest the upcoming trial of Chilean longshore leaders by Pinochet; then, in January 1977, in solidarity with the uprising in South Africa centered in the Soweto rebellion. Unions from Australia to Europe joined in the 1977 protest strike.
The key lesson of the struggle in the U.S. to end anti-communist imperialist intervention in Vietnam was that student protests and mass marches can only play a catalytic role. Unlike students, who have little social or economic weight, workers political strikes can speedily and effectively end military aggression by bourgeois governments.
We have no illusions that it will be easy either to organize an embargo against military shipments or political protest strikes in U.S. or Mexican unions. The U.S. labor bureaucracy is committed to capitalism and through the American Institute for Free Labor Development (AIFLD) has organized the murder of militant union leaders and the suppression of labor struggles from Chile to El Salvador and elsewhere around the world. Not for one instant did these anti-communist cold warriors organize labor strike action against the Vietnam war. Similarly, the reformist leadership of the Mexican unions who have failed to struggle effectively against the austerity measures imposed by the IMF and the Mexican bourgeoisie, can be depended upon to oppose any genuine internationalist labor actions.
Nonetheless, the question of labor strikes must be raised and labor action can be achieved. During the Vietnam war, the Australian seamen’s unions repeatedly, and for weeks at a time, refused to work U.S. ships to demand U.S. withdrawal. On March 8, 1984, a union militant who we politically support submitted a resolution to the Executive Board of ILWU Local 10 in San Francisco calling for a 48-hour work stoppage “if Reagan launches direct air, naval, or land action against Nicaragua, Cuba or the El Salvador leftists.” We are committed to fighting for the passage and implementation of this resolution just as we played a central role in organizing the earlier ILWU strikes around Chile and South Africa.
We are the External Tendency of the international Spartacist tendency (iSt). During the Vietnam war and since, the iSt and its supporters fought effectively inside the unions for U.S., Australian and European labor solidarity actions. Today we are the continuation of this tradition and of the struggle to forge an international Trotskyist workers party. We have been forced to carry out our line outside the iSt due to the internal degeneration of the iSt which prohibits criticism of its increasingly frequent departures from the historic program of Trotskyism.
Leftists and workers must have no illusions about the situation in Central America. To achieve the victory of the working class and its peasant allies, the workers must be mobilized completely independent of the bourgeoisie. The Pinochet coup in Chile strikingly confirmed the subordination of the “liberal,” “nationalist” Chilean bourgeoisie to imperialist interests (indeed their interests generally coincide). The bloody defeat of the Chilean working class and its allies proved the bankruptcy of the popular frontist (unidad popular) strategy of Allende and the Chilean Communist Party.
Today in Nicaragua the bourgeoisie still commands key sectors of the economy and daily sabotages it in alliance with the contra military assassins. We say: Defend, Extend, Complete the Nicaraguan Revolution! For a workers and peasants government which expropriates all key industry (industrial and agricultural) and turns the land over to the peasants.
In El Salvador, Ungo and Co. paved the way for Duarte and D’Aubuisson by helping to defeat the working-class-led rebellion which brought down the bloody military junta. Ungo and his fellow capitalists seek to give away at the negotiating table what the FMLN is winning on the battlefield. These bourgeois elements of the FDR explicitly recognize the right of the U.S. to keep communism out of the western hemisphere. This means the continuation of landlord and capitalist rule. Military Victory to the FMLN! No Negotiated Sell-Outs!
Those misguided leftists who advocate coalition government with the non-D’Aubuisson/Duarte bourgeoisie in El Salvador or the non-contra bourgeoisie in Nicaragua, contribute to the continued misery and exploitation of the working class and the campesinos. Only the total expropriation of the bourgeoisie and major landowners by a workers and peasants government can guarantee social justice.
While the Nicaraguan government has received some aid from the USSR, the Stalinist rulers of the Soviet Union cannot be relied upon to defend revolution in Central America even though the Soviet Union itself is the ultimate target of Reagan’s world-wide mobilization for World War III. While defending the Soviet Union, whose planned economy and military might played a key role in the victory of the Vietnamese and the survival of the Cuban revolution, leftists must recognize that Stalin’s heirs, Chernenko, Gromyko and Company will maneuver in whatever way fits their narrow, nationalist, anti-working class interests. They can turn aid on and off, and have already distanced themselves from the Nicaraguan revolution. Consistent internationalism on the part of the USSR will only occur after the Soviet workers have ousted the bureaucrats through a political revolution. The surest defense of Central American revolutions against imperialist attacks (short of a workers revolution in the U.S. and Mexico) is strike action by the U.S. and Mexican working class. Our job is to organize for those actions.
SL Tops Boycott Political Debate
ET Goes Public
Over 40 people attended the first public meeting of the External Tendency (ET) last December in Berkeley, California. The forum, entitled “The Decline of the Spartacist League and the Struggle for Trotskyist Continuity,” occurred at the height of an 11-day boycott of South African cargo on the San Francisco docks (see articles elsewhere in this issue). Howard Keylor, the initiator of the cargo boycott and one of its leaders, was the first speaker of the evening. He noted that the Spartacist League’s attempts to create “confusion and demoralization in the longshoremen’s ranks” during the boycott demonstrated conclusively that the SL could no longer be considered in any sense a revolutionary organization. He stated:
“What this action can do is in some small fashion perhaps galvanize a section of the working class to take political strike action….In itself it’s a small step in mobilizing sections of the working class to show they have power in political events. You can find a transition from that to bringing down apartheid. It’s an extensive one which includes building a revolutionary party. [The Spartacist League] ain’t going to do it.”
Bob Mandel, a former prominent trade-union supporter of the SL, began his remarks with the assertion that “We stand in the Spartacist tradition, and it’s a tradition worth standing in.” Mandel went on to trace the abandonment of that tradition by the SL leadership itself through the unravelling of the organization’s trade-union work over the past half-dozen years. He characterized the SL’s internal position of “fly, fly, fly” during the PATCO air traffic controllers’ strike of 1981 as a watershed in its turn away from any serious perspective of winning the American proletariat to class consciousness.
The main presentation of the evening was made by Tom Riley. He reviewed the evolution of the Spartacist League from its origins as the anti-revisionist continuity of Trotskyism in the degenerating Socialist Workers Party of the early l960s, through its successful transformation into an effective propaganda group in the early seventies, to its contemporary decline into a political bandit sect. Riley outlined the process by which internal democracy atrophied in the SL and how the consequences of degeneration on the “organizational question” ultimately manifested themselves in a series of erratic and unpredictable programmatic departures from the SL’s Trotskyist past. His remarks were followed by a lively round of discussion in which roughly half the audience, many of whom were former SLers, spoke.
The only disappointment in what was otherwise a very successful evening was the refusal of the Spartacist League leadership to turn up. As comrade Riley observed “This was supposed to be the shoot-out at the OK Corral—unfortunately the Clantons chose not to show.” We had long looked forward to the opportunity for a full-scale political confrontation and a fair fight with the SL tops. So we made them an offer which, taken together with the forum’s title, we hoped they would find difficult to refuse. We proposed to give them 20 minutes rebuttal time from the platform in addition to full democratic rights to speak from the floor. Moreover, we printed this offer on the forum flyers which we pasted up throughout the Bay Area. Yet still the political cowards of the SL leadership refused our challenge. And just to ensure that none of their members might turn up at our meeting by accident, they even went to the trouble of scheduling a film-showing at their office for the same time!
This is pretty strange behavior for a group which has historically been distinguished on the American left by its record of tenacious political struggle against any and all opponent organizations. The SL leadership’s unwillingness to attend the first public meeting of the group which is now their main political opponent (to judge by the number of polemical column inches in Workers Vanguard) can only be interpreted as a declaration of political bankruptcy and is in itself powerful evidence that the Spartacist League “ain’t what it used to be.”
The SL honchos were curious enough to send two of their long-time rank-and-file supporters equipped with a tape recorder. We permitted them to tape the proceedings for the benefit of their cowardly leaders and invited them to take up our offer of a twenty-minute reply. They declined but did manage to get to their feet during the round to make a few scattered and semi-coherent remarks.
Comrade Nedy R., a veteran of many years in the SL national office, summed up the attitude of many of those present:
“I’ve got nothing but sympathy for the two people who were sent to talk from the SL. I’ve got nothing against either of them personally, but I’m repulsed by the spirit in which they were sent….I’ve had some experience with some pretty powerful lawyers and what they do when they’ve got a really bad court case—when the judge is really going to slam them—what they do is they…take a couple of downtrodden associates and they send them in as sacrificial lambs. They do that because they don’t have the guts to go and face the judge themselves. Foster and Robertson and Al Nelson do not have the guts to come here tonight.”
The Better Part of Valor
November 21, 1984
On Saturday 1 December at the Student Union at U.C. Berkeley we will be having a public meeting. The title of the forum is “The Decline of the Spartacist League and the Struggle for Trotskyist Continuity,” a subject that will surely be of interest to you. We hope that you will be able to participate in the meeting, and to this end we are prepared to offer a designated representative of yours a twenty minute rebuttal following the main presentations.
We look forward to your prompt reply.
With Trotskyist greetings,
for the External Tendency of the iSt
30 November, 1984
We decline your offer of “a twenty minute rebuttal” at your public meeting of 1 December 1984. We have something better to do that evening. For the entertainment of friends and comrades we have scheduled a showing of the film “Dr. Strangelove” which we trust will teach those attending more about the ET than your presentations could teach anyone about “Trotskyism.”