The contents of this bulletin document the recent important political struggle in the Toronto branch of Socialist Challenge [SC—known until May 1988 as the Alliance for Socialist Action (ASA)] over the character and direction of the Nicaraguan revolution. The fight, which began over the rejection of the pro-capitalist Esquipulas II Accords (also known as the “Arias plan”), soon became a debate on the relevance of the program of Permanent Revolution to Nicaragua. As an appendix, we reprint several items relating to the Toronto Anti-Intervention Coalition (TAIC) in which the SC/ASA and Bolshevik Tendency (BT) cooperated for several months last winter.
The political developments in SC demonstrate that reformist “socialist” organizations are often not completely politically homogeneous. The subjective impulses which draw individuals to such organizations often conflict sharply with the real program of the groups they join. Even in a period when large segments of the left are drifting rightward, individuals and groupings can move in the opposite direction. This is what happened in the Toronto SC in the fall of 1987, where a real political discussion, with important implications, developed as a result of several SC/ASA members’ unwillingness to swallow the Esquipulas II agreement as a “Victory for Peace.”
SC/ASA’s Left Zig
The discussion over Esquipulas II within SC/ASA was initiated by a political fight in TAIC which came to a head at its November 1987 annual conference. The SC/ASA found itself pitted against its erstwhile allies in the coalition over support to the Arias plan. The reformists of the Revolutionary Workers League (RWL) and the Communist Party in alliance with a TAIC co-chair (Ann Pohl) and various “solidarity” activists, demanded that TAIC publicly endorse the Arias plan. They pointed, with considerable justification, to the “Political Basis of Unity” of the coalition which called for, “Support for all peace initiatives which enjoy the support of the majority of the people struggling for self-determination within their respective nations.”
Although SC/ASA had for years endorsed this wretched pacifist position, most of the members, to their credit, recoiled from embracing its concrete manifestation—the Arias plan. They knew that the neo-colonial rulers of Central America did not have the best interests of the Nicaraguan masses at heart. Some of them also suspected that by legitimizing the contras and assuring the CIA and the Vatican access to the mass media, while at the same time guaranteeing capitalist property and cutting off aid to the Salvadoran left, the Sandinistas (FSLN) were undermining the Nicaraguan revolution.
At the TAIC conference, SC/ASA tried to bury the issue by arguing that there was no need to take a position on Esquipulas II. But the RWL was not in a mood to compromise and, after accusing SC/ASA of lacking faith in the FSLN, put forward a motion to endorse the Arias plan. When the motion was defeated, the RWL simply walked out, along with the CP, the New Jewish Agenda and miscellaneous others, leaving SC/ASA in control of a “coalition” comprised of little more than its own members and periphery.
The BT intervened at the conference in opposition to the Arias plan and in favor of reconstituting TAIC as a genuine united front on a principled basis. After losing their former partners, SC/ASA accepted half of the BT resolution (on the political basis of unity), but postponed a decision on the organizational aspect of the proposal for over a month. Finally, at the December meeting of the TAIC, SC/ASA accepted the BT proposal.
At this point the majority of the Toronto SC/ASA had drifted considerably to the left of its international leadership (the European-based United Secretariat—USec) on the Arias plan. This created a political contradiction which had to be resolved. The right wing of the branch—which tended to view the Esquipulas II plan as a “victory”—was uncomfortable with the prospect of allowing different political tendencies (i.e., the BT) the opportunity to present their positions at TAIC events (see Raghu K.’s document in the appendix). It was considerably strengthened when Barry Weisleder (SC/ASA leader) returned from an extended visit to the USec’s European cadre school.
The ongoing internal debate over the Arias plan spilled over into the group’s newspaper when the January/February issue of Socialist Challenge published an article by Robert Adam and Neil Henderson which ventured to criticize the Sandinista leadership. The article came close to being censored prior to publication when Socialist Challenge editor, Greg McMaster, characterized the political line as “sectarian” and proposed to delete some of the political demands raised in the final paragraph. He eventually agreed to run it uncut after he was reminded that no one had proposed to politically edit the anti-Leninist comments of gay activist Gary Kinsman which had appeared in the November issue of SC. The Adam/Henderson piece created a minor sensation within SC/ASA and both Weisleder and another longtime cadre, Harold Lavender, felt compelled to write replies for the April issue of Socialist Challenge.
The January meeting of TAIC (with the BT and SC/ASA represented on the steering committee) decided to organize a united-front demonstration in opposition to further U.S. funding for the contras. In the following weeks, the two groups worked closely together, along with a handful of other individuals, to mobilize opposition to Reagan’s mercenaries. They also made clear to everyone that TAIC had a new speakers policy—that any group which actively built the demonstration would be assured the opportunity to speak at it.
At an SC/ASA branch meeting on 31 January, two days before the TAIC protest, Robert Adam put forward the following motions to clarify SC/ASA’s position on the Arias plan:
“1. We reject support for Esquipulus II.”
(passed—4 for, 3 opposed, 1 abstention)
“2. We recognize the Arias plan as a danger to the Central American revolution in general and the Nicaraguan revolution in particular.”
(passed—5 for, 0 opposed, 3 abstentions)
“3. The Arias peace plan is an attempt by the bourgeois regimes of Central America to contain and isolate the Nicaraguan revolution and prop-up U.S.-supported dictatorships in the region.”
(passed—7 for, 0 opposed, 1 abstention)
The passage of these motions represented the maximum extension of the SC/ASA’s swing to the left.
SC/ASA’s Right Zag
The demonstration attracted 300 spirited protesters on a cold winter night and was a considerable success. Representatives of the Jenny Green Brigade, SC/ASA, BT and Canadian Action for Nicaragua (CAN) spoke (see appendix for speech transcripts). Various Sandinista-boosters at the demonstration responded negatively to SC/ASA’s suggestion that the FSLN had made a mistake in signing the Arias accord. They were even less pleased with the forthright remarks of the BT speaker—whereas the representative from CAN, who defended the Sandinistas’ policy, was loudly applauded.
The opposition expressed at the demonstration to SC/ASA’s mild criticism unnerved many in the group. The right wing of SC/ASA, headed by Weisleder, characterized Adam’s simple statement that the FSLN had been mistaken to sign the accords as a serious “sectarian” error. Only two days earlier, Weisleder himself had voted that these same accords were designed, “to contain and isolate the Nicaraguan revolution,” but the demonstration revealed that the pro-capitalist “peace plan” was too popular to oppose.
The right wing’s next step was to break the bloc with the BT. To this end, Weisleder packed the next meeting of TAIC and, in an exceedingly crude and bureaucratic manner, rammed through several surprise motions designed to convert TAIC once again to a reformist propaganda bloc (see appendix for BT resignation statement from TAIC). The fact that there was no notice of motion, and that the whole procedure was in flagrant violation of the democratic procedural norms which supposedly governed TAIC meetings, was brushed off by Weisleder on the grounds that these were “emergency” measures necessary to guarantee the survival of the TAIC as a “broad-based [sic] coalition.” TAIC has “survived” in a manner of speaking, but only as a coalition of SC with itself.
The rightward drift of SC/ASA on the Arias plan was evident at a public forum given by Robert Adam on 11 February. The forum title inquired: “The Arias Plan; Victory for Peace or Danger for the Central American Revolution?” An important question, but not one which the speaker was prepared to answer. His comrades were not so shy. During the discussion period, SC/ASA members advanced three distinct positions. Raghu called the peace plan a victory which should be supported; Henderson called it a danger which should be opposed; while Weisleder split the difference and sagely announced that it was both a victory and a danger!
At the 28 February SC/ASA local meeting, Weisleder moved to formalize the group’s rightward shift with the following motion:
“That we regard the Arias Peace Plan and process as a highly contradictory phenomenon and not in itself the road to peace. We are in no position to judge the final impact of this plan, but we do not criticize the Sandinistas for exercising their right and duty to negotiate with any power in an effort to impede U.S. intervention in C[entral] America. Our emphasis is entirely directed at opposing U.S. intervention and its client regimes and towards building a mass international anti-intervention movement.”
The motion passed; four votes to three. It effectively reversed the motions passed on 31 January. The three comrades who opposed Weisleder’s motion remained, in varying degrees, opposed to the Arias plan. Over the next several months it became clear that they had either to deepen and generalize their critique or abandon the position.
The final stage in the political fight occurred in May at the fusion convention between SC/ASA and the Quebec-based Gauche Socialiste (GS). By the time of the convention, Henderson was effectively a minority of one—although a few other members remained sympathetic to aspects of his position. He was allowed to present his argument to the assembled delegates, but it was clear that one of the points of convergence between the two organizations was their uncritical, tailist attitude toward the FSLN. Livio Maitan, the USec’s official representative at the convention, intervened on two occasions against positions advanced by Henderson. In the end, Henderson was the only one to vote against the political resolution.
A few weeks later, on 3 June, after concluding that there was little future for Trotskyism within SC/GS, Henderson resigned. He did so publicly at a Toronto SC forum on Nicaragua where he distributed his resignation statement, written in the form of an open letter to SC (also contained in this bulletin). In it, he broadened his criticisms of USec tailism toward the Sandinistas into a more general critique. Comrade Andrew R. of SC replied to Henderson’s open letter with a piece which clearly articulates the ideological rationalization for SC/ASA’s inveterate tailism. Andrew’s response reveals an acute ignorance of the recent political history of the USec, which is perhaps understandable as today’s opportunist infatuations usually turn out to be tomorrow’s embarrassments. Henderson’s rejoinder addresses many of these points and is evidence of his definitive break with USec liquidationism.
After a period of intensive political discussion and study, Henderson has aligned himself with the BT. Before doing so, he undertook a careful evaluation of the substance of the political differences between the BT and the Spartacist tendency, represented in Toronto by the Trotskyist League.
. . .
SC advertises itself as the best builders of the various “mass movements” to which it attaches itself. In order to perform this function, without alienating its host, it must be careful not to advance anything resembling a Marxist position. In the case of TAIC, a “mass movement” initiated and sustained throughout its existence by SC/ASA, this takes the form of wholesale political capitulation to the reformist/pacifist politics of the mainstream “solidarity” milieu (see previous TAIC program in appendix). This adaptationism, so characteristic of the USec, is exactly the opposite of what Trotsky described as the method of revolutionists:
“But on whatever arena, and whatever the methods of functioning, they are bound to speak in the name of unqualified principles and clear revolutionary slogans. They do not play hide-and-seek with the working class; they do not conceal their aims; they do not substitute diplomacy and combinations for a principled struggle. Marxists at all times and under all conditions openly say what is.”
—”An Open Letter for the Fourth International,” Spring 1935
In Nicaragua, as in every other potentially revolutionary situation, the USec leaders forswear building independent Trotskyist parties in favor of floating downstream on what they imagine to be the objectively revolutionary “dynamic” of history—in this instance represented by the radical nationalist Sandinistas. This denial of the importance of the conscious factor in history—that of a Trotskyist leadership and program—is a form of revisionism which, in the Trotskyist movement, is known as “Pabloism,” after its originator, Michel Pablo.
The objectivism of the USec represents, in the last analysis, a profound pessimism about the prospects of winning the proletariat to the revolutionary program. The notion that history is animated by a “dynamic” which is inexorably and automatically unfolding in the direction of socialism, derives from the tradition of Menshevism, not Bolshevism. As Trotsky noted in 1935:
“The whole history of the struggle between the Bolsheviks and the Mensheviks is dotted with this little word ‘process.’ Lenin always formulated tasks and proposed corresponding methods. The Mensheviks agreed with the same ‘aims’ by and large, but left their realization to the historic process. There is nothing new under the sun.”
—”To Comrade Sneevliet on the IAG Conference”