Where Is the ICL Going?
The Politics of Chicken Revisited
The following statement by the International Bolshevik Tendency, published on 2 December 2001, was reprinted in 1917 No. 24, 2002.
Over the past several weeks we have been asked what the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) makes of Workers Vanguard’s recent flurry of (sometimes overlapping) polemics against ourselves and the Internationalist Group (IG) concerning the U.S.-led attack on Afghanistan. Many leftists have been puzzled by the Spartacist League’s (SL) open and unprecedented rejection of the call for “defeat” of its own imperialist ruling class. This position clearly represents another step in the political degeneration of this formerly Trotskyist organization.
The first polemic in the SL’s current campaign, aimed at the IBT, was occasioned by our observation that Workers Vanguard (WV), like virtually all of the fake-left, had failed to make any distinction between the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in its treatment of the 11 September attacks. In our 18 September statement, we had tweaked the Spartacist League (leading section of the International Communist League [ICL]) by recalling its social-patriotic response to the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marines’ compound in Lebanon:
“Marxists oppose terrorism as a strategy for the liberation of the oppressed because, even in the best case, it substitutes the acts of a tiny handful for the conscious activity of the working class. But revolutionary Marxists differentiate between acts aimed at imperialist military targets and those aimed at innocent civilians. For example, we recognize that the demolition of the U.S. and French garrisons in Lebanon in 1983 by ‘Islamic Jihad’ were defensible blows against imperialist attempts to establish a military beachhead in the Middle East. Some supposed Marxist organizations flinched, including the left-posturing Spartacist League/U.S., which issued a social-patriotic call for saving the surviving U.S. Marines.”
We took the view in 1983 that the central issue was the Marines leaving Lebanon—and we did not much care if they walked out or were carried out in body bags. We feel the same way about the “coalition” forces in Afghanistan today. In contrast, the SL specified that it wanted the Marines out “alive.” This represented a significant difference, which is documented in our Trotskyist Bulletin No. 2.
While we picked up the SL’s apparent dive on the Pentagon, the IG, in a statement dated 27 September, raised another criticism:
This stung the SL, which indignantly replied:
The IG responded that one hardly needed to wait until the bombs started falling to call for Afghanistan’s defense. But the IG was stretching it to make this criticism in the first place, as the SL’s 12 September statement made clear their “opposition to the war aims and military adventures of the American rulers abroad” and included among its demands “U.S. imperialism hands off the world!”
SL & the Democrats
A more substantial criticism was raised by the IG in its 25 October statement:
In the 26 October WV, the SL sniffed that it is “not indifferent” to “cracks in the bourgeois edifice.” Fair enough, Leninists should not be indifferent to such things, but neither should they give the left wing of the twin parties of racism and imperialist war a free pass. The 9 November issue of WV finally introduced an orthodox caveat into its previously uncritical treatment of Lee:
The friendly treatment of Barbara Lee is not the first time the Spartacist League has exhibited softness on the Democrats. In 1984, the SL offered to send a dozen defense guards to the Democratic National Convention to protect them against “Reagan reaction” and the entirely imaginary danger of “ultrarightist assault against…the Convention itself.” Workers Vanguard absurdly claimed that:
The SL’s offer to defend the Democrats against “the real instigators and perpetuators of political disruption and violence, against the Watergaters [i.e., Republicans] and Cold Warriors” echoed the “unite to stop the right” popular-frontist rhetoric of the Communist Party. In an 11 July 1984 letter, the External Tendency of the iSt (forerunner of the IBT) commented:
In the 1960s and 70s the SL often used the expression that, from the standpoint of the working class, there is “not a dime’s worth of difference” between the Republican and Democratic parties. In its 31 August 1984 issue, WV explicitly repudiated this, and wrote: “Anyone but a blind man can see there is more than a ‘dime’s worth of difference’ between Mondale and Reagan….”
‘Duck and Cover’: SL Abandons Defeatism
In addition to chastising the SL for its softness on the Democrats and for its tardiness in explicitly calling for the defense of Afghanistan and Iraq, the IG’s 27 September statement leveled a third criticism, one which we initially regarded as overreaching: “For that matter, it [the SL] doesn’t even call to defeat the mounting war drive, only to ‘oppose’ it.” We had noticed that the initial statement from the SL Political Bureau proudly recalled how:
We therefore considered it quibbling to interpret the SL’s statement that it “opposed” this latest imperialist military aggression as some sort of rejection of a call to “defeat” it.
We were caught by surprise when, instead of brusquely dismissing the IG’s criticism, the SL replied:
This showed that the IG was on to something. The inherent historical tendency for capitalist competition to lead to war cannot be eradicated, but particular imperialist campaigns can be aborted through determined popular resistance—i.e., class struggle. The SL’s dismissal of the possibility of “defeating” a particular war drive short of socialist revolution is of a piece with its maximalist objections to calling for a “general strike” unless a mass revolutionary party is already in place to lead it. By counterposing “building the revolutionary party” to calling for a generalized, working-class response to a generalized attack by the bosses, the SL engages in the sort of “scholastic passivity” it vehemently denounced a quarter of a century ago when it was still a revolutionary organization. (see: 1917 No. 20 “In Defense of Tactics”) The SL’s current counterposition of a hypothetical “workers revolution” to the necessity to stand clearly for the defeat of their own imperialist rulers is cut from the same cloth.
The IG reports:
We suspect the ICL leaders were motivated by something other than a desire to distinguish themselves from the IG. Several times in the past, the SL has exhibited a cowardly reflex in situations where it feared incurring the displeasure of its own ruling class.
The first instance was the call to save the Marines in Lebanon. A few years later, in January 1986, when the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger aborted a top-secret military mission, WV, taking its cue from the tearful accounts in the bourgeois media, volunteered:
As we pointed out at the time, revolutionaries feel a great deal more sympathy for impoverished refugees from a right-wing terrorist regime than for the professional military cadres of imperialism. (see: 1917 No. 2, “Challenger: No Disaster for the Working Class”) For reasons of personal prestige and organizational equilibrium (see: 1917 No. 20, “Willful Blindness”), the IG stands by the SL’s earlier flinches, but it is pulling no punches this time:
The IG cites Lenin in “Socialism and War”:
The essential issue posed for the left by the attack on Afghanistan is which side to take—should we favor the victory or the defeat of our rulers? Two years ago, when NATO bombs began to fall on Belgrade, the SL answered that question clearly: “Defend Serbia! Defeat U.S./NATO imperialism! For workers revolution!” (WV, 16 April 1999). Why should its answer be different today?
Tactics & Propaganda Groups
The SL leadership is attempting to cover its retreat from openly calling for the defeat of imperialism in Afghanistan by pretending that it is all just a matter of tactics.
This is followed by a discussion of Bolshevik tactics in the months preceding the struggle for power in October 1917. The slogans necessary to mobilize the masses for power are indeed “conjunctural,” but for the foreseeable future the SL, as a very small propaganda group (albeit larger than the IBT or IG), is not likely to be confronted with the problem of directing the seizure of power. No left group in the U.S. (or in most other imperialist countries) is currently able to directly influence millions, or even thousands, of working people. It is simply comical to suggest that by dropping the call for the defeat of this imperialist adventure the SL somehow advances a step closer to making a bid for state power.
Then there is the absurdity of calling for the defense of Afghanistan while refusing to call for the defeat of the U.S. and its allies. One can be defeatist on both sides in a conflict, but to be “defensist” on one side, one must necessarily be “defeatist” on the other.
From Ethiopia to Afghanistan: Defeat Imperialist Aggression!
The IG pointed to the impact of Algeria’s long war of independence on the political climate of France.
WV replied: “In reality, the eight-year-long colonial war in Algeria bears no resemblance to what is happening in Afghanistan today.” What the two situations have in common is that both involve a struggle between imperialists and the oppressed. In such cases revolutionaries favor the defeat of the imperialists. The SL introduces another analogy: Mussolini’s 1935 invasion of Ethiopia:
The question of whether the U.S. intends to occupy some or all of Afghanistan or its neighbors, or how long it intends to remain, or what military tactics it intends to employ, does not change the fact that revolutionaries want to see the imperialist aggressors defeated. WV’s assertion that it is “spurious” to make an analogy between colonial wars and neo-colonial ones is entirely illegitimate:
Instead of a clear and forthright statement of their new revisionist position, the WV scribes employ hints and innuendo, leaving their readers to work it out for themselves. But the implication is clear: in Ethiopia in the 1930s, unlike in Afghanistan today, it was “reasonable” to call for the military defeat of the imperialist aggressor, but today the U.S.-led coalition is so strong that it is “unreasonable” to imagine its defeat. Therefore, the SL suggests, it would be a mistake to advocate a defeatist position. This is the logic that leads down the path to “the left wing of the possible.”
WV quotes the Trotskyists of 1935 on the potential impact of an Italian defeat in Ethiopia:
But, according to the Spartacist League:
In fact, many of the projections made by the New International in 1935 are entirely applicable to the current situation. A defeat for the U.S.-led coalition would, as the SL admits, sharpen “tensions among the imperialist powers” while undermining their ability to attack their own workers. The awakening of “class combativity in the American proletariat” could itself be a factor of inestimable importance in world politics. A setback in Afghanistan would certainly also “deliver the imperialist bandits a terrific blow” in the strategically vital Middle East, and potentially destabilize the regimes most closely identified with the U.S., including Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan.
Hindsight is of course 20/20. During the same week the WV article was published, we were holding public meetings in Toronto where we speculated that the Taliban might be dug in well enough to survive a prolonged U.S. bombardment. As things turned out, the U.S. aerial attack proved more successful than either we or the SL had anticipated.
If the imperialist coalition is compelled to deploy significant numbers of ground troops to finish off the Taliban and its allies in its Pashtun base area, it seems conceivable that the Islamist guerrillas could prolong the conflict long enough, and inflict enough casualties on the U.S. forces, to dampen domestic support for the campaign. This would be a “best case” outcome, and at this point it cannot be entirely excluded.
In 1927, Leon Trotsky, the great Russian revolutionary, provided a description of how fake-revolutionary organizations act under the pressure of bourgeois war hysteria, one that accurately captures the ICL’s recent behavior:
The responsibility of revolutionaries is to put forward the political program necessary to advance the class struggle. And the necessary and appropriate response for class-conscious workers in every country in the imperialist coalition can only be to work for the defeat of their own rulers. A class-struggle leadership of the workers’ movement prepared to actively resist the predatory campaigns of its rulers could be an important factor in bringing about an imperialist defeat. Upholding this, the only revolutionary perspective, is the responsibility of the Trotskyist vanguard.
In Iran, which borders Afghanistan, the mullahs’ grip is weakening. There have been reports of spontaneous popular protests against the regime erupting at sporting events. This is usually a symptom of a developing pre-revolutionary situation. Imperialist aggression against Afghanistan, Iraq or other Muslim countries could contribute to the outbreak of explosive social struggles and create fertile conditions for the rapid growth of revolutionary organizations in the region.
But the demoralized centrists leading the SL see none of this. Their pessimism is only thinly disguised by bombastic talk of “mobilizing” the American working class:
The SL’s “on the ground” activity amounted to reading a prepared statement to a crowd of 50 people at a public forum in the longshore hall in San Francisco on 10 October. The SL statement included a call for “a political struggle within the unions to forge a revolutionary workers party….” A fine sentiment, but unfortunately more distant today than it was before the once-revolutionary Spartacist League liquidated its trade-union work almost 20 years ago in the course of its political degeneration.
In the late 1970s, SL-supported caucuses were nationally recognized as the opposition to the pro-capitalist bureaucracy in both the Communications Workers of America and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union. SL supporters also had an important toehold in the United Auto Workers. Since this work was ripped up, the SL has had no influence or real roots in any sector of the American working class. The External Tendency of the iSt, the IBT’s predecessor, opposed the SL’s turn away from union work at the time (see “Declaration of an external tendency of the iSt,” 15 October 1982, “Stop the Liquidation of the Trade Union Work!” 25 June 1983 and “Decline of SL-supported Trade Union Work,” ET Bulletin No. 3, May 1984).
WV’s distinction between the IG “wax[ing] oh-so-revolutionary” on the internet and an SL supporter doing so at a public meeting is ludicrous. A serious “fight for a proletarian, revolutionary, internationalist perspective on the ground” requires more than the odd speech and a few articles. Such a struggle must begin with a correct programmatic orientation. In this regard, a critical distinction must be made between those who take a defeatist position toward their own imperialist rulers, and professional confusionists who advocate the “defense” of the oppressed, but shrink from calling for the “defeat” of their oppressors.