Seattle & the Left

Opportunists Adapt, Sectarians Abstain

On the Monday before the World Trade Organization (WTO) conference opened in Seattle last November, a group of right-wing Republicans, Chamber of Commerce functionaries and bible-thumpers, advertising themselves as “Working Families for Free Trade,” staged a media event to “demonstrate that Christians and conservatives are pragmatic and understand the relationship between free trade and missions opportunities in foreign countries.” Participants in this pro-imperialist publicity stunt were treated sympathetically by the media and Seattle’s civic authorities. Tens of thousands of unionists, environmentalists and miscellaneous liberal-leftists, who arrived a few days later to protest the WTO, received a very different reception. They were assaulted by thousands of cops using tear gas, pepper spray, billy clubs, concussion grenades and rubber bullets. This confrontation, and the protesters’ success in disrupting the opening of the conference, created a political sensation and excited considerable discussion within the radical left internationally.

The response by the British centrists of Workers Power was typical. While noting that a “deep ecology” fringe of “reactionary cranks” was present, Workers Power portrayed the polymorphous direct action reformism of the protest’s mainstream as anti-capitalist consciousness:

“[T]he Seattle events attracted trade unionists, campaigners against Third World debt and greens who recognise that the real enemy of the environment, both human and natural, is multinational capital.”
Workers Power, December 1999/January 2000

Many of the demonstrators did indeed object to the inequitable way in which the world economy is structured, but in general, they did so from the perspective of reforming the mechanisms of capitalist world trade to produce a more ecologically friendly and less exploitative result.

Britain’s Socialist Workers Party (SWP/B—flagship of the International Socialist tendency) took a relentlessly upbeat approach. Proclaiming that “the main trend at the meetings was firmly anti-capitalist,” Socialist Worker‘s initial reports pronounced the WTO protests “a brilliant show of opposition to the multinationals and to the naked rule of profit.” The following week, Socialist Worker responded to suggestions that the demonstrators “had nothing in common” with each other:

“The fundamental divide in Seattle was between those on the inside of the World Trade Organisation conference and those who were protesting outside….

“Politicians would like to make people believe that demonstrators were in Seattle for selfish reasons. People may have been motivated to go to Seattle by specific aspects of capitalism, but they were united against the WTO. The police did not discriminate between environmentalists and trade unionists—they all got teargassed and shot at. All the protesters wanted was to take back power from the multinationals.”
Socialist Worker, 11 December 1999

While enthusing about the “unity forged between trade unionists, students, environmental activists and many others,” the SWP/B ignored the fact that this ephemeral “unity” was based on overlapping forms of bourgeois consciousness. Transfixed by the prospect of a mass movement to participate in (or, more precisely, to tail) Socialist Worker tended to equate objections to one or another effect of capitalism with opposition to capitalism per se. Rather than challenging the reformist conceptions of the protesters, Socialist Worker celebrated and even promoted them. In response to a query about whether “governments are powerless before the multinationals,” the SWP/B replied:

“The problem is that governments repeatedly cave in to threats from multinationals. The British government, for example, has watered down plans to curb greenhouse gas emissions after threats by Ford and other car makers to pull out.”
Socialist Worker (Britain), 11 December 1999

This is textbook Labourite cretinism; it has nothing whatsoever in common with Marxism. The “problem” is not that British imperialism “caves in” to corporate elites—the “problem” is that the British state is a machine that exists solely for the purpose of serving and protecting the rule of the big capitalists. This is why Marx, Luxemburg, Lenin and Trotsky advocated revolution, not reform.

The SWP/B claims to stand firmly in this tradition. In its literature and study classes, its cadres explain to new recruits that the existing capitalist state cannot be reformed—that it must be smashed and replaced by a new state dedicated to advancing the interests of working people and the oppressed. John Rees, Alex Callinicos and other talented SWP/B writers often capably expound these ideas in the pages of International Socialism. Precious as the “revolutionary tradition” may be to the SWP/B leaders in the abstract, they do not consider it of any value in engaging people who imagine that the capitalists’ state can somehow be transformed into an instrument for advancing the interests of the downtrodden. Instead of telling young militants interested in the Seattle events the simple truth, the “revolutionary” SWP/B reinforces their illusions by repackaging standard reformist criticisms of the imperialist government’s failure to “stand up to” the evil corporations.

SL: Saleless in Seattle

The response of Workers Power and the SWP/B was typical of most of the left internationally, but not everyone gave Seattle such a positive spin. Several American left groups flatly denounced the mobilization, including James Robertson’s Spartacist League (SL), which proudly announced that, weeks before the event, they had already decided not to:

“participate in, or sell at, the protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle on November 30 which are a circus…dominated by national chauvinism, racist protectionism and counterrevolutionary attacks on the Chinese deformed workers state.”
Workers Vanguard, 10 December 1999

The protests were not dominated by “national chauvinism, racist protectionism and counterrevolution.” In fact, Marxists have important things in common with large numbers of the Seattle protestors outraged by the wreckage caused by imperialism. In the WTO (sister to the International Monetary Fund [IMF] and World Bank) they had certainly selected an appropriate target for their anger. Reformist illusions and protectionist sentiments were certainly widespread at the protests, but that reflects the current political level of the left and workers’ movement in North America. Marxists do not turn their backs on mass protests against imperialist institutions just because they are led by people whose ideology is unsupportable. Instead, we seek to intervene to counterpose a revolutionary internationalist perspective to the reformist nostrums of the petty-bourgeois utopians and class-collaborationist labor bureaucrats.

Workers Vanguard‘s posture of defending the Chinese deformed workers’ state against “counterrevolutionary attacks” in Seattle is a desperate (and nonsensical) attempt to rationalize its abstention from the anti-WTO protest. The American labor bureaucracy’s opposition to China’s entry into the WTO is only partly motivated by anti-communism and racism; their main concerns are protectionist. Yet Beijing’s membership in the WTO will only accelerate the process of counterrevolution (i.e., capitalist restoration) in China, which is why Trotskyists condemn the ruling bureaucracy’s attempts to join the WTO in the first place.

Principles, Schmintzibles: SL Joins the “Circus”

The SL leadership’s abstention in Seattle was not motivated by political principle, but rather by a desire to avoid exposing their youthful members to the political universe that exists outside their “party.” Yet the ripples from Seattle impacted politicized American youth so powerfully that the SL controllers decided to drop their lofty “principles,” and turn up in Washington for the April demonstrations against the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

Workers Vanguard‘s account of the Washington demonstration begins by brazenly reiterating its earlier denunciation of the Seattle protest (minus the mighty oath not to appear):

“The D.C. demonstrations were consciously built in the ‘Spirit of Seattle’—the protests last fall against the World Trade Organization (WTO) which we characterized as a circus ‘dominated by national chauvinism, racist protectionism and counterrevolutionary attacks on the Chinese deformed workers state’.”
WV, 21 April

Yet in D.C., the SL made an amazing discovery:

“The student youth who converged on Washington over the weekend did not share this flag-waving enthusiasm for trade protectionism and belligerence toward China….SL/SYC comrades encountered little overt anti-Communism…and sold hundreds of copies of Workers Vanguard….”

Had the SL appeared in Seattle, they would have found the same thing. When we noted this in a 3 January posting on our web page, the SL objected, “the IBT denounces our principled opposition to joining the chauvinist, anti-Communist mobilization in Seattle….” (WV, 11 February). In the same article, the SL related how the Internationalist Group (IG—led by WV‘s former editor, Jan Norden) had initially tried to avoid characterizing the Seattle protests, but was finally badgered by the SL into declaring that they had been: “built on a chauvinist program of protectionism and proletarian internationalists would not participate in them.”

The IG’s inordinate sensitivity to criticism from the SL, and its political cowardice in addressing the issues of the history of the Robertsonites’ degeneration, derives in part from a fear of alienating current, and former, SL supporters who the Nordenites consider an important constituency. It must have come as an unpleasant surprise to the IGers when they learned that the capricious SL had decided to forsake its abstentionist “principles” in order to sell hundreds of papers in D.C., while Norden et al. performed their “proletarian internationalist” duty and stayed home.

Barnesites: “No Redeeming Value Whatever”

Jack Barnes’ American Socialist Workers Party took a position similar to that of the SL and IG on Seattle. The 13 December 1999 issue of the Militant carried an article entitled “Anti-WTO protests give social cover to U.S. imperialism.” Denouncing the “sharply nationalist character” of the protest, the Barnesites declared:

“[T]he actions, and the participation of the demonstrators—whether unionists or others—had no redeeming value whatever from the point of view of the interests of working people. The protests, regardless of the views of participants, gave social cover to and reinforced the American nationalist framework promoted by Washington and the billionaire families it serves.”

In the absence of a class-conscious political leadership capable of rejecting both the free-trade and protectionist models for organizing capitalism, it is hardly surprising that opposition to the effects of “globalization” tends to take on a protectionist coloration. However, most of the rank-and-file unionists on the streets in Seattle did not subscribe to the traditional “Buy American” jingoism of the union bureaucracy, as an IBT member who attended the Seattle demonstration reported:

“The very heterogeneous nature of the protests was not accurately represented in the media, which generally subsumed the participants as ‘protectionist trade unionists and flat-earth fanatics.’ This heterogeneous nature extends to the trade unionists who participated. Comments and interviews with trade-union participants showed a strong internationalist thrust with many trade unionists expressing views that workers in the U.S. must protect trade-union rights and support workers’ struggles in other countries in order to bring wages, etc., up, and prevent the ‘race to the bottom.’ If I had to summarize the ideology of the anti-WTO protest in Seattle, I would describe it as populist internationalism with reformist illusions.”

Marxists must take the long view of history and not permit the struggle for a little bit today to displace the historic necessity to fight for workers’ power. Ending the ravages of imperialist disorder requires overturning the tyranny of capital and establishing a socialist, planned economy based on production for human need rather than profit. Yet, the forces necessary to lead larger and more decisive revolutionary struggles in the future can only be accumulated by politically intersecting those who are prepared to resist the effects of global capitalism today, and struggling to help them transcend reformist and petty-bourgeois utopian illusions.