Where is the ICL Going?
The Politics of Chicken Revisited
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:
“Nowhere does the [12 September] SL statement call to defend the countries (notably Afghanistan and Iraq) which were already targeted by Washington in the first hours after the WTC/Pentagon attack.”
This stung the SL, which indignantly replied:
“Indeed, as soon as the U.S. imperialists started raining down bombs on Afghanistan, we raised the call to ‘Defend Afghanistan against imperialist attack!’ not only on our front page but also on our banners and signs at demonstrations and in our interventions at ‘antiwar’ meetings.”
—WV, 26 October
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:
“Workers Vanguard joined the WWP and CPUSA [Workers World Party and Communist Party-USA] in praising black Democratic Congresswoman Barbara Lee of Oakland, saying that ‘to her credit’ she was the only Representative to vote against ‘giving Bush a blank check for war.’ Not only does WV not make a single criticism of Lee, it doesn’t mention that even as she voted against the ‘use of force’ resolution, the Congresswoman voted for the $40 billion emergency war credits bill that included a blank check for the CIA!“
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 black Democrats and oppositional trade-union tops are positioning themselves to get ahead of and contain the increasing discontents that the capitalist rulers’ war at home and abroad, coming amid a deepening recession and the enduring character of racist oppression, will generate among working people and minorities. Selling themselves as the friends of labor and blacks is the longstanding card played by the Democrats, which is why they are historically the preferred party of the bourgeoisie when it comes to mobilizing the population for war.”
—WV, 9 November
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:
“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.”
—WV No. 358, 6 July 1984
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:
“‘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 [Democrat and arch-segregationist] Lester Maddox? What about [Ku Klux Klan leader and Democrat Party member] Tom Metzger!) ‘Not a dime’s worth of difference,’ remember?”
—reprinted in ET Bulletin No. 4, May 1985
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:
“in the face of the U.S.-led NATO onslaught against Serbia two years ago, which destroyed the entire infrastructure of that country, we raised the banner: ‘Defeat U.S. imperialism through workers revolution! Defend Serbia!'”
—WV, 14 September
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:
“From a Marxist perspective, however, there is no way to ‘defeat’ the inevitable drive toward war by the capitalists short of their being expelled from power through victorious workers revolution….”
—WV, 26 October
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 #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 have learned that the ICL had an internal discussion on slogans in which it decided not to call to defeat imperialism in the war. This was no doubt at least partly in response to our special issue of The Internationalist (27 September) prominently headlined ‘Defeat the U.S./NATO War Drive!'”
—The Internationalist, Fall 2001
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:
“What we feel toward the astronauts is no more and no less than for any people who die in tragic circumstances such as the nine poor Salvadorans who were killed by a fire in a Washington, D.C. basement apartment two days before.”
—Workers Vanguard, 14 February 1986
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 real explanation for their [the SL’s] line is ‘duck and cover,’ and its political content is economist social pacifism.”
The IG cites Lenin in “Socialism and War”:
“‘A revolutionary class cannot but wish for the defeat of its government in a reactionary war, and cannot fail to see that the latter’s military reverses must facilitate its overthrow’; and in a war of Morocco against France, or of India against Britain, ‘any socialist would wish the oppressed, dependent and unequal states victory over the oppressor, slave-holding and predatory “Great” Powers.'”
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.
“At bottom, the IG deliberately muddles the question of a military defeat in a particular war with the proletarian defeat of one’s bourgeoisie through socialist revolution. The latter is the program animating any truly revolutionary party in peacetime as in wartime. The slogans used to proceed toward that end—to lead the working masses from their current level of consciousness to the seizure of state power—are, however, necessarily conjunctural.”
—WV, 9 November
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.
“The French defeat at the hands of the Algerian independence fighters culminating in 1962 demoralized the French bourgeoisie and helped lead to the worker-student revolt of 1968, which posed the first potentially revolutionary crisis in Europe in years.”
—The Internationalist, Fall 2001
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:
“In calling on the working class to defend Afghanistan against U.S. imperialism, we apply the same Leninist principle of siding with backward countries against imperialist attack. That said, the U.S. war against Afghanistan is in important ways different from the Italian invasion of Ethiopia, which was aimed at realizing Italy’s longstanding intention to colonize that country. The U.S. does not aim at an occupation of Afghanistan—at least not at this point—although now that they’re in Central Asia the imperialists will grab what they can. In attacking Afghanistan, the U.S. seeks vengeance for the insult to its imperial might.”
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:
“The IG’s spurious analogy with colonial wars notwithstanding, it seems currently unlikely that the U.S. will launch a significant land invasion of Afghanistan….
“Washington’s most likely variant at this time is for continued, incessant and purposeless bombing for which the Taliban has no possible military redress. Again, this was not the case in the 1935 Italo-Ethiopian war. Italy was a second-rate imperialist power riven by sharp class contradictions and constrained in its intentions by its bigger imperialist rivals. Although in the upshot Italy was victorious after a seven-month-long ground war, it was not unreasonable for the then-Trotskyist U.S. Socialist Workers Party to project a possible military victory by Ethiopia.”
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:
“The whole European system of alliances and states would fall apart. The proletariat in Germany, Austria, Spain, on the Balkans, and not least of all in France, would receive an enormous impulsion; the face of Europe would be altered. That lies in the direct class interests of the international proletariat. But still more. A defeat of Italy in Africa, a victory of Ethiopia, might deliver the imperialist bandits a terrific blow in Africa.”
—”Questions of the Italo-Ethiopian War,” New International, October 1935
But, according to the Spartacist League:
“None of these factors currently constrain the U.S., although, to be sure, the war will exacerbate tensions among the imperialist powers, and its price in misery at home may awaken class combativity in the American proletariat.”
—WV, 9 November
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:
“Opportunism, or radicalism that is turning to opportunism, always inclines to estimate war as such as an exceptional phenomenon that it requires the annulment of revolutionary policy and its basic principles. Centrism reconciles itself to revolutionary methods but does not believe in them. That is why it is always inclined, at critical moments, to refer to the peculiarity of the situation, to exceptional circumstances, and so on, in order to substitute opportunist methods for revolutionary ones. Such a shift in the policy of centrism or pseudo-radicalism is of course acutely provoked by the war danger.”
—”The Struggle for Peace and the Anglo-Russian Committee,” 16 May 1927
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:
“Thus, the call for a U.S. military defeat is, at this time, illusory and the purest hot air and ‘revolutionary’ phrasemongering—and one which derives from forsaking the mobilization of the U.S. proletariat with the aim of the conquest of state power.
“Unlike the IG, the SL is committed to breaking the American working class and the oppressed from their class-collaborationist bondage to the Democratic Party and to forging a revolutionary workers party to overthrow American imperialism through socialist revolution. While the IG waxes oh-so-revolutionary in the ether of cyberspace, we actually fight for a proletarian, revolutionary, internationalist perspective on the ground.”
—WV, 9 November
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.
The Fire Last Time…
ICL: ‘Save Our Boys’ Socialists
One of the reasons that the 1983 call to save the Marines presents such a problem for the SL is that it flatly contradicted both the historical tradition it claims to stand on, and the image it likes to cultivate as a fearlessly revolutionary organization. In 1982, during the Falklands/Malvinas conflict, WV ran an article sneeringly entitled “‘Save Our Boys’ Socialists” which excoriated Sean Matgamna’s Socialist Organiser for running a sympathetic interview with Reg Race, a Labour Party “left”:
“Never has Lenin’s characterization of social democrats as ‘social imperialists’ been more fitting. Race calls for withdrawing the fleet and sparing the precious blood of Britain’s elite forces because he has another program to bring Argentina to its knees….”
—WV No. 306, 28 May 1982, emphasis added
Even after WV revealed that “sparing the precious blood” of the U.S. Marines had somehow suddenly become an important Leninist tactic the same criterion was not applied in Britain. The December 1983/January 1984 issue of Spartacist Britain published an auto-critique by A. Gilchrist, a senior cadre of the SL’s British group, in which he confessed:
“The position of ‘Withdraw the Fleet’ was a position of defending the imperialist armed forces from destruction by another anti-Soviet military. The Falklands war tested every tendency on the British left in the clearest way, because war is the period of greatest nationalist pressures. This Bennite [left Labourite] position was a clear capitulation to the ‘socialist’ chauvinism of the Labour Party….”
—emphasis in original
In the 9 November issue of WV, the SL attempts to get out from under its “Marines Alive” position by claiming that, “to this day it is still not clear who blew up the Marine barracks.” The truth is that it is pretty clear to everyone except the SL (and, presumably, the IG). For example, in the Spring 1993 issue of Foreign Policy, the editor, Charles W. Maynes, wrote the following:
“The United States, in the hubris of the Reagan administration, forgot the fundamental nature of peacekeeping. It deployed U.S. Marines in Lebanon without understanding that it was essential for their safety that the United States not take sides in the Lebanese civil war. The Reagan administration decided to back the Christians and soon found its troops under attack by the Muslims and finally driven from Lebanon after the disastrous bombing of the marine barracks in Beirut.”
Every serious observer of the Middle East agrees that the suicide truck-bombing of the Marine barracks, carried out by a group calling itself “Islamic Jihad,” was a response to U.S. military intervention on the side of the Christian Phalange. The New York Times blames Hezbollah, the Lebanese “Party of God,” for the attack:
“In recent years the Islamic group has grafted a new image as an above-ground political force onto its 1980’s past. Back then, Hezbollah, or groups to which it was closely linked, was notorious for brutal terrorist operations, including destroying the American Embassy in Beirut in 1983 and killing 241 Americans at a Marine compound later the same year.”
—New York Times, 14 February 2001
If another truck bomb were to go off this week outside the Marine encampment near Kandahar, would the SL try to hide behind the pretence that the precise identity of the perpetrators was unknown? We rather doubt it.