Report on UNAC Conference
Pressuring the Democrats—a Bankrupt Strategy
Over the weekend of 21-23 February the United National Antiwar Coalition (UNAC) held the fifth national conference since its foundation in 2010. This event, convened in New York City, was entitled “Rise Against Militarism, Racism and the Climate Crisis – Building Power Together”. Bolshevik Tendency (BT) supporters participated in the conference and its workshops, and distributed literature to participants.
Two core UNAC elements are the ostensibly Trotskyist Socialist Action (SA) group and the Stalinophilic ex-Trotskyist Workers World Party (WWP), who broke from Trotskyism in the 1950s over their support for the suppression of the Hungarian workers’ political revolution of 1956 by Soviet tanks. While SA and WWP diverge on numerous issues, they both defend the Cuban deformed workers’ state and various neo-colonial countries like Venezuela against imperialist threats, coup attempts and sanctions. In Syria both SA and WWP support the Assad regime in that country’s civil war and both are sharply critical of U.S. intervention and support for the jihadist “rebels.” A Workers World editorial commented in 2019:
“U.S. advisers and contractors were embedded in numerous mercenary bands, which often fought each other. One by one all were pushed back by Syria’s determined resistance and by assistance, first from Hezbollah militias in Lebanon, then from Iranian advisers, then in 2015, by decisive Russian intervention with air cover.
“This assistance was both solidarity and self-interest. Each of these very different political entities identified with Syria’s plight and knew a U.S. ‘success’ in dismembering Syria would make them a target.”
WWP defends the ruling Baathist regime without much in the way of criticism. Socialist Action, which initially backed the rebellion against Assad, has changed sides in the conflict (without acknowledgement as far as we know) but still supports the idea of overthrowing the Assad regime:
“Socialist Action supports the Syrian government’s military defense of Syria against the U.S. invaders, without lending one iota of political support to Syrian capitalism in all of its manifestations. We are for the working class overthrow of the Assad government not the imperialist overthrow of the same government. The pre-condition for the former’s success is the construction of a mass revolutionary party that defends Syria against its would-be U.S. imperialist colonizers.” [emphasis in original]
UNAC’s two organizational pillars have somewhat less congruent positions on Iran, which has been a target of U.S. “regime change” activity since the 1979 revolution. When Iran, China and Russia carried out a joint naval drill in December 2019 WWP commented:
“But Iran sent its own message as U.S. threats were escalated with the crisis in Iraq. It was a message the whole world took note of.
“One fifth of the world’s oil passes through the Strait of Hormuz, which connects to the Gulf of Oman. On Dec. 27, Iran, China and Russia started four days of joint naval drills in the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Oman.
“The joint naval drill showed the determination to offer some protection to a region that has been openly looted by modern-day imperialist pirates. New trade deals and funds for rebuilding war-torn and sanctioned economies are on the drawing boards in Iran, China and Russia. It’s no longer a unipolar world.”
We broadly agree with Workers World that the emerging Iran/China/Russia triad poses a serious obstacle to American imperial domination of the Middle East. Socialist Action has, or should logically have, a somewhat different position, given its 2018 decision to designate both Russia and China as “imperialist” powers:
“Socialist Action’s convention approved a new text entitled ‘China: A New Imperialist Power.’ China, built on a foundation of monopoly capitalism, is a major capital exporter that fundamentally exploits workers at home and across the world. Its economy exhibits highly uneven development, with advanced and highly productive regions alongside impoverished and underdeveloped ones. Its military is increasingly advanced and is deployed to support the interests of Chinese capitalism worldwide. China is a major player in most theaters across the world today and is continually seeking to expand its already significant influence globally.
“Socialist Action also adopted the position that Russia is an imperialist nation, but with considerably less weight than China in the world economy and in many other respects.”
If China and Russia are in fact imperialist powers (which in our view they are not), Socialist Action should logically oppose the military integration of semi-colonial Iran with such imperial predators. Yet the theocratic rulers of Tehran, despite their religious blinders, are shrewd enough to recognize that allying with China and Russia does not threaten to turn Iran into a victim of neo-colonial exploitation, but rather makes it more capable of resisting imperialist pressure.
During the workshop entitled “Identifying U.S. Regime Change Campaigns” Jeff Mackler from SA recounted his visit to Nicaragua in the 1980s and his discussions with leading Sandinistas, including Daniel Ortega, during which he advised them to follow the Cuban road and expropriate the bourgeoisie. Mackler’s criticism of the Nicaraguans was promptly rebuked by Nuri Ronaghy from the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and a leading member of the Women’s Commission of the Party of Communists, who considers that American leftists have no right to disagree with the decisions of leaders of what used to be known as “Third World” countries. Ronaghy was joined by Jill Clark-Gollub, associated with the Friends of Latin America, and Sara Flounders from WWP, in declaring that it is “not our role” to level any criticisms of leaders of neocolonial countries. Their statements were greeted by general acclaim from the audience. This profoundly anti-internationalist stance reflects the narrow, neo-Stalinist mindset that is common among the liberal-left “solidarity” milieu which holds that those outside Nicaragua, Venezuela, etc., who refuse to act simply as cheerleaders for the existing regime are functioning as stooges of imperialism.
In politics it is vitally important to be able to distinguish friend from foe. While SA mistakenly brands Iran, Cuba and Venezuela’s Russian and Chinese allies as “imperialists,” its UNAC partner is busy suggesting that perhaps by pressuring the Democratic Party, the U.S. Congress can be turned into an agency for anti-imperialist action:
“The Democratic Party leaders, however, have a history of backing every imperialist war of the past. ‘Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?’ was a favorite slogan of anti-war protesters during the Vietnam War — a thoroughly bipartisan disaster.
“Will the Democratic Party leaders limit themselves to playing to public opinion and criticizing Trump where that gets them votes? What about taking a stand by demanding that Congress reassert its right under the Constitution as the sole body empowered to declare war?
“The Democratic Party has a majority in the House of Representatives. It could demand that the government live up to the Constitution and not attack other countries without a declaration of war.
“Such a demand could be the opening wedge of a broader struggle NOT to go to war, declared or undeclared.”
If pigs could fly! The WWP “revolutionaries,” perhaps taking their cue from high school civics textbooks, propose that Congress adhere to proper procedure in initiating hostilities against other countries. WWP may imagine that the world would somehow be a better place if only U.S. imperialism had issued a proper declaration of war before it commenced bombing Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, etc. In fact all of these crimes were backed by the overwhelming majority of the Democrats, who WWP somehow believes can morph into defenders of the U.S. constitution and thus act as potential catalysts for a resurgent anti-war movement. This reformist, legalist utopianism is typical of “progressive Democrats” like Bernie Sanders who promote illusions about forcing U.S. imperialism to act in a more humane and benevolent fashion. The role of Marxists is to tell the simple truth: the machinery of imperialist domination can never be turned into an instrument to serve the interests of the workers and oppressed. To suggest otherwise is to become a servant of ruling-class interests, regardless of the “socialist” intentions that might animate those who promote such illusions.
While WWP openly champions such reformist nostrums about how to struggle against imperialist war, Socialist Action has pretty much gone along with them in UNAC. An example appears in a recent posting on the SA website:
“When Congress returns on January 7 they must be met with demands for action. Their impeachment makes no mention of the international crimes in which they are complicit. They must add war crimes – surely a high crime and misdemeanor – to their articles of impeachment. Congress must clearly state that they oppose war on Iran, whether Trump seeks approval from them or not.”
Despite UNAC’s Principles of Unity correctly pointing out that both the Republican and Democratic parties “are controlled by the same big banks, corporations and other financial institutions … [and] are both organized and function to defend the interests of the one percent” both WWP and SA paint the Democratic Party, with its record of consistently supporting U.S. aggression abroad, as a potential agency for struggling against imperialist war. This is both grotesquely opportunist and transparently motivated by the desire to cozy up to the “progressives” and Sandernistas in the Democratic Party. The effect can only be to politically disarm opponents of imperialist war and point them back into the fold of the Democratic Party. These policies cannot strengthen the anti-war movement—they can only bury it.
A real united front brings together different groups around a particular slogan or set of slogans on which they all agree, with provision for each participant to express their own distinctive positions and differences. UNAC does the opposite and seeks to “unite” diverse political trends on issues ranging from opposition to war abroad, to self-determination of oppressed nations and civil-rights issues at home. The final conference session, entitled “Points of Unity and Action Proposal,” was allocated 30 minutes for participants to put forward amendments to the existing Points of Unity. A wide variety of unrelated positions on domestic and international issues were advanced (all simply verbally). The chair summarized each amendment (or in some cases reminded the mover that UNAC already had a position on the question) and they were voted on immediately. The only glitch came when Ralph Poynter, husband of the late defense attorney Lynne Stewart, vehemently objected to a proposal in favor of community control of the police, making the sensible observation that it is impossible to “control” the armed fist of the oppressor. This briefly stalled the proceedings as several black participants, supported by ourselves and a few others, shouted: “The police started as slave catchers!” and “Cops out of the Black communities!” This explicitly reformist proposal eventually carried with only a handful opposed.
At the end of the conference our comrades joined other participants in marching to the Port Authority Greyhound Bus Terminal where Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) agents have been regularly boarding buses and checking passenger IDs in an attempt to round up undocumented immigrants. The march was organized by immigrant rights activists around the single, simple demand for “I.C.E. off the buses!” Protesters chanting “Hey, hey – ho, ho, I.C.E. and cops have got to go!” echoed the sentiments of participants in the “Hospitals Are For Healing Rally” held on 7 February by the 1199 SEIU Hospital Workers Union to demand the removal of I.C.E. from their workplaces. These genuine united-front actions around a clear demand shared by all, stood in stark contrast to the murky maneuvering underway at the UNAC confab attempting to put together a “united” bloc for propaganda by blurring differences and embracing a lowest-common denominator politics.