We reprint below an expanded version of a talk given by IBT supporter Josh Decker on the panel “Karl Marx and Socialist Activism Today” at the “Karl Marx at 200” conference at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada on 19 October 2018. The other two panelists were representatives of the New York-based Internationalist Group (IG) and the International Marxist Tendency (IMT). A panelist from the Democratic Socialists of America was also scheduled to speak but did not show up.
The representative of the IMT, which in Canada is a fairly young and activist-oriented group, had little to contribute during the forum programmatically, instead downplaying the importance of revolutionary leadership in socialist activism. The speaker for the IG, which has repeatedly refused to seriously engage us since their emergence from the Spartacist League in the mid-1990s, spent much of his presentation showing videos highlighting their interventions in various political actions.
“Only continuity of ideas creates a revolutionary tradition, without which a political party sways like a reed in the wind.”
—Trotsky, “Trotskyism and the PSOP” (July 1939)
In his 1929 book, The Permanent Revolution, the great Marxist Leon Trotsky reflected on his pre-1917 view of the relationship between revolutionary activism and revolutionary program:
“I believed that the logic of the class struggle would compel both [Bolshevik and Menshevik] factions to pursue the same revolutionary line. The great historical significance of Lenin’s policy was still unclear to me at that time, his policy of irreconcilable ideological demarcation and, when necessary, split, for the purpose of welding and tempering the core of the truly revolutionary party.”
Lenin’s great insight, later fully embraced by Trotsky, was that political program comes first: even the most noble and heroic struggles of the oppressed are doomed to dissipate in the winds of history if they are not at the service of building an organization firmly rooted in a clear, revolutionary Marxist program.
The flip side is crucially important as well – the most pristine, revolutionary program is of little use if it is confined to the offices of the would-be revolutionary party. A young Karl Marx once quipped: “Hitherto philosophers have left the keys to all riddles lying in their desks, and the stupid, uninitiated world had only to wait around for the roasted pigeons of absolute science to fly into its open mouth” (“Letters from the Franco-German Yearbooks” [Early Writings], 1843).
Yet the experience of the Russian Revolution – so far, the only successful proletarian seizure of power in history – demonstrates the primacy of political program. Lenin, Trotsky and their followers grasped that idea, and it is the basis on which we have sought to build the IBT as we engage in real struggles in the real world.
Despite our very small numbers, over the years the IBT has been able to undertake what we consider to be exemplary actions aimed at applying a revolutionary program on a scale proportionate to our given capacity and influence. An early example was the work of comrade Howard Keylor, who initiated and helped lead an 11-day labor action in the San Francisco Bay Area in 1984 in which 300 longshoremen of the ILWU refused to unload South African Apartheid cargo. Nelson Mandela himself praised the action as having “established [the ILWU] as the frontline of the anti-apartheid movement.”
The reverberations of this important labor boycott, which was made possible by earlier work that Keylor and other class-struggle militants had carried out in the 1970s, have continued to be felt over the past three decades. Indeed, militants in ILWU Local 10, inspired by the 1984 boycott, launched several subsequent events in which we also actively participated. These actions include the 24 April 1999 shutdown of every port on the U.S. West Coast in support of Mumia Abu-Jamal; another West Coast port shutdown on May Day 2008 to protest the imperialist war in Iraq and Afghanistan; and the May Day 2015 shutdown of the Port of Oakland to condemn the wave of racist police killings of black and brown people across the U.S. [see “Class Struggle on the Waterfront”].
In New Zealand, our comrades were involved in the struggle to decriminalize homosexuality in the 1980s – a struggle, culminating in victory, which saw our comrade Bill Logan achieve national prominence as a central leader of the gay rights movement in that country. Also in New Zealand, our comrade Adaire Hannah has been active in the struggle of unionized teachers, including leading teachers and Adult Community Education employees from her school to walk off the job in August 2009 to protest cutbacks.
We regularly participate in – and have on occasion initiated and organized along with other groups – demonstrations on various political issues. We are active, for instance, in the movement to free Mumia Abu-Jamal, and most recently co-sponsored rallies in Wellington at the end of August and in Toronto in March. We have been actively involved in anti-fascist mobilizations and pro-choice actions, and we helped organize an anti-war demonstration to mark the 10th anniversary of Canada’s participation in the Afghanistan War in 2011. Our comrades have participated in the organization of several anti-fascist demonstrations in Britain over the past few years, including a thousand-strong “unity” demonstration that succeeded in outnumbering and blocking a fascist march in London just last weekend.
When initiating a demonstration (and on occasion a public meeting), we seek to work with other organizations. In our tradition, we call this approach the “united front”: building the broadest possible support and action based on simple demands while ensuring that every participating group (including ourselves) has the freedom to present its politics. The united-front approach allows for common work without covering up political differences – it is, in other words, an important way in which revolutionaries can demonstrate their commitment to the struggles of the oppressed as well as the superiority of the Marxist program over all others.
And it is to the centrality of program that I would like to return. I would be remiss if I didn’t take this opportunity to explain why the IBT maintains a separate organizational existence from the other groups represented on the panel this afternoon – even as we are, of course, ready to work with all of them on a range of issues.
Let me start with the DSA, who are firmly settled inside the Democratic Party in the U.S. From a Marxist perspective, there is no qualitative distinction between the Republicans and the Democrats. Both are big business parties that openly serve their corporate masters [see “ Sanders: ‘Socialist’ Shill for Democrats’].
The Democratic party has been aptly described as the “graveyard” of social movements. There is a long history of well-intentioned but politically reformist activists being “captured” by the party. And that is the way of it: you don’t take over the Democratic party; the Democratic takes you over. It is illustrative to examine the politics of the DSA’s current shining star, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Democratic nominee for Congress in the Bronx. While Ocasio-Cortez self-identifies as a “socialist” of some sort, most of what she has to say comes down to reformist prescriptions to reduce poverty, improve and expand Medicare, create a federal jobs program, and enact a Green New Deal. When she mentions socialism, it is merely to make false comparisons between socialism and the way capitalism is currently organized in the Scandinavian countries.
When U.S. Senator John McCain died earlier this year, Ocasio-Cortez tweeted: “John McCain’s legacy represents an unparalleled example of human decency and American service. As an intern, I learned a lot about the power of humanity in government through his deep friendship with Sen. Kennedy. He meant so much, to so many. My prayers are with his family.” McCain (and Kennedy for that matter) was an ardent, enthusiastic supporter of American imperialism. What is “decent” in his record of advocating neocolonial conquest and imperialist violence? Does Ocasio-Cortez “pray” for the millions of people who died in the wars fully embraced by McCain? In her groveling tweet, Ocasio-Cortez demonstrates the limits of the DSA’s politics and the logical conclusion of working inside the Democratic party.
Fightback, which represents the International Marxist Tendency (IMT), has a similar problem to that of the DSA. In countries such as Mexico and Pakistan, their comrades have shown a willingness to work inside capitalist parties. Here in Canada they at least have chosen to be part of a larger party – the NDP – that maintains an organic connection to the labor movement. Indeed, the NDP is what Leninists call a bourgeois workers’ party: based in the organizations of the working class, the party nonetheless has a leadership and program committed to maintaining the capitalist status quo. It is possible for Marxists to carry out time-limited entries in such parties for the purposes of breaking off a growing left wing and constituting a larger independent operation. Indeed, the IBT has carried out this Trotskyist practice in Britain and New Zealand.
Yet the IMT has been in the NDP since its inception, just as its mother organization in Britain has been buried in the Labour party for several decades. This strategic conception of how to carry out revolutionary activism is in fact quite alien to the Trotskyist tradition, and its limits are reflected in the major programmatic accommodations the IMT has made to its social-democratic hosts.
The IMT’s perspective of pushing the NDP or the Labour party to the left is encapsulated in the following passage from the newspaper of their British group during what they consider its height:
“[The next Labour government] will be the sum of pressure and counter-pressure that will decide the path it follows. Instead of bowing the knee to capital and hoping to run capitalism better than the Tories, it should immediately push through an emergency 'Enabling Act’ through Parliament.
“Such emergency legislation […] would make it possible for the House of Lords and Monarchy to be abolished and the top 200 monopolies, banks and insurance companies to be nationalised, under democratic workers’ control and management. Compensation should only be paid on the basis of proven need.”
—“Socialist programme needed,” Militant, 27 September 1985)
In every issue of their newspaper, Fightback calls for the “NDP to power on a socialist program,” despite the fact that the party never has and never will have a socialist program. They state:
“No alliances with Liberals or Conservatives. NDP MPs must be the parliamentary voice of a mass movement against the conservative agenda. Mobilize support by adopting socialist policies that answer the needs and aspirations of workers and youth.”
Last year, Fightback enthusiastically backed the watered-down reformist Nikki Ashton for leader of the NDP. In doing so, they argued: “A victory for Ashton would represent a victory for the left in Canada and opens up the possibility of the development of a movement analogous to those sparked by Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders” (“NDP Leadership: Support Ashton, Fight for Socialism!” 28 June 2017).
When Jack Layton died, Fightback ran a silhouette of him on the front page of their newspaper and wrote a fawning obituary in which they lamented:
“People will sorely miss Jack Layton but the struggle continues. We shall have to go on in the fight against Harper’s austerity without him. We should all cherish Jack’s roots of activism and social justice, from his days in Montreal and Toronto City Council, and let it serve as a model for our party’s future. On this basis the conservative agenda can be defeated and the hopeful and optimistic world that Jack envisioned can be built.”
There are consequences to the IMT’s orientation to social democracy, and one of them is that they have put forward a new vision for a parliamentary road to socialism.
Another consequence is that they have portrayed cops as “workers in uniform” and defended strikes by prison guards – both groups sworn enemies of the working class. In 1932, Trotsky correctly observed that “[a] worker who becomes a policeman in the service of the capitalist state is a bourgeois cop, not a worker.”
While Fightback appears young, growing and dynamic, their activism ultimately spreads the influence of a counterfeit version of Marxism that is, in the end, dressed-up social-democratic reformism.
Of the three other groups on the panel today, the IG is programmatically closest to the IBT. In fact, we share a common political parent group – the Spartacist League/U.S. – and have much in common [see “Polemics with the Internationalist Group”]. Over the years, we have approached the IG in a comradely fashion and invited them to sit down and talk with us about politics, to see if we could sort out some of our major differences (or at least clarify them better). The IG has refused to do so and has instead sought to cover up their unwillingness to engage with us seriously by resorting to a series of slanders.
I’m going to keep it political and talk about some of the very real differences we’ve had with the IG over the years. Let me start by acknowledging that the IG is a very energetic organization that has done some good work, in particular through its contributions to some of the longshore actions on the U.S. West Coast over the past couple decades. Nevertheless, the IG’s failure to grapple seriously with its political past has fatally compromised its ability to act as a pole of attraction around a clear revolutionary program.
One of the early major differences we had with the Spartacist League after we left in the early 1980s (an organization which the IG’s leaders left only in 1996) was the decision of the SL to call to save the lives of U.S. Marines in Lebanon following the destruction of their barracks by an Islamist truck bomb in 1983 ]. Today the IG presents itself as fiercely anti-imperialist – but its leaders cannot account for why revolutionary “anti-imperialists” would demand that the victims of imperialism keep their oppressors “alive” while seeking to expel them. For our part, we demanded the expulsion of the imperialist troops by any means necessary.
The IG likes to re-live the SL’s supposedly glorious intervention in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in defense of the degenerated and deformed workers’ states at the time of the counterrevolutions. And to its credit, the SL did put a lot of resources into its efforts, and one of its comrades was tragically killed there shortly afterwards. Yet one must pause and reflect on the politics of the intervention – since it is the political content of the activism, and not the activism itself, that is of primary importance.
And what is the result? The SL’s intervention was confused from the outset in that they believed that a progressive political revolution – and not a social counterrevolution – was underway in East Germany in 1989-90. Yet despite this false belief, the SL was also angling to work with the Stalinists (against whom the “political revolution” would presumably be aimed!), as demonstrated, for instance, in its bizarre overtures to the commander of Soviet forces in East Germany, General B.V. Snetkov. In a 28 December 1989 letter (reprinted in WV No. 494, 26 January 1990) concerning “the peaceful development of the political revolution unfolding in the DDR,” the SL reminded Snetkov that: “We internationalists must combat nationalist chauvinism.…” The next month, SL leader James Robertson unsuccessfully appealed for a private meeting with Snetkov, DDR spymaster Markus Wolf and SED/PDS leader Gregor Gysi. This was all described at the time internally as a policy of “Unity with the SED” Stalinists in the “political revolution.” Only after they were rebuffed did the Spartacists shift gears and swing in the opposite direction – to the delusion that their tiny handful of supporters could themselves constitute the revolutionary party and take charge of the “political revolution” in East Germany. Needless to say, the fake mass posturing of the Spartacists resulted in not very much, and when they ran in the March 1990 election, they obtained 0.06% of the vote in the four districts in which they ran. The IG today is indignant when anybody calls into question its intervention in East Germany, but the facts are plain to see.
In 1991, when the fate of the Soviet Union itself as a degenerated workers’ state swayed in the balance, the SL (and thus the IG) once again proved to be without a political compass. Having been burned in their overtures to the Stalinists in East Germany the year before, the Spartacists refused to even bloc with them militarily when, in August 1991, a hardcore Stalinist faction moved against Gorbachev only to be confronted with the openly capitalist restorationist forces behind Boris Yeltsin. In the conflict between the hardcore Stalinists and the Yeltsinites, Marxists had a duty to side with the former to defeat the latter, if only to buy time for the working class. The Spartacists were neutral in the decisive showdown that ended with the victory of Yeltsin and the destruction of the Soviet Union [see Whatever Happened to the Spartacist League]. So despite all the bluster we hear from the SL and the IG, their intervention (their activism) was once again fundamentally flawed by its political-programmatic shortcomings.
I’d like to conclude my remarks by pointing out that my criticisms of the groups represented by my co-panelists have been political in nature. In putting forward criticism of other organizations on the left, it is our hope to clarify real differences and lay the basis for a regroupment of revolutionary activists into a single political organization. The connection of a new, larger organization to its contributing groups is an unknown variable – the name and personnel of a bigger, more effective revolutionary organization and eventually a mass party cannot be determined in advance. And certainly, we in the IBT are realistic and humble enough not to think that we can simply build up the IBT into a mass party by increments. In reality, the process will more likely involve a series of splits and fusions and raw recruitments over years of struggle, together with activism carried out on the basis of the united front. But we can say with certainty that revolutionary activism, and thus a truly revolutionary socialist party, requires at its core the defense and promotion of a firm, revolutionary Marxist political program. To support that key component is the reason the IBT exists.