Letter to Workers Vanguard

On Criticism of Misleaders

The following letter was sent to Workers Vanguard, newspaper of the Spartacist League/U.S., with a postscript which does not appear below.

10 July 2006
To the editor:

The 9 June issue of Workers Vanguard (WV) contained an exchange with a reader from San Francisco regarding the Spartacist League’s (SL) intervention in the three-day December 2005 New York City transit strike. The reader, “C.M.,” writing a few days after Transit Workers Union Local 100 president Roger Toussaint pulled the plug on the “illegal” strike, asked why an SL leaflet distributed on the picket lines failed to mention the possibility that the bureaucrats might fold without a serious fight. C.M. observed:

“I’d say Toussaint and his cronies were forced to call a strike for fear that if they didn’t they would be unable to control the ranks. Hell even the Democratic Party has to pose as a defender of the working stiff once in a while.”
WV No. 872, 9 June

WV responded by noting the leaflet’s oblique references to Toussaint’s record of suing the unions, while sucking up to cops and Democratic Party “friends of labor,” and then frankly acknowledged that the SL leadership had chosen not to criticize him:

“Our posture was to close ranks in defense of the union and its leadership against the bosses and the capitalist state, which were screaming for the head of TWU Local 100 president Roger Toussaint, the leader of the strike. The leaflet did not directly attack Toussaint. Since we could not point to an alternative leadership of the strike, to do so would only have served to weaken the strike.”
Ibid., emphasis added

This simple statement is nothing less than a repudiation of one of the most basic precepts of Trotskyism—the necessity “to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be.” It was obviously necessary to defend the union leadership from the attacks of the bourgeois state and the corporate media, and any criticisms should have been clearly posed in the context of how to win the strike. But to suggest that it is illegitimate to raise disagreements until and unless a full-fledged “alternative leadership” stands poised to take over, is only one step removed from the Stalinist notion that anyone who dares criticize the leadership is “objectively counterrevolutionary.” An alternative leadership with a class-struggle perspective can only be forged through exposing the limitations and contradictions of the reformist, pro-capitalist politics of the labor bureaucracy.

The narrow business unionism of the Toussaint leadership predisposed it to capitulate when slapped with a court order, without even attempting to resist or broaden the fight. It is of course highly unlikely that a leaflet from any leftist organization, even one with a few supporters among the strikers, would have decisively affected the outcome, but the duty of revolutionaries intervening in the class struggle is to try to outline a strategy for victory. In this case, the first step was clearly to remove control of the strike from Toussaint and his circle, and place it in the hands of a democratically-elected strike committee.

Toussaint, like all union bureaucrats, is, in the final analysis, an agent of the bourgeoisie within the labor movement whose role is to preserve class peace by mediating between workers and bosses. Toussaint was pushed into launching a strike, as C.M. suggested, by pressure from his base in Local 100. For this he was vilified by the capitalists. Defending him, and the strike, from capitalist attacks did not preclude attempting to advise the strikers, many of whom may have had illusions in Toussaint, of the possibility that their leadership might capitulate. Alerting the more militant layers to this danger would not have weakened, but rather strengthened the strike and improved the chances of victory.

This same issue is posed by every major class battle. If criticism of reformists, bureaucrats and other misleaders during a struggle can only help the capitalists, what are we to make of Trotsky’s polemics against the popular-front government during the Spanish Civil War? Did his criticism weaken the anti-Franco fight? During the Vietnam War, did the then-revolutionary SL’s criticisms of Stalinist betrayals weaken the struggle to defeat U.S. imperialism?

After the German working class was crushed by the Nazis as a direct result of the lunatic doctrine of “social fascism,” some charlatans criticized the Left Opposition for assigning the blame for the defeat to the policies of the Stalinists. Trotsky responded:

“Hypocrites will be found to say: the Opposition is criticizing a party which has fallen into the hands of the executioner. Blackguards will add: the Opposition is helping the executioner. By combining a specious sentimentalism with venomous falsehood, the Stalinists will endeavor to hide the Central Committee behind the apparatus, the apparatus behind the party, to eliminate the question of responsibility for the catastrophe, for the false strategy, for the disastrous regime, for the criminal leadership: that means helping the executioners of today and tomorrow.”
—“The Tragedy of the German Proletariat,” 14 March 1933

The policy of suspending criticism of misleaders simply on the grounds that they hold positions of leadership is alien to the Marxist tradition. The first time the SL tops manifested this impulse was in 1981, when they instructed their ranks to parade under the banner of the Salvadoran popular front, a policy we identified as a significant departure from Trotskyism in our October 1982 founding declaration.

While the SL long ago ceased to be a genuinely Trotskyist organization, the rejection of political criticism for the duration of a particular struggle is unprecedented. I can only conclude that the cancer which destroyed the SL as a revolutionary organization and transformed most of what remains of its core cadre into burn-outs, cynics and demoralized hacks, is now being formally codified programmatically.

Yours for the Rebirth of the Fourth International,
Tom Riley
for the International Bolshevik Tendency

Published: 1917 No.29 (January 2007)