First Published: The Guardian, March 26, 1975.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The ink was hardly dry on the last installment of this column, devoted to criticizing certain ultra-“left” tendencies which shun alliances with reformist political forces, when a fresh example of the same error became painfully self-evident in the circumstances surrounding International Women’s Day activities in New York City.
Ironically, the sectarianism in this case came from the October League (OL), which in general has had a good tactical approach to the question of working within coalitions.
As everyone now knows, the single largest International Women’s Day event in many years took place in New York on March 8. Involving more than 4000 people (15 to 20 percent men), the International Women’s Day Coalition marched down 5th Avenue from 41st Street to Union Square, held a spirited rally with a strong undercurrent of anti-imperialist politics and registered a significant advance over many previous actions in which feminists had played a leading role.
For one thing, it was the first time that a broad range of reform elements had mobilized around this particular day–one associated primarily with the struggles of working-class women and with the international communist movement.
The bourgeois politicians and feminist “stars”–Congresswoman Bella Abzug, New York Lt. Gov. Mary Anne Krupsak, Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan–were, of course, all there. On such occasions, these representatives of the Democratic party and bourgeois feminism all manage to say at least some of the “right things.” We will leave it to the revisionists to crow–as they do–over the cosmetic concessions these figures make. For no matter how “militant” some of these people may seem to be from time to time, their role in the scheme of things is to divert the progressive sentiments and mass outrage of the women’s struggle into a reliance on the political structure of the bourgeoisie.
It is also true that the revisionist Communist Party (CP) played some initiating role in this event and tried to use the occasion to increase its influence in the women’s movement.
At the same time, a significant number of progressive feminists and anti-imperialist women (plus some Marxist-Leninists) participated in the organization and planning of this action from the beginning. As a result of their influence–and the deepening consciousness of many in the women’s movement that the source of women’s oppression rests primarily in the system of imperialism–the Union Square rally included a good number of speakers who linked up the struggle for women’s rights with the overall struggle against imperialism.
This political line was expressed in a variety of ways throughout the demonstration: by an anti-imperialist contingent organized by the Third World Women’s Alliance; by a Lower East Side contingent that included large numbers of working-class and third world women; and by the many militant banners and slogans that marked the parade and rally.
The result was not an anti-imperialist demonstration. It was a broad action, involving large numbers of women traditionally associated with the feminist movement as well as a sizable number of trade unionists, working women and third world women, which focused primarily on the struggle for democratic rights. But within that context, an anti-imperialist presence was not only felt, it clearly had considerable influence.
While this was happening, another demonstration, initiated by the OL, marched from the Lower East Side up to the United Nations for a rally. A generous estimate of the size of this demonstration is 250, with heavy participation by third world women and men.
It must have struck some in this demonstration that sectarianism in practice is a lot more chilling than the dogmatic rhetoric that usually accompanies it. For communists to be mobilizing all their efforts (the OL did not have a demonstration in Boston so that it could bring its cadre to New York in order to swell the ranks) in what is close to being an exercise in futility bespeaks a rigid sectarianism that the OL would do well to address most seriously.
The pity of it is that many organizations and individuals–including the Congress of Afrikan People (CAP), Third World Women’s Alliance and this newspaper–had urged the OL to participate in a single mass action while developing the ways to make an independent anti-imperialist and communist presence felt. In fact, a majority of the participants in the OL-initiated coalition voted to explore such a possibility, only to have the OL leadership unilaterally violate this decision by marching into a large meeting of the Union Square coalition and denouncing all present as “revisionists.”
Accompanying this undemocratic action by the OL were statements in The Call, the organization’s newspaper, characterizing the Union Square action as a “march of ’opportunists,’” and citing the OL-sponsored United Nations demonstration as “this year’s central event on International Women’s Day” not only for New York, but for the country as a whole. The self-serving small-group outlook of the OL’s description of its own event is outdone only by the outrageous slander directed at the thousands of women who participated in the “march of opportunists.”
The same article in The Call is also guilty of an unprincipled distortion of the Union Square rally, seizing on statements out of context and trying to characterize the mass demonstration as simply an action involving revisionists, bourgeois politicians, Trotskyists and lesbians.
The Call further distorted the mass action by quoting two lines from the organizing group’s statement–concerning “free expression of our sexuality” and the “right to define family and community as we choose”–and suggesting that these sentiments were the principal characteristics of the demonstration. Nowhere does The Call mention that the demonstration’s demands focused primarily on such questions as support for national liberation struggles, an end to CIA and corporate intervention abroad, freedom for political prisoners and demands concerning the concrete needs of working-class and third world women such as daycare, health care, jobs and the like.
In the two weeks before March 8, as it became clear that the OL was determined to pursue its sectarian course and as support for the Union Square demonstration grew, the OL lashed out at veteran anti-imperialists and Marxist-Leninists who were participating in the Union Square rally, vilifying them and attempting to split them off from the mass action.
In pursuing this course, the OL was on such shaky ground that it took to preposterous charges, such as saying that the Union Square rally’s demands were ones “Gerald Ford could easily support.” The OL even resorted to the discredited device of “Jackie-baiting,” only substituting Happy Rockefeller for Jacqueline Kennedy, in charging that the rally was tailored to meet the “needs” primarily of such bourgeois women.
All this is the exact same error made by the Revolutionary Union (RU) and Progressive Labor (PL) in the past, both of whom liquidated the woman question by refusing to see it as a broad movement for democratic rights which should be led by and serve the needs of the working class. In refusing to participate in the mass action, the OL in effect abdicated its role as a communist organization. Were it not for the efforts of others, the bourgeois reformists and revisionists would have been permitted to exercise unchallenged hegemony over a significant mass action. Fortunately, other progressive forces behaved more responsibly than did the OL.
Events have proven how wrong the OL was in this situation. Hopefully they will learn from the experience. What troubles many people is that this particular kind of sectarianism has not been typical of the OL in the past. In Boston, the OL played an exemplary role in helping to initiate the Fred Hampton Contingent within the context of a broad antiracist demonstration. In other parts of the country, the OL has stood up to and refuted the charges of various ultra-“leftists” who have slandered the OL for being willing to participate in coalitions similar to the broad International Women’s Day Coalition.
Perhaps the OL now feels that it has to show its independent organizing ability if it is to take the lead in forming a new communist party this year or next. If so, they have made a serious error. Because the implications of their go-it-alone action on International Women’s Day is to see the united front not as a long-term strategy for deepening the consciousness of the masses and winning leadership for communists, but as a momentary tactic to be sacrificed to the most narrow organizational considerations.
The errors of the OL around International Women’s Day are disturbing. Hopefully the OL will learn from this mistake and will give the new communist movement the benefits of some healthy self-criticism on the matter.