First Published: The Guardian, January 14, 1976.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
Copyright: This work is in the Public Domain under the Creative Commons Common Deed. You can freely copy, distribute and display this work; as well as make derivative and commercial works. Please credit the Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line as your source, include the url to this work, and note any of the transcribers, editors & proofreaders above.
What could be an important step in the fusion of the communist movement with the workers’ struggle took place at the National Fight Back Conference here Dec. 28-29.
The ultimate significance of that step – whether it represents a qualitative leap or a false start – will be determined over the coming months as the political line of the organizations leading the conference, primarily the October League (OL), is tested in practice.
Hanging in the background of what happened in Chicago, although not part of the basis of unity of the organization founded by the conference, is the tendency toward mechanical application of the principle, “unite against the two superpowers,” to every world situation–a tendency for which OL has become known in the past year. This may, at a future time, lead the Fight Back Organization up dead-end roads. Indicative of the presence of this tendency in Chicago was one of the banners that hung on the conference room wall: “Superpowers Out of Puerto Rico.”
However, this slogan was neither approved nor discussed by the conference as a whole. And the basis of unity that was approved by the more than 1500 white and minority workers and communists who attended the assemblage was generally sound. It showed that the new communist movement is growing in influence among advanced workers.
The conference was a show of strength of the October League and the general tendency it represents in the new communist movement. It was not a broad gathering of the communist left or of the mass left movement. There were not political struggles representative of a large spectrum, although there were two or three interesting struggles among the OL and some of the other Marxist-Leninist groups and independents present–including Congress of Afrikan People (CAP), Aug. 29 Movement and Marxist-Leninist Organizing Committee (S. F. Bay Area).
In general, this was the hour for OL and groups already close to it to gather with advanced workers already acquainted with and receptive to their political tendency. Some 50 plus organizations sponsored the conference, mostly local Fight Back committees rank-and-file caucuses and organizations of oppressed nationalities close to the OL.
The local contingents from each city–for example 90 people who came from Atlanta, 85 from Boston, 140 from New York, 100 from the local Chicago area, at least 40 from Los Angeles–told of many strikes, unemployment campaigns, busing struggles and political prisoner campaigns in which they have been active. Some examples were the Tampa Maid strike in Florida, the Capitol packaging company strike in Chicago, farm worker organizing in Texas, the busing struggle in Louisville, the Todd-Woods defense campaign in Georgia and the Gary Tyler defense committee in New Orleans. There was evidence of particularly strong work in the areas of Black-white and Chicano-white unity.
But there were notable absences as well. There was a weak showing in the Puerto Rican, Native American and Philippine-American areas. Bound up with this was the absence of the primary revolutions organizations in each of these community –the Puerto Rican Socialist Party, the American Indian Movement and the Union of Democratic Filipinos. This, in addition to the absence of the flock of traditional movement groups, indicated that OL has not changed its approach to united front work, an approach that has seemed “sectarian” to many of these groups. The OL claimed however, that these absences did not matter because a “new movement,” a ”worker movement,” was replacing the old.
Although many of the resolutions were not able to be put into final form due to a time shortage, it was apparent by the end of the weekend that political unity was present on a number of points, including: (1) welding al the local Fight Back organizations into one national organization; (2) identifying in general the two superpowers as the main enemies of the world’s peoples; (3) identifying imperialism as the common enemy of workers, nationally oppressed people and women; (4) holding that a strong stand against national oppression is the key to forming a united multinational workers’ movement; (5) supporting busing wherever it represents “a step against segregated and unequal education”; (6) building a network of rank-and-file caucuses with a national newsletter; (7) attempting systematically to link all the areas of struggle, for example the fight against the segregationist “movement” with the fight against the crisis; (8) opposing deportations and supporting the rights of undocumented workers, and (9) building the National Fight Back Organization on a mass, anti-capitalist, but not a socialist, basis of unity.
The conference was not able to achieve unity on the concrete application of opposition to the two superpowers to Angola. However, though the various groups and individuals put out their independent positions, no one pushed for unity on this, as it would clearly have divided the Fight Back.
Also, the unity the conference achieved on busing was problematical. Although the resolution in support of busing passed by a large (42-7) majority in the busing workshop and a similar majority in the plenary session, the opposition was particularly significant because it included one of the major other sponsoring groups, the Congress of Afrikan People. CAP held that the segregationist antibusing “movement” should be fought, but that busing itself should be opposed because it was primarily a scheme to divide the working class and to incite fascism.
Defense of the right to self-determination for an Afro-American nation in the Black Belt was also not a point of unity among the conference delegates. Different positions were brought up, but unity was not pressed for by anyone. However, general support for the right of nations to self-determination and national minorities to full democratic rights was passed.
The conference began with a rousing opening session in the packed giant ballroom of Chicago’s McCormick Inn. The walls were covered with colorful banners and posters: “People Unite, Fight Back!,” “Fight Discrimination Against National Minorities and Women,” “The People United Will Never Be Defeated,” “Women Hold Up Half the Sky,” “End Attacks on Poor and Working People’” and “Jobs, Not War.”
Three things were immediately apparent as one looked around the hall: that this was a strikingly multinational gathering, with perhaps 40% Black and Latin people; that it was predominantly a workers’ assemblage; and that it was a huge turnout, exceeding the organizers’ predictions.
Also apparent was that fundraising and organizational preparations of staggering dimensions had gone into this conference. It took over the ballroom and dozens of conference rooms of a large downtown Chicago hotel. In addition, workers from more than 30 cities were housed free of charge during the weekend at two other major downtown hotels, all paid for by funds raised by the conference planning committees.
Probably four-fifths of the participants were between the ages of 20 and 35. However, there were more older workers (in their 40s, 50s and 60s) than most new communist movement-sponsored gatherings have recently attracted. And there were a few notable voices who provided links with the revolutionary communist movement of the 1930s–namely Harry Haywood, Odis Hyde and Nanny Washburn.
The first session opened with the singing of “Which Side Are You On.” Then MC Mary Joyce Johnson, National Lawyers Guild vice president and attorney for the Atlanta Fight Back 10 and Cheryl Todd and Dessie X Woods, introduced three speakers. All proceedings of the general sessions were simultaneously translated into Spanish –a demonstration, according to the conference planning committee, of the internationalism of the proletarian movement.
Mary Emerson, a white working woman from Los Angeles, spoke first on the unity of white and Chicano workers in the Sloan rubber strike. Emerson substituted for Fred Walters of the Gulfcoast Pulpwood Association on five minutes notice, when Walters was held up by some developments in Mississippi. She attacked bureaucratic trade unions for giving the workers “token assistance” but “no training,” and said, “Do you know who gave us [in the Sloan strike] our training?–The October League.”
OL member Odis Hyde, a veteran Black communist born of sharecropper parents in Louisiana in 1908, next gave an emotionally-charged speech on the experiences of his own life. “I didn’t have to read ’Souls of Black Folk’ and ’Growing Up in the Black Belt’ to find out what it was like to live in the Black Belt South,” Hyde said. “I experienced this tortured childhood. I didn’t have to read how the Negro peasant looks Northward or looks to the city. We all hoped some day to escape this house of bondage.’’
Starbisha Weusi of the Congress of Afrikan People and the Black Women’s United Front spoke next on the role of women in the fight back. Women face “the highest loss of jobs, the loss of day care, the loss of maternity leaves.... Women are getting hit the hardest,” she explained. “Women are also struggling. They tell us CLUW [Coalition of Labor Union Women] is falling more and more under the bureaucrats”–as if this were disproof of the leading role of women in fighting back. “But look at all the struggling, working women here today!” she exclaimed, gesturing out at the women who constituted over half the 1500 delegates.
“Not men but imperialism is the cause of women’s sexual oppression,” she continued. “Women in the Fight Back have to expose bourgeois feminism. Women’s libbers are opening up a women’s bank in New York–so that they can exploit the masses of women as well!’’
More than two dozen workshops were held Saturday afternoon. Topics included, in the first session, the international situation, the role of women, the S-l bill, welfare rights, deportations, the fight in the unions, busing and school desegregation, tenants’ struggles and national oppression; in the second session, there were caucuses of steel workers, auto workers, health workers, rubber workers, CLUW, legal workers and others.