MIA: History: ETOL: Document: Education for Socialist Bulletin: The Fight Against Fascism in the USA, An Example of Sectarian Adventurism in the Struggle Against Fascism Introductory Note
Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line
—Socialist Workers Party [US] Education for Socialist Bulletins—
The Fight Against Fascism in the USA
Appendix C: An Example of Sectarian Adventurism in the Struggle Against Fascism Introductory Note
By Fred Feldman
Following are lengthy excerpts from two articles that originally appeared in Young Spartacus, a monthly newspaper published by the Spartacus Youth League (SYL). The SYL is an ultraleft sect, associated with the Spartacist League, that incorrectly describes itself as Trotskyist. Omissions from the original text are indicated by [. . .]
The articles deal with a March 10, 1975, demonstration organized by SYL for the explicit purpose of preventing a Nazi from speaking to a class at San Francisco State University. This action culminated in an unsuccessful administration effort to expel the SYL and other radical groups from the campus.
Underlying the demonstration was the concept that small groups of radicals should attempt to forestall the growth of a mass fascist movement by taking “upon themselves the suppression of fascist meetings and demonstrations,” even if the surrounding community is hostile to the “suppression” and the working class is indifferent. SYL falsely asserts that this adventurist concept is rooted in the Transitional Program of the Fourth International.
The SYL justified its call for the suppression of free speech in this instance by arguing that, “Unlike right wing propaganda groups (John Birch Society), conservative bourgeois politicians (George Wallace) or reactionary academic ideologues (William Shockley), fascists like the Ku Klux Klan are armed thugs in political garb who are dedicated above all to action…” It could appear from the above that the SYL views the racism and reaction of Wallace and the Birchites as all talk and no action. Such an illusion would constitute a serious political mistake.
If the SYL were to be logical, it would have to extend its prohibition against free speech to include not only fascists, but all capitalist officials, politicians, and parties since all are dedicated precisely to action (often very violent action) in defense of the racist institutions of decaying capitalism. The fascists’ forthright dedication to the crushing of democratic rights, in contrast to the more cautious approach of politicians like Wallace, presents special problems to the workers’ movement which are taken up in this Education for Socialists bulletin. But the SYL’s argumentation hardly justifies its view that the struggle against fascism will be advanced by placing attacks on the democratic rights of fascists at the center of antifascist propaganda and action.
SYL claims to regard the San Francisco State demonstration as a “significant example” of how to fight fascism. In fact, it represents an excellent example of how not to fight fascist bands. Several points are worth noting in this regard.
(1) The target was not a Nazi meeting or demonstration aimed at mobilizing supporters and sympathizers, but a speech class given to inviting dissenting and “oddball” speakers. The tactics adopted should have made it clear that it was the Nazis and their racist acts, and not the rights of the assembled students to hear a particular reactionary speaker, that were the target of the protest.
(2) Instead of seeking to mobilize the kind of broad support needed for effective antifascist action, the slogans and tactics were calculated to attract a small ultraleft milieu (predominantly Maoist) which the SYL hopes to “regroup.” This accounts for the contrast between the widespread hatred for the Nazis’ views and activities, and the narrowness of the so-called united front formed by the SYL. Similarly, the infantile rhetoric of these articles (“fascist feces,” etc.) is aimed not at explaining the action to the many youth who have an interest in opposing fascism, but at titillating fellow ultralefts.
(3) By making “no platform for fascists” the central slogan and making opposition to free speech for fascists the primary issue, the SYL displayed the mirror image of the liberal error that was criticized in “Should Fascists Be Allowed the Right of Free Speech?” Instead of an effective countermobilization against the Nazis, the SYL indulged in an “abstract discussion over whether or not the fascist gangsters should be granted the ‘democratic rights of free speech and assembly.’” Since the pivot of the action was opposition to democratic rights for fascists rather than opposition to fascists because of their attacks on democratic rights, the SYL assured that students who favored free speech for everyone and opposed Nazism would not be in the demonstration. Most of them, in fact, opposed it.
(4) By crowing about “pummeling” a few Hitlerites, the SYL helped the university administration to portray the ultraleft opponents of fascism as swaggering toughs. Physical conflicts with fascist terror gangs are inevitable in the course of the class struggle. Care should always be taken, however, that the masses understand that the issue at stake is the defense of the workers’ democratic rights against fascist attacks, and not a mere “rumble” between isolated groups of “extremists.” The experiences of the SWP in New York, Minneapolis, and elsewhere provide valuable examples in this regard.
(5) The description of the Nazis as “the most vicious killers of Black people” is a gross exaggeration of the present-day reality. Nazis are not the main killers of Black. people today, despite their murderous actions and goals. Hundreds of Blacks are shot down each year by racist cops. Blacks in Boston face would-be lynch mobs organized by a wing of the Democratic Party. The absence of a sense of proportion in the SYL’s estimate of the Nazis’ role today leads to substituting small-scale fistfights with Nazis for the broader struggle against racist oppression.
(6) Having set the demonstration on an ultraleft course, the SYL was unable to control its own “well-disciplined” picket line. The SYL in this instance met a fate which has often overtaken groups that tried to recruit by outdoing “the competition” in radical posturing rather than by expressing the objective needs of the workers and their allies. They were outflanked by others who adopted a still more ultraleft stance.
(7) The outcome Marxists would have predicted for such an adventure came to pass. The ultralefts who boasted of driving the Nazis off the campus and suppressing their freedom of speech found themselves threatened with expulsion from the campus and with the suppression of their own freedom of speech. Taking advantage of the confusion produced by the ultraleft demonstration, the Nazis came back to the campus with racist leaflets slandering radicals as people who try to impose their views on the majority.
The SYL tactics gave the administration a handle for trying to suppress the left in the name of academic freedom and free speech. The Young Spartacus articles provide a vivid description of the SYL’s isolation on the campus in the wake of its “famous victory.” The Trotskyist Young Socialist Alliance, which opposed the ultraleft action, exposed the administration’s cynical effort to parade as a defender of free speech. In a leaflet distributed on campus, the San Francisco State YSA wrote:
“The Young Socialist Alliance calls for the immediate end to the victimization of student groups by the administration. The administration is using the demonstration against the Nazis on campus as a pretext to eliminate groups it wants to silence on campus.
“For the Nazis to scream that their free speech has been violated is the height of hypocrisy. The policies they advocate stand for the total elimination of free speech for Blacks, Latinos, other oppressed minorities, women, Jews and working people’s organizations such as trade unions.
“For the administration to pose as defenders of free speech is hypocritical as well. It was S.I. Hayakawa (former SF State president) who tried to stop student protest by going to the lengths of disconnecting speaker wires to stop free expression. The administration consistently has denied funds for speakers they don’t agree with and has attempted to restrict political literature tables on the Library plaza. The administration is more than willing to keep ROTC on campus with its recruitment and training of students for the war machine, but it is now attempting to run political organizations that oppose things like ROTC off campus.
“This victimization must be stopped. It is an attack on the democratic rights of all groups and students at S.F. State. The administration has no right to regulate student affairs.
“While the YSA did not participate in the demonstration against the Nazis and disagrees with the tactics used, we will unequivocally defend those groups involved from this administration attack. If the administration succeeds in penalizing or banning the Spartacist League, Progressive Labor Party, and the Revolutionary Student Brigade, it would be a defeat for every other student organization on campus.”
Fortunately, much of the university community saw through the administration’s attempt to suppress free speech in the name of free speech. The attempt to expel SYL and others was dropped. As might be expected, efforts to defend the SYL’s right to free speech got far wider support than did the SYL’s efforts to suppress free speech in the case of the Nazis. There is, of course, a lesson in this for those who would like to effectively mobilize mass opposition to fascism, racism, and attacks on democratic rights.