The following article is from Proletarian Revolution No. 67 (Spring 2003).
The Spartacist League (SL), rather than argue over the many fundamental political differences they have with the League for the Revolutionary Party, finds it easier to distort or totally invent our positions without answering our actual arguments. Lately the Spartacists have embarked on a stepped-up campaign against us.
At the January 18 anti-war demonstration in Washington they hawked a misnamed “LRP Truth Kit,” made up of back issues of their paper with anti-LRP articles. The January 17 Workers Vanguard article on the then impending Iraq war included a section subheaded “LRP: ‘United Front’ with Imperialist Liberals,” along with a separate attack at us for raising the demand on Arab states that they arm the Palestinians at the time of Israel’s bloodiest offensive last year. On January 31 they ran a two-page article, “LRP: Apologists for Arab Nationalism.” And in early February, they finally accepted our challenge to debate them publicly, face to face, a demand they have rejected for many years. The debate will take place in New York City on May 10.
Why this unusual attention? We have for years punctured their mind-boggling claim to be Trotskyists, demonstrating that Spartacist politics have nothing in common with the steadfast opposition to imperialism taught by Lenin and Trotsky. In the past year our polemics have powerfully struck home. Our criticism of their convoluted position on the Israel-Palestine question last fall in Proletarian Revolution No. 64 devastatingly exposed their effectively Zionist (and therefore pro-imperialist) line. And our work in the New York Transport Workers Union, which came close to a shutting down the capital of world imperialism with a strike this past December, contrasted sharply with the Spartacists’ cowardly refusal to advocate a strike or do anything else in the union, despite their having a number of supporters in its ranks.
For years, as opposed to the SL, the LRP has been able to predict the general line of development of the international class struggle. Likewise, our well-known leadership in struggles within trade unions, our activism and the fact that our views are getting a wider hearing stand in stark contrast to the pessimistic, cynical Spartacist League, which abstains from the real class struggle and increasingly turns to an insular political life sustained by nasty slanderous attacks on left-wing opponents. No wonder they are lashing out at us.
Here we will take up only their attacks on our anti-war position and aspects of the Palestinian struggle. We have fully answered their other charges elsewhere. (See the box below.)
On the anti-war movement, their January 17 polemic quotes PR as follows:
The task of genuine revolutionaries is not just to “build the movement,” although we are of course in favor of the largest and strongest anti-war protests possible. We need also to fight for them to be built as genuine united fronts, where all voices are heard, including that of revolutionaries—not just those who support the Democrats and other pro-imperialist liberals. We also fight within the movement for revolutionary proletarian leadership, so that it points to a lasting challenge to capitalist attacks and imperialist war.
To which the SL replies:
By its own admission, the LRP promotes an alliance with the class enemy—“Democrats and other pro-imperialist liberals.” The idea of building a “revolutionary leadership” out of such a cabal is downright absurd; however, it is a measure of the opportunist impulses that animate the LRP. There cannot be a common movement and a common program against imperialist war with representatives of the very capitalist class in whose interests such wars are waged.
Any honest reader of our paragraph would know that when we said that we “fight within the movement for revolutionary proletarian leadership,” that means fighting against the Democrats and liberals. Indeed just paragraphs before that part of our article the SL selectively quoted from, we attacked “liberal imperialist” Democrats Jesse Jackson, Cynthia McKinney and Al Sharpton, who “denounce ‘Bush’s war’ to push the fraud that Democrats in power would act differently.” The Spartacists apparently have short attention spans, as well as utter contempt for their own readers.
As for “opportunist impulses that animate” socialists to imagine building a revolutionary leadership with pro-imperialist liberals, while this is a slanderous characterization of the LRP, it accurately describes the SL at times, depending on what position they think offers them some short-term gain. When the SL is confronted with coalitions and movements they can’t control, they adopt a sectarian posture: they stand outside the struggle and hurl condemnations from the safety of their newspaper office. But when they get a chance to run a coalition with liberal Democrats themselves, the Spartacists can adopt a thoroughly craven posture. Readers of PR may remember that in 1994, when Democratic Party liberals decided to participate in a protest against the Ku Klux Klan in Illinois, Spartacist praise was positively effusive. Workers’ Vanguard (Feb. 4, 1994) raved:
The role played in this mobilization by black Democrats, especially by Cook County Commissioner Danny Davis but also the other black politicians, both in Chicago and in the state legislature, was really unusual…. These Democrats who want to struggle have a very big contradiction: black people need a party that will fight for their interests. It is currently abundantly clear that this cannot happen within the Democratic Party. If a workers party with some social weight existed, some of the more serious of these black Democrats would very likely come over to such a party.
What’s so unusual? Liberal Democrats are always fearful of being exposed as agents of the ruling class. They fake left and pose as champions of the oppressed in order to prevent their supporters rejecting them in favor of an independent and militant struggle. It will happen more and more as the class struggle heats up. Joining them in struggle in order to expose them as fakers is crucial; that is the issue in the SL’s polemic against us in the anti-war movement today.
While the SL adopts a sectarian posture today, it is only preparing future opportunist backflips like the one quoted above, where they promote the “absurd” idea that pro-capitalist liberals can advance the revolutionary cause. As Trotsky said, a sectarian is merely an opportunist afraid of the sight of his own shadow. The SL’s short memory (really the hiding of opportunist maneuvering under a mountain of lies) apparently applies to themselves as well.
The problem of pro-imperialist liberal Democrats faking left to prevent their supporters from breaking with the Democratic Party is posed point-blank, as the Spartacists like to say, in today’s anti-war movement. The dominant “socialists” in the various coalitions invite the Democrats to speak at their rallies and promise in return that not only will they say nothing to embarrass them, but that they will police the movement and make sure nobody else exposes them either. These coalitions thus attract the participation often of thousands of people with illusions in these Democrats. Instead of helping them overcome these illusions, they help the Democrats reinforce them.
That is why we are opposed to all the major anti-war “coalitions” in the U.S. today: United for Peace and Justice, Not In Our Name and ANSWER. (See PR 66.) Rather than simply opposing the war, they all embrace pro-imperialist liberal reformist political programs. Since the liberal Democratic sentiment dominates the movement’s platforms, we want the anti-war protesters to also hear the voices of revolutionaries challenging the pro-imperialist line. That would require genuine united fronts where all have the same democratic right to make their voices heard, as opposed to the populist political coalitions that now police the movement. The liberals are there whether we like it or not; the point is to combat them, not leave them unchallenged or run away from the actions they mislead.
In the coalition planning anti-war demonstrations in Chicago, LRP supporters successfully argued against the adoption of liberal reformist slogans; there was already agreement against openly imperialist positions like support to the U.N. When the coalition decided to invite Jesse Jackson and other liberals to share its platform, leaders of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) moved to ban the LRP from speaking. But we won the majority of coalition members to defend the right of all to have their voices heard. As we report in this issue, we used our opportunity to speak from the platform to not only call for the defeat of U.S. imperialism in the war but also to denounce the war-mongering Democratic Party as no alternative.
In the end Jackson and other Democrats didn’t show—perhaps they’d been warned that revolutionaries would be speaking. They certainly couldn’t have been worried about the Spartacists, who boycotted the coalition and could only stand idly by at the demonstration as the crowd listened to us. Had the SL had its way, the platform would have been safe for the Democrats.
The SL says that “there cannot be a common movement and a common program against imperialist war” with representatives of capital. At first glance this assertion might seem to be true, but it actually buries elements of truth in a ridiculous muddle designed to hide rather than reveal the road to defeating imperialism. The only political program that truly opposes imperialist war is that of world communist revolution. Between the revolutionary program of ending imperialist wars by overthrowing imperialism, and liberal programs that dream of maintaining the system without its inevitable consequences, there can indeed be no common ground. Revolutionaries consistently counterpose their program to that of pro-capitalist politicians of every stripe.
But at this time, only a handful of people in this country regard themselves as revolutionary opponents of capitalism. This allows liberal representatives of the ruling class to move left and rhetorically oppose imperialist war. By doing so they can attract the support of tens of thousands of people who oppose imperialist war and mistakenly think that the liberals offer an alternative. Thus participation in movements against imperialist war with representatives of capital is possible. The problem is that the domination of the movement by capitalist politicians guarantees that such movements will never really challenge imperialist war.
Revolutionary Marxists have always distinguished any movement from the program of its leadership, but the Spartacists’ analysis deliberately confuses these two things. Lenin and Trotsky argued that revolutionaries should pursue a united front struggle with the pro-capitalist leaders the masses look to, in order to expose those leaders and their program in practice. For them, united fronts had nothing to do with common political programs with non-revolutionaries. They mean joint actions against common enemies, where the participants have the right to disagree over program. Bolsheviks openly use this tactic as a weapon to expose capitulatory leaderships in order to win away their supporters.
The SL once paid lip service to this method. In an article “On the United Front Question,” Spartacist theoretician Joseph Seymour boasts of the SL’s past joint work in organizations that included bourgeois types like Senator Ted Kennedy and the Roman Catholic hierarchy. To demand their exclusion, Seymour wrote, would be “stupid ultimatism, … an obstacle to our struggle for leadership over the class.” Exactly.
A similar attitude towards mass struggle (and the truth) appears in the Spartacist polemic on Arab nationalism. They write:
Instead of seeking to win the proletariat to a political perspective of class independence, the LRP enthuses over the need for “unity of all Palestinians in the struggle” and “united Arab mass struggle.” This is a recipe for unity of Arab workers and peasants with the oil sheiks and bonapartist despots, for unity of leftist Palestinian militants with the cutthroat reactionaries of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. (WV, Jan. 31.)
This is classic Spartacist falsification. The quotations in this passage come from our article in PR 64, where we in fact observed that the Palestinian people follow Arafat because they “want unity of all Palestinians in the struggle.” Our article went on immediately to point out that this is a dream: “However, Arafat’s politics are in fact a barrier to united Arab mass struggle.” And we summed up the need to break with Arafat:
The necessity of defending Arafat against Israel now must not blind Palestinians and their supporters to the need to defend themselves from him as well. Because he in fact does not defend the Palestinian masses or fight to restore more than shreds of the Palestinian homeland, he can only sabotage and betray the unity that the fighters yearn for.
We went on to condemn the Islamists and the Arab rulers as well, at length, as traitors to the struggle.
We are proud of the fact that we solidarize with the Arab masses’ desire for unity against imperialism, any genuine revolutionary does. But far from calling for unity of Arab workers and peasants with their rulers, as the Spartacists lie, we did just the opposite: we explained that the ruling-class figures who the masses’ mistakenly think are on their side are in fact so tied to imperialism that they inevitably betray the mass struggle. Once again equating capitalist leaders with the masses who are misled by them, the SL sneers at popular desires for a united struggle against imperialism in the way that only armchair critics in the imperialist centers can.
On the perspective of Arab workers’ revolutions overthrowing their local rulers in the course of the anti-imperialist struggle, our article concluded:
In the interests of imperialism, the Middle East is divided into a series of interdependent prison-states: Arab dictatorships in the service of imperialism, with Israel the maximum security core…. All regional bourgeois forces, both Israeli and Arab, depend on it against the threat of the masses’ struggles.
The Palestinian masses alone cannot defeat Israel—they do not have the strength to overcome this state that has the full backing of imperialism. But through their heroic struggles they can become the vanguard of the Arab masses’ revolutionary overthrow of imperialism. The road to Palestinian freedom really begins with unchaining the Arab working classes of the region from their bourgeois leaders and opening a revolutionary struggle against their neo-colonial Arab rulers…. Socialist revolutions by the Arab working classes can overthrow the current capitalist dictators and put the working class in power…. Revolutionary states in which the working class is armed and organized to defend its interests would be able to realize the Arab masses’ already burning desire to aid the Palestinians’ revolutionary struggle to overthrow Israel.
Some “recipe for unity … with the oil sheiks and bonapartist despots”! As U.S. imperialism conducts its brutal “Operation Iraqi Freedom,” the ruling class has turned lying into the nation’s number-one spectator sport. It is tragic that would-be revolutionaries searching for an alternative must fight their way through more lies to get to the truth.
In an article, “Marxism, War and the Fight for Socialist Revolution,” (WV, Jan. 17), the Spartacist League argues that the League for the Revolutionary Party’s demand raised in PR 64 for the arming of the Palestinian masses by Arab states was a gross violation of Marxist principles. In reality, the SL’s arguments go far beyond Palestine. They amount to throwing out the whole arsenal of Bolshevik tactics, including the Transitional Program of the Fourth International and other powerful weapons designed to expose the bourgeois state.
In the case of Palestine, the SL methods, if actually employed, would not only leave the beleaguered Arab masses disarmed but would amount to the unilateral disarmament of the “workers’ vanguard” the Spartacists claim to represent. They argue that:
As a rule, it’s very rare that Marxists raise positive demands on a capitalist state—demands that the capitalist state do something; usually we stick to negative demands—demands that the capitalist state stop doing something. The problem is that if you ask the capitalist state to do something, you might actually get it. Except that you’d get it on their terms.
This is made as a general theoretical statement of the Marxist position and is not just a slap against the LRP.
First, let us deal with the overall method. The cocksure claim that Marxists rarely raise positive demands on the capitalist state is complete nonsense. Revolutionaries, and even pseudo-revolutionaries like the Spartacists, raise such demands all the time. For example: the demand to free Mumia Abu-Jamal and all political prisoners, and demands for eight-hour day and minimum wage laws. A union of public employees like the transit workers makes positive demands on the capitalist state whenever it has a contract campaign.
In fact, the Spartacists have made a big deal out of the fact that they defended U.S. court decisions to integrate schools and called on judges to extend busing for integration to suburban schools. When they ran an electoral campaign in New York City years ago, they called on the state to “Triple Welfare” benefits, among other reform demands. The SL, as usual, makes up eternal rules to lie about its opponents one minute and then does the opposite the next.
Moreover, the Spartacists appallingly once raised “a positive demand on a bourgeois state” to send not just arms but an army! In 1983 in Sri Lanka, when the Tamil minority was suffering communalist massacres, the SL called for the army of Sri Lanka’s much larger neighbor India to protect the Sri Lankan Tamils. Their excuse? This would have been “a practical and probably not too deleterious possibility.” (WV, March 30, 1984.) The SL’s short memory is in evidence again.
It is not just how many times demands are made on the state; it is a question of fundamental method. The SL swears by Trotsky’s Transitional Program, written for and adopted by the Fourth International, even if they have no understanding of its meaning. Yet the Transitional Program is chock full of demands made upon the bourgeois state: public works, expropriation of key branches of industry and the banks, the statification of the credit system, full employment, etc. The point of such demands raised by vanguard workers is to show the mass of politically less advanced workers, with whom we fight side-by-side against the bosses, to see that: “every serious demand of the proletariat and even every serious demand of the petty bourgeoisie inevitably reaches beyond the limits of capitalist property relations and of the bourgeois state.”
The mass of militant workers, when they go into struggle, fight for gains from the bosses and from the bourgeois state, because they do not yet accept the communist view that real and secure gains can only come through revolution and a workers’ state. Trotsky refused to give such workers an ultimatum that they must wait and agree with us before they can fight. Trotskyists therefore make demands on the bourgeois state while constantly pointing out that in our opinion they can only be effectively realized under a revolutionary proletarian state. We claim that the struggle will prove that our openly revolutionary leadership is right, and that it will expose both the bourgeois state and the reformist leaders who preach its ability to meet mass needs. That is the method of Leninist tactics, which the Spartacists blindly reject.
Now for the question of what this means in Palestine today. The SL is desperate to prove the LRP guilty of “capitulation to Arab nationalism.” Doing so requires their usual method of selective quotation and outright fabrication. To quote from the section of the PR article where we made the offending demand:
To aid the Palestinians and expose the present illusions in Arafat and the Arab rulers, proletarian revolutionaries demand of them: provide arms to the masses! The Saddam Husseins, Mubaraks, and Abdullahs talk big about the poor Palestinians. The Arab masses must challenge them to put up or shut up—send arms to the Palestinians!
The street protests in support of the intifada are vital, but they need to be joined by massive general strikes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Lebanon, and the other countries of the Middle East demanding arms for the Palestinians. Once workers realize their power to shut these states down, their own additional demands for jobs, a decent income and an end to imperialist superexploitation will lead them to question which class should have state power at home….
[T]he Palestinian intifada has inspired the Arab masses into struggle and threatens the Arab bourgeois ruling classes of the region. Mass struggles for real solidarity with Palestine and for the social and economic needs of all Arab workers could promote a huge leap in class consciousness. With the active participation of a revolutionary communist political party, millions could embrace the chance to overthrow hated dictatorships and establish their own workers’ states. Such a revolutionary onslaught could tip the balance of forces in favor of the Palestinians and enable them to finally overthrow their Zionist oppressors.
The arms demand is clearly posed on the Arab states in order to expose their fake claims of sympathy for the Palestinians and clear the way for revolution. We did not expect that the demand for the mass arming of the Palestinians would really be granted by the bourgeois states and we said so. We argued that the combination of this demand with the intervention of genuine revolutionary propaganda and agitation would help educate broader masses to the need to overthrow such states.
Why is this necessary? Surely the history of military confrontations between Israel and the Arab states shows, as we have put it, that the “Arab ruling classes prefer weakness and defeat from without to the threat of armed resistance from within.” (PR 53, Winter 1997.) Surely the politically advanced workers in the region are aware of this history and know that such demands are very unlikely to be won. We pose the exposure demand in order to show the advanced workers the way to make what is obvious to them become obvious to the less advanced. The task of the vanguard is not to rest content and self-satisfied with the knowledge of the truth, but to find the best means of making that truth self-evident to the masses in the course of practical struggles, the real “classroom” through which consciousness develops.
In our earlier 1997 article (which bore too much resemblance to the SL’s abstract propagandist approach), we rejected such an exposure tactic, writing: “Therefore revolutionaries do not actually call on such brutal enemies of the working class to carry out these demands.” The mass protests in solidarity with the Palestinians that swept the Arab states, burdened by illusions in their rulers’ potential opposition to imperialism, showed us that we were mistaken on this point.
When the PR 64 article now under the Spartacists’ attack was written last year, Arab masses were in the streets demanding that their governments send arms to the Palestinians and open their borders to allow volunteers to fight alongside the Palestinians. Yet the forces leading such mobilizations, themselves largely nationalist and Islamist, could not fundamentally challenge and expose the local capitalist rulers because of their own bourgeois nature. The masses are well aware of the rulers’ failures to defend the Palestinians but do not yet attribute this to their bourgeois character. They don’t yet accept the need for socialist revolution, and they don’t see that revolutionary proletarian states in the region would be the best defense the Palestinians could get. They believe that if the present regimes were less corrupt, more honest, braver or more subjected to mass pressure—and, as unfortunately increasing numbers seem to think, more Islamic—maybe more aid would be sent. Tragically, this is how the masses in the region have been misled. Yet they want the Palestinians to be armed and reinforced before thousands more are killed.
A communist leadership would combine the exposure tactic with propaganda clearly attributing the leaders’ failures to their bourgeois politics; it would fight for methods of struggle like the general strike, which can increase the working class’s self-confidence. That is why we used the words, “To aid the Palestinians and expose the present illusions in Arafat and the Arab rulers….” The masses are desperate because of their own exploitation as well as identification with their Palestinian and Iraqi brothers and sisters. The bourgeois Islamists and nationalists can give no good answer for these needs once the masses go into struggles where they can learn from their own experience. Pontifical lectures will not destroy the appeal of bourgeois nationalist leadership and ideology, whether secular or Islamic; revolutionary leadership in the practical struggles can.
Had there been a tendency on the ground following the Spartacist method, abstaining from the struggle for military aid to the Palestinians on the grounds that it made “positive demands on the bourgeois state,” it would have discredited itself immediately and have been justly accused of not caring whether the Palestinians lived or died. Islamic fundamentalists could ask for nothing better from alleged communists.
Unfortunately, there was no political tendency we know of that used such Bolshevik tactics. The Palestinians remain virtually unarmed and subject to Zionist slaughter. Last spring’s pro-Palestinian struggles in the neighboring states have petered out, and in the absence of a communist vanguard, the lessons learned from it by most workers were false ones of cynicism and impotence. Now, however, with the American assault on Iraq, masses are again in motion and hopefully, better alternatives will offer themselves.
In the absence of specifically pro-Palestinian mobilizations, the usefulness of “Arms to the Palestinian Masses!” as a tactical exposure slogan in Egypt and Jordan at this moment is doubtful. In Syria—and Lebanon, which Syria largely controls—it may well still be necessary, given the regime’s continued posturing as the only “front-line” state which supposedly has not capitulated to Zionism. And it certainly retains its usefulness against the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, which continues to hoard all available arms for itself, hoping for the day it can re-establish its role as subcontractor for Israeli repression.
The SL is afraid of what might result if the Palestinians had greater means of fighting against Israel, and afraid of what might result from the tumultuous struggles in neighboring states necessary to bring it about. They sympathize with the Palestinians only as victims, not as fighters, and their defense of “self-determination for the Hebrew-speaking people” has led time and again to criminal indifference to Israel’s worst crimes.
Thus not only did the SL take a neutral stance on the 1967 war, in which the West Bank and Gaza Strip were put under Israeli military occupation; they even retrospectively took the side of Israel in its 1948 war of ethnic cleansing, in which 500,000 Palestinians were put to flight. (Spartacist, March-April 1968). They later “corrected” their stance on the 1948 war—to the same neutrality as in 1967.
Pseudo-revolutionary phrase-mongering is the Spartacist cover for their underlying opportunism. In recent anti-war demonstrations, the SL’s “Revolutionary Internationalist Contingents” have taken to chanting, “Take a side! Stop Israeli genocide!” Yet at the most genocidal moments in the history of the state of Israel, the wars of conquest and cleansing, the SL refused to take a side. No wonder they refuse to endorse the steps necessary to help the Palestinians actually defend themselves from Israeli genocide.
Finally, the SL condemns us even for the headline of our article:
But the LRP’s purpose is not to sweep away the neocolonial Arab bourgeoisies but rather to chain proletarian struggle to the yoke of “national unity” with those bourgeoisies. In its headline, the LRP calls “For Arab Workers’ Revolution”—not to smash the Arab capitalist states but “To Smash Israeli/U.S. Terror!”
Just imagine the situation in Palestine when our words were written. The Israeli blitzkrieg was slaughtering Palestinians, demolishing Yasser Arafat’s government headquarters and surrounding him with tanks and snipers. At that point, the SL apparently thinks we should tell the Palestinian workers that their main enemy is Arafat and not Sharon: we should say “smash the Arab capitalist states” in preference to “smash the Israeli/U.S. terror!” No! The job of revolutionaries is to side with the Palestinian struggle against the Zionist attack and warn the workers, as we did, that the bourgeois Arafat government was actually capitulating to Israeli and U.S. imperialism. Thus the masses could learn that if they were to defeat imperialism, they would have to break the shackles of the Arafat statelet too.
There is method to the Spartacists’ political gobbledygook. Mirroring the way they equate pro-capitalist leaders with the misled masses, they increasingly equate the oppressed with the oppressor. In the imperialist countries it leads to criminal abstention from the class struggle; in the “third world” it leads to a repulsive indifference to the persecution and struggles of the oppressed. No wonder the Spartacists lie so much!
The Spartacist School of Falsification in PR 55 deals with several aspects of racism in the United States: their idiotic charge that “the LRP should have opposed the Northern Union forces in the Civil War,” that we tail Black nationalism by pointing to the need to defend even Louis Farrakhan from the capitalist state, and that we “solidarize with white racism” by opposing the bourgeois plan that shut down schools in Black neighborhoods in Boston.
New York Transit: No New Direction in PR 57 and Overturn in New York Transit Union, PR 63, dissect the Spartacists’ abstention from united-front tactics in TWU Local 100. In Left Strikes Out in TWU Struggle, PR 66, we take up the Spartacists’ refusal to fight for a strike when the class line was drawn this past December.
For Arab Workers’ Revolution to Smash Israeli/U.S. Terror! in PR 64 takes up at length the Spartacists’ pro-Zionist line on the Palestinian struggle.
Spartacist Chauvinism on Immigration, Palestine in PR 65 discusses the Spartacists’ blatant defense of imperialist “national identity” in respect to immigration.
A thorough analysis of the Spartacists’ middle-class and anti-working class version of socialism and their admiration for the Stalinist Soviet system was published in an early issue, Socialist Voice No. 4: The ‘Marxism’ of the Petty-Bourgeoisie: The Spartacist League and the USSR.
All these issues are available from the LRP.