Letter to the Internationalist Group

A few weeks ago comrade Abram and I had an exchange on this list on the question of Marxist press policy. This was initiated by his comment that we had not put out a statement on the ILWU strike or the situation in New York transit. In response I argued that a small revolutionary organization cannot produce propaganda on every question. Recently the IBT put out a statement on the political/military implications of the destruction of the Columbia space shuttle, a story which was front page news for a week or more but was ignored by Workers Vanguard. Our statement (printed in full on www.bolshevik.org), pointed out that 17 years ago there had been a sharp debate on this issue between the SL and the BT:

"Marxists find no satisfaction in the personal tragedies resulting from military mishaps like the Challenger or Columbia. At the same time, setbacks for the imperialist drive to militarize space are, from the standpoint of humanity, far less dangerous than steps forward. This might seem elementary for Marxists, but the 14 February 1986 issue of Workers Vanguard, publication of the Spartacist League (SL), echoed the bourgeois media's treatment of the victims aboard the Challenger (whose mission had been to deploy a major spy satellite for the U.S. military): 'What we feel toward the astronauts is no more and no less than for any people who die in tragic circumstances, such as the nine poor Salvadorans who were killed by a fire in a Washington, D.C. basement apartment two days before' (see 1917 No. 2).

"Those 'nine poor Salvadorans' were refugees from desperate poverty and rightist death squads in a U.S. neo-colony. The willingness of the 'revolutionary' SL to blithely equate them with the six U.S. military cadres who perished aboard the Challenger was clearly motivated by a desire to avoid displeasing the Reagan White House. This cowardly flinch is defended to this day by both the SL and the former SLers of the Internationalist Group."

This statement is a clear political challenge to both the SL and IG. The SL is a thoroughly degenerated organization without a shred of revolutionary integrity, so we don't expect them to have changed their posture of even-handed, class-neutral sympathy for the Star Warriors of the U.S. military. But the IG on occasion has stood politically to the left of the SL on the question of U.S. imperialism. Last year the IG and IBT defended the traditional Trotskyist position of calling for the defeat of imperialist forces attacking neo-colonies while the SL renounced it. This year the SL has flipped its position once again – something that is evidently a source of considerable confusion for the less cynical (i.e., younger) ICL members.

In our statement on the Columbia we tried to demonstrate how the whole space shuttle program is an integral part of the U.S. military's apparatus. We hope that the IG will take the time to look into this and to stake out a consistent, revolutionary position on the Columbia (i.e., that its demolition was no tragedy for the working class). This should lead to a retrospective reevaluation of the SL's error over the Challenger.

It seems to me that there are three possible positions the IG could take:

  1. Reiterate the same erroneous position on Columbia as the SL took on Challenger, i.e., viewing it as some sort of tragedy.
  2. Adopt the Trotskyist position, as the revolutionary SL of the 1960's did when JFK was assassinated (paralleled by Malcolm X's comment that it was a case of "the chickens coming home to roost"). The revisionist SWP, by contrast, sent groveling letters of condolence to Jackie Kennedy.
  3. Attempt some awkward balancing act – on the one hand defending the SL's opportunism in 1986 on Challenger while taking a correct position on Columbia – a qualitatively similar event.

In this light I think it is interesting that the current issue of the Internationalist #15, Jan.-Feb. 2003 includes a trade union resolution put forward for the teachers' union which suggests that in the event of a transit strike teachers should refrain from riding scab-operated subways and buses. We agree with this, but note that it conflicts with SL position of "fly, fly, fly" during the 1981 PATCO air traffic controllers' strike. (The SL argued that Marxists refuse to support consumer boycotts.) We see the IG's position of honoring a labor boycott of scab transit as a step away from another of the mistakes of the SL.

This is good as far as it goes, but we think the comrades of the IG need to undertake a serious reevaluation of their entire experience in the SL and of the course of its degeneration. A genuinely Marxist movement can only be built on the basis of an honest accounting of our past – warts and all. To date the IG has avoided undertaking this task, although Comrade Norden, while still in the SL, wrote a very valuable contribution on the errors of the Trotskyist movement of the 1940s over Tito and the Yugoslav Revolution.

I think it is useful that the RRC is allowing this list to be used as a forum for political exchange. Trade union bureaucrats, Stalinists, social democrats and various other sorts of fake-socialists usually try to avoid uncomfortable questions from Marxists by excluding their critics or trying to bury them with slander. But Marxists know that revolutionary cadres – unlike handraisers and hacks – can only be created through full access to all points of view and open political discussion.

When comrade Abram raised his criticism of the IBT press policy I took a bit of time out to provide a serious political response. I hope that the IG will provide a comparable response to the issue of what position they think revolutionaries should take on the destruction of Columbia.

Posted: 07 April 2003