United Fronts and the Fight to Free Mumia

An open letter to Workers Hammer

20 January 2007

To the editor:

The Winter 2006/2007 issue of Workers Hammer (No. 197) features a letter dated 7 December 2006 from Kate Klein, of the Spartacist League/Britain (SL/B), ‘The BT and the Fight to Free Mumia’. Klein complains that the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) has ‘been insinuating that the SL and the Partisan Defence Committee [PDC] are unwilling to join in united-front protests for Mumia’s freedom’. We have no need to ‘insinuate’ – it is simply a matter of fact that you have sometimes participated, and sometimes refused to participate, in actions in defence of Mumia sponsored by other left groups.

We have always given the SL/PDC (and particularly its leading American section) credit for its important contribution to Mumia’s defence. In our statement of 4 October 2006, ‘SL Sectarianism, the IBT & the LAC,’ for example, we noted: ‘the SL certainly made a serious effort to mobilize its supporters and was a real factor in the demonstration’ organised by the Labor Action Committee (LAC) in Oakland, California a few weeks earlier.

On the other hand, we have also criticised the SL when it has refused to participate in events organised by others. In a 1999 letter, for example, we wrote:

‘The SL did not organize a contingent in either the San Francisco or Philadelphia “Millions for Mumia” demonstrations on 24 April and it is clear that you opposed mobilizing the labor movement (or anyone else) for these events. The ostensible reason for this sectarianism is that you disagree with one of the main slogans of the rallies (i.e., for a “New Trial” for Mumia). You prefer the call to “Free Mumia!” So do we. Nonetheless we do not see this as a reason to abstain from participating in national events that are many times larger than any rallies the SL/PDC has been able to organize. Of course we participate in these demonstrations with our own slogans, including the call to “Free Mumia!”’
(‘Disagreeable Sectarians’, 1917 No. 21, 1999)

A few years later the Spartacist League’s international leadership admitted that abstaining from these events had indeed been a sectarian error. In our 2005 pamphlet ‘Whatever Happened to the Spartacist League?’ we discussed the SL’s inconsistencies on united-front defence of Mumia in the context of the sectarian impulses it has displayed on other questions.

In response to Klein’s attempt to recycle the SL’s semi-hysterical response to an unflattering reference that appeared in the Wall Street Journal a dozen years ago, we can do no better than to refer readers to the 10 August 1995 letter sent by IBT supporters in New York to the SL at the time (see Appendix No. 1).

Klein disputes our assertion that in 1995 the Spartacist League rejected our proposal to co-operate in initiating a united front in Britain to carry out ‘a sizeable national demonstration’ against Mumia’s then-impending execution. To prove our point, we quoted the following passage from the leading publication of the SL/US:

‘Another letter from the International Bolshevik Tendency to our comrades of the Spartacist League/Britain argues that we have undermined Mumia’s defense by not setting up a ‘united-front committee.’ We don’t know what world the BT lives in, but we have a lot more grasp of social reality and our own social weight than to believe that a ‘Free Mumia Committee’ of ourselves, the BT and a bunch of other small leftist organizations would be able to rally the social forces necessary to win Mumia’s freedom’.
(Workers Vanguard (WV), No. 627, 25 August 1995)

According to Klein, our assertion that the above passage constituted a rejection of the united-front perspective proposed in our 7 August 1995 letter is ‘a masterpiece of BT distortion and falsification’ and ‘a classic BT sleight of hand’. She claims: ‘The above paragraph quoted from WV was written in reply to the BT arguing that the Spartacist League has undermined Mumia’s defence by not setting up a ‘united-front committee’, not as they assert, in reply to their call to build a demonstration’. We see this as a distinction without a difference and have attached the entire text of the original letter so that interested persons can draw their own conclusions (see Appendix No. 2).

We appreciate comrade Klein’s chronological correction – my letter was indeed dated 7 August 1995, not 6 August as we had mistakenly written. But her attempt to counterpose the creation of a ‘united-front committee’ to the attempt to organise a united-front action is without merit. Any real united front, i.e., one in which different organisations co-operate to carry out a common objective, requires some sort of co-ordination, and this usually takes the form of a body with representation from each participating group. Several decades ago the leading Spartacist theoretician, Joseph Seymour, observed:

‘A united front is essentially a common action characteristically around concrete, usually negative, demands on bourgeois authority. The characteristic organizational form of the united front is a technical coordinating committee. This does not mean that a united front need be limited to a single event. It is possible to have a united front campaign, for example, a legal defense case.’
(‘On the United Front’, Spartacus Youth League pamphlet, 1976)

The ‘Mumia Must Live’ (MML) united front included ourselves, various anarchists and even (briefly) the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). MML was organised on the basis of two demands: ‘Free Mumia Abu-Jamal!’ and ‘Abolish the racist death penalty!’. Participants were free to put forward their own ideas at all MML events, including, in the case of the SWP, the call for a ‘new trial’. At the same time, everyone was equally free to criticise the proposals of others, and we exercised this right to explain the reformist logic of demanding that the racist US courts re-try Mumia.

The SL/B, for its own reasons, chose not to participate in MML. Klein’s claim that it had ‘a track record of organising activities on the basis of a call for a new trial’ is simply a malicious invention. She can cite no evidence for this, because there is none. The 1,000 person demonstration sponsored by MML in Trafalgar Square in March 2000 was organised solely on the basis of the two demands of the united front. It was by far the largest mobilisation for Mumia in Britain to date and we consider it to be a model for future actions.

We are prepared to work with anarchists, liberals, supporters of the SWP, SL/B and anyone else willing to fight for Mumia’s freedom. Regardless of disagreements we may have on a variety of other issues, at this critical juncture it is vitally important that all those who defend Mumia work together to save this outstanding militant from the racist machinery of death that is the American judicial system.

Communist greetings,
Alan Gibson
for the International Bolshevik Tendency (Britain)


Appendix No. 1

New York,
10 August 1995

To the Editor of Workers Vanguard:

Monday’s stay of execution was vital to the battle for the life of Mumia Abu-Jamal. Its achievement is a crucial tactical victory, which can open the way to the more profound victory we need—getting him off death row and freeing him.

This tactical victory was a result of mobilization by thousands of leftists, trade unionists and blacks throughout the world. The more profound victory will be possible only through the mobilization of even broader layers, and in larger activities. With the consistent application of united-front methods, Mumia Abu-Jamal will be freed.

The Spartacist League and the Partisan Defense Committee have done an admirable job in publicizing Mumia’s case and mobilizing in his defense. But your recent article, ‘Anti-Communist Smear Targets Jamal Campaign’ (Workers Vanguard, 28 July) can only undermine the effort required to save Mumia from the executioner’s needle. Supposedly a response to attempts to sabotage the fight for Mumia’s freedom, it in fact resorts to Stalinist-style cop baiting to further the narrow organizational interests of the Spartacist League.

In the article you claim that the polemics of the Bolshevik Tendency exposing your cult-like internal regime are really aimed at sabotaging the fight for Mumia and bringing down state repression on your heads. You write that ‘defamatory ravings about the SL as a ‘cult’ feed into the Wall Street Journal’s vintage redbaiting, which is aimed at spiking the necessary mass protest that is essential in fighting for Jamal’s freedom’ (emphasis in original). You write further that the BT ‘has always sought to be the instrument of bigger forces with its provocative slurs and slanders against the Spartacist League,’ insinuating that we (along with the other left groups mentioned in your article) are in league with sinister forces (like the FBI, maybe?) to ‘get’ the SL.

You find particularly sinister the WSJ article’s mention of the fact that we ‘deride [our] old party as ‘Jimstown,’ a takeoff on Jonestown.’ What the WSJ reporter didn’t know, however, is that the term ‘Jimstown’ (from our article, ‘The Road to Jimstown,’ published ten years ago) was only indirectly derived from Jonestown. Its immediate antecedent was your characterization of Jack Barnes’ Socialist Workers Party as ‘Barnestown.’ You also fail to mention that for years you have publicly labeled the Healyites, the Revolutionary Workers League, the Freedom Socialist Party and other left groups ‘cults.’ When, during the Gulf War, you pointed to the years-long role of David North’s Workers League as paid publicists for Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, and as apologists for the murder of members of the Iraqi Communist Party, the Workers League responded to these charges in exactly the same way that you respond to ours: they claimed you were attempting to set them up for government repression. Was the SL seeking to become ‘the instrument of bigger forces’ against these other groups? Your accusations against them are no less a matter of public record than our claims about the SL, and are no less accessible to the Wall Street Journal or any other bourgeois newspaper. Or what about your remark in German-language Spartacist (Winter 1989-90) that we have ‘similar appetites’ to those of the Mossad (Israeli secret police)? Did you think that such an insinuation posed no danger to our German comrades, in light of the resurgence of anti-Semitism in that country? The Spartacist League evidently believes it has a right to say anything about other left groups, but goes into a frenzy the minute it gets a taste of its own medicine.

Even more appalling is the fact that you explicitly equate any criticism of yourselves with an attack on Mumia Abu-Jamal. You are hardly the only group active in the fight for his freedom. We, along with yourselves and others, have participated in demonstrations for Mumia in every part of the world where we have comrades, including the San Francisco Bay Area, Berlin, Hamburg and London. An English supporter got a resolution for freeing Mumia passed in the Birmingham Trades Council. Our New Zealand section has initiated two demonstrations calling to free Mumia, the first in 1990. A New York comrade got his union (Local 2110, UAW) to send a protest letter to the Governor of Pennsylvania on Mumia’s behalf. Our Toronto group has helped to build two demonstrations for Mumia so far, and is now participating alongside your members in efforts for another mobilization on 14 August. Our name appears on the PDC poster for this rally as one of the endorsers.

According to your logic, Trotskyists in the 1930s, by pointing to the bureaucratic internal regime of the U.S. Communist Party and its cult of Stalin, were sabotaging the campaign to defend the Scottsboro Boys. The Stalinists themselves seized every opportunity to make this point. But Trotskyist exposures of Stalinist betrayals from Germany to Spain, or their condemnations of the Moscow Trials, never prevented them from defending the Soviet Union against imperialism, or from defending American Stalinists from McCarthyite witchhunts. Similarly, our knowledge of the cult-like practices of the SL leadership does not prevent us from seeking united fronts to defend Mumia, nor from defending the SL against repression by the state.

For many years the Spartacist League and Partisan Defense Committee, to their credit, campaigned for Mumia’s freedom before many were familiar with the case. More became involved when Mumia’s death warrant was signed, including many of the SL’s competitors on the left. Rather than welcoming these organizations to the fight, your reflex has been to defend your turf in truly sectarian fashion, writing that other leftists’ ‘venomous hatred of the Trotskyist Spartacist League far outweighs their professed defense of Jamal’ (emphasis added). In other words, you are Mumia’s only real defenders on the socialist left. Some of your members even went so far as to claim that our protest letter to Pennsylvania’s Governor Ridge, which states that ‘For each activist you strike down, ten will arise to take his or her place,’ means that we somehow conceive of Mumia’s murder as a positive development!

In the wake of your recent altercation with the International Socialist Organization, you write ‘that their ‘support’ to the campaign for Jamal isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on,’ and that ‘united-front action[s] are completely alien to the ISO, which has been noticeably absent (or represented by token teams) at recent demonstrations for Jamal.’ Yet at one major recent demonstration for Jamal in New York City (Saturday, July 22), where approximately 400 showed up, the ISO had many times more members than the SL, who turned up with fewer than ten people. In a city where you could have mobilized 50 of your own members at the very least (not to mention your periphery), this is truly shameful. Could this lack of enthusiasm be explained by the fact that the demonstration was called by the Free Mumia Abu-Jamal Coalition, and not the SL or PDC? It would seem that united-front actions are somewhat ‘alien’ to the SL as well. The SL, in fact, rarely engages in united fronts it does not initiate and unilaterally control. While there has been an unevenness in your methods internationally, on the whole your approach has been more reminiscent of the Third Period Stalinist ‘united front from below’ which allowed Hitler to take power in Germany, than to the Trotskyist approach of negotiations among as many organizations as possible to mobilize the maximum forces in united action.

The campaign to save Mumia places the Spartacist leadership in a particular bind. On the one hand, it wants to maintain the SL’s reputation as Mumia’s best defenders, and build a broad campaign on his behalf. On the other hand, the leadership is uncomfortable about the fact that such a campaign will inevitably bring SL members into wider contact with other leftists—a development the SL leadership tries to avoid for fear that the rank and file may begin to question the leadership’s claims to infallibility. Hence the reluctance to participate in non-SL events and the need for cop-baiting attacks in the pages of Workers Vanguard.

It is this kind of sectarian behavior, and not the fact that we and others dare to criticize the Spartacist League, that truly sabotages the fight for Mumia’s freedom. Yet we insist that one need not be a fan of the SL leadership to keep working with the SL and anyone else who is willing to fight for the life of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

On behalf of the International Bolshevik Tendency,
David Eastman


Appendix No. 2

International Bolshevik Tendency (Britain)

7 August 1995

Spartacist League/Britain

Dear Comrades,

We believe that the campaign in Britain against the death sentence on Mumia Abu-Jamal, due to be carried out on 17 August, has to date fallen far short of its potential. This is largely due to the fact that, despite activity by the Spartacist League’s Partisan Defense Committee (PDC) and other groups, there is no national campaign in Britain to save Mumia Abu-Jamal.

We consider the insights of the late Richard Fraser and the Spartacist tendency of the 1960s and 1970s on the question of a revolutionary integrationist strategy in the United States to be an essential part of our own programmatic heritage. We are therefore disturbed that to date in Britain you have discarded one of the key aspects of class struggle defence work—principled united front tactics.

Leading SL/B comrades have sneered at the very idea of initiating a united front committee in London. As we see it, such a committee would have two enormous advantages over the present situation. It would put pressure on those organisations that sponsored the committee (and there are quite a few who would) to commit their memberships to help build it. And, secondly, it would provide a national focus for organising to save Mumia Abu-Jamal, giving a boost to the efforts of those campaigns that already exist in provincial towns and cities, and encouraging the formation of such committees in other places.

The attempt by the SL/B to run the Mumia campaign in Britain purely through the PDC has been a mistake. The PDC is not a united front committee, but rather an organisation ‘in accord with the political views of the Spartacist League’. To try to substitute the PDC for a genuine united front committee suggests that the SL/B may consider retaining organisational control to be more important than the breadth and scope of the mobilisations themselves. This is the kind of stance adopted by groups anxious to seal off their membership from the interchange with other tendencies which inevitably takes place in building a genuine united front.

The failure to engage in serious united front initiatives to date represents a departure from the tradition of the Spartacist tendency itself. In Young Communist Bulletin No. 3 (1976) (‘On the United Front’), the leading theoretician of the SL/US laid out a simple definition of the united front:

‘A united front does not refer to any and every kind of cooperation with other political organisations. A united front is essentially a common action characteristically around concrete, usually negative, demands on bourgeois authority. The characteristic organisational form of the united front is a technical coordinating committee. This does not mean that a united front need be limited to a single event. It is possible to have a united front campaign, for example, a legal defense case.’

The attempt to substitute a party front (the PDC) for a united front, jointly administered by the organisations willing to join it, is to forsake Leninist tactics for those of the ‘third period’ Stalinist ‘united front from below’. This error has held back the campaign for Mumia in Britain. A united front committee could have mobilised a far bigger turnout for a national demonstration than the bare 300 who showed on 22 July. Even that demonstration nearly didn’t happen. For three weeks in late June and early July the SL/B argued that instead of building a demonstration we should be promoting Mumia’s book (as if the two were mutually exclusive!). Finally the SL/B called a national demonstration at only two weeks notice. With a narrow organisational base and little time, particularly for out-of-London groups, the demonstration was predictably small.

The other side of this sectarian impulse is that the SL/PDC has effectively boycotted pro-Mumia united front initiatives that it does not control. A broadly supported united front committee exists in Birmingham, with support from important trade unions and labour movement bodies, as well as a number of socialist organisations and individuals. The SL/B, which initially sent its local supporter to this body, suddenly dropped out in early June. This despite the fact that the Birmingham campaign has supported SL/PDC activities, and was advancing identical demands in relation to Mumia. The campaign even wrote to the SL/B and ‘cordially’ invited it to participate in a modest demonstration and public rally on 18 July, which was publicised in the local press and radio. But no supporter of the SL/B attended the Birmingham demonstration, not even its local sympathiser. We suspect that this abstentionism may have something to do with the fact that a supporter of the IBT is one of the leading participants in the Birmingham committee.

Time is short, but it is still not too late to initiate a sizeable national demonstration before 17 August. Other groups are planning various events, but these will be fragmentary and isolated in the absence of a co-ordinated campaign. There has been considerable coverage of Mumia’s case in the bourgeois press and most of the left groups would probably come on board for united action. The SL/B, of all the groups on the British far left, is probably best positioned to initiate such a united front because of the years of work by your American comrades in Mumia’s defence. We pledge our fullest support in building any such action, and are prepared to participate actively in every facet of it.

Communist Greetings,
Alan Gibson
for the International Bolshevik Tendency (Britain)

Posted: 25 January 2007