On Recent Spartacist League Polemics

Lately we’ve been getting more attention than usual from the Spartacist League (SL—leading section of the International Communist League [ICL]). We’re not sure why, but it may be connected to the leadership’s apparent desire to avoid working with us in defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal, America’s foremost political prisoner, whose case is nearing a critical juncture.

In our 2004 pamphlet, “The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal,” we noted that the SL and its legal defense arm, the Partisan Defense Committee (PDC), has performed “immensely valuable” work on Mumia’s behalf. While we have many important differences with the ICL, we have always agreed both on the analysis, and the necessary political demands in Mumia’s case. On several occasions, the IBT and ICL have participated alongside other organizations in effective united-front actions for Mumia, including a 2002 fundraising event in Toronto that drew 200 people (see: “Mumia’s Lawyer Speaks,” 1917 No. 25, 2003). In December 2004, the ICL/PDC took this a step further when they decided to sell our Mumia pamphlet on their literature tables.

Recently however, the ICL leadership seems to have changed course. At a 21 June public meeting in Toronto (which had been billed as a PDC organizing meeting for Mumia) ICL members brusquely dismissed our proposal to cooperate in seeking to initiate another round of united action.

This, unfortunately, is not the first time the ICL has taken such a sectarian approach. In August 1995, when a wave of demonstrations erupted around the world to protest Mumia’s scheduled execution, our comrades in London approached the Spartacist League/Britain (SL/B) with a suggestion for initiating an emergency demonstration:

“Time is short, but it is still not too late to initiate a sizeable national demonstration before 17th 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….”
—letter to the SL/B, 6 August 1995

The ICL leadership responded:

“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

We replied:

“it is precisely the fact that ‘a bunch of other small leftist [and other] organizations’ all began to mobilize around the same issue at the same time, that made the demonstrations for Jamal successful. In order to build the mass support necessary for winning his freedom, it makes sense to organize this cooperation....True, the combined forces of the left are less than massive. But is the SL suggesting that it alone is capable of mobilizing greater numbers than small groups working in concert?”
—“For United Front Defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal!”, 1917 No. 17, 1996

In 1999 our British comrades helped launch “Mumia Must Live!” (MML)—a united-front campaign in London that involved anarchists and other militants. MML sponsored several successful events including a March 2000 demonstration of 1,000 in Trafalgar Square, by far the largest event held for Mumia in Britain to date (see “Free Mumia Abu-Jamal,” 1917 No. 22, 2000).

We see no reason that similar united-front actions cannot be organized in the near future. But the ICL leadership does not welcome the prospect of any cooperation with us on this issue and seems prepared to invent political differences where none exist. A 9 June article in WV (No. 872) falsely suggested that we would like to see Mumia re-tried rather than simply freed. Comrade Jason Wright wrote to WV to correct this, and in response, received an e-mail requesting that he phone WV’s editorial offices to verify that the letter was indeed his. He complied with the request.

The 4 August issue of WV (No. 874) contained both a statement of a “letters policy” inviting correspondence from readers and an “editorial note” complaining that the IBT is “running a racket by aiming to have its letters published in Workers Vanguard.” (In addition to comrade Wright’s letter on the “new trial” question, we had also recently written to criticize the SL’s new trade-union policy). While we suspect that WV is not publishing our letters because the political points we raise are too awkward to address, their official explanation is that the IBT “is neither an interested reader with political questions or comments nor a legitimate political opponent.” This characterization, and their apparent preference to avoid working with us in Mumia’s defense, seems odd given that they have a policy of selling our pamphlet on the case—which we interpreted as an acknowledgement that there are no major differences between us on this issue.

The PDC recently published its own pamphlet on the case, “The Fight to Free Mumia Abu-Jamal,” the core of which is a talk by its leading attorney, Rachel Wolkenstein, who played an extremely important role in excavating the truth about Mumia’s frame-up. The introduction to the pamphlet repeats the misrepresentation of our position on the “new trial” issue which comrade Wright sought to correct.

In her remarks comrade Wolkenstein alleges that we “vilified the SL for inviting MOVE supporters to speak at a memorial meeting following the May 1985 MOVE massacre.” This accusation is entirely false, as anyone who reads what we actually wrote (1917 No. 1) can easily see for themselves. (This is not the first time the SL has raised false accusations regarding this matter—see our 10 June 2005 letter to WV.) Wolkenstein also recycled WV’s 1995 complaint that the Wall Street Journal once referred to the SL as “Jimstown,” a characterization of the group’s internal regime that we had originally made a decade earlier in the Bulletin of the External Tendency of the iSt ([ETB] No. 4, May 1985). As we noted previously, the SL’s indignant squeals on this matter recall:

“Stalinist complaints that Trotsky’s exposure of the corruption and cynicism of the Soviet bureaucracy aided imperialism. Trotsky replied that the job of revolutionaries is to ‘say what is.’”
Trotskyist Bulletin No. 5, “ICL v IBT,” pts 32-37

SL’s Shameful Role in 1984 Nedlloyd Kimberley Boycott

Apropos of nothing in particular, the SL leadership decided to revisit a shameful episode from their past with an article disingenuously entitled, “The Truth About the 1984 Nedlloyd Kimberley Boycott” (WV No. 873, 7 July). The Nedlloyd Kimberley was a Dutch ship that sat on a pier in San Francisco’s harbor for 11 days in late 1984 when members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) refused to unload the South African apartheid cargo it was carrying, or load the goods for South Africa that it was supposed to pick up. This boycott, initiated by our supporter Howard Keylor, had impact far beyond the Bay Area, as the WV article acknowledges: “The significance of American workers taking union action against apartheid was such that Nelson Mandela made a point of thanking the longshoremen following his release from the apartheid prisons in 1990.”

In December 2004, ILWU Local 10 held a public meeting to commemorate the 20th anniversary of this important struggle, but at that time WV had nothing to say. It is not entirely clear why the SL leadership has chosen to raise the matter again, but for some reason they seem to want to reconcile their formal support for the boycott with their actual record of attempting to sabotage it. In a 31 July posting to our web site, we provided a list of materials originally published in 1985 that document the entire struggle and the shameful role the SL played.

The recent WV article attempts to paint Stan Gow, the SL’s sole supporter among Local 10 longshoremen in 1984, as the only union member who put forward effective class-struggle policies. But Gow’s proposals had little resonance in the membership and his activity was widely regarded as ultimatistic, “for the record” posturing, which is why the Local 10 leadership never had much trouble brushing his resolutions aside.

The difference between Gow and Keylor’s approach was evident in autumn 1984 when both addressed the issue of boycotting apartheid cargo in the port of San Francisco. Gow called for boycotting all ships with any South African goods, a completely principled proposal, but not one that was seen as feasible by the membership of the local. Keylor’s suggestion (initially put forward at a meeting of the Local 10 Executive Board to which he and Gow both belonged) was to boycott “the next Nedlloyd Line ship carrying South African cargo.” This was seen as concrete and realizable by many workers and was widely supported when it came up for a vote at the subsequent local meeting. Even the Stalinist reformists of the Communist Party went along with it, although their leading supporter (Leo Robinson) put forward an amendment that only the South African cargo, rather than the entire ship, be boycotted. This made the action tactically more difficult to implement, as the shipping bosses had been known to re-label containers and fiddle manifests to circumvent attempts to “hot cargo” goods. However, the active support of militants among the ships’ clerks local meant that no subterfuge was possible and the organizers of the action made sure that the union members who signed up to go aboard the Nedlloyd Kimberley knew exactly what they were looking for.

The SL seized on the fact that only the cargo, rather than the entire ship, was to be boycotted as a reason not to participate in carrying out what they later admitted was a supportable action. On the first night of the boycott, the SL leadership assembled a dozen of their supporters (only one of whom, Gow, was an active member of Local 10) in a bogus “picket line” in front of the gate that the longshoremen had to go through to board the ship. Some of the participants in this squalid stunt brazenly declared that those who crossed their “picket line” (i.e., the dockers who were going in to implement the tactic agreed upon at the union meeting) were “scabbing.”

This provocative behavior infuriated many of the ILWU militants, all of whom had deliberately taken the job with the intention of walking off when the non-South African cargo was unloaded. Several longshoremen proposed to forcibly disperse the SL’s “picket line”—a move that could easily have resulted in serious injuries and potentially aborted the boycott. Fortunately Keylor and a few others persuaded the longshoremen that the string of cynics and dupes assembled by the SL did not constitute any sort of picket line, and should simply be ignored.

Gerald Smith, a prominent Bay Area leftist and former Black Panther who the SL had approached a year earlier to head up their fledgling Labor Black Leagues, was among the Spartacist supporters who participated in their bogus picket. He did so because he had confidence in the revolutionary integrity of the SL leadership, but he was so appalled by the sectarian wrecking he witnessed that he broke with the SL that night and became an active supporter of the boycott.

Besides its scandalous “picket line” provocation, the SL has the inglorious distinction of having provided “Exhibit 1” for the “United States District Court, Northern District of California” injunction which finally broke the boycott on its 11th day. The second point of the bosses’ injunction read:

“2. Attached hereto as Exhibit 1 is a true and correct copy of the November 19, 1984 issue of the LONGSHORE MILITANT. One of the publishers of the LONGSHORE MILITANT is Stan Gow, a Local 10 Executive Board member.”

It is highly significant that this issue of the SL-supported Longshore Militant was published after the union membership voted to go ahead with the action proposed in Keylor’s motion, and after the Local 10 leadership had decided that in the interest of circumventing legal action nothing should be said (or printed) that could be used as evidence that the union was officially backing the boycott. This timid legalistic charade, which Keylor and other militants were critical of, weakened, rather than strengthened, the action. Nonetheless, the policy was honored by everyone in Local 10 except Gow, whose newsletter was the only ILWU-associated documentary material which the Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) could lay its hands on which mentioned the motion.

The SL has always been acutely embarrassed by the fact that its supporter provided “Exhibit 1” for the bosses’ injunction to end the boycott. Initially the Longshore Militant attempted to alibi its perfidious role by claming that Local 10 president Larry Wing had been guilty of earlier “notifying the company of the union’s proposed action.” But that fooled no one. Now, almost 22 years after the fact, the SL has suddenly decided that responsibility belongs to Keylor, because he had put out a statement urging Local 10 members to attend the meeting where his motion was to be discussed (i.e., before anything had been decided, and before members had been asked not to link the union to the boycott).

What’s Going On in the ICL?

It is not clear exactly what is going on in the ICL these days. After ignoring the 20th Anniversary commemoration of the Nedlloyd Kimberley boycott in December 2004, why is WV revisiting the whole issue now? Why, after the ICL has sold our Mumia pamphlet from its literature tables for almost two years, does WV now proclaim that we are not “a legitimate political opponent”? Why contact us to confirm authorship of letters if there was never any intention to publish them?

It may all be part of an internal campaign to harden the ranks against cooperating with us, and perhaps others, in the upcoming period of heightened activity in Mumia’s defense. Instead of looking to co-sponsor united-front events with other organizations (in which all participants could put forward their own distinctive views) the SL leadership seems to prefer a “united front from below” policy where others are permitted to attend events that the SL initiates and controls. For our part, we can only reiterate what comrade Wright wrote on 5 July:

“As Mumia’s struggle approaches a critical juncture it is necessary to lay the basis for a renewed wave of protest activities in North America and internationally. Despite the important differences that separate us, we look forward to once again joining with comrades from the International Communist League, and other political tendencies, to organize the largest possible united-front mobilizations in defense of Mumia’s freedom.”

--31 August 2006

Posted: 01 September 2006