WTO protests in Seattle and the anti-KKK protests in New York City

Spartacist League rationalizes its sectarianism and political isolation

The following is a slightly edited version of an internal report circulated within the IBT on 7 December. It was written by an IBT supporter who had leafleted the Spartacist League's annual Partisan Defense Committee (PDC) benefit for class-war prisoners party in San Francisco on 5 December. Our comrades were handing out copies of a letter to the SL containing criticisms of some of its actions in connection with the 23 October New York anti-Klan demonstration.


The PDC had their Holiday fundraising party at the ILWU Local 34 (Ships Clerks) Hall 1:00 to 4:00pm Sunday. [We] decided to make a brief appearance and distribute copies of Sam's letter. We had printed the letter in a four page "booklet" type format (large font!) for easy reading....

We arrived at 12:30 PM. People were already arriving. We split up (two doors or entrances on opposite sides of the building)....To my surprise they were better behaved than I had seen them in [years]. No rabid shouting. Sometimes two or three arguing at the same time, but it was not necessary to shout or close off discussion. They were obviously primed and ready. None of the senior cadre talked to us, just the second level and youth. One senior cadre commented as we were alighting from my auto parked just in front of one entrance, "So here you are with that snide letter"....

Their constantly reiterated attacks focused on the slogan in the letter "No Free Speech for Fascists." They insisted that was a Democratic Party slogan. When I tried to point out that the slogan expressed the common purpose of those who assembled under their banner, they denied that was the case.

What became clear during our discussions was that the SL has in fact abandoned any Bolshevik or Trotskyist conception of the united front. They argued from two directions:

1. A true united front is an event in which the revolutionary party initiates an action and then invites all other groups and individuals to endorse the action and its purposes/slogans and attend the demonstration under the leadership of the revolutionary workers' party.

2. It is impossible to ask other ostensibly revolutionary organizations to jointly sponsor and implement an anti-fascist action since they are proven anti-communist enemies of the working class. When I tried to argue that an attempt to put together a real united front would have made it easier to discredit the leadership of those organizations with subjective revolutionaries in their membership and periphery, they replied that there are no subjective revolutionaries to be found there.

I kept coming back to the UF [united front] question pointing out how ANCAN ["April 19 Committee Against Nazis" initiated by the SL to stop a Nazi rally in San Francisco in 1979] was a real UF initiated by the SL which was successful in both preventing any real split in the forces that wanted to occupy the space, and in keeping the Nazis out of town. No one would respond or even acknowledge that ANCAN ever occurred!

One of their cadre told me that Lenin and the Bolsheviks did not try to united front the Mensheviks in the October Revolution. I replied that the Bolsheviks DID successfully form a united front with the Mensheviks to defeat the attempted Kornilov counterrevolution. They refused to discuss the matter. I had the distinct impression that their youth and newer members know nothing about either ANCAN or Kornilov.

I described their tactics as pure Third Period Stalinist and advised them that if they were to be consistent, they should publicly revise their program and history to reflect their break with the Trotskyist tradition on this question. Again they refused to discuss Third Period Stalinism.

I had the impression that they had carefully prepared their people with a limited range of arguments and a refusal to deal with the historical UF question. I heard the following accusations repeatedly: "You hate it when Communists are able to rally masses to defeat fascists" -- "You think we should have joined the Klan rally with the Democrats" -- "You think this was 'ghetto work'."

Almost everyone took a leaflet. I doubt whether anyone other than a few cadre had seen the letter, even though it had been posted on our web page for weeks. One youth kept claiming "You guys refused to endorse the demonstration"....

It appears from the above comments that the SL leadership is making a fairly sharp pseudo-left turn toward politically rationalizing its own sectarian isolation. In the past we have criticized the SL for its refusal to participate in principled united-front actions (see for example Trotskyist Bulletin No. 4 on Nicaraguan solidarity work in the late 1980s, and 1917 No. 17 for the 1995 emergency demonstrations to save Mumia Abu-Jamal). Yet the SL leaders previously stopped short of explicitly rejecting any prospect of joint work with other left groups, nor did they characterize their leftist opponents as "enemies" of the working class.

Our British comrades who distributed the New York IBT letter at an SL/Britain public meeting in London on 27 November received a similar response. SL/Bers claimed that our proposal for a more inclusive united front amounted to a call for joint work with people who did not really want to stop the Klan. The speaker at the meeting used "the revolutionary party" and "the Spartacist League" as interchangeable terms. We note that the SL's new position on anti-fascist work parallels its recently developed position the general strike (See Trotskyist Bulletin No. 6 and 1917 No. 20 article). In both cases there is a tendency to regard any and all political struggles which are not led by James Robertson or his acolytes as doomed and/or worthless.

The Internationalist Group (IG), whose leading cadre left the SL/U.S. in 1996, insists that the SL leadership had a spotless record prior to this date (see 1917 No. 20 and Trotskyist Bulletin No. 6). So we were not entirely surprised to learn that while the IG objects to the SL/PDC's crude sectarianism in refusing to permit its opponents (including the IG) from speaking at their New York rally, the IG still characterizes the SL rally as a "united front" and endorses the Robertsonites' rejection of the possibility of joint action with other leftist groups.

We do not know if the IG's SL semi-loyalism will lead them to embrace Workers Vanguard's latest display of sectarian idiocy--its denunciation of the anti-World Trade Organization (WTO) demonstrations in Seattle last month. The 10 December issue of Workers Vanguard proudly announced that on 4 November the SL Political Bureau had decided:

"not to 'participate in, or sell at, the protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle on November 30 which are a circus...dominated by national chauvinism, racist protectionism and counterrevolutionary attacks on the Chinese deformed workers state."

There is no doubt that the U.S. labor aristocrats are overtly counterrevolutionary, but their protectionist strategy has led them to oppose WTO membership for China. Washington however wants to bring Beijing into the WTO in order to accelerate the process of capitalist counterrevolution. The Seattle protests were not, in any case, centered on China's WTO membership, but represented a general inchoate opposition to the neo-liberalism of the corporate elites.

It is hardly accidental that, determined to ignore this, Workers Vanguard completely omitted any mention of the fact that the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) carried out a stop work action in every port on the West Coast of the U.S. in solidarity with the WTO protesters. It is a curious coincidence that both Workers Vanguard and the New York Times (the chief mouthpiece of U.S. imperialism) chose to ignore the ILWU labor actions. Politics sometimes makes strange bedfellows.

There is no question that the Seattle demonstrations were politically heterogeneous, and that the horizons of most of the participants did not extend beyond some vague notions of reforming capitalism. While the popular media played up the more extreme forms of anti-technological Luddism, nationalist protectionism and other strains of far-out petty-bourgeois utopianism, an IBT member who participated in the demonstrations observed:

"The very heterogeneous nature of protests was not accurately represented in the media, which generally subsumed the participants as 'protectionist trade unionists and flat earth fanatics.' At the event last Monday [20 December in the San Francisco Bay Area] many of the panellists/participants used phrases such as 'imperialist globalization,' 'globalized imperialism,' and 'global capitalism.' Many obviously see the WTO as an expression of modern imperialism. This heterogeneous nature extends to the trade unionists who participated. The AFL-CIO bureaucrats [in Seattle] were unable to politically hegemonize the protest and the few TU leaders who spoke about 'reforming' the WTO were often booed. Those who called for abolition of the WTO got the most applause from the 50,000 trade unionists in the stadium. Comments and interviews with trade-union participants showed a strong internationalist thrust with many trade unionists expressing views that workers in the U.S. must protect trade-union rights and support workers' struggles in other countries in order to bring wages, etc., up and prevent the 'race to the bottom.' At the Steelworkers' rally, the largest banner was carried by the IWW [Industrial Workers of the World] reading 'Capitalism Cannot be Reformed.' This was one of the few clearly anti-capitalist slogans raised at the protests.

"The range of participants was quite wide. At one point the family farmers and longshoremen marched down to the docks and demonstrated at the pier site of Cargill Company, the enormous grain transnational. Longshoremen have been engaged in bitter battles with Cargill and family farmers have been driven out of business by this company. About 200 of the audience of 300 on Monday night had been in Seattle. The majority were quite young, not just the 'usual suspects.' Youth groups involved in fighting police brutality, the prison industry, defence of the homeless and Mumia were involved and linked the struggle against corporate control with those struggles. In fact the anti-WTO stuff has appeared to mobilize a whole new layer of youth in protest against the present forms of international free-market capitalism.

. . .

"If I had to summarize the ideology of the anti-WTO protest in Seattle, I would describe it as populist internationalism with reformist illusions.

"The 'democracy' issue played a large role in the ideology of protesters at Seattle. The fact that nationally-based laws on environment, labor and human rights, and endangered species can be overturned by WTO panels without input or recourse, enrages many who may have reformist illusions in parliamentary democracy. On the other hand, proletarian revolutionaries defend the limited gains that have been achieved often against national capitalist interests. This is an aspect of the anti-WTO 'movement' that has captured a lot of attention and passion, and is not simply Luddite or national/patriotic.

"Seattle was an opportunity for revolutionaries to intersect many people who correctly identify the corporations as enemies, and extend that consciousness to understanding the role of the capitalist state in protecting corporate greed and exploitation. The tragedy is that this elementary socialist consciousness was largely absent in Seattle. The unusual vehemence and brutality of the suppression of the anti-WTO protests had quite a shock effect on thousands of the protesters, many of who are relatively new to confrontation with the state on this level. Most appear to have understood that it was the Clinton administration which probably gave the orders on Wednesday for the reign of terror that did drive protesters off the streets."

The Seattle protesters were correct in identifying the WTO as a leading economic mechanism for the promotion of an imperialist New World Order of growing social inequality in both the "developed" and "underdeveloped" countries of the world. The fact that elements of the U.S. labor bureaucracy felt it necessary to make some effort to mobilize their base, and that some 50,000 unionists turned out to protest the WTO, is significant for socialists, despite the reactionary protectionist program pushed by the AFL-CIO leadership.

Seattle provided an opportunity for Marxists to intervene to win some of these people to a socialist program. We were there selling 1917 and, along with a variety of other leftists from the Bay Area Labor Action Committee, we leafleted the labor march on behalf of Mumia Abu-Jamal. On the same day we intervened at a rally at Euston station in London which was timed to coincide with the Seattle protests. The London demonstration focused on opposition to the privatization of rail services in Britain and featured leading activists from the RMT rail union.

If socialists were to follow the Robertsonians' injunctions, and boycott such protests, the only result would be to ensure the political dominance of the Greens, clerics and purveyors of other brands of petty-bourgeois ideology among broad sections of young militants outraged by the workings of the irrational capitalist world order.

Published: 3 January 2000