What Defense Policy for Revolutionaries?

Revolutionary Communist Youth Newsletter No. 17, May-June 1973

The decline of U.S. economic hegemony and the resultant economic chaos has meant intensified capitalist attacks on the labor and radical movements. Facing an increasing inability to provide the minimal democratic and economic rights of working people and oppressed minorities, the American capitalist class has pursued a dual offensive: governmental legislation to curb the power of the trade-union movement and tie it more closely to the state machinery, combined with persecution of the left to forestall any resurgence of even the reformist social-protest movement of the 1960’s. Central to the ruling-class policy is to forestall the growth of any organized left oppositions in the labor movement. While the radical students, women’s liberationists and black nationalists who typified 1960’s radicalism lacked the social strength to seriously threaten capitalist rule, the current growth of the left in the labor movement poses a much greater potential threat. The gross violation of democratic rights in the Watergate affair indicates the Nixon regime’s contempt for the formalities of bourgeois democracy, a contempt that will be violently amplified in dealing with an actual left threat. The strategy to defeat ruling-class attacks on the labor and radical movements must be based on an examination of the historic experience of the working-class movement.

The International Red Aid

In the early 1920’s, the Communist International (CI) organized the International Red Aid as a broad defense organization of working-class militants. While the CI rejected bourgeois-democratic illusions and idealizations, it recognized the need to defend the democratic gains of the bourgeois revolutions and proletarian struggle as an integral part of the class struggle. Lenin summarized the communist perspective toward democratic struggles:

"It would be a fundamental mistake to suppose that the struggle for democracy can divert the proletariat from the socialist revolution, or obscure or overshadow it, etc. On the contrary, just as socialism cannot be victorious unless it introduces complete democracy, so the proletariat will be unable to prepare for victory over the bourgeoisie unless it wages a many-sided, consistent and revolutionary struggle for democracy."
--Collected Works, Vol. 22, p. 133

The International Red Aid was also an application of the united-front policy of the CI under Lenin and Trotsky, which proposed joint action of workers’ organizations over specific and concrete tasks. The united front was designed to unite the working class against capitalist attacks and in doing so create an arena in which the Communist parties, retaining full freedom to criticize other participants, could counterpose their program to the social-democratic misleadership in order to "set the base against the top." The slogan of the united front was "March Separately, Strike Together."

The International Labor Defense (ILD), the American affiliate of the International Red Aid, led the campaign to defend Sacco and Vanzetti, Tom Mooney, C.E. Ruthenberg, imprisoned Wobblies and numerous strike efforts. In a period of sharp class struggle, the ILD utilized all legal rights, seeking support from professional petty-bourgeois forces, while always emphasizing the importance of mass working-class action. It welcomed support from all quarters, but refused to politically compromise itself in order to gain support from non-proletarian elements. James P. Cannon, National Secretary of the ILD until his expulsion from the CP in 1928 for Trotskyism, summarized this policy in writing on the Sacco and Vanzetti case:

"Our policy is the policy of the class struggle. It puts the center of gravity in the protest movement of the workers of America and the world. It puts all faith in the power of the masses and no faith whatever in the justice of the courts. While favoring all possible legal proceedings, it calls for agitation, publicity, demonstrations--organized protest on a national and international scale. It calls for unity and solidarity of all workers on this burning issue, regardless of conflicting views on other questions…. The other policy is the policy of ‘respectability,’… of ridiculous illusions about ‘justice’ from the courts of the enemy. It relies mainly on legal proceedings. It seeks to blur the issue of the class struggle. It shrinks from the ‘vulgar and noisy’ demonstrations of the militant workers and throws the mud of slander on them. It tries to represent the martyrdom of Sacco and Vanzetti as an ‘unfortunate’ error which can be rectified by the ‘right’ people proceeding in the ‘right’ way. The objective of this policy is a whitewash of the courts of Massachusetts and ‘clemency’ for Sacco and Vanzetti, in the form of a commutation to life imprisonment for a crime of which the world knows they are innocent."
--"Who Can Save Sacco and Vanzetti?" Labor Defender, January 1927

This was the consistent policy of the CI throughout its early years. The ILD never blurred the nature of the capitalist state or bourgeois justice; its policy was "class against class," combatting the repressive apparatus of the bourgeois state through the independent mobilization of the proletariat.

The Policy of Social Fascism

In conjunction with the consolidation of the Stalinist bureaucracy in the Soviet Union, the world-historic defeat of the Chinese proletariat in 1927 and the internal Soviet need for rapid agricultural collectivization, the CI's political line switched in 1928 to the policy of the "third period." The Stalinist CI claimed the social-democratic parties were more of a threat to the proletariat than ascending fascism, labeling them "social fascists" and rejecting joint defense against the fascist threat. This policy, which amounted to a refusal to challenge the social-democratic arch-betrayers’ hegemony over the German working class, allowed Hitler to rise to power without a shot being fired. "Social fascism" became the guiding theory of the ILD, which rejected the defense of democratic rights and united fronts because this would "create illusions." Breaking with the tradition of its earlier years, the ILD often ignored legal work, romanticizing the use of non-professional workers’ self-defense in the courts. This foolish ultra-leftism allowed many courageous workers, unversed in court procedure and legal jargon, to be sent to jail, compliments of "Communist" advice.

During the Scottsboro defense, the ILD refused the support of the NAACP, another "social-fascist" outfit. Instead, the ILD posed the "united front from below"--unity of the CP, CP front groups and local unions somehow untainted by their "social-fascist" leaderships [see, for example, Scottsboro Boys National Bureau Letter, No. 1, 1932, p. 4].

The "Social-Fascists" Become the Great Defenders of Democracy

Recoiling empirically from a policy which had resulted in the destruction of the German labor movement, the CI dumped "social fascism" but, in typical Stalinist fashion, embraced a symmetrically disastrous line having nothing in common with the Leninist policy of the united front. At the 7th World Congress, Georgi Dimitrov formulated the policy of the popular front--a strategic alliance with the social democrats and the liberal wing of the bourgeoisie to defend bourgeois democracy against the fascist onslaught.

Marxists recognize that bourgeois democracy is simply one form of the dictatorship of capital, which is, however, forced to preserve some limited democratic rights which are vital to the self-organization of the proletariat. The working class thus has an interest in the defense of bourgeois-democratic rights against fascism and bonapartism, but not at the expense of tying itself politically to the bourgeoisie and subordinating its own organizations to bourgeois leadership. Thus, Marxists may call for limited blocs with the representatives of bourgeois democracy (e.g., the suppression of the Kornilov assault on the bourgeois Kerensky regime) but at all times seek the independent mobilization of the working class through its own organizations and under its own slogans. These tactical blocs are not a defense of the bourgeois order, but are steps on the road of replacing bourgeois democracy by the proletarian dictatorship.

Paving the way for Communist participation in capitalist governments (as in France and Spain), the Dimitrov popular-front policy, based on the needs of the Soviet bureaucracy, has been a central point of Stalinist theory and practice (Soviet and Chinese alike) for the last 35 years.

The Trotskyist movement upheld the united-front policy of the Third and Fourth CI Congresses--"class against class." The Fourth International understood that the task of communists was to promote class unity against fascism, as part of the struggle for socialist revolution. While the Stalinists sought "national unity," the Trotskyists called for workers militias formed through a united front of all proletarian organizations, and raised demands such as nationalization of industry under workers control. In this way they attempted to prepare the working class for a successful fight against fascism, while raising demands that pointed to the need for the working class to organize production in its own interest.

Except for the brief period of the Hitler-Stalin Pact, the CPUSA loyally supported the "anti-fascist" democracy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. During WW II, the CP became the staunchest adherent of "national unity" in the labor movement. Placing itself in the right wing of the trade-union movement, it denounced all strikes as "fascist-inspired" and proposed speed-up to strengthen the "national war drive." As a result of the CP’s patriotic frenzy, defense work became virtually nonexistent; the CP ignored the round-up of Japanese-Americans into detention camps and the continued repression of blacks.

In the most important frame-up of the war years, the Smith Act prosecution of the leadership of the Socialist Workers Party, the CP rejected the principle of labor solidarity and heartily endorsed the government’s prosecution [see Daily Worker, 16 August 1941]. (The CP’s treachery in abetting the government in setting a precedent by the imprisonment of the 18 SWP leaders for "conspiracy to violently overthrow the government" paved the way for the virtual destruction of the CP in the McCarthy witchhunt. The bitter truth that "an injury to one is an injury to all" became clear after the war, when CP members were constantly prosecuted under similar indictments.) Abandoning the elementary duties of class solidarity, the International Red Aid was disbanded in the mid-forties and the CP junked the ILD.

The CP’s "lesser-evil" strategy has been maintained to this day, with Nixon substituted for Hitler as "the main enemy." The task of programmatically "uniting all progressive forces" remains the common thread of all variants of Stalinism. The Stalinists use defense efforts to cement the "anti-monopoly" popular front, watering down the thrust and program of campaigns to snare a few liberals. The CP worked tirelessly to promote a respectable image for Angela Davis--cooling down the emphasis on the anti-communist character of her trial, refusing to tie her defense with the less popular Ruchell Magee case, at one point limiting her defense to a call for bail, unwilling to take the defense into the trade-union movement--all in an attempt to pacify liberals. In a recent march in Buffalo protesting the murders at Attica, the CP-supported coalition went so far as to make the major operational thrust of the demonstration the demand for the state to construct a memorial statue to the slain Attica prisoners outside the prison alongside the already completed memorial for slain prison guards! The CP constantly muddles the nature of the state and the capitalist political parties, attacking the Republican Party without condemning the Democratic Party in the Davis case.

The "Anti-Revisionist" Left

The ostensible left groupings outside the CP have failed to pursue a principled united-front policy. The Panthers "United Front Against Fascism" Conference in 1969 saw an amalgam of the CP, the Maoist Revolutionary Union, the Revolutionary Youth Movement II (later to dissolve into the RU and October League) and the Workers World Party, all enthusiastically tailing after the Panthers "community control" popular-front program (complete with appropriate quotes from Dimitrov). Their enthusiasm spilled over into the streets with forcible exclusion and beating of members of the Spartacist League, Progressive Labor, International Socialists and the Workers League.

PL for a number of years pursued a carbon-copy replica of "third-period" defense tactics, rejecting united fronts with "revisionists," spurning the struggle for democratic rights and using political differences as an excuse to avoid unconditionally defending the Panthers and Weathermen against ruling-class repression. The WL stubbornly refused support from other left tendencies in the Juan Fariñas defense campaign, and the once-Trotskyist, now-reformist SWP limits all its defense activities to civil-libertarian politics.

The SL/RCY unconditionally defends the left and working-class movement from bourgeois repression and right-wing attack, in spite of our political differences with any particular victimized group or individual. We have refused to opportunistically restrict our defense work to those campaigns which garnish temporary popularity and liberal support in the bourgeois-press cocktail circuit, such as the Panther and Angela Davis defense campaigns; we have explicitly made clear our solidarity with those less popular groups like the Weathermen and Venceremos, which, no matter how misguided their actions, nonetheless are part of the left. Successful government repression of such groups represents a threat to all left and working-class organizations--defense is not a moral question, but a class question. It is necessary to have a Marxist comprehension of the words, "an injury to one is an injury to all." Groups like PL, the SWP, CP, WL and National Caucus of Labor Committees--which claimed to defend the Panthers but, at the height of the FBI-led anti-Weathermen hysteria, joined in the chorus of bourgeois "public opinion" condemning the Weathermen as "proto-fascists," "criminals" and "crazies"--thereby demonstrated that they are more concerned about their respectability in the eyes of radical petty-bourgeois "public opinion" than in the elementary obligation of working-class solidarity.

At the same time, we distinguish between the self-destructive substitutionism of the Weathermen, who chose as the targets for their bombs the symbols of the bourgeois order, and the indiscriminate terror of some elements in the Irish Republican Army, or the Japanese supporters of the Democratic Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. When the former blows up working-class pubs in Belfast or the latter machine-guns a crowd in an Israeli airline hangar, it has crossed the class line. Such "exemplary" actions exemplify genocide, and while they may be motivated by the frustrated aspirations of the oppressed, Marxists cannot possibly solidarize with activities which have as their targets not the bourgeois order but simply people who happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. Such actions may be akin to racial or religious war, but not class war.

As part of our struggle for both the unity and the political clarity of the left and labor movement, we are unconditionally opposed to substitution of gangsterism for political struggle. Thus, we defended a Boston Student Mobilization Committee meeting on 24 May 1970 from an unprovoked attack by PL. And we defended PL from the SWP goons at the July 1971 National Peace Action Coalition Conference in New York when the SWP physically excluded PL (followed by the physical exclusion of the SL and Revolutionary Marxist Caucus) for vocal opposition to the presence of bourgeois politician Vance Hartke.

Only militant defense campaigns based on the Leninist conception of the united front can effectively defend left and working--class tendencies from bourgeois attack. The slogan of the united front is "March Separately, Strike Together," i.e., each participant in the united front, while agreeing on common actions, keeps its organizational and political independence. Thus the unity of the class is maintained without compromising political clarity. In recent cases in San Francisco and New Orleans (see RCYN, No. 15 and 16), where we have been denied our legal right to function on campus, our campaigns have had a dual character: We have fought for our democratic rights, while exposing the anti-communist character of the attacks on our rights. We formed united fronts for defense around the demand, "Rescind the Ban on RCY," and worked with all forces in agreement with the slogan, while maintaining our independent propaganda and revolutionary program.

The united front is an important component part of the tactic of revolutionary regroupment. The superiority of the revolutionary program is demonstrated by the testing in action of competing political programs. The best militants who gave their allegiances to other programs and banners yesterday, rally to the banner and program of proletarian revolution in the course of the struggle. For the unity of the class, for communist hegemony--these were the goals of the united-front and defense work of Lenin and Trotsky and the early CI, and the defense work of the early SWP. It is to that heritage and to those goals that the RCY is committed.

Posted: 12 December 2005