On the Partisan Defense Committee

By Reuben Samuels
from Spartacist League/U.S. Discussion Bulletin No. 27, June 1977

The Partisan Defense Committee was launched over two years ago. Since then the PDC has been involved in numerous defense and legal cases, the most important being the recently concluded Muñoz campaign. That the Muñoz campaign was such an outstanding success, especially given our slender resources, while not without a substantial element of luck, was a testament to the correctness of our defense policies. Nonetheless there continues to be fundamental questions and unclarities about the purpose, character, perspectives and even the definition of the PDC. Nor are these the questions of a few newly recruited members. They are raised by leading cadre, including leading cadre centrally involved in the work of the PDC center. Our failure to produce in the past two years a clear, short statement of principles suitable for a brochure format has no doubt contributed to the existing unclarities. But the failure to produce the brochure is not principally a literary failure; this failure is itself a product of the existing questions and unclarity within the PDC staff regarding the organization we are supposed to be launching and running. The brochure went through five drafts by four comrades, all of whom, at least from time to time, can both write and think. Yet the fifth draft was not so much a document as a poorly organized scrapbook of four previous drafts. The short two-paragraph description of the PDC which concludes the Muñoz brochure split the PDC staff and almost prevented the production of this brochure. In particular, much of the disagreement, questions and unclarities centers on the current working definition of the PDC as a "class-struggle anti-sectarian defense organization which is in accordance with the political views of the Spartacist League." But behind this squabble over a definition lie larger differences over the character of class-struggle legal defense.

United Front and Transitional Organization

The class-struggle defense organization represents the intersection of the united front and the transitional organization. Since both the united front and transitional organization have engendered significant controversy in our movement, it is not surprising that launching the PDC would also engender controversy around these two questions.

The united-front character of defense work is generated by the wide appeal evoked by defense cases. Defending an exiled, Chilean mine union leader subjected to a bloodthirsty police manhunt, a young black college student in L.A. subjected to police intimidation which leads to a racist frame-up, a female union militant fired for standing up while working by a company notorious for vicious, arbitrary, authoritarian and sexist working conditions, call forth a broader response of sympathy and solidarity than perhaps any other area of work of the revolutionary proletarian movement. Defense issues have an urgent and dramatic appeal within the labor movement and among those concerned for human rights which transcends organizational and political affiliation. Not only is our list of Muñoz campaign endorsements overwhelming, but it continues to grow even after the case has been successfully concluded! Even mushy liberals and wretched social democrats fear the knock in the middle of the night and know that behind the parliamentarian facade of bourgeois democracy there lurks the jackboot terror that has been unleashed in South America. The Labour Party MP or SP minister knows that the social attitudes which shape a Pinochet or Videla are endemic to the bourgeois officer caste and that the military officer who today chauffeurs his limousine and guards his office door could tomorrow be his torturer and prison guard. SP ministers who dislike Muñoz’ class-struggle policies and would under other conditions sign the papers for his arrest, today sign the papers granting Muñoz asylum because they look at South America, recall the 1930’s and realize that they could share Muñoz’ plight. Working-class defense necessarily intersects the larger social issues of democratic rights and special oppression so that a Philip Allen can become the cause of those who fear and despise the police and courts and protest the racist character of "justice" in America.

Communist-initiated defense organizations, the International Red Aid (MORP) and International Labor Defense (ILD), were clearly seen as applications of the united front. The MORP was founded under the direction of the Fourth Comintern Congress in recognition of the need for an international workers defense organization in the face of growing capitalist repression and white terror. Further the MORP and ILD were committed to the principles of the united front, not only in their anti-sectarian attitude toward the cases they would seek to defend, but also in the widest mobilization of support for the cause of workers defense. The principles of the united front were incorporated into the organizational structure of the MORP and ILD themselves. In this sense they were analogous to the Profintern and TUEL. Eugene Debs, Upton Sinclair, the California liberal churchman Robert Whitaker, the mine leader Alexander Howat, the feminist Alice Robert Blackwell and the Wobbly songwriter Robert Chaplin sat on the ILD National Committee. At its second national conference in September 1926 the ILD had 156 branches, 20,000 individual members and 75,000 collective memberships (affiliated organizations). The CPUSA had a total membership at the time of 15,000.

The MORP and ILD were also transitional organizations. The transitional organizations were non-party organizations which were part of a common revolutionary movement led by the vanguard party. Their struggles advanced the common interests of the revolutionary movement. Through these organizations the authority, influence, leadership and program of the proletarian vanguard is transmitted to sections of the oppressed and areas of work not as accessible through the direct intervention of the vanguard party. Such organizations were neither seen as a substitute for the vanguard party nor were their programs a simple reduplication of the party’s program, but the application of the program of the revolutionary party to a particular area of work.

Thus, while the total membership of the ILD was many times that of the CP and its National Committee included a wide spectrum of political beliefs and affiliation within the framework of working—class defense, nonetheless important administrative and executive posts were held by well-known Communists. Nor did the CP hide its initiating role in founding the ILD but rather took great pride in it. Open CP members who played prominent roles in the ILD did not disguise their membership in the CP. On the contrary they continued to play prominent roles as CP spokesmen who were also ILD members. Thus James Cannon, who was National Secretary of the ILD, was also National Chairman of the CP. Martin Abern, Max Shachtman and Rose Karsner, who were also prominent members of the CP, played leading roles in the ILD. No doubt their many years of common political work, including defense work, facilitated their coming together in solidarity with Trotsky’s Left Opposition in 1928. In rebutting the anti-communist charge that the ILD was simply formed to serve the narrow factional interest of the CP, Cannon wrote to Draper:

"To be sure I was an undisguised communist, and I thought and said that the honest work of solidarity practiced by the ILD would bring, at least indirectly, some credit to the CP. But don’t people who represent all kinds of causes and organizations do what they consider their good works with this motivation?"
Cannon, The First Ten Years of American Communism, p. 160

"Pure and Simple" Defense Work?

There is a tendency to conceive of the PDC as an apolitical front group of the SL dispensing charity for legal work to victimized workers and blacks and disguising its relation to the SL. However defense work is as political as union or youth work. To give an example from the early history of the American labor movement, the Bay Area based International Workers Defense League (IWDL) initiated a National Labor Congress on the Mooney Case. The Congress was held for four days during January 1919 in Chicago. Attendance was restricted to accredited delegates of "official unions" (AFL, Amalgamated Clothing Workers and the Railroad Brotherhoods). Nevertheless, over 1,000 delegates attended. This was a truly rank-and-file gathering as the delegates represented union locals, city labor councils and state federations. The Congress was split between "radicals" and "moderates" over whether to restrict their work to the Mooney case or to fight for such demands as the eight-hour day and industrial unionism and whether to call a general strike for Mooney’s freedom on May Day or July 4. Even though the "moderates" were victorious through bureaucratic manipulation, nevertheless the Congress went on record demanding the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Soviet Union and freedom for "all political and industrial prisoners." Two resolutions passed demanding Gompers’ resignation as president of the AFL for sitting on government boards. Clearly spokesmen for "pure and simple" defense like those for "pure and simple" trade unionism would have been to the right of even the "moderates" at this Congress.

At the other extreme is the tendency to substitute the PDC for the SL, i.e., for the PDC to intervene where it would be more natural and better for the party to make the central intervention and the defense organization to play an auxiliary role. The pressure towards substitutionalism is particularly acute in other defense and legal organizations like the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) which presents itself as a self-sufficient "movement." Behind all the anti-vanguardist New Left false modesty and "serve the people" works of mercy lies the supercilious arrogance of the narrow professional organization which claims to be able to generate—independent of other political currents in the left and labor movement and independent of history—a political "line." In this milieu it is especially important for an SL spokesman to be called upon to confront the NLG when they want to debate Israel or the Russian question per se precisely because it underlines the need for the proletarian vanguard party apart from its defense auxiliary.

Of course the PDC is not without views regarding the Middle East or the Russian question but these views should be presented where and insofar as they are relevant to working-class defense. For example, recently there have been battles in central Hebron, between Arab Muslims and the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Gush Emmunim, over who can pray at certain religious shrines. The reason the PDC does not see these battles as simple sectarian squabbles and defends the Arab Muslims from victimization and calls for mass mobilization against Gush Emmunism is directly linked to our attitudes toward the Middle East in general and the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in particular.

The PDC, the ILD and the Transformation of the SL

The PDC cannot simply reduplicate the formative experience of the ILD. The ILD was not only conceived in Moscow, but it was built on the authority of the Russian Revolution which rallied to its banners almost the entire left wing of the American labor movement including many non-communists. It was also built on the considerable authority of the CP in the labor movement. Equally important, the ILD was founded by communists and non-communists who had worked together for over a decade in many labor defense cases. The MORP and the ILD were able to mount demonstrations totaling millions of workers in 36 countries for Sacco and Vanzetti while the Committee to Save Mario Muñoz was able to mobilize a few hundred supporters in a handful of protests.

The PDC asserts that its heritage is that of the ILD. It shares with the ILD common principles and goals, to become the "shield" of the labor movement and to fight for the freedom of all class-war prisoners. The PDC more directly stands on the heritage of the defense work of the Spartacist League. Even our opponents, if they retain a grain of honesty, must acknowledge the SL’s record of anti-sectarian class-struggle defense (e.g., the IT writes of the SL in "Anatomy of a Sect":

"they have established a generally commendable record of support for other left tendencies under attack from the bourgeois state..."
--Hate Trotskyism..., Vol. I, p. 1

The PDC differs from the ILD in scale, but this difference in scale is qualitative. The PDC is not prepared at this point to become a membership organization like the ILD, not so much because it lacks a large non-party following, but because we lack the party cadre to run such an organization. The transformation of the PDC into an autonomous membership organization is entirely dependent on the growth of the authority of the Spartacist League and its program in the labor movement. At the same time the fact that the SL felt compelled to launch a separate defense organization two years ago is part of the overall tension of the transformation of the SL which, with the forces of a sub-propaganda group, is compelled to function like the nucleus of the vanguard party.

Presently the PDC is both a united front and a transitional organization, functioning as an auxiliary of the SL with an organizational reality somewhere between our youth organization and a party commission like the Commission for Work Among Women.

Definition of the PDC

Nearly 50 years have passed since the demise of the ILD as a principled working-class defense organization. With few exceptions this past half century has consistently witnessed the need for united labor defense subordinated to narrow factional gain. It is therefore harder now to build a working-class defense organization than it was in the 1920’s not only because of our slender resources, but also because what were once commonly accepted principles of defense within the labor movement have been eroded and poisoned by sectarianism, especially on the part of the Stalinists. It is therefore necessary to purge this poison and corruption from the labor movement both by exemplary defense work and by the kind of sharp polemics which expose our opponents for their crimes in defense work. There is nothing more anti-sectarian than our necessary polemical work. The article "USLA Redbaiting..." (WV No. 123, 3 September 1976) is an example of this kind of polemic which could equally as well have gone into a PDC newsletter. This long history of the debasement of labor defense principles dictates our rather angular self-definition. Saying that the PDC is "anti-sectarian" is not only an assertion of the united-front principles to which the PDC is dedicated, but also asserts that there has to be a struggle to re-establish these principles. Unfortunately, traditionally "non-partisan" has usually meant, even for class-struggle organizations like the ILD, the same thing as "non." or "anti-sectarian." Therefore the name Partisan Defense Committee engenders unnecessary confusion as we must explain that by "partisan" we mean on the side of the workers and the oppressed.

The other controversial side of the PDC definition is the phrase "in accordance with the political views of the SL." Some comrades point out that the ILD did not include the formulation "in accordance with the political views of the CP." Nonetheless it was well known within the entire left that with James Cannon as its National Secretary the ILD, both in its work and program, was consistent with the political views of the CP. It is necessary to assert the relationship between the PDC and SL precisely because, on the one hand, the SL does not have the authority in the labor movement of the CP of the 1920’s and therefore does not have a figure like Cannon to transmit that authority to its defense auxiliary. On the other hand, given the erosion and abuse of the principles of labor defense in the last 50 years, the PDC has no other direct political capital and little else to inspire and guide its work than the defense work of the SL, while the CP could look back on numerous defense campaigns which preceded its organizational existence and which it could claim as its own. Further, the open assertion of this relationship protects us from red-baiting.

Some comrades have recommended the formulation "in accordance with the defense policies of the SL." This is too narrow and would deny the transitional organizational character of the PDC. For example, we would never define a youth section as "based on the youth policies of the SL" or the organization for work among women as based on "SL policies for work among women." Transitional organizations flow from the application of the revolutionary working-class world outlook and program to a particular arena of struggle against capitalist exploitation and oppression.

Reuben Samuels
7 October 1976

Posted: 12 December 2005