Letter to Workers Vanguard

On Spartacist Sectarianism and Mumia’s Defense

9 June 2008

To the Editor:

Your report on the 19 April united-front demonstrations for Mumia Abu-Jamal in the 9 May issue of Workers Vanguard (WV, No. 914, 9 May) maliciously asserts that the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) “cares nothing about black oppression” and has “gotten involved in Mumia’s case...to conciliate the reformists’ calls for a ‘new trial’.” This is as cynical as it is dishonest. If you really believed this, would you have agreed to endorse, and co-chair, the 19 April demonstration in Toronto that you knew we had played a key role in initiating? Would the Partisan Defense Committee (PDC—the legal defense wing of the Spartacist League [SL]) have ever sold our publication, The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal, on its literature tables?

Your report includes the following passage:

“Having become involved in the united-front protests in Toronto and London, the BT then promoted protests in cities where we do not have active branches: Dublin, Ireland; Cologne, Germany; and Vienna, Austria. These three Potemkin-village ‘protests’ drew a combined total of no more than 35 people. The Dublin ‘rally’ featured a speaker from the anarchist Workers Solidarity Movement who questioned Mumia’s innocence without a peep in response from the BT.”

We plead guilty to building demonstrations for Mumia in areas where you “do not have active branches,” though we note that PDC representatives did attend the three rallies mentioned. (No one from the PDC was present at the demonstration of 25 people we helped organize in Wellington, New Zealand.) These events were admittedly small, but why characterize them as “Potemkin-village ‘protests’”? The organized left is not particularly large in any of these cities, yet our comrades were pleased to find other activists to work with to ensure that “Free Mumia” rallies took place. While large demonstrations are better than small ones, we would have expected you to agree that the more events held for Mumia, in the more places, the better.

Although we missed it at the time, the representative of the Workers Solidarity Movement who spoke in Dublin apparently did call into question Mumia’s innocence. We would note that he takes the view that leftists should defend Mumia nonetheless. We have been very clear all along that Mumia is innocent, and our speaker at the Dublin rally stated this unambiguously. While we take no responsibility for what representatives of other organizations say, we would certainly have challenged any suggestion that Mumia is not innocent had we been aware of it. The Case of Mumia Abu-Jamal provides detailed evidence of Mumia’s innocence and explains how the whole frame-up was carried out.

In London, IBT comrades invited various organizations to a 3 April organizing meeting to plan for a demonstration on the 19th. Regrettably, aside from ourselves and members of the Spartacist League/Britain, no one else turned up. Earlier that day the PDC had sent an email announcing a demonstration for the same time and place, and organized on the basis of the same slogans, as we had proposed. After your comrades brushed aside our suggestion at the meeting that we work together in a united front, we continued to talk to other groups, and several agreed to help build a joint event. On 17 April Kate Klein of the PDC in London sent us a letter expressing concern about the prospect of two separate demonstrations and invited us to attend the PDC event where, she promised, all participating groups could have speakers. We consulted with our partners, who agreed that it would be in Mumia’s best interest to avoid a Pythonesque fiasco of two competing small events with virtually identical politics.

In Toronto, the Trotskyist League (TL)/PDC was widely advertising a 26 April demonstration for Mumia well after the Philadelphia-based “International Concerned Family and Friends of Mumia Abu-Jamal” announced that they would hold their national demonstration on the 19th. We planned to attend the PDC event, but also thought that there should be a demonstration in Toronto as part of the international day of protest. To that end, we were instrumental, along with others we had worked with in organizing a successful May 2007 united-front rally for Mumia, in launching the “April 19th United Front for Mumia.”

The TL/PDC was one of many groups invited to join the united front. Most of the organizations that participated in the 2007 demonstration signed on again. The TL/PDC had refused to endorse that event on the grounds that the united-front poster advertising the protest included a short statement of fact about Mumia’s case. This was presented as some sort of violation of Spartacist principle.

While using the phrase “united front” to describe events completely controlled by yourselves where others are “permitted” to speak, you have on occasion come very close to overtly rejecting the very idea of joint activity with other leftists. This was particularly evident in your coverage of last October’s New York launch of Bryan Palmer’s biography of James P. Cannon, an event the SL co-sponsored with the IBT and four other groups. You specifically criticized a statement by one of our comrades at the meeting that members of different political tendencies should work together on particular issues where there is significant agreement, and took umbrage at the suggestion that the political discussion that would inevitably ensue could open the door to regroupment:

“The BT’s Tom Riley spoke in support of Palmer’s call for regroupment: ‘When the left can work together on things we agree with, then it should be possible for us to discuss intelligently, seriously, and in a way that James P. Cannon would—inside his organization as well as with other organizations—what are the real substantial differences that stand between us. And on that basis, it may well be possible that many of the people in the room tonight who are in different opponent organizations may one day be in common organizations.’

“Riley was appealing for ‘unity’ to an audience that consisted largely of groups that share the BT’s crass Stalinophobic appetites. For our part, we find such smarmy appeals for ‘unity’ grotesque….”
Workers Vanguard No. 903, 23 November 2007

It is quite obvious that comrade Riley was not proposing “unity” of the existing groupings, but rather projecting the possibility that joint work might lead to serious political exchanges and produce the programmatic clarification necessary to trigger splits and fusions, i.e., regroupment. (The reference to “Stalinophobic appetites” concerned our criticism of the SL’s salute to Yuri Andropov, the butcher of the Hungarian workers’ revolution of 1956. This is a good example of the kind of issue that would have to be sorted out in order for any members of the Spartacist League to find their way to Trotskyism.)

The SL leadership’s aversion to united-front activity is rooted in the desire to avoid substantive political discussion. This is why WV “polemics” these days tend to substitute semi-hysterical denunciation and caricature for serious political argument. The SL is an organization with an enormous contradiction between the revolutionary tradition it claims to represent, and its record of incoherent programmatic gyrations. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the chief concern of your degenerated leadership appears to be sealing off the membership.

While your aversion to working seriously with other leftists in Mumia’s defense has been more or less constant, the tactics employed have varied considerably. In Toronto, when your comrades joined the April 19th united front, they in effect dumped the “principle” invoked a year earlier. Yet while nominally endorsing the event, members of the TL/PDC adamantly refused to participate in any sort of joint activity to build it.

This was made clear by their flat refusal to distribute the common united-front poster—despite the fact that the text had been amended to meet concerns they had raised regarding a minor technicality. The TL/PDC produced its own poster for the Toronto demonstration, with its own list of “endorsers,” which included various trade-union officials from Britain and California, but omitted most of the local organizations actually participating in the united front. The confusion sown by this bizarre move was compounded when representatives of the “non-sectarian” PDC began to contact groups that had already signed on to the 19 April demonstration to request their endorsement for the “united front.” After getting several complaints about this, Andy L., on behalf of the “April 19th United Front for Mumia,” wrote to the TL/PDC on 7 April stating: “we are concerned that your requests to those who have already given an endorsement not only does not serve any purpose but may create a negative impression about the event and reflect badly on all of us.”

The TL/PDC’s peculiar stance created considerable tension in the week preceding the demonstration. At the technical coordinating meeting the night before the protest, representatives of various sponsoring groups agreed that the rally would be co-chaired by John Masters of the TL/PDC and Tom Riley of the IBT. The TL/PDC’s offer to provide a sound system was accepted, and a list of speakers for the rally agreed upon.

The demonstration, which drew more than 150 people, was a success, although the sectarianism exhibited by the TL toward various participating organizations was not particularly useful. At various points during and after the demonstration, several of your supporters crowded around our literature table shouting apolitical abuse and acting in a generally obnoxious manner. The behavior of the TL supporters, which was remarked on by many who attended the rally, is unfortunately all too familiar. As we have observed in the past, this is particularly regrettable given the very important contributions the PDC has made to Mumia’s defense.

Yours for Mumia’s freedom,
Josh Decker,
for the IBT


Posted: 16 June 2008