What is a united front? Exchange on the U.S. SWP
Posted here is an exchange between myself and Ernesto, plus a brief rejoinder from me, on the evolution and current course of the U.S. SWP. These comments deal with issues raised in articles and comments at “The SWP Attempts an Outward Turn,” “Causes of a Socialist Collapse,” and Ernesto’s “Letter in Support of the SWP’s Current Course” on this website.
- John Riddell: I do not see SWP initiatives toward broader actions carried out jointly.
- Ernesto: Support a concrete united front class approach through the SWP 2012 presidential campaign.
- John Riddell: A revolutionary movement must strive to draw together in action workers with different political opinions.
John Riddell: “I do not see SWP initiatives toward broader actions carried out jointly by worker and socialist activists of different traditions.”
Thanks for your thoughtful comments, and also to other supporters of the SWP’s course who have expressed their views on Gus Horowitz’s blog. This is, to my knowledge, the first such open exchange of views in at least thirty years between SWP supporters and socialists outside the SWP. All of us outside the SWP need to take notice and act accordingly. We need to consider whether this an accidental incident – ships passing in the night – or whether there is there a possibility of respectful discussion and collaboration between SWPers and non-SWPers.
So our first task is to seek out common ground. And you have shown us in your letter where this common ground lies. Reporting on the work of SWP delegations at international conferences in Havana in 1997 and 1999, you say:
“We argued forcefully for our communist politics and international point of view, we didn’t hide them. I met some wonderful people and I felt a bit richer, like the rest of us from that experience. We didn’t have to see eye to eye on everything under the sun, but we argued with respect, self-confidence and at least we started to understand in our own ways, each of us, how convergence or divergence in class politics are aspects of a single process.“
What you are describing here is experience in a united front. In such a joint endeavour, a broad range of forces join in pursuit of a common goal, and each component retains its full freedom to express its own point of view. Such united front activity is the common ground within which working-class activists of many viewpoints and socialist currents can work together respectfully and constructively, while learning from each other. It is also the best arena for revolutionary Marxists demonstrate in life their leadership capabilities and the validity of their ideas.
You also mention similar interventions at a youth festival and book fairs in Caracas. You could also have cited the work of the SWP and its sister organizations in Cuba solidarity groups and committees for the Cuban Five in different countries, where SWPers collaborate constructively with activists from socialist currents with which the SWP may strongly disagree on fundamental issues.
We should note that all these activities take place in what we can call, in a loose sense, the internationalist work of the Cuban revolution. The Cuban comrades have always promoted united action by socialist and anti-imperialist currents, and the SWP interventions you describe take place in that framework. I think the Cuban approach is a good one, and we would do well to apply in our own countries and on other issues. In addition, it would be useful to engage with other arenas of Cuba’s internationalist work, such as Cuba’s efforts for global environmental justice and its work for Latin American solidarity, which is structured around the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA). I recognize that the SWP dispute the general thrust of Cuban policy in these arenas, but there should still be areas of common agreement and scope for constructive criticism.
I believe that the united front approach is in the bones of SWP members. I notice this when I meet young people who have recently left the SWP. Yet I do not see this approach in the Militant. I meet SWP supporters at working-class events only if the action has a Cuban focus or if SWP supporters are staffing a literature table at the edge of a large action. Perhaps the Militant is overly modest about the SWP’s initiatives; is it perhaps involved in broad campaigns of which I am unaware?
You mention the Crystal Sugar strike struggle, and I reviewed a few Militant articles on it. The SWP is doing a fine job telling the story of this battle, on the basis of first-hand reportage; many comrades have travelled a long way to express support. What I do not see in these articles – and I may be overlooking something – is initiatives toward broader actions, support meetings, or collections on behalf of the strikers, carried out jointly by worker and socialist activists of different traditions. In my experience, on an important issue, even a single determined socialist can often initiate a broad, effective action.
Anti-war work provides another example. The Militant speaks out forcefully against U.S. wars and militarism. But socialists have to do more in this area than make the record; they have to take practical initiatives toward united action. Why does the SWP not take part in broad anti-war coalitions? Some of these efforts are problematic, but, overall, the obstacles are not as great as those that faced us in the Vietnam war era. There are also useful things a party like the SWP can do on its own – a shop-floor petition, perhaps – which may carry moral weight. The apparent absence of reports on such work troubles me greatly (and was the issue that led to my estrangement from the SWP in 2004).
The SWP feels strongly that its contribution to building a revolutionary party is unique and essential; it has quite a low opinion of other socialist currents. No one is asking the SWP to back away from these convictions. Actually, many other socialist groups have exactly the same opinion regarding their own particular heritage and the defects of their socialist rivals. The united-front approach enables each current to maintain its convictions and advocate its views freely, while contributing to a common goal.
A united front is not a cartel of socialist groups. In fact, it may contain no socialist groups at all – as has often been my experience in the Toronto environmental justice movement. Years ago, when the SWP campaigned for mass action for U.S. troops out of Vietnam now, it was unable to win the consistent support of any socialist current on this point. But today there is substantial agreement among socialists as to a program of immediate demands for the working class. Also, the obstacle to united action posed by Stalinism and Social Democracy is greatly diminished. In the early stages of the Iraq war, for example, the range of forces favouring mass action for “out now” was quite large. True, there were political problems; they could have been more easily overcome if the SWP had not abstained.
Overall, I think you may be overestimating the obstacles. You provide the following quotation:
“The revolutionary movement, under the best conditions, is a hard fight, and it wears out a lot of human material. Not for nothing has it been said a thousand times in the past: ‘The revolution is a devourer of men.’ The movement in this, the richest and most conservative country in the world, is perhaps the most voracious of all.
“It is not easy to persist in the struggle, to hold on, to stay tough and fight it out year after year without victory; and even, in times such as the present, without tangible progress. That requires theoretical conviction and historical perspective as well as character….
“It is not easy to persist in the struggle, to hold on, to stay tough and fight it out year after year without victory; and even, in times such as the present, without tangible progress…”
I do not understand this at all. These paragraphs describe a different planet than the one I know. This is a wonderful time in which to be a socialist. Socialism provides hope and direction in a society where there is so much despair. This is a time in which socialists are winning an increasing hearing, including among workers.
But perhaps what your quotation is describing here the situation within the SWP itself. The party has been doggedly following a fixed course for thirty years without gaining ground – indeed, while suffering significant losses. If this is the case, then SWP members should consider alternative tactical approaches.
Finally, you may wonder how I can write of the SWP in a positive spirit when I have just published an article that speaks of its decline in harsh terms. Well, I have kept my silence for eight years. My reason for speaking up is the publication of Barry Sheppard’s second volume on the history of the SWP. I recommend his books to you – volume 1 provides the only available account of the SWP in its prime, and it is available on line.
But Barry makes a major error, in my view. He blames the SWP’s decline, in part, on its political alignment with the Communist leadership in Cuba. I have tried to prove that this is a misimpression. I argue that SWP support for Cuban communism was (and is) the party’s strong point. I know you agree.
Thank you again for your contribution.
John, July 7, 2012
Ernesto: Support a concrete united-front class approach through the SWP 2012 campaign
I’m thankful for your answer on such short notice and the opportunity given to clarify some political points and thoughts in a manner that is respectful, while at the same time forceful.
First something of a more practical nature. You are aware that the Socialist Workers Party has just recently announced their candidates for President and Vice- President in the coming U.S. presidential elections. In the latest issue of the Militant (July 16, 2012) in the article “Socialist Workers 2012, ‘Join us, join with us’” under the heading “A fighting road forward” the paper writes:
“The party is running a working class, labor, socialist campaign. The candidates and their supporters are helping build solidarity with workers’ struggles and engaging in discussions on a fighting road forward to combat the consequences for workers and farmers of the world capitalist crisis, which has only just begun.”
“The Socialist Workers Party is joining the resistance with a program of struggle to defend the most immediate needs of the working class. This includes a demand for a massive, government funded public works program to put millions to work at union scale wages, building high-quality housing and safe and convenient public transportation affordable for workers, as well as schools, child care centers, recreational facilities and other infrastructure to improve the living conditions of working people.”
“The campaign points to the need to organize unions and use union power, transforming them through struggle into organizations that champion all the broader social and political struggles in the interests of the working class and its allies here and the world over.”
Now, you write at the beginning of your response:
“..So our first task is to seek out common ground. And you have shown us in your letter where this common ground lies.”
I take your words seriously, John, one of the things that has stayed with me over the years, that I learned the hard way in some ways. One of the things the then comrades of the Communist League in Sweden helped me understand trough collective, disciplined action and discussion.
This is how Buddy Howard from Keokuk, Iowa, put it in a message adressed to the Militant (latest issue):
“I would like to wish James and Maura the best of luck as they campaign across the country.
“I hope you can get your message out to as many people as possible while competing against a stacked deck as corporations have already purchased the election. You will take your common-sense message out on the road and just about everyone you talk to will understand and agree with what you have to say. Then the billionaires will go to work and pound them with messages night and day and they will go out and do their patriotic duty by voting for the lesser f two evils.”
“You will be in a “third-party debate” somewhere and a worker will just by chance catch it on the radio and want to tell everyone about what they heard. It will go in one ear and out the other as their associates will not have heard the debate. Later he or she will wonder if a politician could have really made so much sense or did they just dream it because no one else seems to have heard it.”
“But then maybe this person will run into someone who has recently been locked out of their job or been on strike, or been marching in a rally for immigrant rights or gay rights or for a woman’s right to choose. Maybe they will have seen the Militant and read about other struggles. Maybe they will realize they are no longer alone and will join the fight. [My emphasis, /Ernesto] to take back our cities and our country from these greedy corporate bastards. This is what we have to work for and be patient for.”
“Thank you for taking on the task of making sure there is a voice for the millions of workers who aren’t being heard.”
“In Solidarity, Buddy Howard”
I read these lines recently, sitting in a noisy Metro wagon late at night. My whole body ached after working a particular long and heavy shift at the restaurant where I currently work, but when I read these lines I suddenly got a smile and I forgot for a moment about the pain. How many “Buddy Howards” are starting to come forward right now (and not only in the U.S. of course, even though I find that development quite promising..)?
The 2002 SWP political resolution “Capitalism’s Long Hot Winter Has Begun” put it this way:
“In the months and years ahead, communist workers and youth will come to appreciate more and more the benefits of the fact that an upturn in resistance among our class and its allies—both here and in many other parts of the world—began before the harshest initial shocks of the period of depression and wars we’ve now entered.”
“We’ll understand more concretely the importance of the political space workers carve out in struggle, and the stakes involved in using that space if it’s not to be lost. We’ll see more examples of how experience gained from any single battle—even battles that end in a stalemate with the class enemy, or a temporary setback—doesn’t just dissipate; how individual workers absorb lessons and a little later turn up again, either on that same battlefront or another one. How they don’t forget militants, organizations, or newspapers they learn through experience can be trusted for their proletarian integrity and for being in the front ranks of a just battle.”
A specific word from Buddy kept coming back to my mind though, together with that “understanding” that strengthens the spine, when you start feeling, wherever you are, that youre not alone: “dream”. That word didn’t leave me alone. And so I found this:
“And if indeed we succeeded in reaching the point when all, or at least a considerable majority, of the local committees local groups, and study circles took up active work for the common cause, we could, in the not distant future, establish a weekly newspaper for regular distribution in tens of thousands of copies throughout Russia.
“This newspaper would become part of an enormous pair of smith’s bellows that would fan every spark of the class struggle and of popular indignation into a general conflagration. Around what is in itself still a very innocuous and very small, but regular and common, effort, in the full sense of the word, a regular army of tried fighters would systematically gather and receive their training.”
“On the ladders and scaffolding of this general organisational structure there would soon develop and come to the fore Social-Democratic Zhelyabovs from among our revolutionaries and Russian Bebels from among our workers, who would take their place at the head of the mobilised army and rouse the whole people to settle accounts with the shame and the curse of Russia.
That is what we should dream of!” (V.I. Lenin – What Is To Be Done?)
You write some paragraphs later:
“I believe that the united front approach is in the bones of SWP members. I notice this when I meet young people who have recently left the SWP.”
But I must ask you John, how could this be possible – and even recently – in an organization that “withdrew from the stage of working-class politics and dwindled to a small, self-absorbed remnant with a harsh, undemocratic political culture” quite some time ago.
How could anyone in the real world of class struggle politics – where words and how you undertake all kinds of actions have political/personal consequences for yourself and others in real time and beyond – have this aproach – this political aproach- in their bones in such an organization? Are we talking about individuals who already had these attributes before they joined?
But if so, why did they join specifically the SWP or the communist leagues? Organizations described as “self-absorbed”. This still doesnt explain why these people left, but the first process is not the same as the second one.
I asked you in my first comment if you had read my response to some of your initial points in the “About” section of Gus’s blog. There I wrote:
“..First something of a personal nature. I remember reading the introduction to the first issue of New International magazine of Marxist theory and politics when I was barely 15 years old. The authors were John Riddell, Steve Penner and Steve Clarke, if I’m not mistaken..”
“The summer of 1996 I spent in Habana, Cuba. It was a time that came to be known as the “Special Period”. I didnt know anything back then about an organisation in France called the OCI or Pierre Lambert for that matter.”
I did learn, John, from reading you among others (and I can add John that I loved back then reading your introductions to the Communist International series), that when you represent the opinions and practice of political people, friends or opponents, you have to do it in a concientous and measured way, not in a doctored manner.”
At the end I continued:
“John, reading you and others as a 15 year old boy made me want to come back to Sweden, to help build this movement. That’s the John Riddell among others I remember.”
“And no matter what detours my personal life took, my confidence has grown in the Militant and the SWP. Not because anyone is perfect, but because they are true. True to themselves in the only way one can remain true, trough change, deeper into that class who has nothing to loose..”
And now I go back to the 2002 SWP resolution, under the heading “A deeply political cadre” it says:
“For the back cover of Their Trotsky and Ours, we prepared a brief description of what that book is about. “History shows that small revolutionary organizations will face not only the stern test of wars and repression,” it begins, “but also the potentially shattering opportunities that emerge unexpectedly when strikes and social struggles explode.”
That’s where not only chance but the preparedness that can help turn the unexpected into good luck become decisive. The text continues:
“As that happens, communist parties not only recruit many new members.” And they do recruit under those conditions, more rapidly and in larger numbers than almost anybody in this room can imagine from our own experience in the revolutionary workers movement. In addition to direct individual recruitment, we say, communist parties under those conditions also converge politically with other fighting (my emphasis) forces. They “politically fuse with other workers organizations moving in the same direction and grow into mass proletarian parties contesting to lead workers and farmers to power.””
“This assumes, first of all, “that well beforehand” the cadres of such parties “have absorbed and grown comfortable with a world communist program.” That an international communist perspective has become a political habit; has been internalized; has become a matter of seeming reflex.”
“Second, it assumes that the revolutionary political orientation of such parties is built on the daily activity of cadres who “are proletarian in life and work.” Both are equally important—in life, and in work. That’s what our turn to industry and the industrial trade unions a quarter century ago, and our ongoing efforts to strengthen that course ever since, is about. That’s what makes revolutionary centralism possible. It is not an organizational caricature of proletarian habits. It’s about being where we need to be, among a vanguard of our class, and being there in a structured, disciplined manner.”
Among a vanguard of our class, among a vanguard in becoming. You write reviewing Barry’s book about what’s primarily become of the SWP through the years until the present, if I understand your words “demise” and “downfall” correctly.
I think more about what the SWP is becoming, about what the Party is becoming, what hundreds and yes, thousands right now, of young and old fighters/workers are becoming, through struggle, meeting each other, reading about each other.
For me they are the party, they are the SWP (or what people may come to call that international living tradition in the future), even if the big majority doesnt know it yet. Even if some class-struggle fighters would initially answer as Malcolm did in an YS interview from 1965 with Jack Barnes and Barry Sheppard:
“But I still would be hard pressed to give a specific definition of the overall philosophy which I think is necessary for the liberation of the Black people in this country. ”
Why, because its not an ideological problem primarily in the sense that further collaboration that is commited, disciplined, combative, honest, reveals revolutionary truth about onself in relation to others, trough class action.
In the sense that the class struggle and the further self-confidence of the proletariat through all its ups and downs, in all its manifestations, is revealed in the strikes, lock-outs, in the campuses, in the workers districts, through the mountains, praires and farms, in the struggles of inmates in solitary, trough the fight againts police brutality/murder and so on, in the struggle against one’s “own” imperialism.
Another way the proletariat truly becomes an international class for itself. If you wanna be a part of it, if you strive to be a part of it, in a disciplined, concious and politically collective and individually subordinate way.
“What you are describing here is experience in a united front. In such a joint endeavour, a broad range of forces join in pursuit of a common goal, and each component retains its full freedom to express its own point of view. Such united front activity is the common ground within which working-class activists of many viewpoints and socialist currents can work together respectfully and constructively, while learning from each other. It is also the best arena for revolutionary Marxists demonstrate in life their leadership capabilities and the validity of their ideas.”
Well John, the affirmation of that general truth doesn’t say through what class arena that truth becomes concrete, how the united front becomes an expression, not only of what the workers movement and its political and social structures are right now, but more importantly of what its fighting to become.
The recognition of that truth in general doesnt commit no-one to a definite class practice, to a definite class arena, to a definite class tradition or perspective and the definite ways its embodied trough history, the result of struggles, faction fights, splits and unifications.
The SWP resolution from 2002 continues:
“Third, the nuclei of communist parties need to be made up of those who “derive deep satisfaction from doing politics.” That might seem to be a stretch. But it’s not. Yes, revolutionists can and will have a bad month, a bad three-month period, even a bad year. That’s part of the human condition under capitalism…”
“…But if over the medium and long haul, a party cadre does not derive deep satisfaction from engaging in communist political work, then they can’t live up to the founding rules of the Communist League drafted by Marx and Engels in 1847. One of the “conditions of membership” stated in those rules was “revolutionary energy and zeal in propaganda.” Those were the words Marx and Engels chose for a document placed for vote before delegates to the same congress that assigned them to draft the Communist Manifesto. To be a member meant to conduct propaganda work with “revolutionary energy and zeal.”
And fourth, we say that well before a rise in revolutionary struggles, a communist party needs to have forged a “leadership with an acute sense of what to do next.” What to do now. Today. Not the day after tomorrow. And always concrete.”
Forgive me for the length of this answer John. I want to finish quoting from the last paragraphs of your answer.
“I do not understand this at all. These paragraphs describe a different planet than the one I know. This is a wonderful time in which to be a socialist. Socialism provides hope and direction in a society where there is so much despair. This is a time in which socialists are winning an increasing hearing, including among workers.
But perhaps what your quotation is describing here the situation within the SWP itself. The party has been doggedly following a fixed course for thirty years without gaining ground – indeed, while suffering significant losses. If this is the case, then SWP members should consider alternative tactical approaches.”
Maybe you’re right about my quotation of Cannon from 1953. It’s from a different historical/political time. Maybe it feels poorly chosen or like coming from another planet. I felt more that Cannon speaks to my gut reaction, but not in a sense of despair. And I cannot describe the situation within the SWP since I’m not a member and if I were I wouldn’t, other that through the Party.
The party in becoming who has the right to aspire to a great future as Cannon once said when talking about the SWP.
As I said, I learned from people like you, some years ago in another planet, to take the words and the proletarian class action, history, tradition, perspective and interests they generalize in a truthful way, seriously.
Why do you not like the working-class vanguard in becoming, like a lot of Buddy Howards, and support a concrete united-front class approach through the SWP 2012 campaign? Beause they are the men/women of destiny.
/Ernesto, July 8, 2012
John Riddell: A revolutionary movement must strive to draw together in action workers of different social layers, with different economic status, and with different political opinions.
I agree, Ernesto, that the SWP’s 2012 presidential campaign is a positive initiative, and I wish it well. Let’s note, however, that your portrayal of the SWP’s approach to workers’ unity is identical to what I said in the comments you are criticizing. In a word, the SWP’s “united-front class approach,” as you put it, consists merely of calling on workers to support the initiatives of the SWP. You do not cite any willingness by the SWP to join in unity with other forces and currents in the workers’ movement in common endeavour for shared goals.
You write movingly of your confidence in the SWP as the “working-class vanguard in becoming” and its members as “the men/women of destiny.” But let’s remember that a great many other small Marxist groups make the same claims regarding their own historic importance. How are radicalizing workers to choose among all these small groups? The choice is made, primarily, in the field of action. Unfortunately, in most of the major fields of working-class action, the SWP is not a participant, or is present only in the form of literature tables at movement’s distant edge.
The common excuse offered by the SWP for this abstention is that the left-wing, socialist, and working-class activism we see around us is merely “middle-class radicalism” that does not combat but rather aids capitalism. Certainly we hear right-wing notions from some left-wing activists: apologizing for nuclear power, for example, or for the Zionist state of Israel. But the SWP defines “middle-class radicalism” to include important themes of revolutionary activity, like support of Cuba’s alliance with radical anti-imperialist governments of Latin America; opposition to governments and corporations fueling global warming; opposition to Zionist oppression of the Palestinians. In my previous comments, I noted that the SWP has repeatedly abstained from or opposed major class mobilizations on the excuse of “middle-class” contamination.
“Middle-class” is not a sociological term here but simply a term of abuse for activists and worker militants outside the SWP. And in any case, Marxists have never rejected collaboration with non-proletarian forces. A revolutionary movement must strive to draw together in action workers of different social layers, with different economic status, and with different political opinions.
Advocating and taking part in united action for workers’ needs enables revolutionaries to show workers in life how right-wing misleaders betray the movement and how to achieve a unity that aids the struggle. This is part of the ABCs of Marxism. It is deeply embedded in the SWP’s history. A good way to learn about this mostly hidden record is to read Barry Sheppard’s two volumes on the SWP’s history in the 1960s and 1970s.
Let us hope that the SWP may yet rediscover that heritage and act on it.