Cheerleading for Social Democracy — a critique of Fightback (IMT)

Barry Weisleder

This article is a response to misrepresentations by Fightback leaders, in the Fightback magazine and on the Toronto Young New Democrats Facebook page, committed against the NDP Socialist Caucus and members of Socialist Action. In the history of the international workers’ movement there is an honoured place for serious polemics between tendencies where the argumentation is based on actual political practice in the real world of mass politics. That is our aim here. We hope you find this contribution both interesting and enlightening.

Fightback is the section in Canada of the International Marxist Tendency. The IMT originated in the Committee for a Workers’ International (CWI) and The Militant Tendency* in Britain. The CWI split from the Fourth International in the early 1960s over the issue of ‘entryism’, that is, the policy of working exclusively inside the British Labour Party and similar labour and social democratic parties around the world. A number of FI sections (and pro-FI groups like Socialist Action in English Canada) work inside such parties. At the same time, they are active on a daily basis outside the mass labour parties and have an independent press, self-sponsored events and a very visible public presence. Thus, they are not ‘entryist’.

When Militant quit the British Labour Party in the 1980s (after a number of its leading members were expelled), the minority faction of Militant split away, stayed within the LP, and published the newspaper Socialist Appeal. They launched an ‘entryist’ international, the IMT.

Both factions of the CWI, although they went their separate ways, were marked by policies which showed a political adaptation to imperialism, adaptation to great nation chauvinism, and to sexism. They tend to treat struggles for national liberation, women’s and gay rights as divisive of the working class. And they foster illusions that socialism can be established chiefly by parliamentary legislation, that is, by the nationalization of the top business monopolies. Accompanying this view, not surprisingly, is the idea that fundamental change can occur top-down via the existing bourgeois state apparatus. The CWI and the IMT even argued that Syria and Burma became workers’ states in the 1960s because important parts of their economies were nationalized by the state. (Nationalizations did occur there, temporarily, and merely as concessions in the interest of Capital recovery and survival, while the state remained firmly in the hands of the property-owning ruling classes.)

This top-down concept of change, accompanied by the fostering of illusions in social democracy and the bourgeois state, is linked to defending the ‘unity’ of capitalist states against ‘separatist’ movements of oppressed nations. Such erroneous ideas are all too evident in the politics and practice of Fightback in the Canadian state today.

Fightback is staunchly Canadian-federalist. While it claims to defend Quebec’s right to self-determination, it stands opposed to the struggle for an Independent Socialist Quebec. It lines up with pro-federalist, anti-independence forces (that is, it stands with the right wing) inside the new leftist party Quebec Solidaire. Fightbackseeks repeal of Law 101, the French language law that enjoys the support of the overwhelming majority of the francophone working class, and for which the entire Quebec labour movement fought hard. It calls Law 101 ‘reverse discrimination’ — even though the law asserts the rights of the oppressed French-speaking majority against the privileged English minority! This is reminiscent of American racists and sexists who call affirmative action for Blacks and women an example of ‘reverse discrimination’ against whites and males.

Fightback puts imperialist countries and oppressed countries on the same economic-political level. Following this logic, they are indifferent to Washington’s threats against Iran, concentrating exclusively on opposition to the current Iranian government. This goes even to the extent of fostering illusions in the bourgeois liberal Iranian opposition.

The same applies to the Palestine and Ireland questions. Fightback opposes the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions global campaign against the Zionist state as ‘divisive’. In effect, it calls on Palestinian workers and farmers to subordinate their independent struggles for liberation from occupation and oppression until ‘unity’ can be achieved with Israeli Jewish workers. The latter, in their majority, identify with the chauvinist Israeli ruling class and facilitate the oppression of the Palestinian masses, like many southern U.S. whites once backed Jim Crow laws. Should Palestinians delay their struggle until Israeli workers ‘catch up’? In Ireland, once again, the IMT upholds the ‘rights’ of the Ulster Protestants against the age-old struggle of the Irish working class for genuine self-determination and a united socialist republic. The IMT campaigned against IRA ‘terrorists’, rather than against the terrorist British imperialist state and its continuing occupation of the north of Ireland.

Ironically, for all its emphasis on the need for working class political independence, IMT sections in third world countries join and advocate voting for bourgeois populist parties. Their members actually belong to the corrupt ruling PPP in Pakistan, and urge a vote for the bourgeois PRD in Mexico (the bourgeois faction that split from the PRI, the party that ruled Mexico for over 70 years) and for other bourgeois populist parties.

The top-down approach is reflected in other important ways too. Fightback does not subscribe to the principle of cooperation on the left, or unity in action of different tendencies in the workers’ movement. It rejects coalition-building and spurns the united front approach.

‘Hands off Venezuela’ is a good slogan. But the body that operates under that name is not a genuine democratic coalition or alliance. It is merely a fake-front forFightback. No other organizations belong to it, even though HOV postures as a broad campaign, touting its labour and other endorsements.

Fightback, despite repeated invitations over the past six years, stubbornly refuses to join the NDP Socialist Caucus. The SC is open to every NDP member who wishes to turn the NDP to the left. It is open and welcoming to all groups, as well as to all individuals who share that goal. Tendencies and currents that join the SC retain their identity and autonomy, while pledging to work together when possible. Weak excuses do not explain Fightback’s non-participation in the SC. Least of all do they explain efforts by Fb to persuade those whom they influence to boycott Socialist Caucus events. Even when SC organizers schedule an Fb leader to speak at an SC conference, there is typically a ‘no-show’ and a too-late apology (e.g. Camilo C. in Spring 2010 committed to be a speaker, but failed to appear at the SC federal conference, sent no substitute, and communicated his ‘regrets’ a day later).

Some members of Fb will tell you that they prefer a ‘broader approach’, or ‘a less confrontational’ stance than that practiced by the Socialist Caucus. They also insist that each group should just be left alone ‘to do its own thing’.

We have come to understand what a ‘broader approach’ means. For Fb, apparently, it meant supporting Joe Pantalone for Toronto mayor, and supporting other ‘independent’ pro-business candidates for Toronto city council who had participated in, or endorsed, the Liberal-NDP regime of David Miller. That capitalist city administration raised taxes and user fees on working people. It cut services and forced 30,000 civic workers to go on strike just to defend their benefits and pensions. Fb did not campaign, as Socialist Action and the SC did, for an NDP-Labour slate of candidates based on a Workers’ Agenda, nor for a democratic mechanism to select candidates and to hold them accountable to the working class. For Fb, a ‘broader approach’ also meant hailing Andrea Horwath as the most leftist candidate for ONDP Leader in 2008 (rather than the actually more progressive, more democratic Michael Prue). To make matters worse, Fb proclaimed that the Ontario NDP emerged from that leadership race having ‘shifted to the left’. How laughable is that claim now?

In early 2010, when the ONDP tops undemocratically postponed the Ontario party convention to 2012, a Fb leader signed the SC-initiated petition against the move. But an Fb leader who was present for the debate on this very issue at ONDP Provincial Council refused to get up and speak to it — despite being strongly urged to do so. Incidentally, past Toronto-Centre NDP federal candidate Susan Wallace, with whom Fb has worked closely, played a leading role in that debate at provincial council. So did other prominent figures on the party center and left. But Fb sat on its hands. Why?

A sad example of the so-called ‘broader approach’ of Fb is the way Fb dominates the Toronto Young New Democrats. While the TYND has done some commendable grass roots organizing in the Esplanade Community and beyond, and has recruited dozens of young people to the TYND club and to the NDP, it is increasingly clear that the TYND operates to a large extent as a front for Fightback. This made the TYND vulnerable to attack by the right wing social democratic leaders of the ONDY. And it made defense of the TYND, and defense of the leftist victory at the ONDY Convention in Hamilton in early November 2010, difficult. Fb persuaded the TYND and most members of the successful slate for an Activist and Democratic ONDY to decline a common effort with the SC, SA and potentially other forces to defend the leftist electoral win against right wingers in the Youth and senior NDP officials. The party bureaucracy imposed a ‘re-vote’ on November 28. The right wing stole the ONDY election by packing the ’emergency’ convention, which was ‘conveniently’ held at the site of the next ONDP provincial council. Many of the newly registered ONDY delegates were the sons and daughters of ONDP provincial councillors; they had never before attended an ONDY event, and have not done so since then.

‘Doing its own thing’ is exactly what isolated the TYND in the party. That made it easier for the right wing to carry out a coup in the ONDY.

Fb rhetoric about how the TYND “listens to the people” is not only disingenuous; it belies its actual practice of non-collaboration with other leftists inside and outside the NDP. In other words, it belies its sectarianism. The rhetoric seeks to cover up Fb’s not-so-hidden agenda of insisting on control in any area of political work in which it is engaged.

Fightback has a number of energetic and talented members. They attract youth interest and involvement. But all the energy and talent in the world cannot erase or overcome policies that undermine principled left unity, that capitulate to the labour and NDP bureaucracy, that make concessions to national chauvinism, or that downplay the importance of opposing our own imperialist ruling class and its designs on intervention and domination of Iran and of other oppressed countries in Asia and the Middle East.

As for being ‘confrontational’, the Socialist Caucus pleads guilty, with pride. As the stakes for working people rise in the fourth year of the global capitalist Great Recession, and as the capitulation of labour and social democratic leaders to the corporate agenda increases, the need is for more ‘confrontation’ by the ranks against their mis-leaders. Even to defend the last vestiges of socialism and democracy in the NDP, the working class base of the party must be better organized to ‘confront’ the wrong direction imposed by the party tops. That is how the Socialist Caucus acted, in concert with many other New Democrats, to keep ‘socialism’ in the federal NDP constitution preamble at the June 2011 convention in Vancouver. That is one reason why SC co-chair Barry Weisleder was able to win the NDP nomination in Thornhill provincial riding in September 2011. But when the party brass rescinded the local democratic nomination and the SC launched a campaign to restore party democracy, Fb refused to join the effort, and persuaded the TYND to likewise refrain. That’s one way to avoid ‘confrontation’ — and to avoid the fight for transparency, accountability and democracy in the NDP.

The latest incidents giving rise to this article occurred at the Ontario NDP Convention held in Hamilton, April 13-15, 2012. In Fightback magazine leaders of that group wrote that, although the Socialist Caucus did some good work, the SC played a divisive role in relation to the defense of the interests of Labour and the working class. To argue thusly, and to try to defend Fb’s sectarian stance, the Fb leaders misrepresented what really took place at the convention, especially with regard to the actions of the Socialist Caucus.

SC and SA comrades answered the false claims and omissions of Fb on the latter’s Facebook page. Here are the salient points:

1. The OFL did not designate a slate of candidates for the Ontario NDP Executive. But to the extent that some OFL officers personally indicated support for Andrew Mackenzie, Michael Seaward, etc., they did not in the process back candidates who openly challenged the Ontario Liberal minority government austerity budget. It is for that very reason, the refusal of Mackenzie, etc., to speak openly against Andrea’s soft line on the budget, that led OFL President Sid Ryan to approach Socialist Caucus chair Barry Weisleder to write a referral motion and jointly to wage a floor fight against the brass’ self-congratulatory resolution “Support ONDP Caucus”.
The fact is, except for Sid and CUPE Ontario President Fred Hahn, the “labour leaders” at the convention refused to lead a fight against the party brass – just likeFightback usually refuses to do. That’s why we call Fb a group of cheer leaders for the NDP and Labour tops, or cheer leaders for a faction of the top brass.
2. There is a move to the left within the ranks of labour, but Farshad and Fb confuse the labour ranks with the labour bureaucracy. Of course the labour ranks do, at times, propel segments of the bureaucracy, and propel specific personalities within the bureaucracy into pro-worker action. The rally of 15,000 workers on April 21 in front of the Ontario Legislature is one example. Sid’s approach to the Socialist Caucus is a small and limited example of that too. We do not exaggerate the importance of the latter; we simply note its occurrence and we envision the possibility of future such actions. And we do so, by the way, without any illusions that this might be the way to make the transformation so desperately needed in our unions and the labour-based NDP.
3. It is true that, as Fb writes, “labour leaders have traditionally been on the right wing of the NDP and have been used to attack the left wing”. The point is that those labour leaders are still right wing. They will be only dragged into a fight against austerity ‘kicking and screaming’. Mackenzie and company, members of the out-going ONDP Executive, voted to uphold the rescission of the nomination won by Barry Weisleder in Thornhill NDP, and they blocked the Black, lesbian, elementary school teacher Diana Andrews from seeking the nomination in Etobicoke North. They voted to cancel the ONDP convention in 2010, and voted to overturn the ONDY convention results in 2010. A Marxist knows not to rely on folks like them. Moreover, we know that in engaging any of them in a principled struggle against the bosses, including against austerity measures, that the socialists and the left must maintain our independence from the bureaucracy. The Socialist Caucus slate of candidates (the slate as a whole, mind you, not just one or two individuals on it) represented class independence, a real Workers’ Agenda, against austerity and the labour fakers, against all the anti-democratic elements in the unions and the NDP. By urging a vote for Mackenzie, etc., Fb aligned itself with the opponents of socialism. Fb aligned itself with labour fakers who refused openly to fight Andrea’s soft line on the budget, which ultimately led to supporting the Liberal minority government (on April 24, 2012) which is carrying out the most severe attacks on working people and the poor in Ontario since the dark days of Mike Harris. Are you proud of that, Fb writer and comrade Farshad?
4. How can you argue that the SC claims to have had “secret dealings with Sid Ryan”? There was nothing secret about it. It was an alliance openly made and conducted on the convention floor in front of hundreds of delegates and the mass media. Sid opened the debate at a CON mic on the regressive resolution. Barry moved the referral with instructions a few minutes later, supplying extensive pro-labour, anti-cutbacks arguments. Sid Ryan seconded Barry’s motion of referral. Then, when the convention chair ruled the motion defeated, it was Barry, not “the floor” in general, who demanded a formal vote count – which we won, thus sending the bad resolution to committee for a re-write. Sadly, the article in Fb tries to conceal all this from its readers. In our view, that cannot be an oversight. It is no more an oversight than the Fb failure to report the fact that Barry and the SC led the successful battle at the mics in Vancouver, June 2011, to keep ‘socialism’ in the federal NDP Constitution. When it concerns the Socialist Caucus and its leaders, Fb seems to be allergic to telling the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
5. It is never justified to urge a vote for anti-democratic bureaucrats when it is possible to support a class struggle team of candidates. Fb tries to justify its sectarianism towards the organized left in the party by arguing “that generally, but NOT in all positions, the Socialist Caucus slate served to divide the anti-austerity vote.” That is just plain nonsense.
If that was true, why did the SC resolution “for the unfettered right to strike for all workers” pass unanimously on day two of the convention? And why did Sid Ryan continue to work with the SC on the issue of the successful referral right through the third day of the convention?
What role did Fb play on the convention floor (not in the corridors, thank you very much)? Zero. Nada. Zip.
What role could Fb have played, as part of the SC, or as part of CREDO (the Campaign to Restore Democracy in the Ontario NDP), or as part of a new, open, united front of the party left (if it wished to propose such a thing)? It could have strengthened the struggle for democracy and socialism in the labour-based party. That’s what it could have done.
Instead, Fb puts sectarian considerations ahead of the interests of the working class, ahead of needed unity in action of the left. It makes ridiculous excuses, like this one: “Fb would have to dissolve, or cease doing most of its work, in order to join the SC.”
Everyone knows that there are different currents active in the SC now, along with many unaffiliated individuals. Socialist Action is one such current, although SA supporters are a minority of the SC federal and Ontario steering committees. None of the currents in the SC have dissolved in order to work as part of a diverse and democratic Socialist Caucus. Fb is not expected or required to lower its profile one bit to work with the SC. It is welcome to contribute its time, energy and skills to a joint struggle against capitalist austerity and the labour/party tops. But Fb has refused, refused, refused for six, seven, going on eight years now. It has presented over time a long parade of excuses (“we’re too busy”, “we have different priorities”), but in reality it comes down to political differences: Fb is soft and unprincipled in relation to the labour/NDP bureaucracy (not to mention treacherous on the national question in the Canadian state and abroad). Its IMT sister groups violate working class political independence around the world, from Pakistan to Mexico, which Fb refuses to discuss, no doubt due to its embarrassment and its lack of a coherent socialist argument in support of such misdeeds.
6. Fb argues, no doubt in frustration with its critics on the left, “Just leave us alone. You do your thing, and we’ll do ours.”
Well, that just won’t cut it. As Karl Marx wrote in the Communist Manifesto, “We disdain to conceal our views” on matters of principle, tactics and strategy. So, we will not ‘just leave you alone’ because the alignment of Fb with the labour/NDP bureaucracy is an obstacle, however tiny, to unity on the left. And it is an obstacle to the struggle against austerity and for socialism. Therefore, a very small part of our duty is to wage an unremitting effort to build unity on the left and against capitalist austerity, and therefore we will continue to expose and challenge the unprincipled policies and actions of Fb in our common areas of work.
7. Since it would be better to discuss the above issues openly, honestly and directly, we challenged comrade Farshad, and the Fightback group, to a public debate. Any time, any place that is mutually agreeable, is what we proposed. Fb comrade Arash responded favourably on the TYND Facebook page to the invitation to debate these issues openly and in public. Then Fb ‘leader’ Alex Grant quashed that idea. No way, says he. (By the way, is it up to him, alone, to decide?)

Please, comrade Grant, do not think for a moment that refusal to debate, openly and in public, will enable you to avoid the issues we have addressed. One way or another, the struggle for political clarity and for socialist principles will continue.

While Socialist Action does not focus on the shortcomings and errors of other small tendencies on the radical left, it is important to understand where we do differ. It is important to educate ourselves and others in the Marxist method of strategy, tactics and programme. By engaging in the actual class struggle, where masses of working people are involved, the correctness of our policies and practices will be tested. That is where our differences with other tendencies will become evident, and relevent, and hopefully where they will be resolved in a positive way.

The following is a description of the Militant Tendency found in Wikipedia:

* The Militant tendency was an entryist group within the British Labour Party based around the Militant newspaper that was first published in 1964. It described its politics as descended from Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky .

In 1972, Labour Party conference passed a Militant tendency resolution which committed the next Labour government to introduce “a socialist plan of production based on public ownership”. In 1975, widespread press coverage of the Militant tendency resulted from a Labour Party report of Militant’s entrist tactics. Between 1975 and 1980, attempts by Reg Underhill and others within the leadership of the Labour Party to expel the Militant were rejected by the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee, which appointed a Militant member to the position of National Youth Organiser in 1976.

In 1982, a Labour Party commission found Militant in contravention of clause II, section 3 of the party’s constitution, and declared it ineligible for affiliation to the Labour Party. In 1983, the five members of the ‘Editorial Board’ of the Militant newspaper were expelled from the Labour Party. In 1986, the journalist Michael Crickargued that the Militant was effectively Britain’s fifth biggest party (after Labour, Conservative, Liberal and the SDP) in the early to mid 1980s.

Between 1983 and 1987, the Militant played a leading role in the Liverpool City Council‘s struggle against the Conservative government, which initially won concessions from the government, but ended with the banning and surcharging of 47 Liverpool City Councillors, including up to sixteen Militant supporting councillors, in 1987. From 1985 onwards, a series of moves led by Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock against the Militant ended its influence in the Labour Party, and the loss of its three Militant supporting Labour MPs.

Between 1989 and 1991 the Militant formed and led the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation in a non-payment campaign against the Conservative government’sCommunity Charge (‘poll tax’) legislation. This is widely thought to have led to the downfall of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. After a conference decision in 1991, the Militant tendency decided by a large majority to abandon the Labour Party, arguing that the Labour Party had lost its working class base and become a wholly capitalist party. A minority of the tendency stayed in the Labour Party. The majority first changed its name to Militant Labour and then in 1997 to the Socialist Party. The minority faction formed Socialist Appeal.