The following article was first published in Proletarian Revolution No. 60 (Winter 2000).
As if the Spartacists’ sectarian sideshow at the anti-Klan rally wasn’t enough, their subsequent accounts entered the realm of pure fiction.
Workers Vanguard gave the PDC sole credit for the thousands who turned out, even though on the scene the Spartacists had denounced the main anti-Klan rally as “pro-Klan.” They claimed it was their mobilization that forced the KKKers to shut themselves down halfway through, while in fact they had kept themselves safely two blocks away throughout the pushing and shoving with the cops. And they hailed the whole affair as a triumph of, whereas in reality the unions were distinguished chiefly by their failure to appear. Their October 29 headline, “Labor/Black Mobilization Rides KKK Out of NYC,” was true only in their wildest dreams.
These inventions are so gross, and there were so many witnesses to what actually happened, that there is little need to say more. (Of course, this is hardly the first time WV has lied; see The Spartacist School of Falsification, in PR 55.) But the lies, half-lies and mere whoppers are so interwoven with sectarian confusionism on the method of the united front and how communists intervene in struggles that a serious treatment of their political game-playing is called for.
As our main article points out, the Spartacists puffed themselves up so they could claim theirs was the main event with serious labor backing. Workers Vanguard‘s attempt to explain their low labor turnout, after the fact, was feeble:
Many unions told us that they couldn’t endorse the PDC mobilization because their leadership was split over the question. Nonetheless, a number that didn’t endorse asked for stacks of the PDC’s mobilizing leaflet to put in their union halls. Dennis Rivera, who runs a well-oiled machine in Local 1199, made no overt attempt to mobilize his membership behind Stringer’s “free speech” diversion. Likewise, the hidebound craft-union bureaucrats at the head of the Central Labor Council who endorsed Stringer’s “demonstration for tolerance” did not put out the word that trade unionists should stay away from the labor/black mobilization.
How’s that? The fact that big labor did not actively sabotage the PDC rally proves that it was a labor rally? Rivera’s betrayal of his promise to mobilize against the Klan shows that he favored the Democrat-led rally no more than the PDC’s? The Spartacists’ logic is pathetic.
For all its puffery, WV doesn’t bother to reveal the names of the “many unions” whose poor hands were so tied that they couldn’t mobilize. Instead, it glorifies those union hacks who did put in an appearance:
These unionists, who knew that coming to a mobilization to stop the Klan was serious business, were above all what gave the mobilization its disciplined and determined character. They acted as marshals to protect the mobilization at 100 Centre Street. In the vanguard was SSEU Local 371, led by its president, Charles Ensley, whose members stationed themselves right in front of the speaker’s platform and then led a large contingent from 100 Centre Street to Foley Square a block away, where thousands of others had drifted in the hope of getting closer to the Klan. A thousand edgy cops, with many more in reserve, were restrained by this show of labor power.... For hundreds of students, this was not only their first taste of mass political action, but their first sense of the social power of labor organized in racially integrated unions.
What contempt for workers and youth! A token assemblage of a few unionists is equated with the mass power of the working class. A union hack who brings along four or five associates is acclaimed as the leader of “the vanguard.” A thousand armed cops are restrained by “this show of labor power.” And the marshals at 100 Centre Street are hailed for protecting a demonstration that was never under assault – while militants at 60 Centre Street were constantly being pushed back and forth by cops, with a small number arrested. That’s where the mighty SSEU militia was needed!
WV celebrates the paltry union participation at the PDC rally – even while forced to admit it lacked major union endorsers, never mind participation. Ensley aside, the big union names the PDC listed as endorsers – Larry Adams of the Mail Handlers, Arthur Cheliotes of CWA Local 1180 – neither showed nor sent members. This was no labor rally. (Another point WV somehow fails to mention is that Ensley is tied to the “reform” group of oppositional bureaucrats in DC 37, whose main strategy so far has been to take the union to court to clean it up.)
Some of its lies were so flagrant that Workers Vanguard had to change its story. The October 29 issue gives this account of how the Klan was “stopped”:
Able to show their faces only under the protection of an army of cops, 17 Klansmen cowered outside the New York State Supreme Court, surrounded on all sides by at least 8,000 determined anti-Klan protesters.... As these hooded-and-robed racists scurried back into the courthouse under police escort barely midway through their scheduled rally, the trade unionists and others assembled under the PDC “Labor/Black Mobilization to Stop the KKK!“ banner broke into nonstop chanting: “We stopped the Klan! We stopped the Klan!“
That is, the fact that the PDC paraders chanted that they had stopped the Klan is presented as proof that they actually did so – the only “proof” they could possibly come up with, since no such thing happened.
This first account creatively wove together their description of their rally with the fact that the Klan was overwhelmed – without even mentioning that there were two separate rallies! The only hint of the far larger rally that actually confronted the Klan was the admission that “thousands of others” had “drifted” to Foley Square “in the hope of getting closer to the Klan.” Of course, those thousands had gone there on purpose in the hopes of getting at the KKK, a task from which the Spartacists abstained.
The next issue (November 12) gave up on the “drifted” alibi and came up with this explanation:
The Democrats called for a demonstration of “tolerance” and planned to share a sound permit with the KKK. As it turned out, this diversion wasn’t taken seriously by anyone except the ISO, which was the main group which actively built for it. ... But the crowd that accidentally ended up at that site had been mobilized around the PDC call to stop the KKK.
Yeah, “accidentally” the crowd showed up exactly at the “pro-Klan” rally the PDC urged them to stay away from.
Trying to both justify their separate rally and show off their military savvy, the Spartacists accuse the ISO of steering unknowing victims into the 100 Centre Street location, “which was a police trap.” Of course, given the mass protest, it was correct to join the fight to break through the various divisive barricades, as many (including the LRP) repeatedly did in all the sections. Steering clear of the “police trap” would have meant, like the Spartacists, abandoning the masses at the site and surrendering any possibility of getting to the Klan. The problem with the ISO was not that it was at the wrong place but that it didn’t fight to confront the Klan.
Similarly, WV denounced the PLP for splitting from the PDC rally: “In fact, what PL did was ‘lead’ itself straight into a line of riot cops a short distance away.” The problem with the PLP split, and with ours as well, was not that we ran into the cops (for we soon found a back route to Foley Square) – but that it came too late, thanks to the PDC’s misinformation. Had the PDC itself organized the march, the PLP and others wouldn’t have been marching up the wrong street.
The Spartacists’ potshot at the ISO cited above gives them too much credit, for it was hardly the ISO that built a rally publicized for days in advance in the mass media. Another attack on the ISO is politically wrong:
One group that did rally for the Democratic Party was the Latino Officers Association [LOA], a police group whose banner the ISO spoke in front of.
It is not unprincipled to stand on the same podium as Latino officers at an anti-fascist protest. The point is to denounce the cops and their pro-capitalist and pro-Klan role from that podium, so that the protesters draw the right lesson. This is what the ISO deserves to be criticized for.
By the same token, however, the PDC’s rallies often feature Democratic politicians – again, this alone is no automatic evil. But the Spartacists don’t criticize the Democrats on their podiums any more than the ISO criticizes reform-minded cops on theirs.
WV‘s implication that the LOA should have been excluded from an anti-fascist event misrepresents the communist understanding of the united front against fascism. Temporary tactical blocs with cops have occurred historically. An important example is Trotsky’s advocacy of a bloc with Albert Grzesinsky, the police chief in Berlin in 1932. Trotsky wrote:
Last year I wrote that in the struggle against fascism the Communists were duty-bound to come to a practical agreement not only with the devil and his grandmother, but even with Grzesinsky. This sentence made its way through the entire Stalinist world press. Was better proof needed of the “social fascism” of the Left Opposition? Many comrades had warned me in advance: “They are going to seize on this phrase.” I answered them, “It has been written so they will seize on it. Just let them seize upon this hot iron and burn their fingers. The blockheads must get their lesson.” (The Only Road.)
Only a blockhead would deny that all Latinos, including Latino cops, are among the intended victims of fascism’s genocidal program; therein lies the basis for the LOA’s opposition to the Klan. And only a sectarian would insist as a matter of principle that no bloc can be made with the LOA to stop the Klan. The task for communists was to challenge the LOA to break from the police force if they were serious about fighting the Klan, given that the job of the cops is to protect the Klan, not the protesters – and that there is a long history of police collusion with the Klan. In this way communists would show that we indeed stand for the greatest possible unity against the Klan, and that reform cop groups cannot be trusted to take our side against their “brothers in blue” when push comes to shove. Because the LOA as a group will inevitably side with the police, not the workers and oppressed, the bloc with them could only be temporary (as was the proposed bloc with Grzesinsky).
WV described the PDC rally as “a united-front mobilization, which allowed for the expression of many diverse political viewpoints by all those who shared a commitment to the urgent necessity to stop the KKK.” A united front means unity of the working class in action, through agreement of its mass institutions and parties. The strategy was elaborated by the early Communist International and further developed by Trotsky, during the rise of fascism in Germany in the early 1930’s. Indeed, the Spartacists cite Trotsky’s writings on Germany as a precedent.
Trotsky taught that a working-class united front is the most effective way to fight fascism and other capitalist attacks – at the time when the workers are not united behind a mass revolutionary party but are still divided under different, mainly pro-capitalist, political leaderships. It provides a powerful way for the working class to unite in action without any prior pre-condition of political agreement among different forces. And in the process revolutionaries can expose those misleaderships who refused to carry forward the struggle in the best interest of the class, allowing petty sectarian differences to stand in the way of the necessary fightback.
In New York, however, there could be no real united front in Trotsky’s sense, since the unions and other big organizations refused to mobilize against the Klan’s challenge, and there was no mass workers’ movement to force them to do so. The united-front method could have been used to unite the forces available – but the Spartacists did exactly the opposite. As we note in our main article, they used their political differences with the leadership of the bigger demo as an excuse to not fight for united action.
We have seen how WV‘s sectarianism led them to first deny and then justify the separation of their event from the real anti-Klan action. We have also seen how that sectarianism went hand-in-hand with opportunism: union leaders and Democratic pols who spoke at their rally were never criticized, while any political opponent at 60 Centre Street was tainted as “pro-Klan.”
But in convincing themselves that they engineered a tremendous working-class victory, they seem to have reached a hallucinatory epiphany. The November 12 Workers Vanguard trumpeted on its front page about the supposed sea change in mass consciousness brought about by October 23:
While it is widely understood that Giuliani is the enemy of working people, prior to this rally many workers and black people would have regarded Democrats like Stringer and Sharpton as some kind of alternative. Many workers would have regarded Dennis Rivera, president of 1199/SEIU (health workers) as some form of progressive leaders. Many liberal students would have regarded the ISO as some form of progressive organization. All of these actors are now exposed as enemies of the working class and of all the would-be targets of fascist terror.
Nonsense. Exposed to whom? Few workers cared about Stringer before, during or after. Sharpton, on the other hand, remains one of the most formidable bourgeois opponents, and for those of us interested in the cause of Black liberation in general, there is a sizable struggle ahead to expose him. Likewise, Dennis Rivera and even the ISO retain their “progressive” credentials among their particular audiences.
Sharpton could get away with his no-show at the anti-Klan rally because police brutality is still the central battle for Blacks and Latinos in New York; few see him as a traitor in this fight, much less an enemy, at this time. It will take far deeper struggles, and the honest intervention of revolutionaries, to patiently expose him over time. Exposing Sharpton is not helped by the pseudo-revolutionary left: neither the ISO, which won’t challenge his bourgeois politics in public, nor the SL, which idiotically labels him “pro-Klan” and thereby discredits any accurate criticism of him from the left.
On the subject of exposure, in this article we have exposed how the SL/PDC criminally removed themselves from the genuine anti-Klan action on October 23 and then created a fantasy world of their own to cover up their abstention. Let the Spartacists remove themselves even further from the far more arduous upheavals ahead. The mass of the working class, who have no choice but to fight for their material interests, remain unaware of the huge leap in consciousness they underwent under Spartacist tutelage. Nevertheless, in the years ahead they will learn how to overcome their present misleaders, as well as pompous centrists, and build their own working-class revolutionary party.