On Leftist Parties

There’s been a fair amount of back-and-forth recently on several email lists I’m on regarding Workers World Party. WWP is the group without which there would be no International ANSWER, the coalition which organized the hugely successful January 18th peace demonstrations in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco, Ca.

Some people whom I respect have no use for WWP. On a conference call I was on a couple of days ago, one such person described them, to paraphrase, as an “ultra-left, sectarian, marginal group.” Others are critical of them for their unwillingness, going back many years, to be publicly critical of the Soviet Union, China, Saddam Hussein, Milosevic, North Korea, Hamas or just about any country or Third World leader or movement in opposition to the United States government.

Up until last year, I’ve had very few direct dealings with WWP since a very negative experience working with them in a coalition that organized a major national demonstration in D.C. in the spring of 1981. I was not unhappy that for over 20 years our paths rarely crossed, except for an occasional “hi, how ya’ doing” contact at a meeting or a demonstration.

The interactions last year were in connection with the April 20th demonstration in Washington, D.C. There was a lot of “déjà vu-ness” to the experience, harkening back to the spring of 1981. Among the problems coming from ANSWER:

-publicly announcing to the world via email a “unity agrement” between ANSWER and the coalition I was part of, the April 20th United We March Mobilization (A20UWMM), when there wasn’t one, in no way at all, totally short-circuiting and undercutting a process of discussion that was just beginning;

-disregarding a decision that was agreed to, once an overall unity agreement was finally reached, that the youth/student groups from within both the A20UWMM and ANSWER would head up a unified march down Pennsylvania Avenue. Instead of ANSWER youth and students at the front of their side of the march, Palestinians and Arabs were at the front. Most likely, since there had been agreement to prioritize the Palestinian issue given what was happening at the time on the West Bank, if ANSWER had proposed this it would have been agreed to in the negotiations in the last week leading up to the march, but they didn’t do so.

-disregarding decisions that had been painstakingly arrived at regarding the speakers at the joint rally held on the Mall in front of the Capitol. The Palestinian woman proposed by ANSWER who had been agreed to as a co-chair brought to the microphone speakers who had not been agreed to, one of whom said something to the effect of, “we will drive the Jews into the sea.”

-following April 20th, Brian Becker, key WWP/ANSWER leader, wrote an analysis of what happened in which he essentially labeled A20MUWM as a front group for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, a completely distorted and inaccurate charge. As I said in a response to Becker at the time, “There are any number of participating organizations, mine among them, which are forthright and clear in our rejection of both the Republican and Democratic parties, which are consciously building an independent political movement outside the control or influence of either one. I am aware of no organized discussions ever taking place. . . along the lines of Becker’s description.”

I went on to say that, “Narrow approaches are a dead-end for our movement. . . What is needed is an approach that can appeal to millions of people, that connects with and draws strength from the deep-seated traditions of struggle for justice among the peoples who make up this country. This is what we need to fight against the sham ‘war on terrorism,’ U.S. support of Israeli occupation, attacks on our civil liberties and civil rights, racism in all its forms, and the economic terrorism experienced by people from Watts to the Mississippi Delta to Harlem to Colombia, Africa, Argentina, Afghanistan and elsewhere in the world.”

Now, as we face the urgent threat of a bloody, destructive and dangerous war of aggression against Iraq by the U.S. government, there are still two, primary, national peace coalitions, International ANSWER and United for Peace and Justice. UFPJ is in many ways an outgrowth of the A20UWMM. And the question still is, can and should these two efforts find ways to interact with a minimum of friction or, as at least a few people are arguing, should we, in the words of one of them, refuse to “capitulate to, endorse and work with ANSWER” and, instead, “break from them,” “refuse their endorsement,” and “refuse (a) false unity with ANSWER and their unprincipled tactics and message?”

My view is similar to what is was back during the difficult days of interaction leading up to April 20th.

First, I do not believe that International ANSWER is THE answer. But any objective observer can see that they are PART OF the answer. Any group which can pull together the types of actions held on January 18th cannot be discounted as “marginal” or “fringe.”

Second, over the long run I believe that the constellation of groups and the political/tactical/process approach of UFPJ holds much more promise of building and holding together the kind of peace and justice movement needed in this critical period in our history. UFPJ, despite weaknesses, has greater breadth and the potential to broaden out more. From what I have seen it is more democratic and inclusive. As distinct from ANSWER, UFPJ is multi-tactical. ANSWER and the WWP-connected coalitions preceeding it are very good at organizing demonstrations, but I am not aware of WWP ever being actively involved to any significant degree, for example, in lobbying or grassroots pressure on Congress, or work to get city or town councils to issue statements against the war, or nonviolent civil disobedience, or running peace candidates for office. All of these and other creative tactics must be “in the ballpark” as we build our movement.

Third, it is just plain inaccurate to believe that ANSWER is only WWP. ANSWER is a coalition that includes groups like the Kensington Welfare Rights Union, IFCO/Pastors for Peace, the Muslim Student Association of the U.S./Canada and the Mexico Solidarity Network. To disregard this is to refuse to deal in facts.

I have had several concrete experiences which have proven to me that these groups are not just names on paper or on a website. The clearest example is what happened right after 9-11-01 when, a few days after that terrible day, ANSWER put out a statement which said a number of things but did not specifically condemn the hijacking of the planes and the terrorist attacks. I spoke with someone on the ANSWER board about this and was told that he had already contacted WWP leadership to address this issue. Within a day or two, following this input, they revised their statement to include a specific condemnation.

Here’s a thought: perhaps WWP’s experiences in building ANSWER and in working together with the broader peace/justice movement may be having some positive impacts. Perhaps some individuals, at least, are seeing the need to work in a somewhat different way. Granted, those changes might be just “tactical,” driven by a desire to be seen as THE leaders of the overall movement, but, over time, is it out of the question that deeper, more substantive change could happen?

A famous man once said, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” I think it applies here. Have the predominantly white and middle-class peace groups gotten it all together? No. How about the labor movement? No. All of us have our weaknesses and strengths. All of us are, or should be, in a continual process of growth and change.

A friend of mine, Jim Mohn, made an analogy recently on a Green Party listserve I’m part of. He referred to what happened within the labor movement in the late 1940’s and early ‘50s when there was an anti-communist purge within the Congress of Industrial Organizations, the CIO, which at that time was the leading and most militant group within the labor movement, a strong and vibrant labor movement. Eight of 10 “left-led” unions were destroyed as a result of this process. The labor movement was internally divided, stripped of the hard work, willingness to sacrifice and fighting spirit of the members of the Communist Party, USA, the predominant group on the left at that point in time. The result: a labor movement that began a long, slow decline from which it has still not recovered.

Jim’s point was that we should not denigrate and attempt to isolate WWP in a way similar to what the dominant leadership of the labor movement back then did to the CPUSA. He is right, and what he is saying doesn’t just apply to WWP.

There are other leftist (socialist, communist, Marxist) parties that are very active, playing important roles in the overall peace movement. Most of them are either affiliated with UFPJ or are not part of either ANSWER or UFPJ. Some of them can be legitimately criticized for some of the same things that ANSWER can be criticized for. The difference is that none of them is right now in the position that WWP is in as far as their success in building ANSWER. But I can see that if they were there might be similar problems.

We are confronting a short-term war crisis while having to also deal with the longer-term problem of rebuilding a strong and broadly-based, peace and justice movement that is internally democratic and healthy, seriously committed to dealing with racism, sexism, ageism, heterosexism and other negative isms, and, I would submit, humbled by the awareness that how we do our work here in the United States has tremendous ramifications for the entire world. Let’s be upfront and direct with our criticisms of ANSWER or any other group doing serious peace/justice organizing while resisting the impulse to paint them unfairly with a broad brush.

“Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”