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Debate Over Revolutionary Strategy in the Antiwar Movement

[The following is the first part of the majority report presented to the national convention of the Socialist Workers Party in August 1973. The debate was part of an international debate on this subject. The SWP majority position was at that time a minority view in the Fourth International.

Although the Vietnam War is now several decades in the past, very similar issues of strategy and tactics for political protest movements have arisen time and again in subsequent years. Hopefully the discussion here will be of use today.

The full report was printed in the International Internal Discussion Bulletin, Vol X No. 15, published in October 1973. The full article, along with others in the debate, can be found on-line at:

https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/document/fi/iidb-1972-76/index.htm

A list of aliases and acronyms appears at the end of this article.]

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This debate really reflects a fundamental difference over the role of the revolutionary party in the mass movement, which is one of the central points at issue in the discussion on the European perspectives document.

The SWP’s antiwar strategy, from the outset, was based on the realization that there is no dichotomy between the interests of the world class struggle, and the interests of the revolutionary party. To the contrary, the party, as the highest and most conscious expression of the interests of the working class, has the duty to project the course of action that could best advance the class struggle as a whole — in this case, defense of the Vietnamese revolution. The degree to which we could do that was the degree to which we could help radicalize growing numbers of people and recruit to the party itself.

That is how we began, in working out our antiwar strategy. And, we believe, that while different conditions in each country require different tactical approaches, this starting point should have been the same everywhere.

From this starting point, the SWP’s central line in the antiwar movement followed directly. Our goal was to mobilize the largest number of people against the Vietnam war in mass action independent of the ruling class. Our tactics were designed to carry out that aim.

Because of specific conditions in the U. S., these mass mobilizations did not take the form at the outset of strikes or mass GI antiwar actions, but rather protest demonstrations in the streets. As the war went on, antiwar sentiment deepened, the demonstrations grew larger, and protest action became more and more legitimate in the eyes of the masses — and the potential developed for even more effective actions. In May 1970, for example, had the huge student strikes spilled over into the working class as a whole — and this possibility was not far-fetched — it could have brought this country to the brink of a prerevolu¬tionary situation. That possibility, unfortunately, was not realized. Nor did the potential for GI antiwar action take shape on a mass scale. But major working-class or GI actions became possible. And don’t think for a moment that the American ruling class didn’t realize it.

The effectiveness of the antiwar movement, and the potential for it to deepen even further, was one of the central factors inhibiting the imperialists’ ability to pursue the war as they had intended.

This was a confirmation of our line in practice, and a refutation of the alternative lines put forward by our opponents, which threatened to gravely undermine the effectiveness of the antiwar movement. The two main threats we had to contend with were: 1) that of being drawn off the streets and into class-collaborationist politics; 2) that of being diverted into isolated acts and adventures that would isolate the vanguard of the antiwar movement and steer the thrust of the antiwar struggle away from the masses.

We pegged both of these threats at the outset, and we fought them all the way. Small as our party is, we were the essential force in the antiwar movement that kept it on the mass-action course. And we are proud of that role. It was one of the tests of our capacity as revolutionists.

But if we had thought that the war was winding down in 1969, and antiwar activity wasn’t too important any more, as some of the leaders of the present IEC majority thought at the time, or if we had followed IMG leader C. Howard’s recent advice that our “primary thrust [in the U. S. antiwar movement] should have been to attempt to win over the leftists. . . .” (SWP Internal Information Bulletin, No. 3 in 1973, p. 29), or if we had followed the line of Comrade Sterne’s latest document (IIDB, Vol. X, No. 7), which says that in France it was a positive achievement to “break out of the straitjacket of repetitive demonstrations less and less suited to the gravity of the U. S. escalation” and instead engage in what he calls a more “militant style of work” including “exemplary actions that remained small” — then the antiwar movement here would have floundered, and we would have failed the test of revolutionary leadership. No, the sage advice of our new-found experts on antiwar struggle doesn’t sit too well with us. The validity of the SWP’s line was tested and confirmed in life, and that is a lot better than all the glib playmaking of these Monday Morning Quarterbacks.

Now, the growth of this big antiwar movement had other effects. For one thing, it was the key factor in deepening and broadening the radicalization in this country. Comparing 1965 with 1973, the change that has taken place is immense. The biggest factor in causing this radical change was the combination of opposition to the brutal war against the people of Indochina, in the last analysis a result of their heroic struggle, and the cumulative experience of protest actions against that war. These affected masses of people in the U. S. — deeply. No one should have any illusions on this score, and think it was this or that par¬ticular slogan that did the trick. No, these far bigger factors were the main thing.

The ultralefts thought that the way to radicalize masses was to go out with a handful of people shouting radical slogans and engaging in exemplary actions with the masses as spectators. They were wrong. We, on the other hand, brought large numbers of people, through their own experience, into increasing political confrontation with the ruling class. And that is what led to their radicalization. And that is precisely in accord with the method outlined in the Transitional Program.

We should also note that our correct policy in the antiwar movement helped build the party and changed the relationship of forces on the American left. This wasn’t just a matter of numerical recruitment, but also of expanding political influence in the movement as a whole.

I remember the first big antiwar conference— the famous National Coordinating Committee conference held in November 1965. We headed up the left wing against a combination of Stalinists, pacifists, and others. It was a real knock-down, drag-out political battle. We lost the vote. The left wing didn’t even win 30 percent. But we were elated. We regarded it as a great achievement. It was the first time ever on a national scale that we were able to put up a real serious battle against the Stalinists, and through this fight we laid the basis for all our subsequent work.

We’ve come a long way since then. In later years in the antiwar movement, the Stalinists didn’t even attempt to mobilize against us at conferences.

It was our correct strategy in the antiwar movement, more than anything else, that has led to our growth, our catching up with our opponents, and our coming more and more into the center of the American left. By following the same type of strategy in the other forms of the class struggle, we are going to pull way out ahead of our rivals in the coming years.

In his political report at the December 1969 plenum of the IEC, Comrade Germain said that he had to agree with our mass-action strategy because it could have a material effect on the war, even though he thought that it meant sacrificing recruitment. He thought we could have recruited more by a vanguardist approach. That is wrong. We did not sacrifice recruitment. Not at all. Our approach brought us the greatest possible gains for the party. Anyway, if we had turned away from the mass-action line, in order to recruit people to some other line, we would have been recruiting on the basis of the wrong line for the class struggle. That would have been self-defeating. We don’t have two lines— one for the vanguard and one for the masses. We attempt to win radicalizing forces to the correct line that should be projected to advance the class struggle.

Recently, our line has come under fire from some comrades in the SWP and other supporters of the IEC majority on the grounds that alongside our mass-action perspective, we should have projected a line to organize the left wing of the antiwar movement.

Well, we did organize a left wing, composed of the most politically advanced, most conscious forces in the antiwar movement, a left wing that functioned as the spearhead of the movement and from which we won a considerable number of recruits.

Only it’s not quite the people that our critics and advisors have in mind. We didn’t orient to the SDS national office types, who abandoned the antiwar movement the day after their big march on Washington in 1965. They had the idiotic notion that since they couldn’t stop the present war, they were going to carry out the more realistic and more radical task of organizing against the “seventh war from now.” We didn’t orient to the NLF-flag-carrying contingents, who thought it was more important to show how they personally felt than to appeal to the millions who might be able to affect the outcome. We didn’t orient to the advocates of “minority-violence,” who thought, like Comrade Sterne, that the “gravity of the U. S. escalation” required upping the ante, even if it meant “exemplary actions that remained small.” To give them their due, they were partially right— their actions did remain small.

No, we organized a left wing that was more advanced politically than these other types. Its core was the Student Mobilization Committee, together with the National Peace Action Coalition in the most recent period.

The SMC was organized around four basic points: 1) mass action; 2) immediate withdrawal; 3) non-exclusion; 4) democratic decision-making in the movement. It was a rather large left wing, as befits a rather large move¬ment.

Now, the antiwar movement wasn’t always like we have known it in the past couple of years. For example, it was only after a few years of being in a minority that we were able to consistently win a large part of the antiwar movement to the demand for immediate U. S. withdrawal from Vietnam. And, even after this demand was generally won, we still had to fight continually to reaffirm it. The same for the other positions of the SMC and of NPAC.

Based on these points, the SMC and NPAC played a key role in spearheading the mass actions and keeping the movement going during election times and at other periods when the government’s maneuvers threw a lot of antiwar activists off the track. It is true that on these occasions many SMCers were disoriented, but far fewer proportionally than other sectors of the antiwar movement; far fewer, for example, than the advocates of minority violence.

We should remember that although large numbers of people accepted these SMC and NPAC points — at least on occasion— there were varying levels of conscious understanding. Those who lacked a full understanding were often disoriented.

Take the demand for immediate withdrawal. This was accepted as the key slogan on a lot of demonstrations. But its full implications were understood by a relatively small number of antiwar activists; it was best understood by the key core of SMC activists, and their numbers grew as time went on. At bottom, this slogan expresses recognition of the principle of the right of the Vietnamese to self-determination, and the complete denial of any self-proclaimed prerogatives for U. S. imperialism there. The SMC activist, who grasped that the immediate withdrawal demand was a principled demand and respected the right of self-determination, while the demand to “sign now” the proposed treaty contradicted this right, was on a high level. It’s not an easy thing to understand. You have to be pretty advanced.

On this point, even Comrade Sterne himself doesn’t quite get it. He thinks that “sign now” was correct! He doesn’t even know that the difference was one of principle. He says it was just a tactical question.

Were the advocates of minority violence or the “NLF-contingent” people more radical than the SMC activists? They were not. Who do you think attended those SMC conferences? The overwhelming majority were radicalized young people who opposed American imperialism and wanted the Vietnamese people to win. But they also wanted to build an antiwar movement that could appeal to the millions and to the tens of millions and bring out as many of them as possible so that they could actually do something to help the Vietnamese people to win. And that was more important to them than carrying an NLF flag to express their own individual feeling, or bombing symbols of government or corporate power. They were on a higher political level than that. Those were the people we organized in a left wing, and those were the people we recruited to the YSA and the SWP.

Do you want to know why we didn’t organize separate contingents based around the “revolutionary line for antiwar struggle”? Because we were organizing the whole demonstration around the revolutionary line for antiwar struggle. We didn’t have one line for the antiwar movement and another line for the revolutionists. We said: mass action and immediate withdrawal are the things that the revolutionary Marxists stand for. We made sure that the SWP was identified with that line. It helped us gain a hearing for all our ideas, especially from the most serious and most politically advanced sectors of the antiwar movement.

As a result of our policy, we were able to be a part of the leadership of real mass actions. That is no mean achievement for a small party like ours. Our leadership role was not primarily organizational, although we did our share. Our main role was political. We were the essential element which kept the antiwar movement headed in the direction best suited to the needs of the class struggle.

Now, I get the feeling that at least a few of our critics in the IEC majority think that if revolutionary Marxists are in the leadership of masses in this period, then there’s got to be something wrong; that you can put forward the correct line for action at one point, be in a left-wing opposition around that line, but once you win a majority, the time has come to up the ante, raise some other presumably more radical slogans, so you can be in a left-wing opposition again. This is supposedly raising consciousness along the lines spelled out in the Transitional Program.

Everyone knows that our movement began as a Left Opposition. And we generally have to function that way today. But it’s not a matter of choice. There is no virtue in oppositionism as a strategy, and it has nothing in common with the method of the Transitional Program.

I say that I get this feeling about some of our critics because of their vanguardist approach in the European perspectives document. If you begin from the presumed concerns of the vanguard, then oppositionism follows logically. But if you begin from the objective needs of the class struggle, then once you make some headway around the right line, you will want to keep driving forward along that line, drawing ever larger forces behind that banner.

The converse, vanguardist oppositionist line has received its clearest expression in the British International Marxist Group. I refer comrades to two documents: 1) an article by a top IMG leader, Comrade A. Jones, entitled “On the ‘Theory’ of Democratic and Transitional Demands and Other Stupidities.” This is contained in the Fact-Finding Commission Report (SWP Internal Information Bulletin, No. 2 in 1972); 2) the political resolution (Perspectives Document) passed by the IMG in May 1972, co-authored by Comrades A. Jones and C. Howard, another top IMG leader. This is published in SWP Internal Information Bulletin, No. 3 in 1972.

These documents put forward the theory that a transitional demand implies the overthrow of capitalism; that a mass movement around a transitional slogan is therefore impossible outside of a revolutionary situation; that therefore, in ordinary times, revolutionists are doomed to oppositionism. The way the IMG political resolution put it was: “We reject absolutely any conception of the party’s relation to the class being in terms of calls to action or mobilizing the masses.” (P. 65) Instead, the document stated, the task of the party is “to relate to the already active mass” (p. 64) as a left-wing opposition.

This approach has nothing in common with the Transitional Program and the tasks of the revolutionary party.

I don’t know exactly what pressures can cause comrades to think in these terms. Perhaps the experience of European conditions, where Trotskyists generally have to function as minority oppositionists in relation to the much larger Stalinists and Social Democrats has led some comrades to make a virtue of necessity. If so, it certainly shouldn’t be extrapolated to other countries — like the USA, where there is a better relationship of forces on the left.

I bring this speculation up only because some comrades who criticize us have taken the tack of accusing us of extrapolation. One argument we have heard was that in the United States, where you could actually affect the course of the war, the SWP mass-action approach was correct; but in Europe and elsewhere, you couldn’t affect the outcome, so the key task was to use the war issue to recruit, and this necessitated more radical slogans and more militant tactics designed to appeal to the vanguard. Comrade Germain argued along these lines at the 1969 IEC plenum. And we have been accused of extrapolation when we disagreed.

Comrade Germain’s position was wrong on two counts: first, the international antiwar movement could have an effect on the war, and it was the duty of revolutionists to do everything possible to build it; second, the task of the revolutionary party in recruiting is to recruit to the program that speaks to the needs of the class struggle as a whole. In other words, we try to win the most radical elements to the strengths of our program, rather than
adapting our program to their weaknesses and backward¬ness.

Comrade Sterne now offers us a more sophisticated version of Germain’s argument. He says that in the U.S. we should have organized separate, vanguardist contingents in the demonstrations but it was correct to place our main thrust on the lines of mass actions and immediate withdrawal because 1) the U. S. was the aggressor, and 2) politics is more backward here. But in Europe where political life is more advanced, he claims that more radical slogans and more militant exemplary tactics could actually build the largest, most effective antiwar movement And he cites a couple of demonstrations in France on the order of 15,000 or 20,000 to prove his point. He calls these mass demonstrations. And he says that demonstrations like these helped push the big workers organizations like the CP into stepped-up mobilizations and more radical slogans, for fear of losing the initiative.

I should say first of all, that we heartily welcomed the Ligue Communiste’s resumption of antiwar activity. These demonstrations he cites are a step forward from the Ligue’s neglect of antiwar work in the 1969-70 period. Comrade Sterne personally deserves a lot of credit for helping lead the turn back to antiwar activity.

But it is an exaggeration to call these mass demonstra¬tions.

I do not presume to say what was possible in France. Perhaps these were the largest actions that could have been organized. But frankly, I doubt it. In any case, Comrade Sterne’s overall line of approach tends to belie his claim that the goal of the Ligue Communiste was to mobilize the greatest masses, choosing tactics and slogans accordingly. To the contrary, his whole approach is much more consistent with the vanguardist, exemplary-action line that he advances vigorously.

We do not and never did propose extrapolating the specific features of the American antiwar movement all over the world. Tactics and slogans have to be united to the concrete national circumstances. But the basic starting point — that of advancing the class struggle as a whole, rather than beginning from the concerns of the vanguard — should be the same for all sections of the Fourth International. Once that is clear, tactics and slogans will follow accordingly.

There are a few examples of what was possible in other countries. In Britain, for example, the IMG set a real good example a few years ago. On October 22, 1967, the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign, in which the IMG played a leading role, brought out upwards of 50,000 people in London. And a year later, on October 21, 1968, there were 100,000 marchers. What might have been achieved if they had stuck to the same course for a few years, especially given the deepening radicalization in Britain? But the IMG leadership got disoriented by the turn of the last world congress, and abandoned the mass-action approach. And the British antiwar movement never came close to repeating these initial successes.

In Australia, by contrast, the comrades stuck to the mass-action approach. And even though this is a small country in terms of population, and the number of Trotskyists is small too, they were able to play a key role in the antiwar movement there. On a couple of occasions, there were more than 100,000 out on demonstrations in that country. The same for New Zealand, where on several occasions there were demonstrations on the order of 30,000 in this country of two and a half million.

In Australia, the antiwar movement had a big effect. It forced the withdrawal of Australian troops, was a key factor in bringing the Labor Party to power, and set the stage for the beginnings of organized working-class antiwar action— a boycott by the seamen and dockworkers against U. S. shipping. Similar boycotts were initiated in Genoa, Italy, and Copenhagen, Denmark. If generalized, such international actions could have had a big effect on the war.

Other examples could be given. But I think that the main point holds: that the potential for large-scale international antiwar activity existed, going far beyond the far-left groups and individuals. The comrades of the Fourth International should study the experience of Australia and New Zealand, to see how the comrades there were able to maximize the realization of that potential and carry out the elementary duty of revolutionary Marxists in defense of the Vietnamese revolution.

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Aliases and Acronyms used in the document

Germain: Ernest Mandel, a leader of the Fourth International
Alan Jones: John Ross, a leader of the British IMG
C. Howard: Tariq Ali, a leader of the British IMG
Sterne: Pierre Rousset, a leader of the French LCR

IEC: International Executive Committee of the Fourth International
IMG: International Marxist Group (Britain)
LCR: Ligue Communiste Révolutionnaire (France)
NLF: National Liberation Front (Vietnam)
NPAC: National Peace Action Coalition Against the War in Vietnam (USA)
SDS: Students for a Democratic Society (USA)
SMC: Student Mobilization Committee Against the War in Vietnam (USA)
SWP: Socialist Workers Party (USA)
YSA: Young Socialist Alliance (USA)