BY DOUG JENNESS
In his letter to the Militant, printed in the November 17 issue, reader Howard Brown contends that the paper appears to have recently changed its position from being neutral to opposing the North American Free Trade Agreement and other such trade deals. He refers to a previous letter by reader Roger Annis, who argued that the Militant's position was, until recently, "neutral." He then notes that in a response to Annis I argued that the communist movement has never been neutral on capitalist trade pacts. Brown suggests that my "memory is failing." He writes, "I know from my own experience, when I debated Jenness in your pages in 1993, that at that time he wouldn't have admitted opposition to NAFTA if he'd been beaten by a stick. I'm prepared to take Jenness's word that he was always opposed to NAFTA, but, for tactical reasons (until recently) he was also opposed to saying so explicitly."
Going through the Militant for the past four or five years, it's true that articles and headlines can be found that are ambiguous and may have given the impression of a neutral position. For example, in the November 1993 International Socialist Review, published as a supplement in the Nov. 29, 1993, issue of the Militant, one can find the following headline: "Do workers have a stake in bosses' trade conflicts?" This could be misread - especially if one were so inclined - to say that workers should abstain from taking a stance on the political questions involved in such conflicts.
Overall, however, the coverage was pretty clear, as was the paper's refusal to get caught in the framework of opposing or promoting either of the main capitalist camps in their attempt to use trade deals to deepen the exploitation of workers and domination of oppressed nations worldwide. Even in the 1993 debate with me that he refers to, Brown not only didn't raise the question of "neutrality" but referred explicitly to the opposition to such pacts expressed in the pamphlet Farmers Face the Crisis of the 1990s, which I wrote. In a review of that pamphlet in the November 1992 issue of the Union Farmer, published in Saskatchewan, which was reprinted in the April 5, 1993, Militant, Brown quoted as follows, " `Neither capitalist protectionism nor free trade offers a solution to the price- cost squeeze facing the big majority of working farmers,' Jenness says. `Moreover, both perspectives draw working people into tying their fate to either the "free trade" capitalists or "protectionist" capitalists - all in the name of defending "American" interests.' " So neither a stick nor a lesser instrument was necessary to worm out of me opposition to capitalist trade policies. I said it freely and explicitly.
What was at issue in that discussion was whether or not class-conscious workers should campaign against NAFTA, which is what Brown argued. Not recognizing the political openings for doing this is the "mistaken tactical line" that he refers to in his November 17 letter. He's not explicit in that letter, but he suggests that the Militant appears to have corrected the tactical course that he believes it was erroneously on four years ago.
I would like to argue that that's absurd, but unfortunately in the past few months the Militant has run several articles that give the appearance that it's joined the campaign against NAFTA, the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, and other such deals. These articles reflect an adaptation to economic nationalism of the rulers in Canada or the United States through support to the anti-APEC or anti-NAFTA campaigns of the labor bureaucracy, which are supported by nearly every petty- bourgeois group claiming to be socialist.
Examples of adaptation to nationalism
Two examples help illustrate the problem: the coverage on the anti-APEC protests in the November 17 and December 1 issues and the report on the Twin Cities Militant Labor Forum discussion around "fast track" that was featured on the front page of the November 24 issue.
The November 17 Militant reports favorably on the activities against the APEC trade conference in Vancouver, British Columbia - protests sponsored by the No! To APEC Coalition and the Peoplé Summit on APEC. Militant readers are encouraged to participate, with telephone numbers and E-mail addresses provided to facilitate this.
The same issue also includes an article reporting that Young Socialist participation in the No! To APEC Coalition was discussed extensively at the YS convention in Montreal. In the December 1 issue favorable treatment is given to quotes from a Vancouver Young Socialist who participated in an APEC Youth Forum, organized as part of the APEC People's Summit.
These anti-APEC activities were orchestrated by the trade union bureaucracy and marked by the nationalist campaign to "protect jobs" in their own countries. The anticommunist character to these actions was also evident. On television newscasts in Canada and the United States, among the most common slogans on placards was, "No Trade with Tyrants!" referring to China and Vietnam, two countries where workers' revolutions expropriated the capitalist class, as well as "Free Tibet!" a demand that helps ready military aggression against China.
By promoting participation in these activities, the Militant appeared to be part of the anti-APEC campaign. Participating in these activities made it seem that socialists were part of the "communist wing" of the labor officialdom's efforts, no matter how vocally they spoke against the chauvinist course of the campaign.
Moreover, these activities did not attract the kind of militant workers or revolutionary-minded youth that Militant supporters strive to reach with our opinions. Engaging in debates on issues like this with no regard for the class character of the forces involved has little point. Rather, the goal of class-conscious workers should be to find other fighters who can be attracted to the revolutionary road forward for the working class and with whom we can act together in struggle.
Nor can participating in these kinds of anti-NAFTA and anti- APEC activities -conferences, forums, rallies or petition campaigns - be justified on the grounds that they will help us find out what's happening among the labor officials and their supporters. The central features of their chauvinist, protectionist campaign are already clear. The campaign is reactionary to the core - as reactionary as the course of those promoting NAFTA, APEC, etc. - and socialist workers don't want to have anything to do with it. "Probes" to learn more can only serve to legitimatize it. Instead, we need to keep our eyes on the working-class ranks on the job, at the plant gates, at union meetings, and on picket lines.
Get out of bourgeois framework
The Twin Cities Militant Labor Forum, which the Militant highlighted on the front page, had the same problem as the coverage of the anti-APEC protests. The meeting was presented as a panel of three opponents of "fast track" and NAFTA - a professor who is a leader of the Fair Trade Coalition; an executive board member of a local union; and myself, the Socialist Workers Party candidate for mayor of St. Paul, Minnesota, in the recent election. This lineup gave the appearance that the three speakers had something in common - participation in the anti-NAFTA campaign - and that we were debating our different opinions within that context, sort of like a family dispute.
The Twin Cities forum, like participation in the Vancouver protests, fed the notion that socialist workers somehow have more in common with the anti-NAFTA forces than we do with those beating the drums for NAFTA and APEC. But we are no more anti- APEC or anti-NAFTA than pro-APEC or pro-NAFTA.
The biggest problem with participating in these kinds of activities is that class conscious workers get mired in the framework of a debate occurring within capitalist politics. There isn't a single sentence or slogan that gets at what communists stand for on this. We don't "campaign" for or against the ways the ruling families choose to organize their trade. Both positions are camps of the capitalist rulers that promote different ways to use Washington's imperial power to extend domination over Latin America and Asia.
When workers try to engage the debate from the standpoint of for or against imperialist trade pacts, the capitalist rulers always win because they draw us into arguing for or against how the capitalists should better run and organize their system. If communists were in Congress, they would vote against U.S. participation in NAFTA, APEC, or any other military or economic pact - not because we "reject imperialist trade pacts," but because we oppose the U.S. government speaking in the name of the whole nation as it engineers moves to wield its mighty power. Similarly communists in the legislature would vote against the government's budget as a whole, not just against its "war budget."
One of the dangerous consequences of adaptation to the campaign of the trade union officialdom, including through the pages of the Militant, is that it contributes to disarming working-class militants and revolutionary-minded youth in the face of Washington's war preparations. The chauvinist campaign by the mossbacks who sit astride the labor movement and the assorted petty-bourgeois radicals is part of the political preparations that the exploiting class uses to try to drag the working class into war. The capitalist rulers don't just count on demonizing the adversaries against whom they are preparing an attack; they also bank on economic arguments transmitted by their lieutenants in the labor movement, the union bureaucracy. Their goal is to convince working people that they have common national interests with the employers that stand above class differences. So we're fed demagogy that to protect jobs in "our own country," we need to support "our employers," including in the arena of trade.
Most important, even in the absence of a war drive, when workers come to think of themselves as "Americans" first, last, and always we are hamstrung to fight the bosses and advance the struggle for a just society that puts human needs first, not profits. This means defending the interests of our class, the working class, that has no borders, not the interests of "our nation" or "our country."
After the Clinton administration failed to get "fast track" authority through the latest session of Congress, union officials throughout the country hailed it as a victory and opportunity for working people. But a setback for Clinton isn't automatically a gain for workers. To the contrary, working people are more disoriented as a result of the strengthening of the reactionary, protectionist campaign of the labor officials than they were before. Working people have been softened up a little more for Washington's attempts to ready itself for war, whether against Iraq, Russia, north Korea, China, Cuba, or some other country that it wants to bring to heel.
`Sweat shop' rallies promote `America First'
Some sections of the labor bureaucracy and their supporters attempt to put a social veneer on their arguments. They contend that protectionist measures are necessary to safeguard the environment and to promote better working conditions for workers in other countries. The conferences and other activities against sweatshops, for example, that are being organized throughout this country in recent months are part of this effort. The Nov./Dec. 1997 issue of the NACLA Reporter describes an October 4 action in New York against sweatshops. Protest organizers, the article states, hope that "once parents know that those 101 Dalmations pajamas are made by Third World sweatshop workers .. they will shop elsewhere, pressuring CEOs and investors to rethink their global practices."
"Elsewhere" is transparently "America."
In the November 24 Militant article cited earlier on the Twin Cities forum, I'm quoted as saying that many union officials look at workers of Mexico and other countries "as victims and not as fellow combatants." How the labor fakers see workers in other countries is not the central matter here (many actually view workers here and abroad as trash, pure and simple). The key problem is their nationalist campaign - they try to convince workers to think of themselves as "Americans" above all.
Underneath all the demagogy of protesting pollution, child labor, and abysmal wages one theme emerges - protect jobs in the United States and buy "Made in America" products. The logic of the argument is: environmental protection is so inadequate in Mexico, or whatever country, that we should make sure U.S. companies don't set up operations there and hire Mexican workers. Or working conditions are so bad there - no unions, long working days, unsanitary conditions - that it would be better to make sure those jobs stay in the United States. One way to do this, they contend, is fight against imports from other countries. This is arrogant chauvinism through and through, and undercuts rather than welds international solidarity.
Buchanan's fascist trap
Increasingly the labor bureaucracy and an entire spectrum of petty-bourgeois radicals are walking working people into the "America First" framework of right-wing politicians like Patrick Buchanan. "If I sound like [AFL-CIO President John] Sweeny on the issue of protecting the wages of our workers and keeping manufacturing at home, it is because on this issue, I agree with the AFL-CIO leader," Buchanan wrote in a September 24 column. To my knowledge no refutation of this by Sweeny or any other top AFL-CIO official has appeared.
Far from providing an effective political answer or fight against the fascist-type threat posed by Buchanan and his ilk, the labor bureaucrats and their boosters help grease the skids for the rightist "radicals" to get a broader hearing within the working class. Buchanan is a more consistent, more explicit, and more radical proponent of nationalism.
In a November 19 column Buchanan pronounced the defeat of "fast track" as the "first triumph of blazing new nationalism" and predicted that "when the coming tsunami of Asian exports hits America's shores, flooding our manufacturing base, and drowning industries and factories, the day of the economic nationalist will be at hand." Buchanan rejoices that "The New World Order evanesces as the old world of nation-states reappears. Multilateralism has been discredited; a new era of American unilateralism is upon us."
After the "craven" response of Washington's imperialist rivals and the UN Security Council to the Iraqi government last month, he writes, Washington now stands alone. Increasingly Buchanan and the ultrarightists he speaks for are assuming the leadership of the capitalist war party in the United States. Buchanan has sometimes been referred to as "isolationist" or even "antiwar" for positions such as his opposition to the U.S. government's policy during Washington's assault on Iraq in 1991 or the deployment of U.S. troops in Bosnia under the aegis of the United Nations. But the opposite is the case. Buchanan will mobilize the rightist movement he is building to demand Washington use all its imperial might to support "our boys."
But he's determined to win the war at home first against the working class, as a precondition to do the job right. And then America must do it, unilaterally! "Indeed, if deterrence - the threat of massive retaliation - worked against Stalin and Mao, why would it not work against an Iraq with no navy and air force and a GDP that is but 1 percent of our own?" Buchanan wrote in a column in the December 3 Conservative Chronicle, a weekly compilation of articles by conservative and right-wing writers published Hampton, Iowa. Foreign policy, ultimately, is the fundamental question underlying the ultranationalism of the incipient fascist movement.
In a column in the December 17 Conservative Chronicle, titled "New nationalism overtakes both left and right," Samuel Francis spoke explicitly of the fledgling alliance between ultrarightists and labor tops in campaigning against fast track, indicating that the ultrarightists have emerged stronger as a result. Referring to a New Republic article by Peter Beinart on the "nationalist revolt," Francis said: "When Mr. Beinart speaks of nationalism, he mainly means economic nationalism, the belief promoted by Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan in recent years, that America as a nation possesses an economic interest that `free trade,' favored by both the orthodox left and the orthodox right, doesn't reflect."
He continued, "But nationalism promises to go a bit further than just trade issues.
"Nationalism also underlies the popular revolt against uncontrolled immigration, not only for economic reasons but also for what are basically cultural ones... The cultural dimension of the revolt against immigration also happens to connect with the domestic culture war waged by the religious right and its allies."
On economic and trade issues, the right-wing columnist noted, "protectionists of the right can gain support from allies on the left like Ralph Nader, labor unions and environmentalists. But the protectionists of the left usually run for the hills when their allies on the right start invoking non-economic, cultural and political nationalist themes."
Concentrating his fire on his bourgeois opponents who pushed for fast track, the writer concluded, "They have a good reason to fear, because the nationalism that is beginning to unite Americans of both left and right is the most serious threat to their power yet to appear, and there is no sign that it is going to stop."
This underlines the stakes in doing everything possible to show fellow workers and revolutionary-minded youth a different course, an internationalist perspective, and to have nothing to do with the conferences, forums, and protests of the labor bureaucrats and other peddlers of American nationalism in the labor movement. Socialist workers need to discuss with fighters what capitalism and imperialism are and the need for working people to wage a fight for international solidarity that can lay the basis for the working class wresting power from the capitalist rulers.
Only then will capitalist governments in Washington, Ottawa,
Tokyo, London, and other imperial centers be stopped from using
their power through trade pacts, embargoes, bail-out schemes,
and other such policies to deepen the exploitation and
oppression of working people around the world.
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