The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 78/No. 25      July 14, 2014

Active Workers Conference discusses
opportunities to build proletarian parties today
Projects course to expand readership of ‘Militant’ in
working class and deepen involvement in labor skirmishes,
defense of Cuban Revolution, other political activity
(feature article)
“Never in my years in the party have workers been as receptive to our propaganda as they are now,” Phil Presser, a 20-year veteran member of the Socialist Workers Party, said at a meeting of the party’s branch in Los Angeles a week before the June 19-21 Active Workers Conference in Oberlin, Ohio. Jack Barnes, SWP national secretary, referred to Presser’s remarks in opening his Political Report to the conference, which drew some 320 participants.

There have been periods of greater receptivity in past decades, Barnes said, in the midst of the big mobilizations against Jim Crow segregation in the 1960s, for example, or during steelworkers’ and miners’ battles in the 1970s. But this interest wasn’t sustained for half a decade as it has been today.

This is what socialist workers find as they take the Militant and books on revolutionary working-class politics to workers’ door steps in cities and rural areas; to labor actions, social protests and other political activities; to co-workers in factories and other workplaces. They have developed lasting political relationships with a widening milieu of readers of the socialist press and involved more of them in the fight to free the Cuban Five, support for working people in Ukraine defending their country’s sovereignty, and other political work of the communist movement, Barnes said.

At a rally that concluded the conference, Presser reported on the experiences of communist workers in Los Angeles participating in demonstrations by Walmart and Greyhound workers, as well as protests by postal workers against moves to contract out mail service and slash jobs. Workers expected us to join them and bring the Militant to these actions, Presser said. They expected us to report on their fights and wanted to talk about other struggles and broader political questions around the world. When only two of us showed up at the Walmart action, for example, some asked, “where is Ellie?” She was in a meeting discussing how to use her campaign for California governor, instead of taking the campaign to workers in action! This was a wake-up call for us, said Presser.

We need to use our headquarters as launching pads, trampolines, if you will, Barnes said, to step up involvement in political activity with others and build the communist movement.

“The SWP joins with others in propaganda and activity in the working class, where we find a receptive audience, to mobilize a ‘jury of millions’ that can weigh in on the fight to win freedom for the Cuban Five,” SWP National Committee member Mary-Alice Waters said in a talk titled “The Cuban Five and Our Proletarian Course: Building Worldwide the ‘Jury of Millions’” on the opening day of the conference. Building the jury of millions, Waters said, is a course of proletarian action. It’s not only about the fight to free the Five and win support for the Cuban Revolution, although that is an indispensible part. It’s about taking communist propaganda more broadly to the working class and discussing how to fight effectively.

The propertied rulers hope to overcome the capitalist crisis, to find a way to reverse the slowing growth of production and trade, and to regain higher rates of industrial profit. Since 2007 the bosses have stepped up their decades-long drive to make workers pay for their crisis. While resistance remains episodic today, the crisis has generated more interest in communist politics and receptivity to the need for a working-class, revolutionary course of struggle.

The capitalist ruling families envision a drawn-out, grinding period of stagnation during which they can slowly retire massive balloons of bad debt and lay the basis for renewed economic expansion. Their “plans” are predicated on workers’ grudging acquiescence to years on end of what capitalist economists have proclaimed the “new normal” — lower living standards and worsening social conditions for the working class.

The exploiting class can plan and hope all they want, but what workers do will be the decisive factor, Barnes said. World developments and the thirst for political discussion we find in every section of the working class point to a different future. Without any predictions on timing or scope, we can expect working-class resistance will grow. And when it does, it will upset the rulers’ plans and open new opportunities for the communist movement to grow.

The mobilizations in Ukraine, and their echo in Russia, other former Soviet Republics, and eastern and central Europe, are a powerful example of how resistance by working people can change the political landscape, Barnes said.

Cuba’s proletarian internationalism

The Ukrainian uprising also offers striking confirmation of the SWP’s assessment that U.S. imperialism lost the Cold War with the fall of the Soviet Union and the Stalinist regimes in Eastern and Central Europe in 1989-91, Waters said in her report. Washington and the other imperialist powers can no longer count on the privileged social layer that dominated the Soviet bureaucracy — consolidated through Joseph Stalin’s counterrevolution against the proletarian course of V.I. Lenin and the Bolshevik conquest of power in 1917 — to brutally suppress working people under their rule and sabotage revolutionary struggles around the world.

Workers in this country, and wherever they enter into combat for the interests of their class, from Ukraine to Turkey, can learn from the Cuban Revolution, Waters said. Cuba is the only state in the world guided by proletarian internationalism. The 1975 Programmatic Platform of the Communist Party of Cuba states that the party’s policy is “subordination … of the interests of Cuba to the general interests of the struggle for socialism and communism, of national liberation, of the defeat of imperialism and the elimination of colonialism, neocolonialism and all forms of exploitation and discrimination.” These are not just words, but something Cuba’s working people have put into practice time and again.

Under the leadership of Fidel Castro and other veterans of the revolution that triumphed in 1959, Cuba’s workers and farmers came to the aid of revolutionary struggles of toilers from Algeria to Bolivia to Vietnam. Hundreds of thousands of Cuban volunteer combatants were decisive in the fight of the Angolan people to defend their newly independent nation against invasions by the racist army of apartheid South Africa. Cubans have provided unprecedented medical aid to workers in need around the world, including to more than 25,000 victims of the 1986 nuclear disaster in Chernobyl, aid that continues to this day.

Our party shares this perspective, Waters said. And we proudly point to the steadfastness and revolutionary integrity of the Cuban Five, in the face of imprisonment and attempts by the U.S. rulers to break them, as examples of the kinds of fighters we need to build a party in the U.S. capable of taking political power and establishing a workers and farmers government.

Over the past year, members of the communist movement have begun to step up work with others to advance the international campaign to free the Cuban Five and in the process learn how to most effectively win new layers of working people to the fight. Recently socialist workers took part in the “5 Days for the Cuban 5” activities in Washington, D.C. Over the last six months, Waters said, we’ve gained experience in using prison paintings by Antonio Guerrero, one of the Five, that depict their experiences in the hole during their first year of imprisonment. This strikes a strong chord with workers, many of whom know someone close to them who has had similar experiences with U.S. capitalist “justice.” We can build and improve on these efforts, collaborating with others interested in taking these paintings to more and more working people — from union halls and community centers to trailer parks and churches.

“Chernobyl was not an ‘accident,’ but a murderous consequence of Stalinism,” said Frank Forrestal, speaking on “Chernobyl, Angola, Rectification, and the Course Led by Fidel and Che: The Weight of Subjective and Moral Factors in the Proletarian-Led Transition to Socialism,” one of six classes at the conference.

We found interest in Ukraine about what the Cubans did in Chernobyl, he said, and in what it shows about the difference between the socialist revolution in Cuba and the Stalinist reality they had lived through for decades in Ukraine that they were told was socialism. And workers there found they could learn from the activities and political perspectives of the communist movement in the U.S.

Since the Stalinist counterrevolution in the 1920s, workers and farmers in the former Soviet Union and throughout Eastern and Central Europe have faced continual efforts by the ruling bureaucracy to break their spirit and drive them out of politics. These countries were what Marxists called degenerated or deformed workers states, reflecting both the remnants of the revolutionary battles that overturned capitalism, as well as the counterrevolutionary rule of Stalinist bureaucrats.

During this time class-conscious workers did resist and in some cases rose to fight for a communist course to retake and use the state power — its control of state property, planned economy and monopoly of foreign trade — in the interests of workers and farmers.

In hindsight, Barnes said in his political report, we can now see that the 1956 Hungarian Revolution was a turning point. Workers formed revolutionary councils across the country and fought to retake political power. We correctly thought those events could mark the beginning of proletarian battles in the region to re-establish the revolutionary course and fight for world socialism charted by Karl Marx, Frederick Engels and Lenin. Working people waged mass struggles against Stalinist repression — including in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and Poland in 1980. But with each successive battle the proletarian revolutionary content and continuity receded, as did the leadership role of the working class and communist consciousness.

The revolutionary communist movement celebrated the popular mobilizations that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the crumbling of Stalinist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe, and the coming apart of the Soviet Union in 1991. The emergence of a new capitalist class, a government serving their interests, and capitalist social relations on the ashes of the workers states is an unforeseen and new historical development.

The mobilizations in Ukraine offer stark proof that working people there, far from being cowed, are entering politics and making history. And they are going through experiences and facing challenges that are similar to those workers confront in the U.S. and the rest of the capitalist world.

In Russia, President Vladimir Putin and the capitalists he represents are motivated by fear of the spread of this infection from Ukraine, Barnes said. At the same time the rulers in Russia cannot extinguish political rights. Space for working people is opening up there as the exploiting class tries to put together a stable regime and advance capitalist development. Moscow has to allow members of Pussy Riot to freely travel around the world as they protest and denounce the Putin government. They haven’t even pulled their passports.

Internationally, Barnes said, bourgeois politics is shifting as well. Among the most striking manifestations is the rapid move of conservative and rightist parties leftward to the center, and winning elections as a result. This includes the May 16 electoral victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party), a historically far right Hindu nationalist party, on a platform of “inclusive growth”; the May 26 win of the longtime right-wing U.K. Independence Party in the British elections for European Union Parliament, after expelling a local councilor from the party for making anti-gay and anti-African remarks; the remaking of the traditionally far-right National Front in France into a more mainstream conservative populist party and winning gains in March municipal elections. This month Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran appealed to African-Americans to vote for him as a lesser evil in the Republican primaries, which they did in droves to defeat a Tea Party challenger.

There are expanding opportunities for communist political work around the world, using the Militant and Pathfinder books and taking the fight to free the Cuban Five and other political campaigns to Ukraine, Turkey, Bangladesh and elsewhere.

At the conclusion of the conference, three first-time participants joined the Socialist Workers Party — Sydney Coe, a forklift operator and Teamsters Union member who met the party when he was on strike at Davis Wire in Kent, Washington, in 2012, and José Acosta and Lara Canales from Edinburg, Texas.

“For two years I’ve been carrying out political activity with the party,” Coe told the Militant. “I thought it was time I took the next step. This means I can vote to help decide what we do.”

“I like that the conference focused on what to do,” Acosta, who is moving to Houston along with Canales to join the party branch there, told the Militant. “How to put revolutionary politics into practice. I’m interested in trying to build the party.”

Classes, closing rally

A class entitled “There Are No ‘Laws’ for the Transition from Capitalism to Socialism,” introduced by SWP National Committee members Steve Clark and Tom Fiske, expanded on Barnes’ remarks on what workers faced over decades in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe and served as a complement to the class on Cuba’s revolutionary leadership’s internationalist course in Chernobyl and Angola.

Other conference classes included “The Fight for Women’s Emancipation, 1986 and 2014: What’s Changed?” “The Westward Expansion of Communism in Canada Comes Closer,” “Communism and Revolutionary Centralism: In Defense of Marxism and Struggle for a Proletarian Party ,” and “Defending the Party and Its Program: Socialism on Trial and 50 Years of Covert Operations in the US: Washington’s Political Police and the American Working Class .”

There were more than 15 displays at the back of the hall with photos, captions, charts and other graphics on selling the Militant; broadening working-class support for the Cuban Five; trips to Ukraine, Egypt, Indonesia, Lebanon, Mali and elsewhere; the spread of communist literature in Iran and throughout the region; the work of party supporters in the production and distribution of books by Pathfinder Press; and others.

Also at the back of the room were tables of Pathfinder books for sale. Conference participants bought more than 200 to take home and study.

Friday night a documentary produced for Cuban television was shown on Cuba’s internationalist response to the Chernobyl disaster. Participants also took advantage of meal periods and social events to relax and continue discussion.

Saturday afternoon Barnes, Waters, Clark and Norton Sandler, who presented one of the classes, gave summary remarks tying the reports, classes and discussions at the conference together.

There are new openings for revolutionaries in the world, in Ukraine, Iran, Kurdistan and elsewhere, Barnes said. Political space is opening up in country after country and obstacles to circulate communist literature are shrinking.

The discussion we find ourselves in wherever we go is: What is the road forward? What will it take for us to overthrow capitalism? As workers go through growing struggles, they need to construct and strengthen proletarian parties capable of taking power, Barnes said, as the Cubans did in 1959.

Pathfinder literature is crucial to the political work of the party, Waters said. She spoke about the efforts of the party’s supporters organized in the Print Project, who proofread, design, prepare ads, oversee the printing, run the warehouse and shipping, and organize visits to libraries and bookstores to expand circulation of Pathfinder books.

The supporters held a meeting the day after the conference to plan the next steps in their work, as well as efforts to raise regular monthly contributions to the work of the party.

The concluding rally Saturday evening focused on opportunities coming out of the conference.

John Studer described the experiences of the Militant’s second reporting team to Ukraine, where they met with unionists and workers from the Chernobyl and Zaporizhia nuclear plants, iron ore miners and steelworkers in Kryvyi Rih, manganese miners in Marganets, rocket plant workers in Dnepropetrovsk, and with rail and gas workers in Kharkiv. We are already planning our next return trip, Studer said. He detailed their meeting with 12 women, organizers and beneficiaries of the Cuban program to provide free medical care for those affected in Chernobyl.

Karen Lemieux from Montreal outlined the perspective of members of the Communist League in Canada to build a second branch, for the first time since the 1990s, in western Canada.

Ma’mud Shirvani reported on the expansion of sales of revolutionary literature in Farsi, in Iran, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Over the last five years, Shirvani said, Talaye Porsoo publishing house has sold more than 50,000 books reprinting selections from Pathfinder Press titles.

Ellie García, an aerospace worker in Los Angeles, described her experiences working on the job and in broader politics with a growing number of co-workers who look to the Militant newspaper for political news and perspectives.

Frank Forrestal announced plans for a Militant reporting team leaving straight out of the conference for Turkey to meet with coal miners in the area around Soma, where more than 300 were killed in a May 13 fire at the Eynez mine.

One of the participants at the conference was Yasemin Aydinoglu, a nurse from Elmira, New York, originally from Turkey, who volunteered to go on the team and help with translation. She said she came “to get more of a feeling of the current political situation,” and was looking forward to the trip. “We’re going there for accuracy,” she said, “to find out what the miners are doing and what’s happening.”

For three days following the conference the Socialist Workers Party held its 47th Constitutional Convention, which will be covered in a coming issue.  
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