Skip to main content

Socialist Fightback: "Everyone is sectarian except for us!"

My union local's current strike has, as usual, taken up a lot of my time. Since most of what I would say about a strike I have written before (the limits of trade union consciousness, the trap of economism, the potential to build a red centre to push for a politics that is beyond union militancy, etc.), I wasn't planning to write very much about this round of striking. But the occupation of the York University senate chambers led by the Students for CUPE 3903 coalition, of which the Revolutionary Student Movement (MER-RSM) is an important part, is a development that is unique to this strike and, in the democratic general assemblies and demands that have grown beyond my union local's strike, demonstrates the ways in which union militancy can be used as an opening for more radical demands. Moreover, the way in which the occupation was initiated and the line struggles that defined its development provides some interesting lessons of mass work within united fronts.

The strongest lesson, which is provided by the International Marxist Tendency's (IMT) Toronto branch, "Socialist Fightback", is how not to do mass and united front work.  Fightback was kicked out of the student coalition and then, following this, banned from the non-student Union spaces due to their toxic behaviour. Their recent garbage statement about their ejection, which like everything they write, is filled with inaccuracies and half-truths designed to insure themselves that they are capable of making no mistakes, demonstrates how, inversely, the MER-RSM properly understands mass work within a coalition space. Also, since I'm a supporter of the MER-RSM and a member of CUPE 3903, I am so offended by Fightback's attempt to "smash and grab" within this coalition, and then to write a dishonest defense of its behaviour in the aftermath, I feel the need to write this post. Polemical ire has always been the best energy for these blog posts, after all… But lest anyone think this is simply a regionalist polemic about a sequence in a small strike (which, admittedly, it partially is), there are broader lessons about united front work that can be drawn from this, particularly the ways in which ortho-Trotskyite groups are incapable of performing mass work, doing the minimal amount of social investigation, refusing to be self-critical, and then using dogmatic rhetoric ("Stalinism", "censorship", "sectarianism") to blame everyone else for their short comings.

Indeed, the title of Fightback's defense of its shitty activities says it all: Sectarian Witch-Hunt Against Fightback at York University: Stalinist censorship campaign sabotages student occupation and strike. Basically Fightback was kicked out of the coalition running the occupation, and since then have been kicked out of every union space, and yet they are somehow under the impression that the occupation and the strike itself have somehow been sabotaged without their input. I really need to point this out first: they are so convinced of their importance, despite the fact that they are nothing but an elevated debate club that canvasses for the NDP, that they think the fact they have been rejected by both the student occupation and CUPE 3903 means that the occupation and the strike are in jeopardy! The hubris is enormous, particularly in the case of the latter. They have literally had nothing to do with 3903 strikes, though they like to show up on picket lines with their banners, and have no understanding of what goes into these strikes since they do not participate in them in a meaningful manner. This year there was one union member who was part of their clique, and that's it. But everything must fall apart due to their absence.

The fact that they were kicked out because of their sectarianism is presented as "sectarianism", because a sect incapable of self-criticism believes that it must be included over and above everyone else. Apparently this was a "witch-hunt" which, as we will see, is an entirely offensive use of the term to cast themselves as victims. And the best rhetorical flourish is "Stalinist censorship." I've argued before that the term "Stalinist" is a lazy charge, since it is used to refer to anything that is not Trotskyist and is often contradictory, but here they connect it to complaints about "censorship", the greatest liberal crime. Weird how this dovetails with anti-union complaints about scabs and scabbing.

So let us investigate the sequence of the occupation that led up to the expulsion of Fightback and then its no-platforming in union spaces so as to reject the narrative it has invented in its dishonest statement. This sequence will be based on the position of an observer in the union who is not part of the MER-RSM and involved in the occupation, but a union member who is part of the same political circles as the MER-RSM. The MER-RSM is capable of making its own statement about the internal aspects that the Fightback statement focuses upon. So here is the general sequence from the point of view of the union:

There is an occupation of the York University senate chambers by a student coalition of which the MER-RSM is an important organizational member. Fightback does not participate in the occupation, and in fact fucks off when it happens because they apparently don't think it is the will of the workers (these magical words based on their assumption they understand "the workers" just because). Three hours later Fightback shows up at the occupation and asks to be a part of it and the occupiers let them in because of the need for more bodies and the hope for a general united front.
Fightback take their inclusion to mean that they have the right to depict the occupation as their invention, crafting a Facebook page that depicts it as a Fightback intervention, and start putting their propaganda up over and above all the other propaganda. Whereas the MER-RSM did not try to codify the occupation as an MER-RSM action, and thus withheld their propaganda, because of the ire the coalition feels towards Fightback they are requested to put up their propaganda to counter Fightback's.
A member of the occupation who was a former member of Fightback complains about their involvement because of an experience of sexual assault that was swept under the carpet and is yelled at by Fightback members as "slandering" their organization.
Fightback members do not abide by democratic decisions made by the occupation and instead try to twist all of these decisions into Fightback language. They ignore the united front's election of media delegates and instead try to place their own members in front of the cameras, proving that they cannot function in coalitions.
On the following day when union picket lines end and rank-and-file members decide to visit the occupation they are treated to a general assembly where Fightback members themselves bring up the charge of sexual assault, name the survivor, and threaten her in front of union members. The general assembly finally votes to expel them.
Annoyed by their expulsion, Fightback decides to take the decision to the union to request mediation in the hope that the union will reinstall them in the occupation and somehow recognize their importance. Fightback members gather outside of a Strike Committee meeting to circulate their statements about the situation in the hope that "the workers" will justify their bullshit.
The Strike Committee is annoyed by Fightback and can't understand why it is asked to mediate its expulsion from a student initiative. Instead it votes to recognize the occupation's right to expel them and is more incensed by Fightback's printed statement. One member calls the statement a justification of abuse since it pretends that Fightback has been "at the forefront of struggles for gender equality" and then depicts itself as a victim. The one Fightback union member reads this statement after it has been critiqued and is roundly mocked for reading a justification of abuse.
The Strike Committee discovers that this statement was read, despite criticisms, because the union member was ordered to read it by Fightback no matter what, and a general ire develops.
The Strike Committee brings a motion to the General Membership to expel Fightback from union spaces because of its inability to understand and in fact valorize sexual assault.
Fightback writes a post where, unable to cognize that it could ever make a mistake and high on its self-importance, it claims its expulsion was due to a cabal of "Stalinist-anarchists" who swayed union leadership.

To be clear, until Fightback showed up at the Strike Committee meeting and behaved like a weird sectarian cult, the majority of rank-and-file members who became aware of its behaviour in the occupation were not interested in expelling Fightback's political presence from union spaces. The general consensus, and I was of this opinion as well, was that it made sense to uphold the occupation's decision because of what was witnessed but that there was no reason to "no-platform" (a term they used at the Strike Committee meeting before it was even an idea amongst the rank-and-file) them altogether. The truth is that they weirded out the union, refused to admit that they might be in the wrong, and instead blamed everyone else for their errors. Their sectarian cult echo chamber was so strong, however, that members of the International Marxist Tendency in Scotland were declaring, as if it was fact, that the expulsion of Fightback did indeed "sabotage" the occupation and "demoralized" the strike. (Since the occupation will not be eternal (with or without Fightback), and since the strike is facing the demoralization of a ratification vote, I'm sure these objective factors will be ignored and instead any failure will be ascribed to the banning of Fightback: they really have this high opinion of themselves.)

So what can we learn about mass work through Fightback's inability to perform effective mass work and become universally reviled? The first and most obvious lesson is to do social investigation. Fightback has literally no understanding of how 3903 functions as a union, how a strike develops, and the forces involved. The fact that they could ascribe the local's decision to ban them to a "Stalinist-Anarchist" conspiracy and not to the will of the militant rank-and-file speaks volumes, particularly when a number of the local's red line bargaining proposals have to do with resources and structures for sexual assault survivors. Yelling at a survivor in front of 3903 members committed to these proposals, aside from always being gross, is entirely dismissive of the strike's aims. Pretending that you are above these concerns because of a history of taking sexual assault seriously demonstrates why 3903 wants to win these demands in the first place: the local, like any organization, has had to deal with member-on-member assault and so its militants understand the necessity of establishing clear and rigorous guidelines on this issue. ("Sexual assault happens in numerous organizations including the union," one rank-and-file member said to me a couple weeks ago after she had learned of Fightback's behaviour in the occupation, "But can you imagine if we yelled at a survivor who brought up her complaints at a general membership meeting?")

The second lesson about mass work is to involve yourselves in the struggle in a manner that is authentic rather than cosmetic. Fightback's involvement in 3903 strikes has always been the involvement of a photo-op and nothing more; banning them from 3903 spaces is the banning of their banners and that's all. Basically they show up at struggles so as to brand the struggles as belonging to Fightback, to wave their banner in front of every banner to make it look as if they are "leading the workers" when they put in no time to meet the required needs, struggle it out together with the workers they love to speak for, and do nothing more than make it look as if they are in charge of something they don't understand because of lack of social investigation. To be fair the one Fightback member who was also a member of the union, who walked my line, did do his work and was dedicated to the strike because he was a member. I actually appreciated him because, during the times I picket captained, I could count on him to take on tasks and go to where he was needed. And yet all of this stopped the moment Fightback was castigated in the Strike Committee meeting: he stopped coming to the line, thus demonstrating that his organization was only interested in his involvement if they weren't criticized, and now appears to be effectively isolated from criticism of the rank-and-file. The very workers they valorize to the point of magical thinking (they constantly talk about an abstract "will of the workers" to justify whatever shitty thing they do) are treated with disdain by Fightback leadership. Moreover, when they were involved with the occupation they treated it as a smash and grab site for their organization rather than an opportunity for mass work, annoying everyone involved by trying to brand it as a Fightback initiative, despite not having initiated it, by putting up their posters everywhere and doing the same photo-op shit. Mass work is not public relations.

The third lesson is to respect coalitions and united fronts so as to understand how to carry out principled line struggle within these spaces. The student coalition that voted Fightback out did so because Fightback refused to respect the coalition: they wanted the coalition to agree completely with them and, when it did not, they attempted to launch a coup by targeting a survivor. Coalitions and united fronts are opportunities where an organization can argue a political line and prove this line in practice, but the argument and practice must always operate within the space of coalition agreement. If the line fails to win support then groups in the coalition should respect the democratic will and then, if their line is proved correct when the alternate political line fails, use this as a teachable moment. Coalitions and united fronts are not meant to be smash and grab sites, especially when they are meant to accomplish very clear political goals. Fightback did not care about these goals, or the means to reach them; all they cared about was raiding radical actions they did not initiate so as to grow their own membership.

The criticism they encountered from the coalition and their union presented them with an opportunity to learn from their mistakes but, like all truly dogmatic sects, they proved incapable of thinking through what happened or admitting that they could be mistaken––an attitude that immediately disqualifies them from mass work. To be sure, they are quite adept at using left rhetoric to hide their retrogressive theory and practice. Complaining that their ejection is an attack on left unity sounds good, but hides the fact that the only "unity" they wanted was for everyone to get behind the Fightback brand, and that the unity that actually did emerge was a unity of everyone against Fightback. Complaints about sectarianism, just like complaints about dogmatism, are often thrown about by groups that are truly sectarian and dogmatic to hide the fact that criticism of them are in fact driven by a reaction to sectarian dogmatism… but it is easier for the sectarian dogmatist to believe that everyone else is sectarian and dogmatic, which empirically undermines the complaint, so as to maintain political purity. Charging the union with "Stalinist censorship" is a good way to strengthen the ranks of a Trotskyite organization that uses "Stalinism" to explain multiple non-Trotskyite phenomena; it was always more rhetorical than conceptual, but now it has reached the nadir of meaninglessness: Stalinism is simply that which does not like Fightback, because clearly Fightback would always be loved if it wasn't for some secret Stalinist-Anarchist conspiracy! There is also the charge of "Maoist identity politics" which is entirely jaw-dropping if the reader is familiar with what happened: this so-called "identity politics" didn't originate from the Maoists, nor was it identity politics; Fightback brocialists actively screamed at a survivor, threatening her in such a violent manner that every observer was creeped out. In the successive Strike Committee meeting they didn't think this behaviour was a problem, behaving just like the Socialist Worker Party behaved when it was accused of the same behaviour. Identity politics is indeed a problem that needs to be neutralized within revolutionary movements, but complaining about it inaccurately is also a problem and in fact another type of identity politics. Ironically, Fightback is an organization that is thoroughly identity opportunist because every time it is accused of racism or sexism it trots out a woman of colour member so as to "prove" it has transcended these critiques; it is thoroughly incapable of arguing a political line in a principled manner and in fact relies on identity politics to pass itself off as pure.

When a politics cannot articulate itself except according to conspiratorial explanations, when it cannot think through failed mass work except by blaming the masses, and when it has no practice that finds a home in the movements it claims to represent, then it is a joke. Years ago a former Fightback member told me that his problem with the organization he left was that it was composed of people who wanted to be both Marxists and respectable according to bourgeois ideology. It's about time we realized that such "respectability" is anathema to working class movements and push these sectarian, dogmatic, and identity opportunists out of revolutionary spaces.