Trotskyist LRP opposes draft resistance

by Tim Hall


. Not long after Black Democratic Congressmen John Conyers and Charles Rangel introduced a bill in the House of Representatives January 7 to re-instate military conscription (see article in this issue), their proposed bill received acceptance from a direction that will surprise many people -- from the left, from a Trotskyist organization, the League for a Revolutionary Party. In the Winter 2--3, No. 66, issue of its journal Proletarian Revolution, the LRP wrote:

. "As Revolutionary Marxists, we oppose all bourgeois armies, conscripted or mercenary. But we understand that any capitalist country, above all an imperialist one, relies for its very existence on military force. As Lenin and Trotsky stressed, a mass conscripted army has the virtue of training the working class for its survival in the violent class struggles approaching and for its future revolutionary needs. Moreover, in an unpopular war, a drafted army poses a clear danger for capitalist stability: again, witness the U.S. Army in Vietnam.
. "So we do not join efforts against a draft. Given the reality of imperialism, either they are in effect campaigns for a 'voluntary' army of mercenaries, or they foster absurd, pacifist illusions. Since our ruling class must have an army, we prefer that it be drafted -- not, like Rangel, because an all-out mobilization is necessary to fulfill imperialist goals, but because a 'professional' army is more easily disciplined and more loyal to its bourgeois paymasters."

. This is atrocious. Here the LRP betrays the rich history of the anti-draft struggles of the 1960's, which played a crucial part in the anti-Vietnam War movement. The struggle against the Vietnam War brought to focus the American masses' hatred of US foreign policy and thereby laid the foundation for the anti-war movement of today. It is equally outrageous that the LRP uses the name of a most determinedly anti-militarist revolutionary, V. I. Lenin, to attack an anti-draft position. (We don't know if Trotsky opposed conscription, but we do not consider Trotskyism a revolutionary theory. See "Outline of Trotskyism" by Joseph Green in Vol. 8, No. 3 of Communist Voice for a discussion of Trotsky's over-all politics. )

Some history of U. S. draft resistance

, The main example of draft resistance by the American people to an unjust US imperialist war took place in the 1960's and early '70's, against the Vietnam War. Beginning in 1967, large numbers of youth burned their draft cards, refused conscription and took part in mass demonstrations against it, in rejection of the brutal US aggression against the people of Vietnam. Draft resistance groups were set up all across the country. True, the pacifism which Marxists reject played a big role in these actions, especially at the beginning. But the police focused especially violent attacks on the anti-draft actions, and within a short period of time many young people turned away from pacifism and began to resist the police attacks. At the same time the politics of the young protestors moved to the left, away from pacifism and reformism and toward opposition to the imperialist system itself. Lenin's works and other anti-imperialist literature were increasingly read and studied, as these were recognized as providing a coherent explanation for the aggressive war. Militant student organizations abroad, notably the Japanese Zengakuren, which vigorously resisted police attacks, were looked to as examples for tactics.

. The move to the left of the anti-draft movement accelerated in the summer and fall of 1967. A loose grouping of militant anti-draft groups operating on the fringes of SDS and based in the San Francisco Bay area, Wisconsin, Boston, Cleveland and elsewhere held a meeting to plan a week of actions called "Stop the Draft Week" for October. This meeting, also attended by Black activists from SNCC, was the scene of a sharp struggle against pacifism. The majority of the activists, Black and white, fought for a policy of active resistance, defeating an attempt by David Harris and the passive-resistance group Resistance, which advocated merely turning in draft cards, to derail plans for mass action. In Oakland in October the Bay Area activists began a week-long series of actions. At the start the marchers numbered about 10,000 but pacifists like Joan Baez (then married to Harris) had gained leadership. They led the marchers into a non-violent sit-down at the Oakland induction center. The Oakland police, the most brutal in the Bay area, attacked and clubbed the marchers severely and broke up the demonstration. Throughout the week, actions took place as the militants advocated a fighting stand. By the following weekend the militants had gained the leadership and a huge informal army of activists marched out of Berkeley, armed with helmets and shields, and defeated the police attacks, literally pushing the out-numbered police off the streets of downtown Oakland, to the great glee of most bystanders. After holding the streets for a few hours, the demonstrators declared victory and dispersed before the National Guard, called out by the governor, could arrive. Similar successful actions took place elsewhere that day, notably in Cleveland, where repeated police attacks failed to disperse the helmeted and shielded activists of the Cleveland Draft Resistance Union.

. These successful militant anti-draft actions gave a tremendous boost of confidence to the anti-war and student movement, showing it that police repression could be fought. Confrontations with the authorities became more common. Actions like these encouraged Black revolutionaries like Malcolm X to see revolutionary forces in white America, undermining the narrow nationalism which justifies itself by claiming the isolation of the Black liberation struggle. And this spirit of vigorous resistance to repression encouraged working-class youth generally, often suspicious of reformism and pacifism, to see the anti-war and anti-draft movement as a vehicle for their own anger.

. Furthermore, as the anti-draft groups became more militant and developed a greater anti-imperialist class-consciousness they began to draw towards themselves discontented soldiers. In Cleveland and elsewhere, returning combat veterans joined anti-draft groups and went on speaking tours against the war. Anti-draft groups and other anti-war groups began to actively approach soldiers. Coffee houses were set up in towns near military bases, where soldiers could come and read anti-war literature and discuss politics. A few anti-draft activists purposely joined the Army in order to organize against the war, one of them launching a highly popular anti-war newspaper at Fort Knox, Kentucky, called FTA (Fuck The Army). The anti-draft movement became one of the main avenues by which anti-war consciousness was spread among the soldiers.

. In short, then, the anti-draft movement of the 1960's sharpened the militancy of the anti-war movement, gave it vigorous examples in action of successful resistance to police repression, contributed to a working-class and anti-imperialist viewpoint in the movement, greatly increased the movement's appeal to working class youth in general and to the rebelling Black masses, and contributed heavily to spreading anti-war sentiment among the soldiers at home and in the war theater. (In fact, anti-draft activity played a large part in rendering the drafted army the "clear danger to capitalist stability" that the LRP recognizes it became during Vietnam. )

LRP dogmatism excuses militarism

. If the anti-draft movement of that time accomplished these things, why would an allegedly Marxist organization like the LRP oppose the fight against conscription? It can only be because they overlook real history and misinterpret the views of someone like Lenin to support their willful ignorance.

. Since we have summed up recent US draft resistance, let's see where Lenin really stood with regard to conscription. Then, in conclusion, let us see which stand more closely approaches Lenin's advice on opposing imperialist war -- LRP's acceptance of conscription, or the practice of the US anti-draft movement.

. Contrary to LRP's assertion, Lenin was in fact a staunch opponent of conscription for the reactionary bourgeois military machine. In a lecture he delivered in May of 1917 entitled "War and Revolution" he talked specifically about the prospect of conscription in America, which the U. S. capitalists were then considering: ".  .  . it is difficult to conceive them [the American people -- T. H. ] standing for compulsory military service, for the setting up of an army pursuing any aims of conquest. .  .  . "(1) Lenin was not only opposed to a standing army, he was even opposed to a bourgeois militia. He wrote in 1916: "On the question of a militia, we should say: We are not in favor of a bourgeois militia; we are in favor only of a proletarian militia. Therefore, 'not a penny, not a man,' not only for a standing army, but even for a bourgeois militia, even in countries like the United States, Switzerland, Norway, etc. "(2)

. This would seem to be clear enough.

The possible source of LRP'S blunder

. But if the matter is clear enough, where did the LRP get the idea that Lenin did not oppose capitalist conscription? Most likely they got it by misunderstanding earlier passages in the article quoted above. The target of the article is the disarmament slogan that some revolutionaries put forward as the central answer of the proletariat to World War I. In reply, Lenin attacked pacifism in general and showed how the revolutionary working class is not opposed to all wars but only to the predatory, aggressive wars of the bourgeoisie. He showed how the workers must support and prepare for revolutionary war against the bourgeoisie. For this purpose, in addition to class-consciousness and revolutionary organization, the workers must obtain arms and military training. Therefore, the proletariat cannot promote the illusion of general disarmament under imperialism.

. Lenin went on to show that capitalist imperialism as it decays, brings horror without end (as we see today) for the working class of all countries. One element of horror is the extreme militarization of many aspects of life. Lenin cites the coercion of workers into the military as one of these horrors. Working-class youth were then, as during the Vietnam War, being press-ganged into the capitalist military to kill and die for the profits of the parasitic rich. Such militarization -- and imperialist war -- could not be stopped by raising the pacifist disarmament slogan, or by any means other than revolutionary war. Therefore, Lenin said, the workers should not recoil in horror at compulsory military service but should utilize it to acquire military training that will help them overthrow the bourgeoisie. Thus Lenin's stand on conscription does not at all resemble the LRP's claim that he accepted it without a fight. His stand, in fact, was two-fold: on the one hand he called for an all-out fight against the creation and strengthening of a bourgeois standing army, including a fight against conscription. On the other hand, Lenin held, where the bourgeoisie succeeds in implementing conscription the workers should use the military training that results for their own benefit in the class struggle. Lenin called for both a struggle against militarization and conscription and a utilization of it.

The implications of Lenin's policy on conscription
for LRP'S acceptance of it

. What does this policy of Lenin's tell us about the LRP's acceptance of conscription? It tells us that the LRP is giving up an important element of the struggle against militarism and imperialism. Going passively into the military betrays the fiery spirit of resistance that the young workers and students showed in the 60's in the US and show in the mass demonstrations of today. The LRP abandons a potential cutting edge of the struggle against imperialism and loses a golden opportunity to expose the liberal imperialists Conyers and Rangel, whose proposed draft bill reveals their true imperialist nature. Throughout his wartime writings Lenin stressed arousing the working people to active struggle against the imperialist bourgeoisie, drawing broader sections of the workers and soldiers into the struggle, directing the struggle against all the parties of imperialism, and developing mass actions that take on a more and more openly confrontational nature against the authorities, including resistance to the attacks of the armed bodies of the capitalist state -- the police, etc. Our summary of the draft resistance of the 1960's shows that such resistance, carried out properly, can contribute greatly to the development of just that sort of struggle.

. We should oppose the re-introduction of the draft. This is the Leninist path. Acceptance of the Conyers-Rangel bill will only weaken mass resistance to the militarism of the bourgeoisie. The LRP's stand harms the development of an anti-imperialist movement.


(1) Collected Works, vol. 24, p. 417. (Return to text)

(2) Collected Works, "The Military Programme of the Proletarian Revolution," vol. 23, p. 85. (Text)

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Last modified: May 25, 2003.