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A Trotsky Moment?: Warren Montag Interviewed by Juan Dal Maso

Warren Montag, in an interview with Juan Dal Maso, discusses the growing interest in Leon Trotsky and his ideas among young militants and activists, as well as Left intellectuals and academics.

Warren Montag

October 23, 2021
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Warren Montag is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California. He is also one of the leading specialists in the field of Althusserian studies, editor of the journal Décalages, and author of several books, including Philosophy’s Perpetual War: Althusser and his Contemporaries (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013) and The Other Adam Smith (Stanford University Press, 2014), written with Mike Hill, among others.

Montag was a member of a collective oriented to the ideas of Ernest Mandel (1976-1978) and then of the organizations Workers Power (1978-1985) and Solidarity (1985-1990), in which he served on the national committee.

Juan Dal Maso is an Argentinian Marxist and member of the Trotskyist Fraction. His book Hegemony and Class Struggle: Trotsky, Gramsci, and Marxism was published in English this summer by Palgrave Macmillan. Montag wrote the foreword.

You have said that we may be on the verge of a kind of “Trotsky moment” among Left intellectuals and academics, and more importantly among a broad, relatively young layer of militants and activists who identify with socialism and communism. What makes you think this is the case?

When I decided to accept your invitation to write a critique of the Netflix series Trotsky a few years ago, I did so because I had the sense that Trotsky, and to a lesser extent Trotskyism, had become so defamiliarized in the English-speaking world that it might be possible to talk about his theory and practice without having to preemptively respond to the anti-Trotskyist clichés common on both the Left and the Right. Only when I returned after many years to Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution did I realize the extent to which I myself had been affected by this atmosphere. I had forgotten the very elements that had drawn me to Trotsky in the first place, or had forgotten that I had found them first in Trotsky and in a more detailed form than anywhere else. But to answer your question, it is necessary not simply to note that there may now exist the possibility of considering Trotsky’s Marxism in an open and honest way; we must also explain its causes.

In the early 1970s, the weekly newspaper The Guardian, the organ of a fairly diffuse and still evolving Marxist-Leninist movement, published a series of 12 articles by Carl Davidson devoted to the theme “Trotskyism: Left in Form, Right in Essence.” Later published as a pamphlet and reprinted a number of times over the next decade, Davidson’s analysis is useful today both because it functioned as a widely read sourcebook of anti-Trotskyist myths and misconceptions, and because it shows the threat posed by the growth of certain Trotskyist or neo-Trotskyist groups, in particular the Socialist Workers’ Party and the International Socialists, and the important role of the former in building the Anti-War movement and of the latter in establishing itself in the militant wing of the labor movement. Davidson (who has since abandoned his youthful Marxist-Leninism while remaining on the Left) drew heavily from the repertoire of Stalinism but carefully avoided conspiracy theories and refrained from any discussion of Trotsky’s assassination. He did not, however, hesitate to describe “almost the entire Trotskyist movement” as allied with Nixon against the Vietnamese people because of its refusal to replace the demand for the unconditional withdrawal of the U.S. from Vietnam with the demand that Nixon sign the nine-point peace treaty proposed by the Vietnamese. It is clear from the fact that he begins with this disagreement over slogans that Davidson regards the error he ascribes to “almost the entire Trotskyist movement” as so self-evidently wrong that we hardly need more evidence of the “disruptive” role of Trotskyism in all its variants, both historically and in the present.

What is interesting and significant is that in the analysis that follows, Davidson systematically notes that Trotsky disagreed with the Stalinist leadership of the Third International on a series of important struggles: above all, the Chinese Revolution of 1927 and the struggle against fascism in Germany, as if what is important is the fact of the disagreement, the “wrecking” of what would otherwise have been an international Communist consensus. He fails to note that Stalin’s directives (which Trotsky’s criticisms did nothing to hinder) in these cases (to which we might add the example of Spain from the same period) resulted in three of the most consequential defeats for the Communist movement and the international working class in the 20th century. In the case of China, the massacre of Communist cadre in Shanghai and other cities by the KMT, which Mao regarded as the defeat of an entire generation and which ultimately led to the extremely costly Long March to the relative safety of the mountains, marked, according to Davidson, the opening of a period of victorious struggles, not the bleak period Trotsky warned of. Perhaps even more bizarrely, Davidson lauds Mao’s leadership in 1973–74 as internationalist in orientation, even in the face of China’s support for U.S.-backed anti-communist rebel movements such as UNITA in Mozambique and its rush to recognize Pinochet’s government, not to mention Mao’s bizarre attachment to Nixon and Kissinger even as a massive bombing campaign was devastating North Vietnam.

On the question of fascism in Germany, Davidson ridicules the idea of working for a united front between the KPD (the German Communist Party) and the Social Democrats against Hitler, when the latter were aligned with some bourgeois forces, and he endorses the disastrous and sectarian voluntarism of the KPD without confronting the consequences of this strategy. One would hardly know from this pamphlet that these were massive defeats for the Communist movement. What matters to him is not whether the positions of the Comintern proved correct or not in practice, but that Trotsky introduced division into the Communist movement, even to the point of advocating organizational splits. Davidson seems to have forgotten that the Third International originated in a split and demanded that its member organizations separate themselves from those who could not accept its 21 Conditions. For him, the essential nature of Trotskyism is its most objectionable characteristic. The Trotskyists have always been what they are now: “splitters and wreckers of the people’s organizations and movements.” But Trotskyists, he argues, are just as importantly wreckers of their own organizations: their emphasis on internal democracy, their conception of democratic centralism as full freedom of discussion with unity in action, according to Davidson, is a petty bourgeois conception that transforms the revolutionary party into a debating society. Again, his critique is based not on the actual records of the Central Committee of the Bolshevik party — which show that its success depended not on loyalty to a leader but on constant disagreement and debate without limits (until a decision was made by majority vote) that permitted an airing of all possible objections to every course of action — but on a Marxism-Leninism derived from some Stalin-era manual.

Make no mistake: this once popular handbook of anti-Trotskyist arguments is now a dead letter. The socialisms on whose credibility its arguments rested no longer exist, capitalism has been restored in Russia (just as Trotsky had deduced it would, although with a 60-year delay), as well as China (with its specific features), and much more is known about the internal life of the Bolsheviks in 1917, about fascism, and the other historical phenomena to which Davidson refers. While certain tendencies on the Left will cling to these notions, as they cling to Stalin, the power of such arguments is diminished with every year that passes. But the errors of others do not confer truth on Trotsky’s analyses. The important thing is that Trotsky’s works, freed from the “noise” that surrounded them for so long, are readable to a far greater degree than before.

To take advantage of this moment, however, we must also be willing to set aside, if only temporarily, the existing readings produced within the Trotskyist movement. In fact, if Trotsky’s analyses of the causes of these catastrophic defeats are correct, they will be relevant to the Left in general and not simply Trotskyist groups, many of which have produced their own obstacles to reading Trotsky in a new, more careful, and rigorous way. For even though this movement, both in the English-speaking world and internationally, included intellectuals with extensive practical experience, accustomed to thinking at the tactical as well as strategic level, there was a pronounced tendency to transform strategies appropriate to and shaped by specific circumstances into principles. In this way, the strategic possibilities of transitional demands (a concept introduced at the Third Congress of Third International) were eclipsed by the Transitional Program of 1938, which was often treated as unchangeably valid as long as capitalism continued to exist. In a similar way, the idea of permanent revolution was based on the irrefutable tendency of revolutionary movements to overflow the artificial boundaries established by the theory of revolution by stages, as workers took over factories and peasants seized lands from wealthy landowners. The task of revolutionaries was to participate in these movements, encourage them, and give them full material and political support. Their task, however, was not to substitute themselves for the masses, to attempt to carry out revolution by decree, or even less, to declare (usually from afar) themselves revolutionaries who respected the tempo of the mass mobilization, knowing as Trotsky often remarked that the masses understood from daily experience the strengths and weaknesses of both friend and enemy with greater accuracy than intellectuals, betrayers of the revolution. At the same time, when, as was the case in Spain in 1936–37, all (or nearly all) the forces of the Left were united in limiting or even rolling back the gains of workers and peasants for the sake of unity with some element of the bourgeoisie, it is necessary to draw a clear line of demarcation between those who in practice, as well as in theory, support the workers’ and peasants’ mobilization, and those who do not, and to explain to the proponents of the latter position the disaster that is sure to follow and how it could be, or could have been, avoided. For such explanations, abstract principles, or moralistic condemnations of organizations for failing to do what could not be done cannot be effective; only the most concrete and detailed analysis of the conjuncture and the relative strength of the forces involved can serve as a guide for future action.

Which of Trotsky’s ideas in particular do you think are important for understanding the contradictions that shape actually existing capitalism? How can his theories help the Left develop an effective strategy today?

At the present moment, I think the constellation of writings around fascism in Germany are the most directly relevant of Trotsky’s analyses, given both the importance of far-right movements in the U.S. today and the Left’s practical indifference to, if not denial of, the increasing power of these movements, a phenomenon that also existed in pre-1933 Germany, even if its rationalization took different forms, and that Trotsky regarded with ever-increasing alarm.

But at a more fundamental level, the bulk of Trotsky’s post-1917 writing —  from his reflections on military strategy and the documents presented to the first four congresses of the Communist International, to the History of the Russian Revolution and the collections of his articles on China, Germany, France, and Spain — represents a model he continued to adjust and refine until the end of his life, of conjunctural analysis. His break with previous notions of the conjuncture, and the possibilities for effective intervention within it, was possible only insofar as he rejected the two prevailing concepts whose opposition seemed to form the alternatives between which revolutionary organizations were constrained to choose: (1) the model, typical of Social Democracy, of an overriding focus on the economy, its contraction or expansion, rates of productivity and unemployment, followed by the corresponding state of the antagonistic classes and the political organizations that expressed their antagonistic interests; and (2) its opposite, the Left Communist approach that, rather than deriving the strategy of the permanent offensive from a thorough analysis of objective circumstances, found or conjured up the conjuncture required by the theory of the offensive, whose victory was assured by the infallible doctrine of dialectical materialism.

Trotsky turned instead to the model first outlined by Lenin in that interval that began with the February revolution, when Lenin produced masterpieces of analysis on a daily basis, when his thought was outpaced by his writing, his writing outpaced by circumstances (“an extraordinary acceleration of world history”), composing without interruption a reflection on that vast accumulation of contradictions of which his writing was a part and as such would receive the imprint of a significance that would emerge in its specificity only later: “There are no miracles in nature or history, but every abrupt turn in history, and this applies to every revolution, presents such a wealth of content, unfolds such unexpected and specific combinations of forms of struggle and alignment of forces of the contestants, that to the lay mind there is much that must appear miraculous.” While Lenin’s hasty portrait of the overdetermined specificity and complexity of the conjuncture is in fact little more than a gesture, it is a gesture whose force is sufficient to shatter the reassuring determinism of the Second International, and the voluntarism of the ultra-Left. It was left to Trotsky to begin the work of establishing a concept of the conjuncture capable of registering the complexity of its composition, a detailed knowledge of which was necessary to revolutionary strategy.

He did so, but under the conditions granted to him by history, that is, in the practical state, in his studies of the Russian Revolution and counterrevolution, China, Germany, and Spain. His experience in the Civil War taught him valuable lessons for the conduct of the class struggle: strategy cannot be based on a general categorization of the epoch, which requires only the iron will to bring about or “force” revolution. The fantasy of overcoming the obstacles and barriers to mass mobilization on the scale required for a revolutionary challenge, and at the same time weakening and dividing the ruling class and its coalition by sheer will or unshakeable faith, cannot be understood as strategy at all. The determination of where and by what means advances are possible in a given situation begins with an analysis of the relation of forces:

Capitalist society, particularly in Germany, has been on the eve of collapse several times in the last decade and a half; but each time it emerged from the catastrophe. Economic and social prerequisites for the revolution are insufficient by themselves. The political prerequisites are needed, that is, a relation of forces that, if it does not assure victory in advance — there are no such situations in history — at least makes it possible and probable. Strategic calculation, boldness, resolution, later transform the probable into the reality. But no strategy can turn the impossible into the possible.

Instead of general phrases about the deepening of the crisis and the “changing situation,” the Central Committee was duty-bound to point out precisely what the relation of forces is at the present time in the German proletariat, in the trade unions, in the factory committees, what connections the party has with the agricultural workers, etc. These data are open to precise investigation and are not a secret. If Thälmann had the courage openly to enumerate and weigh all the elements of the political situation, he would be compelled to come to the conclusion: in spite of the monstrous crisis of the capitalist system and the considerable growth of Communism in the past period, the party is still too weak to seek to force the revolutionary solution. On the contrary, it is the fascists who strive towards this aim. All the bourgeois parties are ready to assist them in this, the Social Democracy included. For they all fear the Communists more than they do the fascists.

1Trotsky, L., 1931. Against National Communism! [online] Available at: <https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/germany/1931/310825.htm>

If we adopt Trotsky’s account of “How Marxists Ought to Think” and apply it to the U.S. today, we can see that neither a set of predictions based on the calculation that workers will act on the interest attributed to them, nor blueprints for an electoral road to socialism free from all obstacles except deviation from the planned route, qualify as strategy. They in fact require a systematic denial of the real strength of the forces arrayed against the Left and even more importantly of the existence and implementation of the strategy of these forces. This does not mean there exists a shadowy far-right Central Command determining strategy and tactics; in fact, the U.S. military itself is moving away from the notion of an omniscient CENTCOM and toward a looser, more decentered, and interactive approach to strategy based on the notion of “swarm intelligence.” The Far Right, in its heterogeneity, perpetually shifting alliances, and divisions, operates according to a strategy that, while nowhere stated in its entirety and probably not understood by those who implement it, has shown a surprising ability to absorb and respond to defeats and adapt to new and potentially unfavorable circumstances. They are successfully laying the groundwork for overturning elections at every level of government in a growing number of states, through a combination of voter suppression, the takeover of local electoral boards, and the installation of far-right administrations at the municipal level (where votes are counted). Far-right activists have won the right to review the counting of votes with their own organizations with no oversight, even after the results have been tabulated and certified by official bodies.

Not only has the Far Right consolidated the vast majority of Trump voters, despite the predictions of Democrats, but they have also successfully created a national movement of supporters willing to use disruptive tactics to confront local school boards on issues related to the pandemic (mandatory vaccination, mask wearing). In addition, they are expanding their focus to what is taught in schools, especially in the field of U.S. history. The increasing opposition to instruction focused on the importance of racism in U.S. history now includes the demand to present “both sides” of historical phenomena such as slavery and most recently the Holocaust. These activists have learned how to use threats of violence to silence educators, and they often attend meetings armed. There is increasing coordination between these groups and the larger militia movements and street-fighting organizations. Finally, Far-right recruitment among law enforcement and military personnel, the success of which was revealed by the takeover of the Capitol building on January 6, continues unabated, despite the assurances of Pentagon officials.

As Trotsky noted in the cases of Germany and Italy, the visible exercise of power by these groups constitutes a propaganda of the deed; they violate laws with impunity in all but the most spectacular of cases, and law enforcement personnel permit them to do so while brutally attacking any manifestation of what they regard as the Black Lives Matter movement; they are engaged in a cultural counterrevolution to suppress any acknowledgment of the existence, past and present, of racism, misogyny, homophobia, and transphobia in the nation’s schools, and they have defined “critical race theory” and “cultural Marxism” as harmful and “divisive” doctrines that have to be rooted out of the nation’s educational institutions. In each case, they are succeeding through campaigns of disruption, threats, and physical assaults. Their power to impose their views, which represent those of about 30 percent of the electorate — and thus the fact that they represent an electoral minority (although perhaps a slight majority of white male voters) — may “alienate” the majority, but their movement calls into question the right of the majority to rule, especially when the majority is multiracial and now contains an openly socialist component. The power of the Far Right, its power to “get things done” in the campaign to reassert the unquestioned authority of white supremacy, has very real political effects that are not registered in electoral results. This power attracts previously inactive and apolitical Whites and legitimizes their resentment of the growing diversity of the U.S. population, as well as the erosion of their customary racial privileges. Just as importantly, the power of the Far Right, above all its physical power, has instilled fear in the majority, a fear manifested in the growing avoidance of any confrontation with their forces, a ceding of the streets and of public spaces to them, and an unwillingness to oppose in practice their interference with any attempt to contain the pandemic.

Much of the Left has retreated to what it mistakenly believes is its stronghold: the Democratic Party. Moreover, they have done so without any consciousness of having retreated, arguing that Biden’s presidency offers a unique opportunity to roll back decades of neoliberal pillaging of the economy and voter suppression. The failure to address voter suppression, a failure rooted in the nature and composition of the Democratic Party itself, is an error whose magnitude is nearly unimaginable. For one, this failure significantly increases the odds that the Republican Party, benefiting from a diminished, and whiter, electorate, will win the majority in both the House of Representatives and the Senate (a body designed to secure minority rule). Meanwhile, the Right has discovered the efficacy of recall campaigns at every level of government as a means of weakening the resolve and finances especially of progressive Democrats and of discouraging them from speaking out forcefully on “controversial” issues. When the House approved a bill adding a billion dollars to the nearly $4 billion it gives to Israel every year to maintain the Iron Dome defense network, only seven Democrats voted against it, while two others (one of whom was Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) abstained by voting “present.” Many progressive Democrats voted for the bill, despite their declared support for the Palestinian cause, out of fear of provoking a recall (supported by the Right) or a primary challenge (supported by a coalition of the Right and “moderate” Democrats).

This should give us pause: the only possible justification for a strategic focus on electing progressive Democrats is that doing so will allow them to at least begin a process of social transformation by enacting laws that have real effects. In theory, to do so requires a popular mobilization in support of such laws that will only grow as people reap the benefits of redistributive policies and see the need to organize to defend and extend them. The reality, unfortunately, is quite different: the Right has launched a multipronged campaign to distract and exhaust Democrats facing reelection and to intimidate and drive out of office elected officials who oppose their vision of a cultural counterrevolution and neoliberal abandonment as a means of disciplining the restive masses. In addition, they have already succeeded in forging what amounts to a nonintervention agreement with local law enforcement agencies around the country and are preparing a substantial part of its membership for conflict.

To take Trotsky’s analyses seriously means acknowledging this reality and developing a strategy to confront it.

During the last decade of his life, Trotsky developed a special bond with the Trotskyist movement in the U.S. How important is this circumstance for us today?

In rereading the discussions between Trotsky and C. L. R. James that took place in Coyoacán, Mexico, in 1939, I was struck by Trotsky’s extremely detailed knowledge of the SWP and its membership, and his brutally honest appraisal of the limits and weaknesses of the forces making up newly founded Fourth International. And this honesty extended to the question of the SWP’s relation to the increasing militancy among African Americans. Trotsky, disturbed at the party’s apparent inability to relate to the emerging Black movement, approached the question of how to orient to it with absolute openness, animated by a desire to learn as much as possible from C.L.R. James, including his evaluation of the slogan, raised by the Communist Party, of national self-determination focused on the Southern “Black Belt,” where African Americans were concentrated.

All this is known, but what has not been sufficiently noted is Trotsky’s unwavering conviction that racism and white supremacy constituted the central obstacle in the U.S. to the unity of the working class and its ability to wage its struggle. James P. Cannon, the central founding figure of the Trotskyist movement in the U.S., speaks of the “break” that the CPUSA had to make with the entire previous tradition of the Left in the U.S. The tradition was summed up as accepting Black workers into their organizations without prejudice, but also without in any way addressing their “special” oppression on the assumption that to do so would strike white workers as unfair. But the impulse behind the break came not from within the party but from the International, initially Lenin and Trotsky. They had seen that without addressing the special oppression of non-Russian minorities, the revolution could not have succeeded, and that pretending that “everyone is equal” in the face of manifest inequalities between workers according to nationality represents a continuation of national chauvinism.

From this followed Trotsky’s support for James’s argument for an independent Black organization to lead the fight against white supremacy. Recognizing that what James had proposed was “a new type of organization which does not coincide with the traditional forms,” perhaps initiated in part by African American members of the SWP but neither tied to the party, nor a front for it, Trotsky was clear that the purpose of participating in such an organization was not to recruit new members, but to support the self-organization of Black people in the U.S. It was they who could best identify the forms of their oppression and determine how best to fight them. Accomplishing this task would be a major step forward in creating the conditions for common action with white workers.

Everything about these discussions is noteworthy: the desire to understand the complexity of the concrete situation, a recognition of the absolutely unprecedented nature of the present, for which there are no fixed reference points and which thus imposes the necessity of constant innovation, new forms of organization to respond to new forms of struggle. We feel we are in the presence of two individuals who, despite their very different histories, understand each other perfectly, understand what is at stake in their discussions, and refuse to fall back on ideas that belong to an earlier time and cannot realistically help to confront the present. They have no time for fictitious guarantees of victory or even survival. Their only thought is how to tip the balance to forces in favor of the exploited and oppressed.

Do you want to say something else?

Yes. Trotsky wrote ceaselessly, and not only because death was stalking him. The last decade of his life was a time of unprecedented movements and defeats that ended the hopes of a generation. It was for this reason that his analyses were written with such exactitude: they were designed to disentangle from the entire configuration of contradictions and antagonisms the essential lines of force and to show the degree to which the revolutionary forces could have weakened, divided, or defeated the armies of reaction and the concrete strategies and tactics that prevented them from doing so. From these, he knew that a new generation would draw lessons that might, depending on circumstances, help them wage a successful struggle against ever more formidable enemies. But he also taught us how to think, how to analyze a specific conjuncture, and how to identify possible points of intervention. He taught us never to depend on the protection of laws or the outcome of elections, but to count on our own forces alone and to view those arrayed against us without illusions. 

At this very moment, workers have launched a series of strikes across different industries, opening the possibility of creating a more favorable balance of forces, extracting concessions from employers and diminishing the power of capital. This is one of those all-too-rare opportunities for the Left to intervene and provide the support necessary to the workers’ victory and for a broadening of their struggle.

Notes[+]

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Warren Montag

Warren is a professor of English and Comparative Literature at Occidental College in Los Angeles. He is the editor of décalages and author of several books on the works of Adam Smith, Spinoza and Althusser.

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