Friday, March 18, 2011

The Trade Unions in Britain (September 1933)

The Trade Unions in Britain (September 1933) by Leon Trotsky

The trade union question remains the most important question of working class policy in Great Britain, as well as in the majority of old capitalist countries. The mistakes of the Comintern in this field are innumerable. No wonder: a party’s inability to establish correct relations with the class reveals itself most glaringly in the area of the trade union movement. That is why I consider it necessary to dwell on this question.

The trade unions were formed during the period of the growth and rise of capitalism. They had as their task the raising of the material and cultural level of the proletariat and the extension of its political rights. This work, which in England lasted over a century, gave the trade unions tremendous authority among the workers. The decay of British capitalism, under the conditions of decline of the world capitalist system, undermined the basis for the reformist work of the trade unions. Capitalism can continue to maintain itself only by lowering the standard of living of the working class. Under these conditions trade unions can either transform themselves into revolutionary organisations or become lieutenants of capital in the intensified exploitation. of the workers. The trade union bureaucracy, which has satisfactorily solved its own social problem, took the second path. It turned all the accumulated authority of the trade unions against the socialist revolution and even against any attempts of the workers to resist the attacks of capital and reaction.

From that point on, the most important task of the revolutionary party became the liberation of the workers from the reactionary influence of the trade union bureaucracy. In this decisive field the Comintern revealed complete inadequacy. In 1926-27, especially in the period of the miners’ strike and the General Strike, that is, at the time of the greatest crimes and betrayals of the General Council of the trade unions, the Comintern obsequiously toadied to the highly placed strikebreakers, cloaked them with its authority in the eyes of the masses, and helped them remain in the saddle. That is how the Minority Movement was struck a mortal blow. Frightened by the results of its own work, the Comintern bureaucracy went to the extreme of ultra-radicalism. The fatal excesses of the “third period” were due to the desire of the small Communist minority to act as though it had a majority behind it. Isolating itself more and more from the working class, the Communist Party counterposed to the trade unions, which embraced millions of workers, its own trade union organisations, highly obedient to the leadership of the Comintern but separated by an abyss from the working class. No better favour could be done for the trade union bureaucracy. Had it been with its power to award the Order of the Garter, it should have so decorated all the leaders of the Comintern and Profintern.

As was said, the trade unions now play not a progressive but a reactionary role. Nevertheless they still embrace millions of workers. One must not think that the workers are blind and do not see the change in the historic role of the trade unions. But what is to be done? The revolutionary road is seriously compromised in the eyes of the left wing of the workers by the zigzags and adventures of official communism. The workers say to themselves: The trade unions are bad, but without them it might be even worse. This is the psychology of being in a blind alley. Meanwhile, the trade union bureaucracy persecutes the revolutionary workers ever more boldly, ever more impudently replacing internal democracy by the arbitrary action of a clique, in essence transforming the trade unions into some sort of concentration camp for the workers during the decline of capitalism.

Under these conditions, the thought easily arises: Is it not possible to bypass the trade unions? Is it not possible to replace them by some sort of fresh, uncorrupted organisation of the type of revolutionary trade unions, shop committees, soviets, and the like? The fundamental mistake of such attempts lies in that they reduce to organisational experiments the great political problem of how to free the masses from the influence of the trade union bureaucracy. It is not enough to offer the masses a new address. It is necessary to seek out the masses where they are and to lead them.

Impatient leftists sometimes say that it is absolutely impossible to win over the trade unions because the bureaucracy uses the organisations’ internal regimes for preserving its own interests, resorting to the basest machinations, repression and plain crookedness, in the spirit of the parliamentary oligarchy of the era of “rotten boroughs!’ Why then waste time and energy? This argument reduces itself in reality to giving up the actual struggle to win the masses, using the corrupt character of the trade union bureaucracy as a pretext. This argument can be developed further: Why not abandon revolutionary work altogether, considering the repression and provocations on the part of the government bureaucracy? There exists no principled difference here, since the trade union bureaucracy has definitely become a part of the capitalist apparatus, economic and governmental. It is absurd to think that it would be possible to work against the trade union bureaucracy with its own help, or only with its consent. Insofar as it defends itself by persecutions, violence, expulsions, frequently resorting to the assistance of government authorities, we must learn to work in the trade unions discreetly, finding a common language with the masses but not revealing ourselves prematurely to the bureaucracy. It is precisely in the present epoch, when the reformist bureaucracy of the proletariat has transformed itself into the economic police of capital, that revolutionary work in the trade unions, performed intelligently and systematically, may yield decisive results in a comparatively short time.

We do not at all mean by this that the revolutionary party has any guarantee that the trade unions. will be completely won over to the socialist revolution. The problem is not so simple. The trade union apparatus has attained for itself great independence from the masses. The bureaucracy is capable of retaining its positions a long time after the masses have turned against it. But it is precisely such a situation, where the masses are already hostile to the trade union bureaucracy but where the bureaucracy is still capable of misrepresenting the opinion of the organisation and of sabotaging new elections, that is most favourable for the creation of shop committees, workers’ councils, and other organisations for the immediate needs of any given moment. Even in Russia, where the trade unions did not have anything like the powerful traditions of the British trade unions, the October Revolution occurred with Mensheviks predominant in the administration of the trade unions. Having lost the masses, these administrations were still capable of sabotaging elections in the apparatus, although already powerless to sabotage the proletarian revolution.

It is absolutely necessary right now to prepare the minds of the advanced workers for the idea of creating shop committees and workers’ councils at the moment of a sharp change. But it would be the greatest mistake to “play around” in practice with the slogan of shop councils, consoling oneself, with this “Idea,” for the lack of real work and real influence in the trade unions. To counterpose to the existing trade unions the abstract idea of workers’ councils would mean setting against oneself not only the bureaucracy but also the masses, thus depriving oneself of the possibility of preparing the ground for the creation of workers’ councils.

In this the Comintern has gained not a little experience: having created obedient that is, purely Communist trade unions, it counterposed its sections to the working masses in a hostile manner and thereby doomed itself to complete impotence. This is one of the most important causes of the collapse of the German Communist Party. It is true that the British Communist Party, insofar as I am informed, opposes the slogan of workers’ councils under the present conditions. Superficially, this may seem like a realistic appraisal of the situation. In reality, the British Communist Party rejects only one form of political adventurism for another, more hysterical form. The theory and practice of social-fascism and the rejection of the policy of the united front creates insurmountable obstacles to working in the trade unions, since each trade union is, by its very nature, the arena of an ongoing united front of revolutionary parties with reformist and non-party masses. To the extent that the British Communist Party proved incapable, even after the German tragedy, of learning anything and arming itself anew, to that extent can an alliance with it pull to the bottom even the ILP, which only recently has entered a period of revolutionary apprenticeship.

Pseudo-Communists will, no doubt, refer to the last congress of trade unions, which declared that there could be no united front with Communists against fascism. It would he the greatest folly to accept this piece of wisdom as the final verdict of history. The trade union bureaucrats can permit themselves such boastful formulas only because they are not immediately threatened by fascism, or by Communism. When the hammer of fascism is raised over the head of the trade unions, then, with a correct policy of the revolutionary party, the trade union masses will show an irresistible urge for an alliance with the revolutionary wing and will carry with them onto this path even a certain portion of the apparatus. Contrariwise, if Communism should become a decisive force, threatening the General Councils with the loss of positions, honours, and income, Messrs. Citrine and Company would undoubtedly enter into a bloc with Mosley and Company against the Communists. Thus, in August 1917, the Russian Mensheviks and Social-Revolutionaries together with the Bolsheviks repulsed General Kornilov. Two months later, in October, they were fighting hand in hand with the Kornilovists against the Bolsheviks. And in the first months of 1917, when the reformists were still strong, they spouted, just like Citrine and Company, about the impossibility of them making an alliance with a dictatorship either of the right or left.

The revolutionary proletarian party must be welded together by a clear understanding of its historic tasks. This presupposes a scientifically based program. At the same time, the revolutionary party must know how to establish correct relations with the class. This presupposes a policy of revolutionary realism, equally removed from opportunistic vagueness and sectarian aloofness. From the point of view of both these closely connected criteria, the ILP should review its relation to the Comintern as well as to all other organisations and tendencies within the working class. This concerns first of all the fate of the ILP itself.

September 4, 1933

Marx and Engels on the Trade Unions

From The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845)

“The history of these Unions is a long series of defeats of the working-men, interrupted by a few isolated victories. All these efforts naturally cannot alter the economic law according to which wages are determined by the relation between supply and demand in the labour market. Hence the Unions remain powerless against all great forces which influence this relation. In a commercial crisis the Union itself must reduce wages or dissolve wholly; and in a time of considerable increase in the demand for labour, it cannot fix the rate of wages higher than would be reached spontaneously by the competition of the capitalists among themselves. But in dealing with minor, single influences they are powerful. If the employer had no concentrated, collective opposition to expect, he would in his own interest gradually reduce wages to a lower and lower point; indeed, the battle of competition which he has to wage against his fellow-manufacturers would force him to do so, and wages would soon reach the minimum. But this competition of the manufacturers among themselves is, under average conditions, somewhat restricted by the opposition of the working-men.

Every manufacturer knows that the consequence of a reduction not justified by conditions to which his competitors also are subjected, would be a strike, which would most certainly injure him, because his capital would be idle as long as the strike lasted, and his machinery would be rusting, whereas it is very doubtful whether he could, in such a case, enforce his reduction. Then he has the certainty that if he should succeed, his competitors would follow him, reducing the price of the goods so produced, and thus depriving him of the benefit of his policy. Then, too, the Unions often bring about a more rapid increase of wages after a crisis than would otherwise follow. For the manufacturer's interest is to delay raising wages until forced by competition, but now the working-men demand an increased wage as soon as the market improves, and they can carry their point by reason of the smaller supply of workers at his command under such circumstances. But, for resistance to more considerable forces which influence the labour market, the Unions are powerless. In such cases hunger gradually drives the strikers to resume work on any terms, and when once a few have begun, the force of the Union is broken, because these few knobsticks, with the reserve supplies of goods in the market, enable the bourgeoisie to overcome the worst effects of the interruption of business. The funds of the Union are soon exhausted by the great numbers requiring relief, the credit which the shopkeepers give at high interest is withdrawn after a time, and want compels the working-man to place himself once more under the yoke of the bourgeoisie. But strikes end disastrously for the workers mostly, because the manufacturers, in their own interest (which has, be it said, become their interest only through the resistance of the workers), are obliged to avoid all useless reductions, while the workers feel in every reduction imposed by the state of trade a deterioration of their condition, against which they must defend themselves as far as in them lies.

It will be asked, “Why, then, do the workers strike in such cases, when the uselessness of such measures is so evident?” Simply because they must protest against every reduction, even if dictated by necessity; because they feel bound to proclaim that they, as human beings, shall not be made to bow to social circumstances, but social conditions ought to yield to them as human beings; because silence on their part would be a recognition of these social conditions, an admission of the right of the bourgeoisie to exploit the workers in good times and let them starve in bad ones. Against this the working-men must rebel so long as they have not lost all human feeling, and that they protest in this way and no other, comes of their 'being practical English people, who express themselves in action, and do not, like German theorists, go to sleep as soon as their protest is properly registered and placed ad acta, there to sleep as quietly as the protesters themselves. The active resistance of the English working-men has its effect in holding the money-greed of the bourgeoisie within certain limits, and keeping alive the opposition of the workers to the social and political omnipotence of the bourgeoisie, while it compels the admission that something more is needed than Trades Unions and strikes to break the power of the ruling class. But what gives these Unions and the strikes arising from them their real importance is this, that they are the first attempt of the workers to abolish competition. They imply the recognition of the fact that the supremacy of the bourgeoisie is based wholly upon the competition of the workers among themselves; i.e., upon their want of cohesion. And precisely because the Unions direct themselves against the vital nerve of the present social order, however one-sidedly, in however narrow a way, are they so dangerous to this social order. The working- men cannot attack the bourgeoisie, and with it the whole existing order of society, at any sorer point than this. If the competition of the workers among themselves is destroyed, if all determine not to be further exploited by the bourgeoisie, the rule of property is at an end. Wages depend upon the relation of demand to supply, upon the accidental state of the labour market, simply because the workers have hitherto been content to be treated as chattels, to be bought and sold. The moment the workers resolve to be bought and sold no longer, when, in the determination of the value of labour, they take the part of men possessed of a will as well as of working-power, at that moment the whole Political Economy of today is at an end.”




From Value, Price and Profit (1865)

"At the same time, and quite apart form the general servitude involved in the wages system, the working class ought not to exaggerate to themselves the ultimate working of these everyday struggles. They ought not to forget that they are fighting with effects, but not with the causes of those effects; that they are retarding the downward movement, but not changing its direction; that they are applying palliatives, not curing the malady. They ought, therefore, not to be exclusively absorbed in these unavoidable guerilla fights incessantly springing up from the never ceasing encroachments of capital or changes of the market. They ought to understand that, with all the miseries it imposes upon them, the present system simultaneously engenders the material conditions and the social forms necessary for an economical reconstruction of society. Instead of the conservative motto, "A fair day's wage for a fair day's work!" they ought to inscribe on their banner the revolutionary watchword, "Abolition of the wages system!""




From Instructions for the Delegates of the Provisional General Council (1866)


“Trades' Unions originally sprang up from the spontaneous attempts of workmen at removing or at least checking that competition, in order to conquer such terms of contract as might raise them at least above the condition of mere slaves. The immediate object of Trades' Unions was therefore confined to everyday necessities, to expediences for the obstruction of the incessant encroachments of capital, in one word, to questions of wages and time of labour. This activity of the Trades' Unions is not only legitimate, it is necessary. It cannot be dispensed with so long as the present system of production lasts. On the contrary, it must be generalised by the formation and the combination of Trades' Unions throughout all countries. On the other hand, unconsciously to themselves, the Trades' Unions were forming centres of organisation of the working class, as the mediaeval municipalities and communes did for the middle class. If the Trades' Unions are required for the guerilla fights between capital and labour, they are still more important as organised agencies for superseding the very system of wages labour and capital rule.



Apart from their original purposes, they must now learn to act deliberately as organising centres of the working class in the broad interest of its complete emancipation. They must aid every social and political movement tending in that direction. Considering themselves and acting as the champions and representatives of the whole working class, they cannot fail to enlist the non-society men into their ranks. They must look carefully after the interests of the worst paid trades, such as the agricultural labourers, rendered powerless [French text has: "incapable of organised resistance"] by exceptional circumstances. They must convince the world at large [French and German texts read: "convince the broad masses of workers"] that their efforts, far from being narrow -- and selfish, aim at the emancipation of the downtrodden millions.”




Letter: Marx to Friedrich Bolte (1871)

"On the other hand, however, every movement in which the working class comes out as a class against the ruling classes and attempts to force them by pressure from without is a political movement. For instance, the attempt in a particular factory or even a particular industry to force a shorter working day out of the capitalists by strikes, etc., is a purely economic movement. On the other hand the movement to force an eight-hour day, etc., law is a political movement. And in this way, out of the separate economic movements of the workers there grows up everywhere a political movement, that is to say a movement of the class, with the object of achieving its interests in a general form, in a form possessing a general social force of compulsion. If these movements presuppose a certain degree of previous organisation, they are themselves equally a means of the development of this organisation.

Where the working class is not yet far enough advanced in its organisation to undertake a decisive campaign against the collective power, i.e., the political power of the ruling classes, it must at any rate be trained for this by continual agitation against and a hostile attitude towards the policy of the ruling classes. Otherwise it will remain a plaything in their hands, as the September revolution in France showed, and as is also proved up to a certain point by the game Messrs. Gladstone & Co. are bringing off in England even up to the present time."




Letter: Marx To Kugelmann (1874)

“In England at the moment only the rural labour movement shows any advance; the industrial workers have first of all to get rid of their present leaders. When I denounced these fellows at the Hague Congress I knew that I was letting myself in for unpopularity, calumny, etc., but such consequences have always been a matter of indifference to me. Here and there it is beginning to be realised that in making that denunciation I was only doing my duty."




Letter: Engels to August Bebel (1875)

"Fifthly, there is absolutely no mention of the organisation of the working class as a class through the medium of trade unions. And that is a point of the utmost importance, this being the proletariat's true class organisation in which it fights its daily battles with capital, in which it trains itself and which nowadays can no longer simply be smashed, even with reaction at its worst (as presently in Paris). Considering the importance this organisation is likewise assuming in Germany, it would in our view be indispensable to accord it some mention in the programme and, possibly, to leave some room for it in the organisation of the party."




Letter: Engels To Eduard Bernstein (1879)

"For a number of years past (and at the present time) the English working-class movement has been hopelessly describing a narrow circle of strikes for higher wages and shorter hours, not, however, as an expedient or means of propaganda and organisation but as the ultimate aim. The Trade Unions even bar all political action on principle and in their charters, and thereby also ban participation in any general activity of the working-class as a class. The workers are divided politically into Conservatives and Liberal Radicals, into supporters of the Disraeli (Beaconsfield) ministry and supporters of the Gladstone ministry. One can speak here of a labour movement (proper) only in so far as strikes take place here which, whether they are won or not, do not get the movement one step further. To inflate such strikes — which often enough have been brought about purposely during the last few years of bad business by the capitalists to have a pretext for closing down their factories and mills, strikes in which the working-class movement does not make the slightest headway — into struggles of world importance, as is done, for instance, in the London Freiheit, can, in my opinion, only do harm. No attempt should be made to conceal the fact that at present no real labour movement in the continental sense exists here, and I therefore believe you will not lose much if for the time being you do not receive any .reports on the doings of the Trade Unions here."




Articles by Engels in the Labour Standard (1881)

"More than this, there are plenty of symptoms that the working class of this country is awakening to the consciousness that it has for some time been moving in the wrong groove [6]; that the present movements for higher wages and shorter hours exclusively, keep it in a vicious circle out of which there is no issue; that it is not the lowness of wages which forms the fundamental evil, but the wages system itself. This knowledge once generally spread amongst the working class, the position of Trades Unions must change considerably. They will no longer enjoy the privilege of being the only organisations of the working class. At the side of, or above, the Unions of special trades there must spring up a general Union, a political organisation of the working class as a whole."




Letter: Engels to Friedrich Adolph Sorge (1889)

“Here in England one can see that it is impossible simply to drill a theory in an abstract dogmatic way into a great nation, even if one has the best of theories, developed out of their own conditions of life, and even if the tutors are relatively better than the S.L.P. [Socialist Labour Party of North America.] The movement has now got going at last and I believe for good. But it is not directly Socialist, and those English who have understood our theory best remain outside it: Hyndman because he is incurably jealous and intriguing, Bax because he is only a bookworm. Formally the movement is at the moment a trade union movement, but utterly different from that of the old trade unions, the skilled labourers, the aristocracy of labour.

The people are throwing themselves into the job in quite a different way, are leading far more colossal masses into the fight, are shaking society much more deeply, are putting forward much more far-reaching demands: eight-hour day, general federation of all organisations, complete solidarity. Thanks to Tussy [Eleanor Marx Aveling] women’s branches have been formed for the first time – in the Gas Workers and General Labourers’ Union. Moreover, the people only regard their immediate demands themselves as provisional, although they themselves do not know as yet what final aim they are working for. But this dim idea is strongly enough rooted to make them choose only openly declared Socialists as their leaders. Like everyone else they will have to learn by their own experiences and the consequences of their own mistakes. But as, unlike the old trade unions, they greet every suggestion of an identity of interest between capital and labour with scorn and ridicule this will not take very long.”

Monday, November 8, 2010

The History of the Russian Revolution: Preface (excerpt)

Excerpt from The History of the Russian Revolution: Preface by Leon Trotsky

In a society that is seized by revolution classes are in conflict. It is perfectly clear, however, that the changes introduced between the beginning and the end of a revolution in the economic bases of the society and its social substratum of classes, are not sufficient to explain the course of the revolution itself, which can overthrow in a short interval age-old institutions, create new ones, and again overthrow them. The dynamic of revolutionary events is directly determined by swift, intense and passionate changes in the psychology of classes which have already formed themselves before the revolution.

The point is that society does not change its institutions as need arises, the way a mechanic changes his instruments. On the contrary, society actually takes the institutions which hang upon it as given once for all. For decades the oppositional criticism is nothing more than a safety valve for mass dissatisfaction, a condition of the stability of the social structure. Such in principle, for example, was the significance acquired by the social-democratic criticism. Entirely exceptional conditions, independent of the will of persons and parties, are necessary in order to tear off from discontent the fetters of conservatism, and bring the masses to insurrection.

The swift changes of mass views and moods in an epoch of revolution thus derive, not from the flexibility and mobility of man’s mind, but just the opposite, from its deep conservatism. The chronic lag of ideas and relations behind new objective conditions, right up to the moment when the latter crash over people in the form of a catastrophe, is what creates in a period of revolution that leaping movement of ideas and passions which seems to the police mind a mere result of the activities of “demagogues.”

The masses go into a revolution not with a prepared plan of social reconstruction, but with a sharp feeling that they cannot endure the old régime. Only the guiding layers of a class have a political program, and even this still requires the test of events, and the approval of the masses. The fundamental political process of the revolution thus consists in the gradual comprehension by a class of the problems arising from the social crisis – the active orientation of the masses by a method of successive approximations. The different stages of a revolutionary process, certified by a change of parties in which the more extreme always supersedes the less, express the growing pressure to the left of the masses – so long as the swing of the movement does not run into objective obstacles. When it does, there begins a reaction: disappointments of the different layers of the revolutionary class, growth of indifferentism, and therewith a strengthening of the position of the counter-revolutionary forces. Such, at least, is the general outline of the old revolutions.

Only on the basis of a study of political processes in the masses themselves, can we understand the rôle of parties and leaders, whom we least of all are inclined to ignore. They constitute not an independent, but nevertheless a very important, element in the process. Without a guiding organisation, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box. But nevertheless what moves things is not the piston or the box, but the steam.

The difficulties which stand in the way of studying the changes of mass consciousness in a revolutionary epoch are quite obvious. The oppressed classes make history in the factories, in the barracks, in the villages, on the streets of the cities. Moreover, they are least of all accustomed to write things down. Periods of high tension in social passions leave little room for contemplation and reflection. All the muses – even the plebeian muse of journalism, in spite of her sturdy hips – have hard sledding in times of revolution. Still the historian’s situation is by no means hopeless. The records are incomplete, scattered, accidental. But in the light of the events themselves these fragments often permit a guess as to the direction and rhythm of the hidden process. For better or worse, a revolutionary party bases its tactics upon a calculation of the changes of mass consciousness. The historic course of Bolshevism demonstrates that such a calculation, at least in its rough features, can be made. If it can be made by a revolutionary leader in the whirlpool of the struggle, why not by the historian afterwards?

However, the processes taking place in the consciousness of the masses are not unrelated and independent. No matter how the idealists and the eclectics rage, consciousness is nevertheless determined by conditions. In the historic conditions which formed Russia, her economy, her classes, her State, in the action upon her of other states, we ought to be able to find the premises both of the February revolution and of the October revolution which replaced it. Since the greatest enigma is the fact that a backward country was the first to place the proletariat in power, it behoves us to seek the solution of that enigma in the peculiarities of that backward country – that is, in its differences from other countries.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Revisiting the Steiner and Brenner polemics

I would like to revisit the Steiner and Brenner polemics once again. The issues they raise are of critical importance to the socialist movement.

While it is known among Marxists that the socialist revolution is necessary, that it represents the solution to the objective contradictions of capitalism, this does not mean that the socialist revolution is inevitable. The 20th century provides many examples of revolutionary situations that failed to result in the dictatorship of the proletariat. In Russia, it was only through the Bolsheviks that workers were able to secure power after the failed revolution of 1905, and the February revolution of 1917 which resulted in a government of shared power with the liberal bourgeoisie. The case of Russia proves Marx’s theory of socialist revolution, but it also shows that leadership is decisive.

The International Committee is a descendant of Trotsky’s Fourth International with Socialist Equality Party (SEP) sections in the US, Canada, Europe, Australia, and Sri Lanka. Due to its historical legacy it is arguably the most relevant of the Trotskyist and Marxist parties, even given its minimal political influence today. Historically Trotskyism represented the continuity of the socialist movement after the Stalinist domination of the Third International represented by reactionary Communist parties in various countries.

While the members of IC and SEP invoke this heritage occasionally, the SEP has traveled very far from the traditions of Trotskyism and Bolshevism. This can be confusing to members of the SEP, because on superficial appearances they are doing everything right. They continually publish articles of analysis and criticism, issue orthodox sounding statements, give lectures on history and economics; they show up to picket lines and strikes and talk to workers. What is the problem exactly? The problem is that these activities are not revolutionary unless they are imbued with revolutionary content. In all these activities the SEP adopts a contemplative stance, that of contemplating the situation instead of working to change it.

Of course the objective situation needs to be accurately contemplated in order to change it, but to adopt a contemplative stance is to look at the situation one-sidedly, to see it as a finished product, as the inevitable result of blind ‘objective forces’. A revolutionary looks at the objective situation and sees something quite different; he sees social reality as living, as contradictory, as full of different possible outcomes. He understands the difference that a revolutionary party can make in changing that situation, in realizing the different potentialities that objectively exist.

While this should seem like common knowledge to socialists, it is not. The Steiner and Brenner polemics arose from what both see as objectivist and abstensionist tendencies within the SEP. Both worked with the party writing for the WSWS primary on philosophical issues. Both became concerned by the party’s increasingly contemplative mode and its neglect of theoretical issues. The result was two documents; Brenner’s “To Know a Thing Is to Know its End”[1], and Steiner’s “The Dialectical Path of Cognition and Revolutionary Practice.”[2]

Brenner’s document argues for programmatic clarity and a renewal of socialist idealism, the visionary aspect that was common to all great socialist movements. Steiner’s document warns of the consequences of neglecting Marxist dialectics and concludes with an analysis of the political trajectory of the IC/SEP.

After three years of waiting for a response from North and SEP, after empty promises were made by North to include Steiner and Brenner in an internal discussion of the issues, Steiner and Brenner finally decided to make the documents available on their web site, and wrote a summary of the issues raised in a letter of protest entitled “Objectivism or Marxism.”[3]

At that point North felt compelled to respond, but not on the account of theoretical clarity, instead North brushes aside the issues, his aim is to distract members of the SEP from content of their polemics. The result was “Marxism, History, and Socialist Consciousness.”[4]

Throughout the book North adopts the methods of a demagogue, appealing to the prejudice and ignorance of his audience. For example, a passing reference to the Wilhelm Reich in Brenner’s document receives 16 pages from North all devoted to discrediting Reich and by implication anyone who would choose to quote him, even in passing. In actual fact, Reich is contradictory figure who did valuable work while he was associated with the Communist Party in Germany, but underwent a degeneration after a number of unfavorable circumstances[5].

The bulk of Steiner’s material is simply ignored. North complains about the lack of analysis of the IC’s political line when in fact Steiner devoted 13 pages to such an analysis in the section “Where is the International Committee Going?” North pretends as if Steiner’s document didn’t exist. In the cases where North actually addresses the material of Steiner and Brenner, his manner of presentation is highly distorted, in effect he accuses Steiner and Brenner of trying to resurrect the conceptions of utopian socialism, completely missing the substance of Brenner’s arguments.

On the whole I think North has been successful in his attempt to obscure the issues, at least within the narrow confines of his party. However, it is apparent that North still feels threatened by the criticisms of Steiner and Brenner. Almost a year after the publication of “Marxism Without it Head or its Heart,”[6] Steiner and Brenner’s follow up response, North felt compelled to write “The Frankfurt vs. Marxism.”[7] Here North takes his dishonest and false methods a step further, ignoring entirely the contents of “Marxism Without its Head or its Heart.” Instead he attempts to discredit Alex Steiner in a series of personal attacks. Again feeling this is not enough, he enlists the help of Chris and Ann Talbot [8], and a relatively unknown writer on the WSWS, Adam Haig[9], to attack in much the same fashion.

These later documents by North and company deserve a careful reply, at least to correct the record and further expose the political and theoretical degeneration of North and the SEP. I may comment on these documents in the future, but in the mean time I would like to bring to light some of the more important theoretical issues raised in the Steiner and Brenner polemics.

Dialectics as a guide to revolutionary practice

Marx considers the development of economic production to be the motor force in historical change. The mode of production determines the way of life for the members of society, and corresponding to this way of life, various forms of social consciousness emerge.[10] Hence society has both a material component and an ideal component. Within the economic base of society these components are tightly coupled.[11] Here, the ideal component consists of social forms of thought shared collectively and needed by those involved in the material production of society. The forces of production, the real existing factories, raw materials, machines, workers, are immediately cognized as such. However, in the case of the relations of production, the social forms of organization involved in production, their true nature is often concealed in its ideal reflection.[12]

The work of Marx’s three volumes of Capital is primarily to theoretically investigate the social relations corresponding to the capitalist mode of production, to show their origin and development, to uncover their social content, and to discover and explain their laws.

In course of society’s development, as the forces of production advance materially, the relations of production become a fetter on the advancement of society. Where there was once harmony between the productive forces and relations of production, there is now conflict. The relations of production can be said to be contradictory, they are accepted in so far as they necessary for the continuation for society, but they are also rejected in so far as they are recognized as a hindrance to the functioning of society. In the place of the old relations, new relations emerge that correspond with the higher stage of material development. This is the essence of Marx’s conception of societal development. Marx’s employs the dialectical method to show the temporary, self-contradictory nature of capitalist relations, to show the inevitability of economic crises, and hence, to show the objective necessity of socialism.

For Marxist revolutionaries an analysis of the economic base and its reflection in consciousness of masses of people is the starting point for the practical intervention of the party. In practice most of the social forms we encounter today were analyzed in detail by Marx. In this sense Marx has made things easy for us. But even to employ to Marx’s analysis demands a careful study of the objective situation, and in some cases new forms must be analyzed.

In the case of the Russian revolution in 1905, it was only Trotsky among the Social Democrats who foresaw the leading role of the working class.[13] Plekanov formulated a schematic conception of development through stages. This assumed that Russia would develop in isolation, and missed out on the implications of the introduction of foreign capital and the introduction of large scale capitalism which occurred at the turn of the century. Plekanov thought that the working class must support a revolution of the liberal bourgeoisie, and that Russia must endure a period of capitalist development to ensure a sufficient material base for the proletariat revolution. Lenin too, at the time, thought the coming revolution would be bourgeois in character, but at least recognized that one the main tasks of revolution would be land reform and recognized important role of the peasantry.

In the case of the SEP, the lack of training in Marxist dialectics is apparent. For all their talk about the study of objective conditions, when situations arise that demand a revolutionary party to define the independent standpoint of the working class, to put forward a perspective, to put forward a program of action, the SEP is left helpless.[14] Social reality is treated as a finished product, there is no assessment of the revolutionary potentialities existing within the working class, or how a revolutionary party could possibly intervene to change the objective situation.[15] For the SEP, the study of the objective situation as a finished product becomes an end in itself; it is a practice which is in essence contemplative and not revolutionary.

Mass psychology and the development of socialist consciousness

An important consequence of the fact that the social relations are in part embodied in thought is that the maintenance of those relations depends on their collective acceptance by those involved production insofar as other modes of production are possible (e.g. socialist production). The bourgeoisie is very conscious of this fact, perhaps more so than any other ruling class, and its methods are of corresponding sophistication. Of course, the bourgeoisie is not above using force or the threat of violence to maintain its rule but on whole it found methods of persuasion to more be effective. Thus, the bourgeois expends a great deal of resources in media and other forms of ideology to convince society as a whole that the capitalist mode of production is the only form that can satisfy its needs and desires. Marx was conscious of this fact too when he wrote German ideology, Marx writes: “The ruling ideas are nothing more than the ideal expression of the dominant material relationships, the dominant material relationships grasped as ideas; hence of the relationships which make the one class the ruling one, therefore, the ideas of its dominance.”[16]

It should be clear therefore that the study of class psychology is very much part of the work of Marxist revolutionaries. What is the appeal of the ruling class ideology for the working class? How does it help cement the capitalist relations of production even in spite of very powerful objective contradictions? On what basis should socialists make an appeal? How does socialist consciousness arise within the working class?

It is true, as Steiner and Brenner point out, that Marx and Engels did not spend very much time on these questions, but they clearly understood the importance of conceptions of a socialist future and programmatic demands, as can be seen in the Communist Manifesto and Marx’s Critique of the Gotha Programme.

The work of Lenin and Trotsky represented an advance in the understanding of how to develop socialist consciousness within the working class. In “What is to be done?,” Lenin formulated the concept of political exposures to connect with the consciousness of the workers, to help them see life from a Social Democratic view point. Trotsky’s The History of the Russian Revolution is a rich source of material on relationship between the party and the masses, and demonstrates a masterful understanding of class psychology on the part of Lenin and Trotsky. Trotsky explains, that: “What distinguished Bolshevism was that it subordinated the subjective goal, the defense of the interests of the popular masses, to the laws of revolution as an objectively conditioned process.”[17] Trotsky also explains that: “The toilers are guided their struggle not only by their demands, not only by their needs, but by their life experiences. Bolshevism had absolutely no taint of any aristocratic scorn for the independent experience of the masses. On the contrary, the Bolsheviks took this for their point of departure and built upon it. That was one of their great points of superiority.”

A further refinement in Trotsky’s conception of the development of socialist consciousness came with the development the Transitional Program.[18] A transitional program is a system of demands intended to bridge the gap between the present consciousness of workers and that of socialist consciousness. The transitional program replaces the minimum and maximum of program of the Second International; it is a bridge between the demands for minimal reforms under capitalism and the demand for the complete overthrow of capitalism. To employ such a program necessarily requires an understanding of class psychology, an understanding of the experiences, needs and desires of workers, and above all a real engagement with the working class and its struggles. In short, the employment of a transitional program requires both an understanding of what the working class will fight for and socialists who are willing to lead that fight.

To the extent the SEP addresses the problem of socialist consciousness it is in the publication of political exposures on the WSWS. The SEP has cataloged a great deal of the problems and inadequacies of the capitalist system. Indeed, someone reading the WSWS daily could quite well become disgusted with the capitalist system and see the need for change. The problem is that such political exposures are only meaningful in so far as they are followed up by a realistic course of action. Inevitably, the energy generated by such articles, the outrage felt, is dissipated or channeled into reformist avenues. Of course, the party can garner a small number of recruits on the basis of such activity, but unless those recruits are satisfied with a purely contemplative existence they will not last long within the party.

Utopia or the concept of a socialist future

What Steiner and Brenner are referring to by ‘utopia’ is the concept of a socialist future. ‘Utopia’ has the double meaning of both “a good place” and “no place”. While they have emphasized the former meaning of term and have connected it with the visionary aspect of the Utopian socialists, it could be argued that the term is inadequate given its double meaning and the common understanding of the term as some thought or conception that is unrealizable. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels explain that Utopian socialism arose at a time when class antagonisms were just beginning to appear and the material conditions were not yet ripe for the realization of socialism. They acknowledge the Utopians as their predecessors, but are apt to point out the Utopians theoretical limitations. The difference between scientific socialism and Utopian socialism is primarily one of means and not ends. In any case, no one is arguing for a return to the theoretical conceptions of the Utopian socialists so most of North’s material on the subject is beside the point.

Terminological issues aside, the question remains what role does the conception of socialist society play in the political work of socialists?

Firstly, it should be noted that every socialist has a concept of a socialist future whether or not they acknowledge it. In a party that suppresses socialist idealism, that condemns such thinking as “utopianism,” that refuses to adopt a program or specify what socialists would do upon taking power, that concept of a socialist future will necessarily acquire an abstract and formless quality. Without a clear plan for the socialist reconstruction of society, such a party can not be taken seriously and, deep down; members of such a party can not take the work of the party seriously either.

Another consequence, as Brenner notes, without a clear concept of what socialists would do, one acquires a “vision by default,” a view of the problems and solutions of society inherited from the Greens other would be capitalist reformers, instead of a distinctly Marxist view. From the perspective of socialism, the capitalist system is in need of a complete overhaul. Everything from transportation to health care, the work place, environmental problems, education and the raising of children needs to be rethought as an integrated whole. No one is going to think through these problems for us, it is up to socialists to put forward a realistic alternative. Therefore, the concept of a socialist future, the working out of a conscious plan for the socialist reconstruction of society is indispensable to a revolutionary party.

Brenner also raises the importance of a socialist concept in connection with the present state of bourgeois ideology today which conflates socialism and communism with the crimes of Stalinism, and does every thing in its power to suggest that “There Is No Alternative” to the domination of capitalism. Therefore, the emphasis placed on the socialist concept as propaganda is a direct response to the specific problems of this epoch, it is not a once and for all answer to the problem of socialist consciousness nor does it deny the role of economic circumstances in providing an objective impulse to the development of socialist consciousness.

The response by North and the SEP is contradictory. On one level, they recognize the necessity of a program and programmatic demands, but the party itself does not have program as permanent fixture of the party. Demands are made in a makeshift fashion in response to this or that election, this or that news story, and as Steiner pointed out the demands tend to blur the distinction between revolutionary socialism and liberalism.[19] Furthermore, there is a reluctance to spell out what socialism means for everyday life, this is shown in Beams timid response to questions about life under socialism.

Marx and Engels did not have the same reluctance as the SEP in spelling out what a socialist future means. In “The Principles of Communism,”[20] Engels writes clearly on measures that socialists would take upon taking power, the implications of the abolition of private property, and the obsolescence of the bourgeois family form. This document as well as Communist Manifesto refutes the view of North, that Marx and Engels’s rejected the visionary aspect of the utopian socialists.

What accounts for this reluctance to spell out the conception of a socialist future? A clue to this reluctance is contained in the discussion of “socialists and the masses.”[21] Due to their own isolation from the working class over a period of decades, Beams and North conceive of socialists as some alien power standing above workers instead of socialists as the most conscious section of the working class, its political vanguard.

Conclusion

I hope I have brought to light some of the main issues contained in the Steiner and Brenner polemics. Of course, I did not intend for this summary to be replacement for their material. They respond to North comprehensively, which I can’t do here given the nature of writing a summary.

It is amazing to me that North can maintain that Steiner and Brenner are undertaking a “campaign to infiltrate the disoriented anti-Marxist pseudo-utopianism of Wilhelm, Ernst Bloch and Herbert Marcuse into The Fourth International.” It is even more amazing that the bulk of the party can accept such a conception. Opportunism is clearly at work here, both within the leadership and those aspiring to leadership positions. This is not to say that the whole party consists of opportunists, but who in the party has the theoretical knowledge or will to challenge North, who is the defacto theoretical leader of the group?

I have few illusions about the possibility for a reorientation of the IC/SEP, in any case, these polemics have a broader significance. Any revolutionary party that emerges, whether it comes from the IC or elsewhere will have be grounded in the principles of Marxism, and will have learn the main lessons of Bolshevism and Trotskyism.




[1] Frank Brenner, “To Know a Thing is To Know its End: On Why Utopia is Crucial to a Revival of Socialist Consciousness,” May, 2003, http://www.permanent-revolution.org/polemics/to_know.pdf

[2] Alex Steiner, “The Dialectical Path of Cognition and Revolutionizing Practice,” March, 2004, http://www.permanent-revolution.org/polemics/dialectical_path.pdf

[3] Alex Steiner and Frank Brenner, “Objectivism or Marxism,”  May, 2006, http://www.permanent-revolution.org/polemics/objectivism_marxism.pdf

[4] David North, “Marxism, History and Socialist Consciousness: A Reply by David North to Alex Steiner and Frank Brenner,” June, 2006, http://www.permanent-revolution.org/polemics/mhsc.pdf

[5] For a more balanced view of Reich, see “Marxism Without its Head or its Heart,” Chapter 10, “Marxism and Mass Psychology,” http://www.permanent-revolution.org/polemics/mwhh_ch10.pdf

[6] Alex Steiner and Frank Brenner, “Marxism Without its Head or its Heart,” September, 2007, http://www.permanent-revolution.org/polemics/mwhh_ch01.pdf

[7] David North, “The Frankfurt School vs. Marxism: The Political and Intellectual Odyssey of Alex Steiner,” http://www.wsws.org/articles/2008/oct2008/fran-o22.shtml

[8] Ann Talbot and Chris Talbot, “Marxism and Science: An addendum to “The Frankfurt School vs. Marxism”,” http://www.wsws.org/articles/2008/oct2008/scie-o28.shtml

[9] Adam Haig, “Steiner, Brenner and Neo-Marxism: The Marcusean Component,” http://www.wsws.org/articles/2009/jan2009/bren-j02.shtml

[10] It should be noted however, contrary to those that hold a mechanical viewpoint, that the relationship between social being and social consciousness is not simply a one way street, with particular conditions always producing the same consciousness in different individuals. Marx himself considered conscious thought a reflex, and in his own case the results were quite individual and unique in comparison with his peers.

[11] Marx wrote: “In the succession of the economic categories, as in any other historical, social science, it must not be forgotten that their subject – here, modern bourgeois society – is always what is given, in the head as well as in reality, and that these categories therefore express the forms of being, the characteristics of existence, and often only individual sides of this specific society, this subject, and that therefore this society by no means begins only at the point where one can speak of it as such; this holds for science as well.”, “(3) The Method of Political Economy,” Grundrisse, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1857/grundrisse/ch01.htm#3

[12] See Marx’s discussion in Chapter 1, Section 4 of Capital, “The Fetishism of Commodities,” http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/ch01.htm#S4

[13] For an excellent analysis of the situation in Russia, see Trotsky’s “Results and Prospects,” http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1931/tpr/rp-index.htm

[14] In the case of the Iraq war, the situation was far worse, here the WSWS championed the bourgeois nationalist movement led by Sadr, see Marxism Without its Head or its Heart, Chapter 2, “The WSWS as a Left Apologist for Bourgeois Nationalism in Iraq,” http://www.permanent-revolution.org/polemics/mwhh_ch02.pdf

[15] See Marxism Without its Head or its Heart, Chapter 1, “Latin America: A Case Study in Objectivist Theory and Abstentionist Practice,” http://www.permanent-revolution.org/polemics/mwhh_ch01.pdf

[16] Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, Chapter 1B, “The Ruling Class and Ruling Ideas,” http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1845/german-ideology/ch01b.htm#b3

[17] Leon Trotsky, “The History of the Russian Revolution”, Volume 2, Chapter 36: “The Bolsheviks and the Soviets,” http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1930/hrr/ch36.htm

[18] Leon Trotsky, “The Transitional Program: The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International”, http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1938/tp/index.htm

[19] See “Where is the International Committee going?” from “The Dialectical Path of Cognition and Revolutionary Practice”

[20] Frederic Engels, The Principles of Communism, http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1847/11/prin-com.htm

[21] See “Chapter 8: Objectivism and Socialist Consciousness – Part 2” from “Marxism Without its Head or its Heart”, http://www.permanent-revolution.org/polemics/mwhh_ch08.pdf

Friday, March 20, 2009

The Dialectical Path of Cognition and Revolutionizing Practice (excerpt)

Excerpt from "The Dialectical Path of Cognition and Revolutionizing
Practice" (March 2004)
:


In the last decade the International Committee has been embarked on its own version of a policy of “regroupment”. Lest I be misunderstood, I want to clearly state that there are definite limits to this analogy with the regroupment policy carried out by the SWP in the period 1957-1959. The International Committee has not indulged in the kind of wholesale abandonment of revolutionary perspectives that characterized the SWP in the period leading up to the reunification with the Pabloites. Nevertheless, a tendency has clearly emerged within the International Committee characterized by an abstentionist practice in relation to the working class. This has been accompanied by an orientation in the United States toward disaffected liberals who feel betrayed by the Democratic Party and the mass media. Given the extraordinary turn of political events in the United during the Clinton Administration, this change in orientation was understandable. The combination of the Republican Party having been captured by extreme right wing forces and the extraordinary degree of capitulation to these forces on the part of mainstream liberal leaders left millions of working and middle class people politically disenfranchised. It was correct to attempt a dialogue with these forces, particularly under circumstances where the trade union movement no longer represented any kind of credible political alternative, even from a reformist perspective. It was also correct to expose the anti-democratic right wing conspiracy behind the Clinton impeachment drive, as well as the theft of the 2000 elections in the face of a reactionary “plague on both houses” attitude on the part of practically all the radical groups. However it is essential as part of a dialogue with disenchanted liberals and former liberals, to pose clearly our alternative program for revolutionary socialism. Instead, on crucial occasions, the International Committee has blurred the distinction between liberalism and revolutionary socialism. I believe this political confusion is announced in a statement issued by the Socialist Equality Party launching the Presidential election campaign. There one reads that,

“The necessity for a scientific and socially-motivated utilization of mankind’s productive forces and technology – the absence of which threatens the very physical survival of human civilization – poses the historic task of consciously subordinating the profit motive to the principle of humane, democratic and intelligent social planning – that is, replacing capitalism with socialism.” (htttp://www.wsws.org/articles/2004/jan2004/stat-j27_prn.shtml)

Rather than characterizing socialism as it has been historically conceived within the Marxist movement as the new society of associated producers standing on the foundations thrown up by the overthrow of the law of value, this formulation portrays socialism as “subordinating the profit motive”. In other words, socialism is seen as a kind of capitalism whose excesses have been reigned in, i.e. “subordinated”, to “the principle of humane, democratic and intelligent social planning.” If any statement ever expressed a theoretical and political muddle, surely this one qualifies.

By way of comparison take the following sharp and clear formulations presented in the Transitional Program, wherein liberal and Social Democratic conceptions of “planning” are characterized.

“Liberal capitalism, based upon competition and free trade, has completely receded into the past. Its successor, monopolistic capitalism, not only does not mitigate the anarchy of the market but on the contrary imparts to it a particularly convulsive character. The necessity of ‘controlling’ economy, of placing state ‘guidance’ over industry of ‘planning’ is today recognized – at least in words – by almost all current bourgeois and petty bourgeois-tendencies...The Social Democrats prepare to drain the ocean of anarchy with spoonfuls of bureaucratic ‘planning.’ Engineers and professors write articles about ‘technocracy’. In their cowardly experiments in ‘regulation’, democratic governments run head-on into the invincible sabotage of big capital.”

In contrast to the bureaucratized versions of planning that were then current in liberal circles during the era of the New Deal, the Transitional Program stressed the necessity for workers control, a phrase that does not even appear in the 2004 election manifesto:

“The working out of even the most elementary economic plan – from the point of view of the exploited, not the exploiters – is impossible without workers’ control, that is without the penetration of the workers’ eye into all open and concealed springs of capitalist economy. Committees representing individual business enterprises should meet at conferences to choose corresponding committees of trusts, whole branches of industry, economic regions and finally, of national industry as a whole. Thus, workers’ control becomes a school for planned economy. On the basis of the experience of control, the proletariat will prepare itself for direct management of nationalized industry when the hour for that eventuality strikes.”

Finally, the Transitional Programme, rather than characterizing socialism as a system “subordinating the profit motive”, spells out that socialism rests on the abolition of the profit motive.

“The socialist programme of expropriation, i.e. of political overthrow of the bourgeoisie and liquidation of its economic domination, should in no case during the present transitional period hinder us from advancing, when the occasion warrants, the demand for the expropriation of several key branches of industry vital for national existence or of the most parasitic group of the bourgeoisie.”

Of course one can argue that during the New Deal liberalism and social democracy were still advancing reformist proposals for social planning whereas today a senile liberalism has abandoned even the mildest reformist proposal and poses no alternative to the right wing policies of retrenchment of even the most elementary forms of public facilities. This observation would be correct, but it fails to alter the fact that the distinction between socialism and liberalism has been blurred. At best such an objection could point to the fact that that in the discussion of socialism found on the WSWS, there is drawn a distinction between socialism and a senile and cowardly liberalism. But it fails to draw much of a distinction between socialism and a renewed or invigorated liberalism, one that came into prominence during the New Deal. What this indicates is that there has been a blind spot in the critique of liberalism.

Until the intervention of the Socialist Equality Party into the California election, any consistent campaign revolving around programmatic demands had been notable by its absence from the pages of the World Socialist Web Site. Instead, article after article on the World Socialist Web Site tacked on a bit of “holiday speechifying” about the need for a “world party of socialist revolution.” A typical example of this methodology is the article on Howard Dean that appeared on Dec 20th. The article provided an analysis of the Dean campaign and how the leadership of the Democratic Party had tried to marginalize Dean. The article concludes with the following remarks,

“In the end, the many millions of people opposed to the Bush administration’s policies of militarism abroad and social reaction at home will find no real alternative in Dean or in any other Democratic candidate. Such an alternative is possible only through a break with the two-party system and the emergence of an independent, mass political party of the working class.”

It is certainly the case the case that millions opposed to the Bush administration will find no real alternative in Dean, but nothing in the previous paragraphs of commentary had prepared the reader for this conclusion. In the terms of the transitional program, there is no bridge between the present consciousness of the working class and the objective requirements of the situation. The last line, that this alternative “is possible only through a break with the two-party system and the emergence of an independent, mass political party of the working class”, not only comes out of nowhere, but is devoid of any real content. Just how is this “mass political party of the working class” to emerge? What kind of organization in the working class will be necessary to bring about this mass political party, and what is the Socialist Equality Party doing to prepare it? What program will this party adopt? What will be its relationship to the traditional organizations of the working class, most importantly the trade unions? Finally, just what concrete action is the SEP proposing that its readership take to encourage the formation of this party? These are just some of the questions that come to mind if one considers the demand for a “mass political party of the working class” as part of a serious strategy aimed at mobilizing the working class.

With the SEP’s participation in the California recall campaign last fall and the entry into the 2004 Presidential race, the importance of programmatic issues has been rediscovered. However, I believe that just as the initial turn away from a struggle on programmatic issues was rooted in a turn away from theoretical issues, the return to programmatic issues is largely a pragmatic reaction to current exigencies. While I think this is still a positive turn, unless it is accompanied by a return to theoretical issues, the danger exists that it will serve only to further disorient the movement.

The statement launching the California election campaign contained the first systematic list of programmatic demands within the movement since 1996. However, as I have already indicated, the nature of the program put forward was excruciatingly timid and failed in some respects to differentiate itself from a program of radical reforms. Let us examine the programmatic demands more closely. The California recall campaign contains the following statement - and there is a similar one advertising the 2004 Presidential campaign:

“A socialist program does not mean the nationalization of everything, or the abolition of small or medium-sized businesses, which are themselves continually victimized by giant corporations and banks. Establishing a planned economy will give such businesses ready access to credit and more stable market conditions, so long as they provide decent wages and working conditions.”

If one considers that a huge percentage of all goods and services produced in the United States still come from small and medium-sized businesses, how can these enterprises co-exist with a socialist planned economy? Of course it is silly to talk of nationalization of the mom and pop corner grocery, but do we really want to take responsibility for providing credit to firms that may employ and exploit dozens and even hundreds of workers i.e. medium-sized businesses? The experience of the Soviet Union during the period of the NEP showed clearly that once pockets of “free enterprise” are allowed to coexist within a workers state, these enterprises inevitably seek to free themselves from the confines of the planned economy and come into headlong opposition with the working class. If such was the case with the modest class of relatively better of peasants and NEP-men in the Soviet Union, one can only imagine how much greater pressure would be exerted for a free hand in the market place by the owners of “medium-sized business” in the United States.

Perhaps this demand was included in the belief that it is necessary for the working class to present itself as the ally and saviour of the petit bourgeoisie. That is certainly a necessary element of a program of transitional demands. However, the petite bourgeoisie that can be enlisted as allies of the working class are most certainly not the owners of medium-sized businesses. It is from these strata that some of the most reactionary elements of American society have emerged. Rather, the real potential allies of the working class are the many millions of self-employed professionals whose jobs and circumstances of life have largely become indistinguishable from the working class in recent years. I am thinking of such professional groups as doctors that have to toil with the vagaries of HMO’s, lawyers who have to work for poverty wages at a non-profit institutions, computer consultants who are forced to search for work in a volatile market that is constantly threatened with outsourcing to cheaper intellectual labor abroad, and the second class citizens that comprise the bulk of university faculty today, adjunct teachers and graduate assistants.

There is yet another plank in the list of demands from the California recall campaign that bears some comment.

“ In the case of the most vital and critical industries—the utilities, the oil companies, the banks, the giant multinational corporations—what is required is their transformation into public utilities, under public ownership and democratic control. If California proves anything, it is the intrinsic anarchy and chaos of capitalism. The claim that the “market makes the right choices” is a self-serving lie, peddled by those whose decisions frequently determine the movement of the market—e.g., the corporate CEOs who award themselves eight- and nine-figure incomes and then proclaim that this plundering of their own companies is the result of impersonal market forces.”

The demand for the transformation of the giant oil companies and banks into “public utilities” is put forward here in the context not of workers control, as is called for in the transitional program, but the vague slogan of “democratic control”. Contrast this feeble statement with the following discussion from the transitional program:

“The struggle against unemployment is not to be considered without the calling for a broad and bold organization of public works. But public works can have a continuous and progressive significance for society, as for the unemployed themselves, only when they are made part of a general plan worked out to cover a considerable number of years. Within the framework of this plan, the workers would demand resumption, as public utilities, of work in private businesses closed as a result of the crisis. Workers’ control in such case: would be replaced by direct workers’ management.”

Although the call for ‘public works’ in the transitional program must be understood in the context of the make-work projects initiated during the Great Depression and is therefore of a different character than the current situation of California public utilities, the issue of workers control retains its significance. In the transitional program, the call for public works was coupled with a call for workers control to be exercised through structures created out of the working class itself and completely independent of any government agency. In the programmatic statement for the California election campaign, there is nothing mentioned about workers control nor any call for autonomous organizations of the working class to begin to exercise the prerogatives of management. Without the latter, the call for public works, or nationalization of industries is indistinguishable from a program advocated by certain left wing reformists who dream of achieving the type of welfare state that Britain had in the immediate postwar period when the coal mines were nationalized.

If as I am maintaining, the Socialist Equality Party has been paring down its revolutionary perspective, how has this manifested itself in the work of the movement against imperialism? It is true that there have been many excellent commentaries as well as important historical investigations as part of the campaign against the US imperialism in Iraq and Afghanistan. However, what has been missing is an active intervention within the anti-war movement to forge an alternative leadership and advance our own program for ending imperialist war. Our opposition to imperialism therefore remains on the level of propaganda. We participated in the mass anti-war marches that took place last in April of 2002, and in February and March of 2003. However, we did not march under our own banners with our own slogans. We did give out flyers at these demonstrations but the material we handed out did not propose any active program for workers and youth other than reading our Web Site. We did not call a single meeting of our own at either of the large anti-war rallies of the past 2 years. Finally, when the U.S. aggression in Afghanistan first broke out, it took the Socialist Equality Party nearly a year to organize a public meeting denouncing this act of American imperialism. The war against Afghanistan broke out in November 2001, yet we did not convene a public meeting on the issue in the U.S. until October 4, 2002 when we sponsored an event in Ann Arbor. The first and only meeting in New York took place on Dec 15, 2002. I cannot think of a similar situation in the past 65 years wherein the Trotskyist movement failed to promptly call a public meeting to rally support against imperialist war.

In themselves, these actions, or lack of action may not be very significant. But taken as a whole, they spell out a very disquieting message. The overall practice of the movement is primarily of a contemplative nature in which we are adapting ourselves to a milieu that is distant from if not alien to the working class, whether it be the radical anti-war movement or to liberals angry that they have been politically disenfranchised by the collapse of the Democratic Party. While there is nothing wrong in itself with engaging these forces in a dialogue, this has been bought at the price of abstention from the struggle to build an alternative leadership in the working class. The danger is, and I have just listed a few of the symptoms, that we will adapt our politics to the illusions congenial to these social forces.

Friday, January 2, 2009

I feel sorry for Adam Haig

I feel sorry for Adam Haig and all those in the SEP who fail to see through the distortions and false arguments of the SEP leadership. Adam's article published on the WSWS is an act of self delusion, I'm pretty sure that one day Adam will regret being its author.

There is first of all a confusion over the term utopia as used by Steiner and Brenner. Adam cites Trotsky's Results and Prospects to bolster his argument against Steiner and Brenner, however, in Results and Prospects, Trotsky is criticizing the concept that there must be a socialist psychology within the working class before there can be socialism. He criticizes the "socialist ideologues" who "speak of preparing the proletariat for socialism in the sense of its being morally regenerated. The proletariat, and even ‘humanity’ in general, must first of all cast out its old egoistical nature, and altruism must become predominant in social life, etc."[1] Trotsky's critique is the same as Marx's critique of the French socialist theories, who based themselves on "the materialist doctrine men are products of circumstances and upbringing, and that, therefore, changed men are products of changed circumstances and changed upbringing."[2]

Trotsky writes that "One must not confuse here the conscious striving towards socialism with socialist psychology." Trotsky writes that the "joint struggle against exploitation engenders splendid shoots of idealism, comradely solidarity and self-sacrifice." The Steiner and Brenner concept of utopia is in full agreement with the "conscious striving towards socialism." Steiner and Brenner want to revive socialism as great ideal, that is what they mean by reviving socialist consciousness within the working class. They do not hold the position that "The proletariat, and even ‘humanity’ in general, must first of all cast out its old egoistical nature, and altruism must become predominant in social life." That position actually corresponds much closer to position of Walsh, talking about the function of art[3].

Is Adam, and more generally the membership of the SEP, aware of the difference between these two conceptions? I think the SEP leadership has rather dishonestly utilized the confusion surrounding the Steiner and Brenner polemical material to avert its political responsibility. What does the SEP have to say about the Steiner and Brenner's critique of the political line of the SEP? So far they have said nothing. Adam's piece is one more attempt to change the subject. Instead of talking about the political line of the party, they want to talk about the failings of Marcuse and Fromm and condemn Steiner and Brenner using guilt by association. Even if Steiner and Brenner were in complete agreement with members of Frankfurt school, and they are absolutely not, that would in no way invalidate their political criticisms. The SEP employs the guilt by association tactic because they cannot honestly address political criticisms of Steiner and Brenner.

Another point of confusion is the term objectivism. Steiner and Brenner are not critiquing the SEP for their study of objective conditions, they are critiquing the SEP for their almost exclusive focus on objective conditions to point where a revolutionary becomes not an active social force, but a passive commentator on events (i.e. a non-revolutionary). They have given a detailed analysis of the political line of the SEP and have demonstrated the failure of the SEP to provide a consistent leadership. Having read numerous works by Trotsky, this is a recurrent theme. Revolutions are not produced simply by objective forces, a successful revolution is produced by the right combination of objective factors and revolutionary leadership.

A revolutionary party, if it is going to taken seriously, needs to present socialism as a real viable alternative. That is the significance of Trotsky's transitional demands as a bridge to socialist consciousness, and that is also the significance of Steiner and Brenner's call for utopia to revive socialism as a great ideal. This is not to say that a revolutionary party must have detailed schemes in the advance of a revolution, but that the "conscious striving towards socialism" should be encouraged and welcomed within a revolutionary party.

I'm not sure if I ever met Adam, but it does seem that his article was written in earnest. I think it is unfortunate that he does not understand what issues are being brought forward in the Steiner and Brenner polemic. That is not entirely his fault, those issues were not presented honestly by North and the leadership of the SEP. One of the primary ways that humans learn is by imitation, and unfortunately Adam has picked up the same false modes of argument that are the bread and butter of North.

[1] Results and Prospects, VII. The Pre-Requisites of Socialism
[2] Theses On Feuerbach
[3] Shallow moralizing instead of Marxism

Monday, December 15, 2008

My expulsion from the Steiner/Brenner group

Just as I was being expelled from the SEP I contacted Alex Steiner and Frank Brenner of www.permanent-revolution.org. I thought they could help in my situation, but that didn't really interest them, they instead wanted me to read their polemic. While in the SEP I was neutral toward their polemic, but afterwards I came to agree with several of their positions.

Their polemic can be summed up very briefly, the SEP has failed to provide a consistent leadership for the working class. The failure to lead and engage the working class can be shown in many examples from Iraq war, the protests in Mexico, the 2008 elections, etc. The SEP has fallen back into a contemplative mode, most party work is devoted to commenting on events on the World Socialist Web Site.

This retreat can be explained in good part from the personal circumstances of the leading members and also the political conditions during the 80s and 90s. Over the years they have become burnt out on political work for which they have seen few results, at the same time they have grown to be more middle class and comfortable. They still show up a picket lines from time to time but not with serious intent to provide leadership.

It is wrong to suggest that the retreat is result of the adoption of certain philosophical conceptions. I would say instead that the SEP's embrace of objectivism and determinism is a rationalization of their retreat. I think that Steiner and Brenner are both wrong when they accuse the SEP of abandoning dialectics, Steiner and Brenner and the SEP share the same muddle headed conception of dialectics. The problem with the SEP is not their ability to cite the "law" of quantity of quality. Both the SEP and Steiner and Brenner miss the fact that dialectics was a critical method for the last three thousand years, even for Marx.

Supposing one agrees with Steiner and Brenner's political criticisms, the vital question remains, what is to be done? Do we wait year after year until the SEP finally sees that they are mistaken? Even if the SEP took every criticism to heart, would this then necessarily resolve the question of leadership within the working class?

Steiner and Brenner paint a bleak picture of the SEP, for them, the political line of the SEP on Iraq and the lack of involvement in working class struggles suggests an advanced state of degeneration. If the party has abandoned its orientation to working class to the extent that Steiner and Brenner suggest, what remains that is worth saving? At what point should a political alternative be put forward?

I think Steiner and Brenner leave far much to the imagination about what they would do differently. It has become clear in course of many correspondences that real political activity does not interest them. They want to be known and remembered for contributing to the creative development of Marxism, but to me that seems like an egotistical end. Would anyone remember James Cannon if he did no more than write polemics against the Communist Party from which he was expelled?

For a few months Steiner and Brenner have had their own discussion group for their supporters. There have been some interesting and productive discussions, but mostly there has been a repetition of points already made in the Steiner/Brenner polemic. The fatal comment for which I was removed was the suggestion that Trotsky had been fetishized by the SEP. What I meant by this was that Trotsky was praised and idolized within the SEP in a ritualistic and empty way. The way the SEP had treated Trotsky had turned me away from him, and I also made clear that I was won to Trotskyism and began to appreciate Trotsky's work when I started corresponding with Frank and Alex.

For me Trotskyism is a perspective, I made clear that I didn't have feelings of devotion toward Trotsky or any emotional entanglement. I explained that what was important was not our individual feelings toward Trotsky but our understanding of history and our desire to change the world. My further explanation only intensified the conflict. The discussion ended with Frank citing a comment of mine from the SEP's letter of expulsion to supposedly prove that I renounce Trotskyism, and Alex declaring that I was not a Trotskyist. In their methods of removing me Steiner and Brenner are no more principled than the SEP.

To suggest that to be a Trotskyist one must respond to history with a certain set of emotions is to be even more narrowly sectarian than the SEP. I have to think there were other factors behind my removal, which brings in doubt whether Steiner and Brenner are serious about their criticisms of the SEP. I think they are too wrapped up in nostalgia for the old Worker's League of seventies, with its forms of political activism, its studies of Lenin's dialectics, its veneration of Trotsky. It is almost as if they want orthodoxy for the sake of orthodoxy. My novel perspective on philosophical issues and my focus on the here and now and what is to be done does not seem to fit with their conceptions of party life.