Wednesday, July 23, 2008

James Cannon on party democracy

"Probably the hardest lesson I had to learn from Trotsky, after ten years of bad schooling through the Communist Party faction fights, was to let organizational questions wait until the political questions at issue were fully clarified, not only in the National Committee but also in the ranks of the party. It is no exaggeration, but the full and final truth, that our party owes its very existence today to the fact that some of us learned this hard lesson and learned also how to apply it in practice.

From that point of view, in my opinion, the impending plenum should be conceived of as a school for the education and clarification of the party on the political issues involved in the new disputes, most of which grew out of earlier disputes with some new trimmings and absurdities.

This aim will be best served if the attacks and criticisms are answered point by point in an atmosphere free from poisonous personal recriminations and venomous threats of organization discipline. Our young comrades need above all to learn; and this is the best, in fact the only way, for them to learn what they need to know about the new disputes. They don’t know it all yet. The fact that some of them probably think they already know everything, only makes it more advisable to turn the plenum sessions into a school with questions and answers freely and patiently passed back and forth.

The classic example for all time, in this matter of conducting political disputes for the education of the cadres, is set forth in the two books which grew out of the fundamental conflict with the petty-bourgeois opposition in 1939-40.[2] I think these books, twenty-six years after, are still fresh and alive because they attempt to answer and clarify all important questions involved in the dispute, and leave discipline and organizational measures aside for later consideration."


"Not the least of our reasons for remaining alive for thirty-eight years, and growing a little, and now being in a position to capitalize on new opportunities, was the flexible democracy of our party. We never tried to settle differences of opinion by suppression. Free discussion - not every day in the week but at stated regular times, with full guarantees for the minority - is a necessary condition for the health and strength of an organization such as ours.

There's no guarantee that factionalism won't get out of hand. I don't want to be an advocate of factionalism - unless anybody picks on me and runs the party the wrong way and doesn't want to give me a chance to protest about it! The general experience of the international movement has shown that excesses of factionalism can be very dangerous and destructive to a party. In my book, The First Ten Years of American Communism,[5] I put all the necessary emphasis on the negative side of the factional struggles which became unprincipled. But on the other hand, if a party can live year after year without any factional disturbances, it may not be a sign of health - it may be a sign that the party's asleep; that it's not a real live party. In a live party, you have differences, differences of appraisal, and so on. But that's a sign of life."


"I believe that these considerations have more weight now than ever before in the thirty-eight-year history of our party. In the present political climate and with the present changing composition of the party, democratic centralism must be applied flexibly. At least ninety percent of the emphasis should be placed on the democratic side and not on any crackpot schemes to “streamline” the party to the point where questions are unwelcomed and criticism and discussion stifled. That is a prescription to kill the party before it gets a chance to show how it can handle and assimilate an expanding membership of new young people, who don’t know it all to start with, but have to learn and grow in the course of explication and discussion in a free, democratic atmosphere."

Thursday, July 17, 2008

My expulsion from the SEP

In response to my Open Letter, I have been asked to clarify the events leading up to my expulsion. In the letter I have already explained part of my background. I was a member the ISSE steering committee and attended the initial meetings of the committee over a year ago. Shortly after the creation of the ISSE, we had created an online discussion board for giving reports making proposals or raising concerns. Discussion was mostly confined to reports on the work of various campuses and online work. I was initially a part of the subcommittee for online work.

In October or so of last year, I started a discussion about Marx's method. It was my contention, and still is, that the method of Marxism was misunderstood, and this was partly the result of Engels's Anti-Duhring and the Dialectics of Nature. I saw in Engels work, the imposing of certain Hegelian conceptions onto material reality. I saw this as counter to Marx's approach which was formulate conceptions from the study of material reality much in the same way as a natural scientist. To support my case, I had quoted from the German Ideology. In retrospect, my understanding of Marxist science was somewhat in error. These errors in my understanding have been gradually corrected as I began to understand more deeply the content of Marx's work.

This discussion turned very sharp almost immediately. I was accused of having the same positions as known opponents of Marxism like James Burnham. I was also accused of holding various points of view from pragmatism, postmodernism, positivism, idealism. These labels were applied without any explanation, and did nothing to advance the discussion. The utter hostility that was present in the discussion led me to a conclusion that party was not healthy. In an email I referred to the party as diseased, a statement which I had soon apologized for.

Earlier this year, an educational subcommittee of the ISSE was formed of which I was one of the four members. The committee met every week to discuss the construction of a curriculum for the ISSE. From the start, there was conflict over how to approach the construction of a curriculum. I had argued for an assessment to be made of the body of Marxist works, this was opposed by other members already familiar with my positions. This opposition took an undemocratic form when one member of the committee decided to publish the first report of the committee over my objection. This report was to determine how the committee was to proceed, and absent was any conception of making an assessment.

In my protest against the decision to publish the report, I had made the statement that the various texts were being treated as religious texts, that the committee was against any attempt to rationalize its selections to explain why this or that text should be read as part of a comprehensive whole. In the next meeting of the steering committee my remarks were taken out of context in an attempt to condemn me.

When it came to selecting the texts themselves, decisions were made outside of committee meetings. Selections I had made from the German Ideology and the Holy family were excluded. The exclusion of these texts was itself never formally voted upon by the committee. After it became clear that my input was being consciously excluded, I ended my participation in the committee.

Just about this time, I was informed in my branch, that according to party records I was never made a full member of the party, I was provisional member and that my membership was going to be reviewed. The circumstances for the review of my membership were highly dubious, as I was already told that I was full member, and the timing corresponding with my conflict within the educational subcommittee.

The letter written to me by the political committee was almost exclusively devoted to the most offensive statements that I had made, statements made in the course of heated conflict. There was no objective or balanced assessment of my record as a party member. Some of past differences about the nature of the Soviet state were raised in the letter, but as my Open Letter makes clear, these differences were in no way irreconcilable.

The letter extended my membership by three months. I was given three months to agree with the party on questions dialectics and soviet state. I was also warned about my behavior. On the questions of dialectics and soviet state I fully intended to work through my differences with the party. I have never thought that my differences with the party on these question were fundamental, I thought the way to reconcile my differences was to arrive at a more nuanced position.

I wrote the article on dialectics to explain Marx's dialectic by explaining the forms of dialectic that preceded Marx. This article was met by intense hostility. The article has been denounced as "shoddy," "eclectic," "slapped together without proofreading." Aside from a few questions, the article went weeks without anyone actually dealing seriously with its content. The editorial board of the WSWS refused to publish the article, and did not offer any suggestions as to what would make the article publishable.

In the course of steering committee meetings, certain members of the committee consciously distorted my views saying that my position was an idealist position based on single quotation from me taken out of context. This member in particular, was the same member who had taken my remarks out of context about the way in which the educational committee had proceeded. I had called this act out for what it was, an instance of fraud. Also, in an email written against me, one member tried to make me out to be an opponent of Trotskyism and made several obvious distortions of my positions. I called these distortions lies, because this member in particular continually distorts my positions to the point where a definite a pattern can be seen.

Just about this time, I was informed that the three month extension of my membership had expired, and my branch was to decide on my membership. The decision was made to revoke my membership. This decision was adopted by the political committee, which in turn removed me from the steering committee. The letter written to me by the political committee completely evaded a discussion of the political issues and instead focussed on my conduct. It said that I accused members of being "liars" and "frauds", but that was not the case. I showed that members had committed instances of fraud, and made deliberately false statements. The point of exposing these acts of fraud and lies has always been to put a stop to them by making other members conscious of these methods.

In retrospect, it seems that I may have been deliberately provoked by certain members who are not only members of the steering committee but also members of the political committee. In the course of making various statements, I was never warned about the conduct for which I was expelled. It was never clear to me that in making these statements that I was providing ammunition to political opponents within the political committee to use against me. The provocation against me and my expulsion appears to be simply a tactical consideration of the leadership. At the time that my membership was first being reviewed, I was told by a leading member of the party, that concerns were being expressed within the political committee that I would form a faction. It seem that the leadership considers me to be so great a threat that it decided to expel me from the party.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Open letter to the ISSE

Dear comrades of the ISSE,

As some of you know I've been expelled from the SEP. The move to expel me without any attempt to resolve or even state the political and theoretical differences that prevent my membership was an unprincipled action by the leadership. The leadership has instead focussed exclusively on my 'conduct', however the 'conduct' that I have been singled out for is nothing more than fighting against deliberate distortions and misrepresentations of my views. The process by which my membership was brought up and reviewed was a sham, considering that I had already been told that I was a full member more than once during the 2006 election campaign.

As a party member, my record was quite good. In 2006, I campaigned to get our candidates on the ballot in Michigan, Illinois, New York, and California. I wrote numerous articles on the World Socialist Web Site. I responded to almost any request for help, whether is was petitioning, campaigning, interventions at the Detroit teachers strike, the GM strike, the American axle strike. On my own initiative I started and established an ISSE presence on the campus of Oakland University. I held and organized successful meetings on the question of a war with Iran, and held multiple successful showings of 'Tsar to Lenin', showing the film three times on my campus. I had never missed a branch meeting. Despite claims to contrary, I have never violated the party discipline. I have always maintained the party line, even while expressing disagreements on certain issues such as educational work or dialectics.

During my experience with the party I have noticed several disturbing signs. Whether or not the party consciously intended to force Joe Hargrave out of the party, the main effect of North's action at the steering committee meeting has been to intimidate and serve as a warning to members of the committee of which I was a part. Every step in Hargrave's subsequent degeneration has been absurdly celebrated by the leadership as if this were somehow a confirmation of the political perspective of the SEP and therefore equally a warning against anyone who would dare express differences over the practice of the ISEE.

In reality, the degeneration of a weak individual like Hargrave only confirms that the party as a collective is stronger politically than a lone individual with limited political experience. Given that Hargrave had a religious background and had reportedly shown rightward tendencies prior to resigning, his political evolution was not all unpredictable. Any socialist who has not yet renounced religion is clearly not standing on his own two feet politically. The way that the party has sought to continually measure itself against a weak individual like Hargrave is a real act of desperation on the part of the leadership. This has even taken the form of making jokes about Hargrave at aggregate meetings, which is not only an appeal to the worst in the membership, but is a real sign of sickness within the party.

The desperation of the party leadership is also shown in the organization of the founding ISSE conference. Prior to the conference, the party denied admittance of several of Hargrave's contacts unless they sided with the party in the correspondence between Hargrave. After the conference, at my branch meeting, one of the leaders boasted that there was no Hargrave faction at the conference, this was after the leadership had already taken conscious steps to prevent such a faction from forming!

When seen in the context of the party's handling of Hargrave and his contacts, the decision by the leadership to expel me from the party is not at all surprising. When intimidation and bullying fail, the SEP has no problem with expelling anyone with a critical and independent view. My expulsion is another attempt to suppress critical discussion within the SEP.

Of course, there have been other issues. I have raised theoretical differences in the past, but these differences in no way make me an opponent of Trotskyism as some have tried to maintain. I have questioned Trotsky's terminology of calling the bureaucracy a caste rather than a class, and his definition of Soviet Union as a worker's state. These issues are ones that are entirely legitimate topics of discussion for someone new to the party. At this point, I am very close to agreement with Trotsky.

I have also asked the party about its position on Tony Cliff's theory of state capitalism. To this date, the party has made no analysis of Cliff's theory. I have recently reread parts of Cliffs work, and while Cliff fills in some important gaps in how workers control was eroded in Soviet Union, his labeling of bureaucracy as a capitalist class was incorrect given the lack of individual property rights and the right to inheritance. State property was an achievement of the revolution, the prerequisite for workers control, and a constraint on the actions of the bureaucracy.

I have disagreed with pseudo-application of dialectics by certain members, and have sought to explain Marxists dialectics in a concrete way. I wrote an article which was intended for publication on the World Socialist Web Site, and was intended to educate the membership. While there may be problems with my article, no one can claim that my article is somehow hostile to Marxism or Trotskyism. My article could easily be used to reinforce Trotsky's position that dialectics is important in understanding the attitude of the revolutionary party toward the Soviet Union. If the SEP were a healthy party, it would welcome an investigation into the foundations of Marxism as part of its theoretical development.

As it should be clear to anyone, my differences with the party were not at all irreconcilable as some have maintained. My expulsion from the party is not just an attack on my own democratic rights within the SEP, it is more fundamentally an attack on the democratic rights of all members. I don't think it is a coincidence, that the party to this date lacks a constitution and its leaders never stand for election. Leaders in the SEP are appointed, and not for any outstanding individual qualities, but for an expectation to echo North's views. At aggregate meetings, documents are sent out less than a day before hand, giving members little time to review the material or raise criticisms. The lack of democracy and the hostility of the party toward theoretical discussions is symptomatic of deeper problems within the party.

I am addressing this letter to members of the ISSE, because it is up to the younger members in the ISSE and SEP especially to think critically about political and theoretical questions, to ask questions and raise criticisms. The leadership at this point consciously works to suppress critical discussion and add confusion to the debate. My own capacity is limited, now that I've been expelled from the party, but I am willing to engage in discussions or meet if you happen to be in the Detroit area. I have also started a blog where you can find at the moment my unpublished article on dialectics:

I hope that you give the issues raised by my expulsion a serious consideration, and I ask that you forward this letter to comrades in the ISSE that may not have received it. Please contact me if you support any of the criticisms that I have raised, or if you have questions.