Saturday, October 25, 2008

A comment on the North vs. Steiner/Brenner polemic

I was surprised to see that David North of the SEP had finally replied to the document "Marxism Without its Head or its Heart" by Alex Steiner and Frank Brenner.

Steiner and Brenner were members of the party in 1970's and were regular collaborators in the late 90's. Steiner had reapplied for membership in 1998, but his request was ignored by the leadership. Both of them know most of the present leadership personally. While they have adopted some novel positions, their perspective is grounded in Trotskyism. The claim that they are trying to smuggle alien ideas into the movement is both dishonest and false. In evaluating the SEP today they have a very clear reference point. They know the traditions of the party going back to Cannon and are arguing for a return to those traditions.

The SEP today has departed significantly from the theory and practice of Marxism. In its theory it has abandoned dialectical materialism, and in its place it has increasingly adopted methods based on pragmatism and positivism. Corresponding with its decline in theory, the party has undergone a decline in its practice. The party has abandoned the struggle for socialist consciousness in the working class and has abstained from intervening in major political events such as the New York transit strike, mass protests in Mexico, and the Iraq war.

As Marx's Theses on Feuerbach make absolutely clear, Marxism is not a contemplative science. Marxism as a science is transformative, it seeks not only to accurately cognize the objective world, but also to transform or change it. The SEP today is objectivist, because while it can often report accurately the objective world situation, it has no conception of its own place in transforming that situation. The SEP today believes that objective conditions will cut a path to socialist consciousness in the working class, and workers will automatically be drawn into the SEP when the conditions are ripe. This theory entirely neglects the role of the party in transforming the objective situation, and represents a one sided understanding of how socialist consciousness develops.

The objectivist theory of the SEP has led an abandonment of fight to build socialist consciousness in the working class. Journalism and political exposures are only one component of the fight to politically educate the working class. The working out of transitional demands as a bridge to socialist consciousness as embodied in "The Transitional Program" was an cornerstone for Bolshevism and Trotskyism in the fight to politically educate the working class.

Also part of the fight to build socialist consciousness in working class especially among the youth is to explain the possibilities that will arise under socialism. This is all that is behind Steiner and Brenner's call for the revival of utopia. The party has portrayed this call as advocating a return to pre-Marxian conceptions of socialism, but this is entirely false as anyone can tell from a careful reading their material. Utopian conceptions or "useful dreaming" as Lenin called it, have a long history in the Marxist movement, which includes Cannon's "What Socialist America Will Look Like" and Trotsky's "If America Should Go Communist."

The party's objectivist theory manifests itself in practice. The main practice of the SEP is the publication of the World Socialist Web Site. When the party does intervene, it is in a journalistic capacity. The party is completely unserious in its attempts to lead workers in their struggles. In the case the New York transit strike in 2005, the party made no demands until a day before the strike. It called for the formation of strike committees but did absolutely nothing to prepare for them and gave no guidance to the workers on how they would operate. After the strike was over the party abandoned the story of the transit strike even while opposition among transit workers grew, which led to a vote to reject the contract.

As Steiner and Brenner point out, the practices of the party in the days of Cannon were a great deal different. In the Minneapolis Teamster strikes of 1934, Trotskyists played a leading role in the preparation, organization, direction of the strike. Cannon himself flew to Minneapolis so that he could provide daily guidance to the workers in the course of the strike. Steiner and Brenner maintain that the primary way that workers become politically consciousness is in the course of their own struggles, and that showing workers how to win their battles is crucial to building socialist consciousness in the working class.

In 2006, there were massive demonstrations in Mexico to protest election fraud and demand a recount in the Mexican presidential election. At one demonstration, over a million people participated, making it the largest demonstration in Mexican history. Revolutionary sentiments were widespread among the mostly working class participants. Under these conditions, the SEP made no intervention, did not hold any meetings on the perspective for revolution in Mexico, and made no programmatic statements.

During the period of mass protests the party's activity was again limited to journalism, and out of the dozen or so articles posted only one was posted in spanish. The party was well within its means to send a reporting team to Mexico given that many comrades in the US, including Bill Van Auken, speak spanish. The party has charged Steiner and Brenner with advocating "adventurism", but such a charge is nonsense. Nowhere do Steiner and Brenner advocate that the SEP lead an insurrection or anything that would put comrades at risk. At the very least, the party could send a correspondents to the scene, as they have done in similar cases in France and elsewhere.

In the case the Iraq war, the SEP has adapted itself to the bourgeois nationalist movement led by Sadr and abandoned the theory of permanent revolution as a perspective for the Iraqi working class. Under conditions of religious and ethnic divisions and colonial domination, the working class was the only force capable waging a consistent struggle against imperialism. During the course of the war, the SEP has never fought to develop a socialist program and perspective for the Iraqi working class. Such a fight would also mean countering religious backwardness and ethnic prejudice and exposing leaders like Sadr in subordinating the working class to the perspective of bourgeois nationalism.

Steiner and Brenner have documented how the WSWS has uncritically championed the Sadr and Sadrist movement in Iraq. The WSWS line on Iraq is especially significant considering the historical attitude of the Trotskyist movement toward bourgeois nationalism, and the attitude of the party in the past and even today toward bourgeois nationalist leaders such as Chavez. The attitude of the WSWS toward Sadr is not far from the positions of Hansen and Cannon in championing Castro and Guevera as "natural Marxists" during the SWP's period of degeneration in the 1960's.

What does North have to say about all this? Absolutely nothing. After complaining about a lack of documentation in regard to decay of the SEP political line, North now has nothing to say about the political line of the SEP! Instead he has engaged in an extended attempt at character assassination directed personally at Alex Steiner. North's latest reply demonstrates his own theoretical and political bankruptcy (and I might add, his dishonesty), and confirms in large measure the criticisms contained in "Marxism Without its Head or its Heart."

Saturday, October 18, 2008


I would like to respond to some false claims that are apparently being made about me within the SEP. There may be others, but I no longer participate in the internal life of that organization so I can't know to what extent my views have been distorted or events are misrepresented. The truth of events is many sided, it is not always expressed by a single view point. This is a concept entirely foreign to the SEP where the opinion of the leadership is for all time the only valid and correct interpretation of events.

The SEP claims that I was not expelled. This is simply not true. According to common dictionary definitions, expel means "to force to leave; to deprive of membership", and this is certainly a valid description of what occurred. I did not resign or quit the SEP, the SEP revoked my membership rights and removed me from the ISSE steering committee. Those actions certainly do constitute expulsion from the group. I can no longer attend branch meetings and I was prevented from attending the congress. During the week of the congress the SEP went so far as to claim that I was a security threat and barred another member from attending because he had met with me. The SEP would even like to prevent me from attending public events.

The SEP offers a bureaucratic argument that a "provisional member" cannot be technically expelled from their group. Even if one accepts this argument, which no one should, what does it say about an organization that denies full membership rights to an active productive member of the group for more than two years? The SEP never explained the difference between a provisional member and a full member or the respective rights of each or how one becomes a full member. I was actually told twice that I was full member, and that seemed reasonable given my contributions to the election campaign in 2006 and my high level of agreement at that time. From there I was appointed to the steering committee of the ISSE, I wrote articles for the WSWS, I started an SEP chapter at my school. To promote a "provisional member" into the leadership of the ISSE, and collaborate as they did with me, would only reveal the SEP to be an opportunist organization. The alternative is no more favorable, if I was a "full member" as I was the told, then the whole "membership review process" was nothing more than a bureaucratic sham to suppress free discussion within the organization.

The other claim is that I called the SEP diseased. That is true, but that comment is stripped from its context and presented in a false way, specifically it is said that because of this I don't think much of the SEP or its members. I originally made this remark in email to my branch. I was commenting on a discussion that had taken place on the ISSE internal forum, I also forwarded those exchanges to my branch members. Obviously I did not intend to say that my branch was diseased or that the party as a whole was diseased, I was commenting only on the discussion within the ISSE. Several ISSE members were attacking me as if I were a political opponent, they had misrepresented my views, and went so far as to equate my views with known opponents of Marxism. Even if I was mistaken in my views, I thought that this was no way for a discussion to proceed within the party. From that discussion I concluded that the party was not in good health. The email to my branch was a complaint, I was hoping that someone would intervene or at least recognize that a problem existed. The response by the party was the very opposite, they enlisted even more people to confront my views using the same tactics.

My remark about the party being diseased was not an attempt to condemn the membership or the party. At that time I still had great respect and admiration for certain party members. There were only a few members that I thought little of, appointed leaders with no real accomplishments. Since being expelled I would say my view of the party has declined substantially. I feel personally betrayed by many party members. Only one member actually defended me that I know of, and he was in the Canadian section. None of the American comrades apparently bothered themselves, I don't whether this was out of fear, apathy, or personal opportunism.

Personal matters aside, it clear to me now that the SEP exists in a state of degeneration and my own expulsion was merely a product of that degeneration. This degeneration is manifested in the practical work of the party, the political line, the theoretical development, and even the kinds of people that are promoted to leadership positions. This subject has been dealt with extensively in the polemic "Marxism Without Its Head or its Heart" by Alex Steiner and Frank Brenner. The politics of the SEP is one of desperation, they clearly do not have a secure footing. The 2008 elections would seem to present immense opportunities for a socialist party, given the crisis confronting the capitalist system, yet the SEP can only muster a write-in campaign about a month and a half before the election. Furthermore, as my report makes clear, this is a campaign which barely touches upon programmatic issues and does not present the SEP as a credible alternative to the problems facing workers.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

SEP 2008 election campaign

I got a chance yesterday to see David North of the Socialist Equality Party speak in Ann Arbor. The SEP has abstained from the 2008 elections, and instead launched a series of lectures a month and half before the election. These events are for most part staged on college campuses, and North was in Ann Arbor speaking to students of the University of Michigan. I wasn't particularly anxious to go to the event, since I am well familiar with SEP's politics, and the leadership of the party had treated me so poorly, but I thought it was important to at least confirm for myself what kind of organization the SEP has become.

First of all it was clear that the SEP did not want me at the event. As I was entering the building, I got a rather cold greeting from one former "comrade." As soon as I took my seat in the room, Larry Porter and Jerry White quickly convened a meeting outside the room to determine what to do with me. Both came back, and Larry stood over me, and in a very threatening tone said that I had no business there, that I had called the party diseased, that I told people I had been expelled when I had not been expelled. I corrected him, I said that I had been expelled. He said I that I was going to cause a scene and that I should leave. I said I just wanted to observe. He said more loudly, "Leave now!" There are some good reasons to fear Larry
physically, but I decided to stand my ground, I asked Larry why. Finally, David North intervened and said that I could stay if I wanted to. I respect North for letting me stay, but I think this incident speaks volumes about the SEP's real stance toward democratic rights and freedom of discussion.

As for the content of North's presentation, it was roughly divided into three parts, a report which consisted mostly of facts and figures on the economic crisis, the size of the bailouts and so forth. Then North moved onto the cause of the crisis with details on sub prime mortgages, high risk loans, and consumer dept. Finally there were some vague predictions about what is to come. Briefly, at the very end, he predicted that the working class would become an active force and class struggles would play a larger role. There was essentially nothing significant in North's remarks, one could obtain much of the same information from following the bourgeois media day to day. Of course, North has a presentation style that could fool someone into thinking that he had said something profound, and indeed most SEP members in attendance probably thought they did hear something profound.

What it is striking about this presentation is that this is supposedly a campaign election event, yet there was virtually no mention of the SEP's own election campaign, or how the SEP would solve the crisis and so forth. Jerry White was in the audience but made no remarks, and was not introduced. In the Q/A session, the campaign was briefly mentioned by North, but he noted that the candidates were not even on the ballot. This evoked a chuckle from Larry, who was standing in the back photographing North and others. It is clear that the SEP does not take its own election campaign seriously. At the very end of the event, Joe Kay introduced himself as Joe Kishore and asked everyone to donate to the SEP's election campaign. At that point, I and probably others were thinking, "what election campaign?" You would think that the national secretary would have more of a public presence than to simply ask for donations for a non-existent election campaign.

Speaking from a theoretical perspective, the content of North's report and his responses during the QA were thoroughly objectivist. For a socialist, this means to adopt a contemplative stance toward events and to downplay or even neglect the role of leadership. He stated several times that objective conditions would cut a path to socialist consciousness in the working class. He said that the working class would advance its own solutions to the crisis. Anyone familiar with Trotskyism should be thinking: "What is the role of the party? What is the purpose of a program?"

Something must be said about the context of this event. The University of Michigan is where the most privileged sections of the population send their children, and I might add, many SEP sons and daughters attend. The school has an endowment of 7.8 billion dollars, which is the third largest of public universities in the US. U of M, along with a handful of other elite universities, are the training grounds for the intelligentsia in the US. The degree of isolation of this layer from the general working population was expressed in one students question, "Does the working class exist?" This is the layer that SEP is very consciously appealing to. Larry had even told me once that strategy of the SEP is to win a layer of the intelligentsia to the SEP through the ISSE. Supposedly the ISSE is to turn the students to the working class, but the SEP conducts no real work within the working class. What are these students to do other than participate in sterile discussion groups, and listen to more objectivist lectures?