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."


Liz K said...

Yeah telling me. I was wondering long about this SEP v Steiner-Brenner thing. Just found your site. Irony being, none of the workers Would have a clue what the controversy was about, nor rightfully would they give two hoots. Think the word you're looking for re SEP is "talking shop". Compared to Faux Nooz or even Alternet they're Plato and Aristotle though. But personally I don't think any of the Trotskyist or doctrinaire Marxist groups are leading the working class anywhere fast. Why be against unions if workers need them to organise? Utopian socialism would be a fine thing! I vote William Morris. (Objectivism that's funny!)

Mark said...

Not all workers would be interested in theory, no, and many so called "radicals" are not interested in theory either. But socialism is not something that spontaneously happens on its own, nor does it result from pure trade union activity which is probably the angle you are coming from.

The current impasse in the revolutionary movement is because of the neglect by revolutionaries of theory. The revival of Marxism as an intellectual current is a prerequisite for the working class coming into power. The theoretical issues brought up by Steiner and Brenner are critical in the formation of a new revolutionary movement, but it is not necessary nor could it be expected that all workers would have a thorough grasp of those issues.