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.