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.


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,

[2] Alex Steiner, “The Dialectical Path of Cognition and Revolutionizing Practice,” March, 2004,

[3] Alex Steiner and Frank Brenner, “Objectivism or Marxism,”  May, 2006,

[4] David North, “Marxism, History and Socialist Consciousness: A Reply by David North to Alex Steiner and Frank Brenner,” June, 2006,

[5] For a more balanced view of Reich, see “Marxism Without its Head or its Heart,” Chapter 10, “Marxism and Mass Psychology,”

[6] Alex Steiner and Frank Brenner, “Marxism Without its Head or its Heart,” September, 2007,

[7] David North, “The Frankfurt School vs. Marxism: The Political and Intellectual Odyssey of Alex Steiner,”

[8] Ann Talbot and Chris Talbot, “Marxism and Science: An addendum to “The Frankfurt School vs. Marxism”,”

[9] Adam Haig, “Steiner, Brenner and Neo-Marxism: The Marcusean Component,”

[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,

[12] See Marx’s discussion in Chapter 1, Section 4 of Capital, “The Fetishism of Commodities,”

[13] For an excellent analysis of the situation in Russia, see Trotsky’s “Results and Prospects,”

[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,”

[15] See Marxism Without its Head or its Heart, Chapter 1, “Latin America: A Case Study in Objectivist Theory and Abstentionist Practice,”

[16] Marx and Engels, The German Ideology, Chapter 1B, “The Ruling Class and Ruling Ideas,”

[17] Leon Trotsky, “The History of the Russian Revolution”, Volume 2, Chapter 36: “The Bolsheviks and the Soviets,”

[18] Leon Trotsky, “The Transitional Program: The Death Agony of Capitalism and the Tasks of the Fourth International”,

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

[20] Frederic Engels, The Principles of Communism,

[21] See “Chapter 8: Objectivism and Socialist Consciousness – Part 2” from “Marxism Without its Head or its Heart”,

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://

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