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

6 comments:

Anonymous said...

One minor "scholastic" point: When Marx says, "The materialist doctrine concerning the changing of circumstances and upbringing forgets that circumstances are changed by men and that it is essential to educate the educator himself," he is attacking not just French socialists, but the philosophy of Helvetius (the French Enlightenment materialist, who Plekhanov admired, perhaps uncritically: http://marxists.org/archive/plekhanov/1893/essays/2-helvetius.htm) and Robert Owen (the utopian socialist), who underrated the active role of consciousness in history. This criticism wasn't just limited to French socialists, but was a critique of the entire Enlightenment tradition up to Feuerbach.

Other than that, I enjoyed your essay.

Andrew River

Anonymous said...

I cannot help agreeing with you.
While I'm getting more and more disillusioned and disappointed with ICFI's dishonesty, I still wonder why there apparently is only unanimous criticism (and false argument) against Steiner and Brenner. Should there be at least subtly different voices within the group? Did or do they have an open debate regarding this issue? Where is David Walsh standing, who has consistently insisted on the importance of being sensitive?
Finally, I thank Steine/Brenner and you for helping direct me to an fuller understanding of true Marxism.

Mark said...

Thanks for your comment Anonymous.

You raise an interesting question. One reason for the unanimous criticism of Steiner/Brenner that you see on the WSWS is that the contents of the WSWS are controlled by the editorial board and they are only going to publish articles that they agree with, and within the editorial board/leadership there is pretty much unanimous agreement about how the Steiner and Brenner polemical material should be handled, this includes David Walsh.

Within the party things could be quite different, there may be a debate raging within the party but we would never know about it. One of the rules of the SEP is that internal debate stays within the party. Party members are restricted from publishing their views outside the party. Even within the party there are restrictions. When my article on dialectics was refused for publication I asked that my article be distributed internally to the membership. This request was also refused. Supposedly this right exists for "full members", but in two years I never received any articles for internal distribution besides those of North's.

Presently, the only opportunity that members get to talk to each other and present their views is at the aggregate meetings and summer schools. However, I think this framework is too limited for an oppositional group to develop within the SEP. Members should be in constant contact with each other and should be able to share their views freely within the party. I think one way the members of the SEP could assert some democratic control over their party, if they were so inclined, is to set up a forum on google groups to discuss the theory and program of the party.

To me, the repeated flogging of Steiner and Brenner signifies that tensions are building up within the SEP. I think the demonization of their views is intended to intimidate potential opponents within the SEP. I know from personal experience that the leadership can make things very hard for those with dissenting views. I don't expect much from the party in the coming months and years, just as objective conditions are becoming more intense they are showing signs of retreat. The SEP's participation in the 2008 elections was dismal. The SEP is increasingly proving to be a non-revolutionary tendency.

Mark said...

My point with the Marx quotation was to show that the philosophical basis of Trotsky's criticism of the Utopian socialists was the same as Marx, and that term 'Utopian socialist' had the same meaning for Trotsky and Marx. Maybe I could have made that point a bit clearer.

Anyone familiar Steiner and Brenner's conception of Utopia, as outlined in "To Know a Thing is To Know its End: On Why Utopia is Crucial to a Revival of Socialist Consciousness (May, 2003)", can clearly see that they are Utopian socialists in the sense that Marx or Trotsky uses that term. Therefore, the SEP critique of Steiner and Brenner is based on a confusion, and I think that confusion is deliberate on the part of North who should clearly know better.

Marx's critique of the Utopian socialists is elaborated in the Communist Manifesto. I think it is important to emphasize, considering how the SEP uses the confusion surrounding the word Utopia to demonize its opponents, that Marx did not simply reject altogether the ideas of the Utopian socialists or write them as exponents of petty-bourgeois ideology. Marxism represents a positive a critique Utopian socialism, it is an attempt to found the dream of socialism on a scientific footing.

Anonymous said...

As someone who was looking around the Internet for information on the SEP I find it my duty to place this comment for any others like me who stumble upon this blog.

Claiming that the SEP is trying to use "guilt by association" is a bare faced lie. This is not a situation where Stiener and Brenner happened to be in the same room with proponents of Frankfurt School, but their active promotion of its theories. You speak of being sorry for Adam, but you should be sorry for yourself. In other pieces of yours you speak of your support for the theory of State Capitalism as well as believing the Soviet bureaucracy was a new class and not a caste. These statements alone prove your opportunism and the abbondonment of Marxism and the dialetic. That is why, like Stiener and Brenner, in order to rationalize and legitimize your anti-Marxist beliefs you distort the dialetic from a historical process to one of psychology and pragmatism. The SEP proudly stands in the traditions of Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky, while renegades like you abandon them.

Mark said...

Anonymous, you can't you support your accusations. Where do I speak of "support for the theory of State Capitalism as well as believing the Soviet bureaucracy was a new class and not a caste."? It's not on this blog or any other web site, it's not in any of my correspondences with the SEP.

Internally within the SEP I asked about the theory of state capitalism advanced by Cliff and others, the relevance of this question for a new member of the SEP should be obvious since one of early splits in the Trotskyist movement was over the question of the class nature of the Soviet Union. I was disappointed by the evasions of the leadership in dealing with those questions, there are no articles in response to Cliff and the leadership was incapable of even discussing his arguments. It wasn't until I came into contact with Steiner and Brenner that I was given a proper understanding of the class nature of the Soviet Union and was able to discuss the writings of Trotsky fully.

Secondly, the claim that Steiner and Brenner are active proponents of the Frankfurt school is nonsense (I'm not going to call you a liar, I'm just going to suggest that perhaps you haven't actually read what they written on those matters). Critical engagement is not the same as endorsement, is it possible that their were any insights from the Frankfurt school? For the SEP the answer is no, but the same would have to be said of philosophy for the entire twentieth century and some time before, since there is almost zero discussion of philosophy on the WSWS (aside from some jabs at Slavoj Žižek). To even write about philosophy it seems is incriminating. Marxists shouldn't be afraid of philosophy or challenging questions, but that is exactly what the SEP cultivates.

You speak of the "traditions of Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky", but those great figures and revolutionaries have nothing in common with the leaders of the SEP. I know this party and the leaders first hand, when they talk about "psuedo-left" they are actually talking about themselves, there is no leadership or efforts to organize workers, they are complacent in having a marginally popular "left" website. There are still some good people there, but unfortunately they are trapped in the ideology and limitations of North and his associates.