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”,