Sunday, December 21, 2008

One Year Anniversary of Marxism Without its Head or its Heart

December 16, 2008 marked a year since we completed posting Marxism Without its Head or its Heart (MWHH).

Before we started posting it (in ten instalments beginning in September 2007), David North had claimed that the passage of a year without a response to a polemic (he was speaking of his own Marxism, History and Socialist Consciousness) constituted the passing of “something akin to a statute of limitations.” This was a hypocritical claim for North to be making, since (as we pointed out at the time) he himself had ignored our earlier polemics for three years.

In any case, if we look back on the last year, it is true that we received a response to MWHH, but only in a formal sense. This ‘response’ – by North, assisted by Ann and Chris Talbot – turned out to be a smear campaign against Alex Steiner. When it came to the substance of our criticisms of the International Committee’s political line, neither North nor the Talbots had anything to say. When it came to the philosophical issues, their ‘response’ was equally telling: while the Talbots mounted a blatant defence of empiricism and positivism, North’s only reference to dialectics was a contemptuous sneer. Dialectics remains a dead letter in the IC, as does any theoretical struggle against pragmatism.

It is a fair assumption that we won’t see a further response that actually addresses those issues. In that sense, the passage of a year is significant because if the IC leadership had been able to answer our criticisms, they would have done so already instead of resorting to an ad hominem attack on Steiner. Our analysis has withstood an important test.

The global financial meltdown guarantees that the coming period will be one of great political upheaval. As the old mainstream political consensus collapses, there will be a resurgence of interest in revolutionary Marxism among militant workers, youth and intellectuals. We are confident that Marxism Without its Head or its Heart will come to be seen as having made a positive contribution to that resurgence.

Frank Brenner
Alex Steiner
Dec. 21, 2008

Monday, December 8, 2008

Comments on “Leon Trotsky, Soviet Historiography, and the Fate of Classical Marxism”

By Andrew River

It has long been the case that David North is engaged in a systematic campaign to blur the distinction between Marxism and objectivism. North’s latest foray in this endeavor was a speech he recently presented to the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies (AAASS) at its 2008 National Convention in Philadelphia on November 20-23. The speech, with the title “Leon Trotsky, Soviet Historiography, and the Fate of Classical Marxism” was subsequently published on the World Socialist Web Site. [1]

Before examining what North said, we must note that the venue itself is of some interest. The AAASS is a typical academic association that includes representatives from various political and theoretical orientations, undoubtedly including some very right wing individuals. Founded in 1938, the AAASS’ website reveals that “its representatives serve on such bodies as the U.S. State Department's Advisory Committee for Studies of Eastern Europe and the Independent States of the former Soviet Union, and the International Council for Central and East European Studies.” [2] Such organizations during the Cold War years were heavily infiltrated and financed by the CIA. (Indeed, when the past president of the AAASS, James R. Millar, died recently, it was noted in his obituary in the Washington Post that he had been a resident academic scholar employed by the CIA. [3])

That being said, there is nothing wrong with North addressing this conference. Indeed, he has a responsibility to defend the perspective of Trotskyism, even in such venues, when the opportunity presents itself. However, it is somewhat curious that whereas North has no problem attending forums sponsored by mainstream bourgeois academic organizations, he has never bothered to defend Trotskyism at any self-professed left wing forum. North has never presented the views of the Socialist Equality Party at any of the annual Left Forums held in New York or its predecessor, the Socialist Scholars Conference. Nor did North or any representative from the SEP make a presentation at a well publicized conference devoted to the topic of the Legacy of Leon Trotsky held at Fordham University this past summer.

Furthermore, it is rather incredible that North has no problem participating in conferences sponsored by an organization that has ties to the U.S. government, but in the WSWS smear campaign against Alex Steiner, North attacked Steiner for his educational activities with a left-wing alternative educational institution that has no government ties whatsoever, claiming this as proof of Steiner’s supposed “political associations” with middle class radicalism and the Frankfurt School [4]. By this same standard, one could accuse North himself of “political associations” with the AAASS and consequently with the US government. No doubt North would be outraged at such a flagrant use of guilt-by-association, but he has no trouble in resorting to the very same method when it comes to smearing Steiner.

In his presentation North bemoans the fate of Trotsky scholarship, which he sees as “drying up” after the publication of Baruch Knei-Paz's study of Trotsky’s thought, The Social and Political Thought of Leon Trotsky, first published in 1978. He contrasts the period since the publication of that book with the 1950s and 1960s when Deutscher’s classic biography of Trotsky appeared amidst a renewed interest in the life and work of Trotsky and of the Russian Revolution coinciding with the revelations of Khrushchev and the beginning of the decades long unraveling of Stalinism.

“This drying up of Trotsky scholarship after 1978 is a curious phenomenon. After all, the deepening crisis of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe throughout the 1980s certainly justified a more intensive review of the work of Trotsky…”

North has a tale to tell and he is not one to let facts get in his way. He states that,

“The only notable and original contribution to Trotsky studies that appeared in the 1980s—such a tumultuous decade in Soviet history—was a small monograph, entitled Leon Trotsky and the Art of Insurrection, that focused on Trotsky’s achievements as a military strategist.”

While I can wholeheartedly agree that there has been a neglect of Trotsky scholarship in the past 30 years, North’s narrative overlooks an exception to this assessment, namely, that the most important contribution to Trotsky scholarship in the 1980s was not the minor work on military affairs cited by North, but the publication in 1986 of Trotsky’s Philosophical Notebooks. The discovery of the Notebooks by Philip Pomper in the Harvard Archives and their subsequent publication under the title Trotsky's Notebooks, 1933-1935: Writings on Lenin, Dialectics, and Evolutionism, dwarfs anything else in the field of Trotsky scholarship for the past 40 years, Knei-Paz’s book included [5].

That North does not even mention the Trotsky Notebooks in a forum devoted to Trotsky scholarship is noteworthy but not surprising. For as was noted in an appreciation published earlier this year devoted to the Trotsky Notebooks,

“One would have thought that the publication of Trotsky’s Notebooks more than twenty years ago would have elicited renewed interest in the theoretical side of Trotsky’s work. However such has not been the case. While Trotsky is justifiably remembered as a supreme man of action, the co-leader with Lenin of the Russian Revolution and the architect of the Red Army, there is little recognition of his importance as a Marxist theoretician. Unfortunately, the publication of the Notebooks has done little to dispel that viewpoint. In sharp contrast to the excitement caused by the publication of Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks (Volume 38 of his Collected Works) in English in the early 1960’s, there has been virtually no commentary on Trotsky’s Notebooks. This silence facilitates the prejudices of contemporary left wing intellectuals who continue to minimize Trotsky’s theoretical contributions.” [6]

One may add that notable among those authors who have been conspicuous by their silence about Trotsky’s Notebooks has been David North himself. Up till now the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) has not devoted a single article or even a reference to this most seminal event in Trotsky scholarship since the Harvard Archives were opened. What accounts for the silence about this work that provides a glimpse into Trotsky’s views on Hegel, Lenin, Dialectics, Evolution and Freud, topics that Trotsky normally kept behind the scenes in his published writings? In North’s case, the Trotsky Notebooks must be made to disappear because the topics they cover do not conform to his version of Marxism, one that closes the door to a serious exploration of these issues.

Were one to ask why North’s version of Marxism finds such topics anathema, we would find a clue in examining North’s explanation of the causes for the lacunae in Trotsky scholarship. Let us then turn to that topic.

According to North, a major cause of the neglect of Trotsky scholarship has been the conservative political climate of the past two decades, particularly the period after the fall of the Soviet Union, when it seemed to many that Marxism was a failed 19th century doctrine that had little relevance to the contemporary world. And there is certainly a great deal of truth to this. But North doesn’t stop there. He provides a supplementary explanation for the neglect of Trotsky scholarship – one that is the real focus of his talk. He claims that the type of Marxism espoused by Trotsky has gone out of fashion among left intellectuals. According to North, Trotsky was the last great representative of what he calls “classical Marxism”, which he identifies as follows,

“It is not possible at this time to offer an exposition of Trotsky’s philosophical worldview and his conception of politics and human culture. But it must be said, for the sake of the argument being presented here, that crucial elements of this world view included an irreconcilable commitment to philosophical materialism, belief in the law-governed character of the historical process, confidence in the power of human reason (to the extent that this faculty is understood materialistically) and its ability to discover objective truth, and, associated with this, belief in the progressive role of science. Trotsky was a determinist, an optimist, and an internationalist, convinced that the socialist revolution arose necessarily out of the insoluble contradictions of the world capitalist system. Above all, he insisted that there existed a revolutionary force within society, the working class, that would overthrow the capitalist system and lay the foundations for world socialism.”

Now one can agree that Trotsky was indeed the last great representative of “classical Marxism”. But what North means by this term is very different than how this term has been understood traditionally in the Trotskyist movement. “Classical Marxism” is the Marxism of Marx and Engels and later of Luxemburg and Lenin, whereas for North it really means the Marxism of Second International orthodoxy, i.e. the Marxism of Kautsky and Plekhanov. Second International orthodoxy however was not a form of classical Marxism but in many ways its opposite. Second International orthodoxy conceived of Marxism as a form of economic determinism that upheld a “stages” view of history and considered socialism to be inevitable. The belief in the inevitability of socialism naturally took the teeth out of revolutionary struggle and in fact peacefully coexisted with a reformist day to day practice. Trotsky, like Lenin, resurrected the traditions of classical Marxism by breaking from Second International orthodoxy and stressing the decisive role of conscious leadership in forging the transition from capitalism to the socialist future of mankind. Trotsky also decisively broke from the “stages” theory of history in developing his ground-breaking theory of permanent revolution.

What North consistently does, in this speech as elsewhere, is to blur the distinction between the reductive economic determinism of the Second International and the standpoint of classical Marxism, as embodied in Bolshevism and Trotskyism. Thus North describes Trotsky here as a “determinist” who was “convinced that the socialist revolution arose necessarily out of the insoluble contradictions of the world capitalist system” – a description that applies just as well to a Kautsky or a Plekhanov. To describe Trotsky as this kind of a “determinist”, without any qualification, is to conflate classical Marxism with vulgar materialism. Trotsky’s entire career as a revolutionary was built on a break with this kind of determinism, as the following characteristic quote (from one of his speeches to the Communist International) makes clear:

“History has provided the basic premise for the success of the revolution – in the sense that society cannot any longer develop its productive forces on bourgeois foundations. But history does not at all assume upon itself – in place of the working class, in place of the politicians of the working class, in place of the Communists, the solution of this entire task. No, History seems to say to the proletarian vanguard (let us imagine for a moment that history is a figure looming above us), History says to the working class, ‘You must know that unless you cast down the bourgeoisie, you will perish beneath the ruins of civilization. Try, solve this task!’ Such is the state of affairs today.” [7]

What Trotsky is saying is that while the conditions for socialism are indeed “determined” through the internal dynamic of capitalism and its crisis, the resolution of that crisis is entirely contingent on the theoretical and political maturity of the working class and especially its revolutionary leadership. This is a fundamentally different conception of determinism than the inevitabilism of Second International orthodoxy as expressed by Kautsky and Plekhanov.

Indeed, if one were to accept North’s exposition of Trotsky’s thought, one would be hard-pressed to understand what the philosophical differences are between Trotsky and the old mechanistic materialism Marx attacked, or between Trotsky and the leading theoreticians of the Second International. There is no room for revolutionary dialectics in North’s treatment. Trotsky’s philosophy is presented as a clock that runs without a spring, a blind inevitabilism that cuts out all mediating factors (including the subjective dialectic of human consciousness) from history.

Yet according to North, this brand of Second International orthodoxy that he falsely portrays as the legacy of Trotsky has fallen into disfavor among academics. The chief culprit for this state of affairs in North’s indictment will come as a surprise to some readers. After taking on right wing opponents of Marxism such as Richard Pipes and Robert Conquest, and pro-Stalinist academics such as Robert Thurston, North comes to the real target of his ire, the Frankfurt School. North has been using the Frankfurt School for some time as a kind of ideological bogeyman to explain everything from the rise of postmodernism to the celebration of the irrational by fascists. And now according to North, it is the pervasive influence of the Frankfurt School in academia that is responsible for the demise of Trotsky scholarship in the last three decades.

North’s blanket indictment of the Frankfurt School as being responsible for all the ills of contemporary culture has already been refuted and will be explored in more detail on another occasion. [8] Aside from the fact that North’s explanation conveniently sidesteps his own share of responsibility for the neglect of Trotsky scholarship, North’s invectives against the Frankfurt School are so historically inaccurate that virtually no one who knows anything about this piece of intellectual history could take them seriously.

It is worth noting that for all that invective, North has no compunction about citing Walter Benjamin’s high opinion of Trotsky as a writer, even though Benjamin was himself associated with the Frankfurt School. [9] North also conflates the work of Adorno and Horkheimer with Hendrick de Man. North’s bogus attempt to link de Man with the Frankfurt School was exposed in Chapter 9 of Marxism Without Its Head or Heart. [10] The Frankfurters opposed de Man politically and philosophically. For instance, in 1932 Erich Fromm attacked de Man and accused him of reifying character traits of bourgeois society into human nature. [11] Again, the point here isn’t to defend the Frankfurt School against Marxist criticism, but to “treat history with a basic degree of honesty”. It is apparent that North only cites de Man as part of his ideological police action, to smear those who critique his version of Marxism as “irrationalist” and “anti-materialist”. Knowing this North could not have countenanced Trotsky’s Notebooks, which deal with the “subjective dialectic” of human consciousness, something that cannot be reduced to the crude formulas North advances.

It is significant to note that Lars Lih headed the panel where North gave his presentation at the AAASS conference. Lih, in his scholarly output on the relationship between Lenin and social democracy, denies that Lenin ever broke from the Second International orthodoxy of Plekhanov and Kautsky, and tries to depict Lenin as an unadulterated defender of their philosophical and political legacy. For Lih, Lenin defended the legacy of the Second International while Kautsky and the rest betrayed it. [12] Lih like North totally ignores Lenin’s theoretical development amidst the background of the betrayal of the Second International in 1914, an event that impelled him to break from Second International orthodoxy via a turn to a study of dialectics in his 1914-15 Conspectus on Hegel’s Logic. North and Lih all have an interest in collapsing the purportedly “good” days of the Second International with Lenin and Trotsky’s Third. They simply ignore the fact that the construction of the Third (Communist) International had to be laid on new theoretical foundations. In the words of Lenin, writing in anticipation of the New International during the dark days of World War I,

“It would be a very deplorable thing, of course, if the “Lefts” began to be careless in their treatment of Marxian theory, considering that the Third International can be established only on the basis of Marxism, unvulgarised Marxism.” [13]


[1] http://wsws.org/articles/2008/dec2008/aaas-d01.shtml
[2] Quoted from the AAASS about us: http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~aaass/about.html

[3] http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/12/03/AR2008120303714.html?wprss=rss_metro%2Fobituaries
[4] See The Intellectual and Political Odyssey of Alex Steiner, Part-3, http://wsws.org/articles/2008/oct2008/fran-o24.shtml . The following is the relevant section of North’s document:
“At about the same time, Steiner was entering into new political relations of which he has made no mention in any of his attacks on the ICFI. It obviously has been his intention to conceal his present political associations from those who are reading his documents. Steiner became a lecturer on philosophy at The New School for Pluralistic Anti-Capitalist Education, also known as The New SPACE. In its literature, the New SPACE describes itself as "Resolutely anti-authoritarian and non-sectarian," bringing together "anarchists, humanist Marxists, and others." It is, to be more precise, a conglomeration of middle-class radical tendencies that are hostile to Trotskyism. Among its "Teachers, Speakers and Organizers" are individuals closely associated with the Frankfurt School, such as Kevin Anderson (whose writing is highly praised by Steiner), Stanley Aronowitz, Eric Bronner and Bertell Ollman. The faculty also includes individuals active in the Green Party and other brands of petty-bourgeois protest politics.”

[5] It should also be noted that North completely fails to mention that Knei-Paz’s study has been challenged and in large part superseded by a very recent work, The Marxism of Leon Trotsky, by Kunal Chattopadhyay, Progress Publishers, Kolkata, India, October, 2006.
[6] http://www.permanent-revolution.org/archives/trotsky_notebooks.pdf

[7] The First Five Years of the Communist International , Volume 2, New Park Publications, p. 6
[8] A critique of North’s analysis of the Frankfurt School can be found in Chapter 6 of Marxism Without its Head or its Heart: The Real Dialectic of the Enlightenment, http://www.permanent-revolution.org/polemics/mwhh_ch06.pdf , as well as in the essay, The Vulgar Critique of Vulgar Materialism, http://www.permanent-revolution.org/polemics/vulgar_critique.pdf
[9] From North’s essay: “Trotsky, quite clearly, played a decisive role in the Russian Revolution, one of the key events of the 20th century. He was also, as it so happens, one of this century’s most brilliant literary figures. Walter Benjamin noted in his diary that Bertolt Brecht in 1931 “maintained that there were good reasons for thinking that Trotsky was the greatest living European writer.””
[10] See Chapter 9 of Marxism Without its Head or Heart “Remarks on Bernstein, ‘Neo-Utopianism’ and Political Amalgams” http://permanent-revolution.org/polemics/mwhh_ch09.pdf pages 242-243.

[11] See Fromm’s “The Method and Function of an Analytic Social Psychology” Reprinted in The Crisis of Psychoanalysis
[12] See Lih’s Lenin Rediscovered: What is to be Done? in Context. (Brill Academic Publishers, 2005)
[13] The Junius Pamphlet , Collected Works, Volume 22 . This is available online at http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/jul/junius-pamphlet.htm

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

A footnote to the SEP’s 2008 election campaign:

My less than brilliant career as a write-in voter

By Alex Steiner

I have previously commented on the anemic quality of the SEP’s 2008 election campaign.[1] The SEP claimed to be running a write-in campaign, (having waited to launch their campaign until it was too late to get on the ballot anywhere). But it was obvious that even as a write-in campaign, the party was just going through the motions. A small but telling indication of this is that the SEP did nothing to warn its supporters of the problems they might face in actually placing a write-in vote. As I discovered when I went to vote myself, those problems could be formidable.

I arrived at the grammar school gymnasium where the voting takes place in my Brooklyn, New York neighborhood in the latter part of the evening, when I knew the lines would be shorter, but also well ahead of the 9 PM closing time for the polls. I was determined to vote SEP, which I thought would be a relatively straightforward matter. However, once I entered the voting booth, I realized that I did not recall the exact mechanics of submitting a write-in vote and there was nothing in the voting booth in the way of instructions that would assist me. I therefore signaled to one of the poll workers that I wished some assistance.

Once I got the attention of the volunteer I explained to him what I wanted to do and he simply did not understand the concept of a write-in vote at all. I then asked him to consult with his supervisor where I hoped to have better luck. It turned out that the supervisor, a middle-aged woman with a very business-like attitude only had a little bit more knowledge than the volunteer. She understood the concept of a write-in vote but had no idea how to do it with Brooklyn’s antiquated manual voting machines. Finally, she located an instruction booklet that actually had a section explaining how to cast a write-in ballot. It seems there was a button on the upper left that you have to press down and at the same time slide over a metal fastener over a rectangular space to the left of the position for which you want to cast your ballot. The metal fastener is supposed to unlock a paper ballot where you can write in your preference.

This sounded simple enough and armed with a new degree of confidence I thanked the supervisor for showing me the directions and told her that I wanted to complete my vote. However, during the interval while I was attempting to obtain these directions, other people were waved through and allowed to vote. This created a logistical problem for the volunteers as my return to the voting booth required that they fill out a new form for me. They seemed reluctant to do this, claiming that this would “disrupt” their orderly procedures. When I pointed out that it was not my fault that asking for assistance for a simple problem should not have been the cause of any disruption, the supervisor with whom I was speaking asked me why I couldn’t just vote the “normal” way, i.e. for one of the candidates whose names were on the ballot, instead of causing trouble with my unorthodox request. I replied that I had a right to vote in whatever manner was allowed in the State of New York and casting a write-in ballot was one of the options that voters had before them.

As soon as I mentioned my rights, the supervisor’s attitude changed from one of mild annoyance to overt hostility. She then informed me that I could not go back into the voting booth to cast my ballot unless I was accompanied by two election officials. When I asked her why I should have this kind of supervision imposed on me, she claimed that the instruction booklet stated that anyone casting a write-in ballot can only do so if there are two elections officials standing by with that person in the voting booth. I could not believe the instruction booklet said any such thing and I asked her to show me where it said that. She pointed to a line where the instruction booklet stated that “If the voter requests assistance, two elections officials must enter the booth with that voter.” I explained that this sentence in the instruction manual applied to a situation where the voter was requesting assistance and I was not requesting any assistance. Now that I understood the procedure for casting a write-in ballot, I wished to avail myself of this option and cast my ballot in private as is my right.

My insistence upon my right to cast my write-in ballot in private further alienated this woman and she claimed that I could not vote until she obtained “clearance” from higher election authorities. She then got on her cell phone to make some calls. This went on for several minutes. After a while I once again insisted on my right to vote and went up to the police officer guarding the place and complained that I was in effect being denied my right to vote. At that point, the elections supervisor with whom I had been squabbling brought in reinforcements in the form of a higher election official, another middle-aged woman who sported a button on her lapel indicating that she had some kind of authority over the entire voting place. After explaining the problem to this woman she promptly echoed what the supervisor had said, that I can only vote under supervision, even though the booklet was very clear that this was required only in the case where the voter asks for assistance.

I once again insisted on my right to vote in privacy. When confronted by this unexpected rejection of her authority to dictate the terms of my voting, the elections official finally relented and said that I may vote without supervision, but I would only be given three minutes in the booth. She also threatened to find out my name and retaliate against me in some unspoken manner if my insistence on voting for a write-in candidate wound up”destroying” her statistics. Although her conditions were obviously capricious and unfair, I felt that I had at least won a partial victory and it was not fruitful to continue the argument with her. I agreed to her conditions and finally, after receiving a duplicate voting card, went in for the second time to cast my write-in vote. (I exited the first time without actually voting for anyone when I tried to obtain assistance initially.)

It was only then that I discovered that all my efforts and good intentions had been in vain. Although I followed the instructions in the booklet religiously, the slot where the paper ballot is supposed to reveal itself refused to open. I was the victim of a faulty voting machine. I left in disgust, unable to cast my ballot for the SEP.

I can only wonder how many other supporters of the party had similar experiences. Interestingly, there has been no article posted on the WSWS reporting on how many votes the party received, something that was standard practice in other party campaigns. [2] What is ironic about my little comedy of errors in the voting booth is that I was taking this write-in campaign more seriously than the SEP was.

A last point that’s worth reflecting on: what accounts for this virtual non-campaign on the SEP’s part? If ever there were an election that cried out for a socialist voice to be heard, this was it. And yet none of the movements to the left of the Democratic Party made themselves heard in this campaign, from Ralph Nader and the Greens to the various middle class radical groups. Of course the mass media adulation for Obama did much to drown out such voices, but it is also the case that these tendencies adapted themselves to the Obama campaign, either by toning down their own campaigns or abandoning them altogether.

If we consider the SEP’s behavior in this broader context, then its failure to fight for ballot status or mount a serious write-in campaign was also an adaptation to these bourgeois class pressures. Those pressures express themselves through the political base of the SEP, which is increasingly middle class college and university students, the layer of the population who most fervently supported Obama. A serious election campaign would have forced these students to swim against the stream of Obama’s popularity, and clearly this was something the party leadership wanted to avoid.



[1] http://www.permanent-revolution.org/forum/labels/election_2008.html

[2] One example can be found in this report written in the immediate aftermath of the 2004 election –
Socialist Equality Party gains significant support in US elections,
by Joseph Kay, 4 November, 2004
http://www.wsws.org/articles/2004/nov2004/sep-n04.shtml

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Unable to answer our political criticisms the WSWS resorts to a smear campaign

In politics a sure sign that you can’t answer criticism is that you try to change the subject. And one of the most tried and true methods for doing that is to smear the reputation of your opponent: discredit the critic so as to ignore the criticism. That is precisely what the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) has done with its series, “The Frankfurt School vs. Marxism: The Political and Intellectual Odyssey of Alex Steiner.”... More >>

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The SEP’s 2008 election campaign

The announcement by the US Socialist Equality Party on Sept 13, 2008 that they were launching a national election campaign for President and Vice-President is yet another indication of the abstentionist torpor that now grips the International Committee.[1]

This campaign is a decidedly half-hearted effort. By waiting until mid-September, the SEP forfeited any chance of getting its candidates on the ballot in any state. Even as a write-in campaign, it seems very much a pro forma exercise.

(In Canada, the party’s abstentionism was even more marked: in the federal election held on Oct. 14, the SEP ran no candidates, held no meetings and did not even bother issuing a programmatic statement.)

A revolutionary Marxist party is not an electoral machine. Whether and how to participate in elections are always tactical considerations. But that being said, an election can often be an important – and rare – opportunity to reach a broad audience. And what an extraordinary situation coincides with this election! The world financial system is disintegrating, threatening to engulf the global economy in a tidal wave of capitalist chaos. Under these conditions, it should be a matter of the utmost urgency for Marxists to get the widest possible hearing for socialist policies in the working class. But no sense of urgency animates the SEP campaign.

It is well known that the American electoral system places enormous obstacles in the way of minor party candidates getting access to the voters. The onerous and needlessly complex requirements for petitions are the chief method by which the near monopoly of political life by the two capitalist parties is maintained.

Nevertheless, the socialist movement in the United States has a long and proud tradition, going back to the days of Daniel De Leon and Eugene V. Debs, of overcoming these obstacles and gaining ballot status. Even in the recent past, the Socialist Equality Party and its predecessor, the Workers League, conducted energetic petition campaigns.

In one notable petition campaign for a Congressional race in Ohio in 2004 the SEP went so far as to file a lawsuit in Federal Court against the unfair rejection of its petitions.[2] In another campaign, a race for a statewide office in Illinois in 2006, the Socialist Equality Party once more had to avail itself of legal remedies in order to get on the ballot in the face of a conspiracy to silence them orchestrated by local Democratic Party operatives.

In that campaign SEP candidate Joe Parnarauskis rightly stressed that gaining ballot status for a third party candidate is a significant victory in the struggle against the erosion of democratic rights. He said:

"[The court]… decision has once again vindicated the position of the SEP, which has met every legal requirement to be placed on the ballot. We hope this will end the long saga of obstructing democratic rights, but at the same time, we fully expect the Democrats will continue their bad-faith efforts against us. We call on voters in the district to demand the right to vote for a candidate of their choice. If they want a candidate that fights for the working class against the two parties of war and big business, they should support my campaign and vote for me in November."[3]

After the Illinois State Board of Elections, under immense legal and political pressure finally relented and allowed the SEP candidate’s name to appear on the ballot, Parnarauskis again issued a statement that underlined the importance of ballot access for the defense of democratic rights:

"This is not only a victory for the Socialist Equality Party, but it is a victory for citizens in the 52nd District and nationwide. It is a repudiation of the undemocratic efforts by the Democratic Party to deny the voters in my district the right to vote for a candidate of their choice."[4]

Thus in 2006 the SEP was prepared to put in a good deal of political work (to say nothing of legal claims and expenses) to get on the ballot in a state race during a mid-term election. In the Presidential election campaign of 2004, the SEP successfully obtained ballot status in five states, namely, New Jersey, Iowa, Washington, Minnesota and Colorado. An article summarizing the achievements of the 2004 election campaign clearly underlined the importance that the SEP attributed to the campaign waged by its supporters to obtain ballot status and exposure in the media:

"The impact of the SEP’s intervention in the elections extended well beyond the number of votes it received. In the course of fighting for ballot access, the party gathered thousands of signatures from individuals opposed to the war and looking for an alternative to the two-party system. This included over 8,000 signatures gathered in the state of Ohio, where Van Auken and Lawrence were ultimately denied ballot access after thousands of registered voters were arbitrarily disqualified from the petitions."

"During the course of the campaign, Carl Cooley and Tom Mackaman were able to debate their Democratic and Republican opponents on several occasions, and explain the SEP’s opposition to the war in Iraq, as well as many aspects of the party’s internationalist and socialist program. Thousands of copies of the SEP election platform were distributed by supporters on college campuses, at work locations and in working class neighborhoods."[5]


Yet when it comes to the far more important 2008 Presidential campaign – which was already destined to be an historic election due to the debacle of US imperialism in Iraq and Afghanistan, and whose significance was greatly compounded by the Wall Street financial meltdown – the SEP abstained from any effort to appear on the ballot without so much as a word of explanation.

One might add here that given that the SEP conducts no sustained work in unions or any other venue in which there is a regular dialogue with workers, a petition campaign in 2008 would have been doubly important in that it offered one of the few possibilities for party members to have face to face contact with workers. (The WSWS has posted a couple of video clips of presidential candidate Jerome White talking to workers, including one at the factory gates of American Axle, a Detroit plant that was the sight of a bitter strike earlier this year. But these video clips have the character of a ‘photo op’: they are more about image than substance. Which is consistent with the party’s abstentionism, where all involvement with the working class is reduced to journalism, albeit this time with digital cameras. When it comes to holding meetings in working class neighborhoods or rallying support among workers or working class youth, this ‘campaign’ is non-existent.

An examination of the programmatic content of the campaign reinforces the impression that this is little more than an exercise in going through the motions. The initial statement introducing the SEP’s 2008 election campaign contains just the bare skeleton of a program. It is a threadbare affair of just a few paragraphs. It is true that two weeks later (on Sept. 25) the SEP did publish a more extensive programmatic statement, but it is evident even from the title of this document, The Socialist Equality Party Statement of Principles,[6] that this isn’t intended as an election platform but a broader “statement of principles” connected to the ‘founding’ of the SEP in August. No effort has been made to adapt this statement to the agitational needs of an election campaign, and the campaign itself is making no effort to fight for the demands in this statement or win support for them in the working class. This ‘program’ thus becomes little more than a ritualized affirmation of orthodoxy which is issued and then promptly ignored for the rest of the ‘campaign’.

Perhaps the most telling thing about the SEP election campaign is the schedule of speaking engagements of candidates Jerome White and Bill Van Auken. Of the dozen or so locations listed by the WSWS, almost all of them are on college campuses. There doesn’t seem to be any meetings aimed specifically at a working class audience. Nor does there appear to be much effort to gain publicity for the campaign through radio and television appearances. Indeed, by abstaining from any effort to get on the ballot, the SEP has also forfeited any opportunity to get access to the mass media. TV and radio stations are often legally obliged to provide minor party candidates with some free air time during the election campaign, but this applies only to those candidates with ballot status.

So here we are in the midst of the most profound economic crisis in the history of capitalism since 1929, a remarkable opportunity to educate thousands of workers about the socialist alternative, and all the SEP can come up with is a tepid write-in campaign, engaging no one but a tiny handful of students at various campus-oriented meetings.

The SEP’s record in this crucial election is yet further confirmation of the party’s abstentionism and estrangement from the working class that we analyzed in Marxism Without its Head or its Heart. Doubtless feelings of “party-patriotism” will blind many members and supporters to the significance of this record. And doubtless lots of excuses are being circulated internally to account for this failure. “The comrades were too busy preparing for the SEP’s Founding Congress”, or “investing the resources involved to get on the ballot is not worth the effort.” But all such excuses - like any analysis that fails to examine the theoretical roots of the SEP’s practice over the past dozen years – will completely miss their mark. To those seeking to break through the logjam of abstentionism, we urge a careful consideration of our extensive analysis of the SEP’s theoretical degeneration in our polemic, Marxism Without its Head or its Heart.

Alex Steiner

Oct. 22, 2008

[1] “Reject Obama and McCain! Support the socialist alternative in 2008! Build the Socialist Equality Party!
Statement of the Socialist Equality Party,” September13, 2008.
http://www.socialequality.com/electionstatement.html
[2] “Party to challenge early filing deadline: Petition drive completed for SEP Congressional candidate in Ohio”, June 8, 2004 http://www.wsws.org/articles/2004/jun2004/cinc-j08.shtml
[3] “Judge orders election board to certify Illinois SEP candidate,” September, 20, 2006.
http://wsws.org/articles/2006/sep2006/illi-s20.shtml
[4] “Parnarauskis to appear on Illinois ballot: Unanimous decision ends lengthy battle for candidate,” Sep. 22, 2006:http://media.www.dailyillini.com/media/storage/paper736/news/2006/09/22/News/Parnarauskis.To.Appear.On.Illinois.Ballot-2302227.shtml
[5] “Socialist Equality Party gains significant support in U.S. elections”, by Joseph Kay, November 4, 2004.
http://www.wsws.org/articles/2004/nov2004/sep-n04.shtml
[6] The Socialist Equality Party Statement of Principles, September 25, 2008.
http://www.socialequality.com/principles.html

Sunday, September 28, 2008

A Comment on the Founding Congress of the SEP


On Sept. 19, 2008 the World Socialist Web Site announced that the Socialist Equality Party had held a Founding Congress on Aug 3-9 in Ann Arbor Michigan. [1] This statement came as a surprise to many readers as we were under the impression that the Socialist Equality Party had already been founded years ago. In fact if you go back into the archives of the WSWS you can find a document from 1995 with the title, The Workers League and the founding of the Socialist Equality Party. [2] The basis for that earlier Founding was spelled out by David North in his remarks to the 1995 Congress,

"Because the transition from the Workers League to the Socialist Equality Party involves not merely a reorganization of our present forces but a change in our relationship to the broad masses, I believe that this transformation requires patient preparation. It is not enough for us to change our name and proclaim ourselves a new party. We must work to encourage and develop a real social movement of the working class upon which this new party can establish a firm foundation."


Therefore the founding of the SEP in 1995 was based on the prospect of a fundamental change in the relationship between the party and the working class. Yet we are now told that in fact the 1995 Congress was not really a Founding after all:

"The founding congress was the outcome of theoretical, political and organizational work within the United States and internationally that spanned more than a decade. The predecessor of the SEP, the Workers League, initiated the process of transforming itself into a party in June 1995."

In other words, the 1995 Congress only “initiated” the Founding of the SEP but it took another 13 years to consummate this Founding. It is hard not to avoid the impression that little more is involved here than playing with words. But leaving that aside and accepting that at long last the SEP has been founded in 2008, presumably this new step in the party’s development is based on a change in the relationship between the party and the working class that was anticipated in the 1995 Founding Congress. Has this change actually happened?

Alas, we see no evidence of any such change. If anything, the SEP’s predecessor, the Workers League, had a much more vital relationship to the working class in the period from 1985-1995 than in the period from 1995-2008. One need only mention the intervention into the Mack Ave Fire in Detroit in 1993 where the Workers League initiated a Commission of Inquiry that won wide support, or the intervention into the Hormel strike of 1985-1986 or the work related to the UAW strike of Caterpillar in 1992. Has there been anything comparable in the last 13 years?

What in fact has taken the place of these interventions into working class struggles? The answer clearly is journalism. In the past 13 years the Socialist Equality Party has evolved an abstentionist orientation whose primary work consists in publishing news articles for the World Socialist Web Site. We have analyzed the theoretical roots of this degeneration extensively in our series Marxism Without its Head of its Heart. [3] As we noted in that series, we are the last ones to denigrate the need for revolutionary journalism and the use of the communications revolution represented by the Internet to reach new layers of the working class and intelligentsia that was not possible with a print media. But when the sole preoccupation of the movement consists in writing news articles - and articles one might add that are often indistinguishable from left liberal commentary - then we have a severe problem.

The main rationale for the Founding Congress is then certainly not a fundamental change in the relationship between the party and the working class. Rather it is to be found in the following cryptic statement:

"The launching of the World Socialist Web Site in February 1998, which rapidly developed into the most widely read Internet-based socialist publication in the world, led to the expansion of the political influence of the ICFI and a significant influx of new members into the Socialist Equality Party. "

The Congress it appears was launched in order to absorb and accommodate the new members. We do not doubt that the SEP has indeed recruited a significant layer of new members. But so far as we can tell the great bulk of these new members come from a middle class student milieu through the work of the ISSE (International Students for Social Equality). That in itself is certainly not a crime, but as we noted in Marxism Without its Head of its Heart, relying on a middle class student movement that is bereft of working class youth poses certain dangers:

"Something also needs to be said about the launching of the youth movement, The International Students for Social Equality, (ISSE) which is oriented to students on college campuses. We find it troubling that this youth movement is limited to the college campus milieu. In the context of the recent political evolution of the IC, it is another sign of the crystallization of the dominance of middle class forces within the party. There is a notable contrast here with the work the party did among working class youth in the past. An important achievement of the Workers League in the early 1970s was the building of a youth movement, the Young Socialists, that gained a substantial following among working class and minority youth. The Young Socialists actively fought against the pernicious influence of Black Nationalism and other reactionary ideologies on the home base of its adherents and more than held its own. It organized rallies and demonstrations against unemployment, imperialist war, and fought to unite the struggles of the youth with those of the working class as a whole. It also educated a layer of youth in the principles of Marxism. Yet today the successor organization of the Workers League, the Socialist Equality Party, proposes nothing for the most oppressed sections of the working class, the unemployed youth, African American and Hispanic youth. This is another unmistakable sign of the party’s growing estrangement from the working class."[4]


The real purpose of the Congress seems to have been the elevation of this middle class layer to leadership positions inside the movement. This is particularly evident in the selection of Joseph Kishore for the post of National Secretary of the SEP. Kishore has no history of being involved in any struggles of the working class, nor has he made any contribution to Marxist theory, which are the traditional criteria by which leaders have been chosen in the Trotskyist movement. Rather it seems he is representative of this new layer of recruits on which the SEP is betting its fortune – middle class students willing to write articles for the World Socialist Web Site and leave difficult theoretical and political issues to the leadership, namely North. In other words, this Congress does mark a change in the relationship of the party to the class, but in a decidedly negative sense:
It is yet one more indication of how remote the party is from any involvement in the life of the working class and how its political base is now drawn almost exclusively from a petty bourgeois college student milieu.


We will comment elsewhere on the documents produced by the Founding Congress of the SEP and the 2008 Election Campaign.

Alex Steiner
Sept 29, 2008

[1] Socialist Equality Party holds founding Congress,
http://wsws.org/articles/2008/sep2008/cong-s19.shtml

[2] The 1995 talk "The Workers League and the founding of the Socialist Equality Party" had been available online but seems to have disappeared after a recent reorganization of the WSWS. It was also published as a separate printed pamphlet by that title. I am leaving the URL in case the WSWS resurrects the online version, but the last time I tried it (Feb 2, 2009) I received a "Page Not Found" error. http://www.wsws.org/sections/category/icfi/wlsep.shtml

[3] http://www.permanent-revolution.org/polemics/mwhh_ch01.pdf

[4] http://www.permanent-revolution.org/polemics/mwhh_ch11.pdf