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

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.


[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

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.
[2] “Party to challenge early filing deadline: Petition drive completed for SEP Congressional candidate in Ohio”, June 8, 2004
[3] “Judge orders election board to certify Illinois SEP candidate,” September, 20, 2006.
[4] “Parnarauskis to appear on Illinois ballot: Unanimous decision ends lengthy battle for candidate,” Sep. 22, 2006:
[5] “Socialist Equality Party gains significant support in U.S. elections”, by Joseph Kay, November 4, 2004.
[6] The Socialist Equality Party Statement of Principles, September 25, 2008.

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,

[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.