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.