Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Did the SEP abandon permanent revolution in Iraq?

The following letter was posted by an Anonymous reader on the blog “A brief note on the publication of "Steiner, Brenner and Neo-Marxism: The Marcusean Component" as a response to my reply. I am posting the response Anonymous sent and a further reply. Since it is reasonable to assume that other SEP members and supporters share the views presented by Anonymous, I am posting his comments and my reply as a new blog entry.

Dear A. River,

Your observation about my previous comment makes some good points. I did make the statement from the point of view of someone who had already decided what position I favored and consider the theoretical points to be clear. Practice then becomes the issue.

anyway, you asked:

"The concluding chapter of Marxism Without its Head or its Heart proposes a few simple steps that the SEP can undertake to begin to reorient their practice. The IC leadership has not responded to any of these proposals. Perhaps you can tell us what you think of them?"

to begin:

You mentioned Iraq in the chapter, saying the WSWS supports "bourgeois nationalism." The WSWS calls for an end to the occupation, but apparently this is equivalent to supporting bourgeois nationalism for you. The WSWS has not supported any bourgeois faction in Iraq. I'm not sure about your view here, but you must be insisting on some alternative to this demand for withdrawal. I presume either it is a controversy drawn up that insists this demand is a repudiation of a demand for socialism in the country, thus keeping the country bourgeois. It is what we call a transitional demand. Otherwise you may advocate some sort of occupation uprising or occupation aided-revolution, but you'll have to enlighten us.

With your demands, though they sound on their face to be interesting, most of them are, in my view (such cultural and historical articles, events), done extremely well by the ICFI and WSWS. A good sounding argument is the youth league argument, but you'll have to prove colleges are poor arenas for movement building. I am a working class youth who is working my way (hopefully) through colleges. I hope to go to a state college after getting my associate's degree. The comrades I have met who are students at colleges are, as far as I can tell, excellent socialists. As for the calls for democracy, freedom of criticism and the emphasis on learning to a greater extent than of that of the WSWS, these can only be seen in the light of your psychosexual and utopian views which you want to introduce and the ICFI doesn't want to introduce (and in my opinion rightly so). It isn't a question of democracy, its a question of citizenship, so to speak, and in an ideological sense.

Now, perhaps or perhaps ultimately you merely try to win over the socialists of the ICFI because you like their character and you've had a long association with them. Now this you can't blame the ICFI for opposing. I am tired of their opposition because I'm not sure if it is strictly necessary in its current form, but I understand it, for any organization would be forced to do the same. Your whole site is a back-and-forth with the ICFI, they just have an article every month.


Dear Anonymous,

Thank you for your reply. Unfortunately I do not share your confidence that the theoretical issues are already solved and can be shelved accordingly. I hope you will consider the theoretical with the practical critiques Steiner and Brenner offer. You really haven’t told us—beyond mere assertion--why you consider these theoretical issues a shut case, nor have you expressed an anti-critique of Steiner and Brenner’s criticisms of the ICFI leadership’s descent into objectivism. Again, I urge you to make a thorough examination of what Steiner and Brenner actually wrote.

As to your substantive criticisms:

1. Chapter 2 of MWHH argued that the WSWS coverage of Iraq constituted “the abandonment of the permanent revolution and the embrace of bourgeois nationalism in the form of a Shiite cleric and his militia.” [1] Your invocation of the ICFI’s call for an end to the occupation is missing the point of Steiner and Brenner’s criticisms. Everyone on the Left wants to end the occupation. Even Obama in his mealy-mouthed speeches expressed such sentiments. Revolutionary Marxists have a much higher standard to meet. Our perspective has to be based on Trotsky's permanent revolution, which fights for the independent mobilization of the Iraqi working class. If we abandon that perspective, then there is nothing that distinguishes Marxism from liberalism when it comes to the struggle against imperialist war. But if you actually read through the analysis presented in MWHH, it is absolutely undeniable that the WSWS did abandon the perspective of the permanent revolution in Iraq. They adopted a very different kind of perspective, one which boosted so-called "national resistance" against the occupation. Trodding a well-worn path taken by many middle class radicals (and before them, by Stalinists) this perspective led the WSWS to become a cheerleader for bourgeois nationalists in Iraq, specifically the Shiite cleric al-Sadr.

The language the WSWS used in its coverage of the war was not Marxist, but rather colored by a non-class perspective of “national resistance”. The working class disappeared from their coverage in 2004 (and beyond) once the Sadrist uprising gained attention in the mainstream and caught the eye of the radical middle class (i.e. Naomi Klein). The WSWS lavished praise upon Sadr and characterized his politics in pseudo-Marxist phraseology, claiming his banal anti imperialism represented a “leap” in consciousness [2]. Hyperbolic rhetoric saturated the coverage, as the Sadrist uprising resurrected in the minds of WSWS journalists the respective ghosts of the French Resistance and the founding fathers [3]. Steiner and Brenner warned,

“Once you are freed of the nagging problem of class, then all kinds of glorious parallels suggest themselves, as we saw earlier with the French resistance etc. {Patrick} Martin now enlists the shades of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, and one can almost see the fife and drum marching through the dusty streets of Najaf and Fallujah. But alas the shade of Leon Trotsky, author of the theory of permanent revolution, is nowhere to be seen in this heroic scenario.” [4]

Only much later, when the Sadrists failed to advocate a “no” vote on the Iraqi constitution the Quisling installed government drafted in 2005, did the WSWS suddenly figure out Sadr was a typical bourgeois nationalist after all. It took the WSWS an astonishing 18 months to figure out the ABCs of Marxism. But nevertheless the adaptation to bourgeois nationalism continued. WSWS writers expected and supported anti imperialist responses from the Iraqi masses, but did so without any perspective for building an independent Marxist movement. Such statements from James Cogan and others on the WSWS staff amounted to objectivist daydreams, with the job of liberation outsourced to the “Iraqi masses” (defined without an analytical class criterion), and with a blind eye to the working class struggles in Iraq. Without a class analysis and program as a guiding thread, the WSWS abandoned the Iraqi working class to the machinations of the bourgeoisie. To conclude:

“The WSWS paid no attention to the struggles of the Iraqi workers because it became a proponent of so-called “national resistance.” But to ignore the working class means to abandon any effort to build a revolutionary party. And so there has never been a single article on the WSWS devoted to the call for the building of a Trotskyist party in Iraq or the spelling out of what such a party would stand for. Nothing expresses the WSWS’s abandonment of the permanent revolution more clearly than this. Capitulating to bourgeois nationalism is a black hole that blots out both the working class and Marxism.” [5]

All of this has been painfully documented in Chapter 2 of Steiner and Brenner’s polemic. My summary cannot do justice to what--in my opinion--is the most damning section of MWHH. I encourage you to study it carefully. These criticisms have been totally ignored in the most dishonest fashion by the IC leadership. Those readers who are nurtured only on what WSWS tells them are shamefully left in the dark as to the real content of Steiner and Brenner’s critique.

2. Steiner and Brenner are not against recruiting students in colleges and universities for Trotskyism. But it was a conscious decision on the SEP’s part to limit their youth movement, the ISSE, solely to students. Steiner and Brenner cited an article from Znet which contained some damning statistics that demonstrate higher levels of education are out of reach for many. To quote from that same article:

“Commonly held definitions need not apply any more. "Public" no longer means public if the majority of people can't afford or have access to institutions of higher education. Community colleges also increased tuition by 14%, the second largest increase since 1976. What "community" will attend these schools? Certainly not the 12.4% of the U.S. population who live on less than $18,400 yearly - a community of 34.6 million in the U.S. who see a college education well out of their reach.” [6]

Your anecdotes aside, it was argued in the concluding chapter of MWHH that “the astronomical costs of higher education now put it out of reach for most working class youth and even many middle class youth…a smaller percentage of working class youth are now able to attend college than in previous generations…” [7] No matter how you state it, the SEP is losing (what James Cannon called [8]) its proletarian orientation by limiting its recruitment to the campuses. This opens the party up to middle class forces. Such a strategy spawns an internal dialectic in the party’s increasing adaptation to the mentalities of middle class politics, namely the mindsets of pragmatism and liberalism. Such adaptation is unavoidable in the absence of a proletarian counterweight and scrupulous ideological training in dialectics and Marxism for new recruits.

Again, our objection is not to recruiting college students but rather to limiting recruitment almost exclusively to such students. This is in stark contrast not only to the Trotskyist movement under Cannon but also to the earlier history of the SEP's predecessor, the Workers League. There used to be demands formulated by the WL that addressed the oppressed sections of working class youth, from the unemployed to minorities. Compared with its predecessor the SEP doesn’t come close to engaging these forces. There simply is no attention paid to unemployed and minority youth in the current activities of the SEP. [9].

3. Your conception of party democracy is alien to the traditions of Bolshevism. This was a tradition that countenanced intense debate even as foreign imperialism and civil war were threatening the very existence of the young workers state. At the time it seemed as if Moscow and Leningrad might very quickly be overrun by German troops who would only face a weak Soviet army that was in the process of disintegration. But in Alexander Rabinowitch’s penetrating study, The Bolsheviks in Power, the author provides a plethora of examples of how intense the debate was within the Bolshevik Party during even this stage of what was perceived as an imminent collapse of the new Soviet Government. [10].

Your distinction between “citizenship” in the party and democracy is a confused one. It has nothing to do with the Leninist principle of democratic centralism. Trotsky, a supporter of psychoanalysis, would have been kicked out of the Bolshevik party by your standard for being “obsessed” with “psychosexual” politics.

I will end this reply with a quote from Lenin, who was an advocate of democratically conducted debate within socialist parties:

“It is necessary that every member of the Party should study calmly and with the greatest objectivity, first the substance of the differences of opinion, and then the development of the struggles within the Party. Neither the one nor the other can be done unless the documents of both sides are published. He who takes somebody’s word for it is a hopeless idiot, who can be disposed of with a simple gesture of the hand." [11]

Anyone who has actually read the material presented by Steiner and Brenner, concomitant with North’s, the Talbots’, and Haig’s polemics know who has followed the spirit of objectivity Lenin outlined here and who has not. [12]


Andrew River

1. See Chapter 2 of Marxism Without its Head or Heart: The WSWS as a Left Apologist for Bourgeois Nationalism in Iraq:

2. From David North,
“We have taken serious note of the appeal issued by al-Sadr to the people of the United States. This appeal must reflect a new awareness among the Iraqi masses that American imperialism is not a monolithic force, and that the United States is torn by internal social divisions. It also expresses a realization that the Iraqi people must seek support beyond the borders of their own country. This development in consciousness was already anticipated in the mass international anti-war demonstrations of February 2003, and provides fresh substantiation of the emergence of new and more favorable conditions for the building of the World Party of Socialist Revolution.” Quoted from Greetings from David North to Australian SEP: “A devastating blow to the myth of American invincibility”, WSWS, Apr. 12, 2004:

3. See “An exchange on Nader, Kerry and the US war in Iraq”, WSWS, June 1, 2004: http://www.wsws.org/articles/2004/apr2004/dn-a12.shtml

4. Marxism Without Its Head or Heart chapter 2, ibid

5. ibid

6. Quoted in the Conclusion to Marxism Without its Head or Heart:

Read the Znet article here:

7. Conclusion to Marxism Without its Head or Heart, ibid

8. The Struggle for a Proletarian Party, James Cannon:

9. From the Conclusion to Marxism Without its Head or Heart: “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.”

10. See Alexander Rabinowitch’s discussion of this period in the internal life of the Bolshevik party in his comprehensive The Bolsheviks in Power. See particularly Part 2 “War or Peace” chapter 6 “The Socialist Fatherland Is in Danger”, pp 173-174.

11. Quote from Lenin as printed over the masthead of the first issue of The Militant, 15 November 1928. Also quoted in the Conclusion to Marxism Without its Head or Heart ibid

12. The removal of the hyperlinks to Steiner and Brenner’s documents in Adam Haig’s polemic “Steiner, Brenner, and Neo-Marxism: the Marcusean Component” is just the icing on the cake of a campaign to disorientate readers of the WSWS and members of the SEP. This was a conscious decision made by the editorial board in order to avoid their readers having direct access to the documents Haig cites from permanent-revolution.org. See “Of sterile flowers, poisonous weeds, and a political smokescreen” by Alex Steiner and Frank Brenner:

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

History in the making and the making of history

By Frank Brenner

We are being constantly told by the mass media that today is a day of 'history in the making'. And there are millions of people, including many workers and many on the left, who believe this, at least to some degree: the massive crowds that have come to Washington to watch the inauguration of Obama are evidence of that. In cities throughout the US and around the world, people stopped work to watch the event on tv.

It hardly needs to be said that as Marxists we understand that this is a huge case of political demagogy. But I want to consider something different - I want to ponder the notion of 'history in the making'. This is a telling example of the counterfeits of freedom that characterize bourgeois society and particularly bourgeois democracy. By this I mean that bourgeois society continuously offers the illusion of freedom while denying its substance. Thus today the masses are being invited to watch 'history in the making', which is to say that they get to be passive spectators while the powerful (and of course the wealthy) get to make history.

In feudal times the coronation of a new king served similar purposes, and the more astute and 'progressive' monarchs very much encouraged the participation of the 'rabble': the king was meant to be seen as the 'people's king' and much effort was spent to encourage a symbolic identification with him.

Bourgeois politics has taken this a good deal further: this symbolic identification is now bound up with the ideology of nationalism. This is by no means limited to democratic forms of bourgeois rule; on the contrary, fascism in particular took this kind of identification furthest of all.

Walter Benjamin talked about how fascism aestheticizes politics, by which he meant that it transforms politics into a grand spectacle or better still a kind of national psychodrama. The giant Nazi rallies, such as the one at Nuremberg recorded in the Leni Riefenstahl movie, “Triumph of the Will,” is a perfect example of that. No doubt many of those who attended such rallies were convinced that they too were witnessing ‘history in the making’.

To be sure, bourgeois democracy approaches these matters somewhat differently. But for a long time now, as the socioeconomic divisions have widened at the base of society, there has been a major effort to divert attention away from these divisions by an ever greater aestheticizing of politics. This has been most noticeable in the US, though American techniques in this regard have increasingly been copied by ruling parties around the world. From the Reagan years on, the principal narrative of this psychodrama was the so-called ‘culture wars’ whereby ‘honest’, ‘authentic’ conservatives were fighting to defend the family and American ‘values’ against liberal elites.

With Obama’s election, the narrative has changed – it is now about ‘the audacity of hope’, about social ‘cooperation’, ‘compassion’, ‘duty’ and ‘responsibility’. Just as American capitalism survives on borrowed money, so the American political elite is now borrowing on the political capital of the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King, to say nothing of Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. These are potent symbols and Obama and his circle are doing their best to capitalize on them. Under these conditions, it has never been more important for Marxists to draw the clearest possible distinction between liberalism and socialism.

One such distinction is over history and how it is made. The millions who come to Washington or watch on tv to witness ‘history in the making’ are actually being treated to a political ‘reality television’ show. What we need is not to watch ‘history in the making’ - by others! - but to make history ourselves. That is the dividing line between bourgeois and socialist democracy. The ‘beautiful’ illusions of freedom have to give way to a freedom from illusions.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Of sterile flowers, poisonous weeds and a political smokescreen

On Jan. 6, the WSWS carried yet another polemic against us, the second one in a week. This one came with a purple prose title, “Adam Haig responds to Alex Steiner’s burst of outrage”.
Burst of outrage? This same Haig had four days earlier posted a 17-page attack on us in which he baldly declared that we “cannot be regarded as Marxist-Trotskyists”, claimed that we reject the materialist conception of history, are skeptical about the revolutionary role of the working class and much else.

We posted a brief response (a little over a page in length) on our website blog in which we pointed out that most of the essay was devoted to using Herbert Marcuse as a straw man and that much of the rest of it brought in irrelevant material regarding Erich Fromm and Slavoj Žižek.

There was no “burst of outrage” in what we wrote. It is true that we called the title of Haig’s piece pretentious and we characterized his ruminations on Fromm and Žižek as the kind of padding a clever graduate student would engage in, but this is pretty routine stuff in the cut-and-thrust of polemical debate, and given what we were dealing with, it was eminently fair comment. By any objective measure, our criticisms of Haig were a good deal more restrained than his accusations against us.

But that isn’t how Haig saw it. Our brief note enraged him and he vented his anger in a new posting which the WSWS editors were only too happy to run (a point we will come back to). In this latest posting we are accused of writing an “angry response”, of making “several outrageous charges” in our brief note, and that we are supposedly “intent on discrediting the ICFI.” Steiner, “in his hysteria,” apparently “employs a deceitful use of quotation marks”. Later we are told that Steiner “exploded” and later still that Steiner “has no capacity for logical argumentation.” The piece winds up by consigning us to the garbage heap of history (having “embraced Herbert Marcuse, Freudo-Marxism, and Utopia … it is fairly clear where they [i.e. Steiner and Brenner] will end up”).

“Hysteria”, “exploded”, “burst of outrage” – the violence of this language is striking. Clearly, the “hysteria” here is Haig’s, not ours. In psychology this is known as projection; in a more familiar idiom it is a case of the pot calling the kettle black...Click here to read entire essay

Friday, January 2, 2009

A brief note on the publication of "Steiner, Brenner and Neo-Marxism: The Marcusean Component"

On January 2, the World Socialist Web Site greeted the New Year by offering its readers yet another polemic that attempts to discredit us, this one with the pretentious title, "Steiner, Brenner and Neo-Marxism: The Marcusean Component". [1] This isn’t the place for a substantive reply, but a few quick points are in order:

First, the basic premise of this essay is a misrepresentation of our attitude to the Frankfurt School and Marcuse. The author, one Adam Haig, states:

“One of the arguments Steiner and Brenner make is that despite the incompatibilities of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory with orthodox Marxism, not everything by the critical theorists is worthless. That is beside the point. The question is whether or not Frankfurt School critical theory is Marxism.”

Why is it “beside the point” to claim that “not everything by the critical theorists is worthless”? Haig is simply dodging the substance of our position and replacing it with a different view, i.e. “that Frankfurt School critical theory is Marxism.” This is what is called setting up a straw man, and Haig then spends 17 pages knocking him down, arguing against something that we never claimed. In this respect as in many others, Haig merely echoes the misrepresentations advanced by ICFI leader David North in his various polemics against us, particularly the series “The Frankfurt School vs. Marxism: The Political and Intellectual Odyssey of Alex Steiner”. [2]

Second, in the manner of a clever graduate student, Haig pads his essay with several pages of completely extraneous material on Erich Fromm and Slavoj Žižek. We have never cited the latter’s views in any of our polemical material and our few references to Fromm are confined to his writings from the early 1930s, long before his politics (and psychology) lost their revolutionary edge. Haig has clearly been trained by North in the ‘art’ of cooking up amalgams: Marcuse leads him to Fromm (even though their differences on psychoanalytic theory were of a fundamental nature) and Fromm then allows Haig to throw in ‘socialistic humanism’, left-liberalism, Eugene McCarthy and the proverbial kitchen sink.

(One has to say in passing that while this essay offers very little of intellectual or political merit, it is a striking – and frankly depressing – indication of how newer party members and supporters are being trained. They are being taught that one ‘defends’ Marxism through setting up straw men, cooked-up amalgams and smear campaigns. It would be hard to think of a worse indictment of the present leadership of the ICFI than this kind of miseducation of young comrades.)

Finally, a small but telling point. From the time it first appeared a little past midnight on Jan 2 to some hours later that morning, this essay went through a slight ‘change’. The first edition of this essay had some footnotes citing our essays. The footnotes included hyperlinks to the essays that were referenced on our web site, http://www.permanent-revolution.org/. Several hours later, the hyperlinks were removed. Right now, there is no way for anyone reading this essay online to link directly to any of our material. The footnotes refer to something called “Permanent Revolution” (without the hyphen). For instance, here is footnote 1:

1. Alex Steiner, “Unable to Answer Our Political Criticisms: The WSWS Resorts to a Smear Campaign,” Permanent Revolution, 9 November 2008.

It is not even clear whether “Permanent Revolution” is a web site or the name of a periodical or a book. It is true that the enterprising reader who is determined to find our material can do a Google Search and eventually they will be led to the URL,
but of course the editors of the WSWS who removed the original hyperlink to this document are banking on the fact that the great majority of their readers will not be so enterprising.

Now it is one thing not to insert hyperlinks in the first place but it is something yet again to remove hyperlinks that were already there. This was obviously a deliberate decision made by the editors of the World Socialist Web Site to prevent people from actually reading the views of a polemical opponent.

This little ‘edit’ is particularly ironic given the following statement in the essay itself:

“Ironically, Steiner claims that ‘feelings of “party-patriotism” will blind many members and supporters’ from seeing ‘the [Socialist Equality] party's abstentionism and estrangement from the working class,’ and that ‘the SEP's theoretical degeneration’ has been laid bare in Marxism without Its Head or Its Heart. Steiner has a very low opinion of the ability of SEP members and supporters to seriously think through theoretical, political, and historical questions.”

Actually, it seems that it is the WSWS editorial board that “has a very low opinion” of the abilities of its readers and of party members; otherwise, they would have left the links in and allowed readers to judge for themselves the validity of our criticisms.

Alex Steiner
Frank Brenner
Jan. 2, 2009.

[1] Adam Haig, “Steiner, Brenner and Neo-Marxism: The Marcusean Component,” WSWS, Jan. 2, 2009:
[2] http://www.wsws.org/articles/2008/oct2008/fran-o22.shtml