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, 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:


Mark said...

I wrote a brief comment on Adam's article here.

Anonymous said...

The elimination of the hyperlinks to material written by Steiner and Brenner in the "brief" note published at the WSWS says one thing, and it says it with great clarity:

Notwithstanding the fact that someone who is genuinely interested and Internet-savvy can go find the cited material, the editors of the World Socialist Web Site do not -- not really -- want their audience to read for themselves, in full and in context, the material that Steiner and Brenner have written.

Let's be very clear about this: They want people to not read something with which they disagree. They would prefer that their supporters not see for themselves material that is critical of the party.

Members of the Socialist Equality Party should think long and hard about the implications of this position, as should those who are thinking about applying for membership.

Anonymous said...

(a different anon. than the previous poster)

I just read Haig's response to Steiner and Brenner's commentary on his original piece.

This is starting to look like a petty dispute on an internet message board, with Haig complaining about "name calling" in the same piece in which he uses the word "hysteria" to characterize Steiner's reply.

What "serious Marxist" would possibly be swayed one way or the other on the basis of who called who what name?

I have read, and re-read Marxism Without It's Head or It's Heart, and so I know how baseless Haig's entire presentation of Alex and Frank's positions are.

I think this whole thing smells like a campaign to give the party an enemy as a pretext to clamp down even tighter on the party ranks. Otherwise it would have been no problem whatsoever for North or someone else to simply address the substantive political critique, instead of perpetually "changing the subject".

And, finally, if anyone is capable of gratuitous displays of hysteria, it is David North upon being challenged or questioned in the slightest by a party member.

Alex Steiner said...

We will reply to Haig in due course but I just want to say right now that I do not think it facilitates discussion to characterize anyone as being "hysterical". That goes for Haig's characterization of me as well as "Anonymous" characterization of David North.

Mark said...

I wrote the following letter to the WSWS editorial board.


I think that Steiner and Brenner were absolutely correct in their appraisal of Adam's article. It is not the position of Steiner and Brenner "that Frankfurt School critical theory is Marxism." Adam attempts to refute a point that was never argued in the first place. Clearly, Adam is not interested in an honest appraisal of the work of Macuse or Fromm, he is hunting down quotations which he feels can be easily attacked in an attempt to condemn Steiner and Brenner using guilt by association. He does not even address the material that Steiner and Brenner quote, or for that matter address the substance of Steiner and Brenner's views.

I don't think it is at all "beside the point" to give an honest appraisal of writings of Marcuse, Fromm, etc. What is Adam's position on the matter? Are the collective writings of the Frankfurt school "worthless"? I don't have near the familiarity with these writings as Adam Haig, but I can say that I found Marcuse's "Reason and Revolution" helpful in understanding the relationship between Hegel and Marx.

What Adam calls "eclecticism," is in fact is the approach of every great intellectual in history. Marx did not simply create his theory of society in a vacuum, Marx synthesized a great number of trends in thought: Hegel's idealism, french materialism, Utopian socialism, etc. Marx's approach to different schools of thought was not simply to accept or reject everything whole cloth, Marx as able to identify the positive contributions of each school and critically rework them into his own conception of society. Adam's simplistic approach, which judges the contributions of an intellectual by his political affiliations, is both false and utterly sterile.

Anonymous said...

There are definite theoretical differences between the ICFI and S&B, however, the ICFI and yourselves are not spending productive time with what now is becoming tiresome exchanges with one another. Today's posting on the WSWS is tiresome even for a regular reader such as myself. You should form your own group and the WSWS should also stop concerning itself with your affairs whenever possible. The theoretical differences and the allegations on both sides are clear enough now. Its obvious S&B aren't strict ortho-Trotskyists anymore, but besides that not much can be said about S&B because they simply haven't done much as a pair yet i.e. you can't say much on their practice like if you ever wanted to criticize the Spartacist League for example. So either the WSWS can wrap up its review of past Utopians or tiresomely project S&B instead of letting them show the ICFI to be right or wrong.

Andrew River said...
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Andrew River said...
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Andrew River said...

Dear Anon,

Your suggestion that we should form our own group so that the internet reading public can better distinguish us from the WSWS likens the polemical struggle between SB and the ICFI leadership to a war over brand names in a shopping mall. You argue WSWS and Steiner/Brenner are wasting their time and trying the patience of the general reader, and that the latter should just give up their critique and form their own "brand" of Trotskyism. This would be for the benefit of the general reader who can arbitrate which brand of Trotskyism is better. This is not how such struggles should be approached. Such a viewpoint assumes a passive reader exercising his "choice" in a market economy. It is miles away from an engaged viewpoint that seeks to win the hearts and minds of workers, youth and intellectuals who are already involved in struggles. Perhaps your conception shows the deleterious influence of the WSWS which claims it can build a revolutionary movement on the basis of little more than Internet journalism while abandoning the Transitional Program and the day to day struggles of the working class.

You write “not much can be said about S&B because they simply haven't done much as a pair yet i.e. you can't say much on their practice like if you ever wanted to criticize the Spartacist League for example”. But your position, which is close to pragmatism, doesn’t recognize that while theory needs to be tested by practice, Steiner and Brenner base themselves on an accumulation of theory and practice from over a half a century of Trotskyist struggles. To ignore the issues raised in Marxism Without Its Head or Heart is to dismiss any consideration of how a revolutionary leadership can be built. Does S&B’s critique of the WSWS coverage of Iraq, their approach to Mexico, the unions, and the 2008 elections have merit or not? To say one ought to wait till they can better gauge Steiner and Brenner’s practice independently of the SEP is a cop-out from these issues. They have critiqued the theory and practice of the ICFI already. 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 [1]. The IC leadership has not responded to any of these proposals. Perhaps you can tell us what you think of them?

Instead of answering S&B's criticisms or their proposals North and co have stepped up a smear campaign against Steiner and have sought to distract the discussion away from a consideration of the fundamental practical and theoretical issues raised in Marxism Without its Head or its Heart. Their inability to respond to S&B in a principled way is a sure sign of a leadership in an advanced state of degeneration.

Andrew River

1. See Chapter 11 of Marxism Without Its Head or Heart:

Mark said...

I agree with points made by Andrew, but his post raises some additional questions. Suppose a revolutionary minded person agrees with completely with Marxism Without it Head or its Heart and the the other essays and polemics on the Permanent Revolution site. What is this person to do with that gained knowledge? Does he join the SEP, hoping to reorient it or does he continue to wait for a change of course?

The first is simply not a option given the SEP's sectarian approach to party building. Even the slightest deviation from North's perspective could mean the end of a prospective membership. As for the second option, the first polemics date from 2003 and since then the SEP has only continued its downward slide.

Raising this questions is entirely legitimate given the severity of the world situation, and the advanced state of degeneration of the SEP.

phillip said...

Dear Anonymous,

It is true that there are philosophical and theoretical differences between S & B and the ICFI. If there were not, there would be no reason for the polemical exchanges. However, you merely trudge about on the very surface of events. You do not discuss the content of the disagreements, nor do you take a position. Are Steiner and Brenner's criticisms correct or not? Why? As Andrew River asked, what about Steiner and Brenner's critique of the ICFI on Iraq, Mexico, the unions and Mexico? Marx teaches us that there is a dialectical relationship between theory and practice. It's a telling sign that the SEP did not address a single one of these points in any of the articles they've published concerning S & B's polemics. Nor have you here said anything concerning these issues.

Furthermore, you do not support your accusation that engaging in polemics is unproductive. Your attitude has much in common with the pragmatism (critiqued in MWHH), which sees the investigation of theoretical and philosophical ideas as superfluous. This attitude could not be more mistaken and alien to the tradition of genuine revolutionary Marxism. Steiner and Brenner look to this history This is not the attitude taken by Marx, Engels, Lenin, or Trotsky. Without criticism and internal struggle, groups wither up and die. It is only through struggle that a Leninist party can prepare itself for revolution. It is generally through struggle that party cadre gain thick enough skin to fight for Marxism. Struggle is the means by which parties grow. Polemical exchanges are an absolutely vital element in educating cadres and maintaining internal democracy.

On going education regarding theory and philosophy is indispensable to the development of socialist consciousness within the masses. What appears expedient and “productive” in the short-term can have deadly consequences in the future. It may seem productive to shy away from theoretical debate and discussion right now, but tomorrow this leaves the movement ill-equipped and blind-folded, it leaves the movement dumb and inert, unable to carry through the task of leading the workers to carry out a revolution. Why should we willfully tie our hands behind our back? There simply will not be a real revolutionary movement if we do not have a strong philosophical/theoretical framework to guide our work. Theory and philosophy are not hindrances to carrying out practical everyday work, but are necessary safeguards against opportunistic practices.

Steiner and Brenner are not enemies of the ICFI. To buy into North's hackneyed attempt to create a friend/foe dichotomy while avoiding any genuine treatment of the issues at hand, is to remain blind to the real theoretical issues involved. You merely assert that Steiner and Brenner are not Orthodox Trotskyists, but you do not show us how or why. Steiner and Brenner are against Pabloite and State Capitalist revisionism, they believe members of the ICFI should be trained in dialectical materialism, and they look to the lessons of the Russian revolution, and the developments of the 19th and 20th centuries.

Alex Steiner said...


You raise a good question, what practice do we propose to those who are convinced by the arguments in Marxism Without its Head or its Heart.

But we have already answered this on many occasions. First of all, for those members of the SEP and close supporters, we urge them to insist that the leadership of the ICFI immediately end the smear campaign against Alex Steiner and organize a serious discussion about the substance of the issues raised in MWHH. It is also obvious that any discussion of the issues raised in that document would be little more than a joke without the participation of the authors of the document. But the ICFI leadership have tried to demonize and smear Steiner and Brenner and paint them as opponents of the ICFI in order to provide themselves with an alibi for their unwillingness to do just that. We have also proposed a series of steps in the concluding chapter of MWHH that the ICFI can take tomorrow to begin the long process of reorienting the movement.

For the larger public who reads the WSWS, we urge those who agree with us to write the WSWS and ask them to change course. We would also like to hear from readers of our web site,

Furthermore we see no reason to be cynical about the possibility of reorienting the ICFI. While it is true that the Socialist Equality Party has fallen away from Marxism into objectivism, it is also true that there remains a vast historical legacy of the struggle for Trotskyism within the International Committee that can be called upon to overcome this crisis. We do not believe that the Socialist Equality Party is the personal property of David North and we anticipate that there will be some voices who will not blindly follow the leadership in this matter. Certainly no one can say that the discussion is over at this point when it has not even really begun. The smear campaign orchestrated by North starting on Oct 22 is not a discussion but an attempt to distract the members and supporters of the WSWS from a discussion.