Monday, March 9, 2009

On the WSWS's "curious fumble" on Iraq and other matters

I’m posting here some comments by a reader, mdv, and my response. Judging from mdv’s remarks, it is fair to characterize him as an apologist for the SEP leadership. But what is interesting is that unlike David North (or the Talbots), mdv tries to address some of the substantive criticisms we made of the SEP’s political line and practice. His efforts to defend the SEP leadership on these issues lead him to make, albeit inadvertently, some revealing statements which deserve to be brought to the attention of our readers. Another reason for responding to mdv is that the views he expresses are probably shared by others in and around the SEP.

These comments by mdv are the latest installment of an exchange he was having with Andrew River over a blog River wrote for concerning a speech by North to a Slavic studies conference. As far as this exchange goes, I have nothing to add to what River has said, and mdv’s latest remarks raise nothing new on this score. From the second paragraph on, however, mdv moves to a more broad-based defense of the SEP leadership, and it is these remarks that concern me here.

Frank Brenner

Click here for the exchange with an apologist for the SEP leadership


Anonymous said...

The transitional demand puts forth a reform proposal in line with the current state of the proletariat that can not be met without exposing the contradiction between the interests of the bourgeois and the proletarian classes and not without intensifying class conflict.

Does suggesting the demands of a union strike impact the entire proletariat -or any beyond local areas? Would these demands, accepted by the workers and their union, and thereby acceptable to them, be impossible for the bourgeoisie to meet without exposing before the whole proletariat the contradiction between all bourgeoisie and all proletariat? Would the resolution of the strike intensify class conflict nation-wide, world-wide?

Speaking of the "few" working class people attending college, what about the few in unions? The few in unions that do anything more than take money out of your paycheck? The few capable of organizing in unions, the few working in industry? Most Americans work in service - the demands of strikers do not impact them. Most Americans are not teachers.

The ICFI analyzes each struggle in terms of its global impact and global significance. There are few global transitional demands. The ICFI emphasizes the final demand: revolution. Intervention into national and regional struggles is a question of whether they are revolutionary. The introduction of transitional demands relies on support and possibilities within a revolutionary movement based on the independent action of the mass proletariat - or decisive development in that direction - not subordination to and negotiation with the bourgeoisie.

It seems apparent that Steiner and Brenner do not agree with the ICFI's repudiation of the unions, the union as a working class institution, and union struggles as a venue for class struggle. That is why it offers coverage of the global issues which concern workers in a union dispute and their significance and origin. The strike and union struggle is a manifestation of the class conflict, not the class conflict itself, by any means. The union dispute is a two-sided manifestation of the class conflict at that.

-- HL

Alex Steiner said...

HL's comment is barely coherent and therefore it is not easy to know how to reply as it is not clear what he or she is commenting on. My best guess is that HL is replying to the following comment in Frank Brenner's essay, "On the WSWS's 'curious fumble' on Iraq and other matters":

"Among the clearest and most telling manifestations of that evisceration of Marxism is the SEP’s abandonment of yet another part of the heritage of Trotskyism – intervention in the everyday struggles of the working class and the fight for transitional demands as bridges to socialist consciousness. We devoted a chapter to this in MWHH, where we demonstrated that never in its history has the International Committee become so estranged from the working class as it is today. It conducts no sustained activity in the working class, no work in the unions, no attempts to rally or lead workers in struggles over important social or economic issues, no campaigns even to raise money among workers. On the rare occasions when workers write in to the WSWS seeking advice about the struggles inside their factories, they are given lectures on the history of the labor bureaucracy but not a word of guidance about how to conduct a fight in defence of their rights. This is an utterly sterile propagandism that achieves nothing except to repel workers. Thus in all but name the party has abandoned an essential aspect of Marxist practice – the effort to win over and train a section of militant workers as revolutionary socialists." (See )

The first thing to be said here is that HL has no grasp of what transitional demands are. He seems to think it is some kind of a trick whereby Marxists put forward a proposal for a reform which cannot be met and when that happens this will "expose the contradiction between the interests of the bourgeois and the proletarian classes". If however this demand for reforms can be met, and this does not lead to an intensification of the "class conflict nation-wide, world-wide", then such demands should be avoided.

Therefore, according to the odd reasoning of HL, as all demands that originate from the current state of the working class would not lead to an intensification of the class struggle world-wide, the only demand that is left is the demand for revolution itself.

HL thus rationalizes the absentionism of the ICFI by concluding that,

"The ICFI analyzes each struggle in terms of its global impact and global significance. There are few global transitional demands. The ICFI emphasizes the final demand: revolution. Intervention into national and regional struggles is a question of whether they are revolutionary."

What is missing in this statement is any conception of building a bridge to socialist consciousness. It is a perfect example of the kind of formalistic thinking that was attacked by Lenin in his pamphlet, Left-Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder. (See )

There is however an important difference between the ultra-left abstentionism that Lenin was criticizing and the abstentionism of the SEP. In the former case we were dealing with an immature revolutionary movement whose enthusiasm for socialism and revolution was not mediated by any conception of strategy and tactics aimed at "building a bridge to socialist consciousness." The abstentionism of the SEP on the other hand is a result not of over-enthusiasm and immaturity, but precisely the opposite, of a fatigue about the responsbilities of the class struggle that has crystallized after decades of neglect of theoretical issues and isolation from the working class.

The fact of the matter is that workers will struggle over a wide range of issues, many of them what HL would consider merely "reformist". What characterizes transitional demands however is that they are neither reformist not what used to be called "maximalist", ie the demand for revolution. The very dichotomy between "reformist" demands and "revolutionary" ones are superceded in the Transitional Program. Here is how Trotsky put it:

"Classical Social Democracy, functioning in an epoch of progressive capitalism, divided its program into two parts independent of each other: the minimum program which limited itself to reforms within the framework of bourgeois society, and the maximum program which promised substitution of socialism for capitalism in the indefinite future. Between the minimum and the maximum program no bridge existed. And indeed Social Democracy has no need of such a bridge, since the word socialism is used only for holiday speechifying."


"The Fourth International does not discard the program of the old “minimal” demands to the degree to which these have preserved at least part of their vital forcefulness. Indefatigably, it defends the democratic rights and social conquests of the workers. But it carries on this day-to-day work within the framework of the correct actual, that is, revolutionary perspective. Insofar as the old, partial, “minimal” demands of the masses clash with the destructive and degrading tendencies of decadent capitalism – and this occurs at each step – the Fourth International advances a system of transitional demands, the essence of which is contained in the fact that ever more openly and decisively they will be directed against the very bases of the bourgeois regime. The old “minimal program” is superseded by the transitional program, the task of which lies in systematic mobilization of the masses for the proletarian revolution."

(See The Transitional Program )

They are demands that meet the objective needs of workers regardless of whether the bourgeoisie can or cannot afford to meet them. And they are adapted pedagogically (but not in terms of their content)to the present level of consciousness of the working class. The whole point of raising such demands as say "30 hours work for 40 hours pay" is to engage in a struggle with sections of the most militant workers, to bring them along so that in the course of that struggle their consciousness is raised and they begin to see their struggle in more general terms, ie. begin to connect their struggle to the struggle of the working class internationally. That is impossible if the party that claims to represent the interests of the working class abstains from those struggles until such time as the working class shows itself ready for them and raises demands that are revolutionary. HL may raise this in a cruder fashion than the SEP does, but he has captured the essential abstentionism of the SEP's theory and practice.

One further point. It is also nonsense to say that the ICFI will intervene in the class struggle when it "is a question of whether they [the struggles] are revolutionary." We have documented that in the case of the revolutionary events in Mexico in 2006, the SEP failed to make any sort of meaningful intervention.
(See chapter 1 of Marxism Without its Head of its Heart, Rationalizing Objectivism and Abandoning Marxism, p 19-25 )

We have also chronicled that in the case of the 2005 New York Transit Strike, which the WSWS itself characterized as a turning point in the class struggle, the intervention of the SEP, such as it was, was entirely unserious. (See chapter 5 of Marxism Without its Head of its Heart, Abandoning the Struggle for Socialist Consciousness in the Working Class )

Finally, I must take note of the dismissive and hostile attitude towards workers evinced by HL in his statement that "The few in unions that do anything more than take money out of your paycheck?"

Such a crass remark resembles nothing so much as the kind of attitude about "lazy union workers" that characterize the prose of the Chamber of Commerce and right wing talk show hosts. Members and supporters of the SEP should seriously ask themselves how it is possible that they can attract a supporter who is, to put it most charitably, extremely confused as to his or her class loyalties. Perhaps it would be worth examining how an abstentionist practice toward the working class (and this is not just confined to workers in unions) combined with an almost exclusive journalistic activity that neglects theory is now attracting layers from the middle class who are so at odds with the history and traditions of the Trotskyist movement?

Alex Steiner

Anonymous said...

The incoherency of HL's remarks, in its own way, speaks for itself. But your final point is worth repeating. Certainly, the Socialist Equality Party will attract a variety of people who are coming from various political perspectives prior to gravitating to Marxism. That is to be expected. But given the brazen hostility HL exhibits toward the working class, one has to ask: What is it about the outlook of the SEP that this particular individual feels comfortable in their orbit?

Anonymous said...

perhaps I should have written

"the few in unions that do nothing but take money from their paychecks"

my union takes 10% of my paycheck, hence "your." I did not consider the implications of using your, which makes it sound as if I'm outside the process.

You failed to address the vitality of the union setup, which is the question. Revolutionary doesn't have to mean the Paris Commune either, it can mean many struggles including non-economic ones. But most union struggles are not revolutionary, do not challenge the bourgeoisie as such, in form or content.

Do you deny that? If so, why?

I appreciate your reflections on the transitional program, I am willing to reform my views.

I am not fully aligned with the SEP and when I read Left-Wing Communism I was honestly somewhat stung. Lenin's arguments about reactionary parliaments and unions I cannot support, and I doubt he would today, seeing what Social Democracy and the unions have become.

Your educational and some of your democratic suggestions are commendable, but not on such a antagonistic basis.

As for your demands on activity I hope you recognize it is not a problem that can be broken down completely into willpower.

Sorry for the long note and thank you for taking time to answer all your reader comments.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Interesting questions that HL raises. In my view the question of the unions is subordinate to the question of mobilizing workers in defense of their rights. Is this an essential part of revolutionary practice, and if so, how can it be carried out? It is true that most strike are not revolutionary challenges to capitalism, but it is also true that such everyday struggle implicitly contain a challenge to the power of capital. The task of Marxists is to do what they can to make what is implicit explicit.

I think anyone who knows the history of the class struggle knows that workers learn best through struggle, and that is why abstentionism on the part of Marxists is so wrongheaded. Chapt. 5 of Marxism Without its Head or its Heart gives a brief account of the American Trotskyists' intervention in the Minneapolis Teamsters strikes of 1934. Obviously it isn't always possible to achieve that kind of intervention, but it is clearly a model of what Marxist practice should aspire to be.

As for the unions, they have indeed undergone a qualitative degeneration, but the working class is still engaged in struggles to defend its rights. Sometimes workers do that through unions, sometimes through spontaneous formations and actions. It is essential for Marxists to work with the most militant workers, wherever they are found, and show them concretely how the fight for workers' rights can be conducted, which means a simultaneous fight against the union bureaucracy. Our objective is to establish that no right is ever safe so long we leave capitalist property and state power unchallenged, but this can only have credibility if Marxists are participants in these struggles rather than just journalistic commentators.

As for Lenin's book Left-Wing Communism, I think your rejection of it is too sweeping. To be sure, it doesn't now make a lot of sense any more to put demands on Social Democratic parties like the British Labourites, or on the union bureaucrats. But there is a larger lesson Lenin was getting at: you can't just proclaim the need for revolution, you have to find a road to the masses. That retains its force as much today as in 1920. Also the political landscape is changing rapidly and all kinds of new political formations are arising. We need to examine these formations concretely, not so as to adapt to their confusion or opportunism, but rather to always be on the lookout for an opportunity to reach new layers of the working class entereing into struggle for the first time in their lives. Lenin's pamphlet remains a valuable guide in this respect.

Frank Brenner

Alex Steiner said...

I just wanted to say that I am glad I was mistaken in this case and I am sorry I characterized you as being anti-working class. I misread your words and did not realize that you were talking about union bureaucrats who do nothing for the workers but take a cut of their paycheck. Of course those kind of unions are reactionary. But as Lenin's pamphlet emphasizes, there is work to be done even in reactionary unions. ( Note also that Lenin devotes a chapter as well to work in bourgeois parliaments. )

As Frank points out in his statement, the unions have undergone a qualitative degeneration and on this point we are in agreement with the SEP. Where we disagree is with the conclusion the SEP draws from that fact. They see the degeneration of the unions as an excuse to abandon all work in unions and even beyond. We see it as an even more powerful reason to intervene in working class struggles, both those in unions and outside of them. It is only when Marxists participate and try to lead such struggles, thereby forging a bond with the most militant sections of the working class, that the Transitional Program comes alive.

The abandonment of any meaningful campaign to fight for transitional demands in the working class and the repudiation of the lessons of Lenins's "Left-Wing Communism" is but another indication that the SEP's "orthodoxy" has become very selective.

We will be glad to discuss these issues with you further if you write to us directly at

Alex Steiner

Mark said...

The SEP is a middle class tendency with no serious intentions to carry forward the struggle for socialism. The WSWS has made political exposures the focus of its work, to document the worsening conditions of the working class. However, the only people that could feel outraged reading those articles are middle class people isolated from those conditions. The working class already knows that outrage because they are living through those conditions. Workers do not need to be further outraged, nor do they need to be told what they already know in more sophisticated language, they need to be given political direction and they will flock to the party that can show the way forward.

The SEP conducts exactly that work which commits them to no real political struggle. They consider themselves the analysts for the working class, but for the most part their analysis is telling the workers what they already know. What about the alternative? The SEP lacks what is basic to every political party, revolutionary or not, a political program. How can a worker take the demand of the SEP to reject this or that union contract seriously when that demand is separated from the struggle for socialism? It is not enough to expose the corruption of the unions, workers must see their struggle against the unions and capital in terms of a broader framework. Here a political program must be advanced, a set of transitional demands to address the objective needs of the working class and to unify the struggles of the working class.

Alex Steiner said...


While I agree with some of your points, I think to label the SEP as a "middle class tendency" is entirely too simplistic. The SEP is in a crisis because the current theory and practice of its leadership is in contradiction to the history and traditions of the International Committee. Large portions of that heritage are being abandoned, but one should not underestimate the pull of the heritage of Trotskyism and the IC, at least for some members. Were that not the case, if the SEP were just another "middle class tendency" like many others, neither Frank Brenner nor myself would have been spending the last dozen years trying to reorient that organization, at first through patient discussions with comrades and after the leadership showed itself to be intransigent and unwilling to discuss, by writing polemics.

Alex Steiner

Alex Steiner said...
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Alex Steiner said...
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Alex Steiner said...

Note: In my last reply to HL I posted the link to our email address incorrectly. If you want to communicate with us directly send an email to:

Mark said...

I don't think either of your were wrong to try to engage the party leadership, but I do think there has a qualitative development in the last few years within the SEP. The fact is, that the SEP has reacted in a negative way to your polemics, and by this I mean the objectivist tendencies of the party are no longer tendencies, objectivist theory now forms the basis of that party's work. This approach is summed up by the party's lack of a political program, and its almost exclusive focus on economic analysis at internal and public meetings. The whole SEP election campaign in 2008 was a series of lectures about the economic crisis. At least in past the membership was mobilized and speaking with working class people, and there was a semblance of a political program, even if was only every two years that the program was presented to the working class.

RL said...
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Anonymous said...

Rosa, the extremely narrow focus of your comment suggests that your "misunderstanding" stems from the fact that you have not read the polemics between David North and Steiner/Brenner going back several years now, particularly "Marxism Without Its Head Or Its Heart." Have you?