Tuesday, June 22, 2010

More on the WSWS and Panahi: An exchange with a reader

Note: The article by Frank Brenner, “A case of political hypocrisy: the WSWS's 'defense' of jailed Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi”, published on the permanent-revolution web site on May 29, 2010 - http://forum.permanent-revolution.org/2010/05/case-of-political-hypocrisy-wswss.html - elicited the following response from an anonymous reader. Today we are publishing the comment by Anonymous followed by Frank Brenner’s reply.

Mr. Brenner,

I visit your blog on a regular basis, but I am far from convinced by your analysis. With regard to the WSWS coverage of Iran, they did an excellent job of pointing to the class basis of the Green movement that was ignored by virtually all "leftist" news outlets. To ask that they sympathize further with the Iranian "masses" (of what class?) seems to reek of the ultra-leftism you accuse the WSWS of perpetuating. The WSWS has consistently called for the Iranian working class to assert itself independently of other class interests, such as those expressed by Mousavi.

However, the main contention you express that I would like to express disagreement over is your assertion that the SEP is "a movement that has little contact with workers and exists almost solely as a website." Among the various interventions into the working class that the SEP has carried out recently, one of the most noteworthy is the formation of the Dexter Fire Inquiry and afterward the creation of the Committee Against Utility Shutoffs. It is obvious that you read the WSWS very closely, so this statement seems to be somewhat disingenuous. I appreciate your efforts to ensure that the SEP remains loyal to Trotskyist principles and Marxist analysis, but statements like this seem to take away from this goal.


Frank Brenner’s reply:

Some points in response to Anonymous:

1. You say nothing about Panahi. If it was right to defend him, why did the WSWS wait two months to do so? And why has there been virtually nothing said about the thousands of other victims of Iranian government repression? In that context, isn’t the WSWS statement on Panahi outright hypocrisy?

2. Your statement that “the class basis of the Green movement” was ignored by “virtually all ‘leftist’ news outlets” is simply not true. I very much doubt you’ve actually read other radical websites and are relying instead on the claims of the WSWS itself. There were lots of voices on the left who were hostile to Mousavi. The ex-Maoist Workers World Party was even more vehement than the WSWS in denouncing reports of voter fraud in the Iranian election and provided the same analysis of the class basis of Mousavi’s support as the WSWS (http://www.workers.org/2009/editorials/iran_0625/). The neo-Stalinists of the Monthly Review magazine ran a long piece which provided a far more detailed analysis of Mousavi’s big business links and neo-liberal economic policies than anything on the WSWS (http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2009/pourzal270609.html). Even the International Socialists, as typical a middle class radical group as there is, were quite clear about Mousavi’s ties to the financial elites and the Islamic clerical establishment (http://socialistworker.org/2009/06/23/between-revolt-and-repression). And it deserves to be noted that one of the most vocal defenders of Ahmadinejad in the aftermath of the election was none other than Hugo Chavez, president of Venezuela and darling of the middle class radicals. This paints a rather different picture of opinion on the left on this issue than what the WSWS would like its readers to believe.

3. Why is it “ultra-leftism” to express solidarity with the Iranian masses? This has nothing to do with the way Lenin and Trotsky defined this term; on the contrary, they would have considered it an elementary duty of Marxists to stand with the masses in their struggles for basic democratic freedoms. Your statement expresses the sectarianism that now prevails within the SEP, a sectarianism that is deeply suspicious of – and even overtly hostile to – mass struggles.

4. As to which class the millions of protestors belong, many indeed do come from the urban middle classes, but there was lots of evidence that sections of workers, for example the Teheran bus drivers, were joining the protests. Even the WSWS conceded as much when there was a new flare-up of anti-government demonstrations in December (http://www.wsws.org/articles/2009/dec2009/pers-d29.shtml), citing reports that the working class neighborhoods of south Teheran were involved. Of course such a mass movement is never going to be homogeneous, especially in its initial stages. To expect an independent movement of the working class to emerge – on its own! – is a complete delusion, which is exactly what characterizes sectarian politics. But there is also lots of evidence of tensions between the conservative bourgeois leadership of this movement and the increasingly radicalized mass base. The crux of revolutionary practice in this situation is for Marxists to do what we can to exploit those tensions and thereby help bring about the emergence of an openly socialist and working class opposition to the Islamic regime. But no such intervention is possible if you are denouncing the demonstrators “as pawns in an attempted palace coup.” They will treat everything else you say to them with contempt – and rightly so!

5. Moreover, for all its rhetoric about the working class, the WSWS shows remarkably little interest in the actual struggles of Iranian workers. Strikes by teachers and bus drivers have received little if any coverage. The Teheran bus drivers’ leader, Mansour Osanlou, was arrested for leading an illegal work stoppage in 2005 and handed a five year sentence. His case was prominent enough to be featured by Amnesty International but the WSWS never issued a statement calling for his release. Had he been a famous filmmaker getting lots of press at Cannes, no doubt the WSWS would have paid more attention.

Jailed union leader Mansour Osanlou

6. You cite one example of an SEP intervention in the working class - the Dexter Avenue fire inquiry. You either ignore or haven’t read our account of the long history of the SEP’s abstentionism. (See “Marxism Without its Head or its Heart” [MWHH], especially chapter 5: http://www.permanent-revolution.org/polemics/mwhh_ch05.pdf ). Yes, very, very occasionally the SEP does interventions like the Dexter inquiry: in fact, the last time they did something like this – the Mack Avenue fire inquiry – was 17 years ago! It’s hard to believe that in all that time there weren’t other egregious cases of utility shutoffs and victimizations of working class families in Detroit, Chicago, New York, Los Angeles etc. Where was the SEP in all that time? Somewhat more frequently the SEP conducts election campaigns. A good example of their efforts was the 2008 US presidential election, held at the very moment the global financial system was undergoing a meltdown. If ever there was a time for the voice of socialism to be heard, this was it, and yet the SEP made no effort to get its candidates on the ballot in any state and even treated its call for a write-in vote as a completely perfunctory exercise. Given that record, I think our characterization of the SEP as a party that is largely estranged from the working class and exists almost solely as a website is quite accurate.

7. A further point in this regard. Sectarians sometimes intervene in the working class, but those interventions are typically characterized by lecturing at workers and presenting them with ultimatums. Bolshevik and Trotskyist practice, embodied in The Transitional Program, is about engaging the masses politically and helping build bridges to socialist consciousness. The SEP does no work in the unions, no work among working class youth, and though it routinely issues calls for strike committees, this is purely journalistic rhetoric, as we showed in detail in MWHH. In that context, we can safely say that the Dexter Avenue fire inquiry won’t amount to much more than a propaganda exercise – which is all that sectarians understand by revolutionary practice.

Frank Brenner,

June 22, 2010