Saturday, March 26, 2011

Insults and intimidation: an SEP 'intervention' at the Left Forum

by Frank Brenner

This website sponsored a lively and successful panel at this year's Left Forum in New York City on the subject of utopia, psychoanalysis and the Marxist theory of human nature. An audience of 40 or more, including a dozen or so university students as well as activists and progressives heard four talks – on socialism and happiness, on the thought of socialist psychoanalyst Erich Fromm, a critique of Slavoj Zizek's reading of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, and a consideration of the enduring relevance of Marx's theory of alienation. There were lots of questions and contributions from the audience, and discussion continued informally after the room was vacated. We will eventually be posting some of these talks for our readers.

Some of the audience at the overflow capacity panel sponsored by permanent-revolution

But the behavior of members of the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) who attended the panel deserves some comment. Readers of this website know that we have been involved in a longstanding polemical dispute with this party, which once stood for Trotskyism but has for over a decade now veered off in an ever more stridently sectarian direction. One manifestation of that political degeneration has been their resort to personal slander against Alex Steiner so as to avoid dealing with the substance of our criticisms. (See the series Downward Spiral.)

Three SEP members, including leading figures in the party, Bill Van Auken and Fred Mazelis, attended our panel. They asked no questions, offered no opinions about the material being presented, and sat out the whole two hours in stony silence. Van Auken took copious notes, but clearly not for the purpose of making any political intervention at the meeting. He also kept pointing a camera and taking pictures of the panelists.

When the meeting was over, Van Auken came up to me and declared, “You're a fraud!” Why? It turned out that the accusation had nothing to do with my talk; rather what incensed Van Auken was that the panelist chairing the meeting had introduced me by stating that I had written articles for the World Socialist Web Site as well as for How dare I cite the articles I wrote for the WSWS as part of my credentials when I was attacking the SEP! It would be like James Cannon, the American Trotskyist leader, citing his work for the Daily Worker (the Stalinist newspaper) as part of his credentials. This accusation was wrong on all kinds of counts, as I'll get to in a moment, but I kept asking Van Auken why he or Mazelis hadn't spoken in the meeting. After all, there was complete freedom to raise any objections or differences they had, including denouncing me for being a fraud. Instead of answering, Van Auken gestured towards the room, “You've found your audience,” the obvious implication being that this was a worthless audience, one that befit a fraud, so clearly there wasn't any need to intervene in such a meeting.

Let me dispense with Van Auken's argument, such as it is. First, the articles I did for the WSWS in an earlier, healthier, period of the party's existence aren't invalidated by my criticisms of the SEP's later evolution. Those articles, particularly on the history of psychoanalysis in the Soviet Union and the essay, “Mental illness and the American dream”, happened to be directly relevant to the subject of the panel discussion, so a passing reference to my association with the WSWS in the introduction was entirely in order. As for the analogy to Cannon, this is specious. Cannon never denied or hid his history in the Communist Party, anymore than Trotsky did; the later Stalinist degeneration of the CP didn't erase the significance of the revolutionary work that had been done prior to that degeneration. What Van Auken is really saying is that by criticizing the SEP, I have forfeited any claim to the work I did on the WSWS. This is indicative of a mindset closer to a political cult than to Marxism, a mindset that equates any criticism with treachery; hence the slanders against Steiner and now the insults directed at me.

Also revealing is Van Auken's contempt towards the audience. To be sure, an event like the Left Forum attracts people in and around the middle class radical milieu. Some of these people are entrenched in that milieu, but others are looking for a fresh orientation. The revolutionary events in the Middle East and the upsurge of workers in Wisconsin have reignited interest in left-wing politics, a trend reflected in the record numbers of panels and people attending this year's Left Forum. None of this matters to the SEP, which doesn't even consider this milieu to be part of the left, routinely referring to it as the “ex-left”. Indeed, if you believe the SEP, there is no one on the left anymore – except the SEP.

So you have to wonder why the SEP would bother to attend a panel given by frauds to an audience of worthless “ex-lefts”. Since they clearly weren't intending to intervene politically, they must have had another purpose in mind. Just what that purpose was is evident from their behavior, to wit, you come to a political meeting, take copious notes, snap lots of pictures of the panelists, say nothing in the meeting but afterwards hurl insults at one of the speakers. I think a reasonable interpretation of this behavior is that its intention was intimidation.

(It may well be that the note-taking and picture-taking will be used in an article, though one has yet to appear on the WSWS a week after the Left Forum. But to suppose that the SEP's behavior can simply be explained as an exercise in journalism isn't credible. For one thing, you wouldn't have needed three people to attend if all you wanted to do was write an article. The SEP wasn't just reporting on a meeting, it was conducting an 'intervention', one with a sinister edge.)

To put this matter into perspective, all you need to do is consider the following hypothetical: Let's say that I was to attend a public meeting of the SEP and behave in the same way that Van Auken and Mazelis behaved in our panel. I take lots of notes, snap lots of pictures and when the meeting is done I walk up to the speaker, say SEP leader David North, and insult him. Anyone with the slightest familiarity with the SEP would know at once what would happen: to begin with, I wouldn't be allowed into the meeting, but if by some miracle I did get in, the moment I pulled out a camera I would be ejected from the meeting. The SEP, in other words, would consider such behavior an outright provocation – except when they are the ones who are doing the provoking!

Another angle of the packed classroom


Anonymous said...

Part I

Dear Mr. Brenner,

I am glad that you were able to sponsor a lively and successful panel at this year’s Left Forum in New York City. You state that 40 or more individuals attended your four talks including “a dozen or so university students as well as activists and progressives.” Good for you. But, then, you are offended that members of the IC did not support and participate in your talks, which included a discussion of sociology and happiness and the works of Frankfurt School theorist Eric Fromm.

However, let us turn to the “behavior” that apparently supports your absurd head-line of “Insults and Intimidation: an SEP ‘intervention’ at the Left Forum.” As you state in your description, they never once interrupted the talks and appeared to be completely respectful of the speakers as they patiently “sat out the whole two hours in stony silence.” As further evidence of their dastardly intentions, you note that Van Auken took “copious notes, but clearly not for the purpose of making any political intervention at the meeting.” What are you implying, Mr. Brenner, that he will be turning over the notes to a government agency? This seems to be confirmed by your following sentence that “He also kept pointing a camera and taking pictures of the panelists”—certainly for the purposes of turning them over to the FBI or some other conspiratorial activity.

Your “insults and intimidation” headline, though, appears to by a hyperbolic description of your interaction with Van Auken after the talks. According to your own account, “When the meeting was over, Van Auken came up to me and declared, ‘you’re a fraud!’”

This is what counts as insults and intimidation? If only other leftists were so lucky!

How, then, do you “dispense” with Van Auken’s argument?

First, the work you did for the WSWS is not, as you stated, invalidated by your later criticism of the SEP’s evolution. If it were, it would not have appeared on the pages of the WSWS. However, what Van Auken appears to be objecting to, again based wholly on the description you have provided here, is that you attempted to associate yourself with, and build off the prestige of the WSWS and the IFCI, after you had broken with these organizations. Your “passing reference” to your “association with the WSWS” probably wouldn’t have led to any objection if you had noted that you had subsequently been kicked out of the SEP. You are obviously within your rights to claim as “as part of [your] credentials” the articles you wrote for the WSWS, but it would be hoped you could understand why members of the IC and SEP were upset if they felt you were attempting to represent their position or organization by not mentioning your split with them—i.e., the source of the “intimidating” fraud comment.

Anonymous said...

Part II

Second, attention should be paid to your comment in the fifth paragraph of your blog entry: “As for the analogy to Cannon, this is specious. [Plus, next sentence].” Here, you have set up a straw man out of whole cloth. The previous reference (or “analogy”) to Cannon was made by you in your blog entry. How can you then use this to attack “Van Auken’s argument” when he never brought up these points?!

Finally, you state that Van Auken had “contempt towards the audience.” No evidence whatsoever is provided in your entry to support this claim. What is more “revealing” in your entry, is your admission that “an event like the Left Forum attracts people in and around the middle class radical milieu.” The rest of the paragraph is justified to supporting the pandering to this milieu.

This, then, explains the mental gymnastics you must go through in “wonder[ing] why the SEP would bother to attend [this] panel.” All that you provide is speculation and innuendo, summed up in your conclusion that “its intention was intimidation.” Moreover, it is surprising that in your long history of writing for the WSWS that there was never an event that you reported on—even one where you took copious notes and attended with other members—that did not, for whatever reason, result in a published article. However, for you, we can only conclude that the SEP was “conducting an ‘intervention’, one with a sinister edge.”

Your final paragraph is quite the masterpiece. The assassination of Trotsky (along with the repression of the Left Opposition and then the members of the Fourth International) along with the infiltration of government agents into the Trotskyist movement in the 1960s and 1970s, among other events, underscored the importance of security within the Trotskyist movement, which in no way undermines inter party democracy. However, it does mean that strangers and enemies of the revolutionary movement would be asked to leave from SEP meetings if they proved disruptive, for example, by video-taping participants of meeting. Apparently, the only reason that you disagree with such security measures, where oftentimes careers and even lives are at stake, is that you wish to frame Van Auken stating to you privately, after the meeting, that you are a fraud, is a form of “provo[cation]!”

This is an extremely petty and superficial form of analysis.

Again, I am constructing this response from the description provided by your own blog. Perhaps, in your defense, you are just a bad writer and did not correctly describe the events.


Alex Steiner said...

Part I of response to Franz:


You willfully misread what Frank Brenner wrote time and again.

1.We had neither expectation nor desire for the SEP to support our talks at the Left Forum. In fact, given their antipathy to the theoretical issues we discussed we would have been surprised had their reaction been anything other than unremitting hostility. That being said, members of the SEP were welcome to attend and participate in our forum just like other members of the public.

2. Brenner was never “kicked out of the SEP”. In fact, the SEP did not yet exist when Frank left what was then the Workers League, the predecessor of the SEP, of his own volition for reasons he has discussed elsewhere.

3.Your contention that we falsely attribute to Bill van Auken the analogy with Cannon is completely incorrect. It was in fact van Auken who brought up Cannon and made the analogy. All Frank Brenner did in his article was paraphrase what van Auken said to him.

4. As for van Auken’s insults, we are not shrinking violets and van Auken’s puerile statements do not dampen our spirit. However we think the public should be aware of the dismal level of discourse to which members and supporters of the SEP have been reduced. You defend Van Auken’s behavior by asserting that Frank Brenner deserved the insult he received because he tried to wrap himself in the prestige accorded to the WSWS, and that Brenner did this by misleading the audience into thinking that he was still associated with that publication. But this is nonsense.

Frank Brenner did not discuss the WSWS at all in his talk and it was only mentioned by the panel chair as one of Brenner’s previous publishing credits. It is common practice to mention publication credits in an academic conference if those credits are relevant to the subject matter under discussion, which was precisely the case with some of the articles Brenner wrote for the WSWS, as Brenner explained in his blog. This doesn’t necessarily imply any association with the political positions of those who currently run the publication. It was made repeatedly clear (in the advertising for the panel, the comments of the panelists, the discussion afterwards) that we were associated with; anyone wanting to could easily visit that website to determine our attitude to the WSWS. The reference to the latter was, in any case, a passing one, a single mention. To construct from this some sort of conspiracy to mislead the audience is complete nonsense. Or rather it betrays the mindset of a political cult, which tends to vastly overestimate its own political significance. Few of the audience members knew of or cared about what the WSWS was; it was the theoretical content of the panel, which had nothing to do with our polemic with the SEP, which brought them to the meeting.

Alex Steiner said...

Part II of response to Franz:

5. The presence of the SEP contingent was obviously meant to harass and intimidate us. Perhaps you are new to revolutionary politics and are not acquainted with the tactics used by unprincipled people of various stripes to undermine the free expression of ideas with which they disagree. One tried and true tactic is to take copious notes and lots of photos. That is what the SEP members did. Your supposition that they meant to write an article but changed their minds later has no basis in fact and given what we know of the history of the SEP and how they treat people they consider "the enemy" it is highly unlikely.

Nor did they use their notes to ask questions during the public question and answer session. Indeed, one can say that their failure to say anything during the question and answer period shows that either they had complete contempt for the audience that was present, feeling that the audience was not worthy of the "enlightenment" they could provide, or else they are simply intellectual and political cowards who are afraid of engaging in a discussion in a forum that they do not tightly control. You claim at one point that Brenner produces “no evidence” for his charge that van Auken had contempt for the audience. Not true. As the blog reports, when Brenner asked van Auken why none of the SEP members had spoken during the question and answer period,

“…Van Auken gestured towards the room, ‘You've found your audience,’ the obvious implication being that this was a worthless audience, one that befit a fraud, so clearly there wasn't any need to intervene in such a meeting.”

This should be clear enough to anyone who isn’t reading in bad faith, a notoriously common habit within the SEP. In any case, after defending van Auken, you barely suppress your own contempt for the audience when you accuse us of “pandering to this [radical middle class] milieu”. This is yet another example of cult-thought. First of all, while we have strong political and philosophical differences with middle class radicalism, we do not consider all the people influenced by these currents to be untouchable ogres and beyond the pale. It is always useful to discuss political differences when there is a willingness to discuss. The fact that we are willing to talk to people who may have very different politics than us does not mean we are “pandering” to them. In any case, we made it clear in describing the audience that there were also students and intellectuals in attendance who weren’t part of the middle class radical milieu but who had an interest in the topics we were discussing. Van Auken’s (and apparently your own) antipathy to this audience is the typical reaction of a political cult that is afraid of engaging its ideas in a forum they do not control.

Alex Steiner said...

Part III of response to Franz:

6. You deride the hypothetical case Brenner raises in his final paragraph, but you do the very thing you accuse Brenner of, i.e. setting up a straw man. Attempting to exculpate the SEP, you write:

“… it [meaning the history of attacks on the Trotskyist movement by Stalinism and imperialism] does mean that strangers and enemies of the revolutionary movement would be asked to leave from SEP meetings if they proved disruptive, for example, by video-taping participants of meeting.”

But this is not what Frank Brenner’s hypothetical example depicted. Brenner asked what the reaction would be if someone came to a meeting of the SEP and took pictures, not of the audience, but of David North, and then proceeded to insult North at the end of the meeting. That is exactly how van Auken behaved towards us at our meeting. Anyone familiar with the SEP knows perfectly well that, in this hypothetical case, they would have considered such behavior a provocation and thrown the person out. But what would be a provocation in an SEP meeting is, according to you, no longer a provocation when SEP members do the very same thing at somebody else’s meeting. Your remarks about the history of Trotskyism and the need for security are a diversion to get around this glaring inconsistency: if the SEP has a right to security, then surely so do we. How you can justify this blatantly hypocritical double standard? The answer is quite simple: you suffer from a political disease known as cultism. And even the eloquence of a Trotsky wouldn’t be much use in fighting that sort of infection.

Alex Steiner

Mark said...

According to Franz, the intervention of the SEP at the panel discussion was an attempt at journalism that didn't pan out. I wonder, did the SEP attend any other panel events, or was it just the event of Frank and Alex? I don't recall the WSWS making any comment at all on the Left Forum, despite apparently sending three members there with notepads and cameras. And the SEP would have ample opportunity comment on the panel discussion given that all audio has been posted online.

Instead there was no intervention, no article posted. I can imagine that not every event that SEP members results in article, thinking in a purely pragmatic way, what advantage would such an article present for the SEP? For one, the subject matter, Marxism and human nature is something that the SEP is little prepared to comment on, indeed they believe Marx's early writings represent some pre-scientific stage Marx's development. Within their second international conception of Marxism these early writings like The Philosophical and Economic Manuscripts don't have a place in cannon of Marxism. I was once even told that the corner stone of historical materialism, The German Ideology, was considered "obsolete" by the SEP, and my attempts to include this in the SEP reading list were combated by other members. These positions make dealing with such questions publicly on their website only more uncomfortable, and indeed their public comments on Marxism and philosophy have become increasingly sparse over the years.

And then there is the question of the outstanding polemic between North and Frank and Alex, obviously the SEP feels it is on shakey ground even going so far in the past as to delete links to from an article published on the WSWS. Drawing more attention to the permanent-revolution web site is apparently not in their interest.