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 permanent-revolution.org. 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