Thursday, September 4, 2014

A comment on the resolution of the SEP on the fight against war

The word "war" appears 97 times.
The word "imperialist" appears 23 times.
The word "imperialism" appears 36 times.
The word "pseudo", as in "pseudo-left", appears 6 times.
The word "fight" appears 13 times, usually coupled with the word "against".
The word "ruthless" appears 3 times, the latter 2 instances not as a disparaging adjective describing the enemy but as a positive characterization of oneself.
The resolution, titled, "The Fight Against War and the Political Tasks of the Socialist Equality Party",
was, as usual, passed unanimously.

We have previously commented on the SEP's practice of passing resolutions "unanimously" and we note that their "Third Congress" did not represent a departure from this practice. ( Likewise, we have also commented on the idiosyncratic accounting system by which the SEP keeps track of which Congress they are convening. (

Of course one expects lots of references to war and imperialism in a resolution on the fight against war,  but in this case there is very little content behind those words.  The SEP sees imperialism in 2014 as a return to 1914 and are convinced that history is repeating itself complete with a tense summer of international incidents reprising the tension of the summer of 1914.  But imperialism while it continues to plague the planet is very different today than it was 100 years ago. For one thing, the use of military power to back up economic interests, while certainly still in play,  is embarked upon with much greater reluctance today, as witnessed by the obvious paralysis of the Obama Administration toward the events in Syria, Iraq and now Ukraine.  What the SEP sees as the increasingly bellicose foreign policy of the Obama administration is seen by virtually every other analyst as the largely incoherent policy of a weak administration unsure of what to do and reluctant to get involved in any long term military escapades aside from some easy pickings through the employment of drones with its minimal commitment of U.S. military resources.  Even the Republican hawks opposing Obama have not yet dared to advocate the use of American ground forces in Syria or the Ukraine.  This could change of course, especially if the Republicans regain the White House,  or for that matter a Democratic hawk like Hillary Clinton, but for now the SEP's outcry over the preparations of the U.S. for a new World War strikes one as manufactured hysteria rather than rational analysis.

This is perhaps most obvious in the SEP's analysis of the Obama Administration's "pivot to Asia".  The numerous references to this policy in the pages of the SEP's online publication, the World Socialist Web Site,  depicts it not as an exercise of American policy toward Asia aimed at increasing its economic and political influence against its rivals, but as an outright preparation for war with China.  Of course economic and political rivalries can under certain conditions lead to war but it is one thing to warn about the dangers of such policies and quite another to proclaim their inevitable consequence being all out nuclear conflagration. The latter interpretation, which has been hinted at more and more openly, especially by the Australian SEP, represents a form of politics that can be characterized as "crisis mongering". To cite one recent example, the following article from the WSWS repeatedly makes references to the "U.S. war preparations against China" as if this was already an accomplished fact and mobilization was just around the corner. ( Rather than educating the working class about the nature of imperialism and the dangers of war, crisis mongering is meant to frighten the masses into making a choice on the spot between "absolute evil" and "absolute good". Such methods of recruitment are more characteristic of a cult than a serious revolutionary movement. Contrast this with the patient approach taken by Trotsky in 1934 in the document, War and the Fourth International:

"77. To conquer revolutionary positions in the trade unions and other working-class mass organizations, it is necessary to break pitilessly with bureaucratic ultimatism, to take the workers where they are and as they are, and to lead them forward from partial tasks to general ones, from defence to attack, from patriotic prejudices to the overthrow of the bourgeois state."

"Bureaucratic Ultimatism" is a good description of the stance of the SEP toward the working class.  They have long ago abandoned the Transitional Program and any conception of taking workers in their day to day practice from where they are to the tasks required for a social revolution. Rather workers are berated to either join their movement or live with the guilt of enabling the counter-revolution. Word War and counterrevolution are depicted as inevitable - unless millions of workers suddenly join the SEP. The SEP document contains no programmatic demand to be implemented by the working class other than the demand to join the SEP!  This means that in order to do anything at all you must already be convinced of the truth and validity of the entirety of the SEP's analysis.  It is an all or nothing proposition, one that is characteristic of ultra-left sectarians.

As for the actual "analysis" of the SEP, once one get past the boiler-plate rhetoric the meager substance in places degenerates into incoherence. This is particularly true of their statements about Russia and China. The resolution here states,

41. One mechanism through which pseudo-left forces are seeking to legitimize US and European aggression is through the false characterization of Russia and China as “imperialist” countries. This characterization, which tears both Russia and China out of all historical context, is aimed at conditioning public opinion to accept ever more dangerous provocations by the imperialist powers in both Asia and Eastern Europe. It is bound up with the theory that the Soviet Union and China after the 1949 revolution were “state capitalist,” and that the immense transformations that took place with the restoration of capitalism did not represent a change in the social foundations of the regimes. The destruction of nationalized property relations in both countries was connected to the efforts by finance capital to reduce them to colonial status, not with their rise as new centers of imperialist power.

42. Leon Trotsky, writing in 1929, anticipated with great prescience the socio-economic consequences of the restoration of capitalism in the USSR. Far from becoming “imperialist,” he noted, “A capitalist Russia could not now occupy even the third-rate position to which czarist Russia was predestined by the course of the World War. Russian capitalism today would be a dependent, semi-colonial capitalism without any prospects.” [10] The Socialist Equality Party is implacably opposed to the bourgeois regimes in both China and Russia. Representing the interests of a tiny layer of capitalists and oligarchs, they have no genuine independence from imperialism and are incapable of principled opposition to the machinations of the US and Europe. Our opposition to these regimes, however, is rooted in the fight to mobilize the working class as an independent political force, on the basis of a socialist program.

Now it is true that the restoration of capitalism in Russia and China "was connected to the efforts to reduce them to colonial status" but did that effort succeed? While capitalist restoration has undoubtedly brought about increasing misery for the working class, neither Russia or China have in fact been reduced to colonial status and their native bourgeoisie have ideas of their own independent of the wishes of finance capital in Europe and North America.

There is also no logical connection between the designation of these countries as "state capitalist" by groups that broke from Trotskyism decades ago and their designation as imperialist countries today.  If Russia and China are not imperialist powers then what exactly are they? To be sure both Russia and China are minor imperialist powers when compared to the U.S. or Germany.  They play approximately the same role vis a vis the major imperialist powers today as Czarist Russia did in relation to Great Britain 100 years ago. Furthermore, Russia's interests are primarily of a regional character rather than a global one, seeking to secure its hegemony over a swath of territory that marked the boundaries of the old Czarist empire. One cannot say the same thing about China, which has taken aggressive actions internationally to ensure a continuous flow of raw materials to feed its economy. Amazingly,  though the SEP resolution is ready to condemn those who consider Russia and China imperialist nations, the SEP never tells us what they think Russia and China are.  Neither the SEP resolution, nor any of the numerous articles in the WSWS ever provide a theory of the nature of Russia or China.   All we are ever told is what they are not. They strongly infer, without saying so, that Russia and China have the same status as oppressed colonies. But this is obviously absurd which is apparently why the SEP falls short of actually saying so. To be sure China has become the main supplier of cheap labor to all the major international corporations who have outsourced their manufacturing facilities to that country.  But China also exercises enormous leverage on the entire world economy as a result of its huge investments abroad and its key role in propping up the dollar. And China's military power marks it as indeed a powerful rival to U.S. interests in Asia.

Similarly, the SEP hints that Russia is in some way still a workers state without actually coming out and saying as much.  They don't say that because it is obviously an absurd position to suggest that the Russia of Putin and the oligarchs still represents, even in a distorted manner, the heritage of the October Revolution. ( The absurdity of this position did not stop groups like Spartacist from advocating it for many years after capitalism was restored in the former Soviet Union. )  But although the SEP admits that capitalism has been restored in Russia it still treats Russia in many ways AS IF it were still a workers state and worthy of being defended against imperialist aggression. One could call this the politics of AS IF!  All their rhetoric about their "implacable" opposition to the bourgeois regimes in Russia and China cannot hide the fact that the SEP has consistently adapted itself to the maneuvers of Russia in relation to the Ukraine and have no independent perspective for either the Ukrainian or the Russian working class.

And of course there is nothing in this document about how the SEP intends to raise the consciousness of the working class.  Here is what they write about this subject:

46. The SEP must strive through persistent political work to educate and raise the consciousness of the most advanced sections of the working class. In doing so, it must combat the endless stream of falsifications and propaganda emanating from the media and the mouthpieces of the ruling class. It must seek to inoculate the workers against all forms of nationalism and chauvinism, encouraging solidarity with the struggles of all workers in every country. The defeat of imperialism is possible only through an international movement, but the building of an international party means the fight in every country to win the working class to an international program and perspective.

We are waiting for a representative from the SEP to articulate their protocols for "inoculating" the working class.

Contrast this empty rhetoric with the concrete proposals put forward by Trotsky in the document War and the Fourth International:

70. The first prerequisite for success is the training of party cadres in the correct understanding of all the conditions of imperialist war and of all the political processes that accompany it. Woe to that party that confines itself in this burning question to general phrases and abstract slogans! The bloody events will crash over its head and smash it.

It is necessary to set up special circles for the study of the political experiences of the war of 1914-18 (ideological preparations for war by the imperialists, misleading of public opinion by military headquarters through the patriotic press, the role of the antithesis defence-attack; groupings in the proletarian camp, the isolation of the Marxist elements, etc., etc.).

"General phrases" and "abstract slogans" is exactly what we get from the SEP resolution.

And at the end of the day we cannot help but notice that in this document that lays such emphasis on "inoculating" the working class against bourgeois ideology the word "dialectics" does not appear once.

Alex Steiner


Thomas Cain said...


I'd like to thank you for your recent post on the SEP's scare-tactics regarding their journalism. I was particularly drawn to how the SEP seems to hint that Russia is still worker's state. I was wondering what your own position on the USSR's degeneration and if capitalism was restored after the purges (as Walter Daum claims in his book) or whether you only believe capitalist was restored when the USSR fell.

Alex Steiner said...

We stand with Trotsky's analysis of the nature of the Soviet Union as a degenerated workers state. However the degeneration of the regime did not take a fixed and final form. It continued and developed qualitatively over the decades. It is thus a little artificial to put a timestamp on exactly when capitalism was finally restored but the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 represented the final nail in the coffin. Moments of the increasing brutalization of the Stalinist regime are sometimes suggested as the defining event when capitalism was restored, as Daum and other state capitalists have argued. Or the argument gets into whether the law of value had been transcended in the regime or still operated. I think both these arguments miss the point. None of the Left Oppositionists ever argued that the law of value could possibly be transcended within the confines of a single country, only that its operation can be mitigated until such time as the world revolution comes to the aid of the isolated workers state. And whatever acts of brutality and betrayal were carried out by the Stalinist bureaucracy, it still remained a parasitic caste and not a new ruling class. That transformation into a new ruling class was being prepared for decades but it did not definitively take place until the last legal and political infrastructure that dated back to the October Revolution was finally dissolved with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and its Constitution in 1991.

Nev Thompson said...

Steiner’s “comment” prompted me to reread David North’s 2008 essay The Political and Intellectual Odyssey of Alex Steiner. In that essay, North made the following observation:

“Steiner's entire political career has been marked by a high degree of subjective volatility and instability—a characteristic not uncommon among radical intellectuals. Sudden shifts in the political situation tend to exacerbate his subjective weaknesses, as he adapts himself to the outlook of the New York petty-bourgeois milieu within which he has lived his entire adult life.”

How correct North was. Steiner’s latest attack on the ICFI reflects not only the complacency of this petty-bourgeois milieu but also its inherent anti-communism. His response to a principled resolution seeking to alert the working class to the danger of a third world war—and to arm it politically—is to unashamedly line himself up with the US and NATO on Ukraine, and with US imperialism’s pivot to Asia.

At a time when the US and its allies are preparing for war with Russia and China, Steiner makes the extraordinary claim that imperialism has somehow changed its spots. Despite the bloody, US-led attacks on the former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, we are told that “the use of military power to back up economic interests, while certainly still in play, is embarked upon with much greater reluctance” than it was in 1914.

We are also told that warnings of an all-out nuclear conflagration are mere “crisis mongering”. It would appear that Steiner has now embraced the fraudulent doctrine of “nuclear deterrence”. He would have us believe that in the event of a war between nuclear-armed powers, military commanders would not use every weapon available to them. Where is the evidence for that?

Of course, “virtually every other analyst” agrees with Steiner. But who are these analysts? It is obvious that Steiner has long since abandoned scientific socialism and now takes his lead from the lies and propaganda of right-wing, pro-imperialist commentators.

Steiner’s comment on “The Fight Against War and the Political Tasks of the Socialist Equality Party” is nothing more than a hostile, anti-communist attack on the ICFI and its revolutionary socialist campaign to unite the working class internationally against war and the system responsible for it. His past attacks on the ICFI and its leadership have been thoroughly refuted, and their reactionary philosophical and political roots traced, by David North and other writers on the World Socialist Web Site. As a longstanding supporter of the ICFI, I recommend those documents to anyone who finds Steiner’s pro-war and pro-imperialist outburst surprising. We are simply witnessing the logical outcome of positions he has held for many years.

One hundred years after the outbreak of World War I, the ICFI stands firmly in the tradition of Lenin, Rosa Luxemburg and Leon Trotsky and their principled opposition to the betrayals of the Second International. Alex Steiner’s statements place him just as firmly in the camp of the latter.

Anonymous said...

Years ago, I sided without reservation with the WSWS against Steiner and Brenner during "the great debate" if you allow me some humor. I was not impressed by the SEP's writings at the time on the controversy, especially long, incoherent articles by a younger member who previously had written little or nothing. While I hold many disagreements with the authors of this site, I am distressed by 1) the alarmist slant of the WSWS 2) the absence of philosophical or even in depth historical reflection (the latter a mainstay of the WSWS until recently) 3) the simplification of language and concepts to the level and perhaps equivalence of petty bourgeois catch words.

I endorse virtually the entire works of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, but I have learned to see them and their politics (especially the politics particularly specific to their times) from a more nuanced and relativistic angle. After much thought, and reading authors whom the SEP disparages, like Lukacs and Marcuse (who really DID have some "scattered useful observations" as I remember being said sarcastically by the SEP [paraphrasing].)

I see the SEP as dislocated from their own time... they are trying to hold ground that doesn't exist beneath them... Lenin and Trotsky's own writings contain warnings that "Leninism" e.g. the centralized vanguard party as a motive force, is insanity in a non-revolutionary period; and what they considered a revolutionary period was a period when the proletariat was already in motion, i.e. 1905, 1917... What this creates is sectarianism... when all these writers advocated being the "most advanced section" of the wider working class experience in non-vital times, when small groups CAN NOT feasibly play a giant role (but must be ready for it.) In a way it is like Eduard Bernstein, sitting in his chair, thinking the trends of his little point in time would continue forever, not long before the world wars, but a kind of unified opposite with that mentality (still a form of ossified thinking)... I have little else to say... these are questions I am trying to work out.

Alex Steiner said...

The two comments above were posted almost at the same time but there is a world of difference between them. The first one, by an anonymous supporter of the WSWS using the name of "Nev Thompson" is an ad hominem rant full of personal insults that moreover ignores most of the points I made in my comment on the SEP's resolution. The second post, also by an anonymous contributor, is a genuinely reflective contribution by a person who is trying to think through the issues. The fact that the author of the second piece "holds many disagreements with the authors of this site" - makes his contribution all the more serious and honest. As Marxists we welcome questioning and criticism. Indeed no genuine science can do without it.

The contrast between these two contributions provides us with a window on different ways of thinking. And that is the only reason I published the first comment, which is little more than the abusive epithets of a political novice clearly out of his depth. "Mr. Thompson's" piece would not even have been published by the WSWS. Its policy statement on comments to the WSWS states the following:

"...when expressing differences, focus your remarks on the topic and the political issues and not on the person expressing a differing view. No personal attacks, name calling, libel or defamation will be permitted."

I usually adopt a similar policy in relation to comments on the permanent-revolution web site, but in this instance I allowed this comment to be published for pedagogical reasons. Thompson's comments are illustrative of a mindset that has been cultivated by the WSWS and that is not untypical of some of their members and supporters. It is the mindset of a "true believer", a type more at home in a religion or a cult than in a serious and theoretically informed movement. It is the mindset of someone convinced of the goodness and infallibility of his leaders. It is a mind closed to the free spirit of inquiry. The attitude of the second comment, on the other hand, is a refreshing one of openness and inquiry.

For all of Thompson's bluster he fails to answer the question I asked about the SEP's characterization of the nature of Russia and China. So let me ask it again: "If Russia and China are not imperialist powers, then what are they?" If he aspires to be a "scientific" socialist then I would think he should have an answer to such a simple question.

Thompson also takes my remarks about the SEP's use of crisis mongering to rally their supporters as meaning that I am complacent about the dangers of war and support anti-communism and counter-revolution. In doing so he perfectly illustrates the point I was making - that rather than educating the working class about the nature of imperialism and the real danger of war, the SEP has embarked on a scare campaign which substitutes fear and hysterics for theory and historical depth. Ironically, although Thompson quotes North on the subject of my alleged "emotional instability" there is barely a single objective theoretical point raised in Thompson's rant. It is all emotion!

I should also note that while Mr. Thompson refers to the work of David North he fails to mention that our web site published David North's response to us, "Marxism, History and Socialist Consciousness" before it was even published by the WSWS. Mr. Thompson also fails to mention that I wrote a book length response to David North's smear campaign against me in his series "The Political and Intellectual Odyssey of Alex Steiner".

My response to North, "The Downward Spiral of the International Committee of the Fourth International" can be found here:
Downward Spiral

That response was written 5 years ago. It has yet to be answered.

Michael said...

I did a search on the WSWS regarding the issue of russian or chinese imperialism.
Here's what i found (may be incomplete):
Notwithstanding the attempts of imperialist propagandists to liken it to the Kaiser’s Germany, China is not an imperialist power. It operates within a world economy and financial system dominated by the imperialist powers, the US above all.
Unlike Germany in 1914, China is not an imperialist power. Rather it is a cheap labour platform, completely dependent on foreign investment and technology.
Russia is not an imperialist country. (German):
Russland ist kein imperialistisches Land, sondern vom Weltimperialismus abhängig. Putin vertritt die Interessen einer Plutokratie, die das gesellschaftliche Eigentum plündert, sagenhafte Vermögen zusammenstiehlt und in internationalen Banken versteckt, während die große Mehrheit der Bevölkerung in bitterer Armut lebt.

Translation with Google translator:
Russia is not an imperialist country, but is dependent on world imperialism. Putin represents the interests of a plutocracy that plunders the social property, robs fabulous wealth and hides it in international banks, while the vast majority of the population lives in abject poverty.
The fact of the matter is that while China’s economy is indisputably capitalist, it is not an imperialist power. German imperialism’s economic dynamism at the beginning of the 20th century stemmed from its consolidation of a large internal market and the emergence of giant trusts and corporations, based on its pioneering role in the manufacturing and chemical industries. The Chinese economy’s expansion, on the contrary, has been the outcome of the operations of huge transnational corporations and international finance capital and their insatiable appetite for cheap labour. Domestic consumption in China amounts to just 35 percent of GDP, compared with 65–70 percent in the US and the UK. Foreign capital dominates the Chinese economy. In 2013, foreign invested enterprises (FIE) numbered more than 440,000 and accounted for 47 percent of China’s exports and 45 percent of its imports. Consequently the Chinese economy is extremely vulnerable to foreign investment flows and to the state of its export markets. While its economy is the world’s second largest, the International Monetary Fund ranks China by per capita GDP at 85th, between the Maldives and Iraq. Nor does China have colonies or semi-colonies. Its enormous demand for raw materials and energy constantly runs up against the domination of every part of the globe by the major imperialist powers.


Hm, some of these arguments seem problematic to me.
For example the first one: Isn't this true for nearly *every* country on earth (even the US itself)?
And for the last one: Would - according to most of these criterias - the old czarist Russia qualify as an imperialist country?

Alex Steiner said...

Michael, thank you for this comment. I thought it warranted a more prominent hearing than comments usually get and so I copied the entirety of your comment to a new post followed by own thoughts on this topic. You can find it here:

The SEP on the nature of Russia and China

Alex Steiner

Caupo said...

Well, in my opinion, China first and Russia in a second time (because it is more of a third world country than China and not a fully developped capitalist country...well, China either...but in a, today, lesser way) want to be imperialist nations (in the leninist or scientific sens of the word i.e. exporters of capital) but to that become, they need the authorization of US imperialism. And US won't give them the "go" without a real fight.
When you look for the criteria whjch defines an imperialist country, China and Russia are well behind many other countries, the real imperialists ones. Just take a look on :Importance of finance capital, military bases abroad, real own industrial developpement, etc. see the statistics.
If I understand that WSWS makes a lot too much about an imminent war danger, we must said us that this danger has become very clearly present nowadays since five years today in my perception, We have for more than a decade a line of conflicts begenninig in Kosovo and today going from Ukraine to the South of China that can put nuclear powers in confrontation.
Why this is happeninig? Not for nothing. This perception is ,not only the one of WSWS, many people and organisatinos, coming from every tendancy of the left are making the same constat. Of course there are people who denied it, but those are the same that help Us agressions worldwide in every possible way as the NPA here in France and in other countries.
Perhaps China and Russia are becoming third range imperialsits powers (with no ovrseas military bases, with very las range in finance capital, with a (mainly) dependant end third world economies but very big in dimensions), Surely they are willing to become imperialists powers, but, as I told you before, they won't arrive without the "green light" of the master of the world. And that master (with argile feet) is doing whatever is necessary to bar this possibility.
Even if a war is necessary, even if some delay tactical steps are needed.
The political laws applies allways and the trend to war is as Jean Juares has said one of the caracteristics of imperialism "as the clouds, the rain"
In some way, I prefer the histerics of WSWS on this question (to aweken people) than a relativation that put people to sleep.
(sorry for the english)

Walter Daum said...

October 18, 2015

Alex, your passing comment about my book (Sept 7, 2014) is inaccurate. I do not say that the brutal character of the purges was what defined the completion of the counterrevolution. Rather the Great Purges were the time when the last vestiges of working-class rule were wiped out, and hence great brutality was required – to eradicate huge majorities of upper-level state officials, from party leaders to industrial managers to military officers. But the Stalinist regime had been brutal for a decade before, carrying out the political (but not yet “social”) counterrevolution that Trotsky chronicled. Brutality alone was not the marker of the change in class rule. The elimination of the whole generation of Bolsheviks, as well as a good many still-revolutionary-minded Stalinists, marked the class change.

You’re absolutely right that the law of value could only be mitigated, not abolished, under the workers’ state transitional to socialism. The Stalinist regime ended the Bolsheviks’ efforts to mitigate the effects of the law of value by, in effect, increasingly “enforcing” it. By the early 1940's, even Stalin admitted that the law of value operated – but he blamed the peasants, not the nature of the statified capitalist system.

The chapters of my book are online at