Saturday, July 18, 2015

Talk in Athens: The Dialectics of Revolutionary Strategy and Tactics

On July 9, 2015, Alex Steiner gave a talk at the  Locomotiva Cooperative Cafe in Athens, Greece. The event was a huge success attracting a packed audience of about 50 people. The talk was sponsored by the Workers Revolutionary Party of Greece (EEK) and was chaired by Savas Michael-Matsas.  A lively discussion followed the presentation.  Below is a lightly edited version of the talk.

Part of the audience attending the talk
The Dialectics of Revolutionary Strategy and Tactics

The topic of my talk is the Dialectics of Revolutionary Strategy and Tactics.  With Greece being in a pre-revolutionary situation now, the subject could not be more relevant. Now when I speak about the dialectics of revolutionary strategy and tactics I want to first of all consider dialectics.  I am not assuming that everyone knows what Marxists mean when they use the term ‘dialectics’.  So let me give a brief introduction as to what I mean. 

The term as you know derives from the ancient Greek word διαλεκτική.  It was first used in philosophy by Plato, who employed it to describe the Socratic method.  The Socratic method consisted of asking a question and then considering the possible responses.  The first response, which always represents the opinion of the average individual,  is then considered further.  And once one digs deeper into the proposition it is revealed that it is internally contradictory. Therefore it cannot be true. [1] Thus, a new and improved proposition replaces the original one as a candidate for the truth. Initially, the new proposition does not suffer the defects of the one it replaced. But after deeper consideration, we discover that it harbors a new contradiction. This process continues until a proposition is arrived at that cannot be refuted. Thus the ancient dialectic of Socrates and Plato was a dialectic of arguments that arrived at the truth through negation.  If we jump to modern dialectics, we arrive at Hegel.  And Hegel’s great insight was to see that dialectic is not only a method of argumentation but is also the very logic of the real world.  The ceaseless motion that we see in the arguments of the ancient dialectic is a reflection of the ceaseless motion of reality itself. 

The first philosopher to have explicitly defined reality as consisting of ceaseless motion and change was the pre-Socratic Heraclitus,   and this is how Hegel understood him.  He was the first to articulate what  we call today the Philosophy of Becoming.  In the history of philosophy the person who first articulated the opposite teaching, that reality consists of that which is Eternal and Unchanging, is Parmenides.  He said that only that which is Unchanging is real and our experience of motion and change is just an illusion.  This is the Philosophy of Being.  If Heraclitus is in some way the father of modern dialectics, then Parmenides must be considered the father of its opposite.  Let’s call the anti-thesis to dialectics formalism.   What I want to say is that that a dialectical understanding of reality requires not only Heraclitus but also his opposite, Parmenides.  Or to put it another way, any account of change and motion must incorporate that which remains the same over time. You need to incorporate Being into Becoming.  What happens if you have Becoming without Being? You get Chaos.  That is when you get irrationalism and postmodernism.  On the other hand Being without Becoming leads to a world of Eternal Unchanging reality.  This is the world of the Platonic Forms, Of Christianity and other doctrines that deny or belittle the ceaseless motion of the world.  It is also the world of the sectarian – a point I will discuss later.

Let us look a little more at how it is necessary to bring together Becoming and Being to see what I mean.

One of Heraclitus’s most famous epigrams is this: ‘You cannot step into the same river twice’.  If we break down that statement we see something very interesting: First, why can’t you step into the same river twice?  Clearly because every time you do so the current of water splashing around you is different.  Therefore it is not the same.  But in order to differentiate the water we step into today from the water we stepped into yesterday, we say that it was in the same river.  What does it mean when we say “The same river?” Here we begin to see that there is a necessary interconnection in our thinking between that which we see as changing and that which we see as remaining the same.  You cannot think of a river whose currents are always changing without first positing it as one river.  In dialectical theory as developed by Hegel this is called the Identity of Identity and Difference. Mostly, if we are not reflecting on things but just relying on common sense, we think that there are things that are changing and things that remain the same.  The current in the river changes, but the river remains the same. It does not occur to us that you have to bring the two thoughts together in the same thought. You cannot have the changing current without the river.  It means that the categories of common sense, those concepts with which we try to understand the world around us, while they serve us well for the most part, may not be adequate when we interrogate them at a deeper level.
 
There is of course a lot more to thinking dialectically than just understanding that Identity is the Identity of Identity and Difference.  For instance, there is the relationship of the parts to the whole. In ordinary common sense we think that we can understand a part irrespective of the whole and that the whole is just an accumulation of parts.  In Dialectical thinking we understand that there is a relationship to the whole inherent in every part.  For instance let us take the Nation as an example. It is a whole, though to be sure it is part of a larger whole, the world economy, since there is hardly such a thing today as a Nation that is not dependent on relations with other Nations.  Therefore you cannot understand the Nation without seeing it as a part of a larger whole.

Likewise you want to examine the parts within the Nation itself.  Within the nation are classes who are related to each other through their role in the process of production.   You have that class within the Nation that is exploited and you have another class that are the exploiters.  This relationship is characteristic of class society as such. Within the specific form of class society known as capitalism the mechanism of exploitation consists in the extraction of surplus value by the capitalist at the point when the worker sells his labor power for its value. It is in a formal, contractual sense an equal exchange, but at the same time it is a form of enslavement.  In today’s global economy the capitalists are tied by a thousand threads to other nations, in many cases the capitalists are in fact multinational corporations that have no allegiance to any nation.  Furthermore, while each national economy is dependent on other nations this dependency is as much a matter of cooperation as it is a rivalry. And rivalries can sometimes turn into conflicts and wars.  So this whole of the Nation conceals lots of internal contradictions, all of which are covered over in the myth of National Unity. And we cannot make sense of this myth without examining the concept of the Nation dialectically and working out the real underlying relationships of wholes to parts.

There is also the notion in dialectical thinking of leaps in development. Change does not consist simply of the accumulation of greater and greater quantities of something, but we understand that at a certain point quantity is transformed into quality.  For instance, in order to finance projects corporations and even nations borrow money.  They go into debt on the assumption that the projects they are financing will boost their income so that they can pay off their loans.  This is a normal way of doing business. But what if the debt does not boost their income but instead servicing the debt becomes a drain on the national economy? There many reasons why this can happen – an economic crisis that depresses earnings, corruption on the part of the lender or borrower, etc. Whatever the reason,  you are no longer able to pay the interest on the loan through normal means.  So you take out more loans, this time to service the debt itself that you have accumulated.  And this process can go on for a while, until the burden of paying interest on the debt reaches the point where it is no longer sustainable.  At that point the institutions get into the picture and they insist that the condition of further loans is to make structural changes so that less of the national budget is going to service the needs of the population and more is going to service the payment of interest on the debt.   That is called austerity.  And with the introduction of austerity debt is transformed from a means for financing new projects into a form of slavery.  In this way the gradual accumulation of debt transforms the very nature of the debt itself.  Quantity is transformed into quality.

There are of course many other examples. 

As I said, the modern understanding of dialectics as the way of thinking that corresponds with reality was first developed in a comprehensive form by Hegel, though as I pointed out, he had his precursors in Ancient Greek philosophy.  Now let me say something about the Marxist dialectic.  Without examining the nuances of the transition from Hegel to Marx, I will just say that even if you consider Hegel an idealist and Marx a materialist, the dialectic of Marx is the dialectic of Hegel though perhaps stripped of the mystical form in which Hegel sometimes presented it.  Many of the points I have been discussing are nicely summarized by Trotsky in the short handout I recommended, The ABC of Materialist Dialectics.[2]   And if I had to summarize all this in one sentence, I would say that dialectics is the thinking we need to employ if we are to understand the world of ceaseless motion and change.   Our ordinary common sense thinking is not sufficient when we are faced with any but the most simple of phenomenon in the real world.  That is the end of my brief introduction to dialectics.

Now if what I have said so far about dialectics has any validity, that it is necessary to understand complex phenomenon of motion and change, then it should be clear why dialectics should be important for revolutionaries.  For what characterizes revolutions and the events leading up to them are precisely the rapid changes that take place in the political sphere and in the psychology of the masses.  No one expressed this better than Trotsky in his History of the Russian Revolution where he writes,

“In a society that is seized by revolution classes are in conflict. It is perfectly clear, however, that the changes introduced between the beginning and the end of a revolution in the economic bases of the society and its social substratum of classes, are not sufficient to explain the course of the revolution itself, which can overthrow in a short interval age-old institutions, create new ones, and again overthrow them. The dynamic of revolutionary events is directly determined by swift, intense and passionate changes in the psychology of classes which have already formed themselves before the revolution.”[my emphasis AS]

In the same passage Trotsky also points to the contradictory source of this “swift, intense and passionate changes in the psychology of classes”;

“The swift changes of mass views and moods in an epoch of revolution thus derive, not from the flexibility and mobility of man’s mind, but just the opposite, from its deep conservatism. The chronic lag of ideas and relations behind new objective conditions, right up to the moment when the latter crash over people in the form of a catastrophe, is what creates in a period of revolution that leaping movement of ideas and passions which seems to the police mind a mere result of the activities of ‘demagogues.’” [3]

I think from these remarks we can see what a complex problem it is to find your way clearly in a revolutionary or pre-revolutionary situation.  The tempo of events is accelerated and the weight of every decision enormously magnified. The responsibility for carrying out a correct strategic orientation and implementing it through a series of tactical steps grows enormously.  And there are of course no guarantees that you will not make mistakes, even for a dialectical thinker.  But what marks a revolutionary leader trained in dialectical thinking is his or her ability to quickly learn from a mistaken evaluation of events and reorient ones direction.

Let us examine this more concretely with some examples of how the greatest revolutionaries of the last century, Lenin and Trotsky were able to orient the practical work of the revolutionary movement because they had mastered the art of dialectical thinking, and, together with a careful study of the historical forces involved, made the right decisions at the right time.   Now it is well know that both Lenin and Trotsky devoted a considerable amount of time to the strictly theoretical part of the issue.  Lenin for instance, during the world shattering events of the start of World War I and the betrayal of Social Democracy, took time out from his practical activities to spend time at the library in Zurich, where he was then living in exile, to make a careful study of Hegel’s Science of Logic.  Many years later, the notes he wrote in his notebook while he was studying the Logic were published in what was later called his Philosophical Notebooks.

And although they are not as well known as Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks, Trotsky also took time out during a critical period of his life, at the time when he was in exile and trying to build the Left Opposition against the murderous Stalinist bureaucracy, to also make a study of Hegel’s logic and other material so as to deepen his understanding of dialectics.  In Trotsky’s Philosophical Notebooks you can find a number of gems where he relates dialectics to revolutionary politics.    And later on during his last struggle before his death, when he was fighting against the challenge to the program of the Fourth International by a faction inside the American  Socialist Workers Party led by James  Burnham and Max Shachtman, Trotsky began his refutation of the perspectives of the opposition with a lesson in dialectics.  This is the section called the ABC of dialectics that I recommended as preparation for this talk. 

I would now like to turn to some examples of Lenin’s and Trotsky’s use of dialectics in a revolutionary situation. However finding examples is not so easy.  You can certainly pour through the collected works of Lenin and Trotsky and look for examples where they had an explicit discussion of dialectics in one context or another.  For instance, Lenin said, during the debate on trade union policy in the Soviet Union, that Bukharin had never really understood dialectics, that he substituted eclecticism for dialectics. It’s an intriguing passage and was used by the Stalinists to discredit Bukharin, but it is only the skeleton of an idea.

It is possible to pour through the collected works  and find a few quotes like this and that is what most of the authors have done who have written on the subject of Lenin and Trotsky’s use of dialectics.  But their explicit remarks on dialectics in their political writing are few and far between and often are too brief to tell us very much.  I think a better approach is to find examples in their writings of their use of dialectical thinking in analyzing a situation.  That can tell us a lot more about how they used dialectics to prepare for and lead the Russian Revolution.  However no one has, as far as I am aware, tried to compile a handbook of such examples, with an explanation of each one.  So we have to do it ourselves. I have tried to find a few that I want to discuss.

The first example is from Lenin. He was writing in 1908, in a period after the defeat of the 1905 revolution. One of the things that revolutionaries were trying to figure out then is if the working class was ready for a new offensive after the defeat or were we still in a period of retreat.  Lenin writes,

 “Some say that offensive economic struggles by the workers are as impossible as before, and consequently a revolutionary upswing is impossible in the near future. Others say that the impossibility of economic struggle impels a turn to a political struggle, and therefore a revolutionary upswing is inevitable in the near future.

We think that both arguments have at their foundation the same error, which consists in simplifying a complex issue. Undoubtedly the detailed study of the industrial crisis is of the greatest importance. But it is also beyond doubt that no data about the crisis, even if they were ideally accurate, can in reality decide the question of whether a rise of the revolutionary tide is at hand or not: because such a rise depends on a thousand additional factors which it is impossible to measure beforehand. It is indubitable that without the general groundwork of an agrarian crisis in the country, and depression in industry, profound political crises are impossible. But if the general groundwork exists, that does not permit us to conclude whether the depression will for a time retard the mass struggle of the workers in general, or whether at a certain stage of events the same depression will not push new masses and fresh forces into the political struggle. To answer such a question there is only one way: to keep a careful finger on the pulse of the country’s whole political life, and especially the state of the movement and of the mood of the mass of the proletariat.” [my emphasis AS] [4]

What Lenin is doing here is trying to determine the strategic orientation of the revolutionary movement. And to do that it is necessary to first determine if we are dealing with a rising tide of the class struggle or a period of retreat and defensive actions.  In other words we try to determine the direction of the class struggle. But we also need to determine the tempo.  Are developments likely to move very quickly or are we dealing with a period of gradual change or maybe even relative stagnation?  We also want as far as possible to anticipate the forms in which the next phase of the class struggle is likely to take.  And we need to keep an eye out for the moment when changes in degree can suddenly lead to a qualitative leap.  Are we going into a period where Soviets are on the agenda or are we preparing for a period in which the best we can do is fight against repressive legislation or prepare for strikes against the employers attempts to cut wages? 

To arrive at the correct conclusion to any of these questions it is necessary to think dialectically.  For instance, how do we determine if we see a workers action such as a strike, that it signifies a rising tide of the class struggle or a retreat from previous gains?  If you just look at this one event separate from anything else there is no way to tell. And for the non-dialectical thinker, for the empiricist, that is all there is. It’s just a strike and nothing more and has no other significance.  It is like looking at a half moon one evening and trying to determine if it is in its waxing or the waning cycle.   There is no way to tell just from looking at it at that moment. You have to have followed its development over time. In other words you cannot understand the significance of this part without seeing its relation to the whole. 

Now the question Lenin is dealing with is of course far more complicated than whether the half moon is heading to a new moon or a full moon.   To answer the latter question we only have to know what the moon looked like yesterday as compared to this evening.  But the direction of the class struggle is determined as Lenin says, by “a thousand additional factors which it is impossible to measure beforehand.”  We understand as historical materialists that economic relations provide us with the basic ground for the class struggle.  But we also know that arising on those foundations are political relations which within certain limits are relatively autonomous and have their laws of motion.  Finally, we know that arising out of the political relations in society are the consciousness of the masses – what Lenin called “the mood of the masses”.  Now when we speak of the relationship of wholes to parts it is important to keep in mind what the context is – that is which whole we are investigating.  For what we see in nature society and thought is not simply one whole, but a whole that may encompass another whole within it each of them having their own logic of motion and change.

Thus the largest whole in class society is always the economic foundation.  But the political relations that arise out of the economic foundation can be considered a whole in its own right with its own dynamic. This subordinate whole is not entirely disconnected of course from the larger whole of which it is itself a part, but neither is it directly determined by it, though as we Marxists say, it is determined by it “in the last analysis”.  And finally the mood of the masses that arises on the basis of the political relations can be considered yet another whole with its own dynamic, what has sometimes been called mass psychology.  Now in a normal situation, the economic foundations determine the political relations and these in turn determine mass psychology. But what distinguishes a revolutionary situation from the “normal” state of things is that the determination can go in the other direction.  That is to say the psychology of the masses can have a decisive impact on the political relations and these in turn can overturn the economic foundations of society.  Lenin meant something like this when he called politics “concentrated economics.”

I think all these thoughts are encompassed in what Lenin is saying in this passage.   I think it gives you a good idea of just how challenging it can be to approach problems of revolutionary strategy and tactics dialectically. And this a good place to contrast the dialectical approach with the approach used by sectarians and opportunists.  Let us examine the sectarian first.

And the first thing to note about the sectarian approach is that it has the advantage over our approach of being much simpler.  The entire network of complex relations between economics, politics and mass psychology are completely irrelevant to the sectarian.  He does not really have to determine either the direction or tempo of the class struggle because he already has his strategic orientation.  And it is always the same one.  Philosophically the sectarian is a Platonist and for him there is one unchanging Truth which he never tires of repeating.  And just like a stopped clock, the sectarian can sometimes be correct but only twice a day.  For the rest of time there is a huge gap between the expectations of the sectarian and the actual development of the class struggle. And when the sectarian sees that the masses are not moving along in the way he thinks they should, he becomes angry with them and denounces them, saying they have been tricked by “fake leftists”.   All questions as we said are enormously simplified for the sectarian. As Trotsky wrote, the sectarian recognizes only two colors, that of the revolutionary and that of the counter-revolutionary.  There is nothing in between and there are no contradictions in the way revolutionary consciousness can express itself.  The breeding ground for a sectarian is when the class struggle is in a quiet phase or the working class is in retreat.  The sectarian thrives in those conditions, when revolutionaries are isolated from the working class.

Conversely, when the working class is in a period of ascendant struggle and when conditions are created for revolutionaries to break out of their isolation, the sectarian goes into crisis.  The movement of the masses passes by him and he is brushed aside like a flea. Worse, sometimes not only is the sectarian made irrelevant, but he actually joins the camp of reaction.  I think you saw this very clearly recently with the role played by the sectarian politics of the Communist Party which urged its members to cast an invalid ballot in the referendum.  And if you have ever argued with a sectarian you will probably know that you can never convince them that they are wrong about anything.  That is because in general they are close minded and dogmatic and do not admit of anything in their world outlook that would contradict their schemas.  That is why the pronouncements of the sectarians are always predictable, because they rely on formulas and not on the living movement of classes in developing their approach. In general, allowing for individual exceptions, sectarianism is a disease for which there is no cure.  Here we can quote Trotsky,

Sectarianism is hostile to dialectics (not in words but in action) in the sense that it turns its back upon the actual development of the working class.[5] [my emphasis AS]

The dogmatic approach of sectarians highlights, by way of contrast, another aspect of dialectical thinking - it is always open and tentative in its approximations to the reality of the existing situation. There is nothing more anathema to dialectics than the bastardized caricature of dialectics that was developed by Stalin and Mao-Tse-Tung whereby dialectical sounding phrases were used to rationalize a dogma and discourage an open mind.  It is not by accident that the Stalinist caricature of dialectical philosophy has been labeled the philosophy of “Soviet scholasticism”, recalling the dogmatic approach of the scholastic philosophers of the middle ages.

Now let us take a look at the opportunist.  The opportunist, unlike the sectarian, comes into his own when the class struggle sharpens.  This is because the opportunist always wants to jump in and in get involved.  And whereas the sectarian is guided by a single unchanging Truth, the opportunist is not guided by any concept of Truth.  The opportunist is not really interested in determining the ebbs and flows of the class struggle, its tempo and its probable development because for him the strategic goal is of no importance.  This was summed up by the phrase used to described the first revisionist, Eduard Bernstein, about whom it was said that for him “The movement is everything, the final goal nothing”. So for the opportunist also, life is much easier than for the dialectician, though in a very different way than for the sectarian.  There is one thing however that the opportunist is interested in that distinguishes  him from the sectarian.  The opportunist also, like the dialectician wants to keep his finger on the pulse of the masses, but in his own way, without all the baggage of determining the relationship of the mood  of the masses to the entire complex of determinations of which it is part. The opportunist however approaches the masses not in order to bring them closer to the next stage of the class struggle, but solely to adapt to the present movement. 

Now when we speak of opportunists, it is important to distinguish between the different types of opportunists. First there is the careerist and professional politician and those groups on the left who lead a parasitical existence off the trade unions and their bureaucratic apparatus.  These are the opportunists by virtue of their class position and psychology.  But opportunism can also be expressed by layers of the working class coming into struggle as a result of their political immaturity and their theoretical confusion.

We must see opportunism therefore not as a fixed category but in motion.  The opportunism of the careerists and bureaucrats is an opportunism that always tries to hold back the movement of the masses when it attempts to break through the status quo.  The opportunism that we find in the masses coming into struggle, while perhaps looking like the same thing, is entirely different.  It is the opportunism of ideas that are struggling to break out of the straitjacket of bourgeois ideology which they have inherited.  It is possible to overcome this kind of opportunism.

And then there is also the opportunism that sometimes takes hold of revolutionaries who get caught up in the events of the moment  and forget to assess them dialectically.  If one becomes conscious of this form of opportunism and pays attention to its theoretical roots it is possible to overcome it.  But if one does not pay attention to the theoretical issues, then this kind of opportunism can become fixed and leave one however unconsciously, vulnerable to the pressures exerted by bourgeois ideology.
Now in a revolutionary situation, opportunism is a far greater danger than sectarianism because it can take hold very easily even for those whose intentions are anything but opportunist. This was nicely summed up by Trotsky, who writing in 1940 said,

“Anyone acquainted with the history of the struggles of tendencies within workers’ parties knows that desertions to the camp of opportunism and even to the camp of bourgeois reaction began not infrequently with rejection of the dialectic.”[6] [my emphasis AS]

There is no formula for avoiding the twin evils of opportunism and sectarianism. The only antidote is training to think dialectically.  And there is no formula for learning how to think dialectically.  It is as much an art as a science and can only be mastered through continuous practice.  And in this connection we have another wonderful quote from Trotsky,

Dialectical training of the mind is as necessary to a revolutionary fighter as finger exercises to a pianist.” [7] [my emphasis AS]

Let us take one more look at something else in Lenin’s quote – that  “it is impossible to measure beforehand”  the form that the class struggle will take.  What exactly did he mean by this and how then do we measure these things?

We can find a clue if we examine the course of the Russian Revolution when in a rapidly changing situation it was not at all clear what the appropriate course of action should be to advance the revolution.  There were many disagreements within the Bolshevik Party at every turn of the events in 1917 and Lenin was sometimes correct in his estimation and sometimes he was not.  But what distinguished him was his flexibility, his ability to learn from his mistakes and even sometimes to completely change his position on a critical question after gauging the reaction of the masses to an action supported by the Bolsheviks.  I don’t have the time to go into these events except to mention them.  It is discussed in Trotsky’s masterful History of the Russian Revolution and a good supplement to that classic work is the book by the non-Marxist historian Alexander Rabinowich, The Bolsheviks Come to Power, which I would recommend.

I do want to conclude by examining how this idea of ‘keeping a finger on the pulse of the masses’ works out in Trotsky’s thinking, especially in his discussions with leaders of the American Socialist Workers Party on the Transitional Program of the Fourth International.

 For in developing what are called transitional demands we have an excellent example of what Lenin meant by keeping a finger on the pulse of the masses.  There are many misconceptions about transitional demands and this is not the way the topic is usually presented.   For instance, there is a common misconception that transitional demands are a kind of trick whereby revolutionary socialists push for something that they know cannot be met but sound very reasonable.  In this way supposedly the revolutionaries hope to foment discontent among workers. But this is to completely misunderstand what transitional demands are about.  I want to examine transitional demands as an example, perhaps the most developed one, of how to think dialectically about strategy and tactics   Let’s start with a quote from Trotsky where he discusses the political backwardness of the American working class,

“The American workers have the advantage that in their great majority they were not politically organized, and are only beginning now to be organized into trade unions.  This gives to the revolutionary party the possibility of mobilizing them under the blows of the crisis.

What will the speed be? Nobody can foresee. We can see only the direction.  Nobody denies that the direction is a correct one. Then we have the question, how to present the program to the workers? It is naturally very important.  We must combine politics with mass psychology and pedagogy, build the bridge to their minds. Only experience can show us how to advance in this or that part of the country. For some time we must try to concentrate the attention of workers on one slogan: sliding scale of wages and hours.

The empiricism of the American workers has given political parties great success with one or two slogans – singe tax, bimetallism, they spread like wildfire in the masses.  When they see one panacea fail, then they wait for a new one. Now we can present one which is honest, part of our entire program, not demagogic, but which corresponds totally to the situation.  Officially we now have thirteen million, maybe fourteen million unemployed – in reality about sixteen to twenty million- and the youth are totally abandoned in misery. Mr. Roosevelt insists on public works. But we insist that this, together with mines, railroads, etc., absorb all the people. And that every person should have the possibility of living in a decent manner, not lower than now and we ask Mr. Roosevelt and his brain trust propose such a program of public works that everyone capable of working can work at decent wages. This is possible with a sliding scale of wages and hours…We must begin a concentrated campaign of agitation so that everybody knows that this is the program of the socialist workers party.”[8]

Let me emphasize in this long quote the words,

We must combine politics with mass psychology and pedagogy, build the bridge to their minds. Only experience can show us how to advance in this or that part of the country.”

Here you have stated succinctly the relationship of wholes to parts that I outlined earlier.  And note the emphasis on mass psychology.  Psychology is the final link in the chain that goes from the economic foundation to the political crisis.  And transitional demands are developed primarily to address this final link in the chain. That does not mean that we forget about the rest of our program. For instance, on the political front the fight to convene a farmers and workers government as a step toward the dictatorship of the proletariat, or on the economic front to take measures to transition from an economy based on the law of value to an economy based on social needs.   But the crux of the matter, where the revolutionary party can make its impact at a decisive moment, is precisely on the level of mass psychology, in affecting the consciousness of the masses.

Now transitional demands are a tactic and the series of tactics forms the chain through which we try to implement our strategic goals.  And in thinking about strategy and tactics we tend to think that a strategy is primary and tactics are secondary.  This is true as far as it goes. If your strategic direction is misconceived, no amount of clever tactics will advance you any closer to your goals.  But it is also true that for the most part the revolutionary movement can only affect the situation through tactical steps and these tactical steps can at times play a decisive role in either advancing or retarding the march toward a strategic goal.   This is why Trotsky emphasizes the importance of coming up with simple slogans that both fulfill the objective requirements of the situation and have a chance of ‘clicking’ in the consciousness of the masses. In our time it is something like uploading a video to Youtube that goes viral, only in our case the message spreads like wildfire not because of its sensationalist appeal, but because it touches a nerve in the historical consciousness of the working class and speaks to their objective requirements today.  The classic example of this was the slogan adopted by the Bolsheviks in the October Revolution – “Land, Peace and Bread!” What could be simpler?

Let us look at one other example from Trotsky’s discussions on the Transitional Program.  During the time when Trotsky was discussing the Transitional Program with the American comrades, there was an initiative proposed in the U.S. called the Ludlow amendment. It was intended as a referendum opposing war.  And just like you saw in the run up to the referendum on July 5, there were various sectarian groups who opposed the Ludlow Amendment because it did not go far enough, it maintained certain illusions in pacifism, it was tied to a bourgeois government, etc, etc.  Trotsky’s attitude was of course that revolutionaries should support the measure while at the same time pointing out its limitations. Only by going through the experience with the masses would it be possible to have a dialogue with them   whereby they could become receptive to our critique and get beyond their illusions in pacifism. Here is how he put it,

We must advance with the masses, and not onIy repeat our formulas but speak in a manner that our slogans become understandable to the masses.” [my emphasis AS]

Trotsky continued,

The referendum is not our program, but it's a clear step forward; the masses show that they wish to control their Washington representatives. We say: It's a progressive step that you wish to control your representatives. But you have illusions and we will criticize them. At the same time we will help you realize your program. The sponsors of the program will betray you…[9]
[my emphasis AS]

Here we have a good example what Lenin meant in keeping a finger on the pulse of the masses.  Our program must be flexible if we are to speak to the masses in a language they understand while we go through their experiences with them.  The opportunist will also go through the experience with the masses, but in his case it is to gloss over the contradictions buried within that program.  The revolutionary leader will on the other hand go through that experience with the masses in order to reveal those contradictions.  For instance, last Sunday’s referendum did not address the question of what happens when you say NO.  The masses thought they were saying NO to austerity, but the Tsipras government took the referendum to mean that they were saying NO only to the most recent terms offered by the institutions.  They therefore took the NO vote to mean YES to further austerity which they hoped – in vain as it turns out – that the new austerity program would not be quite as onerous as the current one.  When you bury contradiction a NO becomes a YES.

But this is not something that the masses can learn just through propaganda. It is necessary to go through the experience with them. Without that dialectical link to the activity and thinking of the masses it is not possible to win them over to our program. 

Now let us think about how we can distill these lessons into developing transitional demands in Greece today. What kind of slogans should we raise in the context of post Referendum Greece today?  I cannot say as I do not have the experience and the knowledge of the Greek working class and its history.  Maybe you can put forward a simple slogan like “Austerity is Slavery”?  Or maybe something like the slogan “30 hours work for 40 hours pay”, which was a slogan that the Socialist Workers Party campaigned with in America in the 1930’s when the U.S. was going through the great Depression and we saw levels of unemployment and misery that are close to what we are seeing in Greece today. But you also have to take into account that the political understanding of the Greek working class today after the resounding victory of the NO vote in Sunday’s referendum, is much higher than that which existed in the U.S. in the 1930s.  And you need to take into account the relationship of the party to the working class. Is the immediate task of the party to mobilize large sections of the working class directly through an appeal of the party, or is it to win over masses of workers and youth who have not been convinced yet that the conciliatory road taken repeatedly by Syriza’s leadership is a disastrous policy? Or does the party stand somewhere in  between these extremes, that is, maybe it can mobilize workers to some degree on its own but still needs to win over the great bulk of workers and youth to its program?  

This is something that revolutionaries in Greece and their international allies need to work out. But the important  thing I want to emphasize is not this or that particular slogan, but the dialectical thinking that needs to go into developing the appropriate policies and programs insofar as we keep our finger on the pulse of the masses.





[1]  A good example is the discussion in Plato’s dialogue, Euthyphro.  There the question posed by Socrates is “What is piety?” Euthyphro answers that “Piety is that which is beloved by the gods.”  But there are many gods and some of them hate the same thing that others love.  Therefore the same thing can be both pious and impious. But this is self-contradictory. Therefore, there must be something wrong with the proposition that “Piety is that which is beloved by the gods.”
[2] L. Trotsky, The ABC of the Materialist Dialectic, In Defense of Marxism, https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1939/12/abc.htm
[3] History of the Russian Revolution, L. Trotsky, Preface, https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1930/hrr/ch00.htm
[4] The Assessment of the Present Situation,
[5]  L. Trotsky, Sectarianism, Centrism and the Fourth International, http://forum.permanent-revolution.org/2009/05/sectarianism-centrism-and-fourth.html
[6]  L. Trotsky, An Open Letter to Comrade Burnham, https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/idom/dm/14-burnham.htm
[7]   L. Trotsky, The ABC of the Materialist Dialectic”, In Defense of Marxism, https://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1939/12/abc.htm
[8]  The Transitional Program of Socialist Revolution, L Trotsky, with Introductory Essays by Joseph Hansen and George Novack. Pathfinder Press, 1973. P. 192-193.
[9]  Ibid. p. 116-117.

14 comments:

Arthur Thiry said...

Excellent article. The introduction to dialetics was digestable but as a philosophy student I see the need to to simplify further as I fear many think this "over their heads". The sectarians (as pointed out!) skip this process with parrot like answers calling for "the building of a new revolutionary worker's party" with little clue as to how this is to be done. How is a revolutionary marxist to intervene? Avoiding opportunism is a challenge for us all. I read a poll result that was reported in both public service and Swedish capitalist media stating that 70% of the Greek population support the latest negotiations! I must admit I have more questions than answers. Yesterday the same media reported Donald Tusk as "fearing" a revolutionary tidal wave similar to 1968 within the European Union. As I have posted previously, the last word has not been said. A quote from the Communist Party USA web is a good closing: "There is a profound and important lesson for Americans, especially working people, in the Greek crisis. If you go to the billionaires and big banks for relief, you will need more than rational, even scientific, or humane arguments. You will need more than a popular vote in your support. You need the ability, power and authority to put them out of business, in jail, and confiscate their property before starting negotiations."

Anonymous said...

I really appreciate this article.
I've always admired you for a number of reasons, which are demonstrated in this writing as well.

First of all, you are realistic, in a good sense of the word. Instead of blankness of big words, as disappointingly often shown by so-called high-browed socialists today, you try to tackle the immediate problems faced by ordinary citizens like me. In this context, it is understandable enough for you to put great emphasis on 'tactics' here.

Secondly, you are loyal, or try to be so. To what? The very cause of Marxism, not to WSWS. Once in a while you've seemed to me to be overly concerned with the latter, but even this seems to me to mean that you are too honest to negate your past or your actions in WRP completely. You appear to refuse to throw into the dustbin some significant heritage that once marked a page in history but is floundering now.

Finally, you are informative. Without you, the dialectics is a dead word to me. Thanks to you, I am reading Trotsky's ABC like a school boy. However, I have some questions. Is the understanding of dialectics so necessary? How much does the success of the revolution depend on the understanding? Wasn't Russian Revolution possible with so little understanding ― almost all of Russians then must have been ignorant of the dialectics, so-called Marxist revolutionaries like Bukharin were certainly far from being well-informed of it, and very few, like Lenin or Trotsky, knew it? Plus, are there any evidence from more recent writings other than Lenin or Trotsky's that the dialectics is useful for making sense of the world or changing it? Old writings are hardly truly felt by me. And is the dialectics exclusive to Marxists? Are there any other people, old or new, showing dialectical insights worthy of consideration?

Marty Jonas said...

First, I’d like to remind Alex Steiner that, in 1976, he defended the Workers League (predecessor of the Socialist Equality Party [SEP]) and the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) in a long piece he co-wrote with David North against charges of “suppression” of discussion and “Stalinist organizational practices” being leveled by the Workers League’s ex-national secretary, Tim Wohlforth -- the very same charges he and his associate Frank Brenner now bring against the SEP.

Further, this same polemic, on page 164, states:

“The denunciation of ‘organizational practices’ is the hallmark of revisionism. Renegades commonly denounce Trotskyists for ‘Stalinist’ practices in the same way as the Mensheviks after 1903 denounced Lenin’s organizational practices as ‘Blanquism’ or ‘Jacobinism.’” (See "The Fourth International and the Renegade Wohlforth" [in volume 7 of Trotskyism Versus Revisionism, Labor Publications, 1984; http://bit.ly/1gSIElA].)

I assume that as co-author of that statement Steiner takes at least 50 percent of responsibility for it.

Secondly, I must remind Alex Steiner of the strange bedfellow he has joined with in Greece.

In 1985, Savas Michael bolted from the ICFI with his Greek section to join Gerry Healy, disgraced ex-head of the British Workers Revolutionary Party (WRP). Previous to this, he had plumbed the depths of opportunism as an emissary to Iran for Healy. In a series of dispatches to Newsline, the daily newspaper of the WRP, in 1983, Savas Michael puffed up the accomplishments and revolutionary bona fides of the reactionary Khomeini regime.

One particularly disgusting example: "If we consider the degree of popular support as a basic criterion for estimating the degree of political stability of a regime then, undoubtedly, the Islamic regime of Tehran must be considered as extremely stable. Between the masses and their leadership, especially Imam Khomeini, there are mighty bonds forged in the furnace of the revolution."

Savas Michael, Healy, and Newsline eventually went on to give unqualified backing to Iran in the Iran-Iraq war, a catastrophe with many thousands of casualties on both sides. (See “How the Workers Revolutionary Party Betrayed Trotskyism, 1973-1985: Statement of the International Committee of the Fourth International”; Fourth International: A Journal of International Marxism. Volume 13. Number 1. Summer 1986; http://bit.ly/1KptroC.)

Is this Alex Steiner’s new international ally?




Arthur Thiry said...

Had to smile when I read Marty's comment. I was a child in 1976. I guess a lot of older revolutionaries are going to be sidelined and quarentined for previous sins, alliances, group memberships etc. That a person drew wrong conclusions 40 years ago doesn't necessarily make him incorrect today. I have come to realize that I stumbled into an ongoing conflict. "We are the only true marxists". (We are the only true Christians) "Our interpretation of Trotsky's writings is the only correct interpretation". (Our biblical interpretation is the only correct one). If capitalism is to be conquered the "holier than thou" thinking will have to go. We are never going to get anywhere infighting. Pabloites, Healyites, Northites, Grantites, Woodites, pseudo lefts, stalinists....Who is the enemy? What are we talking about?

Alex Steiner said...

Response to anonymous Part I

Thank you for the kind words. Let me try to clear up a few possible misunderstandings. First of all I did not mean to suggest in my talk that dialectics is ONLY useful in a revolutionary or pre-revolutionary situations. It is always useful in any situation if you are trying to understand the dynamics of the class struggle. But the stakes are much higher in a revolutionary situation obviously because one often does not get a chance to refine one’s theories and try again. For example, the development of an understanding of the probable course of the Russian Revolution came years before the revolution itself. This was elaborated in the theory of permanent revolution that was championed by Trotsky. And the theory of permanent revolution would not have been possible without a dialectical understanding of the changes in the world economy and their impact on class relations and politics. The Mensheviks and other “moderate socialists” held to a two stage theory of the revolution and thought that the Russian Revolution necessarily had to go through a prolonged phase of bourgeois democracy and the role for socialists was limited to supporting the bourgeoisie and pressuring them to be more benevolent. Stalinism later resurrected the Menshevik two stage theory of the revolution. Lenin played a decisive role in the success of the Russian Revolution when he changed his earlier position - which was always more radical than the Menshevik’s theory but still held onto vestiges of a two stage theory – to a position that was very close to Trotsky’s and proclaimed the necessity in his April Thesis, of the working class leading a socialist revolution.

It is of course true that not every Bolshevik had a good grasp of dialectics even among the leadership of the party. There were in fact many divisions among the Bolsheviks during the days of 1917. But what made the difference was that this was a party forged through years of struggle and the role of Lenin in influencing the direction of the party was key to the success of the revolution. Lenin’s influence was not felt as a result of imperious commands from above however. Indeed in 1917 most of his imprecations were initially either rejected by a majority of Bolsheviks, including its Central Committee. Sometimes his recommendations were simply ignored, ie. they were not even put on the agenda of the Central Committee. But in the end his position did win out and this was possible because despite all their differences, Lenin had earned the confidence of the Bolsheviks and they could see for themselves that his positions were more closely attuned to the mood of the masses than the perspectives of those who wanted to postpone the revolution or work out some sort of compromise with the Mensheviks and other conciliators of the bourgeoisie.

Incidentally, although Bukharin had his problems, it is not correct to characterize him as ignorant of dialectics. Bukharin was very well read and was considered the leading Bolshevik philosopher. And while his understanding of dialectics was problematic he should not be so easily dismissed. In his last years, writing in his prison cell in the Lubyanka, awaiting his execution by Stalin, he wrote a very interesting book on philosophy that was published a few years ago under the title “Philosophical Arabesques”.

Alex Steiner said...

Response to anonymous Part II

Now the other thing is that dialectical thinking is not restricted to philosophers or to revolutionaries. It expresses itself, unconsciously to be sure, even among people who are opponents of dialectics. Engels, writing in a humorous vein, made this point many years ago when he wrote,
“… if these gentlemen have for years caused quantity and quality to be transformed into one another, without knowing what they did then they will have to console themselves with Moliere’s Monsieur Jourdain, who had spoken prose all his life without having slightest inkling of it.” [Engels, Dialectics of Nature, International Publishers, p. 34]


By the way, humor laced with irony is not something incidental to the dialectic. It is intrinsic to the dialectic, because what irony does is to bring us up against the limitations of imagination and force us to rethink old patterns. It makes us notice things that we have previously taken for granted. Thus, Engels draws attention to the fact that those people who rely on “common sense” and consider dialectics to be so much hocus-pocus, actually fell into dialectics all their lives without knowing it.

Finally, dialectics as the only logic of motion and change continues to be relevant today not only in the field of economics and politics but in the natural sciences as well. Some of the practitioners of dialectics are very aware of this philosophical heritage and others less so. I discussed a number of these issues in one of the chapters of my series, Downward Spiral, where I summarized the work of the dialectical biologists. You can read it here:
Downward Spiral Chapter 7

I also discussed the relevance of dialectical thinking to resolving problems in contemporary physics and cosmology here:
The Crisis in Cosmology

I hope that clears up some of your questions.

Comradely, Alex Steiner

Mark said...

maybe Alex would like to comment on this, but North stayed with Healy until 1985, through all the forms of opportunism of the WRP, sexual abuse, collaboration with bourgeois governments, what does this say about David North if we are to use guilt by association? to be fair minded would be to look past that history, except that today we have the entirely sectarian policy of the IFCI that is based on the therectical outlook of North which can't be overlooked.

Reese Mittane said...

To Mark and Alex,

Your comments are both quite revealing in that they express the middle class orientation of Steiner and Brenner and their supporters. For you, politics is not the expression of the class struggle but are based on the characters one associates with in their political lives that determines how historical judgement is to be rendered.

The fact that Steiner and Brenner once praised the conduct of the ICFI in the struggle with the WRP and now open up to their blog to one of the principal renegades from Trotskism is not precisely the issue here.

The issue is that anyone who hopes to be the leader of a working class has an obligation to tell the working class the truth which means that one must give a historical accounting of their political development and all those they give support to as well. Steiner and Brenner have proven that they are not at all interested in this.

Why for example, would they have rightly opposed the opportunist maneuverings of Matsas in 85 for example, after he his opportunist maneuverings included calling the Ayatollah Khomeni the leader of the greatest working class revolution in 1917 and praising the murder of Iraqi Communist Party Members by the Baath Party, and now give unfettered support to Matsas' betrayal of the Greek Working Class vis a vis Syriza?

To say the least, they are not operating on a principaled basis at all. Moreover, the question of the Workers League not breaking with the WRP until 1985, involved the clarification of membership prior the split which would have not been possible on the basis of a purely organizational settlement.

There's also a very interesting parallel to the Healy crisis involved in the devolution of Steiner and Brenner as they two are attempting to replace the materialism dialectical with Hegalian mysticism. The absolute idea in this case becomes utopia, when materialist analysis is replaced by psychology and socialism is going to come about not on the basis of the crisis of capitalism and the entrance of masses into political struggle but when socialism becomes a sufficiently attractive and self-containing idea.

I'm sure Steiner and Brenner, if they respond to this at all, will say they I'm over-simplying their position and fail to understand the unity of their conception of political economy and mass psychology. Ask yourself, then, as should they, what have they written on political economy, police brutality, attacks on democratic rights, or for that matter have world events outside of Syriza even interested them at all? I think their silence on many of these issues speaks volumes.

Adam Cortright said...

Mark, you should read "The Heritage We Defend," by North, and "How the WRP Betrayed Trotskyism" also contributed to by North (http://www.wsws.org/en/IML/fi_vol13_no1/fi_vol13_no1_index.html). The Workers League, which North played a leading role, split from the WRP based on an investigation and exposure of Healy's break with Trotskyism and socialist principles, from which the crimes you mentioned stem. There is absolutely no guilt by association.

The ICFI is not sectarian, at least not how it is defined in a Marxist sense. Sticking to Trotsyist principles and orienting the party toward the working class is not the definition of sectarian. Refusing to "unify the left", including the petty-bourgeois let, is not sectarian.

Mark said...

I've quite familiar with most of North's material and I've read most of what Steiner and Brenner have written, I've also read extensively Marx, Engles, Trotsky, and Lenin. I am picking sides here, and I'm picking the side of Marxism and Trotskyism.

North's polemical style has descended essentially to the level a tabloid journalist, taking quotations out of context and creating wholesale fabrications of the positions expressed on this web site. According to North, Steiner and Brenner "hailed, with deep-felt enthusiasm, the victory of Syriza", where is that to be found anywhere on this site?

The positions on this site have consistently expressed solidarity with the Greek masses against the EU program of austerity. On the other hand, they have pulled no punches in expressing the limitation of Syriza, what is essentially a left reformist organization. The contrast between the approach here and the WSWS could not more directly express the difference between a Trotskyist position and a sectarian position.

What someone will learn here as opposed to the WSWS is that the limitations of Syriza come form their reformists politics, trying to make a bargain with the troika, which is simply impossible, the troika is not interested in bargaining (some commentators have noted that the intention of the EU is to force a Grexit no matter what the response from Syriza). From the WSWS you learn that Syriza is some kind of "psuedo-left", evil tricksters intent on duping the Greek masses. By the way, what is the "psuedo-left"? This term never had a history in the Marxist movement as a sociological categorization, I've read countless books, essentially the cannon of Marxism, and never encountered the term, at least not used in any significant way. Yet, the term finds its way into the pages of the WSWS on a daily basis, so much for theoretical clarity!

Reese causes Steiner and Brenner of "Hegalian mysticism", yet this person is commenting on a article that contains one of the clearest expositions dialectics to be found on any web site. Reese and North complain about the lack of output here, but where can you can anything comparable on the pages of the WSWS in the last decade?

What North has achieved was perhaps an important rejection of dialectical mysticism in its day (the confrontation with Healy and the WRP), but what did he replace it with? It's clear that he replaced it with a mechanical materialism absent of a study of the dialectics of human relations. That's why you see the ICFI sitting on the sidelines of the Greek crisis. The only thing that was important for the WSWS was to "confirm" the failure or betrayal of Syriza, when most informed commentators (not necessarily Marxists) could have predicted the impossibility of resisting the EU based on the reformist politics of Syriza. What has been consistently been argued here was for taking the Greek working from where they are at, the vote for Syriza which represented a vote against austerity and a confrontation with the big banks of the EU and building a bridge to revolutionary consciousness.

What will history write of North and company? As has happened with so many sectarian organizations they will be a footnote in history, the marginal popularity that the WSWS currently enjoys is a reflection of the current problems of this epoch, anti-intellectualism, anti-Marxism, and the separation of the working class from revolutionary politics.

Alex Steiner said...

Response to Marty Jonas Part I

Ordinarily I would not have published this comment, not because the author disagrees with me, but because it has nothing to do with the essay it was supposedly commenting, The Talk in Athens on the Dialectics of Revolutionary Strategy and Tactics. But since Mr. Jonas, who has been politically inactive or more than four decades, was formerly a close friend, I thought I would respond to his points.

1. Mr. Jonas quotes a polemic I co-authored with David North almost 40 years ago called "The Fourth International and the renegade Wohlforth." The gist of the quote he provides called attention to Wohlforth's denunciations of the "Stalinist organizational practices" of the
ICFI. We noted in that polemic that the Mensheviks accused Lenin of Jacobinism and Blanquism. There are two issues to consider here.

a. Wohlforth was concentrating his attack on the "organizational question" and we noted that he did so because he failed to provide a coherent political and theoretical critique of the ICFI. In other words his attack on "the regime" was a substitute for a political analysis. I think that was largely true. Does Mr. Jonas claim that we did anything of the sort? Did we not write two full length books and many other articles critiquing the political and theoretical content of the SEP and the WSWS? If he approached the issue objectively he could not fail to see that our remarks on the "organizational question" were in no way a substitute for a political analysis, about which by the way, Jonas has nothing to say. The other thing to note is that while we did not make the organizational question our focus, neither did we ignore it. After all, why is it illegitimate to bring up the organizational question? Is it not related to the political and theoretical life of the movement we are discussing? If you have an organization that proudly boasts that for many years it has passed every resolution ever brought up at every one of its conferences "unanimously", is this not an indication that this organization has, to say the least, a very unhealthy internal regime? And should we ignore the letters we have received from past (and in some cases current) members testifying to the fact that truly open discussion of differences is strongly discouraged in that organization, that they practice a form of shunning of former members or of anyone who has a strong disagreement with the leadership ( a practice with which I believe Mr. Jonas is familiar) whereby dissidents are ostracized and that loyalty is coerced by brow-beating members at meetings and sometimes even through financial pressures? I am sure Mr. Jonas remembers the term "taken up", a wonderful expression that we used at the time to describe how we dealt with people with alien ideas in their heads. Whether the current guardians of orthodoxy of the SEP still use that term or not I do not know, but the practice lives on.

Alex Steiner said...

Response to Marty Jonas Part II

b. The other issue is, was there some truth to Wohlforth's contention that the organizational practices of the ICFI had something in common with those found in the Stalinist movement.

I am afraid on this point Wohlforth was largely correct at that time, though we were unaware of it when we wrote that document. Does Mr. Jonas really want to defend the organizational practices of ICFI in the mid to late 1970's? If my memory serves me right, Mr. Jonas himself was one of the victims of those organizational practices. It is true that Wohlforth was the immediate conduit of those organizational practices in the U.S., but Wohlforth was only carrying out on American soil the party building methods of Gerry Healy. In that sense, the document from which Mr. Jonas quotes had a terrible flaw - it concentrated its attack on Wohlforth, which he richly deserved - but it failed to see that Wohlforth was being made a fall guy for the practices that Gerry Healy was imposing on the Workers League. The fundamental problem in the ICFI, even in the early 1970's was not Wohlforth, but Gerry Healy. I myself witnessed some of those organizational practices. Here is an excerpt of my recollections of a Central Committee meeting of the WRP in London some time in the mid 1970's, AFTER the split with Wohlforth:

"I was present at a number of meetings of the Central Committee of the Workers Revolutionary Party presided over by Gerry Healy in the 1970’s. These meetings featured sessions that may last five or six hours without a break and would often go very late into the night. It was a method Healy used to wear down his political opponents. In almost all cases however, the target of Healy’s ire were not political opponents at all, but trusted comrades with whom he had worked for many years. Healy was a person who was marginally on the verge of paranoia and took these measures as a kind of preventive operation to make sure no one ever dared challenge him. The particular target of the day for Healy’s abuse, be it Cliff Slaughter, Cyril Smith or Bill Hunter, would be mercilessly browbeaten by Healy and ritualistically denounced by every leading comrade, most especially those comrades close to the person being denounced. Physical as well as verbal abuse was a common tactic of Healy’s and of those he trained. In this way, Healy created an organization that was almost completely free of factions for a number of years, until it imploded in 1985 and brought about the liquidation of the WRP. And when a faction did emerge within the WRP, as was seen with the Thornett group, they organized themselves in secret because of course it was not possible to have an open discussion of differences within that organization." [For the full context see Downward Spiral: Conclusion]

Is it stretching things to call these organizational methods "Stalinist"? Do they have the slightest resemblance to the traditions of Trotskyism and of the Fourth International? As we also pointed out, the SEP today under North's leadership does not engage in physical or sexual abuse but the goal of the internal regime North has built over the years still remains the same as Healy, to suppress dissent. And judging from what we have seen, it has indeed been very effective in doing that.

Alex Steiner said...

Response to Marty Jonas Part III

2. Mr. Jonas comments on the "strange bedfellow" I have joined with in Greece, namely Savas Michael-Matsas. He cites Savas's support for Healy in 1985 and his support for the Iranian regime in a series of dispatches in 1983.

The first thing to be said is the obvious: this indictment of Savas is from 30 years ago. If Mr. Jonas wants to update his criticism, he is welcome to. But he obviously doesn't feel the need. His attitude seems to be: once a sinner, always a sinner.

In the real world, revolutionaries – even the greatest – make mistakes, sometimes big ones. This was true of Lenin and of Trotsky. Savas was wrong in siding with Healy in 1985. I haven't ignored that, but I also haven't ignored Savas's record as a revolutionary since then.

As for the article on Iran, Mr. Jonas is being specious. He knows full well that equally damning material can be found in the publications of every party in the International Committee – including the predecessor of the SEP, the Workers League.

One example of many that could be given: a November 1979 article in the Bulletin, the Workers League newspaper, denouncing the US Socialist Workers Party as “imperialist agents and fifth columnists” for raising what now seem all to valid criticisms of the newly installed Khomeini regime's suppression of women and ethnic minorities. Appallingly, the article goes on to report the arrest of 14 supporters of the SWP in Iran, endorses the regime's charge against them for being involved in “counterrevolutionary intrigues” and refuses to call for their release.
[For the fulll context see Downward Spiral Chapter 3]

The blame for such wretched articles lies with Gerry Healy. This applies as much to Savas's writing of the time as to North's: both were carrying out Healy's reactionary political line.

A further point: just because you were on the right side of a political split 30 years ago is no guarantee that you continue to be right today. Since Mr. Jonas raised the issue of Iran, it should be said that when a new eruption of mass opposition to the Islamic regime took place in 2009, the WSWS denounced that opposition as “pawns” of imperialism and sided with the president, Ahmadinejad, Khomeini's direct political descendant. No doubt the ghost of Healy would have approved.

When I was examining the situation in Greece I was impressed by the contrast between the lifeless sectarian approach of the WSWS and the approach of Savas and the EEK. While I do not necessarily agree with every position taken by the EEK I can say that here was a group that recognized that the irreconcilable contradiction between the program of Syriza and their goal of remaining within the EU would inevitably lead to an implosion. The EEK denounced Syriza's accommodations with the bourgeoisie in language just as strong as the WSWS. But unlike the WSWS, the EEK was engaged with those millions of Greek workers and youth who supported Syriza. It saw the necessity of having a continuous dialogue with those forces and understood that the Greek revolution would become a reality only if a significant portion of Syriza's supporters could be won to the program of revolutionary socialism. And it also understood that simply repeating propaganda about the need for socialism and the need for a revolutionary leadership was never going to win the allegiance of those forces. I make no apologies for working with Savas Michael-Matsas and the EEK to advanced our common goal of the Greek and European socialist revolution.

CHRISKEMBS said...

David North wrote (german translation):
"Die Reaktion Steiners und Brenners auf den Verrat an der griechischen Arbeiterklasse bestand darin, nicht Syriza und ihren Führer Alexis Tsipras anzuprangern, sondern weitere, noch bösartigere Angriffe auf die World Socialist Web Site zu veröffentlichen. Sie warfen der WSWS vor, dass sie „rundheraus leugnet, dass sich die ERFAHRUNG mit der Syriza-Regierung als entscheidend erweisen könnte, um das politische Bewusstsein der Massen anzuheben und Möglichkeiten zu eröffnen, sie in großer Zahl für den revolutionären Sozialismus zu gewinnen.“[4] Dieses denkwürdige Argument besagt, dass ein politischer Verrat, mit dem die Arbeiterklasse desorientiert und demoralisiert wird, als positiver Beitrag zur Entwicklung des Bewusstseins zu begrüßen ist. Je mehr Verrätereien, desto besser! Und was, wenn sie mit dem Sieg der Goldenen Morgenröte enden? Folgt man der politischen Logik von Steiner und Brenner, dann wäre dies eine weitere unschätzbare Erfahrung zur Anhebung des Bewusstseins. Ihrer Theorie des Bewusstseins zufolge besteht die Aufgabe von „Sozialisten“ darin, Illusionen in Parteien zu schüren, die Verrat an der Arbeiterklasse üben. Man muss „ihnen [den Arbeitern] in ihren Erfahrungen beistehen…”[5] Wenn die Reaktion in Griechenland triumphiert, dann werden Steiner in Manhattan und Brenner in Toronto der Arbeiterklasse in Athen „beistehen“: tapfer, aber aus der ausgesprochen sicheren Entfernung von 8000 km."
David North, Detroit, 7.16.2015