Friday, September 25, 2015

Introduction to print edition of 'Crackpot philosophy and double-speak'

Front cover

The left is dead. This is a widely held view, particularly in North America, and even among those who count themselves leftists.

And yet the need for a left has never been greater given the relentless rise of social inequality, to say nothing of the impending catastrophe of climate change, endless wars abroad and the choking off of democratic rights at home by the surveillance state.

What you are about to read comes out of this void between reality and need. In fact the left isn't quite dead. Remnants of the last important radicalization, of the Sixties, are still around, typically in the form of tiny sects. There is something admirable about sticking to your principles and weathering long decades of isolation, as many of these sects have. The problem is that revolutionary movements don't exist just to perpetuate themselves, they exist to become catalysts for social change. A sect that has been in political hibernation for many years may no longer know how to wake itself up.

This pamphlet presents one side of a political argument, the side that is for waking up. (You can read the other side on line). As it is the latest installment of a polemic that has been going on for more than a decade, it is full of references to people and ideas that won't be readily familiar to outsiders. But the gist of the arguments are far from being arcane: they are relevant to anyone who wants to see the re-emergence of a revolutionary left

An explanatory note to help with some of the names: 

Alex Steiner and Frank Brenner are both veteran socialists and former members of the American Trotskyist group, the Workers League, now the Socialist Equality Party. David North is the Chair of the Socialist Equality Party and is the head of the International Editorial Board of the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS). Savas Michael-Matsas is the Secretary of the Workers Revolutionary Party of Greece (EEK). The late Gerry Healy was for many years the Secretary of the Workers Revolutionary Party of Great Britain and its predecessor organizations. Healy, who died in 1989, was the subject of a scandal in 1985 when his abuse of party members became the topic of tabloid news headlines. He was expelled from the WRP but the organization did not survive long after his removal, splitting into many pieces, none of which have remained viable. North led a group of what had been the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI) opposed to Healy at the time of the split.

The Frankfurt School was an important left-wing intellectual tendency that emerged in the 1930s. The best known names associated with it are Walter Benjamin, Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer and (for a brief time) Erich Fromm. The Frankfurt School figures in this polemic in a peculiar way: for North it is a short-hand for everything he despises among radical groups apart from his own, a very broad category he has christened the 'pseudo-left'. This use of the label, Frankfurt School, as invective is part of what Steiner calls crackpot philosophy. 

Why bother reading such a polemic? Why not just ignore these sects and get on with building a movement that can change the world. The answer is: you have to learn from the past in order to get beyond it. And, for better or worse, these sects are the only repositories of the left's past. Learning from their mistakes is essential to rebuilding the left. 

We want to thank Mitchel Cohen for his work in bringing this printed edition of our polemic to the public.

Alex Steiner and Frank Brenner, Sept. 20, 2015

Read the full essay online >

To order the print edition  click the button  below.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Crackpot philosophy and double-speak: A reply to David North

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Part I

By Alex Steiner

After failing to respond for the last 6 years to the document The Downward Spiral of the International Committee where I exposed the smear campaign waged by the WSWS against me, we finally heard from David North himself on July 21, 2015 in Part One of a 3 part foreword to a book called The Frankfurt School, Postmodernism and the Politics of the Pseudo-Left: A Marxist Critique”. [1] There is nothing new at all in Part one of his foreword, which supposedly deals with theoretical issues. North is apparently relying on the fact that few if any of his followers will bother to read Downward Spiral.  And he is probably correct in thinking that since it is well known that questioning of the leadership of the SEP is considered something akin to an act of treason.

North writes that he is responding to what he considers our ‘principal documents’, On Why Utopia is Crucial to a Revival of Socialist Consciousness, Objectivism or Marxism and Marxism Without Its Head or Its Heart. He very deliberately leaves out of his of list of our ‘principal documents’, the document I wrote that refuted all his misrepresentations about the Frankfurt School and our relationship to it, namely, Downward Spiral. [2]  He also leaves out my earlier document, The Dialectical Path of Cognition, [3] whereby I dealt in detail with Plekhanov and how North’s adoption of Plekhanov’s distortion of Marxian dialectics has everything to do with the ICFI’s retreat into a reactionary sectarianism.  North’s thinks he can simply repeat his accusations without ever acknowledging that they have been answered. To appreciate the level of dishonesty involved here it is necessary to think about what kind of mental gymnastics must be involved in writing a polemic in which you are making the same points against your opponents not for the first time or even the second time, but in many cases for the third time.  And you frame your argument, for the third time, as if your polemical opponents never responded to you on either the first or second occasion.  Worse still, North does not even mention the existence of the book length polemic I wrote in which I answered him, Downward Spiral.  Only someone whose mind has been corrupted by pure cynicism could argue in this way.

Given that there is nothing new in North’s remarks in Part One of his forward that has not been answered in Downward Spiral in great detail, I see no reason to repeat what I wrote there. Those who are interested in reading our response to North will do so.  As for the coterie of true believers whom North has cultivated who will not bother to read our response I wish them luck in finding their bearings. They will need it.

North does however introduce one new element into his attack on us in Part One of his foreword, namely his ‘takedown’ of our web site. He writes the following:

It is not difficult to provide an overview of Steiner and Brenner’s political evolution, as the postings on their blog site are few and far between. Given the level of its on-line activity, the name chosen for this generally inert site—Permanent-Revolution—is the only indication that its lethargic founders possess a sense of humor. While denouncing the passive “objectivism” of the “sectarian” ICFI, which publishes the World Socialist Web Site six days a week and posts upwards of 5,000 articles annually, intervals between Steiner and Brenner’s postings on their blog site may stretch to months. While they recently proclaimed that the task of building a revolutionary movement “takes on critical urgency” and “requires a conscious leadership now more than ever,” the usual response of their blog site to major political events is … silence. On the infrequent occasion when they rouse themselves from their politically demoralized stupor, it is only to denounce the International Committee and to record yet another milestone in their movement to the right.

So let me clarify what the permanent-revolution web site is and what it is not. First of all, it is not a ‘blog’ in the usual sense. We are not writing occasional musings as most blogs do.  It is a repository for serious reflection on important issues of Marxist theory and practice. And no, it is not an online newspaper like the WSWS with its “5000 articles annually”. We post an article on it occasionally, when we think that we have something significant to say that has not been said by others.  And we also occasionally post articles by others that we think deserve further exposure either because of their unique contribution to theoretical issues or because we felt their political analysis deserved a hearing – even if in some cases we do not agree with everything in a particular essay. And while we do not have the budget or the staff of the WSWS I think I can say that the best of our articles are superior in theoretical depth to anything you will find in the 5000 annual articles produced for the WSWS. 

And that brings me to an assessment of the WSWS. If one were to discount its sectarian politics and hostility to the working class, and try to evaluate it simply on the basis of journalistic standards I would have to say it is very much a mixed bag.  Almost all WSWS “journalism” consists of a digest from the bourgeois press with a left wing slant thrown in. Personally I find some of those types of articles useful because I rarely have the time to go through the bourgeois press and other sources that the WSWS authors rely on.  However if one were to rely on their interpretation for an understanding of global events and political movements, one would wind up with a very superficial and in many cases absolutely distorted view of the world.  In addition to news articles, the WSWS has regular contributors writing on culture and history.  Some of the historical essays are interesting but again you need the caveat that their authors often draw unwarranted conclusions from them flowing from the WSWS political line. As for the cultural reviews I generally skip them. I once thought that David Walsh had some interesting things to say about the arts and their relation to social issues. But that was 20 years ago, before he bought in completely to the aesthetics of a vulgar materialism.  [4]

Crackpot Philosophy

Also in the stable of WSWS productions I would add philosophy except that there is almost nothing on philosophy! By my estimate, the average number of essays on philosophy is about one a year.  That’s a pretty meager output considering there is that impressive figure of 5000 articles per year in total. I suppose this phenomenon gives new meaning to Marx’s famous book title, “The Poverty of Philosophy”. There was an essay North wrote a decade ago about which I commented in my essay A case study in the neglect of dialectics. [5] There was also a review of a book about Hegel written back in 2009 by someone named Alexander Fangmann.  I notice that Fangmann still writes news articles for the WSWS but he never wrote again on anything remotely connected to philosophy.  And oh yes, there was a polemic written against us about 7 years ago by someone named Adam Haig whose byline seems to have disappeared from the pages of the WSWS. It had to do with Marcuse and was an ok grad school type term paper that summarized the conclusions of some books he had read but had nothing to do with anything we had written. He combined this with some gross distortions of our positions and also wrote an ill tempered personal attack on me after we wrote a brief response to his article. [6] The only other contribution from Mr. Haig that had anything to do with philosophy was a review of a lecture by Slavoj Žižek that he wrote in 2010. The last article by Mr. Haig that appears in a search of the WSWS archives was a review from 2013 of a movie about superheroes! It seems that there is some kind of pattern of allowing student recruits to write one or two articles on an intellectual topic that interests them such as philosophy and then consigning them to the yeoman’s job of producing news articles and some of the lighter cultural fare. After all, someone has to be tapped in order to make that quota of 5000 articles per year.

The paucity of anything on philosophy or of any serious theoretical material for that matter (Nick Beams’ occasional pieces on economics are largely repetitious and never touch on any of the current controversies raging among Marxist economic theorists) is not an accident. It is the outcome of a policy within that movement in which theoretical questions and education are ignored if not actively discouraged.  We addressed this matter in Chapter One of our polemic from 2006, Marxism Without its Head or its Heart, where we commented on the fact that North could cite only one article on philosophy that he had written in a span of 10 years.  We cited Trotsky who, in addressing the American Socialist Workers Party, spoke about “the necessity of persistently propagating dialectical materialism” among the cadre. [7] We made the point that one article in 10 years, even if that one article was a masterpiece in its exposition of the philosophy of  Marxism, is not exactly living up to the standard of “persistently propagating dialectical materialism”. 

Before concluding a review of the WSWS’s features in the area of philosophy I should say something about North’s unique contribution in this area.  Here I want to comment not on North’s defense of Plekhanov.  There is nothing unique in that and in any case we are still waiting for the comprehensive response to our critique of Plekhanovism that North promised us more than a decade ago.  What I wish to address now is North’s unique interpretation of the historical influence of the Frankfurt School, the role it had in the rise of postmodernism, and the noxious conclusion in the development of  what North calls the “pseudo-left” of which Frank Brenner and myself are his prime examples.

I already exposed the fact that North’s interpretation of the history and influence of the Frankfurt School and postmodernism is made up out of whole cloth and has no basis in a serious study of these movements.  If you want to see the details of that read Downward Spiral. But in thinking about it I see that simply saying North’s account is historically inaccurate is inadequate. His fallacious account of some recent intellectual history includes something quite original that I think warrants our attention. It is a type of narrative that, while having no scholarly value, deserves a prominent spot in the footnotes of a Wikipedia article some time in the future as one of those strange historical curiosities of the post 9/11 era.  It is a kind of conspiracy theory of the history of philosophy that we see here and this type of history is endemic to cults and to and individuals cut off from research institutions. (This is not to imply that there is not a lot of nonsense coming out of academia as well.)  It is the kind of “theory” you expect to get when there is no give and take, when there is no one around to challenge you or to give you a good argument.  There is as yet no name for this trend in the history of philosophy.  But in the field of economics we have long had the term “crackpot economics”.  This was used to describe the “theories” of right wing “supply side” economists. But it is even more appropriate to describe the various theories that are prominent on the Internet propounded by the “Gold Bugs”, those people who believe that the only real value in the world is gotten from gold and there has been a conspiracy by the world’s elite to deprive everyone but themselves of this metal.

Something analogous to “crackpot economics” has been developing in the field of philosophy although it does not as yet have a name. The best example of this genre that I can think of, until North came along, was the philosophy of Ayn Rand.  Rand, a very bad writer whose novels appeal to adolescents who feel their talents are not sufficiently appreciated, coined the term “objectivism” to describe an eclectic series of ideas celebrating the virtues of selfishness and defending wealthy businessmen whom she depicted as victims of an egalitarian society.  The cult she started has attracted many people of prominence, including the former chair of the Fed, Alan Greenspan. Rand and her followers sought to give academic legitimacy to her philosophy of objectivism, participating in academic conferences and occasionally recruiting a professor or two to engage in debates with supporters of ‘objectivism’, as if this bastardized set of prejudices is on the same level as the philosophy of a Kant or a Locke.  One of the idiosyncrasies of Rand’s objectivism was the depiction of Kant as the epitome of Satan in the history of philosophy.  The Rand cult cannot stand Kant because his ethics emphasized the demands of duty over those of self interest. That was a cardinal sin as far as the objectivists were concerned and has infected philosophy ever since.

North’s narrative of the terrible legacy of the Frankfurt School fulfills a similar role in the mindset of his followers.  It is a story that gives them a pat answer to all their questions and manages to lump all their opponents into the convenient grab bag category of the “pseudo-left”. It is basically nothing more than a simplistic morality tale with a lot of esoteric citations to works that they will never read thrown in to impress his followers. In Downward Spiral I made the point that North’s interpretation of the Frankfurt School and its universally corrosive effects on academia as well as politics is eerily symmetrical with the right wing attack on the 60’s generation and its culture by Alan Bloom in his Closing of the American Mind.  [8] I would like to baptize this genre in the history of ideas  as “crackpot philosophy” and I think North deserves an honorable mention in its pantheon.  Years from now North may be remembered, if at all, as one of the more original contributors to this genre.  That will be his legacy.

Crisis in the Ukraine

Now let me examine North’s critique of our political analysis. This is the subject of parts 2 and 3 of his foreword.  I will start by responding to his smear that we support the reactionary Kiev regime in the Ukraine.  North writes,

In the case of Ukraine, to identify, as Brenner does, national self-determination with the political hegemony of the imperialist-backed Poroshenko regime, staffed by fascists, is politically obscene. [9]

It is rather North’s dishonesty that is politically obscene. To untangle this web requires a bit of historical background. About a year ago we drew attention to the WSWS’s confused discussion of the nature of Russia and China.  They have repeatedly denied that either Russia or China were imperialist nations, though they have been less than forthcoming about what they thought they were.[10] We have commented on this previously so I will not repeat it except to make the point that they have developed an entire “theory” about the nature of Russia and China that is not only inconsistent,  but has absolutely no original research behind it. Not to mention that it is dead wrong.  Contrast that with the research Lenin presented in developing his theory of imperialism or that Trotsky worked through in developing his understanding of the nature of the Soviet Union as a deformed workers state.

We brought attention to the ICFI’s “theory” of the nature of Russian and China because it is not only an indication of their theoretical vacuum but is also used as a justification for their line supporting the Putin regime. Any examination of the WSWS coverage of Russia in the last few years cannot help but observe that any incipient movement against Putin has been denounced in the most vigorous terms as “middle class” or part of an “imperialist provocation”.  Unlike North, we do not wish to oversimplify complex situations.  We readily grant that in all the movements opposing the Putin regime there have been elements of imperialist provocation and middle class confusion.  But that is certainly not all there was to these movements, for instance, the protests against Putin leading up to the elections in 2011. There was a genuine and spontaneous movement against the dictatorial regime of Putin and the oligarchs.  The responsibility of Marxists in such a situation is to provide a direction for struggle against the Putin regime independent of and opposed to the machinations of imperialism.  The ICFI to its shame did not do any of that. Instead it flagrantly adapted to the Putin regime, denouncing the demonstrators in the same language used by official Russian government propaganda. [11] In this the ICFI borrowed a page from the handbook of the neo-Stalinist Workers World Party who for decades have justified their support for various dictatorships by calling them “anti-imperialist” and slandering their political opponents as supporters of imperialism.

In light of our assessment of the ICFI as a sectarian sect hostile to the working class, how to explain its opportunist line towards the Putin regime?  What we see here is a confirmation of Trotsky’s discussion of the nature of sectarianism.  There is no Chinese Wall between sectarianism and opportunism. It is often the case that the sectarian, in an attempt to prove his credentials as a revolutionary fighter and as being relevant to the class struggle, will be transformed into an opportunist on certain issues.  Trotsky makes this point nicely in his classic essay, “Sectarianism, Centrism and the Fourth International”, where he writes,

The sectarian … generally does not want to go swimming at all, in order not to wet his principles. He sits on the shore and reads lectures on morality to the flood of the class struggle. But sometimes a desperate sectarian leaps headlong into the water, seizes hold of the centrist and helps him drown. So it was; so it will be. [12]

The WSWS’s kowtowing to Putin has continued with a vengeance throughout the crisis in the Ukraine.  When we previously wrote about the crisis in the Ukraine we tried to approach it beginning from the perspective advocated by Trotsky in two essays that we republished, Problems of the Ukraine, [13] and Independence for the Ukraine and Sectarian Muddleheads. [14] North makes a point of saying that,

The International Committee has subjected the program of self-determination to a detailed critique, proving, on the basis of numerous examples, that it has served—particularly in the aftermath of the dissolution of the USSR—either as a mechanism for the imperialist-sponsored dismemberment of states targeted for intervention or as a means of enriching a particular faction of a national bourgeois elite.

I don’t doubt that the International Committee has rejected the slogan of “the right of nations to self-determination” along with their rejection of the defense of unions and lots of other things that they consider to be out of line with their “new thinking”, but in their “detailed critique” they do not have a single reference to either of Trotsky’s seminal essays on the Ukraine.  So much for the International Committee’s “detailed critique”.

We do not regard Trotsky’s discussion on the Ukraine as the final word on the subject, obviously many things have changed since Trotsky wrote his article in the late 1930s, but neither do we simply ignore it.  One would think that anyone who calls themselves a Trotskyist would at least engage with the material Trotsky wrote on the Ukraine.  But as far as David North and the WSWS are concerned Trotsky’s writing on the Ukraine never happened.  In all their coverage of the Ukraine crisis – and I have no doubt that of the 5,000 articles a year produced by the WSWS factory, there must have been several dozen on the Ukraine in the past two years,  there is not a word on Trotsky’s analysis of the Ukraine.  Contrast this with the position of the Internationalist group (League for the Fourth International).  Some two decades ago, Jan Norden, the leader of that group, wrote a well researched article on the Ukraine in which he explains why he thinks Trotsky’s analysis is no longer relevant. [15] I happen to strongly disagree with Norden, but I can respect the fact that he engages with Trotsky’s writing on the subject instead of making believe they don’t exist.

Our understanding of how revolutionaries should approach the crisis in the Ukraine owes something to Trotsky while we also try to bring his analysis up to date.  The status of the Ukraine has changed considerably since the fall of the Soviet Union and its accession to independence shortly thereafter.  And obviously it has changed dramatically since the crisis of Ukraine emerged two years ago leading to the fall of the Yanukovych regime, the accession to power in Kiev of a reactionary regime allied with Western imperialism, the annexation of Crimea and the outbreak of Civil War in the East.  Our perspective, owes much to Trotsky’s thesis that in order to fight the right wing influence of nationalism, it is necessary to support the right of Ukraine to self-determination.  When the Ukraine was the victim of Stalinist oppression that meant supporting the right of Ukraine to secede and form its own nation. But in 2015 the only viable strategy that can unite the Ukrainian and Russian working class against their respective oligarchs is to oppose the dismemberment of the Ukraine.  We do not want to see Ukraine go the way of Yugoslavia and break up into several tiny mini-states, each of whom has their own imperialist sponsors. That was a disaster for the working class of every part of the former Yugoslavia and would be a much bigger disaster were it to be repeated in the Ukraine. It was in that context that we put forward the position that revolutionaries should oppose annexations.  North latches onto this and accuses us of supporting the reactionary regime in Kiev.  As far as North is concerned, either you support the maneuvers of Putin’s Russia in the Ukraine, or you support the reactionary Kiev regime.  It’s an argument worthy of the Stalinists. He cannot imagine an independent revolutionary socialist position and therefore slanders his opponents as supporters of imperialism and fascism.

We are opposed to both the reactionary regime in Kiev and their imperialist backers as well as Putin and Great Russian chauvinism.  The situation is complicated by the fact that the forces in Ukraine fighting against the Kiev regime are receiving assistance from the Russian military.  We do not oppose the right of those fighting against the Kiev regime to get assistance from wherever they can.   That is a tactical issue that can only be decided by those on the ground with knowledge of the concrete situation they are facing.  But neither do we solidarize ourselves politically with the pro-Putin elements in the Donbass.  We most certainly support the defense of the working class in the Donbass against the Ukrainian military, but we do not support the move to create a separate Donbass Republic that would be an appendage of Russia.  And here it is of some interest to note that while denouncing all their political opponents as either lackeys of imperialism or “pseudo-left” the WSWS never articulated any position at all towards the Donbass People’s Republic.  That’s a nice situation to be in since you can never be wrong because no one can ever pin down exactly what your position is.

We make no claims for infallibility in our discussion of the Ukraine.  The situation is indeed very complex and changing rapidly. Part of the reason we wrote about the situation in the Ukraine is to encourage a serious discussion, especially among those who look to the traditions of Trotskyism for some guidance.  But what we get from North instead of a serious discussion are lies and slanders rivaling the worst garbage you can find on Fox News. Some Trotskyist he is!

War, Imperialism and Crisis Mongering

North throws two other major accusations our way in his foreword. He accuses us of “supporting Syriza” and their betrayal of the Greek working class. Frank Brenner addresses the question of Greece and Syriza so I will discuss the other major accusation – that we think imperialism has overcome its contradictions and that we support a version of Karl Kautsky’s theory of “ultra-imperialism”.  Like North’s other accusations, this is complete nonsense. Kautsky articulated his theory of ultra-imperialism in 1914, just before the outbreak of World War I. He maintained that since imperialism had matured to the point where the entire globe had been divided up into cartels, future rivalries between competing imperialist powers need not resort to war with all its risks and potential to cause far more losses than gains. Rather he foresaw that the cartels would come to some kind of agreement as to how to divide the world amongst themselves and avoid future conflict at least on the military front. Lenin and other Marxists strongly disagreed with Kautsky and World War I proved to be a very convincing refutation of his thesis.

Have we maintained anything like Kautsky’s thesis of ultra-imperialism? What set off North was an article I wrote commenting on the SEP’s resolution on war [16]. North writes that,

Steiner began his article by counting the number of times the resolution used the words “war” (97), “imperialist” (23) and “imperialism” (36). Steiner, it seems, would have his readers believe that these were words that appeared infrequently in the writings of Lenin, Luxemburg and Trotsky!

I would not have expected North’s wooden ear for humor to pick it up but far from denigrating the importance of having a carefully researched position on the dangers of war, I was making fun of the boiler plate character of this resolution that substitutes empty sloganeering for serious thought. What North does not quote is that immediately following these words, I wrote,

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.

North’s coup de grâce comes a bit later when he cites the following statement from my article,

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.   

The words are indeed from my article but the part in italics were inserted by North, not by me. (By most journalistic standards, changing the character of a text to add emphasis to certain words without acknowledging it is considered dishonest, but this is small potatoes when it comes to North’s other misrepresentations.)  North evidently thinks he has found some sort of smoking gun that proves my repudiation of Marxism. Obviously very excited, he writes,

It is hard to take this nonsensical combination of apathy and stupidity seriously. Steiner fails to enumerate the objective changes that have rendered imperialism so much more peaceful and risk averse than it was a century ago. He seems not to have noticed that the United States has been at war, on a virtually continuous basis, for a quarter century; that its military operations have ravaged entire countries, killed hundreds of thousands of people, and created fifty million refugees; and that it is engaged in a global deployment of military forces unprecedented in its history. Are these all manifestations of a “much greater reluctance” to use military power than was the case 100 years ago? 

Well suppose we actually consider what I wrote dispassionately for a moment.  Granted that imperialism  still plays a terrible role in the world today. Where did I deny that? But is it true or not that it is more reluctant today than it was 100 years ago to dispatch the military to solve its problems?  The answer should be obvious and it is not even necessary to go back 100 years to see it.  Let us just go back 38 years to the height of the Vietnam War. The United States at that time had committed over half a million troops to subjugating that rebellious country in the interests of imperialism.  Have we seen anything comparable since?  The fact is that the ‘Vietnam War Syndrome’ has been and remains a reality in political calculation when the ruling class considers its options.  It knows from the experience of the Vietnam War when it faced not only massive protests against the war at home, but increasing rebelliousness and outright acts of mutiny from the soldiers in Vietnam, that it cannot count on having a massive influx of ground troops in dealing with a vexatious international problem.  Remember that it took a ruthless propaganda campaign on the part of the Bush Administration, strengthened by the panic that set in after Sept 11, just to launch the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And the ground troops committed in those wars were never more than 10% of what we saw at the height of the Vietnam War. 

None of this means that “imperialism has become more peaceful”, a phrase I never used. It simply means that the options open to imperialism today are more limited than they were in the past.  And that is largely the result of the past struggles of the working class and of the people in the colonial world against imperialism.  It does make a difference that the countries of Africa gained their independence after bitter struggles lasting decades.  At the same time, we can also say that while imperialism is constrained in its ability to reshape the world in its image, its ineffectiveness is inversely proportional to its violence.  With the modern weapons and technology available to the imperialist powers, they are able to cause destruction on a global scale unmatched in any previous era. There has been no conflict remotely approaching the level of World War II since the end of that war, but even some of the – by comparison –minor conflicts since then can result in massive casualties.  For instance, the first Gulf War, which barely lasted a few weeks and involved a minimal commitment of ground troops on the part of the U.S. still resulted in hundreds of thousands of Iraqis killed. 

But the other side of the violence of imperialism is its ineffectiveness. Is there anyone who can seriously argue that the reluctance to commit ground troops has not had its effect on U.S. policy in Syria and Ukraine?  If not then perhaps David North can tell us why Assad is still in power in Syria even though the U.S. and its European allies have been trying to evict him for the past five years? Sure, they can mount a coup in Libya and murder its former leader Gaddafi. But what have they replaced it with? The saga of imperialist intervention in Libya is a dramatic confirmation of the problems faced by the imperialist powers today.  They have the ability to destroy societies, but seem incapable of building new ones. It’s a very different situation than when the British Empire could go in and install a puppet regime that would do their bidding and even recruit native troops to join the colonial army. Today, even the most rabid Republican hawks have not – yet – advocated the use of American ground troops in the Civil War in the Ukraine. And Donald Trump, who is without doubt the most rabid of the psychotics seeking the Republican nomination for President, is actually an isolationist who believes the U.S. should stay out of the affairs of those foreigners caught up civil wars in Syria and the Ukraine. Only someone who is willfully blind, or who has an agenda that has nothing to do with an objective assessment of the current state of the world, would deny that imperialism today is far more constrained in its ability to effect its strategic goals than it was a century ago.

As I stated in the article I wrote, this does not mean that there is no longer a danger of imperialist war and even nuclear war.  But I was trying to focus attention on two points that have been deliberately obscured by the SEP resolution.

First,  that the nature of imperialism today has indeed changed from the imperialism of a century ago.  A century ago, the colonial system still dominated the planet and the British Empire was still intact.  Today the colonial system has mostly disappeared with the rise of national independence movements in the post war era.  That does not mean that imperialism is no longer deeply involved in the affairs of Africa, Asia and South America.  But the character of that involvement has changed drastically.   Whereas a hundred years ago you had direct military occupation and rule by a foreign power, today imperialism works largely through political, economic and military proxies.  But these proxies are hardly reliable and oftentimes turn against their bankrollers.  One need only mention in this context the rise of ISIS, which began as one of the proxies of the Western powers fighting against the Assad regime in Syria.

The other thing to recognize about the nature of imperialism today is that the traditional players on the scene, the old European powers and the United States have been joined by new imperialist powers that are challenging their hegemony, most conspicuously China.  This is an “inconvenient truth” for North and the WSWS who would prefer to argue that China (and Russia) are not imperialist powers.  We have already pointed to the threadbare nature of their arguments on this score and we will have much more to say about the nature of Russia and China in a series of subsequent articles. [17] But as far as the WSWS is concerned, nothing much has changed about imperialism since Lenin wrote his classic work on that subject a hundred years ago.

Second, I wanted to point out that while the danger of imperialist war still lurks, the WSWS has indeed exaggerated that danger to the point where it is impossible to read an article about China in the WSWS without coming across the de rigeur statement somewhere toward the end that whatever incident the article is discussing “points to the increasing danger of war against China.” This is crisis mongering at its worst and has nothing to do with Marxism.  It is in fact one of the legacies that David North has inherited from Gerry Healy.  Crisis mongering was a tried and true technique of Gerry Healy’s and he used it to good effect in order to insulate members further into the bubble he created, leading them to believe that the either one remains a loyal  member or one joins the camp of counterrevolution.

North uses the same method of scaring new recruits with the proposition that either you join his party now and bring with you hundreds of thousands of others or the planet will go up in flames shortly.  This is not a reasoned argument for opposing imperialist war but a weapon used by a sect that is rapidly devolving into a cult bent on inculcating its members with the idea that there is no life outside of their little group. 

What is a Revolutionary Leader?

North sends one more “bombshell” our way before ending his foreword with a summary of his unique contribution to Marxist theory, the definition of the “pseudo-left”.  He brings up in the  most ominous tone,  “the return of Savas Michael-Matsas”.  He writes that Savas supported Healy in 1985 and since we have worked with him we are therefore politically beyond the pale.  He writes of “Steiner and Brenner”,

 But the political logic of their struggle against the International Committee and their defense of Syriza has led Steiner and Brenner to forge a political alliance with Savas Michael-Matsas, who supported Healy unconditionally in 1985 and broke with the International Committee. 

I have already said something about this previously in response to a comment we received.  I will repeat part of that comment for the benefit of a broader audience.

The first thing to be said is the obvious: this indictment of Savas is from 30 years ago. If North 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.

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. 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 advance our common goal of the Greek and European socialist revolution.

A further point is that there is indeed a huge difference between North’s role as an aspiring revolutionary leader and that of Savas.  In North’s case, we have someone who has been afraid to be photographed in public for the past 30 years.  The only photographs of North that are allowed onto the WSWS never show his face. Presumably this has something to do with his dual function  as the head of a business and the leader of a political group. It seems that when it comes to his public image the former takes priority over the latter. Never has there been a “leader” like this. Such a situation is unprecedented in the entire history of the Marxist movement. Savas on the other hand is a person who had his life threatened by the Greek neo-Nazis on numerous occasions yet he is not afraid to appear in public and takes advantage of whatever opportunity he is given for publicizing the program of the revolutionary socialist movement in Greece. 
David North. His face cannot be photographed.

Savas Michael-Matsas saluting supporters after he was acquitted of charges brought
by the fascist Golden Dawn

Part II

By Frank Brenner

Sectarian vs. Dialectical Analysis

North takes exception to a couple of posts I wrote pointing out how the WSWS was denigrating the experience of the Greek working class and how this was an example of sectarianism. In passing he claims that Brenner “did not provide the names of his Marxist sources.” Not true: I did provide a name, Trotsky. And a quote: “'Sectarians are capable of differentiating between but two colors: red and black. So as not to tempt themselves, they simplify reality. They refuse to draw a distinction between the fighting camps in Spain for the reason that both camps have a bourgeois character' (Trotsky)”.

I should add that I had another quote from Trotsky (Sectarians do not “understand the dialectical interaction between a finished program and a living [that is to say, imperfect and unfinished] mass struggle,”) but this one I didn't attribute because we had used this quote so often that I thought anyone following our site would be familiar with it. It comes from an article by Trotsky called “Sectarianism, Centrism and the Fourth International”, which is posted on our website in full. Here is the passage I took the quote from, which discusses the hostility of sectarianism to the mass movement of the working class:

However, it is not enough to create a correct program. It is necessary that the working class accept it. But the sectarian, in the nature of things, comes to a full stop upon the first half of the task. Active intervention in the actual struggle of the working masses is supplanted, for him, by an abstract propaganda for a Marxist program.

Every working-class party, every faction, passes during its initial stages through a period of pure propaganda — that is, the training of its cadres. The period of existence as a Marxist circle invariably grafts habits of an abstract approach to the problems of the workers’ movement. He who is unable to step in time over the confines of this circumscribed existence becomes transformed into a conservative sectarian. The sectarian looks upon the life of society as a great school, with himself as a teacher there. In his opinion, the working class should put aside its less important matters, and assemble in solid rank around his rostrum. Then the task would be solved.

Though he may swear by Marxism in every sentence, the sectarian is the direct negation of dialectical materialism, which takes experience as its point of departure and always returns to it. A sectarian does not understand the dialectical interaction between a finished program and a living (that is to say, imperfect and unfinished) mass struggle. The sectarian’s method of thinking is that of a rationalist, a formalist and an enlightener. During a certain stage of development rationalism is progressive, being directed critically against blind beliefs and superstitions (the eighteenth century!) The progressive stage of rationalism is repeated in every great emancipatory movement. But rationalism (abstract propagandism) becomes a reactionary factor the moment it is directed against the dialectic. 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.[18]

To turn your back on the actual development of the working class – that would be pretty much what I was accusing North's party of doing in my posting about experience in scare quotes.

The Role of 'Program' in Trotsky's Analysis

But all too typically North ignores the substance of my argument or indeed the existence of this article by Trotsky. Instead he insists with great vehemence that Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky were “the most irreconcilable opponents” of opportunism. This is not exactly news, but it is useful in re-framing the argument. If you do not turn your back on the actual development of the Greek working class, if you do not react to that development “with contempt” (a favorite WSWS phrase), then according to North you are an opportunist and a supporter of Syriza. So when Trotsky talks about “the dialectical interaction between a finished program and a living (that is to say, imperfect and unfinished) mass struggle,” all of that is ... opportunist demagogy.

(A passing thought. Since North is good at definitions – witness his addition of 'pseudo-left' to the lexicon of Marxism – I would be curious to know how he would define sectarianism. I'm sure we would all find that enlightening.)

“It is not enough to create a correct program, it is necessary that the working class accept it.” You might say this is the essence of the Transitional Program. North quotes some of Trotsky's remarks on the Transitional Program, but only those remarks that apply to the first part of this statement: Marxists need a correct program. And who could argue with that? For any Marxist revolutionary, a program that corresponds to the objective needs of the working class is the absolute starting point of politics.

But is that all there is to Marxist politics? If you listen to North, that would seem to be the case. With a cherry-picked quote from Trotsky as support, North makes the following assertion: “Trotsky warned the leaders of the American movement that if the American workers refused to accept the program of socialist revolution, the danger existed that they would be compelled to accept the program of fascism. There was no guarantee that the workers would act in time.” And North rounds this off with a couple of sentences from Trotsky: “We cannot take responsibility for this. We can only take responsibility for ourselves.”

So from this we are to believe that all of Trotsky's immense political experience as a revolutionary comes down to this: if the workers refuse to accept the program of socialist revolution, THEN IT'S THE WORKERS' FAULT!! If this is indeed what Trotsky thought, then the effort he made to write the Transitional Program and educate revolutionaries in its use makes no sense. What sort of 'transition' do you need if all of revolutionary politics consists of handing the working class a take-it-or-leave-it proposition?

North follows this up with a jab at us: “Steiner and Brenner take responsibility for nothing.” This seems a tad ironic. North has just finished telling us (of course via some selective quoting from Trotsky) that if the revolution fails, IT ISN'T THE RESPONSIBILITY of the revolutionaries. And that certainly makes it sound as if it is North who is taking responsibility “for nothing.”

Trotsky however was not a sectarian. He was, among other things, the leader of the Petrograd Soviet in 1905, the leader of the Red Army, the single greatest orator of the 1917 revolution who held mass audiences spellbound for hours. (If you read the famous biography of Trotsky by Isaac Deutscher, you will find that he originated a startlingly new way of delivering revolutionary messages to illiterate peasants which reads today a bit like hip hop a century avant le lettre.) Like his comrade Lenin, Trotsky was a revolutionary who paid the closest attention to the ups and downs of mass consciousness, who fought tenaciously to engage with that very thing North loves to hate – the EXPERIENCE of the masses.

As we saw earlier, Trotsky felt that it is not just necessary to have a correct program, it is also necessary “for the working class to accept it.” Here is a quote from Trotsky's discussions on the Transitional Program that addresses this point. It is strikingly at odds with the selections from those same discussions chosen by North:

“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.” [19]

WE MUST COMBINE POLITICS WITH MASS PSYCHOLOGY AND PEDAGOGY, BUILD A BRIDGE TO THEIR MINDS. What if Steiner and Brenner had said this? You can just imagine what North's reaction would be. Actually we don't need to imagine, because North has already provided it: “Steiner and Brenner argue, in effect, that it is impermissible to intrude upon the blessed psychic state of virgin innocence with critical analysis and discordant exposures. Experience must not be 'denigrated'. Rather the 'experience' must be allowed to take the workers wherever it will – that is, to defeat.”

In effect. Wonderful little phrase: it allows you to rearrange your opponent's arguments to say whatever you want them to say. Where did we ever say that it “is impermissible to intrude upon the blessed psychic state of virgin innocence” of the working class? Where did we ever even imply this? (Personally, I would have found the purple prose of such a proposition repugnant, to say nothing of its inane content.) What we did insist on was the need to ENGAGE the consciousness of the working class, viz. “build a bridge to their minds”. Engage doesn't mean adapt, it doesn't mean kowtow – BUT IT ALSO DOESN'T MEAN IGNORE.

Consider what Trotsky is saying in this passage: we Marxists need a correct program but we also need to CONNECT with the masses. And to make that connection, Trotsky is willing to appeal to something that would normally be dismissed as backwardness: the empiricism of the masses, their susceptibility to panaceas (single tax, bimetallism etc.). He wants a transitional demand – 30 for 40 in this example – to become a new 'panacea', one that will “spread like wildfire in the masses”. Except this isn't a panacea like the others – this one would allow the masses to see THROUGH THEIR OWN EXPERIENCE that capitalism cannot meet this demand, that it cannot provide many millions of them with decent work at decent wages. That is how a revolutionary party engages the masses and works to raise their political consciousness.

What North objects to, in the most strenuous terms, is any political activity which attempts such an engagement. In other words, what North objects to is the core concept of the Transitional Program.


Much in the same vein, North characterizes as “the most revealing expression” of my “demoralization”, the following statement in one of my posts: “In revolutionary politics IT ISN'T ENOUGH TO KEEP PROCLAIMING THE TRUTH.”

To begin with, a word about demoralization. It's interesting that North, who has repeatedly taken me and Steiner to task for “smuggling in” psychology over the course of our many polemics, has no qualms about casting psychological aspersions when it suits his purpose. Steiner he has accused of being a neurotic and now I am demoralized. Only North is free from any such ailments, though he seems an expert in judging them in others.

In any case, having quoted my sentence, North now lets loose with a barrage of denunciation: “Only a person who has been irremediably corrupted by cynicism and has severed all his internal intellectual and moral links to socialism could write these words. Marxism and all forms of progressive thought and culture are inspired by the conviction that there is nothing more powerful than truth. The Fourth International is distinguished from all other political movements, including those that claim some connection to socialism, in the emphasis it places on the immense political significance of the fight for the truth in an age when capitalism depends for its survival upon lies etc. etc. etc.”

A moment's pause is necessary for the smoke to clear from this verbal fusillade. So, it turns out that I am “irremediably corrupted by cynicism” and that I have severed all “intellectual and moral links” not just with socialism but with “all forms of progressive thought and culture”. Which practically makes me ... a total reactionary, no better than a fascist! I would be completely and utterly devastated, except that since I am already demoralized, it's hard for me to feel any worse than I already do. But as I lift myself off the floor, I have to wonder: all this piling on of abuse on the basis of what? A single sentence.

And what is so terrible about this sentence? Didn't we earlier see Trotsky say much the same thing?: “It is not enough to create a correct program. It is necessary that the working class accept it.” But North does a little polemical surgery, ignoring the “IT ISN'T ENOUGH”, and simply refashions the sentence to mean: Brenner is AGAINST PROCLAIMING THE TRUTH.

If this isn't a shameless twisting of words, then nothing is. This is a blatant case of intellectual bad faith, and typifies North's MO throughout these polemics.

For the record, here is the quote in its full context.

“But seeing through Syriza is only the barest beginning of a revolutionary policy. Far more important is to get the masses to see through Syriza. In revolutionary politics IT ISN'T ENOUGH TO KEEP PROCLAIMING THE TRUTH. If it were enough, the revolution would have happened decades, even centuries, ago.

“YOU HAVE TO MAKE THE MASSES UNDERSTAND THAT TRUTH, and for that you have to engage with them and their struggles. You have to BUILD A BRIDGE between their 'Syriza consciousness' and socialist consciousness. And for that you have to stand with them in their experiences - the election in January, the countless marches, the historic OXI to austerity.

“The sectarians of the WSWS reject this. They have only contempt and hostility for the experiences of the real working class. Instead they promote visions of a fantasy working class, one that never voted for Syriza or ever had any illusions in it, a Sleeping Beauty working class that only awaits the magic kiss of the sectarian's propaganda to wake up to revolutionary consciousness.” [20]

So, all of North's ringing rhetoric about being a great defender of the truth – all of that is PREMISED ON AN OUTRIGHT LIE, a flagrant misrepresentation of what I said. A defense of truth based on lies – it would take a George Orwell to fully appreciate this fine example of double-speak.

The Transitional Program and Greece

A couple more things about what I wrote. The first sentence of this quote says: “But seeing through Syriza is only the barest beginning of a revolutionary policy.” Which by any reasonable interpretation would indicate that myself and Steiner are not Syriza supporters, quite the contrary. Our 'sin' in the eyes of North and company is that we wanted to engage Syriza's many supporters – the workers, youth and intellectuals who wanted to fight austerity. We wanted to created a bridge, as I said, between their 'Syriza consciousness' and socialist consciousness. Which sounds to me exactly like the approach that Trotsky was advocating in the earlier quote from him about the Transitional Program.

There is also the sentence after the one that so exercised North, the sentence which reads: “If it were enough [i.e. for revolutionaries to just keep proclaiming the truth], the revolution would have happened decades, even centuries, ago.” North ignores this, even though, as an example of a reasoned argument, it seems to me a rather telling one. Indeed it seems to me that anyone claiming to be a revolutionary who has no answer to that argument is NOT REALLY A REVOLUTIONARY, no matter how loudly they shout about their devotion to the truth.

To end on a somewhat different note, it occurs to me that next year will mark 40 years that North has been the leader of his party (initially the Workers League, now the Socialist Equality Party). As it so happens, it will also mark 30 years since North took over the leadership of his international grouping, the ICFI. That is a very long time in political leadership, a lifetime in fact. And it seems a fitting moment to glance back at the achievements of North's leadership, which I would say are the following: in 40 years North has built a business (very successful), a website (moderately so) and a movement (not so much).

No doubt some would take issue with this assessment, but I think that an outside observer, without any axe to grind, wouldn't find this very far off the mark. Now we already know from North that if the workers haven't come to his party, then ultimately the responsibility for that is with the workers themselves. So, I'm sure he has no worries about the slow or no-growth of his movement.

Still you would think that AFTER 40 YEARS of not much success on this score, there might be some rethinking of what the party is doing. You might think that a party with that sort of track record would be just a bit less ready to dismiss “with contempt” the experiences of the masses. But if you think that, then your aren't a sectarian.

In any case, demoralized though I am, I want to congratulate North on his ever so long tenure at the helm of his party. Given his success thus far, I'm sure that it will only take him another 40 (or 60 or 80) more years to lead it to a great political triumph.

[4] See the essay A vulgar critique of vulgar materialism for a discussion of Walsh’s acquiescence to North’s view of aesthetics.
[6] Haig’s initial essay on The Marcusean component can be found here:
   We responded with this brief note:
   Haig then penned the following piece to our brief response with the colorful title, Adam Haig responds to Alex   Steiner’s burst of outrage,
   Our response to Haig’s “burst of outrage” piece can be found here:
[7]  See page 8 of Chapter I of Marxism Without its Head or its Heart,
[8]  See note 23 on page 24 of Chapter 1 of Downward Spiral,
[10] See our comment, The SEP on the nature of Russia and China,
[11]  While the WSWS routinely says they oppose the Putin regime, they have consistently given it backhanded support by attacking with greater fervor any movement against Putin. Typical is this article from the WSWS that appeared shortly after the election of 2011. It had the title, Pro-market opposition holds Moscow rally , suggesting that the opposition  is solely “pro-market” and denouncing the “pseudo-left” groups who expressed their solidarity with the opposition  to Putin.
[15] Norden wrote his document in 1993 when he was a leading member of the Spartacist League.  On Trotsky’s Advocacy of an Independent Ukraine, Spartacist, Winter 1993-94 Issue.
[19] The Transitional Program of Socialist Revolution, L Trotsky, with Introductory Essays by Joseph Hansen and George Novack. Pathfinder Press, 1973. P. 192-193.