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.


Adam Cortright said...

I didn't read the book-length thesis here, just wanted to let you guys know as we speak hundreds of UAW auto workers are signing up for the WSWS Autoworkers Newsletter and sending in emails of agreement. It has the potential to be a very positive development.



Linda zises said...

a great well written, thought out piece of informative and enjoyable material.

a movement without a face, is a sham. farcical though t might be. to use the great revolutionaries to create an empty pretense of a political party or agenda is a crime against those who read the thousands of articles put out by the
WSWS and a crime against the working class who hunger for articulation of what they know best.

Anonymous said...

Lysistrata said...

There seem to be hardly many things in our lives that are absolutely wrong, or even appear to be so. There is sometimes value in non-value, and the opposite is true, too. I have no special objections to clichés like that, although I know they may sound too commonsensical or superficial. In particular, I let them remind myself to be modest, to warn against possible self-righteousness, to put yourself in others' shoes, to understand others in their own perspectives, etc. If I am the truth itself, if you are wrong even before the discussion, if I continue to say the same things over and over again, regardless of your responses, if your replies don't give any opportunity for me to reflect on my previous position (including my strengths and weaknesses, big or small, as well), if I am not willing to take advantage of the controversy as a constructive field ― accepting and developing your good insights while guiding and correcting your stray ideas, WHY on earth do we bother to debate?
At first, I personally appreciated WSWS, for I never saw such a socialist website. It felt like a fresh breeze ― David Walsh on art and films was by far the most notable. As for David North, his impressive and eye-opening review on Robert Service was beyond all praise. If there were some or other failings of theirs, they might be minor, temporary, and not fundamental, I thought. By the way, I didn't in the least understand North's attitude toward Steiner/Brenner polemics. How can he be so far away from something of Enlightenment he'd espoused so intently? I couldn't forget those smear campaigns or distortions of his. But what made me indescribably perplexed among other things was that slightest signs of self-examination could be found in his articles or WSWS in general. Instead, only the "I am always right, you are invariably wrong" attitude. Especially, his more recent article on WSWS regarding "pseudo-lefts" left me disappointed once again, in that it seemed to me a blatant pronouncement of their infallibility and omniscience. Is this arrogance a socialist heritage worth preserving? What audience outside the sympathizers can this level of philosophical understanding of the Frankfurt School and Postmodernism draw? How can I figure out this? I can't help admitting that a tentative answer to these boils down to the word 'cult' given by Steiner.
Meanwhile, I would like to ask Steiner/Brenner for a couple of things. First, even though they deride you, I want you not to adapt a similar tone by any possibility, in case well-intentioned people gathering around WSWS will get unnecessarily bittered. I am concerned it would obscure more important issues. Next, your evaluation of Walsh doesn't seem to be sufficient enough. I look forward to more detailed and profound account on the subject of art or aesthetics. Third, may I bother you to post more articles deserving our attention or consideration?

Anonymous said...

Regarding Walsh, I wrote about his work back in 2009. The essay is called:

"Shallow moralizing instead of Marxism".

The postscript deals specifically with a big hole in his aesthetic theory, such as it is. Walsh also figures in another essay of mine called:

"On the vulgar critique of vulgar materialism".

I'd be happy to say more about Marxism and art and the theoretical problems of Walsh's standpoint, but not in this kind of comment. Use our contact form to send us an email address if you're genuinely interested.

Frank Brenner

Mark said...

Well done on the response to North. It must now seem like a thankless task, however it seems worthwhile both to clarify the record and hopefully provide some engagement of those interested in Marxist theory.

If the ICFI were just sectarian that would be one problem, Frank describes very well the problem of revolutionary politics, of bridging the gap between mass consciousness as exists and revolutionary consciousness. The problems of the ICFI are compounded by their inability to truthfully examine their own history, and to deal truthfully on questions of philosophy and revolutionary theory.

Not only can David North not faithfully reproduce the arguments presented here, but he goes out of his way to fabricate positions that you never held in the first place. Probably you are right that this is addressed to the WSWS faithful, others must find this tirade against the supposed "pseudo-left" to be a bizarre interjection in what is otherwise mostly a "news" oriented web site, even one with a leftward slant.

To people like Adam Cortright, all of this may seem irrelevant because the WSWS just signed up hundreds of workers for it's news letter. What happens when those workers seek actual guidance in their struggles? This subject was addressed in Marxism Without its Head or it Heart (MWHH Chapter 5, published on this site), they cite the case of a factory worker asking for help in dealing with the assault of the UAW bureaucracy and management the only to end up being told: "to study our history and program and consider seriously joining the fight to build our party as the mass political movement of the working class."

While the SEP does not seem to reject in principle the economic struggles of the working class, they do reject that they should have anything to with organizing or guiding them. Marx already knew in his time of interplay between the economic struggles and the political struggles of the working class. The same basic understanding I feel is embodied in Trotsky's transitional program, transitional demands serve as bridge between purely economic struggles and broader political struggles that unite the class. Today, the WSWS can only make a passing reference to the transitional program because in essence they reject it's contents.

Just to conclude, I'm glad this site exists as a place for development and propagation of Marxist theory. Even as Marxism seems to enjoy some popularity in the academic environment, this is mostly a Marxism with its sharp edges taken off, it rare to see Marxism not just as theory of the world but also a guide to practice. The article on how dialectics can be applied to the revolutionary situation in Greece was very illuminating. I think the article on Tsipras only deepened those insights, looking inside the party of Syriza to see it's internal contradictions (the conflict between the working class base and the party leadership).

Anonymous said...

In no way does the ICFI "kowtow" to Putin. They stress, very clearly, that his regime is based off of the looting of public property and nationalistic demagoguery. Over and over again they have said that no trust or support can be given to Putin.

Adam Cortright said...

The guidance the WSWS is providing UAW autoworkers is crucial and invaluable. Right now, UAW workers for Fiat Chrysler have been given highlights to a shoddy contract and not given sufficient time to review the entire contract, which the union bosses don't even give to its members. The WSWS has written numerous articles imploring the UAW workers to separate themselves from the UAW leaders who are corrupt beyond repair.

Here is what the WSWS has recently said in an article written last week:

"The WSWS urges workers to form rank-and-file committees independent of the UAW to organize opposition. The committees would work to establish lines of communication between plants, between Ford, FCA and GM workers, and between auto workers and other workers throughout the country and internationally.

"These committees should reject the efforts by the UAW to divide workers, pit them against each other, and blackmail or threaten them to push through a pro-company deal. Workers should insist on the right to study the contract and all relevant documents for several weeks before a vote, with meetings set up independently from the union to review and discuss the details of the agreement." --

The WSWS is physically based in Detroit, at the center of the auto industry, with many former Chrysler and other auto workers in the membership. They are in place to help lead this fight.

Thomas Cain said...


What has the SEP done besides write cautionary articles and hand out pamphlets? Given the SEP's anti-union line, I think you'll be at pains to substantiate your claim. You may be able to call those articles "guidance" within certain limits, but it is a far cry from an intervention on the picket line by a socialist party. Without intervention, it doesn't matter how well situated a socialist party is, because its own lack of material involvement in the struggle will doom it to obscurity.

This is not to mention if workers got wind of the SEP leadership's mistreatment of their critics--whether personal or political--they would either brush you off or demand better leadership. And in either case they would be entirely justified.

Adam Cortright said...

Thomas Cain,

The clarification of the union issue for workers is the defining struggle today for autoworkers. As Trotsky says, the chief political crisis is the crisis of the leadership of the proletariat, which today for auto workers falls to the UAW. Framing your question in terms of "is that all the WSWS does?" regarding writing articles clarifying these issues misses the mark. This work is crucial to convincing workers to former their own committees.

Beyond that, and beyond showing up, interviewing and reporting on the struggles of every strike that breaks out in the U.S. and internationally that they can get to, the Autoworkers Newsletter is a forum for UAW workers to plan their strategy against the treachery of the UAW bureaucracy. It isn't simply a passive e-newsletter, but a dynamic forum where workers from different unions can communicate with one another. This is of the utmost "material" importance.

We're going to have disagree about SEP leadership's mistreatment of critics, as what one sees as mistreatment another sees as defending principles. We can leave it to the workers to decide for themselves where they fall, and I am very confident they will side with the SEP.

Mark said...

I'm not sure what positive development could come out the SEP's intervention, so workers reject the contract, then what? I think its useful to point out that SEP's anti-unionism extends beyond just the existing (corrupt) unions, they are also against workers forming new unions.

It is also interesting to point out, that there is nothing new about this "new" position developed by the SEP, in the Transitional Program Trotsky takes aim at "those ultra-left doctrinaires who have been teaching that trade unions have “outlived their usefulness.”"

I could quote more from the Transitional Program, but this is something you might want to read on your own as this is the founding document of Fourth International, the organization that claims to ICFI claims to be the rightful decedent of.

Of course Marxism is not some kind of unchangeable doctrine, but it's worth considering what happens when you throw away a critical component of how Marxists understand the development of class struggle, what they are doing simply not Marxism anymore and certainly not Trotskyism.

Anonymous said...

This really is comical. Japan has just recently seen its biggest anti-war protests in 60 years. What would Alex Steiner/Frank Brenner say to workers and youth if they were in Tokyo?

Maybe something like: "Hey guys, cool it, don't you know it's 2015, not 1915? The use of military power to back up economic interests, while certainly still in play, is embarked upon with much greater reluctance today. The danger of war against China is not increasing. Please stop your sectarian crisis-mongering!"

Adam Cortright said...

So I posted a response to Thomas, and it didn't go through. Basically the gist of it was that the Newsletters are a forum for autoworkers to organize and strategize through the medium of the SEP. This is a direct intervention into this struggle and a most important one, as the SEP is the only party to my knowledge willing to point out the complete disintegration of the trade unions.

In reply to Mark,

The SEP is not against workers forming new unions. As I posted above, they are calling for workers to break from the union bureaucracy and to form their own rank and file committees with lines of communication with other shops in an effort to coordinate their defense against the UAW's isolation of the workers. This was also true of the steelworkers who went on strike earlier this year. The unions had a small portion of the workers go on strike, while keeping the majority at work, and refusing to link up their struggle with Longshoremen who were also on strike in California. (By the way, the SEP's stance in this regard is not a new one.)

With regard to the unions and their usefulness, the SEP's position is that the unions now function as an appendage of the corporations against whom they are supposed to be fighting. Whatever progressive role they may have played in 1940 when Trotsky wrote about the unions has long since vanished, going back to at least the PATCO firings of 1981. This is why the SEP calls for workers to form their own unions and committees separate from the bureaucracies which now just exist to enrich themselves. A review of the history of the unions since 1981 will bear out their record of treachery.

Thomas Cain said...


I don't think that my post necessarily implied that I was unfamiliar with the Transitional Program to such an extent that I would actually support the SEP if it decided to carry out an intervention. I was trying to directly challenge Adam's claim that the newsletters and pamphlets by themselves equate to revolutionary agitation. As of his last post, this is something he and I clearly disagree on, and it speaks worlds about the SEP's mechanical conception of class consciousness.

As for the SEP's position on worker-built unions, Adam would be hard-pressed, I think, to demonstrate that the SEP has actually agitated for anything of the sort since the Mack Avenue fire committee.

Mark said...

Thomas, my reply was directed toward Adam, I think a review of the Transitional Program helps to clarify Trotsky's approach to the unions as well as his general political approach, it also becomes clear the distance between Trotsky and groups like the SEP that mistakenly claim his legacy. Just reviewing it myself, I found it interesting that in 1938 there were already those who dismissed trade unions as having “outlived their usefulness.”, very much similar to North's position in 1998 (60 years later).

To Adam, the SEP's position on the unions originates in the lecture by David North: "Marxism and the Trade Unions" (1998). Although that article has been taken down by the WSWS (embarrassment perhaps?), you can find the same dismissal of trade unionism in recent articles[1]:

"While there may be attempts by workers, disgusted by the treachery of the official unions, to organize new ones, the next stage of development of the working class in the United States and throughout the world will be based not on the revival of trade unionism, but rather on the development of a political struggle against capitalist exploitation, social inequality and war. The initiation of new forms of working class resistance, including factory and workplace committees in opposition to the pro-capitalist unions, will be a critical component of this fight."

Also I think you misunderstand Trotsky's position on the unions, Trotsky did not base his position in the Transitional Program on whether particular unions had a progressive or reactionary role, he believed they could be either[2]:

"The trade unions of our time can either serve as secondary instruments of imperialist capitalism for the subordination and disciplining of workers and for obstructing the revolution, or, on the contrary, the trade unions can become the instruments of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat."

In discussing the trade unions in Britain, Trotsky acknowledges the reactionary role of the trade unions describing a situation much like that confronted by workers facing the UAW bureaucracy. Were Trotsky alive today I don't think he would find the slogan of "rank and file committees" all that compelling, as he wrote in The Trade Unions in Britain[2]:

"Under these conditions, the thought easily arises: Is it not possible to bypass the trade unions? Is it not possible to replace them by some sort of fresh, uncorrupted organisation of the type of revolutionary trade unions, shop committees, soviets, and the like? The fundamental mistake of such attempts lies in that they reduce to organisational experiments the great political problem of how to free the masses from the influence of the trade union bureaucracy. It is not enough to offer the masses a new address. It is necessary to seek out the masses where they are and to lead them."


Adam Cortright said...


Respectfully, I think things have changed sufficiently since 1940 to warrant the SEP's position on the trade unions. The predecessor of the SEP, the Workers League, took the stance prior to 1981 that they could agitate for revolutionary consciousness using the trade unions as a vehicle. Since at least the PATCO firings, the unions haven't just been used as reformist organizations designed to pacify workers as they did in Trotsky's time, but rather they have become an actual agency of the corporations themselves, strategizing with the companies to keep the workers from advancing--in fact, the bureaucracy's chief job is to strip away their members' advances made during Trotsky's era while simultaneously sucking them of whatever dues they are able to pay to enrich themselves. That's what, I believe, North was trying to point out with 'Marxism and the Trade Unions' and in subsequent articles by other writers of the WSWS. I think if Trotsky were alive today, he would be appalled at what the unions have morphed into. There was nothing like the DECLINE of wages, benefits and conditions since the late 1970s that occurred in the 1930s--the opposite is the case. While Trotsky was correct that the trade unions could have a progressive, revolutionary role, to the extent that they were influenced by Marxists within the unions, that possibility is simply no longer there. The union bureaucrats are nothing more than junior partners with the very businesses they are supposed to be fighting, and are hostile to any socialist influence. They have called the cops and in a few instances even attempted top physically abuse members of the SEP for handing out pamphlets to union members as they arrived for work.

I think you would find it difficult to disagree with the transformation of the unions in the past forty years and the effect this has had on its members (or what remains of them). It seems the disagreement arises over whether they can be transformed back into what they once were. I think forming the rank-and-file committees is the way to go because workers now have two fights on their hands--against the corporations and the union bosses who represent them.

Mark said...

Adam, I'm not convinced that you read or comprehended anything I posted. You want to be blithely ignorant when comes to the polemic posted here (again, why even comment?), on top of that you do don't seem at all interested in what Trotsky wrote. Read the article on the trade unions in Britain, Trotsky is dealing precisely with the question of how Marxists should approach degenerated trade unions. In other words the situation confronted by UAW workers is not an entirely new situation not encountered in Trotsky's life time, even though it may differ in degree. Trotsky's approach was not the same as North's approach, to dismiss the trade union form as organically reactionary no matter who leads it, if you want a more in depth analysis of North's pseudo-philosophical reasoning read Chapter 5 of Marxism Without its Head or its Heart (MWHH) posted on this site.

Also I'm not suggesting that somehow the UAW somehow be transformed into a revolutionary union. What Trotsky is saying is that a slogan like "rank and file committees" is insufficient, that workers need a some compelling political alternative to the union bureaucracy, not simply a new address ("rank and file committees"). I think MWHH makes the point that well that even if workers established their own "rank and file committees" those organizations would still default to a bourgeois form of consciousness without having revolutionary leadership, leadership that the SEP is simply unwilling to provide. Trotsky formulated a set of transitional demands to serve as bridge between day to day economic demands (minimal or partial demands) and revolutionary demands, to formulate such demands you need to study the situation confronted by workers, you may even need to propose new unions such that workers are not divided on national lines. This is work that the ICFI has completely renounced and in part why I don't consider them a Trotskyist organisation.

Adam Cortright said...


The specific form of the trade unions are being used to isolate workers from each other, not only internationally but even within their own countries (as I described above with the steel unions). The rank and file committees would bypass this restriction in an effort to unify the working class across workplaces, trades and borders.

"I think MWHH makes the point that well that even if workers established their own 'rank and file committees' those organizations would still default to a bourgeois form of consciousness without having revolutionary leadership, leadership that the SEP is simply unwilling to provide."

This is what you say, but the leadership the SEP is providing as we speak is already effecting hundreds of auto workers. To quote you, I'm not sure you read or comprehended anything I've said thus far in this discussion. Please watch the following video made by the SEP,

The demands called for, which the UAW is hostile to, include

• Abolish 2 tier system
• Win a 30 percent pay increase with full cost of living
• Restore overtime pay
• End plant closings and layoffs

This would be the first, transitional step in fighting for the working class in this particular struggle. Note that many of these demands are simply restorations of things workers won decades ago, but have since been stripped away by the active participation of the trade union bosses.

Anonymous said...


You have to remember that history is not stagnant and that things change. The state of the unions when Trotsky wrote the Transitional Program is very different from today. Back then they were agents of reformism and were lead in large part by socialists; a far cry from today's bureaucratic leadership. By just spouting off quotes without understanding the historical perspective you strip it of all its meaning.

Anonymous said...

I disliked this long article. The writing style is like a wrestling match. There is too much taunting and jeering. Just write the facts, please.

Anonymous said...

FYI: Adam Haig is a university instructor. His wife had a life-threatening accident. That is why he does not write anymore.

Mark said...

If Trotsky agreed with North, that the trade unions have "outlived their usefulness", then he would have had plenty of opportunity to expound upon that theme in the article The Trade Unions in Britain (1933), dealing with the subject of degenerated trade union, or in the many other articles dealing with trade unionism. In 1940 he wrote:

"The trade unions of our time can either serve as secondary instruments of imperialist capitalism for the subordination and disciplining of workers and for obstructing the revolution, or, on the contrary, the trade unions can become the instruments of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat."

The phrase "secondary instruments of imperialist capitalism for the subordination and disciplining of workers and for obstructing the revolution" is an apt description for the UAW, yet that didn't cause Trotsky to dismiss the trade union as a form in which workers can organize their struggle against capital, in the same sentence he writes "on the contrary, the trade unions can become the instruments of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat."

To the SEP, trade unions as "instruments of the revolutionary movement of the proletariat" is inconceivable, instead they are throwing out the collective knowledge and wisdom of Marxism and Trotskyism, substituting "organizational experiments" (i.e. "rank and file committees") for the "great political problem of how to free the masses from the influence of the trade union bureaucracy."

Adam Cortright said...


I would argue that “secondary instruments of imperialist capitalism for the subordination and disciplining of workers and for obstructing the revolution” is in fact not an accurate—or at least not a complete—description of today’s trade unions. As I said, these unions are actively working to reduce the standard of living of their members, not increase it as unions once did. It’s true trade unions have always blocked revolution, but they did so on the basis of increasing the memberships’ share of the national income, playing an ameliorative role. Today, the UAW for example, is creating second and third tiers of workers, and once the first tier retires, these other tiers will take their place with no corresponding rise in wages. It’s a race to the bottom, in an effort to make union labor more “competitive” against China, India, etc., rather than linking up in common struggle with these workers.

Consider Trotsky’s own words on the subject, from ‘Not a Workers’ and Not a Bourgeois State?’ (

“The character of a workers’ organization such as a trade union is determined by its relation to the distribution of national income. The fact that Green and Company defend private property in the means of production characterizes them as bourgeois. Should these gentlemen in addition defend the income of the bourgeoisie from attacks on the part of the workers; should they conduct a struggle against strikes, against the raising of wages, against help to the unemployed; then we would have an organization of scabs, and not a trade union. However, Green and Company, in order not to lose their base, must within certain limits lead the struggle of the workers for an increase – or at least against a diminution – of their share of the national income. This objective symptom is sufficient in all important cases to permit us to draw a line of demarcation between the most reactionary trade union and an organization of scabs. “

This analysis is entirely in line with the SEP's correct position today on the unions.

Mark said...

First of all Adam, you lump all trade unions together, municipal trade unions or state trade unions (the majority of unions in existence) are not in the same position as trade unions attached to multi-national corporations (the UAW). The later can simply shift production to other areas of the world as a pressure point for wages in first world, to the extent trade unions are not organized internationally. Secondly, if we are to believe that "rank and file committees" are some alternative to this situation, then it must be said that the approach (demands) of the SEP are still a nationalist approach, dealing with the economic conditions in US to the exclusion of other parts of the world. In the age globalization, national demands do nothing to prevent corporations from moving production elsewhere which will just continue to put a downward pressure on wages, in other words nationalistic "rank and file committees" have the same problem as nationalistic unions, just without the bloated bureaucratic structure.

Finally, both of you seem to be out to prove that Trotsky supports North's conceptions of trade unions, that they are organically reactionary. This is simply not the case, in article you cite Trotsky writes:

"The programmatic definition of a union would sound approximately like this: an organization of workers of a trade or industry with the objective of (1) struggling against capitalism for the amelioration of the workers, (2) participating in the revolutionary struggle for the overthrow of the bourgeoisie, (3) participating in the organization of economy on a socialist basis. If we compared this “normative” definition with the actual reality, we should find ourselves constrained to say: there does not exist a single trade union in the world today. But such a counterposing of norm to fact, that is to say, of the generalized expression of the development to the particular manifestation of this same development – such a formal, ultimatistic, nondialectical counterposing of program to reality is absolutely lifeless and does not open any road for the intervention of the revolutionary party. In the meantime the existing opportunistic unions, under the pressure of capitalist disintegration, can – and given correct policies on our part in the unions must – approach our programmatic norms and play a progressive historical role. This, of course, presupposes a complete change of leadership."

In short, Trotsky maintains that trade unions can have a progressive role given the proper revolutionary leadership.

Adam Cortright said...


Again, Trotsky has identified what a trade union is an what a trade union is not in that article. In the quote I provided, he outlines the characteristics of a scab organization compared to a union. The SEP’s arguments are that since at least the PATCO firings (perhaps earlier), the latter have morphed into the former. I’d be pleased if you could cite any major trade union of any stripe that is not hostile to strikes or does not take as its starting point the assertion that the profits of the company take a back seat to workers’ wages and benefits. Citing municipal unions is no way out of the problem. Witness the Chicago Teachers Strike of 2012, or the recent Seattle teachers strike this month.

Trotsky’s point in the quote you cited is meant to remind the revolutionary party that the lack of the element of socialist consciousness of the trade unions is not an excuse to avoid working with them. To the extent that workers’ immediate demands can be fought for within the bourgeois trade unions is the extent to which workers consciousness can expand as it becomes clear that with each new gain, workers’ conditions are still only marginally improving. This is the arena under which a socialist consciousness and leadership can develop.

The same cannot be said, as Trotsky indicates, with a scab organization. As Trotsky says, “This objective symptom is sufficient in all important cases to permit us to draw a line of demarcation between the most reactionary trade union and an organization of scabs.” The building of rank and file committees may at first put forth demands of a nationalist character, but that is not the end of the story. The key element of opening lines of communication between not only other unions in different trades within the country, but also with workers in other countries, is the element by which workers consciousness can begin to grow, as it becomes clear that workers’ demands will require the participation of the widest possible unity of the working class internationally to be successful. This is entirely in line with the Transitional Programs intent. After all, the unions as they exist now use the tactic of isolating workers (even from other members of their own union in different plants) to ensure their capitulation to company demands.

Anonymous said...

I want to endorse Mark's views in this discussion and add a further point. We are told by the SEP supporters that Trotsky's position on the unions is out of date. Ditto for Trotsky's position on the Ukraine, as Alex explained in his response to North. Ditto for Trotsky's support for the right of nations to self-determination. Ditto for the Transitional Program, as I showed in relation to Greece.

Of course Trotskyism is not a dogma, and socialists are free to critique and even reject whatever ideas they believe are no longer relevant to the struggle against capitalism. But at a certain point one has a right to ask: if on so many important political issues Trotsky's ideas are found to be out of date, why continue to call oneself a Trotskyist?

Marxists, more than anyone, should be leery of 'out of date' arguments. Haven't we been constantly told by the political mainstream that Marx is out of date? Trotsky was a great political thinker, arguably the greatest of the last century. Maybe we should be a bit more hesitant before dispensing with his ideas. Maybe it will turn out that his ideas on matters like the unions etc., rather than being out of date are more relevant than ever, just as Marx's are.

I think the problem for a party like the SEP is that Trotsky was unremittingly hostile to sectarianism, and that is an inconvenient truth the SEP would prefer to ignore.


roosemittane said...

So, the gist of your argument is basically that the WSWS and ICFI are hopelessly sectarian and are unable to break out their political isolation. This, therefore, necessitates the creation of a blog that warns workers about this dangerous political party which would someone corrupt them its state of hopeless isolation.

One can only conclude then that your definition of sectarianism coincides with that which has been typically been understand by opportunism and not by the Marxist movement, i.e. Sectarianism consists of not providing support to what Pablo once called "the movement as it actually exists". Today, that would mean that trade unions, the pettit bourgeois parties such as Podemos, Syriza and Socialist Alliance.

While I don't expect that you're politically honest enough to admit it, implicit in all of your arguments is the notion that the working class is a spent political force and one has to search for alternatives within the middle class. You do not, as you claim, look for gaps in news coverage in this or that world event, as your focus is exclusively on the "promising" developments related to the taking of state power by the pettit bourgeoisie, Maidan movement, Syriza, etc...

What do you have to say about the UAW, what do you have to say about police killings or NSA spying? You have absolutely nothing to say about these issues that directly affect the working class, but you're more than willing to post Savas Matsas' latest confused ramblings and on multiple occasions at that.

To be quite frank, to receive the criticism you did at the hands of ICFI in 2006-2007 was doubtless a very humbling experience. You had three options, 1). take heed and begin once again oriented yourself towards Trotskyism as you once did in your politically best days, 2). withdraw from the controversy or 3). become a committed enemy of the Trotskyist movement and the revolutionary aspirations of the working class. It is a shame that you've chosen the latter course.

Your writings are doubtless meant to sow confusion among those attracted to genuine Trotskyism and to your everlasting shame, you will probably achieve some success in this. However, the truth will out, as the saying goes, and thousands will be attracted to the party and will march on the revolutionary road despite your efforts to the contrary.

Thomas Cain said...


You didn't say otherwise before, so I'm waiting to hear why journalism and pamphleteering, taken by themselves, equates to revolutionary agitation. I find it to be very legalistic and self-defeating.

reese mittane said...

To Thomas Cain,

What in your mind that is a superior form of political activity aside from cutting a road to the consciousness of the working class which you derisively call "journalism and pamphleteering"?

For you, I would expect that legitimate political activity consists of ingratiating oneself with the trade union bureaucracy and bourgeois parliamentarism.

This is a significant issue and cuts to the core of all the arguments here. Essentially it is a question of elevating of the consciousness of the working class and preparing them for the tasks ahead through the most precise scientific analysis of developments or conversely, of adapting to the backwardness of the workers, or more accurately, what one perceives to be the backwardness of the workers.

The immense hostility towards the ICFI and WSWS on this blog and among the ex-left more generally is precisely due to the fact that the IC has adopted the first of the two strategies.

This is precisely why Mr. Steiner criticizes the IC for "sticking to principles" as if there's something expeditious in abandoning them. The stench of postmodernism abounds.

Mark said...

In the later quote Trotsky makes clear the problem of having a formalistic conception of what is a union and what is not, Trotsky writes:

"If we compared this “normative” definition with the actual reality, we should find ourselves constrained to say: there does not exist a single trade union in the world today. But such a counterposing of norm to fact, that is to say, of the generalized expression of the development to the particular manifestation of this same development – such a formal, ultimatistic, nondialectical counterposing of program to reality is absolutely lifeless and does not open any road for the intervention of the revolutionary party. "

Also, in writing off all unions as unions we have a similar problem to the state capitalist conception of the Soviet Union. The union still collects dues, it has amassed huge resources, a strike fund, and now has even on take things like a health insurance fund, those things legitimately belong to the workers collectively, not to the companies or the state. If it came to point that workers were prepared politically to establish their own councils or independent organs or even unions those would be critical resources in waging a struggle against the corporations or the state.

The problem of the ICFI/WSWS in their approach to demands is that they alternate calling for partial or minimal demands on one day and full scale revolution on the next day, there exists no bridge between the minimal and maximal programs, something like what the Transitional Program was meant to address. Also, it must be said that the partial demands made this context of somewhat worse than being nationalistic, since they address the contract of the US division of a particular multi-national company, these demands are not something that can politically unite workers (union and non-union) in a broad struggle nationally much less internationally. The fact they hide those demands away in a video on facebook of all places, seems to indicate that even they don't take their intervention seriously.

Adam Cortright said...

The UAW workers seem to be on the right track. The latest sell-out contract is toast, and the union bosses are blaming outside agitators like the WSWS/Autoworkers Newsletter. As far as I can tell, the SEP is the only such socialist party prioritizing this important struggle. And the workers seem ready to fight.

Thomas Cain said...


I am not sufficiently advanced in my knowledge of the class struggle to say what a "superior" form of activity would look like. That is one reason why I am posing this question to Adam. Another reason is that his correspondence between myself and Mark has been less than satisfying. The limits of the SEP's approach to the trade union question have been brought up, but Adam consistently sidesteps these criticisms to repeat the SEP's political line; it substantiates Steiner/Brenner's original claim of the abstentionist turn the SEP has taken over years, and bearing this in mind I think it's fair to claim Adam's evasive behavior here indicates that he is arguing in bad faith.

On a somewhat related note, asking about political strategies and how they relate to the building of class consciousness is the least postmodern thing a leftist can do. Your familiarity with philosophy does not seem to go past a reading of one of David North's diatribes on the Frankfurt School. Finally, you did not read my post very closely. In my original post, I specifically had a problem with how legalistic Adam's approach was. So why would it then follow that I am an advocate of bureaucracy? Like Adam, you are also arguing in bad faith and I encourage you to stop.

Alex Steiner said...

I am closing further comments on this polemic as it seems this discussion has reached a terminus. At this point the North supporters are just repeating themselves. I cannot really improve on the contributions of Mark and Thomas as I think they summed up the problems of the SEP’s supporters nicely. But I would like to make a few observations about the overall nature of the comments we have received.

First I want to reply to ‘anonymous’ who wrote,
“I disliked this long article. The writing style is like a wrestling match. There is too much taunting and jeering. Just write the facts, please.”
All I can say to that is that you obviously have never read any of Lenin’s polemics. The word “polemic” is derived from the Greek ‘polemikos’ which means war-like. Polemics have a long tradition going back to Ancient Greece and Rome. Marxist polemics in particular can be quite contentious. Of course a good polemic should be grounded in sound reasoning and facts. When those are absent a polemic descends into nothing more than invective. (Mr. Mittane's comments are a good example of empty invective.) But we need to remember also that the purpose of a polemic is not to score points in a dispassionate debate but to convince people that you are correct and your opponent is wrong. And you can’t convince anyone unless they first read what you have written. That means you have to draw people in to read your material. Good polemics are thus a form of art as well as science. I will leave it to others to decide if we have succeeded in that.

Now an observation about the comments we received from North’s supporters.
What I found interesting about these is not what they wrote but what they chose to ignore:

Does our exposure of North being a liar and an intellectual fraud not warrant a comment? Nothing to say about his account of the Frankfurt School or postmodernism? Yes I know North’s acolytes live and die by what he says but did they bother to read our response? (Adam even admits he didn’t read any of this material.)

Is Frank Brenner an opponent of the truth and on the side or reaction because he says, paraphrasing Trotsky, that it is not sufficient to tell the truth to the working class? Does this not warrant a comment?

We raised quite a number of other issues in our relatively short polemic. We raised questions about the SEP’s lack of any coherent approach to the nature of Russia and China, their crisis mongering, their indifference to anything Trotsky wrote about the Ukraine, etc. I could go on but it is pointless. The North supporters ignore 99% of what we have written and want to center their discussion on a minor SEP venture among auto workers. It’s as good an example as I can come up with of crude pragmatism at work. They are the spawn of North’s theoretical and moral degeneration over the past two decades. He should be proud of himself.

In closing I want to thank those who posted some of the more thoughtful comments. I am particularly pleased with the positive reaction the printed version of this polemic has gotten. It indicates that there is indeed an audience for Marxism.

Alex Steiner, October 3,2015

Anonymous said...

Alex and Frank,

Thank you so much for writing your incredibly detailed responses to North, and by proxy, the ICFI,the SEP, and the WSWS. PLEASE continue your criticism of the lot of them. I have become quite disillusioned with their politics and your writing has been incredibly helpful. I am indebted to yall.


Alex Steiner said...


We would like to hear from you directly. Please use the contact form on the website to correspond with us directly or email us by clicking permanent-revolution


Anonymous said...

WSWS saying it publishes some 5000 articles etc. etc. All the facts in this articles are repetitions of news items from capitalist press. Of course at the end of each article WSWS says the solution to all problems lies in world revolution and appeals the workers to join SEP.

solerso said...

"I suppose this phenomenon gives new meaning to Marx’s famous book title, “The Poverty of Philosophy”.

Or affirms the usage of "poverty" Marx himself, mainly intended.

Unknown said...

"Does our exposure of North being a liar and an intellectual fraud not warrant a comment?"

This is a question that will not tolerate any deviation from its assertion. It's like saying

"Does the fact that we are absolutely right and North absolutely wrong not warrant a comment?

And the only allowable response is

"Yes - you're absolutely right and North is absolutely wrong."