Thursday, May 5, 2016

Response to David North's attack on 'Greece at the Crossroads'

EEK at rally for a NO vote in referendum

by Alex Steiner 

On April 19 the World Socialist Web Site published another attack on us, in fact the second in a week. This one was penned by the leader of the organization, David North. Titled ‘A Comment on Demoralized Opportunists[1], it was North’s reaction to a panel discussion we organized on the occasion of the official launch of our book, ‘OXI: Greece at the Crossroads’.[2] 

Before commenting on the substance of this piece, a word about its style. North's idea of a polemic is to combine  deliberate misrepresentations of the positions taken by his political opponents with character assassination. I will get to the misrepresentations shortly, but first a few examples of North’s ascribing of motives and character flaws to his opponents.  The title of his piece asserts that we are “Demoralized Opportunists”!  He starts his piece by referring to our web site as “Anti-Trotskyist”.  Also according to North, we “share a hatred of the International Committee.”  He says of Savas Michael-Matsas, the leader of the Greek EEK and one of the speakers (via Skype) at our panel discussion, that he “…lapped up this political nonsense, not only out of stupidity, but also … opportunism.”  North’s document is peppered with such name-calling which passes for political commentary.

Our “irrationalism” and “hatred” of the International Committee is a recurring theme of WSWS commentary about us.[3] The underlying implication is that it isn't possible to criticize the theory and practice of North and his followers unless one is literally crazy! This is not how Marxists deal with criticism but it is typical of how cults operate.

A further point: the journalistic standards of North’s piece can be gauged by the fact that in an article full of quotes that he takes out of context, there is not a single reference (to say nothing of a link) to the original source!

Let us move on to North’s misrepresentations.

1.           North claims that we supported Syriza  and failed to warn the working class of their inevitable betrayal. This is a complete fabrication.  The record clearly bears this out.  Our first post about the election of Syriza was published a few days BEFORE the election on Jan 25, 2015.  It consisted in the publication of the election statement of the EEK and included a long introduction written by us.    The EEK statement, coming out of an emergency conference a month before the election stated that,

“Whoever gets elected, the only choice is the continuation of the class struggle up to the victory of the working class and all oppressed. If, as is likely, the crumbling Right is overthrown, there should be neither a day nor an hour of respite, a negligent marking of time, or any “grace period” granted to the new government. The power of the people must immediately be exercised with all forms of mobilization and self-organization of its forces in neighborhoods, public spaces, places of work and study. If the cause of our liberation from suffering is left in the hands of the “negotiators”, the local and international Reaction lurking and preparing its revenge will win. Victory is a strategic question, to organize the struggle for power from the part of the oppressed and downtrodden, unemployed and those with precarious jobs, the poor and the newly poor of the memoranda whirlwind.” [4]

Our introductory statement published on Jan 22 makes the same point. North quotes part of our statement from our introduction but he deliberately distorts its meaning by failing to quote the following section from our piece:

“As the EEK statement points out, SYRIZA will not be able to meet the expectations of those who will be voting for it.  We believe that the EEK’s approach,  seeking to join in a common struggle with the masses who see in SYRIZA  an alternative to the austerity measures of successive Center Left and Center Right governments, while patiently explaining the limitations of SYRIZA, is fundamentally right.  EEK’s decision to field its own candidates independent of those groups on the left who have made common cause with nationalists of the Left and the Right is also welcome.”

I can quote similar statements from all our articles “during those crucial six months.”

2.   About our meeting, North says,
“Having for months extolled the “experience” of Syriza, they now bemoan “the demoralization” caused by its policies.”

This is again a complete fabrication of what we said, as the transcript of our meeting shows. For the most part, both Savas and I presented a summary of what we had written during “those crucial six months” that, according to North, we used to extol the virtues of Syriza.  In my remarks which I summarized in the article we posted, I quoted extensively from one of the essays I wrote early on in the tenure of the Syriza government,  Plan C: The Socialist Alternative for Greece. [5]    In that essay I conducted a kind of thought experiment and tried to think through what kind of actions would be undertaken by a government that was truly committed to ending austerity. I explained that the genuine alternative to austerity was the transition to socialism and I made it quite clear that Syriza could never be the vehicle for this transformation.  A single quote from that essay should be sufficient to illustrate the point,

“… one has to acknowledge that any such program [for socialism] cannot under any circumstances be implemented by Syriza, not only because Syriza is wedded to a program of reforms within capitalism despite its rhetoric, but also because by its nature the transition to socialism cannot be entrusted solely to the vehicle of parliamentary politics.  It will require action from the ground up, by the masses taking their destiny into their own hands and creating their own forms of organization.   It is also inconceivable that such actions can succeed without a trained revolutionary leadership.”

This was written in March 2015, in those “crucial six months” during which North claims we were going around singing the praises of Syriza and thereby contributing to the demoralization of the Greek working class.

3.   North’s writes that we, “… also published a lengthy denunciation of the ICFI’s appraisal of the Syriza government, written by a Greek opportunist.”

By deliberately excluding our explanation for publishing the comments of the person North calls “ a Greek opportunist”, North is suggesting that we agree with the politics of the person we quoted.  North thereby distorts our position.   Prior to quoting  him, we wrote the following introduction to his comments,

“An excellent counter to the arrogance and stupidity of the sectarian groups was made by one of the people who commented on the article we quoted.  We think it is appropriate to reproduce his comment in full even though we do not agree with everything he writes. Nevertheless, he is correct on the main point, the sectarians are clueless when it comes to the historical experience of the Greek working class and the significance of this election.”

In other words, we made it quite clear that we did not endorse the politics he was articulating but we also thought he made an incisive observation about the role of sectarian groups such as North’s toward the Greek election.

As to North’s characterization of this person as a “Greek opportunist”, perhaps North should have read my talk on The Dialectics of Revolutionary Strategy and Tactics if he could overcome his antipathy to dialectics for a brief moment. There I made the point,

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

We must see opportunism therefore not as a fixed category but in motion.  The opportunism of the careerists and bureaucrats is an opportunism that always tries to hold back the movement of the masses when it attempts to break through the status quo.  The opportunism that we find in the masses coming into struggle, while perhaps looking like the same thing, is entirely different.  It is the opportunism of ideas that are struggling to break out of the straitjacket of bourgeois ideology which they have inherited.  It is possible to overcome this kind of opportunism.”  [6]
  

What struck me about the person whom we quoted was that this was precisely the kind of person who probably voted for Syriza in the election expressing both the determination of the working class to fight against austerity and certain illusions in Syriza and parliamentary politics. I do not know the identity of the person we quoted, but he did not sound at all like a professional bureaucrat but was probably a worker or student who was active in the movement that brought Syriza to power.  And that is exactly the kind of person the revolutionary movement must win to its banner if it is ever to hope to be anything more than a Cassandra, isolated from the masses, prophesying doom and destruction.  I think it is telling that all North sees in those remarks is a “Greek opportunist” in no way distinguishable from the careerists and bureaucrats who have misled the working class.  It says everything you need to know about the contemptuous attitude North and the group he represents has toward the working class and clarifies why after 30 years since the split with Healy they have built nothing in Greece or anywhere else.

4.   North writes,
In its defense of Tsipras’ government, Steiner and Brenner went so far as to object to the WSWS characterization of Syriza as a bourgeois party. 

There are two fabrications contained in this brief statement. The first is that we defended the Tsipras government.   We already responded to that allegation. The second distortion is that we objected to the characterization of Syriza as a bourgeois party. To make his case North rips a quote from one of our essays out of context.  What we actually objected to is the conceit of sectarians like North who think that calling Syrza a bourgeois party provides a sufficient understanding of the actual dynamics of this formation. 

(I may point out that twisting the truth by claiming we completely reject a definition of a historical event because we point to its inadequacy seems to be a recurring trope of North’s polemical style. He committed the same fallacy to an even more absurd level when he accused Frank Brenner of being opposed to “Truth” with a capital ‘T’  because Brenner, paraphrasing Trotsky, said that it is not sufficient to tell workers the truth, you must also convince them.  For the full argument, see our polemic against North, Crackpot Philosophy and Double-Speak. [7])

Here is what we wrote, including the portion quoted by North,

“Marxists use a category like “bourgeois party” to understand political reality more deeply, but in the hands of a sectarian such a category becomes devoid of content, and little more than a form of name-calling. Thus we are told by the WSWS that in “its origin, social composition and politics, Syriza is a bourgeois party” comparable to Barack Obama and the Democrats. In fact, the core of Syriza comes from the Eurocommunists who split from the pro-Soviet wing of the Communist Party in the late 1980s. Stalinist parties are not revolutionary parties, but Trotskyists have never simply labeled them bourgeois because this distorts their origin and the specific nature of their relationship to the working class.

Syriza eventually evolved into an umbrella organization for 13 groups, including social democrats, Maoists, Trotskyists, left ecologists and liberals. Again this is not a revolutionary party but neither is it a conventional bourgeois party: to that extent at least, the featuring of Radical Left in its name is not false advertising. And that matters because millions of voters came to identify their aspirations with Syriza precisely because they saw it as a radical departure from the mainstream. Nor are those aspirations just for vague promises of hope and change a la Obama: they are very clearly for an end to austerity.

Such distinctions are important for revolutionary Marxists but not for sectarians. “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).

Another way of saying this is that sectarians have a kitchen-sink approach to politics. A good example is the constantly used epithet “pseudo-left” on the WSWS. If you unpack this phrase, what it means is that everyone else on the left isn't left at all, they're all just “pseudo-left”. This includes any and all parties calling themselves Marxist or Trotskyist or revolutionary socialist. The only truly left party on the planet is the SEP. Everyone else belongs in the sink of “pseudo-leftism”. Here the rhetoric gets so far removed from reality as to become delusional.” [8]

North only quotes the first sentence of this section and drops the rest.   It is taken out of an essay by Frank Brenner, Experience in Scare Quotes: Sectarianism and the Greek Election. [9]  Not only does North distort what we are saying by ripping this quote out of its context, he does not even bother to provide a reference to the original article.

5.   North writes that, 
“Like Steiner and Brenner, Michael painted the Syriza regime in bright colors in 2015 and denounced the ICFI’s warnings.”

If we go back to the EEK’s election statement written prior to Syriza’s victory in the election of Jan 25 2015, parts of which we have previously quoted, it should be clear that North’s claim that Savas “painted the Syriza regime in bright colors” is a complete fabrication.    As to Savas having “denounced the ICFI’s warnings”, I can’t find any reference at all to the ICFI in any of Savas’s essays or the EEK’s statements from this period.  This is just North trying to make himself look important. I doubt that Savas gave the ICFI a passing thought.

6.   North writes

“According to the report, Michael “likened that betrayal to the historical betrayal of the Greek partisans in 1944 by the agreement drawn up by Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt and the later even worse betrayal by the Greek Stalinists when they forced the fighters in the civil war to surrender their arms to the British in 1945.

It does not diminish the treachery of Syriza to avoid historically inaccurate comparisons.”

North is here quoting from my summary of Savas’s remarks to conclude that Savas is making “a historically inaccurate comparison”, in this case comparing the betrayal of the NO vote in the referendum by Tsipras to the betrayal of the Greek partisans by the Stalinists in 1945.  But North did not bother to listen to what Savas actually said.  In addition to my relatively brief summary of Savas's remarks, which could not possibly include the nuances included in a talk that lasted almost an hour, we provided a link to an audio clip of Savas full remarks.  North never bothered to listen to what Savas said before firing off his denunciation. Had he done so, he would have heard Savas qualify his statement in comparing the betrayal of 2015 with the betrayal of 1945.  Savas makes it clear that the scope and consequences of the betrayal of 1945 were very different than that of 2015.  At 22 minutes into his talk you can hear Savas say,

“The Varkiza agreement [of 1945] was a betrayal, at the same time, but not on the same scale [my emphasis], we had a betrayal in 2015 in Greece.”

Savas also noted that while the betrayals of 1944 and 1945 “crushed the Left” the betrayal of 2015 failed to break the working class. It was betrayed but not defeated.  Thus when North writes,

“…he now compares the post-referendum situation to the catastrophic events of the Greek civil war, which cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of workers. This is a wild exaggeration, and does nothing to clarify the present political situation.”

this is a case of knocking down a straw man, since this isn't Savas's position at all.

7.   North writes,
“In fact, Michael does not take his own exaggerations seriously. Having compared the betrayal of July 2015 to the destruction of the Greek workers’ movement in the 1940s, Michael—according to the report on the Steiner-Brenner blog site—“noted that while the working class had been betrayed, they have not been defeated.”

This is sophistry of the worst sort. The working class, he claims, has suffered a monumental “betrayal”—which Michael compares to the disasters of the 1940s—but it has not suffered a “defeat.””

The only sophistry here is North’s because he didn't bother to listen to Savas’s remarks.  As to Savas's characterization of the actions of the Tsipras government following the referendum of the July 5, I see no inconsistency in calling it a betrayal but not a defeat.  Savas’s comparison of the two events was meant to show the degree to which the trust of the masses in their leadership was misplaced.  But the consequences of these betrayals were very different, a point emphasized by Savas.  The betrayal of 1945 resulted in the physical and political disarming of the partisans who suffered a devastating defeat for at least a generation.  The consequences of the betrayal of 2015 were a state of confusion and anger, and yes, for a time, a  certain demoralization set in. But as Savas pointed out in his talk, once the impact of the Third Memorandum agreement began to be felt following the re-election of the Syriza government in September, the working class showed by their actions that it had not been defeated.  Resistance to the austerity measures continues to grow.

8.   North writes,
“Those who are familiar with Savas Michael’s political history will recognize the source of his cynical distinction between “betrayal” and “defeat.” He learned this opportunist word play from Gerry Healy, who, in the period of his return to Pabloism, spoke of the “undefeated nature of the working class” in order to downplay the political significance and impact of every setback suffered by the working class. Savas Michael lapped up this political nonsense, not only out of stupidity, but also because it enabled him to evade political responsibility for the consequences of his own opportunism.”

North’s attack on Savas is a good example of what he elsewhere calls an “inaccurate historical comparison”. It is true that Healy took the position that the fighting capacity of the working class remained intact after they suffered a real and bitter defeat.  This was particularly evident in the aftermath of the British miners strike of 1984-5.  Healy had invested much political capital in extolling the strength and fighting capacity of the miners union with whose leadership he had developed an opportunist relationship.  When that strike was defeated after a bitter year-long struggle, it did indeed cement the hold of Thatcherite neo-liberalism. But Healy refused to recognize this change in the political balance of forces and continued to maintain that the miners, and the British working class as a whole, had not been defeated and their fighting capacity was intact, even though the opposite was evident to any informed observer.

But what does this have to do with Savas's statement that the Greek working class has been betrayed but not defeated?  Is North claiming that the aftermath of the British miners strike is the same as the aftermath of Tsipras’s betrayal of the referendum of 2015?  Can we just apply the same formula of the UK in 1985 to the very different circumstances of Greece in 2015 without doing any investigation of the concrete circumstances of each historical event?  An historical analysis of class relations in Greece in the post-referendum period is required here, not just the repetition of formulas.  North's remarks give no evidence of any such assessment. On balance I agree with Savas that the Greek working class, though shamefully betrayed by Tsipras and though temporarily shocked by this betrayal, remains undefeated and is showing that it is able and willing to fight back.

Rushing to label an experience of the working class a defeat can be just as misguided as ignoring a defeat when it happens. Sectarians have a strong predilection for doing the former. As soon as  Tsipras's government caved in to the EU after the referendum, North's website was calling this “a serious defeat,” not just a betrayal, and for good measure insisted that this “defeat” was “a major strategic experience of the international working class.” For a sectarian, defeats (real or imagined) are always “major strategic” experiences because they provide the sectarian with an 'I told you so' moment. But when it comes to the STRUGGLES of the masses in resisting austerity, particularly their heroic defiance of EU blackmail in the referendum, the sectarian has nothing but “contempt” when reacting to such experiences.

9.   North writes,
"In more personal terms, as long as no harm comes to Michael, the betrayals of the working class do not amount to a “defeat.” A mere betrayal means that living standards of the working class plummet. A defeat occurs only when it might become impossible for Michael to publicly dispense his pseudo-dialectical platitudes at one of his favorite Athenian cafes."

To state the obvious, this is nothing more than character assassination. What I find breathtaking however is the chutzpah of North, who himself happens to live a comfortable middle class life style. And yet he impugns the motives of Savas, a man who has devoted over 50 years of struggle, working under some very adverse conditions, including the dictatorship of 1967-1974 and death threats from the Golden Dawn fascists, to build a revolutionary movement in Greece. What has North done in this period? Aside from running his website, North has led another life as the CEO of a very profitable middle-sized business. In that capacity it's a fair guess that he attends business lunches at establishments a good deal swankier than Athenian cafes. And then there are events organized by this company, including an annual one on “sustainability” in which Michigan business executives are provided a platform to flaunt their 'green' credentials.  Given North's penchant for coining terms like 'pseudo-left', one might consider labeling him a 'Chamber of Commerce Marxist'.

But North's vitriol against Savas has a serious political purpose. Back in November, North's party issued a long statement about Greece which devoted a section to attacking Savas and the EEK, full of the same sort of misrepresentations I've already discussed, i.e. that only the WSWS told the truth about Syriza and that everybody else on the left was party to Syriza's betrayal.   Alas, the statement concedes, the International Committee “did not have a section in Greece.” And why was that? “Political responsibility for this lies with Savas Michael-Matsas, the general secretary of the Greek Workers Revolutionary Party (EEK).” [10]




How can that be? Savas broke with North's party in 1985, as the statement goes on to say, which means that in the intervening thirty years – THIRTY YEARS! - North has been able to build ABSOLUTELY NOTHING in Greece. Even assuming that Savas is every bit the scoundrel North makes him out to be, North has had a very, very long time to expose him and every other “pseudo-left” in Greece. How is it that this never happened? Could at least some of the “political responsibility” for this situation lie with North himself?

It becomes obvious now why North has such contempt for Savas. His abusive language serves to cover over his own political sterility and to prevent his followers from asking uncomfortable questions.

In winding this up let me say something about the underlying differences between us and North. Once you get past all his demagogy and insults, the real issue in dispute is that North is an opponent of the method embodied in the Transitional Program. North thinks that being a revolutionary means that you do nothing other than denounce Syriza and “predict” their inevitable betrayal. Eventually the working class will reward his movement when those predictions have been “confirmed”. This approach is typical of sectarians who believe above all in the power of propaganda. The fact that this approach has achieved very little in 40 years (and exactly nothing in Greece) does not faze North one bit.

On the other hand we think that a revolutionary movement must actively involve itself in the struggles of the working class. In the Greek context that meant campaigning for a NO vote in the referendum of July 2015 while patiently explaining that Tsipras had no strategy for confronting the EU in the event of a victory of the NO vote. It meant coupling the fight for a NO vote in the referendum with a set of transitional demands to be carried out as the only way to implement the desire of the masses to reject austerity. This approach is far more in keeping with the history and traditions of Trotskyism than proclaiming (as the WSWS did) that the referendum was a “reactionary fraud”.

I'll leave the final word to Trotsky. North calls us “anti-Trotskyists.” You can decide for yourself who really merits that label after reading what Trotsky had to say about sectarianism:

“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.” [11]



[1]
                  http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/04/19/stei-a19.html
[3]
                  In an article from April 14 I am characterized as follows,
    “Driven by a malignant interaction of uncontrollable political opportunism and a pathologically subjective hatred of his former comrades in the leadership of the Trotskyist movement…”, http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2016/04/14/prob-a14.html. It is also claimed that the only reason I make political alliances is to seek out others who similarly hate the International Committee and that I even go out of my way to attend International Conferences where I hope to find “potential allies against the ICFI.”
    A much earlier piece from the WSWS, http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2009/01/haig-j06.html, characterizes me as being “hysterical” and “exploding” in a “burst of anger”.  For our response see, Of Sterile Flowers, Poisonous Weeds and a Political Smokescreen, http://forum.permanent-revolution.org/2009/01/of-sterile-flowers-poisonous-weeds-and.html. We discussed the political motives behind all these attacks on my character more fully in Downward Spiral, http://forum.permanent-revolution.org/2009/11/downward-spiral-of-internatioanl.html See especially Chapter 1. 
[4]
                  For a Revolutionary Intervention in the Forthcoming Elections: Statement of the Workers Revolutionary Party (EEK) of Greecehttp://forum.permanent-revolution.org/2015/01/for-revolutionary-intervention-in.html

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

I'm lysistrata.

How many filthy drops of water does it take to take away the desire to drink water? Probably, one is enough.

Meanwhile, how many drops does it take to restore the polluted water into mere water, let alone drinkable water? Surely, merely many would not be sufficient. Maybe, a great many?

If I were not to be held responsible for the pollution, why on earth should I bother?

Now, the routinized events of David North distorting Alex Steiner brings me into a sort of mind numbness. Sometimes I became embarrassed or other times I felt insulted, but this is not the case now. I'm just pathetic toward North and those who blindly follow(obey?) him. How dare one play words like "pseudo-lefts" on their lips? Doesn't it mean that they alone are authentically and permanently good? Do they want to play "hero movies"?

Did Steiner give full support to Syriza? What in the world did I read? Did I have no basic understanding whatsoever?

Finally, I came to the issue of North's identity. The issue was sometimes raised relatively indirectly, but this time Steiner seems to me to determinedly mention it, given the phrase like "the CEO of a very profitable middle-sized business."

Who is David North?
Who does he think he is?
Who do his followers think he is?
Is he equal to who he is thought to be?

Stephen R. Diamond said...

Since you have little regard for North's theoretical work, why do you engage him? Do you think SEP's cadres have a high level of consciousness despite their leadership? I don't understand why (from your standpoint) the critique of SEP is important.

[What exactly happened with Wohlforth? Have either of you written an account?]

Alex Steiner said...

Stephen,
We respond to slanders, character assassination and misrepresentations of our position.

I do not think very highly of the level of understanding of SEP cadre and their true believer sympathizers but I write not for them but for others who may benefit.

The SEP is politically insignificant but the WSWS does have many readers if only because no other socialist organization provides what is in effect a daily online newspaper.

I see from your profile that you have an interest in philosophy and computer science. Why not comment on the piece we posted, Your Brain is not a Computer?

Last I heard about Wohlforth is that he became a writer of mystery novels.


Stephen R. Diamond said...

I think there's a more fundamental problem with SEP. Is a "socialist" tendency that subsists from a non-union commercial printing operation even part of the working-class movement? Does SEP's position that unions are capitalist institutions just a shallow reflection of its class nature? Is David North a millionaire - or is SEP?

Their secrecy about their funding has a long history. Once it was Arab reactionaries; now its own capitalist exploitation.