Friday, June 15, 2018

Trotskyism and tradition

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The following is a comment posted by someone identifying himself as ‘muskrat’, with a reply by Frank Brenner.

I think it interesting that David North has given the attention to Steiner and Brenner that he has. He must have a special place in his heart for you guys. Probably your critiques of the SEP/WSWS and North strike a bit too close to home. Also, familiarity can bread contempt, and I am sure that both North and you guys get some enjoyment sharpening your wits at each other expense.

I do enjoy reading the WSWS on a regular basis. I have (over the last year or so) studied up pretty well on Healy, Wohlforth, North including their careers and organizations. I was a long time Trotskyist although never affiliated with their tendency. I no longer see myself as a believer in the Trotskyist narrative. I think peak oil, peak non-renewable resources and overpopulation will pretty much take care of the idea that humanity will abolish capitalism and happily enter into a future of leisure and technological nirvana. The SEP seems to think that the workers of the future will spend their abundant free time attending operas and going to art museums. I have noticed that they and other left groups ignore topics that would tend to disrupt their narrative.

I have not given up on the struggle to for the abolition of capitalism, but I see a much different future will be coming our way, much more along the lines of what Richard Heinberg writes and speaks about.

Trotskyism has proven itself to be almost uniquely capable of splitting into smaller groups and subgroups. Wohlforth references an 800-page book written on the history of world Trotskyism written in around 1985 in his autobiography. I read that book 15 or 20 years ago. There are literally hundreds and hundreds of groups and tendencies out there. Just think what of an updated version of what the world Trotskyist family would look like 34 years after the original book was written. Many of these groups claim to have a direct (and correct) pipeline to the great Trotsky himself including the SEP. None of these groups like to be called sects, despite the fact that all of them aptly fit the dictionary definition. I read Sedova's resignation letter from the 4th International and found it quite interesting. I noticed that most Trotskyists haven't commented much on what she had to say, but it probably means something when Trotsky's widow breaks with the movement her husband organized. Most Trotskyists engage in a form of Trotsky hero worship, and many like the SEP, SL and Permanent Revolution spend a lot of time finding Trotsky quotes to sprinkle into their articles. Most of these groups will admit that Trotsky made some mistakes in the abstract but few will ever bring to light what those mistakes were. Some folks seem to view Trotsky's writings as sacred literature, such as the Transitional Program. Few seem to grasp the there is a "sell by" date on some Marxist writings including Trotsky’s. Marxism is supposed to be "scientific socialism". Marxism is supposed to be a living dynamic methodology, and yet so many Marxists out there treat it as a dogma. In my estimation were Trotsky or Marx still alive today it is highly probable that they would have refined their ideas to incorporate new scientific discoveries and other data into their world views. It is also a possibility that this new information might have dramatically altered significant portions of their concepts. Trotsky has been gone now for 78 years. In 1940 most easy to exploit oil was still in the ground waiting to be pumped. High quality veins of copper,coal,iron and etc. were still available to be mined. The human population was half as large. Things are different today. We are nearing the collapse of industrial civilization.


Frank Brenner responds:

Marxists don't hang on to a tradition out of some fetish. There isn't a Marxist anywhere who wouldn't be overjoyed if we could consign all the works of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky to a library specializing in outdated causes. But for that to happen, capitalism would first have been consigned to the garbage dump of history. It's the persistence of capitalism that keeps Marxism relevant, and never more urgently than now.

But that's not just true of Marxism. William Faulkner’s much quote line - the past isn't dead, it isn't even past - seems to hang over all political life. Trump's election had people running to buy used copies of a 1935 novel by Sinclair Lewis (It Can't Happen Here). The rising tide of right wing populism in Europe has evoked a flood of analogies to Weimar Germany and the onset of Nazism. It's as if the postwar era (until the collapse of the Soviet Union) was an anomaly, a relatively brief (by historical standards) era of peace and prosperity before we got back to the way things really are under capitalism - authoritarianism, xenophobia, burgeoning neo-fascism, war and social inequality of neo-feudal proportions.

None of this justifies abusing the Marxist tradition by turning it into a dogma. The relationship of contemporary Marxists to our tradition always has to be a dialectical one. We work, within the limits of our abilities, to transcend the tradition - which is to say, to reexamine old assumptions, extend our analysis to aspects of social and economic life previously ignored and above all else to try to grasp what is new in the objective situation and how that reshapes mass consciousness. But - and this is crucial - we do that work while standing on the shoulders of giants. Dogmatists never stand. Others (including you, it would seem) have decided to jump off. I think those are both mistakes.

You say that you haven’t given up on the struggle to abolish capitalism. But when you walk away from the Marxist tradition - which of course I identify with Trotskyism - then that’s just what you have given up on. I don’t mean this in a moral sense. Lots of people condemn capitalism. But what they don’t have (or, as in your case, have abandoned) is any hope for an alternative to the system, let alone any way of fighting to bring it about.

As to your references to peak oil etc., this is hopelessness dressed up as an argument. Not that I’m denying the seriousness of the environmental crisis, but arguments like this have the character of a deus ex machina. An impending objective crisis (e.g. environment, population, peak oil etc.) will overwhelm human society and bring capitalism crashing down. Or, to cite the title of Naomi Klein’s recent book on climate change, This Changes Everything. But it doesn’t - not by itself.

To be sure, any of these crises may lead to collapse and calamity. But by itself this will not bring an end to class exploitation. All it will do is change the conditions of that exploitation, making them tremendously worse. Or possibly bring all of human society crashing down. Peak oil-type arguments aren’t a political perspective for radical social change but a dystopia bred of hopelessness. Dystopias can, on occasion, be enjoyable reading but they contribute nothing useful politically. Basically, they amount to handing the human race an ultimatum: Here is the truth, and if you refuse to accept it, you will be destroyed! Perhaps this sort of approach works if you’re a Klingon possessed of a mammoth death starship, but in a human context it will achieve nothing except to breed despair. Here you might be considerably better off consulting the yellowed pages of your old Trotskyist texts.

It’s true - the history of Trotskyism since 1940 has been a record of countless splits, producing ever tinier groups and sects with so many acronyms you’d need a catalogue the size of a phone book to figure them all out. But who on the left has done better: the social democrats? the Stalinists? the Maoists? the anarchists? In the broad historical context, the entire left has suffered a terrible shipwreck. The more ‘established’ left didn’t undergo so many splits - they simply betrayed every principle they ever claimed to stand for and drove their working-class base into the hands of the neo-fascists. The Trotskyists held on to their revolutionary beliefs but kept banging their heads against the brick wall of the postwar boom and the Stalinist bureaucracy. Bang your head for long enough and it goes to pieces.

But a new generation is emerging politically, and it has the bizarre notion that it can actually change the world. To bring that off, it’s going to need, not dogma, but insight - and it won’t find more of it anywhere than in the remnants of the Trotskyist tradition.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

The Sexual Inequality Party - Continued

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Former WalMart worker Gina Pitre at her home. Photo from New York Times.

by Frank Brenner

This comment was posted the other day on our website. It relates to the SEP’s position on #MeToo.

Have you read today's entry in this continuing saga of All Sex Scandals* Are Political Scandals? While an interesting history involving Charlie Chaplain, it swerves into delusion by the implicit comparison with Weinstein. It of course continues to ignore the fact that the vast majority of posters of #metoo-tagged experiences are in the working class. The success brought to Jessica Chastain by association, apparently, wipes out the millions of incidents exposed by working women (and some men) during this wave of communication.

I agree with the comment and wanted to add something about yet another obscene WSWS article on this subject matter, this time on Harvey Weinstein’s arrest in New York a couple of weeks ago. The article is obscene in the same way their article on the Cosby trial was - it has not a word of sympathy for Weinstein's alleged victims but it has a lot of sympathy for Weinstein.

Once again there is the harping on due process in a thoroughly bourgeois legalistic manner. Due process is indeed a democratic right, but so is consent, about which the WSWS has absolutely nothing to say. In none of these articles will you find any discussion, or even mention, of sexual abuse or misogyny.

Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. They quote - uncritically - Weinstein’s lawyer, Benjamin Brafman as follows: “Mr. Weinstein did not invent the casting couch in Hollywood and to the extent that there is bad behavior in that industry, that is not what this is about… Bad behavior is not on trial in this case.” A couple of paragraphs later, the WSWS writer, David Walsh, reiterates Brafman’s point: “As Brafman indicated, the distinction between ‘bad’ behavior and criminal behavior is being ignored.”

How odd to hear a supposedly Marxist publication quote approvingly a highly paid fixer for the legal problems of the rich and famous like Brafman engaging in what’s known in public relations as spin. While it’s true that in the cascade of sexual misconduct accusations that have come out of #MeToo, there have been some where the line between what I’ve called being a prick and being a predator has gotten blurred, this is precisely NOT true in Weinstein’s case.

The charges for which he was indicted in New York are for rape. And in fact, 13 women have so far come forward to accuse Weinstein of rape, while more than 80 have accused him of sexual harassment. All these accusations may be false or unprovable in court (which, let it be noted, is not the same thing), but as accusations they go way beyond “bad” behavior, as do the various women’s accounts of their encounters with Weinstein. We are not dealing here with somebody who allegedly engaged in inappropriate touching or told some off-color jokes. Weinstein is in a whole other league.

But it’s the remark about the casting couch that’s even more noteworthy. “Mr. Weinstein did not invent the casting couch …” This kind of cynical comment is what you’d expect from a well-heeled legal hack, but since when do Marxists buy into such cynicism? The casting couch is, and always has been, an abomination. For Marxists that matters hugely in how we understand a case like Weinstein’s. We don’t simply take this for granted. That’s what bourgeois ideology does: the casting couch is like the poor, it will ‘always be with us’. In falling over itself to defend an alleged sexual predator like Weinstein (or a convicted one like Cosby), the WSWS parrots this ideological garbage.

Of course, like any other accused Weinstein has a right to due process. But like Cosby he is able to afford the best legal counsel money can buy. We are not talking about some poor unknown who is being hauled before the courts and railroaded to jail - the real violations of due process that go on every day in American courts. We are talking about a member of the elite, a plutocrat, who has the resources to make sure he gets his day in court, and then some. That the trial will be a media circus is totally predictable, but that doesn’t necessarily preclude Weinstein getting what passes for a fair hearing in the bourgeois justice system. OJ anyone?

A far greater legal concern is the way in which women who bring sexual assault accusations to court are subjected to character assassination in order to undermine the credibility of their accounts, which is a major reason why (to cite RAINN, a leading anti-sexual violence organization), out of 1000 rapes, 994 perpetrators will walk free. About this terrible and ongoing miscarriage of justice, the WSWS has nothing to say. But it does make a point of expressing its disapproval for Weinstein’s accusers: “If anything undermines sympathy for the women involved, it is their perpetual insistence on responding in the most vengeful and socially blinkered manner.” This pontificating betrays not a trace of empathy for what it must feel like to be sexually violated.

I’ll just mention another recurring trope in WSWS articles on #MeToo - guilt by association. Hillary Clinton and Kirsten Gillibrand are used for that purpose in this article. We might as well denounce the civil rights movement because LBJ passed the Civil Rights Act.

One point I want to underscore is made in the comment above: that the WSWS “continues to ignore the fact that the vast majority of posters of #metoo-tagged experiences are in the working class.”

As it happens, on the same day (May 23) the New York Times carried a lead story on Weinstein’s arrest, it also carried another story titled: “Low Paid Women Get Hollywood Money to File Harassment Suits”. It’s a story that anyone concerned with the rights of working class women would have been eager to cover. Here are the opening paragraphs:

“Gina Pitre had come to dread working at WalMart. A manager, she said, used to touch her inappropriately and make suggestive comments. Ms. Pitre, 56, who earned $11.50 an hour fulfilling online orders in D’Iberville, Miss., said she felt degraded and angry.

“Ms. Pitre saw a television news segment this winter about how female Hollywood stars and producers had started Time’s Up, a group to help women combat harassment. A related initiative, the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, connected Ms. Pitre with a lawyer and is helping fund her lawsuit against WalMart and one of its managers.

“Hollywood, it appears, is starting to make good on its promise to focus on women outside the limelight and broaden the #MeToo movement.”

So far 2700 women have contacted the fund with harassment complaints, many coming from the arts industry, federal government, education, health and (like Pitre) retail. The fund puts these women in touch with lawyers who might be willing to take their cases. It also provides them with $3000 to pay the initial lawyer’s fees, and as much as $100,000 if the case eventually goes to trial. It also put Pitre in contact with Our WalMart, a worker advocacy group, to develop a publicity campaign to broaden the impact of the court case. This led to an open letter to WalMart’s CEO which Pitre co-signed with film actress Susan Sarandon, calling for a revamp of the company’s harassment policy.

This story came out 3 days before the WSWS article on Weinstein’s arrest. They said nothing about it - and that is deliberate. They are willfully blind to sexual abuse, to the violation of the rights of millions of working class women. So blind in fact that they suppress information about the resistance some of these women are putting up as a result of #MeToo. But when it comes to the legal perils of a rich and powerful man, the WSWS is eager to speak out.

One final point I want to make: In the comments section of this and other WSWS articles on #MeToo a few critical voices have pushed back against the usual chorus of sycophants. Trying to make sense of how a supposedly revolutionary socialist party could take such a deplorable position, one commenter speculated that this was actually case of “conditioning” readers to become members of a cult, the idea being that if you’re willing to swallow something as outrageous as this, you’ll be ready to swallow anything. There are certainly cult-like features to the way the SEP operates, and it’s always a telling sign when a political formation encourages sycophancy. But one doesn’t have to resort to a conspiracy theory to figure out what’s going on here.

The SEP are sectarians, it’s a disease that’s taken hold in the very marrow of their politics. And the one thing sectarians hate (even more than having their sectarianism exposed) is any spontaneous upsurge of the masses. They react to it with instinctive hostility. #MeToo is such an upsurge. It has all kinds of problems, as spontaneous movements always do. And it takes place in the absence of any widespread radicalization of the working class, which is in a way the biggest problem.

But that’s the point about spontaneous movements - they don’t come into existence out of some planned political strategy, they emerge naturally, as it were. The pressure of the masses’ frustration at the oppression and indignity of their lives hasn’t been able, as yet, to find an outlet on class issues, so instead it breaks out in reaction to the pervasiveness of sexual abuse. To a sectarian that feels almost like an existential threat - hence the visceral hostility and fear of the WSWS rhetoric on this issue. It will be the same way when spontaneous movements of workers emerge.

The WSWS article on Weinstein’s arrest:

The NY Times article: “Low Paid Women Get Hollywood Money to File Harassment Suits”:

Friday, June 1, 2018

The gutter politics of David North

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Gerry Healy addressing a conference of the Workers Revolutionary Party in 1980. 
by Alex Steiner

The World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) edition of May 17 featured a hysterical diatribe against me by the leader of that organization, David North.[1] North’s piece was triggered by an informal comment I made in response to a WSWS supporter.  [2]

A few words are in order.

First, the title of North’s piece, “An aging liar peddles his wares,” is notable.  It is the title of a chapter of a polemic North and I co-authored against Wohlforth in 1976.  In those days it did not occur to us that the title is an insult to a large section of the population who were considered something of a burden on society, namely the elderly.  But in those days we were equally blind to many other prejudices that were not recognized for what they were even in left wing circles.  For example, in 1976 and for many years afterward, if you were an acknowledged homosexual you were automatically barred from membership in the Workers League, the predecessor organization of the Socialist Equality Party.  Some of us have become more enlightened since those days, while some of us have learned nothing.

Moving on to the substance of North’s diatribe, what is peculiar about it is that nowhere does North challenge or try to rebut any of substantive issues I raised. 
Here is the comment that set North into motion.

The so-called ICFI has nothing to do with the heritage of Trotsky other than appropriating the name… In truth, they turned their back on those traditions decades ago to become the sterile sect they are today.

Between those two lines I listed 12 separate ways in which the ICFI/SEP/WSWS has departed from Trotskyism.

The “smoking gun”

North’s response does not address a single one of the 12 points I listed.  Rather North launches an ad hominem attack against me in hyperdrive.  He introduces into the evidence what he insists is a “smoking gun” – a letter I wrote 20 years ago in which I gave an honest assessment of my political evolution. In that letter, which was written privately and never meant for publication, I presented a candid account of the contradictory forces that were pushing me.  North focuses on the part of my letter where I discuss the temptation of a comfortable middle-class existence, while neglecting to mention that I overcame those temptations to throw in my lot with the struggles of the working class.  North also neglects to mention that he previously used the same “smoking gun” in his previous smear campaign against me and to which I responded in detail in Chapters 2 and 3 of Downward Spiral. [3]  To North and the trolls who buzz around the comments section of his diatribe, my admission of being tempted to abandon the political life is equivalent to an admission of an original sin from which there is no deliverance.  As if they themselves have never been tempted. 

I think I have done a fairly good job of resisting the trappings of that middle-class life that at one time seemed so desirable. But the irony here is that I don’t know anyone who lives a more comfortable life than Mr. North himself. And it would be wrong to call it a “middle class” life. After all, we are talking about the CEO (or by now the retired CEO) of a medium sized business.  He owns a palatial home in Southfield, a well-to-do suburb of Detroit. When comrade North travels to give one of his lectures, all his needs are attended to by a personal assistant and his devoted followers.  And I have little doubt that unlike the rest of us who are forced to sit in the bone-crunching spaces the airlines reserve for economy and sub-economy class, Mr. North travels leisurely in Business Class. As Mel Brooks said, “It’s good to be the king.”

Other leading comrades in Southfield have homes adjoining a river with a marvelous view.  I can testify to that personally as I was a guest at one of these houses in 2003. If you are one of those leading comrades in the Southfield area, it’s a good life. That being said I don’t doubt that all these people have made personal sacrifices along the way and things were not always so comfortable. I recall the days when some of us in the Workers League would get up before 5 AM so that we can make it to the Brooklyn waterfront to sell the Bulletin before the morning shift of longshoremen arrived. I also recall Dave Neita and Ed Bergonzi working through the night on the printing press. A number of us regularly did “all-nighters” to earn extra income from the print shop during the period of Wohlforth’s manic drive to “Bolshevize” the Workers League. And then some of us had to go to our full-time jobs in the morning. I only want to point to the incredible hypocrisy and dishonesty involved in North’s use of a letter I penned 20 years ago to prove that I am an enemy of the working class because I was once tempted with a “comfortable life”. 

The swarm of commentators

I note that the great majority of commentators on North’s screed begin by taking North’s statements on faith and then fall over themselves to come up with ever more lurid denunciations of me and ever more imaginative recitations of my crimes.  Here is a typical example from a commentator,

If Steiner is among those who assert that U.S. Imperialism is intervening in Syria in order to back a "revolutionary" movement against Assad (who is certainly an authoritarian) by the Syrian people, then that's all I need to know about the man & his philosophy, notwithstanding his past efforts.

So this person refuses to read anything I write (“that is all I need to know”) because I support the U.S. intervention in Syria.  Only problem here is that I never said anything of the sort. He “knows” that I support U.S. intervention in Syria because David North or someone in his group told him so.  This is a typical illustration of the mindless and destructive nature of the comments North’s piece has elicited. Other comrades who know better than this fellow remain silent, thereby encouraging more such slanders. The comments on the WSWS have the dynamic of an online lynch mob.  It’s a nauseating spectacle.

The question of ‘When’

Aside from his pulling out the 20-year-old “smoking gun” from his hat, the only other issue that exercises North is his insistence that I come up with a precise date when the ICFI ceased representing the heritage of Trotsky.  But that question is equivalent to asking someone to give a precise date and time when the Soviet regime turned its back on the October Revolution. It was a process that took place over a number of years and not something that happened all at once.  With the ICFI there were indications that we were dealing with a very sick organization as far back as the early 1960s. The thuggery practiced by Healy was one indication of that sickness.  Among the leadership of the WRP there was a coverup of Healy’s abusive behavior that long preceded the blow up of 1985.  And that coverup was a bigger indication that we were dealing with a sick organization -  even more than Healy’s abusive behavior itself.  Healy’s behavior was not merely a personal failing, but a reflection of a deep political disorientation of the organization he led. That political disorientation became much more obvious from the early 1970’s.  Much of this was exposed in the literature related to the split with Healy.  I should add that North’s account of that split in his “Heritage we Defend” was one sided and incomplete and has been used in more recent years to create a legend about his own role in those events.  There are other sources that present a far more honest and comprehensive account of Healy’s degeneration and the subsequent dissolution of the WRP.  [4]

I thought that after the split with Healy in 1985 the ICFI had an opportunity to rethink a lot of issues and return to the road of Marxism.  And for a few brief years, there was a certain openness to discuss issues within the ICFI.  But as we have noted, that period ended decisively after Sept 11.

The possibilities that seemed to open up with the split with Healy – the promise of an organization that is capable of discussing differences rather than condemning points of view that challenge the leadership – that promise disappeared after 9/11.  Neither Frank Brenner nor myself had a good understanding of that when we began our polemics with North in 2003. Initially we still thought there was a possibility of having a real dialogue with the members and supporters of the ICFI.  But we had underestimated the degree to which this organization had degenerated.  In the face of North’s turn to a campaign of personal vilification and slander against us and the failure of anyone in the leadership of the ICFI to come forward, it became clear to us that we were dealing with an organization that resembled a cult more than a party rooted in the history and traditions of Trotsky. At which point we ceased our fruitless attempts to try to reform this organization. 

I gave an exhaustive account of my own political evolution in relation to these events in Downward Spiral, the book that North never mentions.  But search as much as you like in the archives of the WSWS, and while you may find lots of effusive praise about North’s “contributions to Marxism”, you will find absolutely nothing about his formative years or his political evolution.

The continuity of Trotskyism

North invests all his political authority in the claim that the organization that he heads, the “International Committee of the Fourth International” is the sole legitimate heir to the organization launched by Trotsky in 1938, The Fourth International.  This has become a matter of faith for his followers who view it as a form of heresy to question it.  To justify this assertion North cites several landmark factional splits in the history of the Fourth International and its successor organizations, namely the 1953 split from Mandel/Pablo, the 1963 reunification of the SWP with the United Secretariat and the 1985 split of Healy and the remnants of the Workers Revolutionary Party from the International Committee. 

But the history of the Trotskyist movement has demonstrated over and over again that groups who were on the right side of a faction fight were far from healthy organizations themselves. While it was correct in 1953 for Cannon and other defenders of “orthodox Trotskyism” to oppose Pablo’s conception that the Stalinist bureaucracy could play a progressive role, the Socialist Workers Party was then at the beginning of a process of accommodating itself to the middle-class movements that would eventually destroy it.  And while it was correct to oppose the precipitous reunification of 1963 with the United Secretariat, by the late 1970s the most enthusiastic Palbloite on the planet was none other than Gerry Healy whose groveling before the reactionary regimes of Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah Khomeini and Muammar Gaddafi surpassed anything dreamed off by Pablo.  As for the events of 1985, it was correct to address the corruption of Healy and the degeneration of the WRP and North was on the right side of that split.  But it was also clear that the remnants of the International Committee that were left after the 1985 split had a lot of work to do.  All the baggage that was inherited from the organization Healy built needed to be rethought. But the critique of the IC that took place in the 1985 split was superficial in nature.  And while there was a certain openness to exploring theoretical and political issues within the International Committee for a number of years after the 1985 split, all that came to an end after the events of Sept 11.

And here we are today, 33 years after the split with Healy. Does the fact that North was on the right side of that split confer upon him the legitimacy of a hereditary monarch? Reading North’s comments, one would think that for him the Fourth International is some kind of franchise that he alone can operate. If the continuity of the Fourth International is to have any meaning, other than a ritualistic invocation meant to shore up the flagging morale of one’s followers, it can only be in one’s adherence to the program and theoretical conceptions of the Fourth International. If we examine the political conceptions and organizational practices of the group North has led for all these years it is clear that in all respects it bears little resemblance to the organization Trotsky founded in 1938. It is in fact our exposure of the hollowness of North’s claims to be the inheritor of the mantle of Trotsky that has so infuriated him. Why else would he be spending more time writing about me and Frank Brenner, two individuals, than about the Stalinists, Pabloites and state capitalists?

 The 12 issues ignored

Moving on from a consideration of North’s attempt to divert the discussion away from the issues I raised, let’s address those issues.

I will briefly review each of my charges and present some evidence from the more recent coverage of the WSWS to back up my characterization of this organization.

1  1.   The SEP/WSWS have abandoned the transitional program. Is this true or not?
We have written extensively about the disappearance of transitional demands from the pages of the WSWS over the years.  And it just so happens that I touched on this in an essay I wrote just a few weeks ago, Hatred of the Dialectic. I was pointing out the WSWS position on the Greek referendum of 2015 and how it was so at odds with the method of the transitional program and the past practice of the Trotskyist movement.  Here is an excerpt from that essay,

“They [the WSWS] labeled the call for a referendum “a reactionary fraud” but then - inconsistently - urged workers to cast their votes in this “reactionary fraud” of a referendum.  But anyone in Greece and internationally with the slightest connection to the working class understood that while the logic of the Tsipras government could only lead to a betrayal of the working class, the fact that they were forced to call a referendum presented a golden opportunity to educate the working class.  That was not possible with the WSWS’s sneering dismissal of the referendum.”

“There was indeed a similar issue that came up in discussions with Trotsky in the 1930’s in relation to a proposal for an Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the Ludlow Amendment.  The Ludlow Amendment called for an end to war. It encapsulated illusions in pacifism and the efficacy of bourgeois democracy. Yet Trotsky’s attitude to this referendum was the very opposite of the WSWS’s attitude toward the Greek referendum of 2015 which was also intertwined with illusions. Rather than calling the Ludlow Amendment a “reactionary fraud”, as the sectarians at that time were doing, Trotsky urged his followers to participate in the campaign for the amendment and in the process seek to educate the working class. He wrote,

“We must advance with the masses, and not only repeat our formulas but speak in a manner that our slogans become understandable to the masses…”

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

“It is not hard to guess what Trotsky’s attitude would have been to the WSWS’s calling the Greek referendum of 2015 “a reactionary fraud”. [5]

I should add that the abandonment of the transitional program goes hand in hand with a lack of concern with mass psychology. If you have no interest in developing a program to bridge the gap in the consciousness of the working class, why bother with trying to understand mass psychology, with “keeping a finger on the pulse of the masses” to paraphrase Lenin? [6]

   2.    I assert that North and his organization have abandoned any concern with dialectics.  If North wishes to refute that claim all he has to do is provide some citations for a serious discussion of dialectics in the pages of the WSWS.  He can’t because there isn’t any. This is a point I made in an essay a dozen years ago when I noted that the WSWS had published exactly one article devoted to dialectics in the previous decade! [7] Were I writing that essay today I would have to update it slightly by noting that since his review of 2006 North has added one other article that touches on dialectics, namely an assessment of the role of the Russian Marxist Georgi Plekhanov. [8]  However, the article on Plekhanov deals with dialectics only perfunctorily. And what is astonishing about this article is that nowhere does it even mention Lenin’s critique of Plekhanov.  Yet it was Lenin’s exposition of the inadequacy of Plekhanov’s understanding of the dialectic that began the entire cycle of our polemics with North way back in 2003.  In an essay I published that year I called attention to Lenin’s remarks in his Philosophical Notebooks where he takes issue with Plekhanov’s understanding of dialectics. [9]  I highlighted the following remarks of Lenin about Plekhanov,

“Plekhanov criticizes Kantianism .. more from a vulgar-materialistic standpoint than from a dialectical-materialist standpoint ...”

“Marxists criticized (at the beginning of the twentieth century the Kantians and Humists more in the manner of Feuerbach (and Buchner) than of Hegel.”

“Work out: Plekhanov wrote probably nearly 1000 pages (Beltov + against Bogdanov + against Kantians + basic questions, etc. etc. on philosophy (dialectic). There is in them nil about the Larger Logic, its thoughts (i.e. dialectic proper, as a philosophic science) nil!!” (CW Volume 38: 277) [10]

Later in my essay, I explained the significance of Plekhanov’s adoption of a vulgar understanding of the dialectic for his political evolution.

         “It was a truism among Marxists that following the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, capitalist social relations would soon take root and wipe out the remnants of the obischinia, the Russian peasant commune. The emergence of capitalist social relations, according to this prognosis, would give rise both to a liberal bourgeoisie with a vested interest in a constitution and democratic reforms, and a modern working class. The early Russian Marxists, Plekhanov above all, therefore suggested that the progress of the working class and its eventual emancipation was tied, for an entire historical period, to the cause of the liberal bourgeoisie. This was what Plekhanov argued against the Russian populists. It can be argued that throughout his political career, whether he was defending revolutionary principles against the Economists and the Revisionists, or opposing the Soviets in the 1905 revolution, or taking the standpoint of Russian patriotism in 1914, he was consistent. It is not Plekhanov that changed, but the world around him. In 1905, the Russian working class demonstrated that it was not content to wait for the bourgeoisie to lead a revolution, while the bourgeoisie demonstrated that it had no interest in leading a revolution, but only wanted to gouge out a small role for itself from the monarchy. Plekhanov, who still believed himself a defender of the working class and its cause, threw in his lot with the cause of the bourgeoisie, thinking that the working class had overreached itself and threatened to upset what he viewed as the inevitable march of history. It was the same logic that lead him to become a social patriot in 1914. He thought that the cause of the Russian working class would be served by supporting the Russian bourgeoisie, who were at one with the war aims of the autocracy. Somehow, Plekhanov had missed the moment of transformation into opposites, the moment where the bourgeoisie had been transformed from a relatively progressive social force to a backward one. To identify this decisive moment, the study of empirical data is of course indispensable, but by itself it is insufficient. One must be able to make sense of the facts. This is where Plekhanov fell short of the mark. He thought formalistically and could not cognize the whole as it was changing into something new.” [11]

That North could write a lengthy treatise claiming to provide an assessment of Plekhanov and not even mention Lenin’s critique of Plekhanov’s version of dialectics is nothing short of astounding. It’s a fair indication of his contempt for the subject.

This decades-long abandonment of dialectics is a good measure of how far the ICFI/SEP/WSWS have strayed from Trotskyism when you recall that Trotsky, in his last polemical battle against the Shachtman-Burnham faction in the SWP, emphasized that training the comrades in dialectics should be given the highest priority in the educational work of the party.

     3. I made the claim that North and his acolytes have done no theoretical work on such burning issues as the nature of Russia and China.  Again, all North has to do to refute that statement is provide a reference to the major theoretical articles in the WSWS that explored this issue. Funnily enough, just a few days ago the economics specialist of the WSWS, Nick Beams, weighed in on the nature of China.  He wrote,

“This domination of finance, to which Rachman points, exposes the economic nonsense advanced by the various pseudo-left groups which, in their support for US imperialism, seek to label China as an imperialist power. There is no possibility of the renminbi functioning as a replacement for the dollar as a world currency, and China’s financial system is completely dependent on US finance capital.”[12]

This passing comment can hardly be considered a serious discussion of the nature of China but that is all you will find in the pages of the WSWS. Aside from the swipe at an anonymous “pseudo-left”, a recurring trope in practically all WSWS commentary, the stupidity of this statement is beyond belief. Is the criteria for whether a nation is an imperialist power whether its currency can replace the dollar? If that were the case then neither France nor Germany could be considered imperialist powers.

[Our discussion of the nature of Russia and China and our critique of the WSWS on these seminal questions can be found in the essay, Russia as an imperialist power and the follow-up essay, Once more on the nature of Russia and China.

   4.   I stated that the WSWS has aligned itself with right wing forces in calling for the breakup of unions. A recent article in the Guardian explores some of the right-wing forces that are today trying to destroy what is left of unions in the U.S. and much of their work is focused on the pending Supreme Court decision in the Janus vs AFSCME case.  The Guardian writes,

“…the US supreme court is poised to deliver its ruling any day in Janus v AFSCME, one of the most important trade union cases in recent times. If the five conservative justices on the highest court vote in favor of the anti-union plaintiff, as many expect, they would deal a severe blow to organized labor by giving employees the right to opt-out of paying their share of the costs of collective bargaining even though they benefit from negotiated higher wages and improved conditions.

That in turn would give the green light to conservative groups like SPN to step up their efforts to encourage mass resignations of union members. As a clear statement of intent, SPN invited Mark Janus, a child support worker in Illinois who is the named plaintiff at the center of the supreme court case, to speak at its annual meeting in San Antonio, Texas, last August.” [13]

What is the position of the WSWS toward Janus vs AFSCME?
In an article devoted to the Janus vs AFSCME case the WSWS explicitly renounces any defense of the agency shop,

“There is nothing democratic or progressive in requiring workers to pay agency fees to the right-wing, pro-capitalist unions.” [14]

The same article later goes on to denounce rallies in defense of the agency shop organized by unions.  The article also characterizes the right-wing organizations backing Janus,

“Among those backing Janus’s challenge are a host of right-wing groups including the Liberty Justice Center and the National Right to Work Committee.”

It would be hard to find a more explicit statement calling for the breakup of the unions.

North has nothing to say about this at all but one of the comments on his piece attempts a rescue operation by providing the argument missing in North’s piece. The commentator, writes,

“The ICFI does not call for the 'break up' of the unions, but for workers to extricate themselves from the control of the union bureaucracy by setting up workplace committees. The role of the unions in the current teachers strikes more than validates the ICFI's analysis of the unions as anti-working class organizations.”

But this just a cop out.  You cannot say that you are “only” asking workers to “extricate themselves from the control of the union bureaucracy” when you refuse to defend the agency shop.  Furthermore, if it is true, as this person and the WSWS claim, that the unions are “anti-working class organizations” then why shouldn’t you call for their dissolution? You can’t have it both ways.

   5.   I maintained that the analysis of world politics that you find on the WSWS has degenerated to the level of conspiracy theories.  This is not to deny that conspiracies by governments and individuals exist.  But a genuine Marxist analysis could never be reduced to a description of the machinations of the ruling class. Yet that seems to be the substance of most WSWS articles when it comes to world politics as a quick glance at headlines on the WSWS would show.
There is a difference between acknowledging conspiracies and ‘conspiracism’, which is an outlook prone to find conspiracies anywhere and everywhere regardless of the evidence. Much of WSWS journalism, whether the topic be the threat of war with China or the #MeToo movement, is embedded in the mindset of conspiracism. For example, an article by WSWS columnist David Walsh claims that the press coverage of the Russia investigation and the #MeToo movement is part of a plot by the New York Times and the Democrats.

“The promotion of the #MeToo hysteria serves to obscure the basic class issues motivating the opposition of workers and youth to Trump, counter growing anti-capitalist sentiment, and sow divisions within the working class.”[15]

I don’t doubt that those elements exist in the Times coverage of #MeToo, but is that all there is to the #MeToo movement? If so it is hard to explain why the headliner for the #MeToo movement is Harvey Weinstein, a person of pronounced liberal views and no political friend of Trump. Wouldn’t this anti-Trump conspiracy function more effectively if it targeted a well known Trump supporter? There are no shortage of such people who have also been accused of sexual misconduct. (Think of the late Roger Ailes, and Bill O’Reilly. ) But if Harvey Weinstein is the most well known of those accused of sexual misconduct, might there not be something else going on here besides a plot to channel anti-Trump sentiment into the Democratic Party? Perhaps a genuine spontaneous movement of outrage?

6.  I maintained that the WSWS has abandoned any perspective of defending the rights of women.  This is particularly glaring in their coverage of #MeToo which features lots of sympathy for the alleged perpetrators of sexual abuse and no sympathy for their female victims.  While there is certainly legitimate criticism to be made of some of the leaders of the #MeToo movement, and some people who were accused were treated unfairly, the fact that women are standing up after eons of silence should be welcomed by any progressive movement let alone revolutionary socialists. One has to conclude that the WSWS’s approach to this issue is nothing other than misogynistic. My colleague Frank Brenner has done a superb job in disentangling the logical gymnastics of the apologia offered by WSWS journalists on behalf of sexual abusers. I refer readers to those articles. [16]
   7.   I asserted that one particularly destructive legacy from Gerry Healy from which the WSWS never recovered was in its crisis mongering.  Healy was notorious for claiming that a Bonapartist dictatorship and a struggle for power was just around the corner.  While the group headed by North correctly criticized these conceptions of Healy during the 1985 split the conceptions underlying that false perspective were never really challenged.  Here is the critique from 1985,

“In fact, the theory of "Bonapartism" was created to fill the gap between the WRP's refusal to demand that the TUC and the Labour Party bring down the Tory government and its propaganda campaign for a Workers Revolutionary Government. The claim that Thatcher had been transformed, in the course of March 1984, into a Bonapartist dictator provided the apriori substantiation for the WRP line that a full-blown revolutionary situation existed in Britain. From this came the further deduction that Thatcher could be replaced only by a Workers Revolutionary Government under the leadership of the WRP, and that any suggestion that there existed a number of intermediate links was a capitulation to reformism. The theory of Bonapartism was not derived from any analysis of the development of the class struggle and the relations between class forces in Britain, but was concocted to justify a political line that had already been worked out.” [17]

An “apriori substantiation of a line” has been pretty much the method of the ICFI/SEP since the split with Healy, despite their correct criticism of 1985.  This is borne out in their numerous articles about the imminent threat of World War III.  It so happens that I wrote an article a while back pointing to this peculiarity of WSWS journalism in this area. My article was written in a humorous tone but its intention was to point to a serious problem in the WSWS perspectives, their blanket characterization of just about any turn in world politics or economics as portending a move toward World War. [18]

I also wrote another article pointing to the tired use of the “rising tensions” metaphor in WSWS journalism. [19] I made it clear in both articles that I was not all discounting the threat of war, even nuclear war, but that I was pointing to the fact that the WSWS analysis of events lacked any relationship to concrete developments in the world but was simply a refrain of a previously worked out scenario, a reliance on empty formulas.  And the continual fanning of the flames of imminent war and crisis had the effect, as it did in Healy’s WRP, of scaring the cadre into ever more heroic efforts.  This is no way to educate the working class.

The reaction to my articles from North and his army of trolls was entirely predictable – I was denounced as being a ‘complacent petit bourgeois’. North went on to accuse me of subscribing to Karl Kautsky’s theory of ‘ultra-imperialism’ because I maintained quite correctly that the WSWS had never analyzed the new forms of imperialism that were predominant in the 21st century. [20]

As I wrote in Crackpot philosophy and double-speak,

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. [21]

   8.   I maintained that North and his followers use gutter tactics against their political opponents. The evidence for this is overwhelming. One just has to look at the piece to which I am responding.  It’s little more than a smear campaign against me. It’s also full of lies. I am for instance accused of being a “Pabloite”.  North writes,

Steiner cannot explain why, having originally joined the Workers League in 1971 to oppose the anti-Marxist politics of the Pabloites and Shachtmanites, he now embraces their positions.

So not only am I a “Pabloite” but I am also a “Shachtmanite”. First of all, on the face of it that seems to be impossible since the positions of the Pabloites and Shachtmanites contradict each other. The other problem with North’s thesis is that I never subscribed to the key positions of Pabloism or of Shachtmanism and North cannot produce any evidence to this effect. Did I ever write that the Stalinist bureaucracy could play a progressive role or that petit bourgeois nationalist movements can bring about some form of socialism as Pablo maintained? Or that the Soviet Union was either a state capitalist or bureaucratic collectivist regime as the Shachtmanites maintained? No, I did not. So where does this accusation come from? North is also very big on producing guilt by association type arguments to condemn his political opponents.  This form of political debate has nothing to do with the traditions of Trotskyism. Rather it is borrowed from the playbook of Stalinism.

    9.   I stated that the WSWS publishes articles that are supposedly “theoretical” in nature but that in fact have no real content. I already provided one example of this in the article by Beams where he makes a statement about the nature of China.  This is a topic I explored in some depth in my essay on the nature of Russia and China. In that article I discussed some of the issues involved in a Marxist analysis of Russia and China and noted that with few exceptions, groups calling themselves Marxist, while spilling a lot of ink about Russia and China, have made no serious examination of the socio-economic foundations of these countries and how they have evolved in the 21st century. In that respect the WSWS is not unique. I also compared the poverty of theory in this area with a few serious investigations that went against that trend.  Chief among the investigations I cited was the work of Michael Pröbsting. I noted that whatever you may think of his conclusions, whether you agree with them or not, you have to acknowledge that he did some serious work in this area. Others who did some serious work here are Walter Daum and Jan Norden. I have serious political differences with all these people but that does not discount the fact that they did their homework.  I cannot say the same thing about the ICFI/SEP/WSWS which has done no work at all in this area and whose position is almost impossible to pin down.  The reaction from the WSWS to my calling attention to their theoretical vacuum was as expected. I was accused of sharing the politics of Pröbsting and others in their typical guilt by association arguments.

   10. I noted that the internal regime of the SEP bears far more resemblance to a cult than to a serious party following in the traditions of democratic centralism.  There is of course plenty of centralism in the SEP but democracy is unheard of.  We are talking about an organization that has not had a single serious factional struggle in more than 30 years. This is not to say that factions are some kind of a virtue. If your organization is constantly consumed by factions, then that is an indication of serious problems. But an organization that has had no factions in decades, and is proud of that fact, is even worse. It means that differences are artificially suppressed.  And we know from the testimony of many former members of the SEP, some of whom have contacted us over the years, exactly how this takes place. Comrades who expressed differences with the line of the party, or even who bring up questions about issues that are considered “unorthodox”, are viewed with suspicion. Their behavior and communications are closely monitored by a senior comrade and they are constantly harangued until the deviant ideas they expressed - or even inquired about - are withdrawn.  Those monitoring the behavior of wayward comrades try to isolate them from other comrades, lest the “infection” spread. That is one reason factions never emerge in the SEP.  In those cases where the unorthodox ideas are not withdrawn, life is made more and more uncomfortable for the holdout. Former associates and friends are informed that so and so has become influenced by “alien class forces”.  More and more demands are made of the comrade to show his or her loyalty.  There is indeed a reason why National Conferences feature resolution after resolution adopted unanimously and it is not because the truth of these resolutions is beyond discussion.

Should someone actually leave the organization or be expelled because of differences over party policy, or a fundamental challenge to the leadership, they are cut off from further contact with friends and associates remaining in the party and its periphery.  It is well known that the SEP/ICFI practices this form of shunning and uses the threat of it to discourage anyone from leaving.

11. I maintained that the ICFI/SEP has rewritten its own history, an effort spearheaded. by North, in order to hide from their newer members some of the more dubious enterprises they were involved with in the past.  There were many chapters in the history of the ICFI that were gross departures from Marxist politics and ethics, particularly in the period from 1975-1985. One particularly heinous episode that I noted in my series Downward Spiral was the support expressed by the ICFI and in the pages of the Bulletin, for the political persecution of members of a group affiliated with the United Secretariat in Iran by the theocratic Khomeini regime. [22] North’s approach to this history is to either ignore unpleasant reminders of these chapters in the history of his own organization or blame it all on Healy. 

12. I maintained that North’s push to label all his political opponents part of an amorphous group he calls the “pseudo-left” has no objective content.  It is but a thin veneer for name-calling. It is also meant to insulate his supporters from any contact with other left groups. It tries to maintain an “us” against “them” division and discourage any examination of opposing arguments. It provides the illusion for his followers that they have somehow resolved all theoretical questions by labelling every other tendency part of a “pseudo-left”.

I have made the case that North’s organization bears no resemblance to the history and traditions of Trotskyism. I provided lots of evidence for my statement, and not for the first time.  North’s response is a turn to the politics of the gutter. In doing so he is following the traditions not of Trotskyism, but of Stalinism. I don’t think it is necessary to delve any further to recognize what kind of leader Mr. North has become.

The author also recommends:

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

The SEP on the nature of Russia and China

Russia as an imperialist power

The working class in fantasy and reality

Sectarianism and the Greek working class

Marxism without its head or its heart 

Downward Spiral of the ICFI

A charlatan exposed: A review of Gerry Healy

[1] An aging liar peddles his wares,
[3] Downward Spiral, Chapters 2 and 3, Concocting a smear campaign: Falsifying my history, and Concocting a smear campaign: North distorts the history of the Workers League/SEP,
[4] One such account that I would strongly recommend is the one from WRP member Bob Pitt, The Rise and Fall of Gerry Healy, .  While Pitt’s politics are very different than my own, and I do not subscribe to every interpretation of the events he presents, his account is factually truthful and far more nuanced and comprehensive than anything found in North’s writing on the subject. 
[6] I gave a lecture on the subject of dialectics, mass psychology and its relationship to transitional demands in Athens in 2015.  A transcript of that talk can be found here: The Dialectics of Revolutionary Strategy and Tactics,
[8] Georgi Valentinovich Plekhanov (1856–1918): His Place in the History of Marxism,
[9] The dialectical path of cognition,
[10] The references for these quotes are taken from my essay, The dialectical path of cognition, pages 10-17.  Those interested in the context behind these quotes should read that section of the essay.
[11] The Dialectical Path of Cognition and Revolutionizing Practice: A Reply to David North,, pages 16-17.
[12] Two voices of concern over Trump’s “New World Order”,
[14] US Supreme Court hears arguments in union agency fees case,
[15] The Pulitzer Prize rewards witch-hunting and state propaganda,
[17] How the WRP Betrayed Trotskyism, 39. The WRP Betrays the Miners Strike,
[18] A comment on the resolution of the SEP on the fight against war,
[20] North’s accusations were published in yet another attack on myself and Frank Brenner in 2015,
Foreword to The Frankfurt School, Postmodernism and the Politics of the Pseudo-Left: A Marxist Critique,
Part Two:
I responded to North in Part I of Crackpot philosophy and double-speak,
[21] Crackpot philosophy and double-speak: A reply to David North, Part I, War, Imperialism and Crisis Mongering