Thursday, July 12, 2018

An anti-working class organization: reply to comments

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Associated Industries wanted to portray organized labor as hostile to American values.  This advertisement appeared on November 1, 1919 in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and was intended to take advantage of heightened patriotic feeling in advance of Armistice Day. It's a fascinating document that shows that the right wing attack on the agency shop has a lineage going back a century to the ultimately successful attempt to destroy the closed shop.

Note: We are responding here to a series of comments to Frank Brenner’s article,

Reply to Commenters

A few points in response to the comments;

A couple of the commenters (Anonymous and Christie) have made the essential point about this contemptible position of the SEP. The Janus decision is above all else an attack on the collective bargaining rights of ALL workers, not just a crimp in the finances of the union bureaucracy. By endorsing this decision the SEP has gone over to the side of Right to Work and of the cabal of reactionary ideologues and billionaires like the Koch brothers who organized the campaign to push the Janus case to the Supreme Court. Eric London ignores these issues and the political context of the Janus case; the Koch brothers don’t even rate a mention in his several lengthy comments. As has been pointed out, the SEP position amounts to a classic case of throwing out the baby (the democratic rights of workers to organize collectively) with the bathwater (the union bureaucracy). It also amounts to crossing a class line by supporting a major legal attack on working class rights. As I argued in my post, on the basis of this position the SEP is now an openly anti-working class organization.

I think it's important, however, to underscore that the SEP did not arrive at this position by accident or that it represents a sudden departure. Go back to what Alex and I wrote in 2007, in particular to our analysis of North's lecture, Marxism and the Trade Unions, and you’ll see that the groundwork for this betrayal was already there. North starts out with a correct assessment that globalization has brought about a severe degeneration of the labor movement but he then takes what is essentially a conjunctural crisis and inflates it into a supposedly universal truth. The problem isn’t just unions in the era of globalization; the problem is the VERY FORM of unions themselves. “The organic development of trade unionism,” he declares, “proceeds, not in the direction of socialism, but in opposition to it.” This thesis is concocted out of a travesty of dialectics, and to say the least, it is sharply at odds with the attitude Marxists have traditionally taken towards unions.

A further point worth noting: the reactionary implications of this thesis apply not just to unions. As we pointed out, it can be wielded to renounce “any formation of the working class that arises SPONTANEOUSLY WITHIN CAPITALISM”. Precisely because of their spontaneous character, such formations will start out by accepting the limits of capitalism and seek to bargain for better conditions within the system: for example, a factory committee will seek to be a militant and honest alternative to the official union or else (in a non-union plant) try to establish itself as a union. And to the extent that these committees remain bound by spontaneity – i.e. to the extent that they remain cut off from a revolutionary socialist perspective – then it is certainly true that their ‘organic’ development will ultimately be in a reactionary direction [as North claims]. But one might as well say the same thing about spontaneous consciousness as such: it is bourgeois consciousness, as Lenin informed us long ago. But this is hardly the end of the matter as far as Marxists are concerned: formations like factory committees are also BATTLEGROUNDS IN THE STRUGGLE FOR SOCIALIST CONSCIOUSNESS. But this is what North’s ‘formalism’ deliberately obscures.”

This explains a glaring incongruity in SEP propaganda. Every article on labor issues ends with a call for the formation of “rank and file committees” as an alternative to the unions - and yet despite issuing these calls now for upwards of 13 years, there isn’t a single example they can point to of the formation of such a committee. So this is nothing more than empty rhetoric, a fig leaf to cover up the SEP’s long record of abstentionism with regard to the struggles of the working class.

But the truth is that even if such committees emerged - as they well might in this period - the SEP’s sectarian politics will be instinctively hostile to them. And North’s thesis will serve to rationalize that hostility, since after all; the “organic development” of any spontaneous movement of the working class within capitalism will be “not in the direction of socialism, but in opposition to it.” You get a foretaste of this hostility in the disgusting way the SEP has reacted to #MeToo, with North and company’s willful blindness to the social scourge of sexual abuse, including as it affects working class women.

A last point: I said in my post that socialists intervene in unions to the extent that members of those unions retain important gains that still need to be defended. The Janus decision is a dangerous attack on those gains, but SEP supporters like London deny such gains even exist, which is a big part of how they justify endorsing the Supreme Court’s union-busting. In one of the points in his legal brief-type indictment of my post, London asks rhetorically: “What are the rights and gains workers have won in the last 40 years due to the struggles led by unions?” He obviously feels that the answer is self-evident, but what the question actually demonstrates is how out of touch he and his party are with the working class.

One of the comments mentioned Bureau of Labor Statistics about the advantages of having a union compared to not having one. Here are some specific figures from those stats:

The wage premium for union work was 26 percent as of 2015, which means that unionized workers made on average 26 percent more than non-unionized workers for the same type of work. This wage premium was more pronounced for women and minorities. Female union members earned 33 percent more than their non-union counterparts. Hispanics doing full-time work earned on average 47 more in a union than out of it, and African-Americans earned 30 percent more.

The gap between union and non-union work is also evident in access to benefits. 94 percent of unionized workers have a pension, compared to 64 percent of non-union workers. For medical plans, the numbers are 95 percent compared to 68 percent. For paid sick leave, it’s 85 percent compared to 62 percent. For life insurance, it’s 86 percent compared to 56 percent.

Of course these numbers only paint a very general picture and they don’t disclose the deprivations that four decades of corporatist ‘business unionism’ have inflicted on union members. In particular statistical averages gloss over bureaucratic crimes like two-tier wage systems. Nonetheless, these numbers are not nothing. Especially in public sector unions, and especially in blue states like New York and California, these numbers reflect important gains that millions of workers have managed to preserve. They represent the difference between a minimally decent standard of living and perpetual drudgery. Which is why the Right to Work forces have been so persistent in their efforts to outlaw the agency shop and break up this last remaining stronghold of unionization. The SEP may not recognize the existence of these gains, but the Koch brothers certainly do.

A party so blithely indifferent to what matters to workers is one whose politics have gone off the deep end. The scratch of sectarianism has become gangrenous. The SEP is an organization that has gone over to the side of the enemies of the working class.

Frank Brenner

Reply to Eric London

Mr. London asks 10 questions that are either beside the point or are variations of a “When did you stop beating your wife?” type question. For instance, take this one,

The SEP calls for the formation of rank and file committees in the
work place, totally independent of the union. Why do you oppose this

We never said we opposed the slogan for rank and file committees. In fact we raised it even before the SEP did in the course of our critique of their conduct during the New York Transit Workers strike of 2005. What we opposed is the SEP’s use of this slogan as a subterfuge for their real position, which is indifference and hostility to the existing struggles of the working class, struggles which they contrast unfavorably to an idealized working class that exists only in their imagination.

I would like to ask Mr. London a couple of questions:

Do you maintain that workers are better off without being represented by a union than when they are unionized?

If so how do you account for the big difference in wages and benefits of workers in Right To Work states to workers who at least have the protection of a union contract?

The position of the SEP/WSWS defended by Mr. London has been a long time coming, evolving over the past 25 years as Frank has mentioned.  The WSWS unqualified labelling of all unions as “reactionary” in 1993 opened the door to what was later enshrined as a policy of abstentionism when it came to struggles of the working class.  This was further solidified by a talk given by David North in 1998 where he made the claim that the very form of a union guarantees that it will have a reactionary content.[1] We analyzed the philosophical muddle North created to justify this position in our document ‘Marxism Without its Head or its Heart’ back in 2007. [2]

The logical conclusion of this drift over the past years is now evident in the celebration of the WSWS over the Janus decision.  The Janus decision must be understood in its historical context.  It is a landmark legal decision that puts shackles on the efforts of public employee unions to survive.  It is a direct descendant of the infamous Taft Hartley Act of 1947 which made the closed shop illegal in the United States and placed massive restrictions on the ability of unions to take actions in defense of its members, including severely limiting the right to strike.  The agency shop was a compromise that survived after the closed shop was declared illegal.  With the agency shop state and local government employees were charged a fee whether they were members of the union or not in return for the union representing them in collective bargaining agreements.  Now that last vestige of legal protection for unions is gone.

Mr. London’s argument focuses on the automatic dues checkoff as providing a mechanism that lets the union bureaucracy escape accountability to its members. But Mr. London misses the bigger issue here which is that it is inconceivable that any membership organization can survive in this day and age without some kind of automatic dues paying system.  This is the 21st century and the time is long past when it was possible for shop stewards to collect dues from their members by walking around the shop floor and listening to every individual grievance.  You cannot force unions to be accountable to their members by restricting them to the methods and technology of the early 20th century, long before online banking and Internet transactions were possible.  Not to mention that today’s “shop floor” is likely to be a virtual “shop floor” in a rented office space many miles away from the headquarters of the agency the worker is logging into. It’s an absurdity.  To force unions to be accountable to its members is a political question, not a technical one.

Furthermore, as much as we may oppose the actions of the labor bureaucracy you cannot fight their influence by starving the unions.  And to cheer on a legal action imposed on the unions by the bourgeois state that cripples the unions is a betrayal of class solidarity.  

Mr. London raises the SEP’s slogan of “rank and file committees” as evidence that the SEP is not anti-working class, just anti-union. Again, this specious argument is a reflection of the sectarian mindset that dreams of an idealized working class which it then contrasts to the actual working class who come with all the baggage of a class divorced from socialist politics for three generations, including those messy unions.

The SEP’s supposed campaign for rank and file committees is a complete fraud meant to deflect criticism for their abandonment of the working class.  In the 13 years during which they have raised this slogan, we have yet to see evidence of a single rank and file committee emerging anywhere.
In reply to Anonymous, who pointed out quite correctly that in years past the WSWS claimed to oppose Right to Work laws, London finds a distinction between RTW laws and the dues checkoff system.  He quotes from an article from 2015,

“Republican-backed right-to-work laws are anti-worker and aimed at blocking any collective resistance to the corporations. That being said, workers have every reason to stop paying the UAW for the “privilege” of being sold out.” [3]

But what this statement elides is the difference between a rank and file revolt from below and a state-imposed mandate that encourages the more backward workers to leave the union.   Right to work laws have as their primary goal the elimination of the automatic dues checkoff and that in turn is a key part of a strategy to break the back of the last bastion of unionized workers in the U.S., the public employee unions.  Saying you oppose RTW but support its result makes no logical sense. The logical conclusion was indeed finally drawn by the SEP/WSWS with its June 28 article on the Janus decision. You will not find a single statement in that article opposing RTW.

An Anonymous commenter on our article hit the nail on the head when he or she wrote,

“In the Janus case in particular, the process and context matters. Even if we accept the very dubious argument that banning the agency shop is a good thing for the working class, it was achieved not by an initiative and activism by the workers from below but via a legal case brought by corporate-financed right-wing activists and endorsed by the most reactionary wing of the capitalist Supreme Court. You don't need to be an apologist for the union bureaucracy to oppose textbook union-busting from above, which Janus was a clear example of.”

Finally, I want to comment on Mr. London’s use of the “free speech” argument to defend the WSWS position in support of the Janus decision. London writes,

“Why should workers not have the right to withhold dues from the union
if they are dissatisfied with the policies and performance of the

This argument is no different than the one voiced in the majority opinion of the Janus case written by Justice Alito. He wrote that the collection of agency fees,

“…violates the free speech rights of non-members by compelling them to subsidize private speech on matters of substantial public concern.”

Justice Kagan, in her dissenting opinion, referred to the majority opinion as an example of “Weaponizing the First Amendment” and she was absolutely right to do so.  In recent years right wing forces have been using “free speech” arguments as a bludgeon against the working class, a phenomenon recently noted in an article in the New York Times. [4]

The right of free speech is a philosophical and legal maxim that has a long history. Its origins go back to the 19th century philosopher John Stuart Mill, whose essay On Liberty has been cited by both liberals and reactionaries over the years.  The “free speech” argument has been used to justify the “right” of scabs to sabotage strikes.  It has also been used to justify the right of racists and fascists to spread their poison. It is thus not surprising that it played a prominent role in the arguments before the Supreme Court to justify the campaign of extreme right enemies of the working class to place legal shackles on their right to organize.

The principle of free speech, as developed by Mill, is based on the myth of the atomistic individual in bourgeois society.  And that society in which this individual is supposed to exist is a legal fiction - a society shorn of class divisions. While the right to voice opinions and express them publicly is an essential part of any form of democratic society, when that right is deemed to be absolute, as it is by right wing “free speech” advocates, then it comes into direct conflict with other rights.  The necessity to limit this “absolute right” is often recognized in law by citing the example of someone who yells “Fire” in a crowded theater.

But what about the scab? Does the principle of class solidarity not also have a claim on our conduct?  Although this principle has absolutely no recognition in bourgeois law, it is inconceivable that the working class can defend itself, let alone go on the offensive, without it. It is no problem for right wing advocates of “free speech” to defend scabs and fascists since they do not recognize the right of the working class to defend itself.  Any organization based on class solidarity understands this principle implicitly. It is incumbent on any such organization to impose some sort of discipline on its more backward members; otherwise you would have to argue that scabs have just as much right to break a strike as militants do to engage in them. And indeed this is exactly what right wing anti-union forces argue, while at the same time hypocritically engaging in actions that would prevent militants from exercising their right to strike.

The real political forces behind the arcane legal arguments in the Janus vs AFSCME case were recently exposed in an article in The Intercept, which cited an umbrella organization, the State Policy Network, as coordinating the actions of all the right wing anti-union groups in the country.

State Policy Network member think tanks generally do not disclose their donors. Several are generously funded by foundations controlled by billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch. The Texas Public Policy Foundation, the State Policy Network affiliate in Texas, inadvertently revealed its donor list several years ago. The donor list included foundation grants from the Koch Industries, AT&T, Verizon, Altia, Geo Group, Exxon Mobil, Coca-Cola, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas, and the Claude Lambe Charitable Foundation, a nonprofit controlled by the Kochs, among others. State Policy Network refers to its donors as “investors.”
The post-Janus effort to decimate unions features specially tailored opt-out campaigns taking aim at organized University of California employees; teachers unions in Tulsa, Oklahoma; and AFSCME Council 2, which includes sewer district, county, and librarian workers throughout the state of Washington; among other public sector unions. [5]

These are the forces the WSWS finds itself in agreement with.

For all their left bluster, the WSWS may as well be joining with the Koch brothers in dancing on Joe Hill’s grave. 

Alex Steiner


Anonymous said...

As usual, the other guy is betraying the working class but not a word on what you've been up to for the last decade and how well or poorly you've fared. The tradition of literary criticism is safe in your hands.
I didn't read the part where you claimed the WSWS/SEP prevented you from intervening under your own banner, instead you wait for them to dazzle you with the success of their program. That's the only reason I can come up with for the following statement: "Every article on labor issues ends with a call for the formation of “rank and file committees” as an alternative to the unions - and yet despite issuing these calls now for upwards of 13 years, there isn’t a single example they can point to of the formation of such a committee. So this is nothing more than empty rhetoric, a fig leaf to cover up the SEP’s long record of abstentionism with regard to the struggles of the working class."

This criticism could have been made of the WL when you were a leader of it, since the call for a Labor party went nowhere. You like to point out that WSWS/SEP is alarmist when it points out that diplomatic tensions can lead to another world war. The same could have been said of Marx when he expected revolutions in the 1850s, since he turned out to be wrong.

You think that rank and file committees are figments of D. North's imagination, what are you proposing, a return to the old "build the Labor party, based on the unions", call or something entirely new? Quit wasting time on what others are doing and get to work on your own project.

Alex Steiner said...

Are you saying that we are not allowed to write anything critical of the WSWS/SEP unless we represent a political party that has developed a following in factories? If you really believe that then why do you think you have the right to criticize us? What after all you have you built, Mr.Anonymous?

Anonymous said...

Mr. Anonymous here. I've built nothing and I don't pretend to know how to do it the right way, as you do. I'm not criticizing you, only pointing out that you failed to clearly state what you stand for, other than criticizing D. North and his crew. As my comment indicated, being wrong isn't new to Marxism, so spending over a decade pointing out that the other guy is wrong
isn't terribly serious unless you've given proof that you've built something better. Trotsky wanted to militarize the unions under "War Communism" and was severely criticized by Lenin, who advocated abandoning that policy for the New Economic Policy(NEP). What you call my criticism is a simple question. What's your NEP, or is this just an exercise in literary criticism?

Alex Steiner said...

Mr. Anonymous,

To Marxists, ideas matter. Where you stand on a fundamental question facing the working class matters, regardless of how many followers you have or don't have. If you are incapable of discussing those ideas but instead want to change the topic into a discussion of our organizational abilities, then you are not a serious person. If you wish to dismiss our rasing of certain questions about the SEP/WSWS betrayal of a fudamental principle of working class solidarity as just so much "literary critcism" then you probaby belong in another forum more suited to the unfocused and intellectually vapid talking points of a Twitter feed.

Anonymous said...

Mr. Anonymous, again. Brenner's post claimed that being anti-union was a deviation from Marxism, as Lenin and Trotsky's debate on the nature of trade unions showed, they found nothing sacrosanct about such organizations, their views depended on what role trade unions were called upon to play in the general scheme. If War Communism was the party's policy, then the unions were to be militarized as Trotsky proposed. Lenin opposed such scheme because that policy led to disaster not out of an abstract adherence to trade unions as such.

"To Marxists, ideas matter. Where you stand on a fundamental question facing the working class matters, regardless of how many followers you have or don't have." Thank you. You do have a knack for stating the obvious! It was in anticipation of such grandstanding on your part that I wrote the following: "This criticism could have been made of the WL when you were a leader of it, since the call for a Labor party went nowhere. You like to point out that WSWS/SEP is alarmist when it points out that diplomatic tensions can lead to another world war. The same could have been said of Marx when he expected revolutions in the 1850s, since he turned out to be wrong." Yes, ideas matter. Again, what's your "NEP" idea in contrast to D. North and company's "War Communism"? I hope you don't find my question too intellectually vapid.

muskrat said...

I'm glad you mentioned Joe Hill the Wobblie because the IWW style of union differs in very significant ways from the labor fakirs of the AFL/CIO. The IWW preamble calls for the abolition of the wages system. Considering that almost 90% of the US workforce is unorganized and the AFL/CIO has not demonstrated any interest at all in organizing the great masses of these unorganized workers, which form of workers organization has the greatest chances of building strong resilient fighting workers groups? An organization like the IWW has a noble tradition and in many ways still has some potential to build a revolutionary rank and file mass union movement. Unfortunately the IWW of the present era is inhabited with reformists,liberals and others that joined for mostly nostalgic reasons. These folks seem to have forgotten that the IWW was and at least on paper still is opposed to reformism,and electoralism. Much of the IWW leadership calls themselves anarcho-syndicalists. I was a member for a while but the local group was pretty disorganized and lacked tangible goals and purpose. It wouldn't be very difficult for a focused group of revolutionaries to join the Wobblies and have a major impact.
Whether the Wobblies can be transformed or not isn't the main point though. In my opinion, as the class struggle more and more takes on characteristics of the early 20th century with the capitalist class getting nastier and rougher in their dealings with their workers, the working class will of necessity have to go back to organizational forms and strategies that best suit these changes in labor conditions, perhaps adding some new wrinkles to the older tried and true methods of the conducting the class struggle.
Don't expect the AFL/CIO to be supporting the working class as things heat up. The best that can be hoped for is that a few renegade union locals fight on their own with no support from the national and state organizations. In fact the labor bureaucracies will do everything within their power to sabotage local battles.
I will say it once again, boring from within does not work, and never has. Some of my labor organizing friends have spent many years of their lives futilely trying to change their unions. Sad really, all of that time and effort that could have been applied towards something more meaningful for the working class, but instead it was wasted.

Anonymous said...

Neither Alex or I are fetishizing unions. Our point was precisely the opposite: that North made a fetish out of renouncing unions as being reactionary by their very form. I think Marxists should be open to all kinds of organizational forms that may arise spontaneously in the class struggle. But that also should include the possibility of revolts within established unions against the bureaucracy. No doubt there have been a lot of failed efforts like that in the past, but we are living in a different era, where fissures are emerging even within a ruling class institution like the Democratic Party. The growth of support for socialism among millennials opens up new possibilities, including within unions.

All that being said, when an organization like the SEP comes out in support of union-busting by the Supreme Court, that does represent a stark betrayal of the Trotskyist legacy they claim to represent. This isn't a matter of a difference over tactics but a betrayal of class solidarity. If that doesn't concern you - and there's no indication it does from the comments posted here - then you have lost all sense of what it means to be a revolutionary Marxist.

As for the union debates in the early Soviet Union, this is totally off base. The Russian working class was politically in power in those years, which raised fundamental issues about the ongoing role of unions in such a society. This is a world apart from the situation we live under now.

As for the 'advice' about getting on with our own project, we are not a party and never claimed to be. But we have written a great deal on Marxist theory and history over the years, including several books. Maybe I am wrong but I suspect that, along with never building anything, you haven't written much either - except for the invaluable comments you occasionally choose to share. Since you just want us to shut up about North, might I suggest that you do the same about us.

Frank Brenner

Anonymous said...

"Since you just want us to shut up about North, might I suggest that you do the same about us."
Please indicate where I've asked you to shut up about North? I've asked you what your alternative to North is, since Marxists are in the habit of opposing one program to another. Social Patriotism vs International Class Solidarity during WWI and Socialism in one Country vs Permanent Revolution after the October Revolution. I only pointed out that your criticism of
WSWS/SEP lacks such clear demarcation. You guys sound like a bunch of grumpy customers who insist on frequenting the same diner for the pleasure of making the same complaints. I'm not even sure if you guys oppose “rank and file committees”.

"As for the 'advice' about getting on with our own project, we are not a party and never claimed to be. But we have written a great deal on Marxist theory and history over the years, including several books. Maybe I am wrong but I suspect that, along with never building anything, you haven't written much either - except for the invaluable comments you occasionally choose to share."

You are not wrong. I'm not vain enough to spill a great deal of ink when I've nothing to say since I don't know how to build anything. I'm glad to see that being in the same predicament hasn't stopped you. North and his crew have written a great deal of nonsense about "identity politics". It's not the first time they've made common cause with unsavory types around opposition to Affirmative Action. Their worship of 'saint' Thomas Jefferson doesn't sit right with me either, nor does their habit of censoring their comments section, all the while, loudly proclaiming their opposition to censorship by the likes of Google and Facebook. Your 'request' that I shut up about you, tells me you aren't different.
Mr. Anonymous.

Anonymous said...

Frankly speaking, as one of growing numbers of part-time wage-earners who have jobs neither on stable working condtions nor protected by worker organizations, I seem to have two minds about unions in general. One is something like envy -- I wish I belonged to one, so I could lead a more decent life. The other is resentment -- the unionized workers know little satisfaction such that they demand more than their current privileges without taking into account the poor circumstances of other workers.
However, I know that I wouldn't be a bit happier if unions were to disappear or be destroyed. I would be more helpless under the grips of management.
In my humble opinion, the blog's position is more reasonable and balanced in that it can see both dark sides of unions in the past or present and bright possibilities diffrently than SEP/WSWS.

Christie said...

Mr. Anonymous,

The SEP put themselves forth as the only way for the working class to gain power, and hold the party up as the one true Trotskyist standard bearer. However, a healthy party would provide the space for disagreement, patient explaining, and a dialectic materialist examination of history, current events, and possible ways to advance the cause of the working class and socialist revolution They do not. As a former member who tried in vain to raise issues, witnessed what happened to others when they tried, and who ultimately left the party in dismay, I find the space here provided by Misters Steiner and Brenner to be valuable.

It has become the only place where serious debate and discussion on the SEP occurs. That is shameful, and an indication of the rottenness of the SEP at present. One has to ask why debate does not happen within the ranks? Is not allowed? Why, if one has a question or disagreement, (and actually gets an answer) labels are hastily applied ("centreist", "revisionist", "opportunist", or, one could be said to be "in political retreat", or to have "come under alien class forces"), rather than a healthy and comradely discussion take place?

Why has the comments section of the wsws site devolved into fawning yes-men or attacks on those who ask a simple question? Why are not those simple questions taken at face value as a measure of interest, conversation cultivated, and a comradely attitude taken? Whither patiently explaining? The comments section is heavily-moderated, so it's not an accident.

The issue of the unions is a complicated one, and one which the SEP has fallen down on - simplifying it to a cartoonish extent by insisting that it is merely a mechanism for the bureaucracy to rake in the dough. What about the rank and file? What about the knock-on effect of the non-unionized workers in states where there is an automatic dues check-off making more on average than those in states without that - even as unionized workers' numbers are falling? To say the union is totally useless is to ignore the gains that were made, and to write off the idea of fighting to preserve and expand those gains. They cheer on the destruction without offering an alternative beyond "building rank and file" committees.

For all their crowing about "successful interventions" in strikes through the decades, where is the mass movement? Where is the gaining of long-term members? Where are the rank and file committees of workers on the shop floors? Where is the leadership in all of this? They put themselves forward as the only true working class party, so it is incumbent upon them to answer these questions.

To get answers, one has to ask. To ask, one has to have a voice. This forum is providing a voice.

Anonymous said...

Well I appreciate the fairness of your last comment. And my sympathies about your work situation. If I was sharp in my previous comment it was because I felt you were ignoring a shocking betrayal by the SEP of class solidarity, which goes way beyond tactical issues.

I agree that unions should do much more about the situation of non-union workers, but that would require a dramatic change. But it also should be said that we're seeing some early signs of that change - notably the red state teacher strikes. There the initiative in some cases came from non-union teachers, with the aim of expanding unionization and raising teacher salaries and education funding. These were remarkable struggles and ones which took a form no one could have predicted. In these struggles you had the start of a movement to unite unionized and non-unionized workers in a common struggle, which I think could be an influential precedent.

Frank Brenner

Anonymous said...

Mr. Frank Brenner, you are talking to the wrong Anonymous. You've been 'rough' with me, Mr. Anonymous, not the person who is having a tough time with his/her job situation.

"I agree that unions should do much more about the situation of non-union workers, but that would require a dramatic change. But it also should be said that we're seeing some early signs of that change - notably the red state teacher strikes".

If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. A pithy English proverb. Your rant against D. North's latest 'outrage' limps on all four legs. Why? Because the political role of the trade unions is, strangely, omitted. I seem to recall that the Dunne brothers, who actually led workers in a successful strike, were obliged to make pragmatic accommodations with the leadership of their union, good Roosevelt Democrats. The unions have been major props for the Democratic party and, less often, the Republican party. Don't tell me you've forgotten Nixon's Silent Majority, since it has been legal to organize unions. They are tied up with the CIA and the Mafia, good luck turning them into 'democratic' fora for the masses. A decade after the Dunnes led the workers to victory, they were done in by union bureaucrats, gangsters and Stalinists.

I recall that WL saw the Democratic party as the place where revolutionary upsurges go to die. Is it different now?

"Why has the comments section of the wsws site devolved into fawning yes-men or attacks on those who ask a simple question?" Good question. If you want to make Yankee patriotic legends pass as revolutionary Marxism, you are obliged to censor.

Adam Cortright said...

For the record, (a) debate is allowed and does take place within the ranks of the SEP; and (b) the comments section of the WSWS is hardly a place for yes-men exclusively. There are tons of commenters critical of the SEP there. This is the reason why I don't take this blog seriously. Its characterization of the WSWS and the SEP does not match reality. That's a shame because I have no problem with serious debate about issues as important as the trade union question. It's perfectly legitimate. But when you start to slander the SEP (saying it's a cult, there's no allowance of debate, etc.) you lose all credibility, because those of who support the SEP know this is nonsense.

Anonymous said...

Ex-SEP member to Adam C.
What debate? The only debate allowed within the SEP is how to prove those who disagree wrong, but I guess you have never disagreed with anything they say and have no experience in being subjected to harsh treatment. Try it and see what happens. As for comments, you see just a fraction of them, I know mine were blocked on many ocasions. Calling SEP a cult/sect is not a slender but a legitimate opinion based on one's experience within the party- I can testify it is one of the least democratic organizations I was a member of, free speech is not something they value, you must submit or pay the consequences.

Anonymous said...

You elevate collective bargaining to some kind of unalienable right. It has never been that. "Collective begging" is what many workers used to call it. The result has been the suppression of wages and the destruction of benefits, as well as the virtual disappearance of strikes ... until recently. So the question as to whether workers are better off with or without union representation, why don't you go to an auto plant and ask them? Most auto workers view the UAW as an extension of management; a police force to impose low wages and forced overtime. As a teacher, I have experienced first hand the rotten role of the AFT, and its President, Randi Weingarten, who also sits on the DNC. Workers must have organization, but for you the question of rank-and-file committees is simply a literary device, a trap to keep workers inside these rotten organizations. In fact, that was one of the main arguments advanced by the attorneys defending the union's position in the Janus case. They warned that new and more militant organizations would arise, and that is true. Rank and file committees will arise "spontaneously". Our role, as opposed to yours, is to give them a unifying socialist, internationalist and revolutionary perspective.

Anonymous said...

Reply to Mr. Anonymous:

So because the unions are tied to the Democratic party, it is okay to back union-busting??! The bureaucracy is guilty of a lot of crimes but the unions aren't just the bureaucracy. There is also the matter of several million workers who belong to those unions and who still preserve some important rights because of them. Your attitude is a thoroughly cynical one. You aren't just arguing that you don't know what to do, you are really saying that no one does. Yes previous efforts by revolutionaries like the Dunne brothers ended in defeat, but the lesson from that isn't to give up. You might as well say the same thing about the socialist revolution - it's hopeless because look at what happened in the Soviet Union, in China etc. But capitalism is still here, the need for socialism is more urgent than ever, and that need is becoming apparent to many people. You pick yourself up, dust yourself off and start all over again - as the old Broadway song goes. Or rather that's the attitude of those of us still committed to socialism, as opposed to cynics who are only interested in showing how clever they are.

Reply to Adam Cortright:

(a) You said you wouldn't comment on this web site any more, and yet here you are back again. (b) You said nothing about what you think about the SEP position on the Janus decision. Do you support union-busting? Do you support Right to Work? Because that is now the position of your party. It seems to me that from now on every member/supporter of the SEP should be forced to answer such questions because to stand with the SEP is to stand AGAINST the working class.

Frank Brenner

Christie S. said...

Anonymous Teacher - You say: "Rank and file committees will arise "spontaneously". Our role, as opposed to yours, is to give them a unifying socialist, internationalist and revolutionary perspective." I take it you are a member of the SEP, based on your "our role". This statement, about "spontaneously" arising rank and file committees seems strange, in light of the constant call of the SEP for form them - should they not be giving that "unifying, socialist" perspective in order to develop these committees deliberately?

As for rank and file committees being a "literary device", one could ask who is using this "device"? I have seen the plea in literally a decade of SEP articles at the WSWS whenever a strike is called and they "intervene". But what kind of membership gains have been made through the "successful interventions", as they constantly call their leafletting, in strikes? Has a single rank and file committee of any substance been created by the SEP in all the strikes in the U.S. in the past 10 years? For a party to constantly call for, but not cultivate such committees rather leads one to wonder what they actually mean?

In my experience in the SEP, I saw many an occasion where the "interventions" took place, and yet no workers were gained to the party beyond supporter level. I did see a lot of energy put into the cultivation of university students after the "turn to the universities" in the mid aughts, and gains made there. At the same time, and in the years since, I heard in many a branch meeting how the workers contacted during gathering interviews and distributing leaflets at strike sites were not responding to subsequent calls from comrades. One has to wonder why this was such a consistent situation.

I would say that it is because, while correct in the assessment of the union bureaucracy, the SEP at that time failed to provide a viable way forward for the workers. Since then (I have been out of the party for a couple of years now), they have taken on a very cynical position, and their support for the Janus Decision shows they are totally failing to differentiate between the bureaucracy and the rank and file. To the SEP, the effective End Of The Union is a win somehow. It will prove disastrous for the rank and file in the absence of any other mechanism of protection - even as paltry as the protection of the union was.

You speak of "spontaneous" development of the rank and file committees - why have they left that to chance? Also, if such a thing does happen, what is their actual plan? If it follows other spontaneous developments (Occupy Wall Street springs to mind, as does the tremendous teachers' strike in Wisconsin in 2011), their tactics will involve denouncing the leadership (however it is perceived) and ending the articles and leaflets with "Join the Party".

On what basis? To what end? And these are questions I ask now, because these are exactly the questions people would ask *me* when *I* leafletted, so it's not just me being cute or pugnacious, it's me pointing out that there has not been an answer forthcoming that tells the workers how they will take power over their own lives if they step away from these organizations that *are* corrupt, and that they *know* (because the working class is not a bunch of idiots) are corrupt, but that they also know is all they have at the moment. You have to offer something concrete, rather than a "fight for socialism" - you have to figure out What Is To Be Done, and back that up with action.

You can't ask people to put their necks on the line from a safe position yourself. Kishore, North, London, et all are not going to go hungry if the rank and file committee is busted up. But the workers will.

Gains HAD BEEN MADE by the unions of yore. These gains that had been made have to be fought for. This is not what the SEP is doing.

Anonymous said...

Adam, do you consider it censorship when the WSWS refuses to post links in its comment section to this website? I cannot post a comment that links to Brenner & Steiner's deep criticism of their various stands on issues. North can't respond well to criticism so he censors it.

Unknown said...

It's funny that A Cortright thinks there is debate allowed on the WSWS. My disqus handle is banned from there. What got me banned? Not sure, because I posted no more than a handful of tepid comments, one in fact defending Will Smith as a good actor. And though I did manage to get in on occasion, one pattern is consistent. All the comments I made challenging that bastard David Walsh, were removed. No, I did not call him a bastard. This was only after I was banned. Of course, their policy might have changed in response to Google's supposed censoring of them (Which they didn't do), forcing their hand in being a little more lenient. But as of yet, I have not been reinstated. And my other handle on another account has faced heavy moderation and a ban after two comments.

No, I don't feel sympathy for any of them.

muskrat said...

Yes, I also have had my comments screened, and one of them was censored on the WSWS site. I have studied up extensively on the WSWS,SEP,WRP,SLL and Healy in the last year or so. I don't see the SEP as being anything approximating the Party of the World Revolution as they proclaim they are. I am sure that there are a good many people (myself included) that read the WSWS daily but do not adhere to some of their political conclusions. I would not go to the lengths that Brenner does and brand the SEP an anti-working class organization.
I am thinking that a thorough study of the origins, history and evolution (or degeneration if you will) of the trade unions is in order. Maybe a good study exist that I am not aware of? In my opinion a quality study would take into consideration all newer research on evolutionary biology relating to human social behavior and etc.

Anonymous said...

HighProfileHermit refers to "that bastard David Walsh." This site is building its audience among embittered and psychotic haters of the SEP. You are attracting the readers you deserve.

Alex Steiner said...

Please refrain from name calling on this site. Examples of name calling are calling people "bastards" or "psychotic haters". I let a couple of comments go but any future use of such language will not be permitted.

Anonymous said...

Mr Steiner, can you tell me if you think the WSWS's coverage of the Russian election interference issue has been any good?

Unknown said...

I apologize for using that term in this forum, despite my sentiment in regards to him remaining. I will refrain from using it in the future. But his disgusting contempt for women and his attacks on social justice movements that he as well as the rest of his site describe as "Pseudo-left", among other terms. And their endless repeating of that in the Goebbels style, is bothersome. How are they considered the epitome of Socialist organizations? Is that as good as it's going to get?

Charles said...

When WSWS says that unions are anti-working class organizations, this is based on analysis. There are so many examples of workers' struggles being betrayed by the union bureaucracy that support this analysis. But when permanent-revolution turns around and calls the SEP anti working class, that is just reflexive name calling. The reply to Eric London above doesnt support that claim. All it does is show that there are sone residual benefits to union membership in the public sector. But these are not organizations within which struggles for the revolutionary transformation of society can be conducted. For me, Steiner and Brenner's support of unions really calls into question their whole perspective. If broadening Trotskyist analysis to include ideas from the Frankfurt School leads merely to attempt to recusitate the corpse of unionism, that doesnt seem a big gain from incorporating these perspectives.

Anonymous said...

Reply to Charles:

You've missed every salient point we've made. What's at stake in the Janus decision is not defending the union bureaucracy but defending THE RIGHT TO COLLECTIVE BARGAINING.

You admit that there are "some residual benefits to union membership". Eric London doesn't even admit to that. But how is it that such benefits can continue to exist if, as you say, unionism is just a "corpse"? In any case, the BLS numbers I cited show that these benefits are far from insignificant, which is to say that the "corpse" is still breathing. Why else do you think that corporate gangsters like the Koch brothers have been so relentless in trying to destroy collective bargaining rights?

One further point in this regard: in the event that rank-and-file committees do emerge, what do you imagine these committees will do? Assuming they emerge spontaneously, which is most likely going to be the case, they will seek to bargain collectively for the workers that support them. In other words, they will seek to exercise the very right that the Supreme Court has just denied them - with the approval of the SEP. I don't think such workers will have any trouble identifying the SEP as an anti-working class organization.

As for the WSWS position on the unions, we subjected that to a lengthy analysis in Marxism Without its Head or its Heart, which we've referenced repeatedly in this discussion. Before you accuse us of name-calling, you should actually take the time to read and engage with that analysis.

As for your reference to the Frankfurt School, that is just an echo of North's anti-intellectual gibberish.

Frank Brenner

Christie S. said...

The support is for the rank and file, and the consideration of what the Decision will mean for them is the point. Where the SEP insists it is a win (which, as noted by S&B, is an opinion shared by the right-wing union-busters), it is ignoring the cost of this decision for the working class as a whole. The question of how this decision is of benefit to the working class has certainly not been answered by the writers of the WSWS - this question has been avoided and hidden under the blanket of how bad it will be for the bureaucracy and the Democrats.

No one has argued in favor of either of these entities. But the SEP has conflated the bureaucracy with the workers in unions. This is incorrect. Workers trapped in rotten - and yes, anti-working class - organizations need to be defended, and if a decision ultimately hurts *their* interests, it has to be denounced, not lauded.

To ask and analyze what the decision means for the union rank and file and the un-unionized working class is exactly what socialists should be doing. Ultimately, this decision is a blow against workers' rights to organize. The SEP's celebration of it is incorrect and the result of a failure to look at the implications dialectically.

Charles said...

Relevant to this debate:
Reich makes an interesting point:
"Two fundamental forces have changed the structure of the US economy, directly altering the balance of power between business and labor. The first is the increasing difficulty for workers of joining together in trade unions. The second is the growing ease by which corporations can join together in oligopolies or to form monopolies."
The article provides some evidence to support Steiner and Brenner's analysis of unions.

But: CAN unions actually be reformed? OK, the problem is the union bureaucracy, but is it possible to undo the power of the bureaucracy within these structures?
Also, I take the the task of workplace committees not to be collective bargaining, but revolutionary organizing. Now, whether that is realistic in these times is a key question.

Regarding the Frankfurt School - I'm actually very interested in their ideas and don't dismiss them. But I do think that there is a fundamental problem, which is their view that advanced capitalism has incorporated the working class and overcome the crisis tendencies of capitalism and rendered class struggle latent. That had some truth in the first two post-war decades (and the bureaucratization of class relations via the unions was part of what gave that perspective a degree of reality then). The uncoupling by the Frankfurt School of Marx's critique of alienation from Marx's economic analysis in capital was very detrimental. Whatever arguments one can make about the details of North's analysis, I think he makes a fundamental point about the Frankfurt School providing intellectual cover for an abandonment of class by the left intelligentsia.

Charles said...

Even if you are correct that engagement in the unions in order to reach the working class is the correct strategy for Trotskyists, it is still rhetorical and, I believe, destructive, to call the SEP 'anti-working class'. They may be wrong, but they're not anti-working class. They are consistently partisan on the side of the working class. How can one read the WSWS and think it is anti-working class? The website itself performs a crucial service to the working class by penetrating through the fog of mainstream media and presenting and analyzing events from a Marxist, working-class perspective. The SEP is not a vast behemoth but a small organization made up of people absolutely dedicated to the working class struggle. What about the Auto Workers Newsletter? What about the Amazon Workers Newsletter? These may be modest but they are significant interventions and achievements for an organization that does not have unlimited resources or personnel? It's one thing to engage in criticism of the SEP but another to attack it as anti-working class. It's one thing to call organizations such as the UAW anti-working class when the leadership takes bribes from the auto companies in order to push through sell-out contracts. To use that label against the SEP is a totally different matter. I think it is destructive and unhelpful.

Charles said...

I don't understand the point of this blog. It seems to have moved from criticizing the SEP while being in basic sympathy to outright hostility and opposition to the SEP. What is the point of an anti-SEP blog? What do you have to offer instead? It seems to me the SEP is the only organization telling the truth consistently, most importantly about imperialism and the danger of World War Three, and about the movement of the whole political spectrum to the right, and about the need for a total break with bourgeois organizations and the necessity of revolution. Calling the SEP anti-working class is destructive and reactionary. Is that the point of your blog, just to attack the SEP? It doesn't seem like constructive criticism any more.

Anonymous said...

Somebody needs to criticize the SEP because there is so much to criticize! They've been predicting that WW3 is about to start for decades and have been wrong every time. I don't know how much of this blog you have read but the SEP is wrong and dishonest about so many things that it baffles me that people defend them so fiercely.

Alex Steiner said...

Response to Charles Part I:

Reich's point is indeed correct. He refers to data showing that when the powers of unions are weakened and the power of corporations strengthened the wages and conditions of life of the working class suffer. It's an observation that confirms everything Marx taught us about the mutually antagonistic relationship between labor and capital and makes toast of all the rubbish spread by free marketeers and other right wing ideologues, financed by the most virulent representatives of the bourgeoisie like the Koch brothers, that claim workers are better off without unions.

It is therefore somewhat of a shock to see an organization claiming to be Marxist echoing the free marketeers in saying that workers would be better off without unions. But that is exactly what the Socialist Equality Party have done. To have ended up in this position is not simply a matter of having a mistaken analysis, as Charles indicates. It is true of course that their analysis of unions is grossly mistaken and stands on a fundamental misreading of history and a bastardization of philosophy. This much we analyzed in detail a dozen years ago. But nothing stands still in this dialectial universe. What was an incorrect analysis a dozen years ago has now metamorphosed into a fundamental betrayal of the principle of working class solidarity. That is why we are now saying that the SEP is an anti-working class organization. They have crossed a class line in their support of the reactionary Supreme Court decision in the Janus vs. AFSCME case. We characterize the SEP in this manner not because we are interested in name-calling - a practice they theselves indulge in with nauseating regularity - but because we feel we have a responsibility to tell the truth without any adornments or illusions.

Alex Steiner said...

Response to Charles Part II:

Charles raises the question,

"CAN unions actually be reformed? OK, the problem is the union bureaucracy, but is it possible to undo the power of the bureaucracy within these structures?"

There are a lot of assumptions behind that statement. If you are looking for organizations of the working class to become centers for the preparation of the revolution then you will of course be disappointed in unions as they function in ordinary times. But then again you would be disappointed in any kind of working class organization including the rank and file committees that the SEP likes to put forward as their alternative. But under exceptional circumstances, it is possible for organizations of the working class, including unions, to play a revolutionary role. This was one of the lessons of the Russian Revolution, a fact to which we pointed in our analysis of the SEP's position on the unions in Marxism Without its Head or its Heart.

Now the SEP's position is that the unions have become so rotten that they no longer can even function as organizations that defend the interests of workers even within the framework of capitalism. There is a lot of truth to that if you are painting with a very broad brush. But the broad-brush view, while helpful as a general orientation, cannot provide sufficient concreteness to be a practical guide to action. There are differences between unions and in locals within unions. And even a rotten union, as the Reich essay makes clear, is generally better than having no union at all. It is possible even today, to see revolts from the rank and file arise within unions against the bureaucracy. And as we have seen with the teachers strikes, struggles can emerge among non-unionized workers. And what do those struggles always demand? Better wages and working conditions and some sort of security that can only be provided by a collective bargaining agreement. In other words, they begin to function as unions and want the support of other sectors of the working class for their struggle. The SEP's blanket denial that it is impossible to fight the bureaucracy in any union under any circumstances is nothing more than an excuse for abstaining from the struggle. For Marxists to gain influence within working class organizations necessarily involves a struggle against the bureaucracy. To think that this struggle can simply be bypassed by magically creating "rank and file committees" that do not have a bureaucracy is nothing more than a form of wishful thinking.

Ask yourself this - what is preventing the SEP from running candidates for office within unions? Is it likely that they will very quickly capture the leadership of the union away from career bureaucrats? No, of course not, but does that mean that there is nothing to be gained from conducting a campaign that tries to make the bureaucracy accountable? If you think not then you might as well say the same thing about fielding candidates for Congress. There is no possibility that an SEP representative will be elected to Congress but apparently the SEP still thinks there is some value in running for Congressional Office. Why does this not apply to unions?

So maybe the question should be not, "Can unions be reformed?", but "Is it possible to fight for a socialist perspective to defend workers within unions?" in which case the answer is absolutely "YES".

Anonymous said...

"It's an observation that confirms everything Marx taught us about the mutually antagonistic relationship between labor and capital and makes toast of all the rubbish spread by free marketeers and other right wing ideologues, financed by the most virulent representatives of the bourgeoisie like the Koch brothers, that claim workers are better off without unions."

How can this be a shock to you when this was the position the SEP was putting forward some two decades ago when you reapplied to join? Your insinuation that this is an innovation of the last few months is unsustainable. It would appear that it is your attitude to the unions that has changed--not that of SEP...

And in light of your comments above, could you comment on the latest revelations about the corruption of the UAW...i.e., that it went to the top, involved virtually the entire apparatus of the union, and was nothing less than a systematic defrauding of auto workers. The union was receiving massive kickbacks from the big three while "negotiating" contracts that slashed workers' jobs, wages and conditions. How can such entities be described as "workers organisations" in any sense of the term, and why should socialists promote the illusion that they can be reformed or revived?

Alex Steiner said...

Response to Anonymous:

It is complete rubbish to claim that the SEP had the same position on the unions two decades ago that they do today. While they already had a highly distorted understanding of the unions even two decades ago, they still expressed a strong opposition to Right To Work laws. We have documented this previously but SEP supporters are apparently incapable of acknowledging this simple fact. Here is an example of their previous opposition to Right To Work laws from 2012, in an official statement from the Socialist Equality Party, which states,

"The Socialist Equality Party opposes the “right-to-work” legislation being rushed through the Michigan legislature by Governor Rick Snyder and state Republicans. Despite its misleading name, the measure has nothing to do with guaranteeing jobs or any other right to workers. On the contrary, it is aimed at stripping workers of any means of collectively defending their jobs, living standards and working conditions.

Funded by the most right-wing and anti-working class forces—including billionaire Richard DeVos and the Koch Brothers—the measure bans collective bargaining agreements that require workers to pay dues or fees to unions as a condition of employment. By instituting what is in effect an open shop requirement for all public and private-sector workplaces, the corporate backers of the legislation hope to remove any restrictions on their exploitation of labor.

States that currently have right-to-work laws, including Mississippi and South Carolina, are among the most impoverished in the United States. According to a study by the Economic Policy Institute, wages for both union and nonunion workers are on average $1,500 a year lower in right-to-work states."

No to Michigan’s ‘right-to-work’ legislation

I would never have applied to join any organization that supports the Janus decision or any other Right To Work legislation.

As for the corruption of the UAW what is preventing you or any SEP member from fighing this corrupt bureaucracy by pursuing all avenues that are available including - but not limited to - pressing criminal charges, creating rank and file committees and organizing opposition movements within the UAW? What is your point? Are you saying that this union is now the equivalent of "unions" that were imposed on workers by the Mussolini fascist regime, where any hint of opposition landed you in prison? Are the crimes of the UAW bureaucracy now supposed to be an excuse for abandoning a defense of unions against assault by the bourgeois state? If so how would you explain Trotsky's position even at the height of the Moscow Trials that it was necessary to defend the Soviet Union against attacks by external enemies despite the crimes of the Stalinist bureaucracy?

Alex Steiner said...

Reply to Charles Part III:

A couple of other points Charles makes: It is destructive to call the SEP an anti-working class organization.

I would say that it is incumbent at this point to expose the SEP for what they are as any illusion that this party has anything to do with "socialism" simply gives socialism a bad name among class conscious workers. I simply cannot imagine how one can speak to a worker in the name of socialism and at the same time defend the Janus decision. I am sure that many members of the SEP feel sympathy for the working class but they have to come to terms with the fact that the organization to which they belong no longer defends the working class from attacks by the bourgeois state. That is the significance of their support for the Janus decision. It does mark a certain turning point.

Finally I think Charles is far too indulgent in granting some credbility to David North's claims to have "analyzed" the Frankfurt School. I would say, "What analysis"? It is certainly legitimate for Marxists to critique the theories of the Frankfurt School, but you will not find anything of the sort in the writings of David North on the subject. Rather North has perpetrated an intellectual fraud in his various fulminations against the Frankfurt School. If you want to discuss that seriously then I would point you to our writings on this subject:

Crackpot Philosophy and Double-Speak

Response to a review of 'The Frankfurt School, Postmodernism and the Politics of the Pseudo-Left'

Downward Spiral of the International Committee For an extended discussion of the history of the Frankfurt School and some of North distortions of that history see Chapter 1, pages 13-17, 23-29.

It is not a matter of North getting some details wrong, but of concocting out of whole cloth a narrative about the Frankfrut School that has nothing to do with its actual history or its thought, but has everything to do with justifying a philosophical and political stand that has finally landed him in the camp of the enemies of the working class.

Charles said...

You say "What was an incorrect analysis a dozen years ago has now metamorphosed into a fundamental betrayal of the principle of working class solidarity. That is why we are now saying that the SEP is an anti-working class organization." But the thing is, I think the SEP's analysis of the unions is becoming more correct all the time. The historical process underway is toward the transformation of unions into organizations that operate to suppress strikes and police the working class on behalf of capital. What is driving that is contradiction between the union form, which is national and oriented to the nation state, and the globalization of production. The ability to move 'fixed capital', together with financial instruments that facilitate the movement of capital, have immensely strengthened the power of capital in relation to labor and it is that changing balance of power that is reflected in the degeneration of unions into being representatives of capital to labor rather than vice versa. This process has gone hand in hand with political changes that are also driven by globalization the demise of social democracy and the end of the social democratic character such as it was of the Democratic Party in the US. And the collapse of the Soviet Union (which I think the SEP is correct to say globalization was also a major cause of) strengthened capital and removed a lot of the fear of revolution which had motivated reformism. So the dialectical change, the metamorphosis, is in the unions themselves, their degeneration. (And you so often accuse the SEP of not having a dialectical analysis!) Yes, there are benefits still to be being a member of a union. But the unions are degenerating even from the limited reformist role they had. The SEP is pointing to, and through their approach, emphasizing and highlighting the direction of change. And this is a change that is very far along the way. The benefits of union membership mentioned by Reich are residual. Workers need to respond to globalization with new organs of struggle. The SEP is tacking ahead of events in a way, in order to clarify the direction of change. I appreciate that. And I see it as a very honest approach. The alternative - which by the way is Robert Reich's politics - is pretending that social democracy can be restored and that means obfuscating the direction of change in order to suggest that there is nothing wrong with the union form. Well, there is, and increasingly so. The postwar order is collapsing (witness Trump at the G7). This is a period when the contradictions of capitalism can no longer be contained. It will be a period of wars and revolutions. Workers need new organs of struggle in this period. This is what I take to be the SEP's analysis and I find it very cogent.

Charles said...

Is 'critical theory' (i.e. the tradition of thought deriving from the Frankfurt School) class theory? No it is not. It rejects the salience of class. It treats capitalism as a form of rationality rather than class exploitation. It looks to the sources of social change in cultural movements, environmental movements, new social movements of all kinds, feminism, third world and post-colonial movements, and in discourse, civil society, the 'lifeworld' etc.
Therefore, the legacy of the Frankfurt School is a turn away from class politics, something fundamentally un-Marxist, which masquerades as Marxism in the universities.
Therefore, North is fundamentally correct.
What his book on the Frankfurt School is about is the historical-political legacy of the Frankfurt School. Its legacy is a turn of the 'radical intelligentsia' away from Marxism and away from the working class. In this crucial way, the Frankfurt School is a key part of the intellectual background of today's pseudo-left. I think North is correct about that.
Even if, as I do, you think that there are really important ideas in the Frankfurt School (on the psychology of authoritarianism, on the distortion of science into a tool of repression, on consumerism, for example) one still has to acknowledge that it is a fundamental problem that the overall movement of the Frankfurt School itself and of critical theory following it was away from class analysis and class politics. Is that not true?

Alex Steiner said...

Response to Charles on unions:

You are just repeating yourself and show no evidence that you have read a word of our critique of the SEP's analysis of the unions. Can you summarize our critique of North's discussion of the "union form"? No I didn't think so.

You concede that unions still offer some benefits - a concession the SEP is unwilling to admit. But you think it is fine that the SEP refuses to defend those unions and even praise them for "tacking ahead of events in a way, in order to clarify the direction of change." But please tell us what the working class should do until Mr. North leads that movement with new organizations of struggle, which I have no doubt is coming soon? I guess they will just have to settle for having no organizations of any sort to defend them.

Alex Steiner said...

Response to Charles on Frankfrut School:

Charles, you seem to be incapable of reading anything we have written or responding to it in a meaningful way. But you do seem to be very good at repeating formulas you have picked up from Mr. North's writing on the Frankfurt School. This is not the first time I have asked you to respond to our critique of North's butchery of the history and ideas of the Frankfurt School.

It is a waste of everyone's time to continue this discussion with you as you are not arguing in good faith.

Anonymous said...

Although I know my demand is presumptuous, I’ve always felt sorry that the number of posts by Steiner or Brenner is rather too scant. In retrospect, however, they have written very enough. Those who should have listened to them more than anybody else didn’t. As with tango, it takes two to debate. Without the proper opponents with compatible intellectual integrity, how could they have the motivation to coax their hands to type the keyboard? Nevertheless, I build up my courage to ask Steiner for an opinion about Carlo Rovelli and broader themes regarding modern cosmology. (As for Carlo Rovelli, I came across an article about him in WSWS, which I thought very intriguing and instructive. So, I went so far as to buy Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, which was good but seemed to be too sketchy.)

Alex Steiner said...

I do think that Carlo Rovelli has written a number of interesting books explaining science to lay people. There is in fact a kind of Renaissance of books by working scientists attempting to present contemporary science to the public. Others who have done so are Richard Muller, Lisa Randall, Brian Greene, Roger Penrose, Michio Kaku, Neil DeGrasse Tyson and of course the late Stephen Hawking. There have also been a number of attempts by philosophers who are concerned with the natural sciences to provide conceptual tools for making sense of contemporary developments. Some of the notable contributions in this area can be found in the writings of Thomas Nagel, Roberto Mangabeira Unger, and Lee Smolin and Julian Barbour who are both physicists and philosophers. There is a keen interest in the natural sciences among wide audiences these days as witnessed by the popularity of the Nova series on PBS and the brisk attendance at the World Science Festival held annually in New York. These are all welcome developments and are in some ways a return to the humanistic understanding of the natural sciences that the late Carl Sagan championed. But we should also keep in mind that capitalism has little use for the spirit of free inquiry represented by science at its best when it is liberated from the profit motive. On the contrary contemporary culture is ridden with attacks on genuine science, the spread of pseudo-science, quackery, superstition, conspiracy theories and all sorts of other rubbish. Some of these retrograde trends find expression in popular presentations of science, so one must choose carefully what one reads. If you want to pursue this discussion, which is not exactly the topic of this article, I suggest you write to me offline at revolutioninpermanence @

Anonymous said...

As a worker, why should I have money automatically withdrawn from me meager paycheck in order to pay a union that doesn't defend my rights?

Anonymous said...

As a worker, why would you support a decision which is in effect a barrier to workers organizing? You should absolutely fight your union on decisions that work against your interests - of that there is no question. But you also need to fight for your right to organize. The Janus Decision is a blow against *that*.