Thursday, October 3, 2019

The trade union form and the butchery of dialectics

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Introduction


On Sept 28, 2019, the World Socialist Web Site reprinted a 1998 lecture by David North with the title Why are trade unions hostile to socialism?  We can only speculate why North chose to reprint this lecture at this time.  It is notable in that it is practically alone among North’s numerous writings and lectures, where he ventures to use “dialectics” to make an argument for a perspective he was defending.  Far more common in North’s oeuvre are expressions of contempt for dialectics. For some examples of the latter see the essay ‘Hatred of the Dialectic’.

North has for decades trumpeted his role in exposing Gerry Healy’s butchery of dialectics. As we have shown however, North’s critique of Healy was highly superficial and never got to the philosophical essence of the matter. (See our introduction to and reprint of David Bruce’s ‘A Charlatan Exposed’) The main lesson North drew from his encounter with Healy is that “dialectics” is a suspicious endeavor and one should avoid it like the plague. It is therefore notable that in this 1998 lecture North appeals to the “dialectic” to make his case.  The results are not much different than those achieved by Healy. A total mess is made of a half-baked venture into philosophy in order to argue for a position that is completely untenable.  Dialectics, which is revolutionary in its essence, is transformed into its opposite, a form of apologetics for a turn away from the working class.

It just so happens that we are very familiar with this 1998 lecture because we commented on it in great detail in Chapter 5 of our book long polemic from 2007, Marxism Without its Head of its Heart. We are reprinting our comments on North’s 1998 essay exactly as they appeared in our 2007 polemic.  This is an excerpt from a much longer piece,  Chapter 5 of Marxism Without its Head or its Heart.  That chapter is a general critique of the attitude of North’s organization, the Socialist Equality Party, toward the trade unions.  In reading this discussion it should kept in mind that it was written 12 years ago and things have moved on since then. While I think that pointing to the abstentionism of the SEP at that time was justified, the further degeneration of North’s group since then has transformed it into an organization openly hostile to the working class.  This was announced loud and clear in their defense of the Supreme Court’s Janus decision in 2018. (See our essay, An anti-working class organization.)

In the following excerpt we have re-numbered the notes. References following quotes of North’s 1998 lecture refer to the page number of the printed version of the pamphlet.

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Rationalizing Abstentionism

 

The turning away from an engagement in the struggles of the working class can already be discerned in North’s lecture, Marxism and the Trade Unions, which was delivered in January 1998, four and a half years after the Workers League perspectives resolution. The lecture was intended as a reiteration of the party’s analysis of the unions, while at the same time contrasting that analysis with the kowtowing to the bureaucracy of various middle class radical tendencies. But on a careful reading it becomes evident that there is a shift of emphasis in the lecture. Whereas the 1993 analysis had been animated by a call for ambitious new interventions by the party in the working class, there is only a passing mention of that in the lecture.

Instead a line of argument is introduced which claims that the “social form” of trade unionism makes it organically reactionary: “The organic development of trade unionism proceeds, not in the direction of socialism, but in opposition to it” (11). This claim is made on supposedly philosophical grounds, and to the extent that the history of the unions is brought in, it is to confirm the philosophical argument. At the same time that trade unionism is being depicted as organically reactionary, there is virtually no mention of the need for the party to involve itself in new forms of struggle in the working class. What this adds up to, as we will see, is a rationalization for abstentionism.

The philosophical argument concerns the relationship of form and content. Here are the relevant paragraphs:
It must be kept in mind that when we set out to study trade unionism, we are dealing with a definite social form. By this, we mean not some sort of casual, accidental and amorphous collection of individuals, but rather a historically-evolved connection between people organized in classes and rooted in certain specific relations of production. It is also important to reflect upon the nature of form itself. We all know that a relation exists between form and content, but this relationship is generally conceived as if the form were merely the expression of content. From this standpoint, the social form might be conceptualized as merely an outward, plastic and infinitely malleable expression of the relations upon which it is based. But social forms are more profoundly understood as dynamic elements in the historical process. To say that "content is formed" means that form imparts to the content of which it is the expression definite qualities and characteristics. It is through form that content exists and develops.
Perhaps it will be possible to clarify the purpose of this detour into the realm of philosophical categories and abstractions, by referring to the famous section in the first chapter of the first volume of Capital, in which Marx asks: "Whence, then, arises the enigmatical character of the product of labor, so soon as it assumes the form of commodities? Clearly from the form itself." That is, when a product of labor assumes the form of a commodity a transformation that occurs only at a certain stage of society it acquires a peculiar, fetishistic quality that it did not previously possess. Once products are exchanged on the market, real social relations between people, of which commodities are themselves the outcome, necessarily assume the appearance of a relation between things. A product of labor is a product of labor; and yet, once it assumes, within the framework of new productive relations, the form of a commodity, it acquires new and extraordinary social properties.
Similarly, a group of workers is a group of workers. And yet, when that group assumes the form of a trade union, it acquires, through that form, new and quite distinct social properties to which the workers are inevitably subordinated. What, precisely, is meant by this? The trade unions represent the working class in a very distinct socio-economic role: as the seller of a commodity, labor power. Arising on the basis of the productive relations and property forms of capitalism, the essential purpose of the trade union is to secure for this commodity the best price that can be obtained under prevailing market conditions (12-13).
Now, we are the last people who would object to bringing in philosophy into such a discussion, especially since it is such a rare occurrence in the party’s lectures or articles. But in this case the resort to ‘dialectics’ turns out to be spurious. First, the relationship of form to content is conceived of in a static and one-sided way. North views the form (i.e. the union) as the active agent, while the content (the working class) is the passive recipient. But as any student of dialectics should know, what is passive at one moment in relation to its active opposite plays the opposite role at the next moment. It is not only form that determines content but content that can also determine form (or, as Hegel puts it nicely, “‘content’ is nothing but the overturning of form into content, and ‘form’ nothing but the overturning of content into form”[1]). What this means in relation to the unions is that the content of the class struggle, although hamstrung by the limitations imposed on it by what we can call here the ‘union-form’, threatens to overreach the limits of that form. At that point, the possibility exists of the newly emerging content (to paraphrase Marx) breaking up the integument of the existing form.[2] Thus what North is presenting here is a static formalism that ignores the fluidity of the concepts of form and content.

Second, the analogy of a commodity to a union leaves out something important: workers are not things. A worker is not ‘stamped’ by union membership to the same extent that a product becomes stamped as a commodity in a market economy. Though in the form of the union, workers are defined as sellers of labor-power, the content of that social relation is the class struggle. It is that content which makes it possible for workers to become conscious of their exploitation and of their revolutionary role as society’s chief productive force, thereby empowering them to overthrow the existing relations of production. To state the obvious, a product of labor cannot become conscious; it cannot escape its commodity-form so long as capitalism exists. But workers aren’t imprisoned by the ‘union-form’ to anywhere near the same extent: the dynamic within unions is much more tenuous, with the class struggle always lurking as a threat to the ‘normal    business’ of class collaboration. It is this very instability that accounts for the heavy-handedness of the bureaucracy: they can only maintain their domination by quashing any manifestation of dissent.

This side of the matter is lost sight of in North’s ruminations on the trade unions as a social form: for him that form imparts “distinct social properties to which the workers are inevitably subordinated.” To be sure, the subordination is real enough, but why is it necessarily inevitable? It is only so if one leaves out the possibility of workers ever being able to attain socialist consciousness so long as they are within unions. In other words, what North is saying here is that purely by virtue of the fact that workers are union members, it becomes impossible for the revolutionary movement to win them over. The historical account of the unions that North offers up is meant to make such a case, but as we’ll soon see, it is a highly selective reading of that history. But before we get to that, we can already anticipate serious problems in North’s position. Seeing as (according to Lenin) trade unionism is the highest level that the spontaneous consciousness of the working class can reach within bourgeois society, it would seem that if North is right, then any breakthrough to socialist consciousness by the working class becomes virtually impossible. The workers will go on spontaneously reproducing the trade union-form, and that form will then “inevitably” subordinate them to capitalism, irrespective of what the revolutionary party does to reach them. This is a dead-end theoretically, and politically it amounts to giving up on the struggle for class consciousness with a shrug of resignation.

So it is no coincidence that the ambitious proposals for intervening in the working class that had been envisioned in 1993 are forgotten about in this lecture. Back then the perspectives resolution declared: “The party must strive to create new forms of struggle among these workers [i.e. those already in unions], including factory committees and even trade unions, organized independently and in opposition to the AFL-CIO.” Even trade unions! But in light of North’s lecture, this proposal no longer made any sense: it would hardly matter if these unions were independently organized and opposed to the bureaucracy because the union-form itself would make them organically reactionary.

And why limit this just to unions? Why can’t the same ‘formal’ principle apply to factory committees or neighborhood committees to fight evictions and school closures or indeed 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. 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 class consciousness. But this is what North’s ‘formalism’ deliberately obscures.

The analysis of the unions in the 1993 resolution had been much closer to a genuinely dialectical conception. It was not form abstracted from content but huge shifts in the world economy brought about by globalization that had pushed the traditional unions past the point of no return. It was in this sense that the resolution had argued against the “superficial tendency” of the petty bourgeois radicals to ascribe the problems of the unions to bad or treacherous leaders: the deeper dimensions of the problem were about how class collaboration and nationalist orientations were no longer viable within a globalized capitalism.

But North’s lecture moves in a different direction: by rooting the problem of the unions in their form, he produces another kind of “organizational fetishism”, one which doesn’t transcend the radicals’ position so much as invert its terms. In effect the argument now is that the unions were a hopeless cause from the start, and by implication the same would be true of any union-like formation, which is to say any spontaneous formation of the working class. So while the organizational fetishism of the radicals leads to opportunism, North’s fetishism-in-reverse leads to abstentionism. But the second is as much an abandonment of revolutionary practice as the first.


What the History of the Unions Really Shows


To be sure, the degeneration of the unions was not some sudden demise of otherwise healthy organizations. It was a protracted process, and to the extent that they have been free of revolutionary ‘disruptions’, the unions have veered towards corporatism. Their bureaucratic encrustation, the suppression of internal democracy and the all but total exclusion of socialists have rendered the traditional unions largely impervious to any countervailing progressive tendencies. One might add here, however, that even in regard to this reactionary tendency of the unions, North’s ‘formalist’ argument sheds very little light. We can learn far more from Lenin in What is to be done?: there he notes the spontaneous movement of the working class (which includes the trade unions) moves “along the line of least resistance”, and for that reason it tends to move in a reactionary direction so long as it is unimpeded by revolutionary consciousness. This is because within bourgeois society it is bourgeois ideology that prevails, and so the line of least resistance is always the line that accommodates itself to capitalism.[3] This insight gets us out of North’s prison-house of the ‘union-form’ and into the dialectic of the class struggle: the line of least resistance is indeed a powerful tendency but by no means an omnipotent one to which workers must be “inevitably subordinated.”

In any case, the history of the unions is not just one long, uninterrupted record of degeneration (or of the union-form manifesting its organically reactionary nature, as North would have it). There have also been important episodes in which the class struggle broke through the integument of bourgeois trade unionism, episodes in which revolutionary consciousness gained the upper hand over spontaneity. To be sure, these episodes have been relatively brief, with the line of least resistance eventually reasserting itself. But one could say much the same about the socialist revolution: it has had few breakthroughs, a great many more betrayals and defeats, and eventually even the breakthroughs have been reversed. On the basis of such a record one could use North’s logic to argue that there was something ‘organically’ flawed about the ‘form’ of the socialist revolution – that while it may not be reactionary, it most certainly is unrealistic. And this is of course a widely held position, but presumably not among revolutionary Marxists.

To make his case, however, North has to downplay or ignore any revolutionary ‘intrusions’ into union history. He focuses on the labor movements in England and Germany prior to World War One, which he claims provide “the greatest historical test of trade unionism” (30). This is because, though the two labor movements developed in different ways, they ended up in the same, reactionary, place: the German unions, established by the Social Democrats, played no less a counterrevolutionary role than the English unions, which had emerged independently of the socialist movement. And it is certainly true that, as differing paradigms of the development of trade unionism, the English and German examples are significant. But North freights these examples with a much greater burden than they can sustain: he makes them out to be the decisive “test” of trade unionism, a test that had already been passed and failed by 1914!

But the (relatively brief) account that North’s lecture provides of the history of these labor movements doesn’t come close to proving his case. What it does do is confirm something every literate Marxist already knows – which is that trade union consciousness is bourgeois consciousness. Take the German case, which is the more telling of the two because, as North notes, “the trade unions emerged under the direct tutelage of the socialist movement. Its leaders were diligently schooled in the teachings of Marx and Engels. And yet, in essence, the German trade unions were no more devoted to socialism than those in England” (25). And North goes on to show that the larger the unions grew, the more the union leaders bridled under the control of the SPD, and when it came to the party’s revolutionary wing under Rosa Luxemburg, the animosity of the union leaders “assumed pathological dimensions” (27). By 1906, under pressure from the unions, the SPD adopted the principle of equality between the unions and the party, which meant that from then on “the SPD was effectively ruled by the general commission of the trade unions” (28), and this in turn accelerated the party’s right wing trajectory that ultimately led it to the historic betrayal of August 1914.

North sees these facts as confirming his argument: if union leaders “diligently schooled in the teachings of Marx and Engels” can still betray, then surely the fault lies in the ‘union-form’ itself. But we can far more adequately account for this history by going back to one of the key thoughts of What is to be done? – trade union consciousness is bourgeois consciousness. For Lenin, needless to say, this was anything but a rationalization for abstentionism; instead, it meant that Marxists had to wage a persistent struggle within the unions against the spontaneous pull of bourgeois ideology: “[T]he task of Social-Democracy is to combat spontaneity, to divert the working-class movement from this spontaneous, trade-unionist striving to come under the wing of the bourgeoisie, and to bring it under the wing of revolutionary Social Democracy.”[4]

When we consider the history of the German unions in that light, then something important becomes evident that North’s formalism obscures: the real culprit in this history is not the unions but the SPD. North makes it seem as if the unions, because of their organically reactionary form, corrupted the SPD and dragged it to its demise, but this is a superficial reading of what happened. The unions were bound to end up “under the wing of the bourgeoisie” so long as there was no consistent effort by the SPD “to combat spontaneity.” But “combat” on this front, as on many others, is not something the SPD did much of; on the contrary, at every critical juncture the party capitulated to the pressure of the unions, choosing ‘unity’ over principle. Thus, what seems like a case of the unions dragging the party down is really much more a story about how the party abandoned its revolutionary responsibilities to resist that pressure and “divert” the union membership to socialist consciousness. In other words, it was not the ‘form’ of the unions but the opportunism of the SPD that was the decisive factor.

As for the ‘diligent schooling’ the SPD offered its union leaders, this did nothing to resist the pull of spontaneous consciousness. The SPD leaders treated Marxism like a catechism: attending an occasional lecture or party school in no way impinged on ‘the real business’ of running the unions, anymore than did the perennial speeches by party leaders about ‘the inevitable victory of socialism’. It was Bernstein’s motto – ‘the movement is everything, the goal is nothing’ – that not only expressed his own reformism but also accurately described the reality within the SPD, despite the angry objections of the orthodox party leaders.[5] This is why the German unions are not the decisive test of the union-form that North makes them out to be. “No bridge existed,” as Trotsky says in The Transitional Program, between the minimum and maximum programs of the SPD,[6] i.e. between the nickel-and-diming of bourgeois unionism on the one hand and the socialist revolution on the other. When measured by that standard – i.e. by the extent to which revolutionaries fought to a build a bridge to socialist consciousness, by the extent to which they resisted bourgeois consciousness within the unions – what ultimately stands out about the German experience is more its similarities to the English experience than its differences.

To bolster his case, North stitches together quotes from Marx and Engels, Luxemburg, Trotsky and Gramsci to demonstrate that they were frequently critical of the unions, especially of the hostility of the labor bureaucracy to the class struggle and socialism. And it is certainly true that the great classical Marxists were often scathing about the union bureaucracy and they certainly never fetishized the unions in the way that some petty bourgeois radicals do today. Trotsky put it nicely in The Transitional Program: “Trade unions are not ends in themselves; they are but means along the road to proletarian revolution.”[7] But this is still a long way from justifying North’s position, which is that the unions aren’t even a means. In any case, all the Marxists that North cites could also be quoted as being adamantly opposed to abstentionism with regard to the unions. Their fundamental concern was that revolutionaries had to intervene in the mass movement of the working class.

A relevant example here is Trotsky’s attitude to the German unions in the early Thirties in the course of the struggle against the rising threat of Nazism. These are the same unions that, according to North, had already been ‘tested’ by 1914 and found to be organically reactionary, but that certainly wasn’t how Trotsky approached them. When the Stalinists (in line with their ‘ultra-left’ Third Period) denounced the reformist unions as ‘social fascist’ and abandoned them to set up their own ‘revolutionary unions’, Trotsky condemned this dual-unionism: he argued that all it achieved was to isolate the revolutionaries from the great bulk of the working class, who remained in the traditional unions. Trotsky considered “the restoration of the unity of the trade unions” crucial to the success of the German revolution because this would create optimal conditions for exposing the impotence of the reformists in fighting fascism, thereby winning over the ranks to a revolutionary perspective. Indeed, he insisted that “it is precisely within the trade unions that an exceptionally fruitful field is now open for action.”[8]

And that epitomizes the attitude of all the leading classical Marxists – that the unions were a potentially “fruitful field” for revolutionaries. Certainly from Lenin’s time on, that view of the unions came without illusions that trade unionism was anything more than bourgeois consciousness. The ‘fruit’, so to speak, wasn’t simply there for the picking; it could only be had through a determined struggle for socialist consciousness. For most of the 20th century, that orientation to the unions was an essentially correct one. What has necessitated a change was the onset of globalization, which rendered the traditional unions largely moribund. But this posed the need for new forms of struggle by the working class, including new unions. North’s position has led instead to abstentionism, which is to say, to an estrangement of the revolutionary movement from the working class. And that position is plainly irreconcilable with the tradition of classical Marxism, notwithstanding the selective account of that tradition that North presents.

A Case Ignored: the Russian Unions

 

A real test of North’s theory would have required a case where Marxists conducted a genuine struggle against “the spontaneous, trade unionist striving to come under the wing of the bourgeoisie” but were unable to overcome that tendency. And history provides at least one instance where the Marxist movement was able to conduct such a struggle on a mass scale – in Russia. It is significant that North doesn’t talk about Russia in his lecture. He does briefly mention it in a polemic against the Spartacists, Globalization and the International Working Class: A Marxist Assessment, [9] which was written the same year (1998) as the lecture, but his remarks are anything but illuminating. He writes: “It is worth noting that the Russian unions played no appreciable role in the October Revolution. Indeed, the large rail workers union, which was dominated by the Mensheviks, worked actively against the socialist overthrow.”[10]

This is nonsense. While it is true that there were unions under Menshevik control that opposed the revolution, there were a good many more that sided with the Bolsheviks. (Moreover, as John Reed noted in Ten Days That Shook the World, the only reason the rail workers union came out against the revolution was because the union executive deliberately postponed internal elections, knowing that they would be swept out of office by the Bolsheviks.[11]) North is simply trying to evade an important piece of history that doesn’t fit with his theory about the organically reactionary nature of the union form. To be sure, the role the unions played in the revolution was a supporting rather than a leading one, but that is all that any Marxist would ever have expected. The unions could never be a substitute for the party, but to the extent that they provided a working class base for Bolshevism, their role in the revolution was indeed an appreciable one. With his eye for the telling detail, John Reed gives us a memorable glimpse at what unions meant to wide layers of the working class just awakening to political consciousness in the course of the revolution:
…Russia was in travail, bearing a new world. The servants one used to treat like animals and pay next to nothing, were getting independent. A pair of shoes cost more than a hundred rubles, and as wages averaged about thirty-five rubles a month the servants refused to stand in queue and wear out their shoes. But more than that. In the new Russia every man and woman could vote; there were working-class newspapers, saying new and startling things; there were the Soviets; and there were the Unions. The izvoshtchiki (cab-drivers) had a Union; they were also represented in the Petrograd Soviet. The waiters and hotel servants were organized, and refused tips. On the walls of restaurants they put up signs which read, “No tips taken here–” or, “Just because a man has to make his living waiting on table is no reason to insult him by offering him a tip!”[12]
Of course the great ferment of the revolution produced new forms of struggle, most famously soviets as well as factory committees, and the activities of these various formations often overlapped. But the unions were by no means the least important or the most conservative of these formations. Indeed, when it came to the critical moment of the insurrection, it was the soviets that proved to be more of an obstacle than the unions! In The History of the Russian Revolution, Trotsky writes about the “fetishism of organizational forms” – meaning here the soviets – on the part of conservative elements within the party (notably Kamenev and Zinoviev) opposed to the seizure of power[13]: they used the fact that the soviets were still formally under the control of the reformist parties to argue that the insurrection had to be put off indefinitely. For Lenin and Trotsky, the soviets were never (as Trotsky put it elsewhere) “a panacea”,[14] and if the obstructionism of the reformists couldn’t be overcome within the soviets, then the alternative was to turn to the factory committees and the unions as the direct organs of workers’ power:
The question, what mass organizations were to serve the party for leadership in the insurrection, did not permit an a priori, much less a categorical, answer. The instruments of the insurrection might have been the factory committees and trade unions, already under the leadership of the Bolsheviks, and at the same time in individual cases certain soviets that had broken free from the yoke of the Compromisers. Lenin, for example, said to Ordzhonikidze: “We must swing over the center of gravity to the factory and shop committees. The factory and shop committees must become the organs of insurrection.”[15]
Thus the test of the Russian experience plays havoc with North’s theory. If it were possible for the Bolsheviks to use the unions as one of their “instruments of the insurrection,” then clearly the union-form is not organically impervious to the revolutionary content of the class struggle. In other words, the class interests of workers are not “inevitably subordinated” to capitalism purely by virtue of this form. It all depends on the extent to which revolutionaries can overcome the prevailing “line of least resistance.”

In this respect, unions are no different than any other spontaneous formation of the working class, including even soviets. There isn’t an organizational form in the working class more closely associated with the socialist revolution than soviets, and yet in 1918-19, the SDP used the workers’ councils in Germany (Trotsky called them the “Ebert-Scheidemann soviets”) to strangle the revolution, and the SDP’s Russian counterparts in 1917 would have done the same, had it not been for the opposition of the Bolsheviks. Moreover, under Stalin the Russian soviets were gutted of any revolutionary content and incorporated into the apparatus of the bureaucratic dictatorship. But it would be perverse on this basis to argue that the soviets as a social form are organically reactionary. As Trotsky remarked in relation to the point he made about the soviets not being a panacea: “The soviets are only an organizational form; the question is decided by the class content of the policy and by no means by its form.”[16] And that is also true of the unions: it is not their form but “the class content of their policy” which has determined their evolution.

The Russian soviets have long since gone to the dustbin of history and the traditional unions are now joining them there. The task of revolutionaries is to intervene in the mass struggles of the working class, to help develop new forms of struggle – whether that be new unions, factory and strike committees and eventually new soviets as well – and to fight to fill those forms with revolutionary content. This is the only standpoint consistent with classical Marxism, but it is a standpoint that the International Committee, under North’s tutelage, has abandoned.



[1] G.W.F. Hegel, The Encyclopedia Logic, (Hackett Publishing, 1991), p. 202.
[2] “The monopoly of capital becomes a fetter on the mode of production which has flourished alongside and under it. The centralization of the means of production and the socialization of labour reach a point at which they become incompatible with their capitalist integument.  This integument is burst asunder.  The knell of capitalist private property sounds. The expropriators are expropriated.” Marx, Capital, Volume I, (Penguin Classics, 1990), p. 929.
[3] V.I. Lenin, What is to be done?, in Collected Works, v. 5, p. 386. http://www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1901/witbd/ii.htm#v05fl61h-373-GUESS
[4] ibid, p. 384-5.
[5] Bernstein’s biographer Peter Gay recounts how a prominent SPD leader, Ignaz Auer, wrote to Bernstein to complain, not about the content of his views, but rather about his indiscretion in making them public. Bernstein had wanted the party to pass a resolution acknowledging its reformist character, to which Auer responded: “My dear Ede, you don’t pass such resolutions. You don’t talk about it, you just do it” (The Dilemma of Democratic Socialism, p. 270). This private remark says a good deal about the internal life of the SPD.
[6] The Transitional Program, p. 75.
[7] Ibid, p. 79.
[8] Leon Trotsky, What Next? in The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, pp. 237, 233. http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/germany/1932-ger/next03.htm#s13 .
[9] Though this polemic was issued in the name of the ICFI, it is evident both from the style and substance that it was written by North.
[10] Globalization and the International Working Class: A Marxist Assessment, p. 81. http://www.wsws.org/exhibits/slreply/part4-1.shtml#top . From here on, all page references to this work will be included in the text.
[11] John Reed, Ten Days That Shook the World, p. 6, http://www.marxists.org/archive/reed/1919/10days/10days/ch1.htm .
[12] ibid, pp. 13-14.
[13] Leon Trotsky, The History of the Russian Revolution, p. 818. http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/1930/hrr/ch36.htm
[14] Leon Trotsky, “Thaelmann and the ‘People’s Revolution’”, in The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany, p.79. http://www.marxists.org/archive/trotsky/germany/1931/310414.htm
[15] The History of the Russian Revolution, ibid.
[16] “Thaelmann and the ‘People’s Revolution’”, ibid.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

"We can only speculate why North chose to reprint this lecture at this time."

Might it be because hundreds of thousands of auto workers are in a contract dispute that pits them, not only against the major auto companies, but also the UAW, which has been exposed as a thoroughly corporate and corporatised instrument of company management?

It is ironic that you republish this critique of the SEP's "abstentionism" the same time it is the only political tendency aggressively fighting for an alternative, socialist and internationalist perspective, in one of the largest industrial eruptions in North America over several decades.

What of the abstentionism of this blog? For all of your insistence on the need for socialists to offer a concrete perspective for workers entering into struggle, you have not written a word on the GM strike. What is your program for these workers? Should they attempt to "reform" the UAW, under conditions where the entire union leadership and much of the officialdom is implicated in a criminal conspiracy to defraud and betray auto workers in cahoots with the major companies?

Alex Steiner said...

Response to Anonymous:

You did not respond to anything we have written. Not a word about whether our critique of North's understanding of the trade union form is correct, or not. Not a word about whether his excursion in the history of the unions is one sided or not. No comment at all about the historical material we examined? None of this is of any interest to you?

I know it must be difficult to actually deal with theoretical questions. I know there are all sorts of distractions out there - particularly if you are of a certain generation. There is definitely a problem concentrating if you are constantly distracted by the messages on your smartphone. I know you are not used to serious debates among Marxists. But try to make the effort.

Anonymous said...

Well said Alex. The turn away of the sep to philosophical questions and waging a struggle for socialist consciousnessis is utterly disgusting. And that’s exactly what they are doing! And all they’ve done for well over 2 decades. Your last piece clearly demonstrates the limited undialectical understanding of the union. I feel that the way out of this predicament would be to fight for the internationalisation of the union in the context of the trans national corporation as opposed to factory committees which would be small and quite impotent. After all........workers of the world unite!!. To transcend as it were. No such idea has ever been discussed in the entire history of The SEP. Workers know that if a union can’t defend them then what is a factory committee going to do! Workers need to feel their strength and internationalising a union could hold be a powerful tool. This is not a turn away from fighting for socialist consciousness but a step towards offering workers trapped in unions a way forward. To present the idea to workers could help to develop their consciousness.

Anonymous said...

You write, "In effect the argument now is that the unions were a hopeless cause from the start, and by implication the same would be true of any union-like formation, which is to say any spontaneous formation of the working class. So while the organizational fetishism of the radicals leads to opportunism, North’s fetishism-in-reverse leads to abstentionism. But the second is as much an abandonment of revolutionary practice as the first."

In reading this, a few things clicked into place. One of the last discussions I had on my way out of the SEP was about Black Lives Matter. The question posed to me was "Why do you think they have attracted the attention?" My reply was that it largely had to do with their actually *being there* and visible at a time when people are actively looking for answers. Such a time begs for a socialist party to intervene, and this question was put to me because I raised the question of why the SEP was not at the forefront of organizing the protests against police violence**.

Rather than engage actively on the issue of police violence, the leadership denounced BLM as being yet another front for the Democratic Party, and, as with METOO later, conflated those taking up the slogan (the majority working class and poor) with the apparent leadership - thereby dismissing the thousands of people genuinely affected by or concerned with the issues at hand and excusing themselves from action.

As with trade unions, so, indeed, with any spontaneous movement of the working class.

**Naturally, my raising the question marked me as someone partaking in Identity Politics - there is always a label to hush conversation.

Thank you for writing this entry, Alex. The issue of trade unions is a thorny one, and not nearly as straight forward as the SEP likes to present it. The application of true dialectical thinking is very welcome.

Best Regards,
Christie S.

Adam Cortright said...

Rubbish, and the trajectory of the SEP's involvement with workers since 2007 proves the falseness of this ridiculous "critique". If the philosophy of the SEP is abstentionist, why have they not abstained from workers' struggles? It's no good denying their interventions. To do so is simply to deny reality. We haven't been targeted by union thugs because they're bored and looking for something to do. Any workers reading what has been written about the unions--the UAW in particular--can easily see for themselves the bribes and kickbacks received by the bureaucrats at the top, and compare this uncovered cancer to the record of the WSW, literally the only tendency who has spelled it out, in advance, and which such clarity.

Of all the spurious claims made by this blog, the claim of abstentionism is the most fairy-tale like. It's almost like the FOX News bobble heads who operate in a different news universe with alternate facts. It's spooky.

Regards,

Adam Cortright

Mark said...

I have no doubt that the SEP is not on friendly terms with the UAW and it's not incorrect to point to the corruption of union officials. On the other hand, as pointed out in the article about the Janus decision and in many of the comments there, the anti-unionism of the SEP today differs little from the right-wing form of anti-unionism backed by powerful forces like the Koch brothers. I don't think that is a position that can engender trust with union workers to the extent they support the union concept but disaprove of their leaders, if anything it lets the union officials dismiss the SEP as being anti-union (and they would be technically right).

Of course the SEP/WSWS does not consider the success of its activities much beyond how many hits are recorded on their web site, even so I not sure what "success" would mean given their stance on unions as being "organically reactionary". As pointed out by Alex why would any other type of workers organization such as one led by the SEP not suffer the same fate? In this context the repeated call for "rank and file committees" might at first appear as organizational fetishism, but in reality it amounts to empty rhetoric and abandoning organizational work as they don't have any intention to bring those into exisitence, that is my understanding of the charge of "abstensionism".

Carlos said...

Cortright/Anonymous seem to mistake churning out internet articles with real world political engagement. The disconnect between claims of more than a decade of "interventions" with impeccable strategy and politics and the failure to achieve tangible results (let alone a break with the UAW, despite it being one of the most blatantly corrupt unions out there) seems rather obvious.

Note that this is not an effort that started in 2007 either. The Workers League raised the demand for 'rank and file committees' in the early 90s and this group has been focused almost exclusively on the Detroit-area auto industry for more than 30 years(!), with little or nothing to show for it. Delusions of political grandeur and "dizzy with success" triumphalism, wildly out of step with levels of actual influence, is a common feature of degenerated political sects.