Monday, April 26, 2021

Comments on David North and Joseph Kishore’s Letter

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[Note: This is part two of a response to recent actions by the leadership of the Socialist Equality Party. For the first part see, Socialist Equality Party National Secretary Joseph Kishore lies about an Amazon worker and former party member: the worker responds.]

In an 11-page letter written jointly by the National Chairperson and National Secretary of the Socialist Equality Party and distributed to the entire membership, one would expect at least an attempt at a political analysis, but instead we get a long series of misrepresentations that answer none of the political points that had been raised. Much of the letter consists of quote mining my party application and personal correspondences to prove that I praised the party in the past and have now turned 180 degrees in a brief period, into some form of subjectivist, anarchist, pragmatist petty bourgeois, who if he continues on his current path, will become no better than those “political wretches” Steiner and Brenner. What the quotes from my text messages and emails really reflect is my own militancy and a regrettable willingness to psych myself into enthusiasm for the SEP because I identified it with revolutionary socialism.

That I changed my mind over the course of several months hardly discredits my positions. Thankfully, a few months was enough time to see through years of miseducation. The SEP has set up a self-fulfilling prophecy here, because they kick out anyone as soon as they have a disagreement. In fact, I had been uneasy about some of the party’s politics for some time, especially after my experiences with the so-called rank-and-file committees, but it was only after seeing the witch hunt against Shuvu and then reading the critique by C and revisiting Trotsky’s writings that everything clicked. Now, I can call the SEP’s politics by their proper name – sectarianism.

North and Kishore’s letter opens by declaring that my provisional membership has been ended (by unanimous votes all the way around), because the party is not open to anyone “who decides they are in fundamental disagreement with the party’s program and perspective.” The main “fundamental disagreement” in question was over the party’s abstentionist line on the trade unions. If this constitutes grounds for expulsion/removal it follows that if the party’s view on this issue (or any other) is wrong, it will be incapable of correcting it, since it expels anyone who disagrees.

I want to emphasize that what triggered my removal from the party was my statement in defense of Shuvu at a national meeting. This was followed by a critical comment, directly addressing points that had been raised during a discussion of trade unionism at a meeting of the International Youth and Students for Social Equality (IYSSE) National Committee, of which I was a member. I was able to make most of this statement but was cut off halfway through the last sentence, on the grounds that “this wasn’t the place to express my disagreements.” When I protested this action in the IYSSE Signal chat, I was removed from the committee without a vote, within minutes of my first message in the chat. My silent excommunication from all other party group chats happened about five minutes later. Genevieve, the National Secretary of the IYSSE, displayed a remarkable lack of self-awareness when she wrote “Your attempts to persuade comrades that you have been censored have no validity” and then two sentences later said that she was “proposing” to remove me from the chat. By “proposing,” she really meant that she was about to do it unilaterally. If this isn’t censorship, then the word has no meaning.

The party leadership stooped even lower the following week, in their slanderous letter of April 2, accusing Shuvu, among other things, of being an agent of the RWDSU bureaucracy. I stand in complete solidarity with Shuvu Batta against these vile attacks.

Shuvu and I have been denounced incessantly for acting in a “totally unprincipled manner:” him for passing around documents and me for expressing a disagreement during a national meeting. Yet the response of the SEP has been to resort to personal attacks, slanders, and conspiracy theories: are these principled politics?

Since North and Kishore have devoted so much of their letter to my political history, I will try to briefly set the record straight. I discovered the WSWS during the 2016 election, during a time when I was putting my hopes for change in the Sanders campaign, even volunteering to make phone calls and go door to door. After Sanders capitulated to the Democratic Party, it became clear to me that this was not just the result of political pragmatism, but rather of a conscious effort to uphold the prevailing political system. The Marxist explanation of opportunism and class society presented by the WSWS aligned with this experience. I saw an alternative in the SEP, which presented itself as a world party and introduced me to the rich history of the socialist movement.

I came into contact with the party in the fall of 2018. Shuvu had contacted them a few weeks before, and together we launched into an abortive effort to build a youth and student section at our college campus. I was unsure of the party’s stance on the trade unions from the very beginning, which is one of the reasons I waited a year and a half before applying for membership, but I told myself that even if the SEP were wrong, it was doing an important service by exposing the union bureaucracies. I held the party in high regard, because I had come to see it as a lone voice speaking out against imperialism and opportunism. During this period, I read Globalization and the International Working Class and Why are Trade Unions Hostile to Socialism?, the two primary SEP essays justifying trade union abstentionism.

North writes, “In the space of little more than 12 weeks, your appraisal of the SEP’s policies has undergone a complete transformation,” but it would be more accurate to say that what underwent a transformation was my appraisal of these two documents, which form the backbone of the SEP’s whole perspective on the trade unions. However, I did not “dismiss” either of them “with contempt,” as North says. In fact, I wrote that Globalization and the International Working Class “made an important contribution, in that it outlined how globalization has brought about a degeneration of the unions,” but I went on to object that what had started as a correct opposition to union corporatism had evolved into an unmitigated hostility toward carrying out any struggle in any union. (I refer the reader to Chapter 5 of Marxism Without its Head or its Heart for a thorough discussion.)

North does not answer my point that in the 23 years since these two documents were published (two decades ago), the SEP has not produced a comparable theoretical investigation of globalization, trade unionism, or any other feature of world capitalism in the 21st century. Any healthy party would contain multiple currents constantly striving to question and update old analyses, which may after all be wrong. It is better to change your mind in 12 weeks than to march in the wrong direction for a quarter century!

What accounts for my change in position is not that I have abandoned my principles, but that as an inexperienced Marxist I lacked the theoretical tools to see through the one-sided arguments made in these texts. My real error is not that I changed my mind, but that, when I was wrestling with these questions over a year ago, I did not more carefully study The Transitional Program and Trade Unions in the Epoch of Imperialist Decay, which demolish the position of the SEP. After reviewing The Transitional Program, it is hard to understand how I could have ever believed that the SEP’s politics were consistent with those of Trotsky.

North writes, “When it comes to the unions, the instruments of working-class suppression, you uphold their bureaucratically imposed organizational discipline against the efforts of the party to develop democratically organized rank-and-file committees.” I don’t know whether this is a willful misrepresentation, or simply another example of mechanical thinking, but I never suggested that anyone accept the authority of the AFL-CIO. I’m well aware of the duplicity of the bureaucracies and how deeply undemocratic these organizations are. But the reality is that tens of millions of workers remain in unions and the only way to break the hold of the bureaucracies over their lives is to fight them on the ground! This does not for an instant entail subordinating the revolutionary party to the bureaucracies. Let me quote Trotsky once more: Only on the basis of such work within the trade unions is successful struggle possible against the reformists, including those of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Sectarian attempts to build or preserve small ‘revolutionary’ unions, as a second edition of the party, signify in actuality the renouncing of the struggle for leadership of the working class.”

The SEP’s substitution of “rank-and-file committees” for trade union work amounts to abandoning the workers in the unions to struggle against the bureaucracies on their own. This is exactly why Trotsky said that this sort of politics amounted to “renouncing of the struggle for leadership” and a “betrayal of the revolution.” North claims that the party has organized “democratically organized rank-and-file committees,” but everything I know about these committees demonstrates that they are not democratic. When’s the last time any of the committees had an election? (Of course, you’d need members to have an election.) The reality is that party members dictate absolutely every aspect of their work.

The party’s declaration a few days ago, on April 23, that it will lead the construction of an “International Workers Alliance of Rank-and-File Committees,” marks a “new stage” in nothing but the SEP’s own illusions. I have no doubt that within a year, the WSWS will declare that this international alliance has been successfully built, regardless of the actual results. The International Amazon Workers Voice was declared into existence not long ago in a similar manner. That project seems to have largely been dropped. Perhaps if it had truly given voice to anything other than the WSWS editorial board, it would have fared better. We did, in fact, get to hear from an Amazon worker recently, but the SEP has done everything it could to silence him, and now resorts to character assassination.

The source of my change in position, according to North, is a swell of “disorientation among broad sections of the petty bourgeoisie.” This is exactly the kind of empty name-calling I objected to in my letter to Marc. For evidence of the petty-bourgeois roots of my “political implosion,” North relies completely on a misrepresentation of my criticisms of the party’s handling of Jimmy Dore: “Your call for the ‘probing of the political issues’ means nothing other than adapting the party to Dore’s reactionary political arena, in which his program provides a forum where socialists and neo-Nazis can mutually explore, in search of points of agreement, their approaches to the fight against bourgeois liberalism.”

I did not suggest that Jerry White engage in a discussion with the boogaloo boy, nor did I indicate, as North claims I did, that “the issue of discussing with fascists was a minor point, barely deserving more than a passing comment.” My argument was that Jerry should have explained the reasons that socialists can’t ally with fascists—that it’s not just a question of individuals but of delineating a program of political independence for the working class, etc. The SEP, committed to its sectarianism, thinks the only two options are capitulation or denunciation. Over the following days and weeks, rather than recognizing and patiently explaining the source of Dore’s confusion, the WSWS doubled down, falsely labeling Dore as a fascist sympathizer.

North claims that, in defending Shuvu during the national aggregate, it was my “intention to ambush the party leadership and dishonestly present Batta as a victim of undemocratic methods.” Does North honestly maintain that, had I made my intention to address Shuvu’s case known in advance, I would have been allowed to speak? As for whether these were undemocratic methods, by North’s own admission, the reason for Shuvu’s expulsion was that he “chose to ignore the decisions of the New York branch on how to conduct an organized discussion on the political differences that he had announced only a week before.” In other words, Shuvu attempted to have one-on-one discussions with other members. Democratic centralism does not imply that the branch has the power to impose any demand whatsoever on its members. The branch’s declaration, after the fact, that Shuvu was prohibited from internally distributing or discussing a document, was never legitimate.

North goes on: “Your intervention on his behalf was of an ex parte unprincipled character. Acting as Batta’s attorney, you substituted your personal relationship for the established constitutional mechanisms relating to party discipline.” What this legal jargon has to do with revolutionary socialism I don’t know. I did not act as Shuvu’s attorney or make my intervention on the basis of a personal relationship. I did my duty as a revolutionary in defending the political rights of my comrade. My statement was not of an “ex parte unprincipled character,” since the opposing side – the entire SEP leadership – was present and had a full two hours to rebut my two 5-minute statements. As I mentioned in my remarks, the disciplinary actions in the New York Branch were carried out without Shuvu’s presence. Shuvu was given no opportunity to personally defend himself to the entire branch. If North wants to discuss a proceeding carried out in an “ex parte unprincipled character,” we should start there.

North accuses me, in Trotsky’s words, of “clique ties” but does my previous acquaintance with Shuvu rule out any political intervention in his defense? No. I do not take the tie of comradeship so lightly as North and Kishore. In any case, the accusation of “clique ties” applies above all to the SEP leadership, which has concentrated all political power in the hands of the clique located in Detroit. And what of the questions I raised on elections and party democracy? In his 11-page letter, North has failed to answer a single one of them.

North’s citation of the Comintern to counter my points on party democracy proves nothing. What I objected to was not the organization of the party into local branches, but the claim that all communication and debate had to be channeled through them. North writes that I “oppose disciplined organization in the revolutionary party” in favor of an “an organization of free-floating atoms,” but I respected all forms of legitimate party discipline. What has North so worried? That I defended the right of the membership to distribute and discuss documents? That I expressed a disagreement during a national meeting?

In a draft resolution of the Tenth Party Congress of the RCP, during which factions were banned, Lenin wrote:

Analyses of the Party’s general line, estimates of its practical experience, check-ups of the fulfilment of its decisions, studies of methods of rectifying errors, etc., must under no circumstances be submitted for preliminary discussion to groups formed on the basis of ‘platforms,’ etc., but must in all cases be submitted for discussion directly to all the members of the Party.

In other words, even under those conditions, when the Bolsheviks were trying to prevent political differences from taking on an organizational form which could be taken advantage of by hostile forces, they still recognized the need for debate and allowed (in fact, required) criticisms to be submitted to ALL of the members of the party. It is worth noting that the whole history of Bolshevism before the rise of Stalinism is marked by rich political debate and polemics, and the banning of factions (but not debate or discussion) was widely regarded as a temporary measure, taken under very difficult conditions. The attempts to defend the SEP’s practice by invoking the Bolsheviks clearly do not hold water.

After falsely claiming for a third time that I have mounted a “defense of the chauvinist AFL-CIO,” North and Kishore once again wave away my political intervention as the result of my “subjective impulses” and my “chumminess” with Shuvu. I am told to “‘Repress’ the individualistic and anarchistic tendencies that are incompatible with disciplined revolutionary activity within the working class.” It should be obvious that if what I wanted was personal freedom, it would have been far easier for me to leave the SEP without a word. All of my efforts have been aimed at raising critical questions among the SEP’s cadre.

The task for a revolutionary is not to “repress” one’s individualism, but to overcome the false individualism fostered under capitalism, and direct oneself toward the cause of human liberation. Without a degree of independence of thought that is impossible in the SEP, there is no way a revolutionary can engage in the critical thinking necessary to make even the smallest step toward socialism.

North and Kishore end their letter with this note of reconciliation:

If and when, on the basis of your own actions from this date forward, the SEP is confident that you can abide by the party constitution and fight loyally for the policies of the party in accordance with the decisions of its National Congress, you will be allowed to reapply for provisional membership in the Socialist Equality Party.

This is obviously an insincere statement, made only for the benefit of the party membership. After my first comment at the national meeting, there was absolutely no chance that I would be allowed to stay in the party. Even if it were true that North and Co. would ever permit me to rejoin, it would be on the condition that I admit the error of my ways and submit myself to silence and acquiescence.

For North and Kishore, “subjective impulses” apply to everyone but themselves, who sit above the class struggle, issuing their statements and programs from their armchairs. They are right about one thing: at this point, we agree on nothing. When I said that there was much on which we still agree, I wasn’t directing myself to them, but to any genuine revolutionaries in the party.

To any such people in or around the SEP, I urge you to consider the demands Shuvu and I put forward in his April 23 letter – which are aimed at opening the party to free discussion and debate and establishing democratic oversight by its membership – and to take up the fight to build a genuinely revolutionary party. In closing, I will quote a slogan from the Statement of Principles of the IYSSE, which has always stuck with me, and which sums up my perspective now: “For the Rebirth of the Socialist Movement!”

-- Peter Ross

Links to Related Documents:

Friday, April 23, 2021

Socialist Equality Party National Secretary Joseph Kishore spreads lies about an Amazon worker and former party member: The worker responds

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Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama

[Note: This is part one of a response to recent actions of the leadership of the Socialist Equality Party. For part two see Comments on David North and Joseph Kishore's letter.]

This open letter is a reply to the slanderous attacks leveled at Shuvu Batta by the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) after he was expelled from that organization in February 2021. The SEP is the US section of the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI), which is most well known for producing the World Socialist Web Site ( Shuvu had been a member of the SEP and its youth section, the IYSSE, for two and a half years at the time of his expulsion.

In January 2021, Shuvu learned of a critique of the SEP’s sectarian approach to the trade unions, written by a provisional member, C, who had recently resigned. Shuvu reached out to C directly for a copy of the critique and, agreeing with its main political points, began distributing it to other party members. Within a week, Shuvu was charged with breaching party discipline and removed from all meetings and group chats. He was expelled several weeks later, on February 27. The documents pertaining to the expulsion can be found here.

On March 19, during a national meeting, Peter Ross, a provisional member, made a statement defending Shuvu’s right to criticize the party line and raising concerns about the party’s internal regime and its anti-union positions. On March 22, during a meeting of the IYSSE, Peter again spoke out against how other members had characterized trade unionism, and was cut off mid-sentence on the grounds that “this wasn’t the place” to express his disagreements. When Peter objected to this, he was promptly removed from all party group chats. His provisional membership was revoked two days later in a letter written by the two top leaders of the SEP, David North and Joseph Kishore, and distributed to the entire membership. These documents can be found here. According to sympathetic SEP members, the next national meeting was devoted to hysterical denunciations of both former members, personal slanders aimed at proving their petty bourgeois backgrounds, and craven praise for David North’s letter.

On April 1, because Shuvu is currently employed as an Amazon Fresh worker, he had the rare opportunity to appear on an NPR podcast to voice his support for the Amazon BHM1 workers in Alabama fighting to unionize. This prompted Joseph Kishore, the National Secretary of the SEP (US), to issue another letter to the entire membership, tearing Shuvu’s comments out of context and peddling a conspiracy theory accusing him of being an agent of the RWDSU bureaucracy. The letter, shared with us by a supporter in the SEP, can be viewed here. To protect Shuvu from potential company retaliation, we have removed his facility’s location from the document.

Kishore’s letter, an attempt to fend off any discussion of the SEP’s sectarian politics and undemocratic internal regime by slandering Shuvu, reveals the utter bankruptcy of the SEP leadership. These are not the methods of revolutionaries, but of tinpot dictators and cult leaders. We urge those workers and youth attracted to the WSWS by its anti-imperialist and socialist posturing to read through the linked documents—which provide a clear picture of the internal life of the SEP and the kind of response members can expect should they develop political differences with the party—and to take up the fight to build a real socialist movement in the working class.


-- Shuvu Batta and Peter Ross

April 23, 2021

Response to Joseph Kishore

First of all, I would like to sincerely thank Kishore for his letter, as it exposes the real nature of the SEP leadership. At the same time, it’s sad to see an individual that I once respected and who presents himself as a man of principle peddling conspiracy theories to the rank and file of his party, many of whom are young people just dipping their toes into the world of politics.

Let us first cut through Kishore’s lies.

Kishore writes: “Of the 800,000 Amazon workers in the United States, one cannot help but wonder how Shuvu Batta emerged triumphant from NPR’s search and vetting process. He has been an Amazon employee for only a few months; and he is not even working at the Bessemer plant. He works at an Amazon “Fresh” facility in XXX and has been trying to land a job in the company’s human resources department, i.e., in management. Moreover, given the fact that the predominantly African American composition of the targeted facility has been central to the RWDSU’s strategy and the focus of media reporting, NPR’s selection of Batta appears even more peculiar.”

Kishore knows very well how I got onto the NPR program—it was through a post on Reddit in an Amazon workers group. The majority of the 63 comments on the post voiced support for the central message, expressed in its title: Go BHM1 workers, let’s unionize in every facility and every workplace!

Kishore also attempts to slander me for trying to better my economic situation by applying for an HR position. By his logic, the hundreds of thousands of HR workers around the country are all aligned with the capitalists and are actively working against the interests of the working class. In reality, they are a part of the working class who utilize their labor-time ensuring that workplaces are productive and that morale is high. As Amazon warehouse workers fight to unionize, they must and will rally the support of “skilled” workers like HR and tech workers, who also need to collectively organize and unite against their common exploiters: the owners of Amazon, and the rest of the capitalist class.

After sowing doubt about the legitimacy of a worker voicing his opinion on a public podcast, Kishore takes his next leap into the realm of tin-foil conspiracy theories: “The most likely explanation for Batta’s appearance on the program is that he was recommended to NPR by the leadership of the RWDSU bureaucracy. The union, which lacks any significant base among rank-and-file workers, is immensely sensitive to left-wing criticism—above all, that of the SEP and the World Socialist Web Site. In one way or another, Batta’s activities came to the attention of the bureaucracy, which has decided to make use of his services.”

Is this really the most likely explanation, or could it be that the unionization drive by BHM1 workers has had mass support among the broader US public? A recent national poll showed the majority of Democrats, Independents, and even Republicans supporting the BHM1 workers fighting to unionize. My post, which received popular support from Amazon workers on Reddit, was viewed by an NPR journalist sympathetic to unionization, who then gave me the opportunity to come on the podcast and make my points. The RWDSU bureaucracy was not involved.

Kishore then cites my failure to say the word “socialism” or attack Jeff Bezos on the podcast as proof of my political degeneracy.

Despite the fact that my opportunities to make broader political points on the broadcast were quite limited, I think my responses could absolutely have been sharper. I will take my experience on this podcast as a lesson, but I am grateful for the opportunity given to me by the NPR journalist, and I am grateful for the opportunity to voice my support for any worker who is risking their job to unionize. To suggest that this appearance was masterminded by the RWDSU bureaucracy is a slander not just against me but also the journalist who reached out to me.

The World Socialist Web Site Slanders Amazon’s BHM1 Workers

Now that we have cleared the lies, let us get to the heart of the matter: the anti-worker politics of the Socialist Equality Party. In his letter, Kishore cites a comment I made on NPR as proof of my abandonment of socialism:

Asked what he thought was “the most important thing for senior Amazon leadership to know,” Batta replied: “Just as you have a right under the capitalist system to make profits, we have the right to unionize, and we have the right to actually have a say in the workplace, to make sure that our conditions are a little more livable.”

My comment was such an unpardonable sin to Kishore that he felt the need to hurl a series of slurs at me, calling me a “petit-bourgeois opponent of Marxism,” “a craven apologist for the RWDSU bureaucracy,” and “a pathetic political fraudster.”

While it is astonishing to witness the National Secretary of the SEP reduce himself to a schoolyard bully, there is also a sinister aspect to his slander. Part of its purpose, by spreading a conspiracy theory and personal information about my job application throughout the party, is to send a message to all of the members of the Socialist Equality Party: “If you dare to speak out against our politics, if you dare to voice support for workers unionizing, we will isolate you, spread lies about you, and label you a class enemy.”

The fact is that my call for Amazon workers to unionize was in line with Marx’s words in the Communist Manifesto that communists “fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class, but in the movement of the present they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.”

The crux of the matter is that the SEP does not believe that unionizing constitutes an “immediate aim” for the mass of unorganized workers. The developing movement of the working class is going directly against a fundamental principle of their politics: rejection of trade union work. Thus, they have been forced to slander Amazon BHM1 workers as the puppets of a “top-down” unionization drive despite the fact that it has inspired thousands of unorganized workers in Amazon and elsewhere to start unionization campaigns in their workplaces.

The reality is that the BHM1 unionization campaign was started after former union workers at the fulfillment center, such as Darryl Richardson, went to their local Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union office to figure out how they could unionize their facility. With the help of rank-and-file union activists, the BHM1 workers initiated a disciplined campaign starting in March 2020, rallying their co-workers within the facility and gathering hundreds of names in support, day in and day out for months, until more than three thousand workers signed up in support of the National Labor Relations Board to approve a unionization vote in January 2021.

Thus, the first vote for unionizing U.S Amazon warehouse workers was started, a historic achievement spearheaded by the militant Amazon workers of BHM1.

For years, I had followed the anti-union line of the World Socialist Web Site and even authored the first anti-union Amazon article on the BHM1 campaign. The article was initially titled “Vote ‘No’ to the UFCW-backed union at Alabama Amazon facility!” but after viral negative reactions on Twitter the title was changed to the much tamer “The unionization vote at Alabama Amazon facility.”

The WSWS article as it appeared before the headline was changed

During the writing of this article, I had started working at an Amazon warehouse. I had mixed feelings about sending the article for publication because its message of telling workers to vote “No” did not at all correspond to my lived experience as an Amazon employee.

Working at an Amazon warehouse is an incredibly isolating experience. Despite working alongside hundreds of other workers, it is difficult to make contact with them, let alone engage them in conversation. We are constantly on the move due to strict rate quotas and time-off-task penalties. Due to COVID-19, our break rooms have physical barriers to prevent contact with other workers.

The greatest benefit of an Amazon union is that it would organize the hundreds of isolated workers in a facility under a common platform. A “No” vote on unionizing is counterproductive if for no other reason than this. In union meetings, the once isolated workers would gain the ability to not only connect with one another but also to advance their own demands through the formation of worker committees within the union. The existence of a union provides the Amazon worker a basis on which to wage a struggle for workplace democracy.

Furthermore, it cannot be denied that unionized workers make, on average, a much higher wage and gain better benefits than non-unionized workers. This is because a union provides workers with the means to organize mass strikes and thus provides them with a weapon against capital. To call on Amazon workers to vote “No” is to imply that Amazon workers will not gain any sort of concessions from management through unionizing. The very fact that Amazon has run a relentless anti-union campaign—holding captive audience meetings, creating fake social media accounts, violating the election rules (including through placement of an illegal ballot box), and retaliating against workers who threaten to unionize—indicates that this is not at all true. It should be added that the World Socialist Web Site has not produced a single article that seriously takes up Amazon’s anti-union tactics.

While the WSWS categorizes unions as irredeemable organizations which socialists must avoid, the reality is that the working class is well into a period of renewed labor militancy, which is primarily taking place within the form of the trade-union struggle.

Public sentiment is decisively for unionization in the US, and increasingly so since the Great Recession of 2007-08, with a Gallup poll released this January estimating that 65 percent of all Americans approve of labor unions. Unionization rates have also started to increase, partly because union workers faced fewer job losses during the pandemic and also because more and more sections of the working class are starting drives to unionize their workplaces. Furthermore, virtually all of the major strike actions that have taken place in 2020 were among unionized workers.

Yet the most central aim of the SEP’s political work is to attack “the unions,” which are labeled, across the board, as “anti-worker” organizations that have become totally integrated into the state. The implication is undeniably that the destruction of the unions would be a good thing, since it would free the workers from this instrument of bourgeois control (and also make them more desperate to form some new kind of organization).

After the defeat of the BHM1 unionization drive, the WSWS published an article citing the defeat as evidence that Amazon workers had seen through the RWDSU. While no confidence should be placed in the RWDSU bureaucracy, which deserves much of the blame for this defeat, the rank-and-file workers cannot be equated with the bureaucracy by denouncing the whole of the union. In their efforts to pin the blame for the defeat entirely on the RWDSU, the WSWS actively downplayed the voter intimidation tactics employed by Amazon. By taking this stance, and by unequivocally opposing unionization, the SEP has crossed a class line, siding with Amazon against the workers.

In stark contrast to the anti-worker position of the WSWS, militant Amazon workers have learned from the union defeat in order to strengthen their own unionization campaigns. News has come out that the Amazon facility at JFK-8 in Staten Island is undergoing a unionization drive, with the organizers including Chris Smalls of The Congress of Essential Workers, fighting to build a new union called the Amazon Labor Union (ALU). The organizers were supportive of the BHM1 pro-union workers and have explicitly said that they have taken lessons from the successes and failures of the Bessemer unionization drive so that their effort succeeds.

Demonstration in solidarity with Amazon workers, Union Square, New York

The WSWS’s fantasy rank-and-file committees vs the Marxist path to workers’ independence

The World Socialist Web Site is an impressive feat of organization. With only a few hundred members around the world, the ICFI has managed since 1998 to produce a 6 day-per-week publication, with a total of more than 60,000 articles. The dedication and self-sacrifice of the rank-and-file members, who truly believe they are fighting for socialism, is commendable. The tragedy is that the political line advanced by the WSWS in the most significant of its articles has for decades gone against the most basic interests of the working class.

The clearest recent example of this is the fact that the website, in calling for a “No” vote on the unionization of Amazon workers, has crudely counter-posed to the unions the fiction of “independent rank-and-file committees.”

The WSWS claims it has already built a “network” of these committees, but any critical reader will note that it has never indicated how many workers are in the committees. As a former party member, I can testify that the rank-and-file committees do not have any elected representatives and instead function more as lecturing groups. The meetings are organized and overseen in every detail by party representatives, and the few workers in the “committees” play no role other than tuning in to online calls for reports presented by Socialist Equality Party members.

Rank-and-file committee meetings always go about the same way: Comrade D introduces Comrade B, who gives a report on the pandemic; then comrades H, I, J, and K give more reports. Finally, often after an hour or more has passed, we get a comment from a non-party member. He or she says a few brief words, and then comrades H-K rush to make insightful points about the comment.

No concrete plan of action ever results from these meetings, partly because the “committees” do not represent any significant section of the working class. Their real purpose, whether SEP members realize it or not, is not to provide workers with their own forum or assist them in building their own democratic organizations, but to produce a kind of show aimed at recruiting attendees into the party and beginning the process of indoctrinating them with the “correct” program.

The publication by the WSWS of public statements by the committees, supposedly written by the rank-and-file workers themselves, has reached a fever-pitch during the pandemic. To a new member, these statements, declaring the formation of committees in the auto industry and public education, give the impression of a real step forward in the construction of new, democratically-controlled organizations of workers. It quickly becomes clear, however, that this “network” of committees is all smoke and mirrors.

For example, at its founding in Sept. 2020, the Los Angeles Educators Rank-and-File Safety Committee officially had two non-party members, neither of whom participated in drafting the founding statement, yet it purported to speak in the name of an entire committee of Los Angeles teachers! In the six months after its “founding,” the committee had not grown by a single member.

The SEP has pursued this line for decades, yet these small lecture groups fraudulently labeled as “democratic organizations of workers” have been its greatest result. Rather than doing the hard work of organizing, the SEP builds shells of committees, and hopes that by publicizing them, it can fill them up with actual workers. In practice, the committees function as front groups, which allow the WSWS to posture as having influence in the working class. Countless statements (see, for instance, here) use the fictional committees to ventriloquize workers rather than allowing them to speak for themselves. (This is in line with the fact that WSWS articles include only those quotes from workers which can be interpreted as bolstering the political positions that the SEP has already worked out (see, for instance, “Amazon workers react to the defeat of the RWDSU at Alabama warehouse”).

The class instinct of workers who join the “independent rank-and-file committee” meetings is to bring back the information provided by the SEP to their fellow workers in the unions. While rank-and-file workers are up against the treacherous labor bureaucracies within their unions, the SEP provides them no support because the party leadership actively prevents its cadre from participating in trade union work.

While militant workers struggle alone to win basic concessions from their employer through their union, the SEP tells them: “break from your unions and form independent rank-and-file committees!” Most workers in turn respond: Who are you to tell me what to do? I benefit by being in my union. I have connections to my fellow co-workers because of the union. I see how terrible the conditions that non-union workers are going through are and you—a pamphleteer, who has nothing to do with my workplace, who has never helped me form strike committees or collected strike funds, who has never created any sort of defense against the corrupt bureaucrats within my union—who are you to tell me what to do? Who are you to tell me to throw away my weapon, the union, for this fantasy rank-and-file committee which has accomplished nothing concrete whatsoever?

The practical result of the SEP’s rejection of trade unions is that in moments of strikes or other actions by union workers, the SEP is unable to influence the workers’ struggle in any tangible way. This is due to the fact that SEP members have no participation in union meetings, in organizing strike actions, or in leading left factions within the union, and are completely isolated from the day-to-day work within the unions necessary to gain influence among the workers there. The SEP, in practice, reduces itself to a mere spectator which is only able to report on the struggles that workers, as a mass, initiate.

Socialists must work within the unions not because we fetishize the union-form, but because that is where workers, particularly in the most strategic industries (dock workers, transit workers, etc.), are concentrated as a mass. If workers come up with new forms of organization, socialists must also be active within them, but the guiding principle must be this: we must go where the workers are!

Trotskyism vs Sectarianism

The SEP dishonestly states that it carries forward the heritage of Trotskyism. This is a complete fabrication. Marxists have always understood the need to participate in the day-to-day struggles of workers. There is a long tradition, starting with Marx and Engels, of opposition to the positions of anarchists and ultra-left sectarians who rejected working inside unions, and all attempts to counterpose pure “red trade unions” to the existing mass organizations. As Trotsky wrote in The Transitional Program, the founding document of the Fourth International:

The Bolshevik-Leninist stands in the front-line trenches of all kinds of struggles, even when they involve only the most modest material interests or democratic rights of the working class. He takes active part in mass trade unions for the purpose of strengthening them and raising their spirit of militancy… Only on the basis of such work within the trade unions is successful struggle possible against the reformists, including those of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Sectarian attempts to build or preserve small “revolutionary” unions, as a second edition of the party, signify in actuality the renouncing of the struggle for leadership of the working class.

Trotsky stressed the importance of transitional demands to help workers progress from trade union consciousness to socialist consciousness.

It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demand and the socialist program of the revolution. This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.

In the case of the BHM1 unionization attempt, the victory of the “Yes” vote would have led to a qualitative transformation of the class struggle for Amazon workers, with a formerly unorganized section of the working class, struggling through isolated walkouts and protests, finally gaining access to a higher form of struggle in the form of an organized mass strike. The task of Marxists, armed with the transitional method, is to push this struggle to its limit and thus build a bridge between the emerging trade union consciousness of militant Amazon workers and the socialist consciousness necessary for revolution.

This would mean advocating not just for a “Yes” vote but calling on the workers everywhere, organized and unorganized, to stage demonstrations across the country and the world in support of BHM1 workers. It would mean rallying the pro-union workers to form a real rank-and-file committee and draft demands on what they would fight for after the union was approved. It would mean calling out the blunders of the union bureaucracy during the struggle, pushing for door-to-door canvassing for “Yes” votes, holding Q&A sessions with workers, etc, to make sure that unionization succeeds.

The union drive ultimately failed at BHM1 not because the union form as a whole was irredeemable but because it lacked socialist elements actively fighting for the development of workers’ democracy. The WSWS, by contrast, sees the defeat of the unionization drive at Bessemer as an expression of the advanced class consciousness of the workers, who have figured out how rotten unions are and have come over to the WSWS position. This piece of delusional thinking avoids the obvious—that the failure of a large percentage of workers to understand the importance of organizing collectively into a union is a measure of their lack of class consciousness.

By calling for workers to immediately break from the union and form “independent rank-and-file committees,” the ICFI is engaging in a practice that Trotsky called “bureaucratic ultimatism,” which the Stalinist Communist Party practiced in Germany, effectively splitting the socialist and the reformist workers, and creating the conditions for the victory of Nazism.

The Stalinists’ mechanical policy of equating Social Democracy with Fascism, building only communist-led unions, and precluding any sort of temporary alliance with reformists is paralleled today by the SEP’s attempt to equate the whole of the trade unions with the capitalist state and lump together all left-wing movements outside of their own sect as the “pseudo-left.” Just as the Stalinist Communist Party isolated its cadre from the broader worker class with their bureaucratic call for revolutionary unions and abstention from the struggle for reforms, so too the SEP abstains from the actual struggles of the working class.

Trotsky long ago pointed the way forward:

But the revolutionary dialectic has long since pointed the way out and has demonstrated it by countless examples in the most diverse spheres; by correlating the struggle for power with the struggle for reforms; by maintaining complete independence of the party while preserving the unity of the trade unions; by fighting against the bourgeois regime and at the same time utilizing its institutions; by criticizing relentlessly parliamentarism – from the parliamentary tribunal; by waging war mercilessly against reformism, and at the same time making practical agreements with the reformists in partial struggles.

Without internal democracy and debate there is no revolutionary party

Kishore is completely unable to answer the criticisms I have raised above and in previous letter exchanges with the party leadership. Thus, he has been forced to resort to character assassination. However, no amount of lies and conspiracies will erase the fact that the reason for my expulsion was that I shared a critique of the Socialist Equality Party to other members and refused to stay quiet.

The party leadership actively attempts to suppress all political differences and maintain a cultish homogeneity of thought. The “center” (the party leadership based in Detroit) keeps close tabs on the branches through weekly minutes and swiftly intervenes as soon as any significant disagreement arises. Members who express disagreement are subjected to interrogations by branch leaders, aimed not at fostering a true discussion but at “correcting” the faulty opinion of the dissenting member.

Members are told that a “principled” political intervention means patiently waiting for any disagreement to pass through the local branch, until gradually and through some unspecified procedure, it works its way up to a higher body. Any attempt to raise a disagreement during a meeting outside of the branch or engage other members one-on-one is regarded as “disruptive” and even “sabotage.” The SEP claims that it allows factions, but how can anyone possibly build a faction if they have to take their marching orders from the branch, which in turn reports directly to the “center?” Is the “principled” approach for a member with a disagreement to convince their entire branch of their position and form a dissenting branch?

Any organization that engages in suppression of internal debate and expels members who dare to question the party leadership has no right to call itself a revolutionary party. To justify the SEP’s anti-democratic procedures, Kishore cites a quote from Lenin’s What is to be done? taken completely out of its historical context. He writes, quoting Lenin:

        ‘freedom of criticism’ means freedom for an opportunist trend in Social-Democracy…

The conclusion the reader is meant to draw is that any attempt to open a discussion in the party questioning a position is really an attempt to smuggle into the party a reconciliation with opportunism.  But is this what Lenin was getting at? Not at all!

Lenin was writing about a specific situation in which a reformist group of Russian Social Democrats abroad insisted that the party accommodate the view of the open opportunists such as Bernstein and work with them under the same umbrella. They supported this position by adopting the slogan “freedom of criticism.” Does this mean that Lenin opposed internal debate among those within the party committed to a revolutionary position? That is not what the historical record shows. The Bolshevik Party before its degeneration under Stalinism was marked by lively debates, sometimes even bitter ones, on many fundamental questions. Read Trotsky’s characterization, from The History of the Russian Revolution:

How could a genuinely revolutionary organization, setting itself the task of overthrowing the world and uniting under its banner the most audacious iconoclasts, fighters and insurgents, live and develop without intellectual conflicts, without groups and temporary faction formations?

There is also the conclusion of the preeminent historian of the Russian Revolution, Alexander Rabinowich, who wrote in his book, The Bolsheviks Come to Power:

… within the Bolshevik Petrograd organization at all levels in 1917, there was continuing free and lively discussion and debate over the most basic theoretical and tactical issues,

and that the party had shifting left, center, and moderate tendencies within it, right through the revolutionary period.

Leaders who differed with the majority were at liberty to fight for their views, and not infrequently, Lenin was the loser in those struggles.

What a stark difference this paints between the Bolsheviks and North and Kishore’s dismal regime, which forbids internal debate and expels members who dare demand it!

The Socialist Equality Party is able to maintain such a dictatorial inner-party regime because the power within the party is centralized in a tiny clique. During the 2020 National Congress of the US Socialist Equality Party, the rank and file had virtually no power to elect their leaders. Members submitted a slate of nominees for the National Committee to a three-man election committee. Using COVID-19 as an excuse, the SEP leadership stacked the election committee with its “outgoing” leadership: David North (the National Chairperson), Joseph Kishore (the National Secretary), and Jerry White (the Labor Secretary). Per the SEP constitution, the election committee collates the nominees and produces their own slate, which the membership then votes up or down all at once. In preparing its slate, the election committee is not bound, even on paper, by the nominations of the membership, and no vote tally is ever released.

The undemocratic regime in the SEP is sustained, above all, by a culture of groupthink in which members are encouraged to make “contributions” to discussions which consist of endless recapitulations of party doctrine. Any attempt to insert a critical thought is met with widespread derision. Members are made to feel that any disagreement with the party line reflects a serious shortcoming on their own part, which will cause them to lose the respect of their comrades.

Members are thus gradually taught to build up an atmosphere in which any serious disagreement is viewed with suspicion and hostility. An example from the youth group will serve to illustrate this point. In February, Peter was slated to give a report to the IYSSE, and was instructed to focus on a recent article, but chose to devote the bulk of his report to a discussion of a teachers’ struggle taking place in Chicago. This unleashed an outright firestorm.

The national secretary of the IYSSE worked behind the scenes to ensure full attendance at the next meetinga surprise public takedown launched by Eric London and Lawrence Porter, two leading members. London began the meeting with a half-hour-long speech misrepresenting and denouncing Peter’s statements and making incessant references to his “attitude.” Over the next two hours, almost every member of the committee saw fit to parade themselves out to declare that they “agreed with all of the points” and thought the meeting to be “very significant,” and the meeting concluded with London stating that it was a “turning point!” This truly bizarre spectacle, amounting to a kind of watered-down show trial, can only be interpreted as an attempt to ostracize and intimidate anyone with an oppositional view.

The party’s autocratic inner party regime raises serious questions about financial parasitism within the SEP.

A deeper search into the WSWS reveals that it is classified as a domestic profit corporation, with unknown primary shareholders, despite the fact that the WSWS is itself a collective product built by the labor of the entire party. The ICFI also directs its readers and party members to purchase from Mehring Books Inc., a corporation which according to D&B business directory has generated over $490K so far in 2021. Each branch in the party is also compelled to extract a minimum amount of money from supporters and members each month alongside a yearly fund drive which must easily generate over $100,000. The fact is that the rank and file have no idea how the finances of the party, collected through the participation of all members, are being used, nor do they have any say in the utilization of funds.

Yes, the union bureaucracy is degenerate, but at the very least they let the public know how much they are getting paid by the union membership. For an organization that consistently rails against the union bureaucracy, a question must be asked: David North, Joseph Kishore, and other leading members of the SEP, why do you not have the integrity to reveal the same?

Questions that the SEP leadership must answer to its members if it retains any shred of revolutionary integrity

Any information about the SEP’s composition and finances is tightly guarded by the leadership, on the grounds that releasing any such information to the cadre would jeopardize security. When Peter raised the demand for the party to reveal its total membership to the rank and file, a leading member responded indignantly that this would be almost tantamount to releasing personal addresses. This is a truly ludicrous rationalization for keeping the membership in the dark. Yes, the party needs to take measures to protect its members as best as it can from victimization by the state or right-wing forces, but what does that have to do with revealing the membership figures or having some level of accountability regarding finances?

Like the trade unions, we understand that the SEP is itself a contradictory organization. Despite the sectarian, even cultish, atmosphere cultivated by the leadership, its ranks contain many genuine revolutionaries who have been drawn to the party because it presents itself as an organization that is leading the fight for a socialist future. These are professionals, teachers, low-wage workers, and students who have devoted themselves heroically to the development of the party, sacrificing countless hours for the cause. We do not want to see these genuine revolutionaries waste their lives following a political line that actively goes against the interests of the working class. 

With this in mind, we propose that the rank and file within the SEP raise the following demands:

1     The release of basic information on the party to all members, including the total number of members and the growth of the party over time.

2     A full financial audit, to include answers to the following questions:

2.a                How are the party finances controlled?

2.b                What is the yearly revenue of the party and where is this   money coming from?

2.c                How much are the party staff and leadership paid?

2.d                Who are the shareholders of the WSWS?

3     The development of a party-wide forum in which ALL members can raise their ideas and engage in debate.

4     That the methods of slander and victimization of dissident members be repudiated.

5     That new elections for the leadership of the SEP be arranged forthwith allowing for a direct vote by the membership in selecting all levels of party leaders.

6     That the party reconsider its position on the unions and on the heritage of Trotskyism and The Transitional Program.

Finally, I would like to thank the leadership of the SEP for showing me exactly what a revolutionary party is not!

A revolutionary party is not an organization that actively avoids practical work in the working class. A revolutionary party is not an organization that rejects the use of reforms for building the path to revolution. A revolutionary party is not an organization that responds to criticisms of its political line with personal slander. A revolutionary party is not an organization that fears internal debate and democracy.

The SEP slanders many of its political enemies on the left with the meaningless term “pseudo-left.” If we take this term to mean an anti-worker group that cloaks itself in left-wing rhetoric, then there are few more worthy of the title than the SEP itself.

-- Shuvu Batta


See also:

The critique which solidified my differences with the party and led to my expulsion:

“Once again on the Question of the Trade Unions and the Tasks of the Party” by C:


For a deeper insight into the history and nature of the Socialist Equality Party, read:

Marxism without its Head or its Heart by Alex Steiner and Frank Brenner


For a thorough critique of David North’s “Why are Trade Unions Hostile to Socialism?”


The trade union form and the butchery of dialectics by Alex Steiner and Frank Brenner


The founding document of the Fourth International, which the SEP has abandoned in practice:

The Transitional Program by Leon Trotsky


Links to Related Documents:

Comrade C's critique of the ICFI's position on the unions