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:


Anonymous said...

I get your point, but as a factual matter even it seems like you have to admit North really does have a history in the working class. Even Phelps Dodge leader Jorge O'Leary said that North basically helped lead that strike.

Tom Jackson said...

At the bottom of this post there is a reference to a document by a "Comrade C," which was obtained by Shuvu Batta and Peter Ross and was the basis of their criticism of the SEP's program.

Everyone else here has been identified by name, but who is "C?" What is his political background? What information do you have about this person who has motivated the recent developments in the SEP?

Anonymous said...

Now that we access to the letters, is it really necessary to publish anything else? Batta's pathetic and hysterical criticisms can be summed up in the following sentence in his letter to the NYC branch, "My intention is not to sow chaos within the ICFI, though if that is a result, so be it." Quite the thoughtful and principled comrade.

Anonymous said...

I agree with Peter and Shuvu and think the article by “C” is extremely important. But I’m troubled that the only identifier we have is a single consonant. He could use a pseudonym but I think he’s obligated to account for his own political provenance and history.

Tom Jackson said...

I requested yesterday that you identify the individual who is referred to only as "Comrade C." This is a reasonable request, because his document is being used to attack and discredit the Socialist Equality Party. Readers have a right to know something about the background and political bonafides of this person. Is he a student, a worker or a professional? Is he a trade unionist? So far, you have not answered my question.

In response to another correspondent who chose to post a statement on your site anonymously, you criticize his failure to identify himself. "But why do you need to remain anonymous if as you say your name is already out there?"

C's document is "out there" and is being used to denounce the SEP. Why should C's identity be concealed? From who is he being protected? Failure to identify this individual would indicate that you, and very possible "C" himself, have something to hide.

Alex Steiner said...

Response to Tom Jackson:

I am always amused when an anonymous commenter challenges the right of someone else to maintain their anonymity. Is Tom Jackson really your name? Who knows? You do not provide any link or any means by which we can confirm your identity.

I never criticized anyone for maintaining their anonymity, only their hypocrisy about it.

If you have something of substance to say about C's contribution to this discussion, let's hear it. Otherwise you are just another troll trying to dig up dirt because you cannot tolerate the light of day where reasoned discussion takes place.

Adam Cortright said...

I sympathize with the author. I was myself thinking just last week of joining the Republican Party (US). First, I have to get them to reverse their decades-long stance on low taxation of the wealthy and corporations. I feel that this can be accomplished relatively quickly--perhaps faster than one can say "provisional membership".


Adam Cortright

Anonymous said...

I don't think that "C's" identity is all that important; rather, what is important is identifying the class forces that the positions they put forward represent, which are clearly petty-bourgeois and completely aligned with the interests of the trade union bureaucracy.

Anonymous said...

Yes, identifying the political and class forces expressed in "C's" document is the most important thing. But that does not mean that the person's identity is irrelevant. As part of their evaluation of his positions, readers should have a right to know where he's coming from. Is this person active in the trade unions? Is he (assuming it's a "he") a worker? And there is another question. Frankly, based on what I've read, I strongly suspect that "C" is somehow -- even before he applied to join the SEP -- connected to Alex Steiner. The arguments he makes in his document are virtually identical to those of Steiner. If that is, in fact, the case, Steiner should acknowledge it.

Mark said...

There is a lot of information to digest here, but basically the letters provide context and an illustration of the kind of paranoia and delusions that grip what passes for leadership in the SEP and the typical authoritarian and slanderous responses to challenges within its ranks. The political newcomer might be initially attracted by the regular engagement with news and events of the WSWS, or maybe their branding as being authentically Trotskyist, Marxist, or "left", but they will inevitably find themselves isolated in yet another cul de sac of American politics as the experience of Peter and Shuvu shows.

About Comrade C, I find the fixation on his identity bizarre considering all those who are making the demand are posting anonymously. The last commenter thinks Comrade C is "connected to Alex Steiner", why exactly is this important? Personally, I don't see the influence on the document written by C, which I think is an honest and good faith examination of the union question within the context of Marxism. Many people coming from many tendencies have found North's position on the unions to be rotten independently and by different paths. Anyone with a genuine understanding of and agreement with Marxism, specifically the works of Lenin ("Left Wing Communism") and Trotsky ("The Transitional Program", "The Trade Unions in Britain"), will find North's positions problematic to say the least. We might ask, why does North and his organization align more with Jeff Bezos and the Koch brothers on the union question than with his socialist counterparts? What class forces does North and the SEP represent?