Sunday, December 10, 2023

James Creegan: a Marxist maverick

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James Creegan, a lifelong revolutionary socialist and a good friend and comrade, died on Thursday, Nov. 23, 2023, at the age of seventy-six, following a lengthy illness. I had the good fortune to know Jim and collaborated with him on educational and political projects over the last ten years. Over time, I learned something about where he came from and the forces that shaped him. Much of the material I present is taken from a memoir Jim wrote and circulated among a few friends. All quotations are taken from his memoir unless otherwise indicated. This article was first published in the Weekly Worker edition of Dec. 7, 2023.

Note: An earlier version of this obituary mistakenly listed the League for a Revolutionary Party as participating in the slanderous claim that Jim Creegan was a "scab".   This has been corrected. 


Jim in Greece, August 2018

Formative Years

 Jim was a red-diaper baby, born on June 27 1947. Unlike many baby boomers, he did not rebel against his parents but learned from them. Both his parents were in the Communist Party in the 1930s and 1940s. His father, Bernard, but Barney” to his friends, was more political than his mom Selma née Rubin. His father came originally from what is now Northern Ireland and joined the British CP in Scotland in 1923. He came to the U.S. in 1930, where he worked as a union organizer for  the CP, and later for the CIO. He fell out with the party in 1945 and was not active politically after that though he maintained his sympathy for the party. When the international Stalinist movement went into crisis, beginning with Khruschevs secret speech” in 1956, when the crimes of Stalinism were revealed, first to a select audience, and eventually, to any CP member who had eyes to see, Jims father reacted by adopting a left-Stalinist orientation. His position was quite different from that of other former members disillusioned with the CP, who were turning to liberalism and anti-communism. When the Sino-Soviet split happened he sided with China.

 From the New Left to Trotsky

It was therefore no accident that Jims earliest political orientation as a young man leaned toward Maoism. His first political affiliation was at Penn State in 1965, where, as a convinced Maoist, he entered the network of the Progressive Labor Party (PLP). He was for two years chair of the campus Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) during the headiest days of the student anti-war and radical movements. In If I Had a Hammer, Maurice Isserman, a historian of the American left, argues that the children of Communists were a more essential element of the New Left than is generally recognized. Jims experience bears this out.

Jim had his road to Damascus moment in his senior year when he read Isaac Deutscher's Trotsky trilogy at the suggestion of a fellow member of Students for a Democratic Society  (SDS). As he put it years later,

This biography changed my political views more than any single work I've read, and I began to take more of an interest in Trotskyism.

His newfound interest in Trotskyism however did not immediately translate into a political affiliation.

After graduating college in 1969, Jim returned to his hometown, Philadelphia. He remained there for two years during which he became active in the local chapter of the New American Movement (NAM). The NAM was basically a grouping of New Left refugees trying to reconstitute themselves politically. He entered graduate school in philosophy at the University of Colorado (Boulder) in 1972. He belonged to the NAM chapter there as well, but his main emphasis was on study--deepening his understanding of classical philosophy, Hegel, and Marx.

Jim returned to Philly in 1977, a more educated and convinced, Marxist than before. He had it in the back of his mind that the next phase of his life had to include organized politics. He always believed abstractly that any Marxist worth his/her salt must belong to a party-type organization. In his own words, Jim wrote about this period of his life,

I felt somewhat guilty about not having acted upon that belief by following the more serious refugees from the New Left who joined various parties in the early 70s. But I felt the need for more knowledge at the time, so went to grad school instead. And I  hadn't burned my bridges to academia even after I left Boulder. I enrolled in the Political Economy grad program at the New School (which, as it turned out, was like what people often say about communism: appealing on paper, but disappointing in practice), and moved to NYC in 1979.

Adventures in the Spartacist League

 It was in this period that Jim began reading the newspaper of the Spartacist League (SL), Workers Vanguard. From the start Jim felt a kinship with its polemics. He wrote of his engagement with the SL publication that,

…it reinforced much of what I felt about the rest of the left circa 1980: that most individuals and organizations had moved markedly to the right along with ruling-class-generated public opinion and emerged in far too flaccid a state to meet the challenges of the Carter/Reagan years .

Jims reaction was understandable. As a revolutionary socialist in formation, he had a gut reaction against the abandonment of radical politics by many of his contemporaries from the 1960s generation. The fact that Jims reaction coincided with his introduction to the Spartacist League is one of those contingent events in a life that nevertheless expressed a certain logic. The Spartacist League was vociferous in its denunciation of what they considered opportunism on the left, more so than any other organization claiming to be Trotskyist. It very much was in consonance with Jims uncompromising convictions as a Trotskyist. Jim later explained his affinity for this side of the SL:

I am by temperament a controversialist, who relishes the clash of ideas, the cut and thrust of polemic. The witty, pugilistic style of WV seemed to me to partake more of the authentic spirit of communism in its early pre-Stalinist incarnation, much of which my father had retained from his youth and passed on to me.

Once he became convinced of the correctness of a political stance Jim would brook no apologies for those misguided individuals on the wrong side of that issue, and he did not suffer fools. However, after a while Jim did have second thoughts about the Spartacist style that attracted him initially. He pointed to their “acerbic style” and their “excessively abrasive and hectoring "interventions" at the political meetings of other groups.”  The SL’s interventions often degenerated into what he described as “the accusation and insult that had become an SL trademark.”

Jim’s initial deep commitment to a political organization that gave expression to his revolutionary impulses certainly had its admirable side. But it also harbored a fundamental problem. Once he became convinced of something it was exceedingly difficult for Jim to pause and retrace his steps and consider that he may have been mistaken. That was my judgment based on many discussions I had with Jim. No matter how much his original enthusiasm for the SL changed into a deep opposition both to their policies and to their internal regime, he always looked back to the SL of the 1970’s as their golden age.

To cite one example, Jim indicated more than once that a fundamental issue which cemented his sympathy for the SL was the full-throated support the Spartacist League provided to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979.

Jim and I never agreed on this issue. I found the SL’s slogan, Hail to the Red Army’ repugnant. It created the pretense that the Russian tanks that went into Afghanistan in 1979 had a direct connection to the heroic Red Army of 1919 that defeated the counterrevolutionary forces arrayed against the newly established Soviet state. The Spartacist League, and Jim, had this notion that any military intervention by the Soviet Union was an expression of the Stalinist bureaucracy defending the gains of the October Revolution. While it was true that the forces arrayed against the Soviet-backed regime in Kabul were reactionary Islamists backed by the CIA it was also true that the Soviet-backed regime did not come into existence as a result of a popular uprising. Rather it was the inheritor of a series of coups backed by Moscow and had little popular support. The SL by this point in its political evolution had elevated the Stalinist bureaucracy at the expense of the international working class. While it was incumbent on Trotskyists to defend the Soviet Union, despite the bureaucracy, against imperialism, it did not follow that the Stalinist bureaucracy had somehow become a progressive factor in world politics and it certainly did not follow that Trotskyists were obliged to support whatever global political maneuver the Stalinist bureaucracy involved itself in. Once you substitute a bureaucracy for the revolutionary potential of the masses, as the SL did, you wind up with some very bizarre – for a Trotskyist – positions. The most notorious expression of this was the publication by Workers Vanguard in 1984, of a black-bordered death notice on its front page marking the death of the former KGB and Soviet party chief Yuri Andropov.

But even when Jim was an enthusiastic supporter of the SL’s perspective, he never became an apparatchik who failed to question the leadership, the kind of person that inhabits every group, one who is content to follow orders. Exactly the opposite was the case. Jim always had a mind of his own and refused to become the obsequious follower that other members of SL became.

Jim’s description of his duties when he was a member of the Spartacist League testifies to his unselfish spirit, sacrificing much of his personal life and income as a soldier for the cause of the revolution. Even years after he had left the SL Jim still thought that those onerous work assignments were legitimate though he also became angered by the unequal treatment meted out to different members. Jim was assigned numerous duties on a daily basis involving newspaper sales, sales of literature and meetings with fellow SL members, in addition to a regular and much-dreaded early morning sale where he had to arrive at 7AM at a remote location in Brooklyn. By way of contrast, the head of the Spartacist League lived like a king.

Listen to Jim’s depiction of the corruption of the Spartacist leader, James Robertson, and the regime of exploitation built around his needs:

Maybe now you can better appreciate why those of us who joined the BT later on were so enraged that  Robertson, however greatly he had sacrificed to build the SL in the past, was then having a basement playroom built with our labor for his nocturnal escapades, flying Concorde--many times more expensive than a regular passenger jet--having a hot tub installed ( again with organizational funds and labor) in his NYC apartment, and demanding a special contribution over and above dues to buy himself a house in the Bay Area.

When Jim joined the SL, he came as part of a wave of new recruits inspired by their campaign for a victory for the Salvadoran rebels and opposition to a compromise with leaders of the death squads that had plagued El Salvador. But from the start the S L never fully trusted him because he came to them as already formed politically instead of “the preferred tabula rasa minds, upon which the leadership could effortlessly inscribe its wisdom and ‘organizational norms’.”

As a result, Jim was given tasks that mostly segregated him from other comrades lest he “infect” them with his independent spirit. He wrote,

…because of my reluctance to join full-throatedly in Robertson's amen chorus, I was shunted off into the lowly position of lit director… isolated from other members on the second floor of the SL compound, where I occupied the only permanent work station. The other members were assigned to the upper floors, only passing on occasion the lit shelves where I worked.

The SL never recognized the asset they had in Jim and instead of encouraging his political and theoretical development they kept him occupied with lots of make-work tasks. In retrospect, the worst crime they committed was undoubtedly their refusal to allow him to contribute to their publications given Jim’s enormous talent for political-historical analysis.

 The Spartacist Afterlife

 Jim remained in the SL for 5 years, from 1981 to 1986, until his inevitable break with them. He thereupon joined the Spartacist spawn known as the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT). Jim developed differences with the SL position on various questions – the details are unimportant – but the real driving force for his break with the SL was undoubtedly his disgust with the cultish behavior of its leadership and the endless series of purges of members who came into conflict with Robertson. He thereafter found a home in the IBT where he remained for the next 10 years. The IBT, like the SL, was obsessed with the “Russian question” and felt that one’s position on the Russian question was the litmus test for whether one was a genuine Trotskyist. The IBT accused the SL of deviating from the “correct” position and the SL likewise made the same accusation of the IBT. In many ways the IBT led a parasitic existence off the SL. But Jim found a more congenial home within the IBT since he was finally able to publish, giving vent to his polemical talents.

In time Jim became disenchanted with the IBT. Years later he explained that,

They [the IBT] believed that the program remained valid regardless of what happened in the world. They had no clue in terms of analyzing newer developments in the class struggle and in politics. [1]

It troubled Jim that although the IBT had at that time existed for 20 years it had failed miserably to attract members and was the same tiny group that it was at its inception. One would think that if your goal were to change the world and you remained a tiny group over the years that had absolutely no influence on the working class, you should ask why this failure and critique whatever practices you have engaged in that led to this sterile abyss. One would think that, but only if one were ignorant of the ways of the various grouplets that populate the extreme left. Such questions never occur to them as they blithely ignore reality.

One incident stands out during Jim’s tenure in the IBT. He had worked for a number of years as a clerk at the office of the Village Voice, a famous New York weekly that featured some of the best journalists in the country. In 1996 the maintenance workers at the building housing the Village Voice went on strike, part of a city-wide strike, against the companies that were contracted by the building owners to do their maintenance. Jim was the shop steward of the United Auto Workers branch that represented the Village Voice employees. The striking maintenance workers belonged to a different union and made it clear that their strike was against the company that employed the maintenance workers, not the Village Voice. The Voice employees, with the assent of the UAW local and Village Voice  management, took out the trash themselves. The striking building maintenance workers did not object to this accommodation. The only other option would have been to allow the building’s maintenance contractor to bring in scabs to do that job. The Village Voice owners also stopped all payments to the building maintenance contractors for the duration of the strike. In addition, the Village Voice UAW local, largely because of Jim’s efforts, raised $3,000 for the striking maintenance workers in an unprecedented show of solidarity.

The Spartacist League newspaper, Workers Vanguard, always ready to find something with which to trash their IBT rivals, said Jim was a “scab” for participating in the Village Voice’s attempt to keep their operations going. The IBT put out a pamphlet with the title, Sectarians, “Scabs” & Socialists, which defended Jim against the slanderous “scab” charge. The union local also put out a bulletin, titled Support to Strikers, So Long to Scabs, which explained that the actions taken by the Village workers were in support of the strike by the building’s maintenance workers. Village Voice management also came to an agreement with the union to stop paying the building maintenance fee until such time as the building maintenance worker’s strike was settled.

 This was back in 1996. Move forward 20 years to 2016. Jim is suddenly confronted with the news that the IBT, which had defended him in 1996, had now “repudiated” the pamphlet defending him and had concluded that Jim had been a scab after all. The IBT further [falsely] claimed ignorance of the details at the time as their rationale for having defended Jim in 1996! Jim responded to these slanders with a brilliant piece that skewers the IBT and the SL. It is worth quoting the beginning of Jim’s response to give you a flavor of his inimical polemical style:


Old Lie Makes New Converts

The principal service that the microscopic and pompously named International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) has performed for the left was to expose the Spartacist League (US) and its affiliates in the International Communist League (ICL) as the personality cult that they are. Unable to answer the truthful testimony of the IBT (and its predecessors, the External Tendency, and the Bolshevik Tendency), the Spartacists fired back with a cascade of lies about their accusers, worthy of the   vipers’ nest this organization had become. Now, in a turn more pathetic than pernicious, the IBT has taken to retailing one of the lies directed against me when I was a member of their group over twenty years ago. I hesitate to reply only because I fear that I might make myself look ridiculous by expending so many pixels over something that won’t matter a tinker’s damn to anyone outside the  time capsule inhabited by the Spartacist League and its derivative groupuscules. But, as Trotsky said, the historical record should be accurately maintained, even in its minutest details. [2]


Jim was denounced not only by the SL and the IBT, but also by another Spart spawn, the Internationalist Group (IG). Anyone who could earn the wrath of all these small-minded sectarian outfits deserves a medal!

A revolutionary without a party

 After leaving the IBT in the mid 1990’s, Jim was finally able to flourish as a writer, an educator, and a trenchant critic of contemporary culture. And as I later learned  Jim was also a great raconteur, a poet, and a competent singer. Yet ironically, in this most productive period of his life, Jim was not affiliated with any political group. For someone who always believed that “any Marxist worth his salt should be a member of a party” this was undoubtedly a bittersweet period for him.

As a result of Jim’s work as an activist in the UAW local and his outspoken politics, he was forced out of his job at the Village Voice in 2002 after new owners took it over. Jim’s next job was that of a substitute teacher in the New York City public school system. The job was often very gratifying as Jim’s talents as a teacher made him an instant favorite in practically every school to which he was assigned. However as much as Jim enjoyed teaching, the earnings of a substitute teacher in the New York public school system are quite meager and the benefits even worse. But the job suited Jim insofar as he often had the afternoons free to read or write.

It was in this period that Jim’s literary and polemical talents shined as he became a regular contributor to the UK-based newspaper Weekly Worker. He wrote dozens of articles for the Weekly Worker starting in 2007 and ending in June of 2022. Jim’s oeuvre was not confined to strictly political essays, which he did masterfully enough, but also touched on history and culture. One notable example was a review of a film by Ken Loach about the Irish war of independence and subsequent civil war, Ken Loach's use of Irish history. [3]  

When the pandemic hit, Jim was assigned to the well-known science-oriented high school, Stuyvesant. Jim made a huge impression on his colleagues and students at Stuyvesant. The students knew him as the teacher who sang the attendance call. He worked at Stuyvesant up until several weeks prior to his death.


 Ironically, Jim outlived the Spartacist League. The SL’s founder-leader, James Robertson, died in 2019 at the age of ninety. The cult he began did not survive his passing. The newspaper of the SL, Workers Vanguard, ceased publication for over a year following his death. Eventually a group based in the UK attempted to revive the corpse of the SL. They held an “International Conference” where they attempted to diagnose the ills of the SL that led to their demise. Jim was following these events and noted wryly that for all their “self-criticism” the self-appointed resurrectionists of the SL never said a word about the corruption of the Robertson regime.

The International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) suffered a major split in 2018. The issue that precipitated the split was, as you may have guessed, the Russian question. Following the split the IBT was left with fewer members than it had when it started out almost 50 years ago.  As Jim explained at a Left Forum panel in 2019,

Now the IBT, which was fewer than twenty members, has the rare distinction among Trotskyist grouplets that they managed to split over the Russian question thirty years after the collapse of the Soviet Union! [4]

I met Jim ten years ago in a seminar on the Russian Revolution organized by the Brecht Forum. When the Brecht Forum dissolved the following year both of us continued with its successor organization, the Marxist Education Project. Although we did not agree on every political and philosophical question, we had enough affinity on basic issues to collaborate on a number of projects. Among these was a walking tour in New York inspired by Trotsky’s 9-week sojourn in that city prior to his arrival in Russia in 1917. We also worked together, along with Marilyn Vogt-Downey, on a special broadcast on radio station WBAI commemorating the 100th anniversary of the October Revolution.  Jim was also a participant - and often a co-facilitator - in a series of classes on Hegel that I taught through the Marxist Education Project. Among Jim’s many contributions to that class series one that stands out for me was Jim’s masterful lecture on the French Revolution.  I will miss our back and forth sparring over our different interpretations of Hegel.

 In addition to our political collaboration Jim and I developed a personal bond. Both of us came out of the 60’s generation and both of us joined small Trotskyist groups following a flirtation with the New Left.  It turned out that we knew several people in common.  I learned that Jim had known my first wife before I met her, when they were both members of SDS at Penn State. It also turned out that the groups we joined, in Jim’s case the Spartacist League, in mine the Workers League, began life in the same opposition faction of the Socialist Workers Party in the early 1960’s. And we both witnessed the toll that the years of Reaganite reaction inflicted on the 60s generation.  Many did not survive the trauma when the optimism and Utopian spirit of the 60’s clashed with the dismal, self-centered culture of the 80’s and 90’s.  We both knew people whose lives were cut short by mental illness, alcoholism, drug abuse and suicide.

Any account by me of Jim’s political life would not be complete if I did not mention that Jim and I had a fundamental disagreement about the very basis of Trotskyism.   Jim, in his later years, had come to the conclusion that the premise behind the launch of the Fourth International by Trotsky in 1938 was  a mistaken assessment of the nature of the epoch. Trotsky thought that we were living in a period of the decay and terminal decline of capitalism and that therefore the objective conditions were ripe for socialist revolution. Jim felt that Trotsky’s assessment of capitalism in the 20th century was mistaken and cited the post-war boom as evidence of that.  I thought that Jim was being too literal in his interpretation of Trotsky’s intent. While it was true that Trotsky did not anticipate the post-war boom (not that anyone else did either) his pronouncement on the nature of the epoch was not meant to only apply to the immediate situation capitalism faced in the 1930’s and the decades following but was a  judgment of an entire historical period whose length could not be predicted in advance. I also felt that while Jim’s commitment and active participation in the struggles that emerged in the last sixty years were second to none, he was at the same time overly pessimistic about the potential for the rebirth of a militant working class.  Jim would undoubtedly have retorted that he was a realist, not a pessimist, and that my optimism was based on illusions I inherited from the Trotskyist groups with which I had been associated. (Jim provided a detailed presentation on this topic in a panel at the Left Forum.) [5] Yet no matter how strong our disagreements I knew that with Jim I was dealing with an intellectual giant who was  not easily dismissed.

I should also mention that Jim was a wonderful raconteur who had mastered the art of storytelling. I always enjoyed going to an Irish pub with him.

Jim’s memory will be cherished by his friends and colleagues, some  of whom have known him since childhood, others more recently. He leaves a legacy of commitment and independence tempered by his wit and good humor.

Alex Steiner

New York, Dec 2, 2023


Jim standing in front of a monument to Lord Byron. Jim loved the English, Irish and Scottish poets.

[1] Platypus Affiliated Society, panel at Left Forum, June 30, 2019, Beyond sect or movement: What is a political center?


[2] Excerpt from private email from Jim Creegan, Oct. 3, 2016.

[3] Weekly Worker edition of April 18, 2007, Ken Loach’s use of Irish history

[5] Ibid. Beyond sect or movement: What is a political center?

Thursday, November 9, 2023

The Devil that Never Dies: Calumnies in the service of historical falsification

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by Alex Steiner

On Sept 27 of this year the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS)  published an article with the imposing title, 1982: Marxism, the revolutionary party, and the critique of Healy’s Studies in Dialectics, by Christoph Vandreier, a leading member of the Sozialistische Gleichheitspartei (Socialist Equality Party) of Germany. [1]

The article is a transcript of a lecture the author gave at the Socialist Equality Party Summer School of 2023. The lecture included the following diatribe about me and Frank Brenner,


North’s polemic against Alex Steiner and Frank Brenner is undoubtedly particularly important. North, in his engagement with Steiner and Brenner, developed further the very conception we discussed during the last hour. The book is a Marxist attack on all the various schools of subjective idealism such as postmodernism, the Frankfurt School, and existentialism. It is a powerful defense of materialism. As David North writes:

The real issue is that you do not agree with the International Committee’s insistence that the fight for socialism requires the development, within the working class, of both a profound knowledge of history—particularly that of the socialist movement itself—and the most precise and concrete understanding possible (by means of ever more exact conceptual approximations) of the objective movement of the world capitalist system in all its complex, contradictory and interconnected forms. What you refer to falsely as “objectivism,” is the Marxist striving to accurately reflect in subjective thought the law-governed movement of the objective world, of which social man is a part, and to make this knowledge and understanding the basis of revolutionary practice. For all your talk about “dialectics” and the “fight against pragmatism,” everything you write demonstrates indifference to the requirements of developing a working-class movement whose practice is informed by Marxist theory.

It is remarkable how in Steiner and Brenner the conceptions of Healy, their theoretical mentor, merge with all the anti-Marxist theories floating around in the universities. This itself underlines once again the importance of the struggle against Healy’s conceptions and shows how important it was to continue this struggle.

Their rejection of the Enlightenment and therefore of reason, their insistence on utopia and a breaking up of the family, etc., are all animated by the same spirit: to detach Marxism from science, from the close study of the class struggle and its history, and to transform it into a beautiful idea that fits the life of petty-bourgeois existence. Marxism is not supposed to solve the crisis of revolutionary leadership, but the sexual problems of Frank Brenner.

We have not had much to say about the WSWS recently. This is not because we think there has been any sign of a positive turn in that organization. In fact its trajectory continues in the direction of extreme sectarianism and open hostility to the working class combined with crude opportunism. This is a combination, a unity of opposites if you will, not as unusual as some may think. As Trotsky wrote of the sectarians in his time, ‘The urge to stand to the left of Marxism leads fatally to the centrist swamp’. [2] We have previously documented the SEP’s occasional prostration to bourgeois nationalism, echoing the opportunist practice of Healy as well as that of the despised ‘Pabloites’. [3]

The reason we have devoted little attention to the SEP and the WSWS in the recent period was because our personal focus has changed from journalistic activity to theoretical and cultural activities, and we saw no reason to follow the twists and turns of this organization. In any case we have said pretty much all there is to say about the WSWS and the SEP and there is nothing more that needs to be said.  But as they say ‘the devil never dies’, and no matter how many times slanders have been responded to, politically and morally bankrupt individuals will repeat the same slanders over and over again.  Furthermore,  the staying power of lies and slanders has grown exponentially with the rise of social media and the world of ‘alternative facts’ they create. Nevertheless the historical record demands a response even if it will only impact that handful of readers who remain committed to the search for truth.


Vandreier tosses in his attack on us in the midst of a hagiographic account of North’s battle against Healy’s butchery of dialectics and his “consistent” struggle for Trotskyism.  We debunked this false narrative long ago.


I do not have any personal animus toward Mr. Vandreier. I never met him and I have no doubt he is sincere in his beliefs.  He is simply acting on the basis of how he has been trained for political leadership by David North.  The fact that he has allowed himself to be molded into an unquestioning acolyte of North - his lecture is peppered with dozens of quotations from the great man himself -indicates that he is not exactly what one would call a critical thinker. However, while Mr. Vandreier may not know any better,  special responsibility for the evolution of the SEP and its sister organizations into the semi political cult it is today must fall on the shoulders of those older comrades who should have known better. In this connection special mention must be made of Fred Mazelis, David Walsh, Bill Van Auken, Fred Choate, Ulrich Rippert, Chris Talbot, Nick Beams and a handful of others.  Given the absence of any pushback or criticism within the leadership of the SEP and its international partners,  no mechanism existed for correcting North’s errors. Like Healy, he was given a free hand. The result was an abandonment of theory, an unchecked drift toward extreme sectarianism and an organizational structure that does not tolerate any internal criticism.  For decades every National Conference of the Socialist Equality Party approved every resolution brought before it with a unanimous vote.  The SEP is not the only organization on the left that  does not tolerate internal debate, but it is unique in openly bragging about it. [4]


The permanent revolution web site has over the years published dozens of essays as well as entire volumes comprising our assessment of David North and the organization he has led since 1975.


I am responding to Vandreier not because I care about his personal attacks against me  and Frank Brenner.  Such a personal attack would only concern me if it comes from someone for whom I have some respect. I provide this material rather to demonstrate to those who are able to intelligently reflect on the issues raised, that David North as an essential part of his  gross falsification of the history of his organization, has for decades spread a fictitious narrative not only about me and Frank Brenner, but also about the intellectual history of the Frankfurt School and other philosophical trends of the 20th century. He has embellished over the years a mythology about his unique role in rescuing Trotskyism from oblivion.  Mr. Vandreier’s lecture, as well as the other lectures of the SEP Summer School are the latest episodes in this decades long disinformation project.  Because some people mistakenly believe that North is a spokesperson for Marxism and Trotskyism, his words and actions unfortunately influence what some people believe Marxism is all about. This constitutes nothing less than a crime against the political and intellectual integrity of Marxism.  

To summarize Vandreier’s allegations against Frank Brenner and me, he claims that:

1.Gerry Healy was our “theoretical mentor”.

2.  We reject the Enlightenment and reason.

3.  That we “insist” on Utopia.

4.  That we support the breakup of the family.

5.  All the above are expressions of our commitment “to detach Marxism from science, from the close study of the class struggle and its history, and to transform it into a beautiful idea that fits the life of petty-bourgeois existence.”

Let’s take a look at each of Vandreier’s claims.

1. What does it mean to say that Gerry Healy was our “theoretical mentor”? Admittedly, when we joined the Workers League in the early 1970’s we were impressed by Gerry Healy’s consistent defense of Trotskyism against opportunism and by his ability to speak directly to workers and convey to them the ideas of revolutionary socialism in a manner they could easily grasp.  David North also commented on this side of Healy in a political obituary he wrote many years ago. To quote North,

Healy possessed an uncanny ability to articulate and convey that conviction, and therein lay his astonishing gifts as an orator. He had the rare ability to move a mass audience. At the peak of his form, he could literally raise thousands to their feet. And this effect was achieved by inspiring his audiences with confidence in the power of the historical principles of the Fourth International and the revolutionary strength of the English working class. [5]

What North wrote here is absolutely true. Practically anyone who joined the movement in this period, including David North, was inspired by Healy.  None of us at that time knew anything about Healy’s abuse of female comrades, something that was only made public in 1985.  This period also predated by several years Healy’s adoption of what he called the “practice of cognition”, the sad caricature of dialectics that became Healy’s focus and which was accompanied by a capitulation to bourgeois nationalism. Is Mr. Vandreier claiming that we were more “influenced” by Healy than David North or for that matter any other comrade who entered the movement in this period?  Is he claiming that we have adopted, and remain faithful, to this day, to Healy’s butchery of dialectics? As a matter of fact we published a critique of Healy’s mangling of dialectics that in every respect is far superior to anything David North wrote. [6] Or is Mr. Vandreier simply repeating the smear campaign against us that David North has prosecuted for the past two decades?


2. 2. Mr. Vandreier claims that we “reject the Enlightenment and reason”.   We answered this intellectual slander 16 years ago!  In summing up our discussion of the Enlightenment, we wrote,

…in recent years, the traditional liberal defense of the Enlightenment has been complemented by a distinct form of right-wing Enlightenment boosterism. Proponents of this intellectual trend include such figures as Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. Harris, in his book, Letters to a Christian Nation, defends a version of Western Enlightenment culture that is distinctly chauvinist and supportive of “humane” imperialism. Hitchens, as is well known, is a former leftist who has become an enthusiastic supporter of the Bush Administration and its “War on Terror”. But Hitchens puts his own spin on his support for the Bush Administration. He claims that the Left has abandoned the Enlightenment (and indeed there is some truth to that statement when applied to most petty bourgeois radical groups) whereas the Bush Administration is defending those very values by exporting the principles of Western democracy to Iraq. In the face of such gangrenous claims to the legacy of the Enlightenment, the task of Marxists, one would think, would be to stake out an understanding of the Enlightenment such that it is clearly differentiated from both the liberal and right-wing narratives. Conversely, an oversimplified and schematized version of the Enlightenment can only lend credence to the liberal and right-wing accounts.  [7]


Our discussion of the Enlightenment then, far from rejecting it and  celebrating  irrationalism, was a warning that Marxists must differentiate themselves from the liberal and right wing ‘defense of the Enlightenment’. Failure to do so, ironically, only lends aid and comfort to irrationalism. This is evident on college campuses today where the failure of Marxists to articulate their own narrative of what was positive about the Enlightenment and what was missing in it, is grist for the mill for the rise of “wokeness” and other intellectual rubbish that rejects the Enlightenment and the tradition of rationalism.  Missing a Marxist critique, it is understandable why radicalized college students, who have been taught that the Enlightenment is compatible with and even encourages capitalism, imperialism, patriarchy and racism, would embrace a philosophy of anti-Enlightenment.   This antipathy to the Enlightenment is no mystery when its leading ‘defenders’ are right wing polemicists such as the late Christoher Hitchens and Sam Harris or worse still, the neo-cons in the State Department.  And to be sure, while Marxists should defend the progressive side of the Enlightenment against the “woke” crowd, they should also not forget the various lacunae that characterized the Enlightenment.  It is a fact that misogyny, racism and antisemitism was taken for granted by some of the key defenders of the Enlightenment such as Voltaire and Kant.


3. 3. Vandreier claims that we “insist” on Utopia.  The impression is thereby conveyed that we are calling for a return to the Utopian Socialism of the 19th century and rejecting the scientific Marxism that superseded it.  All this and related smears by North about our “neo-utopianism” are based on a willful misreading of an essay by Frank Brenner that we published 20 years ago.  The essay is an historical account of the role of utopian vision in inspiring the masses.  Along the way there are discussions of the how the right wing of Social Democracy tried to counterpose utopian vision to scientific socialism, how the history of the socialist movement continues a tradition born in Ancient Greece of  the “good life”, eudaemonism,  how the  role of the family is impacted by changes in the relations of production, and many other issues that should be of interest to Marxists. I would not expect the crude name-callers of North’s entourage to appreciate such a serious intellectual approach to the subject matter – these are after all people who believe that anyone on the left who is not under their control is a member of the “pseudo-left” -  and I have little doubt that Mr. Vandreier never read the essay, but one of the lessons it draws is that the common belief “…that once Marxism had made socialism into a science, utopianism became irrelevant” is mistaken.   Brenner, commenting on this common misconception wrote,

The primary text on which this view is based is Engels’s Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, and there is no question that there, as elsewhere, both he and Marx subjected utopian socialism to a profound critique that was crucial to the whole project of a scientific socialism. But that critique didn’t render utopianism irrelevant, any more than the advent of Marxism rendered Hegel’s philosophy or Smith and Ricardo’s political economy irrelevant. The development of Marxism was a dialectical one, a ‘transcendence’ that terminated the ideologically rooted illusions and limitations of its predecessors, while at the same time preserving – or perhaps more correctly, rediscovering – their positive content. This is widely understood in relation to Hegel, whose influence on Marx was evident long after the latter had settled accounts philosophically with Hegelianism. The utopian socialists, however, have been ignored, even though there is ample indication in the writings of Marx and Engels that the ideas of Saint-Simon, Fourier and Owen continued to play an important role in their thinking.  [8]


To prove the last point, Brenner provides a quote from Marx’s writing on the Paris Commune,


From the moment the working men’s class movement became real, the fantastic utopias evanesced – not because the working class had given up the end aimed at by these Utopians, but because they had found the real means to realize them – but in their place came a real insight into the historical conditions of the movement and a more and more gathering force of the militant organization of the working class. But the last two ends of the movement proclaimed by the Utopians are the last ends proclaimed by the Paris Revolution and by the International. Only the means are different and the real conditions of the movement are no longer clouded in utopian fables. [9]


4.  4. Vandreier claims that we advocate the breakup of the family.  Such a statement has an uncanny resemblance to the mudslinging of the far right that liberals and socialists are out to destroy the traditional family.  And it has about as much truth value as the ravings of Steve Bannon.

It is but another echo of a gross distortion of our position that North has been spreading for two decades.   The charge is aimed chiefly at Brenner because he has written extensively about the changing role of the family, gender relations and how they are being transformed today. He also discussed the theories of some of the Freudo-Marxists about how the nuclear family structure in bourgeois society becomes an engine of psychological and ideological repression.  Because of his theoretical work in this area, North claimed that Brenner was advocating the dissolution of the family structure and that a revolutionary transformation of society was not possible until a new family structure replaced the one we have.  This is of course complete nonsense.  Brenner was pointing out that it is capitalism, not he, that is responsible for the dissolution of the nuclear family.  What other conclusion can you draw when more than 50% of the population is driven to divorce and break-up, and when birth rates are declining,  as a direct result of economic pressures faced by the working class today? Brenner was also making the point that a fundamental change of the family structure will face a long and difficult path even after a revolution.  It is the same point made by Trotsky in an essay in his anthology, Problems of Everyday Life.


In regard to family relations and forms of individual life in general, there must also be an inevitable period of disintegration of things as they were, of the traditions inherited from the past which had not passed under the control of thought. But in this domain of domestic life the period of criticism and destruction begins later, lasts very long, and assumes morbid and painful forms which, however, are complex and not always perceptible to superficial observation. [10]


Brenner also recognized, contrary to North’s accusation against us, that revolutions do not and cannot wait for all forms of cultural backwardness to be overcome.  As we wrote 18 years ago,

As for workers being able to make a revolution despite lingering backwardness on matters like the family, there isn’t anything difficult or idealist about understanding how that can happen. A male worker can be a revolutionary and yet abuse his wife. A working-class family can support the socialist cause and yet be homophobic or not want their children to marry anyone from a different race or religion. It is obvious that in any mass revolutionary movement, such contradictions will abound. Of course making the revolution will itself be a transformative experience, but on its own it cannot resolve all these problems.  [11]


5. 5. Finally Vandreier concludes that we “…detach Marxism from science, from the close study of the class struggle and its history, and to transform it into a beautiful idea that fits the life of petty-bourgeois existence.”


This is an embellishment of another falsehood initially spread by North almost 20 years ago – namely that we have no real interest in the class struggle and the development of concrete political perspectives.  But the record belies this claim.  We have written extensively on a multitude of topics relating to the class struggle in the US and internationally and have often subjected the perspectives of the WSWS to a withering critique.  Any casual perusal of the permanent-revolution web site will bear that out. But this claim made by North about our Ivory Tower indifference to the class struggle was never more than a distraction to turn attention away from the focus of our concern over the years.  And that was our insistence, following in the footsteps of Trotsky, that training in dialectics is essential to the building of a revolutionary movement. We have maintained and still maintain that the abandonment of training in dialectics, and for that matter any education in even the basics of Marxism, is the reason why the SEP and its sister organizations have turned into sclerotic sectarian cults.


We anticipated their overt anti-unionism long ago when we undertook a theoretical review of their understanding of unions as part of our critique of their actions during the New York transit workers strike of 2005. [12]


The riposte about our being drawn to the comforts of a middle-class lifestyle is one of those afterthoughts thrown in to poison the well against us. Indeed we have had families and careers and enjoy the modest pleasures we are able to afford, but we have never travelled in business class as North has done.  Nor have we had the luxury of travelling all over the world to attend film festivals as David Walsh does.


As a parting shot there is the ad hominem outburst by Mr. Vandreier about Frank Brenner’s “sexual problems.”  If writing about the changing roles of the family, gender and sex as Brenner has done, qualifies one as having sexual problems, then one would have to add Frederick Engels  to that category as even a cursory look at his study of the family will bear out. [13]

We will further address some of the more egregious historical falsifications contained in Vandreier’s lecture in a subsequent installment.





[1] 1982: Marxism, the revolutionary party, and the critique of Healy’s Studies in Dialectics


[2] Sectarianism, Centrism and the Fourth International,

[3] See for instance our essay, The WSWS as a Left Apologist for Bourgeois Nationalism in Iraq,

[4] See our essay, Distorting the history of the International Committee,

[5] Gerry Healy and his Place in the History of the Fourth International

[7] Marxism without its head and its heart

[8] To know a thing is to know its end

[9] Marx and Engels, On the Paris Commune, pages 165-6.

[10] From the Old Family to the New, July 13, 1923, in Problems of Everyday Life, p. 39,

[11] Marxism without its head or its heart p. 219

[12] Marxism without its head of its heart p. 132-135

[13] Frederick Engels, The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, International Publishers, 1972,