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,



Anonymous said...

What a long awaited eye-opening article!

I give a full support to "theoretical and cultural activities" you have focused elsewhere, but I humbly ask you for more crumbs of the writings linked to the activities on this site.

Karin said...

I appreciate this website’s spot-on criticism of the ICFI’s anti-MeToo crusade. That’s precisely why it is in a comradely spirit that I would suggest the authors reconsider their following statement, referenced in their latest article,

“A male worker can be a revolutionary and yet abuse his wife.”

What’s problematic here becomes perhaps more transparent if we turn the sentence around:
< A male worker can abuse his wife and yet be a revolutionary.>

However we put it, I don’t think this is a tenable position, morally or practically. As a moral mattter, we can hardly commit ourselves to the notion that a man can simultaneously be said to be, on the one hand, a revolutionary, which entails being opposed to sexism, and to engage in sexist violence, on the other. As a practical matter, it’s hardly a slogan suited to draw emancipated women to the revolutionary movement, is it?

By way of experiment, consider the following analogous statement,

< A white worker can be a revolutionary and yet address a Black co-worker by making ape-like noises and throwing a banana at him .>

What does that sound like? Of course the difference is that the sexist abuse, unlike the racist assault, takes place in a family relationship (marriage) by which it is mystified.

Alex Steiner said...

Response to Karin:
You are confusing a position with an observation. I don't think it should be necessary to say that we do not have a position that endorses domestic abuse. Obviously we think that any genuine socialist should work to banish domestic abuse and other forms of cultural backwardness.

But we are making an observation here - not stating a "position". And that observation is that human beings are contradictory and the development of revolutionary socialist consciousness does not take place all at once and touch all areas of social life in the same way and at the same time. It's an observation that Trotsky addressed in the series of essays, Problems of Everyday Life which I would urge you to read. In his essay From the Old Family to the New Trotsky notes that the development of revolutionary communist consciousness in the working class, even after a revolution, is uneven. Consciousness in different dimensions of life develops in different ways and at different tempos. He notes that political ideas change more rapidly than economic relations, i.e. the relations of workers toward other workers in their workplace. Equality between men and women may be enshrined in law by a newly installed revolutionary regime, but inequality may still exist in the workplace. The internal dynamics of family life are by far the most to difficult to change. It is very possible to assent politically to the ideals of equality, while at the same time being enslaved in the traditions of cultural backwardness when it comes to domestic relations in family life. The latter is by far the most difficult to change because those relations are founded on thousands of years of traditions, religious and state institution rooted in the inequality of women in the family. None of that means that we should accept backwardness in any area, but thought must be given to how it be overcome. Looking for an ideal worker to replace the contradictory worker we face in real life is not a solution.

It is also true that all these areas of social life, the political, economic and family life, have a reciprocal relationship with each other and failure to advance in the most difficult area of family life and sexual relations will inevitably impact other spheres of social existence. But if you are looking for a pure, ideal communist whose political, economic and domestic relations mature at the same time, you will never find such a person. That's an observation, not a position.

In the above-mentioned essay Trotsky writes,
To institute the political equality of men and women in the Soviet state was one problem and the simplest. A much more difficult one was the next - that of instituting the industrial equality of men and women workers in the factories, the mills, and the trade unions, and of doing it in such a way that the men should not put the women to disadvantage. But to achieve the actual equality of man and woman within the family is an infinitely more arduous problem. All our domestic habits must be revolutionized before that can happen. And yet it is quite obvious that unless there is actual equality of husband and wife in the family, in a normal sense as well as in the conditions of life, we cannot speak seriously of their equality in social work or even in politics. As long as woman is chained to her house­ work, the care of the family, the cooking and sewing, all her chances of participation in social and political life are cut down in the extreme.

Karin said...

Thanks for those comments, Alex.
Let me be clear that by using the word “position,” I meant in no way to insinuate that the authors of this website endorse sexism or any other kind of oppression. Nor do I believe this; if I did, I would not waste my time posting comments here.

I’m not looking for a pure, ideal communist; I’m wondering, rather, what being a communist or revolutionary means. This is a conceptual question, not an empirical one. As for making an observation, I’d suggest that the possibility to observe X depends on X making sense, and that’s precisely the point at issue: what it makes sense to say about the concept of being a revolutionary.

I’m not disputing uneven development of consciousness in different spheres of life, either. While I have to admit that I have not read yet, Problems of Everyday Life, in its entirety, I am familiar with the chapter, “From the Old Family to the New.”

In it, Trotsky points out,
“Domestic life is more conservative than economic, and one of the reasons is that it is still less conscious than the latter.”

Different levels of consciousness concerning the economic sphere, on the one hand, and the domestic sphere, on the other, result logically from the former being public and socialized, the latter, private and atomized.

In, “The Struggle for Cultured Speech, Trotsky writes,
“[W]e often witness psychological contrasts in the same mind. A man is a sound communist devoted to the cause, but women are for him just ‘females’, not to be taken seriously in any way.”

Although such an attitude of men toward women certainly qualifies as sexist, I don’t think it equivalent to abuse. Nonetheless, I don’t agree with Trotsky here. Having said that, I’d suggest we also consider what he writes in, “The Tasks of Communist Education,” that if the revolutionist is paralyzed by religious or national prejudices, “then he is at best only half a revolutionist.”

Perhaps we can apply this to our discussion and meet halfway by saying, the communist whose thinking is paralyzed by sexist or racist prejudices is at best only half a revolutionist.

What do you think?

Alex Steiner said...

You insist on comparing real workers with all their contradictions, to an abstract "perfect communist" which never existed and never will exist. Marx betrayed his devoted Jenny by siring a child with their maid. Trotsky's affair with Frida Kahlo deeply hurt Natalia. Were they "half-communists"? If you take Trotsky's remark about a "half communist" in context, it is not to be taken literally. There is no standard of measure for revolutionary class consciousness. He was trying to emphasize the importance of the battle against cultural backwardness to a mass audience. This battle was primarily an educational practice and Trotsky's article was an important contribution to that ongoing effort. It was first published in Pravda, and read by millions.

Good luck in your search for the perfect communist.