Jay Reeves/AP. A banner encouraging workers to vote in labor balloting at an Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Alabama. March 30, 2021.
Note from the Editors: Classconscious.org is publishing a series of articles and documents relating to the break of Shuvu Batta and Peter Ross from the SEP. The crux of this break was over the issue of revolutionary work within trade unions.
Based on the writings of Trotsky and Lenin we disagree with the ICFI’s position that workers must break with trade unions and form a network of new “rank and file committees”. (Read our position on Trade Union work here). It is only through and open and robust discussion that scientific socialism, ie Marxism has developed in the past. We invite anyone who disagrees with this position or has something to add to this debate to consider submitting an article to classconscious.org
These documents were first published on Permanent Revolution and have been republished here with permission of the authors.
In the wake of the union defeat at Bessemer an expelled SEP member speaks out – by Shuvu Batta and Peter Ross
Ancillary documents for article ‘In the wake of the union defeat at Bessemer expelled SEP members speak out
Once Again on the Question of Trade Unions and the Tasks of the Party – by Comrade C
Open Letter by Shuvu Batta and Peter Ross
This open letter is a reply to the slanderous attacks leveled at Shuvu Batta by the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) after he was expelled from that organization in February 2021, after two and a half years of membership. The SEP is the US section of the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI), which is most well known for producing the World Socialist Web Site (wsws.org).
In Jan. 2021, Shuvu, learned of a critique of the SEP’s sectarian approach to the trade unions, written by a provisional member, C, who had recently resigned. Shuvu reached out to C directly for a copy of the critique and, agreeing with its main political points, began distributing it to other party members. Within a week, Shuvu was charged with breaching party discipline and removed from all meetings and group chats. He was expelled several weeks later, on February 27. The documents pertaining to the expulsion can be found here.
On March 19, during a national meeting, Peter Ross, a provisional member, made a statment defending Shuvu’s right to criticize the party line and raising concerns about the party’s internal regime and its anti-union positions. On March 22, during a meeting of the youth group (the IYSSE), Peter again spoke out against how other members had characterized trade unionism, and was cut off mid-sentence on the grounds that “this wasn’t the place” to express his disagreements. When Peter objected to this, he was promptly removed from all party group chats. His provisional membership was revoked two days later in a letter written by the two top leaders of the SEP, David North and Joseph Kishore, and distributed to the entire membership. These documents can be found here. According to sympathetic SEP members, the next national meeting was devoted to hysterical denunciations of both former members, personal slanders aimed at proving their petty bourgeois backgrounds, and craven praise for David North’s letter.
On April 1, because Shuvu is currently employed as an Amazon Fresh worker, he had the rare opportunity to appear on an NPR podcast to voice his support for the Amazon BHM1 workers in Alabama fighting to unionize. This prompted Joseph Kishore, the National Secretary of the SEP (US), to issue another letter to the entire membership, tearing Shuvu’s comments out of context and peddling a conspiracy theory accusing him of being an agent of the RWDSU bureaucracy. The letter, shared with us by a supporter in the SEP, can be viewed here. To protect Shuvu from potential company retaliation, we have removed his facility’s location from the document.
Kishore’s letter, an attempt to fend off any discussion of the SEP’s sectarian politics and undemocratic internal regime by discrediting and victimizing Shuvu, reveals the utter bankruptcy of the SEP leadership. These are not the methods of revolutionaries, but of tinpot dictators and cult leaders. We urge those workers and youth attracted to the WSWS by its anti-imperialist and pseudo-socialist posturing to read through the linked documents—which provide a clear picture of the internal life of the SEP and the kind of response members can expect should they develop political differences with the party—and to take up the fight to build a real socialist movement in the working class.
Shuvu Batta and Peter Ross
April 23rd 2021
Socialist Equality Party National Secretary Joseph Kishore spreads lies about an Amazon worker and former party member: The worker responds
by Shuvu Batta
First of all, I would like to sincerely thank Kishore for his letter, as it exposes the real nature of the SEP leadership. At the same time, it’s sad to see an individual that I once respected and who presents himself as a man of principle peddling conspiracy theories to the rank and file of his party, many of whom are young people just dipping their toes into the world of politics.
Let us first cut through Kishore’s lies.
Kishore writes: “Of the 800,000 Amazon workers in the United States, one cannot help but wonder how Shuvu Batta emerged triumphant from NPR’s search and vetting process. He has been an Amazon employee for only a few months; and he is not even working at the Bessemer plant. He works at an Amazon “Fresh” facility in XXX and has been trying to land a job in the company’s human resources department, i.e., in management. Moreover, given the fact that the predominantly African American composition of the targeted facility has been central to the RWDSU’s strategy and the focus of media reporting, NPR’s selection of Batta appears even more peculiar.”
Kishore knows very well how I got onto the NPR program—it was through a post on Reddit in an Amazon workers group. The majority of the 63 comments on the post voiced support for the central message, expressed in its title: Go BHM1 workers, let’s unionize in every facility and every workplace!
Kishore also attempts to slander me for trying to better my economic situation by applying for an HR position. By his logic, the hundreds of thousands of HR workers around the country are all aligned with the capitalists and are actively working against the interests of the working class. In reality, they are a part of the working class who utilize their labor-time ensuring that workplaces are productive and that morale is high. As Amazon warehouse workers fight to unionize, they must and will rally the support of “skilled” workers like HR and tech workers, who also need to collectively organize and unite against their common exploiters: the owners of Amazon, and the rest of the capitalist class.
After sowing doubt about the legitimacy of a worker voicing his opinion on a public podcast, Kishore takes his next leap into the realm of tin-foil conspiracy theories: “The most likely explanation for Batta’s appearance on the program is that he was recommended to NPR by the leadership of the RWDSU bureaucracy. The union, which lacks any significant base among rank-and-file workers, is immensely sensitive to left-wing criticism—above all, that of the SEP and the World Socialist Web Site. In one way or another, Batta’s activities came to the attention of the bureaucracy, which has decided to make use of his services.”
Is this really the most likely explanation, or could it be that the unionization drive by BHM1 workers has had mass support among the broader US public? A recent national poll showed the majority of Democrats, Independents, and even Republicans supporting the BHM1 workers fighting to unionize. My post, which received popular support from Amazon workers on Reddit, was viewed by an NPR journalist sympathetic to unionization, who then gave me the opportunity to come on the podcast and make my points. The RWDSU bureaucracy was not involved.
Kishore then cites my failure to say the word “socialism” or attack Jeff Bezos on the podcast as proof of my political degeneracy.
Despite the fact that my opportunities to make broader political points on the broadcast were quite limited, I think my responses could absolutely have been sharper. I will take my experience on this podcast as a lesson, but I am grateful for the opportunity given to me by the NPR journalist, and I am grateful for the opportunity to voice my support for any worker who is risking their job to unionize. To suggest that this appearance was masterminded by the RWDSU bureaucracy is a slander not just against me but also the journalist who reached out to me.
The World Socialist Web Site Slander’s Amazon’s BHM1 Workers
Now that we have cleared the lies, let us get to the heart of the matter: the anti-worker politics of the Socialist Equality Party. In his letter, Kishore cites a comment I made on NPR as proof of my abandonment of socialism:
Asked what he thought was “the most important thing for senior Amazon leadership to know,” Batta replied: “Just as you have a right under the capitalist system to make profits, we have the right to unionize, and we have the right to actually have a say in the workplace, to make sure that our conditions are a little more livable.”
My comment was such an unpardonable sin to Kishore that he felt the need to hurl a series of slurs at me, calling me a “petit-bourgeois opponent of Marxism,” “a craven apologist for the RWDSU bureaucracy,” and “a pathetic political fraudster.”
While it is astonishing to witness the National Secretary of the SEP reduce himself to a schoolyard bully, there is also a sinister aspect to his slander. Part of its purpose, by spreading a conspiracy theory and personal information about my job application throughout the party, is to send a message to all of the members of the Socialist Equality Party: “If you dare to speak out against our politics, if you dare to voice support for workers unionizing, we will isolate you, spread lies about you, and label you a class enemy.”
The fact is that my call for Amazon workers to unionize was in line with Marx’s words in the Communist Manifesto that communists “fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class, but in the movement of the present they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.”
The crux of the matter is that the SEP does not believe that unionizing constitutes an “immediate aim” for the mass of unorganized workers. The developing movement of the working class is going directly against a fundamental principle of their politics: rejection of trade union work. Thus, they have been forced to slander Amazon BHM1 workers as the puppets of a “top-down” unionization drive despite the fact that it has inspired thousands of unorganized workers in Amazon and elsewhere to start unionization campaigns in their workplaces.
The reality is that the BHM1 unionization campaign was started after former union workers at the fulfillment center, such as Darryl Richardson, went to their local Retail Wholesale and Department Store Union office to figure out how they could unionize their facility. With the help of rank-and-file union activists, the BHM1 workers initiated a disciplined campaign starting in March 2020, rallying their co-workers within the facility and gathering hundreds of names in support, day in and day out for months, until more than three thousand workers signed up in support of the National Labor Relations Board to approve a unionization vote in January 2021.
Thus, the first vote for unionizing U.S Amazon warehouse workers was started, a historic achievement spearheaded by the militant Amazon workers of BHM1.
For years, I had followed the anti-union line of the World Socialist Web Site and even authored the first anti-union Amazon article on the BHM1 campaign. The article was initially titled “Vote ‘No’ to the UFCW-backed union at Alabama Amazon facility!” but after viral negative reactions on Twitter the title was changed to the much tamer “The unionization vote at Alabama Amazon facility.”
During the writing of this article, I had started working at an Amazon warehouse. I had mixed feelings about sending the article for publication because its message of telling workers to vote “No” did not at all correspond to my lived experience as an Amazon employee.
Working at an Amazon warehouse is an incredibly isolating experience. Despite working alongside hundreds of other workers, it is difficult to make contact with them, let alone engage them in conversation. We are constantly on the move due to strict rate quotas and time-off-task penalties. Due to COVID-19, our break rooms have physical barriers to prevent contact with other workers.
The greatest benefit of an Amazon union is that it would organize the hundreds of isolated workers in a facility under a common platform. A “No” vote on unionizing is counterproductive if for no other reason than this. In union meetings, the once isolated workers would gain the ability to not only connect with one another but also to advance their own demands through the formation of worker committees within the union. The existence of a union provides the Amazon worker a basis on which to wage a struggle for workplace democracy.
Furthermore, it cannot be denied that unionized workers make, on average, a much higher wage and gain better benefits than non-unionized workers. This is because a union provides workers with the means to organize mass strikes and thus provides them with a weapon against capital. To call on Amazon workers to vote “No” is to imply that Amazon workers will not gain any sort of concessions from management through unionizing. The very fact that Amazon has run a relentless anti-union campaign—holding captive audience meetings, creating fake social media accounts, violating the election rules (including through placement of an illegal ballot box), and retaliating against workers who threaten to unionize—indicates that this is not at all true. It should be added that the World Socialist Web Site has not produced a single article that seriously takes up Amazon’s anti-union tactics.
While the WSWS categorizes unions as irredeemable organizations which socialists must avoid, the reality is that the working class is well into a period of renewed labor militancy, which is primarily taking place within the form of the trade-union struggle.
Public sentiment is decisively for unionization in the US, and increasingly so since the Great Recession of 2007-08, with a Gallup poll released this January estimating that 65 percent of all Americans approve labor unions. Unionization rates have also started to increase, partly because union workers faced fewer job losses during the pandemic and also because more and more sections of the working class are starting drives to unionize their workplaces. Furthermore, virtually all of the major strike actions that have taken place in 2020 were among unionized workers.
Yet the most central aim of the SEP’s political work is to attack “the unions,” which are labeled, across the board, as “anti-worker” organizations that have become totally integrated into the state. The implication is undeniably that the destruction of the unions would be a good thing, since it would free the workers from this instrument of bourgeois control (and also make them more desperate to form some new kind of organization).
After the defeat of the BHM1 unionization drive, the WSWS published an article citing the defeat as evidence that Amazon workers had seen through the RWDSU. While no confidence should be placed in the RWDSU bureaucracy, which deserves much of the blame for this defeat, neither can the union be equated with its bureaucracy. In their efforts to pin the blame for the defeat on the union, the WSWS actively downplayed the voter intimidation tactics employed by Amazon. By taking this stance, and by unequivocally opposing unionization, the SEP has crossed a class line, siding with Amazon against the workers.
In stark contrast to the anti-worker position of the WSWS, militant Amazon workers have learned from the union defeat in order to strengthen their own unionization campaigns. News has come out that the Amazon facility at JFK-8 in Staten Island is undergoing a unionization drive, with the organizers including Chris Smalls of The Congress of Essential Workers, fighting to build a new union called the Amazon Labor Union (ALU). The organizers were supportive of the BHM1 pro-union workers and have explicitly said that they have taken lessons from the successes and failures of the Bessemer unionization drive so that their effort succeeds.
The WSWS’s fantasy rank-and-file committees vs the Marxist path to workers’ independence
The World Socialist Web Site is an impressive feat of organization. With only a few hundred members around the world, the ICFI has managed since 1998 to produce a 6 day-per-week publication, with a total of more than 60,000 articles. The dedication and self-sacrifice of the rank-and-file members, who truly believe they are fighting for socialism, is commendable. The tragedy is that the political line advanced by the WSWS in the most significant of its articles has for decades gone against the most basic interests of the working class.
The clearest recent example of this is the fact that the website, in calling for a “No” vote on the unionization of Amazon workers, has crudely counter-posed to the unions the fiction of “independent rank-and-file committees.”
The WSWS claims it has already built a “network” of these committees, but any critical reader will note that it has never indicated how many workers are in the committees. As a former party member, I can testify that the rank-and-file committees do not have any elected representatives and instead function more as lecturing groups. The meetings are organized and overseen in every detail by party representatives, and the few workers in the “committees” play no role other than tuning in to online calls for reports presented by Socialist Equality Party members.
Rank-and-file committee meetings always go about the same way. Comrade D introduces Comrade B, who gives a report on the pandemic; then comrades H, I, J, and K give more reports. Finally, often after an hour or more has passed, we get a comment from a non-party member. He or she says a few brief words, and then comrades H-K rush to make insightful points about the comment.
No concrete plan of action ever results from these meetings, partly because the “committees” do not represent any significant section of the working class. Their real purpose, whether SEP members realize it or not, is not to provide workers with their own forum or assist them in building their own democratic organizations, but to produce a kind of show aimed at recruiting attendees into the party and beginning the process of indoctrinating them with the “correct” program.
The publication by the WSWS of public statements by the committees, supposedly written by the rank-and-file workers themselves, has reached a fever-pitch during the pandemic. To a new member, these statements, declaring the formation of committees in the auto industry and public education, give the impression of a real step forward in the construction of new, democratically-controlled organizations of workers. It quickly becomes clear, however, that this “network” of committees is all smoke and mirrors.
For example, at its founding in Sept. 2020, the Los Angeles Educators Rank-and-File Safety Committee officially had two non-party members, neither of whom participated in drafting the founding statement, yet it purported to speak in the name of an entire committee of Los Angeles teachers! In the six months after its “founding,” the committee had not grown by a single member.
The SEP has pursued this line for decades, yet these small lecture groups fraudulently labeled as “democratic organizations of workers” have been its greatest result. Rather than doing the hard work of organizing, the SEP builds shells of committees, and hopes that by publicizing them, it can fill them up with actual workers. In practice, the committees function as front groups, which allow the WSWS to posture as having influence in the working class. Countless statements (see, for instance, here) use the fictional committees to ventriloquize workers rather than allowing them to speak for themselves. (This is in line with the fact that WSWS articles include only those quotes from workers which can be interpreted as bolstering the political positions that the SEP has already worked out (see, for instance, “Amazon workers react to the defeat of the RWDSU at Alabama warehouse”).)
The class instinct of workers who join the “independent rank-and-file committee” meetings is to bring back the information provided by the SEP to their fellow workers in the unions. While rank-and-file workers are up against the treacherous labor bureaucracies within their unions, the SEP provides them no support becausethe party leadership actively prevents its cadre from participating in trade union work.
While militant workers struggle alone to win basic concessions from their employer through their union, the SEP tells them: “break from your unions and form independent rank-and-file committees!” Most workers in turn respond: “Who are you to tell me what to do? I benefit by being in my union. I have connections to my fellow co-workers because of the union. I see how terrible the conditions that non-union workers are going through and you—a pamphleteer, who has nothing to do with my workplace, who has never helped me form strike committees or collected strike funds, who has never created any sort of defense against the corrupt bureaucrats within my union—who are you to tell me what to do? Who are you to tell me to throw away my weapon, the union, for this fantasy rank-and-file committee which has accomplished nothing concrete whatsoever?”
The practical results of the SEP’s rejection of trade unions as mass organizations of workers is that in moments of strikes and actions by union workers, the SEP becomes unable to influence the workers’ struggle in any tangible way. This is due to the fact that SEP members have no participation in union meetings, in organizing strike actions, or in leading left factions within the union, and are completely isolated from the day-to-day work within the unions necessary to gain influence among the workers there. The SEP, in practice, reduces itself to a mere spectator which is only able to report on the struggles that workers as a mass initiate.
Socialists must work within the unions not because we fetishize the union-form, but because that’s where workers, particularly in the most strategic industries (dock workers, transit, etc), are concentrated as a mass. If workers come up with new forms of organization, socialists must also be active within them, but the guiding principle must be this: we must go where the workers are!
Trotskyism vs Sectarianism
The SEP dishonestly states that it carries forward the heritage of Trotskyism. This is a complete fabrication. Marxists have always understood the need to participate in the day-to-day struggles of workers. There is a long tradition, starting with Marx and Engels, of opposition to the positions of anarchists and ultra-left sectarians who rejected working inside unions, and all attempts to counterpose pure “red trade unions” to the existing mass organizations. As Trotsky wrote in The Transitional Program, the founding document of the Fourth International:
The Bolshevik-Leninist stands in the front-line trenches of all kinds of struggles, even when they involve only the most modest material interests or democratic rights of the working class. He takes active part in mass trade unions for the purpose of strengthening them and raising their spirit of militancy… Only on the basis of such work within the trade unions is successful struggle possible against the reformists, including those of the Stalinist bureaucracy. Sectarian attempts to build or preserve small “revolutionary” unions, as a second edition of the party, signify in actuality the renouncing of the struggle for leadership of the working class.
Trotsky stressed the importance of transitional demands to help workers progress from trade union consciousness to socialist consciousness.
It is necessary to help the masses in the process of the daily struggle to find the bridge between present demand and the socialist program of the revolution. This bridge should include a system of transitional demands, stemming from today’s conditions and from today’s consciousness of wide layers of the working class and unalterably leading to one final conclusion: the conquest of power by the proletariat.
In the case of the BHM1 unionization attempt, the victory of the “Yes” vote would have led to a qualitative transformation of the class struggle for Amazon workers, with a formerly unorganized section of the working class, struggling through isolated walkouts and protests, finally gaining access to a higher form of struggle in the form of an organized mass strike. The task of Marxists, armed with the transitional method, is to push this struggle to its limit and thus build a bridge between the emerging trade union consciousness of militant Amazon workers and the socialist consciousness necessary for revolution.
This would mean advocating not just for a “Yes” vote but calling on the workers everywhere, organized and unorganized, to stage demonstrations across the country and the world in support for BHM1 workers. It would mean rallying the pro-union workers to form a real rank-and-file committee and draft demands on what they would fight for after the union was approved. It would mean calling out the blunders of the union bureaucracy during the struggle, pushing for door-to-door canvassing for “Yes” votes, holding Q&A sessions with workers, etc, to make sure that unionization succeeds.
The union drive ultimately failed at BHM1 not because the union form as a whole was irredeemable but because it lacked socialist elements actively fighting for the development of workers’ democracy. The WSWS, by contrast, sees the defeat of the unionization drive at Bessemer as an expression of the advanced class consciousness of the workers who have figured out how rotten unions are and have come over to the WSWS position. This piece of delusional thinking avoids the obvious—that the failure of a large percentage of workers to understand the importance of organizing collectively into a union is a measure of their lack of class consciousness.
By calling for workers to immediately break from the union and form “independent rank-and-file committees,” the ICFI is engaging in a practice that Trotsky called “bureaucratic ultimatism,” which the Stalinist Communist Party practiced in Germany, effectively splitting the socialist and the reformist workers, and creating the conditions for the victory of Nazism.
The Stalinists’ mechanical policy of equating Social Democracy with Fascism, building only communist-led unions, and precluding any sort of temporary alliance with reformists is paralleled today by the SEP’s attempt to equate the whole of the trade unions with the capitalist state and lump together all left-wing movements outside of their own sect as the “pseudo-left.” Just as the Stalinist Communist Party isolated its cadre from the broader worker class with their bureaucratic call for revolutionary unions and abstention from the struggle for reforms, so too the SEP abstains from the actual struggles of the working class.
Trotsky long ago pointed the way forward:
But the revolutionary dialectic has long since pointed the way out and has demonstrated it by countless examples in the most diverse spheres; by correlating the struggle for power with the struggle for reforms; by maintaining complete independence of the party while preserving the unity of the trade unions; by fighting against the bourgeois regime and at the same time utilizing its institutions; by criticizing relentlessly parliamentarism – from the parliamentary tribunal; by waging war mercilessly against reformism, and at the same time making practical agreements with the reformists in partial struggles.
Without internal democracy and debate there is no revolutionary party
Kishore is completely unable to answer the criticisms I have raised above and in previous letter exchanges with the party leadership, thus he has been forced to resort to character assassination. However, no amount of lies and conspiracies will erase the fact that the reason for my expulsion was that I shared a critique of the Socialist Equality Party to other members and refused to stay quiet.
The party leadership actively attempts to suppress all political differences and maintain a cultish homogeneity of thought. The “center” (the party leadership based in Detroit) keeps close tabs on the branches through weekly minutes and swiftly intervenes as soon as any significant disagreement arises. Members who express disagreement are subjected to interrogations by branch leaders, aimed not at fostering a true discussion but at “correcting” the faulty opinion of the dissenting member.
Members are told that a “principled” political intervention means patiently waiting for any disagreement to pass through the local branch, until gradually and through some unspecified procedure, it works its way up to a higher body. Any attempt to raise a disagreement during a meeting outside of the branch or engage other members one-on-one is regarded as “disruptive” and even “sabotage.” The SEP claims that it allows factions, but how can anyone possibly build a faction if they have to take their marching orders from the branch, which in turn reports directly to the “center?” Is the “principled” approach for a member with a disagreement to convince their entire branch of their position and form a dissenting branch?
Any organization that engages in suppression of internal debate and expels members who dare to question the party leadership has no right to call itself a revolutionary party. To justify the SEP’s anti-democratic procedures, Kishore cites a quote from Lenin’s What is to be done? taken completely out of its historical context. He writes, quoting Lenin:
‘freedom of criticism’ means freedom for an opportunist trend in Social-Democracy…
The conclusion the reader is meant to draw is that any attempt to open a discussion in the party questioning a position is really an attempt to smuggle into the party a reconciliation with opportunism. But is this what Lenin was getting at? Not at all!
Lenin was writing about a specific situation in which a reformist group of Russian Social Democrats abroad insisted that the party accommodate the view of the open opportunists such as Bernstein and work with them under the same umbrella. They supported this position by adopting the slogan “freedom of criticism.” Does this mean that Lenin opposed internal debate among those within the party committed to a revolutionary position? That is not what the historical record shows. The Bolshevik Party before its degeneration under Stalinism was marked by lively debates, sometimes even bitter ones, on many fundamental questions. Read Trotsky’s characterization, from The History of the Russian Revolution:
How could a genuinely revolutionary organization, setting itself the task of overthrowing the world and uniting under its banner the most audacious iconoclasts, fighters and insurgents, live and develop without intellectual conflicts, without groups and temporary faction formations?
There is also the conclusion of the preeminent historian of the Russian Revolution, Alexander Rabinowich, who wrote in his book, The Bolsheviks Come to Power:
… within the Bolshevik Petrograd organization at all levels in 1917, there was continuing free and lively discussion and debate over the most basic theoretical and tactical issues”, and that the party had shifting left, center, and moderate tendencies within it, right through the revolutionary period. “Leaders who differed with the majority were at liberty to fight for their views, and not infrequently, Lenin was the loser in those struggles.”
What a stark difference this paints between the Bolsheviks and North and Kishore’s dismal regime, which forbids internal debate and expels members who dare demand it!
The Socialist Equality Party is able to maintain such a dictatorial inner-party regime because the power within the party is centralized in a tiny clique. During the 2020 National Congress of the US Socialist Equality Party, the rank and file had virtually no power to elect their leaders. Members submitted a slate of nominees for the National Committee to a three-man election committee. Using COVID-19 as an excuse, the SEP leadership stacked the election committee with its “outgoing” leadership: David North (the National Chairperson), Joseph Kishore (the National Secretary), and Jerry White (the Labor Secretary). Per the SEP constitution, the election committee collates the nominees and produces their own slate, which the membership then votes up or down all at once. In preparing its slate, the election committee is not bound, even on paper, by the nominations of the membership, and no vote tally is ever released.
The undemocratic regime in the SEP is sustained, above all, by a culture of groupthink in which members are encouraged to make “contributions” to discussions which consist of endless recapitulations of party doctrine. Any attempt to insert a critical thought is met with widespread derision. Members are made to feel that any disagreement with the party line reflects a serious shortcoming on their own part, which will cause them to lose the respect of their comrades.
Members are thus gradually taught to build up an atmosphere in which any serious disagreement is viewed with suspicion and hostility. An example from the youth group will serve to illustrate this point. In February, Peter was slated to give a report to the IYSSE, and was instructed to focus on a recent article, but chose to devote the bulk of his report to a discussion of a teachers’ struggle taking place in Chicago. This unleashed an outright firestorm.
The (unelected) national secretary of the IYSSE worked behind the scenes to ensure full attendance at the next meeting—a surprise public takedown launched by Eric London and Lawrence Porter, two leading members. London began the meeting with a half-hour-long speech misrepresenting and denouncing Peter’s statements and making incessant references to his “attitude.” Over the next two hours, almost every member of the committee saw fit to parade themselves out to declare that they “agreed with all of the points” and thought the meeting to be “very significant,” and the meeting concluded with London stating that it was a “turning point!” This truly bizarre spectacle, amounting to a kind of watered down show trial, can only be interpreted as an attempt to ostracize and intimidate anyone with an oppositional view.
The party’s autocratic inner party regime raises serious questions about financial parasitism within the SEP.
A deeper search into the WSWS reveals that it is classified as a domestic profit corporation, with unknown primary shareholders, despite the fact that the WSWS is itself a collective product built by the labor of the entire party. The ICFI also directs its readers and party members to purchase from Mehring Books Inc., a corporation which according to D&B business directory has generated over $490K so far in 2021. Each branch in the party is also compelled to extract a minimum amount of money from supporters and members each month alongside a yearly fund drive which must easily generate over $100,000. The fact is that the rank and file have no idea how the finances of the party, collected through the participation of all members, are being used, nor do they have any say in the utilization of funds.
Yes, the union bureaucracy is degenerate, but at the very least they let the public know how much they are getting paid by the union membership. For an organization that consistently rails against the union bureaucracy, a question must be asked: David North, Joseph Kishore, and other leading members of the SEP, why do you not have the integrity to reveal the same?
Questions that the SEP leadership must answer to its members if it retains any shred of revolutionary integrity
Any information about the SEP’s composition and finances is tightly guarded by the leadership, on the grounds that releasing any such information to the cadre would jeopardize security. When Peter raised the demand for the party to reveal its total membership to the rank and file, a leading member responded indignantly that this would be almost tantamount to releasing personal addresses. This is a truly ludicrous rationalization for keeping the membership in the dark. Yes, the party needs to take measures to protect its members as best as it can from victimization by the state or right-wing forces, but what does that have to do with revealing the membership figures or having some level of accountability regarding finances?
Like the trade unions, we understand that the SEP is itself a contradictory organization. Despite the sectarian, even cultish, atmosphere cultivated by the leadership, its ranks contain many genuine revolutionaries who have been drawn to the party because it presents itself as an organization that is leading the fight for a socialist future. These are professionals, teachers, low-wage workers, and students who have devoted themselves heroically to the development of the party, sacrificing countless hours for the cause. We do not want to see these genuine revolutionaries waste their lives following a political line that actively goes against the interests of the working class.
With this in mind, we propose that the rank and file within the SEP raise the following demands:
- The release of basic information on the party to all members, including the total number of members and the growth of the party over time.
- A full financial audit, to include answers to the following questions:
- How are the party finances controlled?
- What is the yearly revenue of the party and where is this money coming from?
- How much are the party staff and leadership paid?
- Who are the shareholders of the WSWS?
- The development of a party-wide forum in which ALL members can raise their ideas and engage in debate.
- That the methods of slander and victimization of dissident members be repudiated.
- That new elections for the leadership of the SEP be arranged forthwith allowing for a direct vote by the membership in selecting all levels of party leaders.
- That the party reconsider its position on the unions and on the heritage of Trotskyism and The Transitional Program.
Finally, I would like to thank the leadership of the SEP for showing me exactly what a revolutionary party is not!
A revolutionary party is not an organization that actively avoids practical work in the working class. A revolutionary party is not an organization that rejects the use of reforms for building the path to revolution. A revolutionary party is not an organization that responds to criticisms of its political line with personal slander. A revolutionary party is not an organization that fears internal debate and democracy.
The SEP slanders many of its political enemies on the left with the meaningless term “pseudo-left”. However, if we take this term to mean an anti-worker group that cloaks itself in left-wing rhetoric, then there are few more worthy of the title than the SEP itself.
— Shuvu Batta
The critique which solidified my differences with the party and led to my expulsion:
“Once again on the Question of the Trade Unions and the Tasks of the Party” by C:
For a deeper insight into the history and nature of the Socialist Equality Party, read:
Marxism without its Head or its Heart by Alex Steiner and Frank Brenner
For a thorough critique of David North’s “Why are Trade Unions Hostile to Socialism?”
Read: The trade union form and the butchery of dialectics by Alex Stei ner and Frank Brenner
The founding document of the Fourth International, which the SEP has abandoned in practice: The Transitional Program by Leon Trotsky
Ancillary documents related to expulsion of Shuvu Batta from the New York Branch and the ending of Peter Ross’s provisional membership of the Los Angeles Branch can be found here.