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
Reply to Marc from Peter Ross: March 23rd 2021
The following is an ancillary document for the article In the wake of the union defeat at Bessemer expelled SEP comrades speak out. It relates to the ending of the provisional membership of Peter Ross by the US SEP, from the Los Angeles branch. Links to all the ancillary documents can also be found here.
Thank you for your letter. I have given careful thought to the points you made, and I am sorry to say I disagree with almost every one of them, beginning with your assertion in the second paragraph that the questions I have raised reflect an adaptation to “pressures from alien forces upon our movement.” Of course, the party should pay close attention to the impact of hostile class forces on its members, but it is clear from the way that you assert my class orientation axiomatically that you came to this conclusion simply because I disagree with the party line. Anyone can assert this or that about someone’s class orientation. It is only through thorough, open, and continual debate that the party can hammer out its political line and determine the class content of political positions.
You write, with reference to Shuvu’s attempts to share the critique by Carlos, “It’s absurd to think that a revolutionary party would give hostile forces a forum where to spread bourgeois ideas. What next? Perhaps someone who had a calling to serve God… Or perhaps even a backward worker who discovers Mussolini’s Third Position?” This clearly has nothing to do with Shuvu’s criticisms, or the questions I have raised. A debate on trade unions or party democracy is not tantamount to a debate on religious or fascistic doctrines.
You refer to Chapter 1 of What is to be Done?, in which Lenin attacks the slogan “freedom of criticism,” which was employed by Bernstein and other revisionists to justify their attacks on Marxism. Lenin’s aim was to expose the real content of this slogan, which was really “freedom for opportunism.” At no point does he argue against the right of party members to express criticisms within the party. The Bolsheviks often sharply disagreed with each other and fostered a culture of fierce internal debate.
You ask: “Do you agree with the need for the party to defend its program and its cadre, especially new comrades, from bourgeois ideas and hostile ideology?” I disagree that the role of the party is to “defend” its cadre by suppressing disagreements. As you say, “the SEP is a revolutionary party and we must protect it from bourgeois interference and attacks. As such, we proceed on the basis of a struggle against theories and programs that embody the interests of the bourgeoisie.” I agree. But the question is, what should these struggles consist of? Every member is bombarded with bourgeois ideas and hostile ideology on a daily basis, by virtue of living in a capitalist society. Under these conditions, we win workers, as we often say, by telling them the truth, not by shielding them from bad ideas. We win them with the strength of our program and perspective. “Ruthless criticism of all that exists” – that is the method of Marxism.
I don’t accept that by expressing my disagreements during a national meeting I have disrupted or sabotaged the party in any way. In fact, I initially raised my disagreements only to you and my sponsor, and requested that we have a discussion in the branch. Your response was to immediately issue me a letter, dramatically declaring that I was “questioning fundamental principles of Marxism” and asking whether I would simply abandon my positions and declare agreement with the party line. Your response made it very clear that I had no alternative but to speak during a national meeting. I addressed myself to the entire party precisely because of the seriousness of these issues.
I disagree with the assertion that the branch is the “basic unit” of the party, and therefore all criticism whatsoever should be channeled through it. Party members must be free to contact and express their opinions to all of their comrades. The sectioning off of the party into branches limits the ability of rank-and-file members to communicate with comrades in other parts of the country and is a ready-made mechanism for bureaucratic control. Regardless of whether this is the conscious intent of the leadership, this form of party organization says something about its content. On this point, I’ve noted that minutes are taken at every branch meeting and sent to the leadership. But the most fundamental purpose of minutes is oversight of the leadership by the members. If a rank-and-file member asked for minutes recording the deliberations of the leadership, would they be able to obtain them, or would they be rebuffed on security grounds?
It is entirely legitimate to raise these questions about party democracy. Democracy is impossible without oversight, hence my objection to the fact that members “nominate” party leaders, but do not directly elect them. The SEP Constitution states: “Every Congress delegate will then submit to the election committee his/her own slate of 12 nominees for the National Committee. The election committee will tabulate and review in executive session the results of the delegates’ nominations.” This process clearly gives the election committee an unacceptable amount of latitude in the selection of the leadership and throws up a barrier to the recall of officials.
The constitution goes on to say that, “In the preparation of a recommended list, the election committee is not bound by the delegates’ nominations.” This is a shocking admission! In calling this system an “electoral college,” I have not, as Eric London suggested, made any formal comparison between bourgeois democracy and the democracy of the SEP. But the question must be asked: If the party’s elections are not even formally democratic, how can we expect them to be democratic in practice? Even if the leadership makes every effort to respect the vote count, the point remains that by not releasing a vote tally, the membership is deprived of the opportunity to exercise oversight.
A final point about party democracy: Cde. Hong accurately summed up the party’s perspective when he said during the aggregate that soliciting and distributing a document, as Shuvu did, had “absolutely nothing to do” with democratic centralism. Really? Consider the implications of disallowing members from seeking out political ideas and engaging in internal discussion at their own direction. When party members share articles from the bourgeois media in group chats, is that a breach of democratic centralism? The reality is that this is a distortion of centralism into an excuse for suppressing debate, and represents a profound break with the traditions of the socialist movement. This is the fundamental reason I brought up Shuvu’s expulsion, and I believe anyone with a basic commitment to democratic rights will see through the attempts to cover over this fact by referring to Shuvu’s impatient and hostile behavior – which, it should not be forgotten, mirrored the language in the letter by Cde. De Vries.
Let us turn to the political differences that prompted your letter:
I took issue with our claim that “the decade of socialist revolution has begun,” and more recently, that the second half of 2020 would be dominated by the response of the working class to the pandemic. You have taken this to mean that I’m casting doubt on the revolutionary role of the working class, abandoning historical materialism, and following a “subjective idealist” and “empiricist and pragmatic” method. I find it troubling that you are throwing around these labels, much like you used my supposed class orientation, to avoid engaging in any substantive way with my criticisms. It was true when I first came around the party that I tended toward empiricism, but what in my present criticism demonstrates this to you? Whether the 2020s will be the decade of socialist revolution depends on more than the maturity of the objective conditions; it depends on the development of living social forces, on the development of socialist consciousness and the building of a movement in the working class. It is necessary, as Lenin advised, to “keep a careful finger on the pulse of the country’s whole political life, and especially the state of the movement and of the mood of the mass of the proletariat.” As you say, the party must “measure the historical direction of the class struggle,” so that the party can “intervene as the necessary subjective element in the objective situation.” But this does not imply imposing a timeline on the movement as though it were going to develop according to some laid down plan. This pretense of precise knowledge of the future has real consequences: it sets us up for adventurist political activity and it risks — if our predictions are wrong — demoralizing advanced workers and our own cadre and undermining their confidence in our perspective. It is for the same reason that I took issue with our tendency toward sensationalism, including our description of the last election as a “Civil War election.”
I also objected to our handling of Jimmy Dore. It was correct for Jerry White to take issue with Dore’s hosting of a boogaloo boy, but rather than probing the political issues, Cde. Jerry chose to simply repeat the point that socialists cannot ally with fascists. Our articles over the following days refused to see Dore for what he is — a genuine but often misguided comedian who brought the boogaloo boy in because of his “left-wing” speech — and we began to argue that he was “promoting an allegiance with fascism.” I am not recommending that media personalities should be “handled with kid gloves,” nor do I think that we should adapt to the consciousness of our audience. But by refusing to patiently explain our perspective, and then contriving a narrative about Dore’s alliance with fascism, we forfeited the opportunity to engage with his working-class audience. This is the approach of a sectarian.
You make the point that Dore’s “action to invite a fascist leader on his show must be viewed not as a subjective act of naïveté, but rather objectively as a deployment of reactionary forces to confuse and fracture the working class.” You provide no analysis whatsoever to back this assertion, as if it were possible to just draw a straight line between the objective and the subjective.
I have now had many occasions to observe this method of mechanically extracting “objective” significance from absolutely everything. The first time I leafletted at a strike, a cop made an offhand comment to us that the police were providing security for the union. This was instantly seized upon as evidence that the union was growing together with the state and the police. At strikes, any union member that acts in a hostile way toward us on the picket line is automatically labeled a “union thug” or “goon,” or a “local bureaucrat.”
You have made the same sort of logical leap when, as soon as I expressed disagreement with our positions, you concluded immediately that this was the result of “alien forces” acting upon the movement. This apparent tendency to look on any criticisms at all with suspicion — since they are invariably a reflection of these “alien forces” — accounts for the startling lack of any substantive debate in the party. In our branch and national meetings, one hears endless variations of “I agree with everything other comrades have said” and “this was a very significant meeting.” Where is the spirit of criticism and debate that animate the history of the socialist movement?
I don’t want to borrow this method of reading so deeply into individual quotes, but in your recent statement to me that, “revolutionary politics has nothing to do with conscious intent,” you could hardly have provided a better example of mechanical materialism. A careful, dialectical analysis of the relationship between the objective and subjective is conspicuously missing from this sort of thinking, which transforms Marxist class analysis into a pretext for suppressing criticism.
I must also say that you have been too quick to dismiss Shuvu’s political perspective, which you call “the thoroughly demoralized position of a disoriented worker.” You seem not to have considered the possibility that Shuvu’s experiences at Amazon might have been a source of genuine insight, and you are quick to describe his change in position as a “highly subjective reaction to life’s vicissitudes and hardship.” I have to wonder how many other workers you would dismiss with this line, and I must caution you against the kind of thinking Trotsky had in mind when he wrote, “The sectarian looks upon the life of society as a great school, with himself as a teacher there. In his opinion the working class should put aside its less important matters, and assemble in solid rank around his rostrum: then the task would be solved.”
This calls to mind some of my own experiences with workers, for instance during the Fall of 2019, when there was a one-day strike at UCLA, and I came into contact with a landscaping worker named Julio while I was leafletting. He told me that he’d decided not to participate in the one-day strike — which was really just an attempt to prevent a real strike — because the union wasn’t paying workers for the day. He and his coworkers had worked out for themselves how much funds the union should have available, and had spoken to union officials about this and other grievances they had. The union officials brushed him off, so he began researching alternatives to the union, but said that everything he found was more of the same, and he wanted advice on what he should do. We said, “Form a new rank-and-file committee!” so he went and brought that idea to his coworkers. None of them wanted to leave the union — they were all afraid of being fired and the union was in the middle of negotiating a new contract. He came back, and again he asked what he should do. Again, all we had to say was that he should form a new organization, clandestinely if necessary, and to come to one of our public meetings. But we had absolutely nothing to say to him about the sorts of steps he could take to fight for better wages and working conditions. We seemed to think that he should just “put aside these less important matters,” and we lost interest in him as soon as it became clear that he wasn’t going to form a new committee. For his part, he lost interest in us (perhaps he’d given in to “life’s vicissitudes?”). Communication with him dropped off until he wrote me a year later to tell me to take him off our mailing list.
As I pointed out in the aggregate, the fact that tens of millions of workers remain in unions (not to mention substantial empirical evidence) shows that our line about how “nothing can be gained in the unions” is false. We say that the workers are “trapped” in the unions, but if you ask any worker why they remain in a union they will tell you it is because of the protection it provides from the employer. We are unable to account for this fact, because we are unwilling to acknowledge the contradiction between the union’s form and its working-class membership.
If workers stay in “anti-working-class organizations” that have absolutely nothing to offer them, the implication is that they are the unthinking pawns of the bureaucrats. Starting from Lenin’s line that the role of the party is to bring socialist consciousness into the working class, we imagine that we will fill up the unthinking workers with consciousness like pouring water into an empty cup. The one-sided way in which we treat Lenin’s quote fails to see the dialectical relationship between the party and the working class. Yes, socialism provides the working class with a scientific appraisal of its situation, but this scientific understanding has to be enriched and shaped by the actual experiences of workers and socialists as they fight side by side.
“Socialists tell workers the truth,” we say, as if it were enough to hit workers over the head with our ideas, but central to Marxism is the dialectic between theory and practice. Socialist consciousness is developed in the course of struggle, not lectures, and we have things to learn too. In writing off trade union work and focusing our political work on online calls insisting on revolutionarily pure rank-and-file committees, we are doing exactly what Trotsky warned against — high-mindedly advising workers to “assemble in solid rank around our rostrum.”
You ask, “Are you giving more credence and validity to Carlos’s position than to the decades of rich scientific analysis that have characterized the development of our International?“ From these decades of work, the only documents to which we regularly refer are “Globalization and the International Working Class,” and “Why are Trade Unions Hostile to Socialism?” Both of these documents were written decades ago. Where is the rich scientific analysis of today? In any case, this appeal to authority is a non-starter. I did not approach the question in terms of the “credence and validity” I owed to Carlos (or to the party), but on the basis of the correctness and power of his arguments.
“Globalization and the International Working Class” made an important contribution, in that it outlined how globalization has brought about a degeneration of the unions, but this analysis is now used to act as though “the unions” were some kind of monolithic entity. We invoke globalization as a license to renounce any form of struggle in any union, which is clearly not a dialectical approach because it treats “the unions” as an abstract category rather than as a concrete and contradictory phenomenon. I have heard workers and youth raise their own versions of this point multiple times while leafletting, yet we have always refused to acknowledge that it is even a coherent point.
The other essay, “Why are Trade Unions Hostile to Socialism?” by Comrade David North, gives a much different justification for our approach. Focusing on the trade union form, it argues that the experiences of the socialist movement have long ago demonstrated that “trade unionism did not lead to the abolition of class exploitation. Rather, it sought to ensure that the proletariat, within the framework of the exploitative structure of capitalism, received, in the form of wages, the best price that the market would allow.” Comrade David then concludes, “The organic development of trade unionism proceeds, not in the direction of socialism, but in opposition to it.”
This deterministic formulation obscures the role of the subjective factor — that is, the role of socialist consciousness. Under capitalism, workers will, of necessity, seek to negotiate better wages and working conditions. It is true that to the extent that these struggles are not led by a socialist program, they will tend to degenerate. But the same sort of dynamic will also apply to rank-and-file committees as soon as they gain a significant working class following and undertake a fight for transitional demands. Neither trade unions nor the rank-and-file committees proceed deterministically toward socialism or in opposition to it; framing the question in terms of whether the unions can be turned into revolutionary organs within capitalist society is the wrong approach. As Trotsky said, “The matter at issue is essentially the struggle for influence over the working class.” For this reason, as Carlos pointed out, we should not counterpose the unions and the rank-and-file committees, but rather view both as battlegrounds in the struggle for socialist consciousness.
There is much on which we still agree. I share your commitment to the defense of the October Revolution, and the opposition to Stalinism led by Leon Trotsky and the Fourth International. I have fully supported the SEP’s calls during the pandemic to stop the reopening of schools and non-essential workplaces; I am in absolute opposition to imperialist war and nationalist and racialist chauvinism; I stand against censorship and for the defense of democratic rights; and I am committed to the overturn of capitalism by the organized working class, and the fight for a socialist future.
I also share your confidence that great struggles are on the horizon. I believe the party will either correct its orientation and rebuild its ties to the working class, or it will be swept away by great events.
If the branch and the party ask me to resign my provisional membership, I will of course respect their wishes, but in the meantime, I intend to fight for my line within the party. Naturally, this will involve me contacting other members widely and at my own direction.