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
Statement to the SEP National Aggregate by Peter Ross: March 19th 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 rejection of the membership of provisional member Peter Ross by the US SEP. Links to all the ancillary documents can also be found here.
Note from Peter Ross: These remarks were delivered to a national meeting of the Socialist Equality Party on March 19, 2021. Note that these are the written versions from which the statements were read, not transcriptions, as I do not have an audio recording.
This is Peter Ross, from Los Angeles. I’d like to voice my strong opposition to the expulsion of Comrade Shuvu Batta, from the New York Branch, a few weeks ago. First of all, I’m troubled that the membership is apparently not made aware when their fellow comrades are up for disciplinary action. Had Comrade Shuvu not reached out to me directly, it seems I would never have known that he had been expelled.
As I understand it, Cde. Shuvu had requested that the New York branch provide a document written by a former provisional member, criticizing our line on the trade unions. The branch said it would distribute the document, but Shuvu reached out directly to the former member, and then distributed the document to other comrades. The following week, the branch sent him a letter charging him with a violation of party discipline and removed him from Signal chats and party meetings. Shuvu was allowed to record a statement but was not allowed to attend the branch meeting during which disciplinary action was discussed and voted on.
According to the statements made by the New York branch, the grounds for Shuvu’s expulsion are:
(1) That he solicited a document from a non-party member without first getting permission.
(2) That he attempted to internally distribute this critique of the party’s line.
(3) That he used harsh language in his response to the branch.
On this last point, I don’t agree with some of Shuvu’s rhetoric, but I think it should be pretty clear to anyone who reads the letter that this was not the language of an “enemy,” as the branch dramatically described it, but rather the understandably frustrated reaction of someone being subjected to political censorship.
It is simply incredible that a comrade should be expelled for soliciting a document and distributing it internally, among fellow party members. This is exactly what the branch objected to, as their own statements make very clear.
I ask comrades to consider the implications of disallowing members from seeking out political ideas and engaging in internal discussion at their own direction. This was not some fascist screed Shuvu was distributing. It was a carefully considered critique of our party line. The New York Branch has cited democratic centralism in its decision, but it is clear that it was more interested in centralism than in democracy.
On this point, I have to agree with several of the points Comrade Shuvu has raised. Why is that basic information about the party, including the total number of members and their class composition, is not available to the rank-and-file membership? How is it that during the last national congress, the party’s national committee was elected by, of all things, an electoral college. The rank and file did not directly vote for its leadership. Rather, they submitted a slate of nominations, and the final selections were then made in “executive session” by an electoral committee which was itself composed of the outgoing leadership. As far as I am aware, the final vote tally was not even released to the membership.
To conclude, since this may be my last opportunity to do so, I have to agree with the point made by Shuvu and the other former member that our view of the trade unions is formalistic. Right now, Amazon workers are trying to unionize, but we’ve said little to nothing to defend them from the predatory measures Amazon has taken to head off unionization. Rather, everything we publish is aimed at proving that the unions have been integrated into the state, and implicitly justifying union busting in favor of our own rank-and-file committees. In taking this approach, we are ignoring the contradiction between the union bureaucracies and their membership. At Amazon and elsewhere, we limit ourselves to purely literary interventions and counterpose to the unions adventurist and imaginary organizations of our own creation.
Trotsky addressed similar efforts in his essay on “The Trade Unions in Britain” in the 1930s. He wrote that, “The fundamental mistake of such attempts lies in that they reduce to organizational experiments the great political problem of how to free the masses from the influence of the trade union bureaucracy. It is not enough to offer the masses a new address. It is necessary to seek out the masses where they are and to lead them.”
As he later points out, “This argument reduces itself in reality to giving up the actual struggle to win the masses, using the corrupt character of the trade-union bureaucracy as a pretext.”
I’m raising this with the hope of starting a discussion, because I think we urgently need to correct our line, and I encourage anyone who wants to discuss these topics to reach out to me. That’s all comrades, thank you.
The party dedicated essentially all of the next two hours to countering my statement, which meant that the meeting went on for almost three and a half hours in total, well over an hour longer than scheduled, ending at close to 11:30 EST. Dan De Vries, secretary of the New York Branch, was the first to answer, and unsurprisingly portrayed my remarks as a falsification; he said Shuvu had refused to have a debate in the party the very day after he had demanded one and chose expulsion himself. He quoted Shuvu’s line about “sowing chaos” in the party.
Eric London spoke next, saying that I had made a bogus comparison between the SEP and the bourgeois electoral college and the Democratic party. He repeated his smear from the IYSSE meeting 3 weeks before that I had a flippant attitude on party security and the need to review the party’s history. He criticized me for disrupting a national meeting rather than bringing up my concerns to my branch and said that these were the methods of the petty-bourgeoise and anarchists. Members from the New York branch spoke, including Fred Mazelis. Most of these remarks were focused on blasting Shuvu, especially his most scathing lines in his letters and his anonymous remarks blasting the party on Reddit while the expulsion proceedings were still going on and he was still a member.
David North spoke for a long time on what constitutes a principled political intervention and what doesn’t. He recalled his experience in the split with the WRP and how he’d chosen to proceed. He said my method was disruptive and strongly implied that it was an attempt to sabotage the party: one should proceed by patiently fighting for their line, not forcing through their personal concerns during a national meeting dedicated to other subjects and surprising fellow comrades in a manner calculated to be disruptive, etc. He repeated Eric’s points about the role of the branch, the petty-bourgeois character of my intervention (which included a reference to Steiner and Brenner), and said that the trade union question had been worked out in a long process of internal debate.
Others spoke, including Patrick Martin, who portrayed my demand that the party release information about the number of members as one step away from asking that we give out members’ addresses. To my surprise, I was allowed to speak again at the end of the meeting and I tried to counter the points they’d made (statement below). A small point: In this second statement, I concurred with the SEP’s characterization of the unions as anti-worker organizations. I meant to say that I agreed that the unions have degenerated. I used the “anti-worker” term, which I don’t agree with, because I wrote my response quickly, and didn’t have time to reflect.
This was followed by a final response by Kishore and North. North said that I couldn’t simply say I disagreed with Shuvu on this or that—that I had come to the meeting as Shuvu’s attorney, and that I should reconsider my method and the class sources of my change in position.
First of all, my comments were not aimed at sabotaging or disrupting the party, as Comrade David and others implied. It’s hard to imagine how internal criticism could amount to sabotage; our political line has to be clarified through internal debate.
Secondly, let’s not use quotations from Shuvu to cover for the undemocratic actions that were taken again him. What Shuvu said has been distorted. What, really, was Shuvu’s behavior? He said that it wasn’t his intention to “sow chaos” (that’s the line you referred to), but if that was the result of his actions, so be it. In other words, chaos wasn’t his aim, but no healthy party should be afraid of criticism, and yes, at a national meeting, not only at branch meetings. As for the Reddit posts, these didn’t figure in the initial disciplinary action and I don’t think Shuvu posted them for several weeks. Shuvu’s denunciations have to be read in the context of the way the branch conducted itself in the preceding weeks. Shuvu didn’t demand that the party halt its other work. The initial complaint by the New York branch was that Shuvu sent the document directly to individual contacts and said he’d like to discuss it with them. But on the question of Shuvu, the New York branch should simply release all of the relevant documents, and let the membership decide for themselves.
Eric, in fact, I never belittled the importance of the Ageloff piece. You’ve made that statement many times now, though I’ve made it very clear to you that that wasn’t the case. The real reason I discussed that piece only briefly during my initial remarks at the IYSSE meeting was that I intended to broach the subject of Shuvu’s expulsion to the IYSSE. But I realized that I would have only one opportunity to voice my concerns. Yes, I chose to raise these issues here, tonight. If I’d made a similar statement in the branch, I’m certain it would never have left the branch. Is it impermissible for to express disagreements with questions of party democracy, of the expulsion of members, or of the trade union question at a national meeting? Does this amount to sabotage? I don’t think so. Ok, our line on the unions was settled decades ago—does this mean it’s beyond reproach, off limits for criticism? The correctness of a political line has to be arrived at through criticism and debate.
As for my points on party democracy, it’s not a matter of comparing the Democratic party to our party formalistically. The question is, is the manner in which we conduct elections democratic or isn’t it? Do members directly elect their representatives; do they have access to the total vote tally? These are simple questions.
Some points were made on the trade unions.
Yes, the unions have become anti-worker organizations, but we have to draw a distinction between the workers who are trapped in the unions and the unions as organizations. The nature of the organization doesn’t in any way exempt us from the need to conduct work in the unions. We think the strength of our line is enough. But this is incredibly arrogant.
We say no gains whatsoever can be made. First of all, what is the evidence for this, really? There’s a significant wage premium among union workers. This by itself doesn’t prove a whole lot, but if workers are gaining nothing whatsoever by being in unions, the question has to be asked, why are tens of millions of them in unions? Are they just stupid? I mean, this is a very mechanical statement: “No gains can be made under any circumstances!” In that case, you may as well conclude that the approach outlined in The Transitional Program is impossible.
We have to win these workers by being the most militant section of the working class, showing concretely how they can defend their rights, not simply pose this abstraction of a rank-and-file committee, that we form, that only has 2 or 3 members in many cases (that are ourselves), and that are completely controlled by us. Counterposing the unions to the rank-and-file committees is the wrong approach. Both the unions and the rank-and-file committees have to be viewed as battlegrounds in the struggle for socialist consciousness.
Finally, let me pose a question: a supporter asked Joe Kishore during a public meeting what evidence there was that workers were listening. He responded that the readership of the World Socialist Web Site is growing. But this is an incredibly tenuous claim on a connection to the working class. How do we know who are readers are? Is our main evidence on the influence of the socialist movement derived from the statistics on Alexa.com? And what happens if (or really when) the ruling class shuts down the World Socialist Web Site? Work has to be done to build a cadre in the unions, and counterposing this to the rank-and-file committees is formal, and it’s the wrong approach.