Notes on the SEP/GRPI Puzzle

In recent weeks reports have surfaced that David North, leader of the ostensibly Trotskyist Socialist Equality Party (SEP) and its International Committee (IC), also (as David Green) acts as CEO of Grand River Printing and Imaging (GRPI—, one of Michigan’s larger printing companies, which reported $25 million in business transactions last year. Like other readers of the SEP’s on-line daily, we have been waiting to see what the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) has to say about the flap over the GRPI. It seems that, for the time being at least, North et al have decided that discretion is the better part of valor, and are maintaining radio silence.

Most of the comments printed below were written by our comrade Samuel T., who was recruited to the Workers League (WL—predecessor of the SEP) during Fred Mazelis' 1989 campaign for mayor of New York City. Sam left the WL in 1991 when it refused to call for the defeat of U.S. imperialism in the first Gulf War (see and

On the weekend of 31 March/1 April Sam and a couple of other IBT supporters went to Ann Arbor, Michigan to attend an SEP anti-war conference that was advertised as open to "all WSWS readers." When our comrades arrived, however, they found that supporters of organizations other than the SEP were not really welcome, and the SEP leadership seemed a bit put out by our criticisms of their claim that trade unions are no longer working-class organizations (see and also

Gerry Healy, the founder-leader of the British Workers’ Revolutionary Party (WRP) who headed the IC until the mid-1980s, had a well-deserved reputation as a cynical political thug with a penchant for pseudo-dialectical gibberish and crisis-mongering. In the late 1960s, along with Ernest Mandel and the Pabloist “United Secretariat” (USec), the IC hailed various Middle East bonapartists as manifestations of a trans-class “Arab Revolution.” The IC also shared the Pabloists’ enthusiasm for Mao Zedong’s “Red Guard” faction during the massive intra-bureaucratic wrangle known as the “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.” Today, in a symmetrical deviation, North’s SEP denies that China was ever any sort of workers’ state (see

By the 1980s, the political prostitutes of the IC were acting as paid publicists for Libya’s Muammar el Qaddafi and other Arab despots. The most despicable act of these political gangsters was providing intelligence to Saddam Hussein’s reactionary Baathist regime on émigré members of the Iraqi Communist Party. When the WRP/IC imploded in 1985-86 (see former members came forward and told of being sent to take photographs of leftist exiles at demonstrations, which the WRP leadership then passed on to the Iraqi embassy.

After Healy’s fall, the current IC leadership, headed by David North, sought to adjust the group’s image to something more closely approximating the “anti-Pabloite Trotskyist” tradition it falsely claims to represent. In their disingenuous account of their belated break with Healy, entitled "How the WRP Betrayed Trotskyism,” the WL leadership downplayed their record of years of slavish obedience to Healy’s every pronouncement. The insistence by North et al that they bear no political responsibility for the IC’s crimes, and that everything was Healy’s fault, recalls Nikita Khrushchev’s 1956 attempt to whitewash the crimes of the Soviet bureaucracy by blaming everything on Stalin. People who go back and examine issues of the Bulletin will see for themselves that the Workers League’s uncritical adulation of Qaddafi and the rest of the IC’s bonapartist bankrollers was every bit as enthusiastic as the WRP’s. They will also see that the SEP/IC, like the USec and almost every other pseudo-Trotskyist tendency, consistently supported counterrevolution in the former Soviet bloc, from Lech Walesa’s Polish Solidarnosc in 1981 to Boris Yeltsin’s pro-imperialist rabble in Moscow a decade later. With the passage of time, and an influx of politically raw new members, the SEP/IC leadership has tried to distance itself from its inglorious history. The tone of the WSWS today is far less hysterical than the Bulletin used to be, but the program it puts forward is no more revolutionary.

Some have suggested that the SEP leaders’ role in the GRPI may be connected to their repudiation of the Trotskyist analysis of the trade unions. We don’t claim to know for certain. But it was clear in Ann Arbor that there is a great deal of confusion in the ranks of the SEP on their position regarding the unions. Many newer members seem uneasy with the line, while the older cadres adamantly defend it, even if there is little consistency in the arguments they use, and none of them are able to explain how the AFL-CIO today is qualitatively different than it was in the 1960s and 70s. One senior SEP member ventured that perhaps the destruction of the USSR had somehow transformed U.S. unions into simple tools of the bourgeoisie, commenting: "Well, the collapse of the USSR has changed everything, so why wouldn't it also change the unions?"

The following lightly edited comments are excerpted from internal discussion in the IBT:

“Lenin drew a connection between the August 4, 1914 betrayal of the Social Democrats and the privileged social position of the labor aristocrats who constituted their social base. Trotsky made similar observations regarding the Stalinist bureaucracy, and also traced the Shachtmanites’ [a right-wing split from the then-Trotskyist Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP)] abandonment of defense of the USSR in 1940 to their petty-bourgeois social composition. In 1953, James P. Cannon argued that the Cochranites’ [a subsequent right-wing faction in the SWP] liquidationist politics reflected the conservatizing effects of relative economic stability on older workers. In 1983, we pointed out that the SL's [Spartacist League] dive on saving the Marines in Lebanon, and its offer the next year to provide defense guards for the Democratic Party, were related to the desire of [SL leader James] Robertson to cultivate a ‘respectable’ image with elements of the ruling class.

“It can be a dangerous thing for a small group with Potemkin Village inclinations, which the Northites have always had throughout their history, to accumulate assets out of proportion to their actual social weight. It would be surprising if running a major commercial enterprise did not affect the political consciousness of the SEP leadership—as Marx remarked, ‘being determines consciousness.’”

* * *

“I was struck by the following passage from the SEP’s 2006 election program:

"‘To establish the economic foundation for the reorganization of economic life in the interests of the broad mass of the working people, we advocate the transformation of all privately owned industrial, manufacturing and information technology corporations valued at $10 billion or more—companies that, taken together, control the decisive share of the US economy—into publicly owned enterprises, with full compensation for small shareholders and the terms of compensation for large shareholders to be publicly negotiated…. "‘Property rights must be subordinated to social rights. This does not mean the nationalization of everything, or the abolition of small or medium-sized businesses, which are themselves victimized by giant corporations and banks. Establishing a planned economy will give such businesses ready access to credit and more stable market conditions, so long as they provide decent wages and working conditions.’ [emphasis added]

“How many printing companies in the U.S. are worth more than $10 billion? I notice that Rupert Murdoch is offering $5 billion for Dow Jones (which includes the Wall Street Journal). Would the SEP consider that a ‘medium-sized business’?”

* * *

“When I was a member, WLers were exhausted by mindless public activity (8-hour shopping mall sales, etc.). I think perhaps the turn away from mass agitation toward a more realistic propaganda perspective where members are not run into the ground accounts for why SEPers now project a more controlled, rational image in public (a high-pressure environment is not good for anyone’s sanity)….

“In the old WL there was no escaping getting chewed out at an internal meeting (unless you were in the leadership) for not selling enough papers, doing enough work, contacting enough workers or giving the party enough money—there was no pledge schedule, rather comrades announced how much they were giving that month at a local meeting and then were pressured to give more.

“The sense I got from what I was told when I was in, was that the org financed itself almost completely through contributions from members (who were bled dry and encouraged to collect money on the streets, go door to door, borrow from relatives, etc.). The other source was lit sales (which is one reason we'd get screamed at regularly for not selling enough).”

* * *

“I remember as a member asking about Cuba and its class character. When not attacked for raising the question to begin with (on the grounds that it reflected a potential desire to accommodate to Castroism), I was offered a wide range of explanations by different senior comrades. Some gave me a version of the ‘phantom capitalist’ theory (a Lambertiste position, that, as I found out later, was never adopted by the Healyites) [Pierre Lambert, leader of the French Organisation Communiste Internationaliste participated with Healy in the IC until they parted ways in 1971]. Other WLers told me that despite what I had read in books and newspapers, there was indeed significant private ownership in Cuba. They were all improvising, because the IC/WL/SEP to my knowledge always avoided any attempt to seriously explain their position in writing. Members who ask too many questions about touchy subjects like Cuba soon learn not to, as it is taken as displaying an appetite to abandon the working class. I suspect that a similar approach is being used today with those deemed too inquisitive about the GPRI.”

* * *

“On the myspace [website] discussion of the issue, one neophyte supporter of the SEP summed up the explanation he had been given as follows:

“1) the GRPI does not fund the SEP;
“2) the GRPI provides employment for a number of comrades;
“3) no one is getting rich through their involvement with the GRPI;
“4) the GRPI is a successful company and has won awards for being a quality employer.

“If I were a member, I would be wondering what the purpose of the GRPI is, if it neither serves the needs of the SEP, nor makes anyone rich. I’d also be curious about which SEP comrades get jobs there and how they get selected. I suppose it’s nice to win awards, but most people would rather work in places where they have union protection instead of having to rely on management goodwill. (I think it is safe to assume that, since 'unions have essentially completed their degeneration' they do not represent GRPI's workforce.)

* * *

“When the SEP liquidated its printed publications in favor of on-line publishing, they claimed that doing so was merely recognizing the reality that, in the new age of internet communication, printed matter was becoming obsolete as a way to reach people. It is clear that the SEP has continued to invest tremendous resources to produce its on-line daily. The WSWS, which is generally pretty well written and covers a wide range of topics from a leftist perspective, possibly has the largest readership of any English-language ostensibly Marxist publication. It gives the SEP a cyberspace presence that far exceeds its weight in the real world.

“The existence of the GRPI, and the time and energy that North et al obviously pour into it, makes me wonder if the real motivation for curtailing the production of printed propaganda was to permit the company to reach its full potential. When I was a member we had to buy large numbers of the weekly Bulletin on consignment—each member probably sold around 100 papers a week. The group also printed a monthly Young Socialist, a monthly Spanish publication for immigrants, a monthly or bi-monthly French language publication sold in Quebec and to Haitian immigrants in New York (amongst whom we had a significant readership), a monthly Canadian newspaper, tons of leaflets, a quarterly theoretical journal, and, most months, a pamphlet or a book. The discovery that paper printing was obsolete (although not for commercial purposes apparently) might also have been a result of a decision that meeting sales quotas by going door-to-door, hanging out at supermarkets, strike-chasing and all the other things we used to do, was not an efficient use of members’ political time. It is notable that the change to on-line from paper publishing, and the transformation of the old party printing plant into a full-blown business enterprise seems to roughly coincide with the change of position on the unions. This may well be a classic case of ‘program generating theory.’”

* * *

“Marxists have generally seen revisionism as an expression of alien class pressures within the workers’ movement. Small propaganda organizations, with little organic connection to the labor movement, experience that pressure in more indirect ways than mass workers’ parties. In a small leftist group the personal qualities and political appetites of leading members are at least as important in determining the line and the character of its internal regime as the blind social forces that shape mass consciousness.

“Marx and Engels wrote a fair number of polemics against the development of personality cults within small socialist organizations, whereas Lenin, Trotsky and Luxemburg, who operated in an atmosphere where socialist ideas were part of the mainstream of the labor movement, tended to dismiss the significance of such behavior.

“Ignoring historical context and employing a caricature of the Leninist/Trotskyist analysis of trade-union, social-democratic and Stalinist bureaucracies, the IC has long denounced all other left groups as ‘petty bourgeois’ (while their own social composition is no different) and simultaneously demanded that critics of their highly bureaucratic organization demonstrate upon what materially privileged stratum the IC leadership is based. The recent publicity surrounding the GRPI may lead the IC leadership to be a bit more careful about baiting other groups as ‘petty bourgeois’ for a while.”

* * *

“A small and rigidly hierarchical ostensibly socialist organization, without significant connections to the labor movement or any other mass social movement, that has a largely literary political existence, with little public activity beyond occasionally running candidates in bourgeois elections, is likely to develop some peculiar political deviations. If the leaders of such an organization are also subjected to the social pressures of running a multi-million dollar business, it is hardly surprising that they may come to exhibit indifference to the actual struggles and needs of the working class, or at least find it difficult to connect the limited immediate struggles of the class to the necessity for socialist revolution (i.e., to find the sort of ‘bridge’ that Trotsky outlined in the Transitional Program).

“Trotsky saw it as essential for revolutionaries to struggle for the Marxist program within the existing mass organizations of the proletariat, i.e., the unions. The SEP leadership, by contrast, tends to advance a sort of abstract ‘Sunday Socialism’ in which the key operational proposal is often the call to ‘build the SEP.’”

* * *

"For decades the IC has tended to cater to the backward consciousness of the more privileged sections of the working class and to show little interest in questions of special oppression. Those who insist on the importance of Marxists addressing such questions are attacked for ‘hating the working class’ or being motivated by black-nationalist, bourgeois-feminist or other alien class ideologies. Tim Wohlforth, while still leader of the Workers League, spelled this out with his infamous comment that ‘The working class hates hippies, faggots and women's libbers, and so do we!’ While far less crude today, the WSWS coverage of the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, for example, was profoundly flawed by the tendency to ignore the blatant racism that characterized capitalist officialdom’s response to the crisis….”

* * *

“The cadres who produce the WSWS can certainly not be faulted for their work ethic—it is an impressive achievement for such a small group to have sustained such a venture for so long. But the value of such a project, from a revolutionary point of view, depends on the political program it advances. The profound revisionism of the SEP on the social revolutions that produced the Cuban and Chinese deformed workers’ states, its support to capitalist restorationists in the Soviet bloc, its defeatist and reactionary position on the trade unions, its historic tendency toward indifference to issues of special oppression and its abandonment of the Bolshevik position of 'revolutionary defeatism' in imperialist wars, negates any value the WSWS might have as an instrument for socialist propaganda.”

Posted: 15 May 2007