Until recently, the Michigan-based Socialist Equality Party (SEP) has been little known in the U.S. except through the World Socialist Web Site. This is the Internet home of the International Committee for the Fourth International (ICFI), to which the SEP adheres.
But since John Burton entered the California governor’s race as the party’s candidate in 2003 and netted 6,700 votes, the SEP has become more visible. It has subsequently launched a 2004 presidential campaign and several more state efforts, which the party is attempting to build with public meetings.
Politically minded web browsers may have found www.wsws.org, with its lengthy daily bulletins and in-depth analysis, a helpful site in researching international questions. They may also have noticed a lack of discussion of issues of particular concern to women, people of color, and queers. This is no coincidence.
Not only is the program of the SEP remarkably backward on race and sex issues, but their history of sabotage against other left groups should give any activist pause. While the SEP considers itself part of the Trotskyist tradition — in fact, the only real upholders of that tradition — its politics and practices would make Trotsky shudder.
A sordid past. During the 1970s and ’80s the Workers League, as the SEP was then known, focused exclusively on building a labor party in the U.S., and disdained the civil rights, feminist and lesbian/gay movements. Labor party work was the main preoccupation of the ICFI as a whole, at the time a larger organization headed in England by Gerry Healy.
During 1985-1986, the ICFI ruptured. David North, a leader of this tendency in the U.S. then and now, attributed the split to “longstanding political rot in the leadership.” By the leadership, he meant Healy and his associates, who North felt were dragging the ICFI in a non-revolutionary direction. But, at the same time, North tried to dampen the uproar in the ICFI over Healy’s serial rapes of women comrades, dismissing sexism in the group as any kind of real problem.
In 1996, the Workers League changed its name to the Socialist Equality Party, reflecting its stated aspiration to become a “mass socialist party of the working class.” SEPs also exist in Australia, Britain, Canada, Germany, and Sri Lanka.
Wreckers on the Left. The over-the-top sectarianism of SEP/Workers League is most clearly expressed in their repeated attempts to drag other left groups into the capitalist courts or otherwise harass them with outrageous accusations. They relentlessly touted the lie that Joseph Hansen, an assistant to Leon Trotsky during his final exile in Mexico, was an accomplice in Trotsky’s assassination. Hansen was a respected leader in the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the first Trotskyist party in the U.S.
The Workers League also financed a decade-long court battle in which former SWP member Alan Gelfand asked a judge to “fire” one whole committee of national SWP leaders, claiming they were FBI or Kremlin agents. This nasty attempt by the League to use the courts to destroy a radical organization was dismissed as groundless in 1989. But the League/SEP’s numerous disruption campaigns have been costly, distracting and painful for groups on the Left. The SEP has never repudiated its past tactics against the SWP, and continues to insist that the SWP is essentially an FBI/CIA front group.
Propping up class divisions while shouting for unity. The SEP is also infected with ultra-leftism, a scourge that often accompanies sectarianism. SEP dismisses the rest of the Left as sellouts or counterrevolutionaries, refuses to work in the union movement, and explicitly rejects feminism, “race-based politics,” and gay liberation.
SEP’s opting out of involvement in the labor movement is based on its analysis of the union bureaucracy as “counter-revolutionary through and through.” The Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) certainly agrees that the top labor leaders in the U.S. operate more in the interests of big business than of workers. But the answer is not to just stand on the sidelines and throw verbal stones. Only by participating in the union movement will radicals be able to win over the ranks.
When it comes to people of color, women and queers, SEP pays lip service to their rights, but again abstains from the actual movements. This shows that it fails to understand a central reality of this era: because these oppressed groups can never attain even basic equality under capitalism, a system whose survival depends upon racism and sexism, their struggles have a fundamentally revolutionary character.
And never mind the fact that these groups make up the majority of the working class!
FSP members in Australia have seen the SEP’s antifeminism up close and personal. While campaigning for office in Melbourne, the only way that SEP related to women’s issues was through repeated appeals to women as housewives. And at least one bookstore of the Socialist Labour League, forerunner of the SEP, sold pornography “because the working class likes it”!
Consider also the SEP’s opposition to affirmative action. They claim that affirmative action is not a “democratic demand” but “one of the measures used to transform every social problem in America into a race question, and thereby foster division in the working class.” They contend that “the advocates of affirmative action play into the hands of the racists.”
Hello, earth to SEP! Fault lines in the class are caused by the divide-and-conquer techniques of racism and sexism of those at the top. Fights against these “isms” aren’t part of the problem, they’re part of the solution. Trying to make these urgent problems disappear under the rug of “workingclass unity” does nothing to bring anybody together. Instead, it weakens the working class by not challenging the backward prejudices that keep it divided.
“More revolutionary than thou.” The Freedom Socialist Party also has strong disagreements with the SEP’s assessment of revolutionary movements internationally.
Cuba is a case in point. SEP says that Cuba’s government is petty-bourgeois nationalist and that the workers have not overthrown capitalism. This is dead wrong, and lets the SEP off the hook when it comes to defending the Cuban workers state as it faces mounting U.S. attacks.
The SEP’s program is sterile and its sectarianism extreme. But many people today, disgusted with neoliberal globalization and war and turned off by establishment politics, are looking for a radical alternative. Let’s hope that they look farther than the SEP.
In other words, let the browser beware.