David North
Marxism, History and Socialist Consciousness

The origins of the campaign for “Utopia”

The purpose of your attempt to build a case against the International Committee is to show that our refusal to accept your pseudo-utopian enterprise as an essential component of the revolutionary program is the product “of the deadening effect of objectivism on the fight for socialist class consciousness.” Not only that, my “strident condemnation of utopianism” demonstrates that “Marxism continues to be plagued by a spurious and reductive materialism that ‘disdains the human factors’ and denigrates the struggle for socialist class consciousness.”

It is, at this point, necessary to retrace the path, extending back over nearly a decade, which led you to this damning indictment of the International Committee, and of my own theoretical and political outlook.

The first serious indication that we were moving along different political trajectories emerged in 1998, when you, Comrade Brenner, submitted to the World Socialist Web Site a lengthy article on the subject of sexuality and gender identity, which we chose not to publish. The article seemed to us to be based on highly speculative and dubious propositions that minimized, if not entirely denied, the significance of biology in sexual orientation. There was no indication that the article was informed by a serious study of evolutionary biology or anthropology. Comrade David Walsh, who had reviewed the article, brought some of his concerns to your attention. To this, you sent a lengthy reply, dated June 28, 1998, which not only failed to assuage our objections to your article, but raised, in our own minds, concerns about your new programmatic agenda.

Your letter informed us that it was urgently necessary to develop “an alternative theory of gender,” that “this would have a profound effect on any socialist project to restructure the family,” that “the stakes for Marxists on this issue are considerable,” and that “our position on this kind of question can help—or hinder—our effort to win support for making the revolution.”

Until your letter had arrived, it had not occurred to any of us that there was any pressing need for a “socialist project to restructure the family,” let alone a new conception of gender or “a Marxist theory of sexuality.” Moreover, the style of Comrade Brenner’s letter—written in a manner that seemed self-consciously and immaturely intent on shocking the reader—was distinctly deficient in literary aesthetics. Worst of all, the letter did not offer a single citation from a scientific text to bolster its own extravagant and lurid arguments. [39]

Although we heard informally that you were dissatisfied with our refusal to publish your article, it was not until 2002 that new differences emerged. On May 30, 2002, the World Socialist Web Site posted a letter that Comrade Nick Beams, the national secretary of the Socialist Equality Party in Australia and member of the International Editorial Board of the WSWS, had written in response to questions raised by a reader about the nature of life under socialism. The questions touched on a range of issues, including the relationship between economic efficiency and full employment, the problem of individual motivation and initiative, the future of small business, the forms of governmental decision-making, the precise location of a future world capital, the moral basis of socialist society, and the impact of socialism on the family, human rights and ecology. The questions were typical of those that arise in political discussions with people who are just being introduced to socialism. While such questions certainly deserve a serious reply, Marxists also understand that it is important to explain, in the interests of theoretical and political clarification, that socialism does not consist of a series of prescriptions, laid down in advance. It is not that we decline, under all circumstances, to speculate about the future under socialism. But, as historical materialists, we understand the limits of such speculation, which must, at any rate, base itself on a profound analysis of the real contradictions of the capitalist mode of production and the social relations to which it gives rise. Moreover, a socialist society is one whose fundamental features will emerge as an expression of the self-emancipation of the working class, rather than in accordance with a schema worked out by leaders in advance.

Beams argued along these lines when asked to draw a picture of the future socialist society. “The development of a socialist society,” he wrote, “will not take place according to a series of prescriptions and rules laid down by an individual, a political party or a government authority. Rather, it will develop on the basis of the activity of the members of society who, for the first time in history, will consciously regulate their own social organization as part of their daily lives, free from the domination and prescriptions of either the free market or a bureaucratic authority standing over them.” Beams also stressed that the material precondition for a society that strives to realize genuine human emancipation “is the development of the social productivity of labor to such a point that the vast bulk of humanity does not have to spend the greater portion of the day merely trying to obtain the resources to maintain itself. The great contribution of capitalism to the advance of human civilization is that, through its continuous development of the productive forces and the productivity of labor, it has created the necessary material foundations for such genuine human emancipation.” He then briefly outlined how, on the basis of these material foundations, a socialist society might tackle some of the economic and social questions raised in the correspondent’s letter, In relation to the issue of morality, however, Beams noted: “Marxism has always rejected the attempt to impose some moral dogma, pointing out that, inasmuch as society has always been divided into classes, morality is a class issue. Moral values either justify the interests of the ruling stratum or represent the interests of the oppressed classes. When class society is abolished, a new morality will develop.” This response was not, obviously, intended as the final word on the subject of Marxism and morality. It was, however, adequate and correct in the context of a brief letter written in response to a reader’s questions. Similarly, on the issue of the family, a subject of vast complexity, Beams confined himself to stating, correctly, that “socialist society will have no prescriptions. However, people will have the material means to freely enter into those relationships that they find meaningful.”

Comrade Brenner, you then wrote a letter dated July 24, 2002 registering your strong disagreement with the manner in which Beams had replied to the reader’s questions. “From Beams’ reply,” you wrote, “it is impossible to get a sense of where Utopia is in the outlook of contemporary Marxism.” The short answer to this question—though not one you wanted to hear—is that Utopia is precisely where it is supposed to be in a serious revolutionary program, which bases itself on an analysis of the socioeconomic foundations of capitalism and the laws of historical development: that is, it is not part of a Marxist program. We shall amplify on this point somewhat later; but first we must return to your letter. Protesting that Beams failed to properly answer the reader, you declared, “All his [the reader’s] questions are in essence one question: What would socialists do if they ran society? Surely a movement that calls for a revolution has to have a convincing answer to that question, and that means policies on a wide gamut of social issues and a clear vision of the kind of society this revolutionary program is meant to bring about. Otherwise there is something unserious about the call for revolution.”

The suggestion that the Fourth International and its sections lack a program, that we are missing policies “on a wide gamut of social issues,” and that our movement calls for revolution without having any clear sense of what kind of society we propose as an alternative to capitalism, is totally unfounded. There is no party whose record of programmatic statements is as comprehensive as that of the International Committee of the Fourth International.

A comprehensive collection of documents, which present the programmatic record of the Fourth International and its sections (dating back to 1938), would run into dozens of volumes. For the sake of brevity, I will cite only one example of our programmatic position, which is taken from the report I delivered in June 1995 proposing the transformation of the Workers League into the Socialist Equality Party:

The aim of our party should be stated clearly in its name and in a manner that the workers can both understand and identify with. I propose at this time that we initiate preparations for the transformation of the Workers League into the Socialist Equality Party.

Briefly, in presenting this party to the working class, we must explain that its goal is the establishment of a workers government: and by that we mean a government for the workers, of the workers and by the workers. Such a government will utilize the political power it intends to gain through democratic means, if possible, to reorganize economic life in the interests of the working class, to overcome and replace the socially-destructive market forces of capitalism with democratic social planning, to undertake a radical reorganization of production to meet the urgent social needs of the working people, to effect a radical and socially-just redistribution of wealth in favor of the working population, and thereby lay the basis for socialism.

We will stress that these aims of the Socialist Equality Party are realizable only in alliance with, and as an integral part of, a consciously internationalist movement of the working class. There cannot be social equality and social justice for the American worker as long as multinational and transnational corporations oppress and exploit his class brothers and sisters in other countries. Moreover, there exists no viable national strategy upon which the class struggle can be based. The working class must consistently and systematically counterpose its international strategy to the international strategy of the transnational corporations. There can be no compromise on this essential question, which is the cutting edge of the socialist program.

In striving to politically organize the working class, the Socialist Equality Party must respond to the pressing needs of the masses that arise out of existing social conditions. At a time when international capital is engaged in an unrelenting offensive against the working class, the social demands which address the basic needs of the working class assume a revolutionary character. After all, the old organizations would not have abandoned reformist demands if it were possible to achieve them through reformist measures. Every demand of the working class, on the most basic questions, poses a direct confrontation between the working class and the capitalist state.

We must outline, in detail, the demands which we will incorporate into our program. It is not necessary, however, to write a program as if it were a blueprint for the socialist utopia of the future. Rather, it must provide the working class with a unifying aim that corresponds to its objective interests. Moreover, it must strike a chord in the consciousness of the masses. The demand for social equality not only sums up the basic aim of the socialist movement; it also evokes the egalitarian traditions that are so deeply rooted in the genuinely democratic and revolutionary traditions of the American workers. All the great social struggles of American history have inscribed on their banners the demand for social equality. It is no accident that today, in the prevailing environment of political reaction, this ideal is under relentless attack. [40]

When you accused the ICFI of lacking a program, what you really meant is that the Marxist conception of program, and its relationship to the struggle for working class power, contradicts your own. You believe, as we shall see, that the revolutionary movement should issue “socialist” encyclicals on subjects and issues that fall well outside the boundaries of a political program, such as the appropriate form of the post-revolutionary family and the nature of sexuality under communism. You are not, Comrade Brenner, particularly interested in the formulation of demands whose content is rooted in the objective contradictions of bourgeois society, and which express the political and socioeconomic interests of the working class in its struggle against capitalist oppression, exploitation and inequality. Rather, you conceive of program as, to quote your letter, “a socialist dream, in which socialism and a happy life become associated in the minds of millions of people.” This constitutes the essential foundation of your call for a revival of utopianism.

When Beams replied to Brenner’s complaint on August 29, 2002, he focused on one critical issue:

The point I was making, and to which you so strenuously object, is that socialist society is not one which is run by socialists. Rather, it is a form of society in which the working class, the overwhelming majority of the population, for the first time in history takes economic and political power in its hands. There is one very important conception here: The emancipation of labor is not to be worked out in a series of prescriptions handed down from some authority, but must be worked out by the masses themselves.

In response to this letter from Nick Beams, you produced your manifesto on utopia. The purpose of this document, you (Comrade Brenner) informed us, was two-fold: first, to correct “seriously misguided” conceptions about the relationship between Marxism and utopianism and, second, to examine “the tension between science and utopianism that turned the latter into a virtual taboo” within the Marxist movement. Having warned us that a “definitive account of all these matters would require a book-length discussion,” you limited your treatment of them to a mere 27,393 words. This, you assured us, was “sufficient to make the case that a renewed attention to utopianism is vital to a rebirth of socialist culture within the working class.”


A few characteristic passages: “Thus, if we contend that biology provides an impetus to genital sex, we must also be willing to admit that biology provides an impetus to oral sex—which is of course a type of sex that can be gratified by either gender. And, for that matter, in shifting libido to the penis, biology doesn’t at the same time compel the penis to seek gratification only in the vagina: on the contrary, the mouth and anus—again, of either gender, will do as well, to say nothing of masturbation.” And: “Surely, there is nothing mature or fully developed about a genital sexuality in which the sexual act consists solely of a man mounting a woman and thrusting his penis into her vagina until ejaculation; on the contrary, this kind of behavior is clearly a mark of extreme repression, of the constriction of sexuality to a mechanical, inhuman coldness.”


David North, The Workers League and the Founding of the Socialist Equality Party (Detroit: Labor Publications, 1996), pp. 36-37.