Moving Forward? Hopes for the future of the North Star

by Christian Wright on September 23, 2013

[Note from the editorial collective: we do not now, nor have we ever, formally endorsed (or condemnned) US/NATO military action in Syria as an editorial policy. Individual editors do have stances and may express them, but they do not represent the editorial collective.  As this is a periodical and forum for intra-socialist debate, we feel that letting one or even several editors’ opinions stand in as an editorial would be deleterious to our purposes.]

The North Star website was launched two years ago as an effort to facilitate horizontal communication between radical leftists who are members of different organizations or no organization. The idea at that time was reevaluate and discuss where we are going in a way that encouraged collaboration, non sectarianism, and promoted the democratization of practices. The motivation for all this was that Occupy showed us a tremendous potential that exists for socialist ideas and the revival of class struggle by our materially struggling generation. The thesis has been that the existing state of bureaucracy, sectism, and routinism in which the members of almost all socialist grouplets are trapped is now a barrier to connecting with that potential.

The North Star struck a chord because it suggested many current divisions between American socialists are based on outdated theoretical hairsplitting that were no longer relevant. Does “bureaucratic collectivism” verses “state capitalism” matter to the unemployed college graduate with $40,000 in debt? Does your personal interpretation of what happened at Kronstdat particularly matter when you are a fast food worker striking for minimum wage?

The poison of sectarianism has the radical who drinks it convinced that the people who think the closest to her are her worst enemies. The effect, for far too long, is avoidance and isolation. Our socialists are rarely able to appreciate the insights of those people who think slightly different, and perhaps see things from a different perspective. The commitment to a dialectical process of discussion among one’s peers (which has characterized the healthy, intellectually vibrant eras of all prior radical movements) remains alien to a disturbing number of those who identify with Marx. Rather than considering other voices that might allow us to examine our own suppositions with greater scrutiny and perhaps improve upon them, each remains isolated from the other. “In a hole…,” as it has been said before.

The 2012 Kshama Sawat campaign launched by Socialist Alternative in Seattle showed the potential for the rebuilding of socialism as a credible and popular idea through electoral campaigns. On November 6 the avoudly socialist candidate won 29% of the vote as a candidate for the the Washington House of Representatives. In the course of the campaign Sawat sued for her right to list her party’s full name on the ballot, and won the endorsement of the Seattle Stranger, the free alternative weekly of that town with a circulation of 87,000.

In the context of that campaign it was discussed here how such efforts could have been more collaborative, rather than simply one organization’s own initiative. Sawat showed us there may be opportunities in electoral politics we have been overlooking. Far more importantly the collaborative principle could be applied to other areas of work, whether its a union campaign, a political fight, or the highly important cultural work of challenging capitalist hegemony through the many avenues social media and technology have opened to us.

Aside from routinism, bold structural criticisms of American socialists’ inherited legacy were raised here as well. If a socialist organization keeps its finances secret from its membership, or returns the same leaders to power year for a period of years (or decades) without a single competitive election, if every “slate” of leaders put forward for the membership’s consideration is always chosen by the leaders themselves, will such an organization be capable of attracting and retaining the critically thinking activists who have dedicated themselves to the expansion of democracy throughout society?

Furthermore, what is the effect on leaders’ own ability to think when for so many years they are removed from the workplaces, lives, habits, and pressures of ordinary citizens? How can rank and file socialists become effective leaders in civic or union groups (much less a revolutionary workers’ council) when their own organizations deprive them of leadership experience at high levels of responsibility? Lastly, what do we loose by demanding our members function at a level of hyper activity? How do we pace our rhythms so that they are sustainable as well as attractive?

Not theoretical attacks from afar, these were concrete concerns that emerged after years of active membership in influential organizations. The amount of agreeing comments and site views demonstrated how many members and former members of various organizations agreed with them. Were they not made here by the people who made them, they would have been made elsewhere by someone. The activists of the wikileaks generation demand a level of accountability and transparency that will critically handicap any organization not willing to embrace it. Our organizations must evolve.

In the realm of international politics, unique theoretical contributions have also been made by the North Star that set it apart. It may be said with little equivocation that in the context of the Arab Spring the American socialist left has failed to provide nuanced leadership, preferring to remain truthful to dogmatic theory while ignoring the real world consequences of it. When protests and revolutionary movements challenged pro- US dictatorships, nothing but the strongest solidarity was expressed. When alleged anti- US dictatorships were challenged, the situation dramatically changed.

The “third worldist” and Stalinist factions rushed to defend “their” dictators while Gaddafi and Assad were drowning their populations in blood. Never mind that Gaddafi had years before made himself an ally in George Bush’s “war on terror,” or that the excesses of wealth and power he showered his inner circle with were reminiscent of the Kardashians. Never mind that Assad broke all records in escalating his response to peaceful protests to the level of bullets, artillery, and airstrikes. American Imperialism must be opposed at all costs. The uninterrupted ability of Russian Imperialism to crush its satellite’s revolutions was, as shamefully as in Hungary or Czechoslovakia, for many the only “socialist” line.

In Libya events moved so fast the confusion of the Western left was speedily eclipsed and ignored. In Syria, a protracted civil war was imposed on the movement with terrible consequences for its participants. For the past two years the debate of who or what to support has similarly stagnated. On one side allegiances to the leaders of “pro- Palestinian” or “socialist” states trumped all concern for the rights and lives of their subjects. On the other side, “non intervention” was for two years the policy of American Imperialist Barack Obama as well as the remainder of the socialist left.

At the time of this writing the president’s belated appeal for intervention is more reminiscent of the Red Army’s 1944 role in the destruction of the Warsaw Uprising than anything honestly humanitarian. In that case of that revolution, let us recall the Soviet forces had by August moved to attacking range of the Nazi- occupied city. There they halted, for 63 days, while a woefully under prepared uprising called for by the Allies and led by an local resistance was forced o fight on alone. In the end over 150,000 Poles were killed and the city was largely destroyed. When the “liberators” finally did arrive, they were pleased to note no local movement was left to contest the installation of the newly appointed puppets.

The North Star has not called for American airstrikes against Syria. It has, however, defended the right of Syrian revolutionaries to call for international assistance including military intervention to prevent the unleashing of a military’s violence against a civilian population. What the North Star affirmed was the right of revolutionaries to exploit splits in international capitalism to their own advantage. Numerous relevant historical examples of other revolutionaries doing this were offered here that appeared no where else. Ho Chi Minh’s collaboration with the American OSS against the Japanese during World War II was one. Lenin’s acceptance of the German military’s offer of a train ride into Russia was another. The international socialist left’s denouncement of the Western arms embargo against Republican Spain was a third.

Events in Libya and Syria were so often featured on the North Star because the position taken by Binh and like minded contributors, including myself, was presented almost nowhere else among the “left.” Rather than advocating for an ideologically “pure” position of caustic non-intervention that in practice denied material support to a genuine revolutionary movement, denied its participants the ability to decide for themselves what and whose aid to accept, and would ensure the material advantage and potential victory of counter revolutionary dictatorships, a realistic appraisal of the situation was uniquely offered here.

The chief importance of this subject’s treatment on this site is not that Binh’s thinking has been right or wrong. What is important is that it was able to be published and discussed. Almost everywhere else, a line was picked from the beginning, stuck with, and an arsenal of intimidation and vitriol awaited any member or reader who dared question the official logic (much less form their own opinion and stick with it while continuing to attempt collaborative work)

On both these issues what has defined the North Star has been the uniqueness of its analysis. Original contributions to challenging international issues and long overdue calls to horizontal collaboration and strategic reevaluation are found almost no where else. The North Star never attempted to be, and should not now try and become, another counterpunch. There are enough news sites already existing with a far left bias that denounce each day a thousand hypocrisies and injustices affecting populations across the entire planet. That is being done well enough elsewhere and would be a waste of our energy to attempt to repeat it.

In obvious ways it is quite important to point out what is wrong in the world, and to educate a hoodwinked people. Yet in others it can be quite demoralizing. In the absence of victorious struggle, hopelessness prevails among the litany of capitalist crimes. Already, the North Star assumes, there is a rather healthy number of people out there convinced about the necessity to radically change things. The point is not simply to point out what is wrong and “expect” that someone, somehow, will change things. The premise of liberal journalism is that liberal politicians actually exist who will implement some of the revelations brought bravely to light. Our task is different, to develop our own functional resistance in the context of complete betrayal by our liberals.

We are not interested chiefly in holding out our hands for charity, but in changing the relations of power between classes. What is needed is not another news sites with daily reminders of what is wrong, but a center for radical collaboration where members of different groups (and no groups) can come together and think freely, discuss where they have been and negotiate a way forward.

It is my hope that the North Star, under its re-organized management, will continue to point a useful way forward. I believe it can do that by publishing original theoretical contributions, and by using its small but growing spotlight to showcase unique and effective cases of collaboration and organization in practice as they occur. Articles should be printed that suggest ways forward. Initiatives should be showcased that have something concrete to show for themselves.

The comments section should continue to be as enlightening as the articles, though a civil and useful discussion needs to be actively encouraged. What we do not need are people who will post six or seven comments in the same article, too often of a negative and disparaging nature. We don’t need people who want to sit at a computer all day telling one person over the internet why they are wrong. What we need are people who want to listen, read, share something, and then allow others a while to mull it over. It is far less helpful to come back on one response to a comment you have just posted than it is to allow another three or five or ten people to consider it among all the others before sharing their own opinions. It is the job of moderators and flagging systems, as well as the self policing of users, to ensure this.

By remaining unique among the left as a place of nuanced theory and honest collaboration, rather than attempting to become just another “general news of a progressive nature” site, I believe we can play the most useful role.

We should be striving not only attract to us those disillusioned by the inflexibility of existing organizations, but we should be attempting to bring their voices side by side with those of the active memberships. Out goal should be to prove the value of free discussion and the effectiveness in practice of non-sectarian collaboration until either the existing groups feel pressured to significantly reform, or new ones bud to show better ways of doing it.

It may be important to critique an ineffective method or organizational structure, but a greater victory could be won by actually engaging different tendencies in a collaborative debate about the future. We need to convert the radicals of America to the idea of working together, rather than blow them out of the water. Imagine if we did one series of articles where members of the ISO, Solidarity, Socialist Alternative, and the Philly Socialists debated theory and organizational structure among themselves. What would happen if we could get them all to agree on some common initiative? Surely that would  be worth a hundred critiques of Tony Cliff, and at least a thousand individual writers’ articles about “Lenin today.” What we need is the peer review and replicable results of living and breathing revolutionary scientists. What we don’t need is a séance.

As an activist living in the United States, my focus and bias is heavily skewed to positions in my own country. There are many international contributors to the site, whose presence I value as well. Perhaps we could aim to promote, showcase, and learn from non-dogmatic collaboration internationally. I would love to learn from others how they are trying to do this.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

Richard Estes September 23, 2013 at 6:02 pm

“What we do not need are people who will post six or seven comments in the same article, too often of a negative and disparaging nature. We don’t need people who want to sit at a computer all day telling one person over the internet why they are wrong. What we need are people who want to listen, read, share something, and then allow others a while to mull it over.”

“You start a conversation you can’t even finish it.
You’re talkin’ a lot, but you’re not sayin’ anything.
When I have nothing to say, my lips are sealed.
Say something once, why say it again?”

–“Psycho Killer”
David Bryne


Chris Lowe September 23, 2013 at 6:20 pm

Brilliant comment.


Chris Lowe September 23, 2013 at 6:18 pm

In the same general spirit, might I suggest that this is not quite helpful

“Our task is different, to develop our own functional resistance in the context of complete betrayal by our liberals.”

This does not match my experience, which would be better characterized as a combination of a collapse of U.S. “liberalism” (our term for a uniquely weak form of social democratic politics) and abandonment and betrayal of that liberalism by erstwhile liberals themselves. Obama is not a liberal, he is a Clintonite “New Democrat,” an idea formulated by Democratic Leadership Council types explicitly to repudiate liberalism. Not accidentally they make the same move from the right that many U.S. leftists do from the left of using the term “progressive” to distance themselves from getting liberal cooties.

The North Star has devoted a fair amount of space to problems of the degeneration of social democratic politics and policies in other countries or as a matter of theory. The aim of such pieces is not always clear to me — is it to say that we should no longer even attempt to struggle for social democratic type gains in the near and medium terms? Should not even attempt to defend social democratic gains of the past such as Social Security and Medicare, or the remains of welfare in TANF, or Food Stamps, or the much defunded Section 8 housing, or Pell Grants, or … You see the point.

It also does not actually well describe my experience with concrete politics either. Most of my concrete political work, apart from protest politics and a few small things emergent from Occupy Portland and actions by groupings who abandoned OP as “insufficiently political” because not explicitly anti-capitalist, for the past five years has been connected with advocating for universal publicly funded social insurance in health care, aka a single payer system. For the last two years that has been in the form of explicit organizing of a mass popular movement aimed at having concrete structures in all 60 Oregon legislative districts (which means ipso facto all 30 Senate districts) tied to a broad coalition of pre-existing organizations. I.e. actual organizing, not just agitation and mobilizing. In pursuing this work we have worked closely on the legislative side with liberals, who have not in any sense betrayed us on this issue. Other liberals have failed to back us. To win, we need to get them on board, and to win securely, we will need to win over both voters and at least some legislators who see themselves as right of liberal. Demonizing “liberals” as a class of persons is antithetical to that work.

For a lot of persons on the left, revolutionary identity politics are of crucial importance. That’s no longer the case for me. I have an interest in what self-identified revolutionaries have to say, especially about how capitalism functions, and to some extent about what alternatives might be. But no revolutionary I know has plausible path to creating a revolution.

So, for the foreseeable future, if we are going to make concrete gains, even by direct action methods, they will be taking place within contexts of capitalist systems of property, wage labor and related laws, within systems of bourgeois lawmaking and adjudication much of which is not at all liberal, equating liberal with bourgeois is false. We need much more concrete analysis of liberals and liberalism in those contexts, and how to relate to them and those institutions, in fights for short and medium term gains and to defend residual gains from the past. NOTE: I am not calling for any particular mode of politics here. Just for a concrete analytical rather than moralistic or emotional attitude toward liberals.

Likewise if the tiny left is to expand itself, many of those who might come over to anti-capitalist perspectives would either identify themselves as liberal at present, or engage in politics that many self- identified revolutionary leftists describe as liberal. Treating them as hated enemies can only be self-defeating.

Finally, anti-liberalism has in fact been an important tool in the construction of many of the authoritarian practices, approaches to praxis as a dialectical process and self-encapsulating ideologies that North Star has tried to render problematic. Liberalism is more than pro-market ideology. It has been the realm in which many of the advances over the past three or four hundred years in ideas about human rights including anti-authoritarian civil liberties and personal freedom, participatory civil rights in social decision making, and social regulation of organized entities of social and economic power have been developed and advanced. Those liberal roots need to be acknowledged, engaged with seriously at minimum, and in my view, often embraced, even while their limits and insufficiencies are understood and some of the more pious forms of their expression punctured at times.

So, I hope that North Star will develop into a venue in which the complexities of doing actual politics in the actual political and social system are acknowledged to require concrete analysis of liberals and liberalism, and engagement with them (as well as forces further right including the vast majority of Democrats who are centrist and center right, and non-affiliated working class people who often like to see themselves as centrist without being very political, and to some extent working class conservatives).

One big obstacle to giving up knee-jerk, totalizing, unanalytical, emotional anti-liberalism of the sort quoted earlier is that it *is* a source of identity for many self-identified radicals, i.e. they know they are radical because they are against liberals; a corollary is that this is often a point of “left unity.” But left unity around formulations that obstruct persuasive and engaging practical politics will not be able to break out of current left self-encapsulation.


Fight Social-Fascism September 24, 2013 at 1:16 am

The White Power Labor Aristocratic “Left” hates socialist countries like Syria and Libya, yet calls for radiKKKal “Left” unity here in AmeriKKKa.


KKKill AmeriKKKa September 24, 2013 at 4:41 am

True, the bourgeoi$ie white KKKolonial $ettler labor ari$toKKKrat “left” objeKKKtively $upport$ imperiali$m again$t true anti-revisionist Marxist-Leninist like Hezbollah, Zimbabwe, Iran and the Arab Ba’ath Party!


Pavel Dubrovsky September 24, 2013 at 7:40 am

I think you meant “bourgeois”.


Douglas M September 25, 2013 at 12:23 am

MIM Notes lives on, somewhere, apparently.


David Walters September 25, 2013 at 2:12 am

I remember “Amerikkka”. And the $ for an “S”. Always a good laugh!


Aaron Aarons September 25, 2013 at 7:57 am

This comment appears to be a crude parody of those who criticize movements based, in intent if not in fact, on the labor aristocracies of the imperialist countries. In particular, I’ve never come across any self-styled “anti-revisionist Marxist-Leninist” who would consider Hezbollah or the Iranian leadership (nor, probably, any wing of the Arab Ba’ath Party) to be “Marxist-Leninist”, although many would consider them to be, or to have been, “anti-imperialist”. The leadership in Zimbabwe did come out of the “Marxist-Leninist” tradition, though, IIRC, it was on the pro-Soviet side of the “Sino-Soviet split”.


Douglas M September 25, 2013 at 12:33 am

When I read this on break at work yesterday I had several comments that I wanted to post once I arrived home. However, a day later much of that has evaporated.

However, I think the general sentiment stated here is very supportable. Instead of hairsplitting over events that occurred nearly one hundred years ago the socialist left needs to look toward projects that can be done on a unified basis. I think this will be more practical work than theoretical, as parsing What Is To Be Done? is far less relevant right now than understanding what it will take to move the left out its current cul de sac. And as much as I might have an opinion on Syria the 2013 Abraham Lincoln Brigade isn’t forthcoming and I think that both shapes prospects for organizing in the US as well as impacting events on the ground there.


Christian October 3, 2013 at 7:46 pm

“projects that can be done on a unified basis… I hink this will be more practical work than theoretical”



jnack September 25, 2013 at 5:36 am

Christian Wright’s vision of the role of The North Star is compelling.

joined the North Star Network in 1984. I worked on national
distribution for The North Star magazine, which existed in the 1980s and
eventually merged into Crossroads magazine.

My late
comrade Peter Camejo has been cited as an inspiration behind the web
site and its name. The coming together of socialists from diverse
backgrounds was a vision Peter articulated often. That vision included
open debate among socialists from diverse backgrounds, building a
network, uniting in action with other radical leftists as much as
possible, and participating constructively in social movements and

While internationalist and anti-imperialist,
the old North Star Network considered the U.S. and its history, not the
Russian Revolution, nor even the Sandinistas or the FMLN, to be central
reference points for building a vital socialist movement in the U.S.
Thus the name, The North Star (Frederick Douglas’ first newspaper), was
inspired by U.S. history. The struggles against racism and for the
empowerment of communities of color, as well class struggles, were also seen as central.

gratifying to see that the web site maintains the same basic thrust and
spirit that Peter and others have been articulating for many years.
The challenge of bringing the vision to life and of building a vital
socialist movement in the U.S. remains.

I wish The North Star every success.

In solidarity,
Jonathan Nack
Oakland, CA


Neniu Astro September 25, 2013 at 9:33 am

“On the other side, “non intervention” was for two years the policy of
American Imperialist Barack Obama as well as the remainder of the
socialist left.”
Non-INTERVENTIOn!? by hell, there was CIA arms from day one, the support of Saudis and Qatar and Turkey, etc. etc. this is a joke.


Christian October 3, 2013 at 7:48 pm

Thanks for pointing that out, it is an error in my arguement / use of language. By intervention I meant to say, large scale, decisive, intervention, particularly airstrikes. The nature of existing covert arms flows have been limited. It has been helpful to some rebels, but not as helpful as airstrikes. Thus the result of this type of intervention is that the fighting gets dragged out, rather than settled decisively.


Aaron Aarons October 4, 2013 at 11:37 pm

Given the relationship of forces, including the apparent inability of the imperialists to occupy Syria as they did Iraq, the only two ways the fighting can be settled decisively is through either the victory of the Baathists or the victory of the Islamists. U.S. airstrikes might lead to the latter, or at least prevent the former, which is another reason to oppose them.


[email protected] October 1, 2013 at 11:43 pm

“But no revolutionary I know has plausible path to creating a revolution.” Well, let me introduce myself. Actually the author spelled it out in the article, but doesn’t see it because of the artificial dichotomization of reform and revolution. Notice how there are no substantial reforms underway in the USA? (Obamacare is a step backwards, a pure privatization play).

The majority of the US ruling class knows that it they start to give in a little with real reforms, the working class here might be encouraged to demand more. Once the ball gets rolling, where will it stop? Look at how even fake “reforms like Obamacare or even electing a Black president have driven the American Far Right to hysterics at the mere prospect that US workers might seen in this the possibility for real advances.

It is not reform vs. revolution. It is the *transformation* of reform into revolution. Every revolutionary road taken in history began with reform. That is why revolutionaries must engage matters as they actually present themselves in reality, however “reformist”, given the objective potential for revolution. The trick is to engage that reality *and remain revolutionaries*.

BTW the logic here is laid out in Leon Trotsky’s Transitional Program. You might say that the American Far Right is playing this logic in reverse. They’ll see the authors’ Oregon reformism as “revolutionary communism”, for fear that it might actually lead there!


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