A (hopefully) constructive criticism of North Star

by Saturn

For a website named after a navigational symbol, the North Star seems to have lost its way.

To rewind, the North Star was born out of an individual quitting the International Socialist Organization.  There was something special about this.  It acknowledged the strengths of one of the best groups in the USA.  The ISO balances being one of the least insane with being one of the best-built and highest-quality.  While having an over-developed party line is itself problematic, at least the ISO’s emphasis on “socialism from below” in general at least seems to be a much better approach than the cold-hearted tankies who would crush Hungary again, or the traumatized Trotskyists who are torn between the Eastern Bloc and socialism from below.  Of course these days I am open to working with anyone who disagrees with me about Russia, whether in RDN or really anywhere, but in my personal opinion (which I don’t impose on organizations), the ISO has a good analysis.  Also, compared to many other groups, the ISO is also at least somewhat democratic and open to discussion (though that has limits too).  And most importantly, they just have their stuff together incredibly well in terms of a tightly-run ship, and are near-universally acknowledged as effective in the Chicago Teacher’s Union.

So to start the conversation with someone quitting the ISO seemed promising, because the hope was that he would take the best strengths of that organization and carry them into something even newer, more experimental, and just better in every way.

Well, that’s not exactly what happened.

First it started with the relentless sectarian attacks against the ISO.  Many of these were accurate and valid criticisms, but the tone and frequency crossed the line from constructive criticisms to condemnation.  This is a really hard thing to balance, but the point is that this balance was not achieved.

Then we had, on a site that had criticized other groups for the Trotskyist tendency to have a split over every difference in party line, the site’s founder had to of course (by Murphy’s Law) start taking stances on the Left’s most divisive political issue: Syria.

Then, even worse, not only was he taking stances on Syria, but he had to take the most Left-unpopular stance possible which flies in the face of the entire Left’s anti-imperialist common sense: the (capitalist, imperialist) USA should militarily intervene in Syria.

So from the start, the promising beginning was curdled.  But still we faithful readers prayed on that something beautiful would emerge!

Now the recently-resigned initiator is recently resigned, and North Star is going…where?


That certainly has nothing to do with what attracted the site’s initial audience.  Unless we’re counting people who actually liked Pham Binh’s position on Syria.  I don’t know who those people are and I’m not sure they actually exist beyond a useless handful of contrarians.

Perhaps what has most weakened North Star, from the start, is a hurdle that all websites face: they’re only about dialogue.  There is something strange about human speech: it tends to be disagreeable.  More words come pouring out when people disagree than when they agree.  When people agree, others tends to say “yeah, what s/he said.”  When they disagree, they type or verbalize a lengthy response.  (Sometimes you have the rare bird who agrees-for-other-reasons and adds them on.)

This, in my opinion, is why organization and action tend to be unifying forces instead of only theory, which tends to be more divisive.

And that is North Star’s problem: it is not action.  It is not organization.  It is theory.

Since you need organization to launch or participate in action in any meaningful way, out of those three options the only real choice left is for North Star to become an organization.

Sadly North Star is poorly-equipped for this path.  For one thing, I don’t think North Star is willing to do this, and I suppose a project’s greatest possible weakness is no one wanting to do it.  Second, North Star doesn’t seem to believe it could pull this off even if it wanted to (I’m not precisely sure why).  Thirdly, North Star truly is poorly-equipped for this undertaking.  This is because the closest thing it has to a “leadership” is its editorial board, and that editorial board (to pull no punches) is now becoming very inclined toward highly theoretical, abstract topics written in a language that is overly-meandering and with an atrociously pretentious vocabulary, to the point of being unreadable.  In other words, the exact opposite type of writing from what ordinary people would actually want to read.

This implies that the current editorial board is so out-of-touch with what would actually be a wise way to run an organization that, without a coup d’etat, North Star relaunching itself as an organization would be a disaster from the start, worse than useless, disorienting the Left even worse than it already is.

So the solution to the presented problems is that North Star relaunch itself as an organization, with a different initial leadership than its current editorial board, picking for its provisional central committee those who actually have experience with socialist organizations and working in mass movements.  You can do what you like but I recommend this be an American organization to respect the site’s initial following.

What kind of organization would this new North Star be?  Many various articles on North Star have pointed out some critical problems with American socialist groups, plus some problems that seem to fit the general theme:

  1. They are undemocratic but deceptive about it, with varying levels of sophistication
  2. People are attracted to socialism-in-general but most groups have hyper-specific party lines, explicitly or implicitly, which repel newcomers
  3. They emphasize an only-theoretical connection to the organization, while dismissing the power of human connection
  4. The splintering of the groups is a redundant waste of resources
  5. The splintering of the groups makes the public take no single one of them seriously
  6. Because of the above, no single one of them can ever hope to become The Future Mass Party

So we need an organization which addresses the above.

Unfortunately I do not predict that North Star will rise to this challenge because I think that the current editorial board is disinclined toward it, valuing theory over organization.

This is very sad.  This leaves the new consciousness on the Left, of the existing Left’s limitations, without an organizational embodiment.  But it needs an organizational embodiment.

This is why myself and others are starting the Rosa-Debs Network.  We seek to become precisely that type of organization: inspired by the ISN breakaways from the British SWP, inspired by some of the organizational discussions which have occurred on North Star, and also inspired by (but by no means stealing the thunder of) Philly Socialists’ admirable innovations in organizing.  We also owe a debt to Peter Camejo, one of the first pioneers out of the sectarian swamp into the realm of mainstream socialism, as well as the organization’s namesakes.

We are revolutionary-socialists-in-general, lacking any party line beyond workers’ revolution.  That makes us very multi-tendency (or because we allow dual membership, perhaps a better term would be inter-tendency.)  If RDN stands for anything in distinction from the current socialist tendencies, it would be the following:

  1. Ripping open and re-evaluating the old socialist organizations’ style of operating, in the name of greater democracy, freedom, and membership control, and experimenting with more direct-democratic organizational innovations
  2. Refocusing revolutionary socialists away from their turf war of mutual “criticism” (condemnation), and away from their rather narrow, redundant party-building efforts, in favor of constructing an actual socialist mass party in the contemporary USA

Are we looking for card-carrying members?  Yes!  (Of course we haven’t printed membership cards yet…)  Also we allow dual membership with everything.  If you like, stay in your old groups and be the spark of change within them.  They need it!

As for North Star, we seriously hope it re-navigates and corrects course before the star implodes and becomes a black hole of pointless arguing, clogging up the Internet and adding one more news feed distraction contributing to the national attention deficit.


13 thoughts on “A (hopefully) constructive criticism of North Star

  1. Good overview of NS shortcomings. Good initial outline of constructive approach to orgin this period. ?? What are principal areas where this type of org might intervene? What are great dangers to workers & ordinary folk that cry for opposition that builds democratic capacity of opposition & reconstruction.. (cf. Gramsci..).Thank you

    • In my opinion a lot of the movement work socialists do already is actually great. Obviously something that comes to the forefront is the movement of fast food workers (Fast Food Forward etc) which in a way is also an organizational model that flies in the face of traditional unionism. I guess this is more about starting and fixing the groups that do movement work, more than anything wrong with their movement work. But yeah that is always an important question!

      • (1) Yes we are trying to distance the site from personalities or at least I am.
        (2) I wrote it and my name is Saturn (I think you reposted something of mine earlier off of Spread the Infestation). It is a name I chose for largely religious reasons and not anonymity, though it does help keep employers away from my Facebook profile. If you wish to know its meaning research astrology or read Icehenge by Kim Stanley Robinson.
        (3) If you must know, my legal, Judeo-Christian birth name (slave name) is Matt Hoke, though people who respect me will call me Saturn (except when it causes confusion) in the same way that people who respect transgendered people will refer to them by the proper pronoun. But if you don’t respect that I guess I have more important things to give a shit about.
        (4) Will the real Louis Proyect please stand up? Is that actually you?

  2. I think we’re rhyming here Saturn.
    I think you’re framing of the issue is much less polemic than mine, much more lucid and hence descriptive and objective.

    I wrote one article some time ago larded with constructive- concrete- suggestions. I wrote another one that Varn and company chose to reject recently.

    Here are three things the North Star could organize and start doing; things that straddle the divide between debate and action.

    1) start organizing a committee or group or cell that starts farming wikipedia. Sawant’s page is very thin. There is a vacuum to be filled in writing articles on local politics or on other subjects that need a better profile. Local city politics; or articles briefly discussing books. We’d have to write in a way that stands up to scrutiny. Wikipedia is the first place people go in looking things. It is an opportunity to feed them links to useful places.

    2) getting a handle on the factions and divisions amongst the right. where Ron Paul types and Alex Jones types and Dominionists don’t agree. Also a move towards engaging them; as constructively as possible. At worst, marxists realize they have way way more in common with each other than birchers or constitutionalists.

    3) condensation – distillation – presentation. Take the massive creativity one finds on 4chan and follow that energy to start drafting images. Or, start writing jokes; stand-up routine. voiceovers of bad movies. an entertaining curricula that sneaks in the radicalism.

    • Novel as ever. I’m glad you posted, Abraham. A lot of the time I disagree with you but it shocked me one day when my own father said socialists should take over the Republicans.

      I think you and I are especially on the same page that all the dialogue is okay but we have to get started building the damned thing.

      • Your own father said that? The two party system is warping into something very sickly.

        I was once traditionally doctrinaire. But I’ve had to take a few quantum leaps forward, toward what is possible, what is practical. As much as I’d love to join a mass party of the left and hammer out debates like the bolshies did, that time is past. The situation is too dire for a perfect program or theory. We have been nothing but an opposition ‘party’ if that; we oppose every and all things.

        Again and again, I come back to the Feuerbach theses. We must act, in strong willful opposition to our environment, or in shrewdly tactical ways favored by the environment. And eventually the ‘ideal’ environment is fashioned.
        I see how necessary it will be for marxists to actually consider how difficult it is to govern. Who among us will have the stomach that Lenin had in 1917? Who among us will see the narrow provisional dangerous contingent opportunity and seize it without speculation or doubt?

  3. Pingback: A (hopefully) constructive criticism of North Star | spreadtheinfestation

    • You may better like the Campaign for a United Socialist Party; this is admittedly a narrower project targeting a more specific audience (after all the vast majority of the USA’s organized socialists actually are not just marxists but even leninists, truth be told).

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