The revealing case of a disappearing letter

By Frank Brenner

First a few facts:

On Nov. 8, the World Socialist Web Site (WSWS) ran four letters to the editor about its recent series, “The Frankfurt School vs. Marxism: The Political and Intellectual Odyssey of Alex Steiner”.  One of those letters was as follows:

Good job! Steiner and Co. will soon enough be urging on the fascistic buffoons at the Sarah Palin rallies, all in the name of irrationality and "sexuality."

TM                                                                                                                      Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA                                                                                       22 October 2008

On Nov. 9, Alex Steiner and I wrote to the WSWS protesting the publication of this letter. After quoting the text of the letter, we stated:

This is a vile and inflammatory slander. The WSWS editorial board bears a direct responsibility here: it controls which letters are posted and which aren’t. The decision to post this letter means either that the editorial board condones this slander or at the very least considers it reasonable commentary. To broadcast slanders like this is to besmirch the name of Trotskyism. We demand that the editorial board publicly dissociate itself from this slander.

Alex Steiner 

Frank Brenner

On Nov. 11, we discovered that the letter we had protested against was gone. If you now go to the posting – “Letters on ‘The Frankfurt School vs. Marxism’”[1] – this letter is no longer there. But there is no indication from the editorial board that the posting has changed in any way. The letter was simply there on Nov. 8 and not there on Nov. 11. End of story.

What does this little incident reveal?

First and foremost, it confirms what Steiner and I said – that this letter was slander. The only possible reason the WSWS editorial board removed it was because they recognized that we were right – and that they couldn’t defend themselves against the charge of broadcasting slander.

But we also demanded that the editorial board “publicly dissociate itself from this slander.” This they did not do, even though that would have been the principled way to behave. Nor did they post our letter of protest or in any way inform us of the decision to remove the slander. They also didn’t bother letting their own readers know that the posting had been changed. They simply got rid of what had become an embarrassment for them, as if they were removing a typo.

Behind this bit of pragmatic expediency lies an obvious aversion to admitting mistakes. (The pretensions to be defending Marxist science, which are much ballyhooed in the WSWS series against Steiner, wear a little thin given this aversion. After all, the touchstone of genuine science is admitting mistakes and learning from them, not sweeping them under the rug.)

In this regard there is an apt quote from Hegel: “What calls itself fear of error reveals itself rather as fear of the truth.”[2] The truth in this case was that this slanderous letter was not an accident or based on some misunderstanding. It was very much the mindset that the WSWS series against Steiner was designed to produce because that series was a smear campaign. The whole purpose was to vilify Steiner and thereby poison the atmosphere so that it would be impossible to have an honest discussion about our criticisms of the party’s political and philosophical positions.

But of course to admit that openly would have been to discredit the series entirely. That was the real problem with the slanderous letter – it exposed the editorial board’s own position too nakedly. Once they realized that (after receiving our protest) they erased the inconvenient evidence. But what they couldn’t do was explain their actions – either why they had posted this letter initially or why they had removed it. In other words, they dealt with this matter in a thoroughly cynical way – the same cynicism that is behind their vilifying of Steiner.

[2] G.W.F. Hegel Phenomenology of Spirit, tr. A. V. Miller, p. 47.