The ISO, SEIU and the billion dollar pay cut


SF Mayor Ed Lee pushing pension reform. Source: Steve Rhodes.

The International Socialist Organization (ISO) is the largest revolutionary socialist group in the US. With a history of organizing on campuses, the last decade has seen the ISO play an ever more prominent role in the labor movement, especially in teachers’ unions. The ISO seeks to rebuild the radical, left-wing of the labor movement that was destroyed by McCarthyism, which is an important but also challenging task. Many Left groups have taken on this same task, often finding themselves absorbed into and defending the conservative union bureaucracy rather than challenging it.

There is at least one case in the ISO where this has happened. A few years ago, an ISO comrade in a Service Employees International Union (SEIU) local won elected office on a reform slate. Within a year, he was publicly promoting  a $1 billion pension reform concession on behalf of his own members alongside a Democratic Party mayor. The ISO, rather than reel in their comrade or lead a battle against him or even criticize his efforts turned a blind eye to the whole affair. He continues to be promoted as an important leader in the labor movement and even as an opponent of pension reform and a proponent of class struggle unionism.

From SEIU reform to pension reform

[T]he Social-Democrat’s ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears . . . In order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat. — Lenin

In the first decade of the twenty-first century, SEIU was among the few unions not deep in a crisis of membership decline. This was less due to their willingness to lead struggles and more to their success in organizing new forces such as home health care workers who could put dues into their treasury, only to be forgotten once they were on automatic dues check off. This led to a crisis at the top of the labor movement with the SEIU, led by Andy Stern, leaving the AFL-CIO to form the Change to Win coalition.

SEIU began consolidating small locals into mega-locals, not to empower the workers but rather to disempower them, along with a strategy of labor-management cooperation–cutting deals with the employers to help them recruit new members. The SEIU’s successful growth strategy was at the expense of worker democracy and militancy, not in favor of it. This strategy was opposed by teachers in Puerto Rico and led to battles around organizing health care workers in California and Ohio.

In the Bay Area, a battle took place internally in SEIU Local 1021, a new mega-local that covers city and county workers throughout Northern California. A reform slate called Change 1021 won election against the Stern-backed old guard in February 2010, announcing that “Working together we can fight layoffs, resist concessions and preserve important public and non-profit services for our communities.” As a part of this slate, elected into the position of Third Vice President of the Local, was Larry Bradshaw.

Bradshaw has been publicly aligned with the ISO for many years. This is no secret, as the links above show. His name is all over articles in Socialist Worker, including at least one listing his SEIU affiliation, as well as presentations at the ISO’s annual Socialism conference. A recent letter to Socialist Worker referred to Bradshaw as “a comrade,” and that is how he will be referred to here. This should make the significance of the relationship sufficiently clear, but beyond this there will be no “secrets” revealed here about Bradshaw’s work with socialists, as there are no secrets to reveal. Right-wing bloggers looking for dirt on Bradshaw will not find anything here they could not easily have found all over the ISO’s web sites. The problem is not Bradshaw’s friendly relationship with the ISO, which is well known and nothing to be ashamed of. The problem is his actions along with SEIU Local 1021 which were widely covered by the corporate press but ignored entirely by Socialist Worker.

Within months of the reform slate’s successful election, the issue of San Francisco city worker pensions was placed on the political agenda by Public Defender Jeff Adachi. This pension reform proposal was supported by Matt Gonzalez, the former Green Party candidate for Vice President, former candidate for San Francisco Mayor and former member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Organized labor was outraged–as was the ISO, who had supported and worked with Gonzalez on his many electoral campaigns. The ISO disinvited Gonzalez as a speaker to West Coast Socialism 2010 creating a minor stir in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the Bay Area equivalent of the Village Voice. Criticizing famous allies because of their support of anti-labor policies takes some principles. Yet, here is where the slide toward opportunism and begins.

The announcement of Gonzalez’s disinvitation also noted that, “The ISO strongly opposes Adachi’s measure and supports the position laid out in the SF Bay Guardian by Larry Bradshaw and Roxanne Sanchez,” referring to the newly elected Third VP and President, respectively, of SEIU Local 1021. But the 1021 position was a curious one to support.

Bradshaw and Sanchez begin their position-piece in the Guardian by stating: “Members of Service Employees International Union Local 1021, who make up about half of all San Francisco city employees — the lowest-paid half — are currently at the negotiating table with the Mayor’s Office working out a deal to give back $100 million toward the city’s deficit over the next two years.”  No clarification was ever given that the ISO does not, in fact, support negotiating a $100 million concession, nor was any criticism ever made of the new reform leadership’s failure to “resist concessions” as promised previously.

The statement ends with the following challenge: “Certainly San Francisco is facing financial problems. But instead of attacking workers, perhaps Adachi and his friends should join us in attacking the real problem. We are working on ideas for ballot measures that can raise new revenue for the city.“

From Wisconsin to San Francisco

Adachi’s plan eventually developed into what became Proposition D in the 2011 election. In April 2011, Bradshaw and Sanchez responded to Adachi again and clarified their “ideas for ballot measures.” In an article deceptively titled From Wisconsin to San Francisco, they attack Adachi’s plan again, comparing 1021’s resistance to it to the battle in Wisconsin–in which workers occupied the state capitol and struck throughout the state to resist an attack on public sector unions. Bradshaw and Sanchez conclude:

No one is more concerned with the viability of the pension fund than those who plan to retire on it. That’s why the city’s unions are engaged in discussions with the city to develop real pension reform that is fact-based, principled, and compassionate to those trying to raise families in this economic climate. . . No, this is not what we call progressive policy. Not in Wisconsin, and not in San Francisco.

Thus, the battle of Wisconsin is used to justify “real pension reform” in negotiations with the Democratic Mayor of San Francisco. And this is precisely what 1021 proceeded to do.

The path to “real pension reform” was not easy as there were multiple players. Local 1021 leaders attempted to limit how much of their members’ salaries they were willing to sacrifice–but sacrifice their salaries they did. “We’re stuck on one issue,” Bradshaw told the SF Bay Guardian in May. One issue was all that was keeping the socialist-backed reform leadership in 1021 from giving back a billion dollars of workers’ salaries to the City and County of San Francisco and handing Mayor Ed Lee a huge political victory. In fact, Local 1021’s support was a significant factor in the passage of what became Proposition C.

“The united front that the [SF Mayor Ed] Lee administration appeared to have assembled for the Tuesday news event was impressive,” boasted an article appearing in the New York Times when the deal was announced. The press conference included Lee, the Chamber of Commerce, billionaire philanthropist Warren Hellman and SEIU Local 1021 who eventually supported the measure. “As you can imagine,” 1021’s political director would tell the San Francisco Chronicle, “it’s not exciting to vote to take away from yourself, but for obvious reasons our members understand we’re in a challenging economy and some things needed to be fixed.”

In the end, Prop C passed and Adachi’s Prop D failed miserably. The difference was that Adachi’s plan would have given back $1.7 billion while Prop C gave back only $1.3 billion. Ed Lee also won his election back into the Mayor’s office against the progressive favorite, John Avalos, who initially withheld his support for Prop C until 1021’s concerns were resolved. Local 1021 did not endorse Ed Lee’s candidacy, they just gave him political cover when they should have been fighting him. Adachi came in sixth place in the race for Mayor and his Prop D lost with 66% voting no, while Prop C won with 68% voting yes.

According to the City Controller, Prop C would cut over a billion dollars in wages and pension benefits from city workers and retirees:

Approximately $575 to $860 million of the ten-year savings would result from increased contributions by City employees earning over $24 per hour that would be required on a sliding scale when the pension system is underfunded. . . Approximately $355 million of savings would result from a revision to the cost-of-living increase formula for current and future pension recipients and pension plan changes for new employees hired after January 7, 2012.

Twenty-four dollars an hour is well above the poverty level, but in a city where average rents are $2895, a worker making $24 per hour would see two-thirds of their pre-tax wages going to housing.

In the end, Adachi’s plan was never much of a threat to city workers but rather it was the lesser-evil Prop C that delivered the “real pension reform” that Bradshaw and Sanchez promised and the establishment so desired. Prop C had the backing of the entire Democratic Party machine, including Senator Feinstein, Congresswoman Pelosi and the Chamber of Commerce, as well as the bulk of the official labor movement. In spite of many powerful and wealthy backers, the San Francisco Chronicle reported that, “The unions have put up most of the more than $1.5 million raised in support of Prop. C.”

The fight against Prop C, deflected

 Such revolutionists bear a close resemblance to raincoats which “leak” only when it rains, i. e., in “exceptional” circumstances, but during dry weather they remain “leak-proof” with complete success. — Trotsky


Protest against Prop C and Prop D. Source: Indybay.

The opposition to Prop C was relatively small, largely due to the fact that organized labor supported it. As one political commentator noted, “We anticipated that pension reform was going to be a very contentious issue, but it turns out there hasn’t been very strong opposition to it. You don’t have the largest and strongest opposition, which would normally come from the unions.” But opposition did exist.

Most significantly, the Guardian published a statement by a group of labor activists, mostly members of 1021, who opposed both Prop C and Prop D. The signatories included well known figures in the Bay Area labor Left such as Renee Saucedo and Dave Welsh. Additionally, there was a protest outside of the Prop C launch event, opposing both Prop C and Prop D. There were also statements of opposition from the San Francisco Green Party, Peace and Freedom Party, the San Francisco Bay View newspaper, the Gray Panthers, Freedom Socialist Party, Socialist Organizer and Workers Compass. But at least one widely read socialist newspaper had nothing to say about the initiative.

No mention was ever made of any of this to the members of the ISO nationally. Nothing was ever printed in Socialist Worker, or the International Socialist Review, nor the internal bulletins preceding the annual convention or the ISO Notes regularly sent out to members. Everybody in the ISO who knew about Prop C just turned a blind eye as though it was not happening. Yet, anybody who read the San Francisco Chronicle or the San Francisco Bay Guardian or the New York Times must have known exactly what was going on.

Precisely at the time that the ISO was boasting of “The End of the One-Sided Class War,” one of their very own comrades was helping a Democratic Party Mayor carry out an attack on unionized workers. This was the problem with the ISO making such a triumphant declaration–at best it would downplay the real challenges of the labor movement, at worst cover for outright betrayal. After all, another Wisconsin was imminent, so why nit-pick about any short-term obstacles or setbacks?

The ISO’s alliance with 1021 and the promotion of Bradshaw as a labor leader continued throughout this period, as it does to this day. In the middle of these negotiations, just a month after he told the SF Bay Guardian that only one issue was holding back a deal, he spoke at Socialism 2011 on the topic of “Marxism and the Trade Unions.” This talk is an amazing act of cognitive dissonance. He discusses at length the problem of union leaders who do not want to take the battle against capitalism to the end but merely want to cut a deal. It is quite a valuable perspective on how to organize a radical wing of the labor movement, and it is a shame that neither he nor anybody else in the ISO put this perspective into practice in the case of Prop C.

On November 30, 2011, just weeks after Prop C passed, a document was sent to all ISO members as part of the preparations for the group’s national convention–Pre-Convention Bulletin #2 for the 2012 convention. Lee Sustar, the ISO’s national labor organizer and a long-time member of the Steering Committee, wrote a document titled “ISO and the unions today.” The author’s renowned encyclopedic knowledge of the labor movement is on full display. He discusses the attacks on public sector workers in Chicago, Massachusetts and even Connecticut–rarely a place of high profile labor activism. In that state, union leaders recommended a concessionary contract. “But because the agreement cuts pension benefits,” Sustar writes, “the state would save $21.5 billion over the next 20 years. That was too much for Connecticut public sector workers, who voted to reject the deal.”

Paralysis and capitulation

There is another section in this document titled “The labor bureaucracy: paralysis and capitulation.”  It mentions SEIU in California–but only the ongoing inter-union health care strife with no mention of 1021. Finally, in a section on union reform efforts (most of which had ISO participation) we get this paragraph:

A reform leadership is also being put to the test in SEIU Local 1021 in the Bay Area. Reformers won office in 2010, but on a very low voter turnout. Next, the union’s CEO–holding an office that the reformers had pledged to abolish–rapidly became a power-grabbing bureaucrat, riding roughshod over union democracy as the public sector employers squeeze concessions out of the workers. To try and curb her power, the reformers have had to undertake an effort to change the union’s bylaws.

That’s it. The ISO’s expert on the labor movement could not find anything to say about 1021’s pension reform efforts. Instead, he mentions the primary challenge as being the fight with the CEO, a relatively obscure topic not mentioned in the San Francisco Chronicle or the New York Times. It is still difficult to find information about this topic on the Internet.

Seven months after the passage of Prop C, Bradshaw wrote another article for Socialist Worker titled “SF workers stop concessions.” Commenting on the successful contract campaign that year for San Francisco city workers, he also notes, “Like public-sector workers across the country, San Francisco workers have been hard hit over the past four years, suffering layoffs and economic concessions in 2009, furlough days in 2010 and pension concessions in 2011.” There is no mention of his public advocacy for this pension concession in 2011, however. He simply gets to pat himself on the back for a “No concessions” campaign after proposing the opposite months earlier.

At the same time, another round of pension reform plans passed in California in 2012, this time in San Jose and San Diego. Socialist Worker was outraged, calling it “a drastic escalation of the offensive against the rights of public employees.” Blame for this escalation was laid at the feet of the entire political establishment–Republican Governor of Wisconsin Scott Walker, the Republican Mayor of San Diego, the Democratic Mayor of San Jose and the Democratic Governor of California. But that’s not all:

Not even workers in liberal bastions like San Francisco are safe from this assault, as liberal Democrats like Jeff Adachi and even progressives like former Green Party mayoral candidate Matt Gonzalez have supported proposals shifting the burden of pension costs to public employees.

Yes, the terrifying specter of Adachi and Gonzalez and their failed attempt to reform the pensions of San Francisco city workers is resurrected, meanwhile the actual San Francisco pension reform plan supported by the Democratic Mayor of San Francisco–the one that actually passed–gets no mention whatsoever. The champions of the fight to defend pensions, according to this Socialist Worker article, will be none other than . . . Larry Bradshaw and Roxanne Sanchez from SEIU Local 1021, the very people who proposed “real pension reform” in San Francisco. Bradshaw is even quoted criticizing the labor movement’s timid efforts to resist these attacks:

Unfortunately, unions–and in particular, public-sector unions–did not respond vigorously when private-sector employers began gutting and shedding their pension plans. . . The unions for public workers have been far too timid and defensive in both Wisconsin and in California in safeguarding collective bargaining, wages and pensions. Labor needs to say, “Yes we have a good pension plan, and you deserve one, too–let’s fight together to win a decent pension for all working people.” That’s the position SEIU Local 1021 has adopted: secure retirement for all.

Thus is the entire, unfortunate Prop C episode written out of history, made easier by Socialist Worker never having discussed it in the first place.

Finally, to bring this back to the present, in June 2014 Larry Bradshaw was the sole speaker at the Socialism 2014 conference on the topic of “The Rank-and-file strategy: Class struggle unionism.” A less appropriate speaker could hardly have been chosen from the ranks of the ISO’s allies. It is a sign of the timidity of many ISO members that this was not even seen as a problem that anybody would object to. At a time when the organization is debating whether a rank-and-file orientation still makes sense, this does not bode well.

The theory behind the practice

The ISO’s failure to challenge Prop C is a result of a failed theory and a failed perspective. First, the ISO accepts Trotsky’s theory of the United Front not just as a tactic but as a long-term strategy. This tactic was posed by Trotsky as a temporary alliance with union leaders and reformists to fend off counter-revolution and reaction. In theory, going into battle alongside forces that will ultimately capitulate both allows the battle to happen in the first place and allows for the capitulators to expose their unwillingness to fight. But when the United Front becomes a long-term strategy, the pressure is to ignore and provide cover for the betrayals of these leaders, because once they are criticized the United Front will come to an end, maybe forever. Rather than dragging liberals to the left, or exposing them for their willingness to compromise, revolutionaries are simply dragged further and further to the right to maintain the alliance.

The other problem is the ISO’s declaration of “The End of the One-Sided Class War” as described in Socialist Worker and internal ISO documents. Declared during the Wisconsin uprising–but before that struggle’s defeat and diversion by union leaders and Democrats–this perspective fails to see liberalism as a continued obstacle to struggle. On the contrary, liberal leaders can even be seen as a solution, not as the problem itself, because once workers are drawn into the struggle through a United Front with these leaders, workers’ ideas will change and they will be open to socialist ideas and strategies. The mass struggle that will presumably be brought about by this method will embolden the workers, who will then see through the lies of the misleaders of the movement–who were placed there in part by the ISO–resulting in further radicalization. The fact that this never seems to work is never disregarded.

The entire Prop C episode represents a significant failure on the part of the ISO at many levels. It is a failure of the United Front method. It is a failure of the “End of the One-Sided Class War” perspective. It is a failure of the ISO’s goal of “swimming with the stream of mass consciousness”–when voters approve a billion dollar pay cut, it is time to swim against the stream. It is a failure of their strategy of promoting left-wing candidates for union office. The ISO needs a strategy for dealing with situations when their members and allies in union leadership positions accept austerity measures and concessions. If these allies will not be opposed, then their positions do not make the Left stronger–rather it makes the Left weaker. Assuming that betrayal in office will not happen is simply a formula for allowing it to happen, resulting in paralysis and capitulation. And yet, the ISO has never–ever–had an organization-wide discussion about how to deal with this very real problem. For all the ISO’s talk about the need for internal democracy, this is one debate that the leadership has never even bothered to have.

It took an extraordinary lack of imagination for the ISO not to see the opportunity to develop the left-wing of the labor movement around this issue. In fact, Bradshaw and the ISO were uniquely situated to throw a monkey-wrench into this entire operation. First and foremost, Bradshaw could have used his position to throw these negotiations into crisis instead of calling for them to happen in the first place. He may have lost his position, though that is not a foregone conclusion. Perhaps the 1021 leadership would have gone so far as to find a way to throw him out. If they are willing to stoop to such tactics, then let them expose themselves and let the 1021 members see this maneuver. Is that not the entire point of the United Front?

No left-wing union member is required to run for office. If they choose to do so, they need a criteria under which they will not participate in the work of the union leadership, otherwise their campaign is merely a strategy for getting activists to accept concessions instead of oppose them. Had Bradshaw refused to oppose these negotiations, the ISO could have opposed him and 1021, causing a minor scandal in the local press and potentially helping galvanize a battle against neoliberalism carried out by the Democratic Party machine. If nothing else, editor Tim Redmond would have loved reporting on this in the pages of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, just as he did with the Gonzalez incident. But nobody in the ISO wanted to discuss this development, so everybody who knew about it just kept their head down and pretended it was not happening.

Many members of the ISO in the Bay Area during this period bear some responsibility for this situation, as do many in the leadership, the national labor organize not least among them. Instead of a battle with the ISO at the center of it, we have a case of mass paralysis where nobody wanted to do anything to upset the delicate balance of the status quo because of Bradshaw’s position in it.  Of course, were Kshama Sawant to advocate a pension reform at this scale, there would be a flurry of denunciations from Socialist Worker, but since it came from “their guy,” all we get is an awkward silence.

Instead of the ISO’s monkey-wrench, Ed Lee had the cover of SEIU in helping him cut a significant deal showing that he had the “courage” and the political prowess to confront “special interests” in City Hall. This was a deal Lee needed. This was, after all, Ed Lee’s very first election of his political career. A lifelong bureaucrat, he was appointed Mayor by the Board of Supervisors after Gavin Newsom was elected Lieutenant Governor of California. Lee had something to prove in 2011–that he could pass major, budget-balancing legislation and carry significant political forces along with him. It is not clear that Bradshaw and 1021 were critical to either Lee’s election or to the passage of Prop C, but they certainly helped assure both outcomes. That should not be the role of the labor Left–rather it should seek to accomplish exactly the opposite, balanced budgets and political careers be damned.

Nobody’s hands were tied here–on the contrary, they were quite well positioned to build the left-wing of the labor movement with a real challenge to the liberal establishment. Both Bradshaw and the members of the Bay Area ISO were in a better position than any of them have probably been in their lifetimes to challenge the rule of a Democratic Party politician and resist a major austerity measure. Had they done so, however, they would have quite possibly forfeited the opportunity to build future alliances with those in 1021 who were willing to give up a billion dollar concession. The ISO and Bradshaw both chose to fight another day rather than take on the battle that was placed directly in front of them and threaten this precious alliance.

The unwillingness of union reformers to ever challenge their allies in elected positions lies at the heart of why no left-wing alternative has been built inside the unions. Every time a reformer or leftist is elected to office, they defang themselves in order to maintain their seat at the bargaining table, or at least their important position alongside less militant officials. This is the story of the failure of the labor Left, told over and over again, repeated endlessly by those who assume that their compromises are worthwhile unlike all those that preceded them.

Sometimes the labor Left will justify their participation in concessions because budgets are slim and there is nothing more that can be done. This is not the sign of a radical Left in the labor movement but of organized liberalism. Revolutionary socialists generally reject this attitude as it is precisely the strategy that needs to be overcome. There is plenty of wealth in society regardless of whether those ended up in the city budget.

The other justification, though, is far more appealing–that there may be “future opportunities” that should not be sacrificed by carrying out an unpopular fight now. The dried up carcass of many a labor Left experiment lie on the beach of “future opportunities.” These shores may be appealing from a distance but once beached on this terrain, the labor Left rarely finds its way off. The problem is, there is always some other, better “future opportunity” that can be seen in the distance regardless of the situation we find ourselves in. There is no reason why the labor Left is preordained to go down this dead end, though. At any point, anybody involved can stand up and yell from the roof tops that there is something deeply wrong with this situation and they simply will not abide by it. This is always a possibility. There is nothing inevitable about any of this. It just keeps happening over and over and over and over and over again.

The nature of opportunism

A political party’s attitude towards its own mistakes is one of the most important and surest ways of judging how earnest the party is and how it fulfils in practice its obligations towards its class and the working people. Frankly acknowledging a mistake, ascertaining the reasons for it, analysing the conditions that have led up to it, and thrashing out the means of its rectification — that is the hallmark of a serious party; that is how it should perform its duties, and how it should educate and train its class, and then the masses. — Lenin

There are plenty of accusations between irrelevant Trotskyist sects that their competitors are sellouts. The World Socialist Web Site excels at this, accusing the ISO of being silent on Obama’s drone kill list due to their supposed relationship with the Democratic Party. Whoever could make such an accusation is an imbecile. The ISO does not support the Democratic Party and they are opposed to Obama killing people with drones. Nobody who has spent any time in or around the ISO will see any sign of the group in these proclamations. Opportunism does not work this way–like a switch turned from opposition to support for the Democrats, followed by a sellout. That they say they oppose the Democrats but they secretly support them. Whoever thinks this way is utterly unprepared for the real challenges of opportunism.

The problem in the ISO is not that that they have any illusions in liberal democracy. Neither does Larry Bradshaw. The problem is that ISO members believe so thoroughly in the need to rebuild class struggle and they are so desperate for any sign of struggle to break out–why shouldn’t the be?–that they will turn a blind eye to the problems that inevitably arise. Worse, when members attempt to lay out the real challenges and obstacles toward rebuilding the labor movement, they are branded as pessimists who, presumably, do not believe that the working class will soon revolt.

The leadership–and those who agree with them–will turn a blind eye to these problems not because they have faith in the Democrats but because they want to see mass struggle and they need their members to believe it is imminent. The leadership have made so many false claims of impending working-class revolt that they cannot abide by arguments about why it may not soon happen, or may not last indefinitely when it does. The leadership needs positive results and victory for their allies in labor will provide these results, regardless of the actual circumstances. The pressure to prove a perspective accurate is a real pressure, and a real obstacle toward developing honest perspectives, effective strategies and accountable leaders.

Some in the ISO will see a public criticism such as this as some sort of attack on the organization–whatever that means–and insist that there is some more appropriate way to deal with this issue, most likely in private. In reality, it is the effort to deal with this issue privately and quietly which led to the current situation. Moreover, the ISO cannot have it both ways. They can either be an irrelevant sect that nobody cares about, or they can work toward playing a visible role in the labor movement. If they choose the latter, they must be accountable to the labor movement and the Left.

They cannot expect to be able to quietly abide by a $1.3 billion in wage cuts in order to maintain an alliance. They cannot expect to be able to uncritically promote union leaders engaged in concessions at this scale and not come under criticism for it. Such an expectation can only be fulfilled if there is a timid and toothless labor movement incapable of challenging neoliberalism. The goal should be to build precisely the opposite type of labor movement, also known as class struggle unionism. If the ISO is not going to engage in class struggle unionism when it embarrasses their allies, then somebody else will have to do it instead.

Furthermore, Bradshaw and Sanchez are public figures. They are often quoted in the mass media and the SF Bay Guardian, where they wrote their editorial advocating “real pension reform,” is widely read in the Bay Area. If we are ever going to rebuild a left-wing of the labor movement, these issues will need to be openly and honestly discussed and debated by the entire Bay Area labor movement, and not simply as the domain of one organization.

It is much easier to see no evil, hear no evil, than to admit a screw up at this level. Nobody in the ISO wants Bradshaw to fail–everybody in the ISO wants him to succeed at radicalizing the working-class. His failure is ignored as a minor embarrassment, but then he is promoted as a leader in the hopes that it will help his ability to successfully fight the Democratic Party machine in San Francisco. The desperate hope that all this will turn out positively is what leads to this opportunism–not some illusion in Ed Lee, as some idiots would believe. Nonetheless, the consequences of these two mistaken strategies–blind hope and liberal illusions–are indistinguishable, which is precisely the problem. A perspective that desperately seeks to lead the class struggle without a clear strategy to deal with these obstacles can lead to the same opportunism as one that sees the class struggle as secondary to alliances with the Democrats.

The ISO probably has a reasonable-sounding justification for all this–not that they have bothered to relay it to anybody–but that is precisely the problem. We do not need justifications for not fighting–of which there are many–but rather strategies for resisting austerity–of which there are all too few.

Liberal democracies are able to contain consent by the use of force, but are much more often successful at convincing dissidents to defang themselves voluntarily. The Republican Party leads the attacks on workers, the poor, people of color and women. The Democratic Party “opposes” these efforts–then incorporates them into their lesser evil program. Union bureaucrats and social movement leaders are unhappy with this state of affairs but promote and enable the Democrats in the hopes that this will hold reaction at bay, while enabling their lesser-evil proposals. The Left–even the far Left–promote and enable these leaders in spite of their role in promoting capitalist politicians and selling concessions to their members.

Who enables the enablers?

 At some point, somewhere, somebody needs to put a stop to this endless enabling. The enablers enable the enablers who enable the enablers. It’s opportunism all the way down. Ed Lee wants to balance the budget on the backs of the workers. The 1021 leadership accepts this as inevitable but seeks to minimize the attack–rather than resist it outright. Bradshaw accepts that he must go along with this as a 1021 leader. The ISO accepts that they must go along with Bradshaw’s compromise–rather than build a campaign against Ed Lee’s austerity measures, which Bradshaw and 1021 are advocating. It’s great to have allies in high places, but if there is no strategy for resisting their compromises and betrayals then promoting left-wing leaders will get us nowhere. Better that we have rotten leaders that we can fight than “our” people to whom we must acquiesce.

If we wonder why neoliberalism has gone unchecked, and why there is not a Left capable of challenging and resisting it, we need only look at the ISO’s role in the Prop C affair. We can talk all we want about the restructuring of the working class, but the reason why the Left has failed to resist neoliberalism is simply because it has too often chosen alliances ahead of resistance. The ISO’s method has failed in practice and needs to be discarded entirely. Blame should probably be shared across many levels of the organization, but admitting that something is deeply wrong with this picture is the starting point.

There are compromises and there are compromises, as Lenin said, but if the cost of holding a union position is a billion dollar concession, then maybe the price just isn’t worth it–a price paid largely by 1021 members not in the ISO, it’s worth pointing out.

This must be dealt with thoroughly and honestly. A series of non-denial denials will do no good. If this was such a great strategy, then the ISO should defend it and advocate for it as a lesson that can be learned and put into practice by the entire labor movement, not to mention explaining it to their own members. The fact that the ISO leadership has not done so suggests that they are no more convinced by the value of this strategy than anybody else would be. The question, then, is why they allowed any of this to happen. The other question is whether ISO membership requires being the fiercest fighter in the class struggle and the loudest critic of liberal compromises, or merely building the actions which promote the ISO and ignoring the compromises which are embarrassing to the leadership. This may sound like outrageous hyperbole, but the details described above suggest that it is a question that needs asking.

The ISO can deny all they want that they ever endorsed Prop C–that is not being alleged. What is being not so much alleged but simply stated are three simple facts: ISO ally Larry Bradshaw worked (publicly) in support of Prop C; the ISO never criticized or assessed this publicly or internally; and the ISO continues to uncritically promote him as a pension defender and class struggle unionist nonetheless. There is something wrong here. An honest–though admittedly quite difficult–assessment of this situation will provide an example of how the Left can not only correct its mistakes but learn to avoid them in the future.

On the other hand, if the ISO’s strategy for the labor Left involves quietly allowing their allies to negotiate concessions at this scale, then somebody else will have to find another, better strategy that can resist it.

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Lawrence & Wishart and “institutional suicide”

marx2by Scott Jay

In recent weeks, Lawrence & Wishart (L&W), a British publishing house long associated with the Communist Party of Great Britain, has asked the Marxist Internet Archive (MIA) to take down material from their version of the first ten volumes of the Collected Works of Marx and Engels. That Marxists would object to such a request should be unsurprising and really needs no further comment. What is interesting, though, is that L&W has defended themselves precisely the same way that self-proclaimed Leninists have defended themselves against criticism since time immemorial. Or, at least since 1924.

A few excerpts from their defense follow:

Over the last couple of days Lawrence & Wishart has been subject to campaign of online abuse because we have asked for our copyright on the scholarly edition of the Collected Works of Marx and Engels to be respected. The panic being spread to the effect that L&W is ‘claiming copyright’ for the entirety of Marx and Engels’ output is baseless, slanderous and largely motivated by political sectarianism from groups and individuals who have never been friendly to L&W. . .

Our critics’ rhetorically loaded descriptions of L&W as a ‘private publishing house’ and of our actions as ‘capitalistic’ betray a complete lack of understanding of L&W’s historic role in British radical publishing, of its organizational status, and, indeed, of Marx’s concept of the capitalist mode of production. . . Without L&W and the work which its employees have invested over many years, the full collected works of Marx and Engels in English would not exist. . .

Ultimately, in asking L&W to surrender copyrights in this particular edition of the works of Marx & Engels, MIA and their supporters are asking that L&W, one of the few remaining independent radical publishers in the UK, should commit institutional suicide. At the same time they are reproducing the norms and expectations not of the socialist and communist traditions, but of a consumer culture which expects cultural content to be delivered free to consumers . . .

Long time followers of sectariana may find this commentary familiar. In fact, it is almost as if there is a script that all Leninists fall into once they have come under criticism. The arguments usually contains something like the following defenses:

1. We are under attack from the outside by hostile forces. (“a campaign of online abuse”)

2. The fact that these forces are so hostile to us now is evidence that they have always been hostile to us. (“The panic being spread . . . is baseless, slanderous and largely motivated by political sectarianism from groups and individuals who have never been friendly to L&W. . .”)

3. We are the ones holding onto principle. Those who attack us are the ones without principle. (“Our critics’ rhetorically loaded descriptions of L&W . . . betray a complete lack of understanding. . . of its organizational status, and, indeed, of Marx’s concept of the capitalist mode of production.”)

4. If we allow our opponents to win, we are not the only ones who will lose out, but rather everybody who has benefited from our indispensable work will lose out as well. (“Without L&W . . . the full collected works of Marx and Engels in English would not exist.”)

5. Our critics are not only our enemies, but they are the enemies of everything that both we and they claims to stand for. (“[T]hey are reproducing the norms and expectations not of the socialist and communist traditions, but of a consumer culture which expects cultural content to be delivered free to consumers”)

There is also often a non-denial-denial expressing outrage at some especially harsh claim, when in fact something quote close (though not precisely the same) is precisely what the accused are guilty of.  (“The panic being spread to the effect that L&W is ‘claiming copyright’ for the entirety of Marx and Engels’ output…”) This is a great way to rhetorically and loudly defend yourself to the uninformed–but tells those who are actually informed that you are unwilling to defend yourself. Hopefully, they won’t get in the way.

One might think that this pattern of argument is so obviously misguided that nobody would ever carry it out again, and yet it appears over and over. Those who read the L&W statement with derision today will turn around and make exactly the same arguments tomorrow. After all, criticism looks much different when you are the recipient as opposed to a passive observer, not to mention being the critic oneself. When somebody criticizes your hard work, well, they must be an unprincipled sectarian shithead because otherwise you are a bad person. At least, that is how it feels.

The key phrase in the L&W statement is the comment that their critics are asking them to “commit institutional suicide.” What a stark suggestion! We were just having a friendly conversation about the content on a web site when suddenly L&W is talking about killing themselves. The suggestion of suicide conjures the deeply hurt feelings of those at L&W–and there is no reason to believe that their feelings were not hurt, as they most likely have worked for many years for little money out of a labor of love.

The specter of institutional suicide–or institutional murder by their critics–encapsulates the response of those who come under collective, institutional defense. It is not about principle or ethics but about the continued existence of an institution. An institution need not have a hundred year-old tradition, but can simply be a group of people working together with a common purpose and a collective–institutional–identity. They need not even like each other, but once they have accepted that their collective labor is important and worthwhile as a collective, at that point organizational and institutional behavior, with all the logic inherent to it, rules the minds of the individual when dealing with the institution. A bubble of groupthink surrounds even the cleverest of individuals. You can go home and have dinner with your spouse and spend time with your parents while thinking and doing whatever you want, but once the issue of the institution comes into play, institutional psychology takes over.

While completely unconvincing to the outsider, it is incredibly appealing–even comforting–for the insider. It can be amazing to watch otherwise thoughtful individuals go through these exact same intellectual contortions–amazing, because it is so predictable to anybody who has seen these things before unavoidable for those who find comfort in this script.

None of this would come as a surprise to sociologists or psychologists who have studied these things for decades. The entire field of social psychology has not only theorized these issues but carried out studies–again, for decades–which show that when people hold two (or more) views that are contradictory to each other, they will go to great, often illogical, lengths to avoid having to come to terms with it. The first response to having these views challenged by argument or fact is always to double-down on the illogic and insist on its correctness. Once you have come “under attack,” insisting that your critics are hostile, have always been hostile, are unprincipled and do not appreciate what is at stake is unconvincing to everybody but yourself. This is precisely why these arguments are employed–they are convincing to those making them and the organizations they stand with even if they are completely unconvincing to absolutely everybody else.

It does not take a genius to realize that there is a contradiction between calling yourself a Marxist–ie an advocate of the working-class replacing capitalism with their own self-rule–and advocating that Marxist ideas should be less available in order that you can make money off them. Which is not to say that the L&W staff has not worked tirelessly for years for the benefit of many, or that their continued ability to make money is not in fact the only way they can continue to tirelessly work for low wages to contribute this valuable work. But when institutional survival is at stake, it is more likely that survival will win out over principle. It is almost an axiom of organizational behavior.

It should be added that the L&W statement was not written for us–though they may have thought we all would find it convincing. No, it is a defense of the institution itself. It lives and breathes the institutional order and is a document of their psychology as they hold hands in the bunker of cognitive dissonance while the rest of us look on in bemusement.

Sociologists have also studied how organizations and institutions behave at length. The study goes back much further, but a modern classic that encapsulates many of these issues is Berger and Luckmann’s The Social Construction of Reality. The text is much less a post-modern defense of the absence of reality outside of individual perception–though it can be employed to those ends–than it is an analysis of how concepts are made to seem real by the actions of those who accept them. Once an organization is founded around a set of ideas, those ideas are then made to seem even more real and natural in spite of any evidence or alternative viewpoints because people act so firmly in the belief that they are true.

Groups of people form institutions and construct their own “subuniverse” or version of reality, which then needs to be protected and defended against alternative views. Arguments and institutional positions are created and maintained, only further hardening the sense of reality that has been constructed. Berger, it should be noted, was an expert on religion and sects, although the book also explicitly mentions revolutionary organizations several times as being among these types of institutions.

Berger, Luckmann and social psychology make sense of the arguments spouted by L&W and many others. It is not that political and religious sects are weird. Rather, their behavior is quite typical and even predictable. What is weird is looking at this behavior from the outside, precisely because their actions are taken in order to protect their institutional subuniverse from the outside world.

The late Socialist Workers Party (UK) is a goldmine of psychological and sociological study. Members of the party did not follow various twists and turns for years because they were zombies, but rather because they believed, deeply, that their organization was valuable and even necessary. In other words, they constructed an institutional subuniverse around the party and, in particular, their version of “Leninism.” Once this came under criticism, they fell into precisely the same patterns described above. When George Galloway criticized them in the RESPECT Party, they claimed “the Left”–read the SWP–was being witch-hunted. When a leader of the party was accused of raping a teenager, even he was accused of being witch-hunted–a grotesque commentary utterly at odds with any understanding of women’s liberation, but for some a worthy defense of their institutional subuniverse.

The entire “Comrade Delta” rape scandal in the SWP was a lengthy battle between a defense of the subuniverse and a defense of political principles. These are not the same thing, but it is a weakness of Leninism that these are often conflated with no sense among Leninists of why this might be a problem. It is assumed that “our” organization will not suffer from groupthink, will not be opportunist, will not be sectarian and will not become a bureaucracy because “we” are aware of these problems. “We” are fighting for something good, so something bad cannot happen.

The demise of the SWP is evidence that all of these assumptions of innocence are completely wrong. Their inexplicable defense of a rapist in their own leadership did not occur simply because of their model of Leninism or because they were led by Alex Callinicos–though these factors certainly deserve a share of the blame. Rather, these institutional defense can occur with any organization, be they socialist, anarchist, libertarian or vegetarian.

It is a shame that Leninists do not take the study of organizational behavior seriously. People who dedicate their political lives ought to see what others have to say about these things and there is a wealth of literature from academic fields which may only interpret the world, but can be used by those who want to change it.

Marxists need a Marxist analysis of their own organizational behavior–not just a Marxist explanation of why they need to have an organization in the first place–rooted in the insights already gained by sociology and social psychology, otherwise they will fall into these patterns every time they are criticized by supposedly hostile critics from the outside.


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The Oakland Greens need to stop

By Scott Jay


Shake Anderson of the Oakland Greens, looking for attention from the media

I am former member of the Green Party as well a resident of Oakland since the late nineties. I campaigned for Ralph Nader in Oakland in 2000 and 2004, taking time off from work to support the campaign while hearing endless complaints from Democrats who could not imagine voting for anybody but Gore or Kerry.

Little did I know during this time that there were not only Oakland members of the Green Party, such as myself, but also a group called the “Oakland Greens,” who run for local elections and play a leading role in local Green Party activities. I am no longer a member of the Green Party, but the more I learn about the Oakland Greens, the more I am convinced that they are playing a negative role in Oakland progressive and radical politics.

My introduction and disillusionment with the Oakland Greens came simultaneously, in the last days of Occupy Oakland’s second camp in November 2011. After the first camp was disbanded by a ruthless police response, the second camp was established amid a General Strike call. The camp continued for a few weeks as not only a symbol of the city’s failure to address wealth inequality, racism and police brutality but also as an active assembly place where those the city left behind could organize and fight for their own survival and resistance.

In the middle of efforts to combat the city’s impending second raid, the Oakland Greens stepped in with a proposal. They called on the city to stand down the police response and instead negotiate with the general assembly–even though it was agreed that there would be no negotiations with the city. To many of us, this seemed like a step toward “peacefully” disbanding the camp voluntarily. The problem was, the camp did not want to be disbanded and City Hall had its own plan for a police raid, but the Oakland Greens and their striving for relevance led them to swoop in and attempt to save the day. They failed, as their gesture was ignored by both the city and Occupy.

The Occupy movement, in spite of its swift demise, exposed the failure and inability of much of the established Left to contribute to a genuine challenge to political power. Some of us learned a decade’s worth of political lessons during these few weeks but the Oakland Greens, like much of the Left, learned nothing other than how to grandstand to a larger audience.

My next encounter with the Oakland Greens came a few months later, when Occupy Oakland was in its final days. A group of four people in the Occupy Oakland Media Committee published a web page making vile, racist and snitch-jacketing accusations at a particular individual in Occupy Oakland they did not like. Because of the man’s Palestinian heritage and similar name to another man on a State Department terrorist watch list, the four claimed that these two men were one and the same and asked Occupy Oakland to consider whether our comrade was in fact either an active “terrorist” or a post-imprisonment snitch.

Arab-Americans regularly find themselves on terrorist watch lists, dragged off of airplanes, interrogated and much worse, because of the similarity between their name and somebody else’s. And yet, here were supposed “progressives” using racist State Department tactics against somebody in our own movement. However, these two men are completely different and this grotesque maneuver backfired. The individual accused describes the entire story and its political dynamics much better than I could in this short space.

What does any of this have to do with the Oakland Greens? Several of the people involved in this debacle are associated with them, including Jason Kane “Shake” Anderson who was one of the four signatories of the racist web page. Anderson is the Oakland Greens’ candidate for Mayor in 2014.

Why in the world the Oakland Greens would choose Anderson for their candidate is a mystery. He is not particularly well spoken or well versed in political issues and has been completely discredited in the activist community. His primary contribution to Occupy Oakland was to put his face in front of the camera at every press conference held by the movement, no matter how ill-advised or disastrous. He also attempted to sell t-shirts with Occupy Oakland’s name on them as part of a Local Business Liaison committee, for which he had to apologize.

The only question for progressives and radicals in the Oakland Mayorial election is whether or not to support civil rights lawyer Dan Siegel. Unlike Anderson, Siegel earned credibility when he resigned from Jean Quan’s administration over the police raids on Occupy Oakland and went on to represent activists caught up in the city’s prosecution of Occupy activists with all sorts of trumped up charges, as well as other victims of police brutality. Some of us have concerns about Siegel’s campaign, specifically about his plans for the Oakland Police Department, but he is a serious and respected activist. Anderson is a discredited clown that nobody has taken seriously for some time–until the Oakland Greens attached their name to his and helped him gain the publicity he so desperately yearns with a seat at the Oakland Mayor’s debate. His candidacy’s only purpose is to make himself and the Oakland Greens seem relevant.

Having come under some criticism for Anderson’s nomination, the Oakland Greens responded by doing what organizations always do–they collectively went into defense mode to protect their own legitimacy. Don Macleay, the heir presumptive to the tattered legacy of the Oakland Greens, issued a vacuous statement making no mention of these issues but supporting Shake because “let’s remember that Shake was on the lines, keeping his cool, leading the protests.” Anybody involved in Oakland protests over the last few years would find such a comment laughable, but it sounds good when you are trying to promote your organization.

An even worse defense came later from Oakland Green Samsara Morgan, who helped Anderson and his cohorts attempt to secretly reintegrate into the Occupy Oakland Media Committee. She spreads unfounded accusations against the victim of Anderson’s racist accusations, doubling-down on the scary Arab meme. She eventually says that she has “no opinion regarding the matters” but that “I am personally proud that we have endorsed this candidate.”

Everybody involved in this mess should apologize, from Shake, to Samsara Morgan and Don Macleay, but that is not enough. You cannot claim to be in favor of “social justice” and “non-violence” while defending the use of the racist tactics of the state to attack people you do not like. If they were truly more concerned about progressive politics in Oakland than their own self-promotion, they would recognize the irresponsibility of their actions, cancel their mayoral campaign and take a break from politics for a while. We will all be fine. They will not be missed.

Oakland does not need the Oakland Greens. They are not filling some vacuum that would otherwise go unfilled. If the Oakland Greens did not exist, they would not need to be invented. Since they do exist, they either need to contribute something positive or, at the very least, do no harm, but they have failed even by that meager measure.

They have done so much damage to their own credibility, not to mention to the individual caught in this mess, that there is no point in continuing. The Media Committee scandal should have gone down as a painful but obscure footnote in the history of the Occupy movement, but instead the Oakland Greens have unnecessarily dredged it up because, for God knows what reason, they think Shake Anderson would make a good candidate.

Enough is enough. It is time for the Oakland Greens to pack it up and go home. They should all find something else to do because they are simply not suited for politics.

They have many options. Perhaps they could take up a hobby. I might suggest oil painting or learning another language, at least nobody will get hurt that way. But their grasp of activism is so distorted and self-serving that they should accept that the best thing they could do at this point is disband.

The only position they deserve to be elected into is the dustbin of history.

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On Leninism and anti-Leninism


Lenin’s body: preserved, sterile and unchanging

From the 1903 until 1914, Lenin was the leader of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. During this time, nobody ever thought of such a thing as “Leninism.” As Lars Lih documented extensively in his book Lenin Reconsidered, he merely considered himself a follower of Karl Kautsky and a proponent of the Second International in Russia.

Between 1914 and 1917, Lenin mulled over the crisis of Social Democracy, a result of socialists throughout the world capitulating to World War I. In 1917, Lenin and the Bolsheviks led an insurrection against the Russian state, and thus some of the world’s attention first began to focus on the practices of Lenin and his comrades in Russia as an alternative to Kautsky. Within a few years, Lenin fell ill and withdrew from political activity, dying in 1924.

It was only then that “Leninism” was born.

Stalin sat himself at the throne of Lenin, declaring himself the rightful heir of a kingdom that was never meant to be, consolidating power and legitimacy in his hands. The day before Lenin’s funeral, Stalin gave a speech declaring the Russian Communist Party the “army of comrade Lenin.” The doctrine of “Marxism-Leninism” was revealed in Stalin’s speeches and writings and Petrograd, the center of the Russian Revolution, was renamed Leningrad.

The party even introduced the “Lenin Levy,” which brought in hundreds of thousands of new members, mostly petty bourgeois careerists who sat out the revolution but could now be relied upon to form a new bureaucracy that would suffocate the remaining forces of revolutionary workers who remained in the party. This all went down a bit easier under the name of Lenin.

Finally, Lenin’s body was embalmed and sat on display in Red Square for loyal “Leninists” to view. This was the ultimate reification of “Leninism,” transforming his body into a stale monument to be glorified and beheld, undying, unchanging, inalterable and held up as a standard to be studied and mimicked, if only the followers could be so bold as to dare to reach His level of greatness. Stalin’s Leninism entailed the worship of Lenin’s body while rewriting the history of the revolution.

Few if any Leninists today hold up Lenin’s physical body in such high regard, but the monument of “Leninism” remains in the veneration of his body of work.

The pillars of “Leninism”

There are a handful of specific organizational concepts which are often held up as more-or-less defining features of Leninist party building. We will call these the pillars of Leninism. However, when investigated it is not clear that there is anything uniquely “Leninist” about any of them, or that they are even unique to revolutionary organizations.

The vanguard party

The standard Leninist view is that Lenin conceived of a party only of the revolutionary vanguard–the “advanced guard,” the most class conscious and militant members of the working class–while Kautsky conceived of a party of the entire class, including liberal and reactionary workers. But Lenin scholar Lars Lih rejects this stark difference, pointing out that Lenin was not proposing something new but adhering to the principles of mainstream Social Democracy and that “neither Kautsky nor Martov [the leader of the Mensheviks]—no social democrat would ever say that the party should be a party of “the whole class,” whatever that is supposed to mean.” At a very basic level, the idea that revolutionaries should have their own organization with their own theory and their own tactics is not unique to either Leninism or Marxism. Certainly, there are many radicals and revolutionaries who organize this way, they just don’t describe it as Leninist.

Democratic Centralism

This concept has been defined in various ways by Leninists of differing stripes, from banning factions, to following orders without questions, to having a single monolithic line on every political issue, to “maximum debate but unity in practice.” However, as Lars Lih points out, this term was introduced by the Mensheviks, rarely used by Lenin and not really a guiding concept of Bolshevik practice. “I am compelled to conclude,” Lih writes, “that the common supposition that Lenin had a particular organisational philosophy called ‘democratic centralism’ that was distinct or essential to Bolshevism is something of a myth.” More often than not, democratic centralism is the overarching term used for the rules and norms of any given Leninist organization with little or no direct relation to Lenin or the Bolsheviks. That Leninists can continue to invoke this term as some sort of guiding principle after reading and praising Lars Lih ought to raise alarm bells.

The Revolutionary Newspaper

Lenin’s proposal for an all-Russian newspaper in Where to begin? is nothing new. There were prominent newspapers among revolutionaries well before Lenin, from the French Revolution to the American Abolitionists. Even among Marxists, it seemed that Lenin borrowed rather than invented his conception of the newspaper. In one of Lih’s many interesting insights from his book Lenin Rediscovered, he quotes Franz Mehring describing the SPD when it was forced underground in the 1890s due to German anti-socialist laws: “Bernstein [the editor of the SPD newspaper] well understood how to maintain the newspaper as an organ of the whole party and to give it, at the same time, a definite, firm, clear direction that took into account all tactical demands without violating principle.” This is surprisingly close to Lenin’s formulation of the paper in Where to begin? written a few years later. It is also worth pointing out that Eduard “Bernstein” is the notorious victim of Rosa Luxemburg’s Reform or Revolution?–the most significant proponent of Second International reformism and revisionism. Thus, Lenin’s conception of the newspaper, whatever strengths it has, is hardly unique nor even uniquely revolutionary.


The idea that the revolutionary party is specifically focused on recruitment is often seen as a hallmark of Leninism. Yet, all sorts of organizations hold meetings, march behind their own banners and advocate for people to join them. One fascinating example comes from Evangelical Christian sociologist Rodney Stark, who describes in the book Cities of God how the early Christians built a mass following, largely by recruiting people in the “ones and twos.” The lessons drawn from this book would be fascinating to any Leninist. The point, however, is that there is nothing unique to Leninism or even revolutionary politics to organizational recruitment and the challenges entailed. In fact, there is a wealth of sociological literature on this subjection, although none of it would fall under the category of “Leninism.”

These are, more or less, the pillars of Leninism. And yet, there is nothing uniquely Leninist about any of them. Perhaps Leninism is the collection of these strategies into a single organizational form? Perhaps. But if that is all there is, then quantity would hardly be expected to lead to quality, and the inclusion of the nefarious practices sometimes grouped under “democratic centralism” should be expected to degrade quality.

Granted, Lenin wrote extensively about other political issues, but what typically defines one as a Leninist is adherence to these conceptions of building a party and declaring oneself a Leninist. The problem is, after we have knocked down the above pillars as not being necessarily unique or even non-trivial, we are left with very little.

Perhaps we can hold onto the common description of Lenin as having a remarkable flexibility in practice, while maintaining a single-minded focus on the ultimate goal. Well, I hate to break it to you comrades, but even though Lenin may be an exceptional example of this, these skills are also learned and employed by anybody who organizes a church group or assembles a couch from IKEA. In fact, it is a problem that the great skill of “flexibility” even needs to be mentioned at all. I doubt many working class militants need to be reminded of the importance of flexibility in tactics, not to mention a single mother on food stamps whose primary goal is to pay the rent and feed her children. But for Leninists, this is some great insight.

The monolithic party line, a consequence of distorted views of “democratic centralism,” is particularly problematic. If democratic centralism really means open debate with unity in practice, and this applies to decisions about theoretical issues as well–a bizarre approach to theory–then there is no way around theory ossifying after some decision has been made about it. The point of theory is to guide practice, which can then lead to new areas of theoretical study as a consequence of this experience. But if theory cannot be changed, then nothing can be learned from practice. In this case, it is not even theory, just religious dogma. Maintaining a situation where the leadership can change the theory but nobody else can is hardly any better. Monolithism, rather than developing leadership, is nothing more than a stale formula for creating stale formulas, which then hold back young revolutionaries from widening their perspectives and discovering some innovative new theory or understanding of the world–making them better able to change it. Rather than developing a “vanguard,” the monolithic party line assures that any vanguard is extinguished.

On the question of recruitment, we do not really know how the Bolsheviks went around recruiting people. Are there any examples? I’ve never seen one, and I doubt most Leninists have either. They almost certainly did recruit in some way, either actively or passively, but if we do not know how they did this, we cannot mimic the example nor can we attempt to improve on it. To say that “we use a Leninist method of recruitment,” for example, is to do no more than to put the method up on a pedestal.

No living revolutionary was ever a member of either the Bolsheviks or any other party overseen by Lenin and the early Third International. Some Leninist practices may have come down directly from Trotsky, but he was not a member of the Bolsheviks until a few months before the 1917 revolution. While he certainly learned something from his proximity and experience, he also gave all sorts of horrible advice to his followers about meddling in the affairs of their sister groups and tarnishing internal opponents which he most likely made up.

All the current Leninist organizations sprung forth from previous organizations from which they inherited most of their practices. The preceding organization is probably now considered to be anti-Leninist, which is fine because the practices that were abandoned–and precisely those practices and no others–are what made the previous group anti-Leninist.

So an organization can slap the label “Leninist” on the practices they came up with and/or inherited 20 or 30 years ago and feel like they are being good Leninists. But more often than not, these practices cannot be confirmed as having much to do with Lenin and the Bolsheviks, and in some cases–around banning factions and holding a monolithic party line–are clearly the opposite of the Bolshevik’s practices.

All of these practices require various resources, the use of physical spaces and the expenditure of energy over time, leaving behind artifacts not only in the form of newspapers but also leaflets, books, banners and picket signs. However useful this activity might be, the result is the reification of Leninism–taking something ephemeral and transforming it into something real, no longer just an abstract idea. Structures are built up in order to make this happen and they need to be maintained and even defended. Ideas which may not have existed 100 years ago are repeated endlessly and turned into real objects, thus reinforcing their perceived value.

Attaching the term “Leninism” to these practices elevates them to an untouchable status even though they are largely trivial and non-unique. The effort exerted, the objects created and the repetition of the term “Leninist” not only reifies but also naturalizes the concept. This is Leninism. This is how it always has been. This is how it always will be.

Against “anti-Leninism”

Leninism is simply the set of practices carried out by people who identify as Leninists.

To a Leninist, Leninism is what we do. Anti-Leninism is what people who are opposed to us do. How do we know they are against us? Because they are against our methods, therefore they are anti-Leninist.

Once the charge of “anti-Leninism” is bandied about, it is hard to get around it, especially when thrown around amongst Leninists. No good Leninists wants to fall victim to this charge, or be caught defending practices that are deemed anti-Leninist. Just like the charges of “sectarian” or “ultra-left,” this charge obscures more than it clarifies. It’s use merely signifies that some idea or action is outside the terms of debate, set by some arbitrary group of people at some arbitrary time. Much is debatable, but some things are not, lest we negate ourselves.

The charge of “anti-Leninism” is rarely hurled at an action in contradiction to a 100-year-old practice taken directly from Lenin and the Bolsheviks, if for no other reason than these practices are a mystery to most of us. Far more often, the anti-Leninism gun is pointed at a practice dating only a few decades at most. How the methods being criticized can be deemed inherently anti-Leninist is unclear, and remains so, largely because the discussion is shut down at this point.

Occasionally in a Leninist organization, member A will accuse member B of arguing or doing something that is anti-Leninist. In the best case, the comrades will work it out amongst themselves and come to an agreement.

The worst case scenario is when an accused anti-Leninist is and remains a member of a Leninist organization. They are an outsider within our ranks. This creates an untenable situation that must be resolved. Very occasionally–far less often than most non-Leninists would presume–the contradiction is resolved with the dialectic of expulsion. The inside anti-Leninist is now an outsider, and the natural state of things can resume.

It is not so much that the power of expulsion is able to dictate the physical abilities of the now-outsider anti-Leninist. Few if any expulsions ever require physical force. The expulsion of anti-Leninist member B is meant to delegitimize their critique. Since they are now an outsider, their critique is no longer legitimate. Hostile ex-members are a problem, but only insofar as they have a hearing among members. These members become “inside-outsiders” and their status needs to be resolved. They can be anti-Leninist all they want, but not within the Leninist organization, lest we negate ourselves. Expelling the anti-Leninist is the negation of the negation.

By expelling the anti-Leninist element from the Leninist organization, Leninism is further reified and naturalized. Lenin’s body of work is preserved from destructive elements. Not that anybody actually knows for certain how Leninism is supposed to work, but at least there is some certainty restored to the current situation.

Finally, it may turn out that member A, the accuser, was actually wrong to make the accusation. Does this mean that they are anti-Leninist for attacking an idea that was essentially Leninist? Not necessarily. As long as the comrades come to an agreement, the contradiction can vanish rather than be negated and the Leninist stasis may resume. We are all Leninists once again.

What any of this has to do with the revolutionary struggle against capitalism is utterly unclear. What it has to do with building and sustaining and defending an organization should be very clear. Unfortunately, while these are not mutually exclusive, they are not necessarily the same thing either.

Solidarity means attack, and vice-versa

[T]he facts are plain to see: the advanced industrial societies are still without the revolutionary force that can wrest power from the capitalists who hold it, and the Leninist model has never yet proved itself effective for this purpose.

– Marcel Liebman, Leninism Under Lenin, page 428

The anti-Leninist is the outside agitator of the Leninist organization. A critique from an anti-Leninist is an attack from the outside. It cannot be accommodated, it must be challenged. Otherwise we will succumb to anti-Leninism.

This sort of thinking is unfortunately all too common among many Leninist organizations. Criticizing a set of ideas that have been reified and naturalized into Leninism cannot be seen as anything but an attack, not because the organization cannot survive change but because the norms and practices have been placed next to the world’s first successful workers’ revolution, even if that is not historically the case.

Leninists sometimes employ a model of their organization as operating in concentric circles, with the party at the center, surrounded by fellow travelers and activist allies, surrounded by passive liberals, surrounded by hostile liberals, conservatives, etc. Each circle creates the ability to both affect the outside world and be properly influenced by it. Unfortunately, this model can sometimes look like a medieval fortress, with each circle a moat or stone wall protecting from outside attack. Sometimes, the drawbridges in the inner circle are retracted, the center is surrounded but temporarily secure, neither influencing the world nor influenced by it. Leninism is safe.

What needs to be asked is, if the critique is hostile, then hostile to what exactly? Is it hostile to the working class, or to the revolutionary struggle against capitalism? Is it an obstacle toward building these struggles? Does it accommodate capital or the state, or the liberal and reformist forces that uphold them?

If a critique is deemed to attack “Leninism,” then perhaps it is not attacking anything at all, or perhaps it is working in solidarity with attempts to build a stronger resistance against capitalism with better forms of organization.

What “Leninism” does more than anything else is raise various methods to the level of world-historic principle. Arguing about whether something is Leninist or anti-Leninist is largely counter-productive, unless we are simply having an academic discussion over Russian history.

We can continue fighting over Lenin’s body or we can do what revolutionaries–including Lenin–have always done–evaluate the situation as it is and seek out new forms of organization and resistance that empower the working-class, regardless of what came before. The truth is, many of us have ideas about this, but ultimately we do not know. Revolutionaries and radicals are in the process of discovering these practices, not only through study of the past but through experiment in the present.

The future working-class rebellions in the US will not self-identify as Leninist, not this long after the Soviet Union has fallen and the Leninist parties of the world have collapsed. To believe otherwise would be utter idealism, along the lines of believing that a revolution will occur because enough people read the Communist Manifesto. Rather than arguing over “Leninism,” Leninists would be better off building resistance to neoliberalism with an explicit eye toward societal transformation and joining forces with all those who seek to do the same. Rather than seeing the world through 100 years of Leninism and Trotskyism, adjusting by inches one way or another to improve their practice, we should seek to build something new that nobody else has even considered before, just as every revolutionary before us has done. After all, it is the creation of something new that is revolutionary, not the reconstruction of the old. We do not need to ignore history, but we do need to enthusiastically embrace the future.

Lenin did not have a Leninism to fall back on, and neither do we.

Posted in Leninism | 5 Comments

A response to some criticism from Socialist Worker

A response to the last two articles on this blog was recently written by Todd Chretien and published at The lines of the debate have been clearly drawn and I do not wish to regurgitate everything, but there are a handful of issues that I think are worth clarifying.

- Regarding the ISO in the anti-war movement, on which I disagreed with the ISO’s tactics of opposing Palestine as a point of unity and calling for liberal Democratic Party politicians to speak at rallies, Todd writes:

[He] is either misremembering or is willfully misrepresenting the facts if he thinks the ISO ever–and I mean ever–provided “a platform for liberal Democrats while denying a platform for the issue of Palestine.” Which Democrat? Name an instance when we prevented, or even voiced opposition to, a speaker on the Palestinian struggle so as to not antagonize a “liberal Democrat.” [he] cannot do so, because it never happened.

The ISO absolutely did argue for the inclusion of liberal Democrats–specifically Barbara Lee to name but one–on the speakers platforms. It was widely accepted–though not without some contention–and yet unknown by many ISO members I have talked to who joined in the last 8 or 9 years. But as far as I can tell, the theory of the Unity Front with liberal Democratic Party politicians, in the context where there is no mass social democratic party in the United States, still holds.

Additionally, if you read the quote above very closely, Todd never outright denies the fact that the ISO argued for Democrats to speak on these platforms, because we did. And we did this in the same groups and actions where we were opposed to Palestine as a point of unity. Why was Babara Lee supported as a speaker at anti-war marches? Because we wanted to bring in Lee’s audience. However, the original theory of the United Front argued that the purpose of allying with reformists is also to force them into action in order to show in practice their limitations. Yet, when Lee told a mass anti-war protest in San Francisco that “We need to take back the White House!” to great cheers, there was little the ISO could do to hold her accountable. In fact, we provided her an audience, under the illusion that building a “big, broad movement” would be powerful somehow, and then were incapable of challenging her message, simply because writing an article in Socialist Worker about why not to vote for John Kerry, or even saying that from the stage, was going to do very little to effectively challenge her.

We provided her to an audience with few opportunities of our own to win over her audience, who largely made their way through Kucinich, Dean, Kerry and Obama. All the way, these tactics placed us in opposition to other radicals who did want Palestine as a point of unity and did not want liberal Democrats speaking from our platforms.

I will admit, “denying a platform for the issue of Palestine” is a bit of a broad stroke, as the ISO simply opposed Palestine as a point of unity and that could have been more clear. And I never said that one causes the other–that “opposition to Palestine” was meant to provide a safe space for liberal Democrats. That is not how the logic works, and I tried to be clear about that. The logic begins with “building a big, broad movement” and seeing Palestine as a point of unity as being a barrier to the size of the movement, and building an alliance with liberal Democrats as helping to broaden it. But ultimately we have to look beyond the logic and at the ultimate results.

- On the November 2 General Strike:

[He] hardly mentions the Oakland General Strike of November 2. Why? It is an inconvenient fact that doesn’t fit his narrative . . . The November 2 mass mobilization, involving official union support, if not an all-out general strike call, doesn’t fit the bill for [him].

This example does not fit as neatly as the December 12 West Coast Port Shut Down does in my critique, but it does not fit the bill of the United Front either. How was the General Strike called? By a group of a few thousand activists, without any big name liberals or any union support from the outset. Personally, I was happy to see unions support the General Strike, but I also think we should note the path by which they came. This support came on board because of the mass popularity of the action and the unpopularity of the crackdown on Occupy Oakland, which had positioned itself against the liberal Mayor and City Council, denying them special rights to speak at OO events and exposing them without ever allying with them. In fact, this denial of politicians to speak by Occupy Oakland was what initially set me on the path of rethinking the strategy of a United Front with Liberal Democrats.

- Regarding the port shutdown actions, in which masses of people assembled at the ports, forcing them to close due to a health and safety clause in the ILWU contract:

This is an excellent tactic that the ILWU has used on many occasions, and Occupy activists were absolutely right to rely on it for this action. But it’s obviously not as simple as [he] makes it–that Occupy shut down the ports. ILWU members had something to do with it.

My point around the port shut downs, especially on December 12 and afterward, is that this work was done around the backs of the union leadership who were largely opposed. We struggled to bring in unions where we could, but the success of the action had little to do with the one or two speakers on stage or a solidarity statement from a local. Yes we worked directly with ILWU workers, in fact the entire series of port actions were in solidarity with ILWU workers in Longview, WA. We worked with other ILWU members throughout the West Coast, some of whom faced retaliation for their involvement. Of course ILWU members had something to do with it. That was never under debate. The union leadership, on the other hand, was outright hostile, even insisting that more port shut down actions should not take place in spite of the fact that a massive scabbing operation was imminent.

Yes, ILWU workers had something to do with it. That was always the point. But we did not appeal to them through their leaders, as the United Front–both in the ISO’s formulation and in its classical form as described by Trotsky and the 3rd International–would insist. We worked with and appealed directly to them as the leadership attempted to drive a wedge between radicals and workers.

- Justifying the criticism of the ISO of the Black Orchid Collective: I will just reiterate that the attack by members of the ISO on the Black Orchid Collective in the situation described in the article was a serious mistake, it was irresponsible, it was disruptive to organizing, and it was the result of the United Front method and a pointless propaganda campaign against anarchists–many of whom are our best allies–which continues. Were the ISO to make a similar mistake in another situation, the results could have a serious impact on class struggle, and this alone makes me very leery of the ISO’s methods. I think it is very clear that the article written by ISO members in Seattle gave cover to the union bureaucracy in their attempts to drive a wedge between workers and radicals, regardless of the authors’ intentions.

I hope that we can at least agree that, when union leaders are trying to drive a wedge between radicals and workers, you don’t go picking propaganda points against other radicals as that can have the affect of strengthening the hand of the union leadership.

- Workers vs. “Occupy groups:”

[H]e seems to imply, for example, that the Chicago teachers strike wasn’t a “direct action”–and that Occupy actions like the Port Shutdown Day, because they were led by “Occupy groups” and not workers themselves, were actually more important than strikes.

I don’t know where I said this or how I could possibly seem to imply such things. I even put the Chicago teachers strike on par with Longview as two significant actions in recent years in the labor movement–precisely to avoid this sort of confusion! It is as though you cannot make a criticism of the ISO and the United Front strategy without being strawmanned into a corner with “ultra-leftists” and “sectarians” who are hostile to workers. The West Coast Port Shutdown was successful precisely because the organizers did not bother going through the stages of the United Front. They simply assessed their forces and took action. Granted, you can also incorrectly assess your forces and take a stupid action, but that is another problem, and one that the WCPSD organizers were not guilty of.

– Debating a strawman:

I think he believes the new model should be the activity of the Occupy movement, particularly in Oakland and particularly in the later phase of the movement when, in my opinion, broader support had fallen away, leaving a smaller core of the most committed activists who were determined to take the boldest action possible, even if they were isolated.

This is just silly. Let us reiterate what I said about the West Coast Port Shut Down:

The port shutdown actions on the West Coast [were] probably the most powerful actions relating to workers’ struggle in Occupy . . .

Compare this to what I said about the only later action I mentioned:

On January 28, 2012, Occupy Oakland sought to take over an abandoned building. The results, however, were a pointless battle with the police . . .

Finally, on the West Coast Port Shut Down:

Whether such an action can occur again any time soon is unclear, but we have to ask why isn’t this the model–or at least a model–for mass action? Additionally, at some point in the future you have to expect that this will be more common–reformist leaders being intransigent while sufficient forces are prepared to act, not just to have a rally but to challenge the power of the state and/or capital. We cannot simply expect to lead United Fronts for the rest of our lives, can we? At some point, [reformist leaders] will be discredited and working with them will only help them rebuild their legitimacy.

This is one of the primary conclusions of the articles. Why isn’t action based on the current balance of forces of the working class and the radical left, in order to do something that reformist leaders and union bureaucrats are unwilling to do but many ordinary working class people are willing to do, not on the agenda? Is this not a better way forward, rather than trying to create United Fronts with leaders who do not want to act and that we cannot expose? Isn’t this a better method than using the United Front as an explanation for attending a symbolic protest like the March on Washington? I would not say the ISO is opposed to this concept and would never do it–but I would say that the reliance on the United Front is an obstacle toward this method, creates many other internal problems in the organization, and sets the ISO against people who do not accept some of the conclusions of that method.

- Tactics vs. numbers:

the most important thing about these actions wasn’t the tactics, but the mass character of the protests.

This is where we disagree. Obviously there is a critical mass needed in order to carry out a successful action. However, the anti-war movement provided some of the largest protests many of us have experienced in our lifetimes and yet they not only failed to stop the war but they largely–though not completely–shuttled people into voting for John Kerry. The tactics of the Occupy movement–taking over public space, disrupting commerce–pit the movement directly against liberal Democrats in power (Quan, Bloomberg and Obama) and expressed the power of mass action.

If we want to take a stark example, let us ask which was more powerful–the marches against the war in Iraq or the West Coast Port Shutdown? One was clearly far larger, the other was clearly much more disruptive. I will take the latter over the former any day. In fact, the latter was a response to the problems posed by the former.

We ought to embrace those lessons, rather than close our eyes to them and await the next series of large symbolic protests.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Does the tail wag the dog? The ISO in practice

The previous article on this blog discussed an interpretation of the methodologies used by the ISO which, I believe, lead to a number of organizational problems, both internally and externally.

The article attempted to look at some of the ISO’s methods, specifically how the implementation of the United Front tends toward “big broad protests” as part of an effort to relate to the newly radicalized as opposed to experienced radicals. A number of problems related to this were discussed and the question was asked, “Does the tail wag the dog?” That is, does the ISO’s (strong) desire for recruitment shape its work in a detrimental way?

This article will look at some examples of this in practice. But first, several charges were levied against the previous article, which I will summarize and briefly respond to here:

- But the ISO is involved in movements A, B and C: Yes of course they are. The purpose of the article was to attempt to explain how–not whether–the ISO does movement work.

- But the ISO does criticize Democrats: Yes, and the article stated the ISO’s criticism not just of Democrats in general but also of left/liberal Democrats like Jessie Jackson, Barbara Lee and Dennis Kucinich.

- It is not true that the ISO only recruits people: That is correct, and the article did not assert that. It simply asked “Does the tail wag the dog?” That is, does the emphasis on recruitment distort the ISO’s movement practice?

- It is not true that the ISO never does direct action: That is correct, and examples of that were given in the article.

- What the article described is not an accurate reflection of what the ISO did in the anti-war movement: The article merely described a handful of specific tactics deployed by the ISO to build a broad movement–opposition to Palestine as a point of unity before the second Intifada and support for liberal Democrats speaking on anti-war platforms. It also stated that these had the effect of dampening, not emboldening, radicalism. There are plenty of other experiences worth exploring, much of which would include valuable work done by the ISO. But I have yet to hear anybody refute that these tactics were deployed, among others of course.

- This article is completely inaccurate: Fair enough, but it would be worth knowing what is inaccurate about it.

- The term “low-hanging fruit” is offensive to ISO members: I was recruited precisely as one of these “low-hanging fruit” as were many of my friends. We used the term occasionally in my branch, and it was not meant as an insult. But, terminology aside, most of the analysis of “instant recruitment” originated with the ISO Steering Committee and not with me. The weakness of that analysis, in my opinion, is the same as the weakness of “The Big Bang Theory”–it was a great insight that deserved to be followed through more thoroughly.

- How dare you write this/you are only trying to score points and tear down the ISO/you think everything the ISO does is bad/this article is awful/you are no Soviet Goon Boy/you are worse the Pham Binh: I really don’t know how to respond to this, actually.

Wisconsin and “The Big Bang”

First, it is necessary to provide a clarification on the Wisconsin occupation. Specifically, the last article asked, “Is it a problem that the Wisconsin capitol occupation was led by the Democratic Party? No, goes the unspoken logic…” This  sentence is admittedly unclear as it can be interpreted as saying that a) the Wisconsin occupation was organized by the Democrats, and b) the ISO never criticized the Democrats in Wisconsin.  Neither a) nor b) is true.

This sentence was merely trying to reiterate the problem with describing the Wisconsin battle as “The End of the One-Sided Class War.” The problem is that The End of the One-Sided Class War was announced before the battle in Wisconsin had even been decided. Certainly, defeats in the class struggle are usually not decisive turning points in favor of the working-class. Furthermore, the unique role of the Democratic Party in this struggle–which was an extraordinary moment nonetheless–ought to have given great pause to anybody wanting to declare such a turning point.

For example, the Democrats in exile, legislators who fled the state to hold up the political process, were a critical lynch pin in the entire event. It was clear that if they vacillated at any point there was a strong likelihood of the union bureaucracy vacillating with them and the entire, extraordinary house of cards falling down. Furthermore, having seen their actions take on such an extraordinary result on the ground, it was highly unlikely that any group of Democratic legislators was ever going to allow this sort of thing to happen again.

With this in mind, the ISO should have taken great pause before announcing The End of the One-Sided Class War. So, “[was] it a problem that the Wisconsin capitol occupation was led by the Democratic Party? No…” because the excitement of the events trumped all else. It was deemed appropriate to announce this turning point in class-struggle, when there were extremely strong reasons why it should not have been deemed as such. However, saying the occupation was “led by the Democratic Party” is confusing at best.

Of course the ISO criticized the Democrats in Wisconsin. But for all the discussion–for years–about the necessity of an organized, militant, radical rank-and-file necessary to rebuild the labor movement, that analysis seemingly went out the window in favor of triumphalism. There were so many reasons why The Big Bang was unlikely in this case, but it was declared anyway.

The Occupy Experience

The experience of the Occupy movement provides some practical examples of the ISO’s method and its failure in practice. This is not the space for a thorough overview of the Occupy movement and the ISO’s role in it, so a few examples will have to suffice. What is significant about the Occupy movement, though, is that it avoided merely symbolic protests in favor of a variety of direct actions and illegal occupations. These actions put participants in direct conflict with their city governments and police, keeping liberal Democratic mayors from co-opting the actions which they were eventually forced to dismantle through police force.

The port shutdown actions on the West Coast, probably the most powerful actions relating to  workers’ struggle in Occupy, provide some examples of the limitations of the ISO’s method. These actions, in which ports were shut down by Occupy groups, were in support of the longshore workers in Longview, WA, who were involved in physical battles at their port against a multinational grain conglomerate. After the Port of Oakland was shut down on November 2, a (successful) call was put out to escalate the action and shut down all the ports on the West Coast on December 12 (D12). The ISO was involved in some of these actions but there are a number of problems to consider.

The first problem, which I am not sure that the ISO ever considered, is how D12 fits into the model of the United Front. The answer is, it doesn’t. There were no reformist leaders coming to the aid of the Occupy movement. The official union leadership was against the action, especially the ILWU. This was not a call put out to bring in some other forces, it was a call from within the Occupy movement in solidarity with the workers in Longview against the will of their union leadership–explicitly to “shut down the flow of capital.” Whatever extent it can be deemed a United Front–ie some well known person spoke at one of the rallies–is fairly artificial. This was an action led by radicals in solidarity with workers behind the backs of the international leadership.

Whether such an action can occur again any time soon is unclear, but we have to ask why isn’t this the model–or at least a model–for mass action? Additionally, at some point in the future you have to expect that this will be more common–reformist leaders being intransigent while sufficient forces are prepared to act, not just to have a rally but to challenge the power of the state and/or capital. We cannot simply expect to lead United Fronts for the rest of our lives, can we? At some point, they will be discredited and working with them will only help them rebuild their legitimacy. Had the Occupy movement waited for reformist forces to join us in this effort, we likely would have waited forever.

The second problem is, having gone through this experience, should the ISO then focus on relating to the people who led this action, or should they focus on recruiting the newer people who come around instead? They may say they did both–fair enough. But that was not my experience as a participant.

After the successful West Coast Port Shut Down, the Occupy port organizing shifted toward building a caravan to Longview, WA, to help the longshore workers confront the first scab ship to unload at the new grain terminal. As the ship approached, it was announced that the US Coast Guard would help bring it into the port, an historic introduction by a Democratic President of the US military into a labor struggle.

As Occupy activists gathered in the Pacific Northwest to plan this action and build relationships with the workers, a solidarity meeting was held in Seattle which was assaulted by members of the ILWU in support of their backward leadership who wanted to drive radicals as far away from the workers as possible.

Claiming they wanted a letter read by the union leadership, the ILWU supporters disrupted the meeting before hurling offensive epithets and then outright physically assaulting people, bringing the meeting to a halt while people dealt with the melee.

Some comrades in the ISO described the confrontation this way:

Any use of sexist and derogatory language or of force to disrupt a meeting of rank-and-file union members and supporters is reprehensible . . . However, the way the event was organized–as well as the message coming from event organizers–had angered and alienated some members of the ILWU, as well as other unionists, even before the meeting took place.

Incredibly, the article goes on to blame the disruption of the meeting on the Black Orchid Collective, a small radical group that handed out leaflets criticizing the union leadership. Just to be clear, there is no love lost between Black Orchid and this blog. However, the Socialist Worker article is literally blaming radicals for criticizing union leaders too harshly and therefore providing cover for union bureaucrats when their supporters assault people in a meeting!

This SW article, which blamed fellow radicals for the reactionary behavior of supporters of the union bureaucracy, is one of the worst examples of the tail wagging the dog. That is, in the ISO’s zeal to take down fellow radicals–to prove that they are the best radicals–they end up providing cover for the union leaders.

After this letter was published, Occupy activists up and down the West Coast were furious and went scurrying to deal with any potential damage it caused. It was one of the most highly publicized pieces of media of this extremely unfortunate incident–the threat was that this confrontation could have been exposed by the mainstream media in a manner that would have been extremely detrimental to the organizing. This was in the days leading up to what very well could have been a military confrontation between the working-class and the US Coast Guard.

A couple of ISO members involved in the Bay Area Occupy movement wrote a letter criticizing this article, but it is unclear if many in the ISO appreciated the potential–and actual–damage that it inflicted on the campaign. Certainly, no serious activist would want to have anything to do with the people responsible for this mess, not only for the embarrassment but for their irresponsibility and the enormous potential it had in damaging the effort toward actual class warfare.

How could they possibly have done something so absurdly inappropriate? It was not because the comrades in the ISO were thinking critically about how to build the struggle. Quite the contrary, they put their desire to criticize other radicals–in order to build the ISO–ahead of the needs of the struggle. The result was a display of shameful apologism for union officialdom. The comrades who wrote it would swear up and down that they had no interest in apologizing for union bureaucrats–and they probably would have been telling the truth–but that is literally what they did. Their intention was not to give cover to union bureaucrats–it was simply to win a propaganda point–but apologism was the practical result of their actions.

This was a combination of both sectarianism and opportunism. Although it certainly was not accommodationism–everybody knew exactly where the ISO stood!

It does not seem like other ISO members took seriously the problems with this letter, either. In fact, on not one but two occasions, references to the Black Orchid Collective letter were published in SW as warning for how not to be a labor radical. I might suggest that the real lesson of this episode was completely lost on the ISO.

Another unfortunate statement appeared in Socialist Worker a few weeks later, this time as an unsigned editorial presumably written by one of the SW editors. On January 28, 2012, Occupy Oakland sought to take over an abandoned building. The results, however, were a pointless battle with the police and over 400 people were illegally swept up in a mass arrest. After those arrests, a group broke into Oakland City Hall, knocked over a few displays and set an American flag on fire.

In criticizing the action, SW commented:

At the end of the day, a small number of people got into City Hall and ransacked parts of it, including burning an American flag while the cameras rolled. This was utterly irresponsible and ought to be condemned.

But this is precisely the wrong approach to take in this situation. Criticism, sure. But “condemnation?” When the police tear gassed, assaulted and jailed over 400 people? Even worse, a week earlier Oakland Mayor Jean Quan was calling on the national Occupy movement to disown Occupy Oakland!

This is not just the matter of a single word with multiple meanings. The Socialist Worker editors should have known that their own members and supporters would be having discussions with their fellow Occupy activists about whether or not they should distance themselves publicly from this action. I personally dealt with meetings in my local Occupy where a few people wanted to do such a distancing and I had to argue against them, in spite of my disagreements over the tactical mess. I also took a radio interview during these days to discuss the situation in the Occupy movement and was baited by callers and the host to denounce and/or condemn  the flag burning. I refused to do so on principal. I am not going to attack my comrades in struggle, even when I disagree with their tactics, when they are being attacked by the state. Over 400 people were arrested for having done nothing but march, and while in jail people were even denied medication for HIV and Multiple Sclerosis. And I’m supposed to “condemn” the flag burners? Give me a break. To then read this editorial from SW suggesting we all do precisely that was extremely disappointing.

I don’t think that the ISO had a secret plan to back up Jean Quan in her attempts to divide the Occupy movement. In fact, the author of that article may not have even known about Quan’s statement. Nonetheless, this is precisely the sort of tactic liberals use to divide movements and the author should have known better. In their zeal to criticize the “ultra-left anarchists,” they made a very basic mistake.

These very basic mistakes show a confusion between the strategy of building an audience to recruit from as opposed to building power in order to struggle. These are not the same thing. Sometimes, they are the opposite.

The specter of anarchism

…just because I see Scheidemann [a leader in the Social Democratic Party of Germany] on the one side and, on the other, American or Spanish or French syndicalists who not only wish to fight against the bourgeoisie but who, unlike Scheidemann, really want to tear its head off-for this reason I say that I prefer to discuss with these Spanish, American and French comrades…” – Trotsky

In fact, there has been a decided shift in the ISO at least since Occupy of blaming anarchists above all else. A great example of this is on display in a Socialism 2012 talk by Jen Roesch and Arun Gupta on the Occupy movement.

Jen discusses the role of unions in demobilizing Occupy Wall Street after endorsing Obama, but then criticizes the “rise of the ultra-left hard anarchist current who took the worst lessons of Occupy [my emphasis], which is you just take action on your own, it’s what we do that matters, we can organize from the outside…[with] a hostility to the organized labor movement.”

Arun Gupta responded “What I would argue is the biggest problem is the union bureaucracy’s cynical attempts to hijack the movement…not these tiny groupings of anarchists.”

At the end of the meeting Jen came back and said about the union bureaucracy,

There’s union bureaucracy and there’s union bureaucracy. The Chicago Teacher’s Union has just organized a 90% strike vote that can lead the labor movement, so there’s that, then there’s the more right wing bureaucracies…we need to engage with…those people who are just becoming into political consciousness for the first time…If we cut ourselves off from the leaders that those people look to, then we will cut ourselves from the masses who are precisely what is going to regive Occupy a mass character and build a working class movement in this country.

Instead she might have said, “There are anarchists and there are anarchists.” That is, there are anarchists–and other radicals–who only want to engage in street battles with police, and there are anarchists who want to organize workers to build a mass movement but with radical demands and tactics.

But the analysis she offered is clear–the “ultra-left anarchists” are the main problem, we need a tactical alliance with union bureaucrats instead. This is literally a formula for aligning with reformists and liberals against radicals.

Another example from SW showing some of the problems of this approach came in the report on a large rally in Sacramento, CA, against budget cuts which included the participation of several unions and other mainstream forces. After the rally,  about 68 people decided to take an arrest inside the capitol building. The ISO members criticized their decision as follows:

In this environment, some core activists in the movement have responded with a strategy of “escalating” our tactics, including inviting confrontations with police and large numbers of arrests . . . But we need to consider the message this sends to the much larger numbers of people who support our goals–that the only way to be part of the movement is to get arrested. In fact, the opposite strategy is necessary for our movement. Rather than engage in smaller actions involving a core of people who are willing to risk arrest, we need to strategize about how we can involve more people in the struggle–whether on campuses, in workplaces, or in communities of color.

There are good reasons not to get arrested in this sort of situation–the Capitol was closed and nothing was being disrupted, so it was only a symbolic display which could suck up a lot of time in future out-of-town court hearings. But how does some people getting arrested push other people out of a movement? Was that really the only tactic proposed on that date–was there any “get arrested or get out of the way” rhetoric? That is not clear from the article.

The argument in the article sounds more like a reason to avoid arrest more than anything else. It is a common one in the ISO and I am sure that I have made it myself. The logic makes no sense here. If people are going to be turned off by somebody else getting arrested, we can’t really ever have a serious movement.

Instead, they mention that “the widespread popularity of the millionaire’s tax shows that this campaign can galvanize the sentiment against austerity. More organizing will be needed to get the measure on the November ballot–and still more after that to turn out the vote.” The article literally argues in favor of an electoral campaign instead of direct action. Is it any wonder many  radical activists think the ISO acts like liberals?

Another important aspect of this event worth discussing is that the day before the article was published, it was announced that the union-led “Millionaire’s Tax”–which was part of the reason why this mobilization occurred–was being folded into Jerry Brown’s tax-hike plan that included a sales tax that would disproportionately affect non-millionaires. This was mentioned by the ISO in a later article. The rally’s purpose, it seems, was to manipulate people into fighting for something they did not really want–certainly the unions had some idea of what was coming. It turns out, the sellout by the unions was the real danger–not a few people getting arrested.

To be clear, I am not saying the ISO should have predicted the sellout. I am, however, saying it ought to give them pause when making a suggestion like this and they should learn a lesson from this incident for future marches. Say, in a symbolic march on Washington, D.C., which the ISO might mobilize for with great enthusiasm only to find that they have been unwittingly used by mainstream forces to help promote the agenda of the Obama administration.

Finally, another example of the problems with some symbolic protests can be seen in the March on Monsanto last May. The San Francisco march featured a Web posting–since deleted–by one of the organizers saying that they would call the police on people who did anything illegal. Many radicals especially from the Occupy movement discussed boycotting the march, and in fact members of the National Lawyers Guild, which has a policy against working with organizers who call the police on protesters, began warning people about the situation. Yet not a word of this was mentioned in any of the three articles in Socialist Worker about the march.

It seems like the local ISO was unconcerned. Why? Well, why would they care if their primary interest was in finding and relating to a layer of new people who have no engagement or experience with these issues. But these actions–large marches organized by mainstream institutions that actually work harder to keep protesters from disrupting the political targets than actually doing anything that would cause their targets concern is a serious obstacle toward building a movement that can actually do anything. We can march around and pretend to build a movement, or we can try to figure out how to concretely advance struggles in a more radical and militant direction.

With all this in mind, can we see how symbolic marches can be used to co-opt movements and keep them from getting too radical? Can we see the danger of single-mindedly building broad symbolic protests to meet new people? Couldn’t this be a reason to be much more cautious about mobilizing for these types of marches? Couldn’t such a mobilization be simply unwittingly assisting the sellout?

The problem with the “build a broad movement and relate to the new people” approach is you have no reason to ever learn anything. You are always stuck with tactics at the level of the newly radicalizing.

Optimism of the intellect, pessimism of the will

There are plenty more examples but this article is far too long already. The point is this–ISO members are not fake socialists who are actually liberals. No, they are genuinely revolutionary socialists who have accepted a strategy which constantly leads toward a moderate practice, and leads to being more critical of other radicals than of liberals who are the real obstacle. These assumptions–build a broad mass movement and focus on meeting the newly radicalized–sounds very attractive but is in fact very problematic. Unless comrades question this strategy they will continue down this road. It is the method that is a problem, not the comrades themselves.

Furthermore, the problem in some of the examples above is that uncritical participation in symbolic movements means that sometimes when a movement has a genuine chance to impact history–like the battle in Longview–ISO members do not see how the practices they have become accustomed to can potentially damage the class struggle. The more movements become genuinely militant, the more the ISO will have a problem relating to them in a way practical way that can move them forward.

Finally, no revolutionary wants to spend their life chasing after symbolic protests, pretending like they matter so they can relate to new people, and then finding that the “opportunities” were fleeting at best. Spending a few years doing this would turn anybody into a cynic. This is, to put Gramsci’s phrase on its head, optimism of the intellect and pessimism of the will.

This is not a strategy for building a revolutionary organization, but of something else entirely. Whether that is a revolutionary organization with a moderate practice, or no organizational at all, will be decided in the years to come. You can do this for a little while, but not for years or even decades, without losing many of your best cadre, especially when they are forced out after objecting to this faulty method. This method–and not “demoralization” and “impressionism”–are why the ISO has a ceiling on its growth.

Another method is not only possible, it is necessary.

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A critique of the International Socialist Organization

fistThe International Socialist Organization (ISO) is by far the largest revolutionary organization in the United States. With as many as 1,000 to 1,500 members, it is positioned in most large cities and major university campuses to remain relevant in struggles for years to come.

Many radicals, anarchists and others look upon the ISO as “liberals in practice.” Yet, any member of the ISO accused of this would look upon the accuser as though they were living in a fantasy world. Of course we are revolutionaries, they would say. Obviously, only a bitter sectarian would conclude otherwise.

And yet, while bitter sectarians revel in these sort of accusations, this view is also quite common among unaffiliated radicals. How, then, to reconcile these wildly differing assessments from inside and outside of the ISO? Are they in fact reformists in disguise, who do not really want to see fundamental change in society?

Certainly not. ISO members do not dedicate years of their lives and hundreds or even thousands of dollars a year in dues, subscriptions, travel and other expenses to support the organization simply to put a damper on radical struggles. They genuinely want to get rid of capitalism and see mass struggles led by a militant working class as being fundamental to that.

However, there are a number of organizational and tactical assumptions–all of which seem completely reasonable on the surface to most ISO members and to many people who come around them–which lead to the practices which appear to many to accommodate liberalism. The assumptions that lead to these practices are rarely addressed by the ISO in part because they prove successful in the short-term, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy about how to organize.

On the other hand, there are many problems with how the ISO develops perspectives–that is, how they assess the mood of struggle for a period of months and develop a plan of action for the organization. Often, these perspectives seem incredibly short-sighted, focusing on an immediate opportunity while watering down a deeper analysis of the problems in various struggles and containing a certain triumphalism. Any whiff of pessimism by ISO members is quickly denounced as a barrier to reaching out to a layer of new, young radicalizing people who are excited by some new event.

What do these two things have in common? Everything. The issue of how the ISO develops its perspectives and carries them out on the one hand and how the ISO act as “liberals in practice” are completely intertwined.

The ISO positions itself as the “best fighters for reform” with the goal being to show that their ideas lead to a successful practice and people will join based on seeing that success. Ideally, victorious struggles led by the ISO will show in practice the tactics needed to win various battles, thus leading people to join based on their agreement with those tactics.

But it needs to be asked: Does the tail wag the dog? That is, does the ISO steer their protest activity not toward threatening the status quo but merely toward creating an audience from which it can recruit instead?

Low-hanging fruit

Historically, the ISO has succeeded in building a base on campuses and in fact has succeeded while the rest of the socialist left has utterly floundered and disintegrated. College students are young, idealistic and looking for new ideas and the ISO has successfully created an organization largely–though not entirely–from this base. The other benefit of campus work has been that it is free from the squabbles of sectarian left groups. College students can be recruited largely in the absence of sectarian attacks and denunciations sometimes found in city-wide organizing.

Regardless of anything else happening in the world, the ISO has always been able to “fall back” on campus work because it is relatively easy to recruit from this base. It takes a lot of work, but it usually pays off. While many of the recruits are very smart and thoughtful activists, there is such pressure to recruit in the organization that the ISO often goes after the “low-hanging fruit”–young people who are not the leading activists but are participating more passively. For them, the ISO offers a group with interesting ideas and seemingly sane strategy and tactics in a safe, easy and interesting space to be political with a low likelihood of arrest.

And what are the tactics which appeal to this base? Bigger and broader movements are better than a small hard core of radicals. Demands should be kept minimal in order to encourage the largest participation in the movement. This is based on the idea of the United Front, an approach which cannot be fully considered here, but involves building alliances with reformist forces in order to build a broader struggle and show in practice the cowardly behavior and tactics of these forces.

Of course, all of this makes perfect sense on the face of it. Larger protests are better than smaller protests. Unity is better than division. A few radicals by themselves may not be a threat but a large, diverse constituency including ordinary people–most of whom do not fit into some radical ideology or grouping–will be much more powerful than a small group that can be simply dismissed as outsiders or irrelevant. Along with this comes a natural and highly appealing argument for democracy in a movement.

Who could possibly oppose this? Young people who are newly radicalizing are especially open to this argument, especially those who have not yet been jaded by failed struggles and internal bickering. By positioning itself thusly, the ISO succeeds quite well at recruiting where others fail. More importantly, while it may look like a cynical maneuver it is, in fact, completely honest. ISO members believe in this strategy to their core. They see no contradiction toward building a mass movement in this way and recruiting from it. Most of them were recruited in this way themselves. In fact, it seems crazy to them that anybody would think otherwise, a feeling that is only increased by grandstanding sectarians who offer seemingly little other than loud denunciations.

Self-fulfilling prophecy

And yet there is plenty wrong with this approach. Rather than engage in complex discussions about the actual state of consciousness among the American working-class and its diverse subpopulations, or the nature of actual revolutionary struggles and their challenges, the ISO emphasizes the need to build a “big, broad movement.” One leading ISO member even described the problem with the theory behind this approach in what he called “The Big Bang Theory.” That is, it was always assumed by the ISO, almost explicitly, that at some point the American working-class would explode as it did in 1934–with three mass strike in three different cities, all led by radicals–and then newly-radicalized workers would flood the organization, especially since the Stalinists were no longer an alternative. Therefore, it was necessary to urgently build and recruit and grow to meet this future challenge.

After years of expecting this, it was announced that this was far too simplistic and optimistic a view. Running around after “anything that moves,” any small struggle that presented itself as though it were some decisive turning point, recruiting anybody possible in a desperate effort to grow, with the expectation that this method would draw great fruits within years when a mass struggle presented itself, made less sense as decades went by without such a “Big Bang.”

And yet, the ISO falls back precisely on this method over and over again. Why? Because it works. Regardless of other challenges, there will always be a new class of freshman recruits who are ripe for the picking.

The same leading member who renounced “The Big Bang Theory” has also praised the ISO’s work around the death penalty, in which individual members have built up real relationships with family members of death row inmates. This slow, patient work actually built up networks and relationships with working-class Blacks and Latinos who are fighting around real political issues dear to their lives. And yet, year after year, this work is deprioritized. Why? Because it is so much easier to recruit college students.

There is a regular hailing of some movement or event as the way forward, “The Next Big Thing”–or “The New Civil Rights Movement”–and regardless of how many times ISO members continuously assert that “we are not just moving onward and upward,” this same triumphal attitude seems to occur over and over again. The election of Bill Clinton in 1992 was supposed to create a new political environment, and yet the 1990s saw a new stabilization of capitalism in spite of the LA Rebellion early on. The UPS Strike in 1997 was to usher in a new mood in labor, but that seemed to stop after a year or so. For over a decade, the movement around the first Iraq War of the early 1990s was hailed as a prescription for growth, but mass protests in the anti-globalization movement and even larger ones during the 2003 invasion of Iraq came and went.

Finally, the election of Barack Obama and the factory occupation of Republic Windows and Doors seemed to open a new era in struggle from which we would never go back. In fact, there have been countless moments after which the world would never be the same, although, eventually it always is. The Republic battle–as inspiring as it was–produced not a single similar example in the months following. Yet, leading members of the ISO literally predicted that there would be an explosion of labor struggles in 2009 and those who disagreed with this optimistic assessment were browbeaten and labelled as pessimistic cynics and driven out of the organization.

In early 2011, as labor occupied the Wisconsin capital and teachers struck against a proposed anti-labor law, the ISO declared “The End of the One-Sided Class War.” Technically, many in the ISO would argue that this simply means that workers are fighting back at some level and not simply taking defeats without a battle, but this triumphal proclamation is clearly code for “the decisive labor struggle that we have been waiting for.” In other words, “The Big Bang.” But the Wisconsin battle went down in defeat–out-maneuvered by Republican Governor Scott Walker and then demobilized by the Democratic Party and the labor unions. While there have been continued labor struggles–such as the longshore workers in Longview, WA, and the Chicago teachers–this triumphal proclamation seems to have come a bit too early. On the other hand, it was recently suggested that the one-sided class war may be ending yet again.

The ISO’s formal analysis of the labor movement is that it will not succeed until there are a sufficient number of rank-and-file radicals and militants who can challenge the conservative union leadership. It will need to challenge anti-labor laws and risk having people go to jail, in spite of injunctions against picketing, not to mention actually shutting down production. And yet this analysis goes out the window once there is a sufficiently large strike, as evidenced by their proclamation around the Democratic Party-led battle in Wisconsin. Suddenly, the turning point is here, even though a radical, rank-and-file alternative has not yet been built.

Why does this analysis go out the window? The answer is that internally the ISO needs to rally the morale of its membership and these battles are a convenient propaganda tool for recruiting the uninitiated. “Look,” they say, “workers can fight can back!” With the troops rallied, a whole new wave of recruitment is expected and sometimes achieved. Those who disagree with this starry-eyed assessment are labelled as cynics who do not see the new opportunities. But once the “opportunities” slip away, the cynics are never given credit for predicting how limited the opportunities really were.

If, as they say, economists have predicted nine of the last five recessions, the ISO has predicted ten of the last zero decisive turning points in working-class struggle. They may have been mistaken, but the mistakes were methodical, and since the method never changes the “mistakes” will predictably continue. They are not mistakes but rather an organized consequence of the method. They will predict the next several “turning points” as well, in spite of the objective conditions and very thoughtful analytic skills of many of their leading members, but will do so because of the needs of the organization to send their comrades into recruitment mode.

In this way, the tail clearly wags the dog. The ISO is so desperate for a mass struggle to break out–and why shouldn’t they be?–that their analysis ends up being filtered through the lens of the needs of the organization. Is it a problem that the Wisconsin capitol occupation was led by the Democratic Party? No, goes the unspoken logic, these events show that struggle is possible and that is all that matters. The analysis of current events flows from there–rather than relying on an understanding of liberalism and union leaders as playing a role that will consistently sell out the movement, the ISO constantly falls back on simply using these events merely to excite its base. The problems with this approach should be obvious, although the fact that this occurrs is completely unconscious to ISO members. They are not trying to provide cover for these liberal forces, but this sort of uncritical triumphalism inevitably does.

It is this strategy of declaring “opportunities” that is cynical, not the “cynics” who refuse to lie to their own comrades year after year and refuse to be browbeaten into going along with a message that experience has taught them not to believe. It is this strategy which is, in fact, training people to be cynical, not the tendencies of these comrades who simply want to look reality in the face.

But year after year, these same issues arise. Why? Because it is inherent in the ISO’s recruitment strategy, which is the lifeblood of the organization, and it works. A few people will eventually join and all the discord will fall by the wayside.

If the ISO does not grow it will shrink. Members will–and have–become disillusioned by the infeasibility of the project and stagnation will–and does–lead to members leaving. Such stagnation/regression makes the project even more unlikely. But a few good meetings and a few new recruits does wonders for morale–or at least help some pretend to temporarily boost their morale–and of course the best way to do this is by appealing to young people and college students.

The low-level of political sophistication–and even lower level of tactical movement experience–is a result of the fact that sophisticated political analysis and strategic thinking is not necessary in order to build the ISO. What is necessary is some movement work and a decent understanding of the basic politics in order to bring in the next layer of young people, who will be expected to do the same as well.

Toward a vanguard?

The goal of the ISO is to create a vanguard party. That is, a mass organization of the most militant members of the working-class, the best and most consistent fighters who know how to build workplace resistance and mass struggles but also have their eye on the larger goal of societal transformation.

Nonetheless, the ISO does not claim to be a vanguard party, not simply because of its size but because the vanguard of the working-class does not yet exist. It will be created, they say, not by the ISO, but by the working-class itself, which will throw up leaders as class struggle increases. The goal, then, is to have an organization sufficiently large, experienced, sophisticated and rooted in the working-class in order to help shape and organize the vanguard as it is created and launch a vanguard party in the future.

However, the party-building strategy described above in the previous sections is not a path to developing a vanguard party but rather something else. The members who are recruited, all too often, are not the leading activists in struggles and, in fact, all too often the ISO finds itself at odds with other radical activists. The contradiction of this–building a vanguard by recruiting the new people–is rarely considered. The work of building the ISO is very difficult and just recruiting anybody is a big morale boost. The inconvenient fact that they are not the leaders in movement work is swept aside in favor of endless fawning over a new member whose questions and comments show no hint of “jaded” long-term radicalism–or the militancy and sophistication that comes with that experience.

Yet, it is precisely those experienced activists who would need to be recruited in order to create a vanguard organization–or something approaching it, considering the current circumstances. Yet the posture of the ISO is all too often  to recruit less sophisticated people away from other radical activists, who are often hostile toward the ISO’s practices, which only reinforces the ISO’s assumption about them as “anti-Leninist” or “sectarians.”

The ISO has organized along these lines for so long that it has shaped every facet of the organization, from the level of political discussion in meetings to the knee-jerk reactions to other activists. Most importantly, though, is its role in building movements.

The ISO’s movement-building method has a strong preference toward symbolic protest. The idea of building a broad movement fits very well into the strategy of recruiting the uninitiated who have not yet been disillusioned by symbolic protest. A series of well-organized marches and rallies not only can improve the morale of ISO members but can put them into contact with people who are not experienced–and “jaded”–radicals. This cycle can continue indefinitely–a march introduces the ISO to new people, a few of them join, they help build other rallies to meet more new people, etc.

The problem, of course, is that symbolic protest has very little effect on the powers-that-be. It can, of course, be precisely the thing that tips the scales for an embarrassed politician or university administrator, but it is a very limited approach to radical activism. The ISO knows full well that far more will be required to win serious demands, and yet the world the ISO lives in seems to be ruled by symbolic protest and panel discussions.

Why? Because this is all that is necessary to find and meet and recruit new people.

The landscape of activism in the US is dominated by well-rehearsed protests organized by unions and nonprofits which are entirely predictable and threaten nothing. There is little threat of anything getting out of control, which might actually break the grip of the state or capital over the lives of working-class people. And yet these protests provide an audience for the ISO, they can be used as “proof”–to newer members–that people are fighting back, and are often assessed uncritically on that basis. “It’s a good thing this is happening,” ISO members will say, rather than “why aren’t the organizers doing something more militant?” The fact that some of these unions and nonprofits may be allies in other United Front campaigns certainly encourages this attitude. “We are participating in the struggle and even leading it,” they will say.

This strategy is dangerous, far more so than the ISO realizes.

What first needs to be made clear is that this strategy actively discourages radical demands and actions. “Broader” protests always lead to less radical demands and ISO members find themselves fighting against a movement taking on too radical a posture. They do not do this because they want to keep movements “safe” for liberal Democrats and union leaders and yet it has precisely this effect. They can explain as well as anybody the detrimental role of the Democratic Party and the backward character of trade union bureaucrats. And yet the pressure to recruit and the unquestioned assumption that “bigger and broader” is always better–and the experience of growing out of such movements–leads to precisely the same practical conclusion as if they believed otherwise.

The worst part is that this approach leads the ISO to ally themselves with liberals and against radicals, not just occasionally but consistently and out of habit. Radicals want to impose demands that will make the movement smaller and therefore weaker, goes the argument. We will build a stronger–read bigger and broader–movement and we will show in practice to the new people not yet infected by cynical radicalism, that our politics and organization are better suited to lead struggles. And, of course, this approach often works, if by “works” you mean build symbolic protests and recruit out of them.

An example of this is the anti-war movement that built up around the Iraq war. The ISO was well aware, far more than most people, that the war in Iraq was inevitable and that mass, symbolic protest was not going to stop it. But there was an opportunity, it was argued, to build an anti-imperialist wing of the anti-war movement out of the mass outrage that would occur. Yet the primary tactic of the ISO was symbolic protest, although they did participate in direct actions and took arrests on the first day of the war. Throughout the war and its immediate aftermath, the ISO argued against the anti-war movement raising support for Palestine as a point of unity. Doing so would exclude people who did not agree or understand that point, thus making the movement smaller and therefore weaker, they argued. The ISO took this attitude in 1991 and 2003 as well as during the post-9/11 protests against the Afghanistan War. This approach did not change until after the “success” of the Iraq invasion and campus anti-war activism took a turn toward solidarity with the second Intifada.

An alternative strategy would have considered that such a point of unity might not have turned away masses of angry protesters. The ISO also could have argued for Palestine as a point of unity and lost the argument in practice (ie by losing a vote in a broad coalition) while aligning themselves with radicals who wanted to build an anti-imperialist movement. More importantly, by putting a halt to Palestine as a point of unity they were playing precisely the same role as the moderate, liberal forces who in fact did want to keep it safe for liberal Zionists and Democrats.

In fact, at the same time the ISO was arguing against Palestine as a point of unity, it was advocating for the inclusion of liberal Democratic politicians on the speaker platforms of the anti-war protests. The ISO believes that the particular features of US politics requires revolutionaries to build United Fronts with liberal Democratic politicians. Though this is rarely discussed in the pages of Socialist Worker, it is well known among ISO veterans who call for the inclusion of these speakers at events.

Of course, the ISO also has an analysis that the left-wing of the Democratic Party enables the right-wing. That is, Jessie Jackson, Barbara Lee and Dennis Kucinich enable the right-wing of the party by providing them a left cover. Since they are all in the same party, it looks like there is room to debate and pressure the party platform and maybe even have an impact on a Democratic president like Clinton or Obama. The ISO is clear about this dynamic, but nobody ever asks, if the left Democrats enable the neoliberal Democrats, who enables the enablers?

To have suggested to a member of the ISO that they were acting like liberals–when they were providing a platform for liberal Democrats while denying a platform for the issue of Palestine–would have met with a blank stare. Of course not, they would say, we are building a revolutionary organization and building a mass movement. And they would be telling you the truth. There was no secret plan to keep the movement safe for liberal Democrats, even though their actions were doing just that.

What, then, could they possibly have meant by building the anti-imperialist wing of the movement? It meant building the ISO. At no point did the ISO propose launching an explicitly anti-imperialist coalition or front to organize anti-war activity. Every move in that direction by ISO members or their fellow activists was opposed by the leadership as being “sectarian.” Rather, the emphasis was always on a broad front with minimal demands which is welcoming to all political forces and does little to move the struggle in a more radical direction, emphasizing numbers of participants instead. The ISO typically criticizes the Socialist Workers Party US of the 1960s as positioning itself in the left-wing of liberal and pacifist activism, rather than relating directly to the growing radical and revolutionary left at the time. Yet, this is precisely the approach of the ISO.

None of this is to say that the ISO has no self-criticism–far from it. But the criticism is often within a certain narrow confines. Significantly, they often assess their movement work as falling within the poles of two common mistakes–sectarianism and accommodationism. Sectarianism involves standing outside of a movement on grounds of principle or demanding that a movement take up revolutionary principles rather than concretely work to make a movement politically stronger. Accommodationism involves quieting one’s politics in order to participate in a movement and not lose friends by raising important criticisms. The problem with accommodationism is that a socialist “pole of attraction” is not built within the movement and therefore nobody sees why they should join the ISO.

But the real error is not so much accommodation but opportunism. That is, taking advantage of an opportunity for the organization that in fact has a detrimental effect on working-class struggle. The classic example of opportunism is the socialist parties in Europe that voted to support World War I and send their members off to kill other workers, so they could maintain their seat at the table in a bourgeois parliament. Obviously, the ISO is responsible for no such crime. But, while ISO members often criticize themselves for sectarianism and sometimes for accommodationism, they almost never raise the criticism of opportunism. This is seriously short-sighted and will be even more problematic as the organization grows.

A strategy for what?

Many activists have had discussions in recent years about the success and failure of certain tactics and these discussions have largely been ignored by the ISO. For example, the effect–or lack thereof–of the symbolic protests against the war in Iraq, for one. Also, whether the mass “day of action” model that sprung up around the anti-globalization movement has any value or is in fact detrimental to local organizing has been widely discussed.

Additionally, there are many discussions among activists about “peace policing”–physically stopping protesters from committing illegal acts–and the role of well-rehearsed, top-down marches by unions and non-profits and how they restrict spontaneous action. There are countless protests organized by institutional forces that are more concerned about stopping their own marchers from doing anything illegal than they are with doing anything threatening to the people they are protesting. The ISO has nothing to say about these issues and most ISO members would be surprised to hear these questions asked at all, or dismiss them as irrelevant to building a broad, mass march.

These questions have been largely ignored by the ISO for a very simple reason–these political issues have no affect whatsoever on their strategy. Symbolic protests and mass days of action and even top-down marches pose absolutely no problem for the ISO. These are not problems, they are solutions, opportunities to show people that “struggle is possible,” to meet an audience new to radical ideas and to give the members something to be excited about. The problems with the actions are largely irrelevant to the ISO.

None of this is to say that the ISO is a social democratic party in waiting, just sitting on the opportunity to sell out the revolution. The members are committed to revolutionary struggle, they just never consider the contradictions between their revolutionary theory and their moderate practice. At the very least, however, for the ISO to play a significant role in a militant struggle will require a transformation of the internal culture and decades-long habits of the group.

Members of the ISO spend a substantial amount of time and energy building the organization and recruiting new people. All of these practices are filtered–conscious or otherwise–through the lens of recruitment. While many are also involved in various movements and may even play a leading role, they generally do not spend much or even any time organizing direct actions or other non-symbolic protests. To turn the ISO into a fighting organization of militants would require confronting serious challenges that most of the members have not met, regardless of how hard they currently work in building the ISO. Whether and how the ISO confronts that challenge will determine whether it will be a force for radical action or merely continue as a machine dedicated to its own self-reproduction.

The author is a former member of the ISO. This article has focused on the methods behind the ISO’s practice. A future article will look at more concrete examples of this method in practice.

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