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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5 Responses to Does the tail wag the dog? The ISO in practice

  1. David says:

    I guess I’ll follow up here to my comment on your previous post in this series.

    I agree with some of your criticisms of specific Socialist Worker articles, and disagree with others. For example, the focus on the Black Orchid was generally silly, and worse than that in the particular SW article. And the call for “condemnation” of flag burners was itself irresponsible. I disagree with other of your criticisms. For example, I think Jen’s repeated use of the phrase “ultra-left anarchists” is actually an attempt to reference the “anarchists and anarchists” distinction you ask for–which we certainly made in internal discussions, between the majority of folks in Occupy who we could work with fine and a fairly small and problematic minority. And I think your claim that “if people are going to be turned off by somebody else getting arrested, we can’t really ever have a serious movement” is a too-quick dismissal of a question we always need to ask about whether arrests will advance the movement at a given time & place with a given state of consciousness among its audience.

    But, you know, I’m not sure where to go with any of that. Let’s take a step back. I appreciate that you’re trying to go beyond a general point-scoring and give a materialist critique of the ISO on the basis of how the strategies you disagree with are actually functional in some way for the organization. (That already puts you above Pham Binh!) And I think it’s important to figure out, when we’ve screwed something up systematically, not just that we did, but why we did.

    But I don’t think the method of argument you’re using can support the kind of analysis you’re trying to make. You respond to the charge of not producing an “accurate reflection” in the context of the antiwar movement by saying, “The article merely described a handful of specific tactics deployed by the ISO.” But is that good enough? You’re not saying that the ISO sometimes uses bad tactics; you’re saying it does so systematically. To support that I think you’ve actually got to try to paint an overall picture of the ISO’s movement activity, not just the parts you don’t like.

    The ISO is a tiny organization by historical standards. But it’s still big enough that there are a lot of parts to the proverbial elephant. I would expect comrades to screw up sometimes even if we tried to enforce an extremely high level of discipline and political homogeneity. And I’m actually in favor of less political homogeneity than we have right now! Which means, in practice, that I am in favor of having comrades in the same organization make calls I’ll disagree with more often.

  2. Binh says:

    Nobody is worse than me, come on!

  3. Binh says:

    On a serious note, your discussion of the Occupy-related articles is right on. Good work. The other cases I am less familiar with but it wouldn’t surprise me given the fetishization of bourgeois legality (incidentally, this was the problem with the German SPD of the early 20th century that the ISO constantly cites as a negative example/positive justification for its “Leninism”).

  4. Pingback: Setting our record straight | Social Awareness

  5. Pingback: Valences of the united front (III): The struggle for culture | To Repeat

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