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 SocialistWorker.org. 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.

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2 Responses to A response to some criticism from Socialist Worker

  1. Thano Maceo Paris says:

    I just wanted to add a point of clarification around the question of “denying a platform for the issue of Palestine”. It’s helpful that Scott explains that this is a bit of a broad stroke insofar as there was no direct attempt to do this to create a safe environment for liberal Democrats. At the same time it should be understood that initially the push around the inclusion of Palestine as a point of unity in anti-war work was brought forward in a sectarian way that by groups like Workers World Party and the International Action Center. This was done on the basis of premising mass action against the war in Iraq on the basis of support for the right of return or a one state solution. This is different from pairing support for basic support for ending occupations from Iraq “to Gaza and the West Bank”. I can appreciate Scott’s basic point that the ISO might have been a bit behind the most radical edge of the anti-war movement but I think nuance is warranted here. I also feel that the implication that the ISO should have opposed liberal Democrats from having been included from speaking at mass actions is mistaken. A counter example to Barbara Lee would be that of Cynthia McKinney who was ultimately driven out of the Democratic Party, and began to take much more radical positions. I think that cutting off politicians such as herself from the anti-war movement would have been premature and helped to short circuit later developments. In addition I feel that the RCP partly played an important role in pushing part of the Democratic Party base beyond its existing framework through the impeachment demand and “World Can’t Wait”.

  2. Red_dude says:

    “For those who have left the ISO over the years, but who genuinely want to see us grow stronger, consider rejoining or collaborating with us more closely.”

    They keep saying this to ex-members. Shaun Joseph took them up on this invitation to rejoin and look how that worked for him.

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