On disintegration and renewal, part 1

I’ve been slow to respond to the disintegration of the International Socialist Organization, my longtime political home and site of some of the best organizing for social justice and of political education I know. I begin that exploration here, in what will likely be several parts.

I joined the organization in 1990, at the beginning of the (first) U.S. war in Iraq. My husband, our baby Samantha, and I were living in Iowa City while in graduate school. Like many of our friends, we were outraged at the U.S. bombing of Iraq and the propaganda justifying it. If you want to know more about that propaganda, Doug Kellner’s book The Persian Gulf TV War is the best, documenting how, after giving Iraq the green light to challenge Kuwait’s slant drilling of oil in Iraqi territory, the U.S. engaged in a brutal bombing campaign (which was blessedly short, unlike the permanent war the U.S. is waging now there and in Afghanistan).

As scholars of political rhetoric and the media, we got busy documenting these propaganda efforts, including a bogus story about Iraq leaving Kuwaiti babies in incubators to die. (This and other lies were manufactured by a PR campaign hired by the U.S. government.) I wrote and published an essay about “family support” or yellow (ribbon) journalism. (This essay became part of my first book about therapeutic rhetoric in U.S. political culture.)

In addition to that activity, which was a revelation in ideology and the tie between corporate and state interests, we became active in the anti-war movement in Iowa City in the months leading up to the bombing campaign in early 1991. Iowa City is frigid in the winter, but that did not deter hundreds (impressive for a town of less than 50,000) of activists from marching in single- and low-double digits against and spreading information about the war. We braved the cold even with Samantha, only months old, whom I carried under my huge coat with her little topknot hat peeking out. We used to joke that her first words would be, “No Blood for Oil!” (Her first word was “kitty.”)

During that time, we attended many campus and community organizing meetings. There were a number of activists who stood out–intellectually and organizationally, as well as in courage–I recall my friend Donna shouting, “No Blood for Oil!” as the police attempted to shove her into their car. (I also remember that we stormed the car chanting, “Let her go!”–and they did. Those were the days.)

I asked at a meeting who she and the others were. I was told that they were “the socialists.” What that meant on Iowa’s campus (and many campuses at that time), is that they were the ISO. My husband and I started attending meetings. At one of these, a leading member came from Chicago to talk about “why you should join the socialists.” (That member, as I will describe in another entry, became part of a larger problem of bureaucratism and political orthodoxy.)

I must have been stressed and tired at that meeting, because I stood up and, near tears, observed that while the state, corporations, and their media preached “family values,” they seemed to care little to nothing for actual families. As graduate students, we were struggling with the costs of parenthood on our small stipends. Everything we bought for her was used. Without a car, we carried her and her stroller or carrier on buses, or walked everywhere. Unable to afford full-time child care, we staggered our course and teaching schedules such that we would meet midway up the hill from campus toward the bus stop and hand her off in her carrier like a baton in the “baby relay.” At my shared office on campus, I kept a sign to put on the door to alert visitors when the baby was sleeping. When she was not, I put the tag on a filing cabinet, which led to some alarm when friends thought I had put her in the cabinet to sleep. I suffered from postpartum depression–which turned into a prolonged crisis, both biochemical and social. So I think I was fed up at that meeting, and angry at living in a society without free health care or any support at all (including family leave) for parents. And I said so.

After the formal discussion was over, the leading member approached me and told me that he appreciated what I had said, and that I “sounded like a socialist.” I guess so. My husband and I undertook a program of political education and activism that, for me in the very long term, built an intellectual and political home.

As I will discuss further in a later post, I wrangled with organizational leadership over whether to call myself a “feminist,” rather than a person standing for women’s liberation. In the 1980s and 1990s, feminism had been closely tied to patriarchy theory, which blamed a system of rule by men over women for women’s oppression. Socialists made a convincing case that capitalism required the nuclear family and at least the ideological domestication of women, and that women and men should fight in solidarity with one another, while challenging sexism in our ranks. I still believe that argument (and the extensions of it made in social reproduction theory), but the organization eventually adopted feminism as a term and a program.

Lessons and practice of organization building were tied to a heady period of activism, first against the war, and then for abortion rights, as Operation Rescue arrived in town to picket the local women’s health care provider, the Emma Goldman Clinic. The local news found it fascinating that I could carry a baby on one hip and a bullhorn on the other while leading chants and giving speeches. Those days brought out, again, hundreds of people in defense of women and radical politics.

When my former husband and I (and Samantha) moved to Austin, TX upon my getting a professorial job there in 1993, we started a branch of the organization where we engaged in the same kind of political education and movement building for many years–for me, the entire 23 years I taught there. It was slow going in the early 1990s, because the collapse of Stalinism was new and the association of socialism with the “evil empire,” and the epithet, “go back to Russia” were unfortunately common. And the election of a Democrat (Bill Clinton) to the Presidency meant that those around us held out hope–illusions, that is–in liberal reform. It was a quiet period for activism even as Clinton ended welfare and carried on bombings in the Middle East.

However, there were movements on and off campus, including student movements against tuition hikes, faculty and staff movements for domestic partner benefits, immigrant rights events (including the momentous 2006 march through downtown, which I will never forget), Palestinian rights campaigns, anti-war work, and many others. We were part of a massive Campaign to End the Death Penalty and won a commutation in 2007 for a Texas death-row inmate, Kenneth Foster, by building a large, strong interracial coalition involving inmates’ families.

As a result of such activism and publicity about it, I bore several rounds of hate mail, culminating in being targeted for harassment in 2017 by white supremacists, along with a number of other critical and activist intellectuals. As I have argued elsewhere, such targeting is part of a systematic effort on the part of the far-Right to influence culture and to make incursions onto our campuses–under the banners of free speech and “civility.”

And when I moved to Syracuse, New York, with my partner (having come out as a lesbian and divorcing the nicest man in the world in 1997), we started a branch here as well, which grew and participated in and led a number of struggles.

Every year the organization held decision-making conventions and co-sponsored educational summer conferences that were as vigorous and more interesting and useful than any academic conference I have participated in. I developed specializations in gender politics and social theory, and was privileged to give talks at many Socialism conferences in Chicago (which, happily, are now continuing without ISO co-sponsorship).

All of this is to say that I loved my organization, the International Socialist Organization. I loved the politics, the education, the experience of activism and leadership, and teaching this knowledge and these skills to others. My current (and future) partner joined the organization just last year. If you had told me even so recently that the group, which had become the largest (though very small) revolutionary organization in the United States, would come to a crashing halt this spring, I would not have believed you–although the signs were there and becoming more and more evident to a younger and more diverse layer of militants who came to question everything, and rightly so.


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