On Disintegration and Renewal, part 2: What Happened?

I fell in love with the ISO in 1991 and made it my political home for nearly 30 years. This past spring (2019), the entire organization fell apart. There are many accounts to be found of what happened and why, here, and here, and here. One compelling explanation is that the organization fell into the habits of what Hal Draper called a “micro-sect,” although many members of the former-ISO appreciate David McNally’s assessment-before-the fact more. In a period of intractable economic crisis in global capitalism and an isolated and marginalized Left, what is to be done? What McNally argues, is that, for mostly the right reasons, small revolutionary organizations like the ISO thought of themselves as a “micro-party.”

McNally writes,

One of the political roots of small group substitutionism — which I am calling the micro-party model — grew out of a mechanical transposition of revolutionary perspectives from the 1920s and 1930s to the dramatically changed conditions of the post-World War Two period.

As a result, small groups in the International Socialist tendency “in practice largely adopted the micro-party model, treating the building of its small groups in various countries as the fundamental task of revolutionaries today.

He added,

Of course, there are periods in which small revolutionary currents have little option but to huddle together and keep the red flag flying — circumstances in which the building of significant movements (as opposed to the occasional campaign) is simply not in the cards. But we are now, I think we agree, in a period in which the revolutionary left has to think in larger and more radical ways.

In the ISO through the 1990s, the order of the day was, and appropriately so, to “huddle together and keep the red flag flying.” But in changing circumstances, those wedded to the “micro-party” model can fail to reach outward to form alliances and coalitions, and to build beyond a smallish group of well-trained activist and genuinely fierce and dedicated cadre. I believe that with this convention, we were making that outward turn, but like the Titanic (but much smaller), too little and too late.

I believe that McNally’s argument makes a lot of sense, but it does not capture all of the problems that came into the light of day in the ISO this spring.

In the lead up to and during the 2019 national convention (a delegated, decision-making body), I and many other members found reason to hope for a renewal of the organization. For the first time, there were contending slates of candidates for leadership bodies and a raft of proposals for reforming the organization toward greater transparency, outwardness, and inclusion. The preconvention documents numbered more than a thousand pages. Discussion at the convention was vigorous and anything seemed possible.

I should say that, as a long-term member who had never served in formal leadership, I was actually concerned that anything seemed possible. I had dedicated my life to building revolutionary socialism from below. A core tenet of those politics is that we don’t support candidates in pro-capitalist, business parties. In the United States, that describes both the Democratic and the Republican parties. So when one of the proposals at convention was to a) endorse Bernie and b) use the Democratic party ballot line to float progressive and radical candidates in local and state elections.

I did not want to (and still don’t want to) dissolve into the Democratic Party, nor become a loosely socialist organization (some revolutionaries, some reformists, some Democrats) like the DSA. What made us distinct was belonging to a specifically revolutionary tradition. Frankly, at the end of of day of the convention, I was in tears, thinking, “This is not the organization that I joined and love.”

Well, that was certainly true. But my lament was misguided, because we seriously needed to become something other than the organization that I joined and loved. Politically, I am a product of the “huddle-together-1990s.” At the convention, I wanted to make hard arguments about the Democrats and the failure of the Popular Front. I completely humiliated myself by telling a group of people in an elevator, who, unbeknownst to me, were supporting the use of the Democratic party that “those people who want to support Bernie should do some reading on that history.” Or something like that. I have since publicly apologized.

But that’s me: Give me another study group, comrade. Make a good argument, comrade. Hold the line, comrade. To be fair to myself, I have also been a kick-ass activist. But I was not thinking creatively at this convention. I was frightened by some of the proposed changes that would take me and the organization out of our comfort zones.

That fear, I think, is understandable even if wrong and actually dangerous when it threatens to impede growth, democracy, and success, and when it sustains habits of discipline and exclusion.

And that’s another thing that happened at Convention. Members of color came forward in an evening session one after another to describe how the political lines and disciplinary practices of the organization had marginalized and damaged them. In particular, since the late 1980s, we had held a position strongly against “identity politics,” defined as organizing only among similarly oppressed people in identity-based groups. Now, in the long term, atomized identity-based struggles will not have the political weight to take on the system as a whole. And, it is true that sometimes a commitment to identity politics thwarts potentially positive inter/trans/cross racial/gender/national organizing.

The context of the argument against identity politics was a reactionary political climate plus the linguistic and postmodern turns in academic theory, which drew pessimistic conclusions as to whether we could found an intersectional politics of working class liberation. The idea of the “working class” was discarded by post-Marxist theory. In its place, socially constructed identities became the locus of interrogation and what little activism there was. So the argument against identity politics was a product of a moment of embattlement. I was significantly influenced by the ISO’s critique of postmodernism and poststructuralism, and indeed, founded my academic career on arguing for historical materialism and working class politics as a basis for critique and activism.

But we really carried on way too long with an ahistorical concept of identity politics. It could have been, in the 1980s, that the concept was tied to pessimistic and anti-struggle thought. But in the 2000s and 2010s, with the emergence of significant immigrant-rights and anti-racist struggles like the Movement for Black Lives, when people said “identity politics,” it meant defending the right of Black and Brown people to organize around their oppression and it meant pushing back against white supremacists who made “identity politics” their devil term. It shouldn’t be one of ours.

So increasingly to be anti-identity-politics was not making sense (if it ever had done so). What some members of color described, though, was how when raising questions about this political argument, they were pressured and even bullied into retreat. It is amazing that many stayed in the organization because it was pretty much the only place to do revolutionary politics–and the ISO had done some signal anti-racist work around the criminal justice system and the death penalty.

The anti-identity politics line conjoined with a disciplining practice of the organization: to oppose identity-based caucusing inside the organization. I think that opposition came from an outdated fear of fracturing when facing a uniformly hostile political environment. While I was never opposed to caucusing, I was also operating from a stance of “against-all-odds” fortification.

When the comrades of color came forward to describe these practices and arguments and other exclusions, it (rightly) broke the conference open. Out of the conference emerged not only a people-of-color caucus, but also queer and trans caucuses–and a survivors caucus.

And here was the other major fracture: the revelation that an ISO committee investigation of a sexual assault in 2013 was squashed and censored by longtime leading members of the organization. These members themselves covered up the rape. The sense of betrayal was enormous, and members began to wonder whether in a context of trauma how we could carry on.

These same longtime leading members of the organization were people whom I had worked with, learned from, and loved for decades. They were also occupying a minority position in the convention against the opening up and outward focus that was emerging out of the convention. On the day after the comrades of color blew the convention up (and rightly so), one of those old-guard members was challenged by a comrade of color about the position he had taken a long time ago on the Charlie Hebdo attacks. That position was essentially that, in the face of a movement of hundreds of thousands in France in defense of the publication, we couldn’t argue for condemning or censoring racist their Islamophobic cartoons on the basis of free speech. (I know the argument was more complicated than that.) But the old-guard member said something like, “Now is not the time and place to revisit that argument.” At which point the member of color said something like, “Have you learned nothing from last night? Anytime is the right time to have that conversation”–to applause, cheers, and snaps.

It turns out that that particular longtime member on the Steering Committee minority was the same member who recruited me to the ISO in 1991: Paul D. Paul had been family to me, along with the other leaders who had suppressed the sexual assault investigation and held the line against caucuses and identity politics. I ate and drank with these people. I learned from them. They stayed in my home. I saw them in their pajamas.

I still haven’t dealt with the depth of that kinship betrayal, that, as I noted above, came from a place of fear that implanted itself in a place and time far, far away.

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