On disintegration and renewal, part 3: From identity politics to mourning

At the end of my last post about the disintegration of the International Socialist Organization, I was ruminating on the sense of betrayal I felt when it was revealed that longtime leaders of the organization, and my friends, had covered up–and participated in–sexual abuse and assault. This history deeply fractured the organization. In and of itself, it might not have been the fatal blow. When the assaults and the coverup were revealed, a process of accountability, healing, and restoration were initiated.

In addition, the old guard’s leadership had sustained political positions that became increasingly inappropriate in changing political circumstances, and that it had used bureaucratic procedures to prevent significant challenges to the composition of the leadership or the political “line” of the organization. Newer members of the organization, and a majority of the sitting steering committee, opened up the conversation over process and politics in the vibrant discussion period leading up to the February convention.

The convention itself saw a flourishing of multiple political platforms, including advocates of using Democratic party ballot lines and endorsing the campaign of self-defined socialist Bernie Sanders. The organization could have withstood this set of the debates and emerged stronger than it had been, if (in my opinion) precipitously unclear on the longtime opposition of a revolutionary tradition to entering or supporting capitalist parties.

Another recent analysis of the decomposition of the organization has argued that the organization could have and should have withstood these two crises–sexual assault cover ups and political challenges from below. Paul LeBlanc laments the demise of what was, even if very small and imperfect (to say the least), the most significant revolutionary socialist organization in the United States. The organization was an important site of political, historical, and theoretical education, as well as a launching pad for skilled political activism. It had been LeBlanc’s political home as it had been mine. Like other commentators, LeBlanc notes the bureaucratism and defensiveness of the organization as significant factors in the crisis.

LeBlanc criticizes the scattering of discussion assessing our loss into exposé, individual grievances, and mockery. He takes too lightly, however, the righteousness and necessity of bringing the stories of survivors of sexual violence into the open air. At the same time,, I too might make the futile wish to bring the wandering dandelion seeds back to their flower.

But what LeBlanc’s analysis barely mentions is the third and final blow to the organization as it had existed. On the first night of the February convention, a discussion opened up around the experiences of comrades of color in the organization. Black, Latinx, Asian, and other comrades from oppressed groups spoke one after another about their marginalization in the organization both personally and politically. The organization had been taking measures toward inclusion of members of color in leadership. And the organization had done some amazing anti-racist work throughout its history, including launching the Campaign to End the Death Penalty and the bringing together of families of victims of police murders. Our position on identity politics had started to become more moderate, but the shift lagged behind developments in social movements on the ground.

However, as I noted in an earlier post, the organizing held onto a critique of identity politics that discouraged independent organizing, or caucusing, of members from oppressed groups on the argument that such activity would fragment the interracial solidarity necessary to the revolutionary struggle. As I noted, the context for that position was the retreat on the part of the broader Left into the idealism and anti-Marxism of postmodern and poststructuralist thought that had rejected class politics in favor of an emphasis on the identities of the oppressed.

In this context the political argument was set forward forcefully by Sharon Smith in an important article in International Socialist Review and sustained in later work by leaders of the organization, for example, in Keeanga-Yahmatta Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. In the academic realm, many of us held hard to the materialist class politics in the face of the gale force winds of relativism and idealism.

I am no exception and remain proud of my work that asserts the capitalist context of oppressions of race, gender, sexuality, nation, and so on. It was a strange feeling after the convention to have been asked to review a journal article submission. The anonymous article made a case against the Left’s critique of identity politics, citing Smith–and my own work.

There is merit to the argument for interracial solidarity, which is ultimately and utterly necessary to revolutionary movements. That necessity, however, does not exclude independent caucuses, of course. There is merit, also, in academic work calling attention to capitalism as the ground upon which oppressions intersect. However, this argument does not necessitate the minimization of those oppressions, and, in fairness, I think ISO academics have not generally been “reductionist” in this way.

But the condemnation of identity politics in the context of organizing was damaging to comrades of color in ways that members, on that night, explained. The revelation of feelings of insult, isolation, marginalization, discreditation, and exclusion knocked all of us, rightly, off of our feet.

It so happened that very weekend in Syracuse Black students were assaulted in a hate crime in a campus neighborhood. Our branch members were slow on the uptake, failing to reach out to the victims and their communities to offer support and build protest. One of our own leading members, from South Asia, was at the ISO convention. Attempting to guide the student from afar was frustrating.

More than that, the events demonstrated to our member that if other members were slow to respond to the attacks that weekend, they might be slow to defend him and other people like him in a similar situation. He could have been the person targeted on that street that night.

The right to caucus and the formation of caucuses emerged from the convention. But the narratives of members of color also called the organization as a whole into question. Our reality structure was violated.

So, there were three major challenges to the International Socialist Organization that, taken together, undermined the organization. The organization was not flexible enough to withstand all of these righteous challenges to our old ways. I agree with Paul LeBlanc that the loss is grievous and that instead of or in addition to exposé or mockery, we may need something more organized and thoughtful, a collective occasion to assess the loss and explore our feelings: a funeral.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s