Archive for the ‘U.S. Left’ Category

The ISO: Where the Personal Becomes Political

May 31, 2015


Lately, I have been thinking about an incident that happened when I was a member of the Los Angeles ISO branch in the late 1990’s. I think it illustrates a problem that far left groups sometimes run into.

One Saturday afternoon I received a phone call from a woman who was a member of the branch committee. She told me there was going to be an emergency branch meeting that evening and everyone was required to attend. When I asked her what this emergency was, she refused to tell me. This greatly annoyed me, because I had already made plans for the evening. However, being the “Leninist” that I thought I was, I felt obligated to go.

The meeting was held in the apartment of one of the branch members. There were about ten of us. There weren’t enough chairs, so some people sat on the floor. It turned out that the “emergency” consisted of this: two people (one of whom was the woman who called me on the phone) had been assigned the task of designing a flier for an upcoming event. One of them, the woman who called me on the phone, had gone ahead and made the flier and distributed it without consulting the other person. When this person complained to another branch committee member about this, he responded by calling her a “Menshevik”. (I’m not making this up. People in the ISO actually say things like this.)

So, this was the “emergency” that had caused me to cancel my plans. What struck me was how incredibly seriously everyone took this. (Everyone with the exception of me, that is.) A branch committee member read passages from Lenin and from James Cannon. He then lectured us about what a “cadre” is. (I swear, I’m not making any of this up.) He then claimed that there was a faction within the branch. (In the ISO, factions are considered to be very bad things.) I don’t remember much else about what was said. My mind had pretty much tuned out at this point.

When I drove home that night, I felt angry with myself for having allowed these people to waste my time with such nonsense. I was tempted to quit the ISO. But I didn’t. (The woman who was called a “Menshevik” left the ISO shortly afterwards.) I think this was because I liked the ISO’s politics, even though I didn’t always agree with what they did in practice. And I didn’t know of any other groups that had quite these same politics.

The point I’m trying to get at here is that one of the pitfalls of working in a small group is that people tend to develop strong personal ties to one another in this situation. A disagreement over a flier becomes an “emergency” that threatens to tear the group apart. It seems to me that the best way to try to avoid this sort of thing is to try to organize on as broad a basis as possible. I admit that’s not an easy thing to do, especially considering the deep divisions that exist on the Left at the moment. But I don’t see any other way to move forward.

Against the “Don’t Vote” Argument

November 8, 2014


Over the past few days, I have read a number of articles that have posited various reasons for why the last election turned out the way it did: low turnout, Republican gerrymandering, the weak economy, the stupidity of the Democrats, etc. I think there is some truth to all of these arguments. What I would like to address here, though, is an argument that some of my leftist friends made, which is that we shouldn’t vote. I can understand why people would feel this way, since our political system is such a scam. Yet I think the argument is seriously lacking in some ways.

In the last election, Oregon, Alaska, and D.C. all voted to legalize marijuana. Massachusetts passed a paid sick days law. Denton, Texas, outlawed fracking. Here in California, voters passed Proposition 47, which reduces many non-violent crimes, including drug possession, from felonies to misdemeanors. This is a major blow against what the late Alexander Cockburn called “the prosecutorial state” – in other words the warehousing of human beings who committed petty crimes. This vote indicates there has been a huge shift in consciousness since the 1990’s, when Californians passed the god-awful “Three Strikes” law, which resulted in people being sentenced for life for such trivial offenses as stealing a slice of pizza. People are beginning to realize that mass incarceration is not only not the solution to our society’s problems, but it actually makes them worse.

Should you vote? I would argue it depends on the circumstances and what’s on the ballot. Yes, we have a terrible political system, but we should take advantage of what little room to maneuver that we have.

The Origins of Putinophilia

May 19, 2014


There is a growing divide in the U.S. Left, between those who simply oppose U.S. intervention in Ukraine, and those who defend, or even praise, Russia’s strongman, Vladimir Putin. Things haven’t always been like this. If I remember correctly, during the build-up to the invasion of Iraq, only the Workers World Party and its front groups defended Saddam Hussein. The rest of the left had no illusions about the dictator. I think a change began in the Left after the anti-war movement failed to prevent the invasion. There began to be talk about a “red-brown” strategy, that is, forming alliances with right-wing, or even fascist, groups that claim to be opposed to U.S. imperialism. The thinking was that the Left by itself was not strong enough, or maybe not committed enough, to successfully struggle against imperialism. And if it is permissible to work with groups with terrible politics, then it is permissible to support governments with terrible politics. Thus, it became possible to see any dictator who ran afoul of the US as an ally against imperialism. Gadaffi and Assad were now on our side, according to this view.

Putin has acquired a special place in these people’s eyes. During Russia’s 2008 border war with Georgia, Bush was unable to do anything. Many on the Left saw this as a humiliation for the hated Bush. (Although I suspect that Bush really didn’t care.) So now Putin can do no wrong in their eyes. He can imprison his critics and persecute gays and ethnic minorities, and they will simply explain it away or ignore it. And as Putin has grown a halo, Obama has become the embodiment of pure evil in these people’s eyes. John Pilger, for example, has claimed, on the basis of no evidence, that Obama was plotting to seize Russia’s naval base in Crimea and start a war. How can anyone take this seriously?

If the Left is to avoid becoming completely irrelevant, it needs to return to the principled anti-imperialism of the past.

Funny Business in Ukraine

April 19, 2014

Victoria Nuland and Geoffrey Pyatt in Kiev in December.

I strongly urge people to read the transcript of the telephone conversation between Assistant Secretary of State, Victoria Nuland and US ambassador to Ukraine, Geoffrey Pyatt. It is quite revealing of how the leading members of our government view the rest of the world. They casually talk about who should or should not be in the new Ukrainian government, as if they have a right to make such a decision. The question of what the Ukrainian people want is apparently not important to them. And they show a contempt for Europe in general. (“Fuck the EU”. Can you imagine what the reaction here would be if a European diplomat said that about the US?) This is not a minor matter, since Ukraine is now on the verge of civil war, at least partly as a result of the actions of these people.

The US protested about Russia’s tapping of a diplomatic conversation. This is hypocrisy, since the US has tapped the phones of European leaders such as Angela Merkel. However, we should acknowledge that Russia’s behavior in Ukraine has been no better than that of the US. We on the left should not side with imperial powers, but with ordinary people on both sides who are opposed to war and ethnic violence.

I normally don’t dabble in conspiracy theories, but I can’t help but wonder if the recent “Jews must register” hoax in Donetsk was done as a way of getting back at Russia for the embarrassment of the release of the Nuland phone transcript.

Okay, I’ll put away my tinfoil hat now.

The ISO and the Future of the US Left

October 4, 2013


I was a member of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) for many years. When I left, it was because of health problems I was having, not because of any disagreements I had with the group. However, the recent crisis in Britain’s Socialist Workers Party (which the ISO models itself after) has caused me to have second thoughts about the viability of democratic centralism as an organizing principle. This is a question I am still grappling with.

Up until now, all of the critiques of the ISO that I have read have been either ill-informed or downright dishonest. However, a recent article on the To the Victor Go the Toils website is a refreshing change. Although I don’t entirely agree with the article’s arguments, the author, a former ISO member, makes some shrewd observations about how the group operates. This article should be read not just by people interested in the ISO, but by people who are trying to come to grips with the question of how the Left should organize in the current political climate.

Victor Toils says that the ISO places a heavy emphasis on recruitment, which jibes with my own experience with the group. The argument that was made to me by “cadre” members was that the ISO needed to have many members to accomplish its goal. And what is its goal? Victor Toils succinctly explains it:

    The goal of the ISO is to create a vanguard party. That is, a mass organization of the most militant members of the working-class, the best and most consistent fighters who know how to build workplace resistance and mass struggles but also have their eye on the larger goal of societal transformation.

    Nonetheless, the ISO does not claim to be a vanguard party, not simply because of its size but because the vanguard of the working-class does not yet exist. It will be created, they say, not by the ISO, but by the working-class itself, which will throw up leaders as class struggle increases. The goal, then, is to have an organization sufficiently large, experienced, sophisticated and rooted in the working-class in order to help shape and organize the vanguard as it is created and launch a vanguard party in the future.

If the goal of the ISO is not to become the vanguard party, but rather to influence the creation of such a party, does it really need to have a large number of members? Relatively small groups of people can sometimes have a surprisingly large amount of influence during political struggles. The Workers World Party, which is much smaller than the ISO, has (unfortunately) exerted a remarkable amount of influence in the various anti-war movements that have come and gone over the years. Even the shriveled up Communist Party has sometimes been able to exert influence in certain struggles. (Again, with unfortunate results.)

The real reason for the ISO’s need for heavy recruitment is its high turnover rate in members. I know about this from personal experience, as well as from conversations with other ISO members. During the time I was in the Los Angeles branch, it underwent an almost 100% turnover in members. There are probably a number of reasons for this. Some people eventually decide that they don’t really agree with the ISO’s politics. Others strongly disagree with a particular position the ISO has taken. Others decide that they simply don’t like having to sell the newspaper. Another reason, though, may be what Victor Toils calls the “Big Bang Theory”:

    …at some point the American working-class would explode as it did in 1934–with three mass strike in three different cities, all led by radicals–and then newly-radicalized workers would flood the organization, especially since the Stalinists were no longer an alternative. Therefore, it was necessary to urgently build and recruit and grow to meet this future challenge.

This strikes a nerve with me. When I joined the ISO in the mid-1990’s, it had a perspective that said there would soon be a huge upsurge in working class struggle. To help prepare its members for this, the leadership urged them to read Teamster Rebellion, Farrell Dobbs’s account of the 1934 Minneapolis General Strikes. (I have heard many people speak highly of this book, but I must confess that Dobbs’s turgid prose defeated me. I was unable to get more than halfway through it.)

The leadership was so impressed by this book, that they adopted the dubious “buddy system” that Dobbs describes in it. In this system, party members are divided up into groups of two. Each of these couples are required to spend a certain amount of time each week discussing Marxist theory with each other. The “cadre” assigned to me as a buddy was a person who, they said, was an experienced member who could answer all my questions about the ISO’s politics. My “buddy” turned out to be a painfully shy little man who seemed to have to force himself to look me in the eye. We met in a Manhattan coffee shop. (I joined the ISO when I was living in New York.) I found that getting him to discuss ideas of socialist politics was like pulling teeth. I remember this as one of the most awkward and uncomfortable experiences of my life. A week after this meeting, the guy quit the ISO. To my relief, I was never assigned another buddy. For months afterwards, though, I would always feel a vague sense of alarm whenever I heard someone utter the words “buddy system”.

The successful UPS strike of 1997 seemed to confirm the ISO’s perspective. However, it was not followed by an upsurge in labor struggle. Instead, Ron Carey, the leader of the strike, was railroaded out of the union on trumped up corruption charges and replaced with the genuinely corrupt Jimmy Hoffa, Jr. Even so, the ISO carried out paper sales outside UPS hubs around the country. In the Los Angeles branch, which I was then in, we managed to recruit a UPS driver after months of selling papers. It turned out, however, that what he really wanted was to shack up with one of our female members, which he succeeded in doing. The two of them then quit the ISO. The UPS paper sales were eventually discontinued because members were finding them demoralizing.

The Battle in Seattle and later the Occupy movement both raised similar hopes that were similarly dashed. The expectation of the Big Bang can lead to disappointment and in some cases demoralization. (An interesting question here is why the Big Bang hasn’t come. That is something I will have to take up at another time.)

Victor Toils also comments:

    The same leading member who renounced “The Big Bang Theory” has also praised the ISO’s work around the death penalty, in which individual members have built up real relationships with family members of death row inmates. This slow, patient work actually built up networks and relationships with working-class Blacks and Latinos who are fighting around real political issues dear to their lives. And yet, year after year, this work is deprioritized. Why? Because it is so much easier to recruit college students.

This jibes with my own observations. The Los Angeles branch was able to build strong alliances in the black community in that city because of its anti-death penalty work. It’s worth asking if that type of organizing is more valuable in the long run than recruiting college students.

Victor Toils also argues that the ISO’s “bigger and broader” approach to movement building sometimes results in it siding with liberals against radicals. This is true, but it is not necessarily a bad thing. It depends on the particular circumstances and the particular arguments made by the contending parties. There are self-styled “radicals” out there who have some dubious ideas (conspiracy theories, support for dictators, etc). Just because someone calls himself a radical doesn’t automatically mean that he is right about every issue.

This article has caused a good deal of discussion both inside and outside the ISO. Debate and discussion are always healthy things, despite what some may say.