Recently, while giving a final exam in one of my French classes, a student raised her hand to ask about the meaning of a word in the reading, a passage on changes in the workplace in France since 1975. “What does ‘cadre’ mean?” Naturally, as an American, she pronounced it as any American socialist would: “KAH-dray”, rather than the French “kɑdʀ”. Given the context of the classroom, and wanting to speed the exam along without getting hung up on simple vocabulary needs, I naturally responded: “Manager”. But I had to stop and chuckle to myself.
You see, I was recently expelled from an organization that had as one of its stated goals to train a socialist “cadre” in preparation for a future (or present?) mass radicalization that would bring about the formation of a mass revolutionary party, to which we would contribute our “cadres”. While the faction of which I was a part developed critiques of many aspects of said organization, what I found increasingly troubling was the difference between the stated (or implied) conception of what socialist militants should be doing, and the reality of what the leadership thought (and thus, directed into reality).
Questions regarding the human species relationship to the natural world can be complicated to understand. It encompasses all three categories of Marxist “philosophy”: dialectical materialism, historical materialism, and scientific socialism. First, let me say that I’m sympathetic to discussions on this subject matter in general; but I find the way Jon Hochschartner’s article compares animal “’exploitation” to human slavery objectionable.
The following document, written by the International Socialist Organization (ISO) West Coast organizer Todd Chretien and a leading Chicago member, appears in the group’s Internal Bulletin #1 (June 2014), pp. 2-8. We are publishing it on External Bulletin because it makes a number of slashing criticisms of Socialist Alternative (SAlt) in a forum in which SAlt cannot possibly respond; we also suspect that the ISO’s perception of its own centrality in, say, the Chicago Socialist Campaign would be of interest to other campaigners. What’s more, we consider the existence of two distinct and mutually-inconsistent discourses within the ISO–one for public consumption, the other “real” one for those “in the know”–to be incompatible with the development of an open and critical left.
Furthermore, while we are amazed by the arrogance and sectarianism displayed in this document, we believe that there is a rational core to some of the criticisms lodged at SAlt. Debate about SAlt’s highly sanguine perspective, and about Kshama Sawant’s ultimate support of the Seattle minimum wage measure, should be had out–publicly.
The document below is unchanged from the original, except to correct obvious typos; to add hyperlinks; and to redact names of ISO members who are not staff or otherwise prominent members.
We are forty years into that phase of capitalism that those in economic and radical circles know as “neoliberalism.” Margaret Thatcher famously defined it as “There Is No Alternative.” No alternative, that is, to the free market, the free flow of capital.
In brief: the last forty years have seen a massive push by the capitalist classes of the world to privatize, deregulate, capitalize, deunionize, undemocratize. Many books have been written about this process, wherein the US working class has lost 20 per cent of its purchasing power, while union density has dropped from 28% to 12%; wherein the world is now, for the first time in history, more than 50 per cent proletarian; wherein all the old certainties about economics, politics and society are now dead. Consciousness lags behind the course of material changes, so perhaps we should not be surprised that so many, particularly of the older generation, view all of this as a loss of what was a golden age, and cling so doggedly to notions that are now simply a lost cause.
To develop a Marxist animalism, we must situate non-humans within the labor theory of value, building on the intellectual groundwork laid by anti-speciesists like Barbara Noske and Bob Torres. The vegetarian socialist George Bernard Shaw reportedly argued, “I don’t need a theory of value to tell me the poor are exploited.” I’m sympathetic to such anti-intellectualism. But the truth is that for animalists to effect the species politics of Marxists, who have a disproportionate ideological influence on the far left, we must learn to speak their language. While I am very far from an expert on the minutiae of communist theory, this is what I have attempted to begin doing here.
[I wrote the first draft of this essay as a report for the Renewal Faction’s second in-person meeting in late December 2013 and completed the draft below by the end of January. Although it is written from the perspective of someone still formally within the IS Tradition, it expresses a deeply critical attitude towards it–and a desire to transcend it. I have reproduced it here without revisions; even though some of the formulations are clearly outdated, I think it may still be useful to comrades who are navigating these issues. –SJ]
Given the crisis in the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the series of crises and splits in the International Socialist (IS) Tendency, and the problems we ourselves are confronting in the US International Socialist Organization (ISO), it is natural for comrades to ponder the fate of the “IS Tradition” generally. One may even ask: is the IS Tradition finished? This is, of course, an ironic nod to Alex Callinicos’s “Is Leninism finished?” but by no means do I wish to repeat the hoary IS device of asking the question in a purely rhetorical way in order to refute it.
In the first place, it’s a serious question that ought to be seriously considered. In the second place, I think that the IS Tradition is indeed finished in a quite substantial sense, as I’ll argue here.
Over the past several decades, much of the international Left has come to question the “Leninist” party-building model that was hegemonic among Western socialists for the majority of the twentieth century. In the United States, it appears that the crisis of “Leninism” has sharpened in the years since 2008. While “Leninist” groups are notoriously prone to factional strife in general, this period seems to have witnessed an intensified tendency toward splinters and splits within these groups. Inevitably, this trend has generated new scatterings of disaffected ex-members, at least a portion of whom remain active in politics and activism. This process has been aided by the writings and (in some cases) the ongoing interventions of previous generations of ex-”Leninists,” who have, no doubt, helped many newly purged and “bureaucratically excluded” comrades to make sense of their experience within the sect-based Left. To this end, influential roles have been played by the likes of Louis Proyect and other former members of the 1970s-era U.S. Socialist Workers Party. Many former “Leninists” have also been influenced by such historical critics of sect-based socialist organizing as Hal Draper and Bert Cochran.Continue reading →
A recurring complaint of the Renewal Faction, and before that me personally, regarding the political method of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) was that the group rarely assessed its own activity. It seemed, therefore, that it would be gauche for me not to attempt an assessment of the faction itself. I should stress that these are my views as an individual on questions that were more often than not disputed within Renewal itself–the ISO leadership faction’s image of us as a clique ruled by one person (me) notwithstanding. I think other Renewal comrades would (and should!) produce different assessments.
On May 17, 2014, members of the (former) ISO Renewal Faction met for a final discussion of the outcome of our protracted factional struggle. This statement marks the conclusion of the faction, and the transformation of External Bulletin into a forum for broader discussion among revolutionaries, particularly those that find themselves outside of any particular organization.
While comrades in the faction had differing perspectives and at points disagreed quite vigorously, a few general themes emerged from the discussion, summarized here. This summary is not intended to be exhaustive; after this statement, individual comrades will be adding their own assessments and perspectives to the discussion.
The starting point for our discussion is that the ISO’s leadership faction did everything in their power to obscure and disrupt the process of drawing out the political differences, and instead threw at us the charges of disloyalty. At no point did the leadership faction ever admit the legitimacy of the faction’s existence, nor any aspect of our critique or our perspectives. The dénouement of this story, in the style of a show trial, did nothing to further clarify the issues. That work is left undone, and thus we start there.
[This document originally appeared in the ISO’s Internal Bulletin #2, published on 24 September 2013, while the author was still a member of the organization. Although the “branch-building” focus of the document is no longer relevant to either him or us, it still offers both critical insights into the pitfalls into which “Leninist” groups have fallen when trying to organize outside the campus setting; and positive ideas for how socialists should approach these tasks. It is republished with the author’s permission. –ed]
In a session on “The History of the ISO” at Socialism 2013, I raised a question: What are we doing when we’re building city branches? What are we building in cities? Brian Jones responded more or less like this: we know what we’re doing on campuses; we have some experience building in workplaces; we have nowhere near as coherent a framework for building “community” branches. Brian’s response was an important starting point to a question I’ve been pondering for at least two years. The ideas in this document are a distillation of the positive and (rather more numerous) negative lessons of organizing in the city of Providence, RI, population 170,000. Many ISO comrades throughout the country have been through Providence at some point in their political careers, almost all as students at Brown University. I have been here for 15 years as a public employee, union member, and active ISO member throughout that entire time, and I’ve learned a number of things about city organizing that I want to lay out to spark a discussion on our framework for building city branches.
The main idea of this document is that our city branches should be organized around a plan for rooting our organization in the working class. All of our routines, contact work, recruitment, everything should be focused on this imperative. Along these lines, what I want to lay out in the following document is, first, a series of observations about what is important and helpful in building a city branch (versus a campus branch) and what is not; thoughts on the development of perspectives; considerations on the concentric circles of the ISO; some thoughts on how to organize the branch around the city and the political priorities it imposes on us; and finally, a plan for getting the branch in Providence rooted in the city in a productive way.