Who crossed what line? A response to the ISO Steering Committee

[In the January 24, 2014 edition of the ISO Notes, the ISO Steering Committee (SC) calls on the Renewal Faction to repudiate an on-line comment of Shaun J., a member of the faction, as this comment “crossed the line,” in the estimation of the SC.  As the ISO Notes are an internal document, we will not publish the text here, in conformity with the faction’s policy on publication of ISO internal documents. But as the SC has refused to publish Shaun’s response to attacks on him by ISO members in the ISO’s internal publications, we publish the faction’s response here.  This response has also been submitted to the ISO’s internal publications.]

The ISO Renewal Faction rejects the Steering Committee’s demand that we repudiate Shaun J. for his comment on Facebook. We see this as a diversion, yet another attempt by the SC to delegitimize the faction’s existence so as to avoid having to engage directly and honestly with the political questions the faction is raising. However, we believe this incident does highlight some key political questions that are worth examination.

The ISO Notes points to a comment Shaun made in a Facebook thread, in which he stated that Keegan O. had talked at length to Boston police about political activities.  According to the SC, this amounted to a dangerous accusation against Keegan. We agree that accusing a comrade of being a police informant would be unacceptable without strong evidence. But Shaun did nothing of the sort; he only stated that Keegan gave political information to the police in one interview—as clearly demonstrated by the document linked in the Facebook comment.

The police report that reveals Keegan’s conversation with the Boston police has been posted publicly online since October 2012 as part of a highly-publicized release of Boston Police Department “intelligence reports” on the antiwar movement following a lawsuit by the ACLU and National Lawyers Guild. When Shaun read these documents, he was shocked and disturbed to discover that Keegan had conveyed political information to the police. He spoke to the Boston district organizer about the matter on at least two occasions, asking him to address it with Keegan. This was never done.  Shortly thereafter, as Shaun has documented in External Bulletin, Keegan played an important role in undermining the Boston ISO’s support for Shaun in his trial on criminal charges stemming from his false arrest during an antiwar protest.

No one is accusing Keegan of being a police informant. No private or sensitive information was “leaked” as a result of this Facebook exchange.  And presumably, the police know who they spoke to already, so there is not a question of alerting the repressive apparatus of the state to some new situation. What is the real danger here: that Keegan gave political information to the police, or that Shaun pointed out, with reference to a public document, that this had happened? More importantly, should the SC be more concerned with a member who is on record having spoken to the police, or with a member who points out this fact?

Furthermore, the SC uses Shaun’s comments to “illustrate” how his presence in the Boston ISO branch must have “poisoned the atmosphere.”  Yet the SC is silent on the numerous insults thrown at Shaun on Facebook by various members, not only of the Boston ISO, but also of people in positions of national leadership. The SC has never addressed the allegation in the appeal for Shaun launched internally in October that the regional organizer played a particular role in marginalizing Shaun; and in prejudicing the leadership of the Boston ISO against Shaun before he even moved there in 2011. The blame for producing a hothouse atmosphere in which political disagreements are turned into personal insults lies firmly with the formal leadership, not with the individual who was isolated by means of epithets (“ultra-left”) and then ignored when he raised real concerns about the concrete operations of his branch. Now they accuse Shaun of creating a scandal. But it was the leadership that failed to address the situation properly and fairly. The failure to deal with this crisis discreetly is theirs, not Shaun’s.

What about internal discipline in the ISO? Does the ISO not have mechanisms for dealing with charges of damaging and uncomradely behavior on the part of members? If the SC believes that Shaun’s behavior crossed the line, the SC should bring charges against Shaun before the Disciplinary Committee. Of course, in that case, we would expect that Keegan would recuse himself from the Disciplinary Committee (of which he is an elected member). But we utterly reject the SC’s skirting of the ISO’s formal structures and mechanisms of due process in order to delegitimize the faction as a political formation within the ISO.  Although the Renewal Faction is “disciplined” in the sense that we have a common platform that we are all obliged to promote, as explained in our Rules, we do not attempt to monitor and control all of our members’ comments on social media or elsewhere.  We reject the SC’s cynical attempt to reduce the faction to one person, so as to scare the rest of the faction members into silence.  We agree with Shaun politically; to distance ourselves from him because of his alleged “misbehavior” would simply undermine us as an organized expression of political ideas.

What this whole incident demonstrates is that the ISO leadership faction has created a culture in which “leaders” or “stars” who support the leadership’s policies uncritically are permitted to do anything, regardless of the potential or actual harm to the organization, while those who draw attention to problems are denigrated for doing so. There is an unspoken double standard within the organization, based on whether members openly challenge the leadership, or publicly agree (while perhaps hiding their actual disagreements). Ultimately the environment the SC is creating by this mode of operating is one where people are learning to keep their heads down if they have any serious criticisms, opening up the possibility that serious crises may be ignored or spiral out of control while no one dares to point out the actual danger. It is impossible to build a party that aims to take down capitalism on this basis. This attitude may work for a sect or a cult, but ISO members must reject it if we wish to contribute to building a revolutionary socialist movement.

The Steering Committee has asked us to renounce Shaun’s behavior. Yet the comrade has told the truth, a truth that members and collaborators of the ISO should know, especially given the leadership’s amazingly indifferent attitude. To renounce someone for telling the truth is to renounce the truth itself. We refuse to so do.

 

Signed:

Alden E., Seattle

Amanda HG, Cambridge

Ben S., Atlanta

Brian C., Providence

Chris Ma., Providence

Chris Mu., Providence

Ian G., Providence

Mary R., Providence

Neil P., Cambridge

Paul H., Providence

Vanessa B., Washington, DC

Yuval S., Cambridge

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7 thoughts on “Who crossed what line? A response to the ISO Steering Committee

  1. You say, “the ISO Notes are an internal document . . .”, which is not surprising as most professed revolutionary socialist & anarchist groups have this institution. What may come as a surprise to many is that the Bolsheviks & Mensheviks, either as factions or a joint organisation, never had internal bulletins or secret documents. And these guys were either in exile, monitored by Russian & foreign agents, or in Russia harassed by a police state.

    Not to be trying to get anyone to suck eggs, this was made plain by the US Solidarity member Joaquín Bustelo in his article, ‘Lenin Was Not a Leninist’.
    http://www.thenorthstar.info/?p=7727

    Things changed leading up to the 10th Congress of March 1921 when the Russian Communist Party (bolsheviks) agreed to start an internal bulletin (& at Congress ban the right of members to self-organise, i.e. as either tendencies or factions). For Lenin, plus ca change, . . . There aren’t many comments on this blog, unfortunately, so I may as well give a longish relevant quote from Bustelo:

    “Those of us who have been around — or even worse, in — one of these groups know that nothing is more sacred than safeguarding the party’s — I mean The Party’s — internal life. Only members are allowed to access the Innermost secrets of the group — what its members really think — and mostly not even that. These are to be found in that Holy Book — err, I mean Holy stapled-together 8-1/2” X 11” booklets (and sometimes not even that) — the Truly Revolutionary Party™ Internal Discussion Bulletin.

    “Following is the full text of all the articles Lenin ever wrote for the internal discussion bulletin of the Russian Social Democratic Workers Party, or the party’s Bolshevik wing, or the ‘Bolshevik Party’ (which was never the formal name of a Party in the early 20th Century in Russia, but never mind), and the Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) [sic]:

    ” ‘ ‘

    “And that is a direct word-for-word quote, except for the quotation marks, of course. And there is nothing except the quotation marks, because Lenin and his friends didn’t have an ‘internal discussion bulletin.’ For a brief time in 1910-11, during one more effort to reunify the RSDLP, Diskussionny Listok (Discussion Bulletin) came out three times as a supplement to the Central Organ and with its own multi-tendency editorial board. But this was not an internal publication.

    “In the fall of 1920, on the basis of motions drafted by Lenin, a discussion bulletin and the Central Control Commission were established. But I’ve not been able to find anything Lenin wrote for that bulletin. And actually, from a very quick Googling of the Russian name, the one leader of the Russian Revolution who stood out as an author there was Stalin. No Lenin.

    “Instead, to his last conscious moments, Lenin insisted that big political discussions be public. The last thing Lenin ever wrote was the second part of a message to the 12th Party Congress harshly criticizing the government bureaucracy, which he finished on March 2, 1923, and, at Lenin’s insistence, was published in Pravda on March 4.

    “To get a feel for Lenin’s tone, let me quote a bit of the piece:

    ‘Our state apparatus is so deplorable, not to say wretched, that we must first think very carefully how to combat its defects, bearing in mind that these defects are rooted in the past, which, although it has been overthrown, has not yet been overcome, has not yet reached the stage of a culture. [. . .]'”

    Fundamentally, what Lenny thought is neither here nor there. The point is that the most durable efficacious decisions are made when participation is maximised, & that includes of non-members: draw on & benefit from the collective wisdom of all. That was at the root of Russian social democracy, the insistence to do things in front of the class, not in secrecy: all information was publicly available so even non-members could write letters to the paper both during the pre-conference period & also when the conference was in session. Trust in the party can only grow when the class & its allies see exactly what is going on within the party: what could the party have to hide? Hence Lenin’s insistence to do things in public, never in secret bulletins. All professed revolutionary organisations need a culture of openness, of transparency, of what can be rightly called thoroughgoing democracy.

    For Cliffists who may want a reassuring buttressing quote here it is, from 1960:

    “The revolutionary party that seeks to overthrow capitalism cannot accept the notion of a discussion on policies inside the party without the participation of the mass of the workers – policies which are then brought ‘unanimously’ ready-made to the class. Since the revolutionary party cannot have interests apart from the class, all the party’s issues of policy are those of the class, and they should therefore be thrashed out in the open, in its presence. The freedom of discussion which exists in the factory meeting, which aims at unity of action after decisions are taken, should apply to the revolutionary party. This means that all discussions on basic issues of policy should be discussed in the light of day: in the open press. Let the mass of the workers take part in the discussion, put pressure on the party, its apparatus and leadership.”
    ‘Trotsky on Substitutionism’ (penultimate para.)
    http://marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1960/xx/trotsub.htm

    So it goes.

    • I completely agree; I think internal bulletins are stupid. Their main function, in my experience, is to permit the leadership to make dumb arguments that would be laughed out of the court of public opinion.

  2. If the steering committee can make this about one individual’s personality or actions, it can completely blow off the RF. That is what it wants. The SC is trying to make this all about Shaun.

    So is this person, http://redplebeian.tumblr.com/post/70533527441/what-do-you-think-of-the-iso-renewal-faction

    On the few occasions that I have seen Pleb/Ben talk about anyone inside or outside disagreeing with the ISO, he resorts to insults, slanders, childish memes, and goes out of his way to wage petty spats with any person or publication that critiques the ISO in any way. He offers nothing political or of substance, just partisan hackery.

    See how easy it is to make it about personalities? I just did. Now, moving onto issues that actually matter, as neither the SC nor its Plebian loyalists seem to want to do, there are serious political deficiencies in the ISO that the Faction is trying to address. Please focus on them

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