(For anyone that wants the short version of this document, feel free to skip to the Lies and Accusations section at the end of the document to read a summary of what I’ve been accused of by the ISO Steering Committee and my responses.)
This document goes into detail about my activity in the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and includes examples of how the organizational culture created by the leadership faction leads to comrades being ostracized, bullied, pushed out, slandered, and expelled for having disagreements, even when those disagreements are within the boundaries of the ISO’s politics.
Kindly keep in mind that I’ve had a difficult time writing this document as this has been quite an emotional experience. I wanted to get it out sooner. I was informed I was no longer a member on 12 November. You can read what happened in the following week or so here, including the emails between ISO Treasurer Ahmed S and me.
If you think the ISO Steering Committee (SC) is justified in kicking out a woman with multiple chronic illnesses who relies on below poverty-level Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) for not paying enough dues and having gaps in her participation, then there is no reason for you to read further.
Some comrades who have been following my case say they just don’t have enough information to know what happened (because all that has been explained about my expulsion is “he said, she said”).
The ISO leadership faction uses ambiguity and secrecy strategically. If there isn’t enough information for you to draw a conclusion (such as written, formal charges distributed in an internal bulletin), then you will not conclude that the leadership has done something wrong. It follows that one would lean towards believing the leadership’s narrative. Not only are they generally trusted by the membership, they have ultimate control to both create and disseminate narratives via the organization’s internal means of communication (meetings, documents, private discussions), and their external ones (Socialist Worker, International Socialist Review). This is why the leadership hates Facebook for anything other than cheerleading the organization–they have no way to control what comrades say or to whom they say it.
If my dues and attendance are truly the reasons for my exclusion from the organization, then what is the SC saying? An organization that stands for the liberation of the working class thinks it is acceptable to kick comrades out for being working class? The ISO claims it wants to be attractive to–and for–the working class and the oppressed. Well, working class people and people of color are statistically likely to be poor with inconsistent incomes. We have higher rates of stress and chronic illness.
I am a Black woman with disabling conditions and a below-poverty income. I am also committed to revolutionary Socialism from below. I have been active in the organization–at times, extremely active–since 2008. Yet because I publicly criticized aspects of the organization that the SC considers off limits, I was class-baited, publicly cursed at and belittled by a SC/National Committee (NC) member, asked to keep my mouth shut, lied about by the SC to other comrades (see Lies and Accusations below), and finally thrown out like I’m nothing.
The Chicago district
I met the ISO in 2007 while I was organizing for single-payer healthcare. Along with other activists, we created Chicago Single-Payer Action Network. I already considered myself anti-capitalist, and I attended ISO meetings and events regularly for about a year before joining. I thought by waiting, I would really understand what I was getting into. Despite disagreeing with the ISO’s line that no white workers benefit from racial oppression, I was won to the ISO’s revolutionary Socialist platform and very impressed by the work comrades were engaged in.
I do remember worrying that dues could be a barrier to my joining, and asking Elizabeth L, whose contact I was, if I could join even though I did not have enough money to pay the minimum amount of dues requested. She assured me that, as per the ISO Rules, I can work out something I can afford with the treasurer. My first treasurer was Glenn A, and I remember feeling a bit embarrassed and humiliated explaining to him that I could not be on dues check-off since I didn’t even have a debit card. Nor could I afford the amount–$25–that he initially asked me to pay in cash. Ultimately, he agreed that I should pay what I can. It was usually $5-10. Some months I could not pay anything. But I at least contributed something to room expenses most weeks, and used money I received for Christmas to donate to CERSC every year.
I was in the health care fraction in Chicago for three years. I wrote activist reports and an article for SW my first year. I led book discussions and helped acclimate new members to the ISO. I defended the ISO (and myself) from sectarian Left hecklers and other groups and individuals. I spoke at the Midwest Socialist Conference and represented the ISO on countless other panels. I brought contacts to meetings; worked with comrades to try and start a branch at University of Chicago. I organized and facilitated the Philadelphia branch’s study group on The New Jim Crow. I went to protests, I sold the paper–I did all of the things that comrades do. Sometimes I pushed myself near beyond my limits. A lot of comrades do that too. I felt (and feel) an urgency to fight capitalism, oppression, and the literally sickening inequality forced on us so that my life and the lives of others will not include so much unnecessary suffering, anguish, and alienation. I have had bumps along the way that have kept me from being as active in the ISO as I’ve wanted to be, as is true of many working class comrades who have been members for a while. Unfortunately, in Chicago, I was sometimes shamed when there was a meeting or event I could not attend. I moved to Philadelphia in 2011, and had more difficulties with my health and finances, but participated in the branch as I could. Comrades there were quite understanding when I couldn’t participate.
Many of my experiences in the ISO have been amazing and inspiring, and I’ve learned a great deal from being a member. Reading Socialist Worker, the ISR, or members’ Facebook pages will give you an idea of how much good work the ISO contributes to. My focus here is to defend myself from lies and distortions the leadership faction has spread about me, as I have been denied other avenues to do so. Members of the SC have not mistreated me because they just don’t like me–their behavior towards me cannot be separated from the organizational structure and culture perpetuated by the leadership faction.
Over time, I noticed problematic contradictions between how the ISO describes itself and how the ISO actually functions. I joined at the height of the Obama campaign. As a new member in a socialist–repeat, socialist–organization, why did the ISO have such high hopes in Obama that the first contacts I brought to meetings were convinced that we supported his candidacy? (They did not return.) I was the only comrade in my branch who expressed concern that we were going overboard in our enthusiasm for and expectations of what Obama getting elected would mean for the left and for the ISO. I was repeatedly called “cynical” and “pessimistic” for this. I was told I would turn off workers around us who were excited about Obama. Instead, the ISO turned off contacts who were excited about Socialism. (Thank you Adam T for defending my position in meetings a couple times.)
Why were there only two other African-American comrades in Chicago, and why was my innocent questioning of this reacted to as if I had insulted everyone?
Where was the welcoming of debate and disagreement, and avoidance of personalism I was told about?
Why did nearly all comrades vote the same way? This pattern is even apparent at the ISO’s annual convention. For example, at the 2013 convention, there were 24 resolutions that were defeated, and nine that passed. All nine of the successful resolutions were proposed by SC or NC members. All nine were passed unanimously with the exception of one abstention.
Why did comrades feel the need to discuss certain ideas and problems privately (away from the leadership and most cadre), and ask you not to tell anyone that the meeting actually happened?
Why was I being told that I should not listen to certain comrades (or even to avoid them), under the pretense that these comrades were “not following democratic centralism” or “were doing things the wrong way”?
Why did leadership get upset when comrades communicated on Facebook with certain former members (see Lies and Accusations below), or when comrades posted on a subject they considered “internal”?
Why did a Branch Committee member tell me I was being “trained the wrong way” by a more senior member who “didn’t follow democratic centralism?” and that it “may be too late” for me?
At my first Socialism Conference in 2008, Keeanga T of the SC/NC backed me against a wall, stood an inch from my face and yelled, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?!” She accused me of breaking democratic centralism by being “too critical of Obama” during a discussion. I asked other comrades if I had indeed done something wrong, and most comrades echoed, “Well you are too cynical about Obama, you’re going to discourage people excited about Obama from wanting to join.”
Another incident occurred at a Chicago district meeting after I proposed that an explanation for a recent expulsion from my branch be added to the agenda. For the next 10 or 15 minutes, the leadership yelled that expulsions are none of my business, that it was disloyal of me to question the leadership’s judgment, and that I was being disrespectful of comrades’ time for even asking this question when we had so many actually important things to discuss. A few cadre members expressed their agreement. (The other comrades who had privately told me they also hoped to discuss this at the meeting remained silent.) After this, it seemed that many comrades were keeping their distance from me.
The fraction I was in was also bullied on occasion. When we disagreed with the leadership on the direction we should take the work (i.e. the DC/BC wanted us to focus on the public option in addition to single-payer, which we believed was a mistake), instead of thoroughly discussing our political disagreements, the leadership tended to jump to accusing us of being ultra-left, sectarian, movementist, and a “faction” rather than a “fraction.” (This was not unique to the fraction I was in; other fractions were accused of the same things.) Our fraction actually wanted more help from our branches. But single-payer work was a very low priority for the Chicago district, even at the height of the national debate and actions and civil disobedience in 2008 and 2009. Our requests to discuss the work at branch meetings were often tabled for next week, and then next week, and so on.
Of course, our district was involved in work that was more prioritized in the ISO’s national perspectives, and I think that was correct. But if a fraction exists, time must be made for branch- and district-wide assessments of the work.
Many of the meetings and phone calls we had with ISO Chicago leaders Shaun H and Stuart E were more about shaming us than supporting the work we were doing. Tellingly, these meetings often left members of the fraction in tears. I wanted to tell someone about how we were being treated–that we were being called names instead of engaged with politically–but I didn’t know who to tell. I figured SC members already knew what the BC and DC were doing. Additionally, my fraction-mates–who felt our treatment was at least as awful as I did–pleaded with me to keep our criticisms secret.
The “no benefit” line
Having never been won to the ISO’s line that white workers do not benefit from racism (the “no benefit” line), whenever that came up in a discussion, leadership in Chicago accused me of being a “liberal” rather than a Marxist and told me to read Callinicos. I saw no contradiction between acknowledging white privilege and adhering to a Marxist analysis of racial oppression, and I still don’t. I would hear, “You’re not a Marxist! That’s identity politics!” repeated many times to others in and around the organization. I never felt that leading comrades actually listened to my arguments. Instead, it felt like they were feeding me the same stock, knee-jerk responses.
All of this was distressing. Sometimes I thought I should quit, as staying started being difficult on my conscience. I felt beat down and dumbed down. I began to feel that being in the ISO was supposed to be mostly a one-way transaction–I digest the ideas of the leadership and the books I was asked to read, but I was not supposed to offer my own thoughts. Yet I believed in the work the ISO was doing, and I had great respect for my comrades. And I’d been convinced, as the ISO tells us, that the only way to truly be a committed revolutionary socialist is by being a member of the ISO. So I remained committed to the organization while wanting to participate in changing it. I began paying closer attention to pre-convention discussions and documents. Being so busy with fraction work, branch meetings, and life responsibilities, I had not given much attention to the pre-convention period my first couple years.
I thought it would be less complicated and controversial to focus on a political line rather than on an organizational issue for my first attempt at writing a document. I was aware that there was a serious democratic deficit in the organization, but did not feel sure as to where the problems were coming from. I felt it would be best to start with the political line I found to be most offensive and was most knowledgeable about–the “no benefit” line. I did fear that focusing on this particular line would trigger an extremely negative reaction from the leadership–especially in light of the hostile response provided to the comrades that wrote the 2010 document on recruiting and training comrades of color (the original document, the NYC leadership’s response, and that leadership’s 2014 “Reassessment” of their response, appears in Pre-Convention Bulletin #25; the incident is also discussed here). Yet I was convinced that changing the “no benefit” line and ridding the ISO of its extreme overreaction to Marxists who acknowledge the most basic points of privilege theory was important in our moving the organization forward theoretically, practically, and in terms of growth. So, I co-wrote a document about why the ISO’s line on white privilege should be changed for the 2013 convention.
During the process of writing the document, I emailed SC member Sharon S to ask her for more information on the ISO’s line, and she wrote that a few comrades, including Keeanga T, had recently expressed they find the lines on oppression we adopted from the SWP to be somewhat reductionist.
From Sharon S, 29 July 2012:
I have been uncomfortable with the SWP’s hostility to feminism for a very long time, and I know many other long-standing members who have felt the same way. But when we were much younger, we were trained in their politics. And the atmosphere within the IST was such that questioning or voicing even minor disagreements with the line were not possible. So we carried the essence of it, while rejecting some of the cruder elements…
The SWP likewise, I think, displayed a similar kind of reductionism on issues of race and national oppression. Keeanga and a couple of other comrades began to raise disagreements along these same lines a few years ago.
We finally decided to have a series of discussions on the steering committee about these issues last fall – and we pretty much all agreed that the approach was reductionist. We decided we wanted to begin to raise this shift at the Socialism conference, to be followed up with documents for the next convention. So far the reception has been almost completely positive. I am also in the process of revising my book on women which will reflect some of these changes.
So that is the backstory – and the basic plan for making these changes in a way that helps to raise the political level of the organization. Nothing keeps the political level low [sic] than reductionism!
I was excited to hear this! I also received generally positive feedback on the document from my Philly comrades and via FB messages from a few other comrades.
There was no immediate backlash after submitting the document. I did, however, hear from several longtime comrades across the country that it was “too soon” to submit a convention document about this subject, especially one that included proposals.
What was odd was that a couple of cadre sent me Facebook messages stating that they agreed with what I was saying, but that I am making it seem like “no white workers benefit from racism” is the ISO’s line.
I was baffled by this, because, “no white workers benefit from racism” was (and technically still is) the ISO’s line. In my document, I had listed some of the prominent places the “no benefit” line appears in ISO literature, including the New Members Study Packet, which says: “no white workers benefit from Black oppression, even if they think they do.” (42)
I did not understand what these comrades who knew that “no benefit” was the ISO’s line, but didn’t like that I was stating it, were getting at until nearly a year later.
As I now realize, when the ISO leadership changes its mind about a perspective or a political line, often they do not acknowledge that they changed their mind or why. They’d rather just start using the new line as if they never believed the old one, especially if the former line had become controversial or unpopular among the membership or the broader left. To admit that they held a different line before is to imply that they were wrong. To be wrong is a sign that leadership is not infallible. If the leadership is not infallible, they fear nobody would follow them.
It was offensive to some on the SC for me to state that “no benefit” is the ISO’s line because some of them now consider that line an embarrassment and had, apparently, been working to change it. They were working to change it. I was supposed to stay out of it, especially in public.
Keeanga T posted a quote on Facebook that it’s not an “a-ha!” moment to acknowledge that privilege exists in a racist, hierarchical society. I was quite surprised, since for the ISO leadership, it was quite new to admit white privilege exists. You can see the screenshot of the conversation (before Keeanga deleted it) below in the Lies and Accusations section.
In response, I posted, “Actually, it is new for the ISO to admit this.” This apparently angered some of the SC as well, hence Keeanga’s attack and prompt removal of me from good standing in the organization.
According to the leadership faction and friends, I also should not have drawn attention to the Facebook thread where Keeanga attacked me, nor should I consider this incident with someone who is a SC and NC member and ISR editor, as anything more than a disagreement between two people of equal standing in the organization, even though I was the only one who was ridiculed and expelled.
From Ahmed S, 14 November 2013:
Thanks for attaching the screenshot of the Facebook exchange with Keeanga [below]. That’s between the two of you and has no bearing in my mind to this question.
From Disciplinary Committee member Keegan O, 16 November 2013:
Instead of making a Facebook status about your interaction with this comrade, I think messaging them personally and sharing your own arguments about what transpired would have been much more productive
…if someone feels that another member of the group has treated them in a way that is inappropriate and out of line, then I believe that the appropriate thing to do is address that with them one on one.
Yes, this comrade is on the SC, but those folks are also human beings, just like you and I, and they, like us, can make mistakes.
Later he wrote:
… I disagree with what you, and others on the thread, have argued about it being reflective of a deeper organization wide problem of the leadership squelching disagreement and debate in the ISO..
I wish you the best with this and hope you take some of what I’ve raised into consideration. Also, I hope whatever issues exist with your membership (and I highly doubt they are related to this, that would seem pretty shocking and out of character for the organization) get straightened out so that you can get back invovled [sic] in this project. [Emphasis added]
I cracked up when I read that one. Getting kicked out of the organization for sharing dissenting views is characteristic of the ISO. And it is anathema for an organization that wants to build a revolutionary party to slander, silence, and remove its members for speaking up and trying to do something when they see a problem, even if they end up being wrong.
As a result of my treatment within the ISO, I feel hurt, betrayed, and stunned. I had nightmares for two months after I was pushed out of the organization and smeared by the leadership faction and the comrades who accepted their narrative about me. I believed all ISO members were my comrades, that we were overwhelmingly on the same side in the world, and now many are treating me like I’m an enemy of the left. That feels devastating. And at the same time, I have a heavy heart and guilty conscience because I did not do more to try and stop the unprincipled, baseless attacks and top-down manipulations by the leadership that were harming comrades and holding back their development; harming our political effectiveness as an organization and distorting our perspectives; and stunting our growth as an organization numerically and qualitatively.
Working with the Renewal Faction has been my last try to help push for a more democratic, transparent ISO where no one needs to choose between speaking her mind and staying in the organization.
Despite the attacks we’ve received, that are becoming more twisted and vicious by the hour, working with the faction has been one of the most stimulating and rewarding things I’ve done in the ISO. At first, due to my past experience as a comrade, I was afraid that if I disagreed with something, or admitted that I did not understand something, I would be reacted to angrily or ignored. This wasn’t the case at all. My participation was clearly appreciated, my ideas respected, whether comrades were won to my position or not.
It feels like a new world is open to me as a socialist now that I am letting go of the sectarian principles I was taught in the ISO. The ISO taught me that the only way to be an effective revolutionary socialist is by being a member of the ISO. If you leave, you will never be active again. In fact, you were probably never really a socialist to begin with. This myth helps keep comrades from quitting, and is used to shame them after they leave. I probably would have left sooner if I believed I had other options. I now understand that I can carry on as a socialist fighting oppression, inequality, and exploitation, working alongside other comrades, without being part of a sect like the ISO.
Thank you to all comrades I have worked with and crossed paths with in the ISO. I wish you well on your path in the ISO, and will continue to fight alongside you. You have all taught me something, and I believe that ultimately, we are on the same side.
Vanessa B (Washington DC)
Lies and Accusations
I have not paid dues in two years: Not true. I have always worked out something I can afford with branch treasurers, which is allowed per the ISO Rules, and as I rely on below-poverty level SSDI, some months that means nothing. Every year I also donated money I received for Christmas to CERSC, and I provided money for room rent and other branch expenses when I could. A former BC member from my Philly branch informed Ahmed of this, and I had just worked out a dues schedule in my new branch in DC, of which Ahmed was also informed. And of course, I am not the only comrade who cannot afford to be on check-off and has months when they cannot pay. A member of my last BC told me that some months, he’s also not able to pay dues.
Using dues as a reason to exclude comrades from the branch at the will of the SC is an oft-used tactic. There is also at least one case of a member who was on dues check-off being accused of not paying dues.
I contributed nothing to the organization “for years”: Funny, during my last two years of not contributing, I had drinks with my branch and Ahmed when he was in town. I also submitted a document to the “highest decision making body” of the ISO. My branch chose me to go to last year’s convention as a guest, but we did not have the funds. Sure doesn’t sound like my branch felt I wasn’t contributing anything to the organization.
Ahmed knows my health has limited my physical participation. He is making it sound as if limiting my activity was my choice, because this fits the leadership faction’s narrative that I’m just an Internet troll who has always hated the ISO. And again, there are many comrades who are considered full members who regularly do not attend meetings, or must take leaves because of work, parenting, health, or other personal issues.
The latest, from the SC in Pre-Convention Bulletin #27 (14 February 2014):
Keeanga told ex-member Vanessa B. to stop posting comments on Keeanga’s Facebook wall. [Actually she wrote, “I’m telling you to get the f*ck off my wall.” –VB] The faction has redefined that interaction as evidence of a political dispute that led to Vanessa being expelled. In fact, Vanessa had not been a member in good standing because she had not paid dues in more than two years.
That’s an extremely distorted account of what occurred in that Facebook thread, reproduced below.
In this thread, it was a single political comment about privilege and the ISO that set Keeanga off. When I expressed shock that a SC member was responding this way to me, a member of the organization she represents, she said that she didn’t “care what [I] am a member of other than the triflin’ ass bullshit committee. Now go write an open letter about how I said mean things,” and that I am “trolling.” (Though I can think of only two or three other times we have interacted on Facebook the past year, all of them involving Keeanga lashing out at me.) I told her I am leaving her wall. Later the same day, Keeanga happened to discover that I had allegedly not been paying dues for two years, then she informed my Branch Committee I was no longer a member. What a coincidence!
I lied to comrades in Philly, telling them I was on dues check-off: Lie. Keeanga T and Ahmed S told comrades this at two pre-convention discussions, if not more. Perhaps they worried their claim that I had not been paying dues was not enough to justify to comrades why I deserved to be expelled, so they made something up to trump up the charges. I appreciate the comrades who, disbelieving this claim, informed me of it.
If I really cared about being a member, I would have done something sooner, differently, better: There is a convention document asking that I be returned to good standing, which was written, with my approval, by the Renewal Faction before I joined the faction. I asked my Philly Branch Committee for help, as they assured me they had considered me in good standing. A former BC member sent Ahmed an email stating that I had worked out dues I could afford, as per the Rules. Ahmed ignored this. I sent additional emails to Ahmed regarding my standing, and he ignored them. I asked my Branch Committee in DC for help, but they eventually decided to stay out of it, and later let me know that in case I was in doubt, they were on the same page as the SC, and that I’m no longer welcome in the branch. National Disciplinary Committee member Keegan O made it clear that I should deal with Keeanga as an “individual,” not an SC member. The SC manages the internal bulletins, and I have no reason to believe they would have published my document. Bottom line, Ahmed’s word stands. The SC wanted me out, so I’m out.
I’m antagonistic: Comrades in Chicago (and possibly elsewhere) were told that I am antagonistic. The example given is that my pre-convention document “died on the floor.” Well, at last year’s convention, none of the 24 resolutions written by rank-and-file comrades passed.
I’ve been plotting against the leadership for years: Sounds exciting, but isn’t true.
I’m friendly online with “hostile” ex-comrades like expelled member Zach M: Guilty as charged. Keeanga and Ahmed have ranted to comrades at pre-convention discussions about my friendliness with Zach M. By the leadership faction’s logic, this is more justification for my expulsion. I am proud to break the unwritten sectarian rule that comrades are not to be friendly with “hostile” ex-members.
I came to DC, paid $6 and demanded the pre-convention documents: This is the weirdest charge. Ahmed included it in his expulsion email, and both he and Keeanga repeated it to comrades at pre-convention meetings. Maybe they meant you have to “pay to play” in the ISO and $6 is not enough to earn entry? Or maybe I wanted the documents to aid my secret plot against the leadership?
This is a Discussion article; it does not define faction policy and is not binding on members of the faction.