[I began writing this during Convention, but the Renewal Faction’s exclusion from Convention, followed two days later by our expulsion from the ISO, led me to abandon it. However, as it contains some possibly useful considerations of a general nature, plus some possibly funny jokes, I’ve decided to publish it, in spite of its incompleteness and abrupt ending. –SJ]
The “Organizational Perspectives” of the Steering Committee appear in Pre-Convention Bulletin (PCB) #27, which was promulgated to the International Socialist Organization (ISO) membership–and dozens of others who happen to be on an “internal” list–on 14 February 2014 at 6:31PM. The Convention began the next morning; that is, the Convention is expected to pass judgement on a document that it will have seen just the night before. Or if you want the real truth: it is not expected to pass judgement on the document. It is expected to accept it.
An amusing aside: all of the documents in PCB#27 are submitted by the Steering Committee (SC) or its members, with the partial exception of the report from the Rules Commission, which contains four SC members (out of six total). The declared deadline for PCB submissions was 12 February; yet one of the documents in PCB#27 was a reprint of an article by Mike Ely that first appeared on 13 February. Thus we see that the Center has “helped itself” to the bulletin after its own deadline, with the nifty effect that it is impossible for anyone to respond to them. This is the kind of bureaucratic trick to which ISO “dissidents” are quite accustomed–and perhaps the kind of thing that Comrade Ely might have inquired about before lecturing on “revolutionary ethics” to the applause of the leadership faction.
Be that as it may. The “Organizational Perspectives” (OP) document shows every sign of being written in a hurry: it’s poorly-edited and desultory in substance, like a necklace strung together indifferently from heterogeneous pieces of macaroni. Now in fairness to the SC, my reply is also written in a hurry. In fairness to me, I don’t get paid to do this.
On broad political matters the OP makes no advance on what the SC has already published, which Renewal has already criticized at length. I will only note, as it is one of my “favorite” leadership faction errors, that the analysis of aggregate data–with the notable and telling exception of opinion polls–remains completely foreign to the Center. Instead a series of events, great and small, are “plucked out” of recent history in order to “prove” whatever the leadership faction is saying. No one less than our exalted friend Lenin knew the bankruptcy of this method, writing that “in view of the extreme complexity of the phenomena of social life it is always possible to select any number of examples or separate data to prove any proposition.” But it is practically a law of political life that those who shout the most about “Leninism” have the least idea of what Lenin was up to.
The Center’s broad organizational proposals–which I will punctuate with exclamation points to make them seem more exciting–are: public meetings! paper sales! Marxist education! The comfy routines of the organization, those warm hoary chestnuts, that every member who can think knows are not working. This is why it has not been only Renewal comrades who have expressed discontent at the state of the group (although I think we have done more than anyone to link and politicize the array of organizational problems). All of the critical voices in the ISO have been completely ignored.
Be that as it may. Some routines are better than others. Paper sales are, of course, universally despised: probably the one thing that all former (and plenty of current) members agree on is that it sucks to sell Socialist Worker. The devotion to the print paper is a hilarious anachronism in the age of social media and smart phones. This does not mean that putting ink on dead trees is outmoded in all circumstances. The OP, for instance, notes that many Occupy encampments started their own print papers. Very true–but if you’re camped out in a shared physical space, a print paper makes a lot of organic sense.
Additionally, the Occupy papers were intensely local, politically diverse, and “near the action.” How any of this translates into an argument for a tendentious nationwide socialist tabloid monthly, published and mostly written by full-timers in Chicago, and shipped to branches via “scaffolding” provided by UPS or FedEx, is unclear.
Marxist education, on the other hand, is an unambiguously good idea. For a group that has a lot of weird ideas about itself, the ISO has always been frank in admitting its low level of theoretical development. But the question rarely asked is: why is it chronically unable to get better? I dealt with this question to some extent in another article; while I think what I said there was true, one should also admit that, here as always, the fish rots from the head. Ahmed Shawki, for example, is the editor of what amounts to the ISO’s theoretical journal, the International Socialist Review. For the journal he has written, by my count, three articles in the last ten years (not counting interviews). Lenin, for what it’s worth, wanted to throw Axelrod, Zasulich, and Potresov off the Iskra editorial board for writing more articles than that in less than a third of the time.
You can advance theoretically with a top-down culture if the leadership’s actually productive. You could also do it, conceivably, if the leadership were unproductive but relaxed. But a leadership that produces very little yet simultaneously demands that all theoretical innovation originate from itself is not going to take a group very far intellectually. Thus the ISO is stimulating for a newcomer to Marxism–because it’s genuinely exciting to discover Marxist ideas–but generally cannot guide its members beyond the very basics. This is also why the group has been largely at a loss to relate to the renewed interest in left-wing and Marxist theory, while a sophisticated newcomer like Jacobin has leapt from success to success.
All that being said, in my view the really crucial aspect of the OP is the call for greater centralization, aka “The need for greater organizational cohesion” (the subhead so nice, they used it twice). This runs notably counter to what Renewal proposed, and one is tempted to guess that it was worked out under the guidance of Mao’s aperçu, “We shall support whatever our enemies oppose and oppose whatever our enemies support.” (More Kasama influence?) Certainly there was no hint of the astonishing proposal to create what amounts to a Politburo inside the Steering Committee until it was “dropped” on the membership in PCB#20, released eight days prior to Convention. Regardless of how well or poorly thought-through the centralization push is, however, it responds to something very real.
It is fairly clear from a number of documents–though you need to read between the lines–that the ISO is being pulled apart because neither the objective nor subjective conditions exists for political centralization of the class struggle: there are neither really nationwide mass movements, nor a vanguard layer of the working class that seeks coordinated action. As the handful of comrades retained from the 1990s and 2000s have grown older, some have tried to sink roots in their neighborhoods and workplaces, pulling them away from the branch “center” with its “routines” divorced from everyday life. Simultaneously the campus branches have mostly collapsed as debt-burdened students increasingly juggle academics with full-time work; this, plus the consequent delay in attaining a degree, means that “student life” as a distinct “phase” of early adulthood is being effaced, save perhaps at the elite campuses.
Renewal’s response to all this has been basically to accept that it’s being driven by forces well beyond a small group of revolutionaries’ control; and to try to devise structures that fit the period better, relying on local autonomy informed by a national discussion and debate. Or as our nifty slogan has it: federalize the initiative, centralize the political lessons. (This explains, incidentally, the “inconsistency” discovered by the leadership faction in our documents. “In one document you say that decentralization proves a crisis,” they cry, “and in the next you promote federalism!” The point, of course, is that the same phenomenon may be either helpful or bad, depending on whether it comports with or defies your intentions. A fire in the fireplace is pleasant; a fire in the kitchen is not.)
The leadership faction’s response has been to pull the reins tighter, putting more power in fewer hands, while dignifying the whole thing with some prêt-à-porter Comintern quotes. The opening of the SC to members not resident in Chicago, an opportunity to broaden the social and political base of the leadership, actually manages to narrow it: four of the five new members on the SC-proposed SC slate–virtually guaranteed to pass–are ISO (CERSC?) staff, the fifth a loyalist academic. No really fresh faces, no truly fresh ideas in a leadership that will be comprised entirely of staff and academics (plus one financial speculator).
Shaun J (Cambridge, MA)