Brown ISO: Statement of Resignation

[Originally published on RISocialism.org.]

It is with the greatest regret that the Brown Branch of the International Socialist Organization announces its unanimous decision to collectively resign. This was not a decision we made lightly. We realize it will mean the loss of access to many of the resources that the ISO provides and that it will greatly hinder our work to no longer be part of a national organization. It is therefore only because things have gotten to a point where it is no longer possible to envision our work with the ISO as productive to furthering the cause of socialism that we have resigned. We remain as committed as ever to the cause of revolutionary socialism but we have been forced to organize independently of the ISO.

The main reason for this is that the Organization has shown itself to be undemocratic. This has mainly been revealed by the expulsion of the ISO Renewal faction at this past convention. While we recognize that the majority of the delegates were opposed to the proposals of the faction, this does not give them the right to expel them. Nor does it give them the right to subject them to the profanities, jeering and shaming that they were exposed to in the convention. To vote down the faction proposals is one thing, but to expel the faction for being an organized group of people who propose alternative perspectives to the leadership is quite another. If we accept this we are accepting an organization in which disagreement is only permitted if it is not organized. And as we all know as socialists and activists, unorganized dissent is virtually powerless.

We are not defending all of the actions of the faction. Since the one faction member who was a part of our Branch was expelled with the rest, this decision was made by non-faction members. We do in fact think that many of the arguments of the faction revolved too much around the case of Shaun J and other individual and personal problems. They did also make certain mistakes as a faction. However, the leadership of the ISO used these mistakes and this focus on personal cases to attempt to discredit the faction instead of the organizational and political perspectives of the faction. As such these were not addressed and the faction was expelled from the Organization before being able to participate in the voting section of the convention.

Strategies and perspectives are supposed to center around trial and error. If they do not work, we should assess them and and adjust accordingly. In a healthy organization they should be the subject of comradely debate. There is a distressing lack of such debate in the organization right now. For instance this can be seen in the post-convention bulletin, which we did not receive directly by the way even though we are still a branch in good standing and have a current member on the mailing list for such documents. All of the Steering Committee’s proposals were voted for unanimously or almost unanimously and those opposing it in most cases did not even receive seconds. This has been the case at every other convention that we have been to.

These undemocratic elements would have been acceptable if they could be changed. Having parts of an organization that one disagrees with is almost always part of any collective project. If we could have organized and fought to change these problematic elements within the ISO we would have stayed and tried to do so. However, the faction attempted to bring some of these problems to the fore and were expelled for it. We are left with no other alternative than to believe that such change cannot be effected within the ISO and so we are forced to leave it.

Our decision to leave the ISO is also based upon the impracticable position that the Convention’s decision put us in. Both the faction member within our branch and those within the city branch were key to our organizing. Without them, the bulk of our comrades in the area are gone, and we lose a leading member in our branch. Splitting from the faction members would dramatically reduce our ability to organize around Brown University and Providence, and will create a schism among Rhode Island socialists. Such conditions are not reasonable if we aim to do meaningful organizing.

Furthermore, if we remain in the ISO, we would be forced to justify to our allies in struggle the fact that very respected and reliable comrades were expelled for opposing the national leadership in an organized manner. Not only do we disagree with the expulsion of the faction and other comrades; we also feel that to justify the expulsion of our comrades would undermine our integrity and our credibility on campus and in the city.

We remain optimistic that we will be able to continue to do good work as socialists. Our branch has grown both qualitatively and quantitatively in the past few years. We have a vibrant branch that is independent from the city branch, that holds regular tablings and public forums, that holds monthly internal education discussions and looks poised to expand even further as we develop a broader left on campus. We are doing great work with our SJP and Divest Coal chapters and are a respected presence on the left. Of course, socialism cannot be created in Brown or Rhode Island alone and so we will collaborate with socialists across the country and the world. This includes members of the ISO, for in spite of the problems we have mentioned, we know that comrades in the ISO are firmly dedicated to socialism. Our main challenge now is to help rebuild the left and this will be the focus of our activity.

Luke L-S
Sarah-Eve D
Josue C
Layne F
David K
Antoine B
Tim L

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10 thoughts on “Brown ISO: Statement of Resignation

  1. I send my heart-felt condolences to those of you leaving the ISO. My comrades and I went though a similar experience with the Socialist Party USA. I had been a member for 12 years. In that time I led the Boston local, initiated campaigns, and was even male vice-chair for a time. Most importantly perhaps, I was part of a caucus called the Grassroots Tendency that fought for gender parity in organizational structures, a consistent policy of opposing the Democratic Party, and a revolutionary line to separate us from liberal and social democratic politics. Although we were vilified, we were allowed to operate and did make some gains. We mostly defeated the DSA, SI, and Norman Thomas enthusiasts.

    The SP consists of a variety of ideologies but there is an especially strong anti-intellectual tendency as well as opposition to any kind of discipline or even coordination from leadership. Even when the left seemed to be winning and we attempted to take positions in the name of the SP on the economic crisis, or health care, the National Office and male Chair undermined us. The SP leadership even made sloppy mistakes, such as losing control over website domains, and then refused to take responsibility, or even answer questions about it. Oddly, the politics of “anti-authoritarianism” manifest itself by nobody wanting to hold leadership accountable. Finally, the right-wing of the SP always blocked left-wing candidates from being nominated for our presidential ticket (I saw it every four years from 1999 to 2011). At a time when Occupy Wall Street was peaking, the SP national convention refused to say anything substantive about it, and nominated Stewart Alexander – a know-nothing do-nothing self-promoter. At the same time, we were blocked from even voting on an offer from Cindy Sheehan to be our candidate. We felt that internal politics were paralyzing the SP at a time when we should be organizing in the streets.

    That’s why many of us left to form Revolutionary Unity. Since then RU has recruited some members who were not originally in the SP. We’ve had lively internal discussions, but overall haven’t grown. Our primary activity at the moment is a reading group. We will be discussing What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know about Capitalism (Monthly Review Press) on Sunday, March 16th. We will use the video conferencing service Google Hangouts. I’m also in the process of updating the functionality of our website. But I think RU’s future may lie in some new formation.

    Part of what led me to join the SP as an eighteen year old what that I could see internal debates and believed my voice would matter. When I went to my first SP meeting and asked questions, members debated them in front of me! I was impressed by this and felt comfortable joining because of it! I believed my voice would make a difference inside this organization. I wasn’t just being recruited to sell a paper with all the answers already mapped out for me.

    A democratic socialist organization that can mount effective and radical campaigns needs to find a balance between the unfocused volunteerism of the SP, and the intolerant faith in leaders practiced by the ISO. I am keeping my eyes open for diverse and dynamic organizations that can get this balance right.

    Best of luck to you all.

    In Solidarity,
    ~Matthew Andrews

  2. Hey Matt,

    I too was in the SP in South Florida, and though I was not as active as I should have been, I learned quite a bit there.
    I left mostly because of my moving to Providence, and also, of course, because of the Alexander nomination, and I was around RUG, before I believe it became RU.

    And coincidentally, my involvement in both groups, the SP and the ISO, has demonstrated to me not only that some balance is necessary, but also that the only defense against undemocratic tendencies within an organization is the active engagement of a theoretically sophisticated rank and file with experience organizing outside of just the organization.
    I mean, if a multi-tendency anti-DC party like the SP and an organization based on some variant of democratic centralism, like the ISO, leads to similar problems, then well, perhaps good organizational structure is only an important component, not the only component to building a democratic group.

  3. “Furthermore, if we remain in the ISO, we would be forced to justify to our allies in struggle the fact that very respected and reliable comrades were expelled for opposing the national leadership in an organized manner.”

    I believe that this view is mistaken. There were ISO members who defended Shaun J after his resignation, called on him to return, and criticized the problematic political dynamics which led to his initially leaving.

    I have seen a public statement by at least one ISO member who identified the concerns which Renewal raised as having been partly valid, and who vowed to remain in the organization and to continue to push for a more principled engagement around them.

    It’s important that it be clear that no one by existing ISO organizational rules is bound to defend the decision to expel Renewal, less so the substantive issues which they tried to raise in a broad sense. I think that the specific acts of releasing unredacted internal materials and information pertaining to the organization is a different case and more a matter of discipline.

    In a strict sense Renewal was disciplined for this action, and the refusal to remove these materials from their website. I think there were some important mistakes involved in Renewal doing this but I don’t believe the leadership response was a form of bureaucratic exclusion.

    The most important mistake that Renewal made was to conduct its struggle around issues of internal democracy and membership rights relatively disconnected from larger political issues. I think this was the case with Shaun’s resignation in the wake of the controversy around the March on Washington anniversary.

    I think that Shaun was correct to raise political issues around adaptation to liberalism and movementism in the ISO’s approach on this question. Another side of this was the ISO’s partial acqueisence to the hype around Obama in 2008.

    I believe that there is a relationship between superficiality, lack of full critical engagement in social movements and an opportunistic methodology around organizational growth.

    I hope that the former Brown ISO comrades will weigh some of these issues as they move forward in their future work.

  4. As a non-ISO member who followed these events pretty closely from the inception last fall, I think that Thano brings up very valid and perceptive points. Having myself been involved in similar struggles in other organizations, however, I have learned that process disputes, rules violations, etc. are often used by leadership when they can’t win on the broader political issues. To use an absolutely terrible analogy, its like the feds putting Capone in prison for tax evasion because they couldn’t nail him on the bigger charges.

    So yes, the ISO SC did succeed in making the discussion about ISO rules, release of documents, use of a public website, etc, rather than on the broader political points which Shaun raised in a series of very strong analyses on both his blog and the RF website. Shaun and the RF were inevitably dragged into the process mudpit, partly by the fact that process mistakes were made, but more importantly because the leadership capitalized on those mistakes in what appeared to be a campaign to discredit, nullify and ultimately expel the courageous and idealist members of the RF trying to reform an organization they believed in.

    So while the points Thano raises are valid, they should be understood in the broader context of a small reform group struggling against a leadership group that was holding most of the cards. Its not an easy game to play, and given the odds against them, I think the RF performed magnificently overall. Hopefully, the members of both the former Providence branch and the former Brown branch will be able to find some sort of structure that will allow them to continue their political work as functioning groups.

  5. Thano, I don’t think you’ve fully considered that paragraph you’re quoting at the top. It’s not that the ISO leadership would have forced them to make an explanation. It’s that the allies around the branch must have some idea of what’s going on and will inevitably ask. Maybe “forced” is the wrong word, but how would you refuse to discuss controversies people are reading about online without looking like a jerk? “Oh yea, our leaders (out in Chicago?) expelled them for raising some challenging political questions, we disagree with what happened but we’re still recruiting new activists to the ISO.” It creates a real credibility problem.
    I’ve seen good behavior among rank-n-file ISO activists recently, but the organization still has a bad reputation among many activists which I believe is largely a product of the strategies and tactics coming down from their leadership. Apparently they still have the mentality that they can do whatever is most convenient for them, and just recruit a new crop of first year college students next September to make up for any fall out.

  6. I don’t think that current ISO members should feel compelled to politically justify the expulsion of Renewal to contacts and periphery. I believe that current members are within their rights to say that they disagreed with the expulsion of Renewal, if in fact they did so. The decision itself was not completely unanimous. An analogy would be to say that within the labor movement we might be aware of dynamics where there are different kinds of violations of internal democracy, including the bureaucratic exclusion of members. That doesn’t mean that we don’t work to recruit new workers to unions etc. I am a member of the socialist organization Solidarity. I have seen efforts by the leadership to undemocratically exclude and push out certain members. I didn’t endorse those moves, but I do overall support the organization and work to recruit to it. Maybe I’m misunderstanding here about the ISO’s concept of democratic centralism.

    • Thano:

      I think the key the thing to keep in mind here is that this particular document was written by comrades from the ISO branch at Brown University, which is – of course – located in Providence, RI. This is significant because – throughout the course of the recent ISO factional fight – Providence was the central hub, so to speak, for the ISO Renewal Faction. Out of around a dozen faction members, six were from Providence. If I’m not mistaken, this included the majority of the members from the Providence city branch. Beyond this, almost all other members of the Providence district were – to my knowledge – largely sympathetic to the faction.

      This state of affairs the Brown comrades – most of whom weren’t, of course, members of the faction — in an extremely difficult situation after the Renewal Faction was officially expelled from the ISO in February. As the branch’s resignation letter implies, had they chosen to remain as members of the ISO, then this would have undoubtedly created a schism within the entire Providence district. In short, this route would have led the ISO’s national bureaucracy to pressure Brown members – likely through invoking the dictates of “democratic centralism” – to ostracize and shun the majority of their fellow Providence-area comrades. In addition to compromising the size, experience, and solidarity of the Providence district, this would have undoubtedly also served to undermine the standing of Brown comrades within the broader Providence Left. (Tellingly, as it stands today, the faction members from Providence are – from what I’ve heard – held in high regard within their city’s trade union movement and Left milieu.) As the Brown comrades summarize in this document, remaining in the ISO would have forced them “to justify to our allies in struggle the fact that very respected and reliable comrades were expelled for opposing the national leadership in an organized manner.” This would have served to “undermine our integrity and our credibility on campus and in the city.”

      Besides this, let me say that I’m generally sympathetic with your reasons for choosing to remain a member of Solidarity despite being opposed to the “efforts by the leadership to undemocratically exclude and push out certain members.”

      From a general perspective, I’d argue that the key criteria to use when deciding to stay or split from a given socialist sect should hinge, above all else, on how this decision affects one’s ability to contribute to the class struggle. With this in mind, it’s clear to me that, in any given case, the preferable solution to this conundrum depends not only on the particular sect in question, but also on the specific circumstances of individual members.

      In this regard, I can say that – in my case – it would have been politically futile and personally destructive for me to try to remain a member of the ISO. This appears to also be true of the Brown comrades, as well. Of course, many other ISO members are in a different situation. For one thing, I know that a number of faction sympathizers and other skeptical ISOers have chosen to stay behind, in part, because they feel that this is the best way to contribute to the movement right now.

      From a broader historical perspective, though, it’s likely that the continued existence of socialist micro-sects like the ISO is – at some point in the future – bound to become a hindrance to the further advancement of the U.S. Left and the class struggle in general. In this regard, I agree with Hal Draper:

      The road to an American socialist movement surely lies over the debris, or around the rotting off-shoots of, this fetid jungle of sects.

      It’s fairly clear that this time has not yet come to pass. Thus, groups like the ISO still largely serve a politically progressive and useful function during the current period. This said, being a member of a sect isn’t the only way for Marxists to remain active in the struggle.

  7. “In short, this route would have led the ISO’s national bureaucracy to pressure Brown members – likely through invoking the dictates of “democratic centralism” – to ostracize and shun the majority of their fellow Providence-area comrades.”

    I believe that what Ben refers to here is a very real and potential dynamic. Nevertheless I believe that there is an important distinction between being forced to do something by fiat and being pressured and harassed.

    As a revolutionary you have to be willing to fight and engage in struggle and resist pressure and harassment when there is a legitimate basis. The Renewal faction making specific mistakes which Brown comrades acknowledge critically is one thing. Ostracizing and shunning them on that basis is another.

    I have confidence that most rank and file ISO members can discern the difference between the two and take a principled stand. After I posted the comment that I did earlier I received an e-mail from a Solidarity member who is on the National Committee asking about my statement about the leadership backing the exclusion of certain members and I defended myself.

    I’m very proud to be a member of Solidarity for over 10 years but I will never back down on being outspoken, and I’m hardly alone on that score. (This is one of the key reasons why I’m as proud as I am-because we really do have an open critical internal culture that promotes thinking and questioning.)

    I’m also not severing any relationships that I have with ISO members. I expect to continue to work with them productively in movement work even though obviously I have differences which I’m not concealing.

    When you address the broader movement politically and leave an organization, as in a statement on a website like this you can’t just do so from your specific local and tactical situation, you have to also address and take into consideration “Those who have chosen to stay behind, in part, because they feel that this is the best way to contribute to the movement right now.” and who understand correctly that “groups like the ISO still largely serve a politically progressive and useful function during the current period.”

    The problem with the Brown statement is that it acknowledges that Renewal made tactical mistakes, but offers no clear perspective or clues for carrying forward that struggle on a stronger basis within the ISO. It also doesn’t say very much about how it see itself establishing an alternative outside of the ISO in practice.

    I don’t want to nitpick, or be demanding, mostly I’m sympathetic but there are important unanswered questions. I think there is a gap here because most of these comrades never joined Renewal and didn’t actively fight for it, and have acknowledged criticisms of it, but are now leaving with a somewhat unclear orientation.

    It’s interesting to me that Hal Draper articulated his ideas about the micro-sect in opposition to the IS’s turn from a campus group to a more workplace and cadre type formation in the 70’s. Not only does it seem to me that the time now has not come to transcend the micro-sect, but even back then 20 years ago-I think he was also
    partly proven wrong. (See Milton Fisk’s pamphlet “Socialism From Below: Origins of the ISO”).

    Surely one does not need to be in a micro-sect to be a revolutionary-but what’s the alternative in terms of collective organization for socialists and anti-capitalists beyond just individually working within the movements?

    • First of all, let me say that I think the strategy you’ve adopted in engaging with your own organization is commendable. For rank-and-file members of socialist groups, there’s a fine line between passive quiescence and overzealous resistance, and I have nothing but solidarity and respect for those that are attempting to toe that line right now.

      In regard to your critiques of the decision by the Brown comrades to resign:

      It should be said that I’m commenting on this matter as someone that’s not particularly knowledgeable about the dynamics at play in either the Providence district or the broader New England region. For this reason, I think it might be useful if comrades from Providence responded to your comments in more detail.

      With this said, what I do know is that the members of the Brown branch came to their unanimous decision to resign en masse only after a protracted and well-thought-out debate. And for this reason, I take the following statement very seriously:

      This was not a decision we made lightly. We realize it will mean the loss of access to many of the resources that the ISO provides and that it will greatly hinder our work to no longer be part of a national organization. It is therefore only because things have gotten to a point where it is no longer possible to envision our work with the ISO as productive to furthering the cause of socialism that we have resigned.

      Finally, I wanted to respond to the following question raise in your comment: “[W]hat’s the alternative in terms of collective organization for socialists and anti-capitalists beyond just individually working within the movements?”

      This is — obviously — the million-dollar question: What Is To Be Done? At this point, I can’t say that I have a ready-set answer. This is something that — to my knowledge — all members of the now formally-defunct Renewal Faction have been weighing heavily over the past several months. As I see, we need to start using External Bulletin as a platform to debate this matter.

      Currently, I’m working on an essay that focuses on Hal Draper’s departure from the International Socialists in 1970. The piece is also going to analyze his writings on micro-sects, socialist organization, and the connection between Marxism and the trade union movement. My plan is to begin fleshing out some of my thoughts on prospects for the U.S. Left in more detail.

  8. I agree with Ben’s comments about the close ties between the former Providence and Brown branches, and the high esteem in which the members of these former branches continue to be held by the Rhode Island left. The Brown statement stands by itself, and their decision was based on what they thought was best both on principled grounds and on what was best in terms of their political work. However, I don’t agree that if the Brown branch had decided to remain in the ISO, that this would have compromised their integrity or credibility in Providence.

    I agree with Thano’s comments about the lack of clarity regarding the future of the former Brown branch, and that is also true of the former Providence branch. In fairness to the branch members, the expulsion of the members of the Renewal Faction was traumatic, personally and politically, and they need to be given the time and space to sort out how they want to proceed.

    That said, I think it was clear, or should have been clear, to the Renewal Faction members during the last several months, that expulsion was a possible, perhaps even probable, outcome of what became an increasingly strident conflict on both sides.

    My opinion, as someone who has been close to the members of the Providence branch for a considerable period of time, is that the members of the former Providence and Brown branches should issue at least a preliminary statement of their plans for the future, to ensure their many supporters and sympathizers that this unhappy chapter in the life of the ISO will not sideline their important political work.

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