ISO “City” branches: What are we building?

[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.

I place importance on the final section, and feel the need to bore you with the details, precisely because I think it would be extraordinarily presumptuous of me to make pronouncements about how comrades in New York or Seattle or Atlanta should organize their branches, when I know little to nothing of their cities. Additionally, I think it probable that one of the main impediments to generalizing a framework for building city branches is precisely that cities are so distinct, so different from one another–and that we are not organized in enough of them!–that any sort of formulaic imperative would likely fall flat (particularly when dictated from the standpoint of a second- or third-tier city). Much of the conception in this document comes from a city with one city branch and one campus branch; larger cities with multiple “city” and campus branches already have a much more complex problem. Lastly, I suspect that comrades in certain cities (teachers in Chicago, NYC, Seattle come to mind, as well as housing activists in San Francisco) have likely discovered various aspects of what I want to lay out here, but have not had the time to generalize their methods to the organization as a whole.

Campus and city

For American socialists, the 1970s and the 1980s must have been radically different eras not just on the plane of politics, but even more so in regard to organization. In the 1970s, the IS was organizing rank-and-file caucuses and writing newsletters; in the 1980s, the ISO hung on by focusing its recruitment efforts on campuses. The unresolved contradictions of one era become the immediate starting point for the next. This starting point will be tackled in different ways by different groups of people, and not all ways–and maybe none–will be successful in resolving the contradiction. The path to resolution starts with recognition. So the contradiction of the 1970s: on one hand, a period of mass radicalization led to new opportunities for the revolutionary left to recruit young workers and to put its politics into practice among workers; on the other, the onset of neoliberalism led to a rapid evaporation of those opportunities and a sudden isolation of revolutionaries from the class. The contradiction latent in the 1970s had to be dealt with head on in the 1980s, and the successful resolution of it was a retreat to the campuses–a resolution that was successful because it preserved the core of socialist organization and politics in an era of working class rout. But it also laid the basis for contradictions in revolutionary theory and practice once the period shifted, as it did in the early 1990s.

Since the early 1990s, we’ve faced the new contradiction of being the largest and most vibrant organization of the revolutionary left in a period of new openings to re-implant revolutionary politics in the working class; yet we’re an organization that grew from a student milieu, many of whose cadre were recruited as students, and many of whose organizational methods have their roots in campus organizing–even when the context for our organizing has changed radically.

We know how to do campus organizing, and there’s a real importance to it. The campus provides a clearly delineated social space in which socialists can play a role in struggles beyond our numbers. It’s a space where we can quickly meet and recruit young people, train them in socialist theory and history, and send them into struggles where they can lead relative masses of people–the formula for training socialist cadre. As campuses are the idea factories of capitalism, a campus engagement allows socialist ideas to contend for hegemony against various bourgeois and reformist ideologies. And of course, winning students to socialism provides us as an organization with a steady stream of capable organizers, agitators and propagandists. Essentially our entire leadership joined as students and have spent a significant portion of their political careers engaged in developing our campus work in one way or another.

The problem is that students graduate, and the working world is far more vast and complicated than the campus. The methods of campus organizing are too general for the workplace. The campus framework can lead socialists in a workplace or city toward abstract propagandism, toward expectations of a much faster timeframe than things usually happen in non-revolutionary periods, toward a tendency to jump on “the next big thing” without a clear sense of the trajectory of the class struggle. What is appropriate and useful on the campus can be distorting and disorienting off the campus.

In the last 20 years, the ISO has taken some significant steps in its development as a revolutionary organization, among them: an attempt to get off the campuses and relate to labor struggles in the mid and late 1990s; the development of the ISR, Haymarket Books, CERSC and the Socialism conferences, which have become a focal point for the ideological development of the revolutionary left; a re-connection with other, older sections of the revolutionary left on the basis of the shared politics of socialism from below; and the development of a layer of working-class cadre rooted in workplaces or economic sectors, most notably our teacher work. This last development was organic, though perhaps also a bit unconscious: it grew naturally out of the situation of student members who graduated but maintained their membership in the organization. It has taken 15 years to develop, and only in the past two years have we really started to understand how to go about theorizing and generalizing this work. The resolution of our organizational contradiction has been a long time in coming, and it is only beginning.

The development of perspectives on cities and concrete propaganda

We have always insisted on the importance of developing our plan of action not simply on the basis of socialist principles, but also–perhaps more importantly–on the basis of our interpretation of the particular political period, including the balance of class forces, the state of working-class consciousness, the economic and political dynamics of capitalism, etc. In short, we place tremendous importance on our perspectives. In his talk on “Perspectives for the Left” at Socialism 2013, however, Ahmed Shawki notes how often we have made mistakes in our perspectives, how we misunderstood overall dynamics of a period even as we correctly grasped certain aspects at each point. He ends his speech with the statement that until an organization has reached a certain size and implantation in the working class, it doesn’t even know what questions to ask, much less how to answer them. It is precisely this implantation–seeking real roots into every section of the working class–that should be the goal for our operations in cities.

The first aspect of this is for comrades to conduct a serious and ongoing analysis of their city, its economic dynamism, its political currents and contradictions, its class and racial composition, etc. (It was not for nothing that Lenin, before arguing for an all-Russian revolutionary party and newspaper, first wrote a 700-page volume on The Development of Capitalism in Russia.) Out of this analysis, comrades should develop an orientation on particular areas and/or sectors of the city. In particular, attention should be paid to the economic structure of the city. Where is surplus value produced? Where and how it is realized as profit? What is the relative weight of manufacturing, transportation and logistics, the service sector, the public sector? Is there a particular section of the workforce that has a disproportionate political influence on the city because of its organization or the role it plays in the city’s economy? How has the city’s economy and social structure changed over time, and recently? This may all seem simple to the point of pedantry, but it’s worth researching in some detail. Local business consortia or media, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Economic Policy Institute, and likely many others, will have interesting and important data.

The basic analysis of the city should make clear the priorities of the branch in terms of where to focus Socialist Worker sales, contact work, etc. It should form the basis for developing a perspective on your city, in conjunction with and as a component part of the ISO’s national and international perspectives. It should also help to focus one of the most important ongoing tasks of any branch, the writing and publication of concrete propaganda on the city. The era of the Internet has made the publication part of this task very easy; it’s important that branches then use this to put out a socialist analysis of anything and everything that happens in the city. What do socialists say about local elections or city ordinances? What is the history of local politicians? These questions are of particular importance both for laying out tactics in movements and also making arguments about lesser-evilism that are concrete and convincing. (I particularly admire the clear relationship that Chicago comrades have developed with their “aldersheep”—every city branch should strive for such a relationship.) How does a particular act of police violence fit a pattern that is both specific to your city and also easily recognizable to radicals and activists all over the country? What small strikes or struggles are going on that deserve to be reported? What editorial comments do we have to make on the reporting in the city’s newspaper(s)? This sort of activity can and should also be correlated with a branch’s contributions to socialistworker.org. It can also be a way for a branch to relate to a crisis or a struggle even if the branch cannot maintain a sustained engagement.

In the branch’s orbit: members, contacts, supporters, allies

The process of rooting a branch in a city and in its most important economic spaces requires a different approach to the question of who’s in and around the branch, traditionally “members” and “contacts”. It also requires us to rethink the question of “cadre”, and to engage more seriously with the question of division of labor. Let’s start there.

In our traditional campus-based model, the pattern goes something like this: at the beginning of each school year, there is a new rush to bring in a layer of people interested in the ISO, to recruit a section of those people, and to turn the others into contacts, i.e. longer-term recruitment projects. With those new members, we immediately begin a process of intensive political education and training in organizational skills, with the aim of developing them into cadre of the organization, the “leaders who train leaders” and are themselves skilled at a range of organizational and political tasks. The best cadre are capable organizers, agitators and propagandists. It should be noted here that while “instant recruitment” is still problematic, there’s also a certain logic to the campus setting that drives us in that direction. All of this is correct for the campus.

But it becomes highly problematic once we start organizing for the long-term off the campus and in the city. For one thing, recruitment becomes a much more involved, longer-term process. The general situation of ordinary workers in capitalist society puts them in situations where the general level of political discourse is far lower than it is on a campus. In order to recruit contacts at a high level of politics, we have to spend a fair amount of time with them, bringing them to branch events and regional and national conferences, engaging in discussions, bring them with us to demonstrations, etc. This is a much more difficult process and requires our contacts to be “self-starters”–unless they are already rooted in a workplace or sector and the branch or particular members of the branch have a routine set up around engaging in political conversation and activity with that contact.

To underline the point: in order to recruit in any systematic and intelligent way, the branch itself has to be structured around particular workplaces and sectors where we can relate to workers in the course of their daily lives. When we rely instead on street sales to meet people at random and generate contacts that way; when we recruit these people simply on the basis of a spoken ideological commitment to socialist politics; when we attempt to set up a systematic political education plan with these unrooted new members and train them as “cadre” along the campus lines; we are setting ourselves up for difficulties. This structure, completely sensible for campus operations, is inappropriate for rooting ourselves in the working class in a city branch.

This is not to deprecate those members we’ve recruited over the last several years in city-wide branches. But in our experience, integrating these members with the same expectations that we hold for student members is near impossible. Peoples’ lives are not structured the same way. What we have found on the positive side, however, is that a) the recruits who stick have been recruited from movements, workplaces or economic sectors (i.e. public education) where there are significant struggles that we have related to; b) these new members have specialized talents and connections that are very valuable to the branch as a whole. In particular, the comrades we’ve recruited around our work on public education come to us with a range of experiences, a concrete knowledge of all the players in the system, and a feel for what’s happening on the shop floor, so to speak.

This experience raises a bigger question about the purpose of our organization: are we simply recruiting and training a cadre for a future mass revolutionary party? While this conception seems adequate when speaking of students and campus branches, it feels limited and partial in a city. In his talk at Socialism 2012 on the experience of the American IS in the 1970s, Joel Geier talks about the necessity comrades encountered at the time to dedicate members as “trade union cadre”, because such a cadre did not exist and had to be supplied by the members of the IS who had been recruited as students. They had to train themselves to become trade union cadre. They also had a much shorter time frame, though a much higher level of struggle, in which to develop this layer.

The point for us is that we can develop this layer not simply by recruiting more students and sending them in to various workplaces and industries–this would be quite artificial at this time. We can, however, start to recruit workers and train them as trade union and workplace cadre, provided that the branch has a serious orientation on and plan for developing work around their sector or workplace. This is a different conception than previously; and it requires us also to think in terms of comrades’ strengths and real-life connections. It means that our notion of branch division of labor can and must be less artificial, more organic to the lives and working situations of our members and periphery. Certain comrades are skilled as agitators, others as organizers, others as propagandists. While we should certainly leave the door open for possible development, there’s no particular use in foisting on a new comrade a task for which that comrade is ill-suited or uncomfortable. A far better approach is to assess the comrade’s strength and connections, to judge the importance of those for the branch and develop a branch plan around bringing out those innate strengths, basing the branch’s work and development on these, rather than an idealized and artificial notion of what the branch “should be doing”, cribbed from student experience.

I do want to say two words here about movements and students. The first is this: in our experience, we have recruited some excellent comrades out of movements where we’ve built broad city-wide committees (which is possible in a small city): the antiwar movement, the LGBT movement, and the Slutwalk movement come to mind. However, movements go up and down; once the movement has receded, these comrades are generally left “high and dry”, without a clear area of work to plug in to, except accidentally or as “tag-alongs” in work that other comrades who are more rooted in that work are doing.

The other question is that of student comrades coming in to city branches during the summer or after graduation. It is entirely possible that a city branch recruits excellent comrades, but comrades with particular strengths and weaknesses; and that as a result of this, particular areas of branch organization are left lacking (e.g. political education routines, membership secretary, literature organization, etc.) Student comrades coming in to city branches can play an important role in shoring up these aspects of branch life; indeed, that is the historical experience of ISO comrades who were recruited as students and moved on to city branches after graduation. It cannot, however, be the model around which we organize our city branches going forward, if we wish those branches to be relevant to the working class.

The different conception of membership in a city branch has consequences as well for how we conceive of those beyond our membership but in our orbit. It becomes important not simply to distinguish between members and contacts (i.e. non-members), but rather to differentiate contacts, supporters, and allies. In much of our work over the past decade, the ISO has learned concretely how to develop political allies, people we can work with in struggle on a consistent or recurring basis who are not going to join the ISO any time soon because they already have a different set of developed politics. We can and should and generally do engage this layer ideologically with Socialist Worker, Haymarket Books, the Socialism conference, etc. The importance of this work in a city is so obvious that I expect it’s been happening consistently for years already.

There is then a layer of people who are closer to the ideas of socialism from below who play a different role. They may share our ideas; they may pay dues to the organization; they may frequently attend our meetings; they clearly have a political allegiance to our organization. But for various reasons, they cannot or do not act substantively as members in the full sense. It is important for us to organize a relationship to this layer of people, without illusions that they are or can act as full members in a consistent fashion over time. I do not think it would be useful for us to implement some sort of formal “supporter” status in the organization; but city branches should understand the existence of this layer and think through how to engage that layer productively and as the need arises.

Lastly, the question of contacts. On a campus, contact work proceeds as comrades meet new people, sell them SW, call them on the phone, set up sit-down meetings, bring them into branch activity, etc. This work is rational on a campus. In a city branch, however, it must be modified in accordance with the structure of the branch and the city–in particular, it must suit the needs of the branch’s priorities for implantation. In a city branch, when we organize our contact work around street sales of SW, the process of calling up people we meet, setting up sit-down meetings, and bringing them around the branch is much harder, on both ends.

If the branch or the street sales are not focused on particular clearly delimited geographical or economic areas, then the process of contact work along the lines we’ve learned on campuses has to involve significant travel and rearrangement of schedules; and if the conversation is simply around the broad questions of socialist ideas, without any direct connection to the struggles or situations that working-class people are involved in, then it becomes nice idealistic talk. On the other hand, if a contact relationship is built around concrete political work, in particular organizing within a union or workplace or sector, then the relationship takes on a concrete importance for the contact, as well as for us.

One further note on contact work: once children enter the picture–on either end–the whole proposition becomes difficult to the point of impossible. It’s important and necessary that we offer free, on-site childcare for our national and regional conferences; it would be nice if we could offer it in branches for our branch meetings. But we cannot substantively expect to recruit and integrate new members who already have children unless their engagement with the branch is congruent with the structure of their lives. It’s not simply a matter of finding someone to take care of the children while the adults attend to the political activity; under capitalism, working-class parents’ lives are structured around meeting their children’s needs in all aspects, including dinner and bedtime. If we are to recruit working parents, our branches have to be structured so that political activity fits with where working parents (like workers generally) potentially have power: at the workplace.

Organizing the branch around the political priorities of city organizing

How, then, should the branch as a collective organize itself around political priorities for building in a city? So much depends on the nature of the city and the character of the members already in the city. Without laying out abstract formulas, I do think there are some general directions we can follow in the conception of any given city branch.

The first question is centralization. We adhere to the Leninist notion of democratic centralism, but what does that mean in a branch whose members all live and work in different places? On a campus, the branch is an organizational centralizer: we expect that members of the branch are involved in movement activity and in struggles, but they do so as socialists–their involvement in those movements and struggles is coordinated by and through the branch, in conjunction with a team of comrades (in our vernacular, a “fraction”) involved in the same work. In a city setting, the branch still has a role to play in centralizing comrades’ involvement in particular struggles or movements; but because of the difference in goal and structure as compared to a campus branch, and because of the different structure of working-class life and political activity, the organizational component of centralization through the branch is necessarily limited.

The more important thing is that the branch centralize the political outlook and lessons of the work that each and every comrade is engaged in. Lenin, in his “Letter to a Comrade on Our Organizational Tasks”, belittles the future Mensheviks’ preoccupation with formal rules and structures, preferring instead that comrades report on their work to the organization. We do this to a large extent already in the ISO–indeed, much of our Pre-Convention Discussion consists of local reports. But to highlight the point, we have found that it’s often been easier to report on and generalize the work that individual comrades are doing on the side, than to get such reports from fractions.

And speaking of, how should our fractions be organized? At various points over the past decade or so, we have experimented with various fraction formulas and formations. At one point, we had “branch-building fractions”; later, we abolished them as they were “reservoirs of passivity”. We’ve also debated whether or not everyone in a branch should be in a fraction. It is certain that all members should be engaged in outward-looking political activity, that every member should have a productive role within the branch (though not necessarily organizing a particular aspect of the branch), and that every member should be able to contribute to the political centralization and direction of the branch through their work. But should every member be in a fraction?

On this question, three points:

  1. Fractions should be composed of comrades whose participation in that fraction makes sense. We have had a fraction around public education work for some years; only those comrades who are linked to that sector (teachers and parents) have ever really made a contribution to the fraction. The other comrades simply didn’t have a role in that work.
  2. Fractions around movements can be useful, of course, and can give comrades who are not rooted in a workplace or sector a clear framework for their political work. It requires, however, that there be a real movement to plug in to. And, when we recruit people from these movements, we need to prepare them and the branch for the ebbs and flows of the movement, with a plan for what they can do next if the movement peters out.
  3. It is actually helpful, then, to have individual comrades who are not part of a fraction. This gives the branch flexibility to have members carry out other organizing roles and participate in movements or struggles that do not require or cannot accommodate more members of the branch. In short: the fraction structure of the branch should be fitted to the political priorities of the branch.

What of Socialist Worker sales? While our traditional Saturday street sales have always been important for training comrades to talk politics and for putting out a public face of the organization, city branches should strategically plan workplace sales as part of an overall strategy for focusing contact work and recruitment around implantation. Workplace sales can be staffed by just two or three comrades, though consistency in staffing is crucial. The expectations for these sales should not be built around high sale numbers, but rather around forming political relationships with the key militants and a profile among the workers over time. In addition to selling SW, the comrades assigned to the sale should develop a profile of the shop and of the key militants, who should be developed as ISO contacts and/or allies. The comrades should also produce regular leaflets and articles about or pertinent to the workplace, so that we develop our own analysis that the lead militants can use as a tool in the shop floor struggle. Of course, the SW can and should also take up the whole range of political questions–it’s impossible to develop political relationships without doing this.

The keys are the development of the long-term profile of the organization, the cultivation of our audience within the workplace, and the eventual recruitment of the key leaders of the struggle. It should be noted here as well that developing a workplace sale is likely easier where there is a union; definitely easier where workers are going in to struggle and have more confidence; extremely difficult when workers are defeated (our Verizon sale was going strong for a year before the crappy contract demoralized everyone who talked to us).

The last thing to say in this vein is that if there are college campuses that play an important role in the life of the city, plans should be made to relate to that campus and to recruit students. This may seem an odd assertion, coming at the end of a document on the necessities of building ISO branches in cities; but I wish to use it to clarify the relationship of the differing types of organization our group should adopt as we grow. The point of this document has not been to deprecate the building of campus branches; campus branches represent the historical roots of the ISO, and that’s no mean statement. The point now is that campus branches (current and future) should be related to the city branches with an eye to the dynamic of campus/city interaction, the role of particular types of campuses in particular cities, and the successful transition of a layer of student comrades to post-student political life.

It is important that students build on their own campuses; if we do not have students on a particular campus, we cannot pretend that we are and parachute in to build a new “branch”. We can, however, conduct campus SW sales, much along the lines of workplace sales as I laid out above, except that we can have a larger sale with a literature table, a more direct ideological engagement, etc. Done properly, relating campus and workplace organization of socialists will allow us to develop a more rooted and holistic sense of our cities, and will lay the basis for a much larger, more differentiated and more significant political group when the time comes to put together the future mass revolutionary party.

Appendix: Providence as example and outline

Brief characterization of our city

Providence is an aging New England city, population 170,000 but anchoring a diffuse metropolitan area of 1.6 million (including southeastern Massachusetts which is generally more closely connected to Providence than to Boston). In 2009, there were still 44,000 manufacturing jobs in the state of Rhode Island; those jobs are concentrated in the defense manufacturing sector (with workplaces located in suburban areas, employing largely white male workers), or in small factories in industrial parks, many of them employing undocumented immigrants. 20% of the state’s workforce is concentrated in education and healthcare, making the sector politically important. Rhode Island is also home to CVS pharmacy, one of the state’s largest employers (after the military, state government, the church, and Brown University). UPS, Verizon and the city’s hotels are also important centers of activity for unionized workers.

Racially, the suburban areas are upwards of 95% white, while Blacks and Latinos are concentrated in the “urban core” (Providence, Pawtucket, Central Falls). 64% of Providence Public Schools’ students are Latino. Meanwhile, the city of Providence only taxes about 40% of the property in the city, meaning that it is in a chronic financial crisis. The largest tax-exempt organizations in the city include Brown University (which should pay $33 million in property taxes) and the Providence Place Mall Corporation (which should pay $17 million per year).

The state is dominated by the Democratic Party, with only five Republicans in the General Assembly (all of whom have openly supported same-sex marriage and legalization of medical marijuana). Providence had the first openly gay mayor of any major US city, a neoliberal Democrat who refused to perform same-sex marriages. His tenure was followed by that of the city’s first Latino mayor, another neoliberal who fired all 1,900 Providence Public Schools teachers in February 2011. There is much more to say about the city, but for the sake of comrades far and wide, we’ll limit the description here. It is worth noting: I provide this picture off the top of my head, but with facts culled from some years of looking things up. The repetition of the facts of our city within the branch has led to a common sense, so to speak, of the contours of our city among our members. And: there is still much more research for us to do on our own city.

Brief characterization of our branch/district

The Providence branch has been in existence continuously for over 20 years, though the current branch really took shape in the aftermath of September 11, 2001. There are currently 9 consistently active members, plus four dues-paying “members” who are only inconsistently active with the branch (and thus really fall more in to the category of supporters). Among the members, there are two who joined prior to 2001; one from 2005; two from 2007; one who moved in from another district; and the rest joined in 2011 or later. The branch’s youngest members are in their mid-to-late 20s, while the oldest member is early 60s. That member had a history in a Trotskyist organization in the 1970s; all other comrades joined the ISO directly or joined out of movement work. Among our members are two teachers, the only two union members in the branch; a grad student; three are unemployed or contingently employed; one is a social worker; one is a retail worker; and one is a freelance videographer for the unions in the state.

Beyond the branch, we have two particularly consistent contacts (both teachers), and then a layer of looser contacts and supporters who have been in or around the ISO for some time. Lastly, we have a fledgling branch at Brown University, with eight dues paying members at the end of the 2012-2013 school year (though only two came to Socialism 2013). What this means is that, despite what the longest-standing member of the branch might want to say about the importance of the branch being rooted, the comrades in the branch are largely unrooted in the city altogether. This is not a reason to despair; but it does place a premium on the branch developing a plan to relate systematically to workers who are rooted in workplaces or sectors. It also allows us a high degree of flexibility when it comes to relating to new movements, one-off protests, etc. It can be difficult, given comrades’ life situations, to keep the branch on an even keel in terms of perspectives and outlook; this problem will be best solved by orienting the branch systematically around key workplaces, sectors, and (to a lesser degree) movements in the city.

Concrete propaganda

Since 2006, the Providence branch has developed its concrete propaganda with some excellent works, but nonetheless in an inconsistent manner. In 2006, 2008 and 2010 the branch produced a “voter’s guide” to local elections, in which we took positions on all the ballot questions (most notably the Narragansett Indian casino in 2006) and provided an analysis of all the candidates (usually scathing). Comrades have written excellent articles on the foreclosure crisis, the Medicare crisis, the police beating of Joshua Robinson, and the various crises affecting the public schools and state workers and teachers, among other things. Our leading teacher comrade has maintained a blog for the last two years, which has been invaluable for orienting activists around us in our work around public education. And, we have had the RISocialism.org website for a number of years.

At this point, we should focus on revamping RISocialism.org, and using it to develop an analysis of the workplaces where we do SW sales, as well as trends in unemployment, foreclosure, the prison population, the state of the unions, the antiracist struggle and police brutality, etc. Our SW organizer should actually be focused just as much on determining what articles we need to write, and assigning them to comrades to write, as s/he should be on organizing the paper sales themselves. All articles should be published on the website and translated to Spanish (we have a bilingual comrade with translating experience). All articles should be submitted to Socialist Worker. And, where appropriate, articles should be published as paper leaflets, to be distributed along with the SW, particularly on our workplace sales. This work should be the work of the entire branch, spearheaded by the SW organizer.

Plan for workplace engagements

While there are a number of potential workplace sales at union workplaces in Providence (USPS, Verizon and RIPTA all come to mind), the two to focus on at the moment are at the Renaissance Hotel, where workers are organized as part of HERE Local 217, and at the Rhode Island Hospital, organized by Teamsters Local 251. In both cases, we have good links with people who are organized and can put us in touch with the workers on the shop floor.

The Renaissance Hotel workers are fighting their (new) bosses for recognition of the union and a contract, while also trying to raise the issue (despite legal complications) of the hotel’s $9 million tax break with the city council and the mayor. In the case of the Teamsters, we have links with activists in Teamsters for a Democratic Union. TDU is organized both within the Teamsters at UPS, and also at Rhode Island Hospital, where a contract is being negotiated this fall. In addition, TDU has finally been able to put together an opposition slate to challenge the old guard leadership in this fall’s elections for the local executive board. [The opposition swept the elections and has taken control of the local. –ed]

Our approach should be as follows: first, to sit down with the organizers and activists we already know, and have a conversation in which we draw out in painstaking detail what they dynamics of each workplace are. What is the struggle as defined by the workers? How does it differ from the definition given by the organizers and business agents? What do the workers see as the next step in the struggle? What would victory look like? What does daily life on the shop floor look like? And so on.

From there, we should develop a pamphlet/article that puts the struggle in a larger political context, a tool that the militants can use to explain and illuminate the struggle to their fellow workers, or as a starting point for debate about how to move forward. We should talk to the activists/organizers about when and where to set up SW sales (presumably around shifts). Then, we should put together teams of comrades who will develop a political assessment of the sale and the workers we meet and talk to week to week. What are the trends in the conversations? What are the hot-button arguments this week? What political questions beyond the workplace are generating conversations? What contacts are we making, and how are we following up with them (sit-down meetings, bringing them to branch meetings or activities, etc.)?

Over time, we want to put ourselves in a position to both influence the course of the struggles in these workplaces, but also to recruit key militants to the ISO. This is precisely the work of building a party of the vanguard of the working-class; it is slow, painstaking work that often will yield little in the way of immediate visible results. But it is what will set us up to be rooted in the key bastions of working-class power in the long run.

There will be some difficulties with this work. In HERE Local 217, the bulk of the hotel workers are housekeepers who are monolingual Spanish speakers. This will prevent us from recruiting them to the ISO at this time, and it may make it quite difficult to carry on a dialogue about which way forward for the struggle, especially when our one bilingual member is busy with other work. Lastly, there is a real danger that the branch will become over-extended in doing these sales along with everything else we do. It is possible to do workplace sales less often than once a week (though once a month is too infrequent); and it may be the case that we end up unable to do all the workplace sales we’d like. This is a question we’ll have to monitor and adjust to over time.

Our Public Education fraction

We have been doing work around public education since at least 2009, when the East Providence teachers were attacked by their school board and received a 5% pay cut, but it was not until 2011, with the firing of the Providence teachers, that we were able to start an activist organization, the Coalition to Defend Public Education (CDPE). CDPE has been one of the most important vehicles for the branch’s orientation and work in its two-and-a-half years of existence. We have worked directly with something approaching 100 different education activists, most of them teachers or retired teachers, but also parents, community members, and a few students.

We have had a fraction continuously throughout that time, and our most consistent supporters have all been involved in the work as well. We have found, however, that when we put comrades in the fraction who had no concrete links to public education, they had very little to do in the fraction. This is largely because the work has been extremely concrete, involving particular schools, teachers, bureaucrats, ed reform players, etc. The more deeply involved a person is in the ed sector, the more they know the players and the history, the more they can contribute. And it’s not just the very experienced involved in this movement, because anyone–for example, a teacher in her first year at a turn-around school in Providence–knows more of the players and more of the dynamics as a matter of course, than we can teach the unrooted comrades over a period of time.

The difficulty for the branch is that the best-rooted comrade is also the practical leader of the entire operation, and as such, has a limited ability to really build the ISO through this work, except slowly, through individual conversations and inviting individual people to meetings or conferences. It also means less of an ability to have a clear assessment of the movement, and to bring that assessment back in to the branch. In many ways, when the fraction has been most active, the branch has been least involved or aware of what’s really going on with the work.

We are currently trying to rebuild the fraction by involving two new comrades, one who’s a parent of an elementary school child and another who has deep knowledge of the teachers’ unions and the bureaucrats. The future of this work lies in expanding the CDPE to new teachers and parents; making connections between this work and other struggles in the city, particularly antiracist struggles; and systematically developing contacts and recruiting people to the ISO on the basis of common work over time and a long engagement in learning socialist politics.

Our movement fraction(s)

Over the past decade, the Providence branch has been involved with basically all the major movements that had a reflection in the city, and we generally did so via various organizational vehicles that we organized beyond our branch. From Immigrants United and the RI Mobilization Committee to Stop War and End Occupation, to the Providence Equality Action Committee and the RI Anti-Sexist League, our branch had a near-constant engagement with the movements, each time forming a fraction around the work that involved new members or contacts. This work was modestly successful in terms of its importance in training comrades in organizational and political tasks. Movements were also the key recruiting grounds for the branch, particularly the antiwar movement.

However, each of these movements experienced booms followed by busts. Even the antiwar movement, which had organizational representation in Providence from 2004 until 2012, experienced massive ups and downs. And when these movements petered out, the new comrades we’d recruited from them did not really have a clear way to play a productive role, inside or outside the branch. The internal organizing routines often became routine and bureaucratic, while the comrades’ sense of politics became more abstract and disconnected from the active work that other members of the branch were doing. And, the fractions were often islands unto themselves, whose work was not centralized politically in the branch. Leia Petty described quite well the pattern of movements and their impact on the ISO in this period (2004-2011) in her portion of the talk on the history of the ISO; this was exactly our experience in Providence.

Occupy radically changed the framework for movements in that it was a tremendous centralizing force, both politically and organizationally. The Providence branch was deeply involved in Occupy; it forced us to coordinate our comrades’ efforts more closely, even as each comrade was developing a radically different assessment of Occupy from the next comrade. It forced us to postpone the separation of the city and campus branches, because all the best students were in the city’s Occupy. But it contained many contradictions, and among them, this: the framework of political generalization that Occupy imposed on those who participated in it degenerated either into passivity or into frantic, “serial” activism once Occupy lost the capacity for centralizing activism organizationally. Our branch recruited new people, mostly around Occupy and not out of it.

We did, though, use the opportunity of Occupy to hold bi-weekly mass political meetings on a range of topics, to maintain a daily table, and to keep tabs on all that was going on around and through Occupy. Once Occupy collapsed, however, our members who had been most centrally involved were thrown into passivity, while the one new member we recruited directly from Occupy started frantically attending every small meeting and protest, without any plan or coordination. What we learned from this was the need for the branch not to demand that comrades organize their entire political lives in the branch itself, but rather to ask of comrades that they report back on their work, that they bring it to the branch for discussion, assessment and evaluation. It’s often the restless member who jumps on everything that gets the branch kick-started and moving. In this case, the work of this particular comrade has opened new doors for the branch–provided we were ready and willing to look through them.

Currently, aside from our public education fraction, we have one other activist fraction around environmental work. The comrades have been working with a few disparate small groups around stopping GMOs and fossil fuel divestment, and had their greatest success operating as the System Change Not Climate Change Coalition at the Brayton Point Power Plant protest in July. Beyond these two mini-movements, there are other smaller initiatives that comrades have found and are trying to relate to. The most prudent course of action at this point appears to be to build a chapter of SCNCC in Providence, and to use it as a method of political centralization for the various sub-categories of the environmental movement. This means that the comrades in the fraction may well go to meetings of various small groups by themselves, and are charged with a) assessing the work of the mini-group; b) offering assistance to push it forward in practice, to the extent possible; and c) centralizing the political lessons of the group through SCNCC, and presenting SCNCC as the key place to make political generalizations from the mini-movements. It’s not a bad thing to send comrades out in all directions, so long as at the end of the day, the comrades come back together and assess and generalize our political work.

Our ancillary involvements

As the branch has developed connections in the city through our movement work, there are particular comrades who now have a raised profile around certain areas of struggle, are the administrators of listservs and Facebook groups, or are generally connected to areas of struggle that do not at the moment have the momentum to be a movement. I imagine that we could find ourselves in a position where, similarly, we have one comrade who works in a particular workplace or sector, such that the branch cannot orient its activity (SW sales, contact work, etc.) around that workplace or sector. However, these comrades still have an important role to play in the branch, and in fact may be more able to play that role if they are not assigned to fractions. Such freedom allows them the flexibility to jump on things when the moment arises. In addition, those comrades should follow the area of struggle and write articles as frequently as necessary, so as to keep the branch in the loop as well as to give the people in that struggle a socialist framework for understanding their struggle. Lastly, if it is clear that we maintain an engagement with the struggle through our political analysis and reporting through the down times, we run little risk of being accused of parachuting into struggles.

Some examples:

  1. Our comrades did quite a bit of work around Slutwalk and antisexist work two years ago. That movement has petered out in Providence, but our comrades still have a profile and connections. When the attack on abortion rights in Texas came down and the call for mobilization came out, one comrade–who had a profile in that work but was not assigned to a fraction in the branch–was able to organize a good action locally, even as the Zimmerman verdict was announced and the Justice for Trayvon protests were erupting, and without disrupting the branch’s other areas of work. There may be further opportunities in the future to organize a clinic defense with these same folks in the future, even as an ongoing movement is not possible for the moment.
  2. The response to the Zimmerman verdict and the March on Washington are opening up new opportunities for the branch to engage in antiracist work. At the moment, there is no real movement on the ground in Providence, and though there are several small grievances, nothing is generating a groundswell. However, the raised consciousness that forced Black leaders to respond after Zimmerman’s acquittal also means opportunities for meeting and developing new allies, and doing propaganda work (i.e. film showings, study groups, joint forums) with those allies on the topic of racism. We would do well to write articles on the various aspects of racism in Providence, as well as a deeper research on the structure of Black Providence and how racism impacts the local community, in concrete detail.
  3. The civil liberties coalition that grew out of Occupy may provide opportunities to engage in that work, and we should stay informed of what the group is doing. But we also need to ask some questions about the dynamic of the group. Is it taking up the right political questions (i.e. racial profiling as well as whistleblowers, etc.)? Is it drawing in new people? Is there a national movement that gives it momentum? If it is not going anywhere particularly useful, we may want to put it aside for the moment, and make clear to the best people within it the political bases for our withdrawal from the work.

The role of the campuses in the city

Providence has four college campuses in its city limits, of which we have and should continue to operate at two: Brown University (the Ivy League school) and Rhode Island College (the public university). It is important to incorporate both into the plan for the city because of the role each plays in the political life of the city and of the working class. Brown is both the ideological leader of the city, and the main source of bureaucrats for the local unions and NGOs. Our student branch on that campus has a significant role to play in challenging the bourgeois ideology that the campus transfers to the city; and, they have an important duty to win as many left-wing students away from the politics of NGOs and sellouts to capitalism as they can. In return, the city branch provides an important opportunity for students to get off the campus and connect directly with workers. This experience is crucial to developing a clear sense among our student members that this is not simply an extracurricular activity. Lastly, the campus has a tremendous amount of money, and provided we organize ourselves correctly, we can get some of that money, particularly through Haymarket events on the campus.

RIC is a different creature entirely. Whereas Brown is mostly a residential campus where students work very little if at all in outside jobs, RIC is the campus of the working class, and 80% of its students work 20 or more hours per week. Only a small portion of the students live on campus. We have never been able to get a stable organization off the ground there, despite our ability to sell large numbers of papers on SW sales. Nonetheless, RIC is a crucial component to our orientation on rooting the branch in the working class, because RIC itself is the college of Rhode Island’s working class. RIC trains the bulk of our state’s teachers, nurses, social workers, and others, and it is essential for us to have a relationship with the campus. For now, given the lack of RIC student members and the difficulties of building on the campus, our plan should be to sell SW on campus once a week; to establish a contact base and follow up with those contacts; and to recruit RIC students to the city branch of the ISO. Once we have a few students who are well-trained and well-integrated in the city branch, we should attempt to launch a campus-based branch there as well.

Brian C (Providence, RI)

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13 thoughts on “ISO “City” branches: What are we building?

  1. I think that this is a very strong and important contribution. In a different vein it reminded me of a piece by Unity and Struggle on “Building A Solidarity Network In Houston” http://unityandstruggle.org/2013/06/10/building-a-solidarity-network-in-houston/. I think that there are some important questions in the mix here around what it means to build and consolidate a political base in a particular area. It also made me think of the discussion that has been developing around Malcolm X Grassroots Movement/New Afrikan People’s Organization’s “Jackson Plan”. One thing that I think is missing here is that there is a relationship between broad social movements and the particular identity of certain urban areas. For example: Atlanta and the Civil Rights Movement, the Castro district of San Francisco and the Gay liberation movement etc. (See Manuel Castells book “City and the Grassroots”)

    • While I don’t know anything about Unity and Struggle as an organization, the analysis in the report about Houston is fantastic.

      I think it’s long overdue that Lefties in Atlanta begin to look into and assess the nature of the economy and political structure of our own city.

      As I see it, in order to meaningfully engaging with local struggles as Marxists, it’s imperative to have some conceptualization of the underlying dynamics at hand. To this end, I found the following point from Brian’s document to be especially apt:

      The first aspect of this is for comrades to conduct a serious and ongoing analysis of their city, its economic dynamism, its political currents and contradictions, its class and racial composition, etc. (It was not for nothing that Lenin, before arguing for an all-Russian revolutionary party and newspaper, first wrote a 700-page volume on The Development of Capitalism in Russia.) Out of this analysis, comrades should develop an orientation on particular areas and/or sectors of the city. In particular, attention should be paid to the economic structure of the city. Where is surplus value produced? Where and how it is realized as profit? What is the relative weight of manufacturing, transportation and logistics, the service sector, the public sector? Is there a particular section of the workforce that has a disproportionate political influence on the city because of its organization or the role it plays in the city’s economy? How has the city’s economy and social structure changed over time, and recently? This may all seem simple to the point of pedantry, but it’s worth researching in some detail. Local business consortia or media, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Economic Policy Institute, and likely many others, will have interesting and important data.

  2. mike davis edited a book in a verso series, “fire in the hearth” that focused on studies of the radical politics of place. there were chapters on the bay area, the yukon province, phoenix, and so on. it was published in 1990 so the specifics are outdated but it was a very good look at how to sort of “sum up” a city through study and action. I don’t know if ISO members are allowed to read mike davis edited books or not but I found it a good read.

    even more in depth would be outright community charting, specifically placing different interest groups and organizations onto a chart showing their influence and their left/right pole. i’m not sure if that’s frowned upon either, especially when there are tabloid newspapers to sell.

    • As far as community charting goes, it’s part of the necessary strategic work that a trade unionist like Jane McAlevey has argued for since the year dot:
      http://socialistproject.ca/leftstreamed/ (Greater Toronto Workers’ Assembly, end of Feb 2014; conversation with Sam Gindin, then Q&A – something wearemany doesn’t seem too keen on for some reason: it’s as if some differences paralyse)

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  4. So, they probably issued a note to everyone in the organization saying they should ignore and not engage in any discussion regarding the issues raised by this rupture in the organization. Of course.

  5. Regarding the comment from ToJu, it is likely that the ISO leadership regards discussion of the issues raised by the RF to be disruptive and unnecessary, and is anxious to return to business as usual as if the whole incident had never happened.

  6. I finally found time to read Brian’s long essay on the history of the Providence ISO branch and the issue of campus/city organizing, and I thought it was outstanding, and actually the most damning to ISO orthodoxy of anything posted on the renewal site even though written before the renewal caucus and posted as an afterthought by Shaun after the renewal effort had played out. I have some thoughts that take his background material and analysis one step further………. the reason for the relative ISO success the past few decades was that it was centered on the campuses and that virtually all its leadership consists of people who came to socialism as youth, even if some are now in their fifties or sixties. I saw the same thing in the antiwar movement, where virtually everyone started out in the movement as youth, no matter how old they are now. Jerry Gordon, co-founder of the National Assembly, is in his eighties and he started out as an activist opposing the Korean War!

    My conclusion is that there are basically two targets for socialist or antiwar organizing: young people, and older people with a youth background in activism. That’s it, its practically impossible to win adults over 30 to leftism unless they had that background in their youth. There’s even some science on this, that people’s brains are hardwired by the time they are in their late twenties. The ISO has intuitively known this, and even though with Marxist theory they may talk about “implantation” in the working class, in practice, other than with some teachers who have an interest in ideas and idealism, there isn’t a lot of success in organizing labor or the oppressed, except in unusual circumstances like the Verizon strike…….and even that was short-lived. So in a non-revolutionary environment, whatever success socialist organizing is likely to have will be mainly centered on campuses. That’s why the Providence ISO sold papers on Thayer Street (at Brown U.) for so long even though it was a “city” branch, because that was the place where they could find people at least open to a discussion of socialism, as their political world view wasn’t cast in stone.

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  9. Hey there. This piece was helpful in pushing me (at the time a relatively newly minted socialist becoming disenchanted with the ISO) to really think carefully and thoughtfully about building something that can last and grow in the United States. I appreciate it.

    I thought to get in touch with you because I’m reading the CP India (Maoist)’s document “Urban Perspective: Our Work in Urban Areas” (http://www.bannedthought.net/India/CPI-Maoist-Docs/UrbanPerspective.pdf) and it made me think back to this piece. I think you may potentially find it useful and interesting if you haven’t already encountered it.

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