The pilgrim’s lack of progress: An assessment of the ISO Renewal Faction

A recurring complaint of the Renewal Faction, and before that me personally, regarding the political method of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) was that the group rarely assessed its own activity. It seemed, therefore, that it would be gauche for me not to attempt an assessment of the faction itself. I should stress that these are my views as an individual on questions that were more often than not disputed within Renewal itself–the ISO leadership faction’s image of us as a clique ruled by one person (me) notwithstanding. I think other Renewal comrades would (and should!) produce different assessments.

Did the faction succeed?

Certainly the answer is no inasmuch as our central set of organizational proposals failed, and did not even garner the requisite three “seconds.” (By rules adopted at the Convention, a proposal required three “seconds” to advance; including the original mover, then, four delegates had to back a proposal in order to even discuss it. For those playing at home: guess how many delegates the Renewal Faction had.) However, from the beginning we realized that our formal proposals were extremely unlikely to pass (save perhaps the one relating to the exclusion of Vanessa B, which I quite wrongly thought had a chance).

What I, for my own part, had hoped to do was create political space for our arguments within the organization that could be part of a longer process of transformation. The would have meant, at least, the development of a tendency or current within the organization that could “loyally”–whatever that means–argue its piece through the publications, conferences, branch meetings, etc. It would not have necessarily implied the Trotskyist boogeyman of “permanent factions,” although I saw no reason to rule it out. By ISO standards this made me an extreme outlier. The average member’s paranoia about “factionalism” reminds one of an evangelical middle-schooler’s attitude toward sex: having learned only that it’s a vector for illness, the poor youngster reacts with panic to a quite normal and potentially interesting phenomenon.

In fact, if you want the real truth, the group is more plagued by anti-factionalism than its opposite. In its 35-odd year history, there have been, I believe, three national-level faction fights in the ISO. All of them ended with the liquidation of the losing side and its expulsion. (The same pattern was true, incidentally, of the International Socialists.) I have come to believe that this kind of outcome is inevitable in an organization where the only faction permitted, formally or otherwise, is what Renewal called the “leadership faction”–a term meant in the double sense that 1) the leadership is drawn exclusively from a single political current; and 2) the leadership uses its control over the organization’s apparatus in a factional way, to “win” political debate rather than facilitate it. So in that sense, Renewal not only failed, but was doomed to fail.

We did succeed, however, in liberating ourselves and a handful of others from the constraints of the ISO, organizationally and intellectually. This makes us personally less miserable–which is nice–and in Rhode Island, where essentially the entire Providence district was expelled or resigned, opens new possibilities for the long-term reconstitution of the radical left. And although it was deeply controversial, even among sympathetic comrades, I am proud of the publication of the CERSC and “Daniel” documents, which I believe frankly yet responsibly took up two of the most problematic and therefore avoided topics on the left: NGOization and dealing with sexual violence within the left.

I am proud, but also realistic. While some comrades were happy to see us speak up, mostly the documents “went over” like lead balloons, and the faction probably lost support overall as a consequence of their publication. I mean support not only in ISO-land–where our support was pretty close to zero anyway–but outside the organization as well. That was in the nature of the thing.

There’s a sort of mythology that when you say “courageous” things, you can expect to be cheered and applauded for your courage. But people cheer by and large for things they want to hear; and courage is by and large about telling people what they very much don’t want to hear. Courageous acts typically don’t “work”–which makes perfect sense if you think about it. So when we published our document on CERSC, for instance, I think we repelled some sympathetic intellectuals who like Haymarket Books for reasons both high-minded (they publish some very good stuff) and vulgar (they may publish your stupid book). Yet this merely reflects the fact that the bulk of the left’s intellectual culture is materially produced by NGOs or similar bodies, to which most of the left’s intellectuals are accommodated, not just instrumentally but even “ideologically.”

Similar, but by no means identical, dynamics were at play in the “Daniel” sexual assault case. [After I began this piece, the identity of “Daniel” was revealed to Brandy Baker by a former member of his branch, apparently in line with the wishes of the survivor. I will continue to use the anachronistic pseudonym here, though, since it is what we used in our writings on the case.] The key to what Renewal exposed was not that the assault occurred–I do not know how to eliminate the possibility of individual crimes even under socialism–but that the ISO was constitutionally unable to deal with it honestly, all the way up to the national level. (Actually the willingness to correct or even admit mistakes was inversely proportional to the “highness” in the organization.)  But what use should the broader left make of these revelations?

Well, it could do a lot of things, but all of them would be painful. New York radicals could refuse to support the Hawkins/Jones campaign on the basis of Brian Jones’s leading role in the ISO. Members of CORE in Chicago could demand that Jesse Sharkey quit the ISO on pain of expulsion from the caucus; likewise with SEE and Jesse Hagopian in Seattle. These would all be quite “unpleasant” episodes, but I think it’s what a left that was serious about anti-sexist principles would do: it would hold organizations–including their prominent figures–to account in practice. Instead what I see is a left that’s both weak and reconciled to weakness; committed verbally to the ruthless criticism of everything existing, but operationally to the ruthless preservation of it. Because the left is ineffective, we have to hang on to whatever of it that we can, even though we know that this necessarily reproduces its ineffectiveness.

Thus the ISO was irreformable internally due to its “Leninism”; and the external forces that could have compelled it to change or suffer lacked the will to disrupt things. Our accomplishments, therefore, were almost entirely negative: to increase the discredit of the ISO, to accelerate its anti-democratic trends, to compel the group to defend its most inexcusable personalities and acts, etc. In other words, we forced the ISO’s appearance to hew closer to its essence. Which is good–now at least those who consider joining the group can acquire a more accurate sense of what it is they would be joining. And those of us who were attracted to the group for the right reasons–the desire to give radical ideas and attitudes an expression in action–will be forced to think more critically and less lazily about how to advance our cause.

What were the faction’s major mistakes?

One should first make the distinction here between tactical mistakes–errors that cost us one or a few “engagements” in the factional struggle; and strategic mistakes–errors that weakened or misaligned our whole “campaign.” Although certain tactics may have strongly strategic dimensions (eg, the launch of External Bulletin) a critique that focuses on tactics tends to obscure the broader arcs of the struggle, resulting in a “if only the faction hadn’t done X, they could have gotten somewhere” discourse that isn’t especially enlightening–particularly since, depending on whom one listens to, X could be literally anything the faction actually did.

Some of our tactics were strategic or even existential imperatives. We were, for instance, never going to get anywhere without control over our own means of communication; we were completely aware well before creating the faction that the Center manipulated the internal channels to their own convenience. External Bulletin was both our best and our most obvious idea. My open participation in the faction was also unavoidable, regardless of the Center’s octroi against my resumption of membership.

Some of our moves, on the other hand, were “superfluous” in the sense that they weren’t strictly necessary for the development of the factional struggle. We didn’t really have to say anything about the exclusion of Vanessa B, for example; nor did we really have to say anything about CERSC or “Daniel.” We could have instead focused primarily on the “high-level” (read: abstract) politics. But not only do I think that these “extraneous” interventions were not mistakes: I think they were the faction’s finest moments, when we went, in a sense, out of our way to address unfairness and injustice. I don’t see how any radical politics is possible without embracing, to some degree, this kind of impracticality. (For a radical, after all, is opposed to the very system that determines what is practical.)

All that said, of course we made any number of tactical mistakes. Our Faction Rules, for example, were far too centralistic. This actually didn’t matter at all–every important faction decision was discussed and voted on by the entire faction–but it gave the ISO leadership a (stupid and dishonest) line of attack against us. We also should have written more, especially in response to “official” documents against us–although it’s understandable that comrades were reluctant to pick through turds for the purpose of proving they were turds.

Finally, we were not always disciplined in our communications, particularly on social media; a criticism that applies primarily, of course, to me. The “revelation” (after it had been in public for a year) that Keegan O gave political information to the police, for instance, should not have been made by me on Facebook. I had originally planned to discuss this in the context of problems in the Boston ISO, as one (of many) examples of how the reckless and dangerous actions of “leaders” were never dealt with, even when members tried to bring attention to them through the “proper channels” (as I did). But in frustration, I put out the information in a rash way that allowed the leadership faction to (stupidly and dishonestly) attack us.

But again, in my view there were tactical errors: “losing” engagements but nothing that really threw us off course. On the strategic plane, on the other hand, I can think of only one big mistake.

We were at some point–probably by the New Year–far too dissembling about our fundamental political disagreements with the ISO. Some dissembling is permissible in a factional struggle, but once we had collectively determined that our initial goals were unrealizable–that we had, in fact, fundamental differences–we should have made this clear, even at the cost of tactical advantages that were typically honored in the breach anyway (the “right” to publish in the internal bulletin, the “right” to participate in Convention, etc).

Let me be even more explicit: six weeks before the ISO’s National Convention, we were convinced that the ISO’s concept of Leninism was a dead-end. And by this “concept of Leninism” I mean not just the peculiarities of the ISO’s organizational schema that may be more or less ameliorated in other Leninist organizations; I mean rather the concept of Leninism that is basically shared by the entire Trotskyist movement, that is, the notion that is possible (indeed necessary) to build a “vanguard organization/party” in the absence of an actual organic proletarian vanguard. This is profoundly anti-materialist and therefore profoundly wrong (and I promise you an article about it).

I know by saying this that ISO members everywhere will take it as proof that we in Renewal were never “really” Leninists, and therefore never “really” legitimate members, and hence not “really” denied our rights, etc. All I can say is that, if these people wish to denigrate us, they could do no better than to believe exactly what I am saying. It took me an embarrassingly long time to break with “Leninism,” even though the theoretical inconsistencies were completely straightforward, particularly given what I’d said about the united front. Alas, we learn more through banging our heads than using them. To pull off the kind of deception of which the typical ISO loyalist accuses us would, in a sense, have required us to be much smarter than we actually were. Instead we discovered the limitations of (reified and idealist) “democratic centralism” by smashing straight into them.

Could the faction have organized a broader opposition?

I should, before closing, say something about a criticism lodged by a number of sympathetic comrades, most recently Brandy Baker, who maintain that Renewal should have tried to catalyze a broader opposition on the basis of fighting for democracy inside the organization, rather than tying this to a deeper–and by necessity narrower–political and methodological analysis. I have to confess to being far more sympathetic to this view in retrospect, even to the point of almost (almost!) agreeing with it. Certainly our platform was too verbose, detailed, and philosophical; we were as prone to propagandism as any other ISO member. (Possibly more prone, since unlike the rest of them, we were thinking up our own propaganda.)

But what stops me from agreeing all the way is the sense that, if you’re bound to get your ass kicked, you should at least try to get your mind sharpened in the process. By working out our ideas systematically, we prepared ourselves better for our inevitable future as independent socialists than if we’d tried to relate to the varied (and numerous) strands of discontent in the organization. Plus, it must be said, much of this discontent doesn’t amount to much in practice.

Sid P, for example, wrote a couple of “critical” documents during the Pre-Convention discussion, for which he was praised at Convention for demonstrating the “right way to disagree.” But if you read his contributions carefully, you will see, of course, that he never actually disagrees with anything. He points out that the ISO is operationally weak and stagnant–which is indisputable–but quite self-consciously declines to offer any political explanation. Hence the “right way to disagree” with the leadership in the ISO is…not to disagree with the leadership of the ISO. Members who develop criticisms either spare themselves a lot of trouble and leave–an admirably sensible course of action–or become so inured to the “private use of reason” that they’re rendered worthless as critics; their usefulness, in fact, is solely to the leadership faction, since they lenify the abuse meted out to any real opposition. (“I’m no loyalist, I have many disagreements myself–but these people went too far!”)

My guess is that Renewal was probably the last cohered opposition that the ISO will see for a while (barring the eruption of some widely-publicized scandal that the average member can’t bullshit himself and others about). We were not the first but rather the last wave of internal opposition stemming from the transformation of the political conjuncture in 2008–actually less experienced, prominent, and able than the comrades forced out in the preceding purges in Chicago, the Bay Area, and DC, although to our credit we created a huge public mess. The emergence of a credible socialist alternative in, well, Socialist Alternative (SA)–which is poised to overtake the ISO in size within a year–actually reduces the prospects for internal opposition, since a disgruntled ISO member can simply decamp for SA. So if no one follows our path, so be it–why should they?

Shaun Joseph

3 thoughts on “The pilgrim’s lack of progress: An assessment of the ISO Renewal Faction

  1. ” New York radicals could refuse to support the Hawkins/Jones campaign on the basis of Brian Jones’s leading role in the ISO. Members of CORE in Chicago could demand that Jesse Sharkey quit the ISO on pain of expulsion from the caucus; likewise with SEE and Jesse Hagopian in Seattle.”

    Good luck with that, guys!

    • I am glad to see that RF people have come to understand what is called Leninism as a dead end. This means that we do need to understand that the history of the left has been greatly distorted as this model has been around a long time. We need to rebuild our understanding of organizing based on the requirements of the real world and we need to be conscious of how our old habits and orthodoxies affect us as we move forward.

  2. First of all, let me say that this is an excellent article.

    I wanted to comment on Shaun’s discussion of Brandy Baker’s argument — as summarized in her original article from the North Star — that the Renewal Faction “should have had a laser focus on democratic accountability.” Notably, this same critique was also made by Saturn Concentric in his blog piece, “ISO faction: keep trying, but you’re doing it wrong,”  written at the outset of the faction fight.

    In short, I basically agree with Shaun’s response.

    On a strictly general level, the critique by Brandy and Saturn is more or less correct. But in our specific case, the decision to cohere the faction on basis of a detailed ideological program (as opposed to a simple practical one) did, nonetheless, serve a useful function. For this reason, it’s hard to harbor any regrets about the actual strategic approach adopted by the faction.

    To put this in more detail, it’s true that Renewal Faction’s heavy focus on an ideological critique of the ISO was — to a great extent — inherently idealistic. That is, the faction was founded on the basis of “unity of thought” — in this case, unity of a shared critique of the methodological and political shortcomings of the ISO. With this in mind, it would have been more consistent with out materialist politics to cohere an opposition movement on the basis of “unity of action” through rallying people around an agenda to democratize the ISO.

    At the same time, though, it’s almost inevitable that such a strategy would have — for the most part, anyway — produced the same results. Had we adopted this approach, then the ISO leadership would have still responded by personally denouncing and defaming us.  They would have still leveraged their control over the ISO’s communication outlets and publications to undermine and discredit us. They would have still accused us — as Lee Sustar did during the course of the actual faction fight in his epic rant from PCB #10 — of being a Stalinist clique. (Let me say that I found this particular critique to be especially hilarious and illogical; it amounted to an accusation of “Stalinism from below.”) And for the most part, ISO loyalists would have still continued to remain loyal to the leadership.

    In other words, no matter what type of platform or strategy Renewal had of adopted at its outset, I’m convinced that — in the end — the ISO leadership would have succeeded in ostracizing and purging us from the group.

    Since this outcome was likely unavoidable, I’ll say that I think that the faction’s propagandistic approach ultimately turned out to be useful and productive. For one thing, it allowed for the Faction to develop an intellectually coherent and detailed critique of the ISO and the “Leninist” approach to sect construction in general. Also, adopting this approach did much to help us shake off the mental fuzzyness and torpor that we had acquired during our tenors in the organization. Naturally, this prepared us for political life as Marxists outside the insular world of the ISO. As Shaun puts it, “By working out our ideas systematically, we prepared ourselves better for our inevitable future as independent socialists than if we’d tried to relate to the varied (and numerous) strands of discontent in the organization.”

    All in all, I can say that I have no regrets whatsoever for being apart of the Renewal Faction. For me personally (as with other comrades), the experience of being a member of the faction was like a long journey of discovery. At the time I signed up for the faction in early December, I hadn’t fully come to understand the pitfalls associated with building an organization largely on the basis of ideological unity. And for the faction as a whole, it took the experience of being continuously attacked and defamed by the ISO leadership for us to fully develop an analysis of the problems at the heart of the ISO and, more generally, the sect model of organizing.

    This said, I’ll conclude just by noting that — on a strictly general level — the critique offered up by both Brandy and Saturn is an extremely valuable one. As Marxists, we should strive to conduct our political struggles on the basis of unity of collective action — not unity of ideological program. This is the way that Marxists can play a role in polarizing the movement on a class basis.

    Appropriately, Hal Draper makes this same exact point in his much-quoted 1971 essay, “Toward a New Beginning — On Another Road: The Alternative to the Micro-Sect”:

    Marx and Engels knew and said that this process [of building working-class political organization] might, indeed probably would, involve splits; they made no fetish of unbroken unity as a condition of the process. But the splits which they considered natural were not the artificial splits of an ideological wing which is out to unfurl an abstract programmatic banner. The splits they expected were those arising organically as the mass level rose. They expected such splits from two directions: from bourgeoisified elements who objected to a class line and a class-struggle course of development of the movement; and from sec-ideologists who saw the class movement moving away from their own special nostrums and prescriptions for it. They expected that either such elements would split away, or that the healthy class elements would have to split with them; but however it came about formally, the line of organizational demarcation was never to be special programmatic views of an ideological vanguard for its own sake (i.e. program in the abstract) but rather the political meaning, in terms of ongoing social struggle, of the political level of the development reached by the movement of the class (i.e. program in the concrete, program as concretized in the real class struggle going on).

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