An assessment of the Atlanta branch in light of the Renewal Faction documents

The following document was written in preparation for a perspectives discussion meeting held by the Atlanta branch of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) on 10 December 2013. The document was then published in the ISO’s Pre-Convention Bulletin (PCB) #9 in January 2014. In the latter version, the ISO leadership apparently made the decision to remove the document’s opening paragraph, which calls for “replacing some or all of the organization’s current leaders.”

The version of the document published below restores this passage in full. Additionally, this version includes a few corrections and updates. Most notably, I have added links to several relevant documents published in the period since this piece was originally written. A passage that rehashes the Renewal Faction’s core arguments from “The organizational crisis and its political roots” has been omitted. I have also made a few minor adjustments to the document in order to avoid providing information that recognizably identifies former members and contacts of the ISO Atlanta branch. 

As a final note, let me conclude by stating that, over the course of the past few months, my views on the crisis within the ISO and the state of the group in general have evolved considerably from the one presented in the document below. As I summarized in my “Letter of Resignation from the ISO,” I have come to “question the viability of the ISO as a vehicle for revolutionary Marxist politics.”

–Ben S

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As Atlanta branch comrades are by now well aware, I have been profoundly influenced by the recently-released collection of documents by the ISO Renewal Faction. The central claim that underlines these documents is that, since 2009, the ISO has been in a state of organizational and political crisis. This assertion forms the basis for the Renewal Faction’s appeal. Indeed, the group’s stated goal is to solve the current crisis through revivifying the ISO’s internal intellectual life, correcting the organization’s bogus current perspectives analysis, replacing some or all of the organization’s current leaders, and adopting a practical program that’s congruent with the organization’s goal of becoming rooted in the working class.

Despite the centrality of this claim to the Renewal Faction’s appeal, the observation that the ISO is currently undergoing a period of crisis is by no means universally accepted within the organization. This said, a number of recent decisions by the organization’s leadership seem to indicate that there is significant disillusionment within all ranks of the organization. For one thing, the leadership has (correctly) asserted that there exists a world-wide crisis in the revolutionary Left. To a great extent, however, the ISO has adopted a defensive approach to trying to understand this problem. This seems to have been the basis for the organization’s decision to call for replacing the fall regional conferences with regional “day schools,” which centered on reading a series of well-known texts from the ISO’s established canon of Marxist literature.

In the context of this confusion, the Renewal Faction’s documents have provided clear evidence that an organization-wide crisis is, in fact, taking place within the ISO. While some of the specific information cited in the group’s documents appears to be factually imprecise, the general assertion that, since 2009, a number of debilitating conflicts have taken place in branches across the country is indisputable. As examples of this, the Renewal Faction cites a series of major conflicts that have taken place in the Bay Area, Chicago, New York, Washington D.C., and Boston. Most of these conflicts have resulted in splits or resignations of multiple comrades. In addition, the Renewal Fraction asserts that a number of branches have, in recent years, entered into a period of stagnation and disarray. The cases of Los Angeles, Seattle, and Texas are cited specifically.[1]

Unfortunately, until recently, no one has attempted to explain or understand these developments. The ISO’s leadership, it seems, has been inclined to view these events as the result of disparate, local problems. In other incidents, the organization seems to have concluded that this internal conflict is the result of a period of widespread “demoralization” following the demise of Occupy Wall Street. At this point, however, this explanation is wholly inadequate. Continued attempts to deny that the ISO is in crisis have the potential to be catastrophic to the organization.

So what’s the cause of the current crisis within the ISO?

The Renewal Faction argues that–among other interrelated causal forces–a primary source of the ISO’s recent problems hinges upon the organization’s current perspectives analysis, which implies that the 2008 economic crisis marked the start of an “upturn” in class struggle. As part of this claim, the organization has come to argue that the Great Recession and the ruling class’s ongoing austerity agenda has triggered a period of “ideological radicalization.” The insinuation is that this growing trend appears likely to manifest itself in the form of mounting class struggles.

The problem with these arguments is that, for one thing, they are out of touch with reality. There has not, in fact, been an “upturn” in class struggle since the onset of the crisis–particularly not in the United States. What’s more, the concept that we are undergoing a period of “ideological radicalization” without a concomitant rise in class struggle is in contradiction with core aspects of dialectical materialism. The Renewal Faction implies that these arguments–as well as other interrelated factors–have contributed to the exacerbation of a number of (previously non-prominent) problems within the organization: a tendency toward idealism; a short-sighted and, at times, voluntaristic approach to movement work; a disinclination to conduct systemic analyses of concrete reality; and a growing detachment from real-world developments.

As a final note, in contrast to a recent critique written by a group of ex-ISO members from the Bay Area and published in CounterPunch, the Renewal Faction upholds the correctness of the ISO’s political and theoretical tradition.[2] Thus, they imply that the political degeneration that has taken place recently constitutes a break with the organization’s previously sound Marxist underpinnings. This degeneration needs to be corrected.

Crisis in the Southeast

In their exposition of the crisis in the ISO, the Renewal Faction does not make any mention of branch-level conflicts and crises in the Southeast. Nonetheless, the current organization-wide strife has clearly manifested itself here as elsewhere. This was evident at the Southeast regional meet-up during this summer’s Socialism 2013 conference in Chicago. During a round-robin discussion session, comrades from a majority of Southern branches implied that they were experiencing disarray and stagnation on a local level. No one used the term “crisis,” but most of the Southeast branches were clearly experiencing decline and demoralization.

What’s more, most comrades seemed to suspect–from what I could tell, anyway–that something was fundamentally wrong with the state of their branch and with their recent organizational approach. Yet no one appeared to be capable of explaining the cause of the problem. On the whole, the few attempts to explain the issues at hand were mostly confined to the claim that this was due to a minor “downturn in struggle.” For my part, I attempted to assess the problems that were, at that time, devastating the Atlanta branch by claiming that ongoing austerity was having a destructive personal and economic impact on many members of the organization. This problem, I implied, was manifesting itself in a breakdown of branch routines and basic branch functioning throughout the region. I was well aware at that time that this argument was utterly inadequate. Unfortunately, I lacked the perspective to provide a real political explanation for the crisis within our branch.

This past week, I have begun to develop a far more useful, politically coherent understanding of our recent experiences in Atlanta. I credit my newfound political clarity, above all else, to reading and grappling with the documents by the ISO Renewal Faction. In addition, I have also had a number of enlightening conversations with a former ISO Atlanta comrade, as well as several current comrades from here and elsewhere.

In light of my newfound clarity, I want to provide a historical exposition and analysis of the ongoing crisis that we’ve experienced in the Atlanta branch. My point in doing this is, firstly, to remind comrades–lest they forget–that there has been an ongoing crisis of epic proportions within the Atlanta branch. Through recounting and explaining this crisis, I hope to find a solution capable of moving the branch forward. It goes without saying that I see this local goal as being inextricably linked with the goal of renewing the national organization.

Before jumping into this analysis, let me say that I am well aware of the extremely contentious and sensitive nature of this subject within the Atlanta branch. This said, I think Atlanta comrades will find my assessment of recent events to be fair and, above all else, unflinchingly political. This should stand in sharp contrast to the quagmire of personalism and finger-pointing that, until quite recently, has marred any and all attempts on the part of the branch to seriously grapple with our recent history.

Crisis in Atlanta

As near as I can tell, the Atlanta branch has been in a state of crisis and disarray since well before my partner and I moved here in August of 2012. The basic features of this crisis are undeniable. Over the past several years, the branch has seen the departure of several talented members. A few of these ex-comrades have since developed hostile views about the ISO. At least two former members have become involved with (though not joined) other Left groups: one with the Kasama Project and another with the Atlanta Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).

In addition to these departures, the branch has also seen the drifting-away of an untold number of contacts. In the city branch, this includes the exodus of two especially impressive contacts that were originally recruited through our involvement in local movement work. In addition, during the summer, the Atlanta branch saw the mass exodus of the vast majority of the organization’s Georgia State University (GSU) student members. In part as a result of ongoing fallouts with former members and contacts, the Atlanta ISO has developed an increasingly poor reputation within the broader Atlanta Left. Thus, the ISO has come to be viewed with hostility by–among others–Atlanta’s anarchist milieu, including a number of the more constructive (less ultra-Left) militants that were previously involved with the collective group SWARM. We’ve also come to be viewed with distrust by most of the members of the Atlanta IWW.

Internally, the Atlanta branch has been stricken by an acute bout of demoralization and burnout over the past year. This fall, two longstanding ISO members made the decision to take leaves of absences from the branch. While the immediate reasons for these temporary departures were personal, the unhealthy and politically-confused nature of the branch (and the broader organization) undoubtedly played a role in pushing both of these comrades to take a break.

In order to understand these developments, it is necessary to explain them in the context of recent branch history. Since I’ve only been in the branch for about a year and a half, I will begin this narrative in the fall of 2012. Just prior to our arrival in Atlanta in August of that year, Atlanta comrades had, apparently, made the decision to establish two separate branches: one oriented to the GSU campus and one to the broader Atlanta community. I affiliated with the latter of these two.

From the outset, the community branch failed to develop a coherent plan for establishing a presence and embedding itself within the community. The majority of the members of the branch never became involved consistently in any movement work or otherwise integrated into any of the ever-changing fractions. In addition to the organizational incoherence and the failure to formulate a practical program, the city branch also suffered from a degeneration of internal culture and intellectual life. Basically, branch members became increasingly incapable of engaging in political discussions or disagreeing with each other in a political manner.

What’s more, from its inception, the city branch proved incapable of organizing successful public meetings. As I recall, our first public meeting during the fall of 2012 was a generic pitch for socialism entitled “World in Crisis, World in Struggle.” While the designated speaker gave an excellent talk, the event failed to attract anyone outside of current branch members. As I recall, just five people (including the speaker) attended this “public” meeting. Early the next year, we hosted another public meeting, billed “Ain’t No Power Like the Power of the People.” The event attracted a single non-ISO member: a local activist that had previously been friendly with the ISO. Rather than moving closer to the ISO following the meeting, however, this individual seems to have been repelled by the stuffy and intellectually stagnant branch culture on display during the meeting.

By late fall of 2012, growing frustrations over the stagnation within the branch led to an increasingly severe series of conflicts and disagreements between comrades. The first conflict that I can recall came in the period following the 2012 Southeast regional conference. This stemmed from frustration over a lack of democracy and collective input that characterized the planning and preparation for the conference. In December, another minor conflict developed during the Atlanta ISO’s district-wide pre-convention discussion meeting, held at a local coffee shop. During the course of the meeting, I became frustrated by the inability of the branch to openly debate political disagreements involving various convention documents. Instead, the branch leadership came into the meeting with an already agreed-to plan over whether or not to support each document’s proposals. In this way, the ostensibly democratic debate session took the form of “rubber-stamp” democracy.

My attempts to raise serious political arguments during the discussion were discouraged multiple times on the grounds that my comments were too theoretically-advanced and therefore too confusing to the non-“cadre” members of the branch. In response to this disagreement, I was encouraged by multiple branch members (to their credit) to send out an email to the entire branch outlining my thoughts on the convention documents. While the branch later discussed, in passing, some of the points that I brought up in my email message during a phone conference call, no one took the time to respond in writing to any of my arguments.

In contrast to the city branch, the GSU campus branch (actually a “twig” at first) experienced an initial period of dramatic success in the fall of 2012. After a successful kickoff meeting, the branch began to attract as many as 15 people to weekly branch meetings, which largely functioned as Marxist study and discussion sessions. By all accounts, these meetings were characterized by a sense of intellectual vibrancy and widespread enthusiasm. In addition, during its first semester, the GSU branch came to have a noticeable ideological impact on broader political debates on campus. Following a well-attended public meeting about women’s reproductive rights, GSU’s student newspaper, The Signal, published an editorial that essentially summarized our central political points on this issue. What’s more, the campus branch also played an extremely positive role in coming to the defense of the university’s unionized campus bus drivers after they were subjected to an unjustified attack (with possible union-busting intent) in a story published in The Signal.

By the end of the semester, five new members had joined the branch. In a 2013 Pre-Convention document, GSU comrades heralded the semester as an exemplary success.  The document attributed the branch’s growth to two tactics, “putting forward a clear political perspective (even during a low point of activity in social movements)” and “maintaining visibility on campus through regular branch routines.”[3]

Following winter break, the GSU comrades moved to consolidate their gains through reconstituting the group as a formal ISO branch at the start of the semester. To this end, the branch implemented standard ISO branch routines and methods and sought to recruit other contacts to officially join the ISO. But despite high expectations, the campus branch suddenly entered into a period of decline. Over the course of the semester, many of the student comrades and contacts that had previously flocked to the branch now began to gradually drift away.

In response to this decline, as well as the ongoing stagnation of the city branch, the Atlanta district made the decision to merge the city and campus branches in preparation for the coming summer break. Following this, the consolidated Atlanta branch entered into a period of intense internal conflict–far surpassing any of the previous internecine struggles within the branch.

The crisis broke out when the majority of Atlanta members came to a collective decision to confront the branch’s two-member leadership group with a series of complaints about the state of the branch. During the ensuing crisis, branch members voiced grievances relating to a lack of internal democracy, intellectual stasis, an inability to debate political ideas, and a narrow definition of “cadre” within the branch. This conflict culminated in the decision by the branch leadership to step down. A new three-person leadership group was nominated to take its place.

Despite the legitimacy of many of the frustrations raised by branch members during this period, this internal conflict took on many of the trappings of an apolitical personal struggle. Rather than attributing the problems within the Atlanta branch to broader political and organizational issues, much of the discontent came to be pinned on the perceived personal shortcomings of the two branch leaders. Not surprisingly, in the wake of this debacle, the two ousted leaders became demoralized and (understandably) embittered toward other Atlanta members–including members of the branch’s new leadership.

Ongoing factional squabbles–as well as the generally unhealthy and directionless nature of the branch–eventually prompted almost all of the remaining new student members and contacts to resign from the ISO en masse during a single meeting at the beginning of the fall semester. While most of the student members explained their decision to quit in non-political terms, their departure was–at least on a subliminal level–motivated by a number of political and organizational concerns. For one thing, the student ex-comrades complained about a lack of democracy within the branch, as well as the branch’s increasingly narrow intellectual life.

Following this, the branch fell into a state of disarray and confusion for several months. Like their predecessors, the branch’s new three-member leadership team also failed to provide adequate political direction to the branch. What’s more, because of the role of some of new leaders (most prominently, myself) in the previous crisis, this group was ill-suited to the task of resolving much of the personal acrimony that continued to plague the branch.

In retrospect, the inability of the new leadership to resolve the conflicts within the branch–as well the entire protracted conflict in Atlanta–should not be attributed to the personal failings of any individual or set of individuals. This was an organizational problem that stemmed, in part, from a mounting political crisis in the national organization. It’s worth noting that, throughout this entire debacle, the district organizer assigned to assist the Atlanta branch played a thoroughly apolitical role. Instead of helping the branch grapple with a series of political problems raised by this crisis, the organizer instead interpreted these events as being the product of a personal conflict. As I recall, he equated our conflicts to “high-school drama.” On this basis, he sought to resolve the crisis through mediating personal conflicts between branch members and, in addition, encouraging the branch to nominate a new leadership committee.

As a result of the inability of the new leadership to revive the branch, Atlanta comrades voted in yet another new three-person branch committee. Around a month following this, one of the three members of the new leadership group made the decision to take a break from the ISO. Another comrade was voted on to take his place. Then, in the late fall, yet another member of the branch committee also decided to take a leave of absence from the branch. In light of these trying circumstances, the new branch leadership has done a remarkable job in partially stabilizing the organization. Most notably, this group has helped to soothe over and repair much of the personal conflicts that had infected the branch over the past year. However, like the branch committees before it, this group has also been unable to establish a coherent organizational perspective capable of moving the branch forward.

For the first time in probably a year, the branch has recently experienced some actual discussion about organizational perspectives. Specifically, comrades have debated whether the Atlanta branch should decide to orient to the city or to the GSU campus. While the discussion has been refreshingly free of personal acrimony, it has also been light on political content. On the one side of the debate, I have argued in favor of continuing to meet at GSU but focusing greater energy on developing roots in the working class and orienting to local trade union struggles. For around three months, my thinking on this matter has been influenced by reading Brian C’s document, “ISO ‘city’ branches: What are we building?,” published in the ISO’s Internal Bulletin #2 in September.[4] On the other side of this debate, another comrade (formally of the GSU branch) has argued in favor of focusing our efforts on GSU’s campus. As near as I can tell, she favors this approach because it offers the best prospect for short-term recruitment and growth.

The politics of the ongoing Atlanta crisis

To begin with, much of our problems in the Atlanta city branch clearly stemmed from the ISO’s inadequate methodology for building city branches in general. As Brian C argues, the ISO’s approach to branch building is the product of our organization’s lineage as a mostly campus-oriented organization. On this basis, we’ve come to apply a campus methodology onto our efforts to build branches in communities. The problem with this, as Brian C explains, is that our model is poorly-suited to the needs of working-class organizing:

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.[5]

This certainly describes our experience in Atlanta. Throughout the existence of the Atlanta city branch, we never developed–or even attempted to develop–an understanding of who our audience was or where we intended to draw new members. Connected to this, we also failed to develop a coherent understanding of the structural dynamics at play in Atlanta–thus further handicapping our ability to understand the nature of our potential audience. Finally, we adopted a generic propagandist approach for public meetings that was unappealing to our prospective audience. This is evinced in the fact that almost no one attended the generically-focused public meetings held by the city branch. The natural byproduct of this inadequate approach was a failure on the part of the city branch to develop or grow in anyway. Not surprisingly, because of this, many of the comrades in the city branch became demoralized.

In addition to inadequate branch-building methods, Atlanta’s crisis also stems from political problems within the entire organization. In recent years, the political and theoretical level of the ISO as a whole–and the Atlanta branch within it–appears to have declined precipitously. This relates to the growing disconnect between the organization’s erroneous current perspectives analysis–which holds that we are currently on the cusp of an “upturn” in class struggle and experiencing a period of “ideological radicalization”–and the concrete nature of our period. On this basis, comrades have increasingly tended to shy away from reading and grappling with Marxist theory and political economy. In addition to this, the current contradictions in the ISO’s approach have also fostered a generally apathetic view of local and regional news and developments on the part of the branch.

In practical terms, drifting away from Marxism and concrete assessments of current events has tended to push us to make decisions based on sheer personalism. Thus, the motive for much of our day-to-day activity has become personal ambition and internal competition. Naturally, this has tended to lead to petty infighting.

In the Atlanta Branch, this was exacerbated by an erroneous understanding of “cadre” that came to govern branch life and decision making. Basically, “cadre” came to be defined as a sort of formal status that one achieved through being in the organization for a long period of time. In contrast to the organization’s theoretical understanding of the term, grounded in Leninism, “cadre” morphed into something akin to ISO “black-belt” status. Over time, this understanding led to a breakdown in democracy. The branch came to fetishize the views and opinions of certain branch members solely on grounds of their status as “cadre.”

To a great extent, this problem appears to have been enforced from above by the district organizer assigned to the Atlanta branch. This isn’t to say that he did this out of nefarious intent to stifle branch democracy. As near as I can tell, he was simply attempting to ensure the political development of the ISO in a region that is notorious for its political backwardness. Nonetheless, his habit of encouraging certain comrades to think of themselves as “cadre” members vis-à-vis others who were supposedly “non-cadre” had an extremely negative impact on branch democracy, internal culture, and overall political development.[6]

“Dialectical Idealism”

As already noted, the ISO’s erroneous perspectives analysis has led to an ever-widening gulf between the ISO’s understanding of the current period, on the one hand, and concrete reality, on the other. In part as a means to resolve this crisis, the organization has come to adopt a common sense assumption that the Great Recession has, nonetheless, led to an upsurge in class consciousness and “ideological radicalization.” The logic here is that the ruling class’s ongoing austerity campaign has led increased numbers of people to question capitalism. Crucially, this “ideological radicalization” is seen as poised to set in motion an outbreak of class struggle sometime in the future. In many cases, the few notable examples of mass struggle in the United States since 2008–the Wisconsin Uprising, Occupy, and the CTU strike–have come to be seen as evidence of the way that ideological radicalization is manifesting itself in struggle.

So what’s the problem with this argument? For one thing, it’s utterly un-Marxist. The claim that the United States is currently undergoing a process of “ideological radicalization” and that this process will likely lead to an outbreak of class struggle is contrary to dialectical materialism. To prove this point, a Renewal Faction document quotes extensively from a famous passage in Marx’s The German Ideology, which concludes by summarizing that “consciousness does not determine life, but life determines consciousness.”[7] I encourage all ISO Atlanta comrades to read, re-read, and grapple with this particular passage from The German Ideology. To speak for myself, doing this has essentially enabled me to relearn dialectical materialism over the past week.[8]

For the sake of my point here, let me provide a basic outline of Marx’s argument. In this passage, Marx sets out to explain his epistemological basis for social analysis. He argues that, in order to accurately conceptualize the world at a given point in its development, it is necessary to look at the real-life conditions of society and the actions of people within this society. Conversely, Marx argues, it is impossible to come to an accurate understanding of the world by first reviewing “what men say, imagine, or conceive.” (Using this formula, it holds that one cannot come to a Marxist understanding of contemporary society by first analyzing opinion poll statistics or magazine covers.) The reason for this derives from the fact that people develop ideas through the process of acting upon the world. Of course, within this schema, people’s actions are determined inside the established structural conditions of society.

This phenomenon begins in practice when human beings act upon the world; these actions then alter the already-established conditions (both economic and social) that exist in society–at least in some minor way. After first acting on the world, people then review the results of their actions; they determine whether those actions were conducive toward their needs. Through this latter process, people come to alter their ideas. As the Renewal Faction document summarizes, “We learn by doing–that is, we do first, then extrapolate the lesson.”[9] In turn, these altered ideas serve to influence people’s future actions. This is what Marx means by stating that, “men who develop their material production and their material relationships alter their thinking and the products of their thinking” [emphasis added].[10] Thus, consciousness ultimately emerges and reemerges from people’s active involvement in the economic development of material production and the social development of relations of production.

In regard to the current debate within the ISO, Marx’s summary of dialectical materialism indicates that the only basis for the development of working-class consciousness (at least on a collective level) is working-class struggle. Let me put this in practical terms. The way that workers in a given workplace come to be collectively conscious of their interests as a group is through the experience of engaging in collective acts of resistance in opposition to the boss. In cases when these acts of resistance are successful–an outcome that’s usually facilitated by the assistance of established trade unions–workers are inclined to come to the conclusion that it’s in their interest to engage in struggle. As the famous labor slogan goes, they come to the conclusion that “direct action gets the goods.” (This is the essence of what Lenin called “trade-union consciousness.”) From a broader perspective, it holds that, in order for workers to become class conscious on a mass level, it will require a period of widespread, sustained class struggle.

With this in mind, the current assumption that, prior to struggle, workers are already in the process of becoming radical on an ideological level needs to be discarded. Such a notion could be termed “dialectical idealism.” It should not be confused with dialectical materialism. The increasing entrenchment of this idea within the organization has led to a widespread degeneration on the part of the organization’s understanding of Marxist theory. Sad to say, one of the best examples of this degeneration comes from something that I wrote as part of a Facebook discussion with a former ISO Atlanta comrade on November 27 of this year–just before I came across the Renewal Faction documents. At one point in the debate, I attempted to offer an explanation of my understanding of “the role of ideas within the class struggle.” My statement is fraught with idealism:

Workers are bound to enter into struggle whether or not they’re aware of what they’re doing. The role of revolutionaries is to help drive the class struggle forward by arming workers with the political ideas that reflect the material interests of the working class as a whole. The way this is done is through engaging in struggle alongside workers and the oppressed; this provides the basis for the formation of political ideas that help drive the struggle forward and, by connection, the propagation of such ideas.

So how does one arrive at revolutionary political ideas? These are derived, in part, from accumulated bodies of revolutionary theory. Such theory is a historical product of continuous assessments of concrete reality. Over time, revolutionary theory has crystallized into a body of thought that exists independent of empirical data. (The highest expression of such revolutionary theory is dialectical materialism). Such theory provides a means by which to make sense of reality. Understanding reality, in turn, provides a means by which to effectively act upon the world. Assessments of the effectiveness of such actions then provide a means by which to gauge the validity of ideas and praxis.

Practical ramifications

The ISO’s erroneous perspectives analysis and its increasingly idealistic counterpart has contributed to a number of practical problems within the organization. In “The role of perspectives,”the Renewal Faction makes the case that the ISO has–partially as a result of its perspectives analysis–adopted a practical program that has come to focus primarily on pinpointing “‘next steps’ and ‘immediate opportunities.’”[11] In general, the organization’s approach to both movement work and party-building has become characterized by short-term searches for “low-hanging fruit.” As a result, the ISO has become increasingly prone to aimless movementism and, worst of all, voluntarism.

As the Renewal Faction puts it, the ISO has come to emphasize “only the possibilities, successes and positives” within movement struggles. That is, we’ve become prone to “movement cheerleading.”[12] This problem is directly connected with the organization’s increasingly noticeable disinclination to conduct systematic assessments of concrete situations. We’ve come to ignore the concrete realities that define the stakes, the potential, and the structural implications of our movement work–or, for that matter, the broader historical moment in which we’re operating. Thus, rather than basing our assessment on real possibilities and limitations, we’ve adopted a strategy based on wishful thinking.

What’s the basis for this? Rather than attributing this solely to the recent problems in the organization’s political perspectives, the Renewal Faction makes the case that much of the problem actually stems from the “goal” that the organization has come to adopt for movement work in general. This goal, the Renewal Faction asserts, “seems to be to keep the membership activated and (ultimately) trained, so that when the big struggles break out, comrades will be tested and steeled and able to act decisively.”[13] On this basis, a disconnect has developed between the ISO’s directionless short-term approach and its long-term goal of building for a workers’ revolution.[14] The nature of this disconnect has led to an inability to perceive how short-term movement work fits into a broader picture or organizational goal. Without any concrete idea of where we’re headed or why we’re headed there, the ISO’s movement work has naturally become shortsighted and “structurally biased against having an accurate reading of the world and strategy that flows from that.”[15]

The current perspectives analysis of the period has clearly contributed to this problem. Since this analysis is out-of-touch with reality, it has tended to confuse and discourage attempts to develop a concrete analysis of real developments. In addition, the very notion that we’re undergoing a collective “ideological radicalization” has tended to imbue the entire organization with unfounded wishful thinking. We’ve come to expect that, sometime sooner or later, the next upsurge in struggle will magically materialize before our eyes.

This is certainly true of the Atlanta ISO’s approach to movement work. To provide one example, over the past year, our work within the housing justice coalition Occupy Our Homes Atlanta has been characterized by high levels of enthusiasm and dedication on the one hand, and an inadequate structural assessment of the broader context within which we’re operating, on the other. Indeed, despite being involved in the housing movement for over a year, the Atlanta branch never attempted to make any analysis whatsoever of the structural nature of the housing crisis in Atlanta.

As a result of this failure, the branch became incapable of adequately understanding the limitations and potentialities of the housing justice movement. Instead, we accentuated the positive. During branch meetings, the primary point that both members of the OOHA fraction tended to emphasize in our report-backs usually related to our excitement about engaging in struggles with an inspiring group of working-class homeowners. Outside of this, the branch OOHA fraction developed one primary strategic analysis in the movement: this was a limited “rank-and-file” critique of OOHA’s paid staff. In sum, we argued that organization’s staff had become a fetter to organizational democracy and, on this basis, the growth of the housing justice movement. While our critique of OOHA staff’s undemocratic tendencies was justified and correct, the problem with our analysis was that it failed to adequately comprehend that it was (and still is) structurally inconceivable for the housing justice movement to develop into a mass movement in this period. This is likely to be the case for some time. Because of the relatively limited potential of the housing justice movement, our ongoing, principled opposition to OOHA’s staff increasingly came to take on the character of ultra-leftism.

In a broader sense, the ISO’s detachment from real-world political reality is evident in the utter disinterest that the Atlanta branch has developed in regard to local news. While several branch comrades apparently follow local news (though many do not), there has been virtually no effort on the part of the branch to incorporate discussions of local events into our formal weekly meetings. Out of all of my frustrations with Atlanta branch life, this is likely my greatest. I’ve often wondered how the branch will ever be able to play a meaningful role in political or social struggles in Atlanta if we’re uninformed and disinterested about our city’s structural conditions and history.

One of the most problematic aspects of our approach to local news is the tendency to dismiss reading the Atlanta Journal-Constitution out of hand on the basis that it’s a reactionary newspaper with conservative politics. While this is undoubtedly correct, such a critique is equally valid – albeit in varying degrees – of every single major daily newspaper in the entire country. Indeed, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is – just like other dailies – a bourgeois newspaper. To expect it to adopt an editorial standpoint that isn’t bourgeois would be utterly idealistic. But the point of reading the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is not to obtain ideological guidance. Rather, it’s to develop an understanding of Atlanta’s political, economic, and social dynamics. Only through applying our skills as Marxists to understanding real-world developments will we ever be able to formulate a practical program for building the movement in our city.

As a final point, the Renewal Faction notes that there is also a partial class basis for the ISO’s problematic approach to movement work and its tendency to create over-inflated perspectives analyses. This relates to the ISO’s predominantly student and campus orientation and its general lack of working-class roots. Notably, it is true that a substantial portion of the group’s members are workers. However, the ability of these members to contribute to the overall political synthesis of the ISO is limited–in large part as a result of the ISO’s “routines and methods,” which are explicitly oriented toward building campus branches and recruiting student members. On this basis, the ISO’s orientation to student members has tended to result in an approach that overemphasizes propaganda work–the very nature of which tends to lead to excessive optimism. As the Renewal Faction asserts, this is due, quite simply, to the fact that “a realistic assessment of low levels of class struggle… does not lead to exciting, energizing propaganda.”[16]

This isn’t to say that the current flaws in the ISO are the deterministic product of petite-bourgeois deviations arising solely from the organization’s student social base. Rather, this simply means that there’s a connection between our current dilemmas and the social content of the organization. It is undeniable that the ISO’s overwhelming orientation to students tends to produce a political synthesis that can be distorting. It holds that one of the ways to resolve our current problems will be through establishing a plan for building the ISO’s roots within the working class.

Conclusion

Let me conclude by stating that there are many more ideas that I want to express on this subject. Over the past week, it’s felt as if I’ve been born-again as a Marxist and a revolutionary. I credit this development, in no small part, to the ISO Renewal Faction. With this in mind I sincerely hope that I can convince Atlanta comrades of the essential correctness of the arguments put forth by the Renewal Faction. I look forward to discussing this and other matters with everyone during our December 10 perspectives meeting.


 

Notes

1. ISO Renewal Faction, “The organizational crisis and its political roots,” External Bulletin, November 26, 2013.

The Renewal Faction’s claims regarding the ISO branch in Austin, Texas appear to be exaggerated. In their assessment of the recent crisis in the ISO, the group asserts that, “Most of the Texas branches have shrunk significantly or collapsed. In Austin, the oldest Texas branch with the most cadre, a dozen members have been lost in the last few months.” This claim has been contested by Austin branch member Snehal S, who asserts that — in reality — just tw0 members of the Austin branch actually quit the ISO. Despite this factual distortion, the Renewal faction’s basic assertion that the Austin branch has recently experienced decline — albeit of a more moderate variety than otherwise claimed — is still true. See Shaun J, “A reply to Snehal S,” External Bulletin, December 15, 2013; Snehal S, “A Response to the Renewal Faction on Events in Austin,” New Red Indian, December 16, 2013.

2. Roger Dyer, Rachel Morgan, Adrienne Johnstone, Christine Darosa, Andy Libson, and Brian Belknap, “Theory and Practice of Idealism in Trotskyism and the ISO,” CounterPunch, November 8, 2013. In addition to this article, another group of former ISO members–in this case from Chicago–have recently written a detailed critique of current problems within the ISO. Unlike the ex-comrades from the Bay Area, the Chicago group remains “loyal to the ISO and the politics of International Socialism.” Adam T, Bob Q, Hector R, Loretta C, Rossana R, Saman S, and Sophie H, “Letter To Comrades In the International Socialist Organization (ISO),” Socialist Outpost, October 9, 2013.

3. Emily G and Tom G, “Branch Building at Georgia State University (Atlanta, GA),” Pre-convention Bulletin #7, February 4, 2013.

4. Brian C, “ISO ‘city’ branches: What are we building?,” Internal Bulletin #2, September 2013. This document has since been republished online at External Bulletin.

5. Ibid.

6. During the Pre-convention period, the destructive understanding of “cadre” that I describe here appears to have been enshrined as a piece of ISO “party-building” theory in a document published in PCB #5 by Paul D’Amato, a member of the ISO Steering Committee and one of the organization’s most prominent theorists. My brief document from PCB #7, “On the importance of cadre,” is a critique of D’Amato’s utterly non-dialectical assessment of the relationship between locally-based “cadre” and national leadership in a revolutionary socialist organization. See Paul D’Amato, “Theory, cadre, and continuity: Building revolutionary organization today,” Pre-convention Bulletin #5, December 2013; Ben S, “On the importance of cadre,” Pre-convention Bulletin #7, December 2013.

7. ISO Renewal Faction, “The role of perspectives,” External Bulletin, November 26, 2013.

8. Karl Marx, The German Ideology, “Part I: Feuerbach; Opposition of the Materialist and Idealist Outlook; A. Idealism and Materialism.”

9. ISO Renewal Faction, “The role of perspectives.”

10. Marx, quoted in Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid.

14. While the Renewal Faction does not mention this, the contradiction between long-term and short-term goals within the ISO has undoubtedly been present–at least as a partial tendency–for much of the organization’s existence. For one thing, elements of this problem are clearly evident in the book Revolutionary Rehearsals written by a group of socialists connected to the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP). The book was originally published by the SWP’s Bookmarks press in 1987 and republished by Haymarket Books in 2002 and 2008. Thus, this book has occupied a position of prominence in the ISO’s canon of theoretical literature for some time.

To summarize, the book takes the form of a series of case studies about five different revolutionary situations during the latter half of the twentieth century: France, 1968; Chile, 1972; Portugal, 1974; Iran, 1979; and Poland, 1980. As a core thesis, the authors argue that the reason why each of these revolutionary struggles failed to bring about a socialist transformation of society relates to the absence of an organized political group–a revolutionary party–capable of pushing the movement forward at the pivotal moment. In contrast with the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, there existed no party or group in these five cases capable of calling for the organized overthrow and the seizure of the State apparatus.

While I agree with the general thrust of this assertion–that a socialist revolution requires a revolutionary socialist party–I have become increasingly critical of some of the implications inherent in the way this argument is presented in Revolutionary Rehearsals. Most notably, the book fails to adequately explain the role that the Left must play prior to the outbreak of a revolution situation. In all of the historical case studies presented in the book, the organized Left had been closely involved and integrated in the trade union movement and other working-class and popular organizations for decades. Indeed, the Left played an essential role in building each country’s trade union movement in the first place. The book fails to discuss this, however. In this way, the authors seem to imply that the party only plays a role in the movement once the revolutionary situation arrives in full form. This analysis thus ignores the dialectical relationship that exists between the class struggle and the organized Left.

As a final point, it should be acknowledged that one of the reasons for these shortcomings stems from an attempt to reject the undemocratic and patronizing tendency–still predominant in the Left in the 1980s–to see the working class as playing a largely passive role in socialist revolution. According to this view, the revolution would be characterized, above all else, by the violent seizure of power by a vanguard party acting in the name of the working class. Thus, within the context of the 1980s political milieu, Revolutionary Rehearsals was a well-needed corrective to the erroneous distortions of Marxism propagated by Stalinism and Maoism. During the current period, however, I would argue that the understanding of revolution and class struggle presented in this book has ceased to be useful.

Colin Barker,ed., Revolutionary Rehearsals (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2002).

15. ISO Renewal Faction, “The role of perspectives.”

16. Ibid.

This document was first published on External Bulletin, the website of the ISO Renewal Faction

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