When hindsight isn’t 20/20

November 15, 2013

Ragina Johnson and Todd Chretien respond to a critique of the International Socialist Organization written by six former members from the Bay Area.

HOW SHOULD the revolutionary left organize? This is an important and urgent question at any time for groups like the International Socialist Organization (ISO), the publisher of this website, and today is no exception.

An essay titled "Theory and Practice of Idealism in Trotskyism and the International Socialist Organization" argues that the ISO has failed on most counts.

According to the old saying, hindsight is always 20/20, but in the case of the six former members of the ISO in the Bay Area who authored this article, their vision appears to be growing more and more cloudy.

Let's look at what they claim: the ISO, not to mention the rest of the revolutionary left globally, is in a "crisis" because we have inherited from the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky an idealist conception of how working-class consciousness develops; the ISO tails liberal leaders in an opportunist fashion; and the organization's national Steering Committee is "unfit to lead" because of its "ongoing hostility to criticism," "behind-the-back slander and outright lies," and on and on.

Rallying for LGBT equality in Washington, D.C., at the National Equality March
Rallying for LGBT equality in Washington, D.C., at the National Equality March (Kit Lyons)

There is more to this article, but these few points that we will respond to illustrate the larger case that the authors are presenting--one so extreme and, it has to be said, so strange that it is unlikely any substantial political organization could ever grow around the conclusions they draw, not to mention be relevant in helping to build struggle and resistance.

As ISO members from the Bay Area, we want to set the record straight. We will address the issues we've pointed to in turn.

Claim Number 1: Isolating, Marginalizing and Silencing Dissent

First things first. The comrades don't quite say why they are no longer members of the ISO, so it is worth stating clearly that none were expelled, nor forced out, nor did it ever occur to anyone in the ISO that they might be expelled or disciplined for anything they argued while members.

Far from the claim that their points of view were somehow suppressed, our memory is that these comrades were always able to exercise the sort of "freedom of criticism" they now claim is lacking. For anyone who knows these comrades personally, the idea that they were "browbeaten" rings hollow--for several, it is hard to imagine them backing away from any argument, about any subject, under any circumstance.

All of the authors had formal platforms to express themselves in open debates locally over several years. They were regularly elected as delegates to the ISO's annual national convention, where they had the opportunity to present their views to the national organization--they did so both in person and in writing. They were regularly elected to local leadership positions, and some remained in those positions until they resigned.

It's true that they didn't, by and large, convince other members of the ISO, either in the Bay Area or nationally, of the positions they put forward--some of which are further developed in their essay--but it wasn't because they were silenced.

Now let's look at the political assessment they make of the ISO's theory and practice.

Claim Number 2: The ISO Overestimates the Level of Working-Class Consciousness

The authors claim that not just the ISO, but Trotskyism in general, is based on an idealist conception of how working-class consciousness develops, flowing from The Transitional Program written by Trotsky in 1938.

What is The Transitional Program? To summarize very briefly, Trotsky--in the face of the dominance of counter-revolutionary Stalinism in the socialist movement internationally and the spread of fascism in Europe--argued that the small numbers of his followers who upheld the genuine revolutionary socialist tradition might, because the crisis of the late 1930s was so great, get a mass hearing if they could find a way to relate their ideas to real struggles. This effort was doomed because the forces arrayed against the Trotskyists were so great, but under the circumstances, it was an understandable attempt.

The ISO's political tradition has always asserted that this was not Trotsky at his best, but at his most desperate. We have argued against "transitional" methods being relevant in all places and times, though the underlying conception has merit under some circumstances. Other revolutionary organizations have different points of view on this question.

The authors, however, erase all such distinctions when they argue that Trotsky's program "has acted as a de facto blueprint for 'get-rich-quick schemes' for the revolutionary left, by which small, isolated radical groups could become mass leaders in a short period."

In one breathtaking sentence, they dismiss "all of Trotskyism" and a whole array of revolutionary organizations--not just those in the ISO's tradition, but others like the United Socialist Workers Party in Brazil, the New Anti-Capitalist Party in France, the Labor Party of Pakistan, the Internationalist Workers Left in Greece, Socialist Alternative in Australia, and Socialist Alternative and Solidarity in the U.S.

Their specific criticism of the ISO is that, over the last 20 years, we have argued that "anger builds, consciousness develops, and it is out of that consciousness that people act." They want to argue the opposite, relying on Marx's well-known dictum in The German Ideology that "being determines consciousness." The authors insist that workers first act and their consciousness develops afterward, or in the process of taking action. In other words, they want to rewrite Marx to say that "action determines consciousness."

This is a bizarre inversion of Marxism. Socialists all look forward to a higher level of working-class struggle at the point of production, which has been sorely missing in the U.S., and we expect this will have a profound impact on consciousness. But why can't "being" also include the experience of racism, poverty, sexism, homophobia and the everyday "bullying" of being a worker?

The authors go on to deride the ISO's supposed overemphasis on what they call "attitudes on social questions"--which they want to sharply contrast to what they call "class consciousness." They say:

Further, there has been an ongoing problem in the ISO of equating attitudes on social questions (such as police racism, U.S. wars and LGBT rights) with class consciousness. As Marxists, we understand class consciousness to mean the recognition of workers that they are a class in opposition to the interests of the ruling class, and the necessity of organizing as such to defend their interests. So while attitudes on social questions are important and give socialists a sense of working-class ideas on the issues of the day, they are certainly not the best barometer of class consciousness.

Historically, class consciousness has been measured by the unionization rate among workers, the total number of days workers have been on strike, the character of those strikes (economic or political), the size of the revolutionary organization within the class, and the breadth and depth of the implantation of that organization (generally measured through membership size, the class character of the organization, and paper circulation).

To call this conception narrow might be giving it too much credit. Marxists obviously do see collective struggle in the workplace as the key point where workers have power as a class. But the workplace is not the only place where class consciousness can develop.

In U.S. history, social struggles have often preceded and prepared the way for the working class to fight in the workplace. The civil rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s, for example, directly inspired a labor upsurge, often led by rank-and-file militants against the wishes of union leaders, that frightened American capital in the late '60s and early '70s.

What's more, especially in a period when class anger is high, but isn't matched by strong class organization, working people are often more confident to fight outside the workplace. If we were take the Bay Area authors at their word, we couldn't count the rise of the Occupy Wall Street movement--with its galvanizing slogan of the 1 Percent versus the 99 Percent--as a positive sign of developing working-class consciousness, because Occupy's activities were only connected to action at the point of production in a handful of exceptional cases.

A dialectical understanding of how periods of resistance develop--and especially an understanding of the relationship between fighting different forms of oppression that divide the working class and the development of overall working-class consciousness--is especially important today.

Is it really unimaginable to the six authors that victories around social questions and political reforms might lead working-class people to feel more confident to stand up to the bosses at their workplaces? That a struggle against, say, racism could inspire a more determined class struggle? Can't breaking down the divisions in society based on gender, race and sexual orientation, through the development of broader social movements specifically aimed at fighting oppression, give all working-class people a better sense of their ability to unite and stand together for class-wide demands?

The question of how revolutionaries connect social struggles to workplace struggles flows from a political understanding most clearly theorized by Lenin in his book What Is To Be Done?:

In a word, every trade union secretary conducts and helps to conduct "the economic struggle against the employers and the government." It cannot be too strongly maintained that this is still not Social-Democracy, that the Social-Democrat's ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears, no matter what stratum or class of the people it affects; who is able to generalize all these manifestations and produce a single picture of police violence and capitalist exploitation; who is able to take advantage of every event, however small, in order to set forth before all his socialist convictions and his democratic demands, in order to clarify for all and everyone the world-historic significance of the struggle for the emancipation of the proletariat.

What these comrades lay out in their essay is the opposite of revolutionaries acting as the tribune of the oppressed. It actually falls into the caricature of Marxism as "class reductionist"--the accusation that Marxists denigrate the importance of oppression and of struggles that take place outside the workplace. The ISO has always put forward--and proudly so--a broader understanding of class consciousness and what counts as class struggle.

Claim Number 3: The ISO Tails Liberals in Opportunist Get-Rich-Quick Schemes

The ISO, say the Bay Area authors, "increasingly behaves like Second International socialists." What evidence is provided for this stark assertion? Among other crimes, the authors claim that the ISO:

"Tailed" LGBT rights activist Cleve Jones inside the mass movement for marriage equality that developed after the passage of California's Proposition 8 in 2008;

"Equivocated" around the initiative to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker that was promoted by union officials and Democratic Party leaders after the occupation of the state Capitol building in Madison was ended in March 2011;

Deferred to the union leadership during the Chicago teachers' strike of September 2012 rather than call for a "no" vote on the contract agreement and continue the picket lines.

What are we to make of these claims? Some of these conclusions are based on a profoundly sectarian attitude toward struggles and movements. In other cases, the authors just make up the facts to fit the case they want to build.

For example, when and where did the ISO "equivocate" about the recall in Wisconsin? In what article did SocialistWorker.org not point out that the electoral strategy was pushed by union officials to channel the Wisconsin uprising, symbolized most of all by the Capitol occupation, into a "safer" activity they could control? When did ISO members involved in the Wisconsin struggle not argue for the need to continue the occupation and prepare for more militant actions, including strikes and workplace action, to defeat the Republican union-busters?

This quote is from an SW article by Lee Sustar: "[U]nion leaders continue to sound the retreat, limiting the fightback against the Republicans to the ballot box, while bowing to more 'reasonable' concessions pushed by Democrats." How is this "equivocating?"

But the distortion of the facts in this example is no worse than the profound sectarianism of the authors' other formulations.

For example, ISO activists who worked to build the October 2009 National Equality March--which drew 200,000 people to Washington, D.C., probably the largest national mobilization of the Obama era--didn't tailor our ideas to what Cleve Jones wanted, but rather agreed with him on a common strategy of building a national, rather than a state-by-state, movement for "equal protection for lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender people in all matters governed by civil law."

As part of the struggle, ISO members argued for multiracial organizing, pressing for transgender rights in the workplace and schools, challenging Democratic Party leaders and the mainstream LGBT rights organizations--as well as, of course, supporting marriage equality so that same-sex couples had access to all of the more than 1,000 federal rights available to different-sex couples. We participated in this struggle alongside many first-time activists, liberals, anarchists and other socialists--including Cleve Jones, who, by the way, agreed with all the basic demands and strategies that the ISO did.

Five years later, the LGBT movement, mobilized most of all by the struggle around marriage equality, has won some of the only tangible victories for our side of the past few years. Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have enacted legalization of same-sex marriage, the Pentagon's "don't ask, don't tell" policy was finally ended, and the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, with protections for transgender people included, passed the Senate, though it still faces barriers to becoming law.

In most cases, the six authors don't have an alternative strategy to propose, but rather a vague suggestion that the ISO should have developed some supposedly more "radical" strategy within the marriage equality movement, as a guarantee against "tailing" liberals.

On another question, though, they do propose a dramatically different course. They think that during the teachers' strike in Chicago last year, the ISO should have opposed the contract negotiated by Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) leaders a week into the walkout and used its influence to win a "no" vote that would have kept teachers on the picket line. "We believe extending the strike was the right thing to do and would have produced a better outcome for the CTU workers and the class overall," they pronounce.

The first problem here is the lack of any perspective about the contract that led CTU delegates to vote overwhelmingly to suspend the strike. It did contain some concessions by the union, but there were more concessions made by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and his handpicked school board. The Wall Street Journal was clear about who won the strike, even if our six comrades aren't: It was the CTU.

The authors never divulge why they believe a "no" vote and continuing the strike would have led to a "better outcome." In truth, though, this isn't their main concern. They think socialist teachers in the CTU and the ISO in general shouldn't have taken responsibility for leading the whole union to victory--because their duty was to provide "a lead [that] would have solidarized them with the left-wing and put them in a position to provide leadership to the most radical elements within CTU and in the trade union movement beyond it."

Who is this "left-wing"? Other socialists in the union leadership? Unnamed rank-and-file teachers? Radical community supporters? They don't say. That's because they don't know and are mouthing empty phrases here. CTU President Karen Lewis is attacked for supposedly "shutting down the strike," and ISO members for blindly supporting her. In place of any strategy to win a "better outcome," they propose to "provide leadership" to the "most radical" by developing a line to attract this mythical minority--and take no responsibility for the fate of the movement as a whole.

The discussion of the Chicago strike shows best of all the sectarianism and propagandism at the core of the case made by the six Bay Area comrades. But it is just one of many contradictions in their argument. Let us note one more, for the record: The ISO is accused of exaggerating the level of class consciousness among workers on the one hand--but it should have argued for continuing the CTU strike because a longer walkout would have produced a "better outcome" than a contract universally recognized as a victory for the union. Huh?

Democracy Is Not a Spectator Sport

In place of a caricature of the ISO's politics and practices, our six critics from the Bay Area offer an alternative that crudely equates the level of class consciousness with strike statistics and unionization figures, and that approaches social movements and workers' struggle with a strategy of putting sectarian propaganda above the interests of the movements as a whole.

It must be said that the kind of "democratic centralism" these comrades say they remain committed to cannot exist among a small group of friends with no organizational project. They will have to make up their own minds, but it seems to us that their choices come down to these: They can consider rejoining the ISO (or joining some other organization they believe is more aligned with their beliefs) and advocate for their positions, while being prepared to abide by the democratic will of the majority. They can remain politically active, but abandon any practical connection between their stated Leninism and their day-to-day practice. Or they can start a new organization.

Whatever they decide to do, collectively or as individuals, the ISO will work alongside them in struggles in the Bay Area, engage in constructive dialogue, and pursue our shared commitment to fighting for working-class power.

As members of the ISO, we are free to take their comradely advice into consideration. But to be honest, it doesn't seem to us that these comrades' essay was written in the spirit of collaboration and mutual assessment. Rather, it paints a picture of the ISO leadership as a ruthless bunch, who "isolate, marginalize and silence" the hapless flock of sheep that is its membership. This description bears no semblance to reality and is as much an insult to our democratically elected leadership as it is to those who have done the electing.

Far from an organization frozen in time and resistant to all new ideas, ISO members have long grappled with the complexities of organizing as socialists under the reign of the strongest capitalist class the world has ever known. That may be a "well-worn platitude," but it is the truth.

There are all manner of debates that can and do take place among ISO members, as is obvious from the pages of SocialistWorker.org. Big questions face the international revolutionary left, from Egypt to Greece to Chile to the U.S. We look forward to the discussion that can answer those questions and better equip the ISO to participate in and offer a lead to the struggles and movements of the future.

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