All wound up and ready to go! (Updated x2)
If you’re a member of the American International Socialist Organization (ISO)–and why wouldn’t you be?–you may have experienced an amusing bit of cognitive dissonance on the morning of July 22. On the one hand you would have received the latest ISO Notes from the national center promoting the 50th Anniversary March on Washington as the crucial next step in the anti-racist struggle following the vile acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer. The August 24 march will be, per the Notes, a chance to initiate a national outcry against racial profiling, police misconduct, unemployment, and a number of other aspects of systemic racism.
On the other hand, if you listened to Democracy Now! that same morning, you heard this from Cornel West:
Brother Martin would not be invited to the very march in his name, because he would talk about drones. He’d talk about Wall Street criminality. He would talk about working class being pushed to the margins as profits went up for corporate executives in their compensation. He would talk about the legacies of white supremacy. Do you think anybody at that march will talk about drones and the drone president? Will you think anybody at that march will talk about the connection to Wall Street? They are all on the plantation.
Earlier in the same interview, he was even more slashing:
We’ve got a black leadership that is deferential to Obama, that is subservient to Obama, and that’s what niggerizing is. You keep folks so scared. You keep folks so intimidated. You can give them money, access, but they’re still scared. And as long as you’re scared, you’re on the plantation.
Is ISO Notes inconsistent with West? Not necessarily. An event organized by deeply compromised black liberals that strenuously avoids raising key issues “from the front” may nonetheless be an important space for identifying and linking up with militant grassroots activists; indeed, that is probably the correct way to look at the march, and I think socialists should support it and build it in one way or another. The problem with the line from ISO Notes is that is lacks any criticism of the organizers’ politics, amiably pretending as if it doesn’t matter. (West, by way of contrast, acknowledges that the organizers’ actions have generated useful contradictions: “Brother Sharpton is going to be in trouble. Why? Because he has unleashed–and I agree with him–the rage. And the rage is always on the road to self-determination. But the rage is going to hit up against a stone wall.”)
In its “one/bright-sidedness,” ISO Notes not only neglects to provide any political analysis of black liberalism under Obama, but it also misperceives what the march leaders are likely to demand. The Notes suggest that the conservatism of the leading group will be expressed in their focus on securing a federal indictment of George Zimmerman at the expense of addressing systemic issues. But actually the danger is almost exactly the opposite: because Obama Mission Control clearly doesn’t want anything more to do with the Martin case, black liberals will be under pressure to shift the discussion to cloudy rhetoric about racism that doesn’t particularly demand anything from the administration. Here the “narrow demand” is, in a sense, more militant than the “broad critique.” Hence the problem isn’t that the liberals will over-focus on one or two reforms; but rather that they won’t even do that.
Now I don’t think that the ISO leadership and cadre are at all naïve about the political orientation of Al Sharpton, Ben Jealous, the Urban League, etc–I think the comrades understand them fairly well. So why is it that ISO members have to turn to Democracy Now! for the analysis they should see in their internal bulletin or (even better) their own press? (A July 24 editorial at SocialistWorker.org quotes West on Obama, but notably omits his comments on Sharpton and the march.) Obviously we wouldn’t and shouldn’t use West’s rhetoric–Brother Cornel can get away with some things that we quite rightly cannot–but the content seems to me critical for any well-informed intervention. So why is it withheld?
I don’t think it’s a matter of offending allies. In the first place, I doubt that people like Sharpton and Jealous much know or care what we think. Secondly, even if they do know and care, what could they do to us? Ban us from coming? That doesn’t seem possible. Censor our platform speaker? We don’t have one. Ice us out in other ways? If they really understand our politics, they’ll be trying to do that as much as possible anyway, so we might as well have it all in the open. In any event, revolutionaries are generally willing to weather temporary setbacks and “frictions” in the interests of political clarity, which we contend will serve the movement better in the long term regardless. I don’t claim that this is always an easy balance–but in this case there’s scarcely any attempt at balance.
What I suspect is that our line is less about what we (unfortunately) call the “outside world” and more about ourselves. That is, there’s a need to set aside what we actually know about liberalism, to bracket off all the experiences of failure in liberal-led movements, in order to get ourselves “wound up” for the next “thing,” which may be–who knows?!?!–the Turning-Point-Presumed-to-Exist. And even if August 24 turns out not to be the turning point, well, it coulda been, so it was right to have gone all-out for it. Right? As our Great Teacher-Leader said: “Stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before.”
For what it’s worth, I don’t think these lacunae are intended maliciously or cynically by the leadership or cadre (although I also don’t think that intentions are, in general, very important). I think it’s a product of an entirely sincere but basically ideological “optimism” that has become somewhat detached from the disinterested analysis of real conditions after 30+ years of neoliberalism. It’s very understandable, but not very Marxist. Worst of all, it doesn’t work.
Update. The August 1 editorial at SocialistWorker.org does a much better job of motivating the March on Washington, taking up the question of the liberals that was neglected in ISO Notes and the July 24 editorial. While there’s much more to discuss–isn’t there always?–I think this latest contribution gives a much better basis for strategic and tactical planning.
Several comrades asked me to write a letter to SW expressing the disagreements aired above, which I did do. SW was prepared to run the submission today, but they kindly shared with me an early draft of today’s editorial. Since I felt that the editorial obviated my main criticism, I told SW that there was no need to publish my letter. I thank the comrades at SW for handling this all very fairly.
I still think it’s significant that the ISO’s earliest statements on the march omitted any discussion of the liberals’ role; it points to a deficiency in our method. The general problem of “optimism” at the expense of realism, in my view, remains. However, I believe we are now on a better track to building the March on Washington and achieving some lasting gains from it–goals we all, of course, share.
Update 2. My letter replying to SW’s August 1 editorial is now online at SocialistWorker.org.