Home > Uncategorized > All wound up and ready to go! (Updated x2)

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.

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  1. Jonah
    July 24, 2013 at 4:11 pm

    This piece is pretty silly Shaun. For one thing, I’m sure there will be more discussion of the Washington March as we get closer to it and starts to shape up. Actually, there’s a whole bunch of comrades with some real roots in anti-police violence/anti-racist work who are trying to think through some hard questions – about how to bring things forward, how to connect disparate local struggles, how to relate to various liberal-left forces – in a complex situation.

    I think what West and especially Tavis Smiley have been arguing has been great. But if you’re arguing that there’s been a strategic failure to incorporate what they’re saying into the concrete work comrades are doing, well, I think you’re way off base. Otherwise, why not just fill the gap by writing something on liberalism. Or on Sharpton? You could bring up Tawana Brawley and everything.

    • July 25, 2013 at 11:25 am

      This piece is pretty silly Shaun. For one thing, I’m sure there will be more discussion of the Washington March as we get closer to it and starts to shape up.

      I’m also sure there will be more discussion, especially since I’ve just initiated a discussion.

      Actually, there’s a whole bunch of comrades with some real roots in anti-police violence/anti-racist work who are trying to think through some hard questions – about how to bring things forward, how to connect disparate local struggles, how to relate to various liberal-left forces – in a complex situation.

      I look forward to their contributions on this topic.

      I think what West and especially Tavis Smiley have been arguing has been great. But if you’re arguing that there’s been a strategic failure to incorporate what they’re saying into the concrete work comrades are doing, well, I think you’re way off base.

      Well, there must be a failure to integrate what they’re saying, because it hasn’t been discussed in either ISO Notes or the SW editorial. When you don’t discuss something in your strategic documents, you’ve failed to integrate it into your strategy. It’s a pretty primitive point.

      Otherwise, why not just fill the gap by writing something on liberalism. Or on Sharpton? You could bring up Tawana Brawley and everything.

      The Brawley cheap-shot is a basically demagogic attempt to identify left-wing criticism with right-wing nonsense. Get a show on MSNBC if you want to do that kind of “politics.”

      • Jonah
        July 25, 2013 at 12:33 pm

        “I’m also sure there will be more discussion, especially since I’ve just initiated a discussion.”

        Jesus Christ, Shaun. If only.

      • July 25, 2013 at 1:27 pm

        Come now Jonah, there is a discussion happening. I know you know about it because you’ve been heroically “liking” every comment that’s disagreed with me.

      • July 26, 2013 at 2:45 am

        snjoseph,

        Are we friends on FB? Because if not, we should be. I have stuff to say about what you wrote– I agree with your general sentiment, plus some. But I will keep it short as it’s late, I’m sleepy, but anxious to respond.

        Sadly, frustratingly, and surprisingly, given that in the most recent notes we are reminded that anti-racist work has been one of our main foci these last 2 years, our analysis on race is blatantly lacking, despite some amazing work we do around it. Why is this? I have some ideas as to why, and will expand when I am more awake if appropriate, but will say this– I am reminded of our position/attitude when I joined after coming around for a year, when Obama was first running, during my first Socialism conference, when I was publicly and privately chastised by leadership for voicing my concerns about how Obama would sell us (Black people, all working class people) out despite some nice rhetoric, and I am also reminded of how my “progressive, liberal” professors in college approached race. I am worried, with how those things turned out, about our current perspective on racism/the march.

  2. Jonah
    July 24, 2013 at 4:14 pm

    btw, there are sometimes good, non-opportunist reasons for being careful how you discuss arguments within movements in public. Like, for instance, you’d like to avoid these sorts of things: http://www.villagevoice.com/2013-03-20/news/kimani-gray-flatbush/full/

  3. Jonah
    July 25, 2013 at 5:17 pm

    snjoseph :
    Come now Jonah, there is a discussion happening. I know you know about it because you’ve been heroically “liking” every comment that’s disagreed with me.

    Okay, Solzhenitsyn, whatever.

    Honestly, if you really care about the arguments you’re trying to make, I don’t understand why you can’t see that your martyr complex is a distraction. It didn’t take a blog post by you to spark a discussion about Sharpton, the March on Washington commemoration, etc. It’s been happening. If you think that not enough of that conversation has made its way into print, or that what has been published has been problematic, you should just write something – on your blog or any other venue. But stop acting like you’re the lone voice in the wilderness battling gamely against some monolithic organizational line.

    More than anything the problem is that it distorts your writing: this piece is framed as a strategic critique, but it offers no substantive argument about how the left should approach these forces/developments at this moment; it manages to be both grandiose and nitpick-y; and it belies an utter lack of concern with the actual situation facing activists in this work on the ground – I mean, shouldn’t an assessment of the prospects for something like the DC rally be determined on the basis of the challenges, arguments, political currents they’re dealing with? If you do think we should go to DC for this rally, what should be done to push on the political limits imposed by liberal administration allies and maximize the benefits for the movements? Any viable ideas?

    Instead of a polemical contribution on perspectives, liberalism, the politics of the black middle-class, etc., I think that at best this piece sets up an insipid and moralistic conversation (are we optimists or pessimists about this march?) and it encourages the left’s propensity for grandstanding. And, as I’ve said before I think that’s a shame because I agree with some of the substantive points you bring up. But anyway, I’ll let it go for now, since I’m probably not gonna convince you and I suspect this discussion will just keep getting snarkier.

    • August 1, 2013 at 2:00 pm

      Wait what?

      I know that I’m pretty late to this discussion, but I think you’re a way off base here Jonah. I think Shawn made a pretty valid contribution pointing out weakness in the ISO’s initial analysis around the March. I agree the “I initiated the debate” comment seems silly, but I don’t think the initial piece was silly at all. Shawn points out a contradiction in our analysis, points towards (though doesn’t develop fully) an argument about how that response could be better, and puts forward some ideas about why the contradiction exists. That seems pretty valid. Given the implosion of the SWP due to precisely the kind of analytical and practical weakness that Shawn is arguing are surfacing in our orientation towards this action, why not take the piece seriously? Why have your opening sentence declare that the piece is silly? Why not take a minute to say “hey i think some of what your saying is valid but i feel that you miss the mark because you didn’t fully account for the time it takes to talk these issues through” or whatever. If you don’t want someone to have a martyr complex don’t martyr them–especially if you actually agree with substantive points! Talk about silly. These kind if knee jerk negative reactions to comrades critical of the leadership don’t foster an internal culture of cooperative debate and discussion, they do the opposite. And yes I recognize that I’m commenting as someone totally uninvolved in prior discussions but there are plenty of others who read this unaware of other discussions, and how a response reads is how a response reads, and something not part of a larger thread should be expected to be read out of context.

      • August 1, 2013 at 2:12 pm

        For what it’s worth–not much–I said that I started A discussion, not THE discussion. I didn’t mean to suggest there was zero discussion before my intervention, but I didn’t see anyone else making the particular points that I raised. In that comment I was mostly trying to point out the irony using “there will be more discussion!” as an argument against…discussion.

      • Jonah
        August 15, 2013 at 9:24 pm

        Wait, I’m not sure who you are, but just saw this, and…seriously? I thought criticism of people’s “tone” was just a way to avoid engaging with the substance of their arguments – that tone is a tactical question, etc? Now I’m making Shaun a martyr because I’m being too mean to him on his blog?

        And I thought I offered some substantive points regarding the problems with this post. Like I said, I thought it set up a pretty empty and moralistic discussion about whether we’re optimists or pessimists, and frankly I thought the strategic conclusions that came later (which are generally right, but totally disconnected from what we represent and have the capacity to do at this conjuncture) were added as an afterthought designed to justify the whole exercise I guess we’ll have to disagree on that point.

        Sheesh, there’s nothing worse than a bully who presents himself as a victim.

      • August 16, 2013 at 5:20 pm

        frankly I thought the strategic conclusions that came later (which are generally right, but totally disconnected from what we represent and have the capacity to do at this conjuncture) were added as an afterthought designed to justify the whole exercise

        If you think my tactical (not really strategic) conclusions were an afterthought, it’s only because you didn’t read the piece properly. What I said about the demand for federal charges in my letter to SW was completely anticipated here; see the paragraph that begins “In its ‘one/bright-sidedness,’ ISO Notes…”.

        The point about “lack of capacity” doesn’t make any sense. We’ll have a noisy contingent of at least a few hundred–why can’t we raise a demand? I don’t think we’ll get Sharpton et al to change their minds, much less the march demands, but we can at least catch out the liberals before an audience that’s larger than what we could ordinarily address. (At best we could actually get some forces moving that could get the demand back on the agenda–the Congress stuff is going nowhere, and everyone knows it. It’s demobilizing.)

  1. September 16, 2013 at 11:52 am
  2. May 27, 2014 at 3:56 pm

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