Valences of the united front (I): The parse on Washington
SocialistWorker.org has in the last several days hosted one of its most remarkable exchanges in recent–or even distant–memory on a series of issues related to the theory and practice of the International Socialist Organization (ISO). Although I am, regrettably, no longer a member of the ISO, I am rather “implicated” in the debate, so some comrades may be interested in what I think about it; and in any event, it behooves all revolutionaries to take an interest in what the ISO is interested in.
If you have not been following the discussion, here is a “cheat list” of articles and letters, in chronological order:
- “The contradictions of August 24” (Shaun Joseph, 8/6)
- “Understanding the united front” (Paul D’Amato, 8/13)
- “Limitations of the united front” (MB, 8/21)
- “The ongoing relevance of the united front” (Paul D’Amato, 8/22)
- “Why national marches still matter” (Paul Heideman, 8/22)
- “Liberalism and the united front” (Keith Rosenthal, 8/27)
- “Marches, Marxism and the united front” (Adam Turl, 9/3)
- “Our past should inform our present” (Alan Maass, 9/4)
- “Liberalism, reformism and the united front” (Todd Chretien, 9/5)
More is hopefully forthcoming, but this set of writings will inform my response here. Each piece is relatively lengthy, and each raises a complex set of issues that are not fully addressed in any subsequent piece. In this sense the whole sequence may strike one as frustrating or abstract, but I think it repays sympathetic attention, since comrades are clearly “pulling the threads” of the discussion with unusual boldness, and saying things that have been on their minds for some time.
That said, I think the issues may be fairly clustered around three overlapping yet distinct topics:
- The ISO’s perspective on, intervention in, and assessment of, the August 24 March on Washington;
- The (ir)relevance of the united front tactic or “method” in the present day; and
- The ISO’s general perspectives, practices, and culture.
I will therefore organize this essay in three installments, one for each topic respectively.
Before starting in earnest, however, I think it’s worth recognizing the pivotal contribution to the debate: MB’s letter of August 21. She–I know MB is a woman–was the first to recognize and “call out” the connection between the three topics listed above; mere examination of the dates demonstrates the catalytic effect of her intervention. Moreover, her piece was directly critical of Paul D’Amato, one of the ISO’s most senior, articulate, and respected national leaders–this required considerable courage. Such things are always worth recognizing, but especially so in this case, since the informal discussions of the texts have been fraught with questions of race and gender–sometimes usefully, sometimes not. Therefore it is worth emphasizing the exceptional role of a woman comrade in this discussion. Brava, Comrade MB!
The parse on Washington
Let’s begin with some indisputable objective facts. The program for the 1963 March on Washington lists ten individually-named main speakers (“Remarks”). Their average age in 1963 was 48.3 years, the youngest being 23 (John Lewis) and the oldest 74 (A. Philip Randolph). The median age was 49.5 (average of James Farmer, 43; and Walter Reuther, 56). The keynote speaker, Martin Luther King, Jr, was 34.
An August 22 press release for the 2013 March on Washington names seven individual main speakers. Their average age is 64.6, the youngest being 50 (Bernice King) and the oldest 80 (Myrlie Evers-Williams). The median age is 62 (Eric Holder). The keynote speaker, Al Sharpton, is 58.
This “graying of the platform” may seem entirely natural for an event that was, after all, a commemoration of a historic march 50 years in the past. But in fact, three of the four oldest speakers (Steny Hoyer, 74; Nancy Pelosi, 73; and Holder) have nothing whatsoever to do with the historical civil rights movement, other than opportunistically benefiting from it. Thus the age drift is not due to what would be an understandable preponderance of older movement veterans speaking from the front; rather it reflects the passage of black political leadership from “movement people” in their early adulthoods to “established” Democratic Party figures well into the last thirds or quarters of their lives.
Let’s approach the problem from another angle, more anecdotal but more direct. I drove to DC, and traffic delays meant that I missed the entire speaking program, and arrived only in time for the march. As I walked towards the Lincoln Memorial, I saw hundreds, if not thousands, of people walking in the opposite direction, clearly leaving the event to head back home. (Indeed, later I learned that many of the union-sponsored buses were scheduled to depart at a time that made participating in the march impossible.) For a while I thought that I’d somehow missed the whole thing, which was happily untrue: tens of thousands remained to march, although only the ISO contingent was particularly lively. (I think SW’s report of 100,000 total attendees is broadly correct, although the numbers declined significantly near the end.)
I found this odd relative to my experience from previous large mobilizations: it’s more typical for people to be excited about the march and gently indifferent to the speaking program. Generally I got the impression that attendees experienced the event in a commemorative rather than a “prescriptive” mode; that is, as an honoring of past achievements more than an effort to break new political ground. Of course no one–excepting possibly some bourgeois flunkies like Holder–thinks that the struggle against racism is merely “something for the history books,” but even commemoration with a sharp eye to the present does not a political movement make.
All of this is to say that the following statement from the ISO Notes of July 21 was and is basically wrong: “George Zimmerman’s acquittal…has awakened a new movement for civil rights and brought the issue of racial injustice to the forefront of mainstream politics.” A “new movement” has not been awakened; it does not exist, except perhaps as “movement elements” of purely local, ungeneralized, and mutually disconnected efforts. The Zimmerman acquittal was not a turning point or “political earthquake” as claimed in ISO Notes; it was a disgusting result that was entirely expected–a shock but not a surprise, as it were. The “mainstream” discussion of racism in the US has not changed very much, save perhaps in New York City, where a number of grassroots struggles, court decisions, and the mayoral election have produced a unique local conjuncture. The effect of the Zimmerman decision on the March on Washington, which had of course been planned for some time, was quantitative but not qualitative; that is, the mobilization was certainly larger, and the demands were less nebulous, but there was no essential shift in the politics and outcomes of the March.
(So that comrades outside the ISO can fairly evaluate the group’s perspective, I have reproduced the entire first section of the July 21 ISO Notes below. I did not quote from the Notes in my original critique because, well, I didn’t want to risk disciplinary measures for doing so. That’s now irrelevant, although I suppose that some comrades will be unhappy that I have published “internal” material. I can only tell them that there is no good reason for this material to be internal; indeed, they themselves should have been telling all and sundry what the organization was saying. I will not post the original document in its entirety because it does contain some sensitive information.)
My initial contribution on the March was quite sharply critical, in large part because both ISO Notes and SW’s July 24 editorial completely neglected to discuss the character and role of the liberal organizers. (SW failed even to clearly identify them.) This error was corrected in a subsequent editorial of August 1. It is possible that my piece, which caused a something of a sensation within the ISO and was widely read and debated by members across the country, had no influence on the SW editorial team. It is possible.
But what about the claim that the membership was being “wound up” for the March? Some comrades told me in online discussions that they found this “ungenerous”–which is, I suppose, a generous way of calling it bullshit–pointing to the very positive but balanced line on the March expressed in SW editorials. I agree with them that the SW line was basically reasonable after August 1, dispensing with the rhetoric of “political earthquakes” or assertions that “the verdict acquitting George Zimmerman of Trayvon Martin’s murder has created a ‘perfect storm,’ in which newly mobilized masses of people angry about the lack of civil rights for Black and Brown people might decide that rampant government spying on private citizens generally is similarly outrageous” (to quote from another section of ISO Notes).
Also in SW’s favor, instead of referring to a “new movement for civil rights” that is already “awakened” ala ISO Notes, the paper’s August 1 editorial speaks much more realistically about the “difficult[ies] for…localized initiatives to link up nationally or maintain ongoing organization” and posits the March as an “opportunity…to bring the struggles that are taking place into contact with each other, to connect the networks of people who responded to the Zimmerman verdict in different cities, and to draw those who are new to activism into more regular activism” [emphasis added].
Perhaps some comrades can “harmonize” ISO Notes with the SW editorials in their own minds; I’m sincerely happy for them. What I find difficult to dispute, however, is that these two sets of writing establish two distinct discourses: an “internal” (ISO Notes) discourse that is much more “wound up”–earthquakes! storms!–than the “external” (SW) discourse accessible to the public. It should also be pointed out that ISO Notes is perceived–rightly or wrongly–as more “directive” than SW editorials; moreover, every ISO Notes bulletin is read by members as a matter of course, whereas they miss SW editorials often enough. All this contributes to making the internal discourse the one that actually prevails for members of the organization. This is precisely what I was getting at when I wrote: “our line is less about…the ‘outside world’ and more about ourselves.”
Furthermore. It’s come to my attention that there was substantial hesitation and/or disagreement about mobilizing for the March at all levels of the organization, including in the national leadership. This seems to have been resolved among the leadership in advance of the release of ISO Notes, but it makes their tenor all the more extraordinary. Why the sweeping statements? Why the tectonic metaphors? Why not write something like, “Look comrades, we ourselves were hesitant at first, but here’s why we changed our minds,” and then patiently go through the argument? Why instead this bewilderment when comrades pose the same questions that the leadership must have discussed themselves?
To avoid going too far afield, we will defer the discussion of these questions to the third installment, which will deal with the ISO’s political culture directly. Returning to the March itself, let’s consider finally the question of demands, which I raised in both my blog post and my letter to SW of August 6. The essential character of the demands was itself at issue: ISO Notes hypothesized that “some leaders who are calling the march may only want to focus on securing an indictment of Zimmerman on federal charges,” whereas I thought that “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, clearly, I was correct against ISO Notes. I believe that my emphasis on the role of the liberals and their identification with the administration’s political goals made it easier for me to foresee that they would effectively “drop” the demand for federal charges. I raise this, hopefully obviously, not to “score points,” but in order to engage in politics scientifically: correct predictions suggest a correct framework, and incorrect predictions the opposite. (Hence assessment is a crucial moment in any truly Marxist politics.)
Unfortunately the ideas I put forward in my letter to SW about re-raising the demand for federal charges drew no formal response, although there was clearly a lot of interest in them, judging from the discussion online. Instead SW hosted a debate over whether the ISO should mobilize for the March at all; a “debate” that was somewhat unsatisfactory given that none of the contributors argued not to. (Apparently some comrades did take this position, although this wouldn’t have been clear from reading SW. It’s too bad that these comrades did not take the opportunity to state their views publicly, although I am not surprised if they felt discouraged from doing so.) It should be said, however, that many ISO members, including leading members, now recognize that the SW exchange was not carried out correctly.
I should also concede a mistake on my part: I wrongly read ISO Notes as claiming that the March on Washington would be a turning point. In fact, as comrades pointed out, the Notes imply that the Zimmerman verdict was a turning point. Frankly I think the latter is the less sensible claim, but nonetheless I misrepresented the Notes as saying the former.
All in all, then, the ISO did (typically) excellent work on a tactical level, including cohering local mobilizations; assembling a great contingent; and building a powerful post-march forum with Cornel West, Gary Younge, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. However, the group seemed to be caught wrong-footed strategically, misapprehending the post-verdict conjuncture and resistant to self-criticism and correction. This points up, in my view, both particular lacunae in the organization’s black perspectives and general problems in its political culture. The former I intend to address somewhere in the Disarticulation Series; the latter will be the subject of the third installment of this essay. Before that, however, we’ll take a (hopefully but probably not) brief detour through the theory of the united front.
Appendix: ISO Notes “Midsummer assessment” (July 21, 2013)
[Quoted verbatim; all emphasis in original.]
This summer has been far from quiet so far, and events continue to unfold at a rapid pace: In early June, Edward Snowden came forward and exposed the NSA’s massive surveillance program to journalist Glenn Greenwald. The mass media has been working overtime to smear Snowden and Greenwald ever since.
On June 24, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to essentially strike down the key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Then on June 26th, the People’s Filibuster of thousands of angry protesters shouted down the Senate prevented the Texas legislature from passing draconian abortion legislation. On the evening of July 12, the GOP-dominated Texas legislature passed the legislation. Meanwhile, Texas pro-choice activists organized a National Day of Action to Defend Abortion rights, and on July 15 pro-choice activists held solidarity protests in more than 20 cities. On July 18, a new bill (HB 59) was filed with the Texas Legislature that would ban abortions after a detectable heartbeat (4-6 weeks), and fine abortion providers who do not comply up to $10,000.
On July 13, the six-person jury (which did not include a single African-American) acquitted George Zimmerman in the murder of Trayvon Martin – which led to an immediate semispontaneous outpouring of anger and protest in cities all over the U.S. On July 16, The Dream Defenders – a Black and Brown-led youth organization – launched a sit-in at FL governor Rick Perry’s outer office, demanding a special session of the legislature to reverse the Stand Your Ground law. On July 20 (yesterday), protests called by Rev. Al Sharpton were held at federal buildings in 100 cities, which drew thousands of majority-Black protesters vowing to continue the fight for justice. In the meantime, the National Action Network called for a full-scale mobilization to Washington, DC on August 24 to demand reinstating key provisions of the Voting Rights Act; to demand an end to Stop and Frisk laws as well as Stand Your Ground laws. Liberal civil rights organizations – including the NAACP – are calling on the Justice Department to pursue federal and civil rights charges against George Zimmerman.
Each of these events in its own way represents its own political earthquake. U.S. society as a whole remains deeply polarized, and the right wing has become increasingly emboldened in attacking unions, immigrants, Muslims, women, LGBT people and, of course, AfricanAmericans. But this right-wing extremism is also producing resistance. The events described above have each played a role in shifting mass consciousness leftward (and further radicalizing a significant number of people) – and holds real potential for organizing in the immediate future or in the near future.
This is especially the case with George Zimmerman’s acquittal – which has awakened a new movement for civil rights and brought the issue of racial injustice to the forefront of mainstream politics. We need to make the fight for justice for Trayvon our top priority this summer.