Home > Uncategorized > Valences of the united front (III): The struggle for culture

Valences of the united front (III): The struggle for culture

This is the final installment of a long essay, begun about a month ago, on a set of issues raised by a then-recent exchange of letters in SocialistWorker.org; one should read at least the introduction and preferably the prior installments before continuing. Here we treat the “general perspectives, practices, and culture” of the International Socialist Organization (ISO).

When a writer publicly commits himself to a task that is, perhaps, a bit beyond him, it is a great relief to find that others have unexpectedly done the work for him. (And slightly embarrassing to realize that they have done a much better job than he could have.) In that spirit I enthusiastically direct you to the “Letter to Comrades in the ISO” from the Socialist Outpost group. As a prickly Trotskyist scholastic who never entirely agrees with everything in any document–I entirely agree with everything in that document.

I don’t think I can improve on the Outpost letter, but I can add some additional observations from my perspective as a member of the ISO until very recently, who may as a result have a more immediate sense of where it has been and may be going.

How far we’ve come

Let’s begin with the key passage from Todd Chretien’s September 5 reply to Adam Turl, which turned out to be–alas–the final word in the SW exchange:

I think [we in the ISO have] also changed tremendously over the years and developed increasingly level-headed assessments which have helped us simultaneously respond to world events and think them through more closely. And we have grown more comfortable with a wider range of opinion about what we call perspectives–that is, our best guess as to what areas of work and education we ought to prioritize over a given period. I might even say that we have grown more mature in our ability to distinguish between “turning points” and the deeper processes at play in this age of neoliberal restructuring.

I agree with this, in the limited sense that the group is rather better at all these things than it was in, say, 1998 (when I joined). But the question for revolutionaries is not whether we are getting better, but whether we are as good as we need to be.

In 2009 the ISO Steering Committee (SC) wrote in its “Organizational Perspectives” document:

The U.S. has entered a new economic, political, and ideological period. Critically, the world economy is in its worst crisis since the 1930s, centered in the crisis of American capitalism. It is an era marked by the desire and need for change, both from above and from below… Obama’s election has taken place during the worst economic crisis since the 1930s–with no end of this downward spiral in sight. As in 1929, the economic crisis has exposed the corruption and greed endemic to the capitalist system.

This passage was quoted approvingly in the 2010 version of the same document. A year later: “The political dynamics at the start of 2011 echo those of a year ago. If anything, they are more pronounced….” The SC’s perspectives for 2013 begin with

a fairly straightforward proposition, which we’ve been arguing for a number of years now: The picture of the world economy, the relations between the major states, and indeed the health of that world economy, have undergone a significant change since the crisis of 2007-2008.

Leave aside, for the moment, the extent to which any of this is correct; by any account it is consistent in insisting that we’re in a “new economic, political, and ideological period.”

Now here is what is said by the ISO National Committee (NC) in September 2013:

We are now five years into the economic crisis that began with the financial collapse of 2008–which, as the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression, is the defining characteristic of the present period. While the excesses of neoliberal policy caused the financial collapse, neoliberalism has survived intact–resulting in an economic recovery that continues to widen class and social inequality. [emphasis added]

What’s this? For four years the ISO leadership has been insisting that we are in a “new period”; in September they announce that “neoliberalism”–that is, the system prevailing before the crisis of 2007-8–“has survived intact.” So we’re in a time of novel economics, politics, and ideology while the structural arrangements of capitalism from the last 30+ years have been preserved–does this make sense?

Possibly here I’m misreading the NC: perhaps instead of using the term “neoliberalism” holistically, the NC intends it as a synonym for “neoliberal policy.” This suggests–maybe–that while the economic basis of neoliberalism has been undermined since the crisis, the political/ideological aspects have been carried over; “mind limps after reality,” as Trotsky noted. I actually think that’s not a bad approximation of reality. Nevertheless, even this is a significant change in the ISO’s outlook, since the “new period” was supposed to encompass a political and ideological break as well.

Of course political organizations are allowed to change their perspectives; indeed, woe be to those that don’t. But if a democratic and socialist organization has changed its mind–especially on a central policy issue of four years’ standing–it is obliged to explicitly admit and carefully explain the change. This is not done anywhere in the NC’s document.

This would be troubling enough as an aberration, but this kind of “silent switch” is not unknown in the ISO’s recent political history. For example, the group’s long-standing theory that after the “downturn” in class struggle of the 1980s, the US entered a “transitional period” that would lead to a new “upturn” in struggle, has been basically abandoned–without any collective attempt to reinterpret the last 20-odd years. The ISO has had a more or less aggressive “growth perspective” for at least the last four years–a time in which it’s now widely appreciated that the group did not grow quantitatively; and in which qualitatively, it lost many highly experienced cadre (such as the Outpost comrades). The organization recently endorsed Kshama Sawant (and Ty Moore and Seamus Whelan) of Socialist Alternative after its rather haughty refusal to do so in 2012–thank god for that, but doesn’t this throw the initial “no” into question?

Again, the problem isn’t that the ISO (or rather its leadership) changed its mind; in each of these cases, I think it’s changed for the better. The problem is that the change wasn’t properly discussed or even perceived as a change. This implies one (or both) of two things: the policy isn’t understood on its own terms; and/or the policy is not seen as having serious implications for “party-building” practice. But don’t we “build the party” using different strategies and tactics depending on what we think is going on in the world? Or are the “party-building routines” that we’ve developed actually, miraculously, the Party-Building Routines–so elusive to generations of revolutionaries, found at long last by us?

The life cadraic

In his Introduction to Trotsky’s Lessons of October, Duncan Hallas gives a brief, appositive definition of “cadre” that is worth repeating: “an experienced layer of party members, apart from the top leadership” [emphasis added]. Furthermore, for Hallas this apart-ness is not merely physical (different people) but political: the cadre is, in a dialectical sense, contradictory to the top leadership. Thus Hallas writes, “Lenin, returning in April 1917 with his theses, would not have been able to shift the political line of the Bolshevik Party alone. There had to be a layer of politically experienced party members who could respond to the arguments, and respond quickly.” Without the cadre “standing apart” from the top leadership, it would have never been able to respond productively to a division among the leadership.

The common view in the ISO, I think, is that the comrades at the Center are the “top cadre” of the group. Actually they are not cadre at all. That’s not to say they’re unimportant: a centralist organization needs national leadership just like an army needs generals. However, a cadre that identifies itself with the national leadership, that does not see itself as an independent and irreverent layer, is not fulfilling its function as a cadre–just like an army full of sycophantic captains is doomed to fail in battle.

The cadre of the ISO is, in this sense, not a cadre, because it is too deferential to the national leadership. This is not because the veteran members are generally lacking in skill and intellect; rather, there is a culture of deference that is the ironic consequence of the false equality between cadre and Center. If I am cadre notionally equal to the top leaders, then actually I will defer to them, because they obviously have greater experience, theoretical knowledge, information about the whole organization, etc.  (Hopefully this use of the first person is understood to be literal and self-critical.) If, on the other hand, I am notionally unequal to them–if I am self-consciously “apart” from them–then I will not defer to them in practice, because I understand that I’m not supposed to.

The cadre’s deference to the national leadership is, in my view, pretty obvious, but let’s show some evidence for it anyway. In my nearly 15-year membership in the ISO (September 1998-August 2013), there have been exactly two frontal challenges at the National Convention to the political perspectives put forward by the Steering Committee. One was a shenanigan organized by the British SWP at Convention 2001; the other–more organic, though perhaps a shenanigan regardless–was due primarily to me at Convention 2013. Would such a long period of quiescence be possible with an independent cadre? Only if the SC’s perspectives over the last 15 years had been both generally correct and universally convincing. I doubt that even the SC believes that.

To be clear, it’s not that the cadre doesn’t have criticisms of the leadership; it’s that these criticisms are rarely expressed through the “public use of reason.” Cadre can be brutally, hair-raisingly critical of the leadership…at the pub, at a party, in private correspondence. Yet this only “gets out” by way of exception. So when our document against the SC perspectives was published, many cadre were angry at me, and shared their strong views on how I had screwed up and ruined everything. Very well; but I asked each one of them: “Whatever you thought of our stuff, did you think the SC’s document was good?” The answer, almost universally: “What? No, of course not.”

Hold on a minute–if the perspectives from the national leadership are held in such wide disregard, why do they only draw one critical response from two people? And if many cadre don’t like that response either, why don’t they write their own? And which is worse for the organization: that weak leadership proposals are challenged “badly”–or that they’re not openly challenged at all? Deference may be “relieved” by private complaining, but it is deference nonetheless. It is inconsistent with an effective cadre.

In with the new

Another problem with the ISO’s cadre-presumptive is that, rather than seeking to raise new members to its own level, it tends to fetishize the “new member” as the source of unadulterated insight into the mysteries of the political conjuncture. It is quite common, for instance, to hear an ISO member justify their point by saying something like, “Comrade X, a new member, agrees with me!” Almost never will an ISO member say, “Comrade Y, a member for 15 years, agrees with me!” even though the latter is a somewhat more common-sensical appeal to authority.

The Victor Toils (Scott J) critique of the ISO (parts one and two) is problematic–he seems to have picked up certain habits of rhetorical imprecision from his anarchist friends, who I’m sure are lovely people otherwise–but he is very right to highlight how the group’s focus on recruiting relatively “raw” and inexperienced activists has deep implications for its political culture. Of course there’s nothing wrong with recruiting newbies–I was a newbie myself, although my recruitment is possibly regarded lately as a mistake–but it becomes a problem when the life of the group revolves almost entirely around the “new member.” There is, for example, no systematic political education of members past their first or second year; after going through some Marxist classics and introductory material on the ISO’s basic politics, members are more or less on their own to “pick up” the more advanced concepts–or not.

This overweening concern for the “new member” even produces, as its absurd and logical conclusion, a kind of “identity” to which comrades cling past the point of all sense. Hence the amazing phenomenon of members who claim to be “new(er)” after two, three, or five years in the organization. One is reminded of the rich man who claims to be “middle class” because he knows somebody who is even richer than him. There is, in fact, a deeper homology: just as American culture valorizes the “middle class,” encouraging all and sundry to identify as such, so does the ISO culture’s valorization of the “new member” encourage comrades to call themselves such, even when it strains credulity. This is an inversion of what a classically Leninist organization is supposed to do: new recruits are supposed to aspire to the level of cadre–not vice-versa.

This, then, is a major subjective factor in the ISO’s generally low political level of operation (which is widely and openly admitted, although maybe now it will be denied). It’s why quite veteran members can declare that they find debates over political perspectives “abstract and alienating,” and mean it as a criticism of the debate rather than of themselves. It’s why when members approach cadre with anxieties about arguments in the organization, instead of resolving their unease through patient explanation of the background and the stakes, the cadre too often amplify it, insisting sub-politically that “these attacks must end!” and further obscuring the substance of the matter.

Invalid input

A rapidly-developing ISO “meme” has it that Facebook is bad and to be avoided, so the comrades will have to forgive me for quoting from a revealing Facebook post by Keegan O’Brien, a well-known ISO member in New York City (by way of Boston):

No organization is perfect, and I’ll be the first to admit that the ISO definitely has areas where it can improve. But, quitting an organization then making public statements mostly based on one sided arguments that don’t paint an honest description of the whole picture, or in some cases complete falsehoods, instead of staying invovled [sic], raising your ideas constructively, debating things out, and helping the group move forward, is no way of making things better.

Now who knows what FB “likes” mean, but for what it’s worth, the post was “liked” by 22 people, including four members of the National Committee. It’s therefore fair to take the statement as a reflection of an influential position within the group.

O’Brien’s comments prefaced a link to Todd Chretien’s (commendable) reply to Scott J, so one assumes that O’Brien is commenting on Scott, although I’m certain he intends his statement to apply also to the Socialist Outpost comrades, and I suppose to me (the facts of when and under what circumstances I resigned notwithstanding). Now if there’s a question of misrepresentation or falsehood, that can and should be addressed directly, as Chretien does in his reply to Scott–although I think Chretien often asserts as matters of “record” precisely what is being contended. (I intend to pursue this point in detail elsewhere.) As far as making “one-sided arguments” goes, I at least will confess to that; indeed, I have no idea how to make a “two-sided argument.”

But the thing that disturbs me most about O’Brien’s post is the clear implication that unless one is a member of the ISO (“staying involved”)–and moreover perceived as “constructive”–one’s criticism cannot be helpful to the organization.

In his talk on “Perspectives for the Left” at the Socialism 2013 conference, Ahmed Shawki spoke about the problem of “inputs” in a small organization: since you don’t have many members, you don’t have much political “data” against which to construct or test perspectives. The risks of exaggeration and “impressionism” are high. That’s all very true; so in general, one wants to increase the number and scope of “inputs” into the organization’s thinking.

And voila, the contradiction: how can you expand your “inputs” when you refuse the input of comrades who, although they may not be members anymore, still share much or all of your politics and clearly want you to succeed? Well, the obvious answer is to make the organization bigger. Which is exactly what you don’t know how to do. So you must, for now at least, expand your inputs in another way….

In lieu of a conclusion

I was in the ISO for a long time, and during that time I saw a lot of criticism directed at the group from outside. Sometimes it disrupted our “external” work badly; sometimes it had an effect on individual members. What is unprecedented, I believe, is the breadth and depth of internal questioning and–why not say it?–division that recent critiques have called forth. Some comrades believe that this is a consequence of “disorientation and demoralization,” that anything “dissident” is automatically cheered because SWP. With respect, comrades, that is shallow thinking. You feel that these critiques are particularly bad because they’ve shaken the membership; when in fact, they’ve shaken the membership because they’re particularly good.

The achievements of the ISO have to be recognized. The group, under basically its current leadership, made very substantial gains over the last thirty years, when every other group on the US radical left faltered or collapsed. The ISO is primarily (albeit not solely) responsible for the continuation of an explicit, accessible Marxist praxis in this country. That is good–perhaps as good as anyone had the right to ask.

But now the model is failing. Not because Scott J or Socialist Outpost or me or whoever says so–it is an immanent failure, a failure to progress by the model’s own definition of progress: first and foremost, the quantitative growth of the organization. But there are other signs too: the collapse of Socialist Worker sales; the loss of the campus bases (once the backbone of the organization); a series of local crises over the last five years, including (at least) the districts of the Bay Area, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, and Boston; and, over the same period of time, the loss of many senior cadre.

Marxists, as dialecticians, understand how methods that worked in one period become a fetter in the next; we also know that all serious change arises exclusively through crisis. I would be wary, above all, of anyone who denies that.

  1. Georgie
    October 20, 2013 at 1:33 pm

    First, let me say that I don’t know any of the details of your situation, but I hope it comes to pass that you are a member of the organization once again. The left is too small and marginal as it is and I hope all sides will interact in good faith to see to it that things work out. There are some useful points made here about the importance of cadre as an independent layer capable of assessing critically the organization and political practice of a socialist group. But I must disagree with the methodology employed here to critique the perspectives set forward by the SC. I don’t think its a valid criticism to say that, from where we’re standing today, that the perspectives about a “new period” were wrong. The earth-shattering economic events of 2007-08, combined with the politically explosive events of 2011, made for something qualitiatively different than what we’d seen for a long time. The world economy teetered on the verge of collapse for year after year. There was an ideological crisis of neoliberalism caused by the conjunction of “free market” narratives and massive bank bailouts. We saw a sharp uptick in struggle and political activity on a world scale in 2011. There was genuine space opened up to make arguments against the system, to discuss strategies for radical social change, and so forth. This hasn’t been the case for decades. Occupy was an important case of this phenomenon. Now, we know what happened after—defeats piled up, Occupy was crushed, the drive for austerity continued to pummel our side, revolutions abroad were defeated, SYRIZA lost the election, etc. etc. But it wasn’t fated to turn out that way. The post-crisis situation was really was a new period—qualitatively different from what preceded it economically and politically—but it hasn’t, in the end, meant that we were able to deal a serious blow to neoliberalism. Neoliberalism ended surviving a tumultuous, politically dynamic period marked by uncharacteristic ideological and practical challenges. That’s something we surely must come to terms with. But I totally reject this sense that the SC—or anyone, for that matter, who was genuinely excited by developments that really did warrant excitement—should “repent”, “admit their sins”, etc. etc. The optimistic perspective coming out the crisis was totally justified by the world situation at the time. It’s rather undialectical, I think, to retrospectively demand that we adjust our interpretation of the world situation a few years ago to fit our current expectations given how things are now. The situation has changed. Finally, the SC’s change of position about the nature of the current conjuncture doesn’t seem to me unexplained—wasn’t the claim precisely that the defeats suffered by movements in the last few years, combined with relentless austerity attacks, have put a damper on the radical energies ushered in by the crisis? As I say, I think the point of cadre is an important one, and I think we need to do much better in terms of cultivating a wider, more self-confident and active layer of cadre that can independently assess the perspectives of the organization (as Ahmed argued in his Socialism talk, as you point out, as many people in the group agree, etc.). But I simply don’t agree with your substantive views on the question of what the perspectives are or should have been.

    • October 21, 2013 at 7:48 am

      I think it’s correct to talk about a “new period” since the crisis–we’re clearly in a protracted global slump unlike the “ordinary” boom-and-bust cycle in an phase of general capitalist expansion. The problem is that the organization has been wrong about what this “new period” entailed, and now seems to be “rowing back” without explaining exactly what it’s saying. When one says, “neoliberalism has survived intact,” the suggestion is that we’re NOT in a “new period,” since neoliberalism was the phase of capitalism prevailing prior to 2008. Or were we in a “new period” for 4-5 years, and now we’re back in the old one? That would negate the claim that the crisis of 2008 was a deep structural crisis requiring a reorganization of world capital. Or by “neoliberalism” do we mean “neoliberal policy” only? As I say in the article, I think a reasonably accurate perspective can be derived from this.

      The problem is that there’s not any clarity about what’s being said, and comrades are left to interpret things on their own. And as I show, this isn’t the only time we’ve seemed to adjust our views without explaining ourselves. No one is talking about “repentance” or whatever–inevitably comrades will make mistakes–but there’s nothing “undialectical” about saying, “In light of what actually happened, here’s what was right and here’s what was wrong.” (Actually the SC’s 2010 org perspectives doc does exactly this–a model that should have been followed every year since.)

  2. Georgie
    October 21, 2013 at 12:55 pm

    You make it sound like there’s an obvious contradiction here, but in fact you’re simply equivocating on what “new period” means. Surely there could be more clarity about neoliberalism—that is not a subjective failing entirely, as most everyone on the left right now surely agrees that we need a more detailed analysis of it that we don’t yet have. But I simply don’t agree that the perspectives are contradictory.

    We’re in a new period politically and economically. Economically, as you point out, the slump has created a very different, more volatile (and more challenging) situation that what prevailed before the crash. Neoliberalism, understood as a legitimating ideology and ruling class praxis, has undergone a number of profound changes in response to the crisis and, for a time, was in severe crisis itself. In 2007-08 Bush was talking about Swedish-style bank nationalizations, Time was declaring us all “socialists” and there was serious anxiety in ruling class circles about whether the same old neoliberal policy medicine would do the trick. And this anxiety and ambivalence played itself out (and in some ways continues to play itself out in the Eurozone) with push for bank bailouts and stimulus followed by a re-embrace of austerity. Economically, we are in a different period than we were before the crash and this must inform our analysis of what to do next politically. Although it was damaged and subjected to challenges and false-starts, the neoliberal praxis of restructuring and austerity has re-emerged and continues to inform state policy and employer tactics. The terrain is not the same as before the crisis, but the employer offense has resumed with more confidence and steam than it can be said to have had in the aftermath of the bank crisis. We are both in a new period economically and—at the same time—we are seeing that neoliberalism as an ideology and praxis has survived and re-emerged for the time being. There is no contradiction here.

    Politically, as I argued above, we are clearly in a new period marked by increased struggle. Those struggles has largely resulted in defeats, of course, but it is undeniably true that the political terrain is far different as a result of the explosions of fightbacks that erupted in 2011. This must inform our analysis of the situation and our praxis. Politically, though there were inspiring fightbacks on a scale unseen for decades, we did not deal a serious body blow to neoliberalism. It remains the basic framework for discussions of politics and policy, though Occupy did an admirable job of forcing class politics into the discussion. The neoliberal edifice—ideologically speaking—is not without cracks and fissures, however. The strategies Obama had to pursue to secure re-election reflect the post-Occupy consciousness of the populace in which taxing the rich and protecting living standards are priorities. Of course, in practice Obama is a thorough-going neoliberal, but his rhetorical concessions are indicative of a change that occured as a result of struggles produced by a world in economic crisis.

    We are indeed in a new period—politically and economically—and this is compatible with the (depressing) fact that the ruling class has largely won all of the battles thus far, with small exceptions. This is compatible with the fact that the basic ideas at the top of society about how to secure the conditions for accumulation remain neoliberal ideas. The terrain has changed, and with it our chances of making a difference. But we have not yet acquired the power or capacity to force that to change, even though the terrain now is in many ways different and more favorable than before the crisis. Again, I see no contradiction. If you want more detail and specificity—join the club and be part of forging a collective perspective here. This is not an easy task and we can only do it well if we work together patiently and assess critically and collectively. I agree with your arguments about the need for an independent layer of cadre to make this happen. But I also think we need to be careful not to attack the SC when we might be better off attacking the problems thrown up by the period and the difficulty of knowing what our next step should be—let alone what to say about the nature of the period itself in all its material richness…

    • October 21, 2013 at 1:40 pm

      You make it sound like there’s an obvious contradiction here, but in fact you’re simply equivocating on what “new period” means.

      Well, at this point I have no idea what it’s supposed to mean; or more precisely, I don’t know what the ISO leadership means when they say it. (I have my own ideas about it, which seem actually not very far from yours.)

      We are both in a new period economically and—at the same time—we are seeing that neoliberalism as an ideology and praxis has survived and re-emerged for the time being. There is no contradiction here.

      Yeah, I think that’s a reasonable account of what’s happened (although I would take issue with the suggestion that bailouts and austerity are contradictory). But here you’re reading a bunch of things into the leadership perspective that aren’t necessarily present. Even the idea that they’ve changed their position–although I think it’s manifestly true–isn’t explicitly admitted anywhere. (I understand that on the last National Branch Council call, Alan M characterized the current perspectives as “what we’ve been saying for years really.”)

      If you want more detail and specificity—join the club and be part of forging a collective perspective here.


      But I also think we need to be careful not to attack the SC when we might be better off attacking the problems thrown up by the period and the difficulty of knowing what our next step should be—let alone what to say about the nature of the period itself in all its material richness…

      Well, if the SC feels “attacked” by what I’ve written, I advise them to acquire thicker hides.

  1. October 19, 2013 at 4:44 pm
  2. October 31, 2013 at 10:21 am
  3. February 18, 2014 at 4:50 am
  4. March 1, 2014 at 3:01 pm
  5. April 1, 2014 at 10:13 am

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