On Friday, March 29, I joined 70% of 477 ISO members who voted to develop a process to dissolve the organization or do so immediately. This represents about two-thirds of the overall membership (taking into account a bruising last few months), including dozens who had very recently resigned but were permitted to vote. I offered some general ideas about the group’s crisis in The ISO has become unstuck in time, and now that the voting is over, I want to offer some more specific explanations over the course of a few essays, a requiem for the ISO. Then I’m going to move on myself.
A requiem is an “act or token of remembrance” and, for all the mistakes we made, mine will be in the key of C major, the key in which a young Beethoven wrote his first symphony. I’m no expert, but to my ear, Beethoven’s first demonstrated his prodigious talent and immersion in that contemporary musical world, but his first symphony remained in form an homage to Hadyn and Mozart, his past and present. Beethoven didn’t break the mold until his the Third Symphony. Winding the clock forward, Bob Dylan once said that “I find C major to be the key of strength, but also the key of regret. E major is the key of confidence. A-flat is the key of renunciation.” (A good friend of mine, J.O. once pointed out that all my musical reference points stopped in 1991, well, these are even worse.)
Taken together, I think Beethoven and Dylan neatly bookend my Bay Area-centric appreciation of the ISO and my participation in it. That is, like the young Beethoven, we succeeded in doing the best we could with the traditions bequeathed to us based in our contemporary reality; however, the old form set strict limits. Beethoven as Beethoven superseded those limits, the ISO as the ISO could not. So, following Dylan, I’ll write in C major about what I know to be some of the ISO’s strength in this essay, although regrets are close at hand. As for E-major? I am hopeful for the coming year, but not so foolish as to be (over) confident. And while I understand that some comrades may choose to do so, I do not believe the ISO’s requiem should be composed in A-flat.
Socialism from below
The ISO’s foundational concept is/was what we call socialism from below, or as Marx and Engels put it in the Communist Manifesto, “the self-conscious, independent movement of the immense majority in the interest of the immense majority.” This starting point grounds our hostility towards any elite force that claims to speak on behalf of ordinary working-class people, be it the Democratic Party, unaccountable trade union or self-appointed non-profit leaders, or bureaucratic so-called Communist states or military forces. It also explains our optimism about the the potential for revolutionary change. Whether or not this optimism is misplaced can be debated, but for what it’s worth, I believe it is an accurate translation of what Marx and Engels themselves believed. Our job always was, and continues to be, to help popularize these ideas. We never had a copyright over them and we hope thousands of new socialists put them to their own use.
Study, study, study
In an recent contribution to DSA’s Socialist Forum, Ben Tarnoff encourages socialists to bone up on Nicolas Poulanztas’ writings on the state and strategy. I disagree with aspects of it, but it’s an excellent essay in which he links to an article by Liza Featherstone, Doug Henwood, and Christian Parenti diagnosing the scourge of anti-intellectualism that has traditionally afflicted the U.S. left. Anyone who has ever drifted into the ISO’s orbit can tell you we did better than most in avoiding this malady. Study, reading, writing, and practical training were, in my view, always an ISO strong suit. Study groups were a mainstay of our activity — even to a fault. And although our canon needed refreshing when it came to feminism, queer theory, and party form, it was not as stale as some might suppose.
Of course, we covered the classics and the ABCs of Marxism, but we also were proud to support and put to use Haymarket Books’ incredible catalogue of contributions on socialist history, Palestine, anti-fascism, Black Liberation, and feminism, not to mention some fascinating, if esoteric titles. Paradoxically, the ISO’s emphasis on education and innovative investigation led many of us to challenge our own most sectarian assumptions and question aspects of our internal forms, while undermining habits of deference. By no means ideal, I am proud that we came as far as we did and, eventually, as a rough collective, recognized the boundaries that needed to be crossed.
Into the streets
Many people believe the ISO was five or ten times bigger than we ever were because our members took part in so many struggles. Flip through the pages of Socialist Worker over the years and you will find hundreds of action reports, ranging from clinic defense, to strike support, to police brutality cases, to immigrant defense, to anti-fascism, to Palestine solidarity, and more. We were never armchair Marxists, although we were often criticized for “movement hoping.” There’s a kernel of truth to the charge. Especially in the 1990s, when we explicitly argued that recruiting to the ISO was our key task (more on this in future essays), but the truth is that, as the years went by, ISO members spent years, and even decades, building sustained, grassroots efforts. Sometimes these struggles were large, sometimes they were small, they were usually defeated, but once in a while we won a round. In an era marked by retreat, the ISO played a leading, or at least, honorable role. No one can convince me otherwise.
After 9/11, we stood against the wave of patriotism that washed over many progressive forces and we spoke out and organized when they fell silent, or tempered their views, or worse, lined up behind pro-war Democrat and Islamaphobe John “reporting for duty” Kerry in 2004. Along with many others, the ISO spent the better part of a decade building every aspect of anti-war activity we could, from initiating marches of thousands against the invasion of Afghanistan, to helping coordinate marches of hundreds of thousands against the invasion of Iraq. We built a Campus Anti-War Network (CAN) that, at its height, coordinated activity between dozens of schools. We worked closely with Iraq Veterans Against the War and spearheaded a city-wide College Not Combat referendum against military recruiters in San Francisco high schools. The anti-war movement was not strong enough to stop the invasion, or end the occupation, but it was not for lack of trying.
Against police brutality
Los Angeles exploded into rebellion in 1992 a year after I joined the ISO. I quickly learned that opposing racist police brutality and murder constituted an on-going and consistent focus of socialist work, it even got me suspended from school. Just focusing on the Bay Area, the ISO reached out directly to support families when police killed their loved ones from Mark Garcia to Idress Stelley to Kevin Clark to Alex Nieto in San Francisco to José Luis Buenrostro-Gonzalez to Oscar Grant to Alan Blueford in Oakland, just to name a few. We organized for justice and demanded the jailing of killer cops and, I believe, played a small role in making police terrorism visible in anticipation of the Black Lives Matter’s birth in 2014.
Against the death penalty
On June 26, 1995, over 300 people, including many of us, were arrested in San Francisco during a march to defend Mumia Abu-Jamal. That upsurge was part of what led the ISO to launch the Campaign to End the Death Penalty later that year. Over the next fifteen years, the CEDP led and supported dozens of fights to expose racism and class prejudice at the heart of the state execution system. Again, just speaking about the Bay Area, we built relationships with inmates and their families and friends on the outside and helped organize many protests and vigils at San Quentin’s gates. The two most prominent cases that we, along with many other opponents of capital punishment, devoted years to were the failed attempt to stop the murder of Stan Tookie Williams and the successful effort to save Kevin Cooper, a case which has recently brought the death penalty to a halt in California.
Onto the picket lines
The 1980s, 90s, 00s, and up until last spring were a pretty rough time to base your worldview on workers’ power at the point of production and reproduction. Nonetheless, the ISO did our bit to support every strike we could and even had a hand in organizing a couple. The 1997 UPS strike introduced a whole generation of us to picket lines and Teamsters and the Global Justice Movement and the 2000 Nader campaign opened up relations between progressive unions and the left. It was pretty slim pickings after that, but Verizon workers, higher ed employees, and nurses and union reformers kept the flame alive. And Chicago, Portland, OR and Seattle teachers strikes between 2012 and 2015 set the state for the Red State Rebellion broke out in 2018 and spilled over into the Blue States with UTLA’s strike last fall.
All this work confirmed our core ideas: ordinary working-class people can speak and fight for ourselves, and we need a political instrument, be it a mass movement or a party, to coordinate and amplify our struggles if we are ever going to win. If you want to know what the ISO was fighting for all these years, it’s a world run by West Virginia teachers like Emily Comer and parents and families like Adam and Jeralynn Blueford whose son Alan was murdered by Oakland police. On balance, I am convinced we moved the needle in the right direction and that must be the starting point for a critical review. I voted to dissolve the ISO in order to preserve the best of what we accomplished.
In the next few essays, I’ll take up the pitfalls of some of this work in terms of voluntarism and organizational blindspots as well as suggest some paths to explore for the hundreds of ISO members who are now considering where we go next.