State murder, wars, and strikes: What do you do when you can’t do much?

“All theory, dear friend, is gray, but the golden tree of life springs ever green.” — Goethe

What do you do when you can’t do much? And how do you understand what you can do?

Last time, I discussed the overall pressures on the ISO of subsitutionism and voluntarism during a whole period of working-class defeat. An explicit recognition of these dangers at the levels of history and theory did not safeguard us from mistakes in practice. This failing was not simply intellectual. Life provided us with a series of challenges that — combined with our inexperience, isolation from the class, and estrangement from too much of the international left — led us to read events in such a way as to postpone any such rethink for long periods of time.

Put simply, over the course of 25 years, the ISO grew from the smallest group on the far left to the largest, developed sophisticated movement work, and forged (eventually) important relationships within labor, social movements, the academy, and broad left circles, as well as extending our international connections. Of course, all of this work can be subjected to criticism on the hows, whys, whos, and whens, but contrary to some opinions, it was not all just a cover for recruitment; in fact, much of our most determined work led to little or no recruitment in any immediate sense but we kept it because we saw it as a long-term contribution to building a stronger left in general.

At the same time, the more-or-less successful nature of our work on various fronts — especially in an overall context of left fragmentation — tended to obscure the necessity of a radical reconceptualization of our theory of organization. In order to understand the dissolution of the ISO, we must understand both sides of the coin.

Here are a few examples.

Campaign to End the Death Penalty

If Tony Cliff warned us of the problem of leaders developing plans in the absence of democratic debate, then it’s also true that sometimes leaders come up with a good idea and it leads to inspiring work. Such was the case with the Campaign to End the Death Penalty. And the CEDP’s success helps explain why ISO leaders maintained a good reputation for long periods of time.

In the wake of the Rodney King Rebellion in 1992, police killings regularly provoked community protests and ISO branches went directly to meet families and friends to help organize protests and press conferences. We have continued to do this work over the course of decades. In 1995, the ISO Steering Committee decided that Clinton’s racist “Effective Death Penalty Act” meant we should pick a specific fight against what would obviously be a spike in executions by launching the CEDP. The SC was right to do so and ISO members around the country spent the 20 years building protests, visiting inmates, establishing long-term relationships with prisoners’ friends and families, constructing alliances between unions, churches, student groups, and anti-death penalty organizations. I challenge anyone to find an ISO member who would claim that the CEDP single-handedly turned the tide, but if you want to know why we were right to dedicate ourselves to this work, look at this chart:


Civil libertarians, anti-death penalty groups, churches, progressive lawyers, law students, and even some liberal politicians (most especially Jesse Jackson, Jr.) contributed heroically to this work, but what made the CEDP special was a commitment to death row prisoners and their families speaking for themselves. We organized dozens of “Live From Death Row” forums and mass meetings and comrades from that period will remember the constant beeps and prison authorities’ interruptions during presentations from inmates. Here’s a recent interview with California death row inmate Kevin Cooper from Better Off Red that captures the CEDP’s spirit. I have no doubt that Cooper is alive today, in part, because of the CEDP’s efforts. In turn, his unwavering resolve has choked California’s state murder system and ground it to a halt.

Although it had its ups and downs, this work continued for 2 decades: from winning the Illinois moratorium in 1999, to losing the fight to save Stan Tookie Williams in 2005, to Troy Davis’ execution in 2011 that helped shape Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, to last month’s California moratorium. In the end, the CEPD stands out as an embodiment of the ISO’s commitment to anti-racism, not only in form, but in content.

Of course, it was not without its flaws. The CEPD originally intended to form local chapters of independent activists. There were times when these chapters functioned democratically, but it was always difficult to sustain them and ISO members often substituted themselves for broader membership. And as the work went on year after year, our tendency to be pushed from one priority to another, set in motion a constant struggle over resources and focus, meaning that a relatively small handful of comrades spread out across the country held the CEDP together through thick and thin. By the time Black Lives Matter emerged in 2014, the CEDP was coming to an end.

In retrospect, we ought to have organized a more systematic assessment of that work and used the decades of positive relations with families and inmates to play a bigger role in the post-Ferguson movement. We did transfer some of our knowledge and experience from the CEDP into the movements for Oscar Grant and Alan Blueford in the Bay and elsewhere, but we could have done more. Why didn’t we?

I’ll leave it to others for a fuller analysis, but I believe it was one part exhaustion (twenty years is a long time), one part tendency to under appreciate the CEDP’s real impact and legacy, and one part misjudging the potential continuity between the pre and post-Ferguson movement. Fortunately, the human beings who forged these relationships are not lost and they will prove important for the future.

Campus Anti-War Network

ISO members helped launch the Campus Anti-war Network in the run up to Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. CAN coordinated dozens of campus chapters and, for a time, really did constitute a democratic and activist component of the anti-war movement. However, after a spike of activity in 2005, the anti-war movement went into decline and never recovered.

In this instance, regional and local ISO branches developed the CAN perspective. Of course, the SC supported it and it was shaped by previous efforts, but it was not, as with the CEDP, devised by the national leadership. Thus, we would not expect that CAN would instill substitutionism or a deference to the national organization as an unintended consequence as in the case of the CEDP. However, there is a sense in which this happened anyway, not primarily because of our internal habits, but because of objective reality. In short, although the anti-war movement mobilized hundreds of thousands, its organizational base was always extremely narrow. This was disorienting. With rare exceptions, organizational meetings of 50 or 75 people would put into motion days of protest that attracted tens, or even hundreds, of thousands. On the campuses, initial anti-war committees of hundreds would soon dwindle in a linear fashion down to a couple dozen or fewer, often with half of those being ISO members.

I vividly remember standing in front of San Francisco City Hall in the fall of 2005 in a crowd of 50,000 but feeling that as soon as the march was over, the organizers would remain isolated. I asked an former U.S.-SWP comrade from the 1960s what we were doing wrong. I’ll never forget his reply: “You’re not doing anything wrong, there’s just no anti-war movement.” I repeat, this was in the middle of 50,000 people. But his point was that in the 1960s, escalating and interrelated movements drove tens of thousands of young people to join and build movement committees and radical organizations. In contrast, no matter what we did, protests against the invasion of Iraq did not generate organizational forms such as SDS.

I knew he was right, but rather than trying to radically rethink our approach, we scraped to keep CAN together for the next two or three years. Needless to say, this produced a thread of “perspective” arguments in which the SC and the ISO’s organizers (I was an organizer but not on the SC until 2014) pushed and prodded student ISO members to “try harder” like the old workhorse Boxer in Animal Farm. Again, despite good work, habits of voluntarism took root. The “we” of the anti-war movement, too often felt like the “we” of the ISO.

Teachers strikes and unions

By the Great Recession, a talented group of ISO members had worked as teachers for a decade in LA, the Bay, Chicago, New York, Seattle, Portland and elsewhere. The most important expression of this work centered in Chicago where comrades helped build the Caucus of Radical Educators (CORE) in the Chicago Teachers Union, eventually winning important rank-and-file and leadership positions. As with all other work, ISO members are quick to downplay their own role, but there’s an argument to be made for the critical contribution teacher comrades made to the 2012 Chicago teachers strike. And, it should be obvious that 2012 helped set the terms for the Red and Blue State Rebellions of 2018 and 2019.

For all that, the ISO’s teacher work incubated some of the same tendencies described above. The worst was our SC’s tendency to view themselves as the experts on labor work, even though hardly any of them had any concrete experience. Thus, as ISO teachers racked up a wealth of experience and developed a keen sense of strategy and tactics, not to mention sterling reputations among co-workers, the SC intervened to impose (or at least push very hard) for teachers to carry out tactics with which they did not always agree.

This is not to say that there cannot be value in collaboration and discussion between socialists embedded in a given workplace and those outside it, but the idea that the SC could (or should) be weighing in so heavily on tactics (whether or not to run for office, contract votes, balance of forces, characterizations of other currents and leaders, etc.) made little sense. And when ISO teachers tried to take responsibility for coordinating national communication between themselves, they were disrupted by national leaders for fear of the teachers “being pulled to the right.”

Thankfully, despite all this, ISO teachers continued to do excellent work and when 2018’s strikes exploded, our teachers (and the ISO’s membership in general) did all that it could to build solidarity and connections, whether or not they were personally on strike themselves. And, to their credit, some members of the SC rethought their previous positions.

Trapped by a one-sided method

I’m trying to show that these tendencies are not reducible to individuals but were inherent in the method we chose to follow. And I include myself as a prime example. I like to think that I was as flexible as possible within this schema, but I will let other comrades judge. By 2016 I began to think we needed something radically different; however, between 1991 and 2015 (accounting for the “in the ballpark” or “bandwidth” parameters), I couldn’t see another organizational alternative.

On a local Bay Area level, I reproduced much of this voluntarism and sustitionism. For instance, as an organizer, I would often sit and think up initiatives, convince myself of the best one, and then try to go campaign for the rest of the district to put it into practice. There’s nothing wrong with coming up ideas, but relying too heavily on one person, or a small local leadership team, to plan everything out put other comrades at a disadvantage when it came to making alternative proposals — and this habit constitutes one of the gendered and racialized patterns that created real problems.

In the Bay, we usually did take proposals to the district for votes, and we often had sustained debates that led to alternative plans or significant amendments. And there were many times when comrades not on elected bodies initiated proposals that were put into practice. But the logic of the situation created habits.

Case in point, the College Not Combat referendum in San Francisco was, I still believe, an excellent idea and we won the vote, putting some pressure on military recruiters to retreat from high schools in 2005 and 2006. However, in order to collect the 20,000 signatures we needed in six weeks, ISO members (in alliance with lots of other activists) worked themselves to the bone for what was, in the end, an effort that marked the decline of the anti-war movement.

As we lived through it, these dynamics were difficult to understand. Some comrades pointed out aspects of the problems along the way, but they also struggled to provide an alternative. And in the absence of clear alternative, it’s hard to give up something that’s working better than anything else appears to be. Regardless, I/we clearly erred in not taking the time to more deeply ponder some of these critiques whether or not they led immediately to alternative methods.

Organizational v. political influence

We also mistook a certain sort of mirage for the real thing over and over. Because we were better organized than many other forces, at least in some places, we could often throw together an organizational framework for protest or movement impulses, even if the people who flowed into that framework remained very distant from revolutionary socialism. For instance, the organizing meetings for the 200,000-strong San Francisco march for a Day Without An Immigrant on May 1, 2006 took place in the ISO’s offices. We were proud (and we were right) to offer our organization in the cause of immigrant rights, but we did not become a political vehicle for any part of the movement. If you’ve ever lived through something like that, believe me, it’s hard to get your head around.

Revolutionaries must always push boundaries and test the waters, but keeping our foot on the accelerator for decades without rest was not without its costs.

Over the last few years, routinism set it and that exacerbated everything. When faced with Trump’s election, the rise of DSA, and the teachers strikes, we should have devolved resources and responsibility to the locals and immediately opened discussions among the entire left about new formations, joint work, and collaboration. To our credit, we took significant steps in that direction: helping launch Jacobin reading groups in 2015, developing friendly relations with DSA even before Bernie, lots of local united front work, supporting broader participation in the annual Socialism Conference, etc. However, the “small party” model constrained it all and there was a tendency — especially concentrated in the old leadership, but not exclusively so — to dismiss new developments and new organizations. That’s all natural enough coming out of a long, dull period, but when confronted with mass rise of DSA, we should have dared to rethink, instead, we tinkered.

Perhaps a radical rethink in 2016-17 would have torn us apart, I’m pretty sure it would have. But we gained nothing by waiting.

All of this means that we have to rebalance our conception of the relationship between revolutionary organizations or parties and working-class struggle. We always remained faithful at the theoretical level to Marx’s core definition of socialism as the self-emancipation of the working class, not the “party-emancipation” of the working class. Yet in practice, history wore us down and we made concession after concession, becoming habituated to the solidity of the organization over solidarity with new developments. In the end, these concessions contributed mightily to tearing us apart. And now, armed with the knowledge of this danger, it is what should guide us to participate in something very different in the coming period.