Occupy and the ISO

Editor’s note: the following piece was written in January 2014, in the midst of the factional fight inside the International Socialist Organization (ISO), to which the members of the RISocialism.org editorial collective belonged at the time. This piece was meant as a contribution to the work of the ISO Renewal Faction, though it was not published during the period of the faction fight. The faction was expelled from the ISO in February 2014; the documents of that struggle, however, are still available on externalbulletin.org. Though the internal organizational suggestions are now obsolete, we nonetheless believe that the points raised are still salient, and thus have decided to publish this piece.

Occupy was a movement based upon the spontaneity of the masses that lasted a few months nationally in the fall of 2011. Then, state repression ended the movement in most locales. This experience provided many lessons for the left, comrades and our organization. Many (though not all) comrades believe Occupy was a movement that was worth participating in. Some comrades, in bulletins and on Socialist Worker, noted their questions as to whether this was going to be a sustainable movement and was worth the involvement of the ISO. A thorough assessment of “Life After Occupy” was never developed within the organization.

Occupy was a movement based outside of the workplace. This is the case for most of the movements the organization is involved in. The strike by the Chicago Teachers Union is a notable example of great workplace organizing. The ISO has been involved in movements: anti-war, environmental, LGBT, anti-racist work for decades. All of this work has been outside of the workplace. As Marxists, we believe the point of production is where change can be made.  So as Marxists what does it mean to be primarily involved in movements that are based outside of the workplace? A strategy for the organization on how to correctly relate to these movements, rather than to be “movement ambulance chasing”, is something that is needed within our organizational perspectives.

The question of assessment (or lack thereof) is of great importance for our involvement in movements such as Occupy. For example, it would have helped for the organization to receive a Minority Report from members of the Steering Committee (SC) or National Committee (NC) who had differing views on our strategy within Occupy. Then members would have had a more fully developed picture of our involvement in the Occupy. Assessment in a more generalized fashion to membership, such as more politically utilizing ISO Notes during the year, would assist with this. Unfortunately, I believe many leading comrades simply default to the “We can’t predict the future” line as an excuse for having inadequate Perspectives for the organization to work from. Of course no one expects comrades to predict the future, but this isn’t an out for the organization to not correctly develop a set of working Perspectives.

A criticism I have of the ISO and how it relates to movements is how the leadership faction centralizes too much what movement/work the local branch should focus its involvement, rather than for allowing for the autonomy of the local branch to decide this. For the 8 years I have been a member of the ISO, I have seen how the SC, and through proxy its Regional Organizers, dictates too much to branches what the next step should be. Rather than making a collaborative assessment of whether it makes sense to relate to a particular movement at a certain locale, too often it is coerced upon the local branch.

For example locally here in Providence, did it make sense to completely change gears and have the whole branch focus on anti-racist organizing when the branch is not rooted in the black community? Maybe it would have made more sense to keep the focus on Environmental and teacher  work and relate to actions around Trayvon Martin and the March on Washington (MOW). Of course it made sense to relate to the March on Washington. Of course it was politically correct to join in and help organize possible actions around Trayvon Martin. No one in the Renewal Faction said it didn’t make sense to be involved in this. The majority of the Renewal Faction was actually at the March of Washington. Can this be said of the rest of the ISO? This should have been the case if the organization as a whole was won to the Perspective that the March on Washington would be the event to mobilize for in July and August.

Unfortunately, an inadequate assessment of the MOW has been put forward: blaming the membership for not being actively engaged at the rally itself – not selling enough papers, etc. This was the assessment put forward by Jen R. at a recent Pre-Convention discussion. Why were members not more actively engaged at the March? I believe this is because the “basic” routines (such as selling Socialist Worker) are no longer part of our routines as an organization on the whole. Basic routines should be part of an ongoing process for all comrades, rather than something that the organization reverts to after struggle subsides. The Renewal Faction had a critique of the MOW but did not abstain from participation in the event. Others in the organization mouthed words that comrades should participate in this event but did not attend it. So the Renewal Faction should not be opportunistically criticized for their political critique of the MOW.

Occupy was an exciting time for many people and to a large degree politically it was what you made of it. I personally look back fondly at the Occupation in the People’s Park in Providence and have many pleasant memories while occupying in my tent during the months of October, November and December.

One criticism of Occupy was that it didn’t have demands. This is generally true, but locally in Providence we were able to win demands (not always) for certain actions or for certain working groups. This required a great deal of effort and also had to do with the disproportionate influence that the Providence ISO had on the local Occupy, in comparison to other cities.

A great aspect of Occupy was that comrades were able to express their views on actions/topics and were able to argue for how to proceed in an open forum that required comrades to influence other people in Occupy. This is generally the case in any movement that the ISO is involved in. But, what made OP even more exciting was that, for better or for worse, there was a lack of democratic centralism in our work at Occupy. Due to the chaotic and spontaneous aspect of Occupy, this was to be expected. Comrades were openly disagreeing with other comrades on how to proceed in the General Assemblies. These disagreements were kept political and not made personal. Allies and new activists around Occupy were able to see the ISO in action in a forum where comrades were not simply all taking the same prearranged political line. This helped create an even healthier branch culture! One thing that always stuck with me from one of our newer comrades was that the ISO was seen differently because of how it related to Occupy in Providence. Of course we still sold many Socialist Workers and Haymarket literature at the People’s Park. But, we didn’t try and force our political ideas and control the movement, but rather took responsibility for initiating actions and helped make Occupy Providence as political as possible.

This experience within Occupy differs from my experience as a Renewal Faction member. This can be seen in how the ISO argues politically – how the leadership faction has argued against the Renewal Faction is an example of this. Political disagreements devolve into personal attacks and/or straw man arguments. This can be seen in the criticism of a Renewal Faction member being called racist and sexist on Facebook. It can also be seen when the leadership faction opportunistically uses a comrade who spoke to law enforcement about political activities to get back at a comrade who simply spoke the truth on Facebook!

A constant criticism of Occupy put forth by leading members of the ISO that I disagree with is the idea that, “Anarchists are the ISO’s enemy! Anarchists derailed the Occupy movement!” In Providence many anarchists and others left the movement because of the sexism and racism that existed within Occupy. Overall, I think the ISO needs to reevaluate how it relates to the left in general. I also think the ISO needs to not be sectarian when working with other socialist groups (such as not endorsing Socialist Alternative’s candidates in 2012 and 2013). Collaborating with the Left needs to be done in practice, not simply stated at a Perspectives discussion at Socialism, or by allowing “diverse groups” to publish for CERSC, or by finally endorsing a campaign only when it becomes too embarrassing not to. This less sectarian attitude toward anarchists and other socialist groups needs to be reached in tandem with a more thorough and well organized critique of Democrats and liberals. Too often the facade of the United Front limits the ISO’s critique of the Democrats or other liberal organizations.

The ISO’s limited critique of the Democrats leads to an ill-conceived view of consciousness within the working class. The organization focuses too much on polls to explain how people’s views are, rather than focusing on how consciousness is truly developed, through struggle. This formulation was put forward in Ben S.’s excellent bulletin on the topic. This focus on polls helps partly explain why the ISO had the wrong formulation on what an Obama Presidency meant for the left.

The ISO has had a growth perspective for as long as I was in the ISO. During the great resistance of 2011 around the world, the ISO did grow. The Providence branch for example was able to increase its membership. But the real issue around the growth perspective is that the ISO has not retained many of these members that joined during or after Occupy. Retention of members in the ISO is an issue that needs more analysis. The ISO is able to get many people to join the organization when movements begin. But once the enthusiasm from the movement subsides, many of these new comrades drift away from the organization. I do not believe the reason for this lack of retention has been adequately explained to the membership. In order for the ISO to better relate to the next Occupy, the organization needs Perspectives that members can base their work from.

Chris Murphy

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