I am the divorced mother of a millennial. Today I speculated that the last 30 years of my life have been misspent on delusion. Wasted on the belief that raising my son to be a good, decent, kind…
I was an active member for a decade, “cadre” perhaps, though never in leadership, and a paper member for a few more years. These are some reflections on that time — both personal & political, unavoidably intertwined here. (Many of the ideas here are owed to other comrades with whom I’ve spoken over the last few weeks; anything wrongheaded is, of course, all mine.)
I dropped out of most political activity, including the ISO, for personal reasons about 3–4 years ago, and returned only briefly after Trump was elected. Having space let two main issues with the ISO crystallize:
First, the lack of democratic culture. Plenty has been written about this recently and I agree with most of it. I didn’t experience anything that rose to the level of abuse in the ISO, but I both saw and felt the practice of quietly icing out people who expressed even supposedly in-bounds dissent, which was seen as an indication of “not being won to the perspective”, being “pulled by identity politics”, etc. While I was still committed to the organization, I spoke up a few times, but after deciding I’d had enough, I spoke about problems of democracy only to a handful of people. I was quiet inside the organization because I didn’t think I had much of a chance of being heard, and quiet outside it because I still saw the group as enough of a net positive force that I didn’t want to trash it. I very much regret this silence.
Second, doubts about the theory of revolution. This is a bit different from what most folks have been talking about in the group’s final crisis. As the passing of the movement of the squares/Arab Spring/Occupy moment became undeniable around 2014 or so, I began to lose hope. Looking back on “world-historic” revolutionary upsurges over the past century and a half, it seemed to me that the depth of the challenge to capitalism — in terms of classic dual power and even temporarily, locally-successful social revolutions — peaked in the early 20th century, and that the crest of the wave in 2011 was the weakest yet. And I began to fear that the pattern was better explained by a theory that saw the revolutionary anti-capitalism of masses of workers as a transient phenomenon of developing industrial capitalism, and that the rule of capital no longer faced a true challenger. These doubts I have discussed with many people, but have not resolved. But as a silver lining, this does seem like a moment to reconsider old assumptions about what a revolution has to look like.
(Aside: it’s interesting, in retrospect, that I was bolder in questioning the possibility of socialism than in questioning the democracy of our organization. I think the two were more or less equally taboo and the difference was that despair felt less likely than critique to produce hostility, but that still says nothing good about the culture.)
In any case, I certainly didn’t understand the full scope of the problems. However little I trusted the national leadership, I didn’t have any idea how far their practice with respect to sexual assault diverged from their supposed principles. I probably should have: in the society in which we live, the ways in which power concentrated in the hands of an unaccountable clique will be abused, given enough time, are fairly predictable.
In reconsidering my attachment to the ISO’s traditional politics, the other tradition (or set of traditions) to which I’ve given the most thought is left communism. (I know a bit about American Maoism as well, but am unable to take it seriously, sorry-not-sorry.)
I have yet, though, to find a convincing positive alternative here. Visions for the future tend to be quite handwavy and even more “romantic” than the nostalgic attachment of many Leninists to 1917.
There’s a sense in which ultralefts proved that one could survive the long period of reaction starting in the last 1970s without a tightly-sealed organization as a vehicle. After all, their politics became dominant in the left wing of Occupy — anti-hierarchical, anti-party, celebrating new categories of subaltern, new forms of struggle, and new utopian visions. But the fate of the Occupy movement wasn’t exactly a vindication! Not just short-term defeat, but the movement of what often seems like the bulk of the wavering, politically immature elements to the fascist right (via the stepping stone of racist/conspiratorial Ron Paul libertarianism).
Carrots & sticks
In the last few weeks, many, many stories about unpleasant, bullying behavior within the ISO have become public. There’s no question that the organization frequently used social coercion, rather than successful persuasion, to keep its members in line.
I wonder, though, whether it was unusually bad. This could sound like an excuse, but it’s not meant to be. The ISO claimed to be better, and needed to be better in order to play the role it wanted to play, and it wasn’t better. Now it’s dead regardless, so I think it’s worth asking how many of its less pleasant aspects were unique pathologies, how many were common, and how many were perhaps even necessary (in some form, for projects with a certain size and ambition).
Capitalist businesses, of course, maintain cohesion via some mixture of persuasion and coercion. Companies increasingly seem to invest in getting their workforce to believe in a common mission, but their discipline is always fundamentally backed by the threat of throwing you out on the street.
It is, of course, possible that I’m too cynical and my expectations are just poisoned by my experience in the ISO. There’s also a particular sort of arrogance that can show up as something like, “if I/we failed, the task must be impossible!” Certainly I have to admit that there’s a specific pattern in which people, aware of the long history of failed Marxist sects, nevertheless build a new one under the belief that they’ve got it figured out this time, only to conclude as it collapses that the sect form (or Marxism as such) is always doomed. Few of these collapses have any really new elements or provides any really new information compared to any of those previous, but they can strike participants as revelatory nevertheless.
That said, I have my own experience in the left outside the ISO as well. In my (limited!) experience as an activist and organizer, I’ve been yelled at, denounced, mocked, subjected to hostile amateur psychoanalysis and passive-aggressive social media sneers, even deliberately shoved and grabbed at protests, all by people theoretically on the same side as me; only a few of the mildest incidents came from fellow members of the ISO. The ISO is one of the friendlier spaces I’ve had to raise a disagreement. That’s certainly not everyone’s experience, but I can’t discount it completely.
I don’t mean to rule out the possibility of doing meaningfully better. But it doesn’t seem to me that the path to doing so is obvious or well-trodden.
I suppose there is one element of excuse there, in that I’ve seen an element of self- and mutual-flagellation as the ISO dissolves which seems sometimes disproportionate. Flipping from idealization to demonization in the course of a few weeks is understandable for people experiencing what’s effectively a traumatic breakup, but that doesn’t mean it’s a great way to produce an accurate assessment. And the ISO, of course, did nothing positive to train its members in thinking about interpersonal responsibility and accountability in nuanced ways.
Being kind is generally good and something I personally have too often undervalued, but less-than-kind confrontation isn’t automatically abuse nor something that requires a restorative justice process, even if you later realize you were in the wrong on the issue. And after all, we’re only human; please give yourselves a break sometimes, comrades!
That said, plenty of apologies are owed, and plenty of lost trust is deserved, well beyond the core of the old steering committee. (And if you think I owe you, or somebody else, an apology, I would like to know, if you’re a reader who knows who I am and are comfortable reaching out to me; even though I don’t remember doing anything that I understood or yet understand as having caused someone meaningful harm, I know my memory is bad and biased and I’m willing to listen.)
What’s worth keeping
Open debate? Embraced in theory, but very inconsistently in practice, and frequently centered on bad-faith readings of straw-opponents. Development of every member into a leader? Again, a theoretical commitment but not a reality. I’ve heard people say that “the politics” were good while “the organization” wasn’t, but separating the two doesn’t seem simple.
It doesn’t help that, while I try to figure out what’s worth carrying forward into any future revolutionary organization, I’m not completely sure that I either still identify as a revolutionary or believe that long-lived organizations can remain revolutionary. I don’t really know how to think about this except by trying to bracket those doubts entirely.
What’s left, then? I do think the ISO did a pretty good job of combining engagement with theory and with real movements, mostly avoiding both the anti-intellectualism and the academicism that are each too common in the North American left. And the group does seem to have done pretty well at providing new members with a basic introduction to Marxism as a living tool for understanding the world, despite all the issues with longer-term leadership and skill development. Is that it?
At least there’s one thing: I continue to have immense respect for many of the people I met in the organization, for their dedication, intellect, compassion, and ability to inspire. If the organization could bring out the worst in people, the project of fighting for a liberated world still brought around some of the best. So even if we never had a path to victory, I can’t regret being part of that fight.
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