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News ::
Response to ISO ‘Democracy or consensus?’ article on anti-war conferences
09 Dec 2001
Modified: 10 Dec 2001
In an article on the controversial student anti-war conferences, ‘How will the antiwar movement debate the way forward? Democracy or consensus?’ (Page 8, November 30, 2001 Socialist Worker), the ISO lays out their ideas on what are the important issues that arose out of the conferences. Ann, a Southern California student who attended the West Coast regional conference at UC Berkeley, responds directly to the article. Saying the real issue is not “Democracy vs. Consensus,” as the ISO states, but in her opinion how the ISO behaved. Her response is directly inserted into the article below.
Response to ISO ‘Democracy or consensus?’ article on anti-war conferences

In an article on the controversial student anti-war conferences, ‘How will the antiwar movement debate the way forward? Democracy or consensus?’ (Page 8, November 30, 2001 Socialist Worker), the ISO lays out their ideas on what are the important issues that arose out of the conferences. Ann, a Southern California student who attended the West Coast regional conference at UC Berkeley, responds directly to the article. Saying the real issue is not “Democracy vs. Consensus,” as the ISO states, but in her opinion how the ISO behaved. Her response is directly inserted into the article below.

Response to:
How will the antiwar movement debate the way forward?
Democracy or consensus? By Alan Mass
November 30, 2001 Page 8, Socialist Worker

> Usually, the answers don't come immediately. If the people involved take
> the questions seriously, then the resulting discussion is certain to have
> debate and disagreement.

That's a good point. At the Berkeley conference, we wanted more discussion
of politics, and specific ISO members stopped discussion. At one point,
ISO member and moderator of the Berkeley conference Snehal even said
"Don't say anything controversial!"

> In fact, one strength of the November student conferences is that the
> campus groups that initiated them proposed a structure to allow
> for debate, and a system of voting by delegates to make decisions.

Who represented the campus groups that proposed this structure? At the
conference, the vast majority of people did not know how the structure of
the conference was decided on. Obviously it was at worst undemocratic and
at best there was very poor communication between schools before the
conference took place. Even some Berkeley conference organizers were
excluded from this process.

Also the proposal to create a steering committee made of one voting
representative from each campus was made by an ISO members.

> But the structure itself became a subject of controversy. At the Boston
> conference, a minority of participants continued to raise disagreements
> about "process" during a daylong organizing session, ultimately
> preventing important decisions from being made.

If the process is fundamentally flawed, then decisions coming out of this
process might also be very flawed. Many people likened the decision-making
process at this conference to a Democratic National Convention - obviously
nothing democratic about it.

> After the conferences, an even sharper debate took place over the
> Internet, limited to a small number of people, but whose voices were
> amplified by multiple appearances on the Web. Essentially, the critics of
> the conferences concluded that the antiwar movement would be better
> off if the meetings had never taken place.

Interesting. This must have been regarding only the Boston conference,
because I read many posts regarding the conference and even those who
left disgusted and disappointed were glad they were able to meet good people
at these conferences.

> One member of a group called Boston Anarchists Against Militarism
> cheerfully declared that the outcome of the East Coast conference showed
> the potential for "different and separate national Anti-War coalitions."
> It may be hard to understand this enthusiasm for a smaller, splintered
> movement. But this is the natural conclusion of activists who
> don't believe it's possible to convince anyone who doesn't already agree
> with them.

During this conference, it was mostly ISO members who were saying that we
had to "tone down our message" so we didn't say anything that would drive
people away. This was another frustration of many conference attendees: we
didn't want to talk down to people, and we wanted to talk to people who
don't already agree with us.

Also, many conference attendees were not happy about "splitting" but saw
they could not work within an organization that would not allow them to
voice their concerns, let alone organize.

> Yet the successes of past social movements have depended on people who
> don't share a common point of view coming together to fight on
> issues where they do agree, and debating political questions as the
> struggle develops.

Again, many disgruntled attendees were upset because debate was stifled by
the conference leadership in the interests of "saving time". Again, many
people would have rather had a serious discussion than make bad decisions.

> As for the conferences themselves, the chief complaint seems to
> be that the International Socialist Organization (ISO)--the publisher of this
> newspaper"hijacked" all three. The critiques wildly overstate the
> number of ISO members at the meetings, discovering an "authoritarian
> socialist" in charge of every session.

Nearly every criticism I saw that stated the number of ISO members actually
stated how FEW there were, but that these FEW had maneuvered themselves into
key leadership (read: manipulative) positions. The comment of, “discovering
an ‘authoritarian socialist’ in charge of every session,” is dishonest. Not only
because it is true the ISO had a exclusive if not major role in moderating/chairing
all the conference meetings. But because it is the routine response of the ISO to
counter any criticism of themselves as “red-baiting,” as they imply in the
comment, rather than dealing with the real issue.

> But even setting aside this "reds under the bed" paranoia, the
> charges beg some questions: What's wrong with socialists participating in the
> antiwar movement, and even taking a leading role? Should we not have opinions?
> Would opponents of the war be better off if socialists kept quiet?

Again, most criticism noted how there were SEVERAL other socialist/communist
organizations in attendance, but these organizations did not manipulate the
conference the way the ISO did. Some criticisms from "unaffiliated" people
have included favorable comments about other socialist/communist/whatever

> IN FACT, the complaints about the ISO mask a more serious objection about
> the way the meetings were organized. The campus antiwar groups that made
> the call for the conferences decided to use the principle of majority
> voting, as opposed to the consensus model of decision making, in which
> everyone involved comes to a unanimous agreement.

People did not like the decision-making process. However, people probably
could have lived with it (and tried to for most of the conference) except
for the fact that *certain individuals, mostly ISO members as conference
leaders, were using the process for their own ends when hundreds of
participant were unable to voice their concerns in any way*.

Again, these campus antiwar groups had little or no say in how this
conference was organized. After the conference, there was a lot of
discussion within them about whether consensus would have been better. Many
people felt that it may or may not have been "more fair", but would have
allowed for more discussion which would have been better than hastily-made
poor decisions. Most conference attendees feel that our current political
system (representative 51% majority voting) is very undemocratic, and
therefore would never want to model their own organizations in a similar

> Consensus often sounds like a fairer way of doing things than voting. And
> in fact, most features of most political meetings are effectively decided
> by consensus, from procedural points like when to start to substantial
> political questions.

This wasn't the case at the conferences, so why bring it up?

> But when disagreements arise, consensus effectively amounts to minority
> rule. Why? If everyone in a group has to agree on some question, then a
> minority, or even a single individual, can hold up all decision making.
> This leads to endless and highly frustrating meetings, as even
> champions of consensus will admit.

I am no champion of consensus. I agree that consensus can be manipulated.
However, consensus can work very well *when people have common goals*. And
almost anything but a monarchy or dictatorship is better than 50%+1 voting.

> There are two ways to get through these meetings and reach workable
> conclusions. One is for some people who disagree on a particular issue to
> give in to fatigue or pressure and pretend that they don't disagree, for
> the sake of "consensus." The other is for the real decisions of an
> organization to be made before and after meetings, behind the scenes, by
> individuals who aren't responsible to anyone.

The 'real decision being made behind the scenes' was a tactic employed by
the ISO. An ISO member admitted to this. Are you arguing in favor of this

The ISO coordinated amongst themselves to make the same proposals and
push them through in every conference no matter what the process. They also
worked to ensure they would be in the leadership of running the meetings during
the conferences. This is the ‘behind the scenes decision making.’

Again, the problem with the conference was not simply 'the process', but the
fact that specifically the ISO used the process to manipulate the outcome.
People who understand consensus know that it can be manipulated, too, when
certain factions are trying to get their way.

> SO DO majority voting and democratic procedures guarantee fairness? Of
> course not. Politicians often use parliamentary maneuvering to squelch debate.
> Democratic procedures can only be effective in reflecting what the majority
> thinks if everyone involved has a real voice, if the need for as much
> debate as time and circumstances allow is respected.

Now you get it! The ISO were acting like a bunch of politicians,
maneuvering to squelch debate. THAT was the problem. People jumped on the
consensus bandwagon because they thought it would be the best way to counter
this, misguided or not. I think in the context of this conference, consensus
probably would have turned out to be more productive in the end.

> Under these circumstances, formality is important. "For everyone to have
> the opportunity to be involved in a given group and to participate in its
> activities, the structure must be explicit, not implicit," Freeman
> concluded three decades ago. "The rules of decision making must
> be open and available to everyone, and this can happen only if they are
> formalized." A formal structure isn't a barrier to discussion. On the contrary, a
> serious decision depends on a serious discussion.

No one ever said it wasn't. People thought a lot of things could have been
better if the following had been done:
- explain Robert's rules of order beforehand.
- cover the proposals that were decided upon the night before, rather than
allowing new ones to be introduced off the floor (that also happened to fit
the ISO's agenda... mysterious!).
- allow more discussion.
- allow for flexibility - if people wanted to change the process, let them!
- allow all the speakers in the queue to speak, dammit!

> Nor does a 51-49 vote have to be the final word on a question in any
> democratic organization. Close votes are often followed by a reopening of
> the discussion, since it's obvious that the group as a whole isn't sure
> about the question.

Well this certainly didn't happen at the conference! Discussion and voting
happened so fast a lot of people didn't even know what was on the floor!
An excellent example was at the Berkeley conference, many were dissatisfied
with the decision making process and tried to propose consensus. ISO member
and moderator Snehal said a comment to the effect of "I have the feeling that
this won't take long to decide." He then went straight to a vote with no
discussion of what either continuing with the current process or changing to
consensus would entail.

> The most important issue is how to involve every activist in the movement
> in deciding on its direction, to think about the issues that face us and
> make up our minds about them.

Yes, we agree here, but don't use this rhetoric to mask your very
manipulative tactics.

> Majority voting by delegated representatives, responsible to those who
> elected them, is the only realistic way for decisions to get made
> and for a sizable number of people to have a real voice in making them.

Bullshit! We've seen MUCH larger conferences be pulled off using consensus,
with much better and satisfying results. Again, you're getting hung up on
process rather than the dishonest politics which got people pissed off in
the first place.

> Often, the debate will be sharp. But if the importance of the political
> questions demands it, we should expect a serious discussion. The movement
> will be stronger for debating the issues that face us, and for coming to
> decisions that reflect the beliefs of the majority.

OK, let me try this one last time:
To the ISO: people are upset with you because of the dishonest way you all
manipulated the conference. People thought changing the process would have
been a good way to counter this manipulation. Whether or not that was a
good idea, that is not the point of the criticisms levelled against the ISO.
People are mad at the ISO because of the dishonest tactics it used, the way
the ISO silenced debated and dissent, the way the ISO members would rarely
identify themselves as such, and on and on... All that was outlined in the
copious amount of criticism from all kinds of different people that came out
in the days following the conference.

Now this author seems to be focusing on the decision-making process when
that was not the fundamental problem. Perhaps this is a way of diverting
attention from the real problem of manipulation and dishonesty committed by
the ISO.

-Anne (member of Regeneration, an anarcho-communist collective)
Includes minor edits and additions
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ISO Tactics In Their Own Words
10 Dec 2001
A few choice snippets from the ISO Members' Handbook, with the aim of helping folks "know thine enemy." Note how the attempted ISO takeovers fit into their top-down organization. Also see how this structure is a contributing factor to their rejection by others in the activist world.

Emphasis added where seen:

"Much of the ISO's work involves *intervening* in groups, activities, or events that the ISO has not exclusively organized, such as issue-oriented coalitions, strikes, demonstrations, or political meetings [. . .] For large or national *interventions* 'ISO Notes' will be distributed to each branch. Members will want to read these carefully and act in accordance to what is laid out in them." (Page 43)

"Policies and positions of the ISO are set at the national level. [. . .] Each local branch, as a part of the national organization, should plan its activities with an aim to implement the national perspective." (45)

"Occassionally, a wiseacre questioner will ask about the ISO's theory of state capitalism or something else irrelevant to the particular discussion at a meeting [. . .] *You should remark that this is indeed an interesting point, but one that can hardly be pursued at this meeting.*" (46)

"Don't forget to draw attention to the Socialist Worker." (46)

The idea of ISO "intervention" in the conferences is not far-fetched "reds-in-the-bed" conspiracy theorism. What happened at the conferences fits into a many-splendoured history of the national ISO giving directives to its branches, and then those branches refuse to budge from national's line thus causing a huge pain in the ass to everyone else. This is not a matter of the ISO's politics; this is a matter of their organizational structure, which serves to get the ISO a few new members from the mvoement but at the cost of the movement itself.

These points also show the hypocricy of the articles that appeared here and in Socialist Worker. The ISO said that its reasoning behind having simple-majority decision-making was a matter of freeing up the debate; yet branch members of the ISO are not only expected to keep to a national line, they are expected to shut everyone else up. Their idea of decision-making and debate is to manufacture dissent where debate will always come to the ISO's foregone conclusions.

Democracy only an ornament? Debate only for show? Ignorance as strength? Lacny was right; the worst Stalinists are the Trotskites.