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Commentary :: Organizing
Notes on a Staggering International Socialist Organization
18 Feb 2014
Modified: 11:13:30 AM
The Slow Death of "Leninism" -
In a recent development, current members constituted as the Renewal Faction have joined the chorus of critics as well, something that will obviously irk a leadership accustomed to fawning approval from the ranks.
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It might be obvious from articles appearing on CounterPunch (“A Response to Our Socialist Worker Critics”, to name just one) that former members of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) have decided to subject the self-described “Leninist” group to a withering critique.

In a recent development, current members constituted as the Renewal Faction have joined the chorus of critics as well, something that will obviously irk a leadership accustomed to fawning approval from the ranks. Indicating the general movement toward web-based debate and discussion and away from the print-based medium favored by small propaganda groups operating in the “Leninist” tradition, the faction launched a website titled “External Bulletin”, a term that very likely challenges the notion of the “Internal Bulletin”, the members-only medium that allows such groups to conduct their discussions without the prying eyes of non-members.

Unfortunately for the ISO, the internal bulletin might have become a relic of the Leninist past after a disgruntled member or members decided to forward PDF’s of 30 (at last count) documents to selected critics of the ISO, including me. Over the past few days, I have read maybe 100 pages worth of internal discussion articles and want to offer my analysis of what is happening with the largest “Leninist” organization in the United States (I exclude the CP, which operates more as a wing of the Democratic Party.) As someone who spent nearly 12 years in the American Socialist Workers Party from 1967 to 1978 (now there’s a screenplay begging to be written: “12 Years a Sectarian”), I can recognize the pressures operating on the ISO that will inevitably generate discontent.

One wonders if the ISO leaders might have anticipated the “security breach” that allowed the documents to become public. After all, in the electronic age, what’s to prevent a Marxist version of Edward Snowden from cropping up? This is especially true given the leaks that took place in the British SWP, the group that spawned the ISO. Those leaks were focused primarily on the British SWP’s refusal to punish a top leader who had allegedly raped a young female member. As is the case with bureaucratic institutions in general such as the Catholic Church and the military, there is a tendency to defend those in power, no matter what they do. If you’ve reached the point where you’ve become tired of bureaucratic abuse from the ISO leadership, why not let the rest of the left know what’s going on behind closed doors?

I want to address the question of the “right” of a Leninist organization to keep its discussions shielded from public view at the end of this article, but will start with an evaluation of the ISO’s current woes, which according to both sides in the dispute is very real.

The best place to start is with an article titled “Why have we stagnated?” written by someone who appears to be supporter of the leadership. He writes:

We Have a Problem

Frustration and disorientation are prevalent throughout the ISO right now and have been for a few years. There are multiple symptoms – the persistent difficulties maintaining SW tablings or a host of other routines (treasury, ISR, publicity); the need to repeatedly push for regular public meetings, many of which aren’t all that “public”; the greater number and length of extended breaks or leaves taken by experienced members (particularly over summer). Much of our leadership spends much of its time propping up basic aspects of branch activity or trying to win frustrated members back to activity. These are the signs of malaise, not of vitality.

When I read this, everything fell into place. This sounds exactly like what happens in all “Leninist” groups during the “mature” phase of their life cycle. Unless a group becomes a full-blown cult, as was the case with the American SWP, there are centripetal forces that operate on the rank-and-file as they begin to reach their thirties and discover that a socialist revolution is not on the immediate agenda. “A host of other routines” begins to compete with raising kids, shopping, working overtime, and just generally doing what it takes to survive life in capitalist America. Like most groups that operate in the name of the proletariat, the plain fact is that the ISO recruited most of its members from college campuses rather than the factory. After they graduated, they probably took whatever jobs were available in a declining economy: public schoolteachers (a strategically important job for leftists), web developers, social workers, librarians, etc. As far as I can tell, the ISO never carried out a “turn” toward the proletariat that would have forced its members to work in a slaughterhouse or textile mill. That would have only accelerated the phenomenon of “extended breaks”. Trust me on that one.

As might be expected, ISO leaders took the opportunity to rally the troops but without the piss and vinegar that such occasions demand. In a key document titled “Perspectives”, the tone was one of “hang in there, comrades”. This was written in the name of The Steering Committee, a body that is all-knowing and all-powerful:

No one really believes that it’s going to be “onward and upward” from the first protest or movement planning meeting. That caricature defies even a few days’ experience as a socialist. But it’s sometimes hard to shake the sense that a period of political unrest and polarization ought to have at least a general upward trend. The reality, though, based on the experiences of the past, is more complicated. Sometimes there are sharp and sustained breakthroughs, and sometimes there are a steady stream of advances. But there are also ups and downs in a struggle or movement, and in the midst of a down phase, it’s not clear if or when the next up is coming.

If it is difficult to predict when “the next up is coming”, what do we do in the meantime? A large part of this boils down to “keeping the powder dry”, going out on training exercises, and doing all the things a “cadre” is expected to do until the next war began. I remember when I first heard the term cadre from a veteran SWP’er in 1968—he pronounced it “codder”. It came from the military and meant “officer corps” basically. When a war broke out, the officers were expected to lead enlisted men. The left adopted the term to mean those people with an advanced understanding of Marxism who would be the natural leadership of the proletarian masses. Since the Trotskyist movement is the Oxford/Harvard of the left—at least in the eyes of its adherents—you would expect it to be the main supplier of cadre. For obvious reasons, the proletariat found it quite easy to ignore such self-designated leaders in large-scale revolutionary struggles.

In an article titled “Theory, cadre, and continuity: Building revolutionary organization today”, a long-time leader speaking for The Steering Committee made the case for the Marxist version of Officers Candidate School:

But regardless of the period, the state of the class struggle, and the size of the revolutionary left, what is absolutely essential is the training of cadres capable of thinking and applying Marxism creatively and able to both learn from and provide leadership in struggle.

Unfortunately what is missing from this calculation is any understanding that “training” is inimical to the development of Marxist thinkers and activists. Whether or not these people are consciously making a parallel with the military, the fact is that “training” in small propaganda groups inevitably turns out people who imitate the party leaders, just as a West Point freshman would emulate a General Petraeus. This is in the nature of all institutions, Leninist, military, or clerical. A revolutionary movement is strongest when it can rely on the talents of people who have learned to think and act for themselves. While revolutions are a product of collective action, they only succeed when strong-minded and strong-willed people come together to change society—not sycophants. Leninist groups unfortunately are schools for sycophancy.

A large part of the article is directed against Shaun Joseph, a former member who is sensitive to the question of developing true cadre. In other words people who have the backbone to tell an Ahmed Shawki that he is full of beans when the occasion demands it. Joseph wrote an article titled “Valences of the united front (III): The struggle for culture” that did not mince words:

The common view in the ISO, I think, is that the comrades at the Center are the “top cadre” of the group. Actually they are not cadre at all. That’s not to say they’re unimportant: a centralist organization needs national leadership just like an army needs generals. However, a cadre that identifies itself with the national leadership, that does not see itself as an independent and irreverent layer, is not fulfilling its function as a cadre–just like an army full of sycophantic captains is doomed to fail in battle.

Although I would prefer that the term cadre go into the ashbin of history, Joseph’s notion of “an army full of sycophantic captains” pretty much sums up the secondary leadership of all Leninist organizations. How can it be otherwise? When I joined the SWP in 1967, I was told that Leon Trotsky, who was Lenin’s choice for assuming leadership of the Communist movement after he passed on, trained the leaders. I told myself , these people must really be something special. Who am I to question them? I can’t say that my experience is at all typical of those who have “graduated” from such sects, but being forced to think and act for myself was the only way I could truly develop politically.

The peer pressure in groups like the ISO is enormous. Although their constitution is filled with guarantees of the right to criticize the party line, they are beside the point. For the average member of such groups, you tend to parrot what is in the party press and look for reassurance from those around you. Shunning or even the threat of shunning is the main instrument of ideological conformity in Leninist groups, when all is said and done.

Try as they may, there is no way that the ISO can break through the glass ceiling that is keeping them at their current levels of membership and political influence. It is their very nature that condemns them to “stagnation”. It is their “Leninism” that works against them since it is a barrier reef that separates them from the tens of thousands of people anxious to resist the capitalist system but not ready to hook up with a small propaganda group that puts onerous restrictions on their ability to live a normal life. Not everybody is a footloose rebel with an Ivy League degree or in some cases a trust fund after all.

All such groups have a natural life cycle, just like a plant or animal. They usually start out with a charismatic leader—usually a man but not exclusively–in his 20s or 30s who has both the time and the energy to build up a following, generally from the middle-class. Within a year or so, depending on the proximity of their ideology to the actual political conditions, they can build up to several dozen members. And then if the stars align themselves correctly, they can become an organization of a thousand or more. When the ISO was riding high in the saddle ten years ago, I am sure it projected unlimited growth. I attended an evening session of a conference they hosted in 2004, mostly in order to hear my old friend and comrade Peter Camejo. It was like attending a pep rally with the speakers leading the audience in chants as a warm-up for Peter.

Ten years can be an eternity for members of such groups. So many pep rallies, so many newspaper sales, and so many singings of the Internationale but capitalism keeps rolling along. Was this what I signed up for, many members must ask. Thus we see the “the greater number and length of extended breaks or leaves taken by experienced members”, a prelude to the inevitable resignation for “personal reasons”.

All in all, another approach is not only possible but also desperately needed. To put it in shorthand, we need something like an American Syriza—a broad left-of-center party that can accept people on their own terms ideologically as long as they adhere to key programmatic demands such as:

–Run election campaigns opposed to corporate rule, against both Republicans and Democrats.

–Organize campaigns against environmental despoliation from fracking to mountaintop removal.

–Strengthen the trade unions through organizing drives aimed at the most exploited workers.

In reality, these sorts of demands are not that different from those of the Communist Manifesto that calls, for example, for “A heavy progressive or graduated income tax” and “Free education for all children in public schools.”

Once you dump overboard all the ideological baggage that comes with groups posturing as a latter-day Bolshevik Party and stick to basic demands that lend themselves to independent mass political action, recruitment is no longer a big problem. Nor is burnout, a function of small groups trying to substitute themselves for the muscle of a large party that can attract real-life workers, something that is simply beyond the means of small propaganda groups trafficking in the iconography of the Russian Revolution. We need our own political symbols and language; let’s consign the hammer and sickle and the red star to the museum or mausoleum where they belong.

Finally, on the question of “security”, as if putting the ISO documents on the Internet is going to jeopardize their members. Does anybody in their right mind not understand that the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, and local red squads know exactly what every single ISO member is up to? Mike Ely, the leader of an Internet sect called the Kasama Project, has been raising hell over the publication of the documents but that’s what spending too much time in Bob Avakian’s Revolutionary Communist Party can do to a person.

The real issue is not security, but the right of a sect to keep its deliberations a secret. When you stop and think about it, all of these “Leninist” groups operate on a mercantile basis that is concerned with maximizing market share. Their internal bulletins are analogous to reports discussed by the board of directors leading up to a sales campaign. What business is it of Pepsi to know what Coca-Cola is up to? How can we let Socialist Alternative know what we have planned for 2014? Hush now, comrades. Mum’s the word.

While I will not be around fifty years from now, I am convinced that “Leninism” will be long dead. If we are fortunate enough to be capable of rallying the forces needed to transform American society, it will be on a basis that has little to do with the imagery associated with the Smolny Institute and the Winter Palace. We will write our own future based on the living struggle that we surely have in front of us. Every effort has to be bent toward uniting the greatest number of people on a principled class basis. In a way it is too bad that ISO cannot understand the role it can play in helping to catalyze such a movement. One hopes that they can figure out a way to emerge out of the existing stagnation and rise to the occasion.
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Re: Notes on a Staggering International Socialist Organization
18 Feb 2014
Modified: 11:39:00 AM
On May 15, 2013 I submitted an article to the Counterpunch website, objecting to its treatment of Angelina Jolie's public disclosure of her recent preventative double mastectomy. This article has since appeared at both and ZNet under the title "Why Counterpunch owes women an apology."

I will restate here that I was repulsed by the Counterpunch promo that appeared in my e-mail inbox on May 14 announcing, "Ruth Fowler unsnaps Angelina Jolie's bra and exposes privilege, health care and tits," linking to the article "Angelina Jolie Under the Knife: Of Privilege, Health Care and Tits."

I have no principled objection to using the word "tits." But all words must be judged within the literary and social context in which they are used, usually in the form of a phrase or sentence. As it happens, the word "tits"--often conjoined with "ass"--is one way in which women's bodies are systematically objectified and degraded in this society. (A brief Google search of "tits and ass" transports the reader to a host of online porn sites, many of them misogynous, displaying this point graphically.)

Millions of women experience this type of sexist degradation on a daily basis while walking down the street, when their bodies are loudly rated according to the perceived desirability of their individual body parts by male gawkers. If the women targeted by this uninvited abuse object to this treatment, the conversation often turns ugly, and the words "bitch" and "cunt" frequently make an appearance.

Anger against this sexist degradation if anything is on the rise today, as the Everyday Sexism Project--started just one year ago on Twitter and since gone viral--reveals clearly.

In this context, I found Fowler's article and its promotion--containing imagery of unsnapping a woman's bra and exposing her "tits"--both gratuitous and insulting, especially in the context of the current breast cancer epidemic. I objected not only to the use of sexist imagery, but also to the content of Fowler's article.

As a socialist, I am well aware of the class divide in this society, and have written numerous articles documenting the gross inequality in the profit-driven health care system, some of which have appeared on the Counterpunch website. I normally welcome other authors' insights on this urgent issue.

My critique of Fowler's article, however, was directed at wondering why, as I wrote, "Jolie has been singled out for such scorn" since she "neither created nor can resolve the health care crisis. That responsibility lies squarely with the medical-industrial complex, including its government lackeys, who sustain the class disparities of the for-profit health care system. The conditions are ripe for a movement that demands health care for all, but it must take aim at the appropriate target to be effective."

While I am committed to a class analysis, I am also well aware that women's oppression, including the degrading sexual objectification of women's bodies, is endemic to the capitalist system. My article was about sexism and the responsibility of those on the left (including self-proclaimed "radical" critics) to oppose it. Sexism is a serious matter, and it warrants a serious response.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

I WAS therefore taken aback to receive the following "rejection" letter from Counterpunch managing editor Joshua Frank, which implied that the editors use the word "tits" to increase web traffic:

On May 15, 2013, at 8:06 PM, Josh Frank wrote:


Thanks for reading. You are upset by the word tits in the title? We like to entice folks to click and read. Glad you did. If you can direct the argument of your piece more toward a critique of Fowler's piece, instead of hollow rhetoric, we will be happy to consider it.


Sent from my iPhone, please excuse typos.

Later that evening, I received this missive from Counterpunch editor Jeffrey St. Clair:

From: Jeffrey St Clair
Date: Wed, May 15, 2013 at 11:45 PM


Honestly, this is one of the most reactionary things I've ever read. Read it over again. If we printed this, next thing you know you'll be being interviewed on the 700 Club by Pat Robertson. Really. What would Simone De Beauvoir think of this? Such piety over words.


Nowhere in the e-mails above did the Counterpunch editors contradict the notion that they were responsible for the language choices in question. On the contrary, they appeared self-righteous about their editorial decisions.

I was not surprised at their decision to refuse my piece--which, of course, is their right. I was surprised by their glib dismissal, however, particularly since I had been a regular Counterpunch contributor for a number of years. Most recently, editors Joshua Frank and Jeffrey St. Clair saw fit to include an article written by me in their collection of essays, Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published in May 2012.

If St. Clair, Frank or Fowler engaged in a serious debate (that was, after all, what I attempted to provoke), I would have welcomed it. Instead, they resorted to the tiresome technique known as "bait and switch" so often employed by those backed into an indefensible political corner. They simply changed the subject from one about sexism to a new one about "censorship." This technique is also known as "grasping at straws."

They quickly pounced on a new claim: They accused me and my comrade Sherry Wolf (who voiced a similar objection to sexism at Counterpunch on her Facebook page) of having demanded that they "aggressively censor" Fowler--as if we had put through an emergency call for assistance from the Christian Right, with Al and Tipper Gore waiting in the wings, eager to pounce. Perhaps we would soon put through a call to the FCC and attempt a government crackdown?

[Fact check: It seems that, unless the Counterpunch editors have ceded their own editorial control, they remain responsible for the content that appears on the website that bears its name and its promotion. Indeed, Frank admitted, "We did talk about changing 'tits' to 'breasts'... We wouldn't have picked that word on our own," but deferred to the word choice of this woman writer. My own experience as a woman writer at Counterpunch was that the editors frequently and unceremoniously replaced my own titles with those they preferred.]

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THE SMIRKING editors (egged on by their shrinking coterie of equally smug "admirers" at the Counterpunch Facebook page) thereby magically transformed the debate over sexism into a passionate defense of their own civil liberties. In this new context, my voiced opposition to sexism morphed into a "reactionary" stand.

Counterpunch's very right to use the word "tits" was apparently now in peril. Surely, they argued, those opposed to sexism must simply be opposed to sex! It must be simply the word "tits" their critics objected to, not its sexist usage in the context of breast cancer. We critics must be therefore aligned with all the forces of reaction aiming to quell the right to freedom of expression, which Counterpunch courageously champions on a daily basis!

While I am hardly one to keep smelling salts at my side lest someone let loose a profanity in my presence, it is absolutely ludicrous to associate Sherry Wolf with the 700 Club crowd. Anyone familiar with this anti-authoritarian, frequently potty-mouthed, proud lesbian would laugh heartily at this preposterous suggestion. Indeed, she mischievously proposed to the Counterpunch editors: "I suggest this nifty title for your post after Angelina Jolie has her ovaries removed: "Rich Cunt Mutilates Pussy"--that should get you lots more readers!" I'm guessing Pat Robertson would not be inspired by Sherry's clever turn of phrase, much less aim to sign her up for his cause.

As the Everyday Sexism Project notes on its website, "In this 'liberal,' 'modern' age, to complain about everyday sexism or suggest that you are unhappy about the way in which women are portrayed and perceived renders you likely to be labeled as 'uptight,' 'prudish,' a 'militant feminist,' or a 'bra burner.'" Indeed, there is a longstanding caricature of feminists as man-hating and/or sex-hating, bitter and humorless women who find sexism everywhere they look.

This odious caricature, while regularly employed by those on the right, also has an indefensible legacy among men on the left. It is an unfortunate fact that many men from the 1960s New Left ridiculed attempts by women to call attention to their own oppression within the larger movement.

As early as 1964, when women active in the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) wrote a position paper called "The Position of Women in SNCC," leader Stokely Carmichael replied (allegedly in jest), "The only position for women in SNCC is prone." In a similar vein, a Berkeley underground newspaper stated in 1968, "Our line on the women's trip--LET THEM EAT COCK." Those women who failed to appreciate all this hilarity were informed that they must simply lack a sense of humor.

These were not isolated events but regular occurrences, leading to the steady exodus of women's liberationists from organizations such as Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the late 1960s.

Counterpunch was not satisfied with employing the tiresome caricature described above. St. Clair added a strong dose of "slut shaming." Slut shaming is a form of "victim blaming" directed against women for behaviors that are deemed exceedingly sexual, implying that they are responsible for any harm that comes their way. This approach is summed up in the all-too-familiar phrase, "She got what she was asking for."

St. Clair wrote, "I will say that I don't think it would been have morally 'wrong' for me to substitute the word 'tit' for 'breast,' since Angelina has herself flaunted her 'tits,' that is sexualized them in films promoting the CIA, assassination and looting of indigenous cultures." In a separate comment, St. Clair remarked, "As for us 'sexualizing' Angelina Jolie, how is that even possible? Her self-sexualization has been totalizing & she made a lot of millions doing it."

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

LIKE SCHOOLYARD bullies, the Counterpunch gang then scrambled around and slung mud from a variety of directions in the hope that something would stick. They hurled a range of accusations in my and Sherry's general direction, which landed together in an incomprehensible mess.

On the one hand, Sherry and I were accused of promoting "identity politics" and "political correctness"--which are apparently stand-alone offenses now in some left quarters. St. Clair and Frank also advanced the fiction that we expected "Ruth Fowler to apologize to herself," as if women are not capable of promoting reactionary ideas that insult other women.

Continuing this ridiculous train of thought, St. Clair targeted my history as a smoker to ask, "shouldn't Sharon, applying her own logic, publicly apologize to all lung cancer and emphysema victims for giving financial support to the cancer industry? Surely this habit has caused more far more real harm, minute as the damage might be, to real lives than Ruth's provocative use of the word 'tit'?"

Other insults consisted of standard red-baiting fare, targeting my and Sherry's organizational affiliations. These included both denunciations as being "Stalin-like" and "Trots"; a "narrow 'left' worldview"; "underestimating the importance of Seattle in '99"; "follow[ing] the latest cause du jour;" "ignoring the genocidal acts and throwing support behind Libyan and Syrian 'rebels'"; and, of course, the alleged crimes of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution.

Geez, all we did was object to sexism.

Finally, St. Clair boasted, "Fowler has written a response that will destroy her [me]...I almost feel sorry for her [me]." Even I found myself eagerly anticipating the appearance of this response that would result in my impending destruction. What a letdown when it arrived. (Consider me not "destroyed.")

Fowler's response recycled more attempts at "tits" shock and awe, this time also repeatedly referring to Jolie as "dumb," while asserting that those who objected to Fowler's contempt toward Jolie are "sad starfuckers."

Although St. Clair had publicly declared that Fowler's second article was a response to mine, Fowler's response did not even dignify my critique by linking to it or even acknowledging me by name. Instead, I was dismissed as "Sharon whatsit in The Socialist Worker," and my critique as written by a "paternalistic idiot." Once again, the issue of sexism went unaddressed.

I must say, however, that when Counterpunch puts someone in the doghouse, they mean business! Actually, it feels more like an outhouse in here.

Perhaps Counterpunch should just cut to the chase and henceforth refer to that potentially deadly disease as "tit cancer"? That should get them a few extra web hits from their disproportionately older and male readership.

Now, even more than before, Counterpunch owes women an apology. In the meantime, a visit to the Everyday Sexism Project might help to update their awareness of rising feminist anger among women--which, for the record, has no association with the 700 Club.
18 Feb 2014
Why CounterPunch owes women an apology

Sharon Smith argues that Angelina Jolie deserves better than derisive and sexist "humor" for making public a health decision that all women dread being faced with.

BREAST CANCER is no laughing matter--certainly not for the roughly 232,340 U.S. women who will be diagnosed with it this year, or the 39,620 women expected to die from it.

Yet the editors over at the CounterPunch website were apparently guffawing over Angelina Jolie's recent decision to undergo a preventative double mastectomy. ( Tits Up: Is this Any Way to Run a Revolution? Jolie’s Choice ) Their e-mail promo for an article posted on the site on May 14 reads: "Ruth Fowler unsnaps Angelina Jolie's bra and exposes privilege, health care and tits." Presto! A double mastectomy morphs into locker room fodder.

Fowler's article never actually mentions the word "tits." But like smirking adolescents, the editors insert it yet again in their contemptuous title: "Angelina Jolie Under the Knife: Of Privilege, Health Care and Tits." One can almost hear them howling with laughter at their own perceived cleverness. Presumably they also laughed their way through Seth McFarlane's sophomoric "We saw your boobs" spoof at the Academy Awards, while millions of women cringed.

But using boob jokes to introduce an article about undergoing a double mastectomy to prevent a potentially deadly disease constitutes a descent from sexism to misogyny.

Like so many Hollywood actresses, the sexual objectification of Jolie's own face and body has been a key component of her fame. Jolie should certainly be commended for her courage in choosing to make her double mastectomy public--in order to help reassure other women confronting the possibility or reality of mastectomy to understand that losing one or both of their breasts does not mean losing their sexuality. In her May 14 op-ed piece in the New York Times, she wrote, "On a personal note, I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity."

In a society as sexist as ours, in which women are so often judged in relation to the perceived desirability of their individual body parts--as if in suspended animation from the rest of their personhood--this message could not be more timely.

The essence of this message is entirely lost on the CounterPunch gang. They seem blissfully unconcerned that their own use of the degrading term "tits" is yet more evidence of the damaging impact of the sexual objectification of women. The fact that they do so under the guise of left-wing commentary only compounds this damage.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

FOWLER'S ARTICLE is devoid of boob jokes, but is also teeming with contempt toward Jolie.

Fowler ridicules Jolie for "your elaborately reconstructed chest and your incredible bravery in submitting to top-end, essential preventive treatments in order to avoid a painful and abhorrent death," as if Jolie endured multiple surgeries over a period of months as a colossal act of narcissism.

But Angelina Jolie made the decision to undergo a double mastectomy because she heard the news that every woman dreads: She tested positive for a faulty BRCA1 gene, which gave her an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer. The fact that her mother died of ovarian cancer after a nearly 10-year struggle at the age of 56 is a further indication of what the future would likely hold.

One might reasonably ask why Jolie has been singled out for such scorn. Fowler's article uses reverse (some might even say reactionary) logic: She disparages those who do have access to quality medical care instead of demanding that all women gain access to the same standard of care. Thus, Fowler dismisses the option of genetic testing in asking: "[W]hat good is knowing that there's a test out there only privileged rich people can get?" This is bad advice for women facing the possibility that they carry a defective gene.

Jolie is far from silent on the issue of access. As she argued in her op-ed piece:

Breast cancer alone kills some 458,000 people each year, according to the World Health Organization, mainly in low- and middle-income countries. It has got to be a priority to ensure that more women can access gene testing and lifesaving preventive treatment, whatever their means and background, wherever they live. The cost of testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2, at more than $3,000 in the United States, remains an obstacle for many women.

Fowler dismisses Jolie's comments above as offering merely "a trifling nod" to class inequality, asking, "Why don't you raise our awareness of your own overpriced, privileged medical treatment a little more, and continue to NOT raise awareness of any actual fact?" Yet since Jolie's op-ed was published, the Internet has been abuzz with debate and discussion about this important subject, demonstrating that Jolie has indeed opened a much-needed conversation.

Fowler's resentment is misplaced. Hollywood actors neither created nor can resolve the health care crisis. That responsibility lies squarely with the medical-industrial complex, including its government lackeys, who sustain the class disparities of the for-profit health care system. The conditions are ripe for a movement that demands health care for all, but it must take aim at the appropriate targets to be effective.

It should not be difficult to understand why millions of women who, facing an epidemic of breast cancer, breathed a sigh of relief on May 14 upon reading Jolie's honest and eloquent account of removing her breasts to save her life.

And I strongly suggest that those who find her struggle amusing lift their snouts out of the trough long enough to discover why so many women are not laughing. An ounce of empathy for women's health and dignity would go a long way.
Re: ISO - Tits, Fits and Vermeers
18 Feb 2014
Modified: 11:58:28 AM
The Merchants of Shame by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR

Two weeks ago my restorative slumber was rudely aborted by the shattering opening chords of “Search and Destroy” by the Stooges, the ringtone I have assigned to CounterPunch’s intrepid co-editor Joshua Frank. This must be serious, I said to Boomer the Aussie as I stumbled for the iPhone. Josh is a committed texter. He only calls during a moment of crisis or after he’s caught a big wave down at Bolsa Chica, which all-too-often amounts to the same thing.


“Have you checked your email recently?”

“You know my rule, Josh, no emails before coffee or after Mojitos.”

“Well, have a drink. We’re under siege.”

“Tequila will do in a pinch.” I pour and swallow. Pour again and swallow. “Who is it now? The ADL again or the Sierra Club?”

“Neither. It’s the Trotskyists. Trots of the ISO subspecies to be exact.”

“Remind me what ISO stands for?”

“International Socialist Organization. Up in Chicago.”

“Right, right. Are we Trots?”

“Not that I know of.”

“Doug Henwood just wrote that we were Edward Abbeyists.”

“Sounds good to me.”

“He didn’t mean it as a compliment.”

“What does he know? He hasn’t left his apartment in the last 12 years.”

“What’s our crime?”

“Sexism, insensitivity and crudeness of mind.”

“How did we provoke this indictment?”

“By the use of the word ‘tit’ in a subhead.”

“Did we use the word ‘tit’ in a subhead?”

“No. But Ruth Fowler did.”

“In her caustic takedown of Angelina Jolie, the CIA’s favorite action hero?”


“So why is that our problem?”

“Because we allowed her to use that word.”

“What did they want us to do?”

“Change the word ‘tit’ to another word.”

“Which word?”

“They don’t say.”

“Why can’t we use the word ‘tit’ in a subhead? Or even a full-blown headline, if we feel like it?”

“Because it sexualizes Angelina Jolie.”

“More than Angelina sexualized herself in ‘Gia’ or ‘Original Sin’?”

“Apparently so.”

“But why can’t Ruth use the word ‘tit’? She’s a big time writer. Sold more books than any of those ISOers. Maybe all of them combined.”

“Fowler can use the word, but we can’t print it. Because we’re, well, men.”

“So, we’re supposed to correct Ruth Fowler’s word choice for her?”


“The two of us, both male editors, are supposed to commit an editorial intervention on her prose? She’s from Wales, right?”


“She has a Master’s Degree from Cambridge, right?”

“Pretty sure.”

“Her vocabulary is probably twice ours combined, Josh. We’re just a couple of hicks from Montana and Indiana.”

“I’m reminded of that every day.”

“Sounds damn presumptuous to me, Josh, even, dare I say, sexist.”

“That’s what I thought.”

“What the fuck do the Trots want us to do?”


“Apologize to whom? Angelina Jolie? Does Angie still read CounterPunch after that piece Alex and I wrote about her rather peculiar relationship with Billy Bob?”

“Not exactly. They want us to apologize to all women.”

“All of them?”

“That’s what it says.”

“Including Ruth Fowler?”

“So it seems.”

“Tequila might not be enough tonight, Josh.”

Over the next few days a surreal spectacle unfolded on, where else, the internet, as a series of increasingly ludicrous articles appeared in the Socialist Worker, the arthritic house organ of the ISO, castigating the co-editors of CounterPunch with mounting huffiness and indignation. The screeds scolded our brutishness for publishing essays by three radical women writers (Ruth Fowler, Kristine Mattis, and Julian Vigo), who eviscerated Ms. Jolie’s elitist editorial in the New York Times regarding her pre-emptive double mastectomy. These women used the searing lens of class-analysis to flay Jolie’s use of a privileged platform like the Times to boast about a privileged medical procedure that is far beyond the economic reach of 60 percent of American women. The Socialist Worker writers ignored this unpleasant fact and erupted in fury over our editorial decision not to redact Fowler’s use of the word “tit.”

This sounds ironic, right? Well, the Socialist Worker types don’t do irony. They actually identify with Angelina Jolie, the woman who shops for babies in the developing world, the woman who backs interventionist wars, the woman whose films glorify the CIA and the looting of indigenous cultures. They identify with Angelina Jolie because they share her elite position in American society. They are rich and well-educated at elite schools, such as Brown and Northwestern. Many of them live off of trust funds. Most rarely converse with poor people and have only a vague, theoretical notion of what life is like when you are indigent, black and have just been diagnosed with breast cancer (if you can even afford to get diagnosed). They can’t connect with that experience, but they can be viscerally aroused by the word “tit.” The use of this word transgressed decorum.

So denunciations of CounterPunch were posted. A petition was circulated. A boycott of CounterPunch was launched. Yet, perhaps all of this sturm-und-drang may have passed you by. That’s because most of the virtual war was waged on Facebook (where all of the ISO’s ‘activism’ seems to take place these days), a cyber-playpen whose sexist origins are the stuff of Hollywood docudramas.

One of the most vitriolic voices in this shaming campaign was an ISOer from Ohio. She was familiar to me as the same woman who several weeks earlier had posted a demented note on the CounterPunch Facebook page calling for the execution of two high school football players in Steubenville, Ohio who had been convicted of assaulting and finger-raping an inebriated teenage girl at a party. This was a revolting crime by any measure, but the death penalty? Really?

This bloodlust is symptomatic of how quickly the prosecutorial mindset of those possessed by a poisonous manifestation of identity politics can congeal into a lynch mob. It’s something that my old pal Alexander Cockburn knew intimately. In 1990, Alex was invited to speak by a gang of puritanical Trots at Reed College in Portland, a city almost paralyzed by the conventions of political correctness. (In spite of this laborious self-consciousness about its place as a hipster utopia, Portland hosts more strip clubs than any other city its size and lissome Earth First!ers are often glimpsed pole-dancing at Mary’s Club during the winter months to fund their high-wire activism in defense of ancient forests when the snows melt and the chainsaws fire up. For them, stripping is a much less humiliating experience than applying for a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.)

The invitation was a setup. Instead of a lecture, a self-appointed tribunal had been convened to put Alex on trial for his series of provocative columns in The Nation, which denounced the sexual witch-hunts sweeping the country in the wake of the McMartin pre-school case. Along with the great Debbie Nathan, Alex was one of the very few journalists to slash through the toxic hysteria and expose the accusations as fraudulent claims cooked-up by politically-motivated social workers and therapists. At the time, Alex was derided as an “anti-feminist,” but he was proved right. There were no apologies from his accusers.

That case was deadly serious. L’affaire Jolie is comically absurd. Josh and I are being accused of failing to conform to the rigid rules of the Trot’s editorial stylesheet, featuring dull prose and flatlined ideas. Of course, we’d never signed a loyalty oath. Never even subscribed to their rag. For those who are interested, the CounterPunch stylesheet derives from our close reading of Zap Comix, Mad Magazine, the Realist, Creem and Ed Sanders’ venerable Fuck You: a Magazine of the Arts. When in doubt about a particularly troubling issue of word choice in a subhead, I call Paul Krassner for editorial advice.

As is the case with most censorship campaigns dating back to the bonfires of Savonarola, this one blew up in the censors’ faces. The shrill condemnations of CounterPunch only served to drive thousands of curious minds, almost all of them Socialist Worker readers, to devour the very stories the Trots sought to expunge. It was ever thus. Just ask Ed Meese or Tipper Gore.

The dirty secret about the brain trust that oversees the Socialist Worker is that few of them are socialists and even fewer are working class people or even identify with them. And how could you, really, when you’re the heiress to a cruise-liner fortune or you issue your editorial communiqués from a mansion in one of the elite neighborhoods of upscale Evanston, Illinois.

The dogma of the ISO is notable only for its intellectual aridity and rock-solid immunity to innovation or evolution. Their political thinking, such as it is, remains lodged like a fossil in the strata of the early 1930s. Humiliated by their own political impotence, the Trots have lashed out at nearly every popular uprising of the last 50 years for being doctrinally impure, from the Cuban Revolution to the Zapatistas, from the street protests at the WTO to the Bolivaran Revolution.

These days the finicky ISO has more in common with Scientology than any real revolutionary movement. It recruits heavily on American campuses, targeting young idealists, many of them psychologically vulnerable and politically naïve. They sedulously indoctrinate them into a stale and anachronistic ideology and exploit their human labor as raw material to fuel an organization that is going nowhere by design. This kind of enterprise is a perfectly rational and perhaps even desirable adaptation to the current neoliberal dispensation.

So the pseudo-Socialists have become neo-McCarthyites. How Marx (and perhaps even old Leon himself) would have loathed them.

Exasperated by this tedium, Kimberly and I decamped from dreary Oregon for a long weekend at our customary haunt in San Francisco’s Chinatown. We had a welcome rendezvous with our daughter, who over the past few months has waged a fierce battle against a rare form of lymphoma. Her condition was diagnosed only a few weeks after we buried Alexander Cockburn under the arching eucalyptus trees in Petrolia. I will pause here only briefly to note my profound revulsion at being smeared for “trivializing cancer” by a cadre of self-aggrandizing prudes and shame merchants, especially after the savage toll cancer has inflicted on all of us at CounterPunch this last year.

Near the top of our agenda in the Bay Area was a close-up encounter with Johannes Vermeer’s famous pierced girl, the one with the pearl earring and exotic turban, which was on a rare leave of absence from her normal chamber at the Mauritshuis in The Hague. Not being a huge fan of Dutch painters and their customary palette featuring fifty shades of umber, I made some deprecating comments about the Sphinx of Delft on our long ride down Geary Avenue to foggy Golden Gate Park. His paintings, I professed, were rather too stuffy, prim and tidy. I declaimed my preference (though no one seemed to be listening) for the messy brushstrokes and convivial bar room scenes of Jan Steen, the Master of Rosacea.

I’ve inspected a few Vermeers over the years: the napping maid at the Metropolitan, the officer with the wide-brimmed hat and smiling girl hanging in that small room of masterpieces at the Frick, the woman writing a letter now residing in the National Gallery in DC. These are all delicate, meticulously rendered paintings of everyday life, most of them featuring young women. There is a strange quality of voyeurism to Vermeer’s paintings. His work, unlike the sprawling historical canvases favored by the wealthy patrons of the Dutch renaissance, capture discreet and intimate moments—milk being poured into a pan, a globe being gently spun, the reading of a letter near a sunlit window–which can make the viewer seem like a secret intruder.

Born in Delft in 1632, Vermeer was the son of a silk merchant and art dealer. He was apprenticed as a painter and spent his entire life, short though it was, in the guilds, agitating for the rights of painters, engravers and artisans. Vermeer was elected three times to serve as dean of the Guild of St. Luke. Despite this esteemed position, when Vermeer died in December of 1675 at the age of 43, he was destitute. Part of his financial distress was certainly attributable to his glacially slow pace of work. Over the course of his brief career, Vermeer produced less than two paintings per year. By contrast, Rembrandt, working as feverishly as Picasso, completed nearly 600 paintings, 2,000 drawings and 400 etchings in his 45-years wielding a brush.

As far as we know, Vermeer (unlike Rembrandt, Hals, Steen and the Brueghels) never once painted a naked breast. In his 36 surviving works, there’s not the faintest hint of a nipple. Even in Vermeer’s dark early painting, “Diana and Her Nymphs,” subjects normally depicted as nudes (indeed mythological scenes were often pretexts for painting nudes), the figures of the young women are thickly swaddled in dresses and robes, drained of any erotic charge.

Vermeer’s “The Procuress,” another early work, captures a transaction for sexual congress outside of a brothel. A young woman stands in front of a large carpet, draped over a balustrade. She is being presented to two men by a much older woman, wrapped in a black nun-like habit, her face fissured with wrinkles. In one hand the girl grips a glass of wine, while the other is out-stretched to receive coins from a patron. The man is dressed in a red coat. He wears the hat of a cavalier. One of his large hands gropes the young woman’s chest, as his friend (perhaps a self-portrait of Vermeer) looks toward the viewer with a leering grin. But the young prostitute is primly attired in a white headpiece and a tightly-corseted yellow dress that seems anything but carnal. It is a strange, unsettling canvas that should be read as an early critique of the corrupting nature of capitalism.

Now it is time for my confession. Don’t say I can’t admit when I’m terribly, even grievously wrong. No, not about Tit-gate; but about Vermeer. We arrived outside the stark, industrial edifice of the DeYoung at noon and elbowed our way through Japanese tourists and bored San Francisco trophy wives and trophy husbands, past Hobbema’s bleak landscapes, Steens’s salacious “Woman Eating an Oyster,” Franz Hals’s austere portraits and Fabritius’s glowing “Goldfinch.”

Finally, we entered the room where she hangs on the western wall. The portrait is shockingly small, intimate. It glows out of the half-darkness. People in her presence were swooning, gasping. A young Asian girl near us shouted, “Oh, Mother, isn’t she lovely!” Others were weeping. I even felt a dewy moistness in my own cynical eyes. She is beautiful and real and present. Her gaze holds you, a chilling goodbye look.

Vermeer, I repent!
Re: Refusing to accept sexism - at Counterpunch
18 Feb 2014
Modified: 12:29:03 PM
May 27, 2013 ( )

Several articles at the CounterPunch website that criticized Angelina Jolie for her decision to publicize that she underwent a double mastectomy have provoked strong criticism. Here, activists and scholars register their disappointment with CounterPunch for its use of sexist language and its belittling attitudes toward a serious issue.

RUTH FOWLER has used two CounterPunch columns to criticize Angelina Jolie for writing a New York Times essay to discuss her decision to have a double mastectomy, while not recognizing and acknowledging: 1) the economic means she holds to undergo an expensive medical procedure other women can't afford; and 2) that a corporation called Myriad Genetics is generating enormous profits by driving up screening tests for breast cancer. Fowler argues that these contradictions undermine Jolie's credibility to speak for survivors of breast cancer.

We disagree.

First and foremost, all medical patients diagnosed with potentially fatal illnesses deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Jolie deserves respect as someone who spoke out bravely about the difficult decision to have a double mastectomy rather than risk getting breast cancer. Fowler fails to acknowledge this and uses Jolie's celebrity to try to strip her of her fundamental humanity. The title of her first article, "Angelia Jolie: On Privilege, Tits, and Being Dumb," reduces Jolie to a pair of "tits" in a move not that different from the sensationalist media that routinely objectifies women.

As Sharon Smith noted in her critique of Fowler's original piece, which CounterPunch refused to post, "[U]sing boob jokes to introduce an article about undergoing a double mastectomy to prevent a potentially deadly disease constitutes a descent from sexism to misogyny."

Julian Vigo, in her response to Smith, focuses her critique on the use of the term "tit," defending its use by Fowler and responding with what we expect a typical male undergraduate student to say when first introduced to the notion of women's objectification: "CounterPunch also uses titles with 'dick,' 'penis,' and 'cock' in them."

The problem with these articles in CounterPunch is that they use a left cover to recycle sexist tropes while hiding behind class outrage.

Second, Fowler ruthlessly attacks Jolie's apparent ignorance about the sexist machinations of the medical industry without noting that a lack of information under capitalism is fairly common. Information about pharmaceutical companies and the role they play in shaping our health care "choices" are neither easily accessible nor discussed openly in mainstream media. While Jolie surely could have done more "homework" on the health care system before writing her piece, we should acknowledge that Myriad Genetics and the health care industry are what deny women access to good health care, not Jolie.

Since Jolie's article, there has been widespread media coverage of breast cancer as well as preventative measures open to women. Surely, as feminists we should welcome this development. Additionally, the ACLU has taken Myriad to court about its patent monopoly, creating an opening to critique the for-profit health care system.

Third, Fowler ridicules Jolie's wealth and celebrity in a mean-spirited effort to discredit her attempts to educate other women about how to preserve personal dignity in the face of medical trauma.

When women negotiate the health care industry, they face a double jeopardy: the everyday scrutiny of female bodies and sexualities are heightened and pathologized. To this is added the fear and horror of care being solely determined by affordability.

Any attempt to shed light on this difficult process, regardless of the class of the person that it comes from, should be welcomed. When a "celebrity" such as Jolie speaks about double mastectomy not affecting her femininity, she is bringing relief to many women who are caught in this trap of gender and class. And because she is a celebrity (who need not have exposed herself to such scrutiny, we might add), she created a larger space in the mainstream media to reflect on these issues.

To be sure, Angelina Jolie is not a revolutionary. Nor is she, quite probably, what we could agree is a feminist. What we wish to defend in this statement is less Jolie and her politics, but rather her boldness in coming forward and the opening that has created to discuss this painful issue.

We are disappointed that CounterPunch has run three articles on this question, but has refused to spend a second being self-reflexive about the sexism in these articles and their headlines, much less provide a space for those who wish to articulate a different and non-sexist position.

Deepa Kumar, Associate Professor, Media Studies, Rutgers University
Tithi Bhattacharya, Associate Professor, History, Purdue University
Bill Mullen, Professor, English, Purdue University
Ania Loomba, Catherine Bryson Professor of English, University of Pennsylvania
T. J. Boisseau, Director, Women's Studies, Associate Professor, History, Purdue University
Janet Staiger, Professor Emeritus, Radio-Television-Film and Women's and Gender Studies, University of Texas-Austin
Janet Afary, Mellichamp Chair in Global Religion and Modernity, Professor, Religious Studies and Feminist Studies, University of California Santa Barbara
Radhika Parameswaran, Professor, School of Journalism, Indiana University
Deborah Tudor, Associate Dean, College of Mass Communication and Media Arts, Southern Illinois University
Lisa McLaughlin, Ph.D., Department of Media, Journalism and Film and Program in Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies, Miami University-Ohio
Cynthia Carter, Co-editor, Feminist Media Studies, Senior Lecturer, Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, Cardiff University
Vicki Mayer, Editor, Television & New Media, Professor, Communication, Tulane University
Liesbet Van Zoonen, Professor of Communication and Media Studies, Loughborough University, Professor of Popular Culture, Erasmus University, Rotterdam
Margot Mifflin, Associate Professor, Lehman College/CUNY Graduate School of Journalism
Nirmala Erevelles, Professor, Social and Cultural Studies in Education, University of Alabama
Robin R. Means Coleman, Associate Professor, Communication, University of Michigan
Radhika Gajjala, Professor, School of Media and Communication and American Culture Studies, Bowling Green State University
Abbie Bakan, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, Canada
Bill Keach, Professor, Brown University.
Karin Wahl-Jorgensen, Professor, Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, Cardiff University.
Helen Scott, Associate Professor, English, University of Vermont
Saadia Toor, Associate Professor, Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work, College of Staten Island
Des Freedman, Reader, Media and Communications, Goldsmiths College, University of London
Kavita Krishnan, Secretary, All India Progressive Women's Association, New Delhi, India
David McNally, Professor, Political Science, York University
Paul Kellogg, Assistant Professor, Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies, Athabasca University, Canada
Sue Ferguson, Associate Professor, Wilfrid Laurier University, Brantford, Ontario, Canada
Dana Cloud, Associate Professor, University of Texas-Austin
Pranav Jani, Associate Professor, English, Ohio State University
Pam Tracy, Associate Professor, Communication, Longwood University
Regina Marchi, Associate Professor, Media Studies, Rutgers University
Maurice Stevens, Associate Professor, Department of Comparative Studies, Ohio State University
Basuli Deb, Assistant Professor, English and Women's and Gender Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Patrick Jones, Associate Professor, Department of History, University of Nebraska-Lincoln
Patrick L. Gallagher, Associate Professor, Department of Modern and Classical Language Studies, Kent State University
Jeff Bale, Assistant Professor, Dept of Teacher Education, Michigan State University
Phil Gasper, Philosophy Instructor, Madison Area Technical College
Keith Danner, Lecturer, English, University of California Irvine
Related - ISO condemns "Inappropriate Halloween Costumes"
Re: Inserting Democracy in the ISO
18 Feb 2014
Modified: 01:29:26 PM
Change From Within? Aug 2013

Listening to the rhetoric at Socialism 2013, the summer conference run by the International Socialist Organization (ISO), a group claiming to have the largest membership on the American revolutionary left, one would get the impression that the ISO was moving in a less sectarian and more internally democratic direction. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case. This is frustrating for those of us who believe a more accountable organization with significantly fewer ideological litmus tests could be larger and more effective without moving rightward.

An example of this apparent newfound openness to debate and willingness to work with others can be found in remarks made at the conference by leading ISO member Ahmed Shawki (available at

“We have to become a place which is habitable to people moving in a radical direction,” Shawki said. “And also the place that becomes a home to people who will not share every dotted eye and crossed ‘t’ on perspective.”

Elevating the need for “vigorous debate,” Shawki said that in order to “move beyond the margins of the left” socialists must stop insisting on “a common line on every question.” He even suggested the ISO would be interested in merging with other organizations, were there any of comparable size.

And yet this seeming glasnost only goes so far. Pham Binh, a former member who was with the organization for the better part of a decade, recently wrote a detailed critique of the ISO’s structure and practice. He submitted the piece to and it was rejected. A link to the piece that was posted on the Socialist Worker’s Facebook page was promptly deleted. As far as I am aware, the organization’s leadership has not acknowledged the critique whatsoever.

In his piece, which is titled “Thinking of Joining the ISO?” and is available at, Binh explains how the ISO uses a closed-slate election system.

“The previous year’s Steering Committee submits the coming year’s Steering Committee to the convention as a single bloc for an up-or-down vote by a show of hands rather than a secret ballot,” Binh writes.

A single Steering Committee member cannot be challenged without offering a whole new slate of a dozen names. As a result, Binh writes, “as far as anyone knows, the ISO has never had a competitive election for its Steering Committee since it was founded in 1977.”

Rank-and-file members are kept in the dark about everything from the organization’s size to its assets, so much so that most members, according to Binh, are unaware the ISO violated its support for the Palestinian boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign by purchasing and selling thousands of dollars worth of Caterpillar stock.

Additionally, the ISO insists on an ideological uniformity that stifles the goal of increased membership, which would require a big-tent organization.

“As you begin going to study groups,” Binh writes, “you discover the ISO as an organization has a whole range of positions on theoretical, historical, and foreign policy questions ranging from topics like privilege and the one-state solution in Palestine to Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution that you are expected (or even duty-bound) to defend even if you personally disagree with them.”

Search the archives of, an ISO publication, and you will find the socialist intellectual Noam Chomsky quoted approvingly quite frequently. Yet the range of debate within the ISO is so limited that Chomsky, who has called the Bolshevik Revolution a “coup,” would presumably be drummed out of the group. At the very least he would likely not be allowed to express his views on the matter in ISO publications. And when the most widely-respected, living, anti-capitalist intellectual might not be able to make a home in your organization, that’s a decent indication you’re too sectarian.

That socialists must share an exact interpretation of an historical event that happened nearly a century ago in order to coordinate their class struggle efforts of course makes no sense, as Binh points out. Obviously capitalist parties don’t demand that prospective members accept a specific interpretation of, say, World War I, in order to join the organization. That would be ridiculous.

The ISO’s constant turnover and membership plateau, two things the group itself admits to be problems, should come as no surprise given the organization’s narrow-mindedness and anti-democratic structure. Who wants to belong to what, in many ways, I’m sorry to say, amounts to a cult-like sect, however well-intentioned it may be?

Let me be clear about my relationship to the ISO so I’m not accused of having a personal axe to grind. I attended some meetings of the organization’s Burlington branch in my freshman year of college. I was impressed by the members’ political knowledge and commitment, but I did not join the group because I was uncomfortable identifying as a Trotskyist, as I remain today. I’ve been a semi-regular reader of for many years, and have been published on the site. I have recommended the site to members of my community, and took out a subscription to the print edition for my hometown library. ISO writers have greatly sharpened my thinking, dull as it still might be, and I have great respect for all the rank-and-file members with whom I’ve come in contact. So when I say this isn’t personal, I mean it.

Readers might ask, why not just start a new organization? To which the answer is, perhaps we should! But the ISO—with its dedicated membership, excellent writing staff, and well-respected publishing arm in Haymarket Books—is influential on today’s far left. By criticizing the organization constructively we may help it reform itself. At worst, we may help ensure that a future group doesn’t make the same mistakes.

See Russell Brand - We've Got To Do Something -
Re: Notes on a Staggering International Socialist Organization
18 Feb 2014
Modified: 02:47:35 PM
Ways of (Not) Seeing 06/03/2013

Adam Turl explains why an attempt to use the work of Vermeer as a shield for sexism falls flat.


In mid-May, CounterPunch published a politically crude article "Of Privilege, Health Care and Tits: Angelina Jolie Under the Knife," by Ruth Fowler. The article attempted to critique an op-ed article by Jolie -- about her recent double preventative mastectomy -- in order to provide a gender and class analysis of women's health care. The article woodenly counterposed gender and class concerns and then poured a perplexing level of vitriol and scorn on Jolie. Fowler's class anger is certainly understandable -- although her targeting is off.

CounterPunch editors, Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank, then decided to make matters worse when they promoted Fowler's article -- and channeled their inner-frat boys -- with a mass e-mail reading "Ruth Fowler unsnaps Jolie's bra and exposes privilege, health care and tits."
Things continued to escalate after columnist and CounterPunch contributor Sharon Smith submitted an article critical of Fowler and CounterPunch. Instead of publishing Smith's article and fostering a comradely (and no doubt quite useful) debate about sexism, the relationship of class and gender, health care and the difference between prudishness and opposing the objectification of women, St. Clair and Frank became hysterical.

The latest product of that hysteria, an article titled "Tits, Fits and Vermeers: The Merchants of Shame," was posted on CounterPunch this past weekend. The article consists of a largely unbelievable mise-en-scène, followed by class-baiting, red-baiting, dissembling, half-truths and a truly bizarre discussion of the 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer.

The point of the odd tangent appears to be a mock apology to the Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer--who, unlike many of his contemporaries, evidently never painted a naked breast. It is unclear whether this is meant as mere obfuscation--or to argue that since women's bodies have always been subjects in art, St. Clair's detractors are insufferable prudes. Or perhaps it is implied that Vermeer was a prude, and that is why St. Clair is apologizing to him.

I certainly have no problem with the paintings of Johannes Vermeer -- although he is not my favorite 17th century Dutch painter. I am still quite fond of the "feverish" work of Rembrandt. Rembrandt was a more interesting painter -- in terms of what he did with actual paint -- building up the lighter areas of a canvas and washing darks over them like a rain of darkness flooding mountains of light.

The problem here is with St. Clair's supposedly clever, but entirely superficial and confusing, reading of Vermeer's work and the related question of the female form in art.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

There is, of course, nothing wrong with depicting the female form. There is also nothing wrong with men and women sexually desiring the female form. There is nothing wrong with depicting this desire in art. Sexuality was part and parcel of art from the beginning. The problem is how these desires are constructed and manipulated in a society that systematically oppresses women and commodifies sexuality.

Regardless, because women have been oppressed for at least 10,000 years, the vast majority of artistic artifacts (mostly produced in that time) reflect this oppression. They reflect (heterosexual) male desires. Women depicted in art, clothed or not, are generally shown as passive, except in regard to these male projections of sexual desire. There are exceptions. The most important exception, in which women are shown as active -- in a sense -- is in the activities of motherhood, for example, in various madonnas.

Women might be presented as beautiful, ugly, clothed, unclothed, as virtuous, as innocents, as harlots or whores -- but they were generally not presented as independent actors. Vermeer is no exception.

It should go without saying that women were not allowed to become artists -- except in rare circumstances. Only in the 20th century did this begin to change -- and so far it has changed far too slowly. In 1989, the Guerrilla Girls--an anonymous association of female artists dedicated to challenging "art world" sexism -- famously produced the poster above.

The Guerrilla Girls were not protesting the existence of nudes, but pointing out a sexist contradiction in terms of what was allowed in the high temple of art. Naked women: yes. Female artists: not so much. While things have improved in some quarters, as Ben Davis writes in his new book, 9.5 Theses on Art and Class, the art world is still overwhelmingly male-dominated -- even though women make up an increasingly disproportionate number of art school graduates.

St. Clair writes of his visit with the Girl with the Pearl Earring: "She is beautiful and real and present. Her gaze holds you, a chilling goodbye look."

So it is somewhat surprising that St. Clair is apparently ignorant of the implications of the "gaze" in art--a concept articulated by many art historians, by feminists, and by the Marxist art critic John Berger. As Berger put it in Ways of Seeing (1972):

According to usage and conventions which are at last being questioned but have by no means been overcome, the social presence of women is different in kind from that of a man. A man's presence is dependent upon the promise of power which he embodies. If the promise is large and credible his presence is striking. If it is small or incredible, he is found to have little presence. The promised power may be moral, physical, temperamental, economic, social, sexual--but its object is always exterior to the man. A man's presence suggests what he is capable of doing to you or for you....

By contrast, a woman's presence expresses her own attitude to herself, and defines what can and cannot be done to her. Her presence is manifest in her gestures, voice, opinions, expressions, clothes, chosen surroundings, taste--indeed there is nothing she can do which does not contribute to her presence. Presence for a woman is so intrinsic to her person that men tend to think of it as an almost physical emanation, a kind of heat or smell or aura.

To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men... A woman must continually watch herself. She is almost continually accompanied by her own image of herself. Whilst she is walking across a room or whilst she is weeping at the death of her father, she can scarcely avoid envisaging herself walking or weeping...

And so she comes to consider the surveyor and surveyed within her as the two constituent yet always distinct elements of her identity as a woman.

"[M]en act and women appear," Berger argued.

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This is clear in many of the female nudes produced from the later Renaissance through the late 19th century. The female figure is passive and defined by her reflection in the male gaze.

It does not follow that these artworks are tainted by mortal sin in some sort of feminist catechism. In fact, Manet's Olympia reflects certain sexist ideas while attempting (within the confines of its time) to challenge elements of those ideas. His nude is not "idealized" (by the bourgeois standards of his day). This led to its scandalous reception at the Paris Salon in 1865 -- where the model's expression and other elements of the painting indicated that she was a prostitute. Manet's gesture stripped the actuality of the artistic nude (as a commodity for the male gaze) from pretense.

Nevertheless, these works do not escape the logic of the gaze. To say that Goya's Naga -- or Vermeer's Girl with the Pearl Earrings -- proves something about the use (or misuse) of the female image is to beg the question. The meaning (in terms of gender oppression) is in the contradiction between the presentations of the female and male.

The heyday of easel painting produced three main variations of painting -- all of which were purchased by the bourgeois collector: portraits, landscapes and history/mythological/religious painting. The images of men are almost always of the triumphant bourgeois (or heroic substitute), perhaps at home, perhaps at study, often overlooking his wealth or holdings, or triumphing in battle, etc.

Landscapes were the least popular in the early art market -- perhaps the bourgeois sensed how they might come to include the poor, or perhaps they were threatened by the artist's fetish for nature, for which the rich merchants had utilitarian designs.

Regardless, while men acted on the world, women were the objects of men's actions and desires. This is why titillating stories, "naughty pictures" and innuendo are not merely titillating stories, "naughty pictures" and innuendo. It is also why sentimentality is not just sentimentality. The terrain on which these things grow is uneven and unequal. It is one in which all sexuality is commodified -- but female sexuality is additionally oppressed for being female.

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No serious artist coming of age in the past few decades has failed to confront this issue -- positively or negatively. One doesn't have to refer to overtly feminist artists like Mike Kelley--who used traditionally "female" materials like yarn to make cloth phalluses -- to see that most contemporary artists have eschewed the unthinking presentation of female nudes and passive women.

It is not that artists have suddenly become prudes. Many have simply become conscious of the relationship of sexism to the gaze.

This is not to say that sexism (and crude objectifications of women) don't persist in contemporary art. They do--as the controversy surrounding Marina Abramovic's Museum of Contemporary Art (MoCA) "Gala" showed in 2011. Abramovic situated naked female models as centerpieces for a museum fundraiser. These women's bodiesliterally became objects for a bourgeois gaze.

As the choreographer Yvonne Rainer protested:

After observing a rehearsal, I am writing to protest the "entertainment" about to be provided by Marina Abramovic at the upcoming donor gala at the Museum of Contemporary Art where a number of young people's live heads will be rotating as decorative centerpieces at diners' tables and others -- all women -- will be required to lie perfectly still in the nude for over three hours under fake skeletons, also as centerpieces surrounded by diners.

On the face of it the above description might strike one as reminiscent of Salo, Pasolini's controversial film of 1975 that dealt with sadism and sexual abuse of a group of adolescents at the hands of a bunch of postwar fascists. Though it is hard to watch, Pasolini's film has a socially credible justification tied to the cause of anti-fascism. Abramovic and MoCA have no such credibility -- and I am speaking of this event itself, not of Abramovic's work in general -- only a questionable personal rationale about the beauty of eye contact and the transcendence of artists' suffering.

At the rehearsal the fifty heads -- all young, beautiful, and mostly white--turning and bobbing out of holes as their bodies crouched beneath the otherwise empty tables, appeared touching and somewhat comic, but when I tried to envision 800 inebriated diners surrounding them, I had another impression.

I myself have never been averse to occasional epatering of the bourgeoisie. However, I can't help feeling that subjecting her performers to possible public humiliation and bodily injury from the three-hour endurance test at the hands of a bunch of frolicking donors is yet another example of the Museum's callousness and greed and Ms Abramovic's obliviousness to differences in context and some of the implications of transposing her own powerful performances to the bodies of others. An exhibition is one thing -- again, this is not a critique of Abramovic's work in general--but titillation for wealthy donor/diners as a means of raising money is another.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

If sexism continues in "visual art," it runs rampant in popular culture. Advertisements, broadcast television and basic cable, and film are rife with unreflective presentations of the female intended for the gaze. This is not even to mention the porn industry. The mainstream culture constantly reproduces and reinforces this dynamic because of capitalism's need (as capital) for women to occupy a different status than men -- making all women bear personal responsibility for the reproduction of species.

Even when there is an artistic reason for the female nude, the artist and viewer must seriously consider what this means in a sexist society. For example, a female actor in HBO's Game of Thrones -- a very well-written and layered piece of television based on George R.R. Martin's novels -- recently protested that she would no longer do nude scenes. The actor's lament that she would rather be known for her acting skill rather than her breasts is entirely justified in an industry that gave a platform to Seth McFarlane at the Academy Awards.

These are not abstract concerns important to a cultured minority. The cultural construction of gender is closely related to the material oppression of women and sexual minorities -- rape, unequal pay, over- and under-representation in various industries, loss of reproductive rights, lack of child care, lack of elder care, lack of employment and housing rights, etc. The passive female image--as the focus of male desire or as model of virtue -- is certainly no defense against accusations of sexism.

The answer to this -- in terms of culture -- is not an easy one. Puritanism is the cousin of cruder sexisms. It provides women (and, by extension, men) with the choice of virgin or whore, which is no choice at all. Moreover, sexuality is an ancient and primal force. It is both intensely serious and often unserious. It has both a scientific and spiritual side in that it can be understood and can't be fully understood at the same time. Our understanding of (or more accurately, our participation in) these factors is constantly upset by the distortions of sexist society.

Art that aspires to deal with sexuality and gender must therefore deal with all these things. It is no easy task. This is because art must aspire to represent this world (which is sexist), aspirations for a better world (that isn't) and things that cannot be represented at all (whatever reality might lurk behind the greater contradictions of sexuality--contradictions that exist beyond class society).

The task for activists who oppose sexism, however, is somewhat more straightforward. Clear manifestations of oppression must be opposed. I do not believe that it was ever the intention of CounterPunch or Ruth Fowler to do anything sexist. However, CounterPunch's circling of the wagons at the hint of criticism betrayed a misunderstanding of the scope and scale of women's oppression -- a misunderstanding confirmed by Jeffrey St. Clair's odd invocation of a 17th century Dutch painting.

See: Bloody Well Right - Nineteenth Century Fine Art -
Re: Notes on a Staggering International Socialist Organization
18 Feb 2014
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The increasingly right-wing, pro-Democratic Party ISO By David Walsh 16 February 2013 ( )

The remarkable response of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) to Barack Obama’s State of the Union address February 12 gives expression to the organization’s movement even farther to the right and into the camp of the Democratic Party.

The most critical moment in Obama’s speech, as the WSWS noted, came when the newly re-inaugurated president defended the program of drone assassinations currently operated by his administration, in violation of the Constitution, as well as US and international law, which has resulted in thousands of civilian deaths.

After observing that Al Qaeda, the organization that attacked the US on September 11, 2001 “is a shadow of its former self,” Obama went on to claim that the threat posed by the Islamist group and its affiliates “is evolving.” Instead of sending troops to invade Yemen, Libya and Somalia, for example, the president suggested, the US would continue, “through a range of capabilities … to take direct action against those terrorists who pose the gravest threat to Americans.” This is a euphemism for the drone program and other related activities, aspects of Washington’s drive to dominate the strategically important region.

Obama insisted that “we must enlist our values” in carrying out this program of long-range assassination, over which he personally presides. Insofar as the president is referring to America’s revolutionary-democratic “values,” embodied in such documents as the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation, along with the best instincts of the population rooted in those traditions, there is no possibility of such an enlistment. The two phenomena are entirely at odds, and if democratic “values” had the slightest resonance within the political and media establishment, calls for Obama’s impeachment and removal from office would be too numerous to keep track of.

There is no attachment to Constitutional rights within the American establishment, including its comfortable liberal-left element within which the ISO is located.

The February 14 editorial response by to Obama’s address (“Hollowed-out hope”) makes no reference to “drones,” “assassination program” or “kill list.” In fact, the ISO has had almost nothing to say about Obama’s drone murders. A February 12 piece by Eric Ruder suggested that a “real debate” and “a challenge” were needed in relation to the extra-judicial program. The rest is silence.

This in itself is not a surprise. The ISO has steadily accommodated itself to US-led imperialist interventions. The pseudo-left group equivocated in regard to the attack on Libya, arguing that whether to support or oppose the Great Powers’ campaign was a matter of legitimate discussion “on the left.” It has endorsed the imperialist-backed campaign for regime change in Syria.

The ISO’s decades of activity in and around various middle class protest movements and the trade union apparatuses, in the orbit of the Democratic Party, have created something quite reactionary. Its leadership and membership can easily be manipulated by abstract and empty appeals to “human rights” and “women’s rights,” and mutterings about “Muslim backwardness” and “Islamo-fascism,” all of which are the pretexts the imperialists and their apologists provide for their neo-colonial operations, just as the West’s “civilizing mission” was offered up a century or more ago.

So, the ISO has nothing to say about Obama’s State of the Union defense of the killing of countless Pakistani, Afghan and Yemeni citizens and his promise to continue the program. None of that, as they say, registers on the ISO’s political radar screen. does, however, choose to take quasi-seriously what the WSWS described as the president’s “left-sounding rhetoric,” intended “to give a ‘progressive’ gloss to a reactionary, anti-working class program.”

The ISO sees its task as forcing Obama and the Democrats to live up to their promises.

The editors write, “The media consensus is in about Barack Obama’s State of the Union address: his speech was aggressive and progressive, challenging the Republican Party to deliver on immigrant rights, raising the minimum wage, climate change and more.”

Having introduced this “consensus” view to their readers, the ISO editors never seriously debunk it. They later merely observe that “the real Obama isn’t the progressive firebrand liberals wish he was, but a conventional politician squarely at the center of the bipartisan political establishment in Washington.”

The complacency of this comment, regarding an administration dominated as perhaps no other in history by the financial aristocracy and military-intelligence apparatus, which has made a considerable advance in the direction of police-state dictatorship, is aimed at lulling the reader to sleep.

The ISO’s message is: Obama isn’t the “progressive firebrand liberal” they say he is—he’s perhaps only half or a quarter of that.

The editorial continues: “Obama has so far taken a tougher stand against the Republicans than he did in his first four years, when he gave up ground again and again. That doesn’t mean the White House won’t cave, over the sequester or some other issue. But even if they don’t retreat, Obama and the Democrats sure can’t be described as standing up for a progressive agenda.”

In his State of the Union address, Obama boasted of having slashed $2.5 trillion from the deficit, “mostly through spending cuts,” and proposed to cut hundreds of billions more from Medicare and Social Security. The differences between the Democrats and Republicans on budget cutting are tactical and largely cosmetic. The two parties agree that the costs of the global economic crisis and bailing out of the banks have to be imposed on the population in part by eviscerating social programs.

Thus, to describe the Democrats’ support for austerity and the impoverishment of the American people as simply “not standing up for a progressive agenda” is so misleading as to constitute an out-and-out political falsehood. If such a formulation is not a semi-covert argument for supporting the “lesser of two evils,” then what is it?

The ISO, in this same dishonest, backhanded manner, again and again puts the best face on Obama’s address in their February 14 editorial. “He [the president] did dust off an old promise to raise the federal minimum wage—to $9 an hour from the current $7.25. … That’s just not enough action from the man who declared that ‘in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty.’” “Obama’s speech contained numerous proposals that may sound good—like tax credits to expand access to higher education,” etc., etc. “Not enough action”—if only he would do more!

The profoundly right-wing thrust of the editorial emerges most clearly in its last two paragraphs:

“It’s time,” editorializes, “for the labor movement, liberal organizations and the broader left beyond them to stop praising Obama for merely opposing the Republican right. Working people need to fight for the agenda we want, not Obama’s hollowed-out, compromised version.

“The only way Obama or any other Washington politician will match the rhetoric they use to appeal for votes with actual action is if we build a working-class alternative in all the struggles taking place in US society.”

First of all, the ISO explicitly identifies itself as part of a social movement that includes the trade unions and “liberal organizations.” That is to say, it associates itself with conscious defenders of the existing bourgeois order and the Democratic Party. These forces, it admits, are busily praising Obama. The ISO proposes to debate these allies, enemies of the interests of the broad mass of the population, about tactics.

Perhaps most revealingly, acknowledges that Obama’s program, as the chief defender of American imperialist interests, is only a “hollowed-out, compromised version” of their own.

It is speaking here, not for the mass of working people, but for a significant layer of union officials, journalists, professors, graduate students with prospects, professional social activists, environmentalists, “community organizers” and so forth.

They would like to see more favorable conditions for union dues-collecting, more opportunities for upper middle class minority, female and gay academics and researchers, more government spending on various “progressive” projects related to their narrow interests and, in general, a slight adjustment of the national wealth in their favor. The real complaint here is that Obama has not gone far enough along these lines, despite his promises to the middle class “left” when the Democrats need its votes and support.

The ISO’s political perspective is to organize lobbying, protest and the application of political pressure to move the Democrats in the direction of meeting this social layer’s demands, to make Obama and the Washington politicians “match the rhetoric they use … with actual action.” This has nothing in common with, and indeed is thoroughly hostile to, a socialist, working class program and orientation.

See - Obama Shoots - Photoshop Meme -
Re: Notes on a Staggering International Socialist Organization
18 Feb 2014
Modified: 04:02:54 PM
Putting the Sect Into Sectarian
Inside the International Socialist Organization
by LOUIS PROYECT ( June 14-16, 2013 ) Counterpunch

Whenever I reflect back on my decade-long experience in the American Socialist Workers Party during the Vietnam War epoch, I feel like I am auditioning for the lead role in Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape”:

Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago, hard to believe I was ever as bad as that. Thank God that’s all done with anyway. (Pause.) The eyes she had! (Broods, realizes he is recording silence, switches off, broods. Finally.) Everything there, everything, all the– (Realizing this is not being recorded, switches on.) Everything there, everything on this old muckball, all the light and dark and famine and feasting of . . . (hesitates) . . . the ages! (In a shout.) Yes! (Pause.) Let that go! Jesus! Take his mind off his homework! Jesus (Pause. Weary.) Ah well, maybe he was right.

I suppose that the one benefit derived from my misspent youth was learning enough about “Marxist-Leninism” first-hand so that I could be credible to young people today about avoiding my mistakes. Fortunately, the weight of history makes it much more difficult for groups like the SWP to attract new members since the “Russian” paradigm that they are based on is extinct.

One of the more dynamic and attractive groups on the far left is the International Socialist Organization (ISO). The ISO’ers made a splash recently by going on a campaign to expose the editors of CounterPunch as a bunch of sexist frat boys in the “Animal House” vein with Jeff St. Clair and Joshua Frank reprising Bluto and Otter. My intention here is not to reopen the brouhaha but to take a look at the ISO from the perspective of Jeff St. Clair’s recent article on the Silent Death of the American Left. I will argue that there is a relationship between a left so badly in need of resurrection now and transcending the type of sectarian divisions associated with the “Russian” paradigm.

The ISO was born in 1976 as a result of a faction fight in a group called International Socialism (IS). Ideologically the IS rested on a theory called “bureaucratic collectivism” cooked up by Max Shachtman and that regarded the USSR as a kind of new society ruled by bureaucrats who were exploiting the workers in the name of socialism. Later on, there was a conversion to “state capitalism”, a theory that looked just as askance at the USSR but through a somewhat different ideological prism. For those with a taste for these kinds of Talmudic disputations, I would refer you to Barry Finger’s article “Bureaucratic Collectivism” as well as my own dissection of state capitalism. It is the sort of thing that I used to find interesting, when disco was king.

That was when I first encountered “state capitalist” theory–in the early 1990s. I had trouble understanding how the term capitalist could be applied to the USSR since the lash of market relations was nowhere to be seen, especially for a labor force that had little to worry about runaway shops and unemployment. If you read the Communist Manifesto, it will be clear that capitalism was ruled by a bourgeoisie that “cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.”

But what in the world did this have to do with a Soviet Union that moved at a snail’s pace, particularly when it came to high technology? I was always reminded of Spalding Gray’s “Monster in a Box” monologue where he describes a visit to Russia. In attempting to explain in his own off-kilter manner why the USSR collapsed, he compares the communications system on an American battleship to its Soviet counterpart. It turns out that the Russian admiral uses an old-fashioned tube to speak to his men down in the engine-room.

The people who left the IS to form the ISO were given substantial support by the British IS’ers, who were in the process of forming the British SWP, a group now embroiled in controversy over a top leader not being punished for raping a young female member, a result of his crony ties to the investigating committee.

The British SWP was the mother ship of a worldwide movement in the mold of Leon Trotsky’s Fourth International, which was itself modeled on the Comintern. While Leon Trotsky was a very astute critic of Stalin, his party-building methodology yielded nothing but sects and cults. By the 1950s there were almost as many “Fourth Internationals” as Elvis imitators in Las Vegas, each with its own batty pretender to the throne. For example, Juan Posadas was the genius at the helm of his own International based in Latin America. He argued that UFO sightings were an indication of advanced socialist societies in outer space and advocated a preemptive nuclear strike against the USA by the USSR, so that socialism could arise out of the nuclear ashes.

Tony Cliff was the founder of the British SWP. Born Yigael Gluckstein in 1917, Cliff was a charismatic figure with a particular appeal for intellectuals such as Christopher Hitchens who joined the movement during the Vietnam antiwar movement. One major intellectual who has stuck with the party through thick and thin is Alex Callinicos, the author of 30 books and countless articles and now Professor of European Studies at King’s College London.

Jim Higgins, who died in 2002 at the age of 72, was a chastened ex-member of the British SWP and author of “More Years for the Locust: The Origins of the SWP”, a witty and knowing account of what it was like to belong to such a sect, especially its tendency to live in the past:

It does not require a particularly profound knowledge of the Trotskyist tradition to notice certain similarities between Marxist obscurantism and an addiction to Christian arcana, together with shared fissiparous tendencies. There is Trotsky, like Peter, the first and the best of the disciples and then there is the ever-growing proliferation of sects, sectlets and insects claiming direct descent from the master. Each one of them has a cast iron reason for standing against the rest. If the class nature of Stalinist Russia seemed of vital import to Trotsky in 1940, then it must be at the centre of our thoughts in 1996. Never mind that country no longer exists; the maintenance of the argument is the maintenance of the tradition, it has become an end in itself. So powerful is this yearning for the certainties of the past that even the way some of us talk and write is redolent of Comintern jargon of the 1920s, freshly translated from the Russian by an incompetent.

Somewhere along the line friction developed between the ISO and the mother ship. In early 2001 there was a bitter divorce between the two groups over a number of issues, with the British SWP accusing the Americans of not understanding “the lessons of Seattle”, which meant having a different take on the anti-globalization protests of 1999. How dare they? Plagiarizing Dreiser, Callinicos referred to his former comrades as an “American Tragedy” in a 2001 article that complained among other things about how his tiny group of his supporters were being treated by the party’s overwhelming majority: “The ISO’s December 2000 convention in any case marked a further qualitative stage in the group’s sectarian degeneration. In an almost hysterical atmosphere, a minority within the ISO that defended the analysis of the anti-capitalist mood shared by the rest of the IS Tendency were subjected to vilification, bullying, and intimidation.”

This of course is par for the course in such organizations. When you are in the minority, you get bullied, vilified and intimidated for not recognizing the brilliance of the leadership of the moment. A couple of months ago a sizable minority of the SWP walked out after realizing that trying to bring the leadership to account over the rape scandal and overcome a general lack of democracy would lead to them being treated like pork-eaters in a Mosque. Among the dissidents were the gifted Verso author Richard Seymour and science-fiction maven China Mieville. I strongly suspect that any left organizing they’re involved with will bear fruit and serve as an inspiration for the left in the USA. That’s just my opinion.

Once the ISO was unmoored from the SWP, it went from strength to strength. It threw itself into the antiwar movement as well as many campus-based struggles. During my 21-year tenure at Columbia University, I ran into them at a campus literature table on many occasions. Their success was an inspiration to two old friends who like me had broken from the Trotskyist movement. One was Sol Dollinger, the husband of the UAW Flint Women’s Auxiliary leader Genora Dollinger. The Dollingers followed Harry Braverman and Bert Cochran into the Socialist Union of the mid to late 1950s. Known as the “Cochranites”, the group had the audacious idea that unity rather than sectarian divisions on the left was necessary. As anybody old enough to remember the 1950s can attest, these were not good times to start any kind of new left group—sane or batty. So they fell apart in 1959. Braverman, of course, went on to write “Labor and Monopoly Capital”, a classic study of changes in the American economy.

Peter Camejo was another old friend who grew to respect the ISO’s work on the Nader campaign and what he regarded as their respect for democratic rights. Peter had problems with any group that adhered to the “Russian” model but saw them as a kind of butterfly struggling to break through the confines of the chrysalis they had inherited from the British SWP.

To some extent, the ISO’s growth must be attributed to the sorry state of the competition. My own group—the American SWP—had 2000 members in the year that the ISO was formed but drove most of them out over the next thirty years because they were not “Bolshevik” enough to go from one crappy factory job to another in search of a revolutionary proletariat, like Captain Ahab looking for Moby Dick. The only other sizable group on the left was the Workers World Party that suffered a walkout from the people who went on to form the Party for Socialism and Liberation. They were far more important to the antiwar movement than the ISO but have failed to capitalize on their accomplishments, probably because of the generally crude nature of their party organs that read like they were written for a kindergarten class and their ingrown culture.

In 2008 Lars Lih wrote a book titled “Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done? In Context” that posed a fundamental challenge to the way that groups like the ISO was organized. Lih claimed that Lenin did not create a party of a new type but simply tried to copy the example of the German Social Democracy of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, a pluralist and transparent organizational model that had little to do with the “vanguard” conceptions that allowed Alex Callinicos to give the boot to his American comrades.

If you are not that familiar with the German socialist movement of 100 years ago (who can blame you?), it might make more sense to think in terms of Eugene V. Debs’s Socialist Party or the IWW, organizations that sprang from the native soil. There is little question that once groups in the USA began imitating Lenin’s party in a mechanical fashion, the road to ruin was guaranteed.

The ISO is trying to give Lih his proper due (Haymarket Books, their publishing house, has put out a paperback version of his book) but continues to insist that a new type of party did come into existence in 1917. This involves putting a positive spin on the questionable initiatives of the Kremlin (mostly cooked up by Gregory Zinoviev, who was played to perfection by Jerzy Kosinski in Warren Beatty’s “Reds”).

Paul Le Blanc, an ISO member who has made explaining the Comintern as relevant to our tasks today a high priority, has twisted himself into a virtual pretzel trying to make its early history look sensible. At a conference sponsored by Historical Materialism that took place at NYU in April, Le Blanc tried to put a positive spin on the “21 Conditions” that had to be met in order for a working-class organization to get stamped as kosher by the Kremlin in 1919. Condition number ten called for the formation of “Red Trade Unions”, a totally idiotic measure that would have divided the working class and made it more vulnerable to attacks by the bosses and the cops. Condition twenty-one made sure that anybody sitting on the fence would get the message: “Those party members who fundamentally reject the conditions and Theses laid down by the Communist International are to be expelled from the party.”

After Peter Camejo had been expelled from the American SWP along with hundreds of others including Le Blanc, he went to Venezuela to read Lenin and figure out what went wrong. When he returned, he met with me and pointed out that in the entire history of the Bolshevik party, only a single person had ever been expelled—namely Bogdanov, the author of a third-rate science fiction novel and some distinctly odd philosophical notions. Who knows, maybe Edmund Wilson was right that things went downhill from that point?

Le Blanc went even further out on a limb on May 31 at the “Dangerous Ideas for Dangerous Times” conference in London organized by Tariq Ali and other independent radicals, and even seemed ready to saw it off. Speaking on the topic of “Leninism for Now”, he tried to somehow make Morris Lewitt seem reasonable. Lewitt was a top leader of the American SWP who died at the age of 95 in 1998 and was some kind of inspiration to Le Blanc. Goodness knows why.

In 1944 Lewitt gave a report to the American SWP that included this super-sectarian formulation: “We can tolerate no rivals. The working class, to make a revolution can do it through only one party and one program… We are monopolists in politics and we operate like monopolists. Either through merger or irreconcilable struggle. We have proved this by the whole history of our movement.” When I first came across this howler in the early 1980s, everything fell into place. No wonder the SWP went from 2000 members to about a hundred. But why would anybody see it as anything else except a sectarian rant? Le Blanc justifies it, or at least tries to put it into context, by stating that the Trotskyists were up against “authoritarian Stalinism”.

Well, yes and no. Just three years later in 1947 Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman would defend working with the Communist Party in the UAW against the Walter Reuther bureaucracy that was about to impose a loyalty oath on the union. The “Stalinists” were ready to join forces with the Trotskyists, who had sizable auto union representation in Detroit and Flint, including Ernie Mazey who would eventually become part of the union bureaucracy along with his Socialist Party brother Emile. For the time being, the radical members of the UAW believed that anti-Communism had to be resisted. There had to be a united front against the gathering McCarthyite tide.

However, James P. Cannon, the leader of the SWP, and his top lieutenant Morris Lewitt would have none of this. They ordered the UAW members to bloc with Walter Reuther. Since Stalinophobia ran so deep in the Trotskyist movement, the Cochranites felt that they had no other recourse except to form their own organization based on a more inclusive approach.

In May 1954 Bert Cochran wrote an article titled “Our Orientation” that includes words as germane today as they were back then:

Our purpose is to bring our ideas into the mass movement, and to gradually raise the consciousness of the ranks to the historic tasks. But the last thing in the world we should attempt is to inculcate the ranks with the necessity of adopting our specific tradition, and impressing upon them the truth of all the evaluations and proposals broached by Trotsky from 1923 on. The thought that in the coming period of our activity we have to go out of our way to mention the name and work of Leon Trotsky, and the name and the existence of the Fourth International, shows how far all of us have become infused with narrow group thinking, and organizational fetishism, how far we have traveled from the outlook of Frederick Engels, who warned the Socialists in America not to publish the Communist Manifesto, as it was based on old-world experiences, and that the American labor movement, developing under different conditions, would not understand it, and would not know what Marx and Engels were talking about. Why isn’t it possible for us to take this simple thought of Engels and apply it to ourselves and our work? If Engels didn’t think this was putting a question mark over his revolutionary integrity, why should we?

Probably I am the last person in the USA that the ISO wants to take advice from. But I will give it anyway. To start with, I think they should really think about using a new name. Practically anything would be better than International Socialist Organization. It would also be a good idea to dump the visual clichés like the clenched fist. I suppose that they have a handle on these sorts of problems inasmuch as nary a hammer-and-sickle can be found on their website. Smart people internationally are beginning to think hard about these questions. Naturally the folks who left the British SWP are on the leading edge as indicated by Tom Walker’s contribution on May 2nd:

Intervene. Build. Cadre. Recruit. Centralism. Discipline. Indiscipline. Smash. Oppositionist. Comrade. Purge. Bourgeois. Layer. Expel. Vanguard. Front. Turn. Propaganda.

All these words and more are part of the very particular jargon we have been used to, both in the Socialist Workers Party and on the wider revolutionary left. Taken together, they are certainly evocative – and not in a good way.

Now I have no ideas on what words should replace this hoary lexicon but I am sure that the bright young things in the ISO can come up with something better.

Finally, and on somewhat of a more challenging basis, there really has to be a rethinking of the whole “democratic centralism” question. I think that most people understand that the ISO develops its strategy and tactics internally and then “intervenes” with them in the mass movement as indicated in Tom Walker’s note above.

I think that ideas have to be considered on their own merit in the mass movement independent of who is articulating them. My own experience in the American SWP is that people hated our guts even when they agreed with our ideas. It was quite off-putting to see every single SWP’er at an antiwar conference in the late 60s voting in the same way no matter what other people had to say. What was the point of having a conference? You could just invite one SWP’er to the conference who had been assigned 5 or 6 hundred votes and put an end to the charade.

On my own Marxism mailing list of 1500 subscribers, I have debated Cuba over the years with ISO’ers (they think it is a totalitarian dungeon) with an ever-increasing sense of futility. Even if what I say makes sense, they won’t buy it. The simple truth is that intellectual conformity in such groups is not a function of bureaucratic measures such as expulsion (although it obviously comes into play during sharp debates). It is all about peer pressure. Who would want to get on the other side of a heated debate with the people you hang out with all the time and who you consider to be the smartest people on earth? Of course, there are people like Jeff St. Clair, Joshua Frank, and me who don’t mind thinking and speaking for ourselves.

Just call us CounterPunchers.

See: The "Death of Communism" and the Post-Soviet World
Re: Notes on a Staggering International Socialist Organization
18 Feb 2014
ISO wall.png
My Bureaucratic Exclusion from the International Socialist Organization ( )

(For anyone that wants the short version of this document, feel free to skip to the Lies and Accusations section at the end of the document to read a summary of what I’ve been accused of by the ISO Steering Committee and my responses.)

This document goes into detail about my activity in the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and includes examples of how the organizational culture created by the leadership faction leads to comrades being ostracized, bullied, pushed out, slandered, and expelled for having disagreements, even when those disagreements are within the boundaries of the ISO’s politics.

Kindly keep in mind that I’ve had a difficult time writing this document as this has been quite an emotional experience. I wanted to get it out sooner. I was informed I was no longer a member on 12 November. You can read what happened in the following week or so here, including the emails between ISO Treasurer Ahmed S and me.

If you think the ISO Steering Committee (SC) is justified in kicking out a woman with multiple chronic illnesses who relies on below poverty-level Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) for not paying enough dues and having gaps in her participation, then there is no reason for you to read further.

Some comrades who have been following my case say they just don’t have enough information to know what happened (because all that has been explained about my expulsion is “he said, she said”).

The ISO leadership faction uses ambiguity and secrecy strategically. If there isn’t enough information for you to draw a conclusion (such as written, formal charges distributed in an internal bulletin), then you will not conclude that the leadership has done something wrong. It follows that one would lean towards believing the leadership’s narrative. Not only are they generally trusted by the membership, they have ultimate control to both create and disseminate narratives via the organization’s internal means of communication (meetings, documents, private discussions), and their external ones (Socialist Worker, International Socialist Review). This is why the leadership hates Facebook for anything other than cheerleading the organization–they have no way to control what comrades say or to whom they say it.

If my dues and attendance are truly the reasons for my exclusion from the organization, then what is the SC saying? An organization that stands for the liberation of the working class thinks it is acceptable to kick comrades out for being working class? The ISO claims it wants to be attractive to–and for–the working class and the oppressed. Well, working class people and people of color are statistically likely to be poor with inconsistent incomes. We have higher rates of stress and chronic illness.

I am a Black woman with disabling conditions and a below-poverty income. I am also committed to revolutionary Socialism from below. I have been active in the organization–at times, extremely active–since 2008. Yet because I publicly criticized aspects of the organization that the SC considers off limits, I was class-baited, publicly cursed at and belittled by a SC/National Committee (NC) member, asked to keep my mouth shut, lied about by the SC to other comrades (see Lies and Accusations below), and finally thrown out like I’m nothing.
The Chicago district

I met the ISO in 2007 while I was organizing for single-payer healthcare. Along with other activists, we created Chicago Single-Payer Action Network. I already considered myself anti-capitalist, and I attended ISO meetings and events regularly for about a year before joining. I thought by waiting, I would really understand what I was getting into. Despite disagreeing with the ISO’s line that no white workers benefit from racial oppression, I was won to the ISO’s revolutionary Socialist platform and very impressed by the work comrades were engaged in.

I do remember worrying that dues could be a barrier to my joining, and asking Elizabeth L, whose contact I was, if I could join even though I did not have enough money to pay the minimum amount of dues requested. She assured me that, as per the ISO Rules, I can work out something I can afford with the treasurer. My first treasurer was Glenn A, and I remember feeling a bit embarrassed and humiliated explaining to him that I could not be on dues check-off since I didn’t even have a debit card. Nor could I afford the amount–$25–that he initially asked me to pay in cash. Ultimately, he agreed that I should pay what I can. It was usually $5-10. Some months I could not pay anything. But I at least contributed something to room expenses most weeks, and used money I received for Christmas to donate to CERSC every year.

I was in the health care fraction in Chicago for three years. I wrote activist reports and an article for SW my first year. I lead book discussions and helped acclimate new members to the ISO. I defended the ISO (and myself) from sectarian Left hecklers and other groups and individuals. I spoke at the Midwest Socialist Conference and represented the ISO on countless other panels. I brought contacts to meetings; worked with comrades to try and start a branch at University of Chicago. I organized and facilitated the Philadelphia branch’s study group on The New Jim Crow study group. I went to protests, I sold the paper–I did all of the things that comrades do. Sometimes I pushed myself near beyond my limits. A lot of comrades do that too. I felt (and feel) an urgency to fight capitalism, oppression, and the literally sickening inequality forced on us so that my life and the lives of others will not include so much unnecessary suffering, anguish, and alienation. I have had bumps along the way that have kept me from being as active in the ISO as I’ve wanted to be, as is true of many working class comrades who have been members for a while. Unfortunately, in Chicago, I was sometimes shamed when there was a meeting or event I could not attend. I moved to Philadelphia in 2011, and had more difficulties with my health and finances, but participated in the branch as I could. Comrades there were quite understanding when I couldn’t participate.

Many of my experiences in the ISO have been amazing and inspiring, and I’ve learned a great deal from being a member. Reading Socialist Worker, the ISR, or members’ Facebook pages will give you an idea of how much good work the ISO contributes to. My focus here is to defend myself from lies and distortions the leadership faction has spread about me, as I have been denied other avenues to do so. Members of the SC have not mistreated me because they just don’t like me–their behavior towards me cannot be separated from the organizational structure and culture perpetuated by the leadership faction.

Over time, I noticed problematic contradictions between how the ISO describes itself and how the ISO actually functions. I joined at the height of the Obama campaign. As a new member in a socialist–repeat, socialist–organization, why did the ISO have such high hopes in Obama that the first contacts I brought to meetings were convinced that we supported his candidacy? (They did not return.) I was the only comrade in my branch who expressed concern that we were going overboard in our enthusiasm for and expectations of what Obama getting elected would mean for the left and for the ISO. I was repeatedly called “cynical” and “pessimistic” for this. I was told I would turn off workers around us who were excited about Obama. Instead, the ISO turned off contacts who were excited about Socialism. (Thank you Adam T for defending my position in meetings a couple times.)

Why were there only two other African-American comrades in Chicago, and why was my innocent questioning of this reacted to as if I had insulted everyone?

Where was the welcoming of debate and disagreement, and avoidance of personalism I was told about?

Why did nearly all comrades vote the same way? This pattern is even apparent at the ISO’s annual convention. For example, at the 2013 convention, there were 24 resolutions that were defeated, and nine that passed. All nine of the successful resolutions were proposed by SC or NC members. All nine were passed unanimously with the exception of one abstention.

Why did comrades feel the need to discuss certain ideas and problems privately (away from the leadership and most cadre), and ask you not to tell anyone that the meeting actually happened?

Why was I being told that I should not listen to certain comrades (or even to avoid them), under the pretense that these comrades were “not following democratic centralism” or “were doing things the wrong way”?

Why did leadership get upset when comrades communicated on Facebook with certain former members (see Lies and Accusations below), or when comrades posted on a subject they considered “internal”?

Why did a Branch Committee member tell me I was being “trained the wrong way” by a more senior member who “didn’t follow democratic centralism?” and that it “may be too late” for me?

At my first Socialism Conference in 2008, Keeanga T of the SC/NC backed me against a wall, stood an inch from my face and yelled, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?!” She accused me of breaking democratic centralism by being “too critical of Obama” during a discussion. I asked other comrades if I had indeed done something wrong, and most comrades echoed, “Well you are too cynical about Obama, you’re going to discourage people excited about Obama from wanting to join.”

Another incident occurred at a Chicago district meeting after I proposed that an explanation for a recent expulsion from my branch be added to the agenda. For the next 10 or 15 minutes, the leadership yelled that expulsions are none of my business, that it was disloyal of me to question the leadership’s judgment, and that I was being disrespectful of comrades’ time for even asking this question when we had so many actually important things to discuss. A few cadre members expressed their agreement. (The other comrades who had privately told me they also hoped to discuss this at the meeting remained silent.) After this, it seemed that many comrades were keeping their distance from me.

The fraction I was in was also bullied on occasion. When we disagreed with the leadership on the direction we should take the work (i.e. the DC/BC wanted us to focus on the public option in addition to single-payer, which we believed was a mistake), instead of thoroughly discussing our political disagreements, the leadership tended to jump to accusing us of being ultra-left, sectarian, movementist, and a “faction” rather than a “fraction.” (This was not unique to the fraction I was in; other fractions were accused of the same things.) Our fraction actually wanted more help from our branches. But single-payer work was a very low priority for the Chicago district, even at the height of the national debate and actions and civil disobedience in 2008 and 2009. Our requests to discuss the work at branch meetings were often tabled for next week, and then next week, and so on.

Of course, our district was involved in work that was more prioritized in the ISO’s national perspectives, and I think that was correct. But if a fraction exists, time must be made for branch- and district-wide assessments of the work.

Many of the meetings and phone calls we had with ISO Chicago leaders Shaun H and Stuart E were more about shaming us than supporting the work we were doing. Tellingly, these meetings often left members of the fraction in tears. I wanted to tell someone about how we were being treated–that we were being called names instead of engaged with politically–but I didn’t know who to tell. I figured SC members already knew what the BC and DC were doing. Additionally, my fraction-mates–who felt our treatment was at least as awful as I did–pleaded with me to keep our criticisms secret.
The “no benefit” line

Having never been won to the ISO’s line that white workers do not benefit from racism (the “no benefit” line), whenever that came up in a discussion, leadership in Chicago accused me of being a “liberal” rather than a Marxist and told me to read Callinicos. I saw no contradiction between acknowledging white privilege and adhering to a Marxist analysis of racial oppression, and I still don’t. I would hear, “You’re not a Marxist! That’s identity politics!” repeated many times to others in and around the organization. I never felt that leading comrades actually listened to my arguments. Instead, it felt like they were feeding me the same stock, knee-jerk responses.

All of this was distressing. Sometimes I thought I should quit, as staying started being difficult on my conscience. I felt beat down and dumbed down. I began to feel that being in the ISO was supposed to be mostly a one-way transaction–I digest the ideas of the leadership and the books I was asked to read, but I was not supposed to offer my own thoughts. Yet I believed in the work the ISO was doing, and I had great respect for my comrades. And I’d been convinced, as the ISO tells us, that the only way to truly be a committed revolutionary socialist is by being a member of the ISO. So I remained committed to the organization while wanting to participate in changing it. I began paying closer attention to pre-convention discussions and documents. Being so busy with fraction work, branch meetings, and life responsibilities, I had not given much attention to the pre-convention period my first couple years.

I thought it would be less complicated and controversial to focus on a political line rather than on an organizational issue for my first attempt at writing a document. I was aware that there was a serious democratic deficit in the organization, but did not feel sure as to where the problems were coming from. I felt it would be best to start with the political line I found to be most offensive and was most knowledgeable about–the “no benefit” line. I did fear that focusing on this particular line would trigger an extremely negative reaction from the leadership–especially in light of the hostile response provided to the comrades that wrote the 2010 document on recruiting and training comrades of color (the original document, the NYC leadership’s response, and that leadership’s 2014 “Reassessment” of their response, appears in Pre-Convention Bulletin #25; the incident is also discussed here). Yet I was convinced that changing the “no benefit” line and ridding the ISO of its extreme overreaction to Marxists who acknowledge the most basic points of privilege theory was important in our moving the organization forward theoretically, practically, and in terms of growth. So, I co-wrote a document about why the ISO’s line on white privilege should be changed for the 2013 convention.

During the process of writing the document, I emailed SC member Sharon S to ask her for more information on the ISO’s line, and she wrote that a few comrades, including Keeanga T, had recently expressed they find the lines on oppression we adopted from the SWP to be somewhat reductionist.

From Sharon S, 29 July 2012:

I have been uncomfortable with the SWP’s hostility to feminism for a very long time, and I know many other long-standing members who have felt the same way. But when we were much younger, we were trained in their politics. And the atmosphere within the IST was such that questioning or voicing even minor disagreements with the line were not possible. So we carried the essence of it, while rejecting some of the cruder elements…

The SWP likewise, I think, displayed a similar kind of reductionism on issues of race and national oppression. Keeanga and a couple of other comrades began to raise disagreements along these same lines a few years ago.

We finally decided to have a series of discussions on the steering committee about t these issues last fall – and we pretty much all agreed that the approach was reductionist. We decided we wanted to begin to raise this shift at the Socialism conference, to be followed up with documents for the next convention. So far the reception has been almost completely positive. I am also in the process of revising my book on women which will reflect some of these changes.

So that is the backstory – and the basic plan for making these changes in a way that helps to raise the political level of the organization. Nothing keeps the political level low [sic] than reductionism!

I was excited to hear this! I also received generally positive feedback on the document from my Philly comrades and via FB messages from a few other comrades.

There was no immediate backlash after submitting the document. I did, however, hear from several longtime comrades across the country that it was “too soon” to submit a convention document about this subject, especially one that included proposals.

What was odd was that a couple of cadre sent me Facebook messages stating that they agreed with what I was saying, but that I am making it seem like “no white workers benefit from racism” is the ISO’s line.

I was baffled by this, because, “no white workers benefit from racism” was (and technically still is) the ISO’s line. In my document, I had listed some of the prominent places the “no benefit” line appears in ISO literature, including the New Members Study Packet, which says: “no white workers benefit from Black oppression, even if they think they do.” (42)

I did not understand what these comrades who knew that “no benefit” was the ISO’s line, but didn’t like that I was stating it, were getting at until nearly a year later.

As I now realize, when the ISO leadership changes its mind about a perspective or a political line, often they do not acknowledge that they changed their mind or why. They’d rather just start using the new line as if they never believed the old one, especially if the former line had become controversial or unpopular among the membership or the broader left. To admit that they held a different line before is to imply that they were wrong. To be wrong is a sign that leadership is not infallible. If the leadership is not infallible, they fear nobody would follow them.

It was offensive to some on the SC for me to state that “no benefit” is the ISO’s line because some of them now consider that line an embarrassment and had, apparently, been working to change it. They were working to change it. I was supposed to stay out of it, especially in public.

Keeanga T posted a quote on Facebook that it’s not an “a-ha!” moment to acknowledge that privilege exists in a racist, hierarchical society. I was quite surprised, since for the ISO leadership, it was quite new to admit white privilege exists. You can see the screenshot of the conversation (before Keeanga deleted it) below in the Lies and Accusations section.

In response, I posted, “Actually, it is new for the ISO to admit this.” This apparently angered some of the SC as well, hence Keeanga’s attack and prompt removal of me from good standing in the organization.

According to the leadership faction and friends, I also should not have drawn attention to the Facebook thread where Keeanga attacked me, nor should I consider this incident with someone who is a SC and NC member and ISR editor, as anything more than a disagreement between two people of equal standing in the organization, even though I was the only one who was ridiculed and expelled.

From Ahmed S, 14 November 2013:

Thanks for attaching the screenshot of the Facebook exchange with Keeanga [below]. That’s between the two of you and has no bearing in my mind to this question.

From Disciplinary Committee member Keegan O, 16 November 2013:

Instead of making a Facebook status about your interaction with this comrade, I think messaging them personally and sharing your own arguments about what transpired would have been much more productive

…if someone feels that another member of the group has treated them in a way that is inappropriate and out of line, then I believe that the appropriate thing to do is address that with them one on one.

Yes, this comrade is on the SC, but those folks are also human beings, just like you and I, and they, like us, can make mistakes.

Later he wrote:

… I disagree with what you, and others on the thread, have argued about it being reflective of a deeper organization wide problem of the leadership squelching disagreement and debate in the ISO..

I wish you the best with this and hope you take some of what I’ve raised into consideration. Also, I hope whatever issues exist with your membership (and I highly doubt they are related to this, that would seem pretty shocking and out of character for the organization) get straightened out so that you can get back invovled [sic] in this project. [Emphasis added]

I cracked up when I read that one. Getting kicked out of the organization for sharing dissenting views is characteristic of the ISO. And it is anathema for an organization that wants to build a revolutionary party to slander, silence, and remove its members for speaking up and trying to do something when they see a problem, even if they end up being wrong.

As a result of my treatment within the ISO, I feel hurt, betrayed, and stunned. I had nightmares for two months after I was pushed out of the organization and smeared by the leadership faction and the comrades who accepted their narrative about me. I believed all ISO members were my comrades, that we were overwhelmingly on the same side in the world, and now many are treating me like I’m an enemy of the left. That feels devastating. And at the same time, I have a heavy heart and guilty conscience because I did not do more to try and stop the unprincipled, baseless attacks and top-down manipulations by the leadership that were harming comrades and holding back their development; harming our political effectiveness as an organization and distorting our perspectives; and stunting our growth as an organization numerically and qualitatively.

Working with the Renewal Faction has been my last try to help push for a more democratic, transparent ISO where no one needs to choose between speaking her mind and staying in the organization.

Despite the attacks we’ve received, that are becoming more twisted and vicious by the hour, working with the faction has been one of the most stimulating and rewarding things I’ve done in the ISO. At first, due to my past experience as a comrade, I was afraid that if I disagreed with something, or admitted that I did not understand something, I would be reacted to angrily or ignored. This wasn’t the case at all. My participation was clearly appreciated, my ideas respected, whether comrades were won to my position or not.

It feels like a new world is open to me as a socialist now that I am letting go of the sectarian principles I was taught in the ISO. The ISO taught me that the only way to be an effective revolutionary socialist is by being a member of the ISO. If you leave, you will never be active again. In fact, you were probably never really a socialist to begin with. This myth helps keep comrades from quitting, and is used to shame them after they leave. I probably would have left sooner if I believed I had other options. I now understand that I can carry on as a socialist fighting oppression, inequality, and exploitation, working alongside other comrades, without being part of a sect like the ISO.

Thank you to all comrades I have worked with and crossed paths with in the ISO. I wish you well on your path in the ISO, and will continue to fight alongside you. You have all taught me something, and I believe that ultimately, we are on the same side.

Vanessa B (Washington DC)
Lies and Accusations

I have not paid dues in two years: Not true. I have always worked out something I can afford with branch treasurers, which is allowed per the ISO Rules, and as I rely on below-poverty level SSDI, some months that means nothing. Every year I also donated money I received for Christmas to CERSC, and I provided money for room rent and other branch expenses when I could. A former BC member from my Philly branch informed Ahmed of this, and I had just worked out a dues schedule in my new branch in DC, of which Ahmed was also informed. And of course, I am not the only comrade who cannot afford to be on check-off and has months when they cannot pay. A member of my last BC told me that some months, he’s also not able to pay dues.

Using dues as a reason to exclude comrades from the branch at the will of the SC is an oft-used tactic. There is also at least one case of a member who was on dues check-off being accused of not paying dues.

I contributed nothing to the organization “for years”: Funny, during my last two years of not contributing, I had drinks with my branch and Ahmed when he was in town. I also submitted a document to the “highest decision making body” of the ISO. My branch chose me to go to last year’s convention as a guest, but we did not have the funds. Sure doesn’t sound like my branch felt I wasn’t contributing anything to the organization.

Ahmed knows my health has limited my physical participation. He is making it sound as if limiting my activity was my choice, because this fits the leadership faction’s narrative that I’m just an Internet troll who has always hated the ISO. And again, there are many comrades who are considered full members who regularly do not attend meetings, or must take leaves because of work, parenting, health, or other personal issues.

The latest, from the SC in Pre-Convention Bulletin #27 (14 February 2014):

Keeanga told ex-member Vanessa B. to stop posting comments on Keeanga’s Facebook wall. [Actually she wrote, “I’m telling you to get the f*ck off my wall.” --VB] The faction has redefined that interaction as evidence of a political dispute that led to Vanessa being expelled. In fact, Vanessa had not been a member in good standing because she had not paid dues in more than two years.

That’s an extremely distorted account of what occurred in that Facebook thread.

In this thread, it was a single political comment about privilege and the ISO that set Keeanga off. When I expressed shock that a SC member was responding this way to me, a member of the organization she represents, she said that she didn’t “care what [I] am a member of other than the triflin’ ass bullshit committee. Now go write an open letter about how I said mean things,” and that I am “trolling.” (Though I can think of only two or three other times we have interacted on Facebook the past year, all of them involving Keeanga lashing out at me.) I told her I am leaving her wall. Later the same day, Keeanga happened to discover that I had allegedly not been paying dues for two years, then she informed my Branch Committee I was no longer a member. What a coincidence!

I lied to comrades in Philly, telling them I was on dues check-off: Lie. Keeanga T and Ahmed S told comrades this at two pre-convention discussions, if not more. Perhaps they worried their claim that I had not been paying dues was not enough to justify to comrades why I deserved to be expelled, so they made something up to trump up the charges. I appreciate the comrades who, disbelieving this claim, informed me of it.

If I really cared about being a member, I would have done something sooner, differently, better: There is a convention document asking that I be returned to good standing, which was written, with my approval, by the Renewal Faction before I joined the faction. I asked my Philly Branch Committee for help, as they assured me they had considered me in good standing. A former BC member sent Ahmed an email stating that I had worked out dues I could afford, as per the Rules. Ahmed ignored this. I sent additional emails to Ahmed regarding my standing, and he ignored them. I asked my Branch Committee in DC for help, but they eventually decided to stay out of it, and later let me know that in case I was in doubt, they were on the same page as the SC, and that I’m no longer welcome in the branch. National Disciplinary Committee member Keegan O made it clear that I should deal with Keeanga as an “individual,” not an SC member. The SC manages the internal bulletins, and I have no reason to believe they would have published my document. Bottom line, Ahmed’s word stands. The SC wanted me out, so I’m out.

I’m antagonistic: Comrades in Chicago (and possibly elsewhere) were told that I am antagonistic. The example given is that my pre-convention document “died on the floor.” Well, at last year’s convention, none of the 24 resolutions written by rank-and-file comrades passed.

I’ve been plotting against the leadership for years: Sounds exciting, but isn’t true.

I’m friendly online with “hostile” ex-comrades like expelled member Zach M: Guilty as charged. Keeanga and Ahmed have ranted to comrades at pre-convention discussions about my friendliness with Zach M. By the leadership faction’s logic, this is more justification for my expulsion. I am proud to break the unwritten sectarian rule that comrades are not to be friendly with “hostile” ex-members.

I came to DC, paid $6 and demanded the pre-convention documents: This is the weirdest charge. Ahmed included it in his expulsion email, and both he and Keeanga repeated it to comrades at pre-convention meetings. Maybe they meant you have to “pay to play” in the ISO and $6 is not enough to earn entry? Or maybe I wanted the documents to aid my secret plot against the leadership?
See - I Get Knocked Down, But, I Get Up Again ( chorus)
See also:
Re: Notes on a Staggering International Socialist Organization
18 Feb 2014
Rachel Corrie Wouldn't Approve - The ISO, Caterpillar and Democratic Accountability (June 24, 2013 )

I was dismayed to see a spat over Angelina Jolie’s surgery quickly degenerate into an idiotic war, with the International Socialist Organization (ISO) issuing an open letter warning the world about the degenerates running CounterPunch as if they had done something serious, like cover up a rape allegation, a crime that elicited only a lukewarm protest from the ISO as it ripped the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) apart.

Rather than privilege-bait the ISO’s leadership as Jeffrey St. Clair did or meander aimlessly over the irrelevant as Louis Proyect did in his “Inside the International Socialist Organization,” I thought I’d inject a bit of substantive criticism of the group’s inner workings based on my seven years as an ISO member. Like everyone else, I thought Proyect was going to bring some misdeeds to the light of day given the title of his piece. What follows is an excerpt from a lengthier critique of the ISO’s practices and methods.

On paper, the ISO seems to be democratic. The highest decision-making body is its yearly convention, made up of elected delegates from local branches. Any member can submit a resolution or a position paper for consideration. The Steering Committee is elected by the convention to lead and run the organization between conventions.

What these democratic forms amount to in practice is a different story.

There are no horizontal channels of communication between branches and the general membership; information and political arguments at the rank and file level therefore move in only one direction – vertically, upwards, through branch leadership committees, citywide leadership committees, the national committee (an advisory body to the Steering Committee elected by the convention), and the Steering Committee. Someone with an idea or proposal has to either fight for their view through these successive administrative layers either on their own as an individual or wait until the yearly pre-convention discussion period to propose it before the organization, but they cannot form a faction to fight for their viewpoint at convention because ISO members do not have a constitutionally guaranteed right to form factions. The most they can do is caucus.

This is a major reason why change in the ISO comes from above, not below.

Dissidents and deviationists face not an uphill battle but a veritable cliff to break through hardened groupthink just to gain a hearing; often an idea or proposal that is generally dismissed or derided when it comes from a rank-and-file member will be readily and eagerly adopted when that same idea or proposal comes from the Steering Committee or other leading personnel.

The organization’s conformist political culture is both a blessing and a curse, allowing it to persist and grow in the Reagan-Obama era while preventing it from fully prospering now that objective conditions are favorable for a mass-based radical left. Given the current political climate, there is no reason the ISO shouldn’t be growing exponentially and qualitatively to become a hegemonic force not only over the far left but the broad left. Thriving not surviving is the order of the day.

The ISO continues to use the British SWP’s closed slate system to elect its leadership, meaning the previous year’s Steering Committee submits the coming year’s Steering Committee to the convention as a single bloc for an up-or-down vote by a show of hands rather than a secret ballot. This makes it impossible for the membership to hold even one Steering Committee member accountable unless they can assemble 12 or more additional names for an entirely new slate. This practice is winner-take-all run amok, and the result is not a one-party state but a one-slate party; as far as anyone knows, the ISO has never had a competitive election for its Steering Committee since it was founded in 1977. Conventions are exercises in unanimity rather than a place where substantive differences are aired and ironed out in a vigorous and above-board manner.

The easiest way to understand any institution or organization in capitalist society is to do just one thing – follow the money. Doing so reveals how power and status is really distributed and how organizations actually function.

What is remarkable about the ISO in this regard is its lack of transparency. Dues are paid, money is raised, merchandise (books, magazines, and newspapers) is sold, but rare is the ISO member who knows that the organization’s 501(c)(3) – the Center for Economic Research and Social Change (CERSC) – bought and sold thousands of dollars in Caterpillar stock in 2010 in spite of the ISO’s support for the Palestinian boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign’s targeting of Caterpillar for selling Israel the bulldozers it uses to demolish Palestinian homes and kill activist Rachel Corrie.

Whether or not buying and selling Caterpillar stock in defiance of the BDS campaign is right or wrong is not my place to decide, it is for the ISO’s membership to decide, and they cannot do so when they have no clue what the organization’s assets or liabilities consist of and are denied any formal control over CERSC. They cannot discuss and decide how best to spend CERSC’s $1.5 million in yearly revenue on organizing projects when these matters are handled internally as a state secret and questions about them from members are viewed as a sign of disloyalty to socialism rather than what they actually are – a principled commitment to the basic democratic norms working-class people are entitled to in their organizations.

Unions run in this manner are criticized by the left for disempowering the rank and file thereby undermining labor’s ability to fight capital, but how does wrong become right when the same methods are employed by a self-styled revolutionary organization aiming not just to fight capital but to end it?
Re: Notes on a Staggering International Socialist Organization
18 Feb 2014
Modified: 07:01:22 PM
The “Obama Socialists” ( 2008 )

In different ways, most of the left in the United States fell into line behind the candidacy of Barack Obama. That required some interesting political contortions, since every one of them knew perfectly well what Obama was about: that he was not an antiwar candidate, no leftist by any stretch of the imagination but a “center-right” bourgeois politician in the Clinton mould, who was and is an admirer of Ronald Reagan. Perhaps the most shameless were the ex-New Leftists from Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), including Tom Hayden, Todd Gitlin, Mike Klonsky, Carl Davidson, Bernadine Dohrn and the now notorious Bill Ayres. Hayden and Gitlin were on the right wing of SDS back when it called to go “part of the way with LBJ” (Lyndon B. Johnson) in the 1964 elections; Klonsky and Davidson led the little-red-book-waving Maoist “Revolutionary Youth Movement II,” while Dohrn and Ayres were leaders of the idiot adventurist, anti-working-class Weatherman faction. Having gone through a transmogrification from ’60s radicals to 21st century mainstream Democrats, their mantra is that Obama “needs a transformational movement to be a transformational president,” as Hayden put it (“Dreams of Obama,” San Francisco Bay Guardian, 20 August 2008).

Unlike some of the New Leftovers, the garden variety liberals around The Nation and the Democratic (Party) Socialists of America (DSA), along with their closely associated Progressive Democrats of America, haven’t really changed in decades. A bunch of these “progressive” luminaries issued an “Open Letter to Barack Obama” (Nation, 18 August 2008), including Barbara Ehrenreich, Katha Pollitt, Marcus Raskin, Norman Solomon, Gore Vidal. They “recognize that compromise is necessary in any democracy” and “understand that the pressures brought to bear” on him are “intense,” but worry about “troubling signs that you are moving away from the core commitments ... toward a more cautious and centrist stance.” So they want to hold Obama to various stands he has taken, including “withdrawal from Iraq on a fixed timetable,” “a response to the current economic crisis that reduces the gap between the rich and the rest of us,” “universal healthcare,” etc. (Nothing about Afghanistan, of course.) If he doesn’t come through, they will wring their hands in lament.

The ultra-reformist Communist Party U.S.A. of course supported Barack Obama, as they did John Kerry, Al Gore, Bill Clinton and almost every Democratic presidential candidate since it embraced the program of the “popular front” and came out for Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1936 election. (The exception was its brief fling with the “Progressive Party” of FDR’s former vice president Henry Wallace in 1948 and ’52.) No surprise there. Along with John McCain and the entire ruling class, the CPUSA declared the election of Obama “historic.” It added that this “people’s victory” spelled “the dawn of a new era,” comparing Obama to “another tall, lanky, transformative figure from Illinois: Abraham Lincoln” and arguing that “it was a transformative election representing the end of extreme rightwing Republican rule and the beginning of a new democratic upsurge which could move our country in a progressive direction.” “The best thing the coalition that won this victory can do,” editorialized the People’s Weekly World (8 November 2008), “is to stick together and help the new administration carry through on its promises.”

Among the professional opportunists of the not so “far left,” the name of the game was to identify as closely as possible with the masses who voted for Obama while coyly avoiding a direct call to elect him. The important social change registered in the election of a black president in this deeply racist country is labeled “historic” and “transformational” in order to attract some of his supporters by flattering them rather than telling the fundamental truth: that Barack Obama is the leader of the Democratic Party; that he will rule in the interests of capital that he is the new commander of U.S. imperialism, who presides over a system of racism, war and poverty for the millions; that it will take a socialist revolution to change that system; and that is why we must build a revolutionary workers party to lead that struggle, which won’t be decided in bourgeois elections and on TV but in the streets, in the factories, in the barrios and ghettos, and internationally.

Various reformist groups take a different tack. Thus Workers World (13 November 2008) proclaimed, “Millions in streets seal Obama victory.” The article began: “It was truly a great day in Harlem.” After paragraphs of celebratory verbiage, only after the second jump of the article does the reader find out that “The Democratic Party is a party of the capitalist imperialist system, and Obama is now its main spokesperson.” Even so, “Such an outpouring of the masses, particularly oppressed people of color, warrants the full solidarity of the movement.” This is par for the course for the Workers World Party (WWP), followers of the late Sam Marcy, which in the 1980s was plugging black Democrat Jesse Jackson for president. A November 15 WWP conference in NYC originally billed as “Capitalism Must Go!” was retitled “The New Situation in the U.S. and the World” in the light of “the historic election” of black Democrat Obama as president. The WWP’s particular shtick is to call on the capitalist government to “Bail Out People, Not the Banks!”

Their fellow Marcyites of the Party of Socialism and Liberation (PSL), which split from the WWP in 2004, ran their own candidates, but not as a hard opposition to the bourgeois parties. On the contrary, they declared “Our campaign has absolutely no quarrel” with those campaigning for “a Black president – regardless of his politics” (see “Socialists in Bourgeois Electionland,” 4 November 2008). Following the election of Obama (“an occasion of historic significance”) they wrote: “What is needed is a clear program focused on what the new administration should do to meet the needs of the working people; to fulfill the expectations its campaign has created” (Liberation, 21 November 2008) The PSL then lists a series of points – declare a housing emergency, no layoffs, extend unemployment benefits, health care for all, pass the EFCA, end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – none of which challenge capitalist rule, and concludes: “It will be the failure of the new administration to carry through this program that will expose it before the eyes of the people as another agent of the capitalist system.” This is the method common to many reformists: rather than opposing Obama outright, they present a list of pious wishes and proposals for action by the capitalist government, calculating that if it doesn’t fulfill them, people will become radicalized. More likely they will become demoralized liberals.

A gaggle of pseudo-Trotskyist social democrats (Socialist Alternative, Socialist Organizer) present variants of this program, but without doubt the past master in this brand of opportunism is the Internationalist Socialist Organization (ISO), which has developed acting as a pressure group on Democratic Party liberalism into a patented methodology. Here’s the formula: to come up with the ISO line on any particular issue, start with the liberal position, then (a) take one or two steps to the left; or alternatively, (b) take the same position, repeat the same slogans, but add some “socialist” rhetoric; or, best of all, (c) formulate a leading question: Will Obama bring change? Is Afghanistan the “good war”? Should we invade Iraq? (We kid you not – the last two were titles of forums by the ISO-led Campus Antiwar Network.) Thus the pre-election issue (September-October 2008) of the ISO’s International Socialist Review featured a sympathetic photo of Obama with the headline, “Politics of change, or Politics as usual” (see the inside pages for any critical remarks). And the latest issue of the ISR (January-February 2009) features Obama’s campaign slogan, “Yes we can! ¡Sí se puede!”

The ISO web site was filled with gushing coverage of Obama’s victory. A column on “Election Day in Harlem” by Brian Jones reported on an election party, “I felt like a tiny ship, tossed back and forth on a frothy sea of human emotion and pride in the historic election of the first African American president of the U.S. Raw joy was dominant, but there was also relief, pride, shock and wonder.” He concluded: “Huge numbers of people are energized by the fact that, yes, we can elect a Black president. What we get from this president depends mostly on what happens to this energy, and less on the president himself.” Well, actually, no. A Socialist Worker (7 November 2008) editorial on “The New Shape of American Politics” takes the same tack, asking:

“What economic policies will Obama pursue as the worst financial crisis since the 1930s drives the world deep into recession? Will the man who made his mark as an opponent of the Iraq war make good on his promise to pull out U.S. troops? Will there be the kind of fundamental change that his supporters so clearly want?...

“Will Obama call a halt to this colossal rip-off and fashion an economic program that puts the interests of working people in its center? ... Will there be an economic stimulus program that creates secure, long-term jobs?”

Will the ISO say that Obama is a capitalist politician who must act to defend the ruling class of U.S. imperialism? Instead, SW editorializes:

“Given the multiple crises that beset the U.S., change is coming – but what kind, and in whose interest, depends on whether and how working people get organized to fight for it.”

Not a hint of the Marxist analysis of the state as the instrument of capitalist rule. For the ISO, it’s all about pressure.

For these social democrats, as for all liberals and reformists, the government is neutral, rather than being the executive committee of the ruling class. In antiwar marches in 2007 and ’08, after the Democrats won a majority in both houses of Congress, ISOers chanted, “Stop the funding, stop the war, What the hell is Congress for?” (Supporters of the Internationalist Group responded, “Congress is for imperialist war.”) Following Lenin and Trotsky, we characterize the present epoch as the imperialist era. The ISO has a different take: “What next for struggle in the Obama era?” (5 November 2008) they write, or “Antiwar organizing in the Obama era” (19 December), and “What’s in store in the Obama era?” (20 January). And like the Nation liberals who want to hold Obama “accountable” by holding him to his stated program, the ISO follows Obama’s agenda. Thus it writes:

“The left in the 1930s used the slogan ‘the president wants you to join a union’ to capitalize and amplify its position. Today, we should use President-elect Obama’s words in a similar way.”

Actually, that argument was popularized in the 1930s by John L. Lewis of the United Mine Workers, who viciously repressed “reds” in the UMW (and ended up a Republican).

The masses learn through struggle, say ISOers. Yes, but only if the revolutionaries speak the truth plainly. And the plain truth is that it is necessary to draw a class line between the exploited and oppressed, on one side, and their exploiters and oppressors, on the other. And Barack Obama is on the other side of that line.

In the recent election, some “progressives” sought refuge in the Greens, a minor capitalist party, which ran former Democratic Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney for president. McKinney has taken some gutsy stands, calling for freedom for Mumia and traveling on a boat carrying medical supplies to Gaza in the middle of the Israeli bombing attack. But she remains a bourgeois politician and the whole purpose of her campaign was to pressure Obama to move slightly to the left. Thus in a TV interview after the Gaza-bound ship was rammed by an Israeli patrol boat, McKinney pleaded with President-elect Obama to “say something, please, about the humanitarian crisis that is being experienced by the people [of Gaza] right now.” Yet Obama’s refusal to condemn the massacre and his statement in an interview with Al-Arabiya TV that “Israel’s security is paramount” makes it clear where he stands – on the side of the Zionist butchers.

For the last year, liberals and reformists of all persuasions have salivated at the prospect of a new layer of young activists for social causes coming out of the Obama campaign. But contrary to the delusions of a Tom Hayden of “an explosion of rising expectations for social movements – here and around the world – that President Obama will be compelled to meet in 2009,” the operation that elected Obama was not a “movement” for “social change from below.” Rather, it was a capitalist-financed, top-down electoral machine similar to the NGOs (non-governmental organizations) orchestrated by U.S. imperialism to undercut inconvenient governments from Venezuela to East Europe and the countries of the former Soviet Union. In any case, rather than a classless “movement” to pressure Obama, what’s urgently needed today is a revolutionary workers party to mobilize the exploited and oppressed against the attacks of the bourgeois rulers.

As in the 1930s, there is no “solution” to the economic crisis, imperialist wars and racist oppression without sweeping away the capitalist system that generates these plagues whether a Democrat or Republican president sits in the White House or controls Congress. As V.I. Lenin wrote in April 1917, when the mass of the workers had not yet broken from the bourgeoisie, “it is necessary most thoroughly, persistently, patiently to explain to them ... that without the overthrow of capital it is impossible to conclude the war with a really democratic, non-oppressive peace.” Now is a time to “patiently explain” to the masses, to swim against the stream. Let the opportunists chase after fleeting popularity, genuine Marxists follow the watchword of Trotsky’s Transitional Program: “To face reality squarely; not to seek the line of least resistance; to call things by their right names; to speak the truth to the masses, no matter how bitter it may be; not to fear obstacles; to be true in little things as in big ones; to base one’s program on the logic of the class struggle; to be bold when the hour for action arrives – these are the rules of the Fourth International.” ■
Re: Notes on a Staggering International Socialist Organization
18 Feb 2014
Modified: 08:29:14 PM
The Sister Organization of the ISO -
Crisis in the SWP ( 2 March 2013 )

( A woman member of the UK Socialist Workers Party said that she was sexually assaulted by a senior party member and the complaint was hushed up dismissed.)

The current convulsions wracking the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), resulting from anger at the leadership’s handling of rape allegations against a senior party member, ‘Comrade Delta’, threaten to seriously damage the Tony Cliff franchise. The Central Committee’s attempts to contain the anger generated by their ‘Disputes Committee’ report with organisational heavy-handedness seems only to have fuelled the fire, with the open revolt headed by Richard Seymour appearing to have substantial support among the group’s core cadre.

Many outside and inside the SWP seem to think that this is a problem that can be fixed by organisational means – a new conference, a new leadership, more bulletins and broader factional rights. There is no doubt that the internal practices of the SWP are far removed from those of Lenin and Trotsky, but ‘more democracy’ will not fix the political problems that have given rise to bad organisational practices.

The roots of the current crisis lie in the entire political history of the Cliff tendency, which has been consistent only in its willingness to adapt its politics to those it seeks to influence and recruit. The International Socialists originated in the early 1950s, when Tony Cliff and his supporters broke with the Trotskyist movement by refusing to defend the North Korean and Chinese deformed workers’ states in the Korean War – a conflict in which British, American and other imperialists sought to ‘roll back’ Stalinist insurgents in Asia (see Tony Cliff’s Family Tree). In the 1960s, after the emergence of a radicalised New Left, Cliff flipped once again and backed the Vietnamese Stalinists against the US and its allies and puppets.

Since then the Cliffite political tradition has been marked by an endless series of capitulations and adaptations, all driven by a desire to cash in on prevailing popular moods. One recent example was the decision to bury the SWP’s position on the right of women to abortion in order to cement a bloc with George Galloway in Respect (see Cliffites, Clerics & Class Collaboration). A decade ago their Stop the War Coalition (StWC) mobilised thousands, occasionally millions, but did nothing to raise socialist consciousness because it was built on the basis of pacifist slogans in pursuit of an alliance with bourgeois liberals, not as a means of popularising the call for defeating imperialism in Iraq and Afghanistan (see Imperialist War & Socialist Pretenders). Last year in Egypt the SWP called for votes to the Muslim Brotherhood, who, when victorious, turned around and physically attacked the left (see Cliffites’ Class Collaborationism).

The internal regime of the SWP ultimately derives from its profound political instability. Despite many ‘educationals’ on the history of Marxism and a wide variety of questions, the SWP has failed to develop and politicise its membership. In the SWP, ‘Marxism’ means an annual political event in London – not a guide to action. In making their rapid twists and turns with Respect, StWC, etc, the SWP leadership has openly flouted the core propositions of the class politics they profess to uphold. The reason they have been free to do so is that much of the membership does not understand (and some do not agree with) the logic of Marxism – and, in any case, do not have much say in determining the policies of their organisation.
Democratic centralism

The organisational practices of the SWP have nothing to do with those of the Bolshevik Party under Lenin, and cannot be described as democratic centralist. What passes for ‘Leninism’ in the SWP may well lead many to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but democratic centralism is the necessary organisational framework for a revolutionary combat party. Centralism is required for effective action and democracy is essential to politicise the group and ensure that members understand the programme, as well as being a mechanism to challenge decisions of the leadership, correct its mistakes and, when necessary, replace it.

With the SWP leadership strongly discouraging discussion on the findings of their disputes committee regarding the rape allegation, and bureaucratically declaring ‘the case is closed’, dissidents have taken the discussion outside the party. Some observers welcome this as being a good thing in principle. In this case it seems to be necessary, but in a healthy revolutionary organisation internal debate is the most effective way to arrive at correct decisions regarding the inevitable problems that arise in political life. To open such discussions to the public is to invite those who are not obligated to carry out the decisions reached (as well as reformists, cranks, confusionists and trolls) to gum up the works. This is not, as anti-Leninists contend, a means of shutting down programmatic debate, but rather raising the level of debate inside and outside the revolutionary organisation.
Rape and bourgeois justice

We do not, and cannot, know what happened between comrades ‘W’ and ‘Delta’. As a ‘tribune of the oppressed’ a revolutionary organisation is duty-bound to take accusations of sexual violence seriously. A Marxist organisation must have a means of investigating complaints by one member against another. Any investigating body must be comprised of reputable comrades who are as impartial as possible, and all parties to the dispute must have adequate representation and support of their choice.

Revolutionaries do not call on the police to intervene in disputes within the workers’ movement. A member who was found guilty of rape or crimes of comparable seriousness would be automatically expelled from the organisation. We recognise that under capitalism, individuals often have no other recourse than to use the bourgeois justice system, but in no case do revolutionaries call on the agencies of the class enemy to sort out problems within the socialist movement.
Revolutionary struggle

There are many SWP members who may be disgusted and demoralised by the current state of their organisation and retreat from active politics. For those wanting to move forward, it is necessary to go beyond a fight for a more democratic SWP and address the organisation’s liquidationist history of Labour Party entrism, economism in the trade unions and adaptation to everything from feminism to Islamic reaction. The SWP leadership’s disregard for the core of working class politics led to building cross-class blocs like Respect, and offering political support to reactionary bourgeois political formations like the Muslim Brotherhood. The ‘IS tradition’ must be politically rejected in its entirety. An authentically Marxist vanguard can only be built on the revolutionary tradition of the Bolshevik Party under Lenin and Trotsky – only this sort of party can actually solve the problems of the oppressed and exploited.
Re: Notes on a Staggering International Socialist Organization
02 Mar 2014
Trotsky Marx et al diego.jpg
John Davidson's "The Obedient Assassin"
Killing Trotsky by LOUIS PROYECT

Although the movement he created is on its last legs, Leon Trotsky is still a compelling figure for the artist based on the evidence of three novels focused on his sojourn in Coyoacan that have appeared in the last several years.

Barbara Kingsolver’s “The Lacuna” came out in 2009. Like the 2002 film “Frida” (screenplay by CounterPunch regular Clancy Sigal), Kingsolver put Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo into the foreground. For her the two characters enabled her “to examine the modern American political psyche, using artists as a vehicle”, as she states on her website. The World Socialist Website frowned on the novel’s treatment of Trotsky and its deficiencies in the dialectical materialism department, which I suppose is reason enough to recommend it.

That very same year Leonardo Padura, a Cuban, wrote “The Man who Loved Dogs”, a nearly 600-page novel about Trotsky now available in English translation. Naturally the N.Y. Times reviewer, a Mexican novelist named Álvaro Enrique, saw it as a parable on Cuban society with the artist in mortal danger of being killed by a state inspired by the Moscow Trials: “Cuba may be the last place in the Americas where being a writer means living in terror.” One must conclude that Enrique does not consider reporters to be writers since a hundred have been murdered in Mexico since 2000, with most of the cases being unsolved.

I imagine that I will get around to reading Kingsolver and Padura at some point, but I had a keener interest in what John P. Davidson had to say about Trotsky in the brand new “The Obedient Assassin”, a novel that turns Ramon Mercader—Trotsky’s killer—into the major character.

I was surprised if not shocked to discover that this was the same John P. Davidson who had written a supremely witty and thoughtful account about going to butler’s school in the January 2014 Harper’s titled You Rang?, where he writes:

For some time, becoming a servant had been one of those idle dropout fantasies I entertained, along with becoming a shepherd or joining a monastery. Now, having sold my house and spent ten years and a great deal of money writing a novel that my agent hadn’t been able to sell, I had a somewhat more urgent interest in the six-figure jobs the Starkey Institute dangles before prospective students.

Assuming that the unsellable novel is “The Obedient Assassin”, we can only thank our lucky stars that he was a washout as a butler and that his agent finally hit pay dirt. As someone who has been a professional journalist for thirty-five years for reputable outlets like Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone, Davidson brings to the table an ability to write briskly and without a single superfluous word. Nor will you find the trendiness favored by MFA graduates. Sometimes it is easy to forget that some of the greatest novels were written by men and women who started out as journalists, first and foremost among them Ernest Hemingway.

The novel makes no attempts to make Grand Statements about the world after the fashion of Kingsolver or Padura but simply tells the story of how Ramon Mercader ended up assassinating the man that Lenin favored to lead the Soviet Union after his death. In some ways, the novel reads like a very good spy thriller—and after all, that’s what Mercader was, a spy. I was reminded of two of my favorite novelists who work within this genre, Eric Ambler and Alan Furst. What, you haven’t heard of them? Boy, do you have some great reading in front of you.

Despite knowing how the story will end, you find yourself sitting at the edge of your seat as the GPU closes in on Trotsky. Oddly enough, I couldn’t help but think of the assassination of Jesse James as that dirty coward Frank Howard shot poor Jesse in an unguarded moment. Now, of course, we know better Obedient-Assassin-by-John-P.-Davidsonnowadays that James was a filthy bushwhacker but not so long ago he was more often seen as a modern day Robin Hood. When American Trotskyist leader James P. Cannon was sent to prison for violations of the Smith Act in 1941 (his party opposed WWII), he liked to kid the bank robbers he ran into in the yard. Why bother with small change, he told them, we were after the whole thing.

Muralist David Siquieros, who led a hit squad that despite firing machine guns into Trotsky’s bedroom for twenty minutes failed to meet their target except for a minor scratch on Trotsky’s grandson’s foot, was much more skilled with a paintbrush.

It was up to Mercader to finish the job. Mercader was known to the people at Coyoacan as Frank Jacson, the name on the passport he used to get into the U.S. But his wife, a New York Trotskyist named Sylvia Ageloff, knew him as Jacques Mornard, supposedly a Belgian playboy. Among the thousands of lies he told her was that he had to use a fake passport as Jacson since he was supposedly wanted for avoiding military service in Belgium. The truth is that he was a Spaniard named Ramon Mercader and a member of the Communist Party who fought in Spain. His mother was Caridad, also a Communist and deeply involved with the GPU. She was the one who recruited him to penetrate the Coyoacan fortress and provide intelligence for Siquieros’s raid. When the raid failed, it was up to Jacson to carry out the hit with the weapon he chose for the occasion, a pickax used for mountain climbing.

In order to make Mercader a somewhat more sympathetic character, Davidson portrays him as someone who grows increasingly averse to his assignment—arguing to his GPU handlers that the Trotskyists were intellectuals and no threat to the Soviet Union. Of course, the Stalinists were totally psychotic by this point so reasoning would be useless. They told Mercader that unless he did his duty, he, his mother and his wife would all be killed. Like the mafia, the Kremlin had a way of enforcing obedience. As a title, “The Obedient Assassin” reflects this reality, but the title could have just as easily been “The Reluctant Assassin” since this was Mercader’s state of mind as the date drew near for the fatal encounter.

To refresh my memory on the assassination, I reread Isaac Deutscher’s account in volume three of his biography “The Prophet Outcast”. He describes Mercader as “nervous and gloomy” in the final days. Of course, we don’t know exactly what caused him to appear this way. It might have been fear of being caught rather than moral reservations. That lacuna, to use Kingsolver’s term, enables a writer of fiction like Davidson to mold reality to his artistic intentions.

When I joined the Trotskyist movement in 1967, the assassination of Leon Trotsky was a much more current event. I was near enough to Joe Hansen, Trotsky’s bodyguard who disarmed Mercader, to be able to chat with him from time to time—or to be more accurate allow him to reflect on what was happening in the world.

Hansen and many others from his generation were like Trotsky’s disciples. It is not hard to picture them at a Last Supper in Coyoacan as the “prophet” shares wine and dinner with the faithful.

Trotskyism, needless to say, never enjoyed the success of the sect that was launched in Jesus’s name. When I was a young member, the world seemed ours for the taking. The Fourth International was growing everywhere and capitalism appeared on the ropes. Now, nearly a half-century later, capitalism seems as in charge as it ever was and the once-proud movement I belonged to is in tatters everywhere. This does not change the obligation for me and for every other human being of conscience to take a stand against a system that is capable of killing the planet just as decisively as Mercader’s pickax took the life of an outstanding Marxist thinker. Mercader might have been right in describing Trotsky as nothing but an intellectual but he was one for the ages.

Louis Proyect blogs at
Re: Notes on a Staggering International Socialist Organization
02 Mar 2014
The Lacuna, or what’s missing
By Sandy English
27 March 2010

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver, New York: Random House, 2009, 342 pp.

Barbara Kingsolver’s new novel, The Lacuna, was recently nominated for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Before that, it appeared on US best-seller lists for several months.

The subject matter of the book is compelling. Kingsolver recounts the life of a fictional writer named Harrison Shepherd, mixing his story in with those of such historical figures as the Mexican painters Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, and Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, in the late 1930s. She describes the persecution Shepherd faces for his left-wing associations during the anti-communist witch-hunts after the second world war.

Kingsolver has published 13 books, seven of them novels or stories, which tend to feature the oppressed and disinherited: native peoples in the US, orphans, workers, and ordinary people of the poorest nations. She wrote with considerable sympathy (though with less scientific and historical insight) about a bitter labor struggle, the strike at Phelps-Dodge Copper in Morenci, Arizona, in her 1989 work, Holding the Line: Women in the Great Arizona Mine Strike of 1983, for which she did interviews with strikers and their supporters. More recently, her essays and non-fiction books have often examined the natural world (Kingsolver is a trained biologist) and exhibit a focus on local solutions to international issues. Animal, Vegetable, Mineral (2007), a book about eating the food she and her family grew, was widely praised.

While a previous novel, The Poisonwood Bible (1998), sets family life against revolutionary developments in the Congo in 1960, The Lacuna, her sixth novel, is Kingsolver’s most ambitious work so far.

The novel opens in 1929. As a boy, Shepherd lives in both Mexico with his mother and the United States with his father. The book provides a sense of Mexico in the aftermath of the 1910 Revolution. The country’s peasants, subjugated for centuries, have begun to have aspirations of their own, but still live in desperate poverty. Its ruling classes are determined to sell the wealth of the country to American businessmen. Kingsolver makes Shepherd something of an outcast. In Mexico, his mother doesn’t have much time for him as she hunts for a rich husband. She sends him to a school for underachievers, a society of misfits living in a world of their own.

Back in Washington D.C., his father puts him in a boarding school. In a horrific sequence, he witnesses the massacre of the Bonus Army marchers in 1932. His isolation only increases when he discovers that he is gay. This is dealt with in a sensitive and appropriate manner. Harrison returns to Mexico and is able to demonstrate his talent as a plasterer to the artist Diego Rivera who is painting his murals in the National Palace in Mexico City. He soon becomes a cook for the Rivera household and the protégé of Rivera’s wife, the painter Frida Kahlo.

There is some substance to Kingsolver’s portraits of Rivera and Kahlo. Rivera’s egoism and his great energy and passion suffuse this part of the book. Kahlo’s sense of purpose, nourished by her determination to overcome the life-long injuries she received in an accident as a young woman, helps Shepherd to become an artist in his own right. Kingsolver brings her biologist’s eye to Rivera’s work in the National Palace: “The great mural grows down the staircase day by day, like a root into the ground. Presidents and soldiers and Indians, all coming alive. The sun opens its eyes …”

In 1937 Shepherd begins to work in the household of their prominent guest, the exiled Bolshevik leader Leon Trotsky, until the latter’s assassination in 1940—this is simultaneously perhaps the strongest and weakest portrait in the book, about which we will say more below. During the second world war, Shepherd lives in Asheville, North Carolina and publishes novels set in ancient Mexico. By the end of the 1940s, he has become a popular literary figure and enjoys some of the happiest years of his life.

However, his past association with Kahlo, Rivera, and Trotsky makes him a target of anti-communist witch-hunters in the US government. Visits from the FBI begin and the newspapers conduct a smear campaign to ruin him. One can truly feel the isolation of the man as his neighbors and lovers turn away from him. His only friend is his stenographer, Violet Brown, who narrates much of this part of the novel. Kingsolver has Shepherd undergo some extraordinary experiences, in the company of some extraordinary personalities. Unfortunately, as a character, Shepherd remains passive and seems relatively unaffected by most of what happens to him. Kingsolver has made him a victim of historical defeats and setbacks and clearly empathizes with him because of this.

However, Shepherd seems disconnected from his own time. To one extent or another, this is a problem with the other characters as well: there is a “lacuna” between history and human behavior that bedevils the entire novel.

Repeatedly, Kingsolver reveals an indifference to the significance of the events of the 1930s, 40s and 50s. Elementary facts of social life such as economics, class, and politics do not help motivate or shape her characters’ behavior, although a materialist view of history, which gives prominence to such features of life, was the conception that many of them shared, or at least aspired to.

For all the prominence of Diego Rivera and especially Frida Kahlo in The Lacuna, the reader is only offered glimpses of these artists living and breathing in their epoch. In the scenes involving the artists, the most essential issues are only treated in small doses.

In March 1936, for instance, Kahlo tells Shepherd, referring to a domestic dispute, “Don’t worry, I am a revolutionist, I approve of insurrections.”

This was also the year the Spanish Revolution erupted, when the historical Frida Kahlo wrote to her doctor, “What I would like to do would be to go to Spain, since I believe it is now the center of all the most interesting things that are now happening in the world” [1].

Yet in The Lacuna, such titanic events do not seem to powerfully shake and help shape the lives of the characters, they do not appear to be inside them, as they undoubtedly were in actuality. The critical episodes of the 1930s become mere fodder for arguments at drunken gatherings of painters. Kingsolver puts forward a subjective view that attributes the decisive roles in history to accident and personality. This outlook comes to the fore with the entrance of Trotsky into the novel.

Trotsky’s principled character and his great stature as a revolutionary come across in The Lacuna. One sees a man fighting for his political honor and his life against the ever-tightening encirclement by Stalinist jackals. This is the period of the Moscow Trials, through which Stalin framed up the surviving leaders of the 1917 revolution and executed them. Trotsky was accused in absentia of seeking to destroy the Soviet Union through alliances with fascist and other imperialist forces.

One of these conversations sums up the author’s wrongheaded outlook. Shepherd raises the question with Trotsky of why Stalin was able to come to power and suggests that (according to Rivera) it was an “accident of history. Like a coin toss, that could have gone either way.” Far from refuting this, Trotsky thinks a moment and responds that Stalin sent him a misleading telegram after Lenin’s death in 1924 and delayed his appearance at the funeral. Furthermore, “Stalin moved so quickly to fill the bureaucracy with men who swore loyalty to him. These were supposed to be neutral positions, men dedicated only to the country.”

In other words, Stalin gained power due to the success of his personal machinations against Trotsky. The cancerous development of bureaucracy and eventual counterrevolution in the USSR, we are meant to believe, were the products of such historical small change.

These are Kingsolver’s views, not Trotsky’s. Or, rather, hers is the conventional view of the rise of Stalinism. Over the decades, Kingsolver has assimilated such notions, while retaining a personal sympathy for Trotsky. The sympathy remains, but the essence of his life and struggles has been lost.

At the time, in reality, Trotsky was writing his remarkable biography of Stalin, in which he deepened his analysis of the fate of the Russian Revolution and explained brilliantly how the objective world situation, and the backwardness and isolation of the Soviet state in particular, contributed to the rise of a bureaucratic, national-minded caste, which found its most perfect expression in the person of Stalin.

Kingsolver makes it appear that the struggle between Trotsky and Stalin was over by 1924. In fact, it had barely begun. In the face of persecution and slander, Trotsky and his co-thinkers organized the Left Opposition over the next nine years in a fight to replace the Stalinist bureaucracy and to regenerate the Communist movement inside and outside the USSR.

The novelist sees this struggle largely in moral terms. The conflict between Stalin and Trotsky is one of good versus evil. Absent from The Lacuna is any sense of contending social forces in the USSR and around the world.

The Lacuna is a work of fiction, not a history book. But even where a creative artist bends or alters historical facts, a successful imaginative reworking must come out of a profound knowledge and intellectual grasp of the objective, historical world.

When history (and such history, in this case!) is merely a passive backdrop, and not the essential stuff of character and story, a neglect of important details is apt to come easily. This grievously reveals itself when Kingsolver treats Trotsky’s assassination. The most striking omissions concern the role of the Stalinist secret police (the GPU at the time) in his murder.

In her novel, Kingsolver follows the assassin Ramon Mercader (known by his pseudonym Frank Jacson), and seriously addresses the impact of the murders of Trotsky’s followers, including his son Leon Sedov.

Nevertheless, Kingsolver has made numerous choices about the circumstances surrounding the GPU plan to kill Trotsky that seem dubious.

For example, one of Trotsky’s guards—and a character in the novel—was Robert Sheldon Harte, who disappeared with David Siqueiros and his gang after the first attempt on Trotsky’s life in May 1940, and was later slain. In Kingsolver’s book, he is a friend of Shepherd’s, and the latter even visits his family later in the story.

Kingsolver was a supporter of the SWP during those years. But this by itself does not fully explain why she recreates Trotsky and his admirers as half, or less, of what they were. It is clear that she is a sincere artist, and the absence of the impact of historical events from her characters’ psychology must indicate a deeper issue.

The problem is at root objective, bound up with the political stagnation and reaction of the past third of a century, the period during which Kingsolver matured as a writer. In those years the working class has not mobilized on a mass scale and open class struggle has not played a major role in American life.

The artists, in part as a consequence, have tended to turn their attention away from the influence of history and social struggle on psychology and emotional life, and devoted themselves to purely private and personal motivations. The results have been harmful.

Moreover, the promotion of identity politics by the SWP and organizations like it has certainly played a role in disorienting a generation of writers, as has the general propagation of subjectivist and ‘postmodernist’ conceptions. For a particular type of left or liberal writer who came of age after the 1970s, that history develops lawfully is generally an alien notion, even when he or she is sensitive to the lives of ordinary people.

Family and the individual are the central concerns in most contemporary fiction, but for writers like Kingsolver, Margaret Atwood, or Russell Banks, who have all published recent work that deals with historical issues, it is the good or bad individual who moves events, and more or less accidentally at that.

Kingsolver denies the most important features of social development their proper weight, and this has had definite artistic consequences. Some of the most dramatic events of the last century produce only a shallow and unsatisfying impact on the lives of The Lacuna’s characters.

[1] Quoted in: Hayden Herrera: Frida: A Biography of Frida Kahlo, New York: Harper, 1983, p. 203

See Also: Project Gutenberg (audio) -- From October to Brest-Litovsk by Leon Davidovich Trotzky

See Also: Project Gutenberg (text html) From October to Brest-Litovsk by Leon Davidovich Trotzky