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The Ordeal of Shaun Joseph

A Response to Our Socialist Worker Critics

by ROGER DYER, RACHEL MORGAN, ADRIENNE JOHNSTONE, CHRISTINE DAROSA, ANDY LIBSON and BRIAN BELKNAP

We want to thank CounterPunch for giving us the space one month ago to put forward our Theory and Practice of Idealism in Trotskyism and the ISO.  We have already received a number of responses that we are eager to reply to.  Among them are an invitation to rejoin the ISO from the current and former Bay Area District Organizers, and a denial of undemocratic practices and harassment by two Steering Committee members, one of them the editor of Socialist Worker.

Shortly after these responses were published Shaun Joseph, one of the comrades who inspired us to write our critique took the ISO leadership at their word and rejoined the Cambridge branch in Boston.  What follows is the text of a letter sent to the comrades in Boston who readmitted Shaun.

Dear comrades of the Boston district,

This letter is to repeat and reaffirm what Ahmed S., representing the ISO Steering Committee, communicated to members of the Dorchester and Cambridge branch committees last weekend: Shaun J. is not a member of the ISO at this time. The decision to rejoin the ISO is not his alone, and is subject to approval by members of the entire Boston district, the regional organizer and the national organization, as represented by  the Steering Committee.

Shaun resigned from the organization on August 29th communication with Shaun, members of the ISO Steering Committee—via telephone, email and in person—expressed their concern about Shaun’s resignation and discussed the possibility of reintegrating him into the activity of the ISO, quite clearly stating that he would be welcome back into the organization once the issues sharply dividing the Boston district were resolved.

Instead, on October 1, Shaun used his blog to publicize a petition by a number of ISO comrades to “reinstate” him. This was a nonstarter, since Shaun was not expelled from the ISO. As he noted in the email announcing his resignation to Boston comrades: “You’re of course aware of my analysis of the district’s problems, which I still think has some insight; but it seems to me that you will do a better job finding your way without my presence in the group’s internal life.” He continued: “I’m not interested in undermining the ISO or leaving in some splashy way that would hurt it. I will try to be fair-minded when I explain why I left. I intend to continue paying dues to the organization. Maybe someday I will rejoin, if you’ll have me, but obviously it’s impossible to say.”

Further, Shaun’s publication of ISO internal documents online, along with his public endorsement of attacks on the ISO by hostile ex-members, seems to us precisely to be “leaving in some splashy way that would hurt” the ISO, which Shaun had assured comrades that he would not do. These actions only increased tensions between Shaun and the majority of Boston comrades.

The Boston district held a meeting of more than five hours to discuss these matters on our desire to resolve the crisis around Shaun. Boston comrades, including members of the Cambridge branch committee, arrived at a general consensus that it would be unwise for Shaun to rejoin without the issues being resolved.

Therefore, the decision by the Cambridge branch committee to readmit Shaun without any discussion with the rest of the Boston district, the regional organizer or the national leadership, is contrary to the practice and democratic norms of the ISO. Moreover, in our opinion, this is a deliberate provocation on their part. To what aim is as yet unclear. The Cambridge branch committee, by insisting that Shaun be present at a scheduled Boston district meeting on November 16th, made Shaun the center of, at which all the issues were aired. At this meeting, Ahmed publicly affirmed debate, effectively ensuring that the planned discussion of ISO perspectives never took place.

If the Cambridge branch committee had informed the rest of the Boston district or the national organization of their and Shaun’s desire for him to rejoin, the outcome would have been quite different. We have been operating on the assumption that these comrades are acting in good faith to the organization. We no longer believe that to be the case. We urge the members of the Cambridge branch who have taken this path to reconsider their flouting of the rest of the organization.

The result of their recent actions has been further damage to a district already in crisis from disputes involving Shaun over the past several months. For these reasons, the Steering Committee once again states our position to the Boston District ISO that Shaun J. is not a member of the ISO, and therefore cannot be involved in members-only meetings, events, and discussions. The Steering Committee met and is unanimous in its views on this issue.

ISO Steering Committee

The Boston members replied with this letter:

Comrades:

We are strongly opposed to the Steering Committee’s characterization of the crisis in Boston and the method by which they have chosen to intervene in the ongoing conversations in the district. What Ahmed relayed to us on Saturday was a stark departure from what the SC had been arguing publicly, formally, and in print regarding Shaun’s membership up to that point–that because  ”Shaun’s resignation on September 3 was his own decision, the question of his reinstatement should be up to him” (IB#3, Oct. 6, 2013). In conversations with the former Harvard branch committee (Neil P., Amanda H.G., and Sarah B.) and with Shaun J., Ahmed reiterated his desire that Shaun J. be reintegrated through the Cambridge branch before Convention 2014.  He made a similar argument in our “emergency” district meeting on October 6.

In the letter, the SC argues that the Boston district came to a “consensus” after this emergency meeting. There was no such consensus. People discussed the crisis in the district which, it is important to note, extends far beyond Shaun. The elected leadership in Boston has admitted, and publicly argued, as much. The general “consensus” afterwards was that resolving the district crisis would be a long term project–this, we feel, was the general sentiment of the meeting (were we to identify one). Furthermore, the overall characterization of the meeting is inaccurate. While certain members of the leadership asserted that the meeting was “a step forward,” a number of members left feeling confused, demoralized, and otherwise frustrated.

The conditions under which Shaun left the organization have completely disappeared from the conversation. We have argued, and still argue, that Shaun was forced out of the organization, as a result of leading members of the Boston district insinuating, publicly, that Shaun was sexist and racist. The regional organizer has acknowledged this, stating in a district meeting that Shaun was owed an apology. That apology has not come. Alpana M. has stated that she regretted vilifying Shaun “on Facebook,” but neither she nor any other member of the leadership have apologized for the content of their attacks.

We have yet to hear a political motivation for why it would be necessary for the Steering Committee, regional organizer, and entire district to vote in favor of Shaun’s membership before he rejoins. Individuals apply for membership to branches. This is not a bureaucratic maneuver–these are the rules. If the national leadership decides that there should be extra conditions for Shaun’s membership, that needs to be explicitly stated and should be politically motivated. Before last Thursday it was not communicated to the Cambridge branch, and it still has not been politically motivated, despite the Cambridge BC directly asking Ahmed about it at a meeting last weekend. We see this as an infringement upon the democratic practices of the organization, and the norms at present.

The Steering Committee is barring Shaun from membership and, furthermore, is attempting to thoroughly discredit us in the process. The question, though, is why. In the letter, they argue, “Shaun’s publication of ISO internal documents online, along with his public endorsement of attacks on the ISO by hostile ex-members, seems to us precisely to be ‘leaving in some splashy way that would hurt,’ the ISO, which Shaun had assured comrades that he would not do. These actions only increased tensions between Shaun and the majority of Boston comrades.” Here, it seems that the SC offers a glimpse into the real motives behind the barrier to Shaun’s membership. The barrier is not Shaun’s strained or tense relationship with various members of the district, but his ongoing engagement with comrades throughout the country who have sought to weigh in on national debates, and offer critiques of the organization.

The SC claims that “the result of [our] recent actions has been further damage to a district already in crisis from disputes involving Shaun over the past several months.” In fact, the district has been in crisis for much longer than that–a crisis that Shaun attempted to identify and analyze eleven months ago in the face of a district leadership that refused to recognize it. The intervention of the regional organizer, and now the Steering Committee, has made the crisis worse and militated against a political solution, effectively scapegoating Shaun for all the problems–and legitimating the way that Shaun was run out of the group.

The SC references in the letter a meeting that several of us had with Ahmed last weekend. We think it is important to describe the tenor of that meeting. Overall, we are appalled by the way in which Ahmed conducted himself in the meeting. Ahmed began the meeting by asking why Shaun was even there. Apparently Alpana, who set up the meeting, had not conveyed to Ahmed that she herself had invited Shaun to the meeting. Since half of the district committee and the Cambridge branch committee considered Shaun a member, and we were meeting to discuss Shaun’s membership, we agreed with Alpana that it seemed obvious that Shaun should have been part of that meeting. During the discussion, Ahmed threatened Shaun, saying, “I’ve been doing this a long time, and I’ll be doing it long after you’re gone.”

Ahmed refused to answer our political questions about the SC being involved in the question of Shaun’s membership, and he characterized Amanda HG and Sarah B as being “led into a cul-de-sac which would lead [them] out of the organization” by Shaun. In response, Sarah B asked him to clarify his meaning, and also voiced her concern that this was an insulting claim, insinuating that the two female branch members were being brainwashed or otherwise manipulated by Shaun. In response to Sarah’s question, Ahmed became enraged. What resulted can only be described as a 3 minute long, incomprehensible tirade directed primarily at Sarah.

This is behavior that is beneath any member of the organization–much less a representative of the Steering Committee.

We defend our actions in engaging Shaun and readmitting him to the ISO.

Amanda HG, Neil P, Sarah B, Yuval S

What this exchange makes clear is that not only are those of us who have criticized the ISO not welcome back as members, those who support us being readmitted as members are threatened with expulsion.  The SW articles were clearly written with the sole intention of discrediting the ISO’s critics and continuing the pretense that that ISO is a democratic organization where debate can be had openly.

The article from the two Steering Committee members went out of its way to claim that the practices of the ISO can in no way be compared to those that precipitated the crisis in the British SWP, while in the next breath they signed off on the above letter. This kind of dishonest nonsense is exactly what has led to the SWP crisis (and similar crises with other revolutionary organizations) and needs to be exposed if the left has any hope of being rebuilt on a sounder foundation.

Since then, many of the people raising these criticism in the ISO have gone on to form a faction called the ISO Renewal Faction. We do not agree with everything this faction puts forward, nor are they in agreement with everything we wrote in our assessment of Trotskyism,  the Transition Program or the ISO’s tailing the CTU strike, but we believe the comrades have taken an important step toward trying to clarify political differences within the organization.  Though the ISO now claims to be open to factions (despite saying to us that the “ISO does not tolerate factions” when we raised our disagreements two years ago), the faction has been met with nothing but suspicion and hostility from the leadership since its formation.  Not surprising, but again, this policy of speaking out of two sides of your mouth (usually referred to as just plain old lying) MUST end if the revolutionary left is going to rebuild itself.

We appreciate the many other more serious and thoughtful responses we have gotten and hope the CounterPunch editors will be generous enough to give us the space for an equally thoughtful and serious reply.  As one of our thoughtful critics pointed out there are now many more revolutionary socialists outside organizations than in them and it has heartened us greatly that our last posting has begun to bring some of them together.

ROGER DYER was a member from 2000 to 2011, in the San Francisco Bay Area, branch committee, convener and district committee member, district organizer for immigrants rights, active in local anti-war and immigrants rights movements, and delegate to National Conventions.

RACHEL MORGAN joined the ISO in 2006 (until 2011), after 4 years in a sister organization in Australia, where she was on branch committees and the National Committee. In the Bay Area, she was active in the local anti-war movement, and led nationally in the campus anti-war network. She was a member of branch committee, convener, district committee member and delegate to National Convention.

ADRIENNE JOHNSTONE was a member of the ISO from 1994 until 1995 (in New York) and from 2002 until 2011 (in San Francisco), branch committee, branch convenor, district labor organizer, district committee, National Committee member, National Convention delegate, candidate for president of United Educators San Francisco with Educators for a Democratic Union, organizer for the March 4 walk out against budget cuts, contributor toEducation and Capitalism: Struggles for Learning and Liberation (Haymarket Books)

CHRISTINE DAROSA was a member from 2003 to 2011 in San Francisco. She was a contributing writer for Socialist Worker, and participated in the production of Haymarket’s Meaning of Marxism, Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, and a contributor to Changemakers 101. She was active in LGBT rights work, as well as many local initiatives. She was a member of branch committees, and delegate to National Conventions.

ANDY LIBSON was a member of the ISO from 1999 to 2011. In the San Francisco Bay Area, branch committee, convenor and district committee member. Founding member of Educators for a Democratic Union and Vice-Presidential Candidate for EDU in recent election for leadership in United Educators for San Francisco.

BRIAN BELKNAP was a member of the ISO from 1986 to 2010.