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The ISO Versus Socialist Alternative

Sectarian Delusions on the American Left

by LOUIS PROYECT

Another International Socialist Organization Internal Bulletin has been leaked to the public over on the External Bulletin website, home to a group of former members. It contains an article written by long-time leader Todd Chretien that targets Socialist Alternative (SAlt)—the group that is rightfully proud of their comrade Kshama Sawant being elected to the Seattle City Council and for her role in the passing of a $15 minimum wage.

I have been partial to Chretien in the past because of his close ties to the late Peter Camejo, whose gubernatorial campaign in California he helped organize in 2003. I worked closely with Camejo in the early 80s and confess to having stolen all my best ideas from him.

The ISO’s chief criticism of Socialist Alternative’s electoral strategy is that it is “triumphalist”, a musty term from the Marxist lexicon. Specifically, Chretien regards SAlt’s call for a hundred independent candidates to run in the 2014-midterm elections as an “overblown perspective”. In his view, her victory did not necessarily mean that political conditions had ripened to the point where such a large number of candidates would be forthcoming. Such “triumphalism” might even be catching–to the point where ISO’ers would be seduced into believing that it was feasible to form a new “broad” party in the near term, or that regroupment of the far left was the order of the day. Heaven forefend.

The ISO is not the only group on the left that is wary about efforts on behalf of “broad” parties. WSWS.org, the newspaper of a tiny sect that is hostile not only to SAlt but also to the ISO (and just about everyone else on the left as well), told its readers:

Socialist Alternative has called for a new coalition of like-minded groups, in alliance with the trade unions, to run 100 “independent” candidates in local elections next year. Their aim is to establish a political framework analogous to Syriza in Greece, the Left Party in Germany, and the New Anti-capitalist Party in France.

In tracking down SAlt’s call, it turns out to be more what we might call food for thought rather than a promissory note. From the Kshama Sawant website:

As a concrete step to get there, we should form coalitions throughout the country with the potential to come together on a national level to run 100 independent working-class candidates in the 2014 mid-term elections. The unions who supported the Moore and Sawant campaigns and many others should run full slates of independent working-class candidates in the mid-term, state, and local elections.

Chretien points out that the 100 independent candidates have not materialized, a sure sign of SAlt’s pie-in-the-sky tendencies. But was such a call anything more than what we used to call “propaganda” in the American SWP? (For some odd reason the ISO has studied the SWP for useful hints about party-building. In my view, this is like studying the Hindenburg or the Titanic for transportation ideas.)

Before it became a dirty word, propaganda meant raising an idea that could inspire people to take political action. For example, Lenin used to propagandize for a constituent assembly in Czarist Russia whether or not it was immediately on the agenda. I for one think that the call for a hundred independent candidates was not only right but also one that could be raised again in the next election cycle, to use the hackneyed term from CNN and MSNBC.

With respect to the Syriza question, it is not exactly clear that SAlt is so gung-ho on a broad party. In the most recent Greek elections their comrades ran their own campaign as a way of differentiating themselves from a party that they have characterized as “inadequate” and adhering to “watered down” demands. So, WSWS.org can breathe a sigh of relief.

Unlike the people behind WSWS, the ISO is at least verbally committed to the idea of a Syriza type formation in the USA. Just over a year ago their leader Ahmed Shawki gave a talk to an ISO conference that pointed in such a direction even if it ultimately led nowhere. One must conclude that both the ISO and SAlt are both capable of making unfulfilled projections. I urge that they be forgiven for such peccadillos.

Probably worried a bit about the smaller organization breathing down the ISO’s neck, Chretien calls attention to a SAlt article filled with the characteristic bravado of small propaganda groups convinced of their special role in the final showdown with capitalism. The article speaks of having picked up new members in 45 cities and projects the group doubling in size this year, mostly on account of Kshama Sawant’s high profile.

Like Hertz deriding Avis, Chretien dismisses all this as “irrational exuberance”, Yale economist Robert Schiller’s term for stock market and real estate bubbles. One can understand why he would be so skeptical. It was not so long ago that the ISO itself had the illusion of nonstop growth until it ran into the glass ceiling all such groups impose upon themselves with their ideological purity and their bogus notions of “democratic centralism”. If SAlt’s goal was to become a party of 1,000 members, history will record that it is certainly within reach. But in a country of nearly 300 million people, that is like spitting into the ocean. The sad reality is that it is only a broad left party that can begin to reach those millions, something that neither the ISO nor SAlt is ready to acknowledge except as an abstraction. In reality it would require dissolving themselves into a much larger movement and thus losing their precious individuality.

Let me turn now to the rather arcane matter of how the ISO distinguishes itself from SAlt in terms of their revolutionary bona fides, a topic that I am sure would make most CounterPunch readers’ eyes glaze over. I will do my best to make my account as lively as possible.

SAlt’s “irrational exuberance” was something they supposedly caught like a bad cold from their leadership in Britain, where the Committee for a Workers International is based. This latest attempt to build a Fourth International has the same tendency as every one in the past, going back to the days when Leon Trotsky was running the show. It revolves around the idea that a prerevolutionary situation exists and that it will be squandered unless Leninist parties are built in the nick of time. Chretien scoffs at the CWI’s claim that their South African section was in the vanguard of the working class given their tiny vote (0.05). We are led to believe that Socialist Alternative has the same delusions of grandeur.

Of course, such projections are essential for groups in the “Leninist” mold. How else would you persuade young people to give up so much of their time, energy and money unless they felt that socialism was on the near-term agenda? What tends to happen with such groups is burn-out as people reach their 30s or 40s and the cold, hard reality sinks in that capitalism stands before them like an immovable object when their small numbers are quite resistible. The only force capable of making a dent in that immovable object will have to accept people on their own terms. The largely Black and Latino NYC subway work force that is quite capable of bringing Wall Street to its knees by not reporting to work and that supported the Occupy movement is not likely to attend 3 meetings a week or fit in with a milieu largely made up of white kids who attended Columbia University and other top-drawer institutions.

Chretien also takes issue with CWI leader Peter Taaffe’s claim that a “rapid and peaceful socialist transformation” of society is possible, an obviously revisionist notion. No such illusions exist in the ideologically granite-hard ISO that would never make such errors. Instead of succumbing to parliamentary cretinism as they used to put it a century ago, the ISO has an “extra-parliamentary” orientation. What Chretien fails to mention is that Taaffe was not speaking about Fabian socialist gradualism but rather about one of the most “extra-parliamentary” struggles of the past 50 years, namely the May-June 1968 events in France when workers and students built barricades and seemed poised to take power. Taaffe wrote:

There is not only the sombre tragedy of Chile, but the brilliant example of France, when in May 1968 over 10 million workers participated in a magnificent general strike. The economy was paralysed and the state suspended in mid-air. When General de Gaulle fled in panic to the headquarters of the French forces in Germany, his commander-in-chief, General Massu, told him bluntly that it would be impossible for the army to intervene against the working class under those conditions. A rapid and peaceful socialist transformation of French society would have been entirely possible.

In other words, Taaffe was not talking up Norman Thomas but V.I. Lenin. A “rapid and peaceful socialist transformation” was possible in the same way that it was possible in October 1917. Bloodshed only came when Soviet Russia was invaded, after the relatively peaceful initial conquest of power. One hopes that Chretien can avoid quoting his adversaries out of context in the future. Such behavior does not reflect well on him.

Chretien complains about SAlt reneging on promises to work with the ISO on election campaigns: “It remains to be seen if SAlt can overcome its sectarian tendencies and learn how to genuinely collaborate with other forces on the left.” Who can say why (or even if) this haughty attitude was manifested? Similar complaints were raised about the ISO when their rivals approached them about endorsing Sawant’s first campaign for city council. My experience with these sorts of “he said, she said” disagreements is that both parties share blame. Since they are fighting for market share, there is an almost inevitable tendency to blame each other when an agreement can’t be reached like in a failed corporate merger.

Finally, Cretien draws a contrast between the ISO and the group that it can see gaining rapidly in its rear view mirror:

Our stated goal is no different from Socialist Alternative’s. We are “dedicated to the project of creating a revolutionary workers’ party as a part of a worldwide movement for socialism.” However we are going about this task in way that is different from SAlt’s approach. Our vision is not that the ISO will just become the revolutionary workers party when it reaches a certain size and we drop the “O” and add a “P.” The creation of real mass party of revolutionary workers will undoubtedly involve forces larger than us. Our work is in the creation and development of Marxist militants who are able be involved with those larger forces, movements and unions in order to weave the threads that will in the future pull sections of these forces into that thing that will be a party.

One of the things I have learned about the Leninist left over the years is that except for the nethermost reaches like WSWS.org or the Spartacist League, it is de rigueur to make disclaimers like it “will undoubtedly involve forces larger than us.” The problem is that we are not interested in what happens down the road. We are focused on 2014 when small left groups have a heavy responsibility for taking the next step to draw in larger forces. The ISO, like the Socialist Alternative, is an energetic, uncompromising, principled group that we can appreciate for its efforts. However, we are in a period of deepening class confrontation where everybody on the left will be sorely tested as to their ability to transcend artificial divisions that weaken us in the face of the enemy. The time to overcome such divisions is now, not in the distant future. In fact actions that we take today, or fail to take, will have an impact on the relationship of forces down the road. Unless we begin to move away from sectarianism today, our chances of success in the future will be compromised if not entirely thwarted. One hopes that both the ISO and Socialist Alternative can rise to the occasion.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.