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The ISO’s Secrecy Fetish

The International Socialist Organization published an article on March 6th by Tim Koch titled “Openness” and the left that opposed making their internal documents public either voluntarily or involuntarily as was the case recently when digital versions of the bulletins from their most recent convention were circulated on the Internet. I can understand why this aspiring Leninist group was aggravated over this violation of their confidentiality because there were some rather embarrassing revelations about the ISO’s stagnation, as well as what some regarded as a damningly inadequate response to a party member’s sexual attack on a non-party member.

I dealt with the stagnation question in an earlier article for CounterPunch and will now turn to the questions raised by Tim Koch since they go to the heart of what kind of left needs to be built in 2014. As a general rule, I do not think that modeling yourself on the Russian Social Democracy is a very good idea, but that being the case maybe the ISO should reflect on how “internal” the discussions were in the party they are supposedly emulating.

In 1905 Lenin wrote an article blasting the Russian liberals for making their party documents secret:

We Social-Democrats resort to secrecy from the tsar and his blood hounds, while taking pains that the people should know every thing about our Party, about the shades of opinion within it, about the development of its programme and policy, that they should even know what this or that Party congress delegate said at the congress in question. The enlightened bourgeois of the Osvobozhdeniye fraternity surround themselves with secrecy… from the people, who know nothing definite about the much-talked-of “Constitutional-Democratic” Party; but they make up for this by taking the tsar and his sleuths into their confidence. Who can say they are not democrats?

Tim Koch and his comrades are used to thinking that Lenin’s faction—the Bolsheviks—was the real party in Czarist Russia as opposed to the fake socialists. However, its own members did not regard the Russian social democracy in such purist fashion, particularly Lenin who viewed the right-leaning Mensheviks and the centrists grouped around Leon Trotsky as part of the same plucky but unhappy family. From 1903, the time when factional divisions began to emerge, to 1917 when a definitive (and harmful, in my view) break occurred between the left and the right internationally, debates took place in the party newspapers on an ongoing basis, resembling a Marxist version of the food fight in “Animal House”. To get a flavor of the acrimony, just consider the title of Lenin’s 1911 article Judas Trotsky’s Blush of Shame. It was an ongoing flame war in full view of all Russian social democratic members, just the sort of thing that would give our present-day “Leninist” leaders nightmares.

As someone who spent more than a decade in another group that modeled itself on “Lenin’s party”, I have some familiarity with the secrecy obsession even if it was long before the days of the Internet and the NSA. When I joined in 1967, ten percent of my comrades were FBI agents. We accepted that as part of the territory. Tim Koch frets over the job security of members: “Applying for a job? Be ready to give potential employers access to your social media profiles and credit score.”

From 1974 to 1976 I was in the Houston branch of the SWP arriving just after the KKK had bombed our headquarters and the Pacifica radio station with impunity. We certainly had strong suspicions that there was at least one cop in our midst if not more. But in the entire time I was there, people regularly discussed their party work at the local oil refineries openly. I would be hard pressed to name a boss more likely to fire your ass for being a commie than those who ran Mobil or Texaco in Houston.

But nobody ever lost his or her job. That was primarily a function of belonging to a trade union but what was just as notable was the ability of party members to get such jobs in the first place since there was always a trial period for new employees before becoming eligible to join a union. But even if being open about our jobs posed a risk, it was worth taking since our need to share information trumped FBI spying. Going to work at an oil refinery was a political assignment, just like enrolling at the University of Houston to do “student work”. Once the party adopted a “turn toward industry” policy a few years later, it expected input from everybody about which factories, mines or refineries to target for “colonization”, even from a petty-bourgeois computer programmer like me.

The best protection against being fired for your political views is the relationship of class forces, to use some jargon from my sordid past. When I had my first programming job at Metropolitan Life in 1968, the FBI sent a postcard to my office under Cointelpro reminding me of my “revolutionary duties”. Their hope was to “embarrass me” as I learned from my FBI files received under the Freedom of Information Act a dozen years later. When a Senior Vice President invited me into his office to discuss the postcard, he told me that if I ever received another he would personally take charge of finding out who sent it and have them fired. That was what things were like in 1968 when much of the left was quaking in its boots about Richard Nixon and the fascist threat.

Of course, if I had gone to work at Met Life in 1950, the results would have been far different. Met Life was the sponsor of the Eric Sevareid radio show that they dropped after receiving mail complaining about “Eric the Red”. That was the same Sevareid, by the way, who Dan Rather would replace years later as the host of CBS Evening News, a reliable source of inside-the-beltway thinking.

Notwithstanding the perpetual fears about a new rise of American fascism, I am convinced that the 1950s are not returning any time soon, especially with the disappearance of Communism.

Turning now to the question of political security rather than job security, Koch feels that keeping ISO discussions secret from the rest of the left enables party members to speak freely. Who would risk criticizing the party leadership if Louis Proyect reproduced their words in a CounterPunch article?

The fact is that organizations that seek to challenge the powerful must walk a delicate line between being open and forthright about our politics and goals, while at the same time allowing space for internal discussions about strategy and tactics, as well as the problems and challenges we face.

This space importantly includes self-criticism. Such internal criticism may be blunted if everyone knew it’s likely to be published on the Internet. Rather than air internal problems, people may keep their mouths shut than risk doing damage to an organization they believe in. Closed discussions can actually further a level of openness, and automatic publicity can actually close down certain discussions.

Once again it is worth pointing out that “internal” discussions were leaked long before the Internet was invented. Not only did the SWP have to contend with 10 percent of our members being FBI agents; we also understood that all of our documents were being passed along to our “opponents” on the left in printed format. It was not unusual for the smaller Trotskyist sects who loathed us to write commentaries on our convention documents that were clearly passed along to them by their secret agents.

Of more concern was the leaking of documents to activists involved in the living mass movements who felt quite rightly that the SWP viewed the movements as an arena for “intervention”, recruitment, and other self-serving goals. In 1973 gay members were appalled by the refusal of the party to build the gay movement, a decision based on “workerist” dogma that would become increasingly pronounced. After all, an oil refinery worker had more “social weight” than a window dresser or a flower shop owner. I am being somewhat crude about the SWP’s sectarian position but not by much. You can be sure that as SWP members resigned in disgust over this abstentionism, they shared the internal resolutions with their comrades in the gay movement. That was clear from articles in the gay press around that time blasting the SWP.

In the final analysis, the leaking of documents has often been based on disaffection. But when you feel that the leadership is indifferent to the ranks of the party and willing to pursue unpopular positions only because the ranks are too cowed to speak out against them, you will have no compunctions about doing an “Edward Snowden”. That is the problem that the ISO has run into and there are no easy solutions.

The one thing that could resolve this problem is breaking with the secrecy fetish and moving rapidly in the direction of building a broader left that is completely open and transparent. Instead of formulating what this would mean for the ISO, I will allow one of their members to do so. The words appear in one of those infamous purloined documents:

As we have seen this year especially, members who have left the organization have made a habit of releasing data as they see fit. We are fooling ourselves if we think this could be controlled. Even removing malcontent from the picture, it only takes one member practicing insecure web habits to open the flood gates. Even a two-tiered system, where some bulletins are marked “internal” and others “external,” as some members have argued for, is not sufficient…Who among us have not shared scholarly articles from firewalled online repositories? Who among us has not listened to unauthorized copies of music? I fully expect the document containing this proposal to be available on the web in the next few weeks if not days. Short of doing away with electronic dissemination, there is no fix. (And even if we were to do away with electronic dissemination, relying on the state postal service or private couriers, for example, has very obvious drawbacks.)

This is as much (and, in some ways, more) of a practical question as it is a political one. I do not submit this proposal lightly, but seeing no alternative, I think the only option is to operate as if documents will be released anyway and to do it ourselves…To speak for a minute on the “political” side of this, I understand this essentially opens up debates which have traditionally been conducted within our organization to the public, but the current system is such that these documents generally only get made public by those with negative intentions and are interacted with almost solely by those with attitudes or ideologies completely in opposition to our own (no judgement on the renewal faction is intended). A positive side effect of this would be that much of the basis of accusations of a cloistered organization (both internal and external) would no longer have a footing.

I think that the last sentence here is a striking admission, even if the person making it would not necessarily understand it: “A positive side effect of this would be that much of the basis of accusations of a cloistered organization (both internal and external) would no longer have a footing.”

Cloistered is exactly the right word to describe the internal culture of groups like the ISO. Let’s not forget the original meaning of the word. It was the quadrangle inside a cathedral established to support monastic contemplation.

It has been an ongoing tragedy that a large part of the left functions like a priesthood defending their interpretation of the Holy Writ, a collection of books written by Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, Stalin et al. Challenges to the orthodoxy of the political sect is resisted just as it is with religious sects.

It is fairly easy to understand why religious sectarianism exists. When there are debates about spiritual matters, they can go on for millennia. After all, how are you going to prove or disprove the Virgin Birth?

In radical politics, there is a tendency to create dividing lines over matters that appear at first blush to be material and provable rather than spiritual and unresolvable, such as the nature and outcome of the Russian or Cuban revolution. Unfortunately, the left has turned them into the same kinds of dividing lines that separate Catholic from Protestant or Shia from Sunni.

The greatest urgency exists today for maximum unity on the left. The sooner that groups focus on the issues that unite us rather than divide us, the stronger we will be. While the ISO has paid lip service to this need, a Grand Canyon stands between its words and its deeds. The group has the power to serve as a catalyst for a new radical movement based on transparency and accountability. Not only would this be a shot in the arm for the entire left for them to move rapidly in this direction; it would also go a long way toward overcoming the malaise that grips the organization. One can understand the inertia that is preventing them from making this turn. Organizations and organizational leaderships are subject to bureaucratic tendencies no matter the degree to which they feel immune. It often takes something like a splash of cold water in the face to get someone to change his or her behavior. Let’s hope that the painful and embarrassing spotlight on this well-meaning group over the past six months or so has the same effect.

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.

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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.

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