In the 1950s pop culture was obsessed with multiple personality disorder, an illness that was often confused with schizophrenia. Someone who had multiple personalities was “schizoid”; in other words they were split into two or more identities (the term schizo is Greek for split). For example, the film “The Three Faces of Eve” starred Joanne Woodward as a woman with three personalities. You can see the specific amalgam between the two diseases in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” where Anthony Perkins was himself as well as his dead mom.
Now you might ask yourself what in the hell this has to do with Marxism. Okay, let me explain. I see the ISO as suffering from multiple personality disorder. I just finished listening to their long-time leader Ahmed Shawki address their recently held conference in Chicago on “Perspectives for the Left”. The talk went about as far as you can go in calling for a break with Zinovievism at the same time as Paul Le Blanc, their resident expert on “Leninism”, is going around giving speeches on why the 21 Conditions and Morris Lewitt’s rant to the American SWP’s 1945 convention about being “monopolists” in the sphere of politics made sense in their day. I would only say that even if these sectarian initiatives made sense in their day, it is a big mistake to bring them up now. It is like taking the skeletons out of your closet, putting them in formal wear, and making them the guests of honor at a dinner party. The best place for these skeletons right now is six feet under.
It strikes me that the American ISO and the people who departed the British SWP are on the same wavelength in terms of political analysis but obviously in an existentially different place when it comes to Zinovievism. In contrast to Callinicos’s group, Shawki and Richard Seymour see eye to eye on SYRIZA. That’s progress! After all, once you are outside of a group like the SWP and convinced that trying to recreate a “healthy” one is a task not worth undertaking, then you become driven by that logic to explore new opportunities such as Ken Loach’s Left Unity or whatever else comes your way. Clearly, the British left is much further ahead than the American left in shedding the dead skin of “Leninism”.
Most of Shawki’s talk was devoted to an examination of the “catastrophism” that the 1960s left operated under. Most of us assumed that the radicalization that had sunk deep roots into the student, Black, women’s, and gay movements would eventually reach the working class even as this outlook was less pronounced in the American SWP. Shawki describes a split in the IS group that led to the formation of the ISO that reflected this “revolution is just around the corner” urgency. His faction was skeptical of the “turn” toward the industrial working class that the American SWP would itself embark upon just a few years later. That, in my opinion, is the main reason the ISO has grown. Instead of sending its cadres into coalmines and meat-packing plants, it allowed them (or directed them—I have no way of knowing) to work as teachers or social workers. That is why the SWP, which had close to 2000 members in 1972, now numbers 100 while the ISO that started out with 100 is probably at least 1500 members strong.
Speaking of numbers, Shawki addressed the “glass ceiling” question that I have referred to on many occasions. In my view the “Zinovievist” model is very good at going from 100 to 1000 members (and vice versa of course.) What is not good at is getting to 10,000 or—better yet—100,000. Shawki does not use the term “glass ceiling” but refers to a “plateau”. He asks why the NYC local of the ISO cannot get past the 150 mark and move to 2-300.
He answers his own question by saying that the group has to find ways to accept people who do not agree with every dotted I and crossed T of the ISO. Of course, the main obstacle to turning this into a reality is the very culture that has been created in the ISO over the past 30 years or so. In the entire time I have interacted with ISO’ers on the Internet over the past 15 years or so, I have yet to run into a single member who departs from the groupthink that inevitably determines their interaction with other leftists—the kneejerk tendency to defend the party line on every single question. In the SWP we used to call this “loyalty”. It virtually makes independent thinking an impossible task. In groups such as these, there is a kind of division of labor. The full-timers who write for the magazine or those who serve on the national committee do the thinking while the “Jimmy Higgins” go out and sell the newspaper. In the American SWP, whenever we “recruited” a new member who had a long history of thinking and writing for themselves, we always felt better when they abandoned one of their “old” positions that we were uncomfortable with. It was like antibodies reacting to an infection.
I should add that the only ISO’er who departed from the norm was Todd Chretien who emailed a few times about 10 years ago expressing some doubts about the ISO’s position on Nicaragua and asking me for some references. About a year later I stopped hearing from him. It was not clear to me whether his comrades had laid down the law about consorting with Satan or whether my own obnoxious personality had done the trick.
Shawki said that the ISO would be taking some new initiatives to facilitate this more open (or less Zinoviest) approach that in the future might help to incubate an American SYRIZA. First and foremost is the relaunching of the International Socialist Review, which is described as a “new web site and a new print format”. I don’t know. If it was up to me, the ISR should have gone whole hog and followed the format of Links, the publication of the Socialist Alliance in Australia. Links is truly diverse and begins to satisfy the needs addressed in Lenin’s “What is to be Done”—a journal that can unite socialists and facilitate debate. For example, there is a fawning interview in the ISR with Vivek Chibber by Jason Farbman but no place to offer a comment. I would have loved to give the so-and-so a piece of my mind. You would think that an earlier fawning interview conducted by ISO member and Chibber dissertation student Jonah Birch would have sufficed.
The truth is that the ISO probably shares to a significant degree Alex Callinicos’s aversion to the Internet, where all sorts of riffraff hang out. It is too bad that there is a lingering hostility (albeit veiled) to a means of communication as important to the 21st century as the Gutenberg press was to the epoch of the bourgeois revolution. One wonders if the ISO is capable of spawning a single member who had the smarts and the backbone to begin a blog as audacious as Richard Seymour’s Lenin’s Tomb. I think that would go a long way in helping to transform the ISO, even though it might risk letting the genie out of the bottle.
In any case, despite my obvious skepticism about whether the ISO can make such a turn, I offer them a probably unsought “good luck”. Nothing would make me happier than to see a 10,000 strong ISO and me eating my words. Such a group could really begin to make a difference politically in the USA and god knows we need that.
I want to conclude with an article I wrote about a decade ago. It was written as an ex post facto declaration of a new way of doing business for the SWP—obviously something that never would have happened in an outfit that allowed Morris Lewitt to rant about being “monopolists” in the sphere of politics. I invite Ahmed to plagiarize large portions of it. Nothing in fact would make me happier.
The Speech that Jack Barnes Should Have Given in 1974
Comrades, 1974 is a year which in some ways marks the end of an era. The recent victory of the Vietnamese people against imperialism and of women seeking the right to safe and legal abortion are culminations of a decade of struggle. That struggle has proved decisive in increasing both the size and influence of the Trotskyist movement as our cadre threw their energy into building the antiwar and feminist movements. Now that we are close to 2,000 in number and have branches in every major city in the US, it is necessary to take stock of our role within the left and our prospects for the future.
In this report I want to lay out some radical new departures for the party that take into account both our growing influence and the changing political framework. Since they represent such a change from the way we have seen ourselves historically, I am not asking that we take a vote at this convention but urge all branches to convene special discussions throughout the year until the next convention when a vote will be taken. I am also proposing in line with the spirit of this new orientation that non-party individuals and organizations be invited to participate in them.
A) THE TRADE UNION MOVEMENT
While our political work of the 1960s was a necessary “detour” from the historical main highway of the socialist movement, it is high time that we began to reorient ourselves. There are increasing signs that the labor movement is beginning to reject the class collaborationist practices of the Meany years. For example, just 4 short years ago in 1970, various Teamsters locals rejected a contract settlement agreed to by their president Frank Fitzsimmons and the trucking industry. They expected a $3.00 per hour raise but the contract settled for only $1.10. The rank and file went out on a wildcat strike that Fitzsimmons and the mainstream press denounced. Fitzsimmons probably had the student revolt on his mind, since he claimed that “Communists” were behind the teamster wild-cat strike. Nobody took this sort of red-baiting to heart anymore. The burly truck-drivers involved in the strike were the unlikeliest “Communists” one could imagine. The trucking industry prevailed upon President Richard Nixon to intercede in the strike at the beginning of May, but the student rebellion against the invasion of Cambodia intervened. The antiwar movement and the war itself had stretched the US military thin. National guardsmen who had been protecting scab truck- drivers occupied the Kent State campuses where they shot five students protesting the war. In clear defiance of the stereotype of American workers, wildcat strikers in Los Angeles regarded student antiwar protesters as allies and invited them to join teamster picket lines. The wildcat strikes eventually wound down, but angry rank and file teamsters started the first national reform organization called Teamsters United Rank and File (TURF).
It is very important for every branch to investigate opportunities such as these and to invite comrades to look into the possibility of taking jobs in those industries where such political opportunities exist. What will not happen, however, is a general turn toward industry that many small Marxist groups made in the 1960s in an effort to purify themselves. Our work in the trade unions is not an attempt to “cleanse” the party but rather to participate in the class struggle which takes many different forms. We are quite sure that when comrades who have begun to do this kind of exciting work and report back to the branches that we will see others anxious to join in.
B) THE ENVIRONMENTAL MOVEMENT
We simply have to stop observing this movement from the sidelines. There is a tendency on the left to judge it by the traditional middle-class organizations such as the Audubon Club. There are already signs of a radicalization among many of the younger activists who believe that capitalism is at the root of air and water pollution, etc. Since the father of the modern environmental movement is an outspoken Marxist, there is no reason why we should feel like outsiders. Our cadre have to join the various groups that are springing up everywhere and pitch in to build them, just as we built the antiwar and feminist groups. If activists have problems with the record of socialism on the environment based on the mixed record of the USSR, we have to explain that there were alternatives. We should point to initiatives in the early Soviet Union when Lenin endorsed vast nature preserves on a scale never seen in industrialized societies before. In general we have to be the best builders of a new ecosocialist movement and not succumb to the sort of sectarian sneering that characterizes other left groups who regard green activists as the enemy.
C) THE ANTI-IMPERIALIST MOVEMENT
This will strike many comrades as controversial, but I want to propose that we probably were mistaken when stood apart from all the various pro-NLF committees that were doing material aid and educational work. We characterized them as ultraleft, whereas in reality those activists who decided to actually identify with the Vietnamese liberation movement were exactly the kind that we want to hook up with. In the United States today there are thousands of activists organized in committees around the country who are campaigning on a similar basis for freedom for the Portuguese colonies in Africa, against neo-colonialism in Latin America, etc. Nearly all of them are Marxist. Their goals and ours are identical. While we have had a tendency to look down our noses at them because many of the insurgencies they were supporting were not Trotskyist, we have to get over that. For us to continue to regard the revolutionary movement in a Manichean fashion where the Trotskyists are the good forces and everybody else is evil is an obstacle not only to our own growth, but the success of the revolutionary movement overall. This leads me to the next point.
D) RELATIONS WITH THE REST OF THE LEFT
One of the things I hope never to hear again in our ranks is the reference to other socialists as our “opponents”. Let’s reflect on what that kind of terminology means. It says two things, both of which are equally harmful. On one hand, it means that they are our enemies on a permanent basis. When you categorize another left group in this fashion, it eliminates the possibility that they can change. This obviously is not Marxist, since no political group–including ourselves–is immune from objective conditions. Groups can shift to the left or to the right, depending on the relationship of class forces. The SWP emerged out of a merger with other left-moving forces during the 1930s and we should be open to that possibility today.
The other thing that this reflects is that somehow the SWP is like a small business that competes for market share with other small businesses, except that we are selling revolution rather than air conditioners or aluminum siding. We have to get that idea out of our heads. We are all struggling for the same goal, which is to change American society. We only disagree on the best way to achieve that.
Unfortunately we have tended to exaggerate our differences with other small groups in such a way as to suggest we had a different product. This goes back for many years as indicated in this quote from a James P. Cannon speech to the SWP convention nearly 25 years ago. “We are monopolists in the field of politics. We can’t stand any competition. We can tolerate no rivals. The working class, to make the revolution can do it only through one party and one program. This is the lesson of the Russian Revolution. That is the lesson of all history since the October Revolution. Isn’t that a fact? This is why we are out to destroy every single party in the field that makes any pretense of being a working-class revolutionary party. Ours is the only correct program that can lead to revolution. Everything else is deception, treachery We are monopolists in politics and we operate like monopolists.”
Comrades, we have to conduct an open and sharp struggle against this kind of attitude. The differences between the SWP and many other left groups is not that great and we have to figure out ways to work with them on a much more cooperative basis. For example, La Raza Unida Party in Texas shares many of our assumptions about the 2-party system and they are open to socialist ideas, largely through the influence of the left-wing of the party which has been increasingly friendly to the Cuban Revolution. We should think about the possibilities of co-sponsoring meetings with them around the question of Chicano Liberation and socialism. The same thing would be true of the Puerto Rican Independence movement in the United States, which shares with us a positive attitude toward the Cuban revolution. In terms of the Marxist movement per se, we have to find ways to work more closely with the activists around the Guardian newspaper. While many of them continue to have Maoist prejudices, there are others who have been friendly to our work in the antiwar movement. The idea is to open discussion and a sure way to cut discussion off is to regard them as “opponents”. Our only true opponents are in Washington, DC.
This new sense of openness to other groups on the left has organizational consequences that I will now outline.
E) REDEFINING OUR ORGANIZATIONAL PRINCIPLES
Much of our understanding of “democratic centralism” has been shaped by James P. Cannon’s writings. Although the notion of 500 to 1500 people united ideologically around a homogenous program has a lot to recommend itself, it can only go so far in building a revolutionary party. This was Cannon’s contribution. He showed how a small band of cadre dedicated to Trotsky’s critique of Stalin could emerge as a serious force on the American left.
Although this will sound like heresy to most of you, I want to propose that Cannon’s writings are a roadblock to further growth, especially in a period when Stalinism is not a hegemonic force. In reality, Lenin’s goal was to unite Russian Marxism, which existed in scattered circles. Our goal should be identical. Despite our commitment to Trotsky’s theories, we are not interested in constructing a mass Trotskyist movement. That would be self-defeating. Many people who are committed to Marxism are not necessarily committed to Trotsky’s analysis of the Spanish Civil War, WWII, etc. We should take the same attitude that Lenin took toward the Russian left at the turn of the century. We should serve as a catalyst for uniting Marxists on a national basis.
Are we afraid to function in a common organization with Castroists, partisans of the Chinese Revolution, independent Marxists of one sort or another? Not at all. We should not put a barrier in the way of unity with the tens of thousands of Marxists in the United States, many who hold leading positions in the trade union and other mass movements. The only unity that interests us is the broad unity of the working people and their allies around class struggle principles. Our disagreements over historical and international questions can be worked out in a leisurely fashion in the party press. In fact we would encourage public debates over how to interpret such questions in our press, since they can make us even more attractive to people investigating which group to join. It is natural that you would want to join a group with a lively internal life.
This question of ‘democratic centralism’ has to be thoroughly reviewed. Although the Militant will be running a series of articles on “Lenin in Context” this year, which explores the ways in which this term was understood by the Bolsheviks and then transformed by his epigones, we can state with some assuredness right now that it was intended to govern the actions of party members and not their thoughts. The Bolshevik Party, once it voted on a strike, demonstration, etc., expected party members to function under the discipline of the party to build such actions. It never intended to discipline party members to defend the same political analysis in public. We know, for example, that there are different interpretations of Vietnamese Communism in our party. We should not expect party members to keep their views secret if they are in the minority. This is not only unnatural–it leads to cult thinking.
As many of these proposals seem radically different from the principles we’ve operated on in the past, I want to make sure that all disagreements–especially from older cadre who worked side by side with James P. Cannon–are given proper consideration. The last thing we want is to railroad the party into accepting this new orientation. Since a revolution can only be made by the conscious intervention of the exploited and oppressed masses into the historical process, its party must encourage the greatest expression of conscious political decision-making. There are no shortcuts to a revolution. And there are no shortcuts to building a revolutionary party.