Saturday, September 4, 2010

ISO "Whitening"

I found this piece to be very interesting


This is Just to Say


by Donna Chidi on Thursday, August 26, 2010 at 5:19pm

I sent this to you because I have enjoyed working with you in the ISO over the years or you knew how dedicated I was to my work with the ISO and deserve to know what happened with it.

This is just to say that I am no longer a member of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and did not leave on good terms by any standard. This is also to say that I am still a committed socialist activist and will not allow my negative experiences in the ISO taint my view of revolutionary politics or the amazing activists I met.

If you've got ideas or social justice struggles you're involved in and want to collaborate, then get in touch.

My story is divided into three chronological parts:

  1. Stifling debate about diversity in NYC ISO
  2. Mass expulsion and membership exodus on not-so-good terms in DC ISO - resulting in a 90% white branch in a 54% black city (Oh no, she didn't!)
  3. Getting back to fighting capitalism - LET'S GET ON WITH IT
Appendix: The Full Response

I. Stifling debate about diversity in the NYC ISO
During the convention period in March 2010, three immigrant ISO members of color submitted a document calling for opening up a dialogue about recruiting and retaining members of color. Although I favored many of the ideas and issues raised in the document, the response to it was so hostile that I could not muster up the courage to speak up in defense of the ideas contained within it. It was clear that the leadership had taken a strong position, as quoted below, and any attempts to raise a different perspective would be shut-down without consideration.

Here is a quote from it, but the full four-page response is attached at the bottom in the Appendix:

“…In fact, the term “diversity” is itself a liberal term that sees combining as many different kinds of experiences and backgrounds as possible as an end in of itself, rather than a means to lead the working class to victory over exploitation and oppression.

The identity politics framework of the document is exposed when the document’s authors argue: “We do believe that comrades of color provide an important link between their communities and revolutionary Marxism.” This both assumes that Marxism is foreign to the fight against racism (and therefore requires special conduits) and that there are such things as “communities” based on racial identity. In fact, any racial or ethnic group is broken down into its various class components. Working class Blacks are no more a part of Barack Obama’s “community” as working class women are part of Hilary Clinton’s or gays a part of Barney Frank’s….”

-H.T. on behalf of the NYC District Committee in Response to “Recruiting, Developing, and Retaining Members of Color in the ISO”

The harsh and hostile response effectively shut down discussion – though the main point of “Recruiting, Developing, and Retaining Members of Color in the ISO” was to start such a conversation. As a comrade of color, I identified with the ideas presented in the document about paying special attention to developing members of color as leaders. It’s difficult to develop a person’s skills if you don’t know what their skills are or anything about them for that matter. So although the long-term leaders of the NYC ISO might have intended to train and develop me as a comrade, those intentions remained intentions as I was ignored for the most part and none of them ever initiated conversation with me. Since the call for open discussion about these issues was so harshly shut down, I got the message that I’d better keep my ideas to myself as these issues were not of concern to our leaders.

II. Expulsions and membership exodus on not-so-good terms in DC ISO - resulting in a 90% white branch in a 54% black city
After the Socialism conference in June 2010, a group of people from the DC branch got together to discuss ideas they had to improve upon the work of the branch and decided to put all their thoughts together in a Perspectives document to be presented to the entire branch during the political perspectives discussion/kick off to organizing for the remainder of the summer. Recognizing similar problems, such as stifling debate and democracy (see above), I signed on in support of the document.

However, before the Perspectives meeting was to take place, the leaders of the branch called an “Emergency Meeting” for the Monday evening before, in which we would discuss some important issues in our branch and which Ahmed Shawki of the national steering committee would attend and convene.

At this Emergency meeting, Shawki described reasons why the national steering committee had voted to expel Zach Mason and indefinitely suspend David Thurston of the DC branch, whom he met with and delivered the news that afternoon. Now, 5 hours later, they were not welcome to this “members only” meeting where the issue of their expulsions would be discussed by everyone else. In that meeting in June, now my last ISO meeting, I commented on how sad it was to see socialists stand up and slander and crucify people they had worked with for 14 years and 7 years respectively without even allowing them to attend and defend themselves.

Among several other hostile comments made in my direction because of this, Shawki closed the discussion by inviting me to leave the ISO, although he has never spoken to me before, “If you think these guys are being crucified, then maybe this organization is not the right organization for you.”

Here is the e-mail exchange that then occurred between myself, Michele Bollinger – the acting convener of the branch, and Ahmed Shawki of the national steering committee.
-------

show details Jul 2

Michele Bollinger to me

Donna,

We would like to meet with you as soon as possible about the status of your membership in the DC branch. Please email back with some dates and time that you are available.

Thanks,
Michele


show details Jul 4
Donna to Michele

Hi Michele,
I believe it was made undeniably clear in the last meeting that I attended that I am not welcome in the DC ISO branch - especially in the comments made by comrades Dave Zirin, Mike Stark, and Ahmed Shawki. Therefore, I am not sure what we would be discussing in particular. If you still need to meet with me, I'm available on Tuesday evening after 6pm.

-Donna


show details Jul 5
Michele Bollinger to Ahmed, me
Hi Donna,

Fair enough, then. I'll take you off the listserve. Any other questions, best to contact Ahmed.

Thanks,
Michele


show details Jul 6
Donna to Michele

Can I have Ahmed's contact info, just in case questions do come up in the coming weeks?

Thanks


show details Jul 6

Michele Bollinger to me

Sure – xxxxxx{Email address}



show details Jul 12
Donna to ashawki
Hi Ahmed,
I've been struggling with finding the words to describe to my NY comrades, what the status of my membership in the ISO is. Evidently, I am no longer a member but I did not resign. Michele Bollinger deferred to you on this question (see messages below) so specifics would be greatly appreciated.

The concerns I need for you to address are: 1) Is there an appeals process for me and 2) How do I explain my membership status to my NY comrades?

Thanks.
Donna


show details Jul 19
Donna to ashawki

Hi Ahmed,
I sent the message below to you last week and am still awaiting your response. It'd be much appreciated.

-Donna


show details Jul 21
Ahmed Shawki to me

Hello Donna:

It is my understanding from the email exchange below that you are no longer a member of the ISO. I base this on what you said in your email of July 4, explaining your decision not to meet with the DC branch committee to discuss your membership status.

So to answer your two questions: 1) I don’t know what you would be appealing and to whom 2) You can circulate this email exchange to comrades in New York to help explain what has taken place. Feel free to have any NYC comrades to email or call me to discuss these issues.


Best. Ahmed



show details Jul 27
Donna to Michele, Ahmed

Hi Ahmed,
I'll use the email exchange then, to describe my membership status. However, I must make the correction that I did not decide NOT to meet with the DC branch committee and offered a date and time that I was available to meet. I only intended in that message to Michele to find out what, said meeting would be about. No one has yet refuted the statement that I am not welcome in the ISO, even though I did nothing wrong by speaking up in that fateful meeting, but somehow I was taken off the listserve before I had a chance to read the email or even think about my membership. As for the Appeals process, obviously, I got the not-so-subtle message that you sent about me leaving the organization and would be a fool to try to claw my way into a group where I am not wanted.

I dedicated the first four years of my adulthood to organizing with the ISO in college in Ithaca, NY and also in New York City and made many personal sacrifices for the sake of my branch in Ithaca. After all that hardwork, including working in a fraction of two people to bring two busloads & carpools of people to the National Equality March last year, you can imagine how I'm feeling very short-changed here.

This terse response you've given to this matter is hardly fitting for the situation and is somewhat dismissive. In my time in the ISO, I saw many new people come and go, but never on such bad terms as the atmosphere in that aforementioned meeting. You said in that meeting "better be friends in the movement, than to be enemies internally," but in order for that to happen, people have to separate on good terms. Nothing about this email exchange implies that you or Michele care about any good terms or amicable relations between myself and the ISO.

However, I will not allow this negative experience color my perceptions of the amazing activists and fighters that I have met in the ISO over the years. This has been a very difficult experience for me and I have taken away important life lessons from it. Hopefully, you all have also learned something from all this as well.

Again, a response would be greatly appreciated.

-Donna


****To date, 8/26/10 no response****

Clearly, I was pushed out/expelled/whatever without a fair process and although it was my intention to resign, I thought I reserved the right to do that myself. In response to that hostile “Emergency meeting,” 6 others resigned from the DC ISO, not including myself. So in total 9 people left the ISO voluntarily and involuntarily as a result of the happenings that day and a realization of the depth of lack of democracy in the ISO.

Most disturbing about the mass-resignations is the complacency of the DC and National ISO leadership to losing a majority of their members of color without regard – almost willingly. They knowingly made the choice to push us out in order to keep the group free of dissenters and people who ask questions – even though it resulted in a much smaller group with a ghastly 90% white majority in a 54% black city, also known as Chocolate City. This may not have been the intention, but actions speak louder than words and over and over again the actions of the leadership ISO say that internal democracy is conditional.


Those of us who left, together with some others, are participating in social justice struggles around DC and are looking to link up with other socialists and activists who want to fight for a better world without tearing each other down along the way.

III. Getting back to fighting capitalism - LET'S GET ON WITH IT
If you've got ideas or social justice struggles you're involved in and want to collaborate, then get in touch – especially if you’re in the Washington DC area.

------------------------------------------------ ~FIN~ ------------------------------


Appendix – The Full Response

Response to “Recruiting, Developing, and Retaining Members of Color in the ISO”
Comrades who submitted “Recruiting, Developing, and Retaining Members of Color in the ISO” stated as their goal: to “begin an organization‐wide conversation about racial and ethnic diversity in the ISO and our efforts and strategies to recruit, develop, and retain more members of color into it.” Putting aside for the moment the implication that this discussion has not “begun” in the more than 30 years of the life of the organization, the politics of the document are problematic and non‐Marxist.

Despite the authors’ hopes that the document is not “dismissed as one coming from a framework of identity politics,” the politics of the document are in fact based in ‐‐ or at best, influenced by ‐‐ liberal ideas of “diversity” as well as identity politics, “the idea that only those experiencing a particular form of oppression can either define it or fight against it.” (Smith 2008)

A Marxist approach to racism is based on an understanding that it is necessary to build a multi‐racial organization and multi‐racial working‐class struggle because that is the only way that either capitalism or oppression can be fought. And a multi‐racial struggle needs Marxism and the politics of class solidarity to succeed. As the Russian revolutionary V.I. Lenin, put it: “Working class consciousness cannot be genuine political consciousness unless the workers are trained to respond to all cases of tyranny, oppression, violence, and abuse, no matter what class is affected.”

The need for a multi‐racial organization and fight‐back is not a secondary issue to be discussed (or one which comrades of color within the organization are responsible for raising), but is actually the whole purpose of our project. The question of oppression cannot be separated from an analysis of class exploitation and vice‐versa. This is especially the case in the United States, where the historic role of slavery, white supremacy, and Jim Crow segregation have ensured that racism (and particularly racism against African‐Americans) has become the key division used and manipulated by the American ruling class.

Of course we are not yet where we want to be in achieving our goal (whether that be regarding the racial composition of the group, our size, or our implementation in the working class), but unless we are dreaming up wish‐lists for where we want to be, a serious approach to the question would require a concrete assessment of our work, objective challenges, and specific next steps.

Instead, “Recruiting, Developing..” offers a confusing set of broad generalizations regarding objective difficulties, a two sentence throw‐away regarding the tremendous anti‐racist work of the organization over the years, and vague recommendations which mostly outline the work that the organization already does. Yet implicit in the idea that we need to be “systematic” in our approach to recruiting, developing, and retaining members of color in the ISO, is the assertion that we currently do not. Despite this very serious implication, there is no honest or concrete assessment of our current work anywhere in the document.

A quick look at even the last month in NYC alone would demonstrate the opposite—a city wide tour of Brian Jones speaking on civil rights sit‐in movement brought out a multi‐racial periphery (and a high proportion of African American contacts in particular) at every stop; a city‐wide meeting on Haiti that drew 150 people, chaired by a new member; a Campaign to End the Death Penalty anti‐lynching tour; an event at NYU about Marxism, Nationalism, and the Third World; teacher members organizing against school closings in predominantly African‐American and Latino neighborhoods; and as always a commitment to develop comrades, and particularly comrades of color, as meeting chairs, speakers, and most of all as Marxists.

Liberalism and Identity Politics
But more problematic than the generally non‐concrete, non‐serious assessment of our work, the document reads as a liberal appeal to consciousness and the “will” to build a multi‐racial organization, as though this can be achieved by exhorting ourselves to do so, or by developing a more savvy/sophisticated approach. This was also argued by one of the document’s authors at convention, who said we need a “more complex” approach to Chicano politics, the implication being that Marxism doesn’t adequately address oppression.

In fact, the term “diversity” is itself a liberal term that sees combining as many different kinds of experiences and backgrounds as possible as an end in of itself, rather than a means to lead the working class to victory over exploitation and oppression.

The identity politics framework of the document is exposed when the document’s authors argue: “We do believe that comrades of color provide an important link between their communities and revolutionary Marxism.” This both assumes that Marxism is foreign to the fight against racism (and therefore requires special conduits) and that there are such things as “communities” based on racial identity. In fact, any racial or ethnic group is broken down into its various class components. Working class Blacks are no more a part of Barack Obama’s “community” as working class women are part of Hilary Clinton’s or gays a part of Barney Frank’s.

As Sharon Smith wrote in a 2008 ISR article on identity politics: “There is no such thing as a common, fundamental interest shared by all people who face the same form of oppression. Oppression isn’t caused by the race, gender, or sexuality of particular individuals who run the system, but is generated by the very system itself—no matter who’s running it.”

She argues further, “Oppression is something that even most white male workers suffer to some degree. If one were to compare the self‐confidence of the vast majority of white male workers to that of the arrogant Hillary Clinton or Condoleezza Rice, it would be clear that something more than personal politics is a determining factor in oppression. The problem is systemic.”

Of course possessing a personal “identity,” or awareness of oneself as a member of an oppressed group, is an important and legitimate response to experiencing oppression. Smith explains:
No white person can ever understand what it is like to experience racism. No straight person can
understand what it is like to experience homophobia. And even among people who are oppressed by racism, every type of experience is different. A Black person and a Native American person, for example, experience racism differently—as does a person from Mexico versus a person from Puerto Rico. A gay man and a lesbian have quite different experiences.” But Personal experience is not the same as political strategy, which for Marxists is rooted in an understanding of the systemic nature of oppression under capitalism, and the shared interest of the working class across race, sex, and national borders.

Holding the ISO accountable?
Further, the document argues for affirmative action within the ISO, “because our organization does not exist in an egalitarian socialist vacuum and because there is no such thing as colorblindness. Just like we expect other institutions/organizations (many of which we protest) to include diversity development statements in their guiding principles and make structural changes to reflect those principles, we shouldn’t expect any less of our organization.”

Here the document’s authors compare the ISO to institutions under capitalism that need to be held accountable (and that we in fact protest)! In arguing that “there is no such thing as colorblindness” the comrades that wrote the document seem to be saying that the ISO suffers from racism within our organization. If this is in fact true, it is a grave accusation that needs to be explained.

Of course as individuals who live in an oppressive society, we all carry the internal baggage of that society, or as Marx put it, “the muck of ages.” A conscious attempt has to be made to develop women, people of color, working‐class people who have been told our whole lives that we are not good enough or smart enough to speak our ideas, let alone lead others.

Yet despite the fact that we don’t operate in an “egalitarian vacuum” the fact is that a socialist
organization, because of its very nature and goals, has a different material interest than capitalist institutions. It is made up of a self‐selecting group of individuals who voluntarily commit our lives to the emancipation of the working‐class and liberation of all oppressed groups. As Lenin put it, our vision of revolution is a “festival of the oppressed and exploited.” We are bound together by that common purpose and a self‐interest in making an organization fitted for that task.

An old debate within the Russian socialist movement helps shed light on this question. The 1903 congress of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) took up as its first agenda item the Jewish Labor Bund’s demand that it be recognized as the representative of Jewish workers living in Russia (to be a conduit, one could say). Jews at that time were of the most oppressed in Russia, living under harsh legal restrictions and terrorized by violent pogroms. The Jewish Bund was a genuine revolutionary organization who adamantly rejected Zionism.

Yet their demand to represent the Jewish working class showed a fundamental distrust of the RSDLP and its handling of oppression against Jews. “The Jewish proletariat,” a leader of the Bund argued, “is very much more strongly interested in the struggle against the exceptional restrictions that are imposed on it than the rest of the proletariat is, and for this reason it is also a more active fighter against this oppression.”

Leon Trotsky, a leading Russian revolutionary, and himself a Jew, responded:
If the Bund, lacking in confidence in the Party, is…demanding safeguards, that we can understand. But how can we put our signatures to this demand? ... To accept such conditions would mean that we acknowledged our own moral and political bankruptcy…

Lenin argued:
Is it not, in fact, the duty of our entire Party to fight for full equality of rights and even for the recognition of the right of nations to self‐determination? Consequently, if any section of our Party were to fail in this duty, it would undoubtedly be liable to censure, by virtue of our principles: it would undoubtedly be liable to correction by the central institutions of the Party. And if that duty was being neglected consciously and deliberately, despite full opportunity to perform it, then this neglect of duty would be treachery.

That is to say, if we cannot trust our own revolutionary organization, committed to the full liberation of the human race, through its own self‐interest to take seriously and systematically the building of a multiracial organization and cadre, then our organization is not worth very much at all.

Conclusion
Lastly, the document argues that comrades of color should be specially trained and developed in the politics of their own identities, “Chicano comrades on questions of ethnic nationalism,” etc. But the best way to train our entire organization to effectively build the movement against oppression and the system which produces oppression is to develop a strong Marxist core. The most effective means to develop comrades of color as cadre is to develop strong Marxists. And while having comrades of color that are confident and well‐versed in our politics certainly helps win others within our multi‐racial periphery, ultimately it is our politics not our identities that win people. That is why, for example, leading white members of the Campaign to End the Death Penalty in NYC carry so much weight and credibility within the work that they do.

Could there have been a document that effectively assessed our work in building a multi‐racial,
revolutionary organization rooted in the working class? Yes, and in fact convention documents that took up our work in particular struggles around the criminal justice system, housing, etc., provided a useful and concrete assessment of some of our work. Another useful contribution would be to assess the objective terrain, challenges and opportunities (for instance, the state of Black politics) that we face in building a multi‐racial organization.

Unfortunately, “Recruiting, Developing, and Retaining Members of Color in the ISO” made no serious attempt to do so. It implies that we do not take seriously, or make systematic, our work in building a multi‐racial organization, essentially race‐baiting the ISO. And it provides neither a Marxist framework nor next steps in achieving that goal.

We’ve made a lot of headway in past years in writing and publishing socialist literature on oppression; in participating and leading in struggles against racism, immigrant‐bashing, homophobia, Islamophobia, and sexism; and in developing a Marxist cadre steeled in the politics of liberation and self‐emancipation. We have a lot to be proud of, and still a long way to go. Political clarity and honest, concrete assessments will be key in moving forward.
H.T. on behalf of the NYC District Committee

2 comments:

Renegade Eye said...

That is messy. The debate should be comradely.

blackstone said...

I've seen this stuff alot in "democratic centralist" groups.

But this is important to put out for all activists to see black and white. I'll my opinions soon.