Getting serious about organization

March 26, 2014

Brian Kelly, an ISO member in New York and writer at his Diary of a Walking Butterfly website, explains what brought him around the ISO--and what kept him there.

THREE SUMMERS ago, I joined the International Socialist Organization (ISO), the publisher of

I did so after being around the organization intermittently for six years and having read its publications for several years prior to that. I met members of the organization in New York City for the first time when I was an 18-year-old university freshman in the fall of 2005.

At the time, the Hurricane Katrina's destruction of New Orleans and the abandonment of the city by the U.S. government were at the center of the consciousness of millions of people. I had become increasingly disillusioned with how society was structured during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Katrina played a big role in breaking apart any lingering support I had for the capitalist system.

The U.S. government claimed its wars in the Middle East would bring "democracy" for millions of people there, but instead, they killed millions of people. At the same time, the government did nothing in Louisiana and Mississippi when thousands of poor people, most of them Black, were drowned or stranded atop flooded buildings in the first U.S. city to experience the full fury of climate change.

Residents flee New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina
Residents flee New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

How could I continue to believe that "there was no alternative" to the way society was structured after that? It was in this context that I met the ISO.

The first major gathering of the organization I attended was its 2005 Northeast Regional Conference. The conference had dozens of meetings where activists discussed strategies for building our movements, fighting the exploitation of the bosses and the violence of the right, and for building organizations that could play a role in leading the movement for a better world.

Soldiers and veterans who had seen the horrors of war and become war resisters spoke on the need to oppose military recruitment and build infrastructure that could support GI resisters. Campus activists debated how best to build antiwar opposition at our schools--and how to defend activists who came under attack for their organizing.

For dozens of issues, political questions, and theoretical and historical topics, the ISO organized spaces at its conference for movement activists to discuss and debate a way forward for people who suffered violence, oppression and economic exploitation. And ISO members set a political lead throughout all of those conversations, offering insights from their experience, from history and from past movements that could inform our work in the present.

The slogans that rang out at the conference's closing rally--and were chanted by hundreds of participants--give a snapshot of the sensibilities of the activists who made up this organization committed to 'socialism from below'. There were slogans that called for an end to the racist death penalty, for free abortion on demand, for the liberation of Palestine and for solidarity with war resisters.

Particularly resonant for me was the cry to "shut down the war machine" and win "justice for New Orleans". It highlighted the racism of a system that would do nothing during a hurricane that flooded an American city, while spending trillions of dollars to steal resources from millions of murdered poor people through wars of conquest and occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan.

This connection made tremendous sense to me. In our society, we are taught to see no connection between events that take place half a world away and those that take place here at home--for example, between planes that are hijacked and flown into buildings that represent military and economic domination to people all around the world, and the policies of the class of owners that control those buildings.

IN RAISING slogans that made those connections, the Marxists that I met from the ISO sought to point out the fundamental social relations that connect together events and processes that would otherwise seem unrelated. They argued that a system that prioritizes capitalist profits over human need would produce those types of outcomes over and over again--until people got together and replaced it with a different sort of system. Injustice, in other words, was integral to the system, not anomalous to it.

While some activists in the antiwar movement had a more narrow focus--for example, those who wanted to "drive out George Bush"--or even downplayed certain forms of oppression, the ISO always sought to deepen the analysis of those around them and never shrank from an important political debate.

They always centered the struggles of working class people and those who suffered from oppression and war in their analysis and practice--like insisting on the inalienable right of Palestinians to return to the homeland from which they were driven; the right of women to access abortion; the right of LGBT people to marry their lovers; and the right of Afghans and Iraqis to resist the forces that occupied their countries.

Unlike many so-called "socialists" in the U.S., the ISO always made good on its belief in the power of ordinary people to shape history when they work together, and its perspective that all forms of oppression are deserving of our outrage. The ISO put no faith in tyrants who cloaked themselves in progressive words, but who massacred and exploited the impoverished people they ruled over as soon as they did something that threatened their power--like going on strike or publishing a rebel newspaper.

Why did the ISO take these commitments seriously? Because the organization believed that defending the downtrodden and the tradition of genuine working class democracy was so much more important to the future of our movement than the stale, shortsighted pessimism that betrays the people by putting faith in those who would pass themselves off as our saviors while stabbing us in the back.

They argued, like Lenin, the leader of the Russian Revolution, that socialists must become "tribunes of the oppressed" and consistently oppose all forms of injustice--or else they have no right to call themselves socialists in the first place.

Meeting such committed opponents of the capitalist system, participating in study groups, attending conferences, reading socialist publications, selling newspapers and books, going to antiwar meetings, walking picket lines with the Transport Workers Union (TWU) and ISO members--all of these and other activities played a role in solidifying my commitment to revolutionary socialism.

Central to this process was always my long-term interactions, even when they periodically dropped off, with socialists who organized themselves, made plans and carried them out to win people like me to a consistent opposition to the system--especially by engaging in a continual process that helped me make sense of my political and life experiences.

Because of all this, the ISO was an organization that demanded respect. For me, the seriousness with which the organization took its politics, its organizing and the possibility of actually winning another world empowered me to develop a similar commitment.

While writing this article, I recalled a study group I participated in back in 2005 on Frederick Engels' The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. I distinctly remember rediscovering my love of reading with these sorts of texts. And Engels' analysis of "primitive communism"--the idea that for the overwhelming majority of human history (over 95 percent of it), humans lived in relatively egalitarian societies--gave me hope in the real possibility of radical, social transformation.

The idea that "what humanity has created can also be replaced with something else" was a powerful antidote to the neoliberal idea that "there is no alternative" to capitalist society. The ISO helped to show me how Marxism was a framework and methodology to "understand reality, the better to overthrow it."

THERE WERE also the ways in which the ISO made my life and my activist work better than if it didn't exist.

My antiwar activism brought me and several other activist friends on my campus into direct conflict with our university's administration. When faced with the threat of disciplinary action, up to and including the possibility of expulsion, the ISO, along with faculty, staff and students at my school and activists at schools across the country, helped organize a national anti-repression campaign.

This was something that the organization excelled at. Whenever activists from the Campus Antiwar Network (CAN) or other student antiwar groups, like my chapter of the "new Students for a Democratic Society" (SDS), came under attack, the ISO would mobilize its considerable membership and even larger periphery to phone bank and petition, and collect dozens of letters from prominent activists, demanding that university administrators cease their attacks. Students, workers and faculty who had previously faced repression would write open letters shaming the administrators and demanding an end to the attacks; I would go on to do this for other targeted activists.

I learned a lot about what solidarity really means during the antiwar movement, and from socialists who taught me that the problems we face are not of our doing, are not our fault--that we are not alone in our suffering and that replacing capitalism with socialism could transform our lives into experiences worthy of our unrealized humanity.

Not only could we defeat the administration's attempt to expel me from the university when we fought alongside others, but we could turn the tables on our attackers and refocus the struggle on opposing the wars in the Middle East and attacks on students and workers at my school.

You see, when the administration tried to expel me, it was their intention to diffuse the struggle--to redirect it into a defensive fight, and keep the focus on individuals instead of larger injustices. But through the organizing of students and workers, and with the help of activist organizations like CAN and SDS, and socialist organizations like the ISO, we not only stopped my expulsion, but we also were able to drive the university president, David Caputo, from his administrative post. Solidarity and socialist politics--and the support of the ISO--made me and my comrades better fighters against injustice.

AS I noted at the outset, it took me six years to join the ISO. At first, I was not immediately convinced of the need for a disciplined, organized revolutionary project that could actively intervene in the world, work to win people to socialism, and help unite the forces of our side into a common struggle to change the whole system.

I was both skeptical of and misunderstood the argument that a revolutionary party could influence the course of a revolutionary upheaval. I was poorly informed about the history of the Russian Revolution, which the ISO rightly considers to be the still-unsurpassed peak of working class power and democracy in history.

In part, I had to learn from experience. Over those six years, one of my main experiences was as a campus and national leader of a radical student organization we called the New SDS--taking the name from the mass student organization of the 1960s. The years that I took part in the New SDS taught me many lessons that would convince me of the utility of an organization of committed, disciplined revolutionary socialists with a high level of unity and commitment to common action.

For starters, large sections of the New SDS were resistant to having any form of leadership or organizational structures, such as decision-making mechanisms, membership dues or elected leadership positions. This was debilitating. It made it impossible to support new members and chapters--especially high school members and members in areas without a strong left.

Likewise, the inability to make any national decisions crippled us when we had to coordinate national actions and campaigns--and often led to situations where some SDSers were forced do this informally, instead of openly and democratically (like we could have done if we had had formal leadership and decision-making structures).

Other times, it meant not doing coordinated work at all--even when coordinating work would have been easily done. Critically, because of this lack of structure, it is likely that hundreds of SDSers drifted from active political life because they weren't trained, nurtured and won to radical and revolutionary politics and integrated into organizations that could sustain their activism for the long term.

My experiences as a student activist taught me that to be successful, our side would have to be better coordinated and better organized--and that means building organizations of socialists that can both help to train successive generations of activists committed fighting all manifestations of violence, injustice, tyranny and oppression, and also help to build the broadest possible united movements at the same time. Indeed, I am now convinced of the indivisibility of these two tasks.

Over these years as an activist, my comrades in the ISO always took me seriously. They invited me to study groups--even when I didn't want to study. They doggedly tried to convince me to sit down for coffee, to go out for drinks, to debate--even when I became frustrated with their efforts. They were not afraid to tell me when they thought I was wrong, to ask pointed questions, to listen to what I had to say and take my ideas seriously--even when they probably thought I didn't know what I was talking about.

Through it all, they always respected the process I needed to go through to come to useful political conclusions. Their respect for my development was vital. They took me seriously and allowed me the space to make mistakes and learn my own lessons.

Even when it seemed like I wasn't going to join their organization--indeed, even when I helped start another socialist organization--they reached out to me to write for their publications and invited me to speak at meetings they organized, including on a panel alongside Brian Jones, an education justice activist in New York City, and journalist Jeremy Scahill, the author of Blackwater and Dirty Wars. Through that process, I increasingly found myself with them, on the same side of strategic and political arguments that broke out in the movements in which we were commonly involved.

They didn't always do everything perfectly--,indeed some of the organizing practices and positions I argued with them about they would later admit were mistakes and break with through a process of collective reassessment. And that is one of the points of having an organization: to have a collective body of other fighters who can challenge you to become something better than you would otherwise be alone.

So I also saw in the ISO, from a perspective of several years, that it was an evolving organization, an organization committed to, in Karl Marx's words, a "ruthless criticism of everything existing," including itself. It continually studied the world and history, and debated what it thought about them. When it made mistakes, its members desired to admit and learn from them, and to correct how it organized. These were seen as virtues, not vices, and were central to its practice.

I JOINED the ISO because over the years, I saw the important role it played in helping to build and lead social movements in the U.S.; because it helped make me be a better activist; and because I was more effective when I coordinated my activism with other socialists than when I worked alone.

Seeing the role that the ISO played in the Chicago teachers strike, the BDS campaign, the Occupy movement, the Seattle MAP test boycott, the Wisconsin labor uprising and other recent struggles has only reinforced my belief that the ISO is the most effective project in the U.S. for socialists who believe that the liberation of the working class "must be the act of the working class itself."

I have never been a member of a more vibrant, democratic or effective organization than the ISO. I feel more politically confident than I've ever felt in my life. I'm around comrades who support me--and who demand that I realize my full potential as an organizer. And I'm constantly impressed by the leadership of ISO members and the usefulness of being in an organization with decades of experience.

In contrast to the fashionable idea that what the Left really needs is something "new," which would supposedly lead to millions of people miraculously flocking to our ranks, it is actually the lack of continuity of working class and socialist traditions, organizations and politics that has left our class weak and disorganized. Vehicles that have weathered decades of defeat and come out of that process stronger and more ready to fight and build are important now more than ever. Such projects are in need of our support and participation.

As we've seen through these tumultuous years of crisis, war and revolution, there is a growing political opening in this country and around the world, with millions of people coming to radical and anti-capitalist conclusions, and entering into struggle against their enemies in Washington and Wall Street. But the gap between that radicalization and the organized potential of our side to take advantage of the opportunities before us has never been greater.

That's why I hope activists who are committed to working class self-emancipation and who believe organization is vital to achieving that aim will collaborate, discuss, study and debate with my organization. We want to transform our project into one where thousands of people can make a political home for themselves.

We believe this will be a process of discussion and debate and struggle, in solidarity with people who believe in working class power, but who do not necessarily come from the exact same political tradition as many members in our organization. It will involve the reawakening of working class political life after decades of a one-sided class war by the employers, and the mass struggles that will necessarily be at the heart of that revival.

We don't think this process can be accomplished overnight. It will be a difficult road that will take years to traverse. But we all will be stronger when we walk that road together.

I believe the ISO will continue to play a leading role in the reconstitution of a working class, socialist Left in the United States. If you agree with these tasks, I hope you'll seriously consider joining us.

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