Last Statement to Socialist Alternative Leadership

This document was the final official communication between myself and members of the Socialist Alternative Executive Committee before the Austin branch formally voted to split from the formation and form an independent socialist collective. Though this document was written in the spirit of attempting to remain in Socialist Alternative and reasonably address the concerns from both sides, the aftermath has overwhelmingly confirmed our impulse to leave. However, this document does not represent any kind of “final summation” of the whole branch’s decision to leave, nor does it speak for anyone other than myself. Further, after numerous emails from the EC demanding a “serious political response,” the EC neglected to respond to any of the points made in this document or make any serious attempt to resolve the crisis between the Austin branch and the EC. 

The most “successful” US Marxist formations seem to follow a common pattern: the establishment of “tight-knit politics” based on the affiliation to some particular legacy of Marxism-Leninism, rapid growth up to between 750 – 1200 members across the country, different wings develop, a political crisis ensues, then the formation either splits or collapses. This goes for so-called “Stalinist” formations, Maoist formations (whether Mao Zedong Thought or MLM) and Trotskyist formations. Every single one of these traditions has managed to produce nothing more than an ever dizzying array of micro-sects, each claiming the sole true legacy of the “pure” Marxist-Leninist tradition. In Socialist Alternative’s terms, this came across with the nauseating term “Winning Ideas” being bandied about with little reflection or self-awareness.

In addition to the political differences surrounding the development of the sect model of revolutionary organizing, Socialist Alternative leadership was fundamentally incapable of looking reality in the face and admitting that, far from a national organization, Socialist Alternative is a regional organization based in states with high labor union density (Washington, New York, Illinois, California and Massachusetts) and that this reality shapes their overall political strategy: orient towards the left-liberal wing of the Democrats in order to peel off or “split” that wing from the “establishment” wing of the Democrats. Regardless of whether this strategy is prudent in and of itself, in areas with very low union density, like the South, this model is moot. Yet the leadership of SAlt refused to recognize the unevenness of the United States and referred to the Southern demands for more political flexibility and support as calls for “Southern exceptionalism.”

I would go so far as to say the overwhelming majority of Socialist Alternative’s membership are smart, sincere and capable comrades in the struggle for a socialist world. It was disappointing that SAlt was unable to address the needs and circumstances of so many of the Southern comrades, forcing the overwhelming majority of us to leave the organization. Should Socialist Alternative’s political methods remain the same, they will never develop any serious roots in the South, nor will they likely develop much beyond the hard-working but relatively tiny sect that they are today.

Introduction

The most recent email we received demanding “a serious political reply” came at a rather inopportune time, leading into the critical period before our strike. I’ve worked to fit as much of what I consider the most pressing disagreements into the response. Please forgive any mistakes in grammar or spelling I may missed in my hurry to get this response out.

Where we have had ideological disagreements, I have chosen to focus on the most pressing political questions that I feel affect the broadest part of the Party. Regarding the Sanders turn, I try to frame it in relation to the South and questions of political consolidation. While I can’t answer all the questions that PL, BK and RK have directed at other comrades, such as questions regarding the study program, I tried to pay due attention to the space where I have the most to offer, the Fight for 15. Where there are particularly sharp grievances in our branch, namely the “forced resignations,” I chose to address those as best I could, including some suggestions on how to begin moving forward. I understand that the three National comrades will feel strongly inclined to continue this debate, but I would hope it will be taken into account exactly how much drafting and redrafting these responses takes and that the bulk of our branch is made up of full time workers.

On Ideology and Politics

I would like to begin by clarifying what I feel is an important distinction between “ideology” and “politics.” It is easy to get the two confused and they often are, but it is important to understand the difference between them. This will, hopefully, help clarify that while there might be a collection of ideological difference within our branch, we have, over the course of our branch’s life, functioned faithfully to the politics of the Party.

Indeed, ideology is an abstract understanding of politics; questions of history, of orientations, of splits and mergers, of various theories and ideas produced over the long course of history. Questions of whether the Chinese Trotskyists were correct to remain in the city when Mao began his long march or if Trotsky was correct to choose not to unseat Stalin based on Lenin’s final testament are questions of ideology.

This isn’t to say ideology is fundamentally unimportant; ideology and theory are vitally important. However, given the limited time and space to address critical issues, I worry that it’s easy to get lost in the weeds of ideological debates. In that sense, I will not be addressing questions of Maoism or Identity Politics here, though I think those questions are tremendously important. Hopefully we can take up ideological debates at a later date and under better circumstances.

While this might seem heretical based on the culture of the current Left, Ideological disagreements often hold very little practical bearing on our politics, which is where ideology meets action. Imagine, for instance, how ludicrous it would have been for the Bolsheviks to declare as a point of fundamental unity a single position on Babeuf or whether the Paris Commune should have made a better effort to reach the provinces! Bolshevik unity was always based on unity of action.

Yes, Lenin delineated some clear lines of principle that demarcated the boundaries of the party, but these are principles for Marxists in the same way that natural selection is a principle for biologists. Those principles (the working class as a central actor of revolutionary struggle, the need for revolution, the need for organization, etc) aren’t abstract or historically anomalous; these are the key advances that Lenin put forth that are universal in character.

In a similar way, Trotsky provided fundamental advances that are clearly necessary in a genuine proletarian formation. For instance, “Socialism in One Country” is not a question of abstract ideology; it is fundamentally linked to the method of the Popular Front, which has proven to be a historical failure. The question of the Permanent Revolution, in a similar but opposite manner, also holds tremendous practical import, particularly for an International formation that seeks to build revolution across the underdeveloped world. Permanent Revolution is also seamlessly linked with the United Front. I have yet to find anyone in our branch who actively disagrees with any of those principles.

Now, the key task at hand is not ideological, but political, which is to say a question of how our ideas relate to our activity and vice versa.

On Consolidation

The heart of this current conflagration is decidedly political, and I expressed as much to RK when we were meeting for several hours at Taco Cabana. National made a political decision to orient towards the Sanders campaign as its key political task, rather than focusing on consolidation. All across the South, comrades were begging for support, for even just one full-timer to be sent to support us, even for just a few weeks, to help us consolidate our branches.

Is it reasonable to assume that a new, remote branch like Austin, under profoundly different circumstances from the rest of the Party, would be able to mechanically consolidate without deliberate stewardship and investment? Had our branch never engaged in serious work, never made an effort to study CWI politics, never raised money, phone banked or sent volunteers for the Sawant campaign, then the intensity of the EC’s response to our branch might be understandable. Perhaps if we had been systematically breaking with Democratic Centralism or publicly undermining work around the Sanders turn (which a long time comrade from Chicago did to Austin regarding our Fight for 15 work), then the sense that our branch is being actively pushed out of the Party, after so many of us who spent so much time, energy and resources working for it in good faith, would seem less shocking.

The Executive Committee made the political decision not only to neglect consolidation in the South, but also to shift a bulk of full-timers to NYC, a city with long established branches and clearly consolidated leadership.  Southern comrades were not consulted or informed about this decision; we were left simply twisting on the vine. Coupled with the Sanders turn, in which we were also not included, morale across the South began to decline precipitously. Indeed, on a phone call immediately before this crisis, I told RK that the morale of the branch was low. We had been working hard for over a year and a half to try to build a branch in good faith, with absolutely minimal support from the national center. Had national made a serious effort to keep in touch with the branch, it would have known our situation and worked to help soothe the frustrations and boost our morale.

However, watching what began as a disagreement and misunderstanding continuously escalate has been eye-opening to the political methods of the three comrades with whom we have had exclusive contact in regarding this dispute. This isn’t to say that Austin, myself in particular, has been blameless or made no mistakes in handling the situation, but I don’t think it can be said that we have not made any attempts in good faith to begin rebuilding the branch’s relationship with national. We were working to rebuild our Branch Committee, offer an amenable study program and working to reestablish our dues levels when we learned of the so-called “forced resignations.” In what way can what was functionally an expulsion be seen as acting in any kind of good faith?

On Methods of Intervention

Regarding newspaper sales, I would welcome a more active role from National explaining methods and reasons for selling the newspaper. I frequently asked RK to help us set up a table and show us how to sell the paper. Unfortunately, there was only one attempt to do that and it was auxiliary to RK’s primary purpose, which was to debate the Sanders turn with us. Even more unfortunately, the one attempt made was at a location with little foot traffic. It would have been very helpful had RK or someone from National taken time to come down for even just a week and help us learn how to find useful locations around the city, set up an attractive table and sell the paper.

Nevertheless, the paper is not the key question around methods of intervention; used properly it is indispensable. However, I personally find the method of intervention that seems to be promoted to our branch – not by the CWI or the tradition of SA – but by the national leadership directly, to be not particularly useful. It seems to me that there is a fixation on our current leadership having already worked out Winning Ideas. In this formulation, the leadership can stand on the outside, and through contemplative analysis, work out ahead of time the proper line of march for any new movement that might pop up. All that needs to be done is their Winning Ideas must be properly transmitted down the line to the rank and file. The rank and file, now brimming with our as yet untested but still Winning Ideas, will go forth to various meetings and actions and “intervene” through the force of our argumentation style and Winning Ideas.

In Gramsican terms, it is a one-sided focus on the War of Maneuver. War of Position is the space where forces are consolidated and prepped for battle, relationships are built and solidified and an organic, democratic unity is cemented. Without the War of Position, without patient investigation, modification of tactics and perspectives, consolidation of forces, the War of Maneuver will be a disaster. Forces will become disorganized, demoralized and disunited, and interventions will take place in a mechanical and often forced manner, external to the inner life of whatever movement or force we are trying to shape.

Once, when I was in prison, a new inmate was brought into our unit. Short, but well-built, this inmate wore both round framed eyeglasses and a chip on his shoulder. He came in under the impression that, based on his previous experience, he knew exactly how his current experience would play out. He attempted to strong arm an older inmate, only to discover that this older inmate had a much bigger and very protective younger nephew. Because of the new inmate’s commitment to his own Winning Ideas, he failed to take the time to investigate the social terrain into which he was entering. He ended up knocked out cold and bleeding on the concrete jailhouse floor.

The lesson here is when entering into new terrain, terrain that has already been held by other, competing social forces, it is wise to prioritize learning and understanding of said terrain before launching into a forceful expression of Ideas that might seem Winning at the time, but without the proper understanding of how to flexibly apply said ideas, they may end up being expressed in a decidedly Losing manner.

The first edition of The Militant contained the line, “We need to educate and be educated.” This is a precisely Marxist formulation, yet where in the current leadership’s formulation is the information and data that flows to the top? How does the lived experience of our membership in the struggle on the streets find its way to the leadership, to help correct and modify Winning Ideas that might in fact not be so winning? If the leadership practices this two way flow of information and perspectives, it has escaped our Austin branch. This linear relationship is not how the CWI was built. The current leadership stands outside of our own traditions in how it has related to Austin and the broader South.

Of course the CWI has scored tremendous victories in the past, and of course the election of Kshama Sawant was a historic victory that every single member of our branch is proud to have been a part of helping make happen. I have been involved in radical politics for about 14 years and never joined a party before this one. I did not take joining lightly and did so deliberately and because I felt then and continue to feel now that Socialist Alternative represents the best Marxist party in the United States. Though I have had and continue to have sharp disagreements and frustrations with elements of the Executive Committee, I happily acknowledge some of the great achievements over the past year and a half, not only with the reelection of Kshama Sawant, but also with the overwhelmingly successful Million Student March.

However, this does not in any way mean that all of the ideas that come out of the Executive Committee lead automatically to winning conclusions. It is would be hubris to assume that one victory leads automatically to the next. Where there are sharp political disagreements, it is the right of party members to voice those within the party and to the membership and the leadership, whether that is regarding methods of intervention or orientation to active struggles like the Fight for 15.

On the Fight for 15

Our disagreements with the methods of intervention coming from the current leadership does not at all mean our branch does not see itself as “interventionist.” It is simply intervening in a traditional Marxist manner, in line with the tradition of the CWI. After all, Militant was built inside the Labor Party over time, working to support workers struggle directly, even if the Labor Party or a particular union was in the grips of a right-wing leadership.

When I talk to people in our Party around the country about their relationship to the Fight for 15, they invariably say they have an awful experience with organizers, or, as they are sometimes referred, bureaucrats. When I investigate the manner of the intervention, it is always at a single, discrete point in time. They attempt to talk to workers at a meeting or at a strike, but when I ask if anyone has gone to try to speak to fast food workers beforethese events ever happen, I get blank responses. The very idea of speaking to workers outside those single moments has never occurred to them.

But let’s consider it, no? Let’s look through the eyes of the organizer. This person has spent likely somewhere around 60 or more hours a week grinding through the field, talking to workers, driving them to their shifts, helping them get their groceries home, breaking bread with workers’ family members. They have suffered emotional disappointment when workers seem fired up and then vanished, when worker leaders suffer family hardships or when those worker leaders find better jobs and leave a vacuum in the local movement and on the shop floor.

The workers that go out on these strikes have seen these organizers many, many times. They have learned to trust these organizers and have faith that they have their best interests at heart. That relationship has been built over time.

What reaction would you expect when, at the moment of spectacle, some stranger comes up, having made no attempt to get to know the worker ahead of time, and says, “Hey, that organizer is actually just using to you to get Hillary elected and they don’t really care about you. Come join us because we actually know the way forward. We have the Winning Ideas. Just look at our newspaper.”

The organizer is going to treat you like an asshole and the worker is going to think you’re a weirdo. Period. Interventions are not moments. They take place over time and respect has to be earned by using building as intervention itself. The “intervention” must be spread over time, building the base necessary to launch a successful intervention. The War of Position and War of Maneuver must interrelate organically and develop dialectically. Going to a meeting and forcefully arguing a good point alone will not succeed in and of itself. The legacy of the CWI and Militant prove that point.

When I wrote that no one in the leadership knows how the Fight for 15 works, I didn’t mean abstractly. Of course it was understood that the demand for $15 was critical and the leadership properly oriented to it in Seattle and, it seems, in good but so far less successful ways in other cities. I meant that no one knows the actual mechanics of how the Fight for 15 functions. When I spoke to RK before our Nov 10th strike, I told him that we were taking workers out on strike, yet RK discouraged that. He felt that the workers actually would not go out on strike. Further, neither he nor PL were familiar with how the strikes function, that they were Unfair Labor Practice strikes and thus protected by the Federal government. If we are going to analyze and intervene in such an important movement, doesn’t it seem reasonable that these factors might play into developing Winning Ideas? Maybe make them Winninger Ideas?

The question of the difference between the Fight for 15 and the Presidential election is being presented in a superficial and inaccurate way. No one in our branch, at least since late last year, has said we should fundamentally reject developing an active orientation towards the Presidential elections. My argument is where the center of gravity should be. Should we put our center of gravity in the electoral campaign and work to draw social movements into it or vice versa? Based on the lessons of Trotsky, I would have to say the latter. The first formulation smacks of Popular Frontism, linking our program with his and blurring our political lines. The latter is a United Front, which works to engage in a nonsectarian way with mass movements in order to draw the best elements behind proletarian leadership.

There is also a clear disagreement about the role that quantity vs. quality plays in drawing political conclusions. True, the campaign, now, during an elections season, holds all the cards on quantity. There are millions of people who are interested in Sanders, with many of them extremely fired up for his candidacy. There are only several hundred workers across the country going on strike. If quantity is important then the former is obviously the place to prioritize.

However, my point is that quality is a critical factor. As a working class organization, SA seeks to find the most advanced sections of the proletariat in order to win them to the Marxist method of analysis and action. Which holds the cards on quality? The former leans left but holds no clear class dynamic. It is made up of a hodgepodge of people from a wide range of social classes. Yes, Sander’s program is a broad, Keynsian program that has some overlap with our own and yes people are drawing important conclusions about how rigged the Democratic Party is, but those who are engaged in the campaign alone are learning how to vote, how to phone bank, how to petition. They are not learning how to strike, how to organize, how to build a shop floor organizing committee. In this sense then, the Fight for 15 as a movement holds the cards on quality.

It is entirely disingenuous to say that the Fight for 15 is just a scheme to get people to vote for Hillary any more than the orientation towards Sanders, who has been clear from day one that he would encourage people to vote for Hillary were she to become the nominee.  The formulation of the EC that the FF15 isn’t “developing independent worker leaders on a significant scale” is ridiculous. What would you call the National Organizing Committee, which is made up entirely of worker leaders throughout the country? This reflects what can only be considered a fundamental lack of faith in workers to do anything other than what they are told, indeed a fundamental lack of faith in the working class overall.

When you wrote that the leadership of the movement is hostile to independent worker action, could you provide any kind of evidence? How do you define independent worker action? Upon what data or investigation are you basing this? Does independent worker action only mean “Socialist Alternative’s ideas”? I know that workers are encouraged to work out strikes even if they don’t correspond to national days of action. For instance, in Florida, a group of workers in a single shop went on strike over the issue of air conditioning, getting it immediately replaced. I mean, the whole way our branch got involved with the Fight for 15 is because they supported our organizing at In-N-Out from day one. Is this not independent worker action?

Conclusions

Socialist Alternative has achieved genuine, historic victories in recent times, but this does not guarantee ongoing success on all fronts. Socialist Alternative now struggles to properly integrate the South into itself and wrestles with the implications of the Sanders turn. This is a real problem and should be taken seriously. It is shocking to all those in the South how flippantly leadership has treated Southern branches, with RK explicitly saying that it’s perfectly fine for the entire Austin branch to leave the Party, even if this means losing San Marcos and possibly even Mobile. How is that leadership which new Party members in the South are supposed to respect?

Indeed, the leadership methods of the EC do not inspire faith in this new period. Regarding the lowering of dues, no one in the branch contested the loss of voting rights until those dues were raised. We were going to take the time to patiently work with those comrades to convince them to raise their dues or to allow them to resign of their own volition. It is extremely troubling that three of those five comrades immediately responded that they had intended to raise their dues, with KL even explicitly saying so to LP before the expulsions, yet the EC failed to respond to those comrades in a reasonable amount of time in good faith.

This means the “resignations” can only be considered a backdoor disciplinary purge. The question isn’t whether it is ok or not to lower dues for political reasons. The question is whether it is appropriate to remove a Party member from the organization by executive action without any due process or deadline to imply inaction will be assumed as resignation. Everything we’ve come to understand about this Party is that it takes the removal of comrades from the Party extremely seriously, yet this was done in an almost offhand manner. This leads us to believe that the current leadership is directly violating the spirit of the Party it purports to uphold.

It is also hard to swallow that the expulsions were not over political questions when the email we received contained the line: “Should you in the future want to apply to re-join our organization, we are very open to discuss all the issues involved. But the Executive Committee will insist on clarifying our political and organizational methods before this could be accepted.” In what way could this backdoor expulsion not be seen as having clear political content? It is plain that these expulsions should be immediately reversed and the leadership should acknowledge their haste in removing these comrades and apologize, regardless of whether the comrades want to remain in the Party or not.

Finally, the timing of the expulsions makes matters even worse. I had just sent out a new BC slate that satisfied both the conditions the EC had sent down (me remaining as BO; not non-male majority; all had restored their dues) plus I had sent a revised version of RK’s study program, regarding which we still have yet to receive comment. Suddenly, and without warning, and a week before an actual workers strike, we receive notice that five of our branch comrades were no longer in the Party. This looks like an attempt to sabotage the branch as a whole, disrupting our attempts to rebuild our BC and take up consistent study, with the intention of pushing the entire branch out of the Party.

These leadership decisions are clumsy and unhelpful and do have done little to help build either our branch or the Party. I hope the EC will consider this email sincerely and realize the error of the expulsions and seek a more investigative and collaborative relationship not just with Austin, but with the South as a whole. I also would encourage active mediation via another, neutral member of the National Committee in order to help soothe tensions and begin moving forward in preparation for the National Convention.

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5 thoughts on “Last Statement to Socialist Alternative Leadership

  1. louisproyect says:

    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.

    https://louisproyect.org/2013/07/07/the-isos-multiple-personalities/

  2. Very interesting article.

    In the introduction, the author comments on the “glass ceiling” that different socialist groups seem to hit. I think the failure of the different socialist groups to really grow results from a couple of things:

    In the first place, the working class has not been really active for many, many decades. Yes, there still are the unions, but these are throttled from top to bottom by a corporate-friendly bureaucratic clique. I could go on at length about their “sins”, but the main point is that the overwhelming majority of union members are almost totally alienated from their unions. Here where I live (Oakland, CA), most members I’ve talked with don’t even know the name of their union. The union simply isn’t present in the life, in the thinking, of the members.

    Yes, there is some movement composed of some workers outside of the unions, but in the main most workers are not politically active (which is totally different from saying they “are not political”). This has meant that the socialist groups have largely been somewhat isolated from the working class.

    The other point is the false perspective that almost every revolutionary socialist group has. They think that they will repeat the experience of the Bolsheviks and become THE world workers International. But the rise of the Third International occurred in a very particular set of circumstances. Today, the old traditions have faded or nearly disappeared entirely. I think whatever new workers international is built will be a lot more like the First International – composed of all different schools of thought. So, somewhat Isolated from the working class and struggling to build something that cannot be built, the carry on.

  3. @pplswar says:

    “The Executive Committee made the political decision not only to neglect consolidation in the South, but also to shift a bulk of full-timers to NYC, a city with long established branches and clearly consolidated leadership. “

    What was the political rationale for prioritizing NYC over the whole of the south? I ask because Socialist Alternative in NYC could disappear and hardly anyone would notice or be affected, aside from one or two campuses where branches are active and visible.

  4. […] reflections and critiques of radical left-wing strategy rooted in practical experience, and this critical essay on Socialist Alternative by a comrade in Austin, Texas is no different.  I’m not sure about […]

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