What kind of group are we building?

November 26, 2013

Jason Netek comments on a discussion about building socialist organization today.

IN AN era where mass socialist parties are absent from the struggles of working people and where large numbers of radicalizing youth come into contact with the organized left via the Internet, I feel that personal stories from experienced activists carry greater weight than they probably should.

A handful of people have told me that Paul Le Blanc's "Why I joined the International Socialist Organization" played a big role in helping them make their own decision to join. Paul has a long history on the revolutionary left, and his words rightly have a bit of weight to them. I hadn't ever thought that telling my own story was important.

Recently, some former members of my organization have written of their own experiences with the express purpose of casting the group in a negative light (for example, a group of seven former members in Chicago).

It's not that unusual for an organization like the ISO to attract criticisms that I would judge to be unfair. What troubles me more is that the accounts put forth lately don't sound like the organization I'm in at all. Given that, I decided I would write something about my experiences after all.

THE FIRST left-wing organization I ever joined was the Young Communist League (YCL). I was 16 years old. I joined quickly, and immediately started reading the literature they mailed me, along with any book on socialism and the labor movement I could get my hands on. I was a lone red in Corpus Christi, Texas, so I spent more time reading and arguing with my anarchist friends than anything else.

I don't know if it was the Communist Party's official line of not being out-in-the open Communists, their consistent pro-Democratic Party support for the "lesser evil," or the fact that I had just read Tariq Ali's little book on Leon Trotsky, but I started getting the sense that there was more to being a revolutionary than what I had thus far uncovered.

When I got my first job at a pizza place, I joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). This membership never amounted to much. I never spoke with an organizer nor got much advice about how to build a union, but I read the literature and got a little bit more of a sense of what other groups on the left might be like.

Maybe regular touch with a party organizer and some practical advice on how to build a branch might have anchored me in the YCL, and maybe the organization didn't have the capacity to provide this. At any rate, the more I studied Marxism, the more out of touch with this group I felt. After reading an article praising the market reforms in China in one of the party publications, I decided that whatever good this group had done before, it wasn't for me.

I decided to formally resign through a written letter. It wasn't an open letter designed to defame the group in public--it was a gesture that I felt I owed the organization that introduced me to socialism. I started looking around for another group to join because even at 18, I knew that you can't be a very effective revolutionary all by yourself.

I wrote a letter of inquiry to another group called the Workers Party, but they never got back to me. I researched the Socialist Party USA and the Democratic Socialists of America. I had met people in these organizations, and we talked at some length about what it was like to be a member. I spent some time in a bookstore in Berkeley, Calif., owned by the Revolutionary Communist Party. I read their paper for a while, and chatted with them a little, but I decided I was definitely not a Maoist.

I was also reading the websites of Socialist Action, Socialist Alternative and the Socialist Workers Party. I never felt compelled to join any of these groups. Sure, they were proud of their program and could write interesting stuff about the world, but I never could see how joining another small group with no branch near me was going to help anyone.

IN 2004, I moved to Austin, Texas. I was still scouting for a socialist group to join. In the early fall, I met the International Socialist Organization (ISO) at an antiwar protest.

They were openly and proudly socialist. They were talking about Palestine and why the Democrats weren't offering any way forward. They had a newspaper, but it wasn't weird and hard to relate to. They were inviting and engaging. They were also organized. One of them even called me shortly after we met to talk politics and invite me to their branch meeting--an experience that would have a big impact on me.

There were workers and students--men and women of all ages. The group was mostly white, but they also weren't defensive about it and acknowledged that there was a need to change this in an organic way, through connections made in struggle. They were proud and confident in their politics and were persuasive. They didn't just heap knowledge and terms on me--they engaged with me and endeavored to win me over to their politics.

I didn't just sign up for another organization based on what I read on their website. I was deliberately recruited by the kind of militant socialist activists that I wanted to be.

They took me to my first picket line, and they recruited me to my first union. They taught me how to write and speak enough to agitate, and they entrusted me with tasks that I was accountable for. They took me seriously enough to expect something from me. They made tangible the difference between sympathizing with and actually participating in the project of building a socialist organization.

Not all of my experiences in the ISO have been wonderful. As with any growing organization of human beings who are actively involved in the stressful project of changing the world, things have been uneven. Sometimes a comrade would make an unhelpful or unfriendly argument. Sometimes one behaved in a way they shouldn't have. Sometimes I vied for leadership, and I often lost. Sometimes I disagreed with a national perspective or a local initiative, and we argued about it.

I believe that sometimes, certain comrades thought I was a hopeless case, and I also believe that at times, I was probably not the best member I could have been. But all said, we grew together.

In 2007, I moved to Denton, Texas, to go to school. I was again without a local branch, but I had my experiences in Austin to help me figure out what I needed to do. I teamed up with a few people and started a loosely organized and unaffiliated socialist club.

We knew we had to join something larger than ourselves. We didn't all come from an ISO background, so we committed ourselves to weighing our options. I spoke with people in Solidarity and the Freedom Socialist Party, and again looked into a few others from before. With all due respect to these organizations, it didn't take us long to decide to become a branch of the ISO.

Since then, I have worked to build the ISO in a number of places, and have worked alongside members of groups from all across the left in several different cities in a handful of states. My experiences over this period did a lot to confirm my opinion that, while there are good activists in nearly every other far-left grouping, the ISO is really the place to be.

That the ISO is the largest organization on the American revolutionary left today is not simply a matter of numbers--it's directly related to the kind of organization it is trying to be. It has been able to cohere a respectable group of committed revolutionists and fresh new activists, and has contributed to the development of a broader left in ways that many groups haven't been able to.

Internally, the ISO is incredibly democratic. Some say otherwise, but I wonder what we're being compared to. The organization is quite serious and can be intense at times. It's the kind of group where vague talk isn't given the same amount of respect as informed and articulated positions. It's also the kind of group that changes as people come in from different organizing backgrounds and experiences.

The recent turn toward a deeper engagement with feminism and the position that racism is central to American capitalism are two great examples of the political health of this organization. And the fact that the organization can be found in every major social struggle, sometimes in key roles, is a good indication that it's generally on the right track.

The ISO has a written set of principles and is decidedly Marxist in its orientation, but otherwise has plenty of room for debate over all sorts of things of varying importance. It's a group that is doing a lot of great work to rebuild the socialist movement here in the U.S. and that hopes to help establish something much bigger, better and more complex than is already on offer.

It's a group that is not all that hard to work with in coalition, and certainly worth looking into if you're looking for a socialist organization to join and build.

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