Bernie Sanders and the ISO in New York

June 2, 2016

Jen Roesch comments on a debate about the left and the Bernie Sanders campaign.

I WAS happy to see the debate continue between the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and Socialist Alternative (SA) about how socialists should approach the Sanders campaign {"Debating the role of socialists in Election 2016"). We need more discussions of this kind.

However, I was surprised to see SA's Philip Locker and Stephan Kimmerle repeat a charge that the ISO "had a negligible presence at Sanders events," based on what they claimed about a Washington Square rally in New York City in April before the New York primary.

An SA comrade made the same charge in a debate between Locker and myself at the Left Forum prior to this exchange being published. I corrected the factually inaccurate estimation and suggested that hasty impressions weren't a serious way of assessing different strategies on the left. Locker heard the SA comrade who made the charge concede the point and apologize for his mischaracterization.

If this was an honest mistake or argumentative excess in the heat of debate, I would expect it to be corrected in the exchange that followed. Instead, after a description of the ISO's presence at the Washington Square rally that was just as inaccurate and ungenerous, Locker and Kimmerle claimed: "This is indicative, in our view, of an important difference in method."

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This seems like a lot to hang on someone's glimpse--I don't think Philip or Stephan were there--of one of our tables at a 40,000-person rally where the combined organized presence of left groups totaled less than 100 people. We never saw SA members at the 25,000-person Sanders rally in the Bronx the week before, but I wouldn't dream of basing an assessment of their strategy on that.

Because we weren't circulating a petition calling on Sanders to run for president as an independent--something that Sanders himself has rejected many times, making the petition meaningless at best and fostering illusions at worst--SA wrongly concludes that the ISO had nothing to say to Sanders supporters about taking the struggle forward. Not sharing SA's ideas about this question isn't the same thing as not having ideas.

To set the record straight, the ISO had 40 or 50 members and five tables stationed throughout the area for the Sanders rally in Washington Square. We talked to hundreds of people about the issues Sanders has raised, the need to build a party independent of the Democrats and our support for Jill Stein's Green Party campaign as a modest step in this direction.

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Those weren't our only "talking points," any more than "Join the socialists" was our only slogan--though it hardly seems beyond the pale at a rally for a candidate who calls himself a socialist. We also talked to people about the (now victorious) Verizon strike and invited them to join the picket lines with us. We built meetings around the city about socialism and a citywide forum on Black Palestine solidarity.

Why does this even matter? Many on the left have concluded, without ever attempting the task, that it is impossible to relate to people inspired by the Sanders campaign without being a part of it and encouraging a vote for a Democratic candidate. This hasn't been the ISO's experience at all--including at the Washington Square rally, where hope in Sanders' campaign was at its most fervent.

On the contrary, we have met many people enthused about Sanders' candidacy, but with a healthy skepticism about the Democratic Party, who are eager to discuss how we can build the left and fight for a political alternative.

It may seem like a narrow point, but I think a claim that SA members have acknowledged to be false shouldn't be used to advance an equally wrong charge about our organization nationally. Misrepresenting the ISO's approach and the facts we both acknowledge does a disservice to the task of figuring out how best to advance the socialist movement in this moment.

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