PREFACE: This is a transcript of a talk that I gave this year at the International Socialist Organization’s annual Socialism Conference in Chicago. Putting my talk together was a little bit of a rushed process due to some personal factors, so it’s far from my best work. My aim in the talk was not to lay out the whole political foundation of the ISO. Rather, my aim was to attempt to emphasize the need to build a socialist political organization today, in lieu of any mass revolutionary organization. I made only minor edits where I thought it would clarify my writing.
Introduction to the Politics of the International Socialist Organization
My aim in this talk is to broadly outline the politics of the International Socialist Organization and, hopefully, make the case to you why you should join us in rebuilding a committed and confident socialist movement in the United States. The ruling class in the U.S. is committed to continuing its severe austerity project with the goal of displacing the costs of the crisis they created in 2008 onto the shoulders of the working class and the poor and to maintaining its global chokehold on workers everywhere. Revolutionaries in the U.S. today, therefore, play a particularly critical role in the project of winning a socialist world. Our first step in that process is building an organization to cohere our politics and centralize our activity.
So, I want to discuss how the ISO understands the world, and to describe the kind of world we want and how we can win it.
If you’ve been following the news you might have seen heard that over 300,000 people stand to be affected by water shutoffs in Detroit (my hometown) as so-called “delinquent customers.”
Nevermind that Detroit is virtually located right in between three-fifths of the world’s freshwater supply — the notion that anyone in the world should be regarded as a “customer” of water, a basic prerequisite for the existence of all life, is an absurd notion that could literally not exist outside of a capitalist society.
This absurdity serves, at least, the partially useful function of illustrating the outrageous way in which capitalism organizes the production of basic human needs. In 2012, for another example, the USDA found that nearly one in seven households in the U.S. — the wealthiest country in the world — were “food insecure” (a euphemism for starvation). And yet, according to a recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, over 40% of all food in the United States is wasted, most of it before it even gets to the dinner table.
That’s because in a capitalist system, production takes place for profit, not for human need or benefit. Food is a commodity that is sold for a profit, not a right or a thing that should be made available to everyone because they need it to survive. Rather than use our society’s resources to abolish hunger and feed everyone for free, businesses compete with one another for market share and profit.
This means there is a constant drive by producers to expand and grow more and more, regardless of the ecological and human costs. The ruling class thrives on the exploitation of both workers’ labor and the environment. Vast resources are poured into avoiding environmental regulations and driving down (or outright stealing) workers’ wages. The majority of the population — having no other way to survive — are forced into selling their labor on the market, becoming commodities themselves.
Such a system produces enormous inequality. A report published this year reveals that out of all the income produced in the U.S. economy annually, the top 1% take home almost 25% while the bottom 90% take away less than half.
In order to maintain this system the ruling class organizes not only class exploitation, but stitches together a whole tapestry of oppression and inequalities. Women not only continue to be paid a fraction of what men are paid and continue to perform the majority of household labor for no pay, but a whole social apparatus of sexual and physical violence and harassment exists to force women into a second class status. African Americans, likewise, not only experience lower standards of living by almost every measure possible in American society, but are routinely terrorized by the American police state and held prisoner by an unprecedented system of mass incarceration.
Yet, while income inequality is expected to be the next big issue in U.S. politics who will actually present a real opposition to the rampant inequality and oppression that characterizes every single inch of U.S. society?
Even though one in seven households in the U.S. suffer from hunger, President Obama, with the support of Democrats like Senator Debbie Stabenow from Michigan, proudly signed a farm bill that cut over $8 billion from federal food assistance.
Senator Bernie Sanders, a so-called “democratic socialist” who voted for the cuts, aptly described the limitations of American politics when remarked that he was “very disappointed” that the bill cut $8.6 billion from food assistance but the “bill steps back from $40 billion in food stamp cuts that House Republicans had demanded.”
These are the choices we’re faced with, therefore. Do you want $8 billion in cuts to food stamps or $40 billion? Many, out of hopelessness and fear, routinely choose the lesser evil.
However, if we are to ever reverse such endless cuts and rampant inequality we cannot continue to defer to the lesser evil. Not only because there should be no reason for us to cut food assistance and other social services in the wealthiest society to ever exist in human history, but because the lesser evil — by deflecting criticism through fear — often serves as the more effective evil. We need to build our own party that can fight not only against the daily exploitation of capitalist society, but struggle to overturn the whole system, putting the workers themselves in power.
A socialist party, however, doesn’t mean simply running our own candidates, it also means building an organization that unites the whole working class geographically and politically, and sustains that resistance beyond episodic or momentary eruptions.
As we have seen over the past several years, this system doesn’t simply produce rampant inequality but also inspiring and heroic fight backs. However, without organization, these struggles can often dissipate in the face of brutal repression and the chaotic pace of activity.
In contrast to the inspiring yet struggle of Occupy, therefore, consider the staying power of the Chicago Teachers Union strike — a fight for which preparations and organization began years ahead of time. That preparation was necessary, however, in order to successfully fight against Rahm’s attacks on public education and mobilize the support of hundreds of thousands of teachers and their supporters daily for over a week. And this organization allowed the CTU to sustain its support in battles that came after the strike had concluded.
The fight against this system will not end in one battle or campaign, but will last across decades and have multiple fronts and battles. Our movement, therefore, must be organized to both sustain the radical energy of hundreds of millions of people through the zigs-and-zags of class struggle.
Imagine, in other words, an organization of unapologetic and committed socialists in tens or hundreds of thousands of workplaces and across thousands of campuses and schools, arguing not just for a fight against the bosses, but for a struggle against racism, sexism, homophobia and every manifestation of oppression — “tribunes of the oppressed” in Lenin’s words — in order to unite the widest possible number of people into a fight against this system.
Unfortunately, the ISO is not this organization. There is no such organization in the world, yet. This is something we must work to build by laying the groundwork starting today.
As we saw in the upsurges of 2011, from Madison to Cairo and all the way to Athens, is that this kind of organization doesn’t self organize out of mass uprisings, no matter how heroic or massive those struggles may be.
The kind of complex organization needed to sustain a revolutionary struggle doesn’t come out of the chaos of an uprising. Instead, socialists today must work to establish the movements and networks that can hopefully begin to lay the groundwork for a party in the future.
Obviously, this is not an easy task. Not only are we without a mass socialist movement, but decades of neoliberal assault have scattered and dissolved the traditional organs of working class and Left resistance such as unions and mass political organizations: the life blood of any socialist organization.
In a sense, then, socialists have to perform a double duty: not only arguing for socialist politics and building socialist organization but also working to rebuild the rudimentary organs of resistance necessary to a working class struggle.
Therefore, socialists today should respond to every manifestation of resistance that can take our organizations and struggles forward in order to help strengthen them, not just with our enthusiastic activism, but our political perspectives as well.
The presence of socialists in movements does matter – as we have witnessed both through our activism in Occupy, and our work defending reproductive justice, anti-police brutality activism, organizing in teachers unions, and so on. We believe our ideas and politics are not just important for the battle to win workers’ power in the future but are critical to helping strengthen movements against oppression and exploitation today.
Our goal today then, as socialists, is to establish a “political center” – a core of socialists who can not only train new people in socialist politics and develop new socialist perspectives for today, but who can also help establish the networks and lay the groundwork for a future socialist party.
Socialists today, therefore, need to balance more than a few different priorities: political education and theorization (i.e., assessing the state of the world to draw new practical political conclusions), engaging and helping to strengthen current struggles, and also strengthening the networks and relationships today among those who sincerely want to fight back and tear the head off this rotten system.
While the ISO is far from having all of this figured out, I think everyone who seriously engages with us will see that we are an organization that takes the task of balancing these priorities seriously. This is why the ISO has been able to establish such strong relationships with some of the most serious activists and revolutionaries across the world.
We are a long way from a party, but that shouldn’t stop us from recognizing the need today to consciously take the steps to build it one step at a time. The task of those committed to building a socialist movement is to identify what steps we can take today — however small they seem relative to our ambitions — and take them head on. As Lenin wrote:
Every question “runs in a vicious circle” because political life as a whole is an endless chain consisting of an infinite number of links. The whole art of politics lies in finding and taking as firm a grip as we can of the link that is least likely to be struck from our hands, the one that is most important at the given moment, the one that most of all guarantees its possessor the possession of the whole chain.