Of Sects and Sexual Misconduct: The Story of the ISO Renewal Faction Fight (Part II)

by Brandy Baker on May 28, 2014

The Formation of the Renewal Faction

After Shaun Joseph’s resignation, ISO members from all over the country penned an appeal for his reinstatement back into the organization (“Appeal for Shaun J.”, Bulletin #3, October 6, 2013). Members from Providence, Boston, New York, Poughkeepsie, Austin, and a few from Los Angeles. 23 from across the country, to be exact. They called for apologies from the Boston leadership and the regional organizer to Shaun over the implications from Boston leaders that he behaved in a racist and sexist manner toward members. “We believe that the overall problem cannot be reduced simply to a case of ‘disruptive individuals’, ‘personality clashes’, or tactical issues of approach or ‘tone’. Rather, we strongly suspect that these are symptomatic of deeper political questions of organizational culture, party-building methodology, and overall political perspectives in the ISO.”

Of course, the ISO leadership just cannot allow this document to be published and for the members to make up their own minds. They add their own statement to the appeal (“Response to appeal from ISO steering committee”, Bulletin #3, October 6, 2013). They add their own statement to pretty much anything in the internal bulletins that they do not endorse. In their addendum, they express dismay that some members were attempting to collect signatures on Facebook, which has now become the bane of the leadership’s existence as the Steering Committee cannot control or attach addendums to every, or really any, public criticism. They devote at least two paragraphs criticizing the Facebook discussion around the appeal. “If the signatories had decided to contact a member of the SC to express their concerns, they might have discovered that the SC was also concerned about Shaun’s decision to resign and had in fact already reached out to him to try to further understand his decision and to explore the possibility of rapproachment.” What is wrong with you people and why aren’t you keeping those lines of communication vertical and upward?

Cambridge soon reinstates Shaun into the ISO: “We thought that he would be a credit to the group,” says Neil P. of Boston who was helping to organize the new Cambridge branch.

So Shaun was in Providence for 13 years with no problems, went to Boston and had problems with the Boston leadership, quits, re-joins through the Cambridge branch. Problem solved, right?

Wrong. The Steering Committee reverses Cambridge’s decision days later, despite the fact that local branches have traditionally decided membership, and despite the fact that the ISO Steering Committee states the following in their response to the “Appeal for Shaun J.”: “Because Shaun’s resignation on September 3 was his own decision, the question of his reinstatement should be up to him.” The exchange of letters between the ISO Steering Committee and Cambridge can be found in the piece, “A Response to Our Socialist Worker Critics”, a group of Bay Area ex-ISO members who have a combined number of 69 years in the organization.

Ahmed Shawki flies out and leads a meeting that became hostile after his threats of expulsion toward some members. Details of this also can be found in the Bay Area article. At this point, Cambridge was scared. “We were afraid that the Cambridge branch would be shut down,” says Neil. “We thought that the political space in our small branch was healthy. We saw what happened to Shaun. We were getting worried.” When I asked why the Renewal Faction launched a public blog, Neil responds: “We saw sunlight as a disinfectant.”

Shaun also echoes the sentiments about seeing internal discussion as a futile exercise. So does Chris:

The ‘Appeal for Shaun J.’ was submitted internally to the ISO’s internal bulletin, and then held for weeks by the SC until the SC could write and publish a rebuttal to the appeal at the same time. This had the effect of defusing the appeal as soon as it was in the hands of the membership. So the faction knew, going into preconvention, that anything we had to say would be held back until the leadership chose to issue a rebuttal at its leisure. On a political level this was undemocratic; on a practical level this would mean that we might have to wait weeks for our comrades to read any of our arguments, depending on how slow the SC’s writers were at any given moment.

Two weeks after the Renewal Faction formed, a nationwide phone conference was called by the leadership, the discussion was said to be on “Leninism”, but some interviewed claim that the conference call was for leadership to tell the membership what to think about the faction. In December, two steering committee members come to Boston to discuss the Renewal Faction and while they do not address the political questions that Renewal raised, they call the new faction a “parasitic entryist formation”. The faction was also attacked at a December 10th meeting in Atlanta.

Chris M. elaborates on the attacks that Renewal received for their public way of operating: “The only effective way to make our arguments was to make them on the blog – in a forum where we could guarantee that they would be published as we wanted them to be published, free of censorship and in a timely manner.”

The Renewal Faction made their documents public, but redacted certain sections and did not publish any internal responses until the ISO refused to publish a Renewal document asking questions about the ISO’s ties to the non-profit Center for Economic Research (CERSC). Ben Smith, a Renewal Faction member (Charlotte, 2011-2012; Atlanta, 2012-2014), penned a document that was published both on the Renewal Faction’s site and in the ISO’s Pre-Convention Bulletin #9. The first paragraph calling for “replacing of some or all of the organization’s current leaders” can be seen on the Renewal Faction’s site, but not in the Pre-Convention documents as Ben’s call for new leadership was deleted by the ISO Steering Committee.

Renewal not only sought greater transparency amongst leadership and more democracy in the organization, it also called for the reinstatement of Shaun as well as a reversal of Vanessa Beck’s expulsion.

The Steering Committee’s response: “In between national conventions, the Steering Committee and the National Committee are the highest decision-making bodies in the ISO. It is responsible for leadership, including decisions involving membership, between conventions. Its decisions must either be appealed or challenged at the ISO’s national convention; but they cannot be actively flouted by membership.” (Pre-Convention Bulletin #5, December 2013, “On the ISO Renewal Faction”, ISO Steering Committee)

Fair enough.

The problem is that the Cambridge Branch wanted to invite Shaun as a guest to the convention where the issue of his membership could have been cleared up. Neil e-mailed the Steering Committee asking if Shaun could attend as a guest of the Cambridge branch on January 31st.

The Steering Committee responded on February 7th, unanimously banning Shaun Joseph from the 2014 Convention. “In my experience,” explains Neil P., “branch requests for guests are usually accepted without question.”

An even bigger problem is that the ISO was still taking dues from Shaun and had continued to do so until after he was expelled from the ISO at convention on Monday, February 17.

The “Comrade Daniel” Case

“Comrade Daniel”, a member and in a leadership position in Xville branch, was accused of a sexual assault that had allegedly occurred in the summer of 2012. Even though five Xville members knew about the allegations for over a year, it was not addressed by the Xville branch of an official capacity until August of 2013, when a member of the PSL (Party of Socialism and Liberation) who was also a friend of the survivor posted about it on Facebook, after seeing an anti-sexist Socialist Worker article penned by “Daniel”. The Steering Committee dropped the ball on at least two occasions before “Daniel” was suspended and eventually expelled by the Xville Branch Committee right before the 2014 convention on February 6th. All of these facts can be found in the ISO’s own Pre-Convention Bulletin Document #19:

“During the investigation, it was revealed that two members of the current (2013) Xville BC had known a year prior that an accusation had been made, one of whom was also on the Xville BC with “Daniel” at the time of the incident (July 2012). As of July 2013, no one had spoken to the victim, no disciplinary action had been taken against ‘Daniel’, no fewer than five Xville comrades knew that there was an accusation, including two members of the (2012) Xville BC, and the ISOSC was also aware.”* (Doc #19, paragraph 10)

“Members of the Xville branch brought the case to the attention of the Steering Committee at least twice. The first time was between July and September of 2012. The authors of the document asked the Steering Committee member who was initially contacted about the case to recall what happened. The Steering Committee member reportedly replied that they were “told in September 2012 that the issue had already been resolved because [the victim] wanted to move on with her life and didn’t want to press charges.” (Doc#19, paragraph 17)

“In March 2013, a member of the Xville branch contacted a member of the ISOSC (Steering Committee) to report the fact that a third party had accused “Daniel” of attempted rape. The ISOSC member said that they assumed the accusations were false and did not connect the Xville member with the ISODC (disciplinary committee). In the meantime, the Xville member spoke to the accuser, who said that he would ask the victim if she wanted to talk to an ISO member about the issue. The ISOSC member communicated that they brought the issue to the ISOSC, that the ISOSC discussed it and deemed it a local issue.” (Doc #19, paragraph 25)

In all fairness, document #19 does admit mistakes made in addressing the incident, but as the Renewal Faction has pointed out in a document penned by two of the Renewal Faction’s female members, pinning the bungling of this case on faulty organizational procedures is “myopic in its understanding of the organizational dynamics that allowed a much-liked, long-term member to remain a member and elected leader of the organization a year after the allegations of the assault first emerged.” The Renewal Faction goes into greater detail about those organizational dynamics, such as the favourtism shown to “Daniel”, as well as the organization’s placing the burden of proof on the survivor.

Though the ISO may disagree with Renewal’s interpretation of the situation, Renewal lied about nothing in the “Comrade Daniel” case. No need to take my word for it, all can read the ISO’s Pre-Convention Bulletin #19 and Renewal’s response to the document.

Did those who penned the Socialist Worker statement, “A Response to Slander” actually think that readers would not bother to check the sources and decide for themselves? Did they also think that their false allegations of Renewal “violating confidentiality” would hold water? Renewal published their criticisms of the case and left the name of the city in their critique, which was in the Pre-Convention docs on Ross Wolfe’s site until Wolfe redacted it. Renewal redacted the city as well when it was brought to their attention. The city is now titled, “Xville” which is the name I am using for the city here in this article as well.

The ISO Steering and National Committees had an opportunity to publicly say, “look, we made mistakes, and we will work on them to insure that we handle these cases better in the future,” instead of, “A group of former members is claiming that the International Socialist Organization exhibited ‘indifference’ and ‘inaction’ toward allegations of a sexual assault. This is simply a lie, made with the goal of smearing our organization and our record, in which we take great pride, of struggling against all forms of women’s oppression and gendered violence.”

Typical ISO arrogance. Chest-thumping, staking out their territory, worried more about protecting their own ‘cred’ than they are in getting to the bottom of the truth. Self-serving, organizationally self-absorbed. The heavier they pour on the empty rhetoric, the more they are in favor of womens’ rights? Try again. The Steering Committee twice refused to deal with this case, and it took the local Xville branch well over a year to begin to do so. Screaming the loudest does not place an organization in the realm of those who fight for womens’ rights. Dealing with sexism in your organization does. “A Response to Slander” is empty hot air and posturing. It is useless. Even if I were a loyalist member of the ISO and sided with them against the Renewal Faction, I would see “A Response to Slander” for what it is: an embarrassment. One of the ISO’s top cadre was idiotically posting it with glee on everyone’s Facebook wall when it first came out. The ISO can do better than this self-serving stupidity.

An organizer for Xville branch was an ISO member from late 2011 until February of 2014, when they resigned over the way the “Comrade Daniel” case was handled. “I am disgusted by the way almost every single person dealt with this in my local branch and at the national level, the Socialist Worker article was THE most disgusting thing I have ever seen and I unapologetically side with the Renewal Faction,” they said.

The organizer has had several discussions with the survivor in the the case and that the survivor “is actually quite upset that no one is using his actual name because it allows him to hide behind anonymity. He is not ‘Comrade Daniel’, in fact he’s not a comrade at all. His name is Chuck.”

And as Ben Smith says, “It’s not slander if it is the truth!”

Faction Strategies, Bullshit “Snitch-Jacketing” Allegations, and Changing the Subject

Speaking from my own experiences as being a part of a minority faction in another organization fighting for democracy and adherence to the rules, you must pick a few talking points, stick to those, and not discuss anything else either on-line or in person. At all. Ever, until the fight is debated and voted upon. This will only work if all of the members of your faction are disciplined enough to follow through with this strategy. Unfortunately, not all of us in our group knew to do this, myself being by far the worst one. We learned it through our failure. Leadership and its loyalists will always try to change the subject by attempting to involve you in personalistic debate and use anything that you say against you to try to change the subject. They will find things that you did or said, or that someone in the dissenting group said or did to try to derail from the original political critiques.

Sadly, this worked in the ISO leadership’s handling of Renewal.

When a faction forms and tries to convince other members of its viewpoints, it also must compartmentalize, which politically, is a trait that goes against the nature of Trotskyists, who are trained to both answer all questions and make connections between all of their answers and analysis. While deep analysis and interconnectedness give revolutionaries a needed systemic critique of capitalist society, in a faction fight, such political traits can cause a faction to needlessly incorporate the kitchen sink when the focus should be sharpened solely on the matters of democracy and leadership accountability with a few carefully chosen talking points. Maybe that is why we have so many good theorists, but so few quality feet-on-the-street strategists in struggles. That domain, during higher points of struggle, usually belongs to the most mature and savvy anarchist groups. And while they are nearly non-existent now, the PSL/ANSWER crowd would have held the title for best tacticians on the socialist left in the early and mid-2000s with their wide-reaching anti-war organizing. Today, of course, SaLT (Socialist Alternative) holds this title with the winning Sawant campaign.

Not only did Renewal initially offer lots of theory and perspectives when it should have had a laser focus on democratic accountability (after all, a democratic organization will usually have better political and organizational perspectives), it inadvertently allowed the past baggage of the Boston leadership/Shaun Joseph conflicts to come into the faction’s business and hinder its goals. Remember, I wage this critique based on the knowledge gained from my own past failures. Of course, regardless of whether or not Renewal made mistakes, it is not reasonable to think that Renewal would have ever successfully democratized the ISO. Even if the impossible feat of booting the Steering and National Committees was accomplished, the old guard has its names on CERSC, and how likely would they be to sign their magazine/book publishing house over to new leadership?

One prime example of Boston’s past battles coming into Renewal’s fight was when Shaun on his personal Facebook page linked to a police document showing that a Boston ISO member talked to the police. Shaun offered nothing about what was said, but only showed that the event happened, which it likely did because the police are not likely to lie to one another in their own internal documents. The Renewal Faction never posted anything on their blog complaining about any ISO members talking to the police or made any public statement asserting such. It had no position on the matter.

And it should have never adopted one.

Why? Because the ISO leadership accused Shaun of “snitch-jacketing”, the practice of labeling someone in an organization an informant. Shaun did no such thing. Immediately after the charge was made, the ISO compelled the Renewal to renounce Shaun Joseph for posting something on his personal Facebook page as an individual; Shaun made no claims about what was discussed between the member and the police, and he never asserted that the member was an informant. Sadly, as others have pointed out, the Renewal Faction took the ISO’s bait, commented on something that was not ever on their agenda, and unintentionally enabled the ISO leadership to change the subject from questions of democracy to false allegations of “snitch jacketing” against the whole Renewal Faction. It was a win-win for the ISO leadership to have Renewal comment on Shaun’s personal Facebook post. Either they would splinter Renewal by separating them from Shaun, or they could paint all of Renewal as “snitch-jacketers”, which is what exactly happened.

But these ugly events were nothing compared to the avalanche of abuse that would soon come at the ISO convention.

Brandy Baker is a writer and artist living in Baltimore.

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