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

by Brandy Baker on June 3, 2014

The 2014 ISO Convention: February 15th-17th

The International Socialist Organization held their 2014 convention nearly three months ago from February 15th to 17th in Chicago. While the convention is known mostly as a rubber stamp for the wishes of the ISO Steering and National Committees, who re-elect themselves as uncontested slates, adding on new members every year , what was new this year was #8 on the list of “Proposed Rules and Procedures” :

“Any attendee who records any portion of the convention proceedings and/or circulates adet ailed report on any portion of the convention proceedings on the Internet or in any public forum or to any non-member of the ISO, will be subject to disciplinary action by the ISO or violating members’ democratic right to internal discussion.” (Convention Bulletin; February 15, 2014)

These proposed rules were on the agenda that was handed out the morning of Saturday, February 15th. Each recipient was charged $1 for the piece of paper and it was not made available before the morning when everyone came in to register. The room in which the convention was held did not have wi-fi, though this was not unusual. What was unusual was that some of the ISO loyalists were looking over the shoulders of Renewal Faction delegates and their guests to insure that no RF member or supporter was Tweeting any part of the convention or posting anything about it on-line as it was occurring. Ironically, the phones that most of the RF members and supporters were using were so old that they were made before the advent of Facebook and Twitter, these phones came out in the mid-2000s when MySpace was king.

There were accusations of Renewal being “agents of the state”.  ISO loyalist Joe Allen said, “We knew when we live-streamed Glenn Greenwald we would be targeted by the state, and this is what it looks like.”

There is your snitch-jacketing. Right on the convention floor, aimed at the Renewal Faction, not coming from the faction.

More over-the-top nonsense and loyalist chaos came both before and after the snitch-jacketing, along with some more snitch-jacketing. But before we explore that, let’s go back to the beginning of the morning. The agenda, which was handed out the morning of the first day of the convention had the discussion of Political Perspectives (12-2 PM) and then Organizational Perspectives (2:30-4:30 PM). The Renewal Faction was third on the agenda (5:00-7:00 PM), and the Renewal Faction discussion was not astericked as a “voting section”. There were no US guests present, but there were representatives from Socialist Alternative (Australia), New Socialist Group (Canada), a former member of IS-Canada, and someone from an organization in Puerto Rico.

The Renewal Faction had three voting delegates: Neil P. from Cambridge; Brian from Providence; and Ian from Brown University. Providence had one non-voting guest, Chris M., and Brown had one guest who was not a faction member.

Ahmed was slated to speak; there wasn’t even allotted time for the Renewal Faction to have a speaker. Brian from Providence had to request to have the time for the Renewal Faction to speak. He approached Chicago organizer Shaun Harkin, who asked the Steering Committee to allot time for the Renewal Faction.

Ahmed gets 15 minutes. In that time, he repeats the tired accusation of, “snitch-jacketing” against the Renewal Faction, and he accuses them of “bad faith” in addition to heaping other forms of abuse and tirades. He then proclaims that, “there is no need for factions in the ISO.” That factions always end up poorly, like this instance.

Brian gets the ten minutes that he had to ask for on behalf of the Renewal Faction. Others in Renewal saw his speech as “mildly apologetic”, but this may be because observers say that he appeared to be shaken up from Ahmed’s chastisements, but he does defend the faction and says, “we are here to make political arguments.” Brian is repeatedly hissed at and jeered as he speaks.

After Brian’s ten minutes, a parade of loyalist after loyalist gets up and calls the Renewal Faction “misogynist” for “violating the survivor’s confidentiality.” They claim that the Renewal Faction’s document, that was released that very morning of the convention questioning the ISO’s handling of the Xville case was “hostile” to the ISO, that it was “traumatic to the survivor.” More accusations of “agents of the state” follow accusations of Renewal being “class enemies” and “disloyal”.

These are pretty nervy accusations considering that the Steering Committee refused to act on the   sexual assault allegations against “Daniel”/Chuck Stemkeasaccording to its own internal documents, the Steering Committee in March of 2013 “assumed the accusations [against Chuck] were false”. (document #19, patragraph 25) The Steering Committee in March of 2013 not only disbelieved the survivor and considered the issue, “a local matter” (document #19, paragraph 25), but four months later in July of 2013, the ISO leadership published Chuck’s piece, “Why is Filner still in office?” in Socialist Worker. In the article, Chuck asks why San Diego Mayor Bob Filner has not been removed for allegations that he, “routinely clutched women tightly in what became known as the ‘Filner headlock’–refusing to let them get away as he would sometimes ask them about their relationship status, grope their breasts and buttocks, forcibly kiss them or attempt to unhook their bras. Staffers also have reportedly talked about the ‘Filner dance,’ in which the mayor would maneuver to prevent a woman from escaping as he kissed her non-consensually. Those around him say Filner simply cannot be left alone with a woman.”

The ISO leadership printed Chuck Stemke article on allegations of sexual harassment against Mayor Filner in knowing full well that there was an uninvestigated and unresolved allegation of attempted rape against Chuck. They knew because it had been brought before them more than once.

Renewal were scolded by Sharon Smith, the ISO National Organizer, for daring to demand that the Steering Committee be held to account for its mistakes in the “Daniel”/Chuck case, and for trying to make the Steering Committee name the specific SC members who automatically disbelieved the complaint and refused to act on it. In corporate America, a bungling of a sexual assault case this severe would result in the termination of any supervisors or HR managers on whose watches this occurred. In the ISO, demanding to know who specifically on the Steering Committee was involved in the “Comrade Daniel”/Chuck case and how gets you a slew of verbal assaults and a one-way ticket out of the organization. Are ISO loyalists really this stupid?

Neil P gets up to speak and calls the document, “a principled anti-sexist and feminist document.” More loyalist booing, jeering, and hissing.

Loyalist after loyalist calls the Renewal Faction, “parasitic entryists”, Renewal was told that criticsm of the organization showed that they were, “elitist”and “undemocratic” because the membership elects the leadership every year. Yes, the Renewal Faction is elitist to criticize the leadership because the leadership re-nominates itself with a few add-ons of its own choosing year after year in a single slate with no other options.

The three delegates contest charges against Renewal about “snitch-jacketing”, a loyalist then gets up and calls them, “agents of the NSA”. It appears that even ISO loyalists have a limit to how far they will snitch-jacket dissenters, someone contested the “agents of the NSA” charge.

ISO members sympathetic to the faction did not speak up through any of this.

Somewhere in this on-going shit show a resolution was put forth by a group described as “ a layer of intellectuals who have a patronage relationship with Haymarket Books”. They raised the following motion from the floor, though all of whom I interviewed in the faction think that this was all orchestrated with the Steering Committee ahead of time. The Haymarket intellectuals called for the following:

There has been a shift by the Renewal Faction, as a result of not finding significant political support for their initial perspective in the ISO, towards more destructive actions that put the organization at risk. These include but are not limited to:

The External Bulletin post on CERSC, which puts the nonprofit at financial risk and makes individuals named vulnerable.

The “snitch-jacketing” of a comrade and defense of this by the faction.

The External Bulletin post declaring that the faction will no longer redact internal documents from its website, even without permission from our organization or individual members, which in practice has already censored comrades from making important contributions to the Convention.

The External Bulletin post that slanderously accuses the ISO Steering Committee (SC) of “instinctively disbelieving a woman who brought a sexual assault complaint,” and reflecting “the sexist and patriarchal logic of capitalist society,” based on a misrepresentation of Pre-Convention Bulletin #19, without notifying the authors.

We feel that we can no longer operate on grounds of mutual trust in an organization where this behavior is allowed. We call on the Convention, our highest decision-making body, to vote on the following:

We call on all Renewal Faction members to retract support for the aforementioned actions in writing to the SC and by removing all materials from their website; or face disciplinary action, including expulsion, as deemed necessary by the SC immediately following Convention.

We call on all Renewal Faction delegates and guests to retract their support for the aforementioned actions in writing to the SC in order to be readmitted to Convention on Sunday morning.

Aaron P (Detroit); Elizabeth WF (Madison); Aaron A, Jason F, Jonah B, Leia P (New York City); Brian K (Poughkeepsie)

Chris M. stands up and called the Haymarket intellectuals’ resolution to a vote. The majority refused. “They wanted another half hour to yell at us,” says Chris.

After a while, the vote is called. It passes. The Haymarket intellectuals will go on to publish their books, and big, bad, questioning Renewal is out of the picture. Renewal does not back down, they will not repudiate their positions, they will not take down their blog, and as a result, they are barred from    the convention starting the next morning. The Renewal Faction would not be able to submit their resolutions because they were barred from convention for failing to retract support for the very resolutions that they wanted to submit!

The Renewal Faction’s guest from Brown was approached by the New England area’s regional organizer (guess who?) and she was pressured to split from the faction. She felt uncomfortable with this and left the convention and did not return. In his wrap-up for the day, Ahmed bizarrely accused the Renewal Faction for being responsible for the recent resignations in the British group, the International Socialist Network. The ISN is an organization that was started by many ex-Socialist Workers’ Party members who quit over the leadership’s handling of the Martin Smith rape case. Ahmed also proclaimed that the ISN was, “taken over by anarchists.”

But let’s go to Chris M. for his wrap-up of the day which is most likely more accurate and unlike Ahmed’s wrap-up, actually possesses some coherence: “I remember all of us kind of doing a collective spit-take over that ‘break-up of the ISN’ line. And ‘taken over by anarchists’ – a characterization which only confirms that even at the highest levels of the organization, the term ‘anarchist’ is no longer used as any sort of coherent political descriptor, but simply as an epithet for anyone whose ideas about organization and tactics sufficiently differs from the leadership’s.”

Chris M. also weighs in on the leadership and loyalists attacks of the day: ““It was very, very clear that the anger in that room was not on behalf of a survivor of sexual assault who might be retraumatized, but on behalf of an organization and a leadership that were now tainted by sexual assault allegations.” He continues, “The problem is not that the ISO is funded through an NGO, but that we asked questions about it; the problem is not that the Steering Committee ignored a charge of sexual assault for over a year, it’s that we talked about it.”

“It was clear that they wanted to get our people out of the convention before Sunday morning when the disciplinary committee was going to give their report the next morning at 10 AM,” says Shaun Joseph .

“They did not want us there for the disciplinary committee report,” says Chris M. “They made it clear that they did not trust us and they said that they did not want any of the ‘sensitive information’ to get out on the Internet or to the rest of the Left.”

All of the Renewal Faction members were ejected from the convention, but fortunately, not all of the convention attendees I interviewed were Renewal Faction members.

Brandy Baker is a writer and artist living in Baltimore and completing a MA in Theatre Studies at the University of Gueph and has a new blog, Two Planks and a Passion (http://brandybaker.org/), on theatre and radical left politics. Brandy can be reached at: [email protected]

  • ilyenkova

    have to feel sorry for the victimized members of an increasingly dysfunctional, unraveling pseudo-Leninist organization. One need only have observed the SharonS, Ahmed leaders at conferences (i.e. the Trotsky Legacy conference in 2008) to see how they behave and operate. One is a condescending, pedantic snob; the other, by ALL accounts, is visibly irrational as is mentioned often in this series. But as is so often the case with mistreated “factions” (tendencies would be a better word but the ISO is using a smear term for any internal opposition), the cure on offer is perhaps even worse than the disease. Having been mis-educated as to the conventional usage and practices of democratic centralism, Renewal seems to want to toss the whole thing and move towards “consensual decision making” models, or some such as it’s not clear where as they proposed to go, other than wanting more democracy and transparency and horizontality etc. So it’s always easy for an authoritarian, self-selecting, paid leadership to dismiss oppositionists (even when correct norms are used!) as mere whiners or sectarians, at best. In this case the “snitch-jacketing” charge goes well beyond the bounds of the “usual” and shows the very threatened and probably internally divided nature of the ISO leadership at this moment. At any rate it’s a sorry story– hopefully to be learned from by SocAlt, which is hegemonic now.

    • Ben S.

      As a member of the now-defunct Renewal Faction, I can say that I’m certainly not an advocate of swapping “democratic centralism” in favor of “consensus decision making.”

      Despite my disdain for the procedures and practices of socialist sects like the ISO and the British SWP, I agree that old-fashioned, majority democracy is the most effective means for decisions to be made in a socialist or workers’ organization.

      The thing is, I have no ambition whatsoever to submitting myself to the stultifying discipline of a socialist propaganda sect that is undemocratically controlled by a group of lifelong bureaucrats with absolutely no organic connection the class struggle whatsoever.

      • FoolishOwl

        I continue to feel astonished at how rarely I see democratic decision making even attempted; and I have to wonder if those experimenting with alternative processes have ever actually experienced democracy.

      • FoolishOwl

        I continue to feel astonished at how rarely I see democratic decision making even attempted; and I have to wonder if those experimenting with alternative processes have ever actually experienced democracy.

  • Keith_Watermelon

    thanks for this. as an isn member, it’s useful to know the shit being talked about us, as well as seeing a picture that looks incredibly familiar

  • rodney

    was brandy baker actually at the convention?

  • guest

    Part of the resolution to expel Renewal says: The External Bulletin post that slanderously accuses the ISO Steering Committee (SC) of “instinctively disbelieving a woman who brought a sexual assault complaint,” and reflecting “the sexist and patriarchal logic of capitalist society,” based on a misrepresentation of Pre-Convention Bulletin #19, without notifying the authors.” But if you read pre-convention bulletin 19, the leadership did disbelieve the victim, it says so in their own doc. How was 19 ‘misrepresented’? Here is the link for it. http://rosswolfe.files.wordpress.com/2014/02/preconvention-bulletin-1911.pdf

  • Gumby

    Just one comment of slight contention; it may have nothing to do with patronage to have a middle layer of iso leaders put forward such a proposal. The climate of insanity had already been created. It is easy for anyone to contribute to it using whatever means they can think of. Perhaps it was organized by leadership directly but perhaps not. Those people though probably will end up some of the future generation of the national leadership bodies. What a joy that will be.

  • Rey Saenz

    All a lot of dirty linen with little to no substance in it from either side.

    • alan

      You are actually right, and that is what is sad about this whole situation, the substance and the politics were lost because the faction was treated like a cancer, snitch-jacketed, and booted from convention. When a faction forms, why can’t the good and bad of their ideas be debated at convention and everyone go out afterward for a beer no matter how the vote turns out? The ISO is arrogant and vain, they cannot stand the idea of anyone contradicting them in public or private.

      Their own arrogance and sectarianism is killing them.

      • red_marks

        Yeah, it is, the iso is on their way out, i give it about five years. I hope that socialist alternative reads this series and learns from it and does not repeat the iso’s mistakes

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