International Socialist Organization: Pulling punches in the anti-Nazi fightback

Unwilling to confront the Nazis, the Rally Against Hate offered free food instead. Photo: Mabel Jimenez
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When fascists come to town, liberal authorities chant, “Ignore them and they’ll go away.” But socialists and those targeted by ultra-right viciousness know it is vital to face down bigoted bullies. Treacherously, in this era of a newly-emboldened ultra-right, some socialists are withdrawing from direct counter protests. Leading the retreat is the International Socialist Organization (ISO).

A damning record. In June, when Islamophobic ACT for America held “Anti-Sharia” rallies, ISO joined liberal protests in several cities that were safely situated away from the bigots. In the Seattle Stands With Our Muslim Neighbors coalition, they sided with pacifists who wanted the rally to abide by a principle of non-violence. When the Freedom Socialist Party (FSP) advocated the right to self-defense, they accused FSP of “giving socialists a bad name.”

Then, in August, after helping to organize a Seattle protest against right-wing Patriot Prayer, ISO abruptly withdrew from the action. Its letter of resignation reasoned, “it is not clear that larger local organizations, such as mainstream unions or Muslim organizations, will be participating in the demonstration this weekend.” The announcement came the very evening of the attacks in Charlottesville, a decision they said they made earlier. Observed FSP’s Su Docekal, “After the violence in Virginia, liberal Muslim and Jewish organizations that hadn’t originally signed onto our event joined up. But not ISO; it turned tail.”

In response to a “No Marxism” event in Berkeley, ISO co-led the Bay Area Rally Against Hate. Their flyer advertised a gathering “to speak peacefully to each other about the world we want. … Bring snacks.” It was scheduled hours before and blocks away from the far-right demonstration. Talk about ignoring fascists!

An ad hoc coalition initiated by FSP decided to protest the bigots face to face. ISO and other socialists could have urged their liberal allies to join Communities Against Racism and Fascism (CARF) to build a powerful direct action. But, no!

Jim Lafferty, Executive Director of the National Lawyers Guild of Los Angeles, criticized the socialists backing the Rally Against Hate. He pointed out, “The anti-Nazi movement here in Los Angeles has driven the Nazis out of town by always showing up at the same location where the Nazis planned on gathering … in far greater numbers” (see his letter here).

In September, ISO minimized pleas for help when the small city of Vancouver, Wash., faced a large invasion by Patriot Prayer on the same day as a tiny right-wing contingent rallied in neighboring Portland, Ore. FSP’s Jordana Sardo reproached ISO and the left leadership of Portland Stands United Against Hate for their timidity. “Your responsibility was to influence and debate why the coalition should send Portlanders to Vancouver at the top of the day, not after the Portland protest had wrapped up.”

ISO’s deceptive words. ISO’s behavior doesn’t match its bold talk. After Charlottesville, the Socialist Worker newspaper proclaimed, “Now is the time to overcome the fear that the fascists want us to feel.” “If we don’t stop the far right today, they will stop us from organizing tomorrow.” And, “We can’t defeat them by following the liberal advice to ‘just ignore them.’”

Leader Paul d’Amato states: “We should be building the largest possible united front mobilizations that bring together students, workers, unions, anti-racist organizations, women’s organizations and more — to challenge the fascists, outnumber them and drive them away.” But this isn’t what ISO is doing. United fronts are democratic coalitions with working-class, not liberal, leadership and program. And by avoiding confrontations when it fears the numbers won’t be overwhelming, ISO leaves the field to the fascists.

One of its concerns is safety. “The far right is incredibly dangerous … our movement has to take up the question of defending ourselves,” says Portland’s Sarah Levy. Another problem is avoiding skirmishes. “Anti-fascism is reduced to a spectator sport if left to groups of masked, armed activists.” Both issues are legitimate. But the solution is not retreat.

The Trotskyist fighting approach. “The answer,” says CARF co-coordinator Nancy Kato, “is for radicals and liberals to work together to build large, disciplined demos that directly counter the far right, not picnics in a nearby park. A democratic united front can accomplish this.”

Russian Revolutionary Leon Trotsky analyzed the rise of fascism in the 1930s. He developed the concept of the united front as a combat method that brings disparate forces together. In the Northwest in the 1990s, FSP inspired the United Front Against Fascism to gather a wide array of communities that successfully confronted Nazi skinheads and Aryan Nations goons.

Murry Weiss, who organized in Los Angeles in the 1950s, said the Trotskyist “conception of fighting the fascists is to crush them in the egg. Never give them a chance to become powerful antagonists.”

Trotskyists understand that the goal of fascism is to destroy working-class opposition to extreme measures that bolster profits. Workers have a huge stake in this fight, plus unionists bring with them invaluable experience defending picket lines. While ISO can quote Trotsky chapter and verse, they lack the working-class instinct to fight back.

Reformism of social democracy. The ABCs of Marxism teach never to lend political support to capitalist institutions. Radicals should seek to work with liberals, but on our own terms. The united front is designed precisely so that communists retain their perspectives without betraying their principles.

But, in its quest for numbers, ISO adopts the policy of the reformists. It crosses a line into the camp of the social democrats.

Social democrats are leftists who accept capitalist rule. They abandon principle in favor of immediate victories and numbers. For example, ISO justifies its presidential endorsements of anti-corporatist Greens Ralph Nader (2000) and Jill Stein (2016) as a step toward building an alternative to the two-party system. Never mind that the Green Party doesn’t target capitalism as the root of the problem.

This is a crucial time for socialists to work together. We can fight the right and corporate power if we build united fronts. We aren’t yet the majority, but as radicals, we can lead workers to the fight for a socialist world. Let’s do this!

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