By Anna Pulley
By Erin Sherbert
By Chris Roberts
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By Rachel Swan
By Joe Eskenazi
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Some activists say the internal discussion is healthy, a frustrating, necessary, and typical phase in building any cohesive large-scale movement, especially one that seeks to replicate, for the first time on a nationwide scale, the cross-ideological alliances of Seattle. They also point out that the current anti- war movement has responded much more quickly and capably than similar efforts during the Vietnam and Persian Gulf War eras.
Others, however, express surprise and disgust that, while American bombs are still falling in Afghanistan, the anti-war movement seems in danger of morphing into a discussion group for foreign policy wonks of the extreme left. "If the ISO wants to hijack the movement, fine. As long as the movement is effective," says Christopher Cantor, a graduate student at Berkeley and active member of the coalition. "I've heard plenty of incriminating friend-of-a-friend stories, and if they're true, I really think there's a problem. But no one addresses it head-on, because they don't want to seem like they're red-baiting or attacking anyone. So the issue of why we're disorganized is tabled, and the fact that we're disorganized definitely serves the interest of someone who wants to co-opt the movement.
"The first step is realizing we have a problem, and we haven't even done that."
Allegations of power-grabbing and Orwellian tactics are nothing new to the International Socialist Organization. Established in the late 1970s, the ISO touts the revolutionary Marxist viewpoint that the working classes, both blue-collar and white-collar, must rise up to destroy the capitalist system and replace it with a democratic mechanism for the distribution and production of wealth. But rather than target unions, the recruiting base of many other socialist organizations, the ISO has long aimed its organizing efforts at university students, giving it a nationwide campus presence unrivaled by other socialist sects. For young protesters seeking to challenge university or community politics, the ISO is often the only game in town. But with prominence comes criticism, and the ISO receives plenty. The most common charge: The organization joins and builds broader causes, such as the anti-war movement, as an excuse to recruit new members for its eventual worldwide workers' revolution. Of course, many student anti-war protesters don't yearn for the same dictatorship of the proletariat envisioned by the ISO, and they resent the group's attempt to make the peace movement synonymous with a world socialist revolution.
As proof of the ISO's scope, if not quite its supposedly sinister intent, campus anti-war conferences held the second week in November in Berkeley, Chicago, and Boston all unraveled amid similar allegations: The conferences' agenda-setting sessions, poorly planned and inadequately explained, had been "hijacked" (not a great choice of words, given the global context) by the ISO. Specifically, disgruntled agitators complained that the agenda for decision-making workshops, intended to provide a national direction for the movement and to plan further large-scale demonstrations, had been rigged to ensure that the ISO's proposals passed. Students flocking to the conferences from other schools said they received no instructions about how the working sessions were supposed to function; many didn't know what they were voting for, who got to speak, and whether their complaints about the structural shortcomings made any difference.
Berkeley students admitted that the rush to organize had caused some glitches in the proceedings and preparations, but insisted that ISO members, although certainly involved in planning and logistics, had not whipped up the conference as a thinly disguised recruiting fair.
Nevertheless, the Internet was afire for the next month. Activist after activist weighed in on the collapse of the three conferences, with Berkeley getting an extra-hot helping of flame because of its stature in the anti-war annals. One angry poster to the San Francisco Indymedia site (http://sf. indymedia.org) wrote: "I just got back from the conference in Berkeley. It was one of the most awful organizing experiences in my life. ... A lot of our campus groups are controlled by the ISO, and we are still struggling with how we can make the groups grow and flourish when the leadership is very tight and has a very narrow agenda."
The ISO, for its part, responded in its Nov. 30 issue of Socialist Worker. In an article headlined "Democracy or Consensus?" Editor in Chief Alan Maass dismissed the anti-ISO charges as ""reds-under-the-beds' paranoia."
"What's wrong with socialists participating in the antiwar movement -- and even taking a leading role?" he wrote. "Should we not have opinions? Would opponents of the war be better off if socialists kept quiet?"
In a phone interview from ISO headquarters in Chicago, Maass again denied behind-the-scenes manipulation by the group, and said the ISO's notoriety makes it an easy scapegoat for those frustrated by established groups' prominence within the anti-war movement. "In no case was the ISO secretly hoodwinking people into coming to the conferences," he says. "And now this is really a test, for this movement and any movement: Are we going to be able to work together?"
Theresa Dang, a UC Santa Barbara student who stormed out of the Berkeley conference after suspicions of ISO manipulation were raised, phrases it a bit differently, summing up the challenges of broadening the movement into regional, and possibly even national, coalitions: "It is not entirely relevant whether it was the ISO or some other vanguardist group; the point is that something was very wrong and refusal on the part of the facilitator and other coordinators to address criticism proved even more problematic," she says. "It starts to look like a small group of people deciding what the rest of us are to do in our own communities, and that is not anything I am interested in."