[Marxism] Re: Working in a Coalition Re: Lee Sustar and SharonSmith respond to Stan Goff

Doug Nielson dougnielson at comcast.net
Sun May 1 12:14:44 MDT 2005

I have followed fairly closely the discussion on this list about the ISO and their relationship to MFSO. I would like to add some discussion about how socialists in general behave within wider coalitions.  I'll start with a list of actions I have witnessed and why I think they were counterproductive. 

I was involved in a student coalition a few years ago that was organized to protest the war in Afghanistan.  After several months, it came to pass that anyone who was not already a member of  a socialist group when they came to the group had been driven out.  It ended up with a meeting of 8 people where 5 different leftist groups were reprsented but not a single student.  How did this happen? I don't have the time (or memory) to explain everything that took place but suffice it to say, that to varying degrees, all the socialist groups involved were jockeying to raise their profile within the group.

 Here are a few concrete examples to give you the flavor. One individual was in the habit of standing outside the door of the meetings hawking a newspaper. Whenever a new person would come along the newspaper seller would follow them to their seat and continue promoting his paper.  Since the coaltion itself had not produced any of it's own literature or assigned anyone to talk to new members the unofficial greeter gave a very clear impression that this was a socialist group. 
On one ocassion another  individual from another socialist group sat next to a woman who had just come to her first meeting. This woman made a niave assumption that everyone in the group was pacifist. The leftist next to her quickly interjected, "this is not a pacificist group".  The impression conveyed was that people with pacifist views were not welcome. Point scored, new member lost. 

There were a few anarchist type students who were original members and had put considerable effort into building the coalition.  Unfortunately, they were not able to make a distinction between socialists behaving badly and Leninism in general.  The easiest and most accessable explanation for them was that Leninism equaled Stalinism. 

Eventually the supply of fresh faces, and therefor possible recruits to socialism, dried up and the various leftist all went off in search of more fertile feeding grounds.  Their next collective effort was to organize a citywide anti-war coalition.  I decided to attend one of their meetings.  I came in with a leftist publication of my own.  I laid several copies on a table.  A member of another group came over, laid copies of his paper on top of mine and proceded to stand in front of the table, making sure no-one would have a chance of seeing my publication.  I didn't attend another meeting.  Sure enough, before long this coalition died also. 

There is a reason I haven't named any names or even mentioned what city I'm operating in.  My point is that there are ways of behaving in coalitions that can inhibit them gaining new members and at the very worst destroy them.  The atmosphere within a coalition needs to be one in which the building of the coalition is the highest priority. It is also the case that all perspectives of how best to do this should be aired and respected.  

It seems to me that there is a larger point at stake than whether the ISO misbehaved at Fayetteville or whether  Stan Goff or anyone else reacted badly to the ISO. I don't feel qualified to make a judgements about what happened.  One thing I am certain of, though, is that Socialists can behave badly in coalitions, can alienate other coalition members and can by their own actions increase the likelihood that they will be redbaited. That doesn't make redbaiting ok, it just means that there are ways of  undermining solidarity in a group, of making yourself unpopular, and thereby make it easier, or more likely that someone will reject your politics and you along with them. Redbaiting is more likely to happen when the ground has been made fertile for it. Redbaiting is undermined when socilaists bring people together and contribute to a healthy mutual respect.

Another thing I am certain of is that socialists of competing tendencies can trample over new activists (not to mention each other) in their rush to outflank each other. New people have a right to hear all perspectives.  It is not necessary to be the first to corner someone or otherwise try to guard against them hearing the perspective of other leftists or even non-leftists.  To do this is disrespectful of their intelligence.  As others have point out, you can actually isolate yourself by doing this.

 Everyone wants the opportunity to fully explain their own point of view, but If you have confidence in your politics,  you will actually encourage new people to check out other political tendencies and compare them to your own. You will even allow for the possibility that new people will initially align with some other tendency.  It is important not to unnecessarily alienate anyone.   It sometimes takes people awhile to realize that your ideas were really the best all along. 

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