How Anarchist Theory Explains the Death of the ISO, the Defeat of the Red Guards, and the Struggles of the DSA

American vanguard parties have not been doing well lately. The International Socialist Organization (ISO) voted to dissolve itself, over what would once have been nothing but a “routine” rape scandal — though, hilariously, a splinter of a splinter of their party continues to try to run their newspaper. The LA Red Guards started a fight with an anarcha-feminist collective, found themselves facing the wrath of the greater LA anarchist community, endured and ultimately lost running street battles, and finally formally dissolved themselves in an attempt at making some sort of peace for their members. Last year, the Socialist Alternative (SA) split and the splitters released the full internal files of the organization. The Party for Socialism and Liberation, I am told, is teetering — details are hard to come by.

Though I think that it would be silly to declare some sort of final victory over the vanguardists at this time, it’s worth discussing why the vanguardists are running into the issues that they are — and why now and all at once, in particular. The unifying cause is, oddly, the internet.

In the post-2015 era, the relationship between American activism and online radicalism has changed. Once, online radicalism was marginal. Now, though, online radicalism has replaced integration with activist communities as the main path towards radicalization. Though it is unclear to me why this happened in 2015 and not 2005, I believe the narrowing of space on the internet to less than a dozen social media sites may have been a factor — or, alternatively, the proliferation of widespread and cheap smart-phones may have allowed the economically downtrodden voices greater access to these platforms. Regardless of the cause, the shift is a clear and empirical fact — and it presents new, perhaps insurmountable, difficulties for vanguard parties.

Vanguard parties, when not able to take on violence as a tactic –i.e., when not able to act as a state, criminal cartel, armed revolutionary group, etc.– have always relied upon the centralization of information, and sometimes resources, to maintain control over their members. The design of a vanguard party is one that privileges the leadership of the party over the rank and file. The leadership ends up with access to a greater flow of information than most of the party, and so it becomes difficult for the party’s rank and file to act effectively without the guidance of the party’s leadership. The leadership is both able to selectively with-hold information from the party’s rank and file, and is incentivized to do so to maintain their power. These issues grow as the party does, of course.

However, in this new internet-using age, the party members have access to greater amounts of information relative to the party’s leadership, especially over long distances. The ability of the party’s leaders to control their members slips, at least somewhat.

The policy of democratic centralism has always been a somewhat ridiculous choice for a party that was out of power. How, after all, was the party supposed to enforce its decisions on its members? An activist group in modern America can’t actually use any form of direct coercion to enforce its decisions. The only real sort of leverage available is for the group to dissociate from an individual — i.e., kicking them out of the party. So in reality, vanguardist organizations end up acting just like anarchist ones.

By this, I mean that these parties must effectively operate by consensus, and must effectively use freedom of (dis)association as their only discipline. By consensus, I mean that the parties cannot compel their members to do anything they really do not want to do — if they would rather quit the party than obey the party, they are always free to do so. On a daily basis, this can take an almost insurrectionary form — the party members will simply decline to volunteer for things that disinterest them, or just not show up to meetings they find pointless and boring. The DSA experiences this, often enough — some local chapters have many members in theory, but so few in practice that they have trouble making quorum!

However, abandoning a party isn’t always a slow process. Sometimes, members do so en masse and form a new group. The internet era makes this problem worse, too: what previously might have been a local split can now easily spread.

Ultimately, these party leaders are left with only the recourse of withholding funds, though there are usually minimal funds to withhold in the first place. But even this is less effective: the internet era makes soliciting donations quick and easy.

(rattles cup)

Before now, of course, the anarchist groups in America have mostly been more effective at accomplishing immediate, short-term goals than vanguardists. The Black Panthers stand out as an exception, though one operating under rather different circumstances. Forming a specialized group of a dozen or less in order to achieve a specific goal is usually going to be more effective at accomplishing that goal than forming a much larger group that mainly aims at growing its numbers and influence and may accomplish more immediate goals as a side-effect.

Further, small groups without central leadership are much more resistant to police infiltration.

They are also much more politically pluralistic. There isn’t a party line in an affinity group. You’re all there to accomplish a mission, and bigger differences don’t matter as long as you can work together. I generally work perfectly fine with anarcho-communists, despite being a mutualist, for example. Vanguardists, however, end up continually splitting into antagonistic and competing groups — which not only leads to unnecessary conflict, but also to them mutually delegitimizing each other. After all, they can’t all be “the leader of the workers.”

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