IOPS in Historical Context

by Michael Albert, Mark Evans

Michael Albert is co-founder of Z Magazine, ZNet and South End Press, and a founder member of IOPS - the international organization for a participatory society. He was speaking to Mark Evans...

The International Organisation for a Participatory Society / Socialism (IOPS) is a new attempt at establishing a revolutionary organisation capable of bringing about the kind of change the left sees as both necessary and desirable. Could you sketch out what IOPS is as an organisation, what its basic structure and program entails?

IOPS isn't a formal organization yet but is instead an interim organization headed toward being fully established. The IOPS website shows that after about five months it has over 2,600 members from about 100 countries. The site also reports that IOPS will become formal only once its membership convenes and settles on a full definition and program.

Structurally, we can all see a Catch 22 at work. IOPS seeks self management for society, and since it believes in "planting the seeds of the future in the present," it also seeks self management for itself, internally. But that means IOPS decisions should be made by those who are affected, with each having a say broadly in proportion to effects on them. However, after just a few months, IOPS membership isn't representative of what it may look like a year from now, and assuming growth continues, it certainly doesn’t include everyone who will later have to carry out initial decisions.

This is why IOPS says it needs more people from more places and with more diverse backgrounds and experience if its program is to be wise and meaningful and if its structure and policies are to be legitimate even for those who are now members, much less for those who will join over the next few years.

So in light of its commitment to self management, for now IOPS is interim which means it is keeping decisions to an absolute minimum, and even then is only implementing proposals that are overwhelmingly uncontroversial.

Moreover, to help deal admirably with the few decisions that must be made while IOPS doesn't yet have formal self managing methods in place, IOPS does have an International Consultative Committee (or ICC) of about 50 people including a mix of folks, some very well known like Noam Chomsky, Vandana Shiva, and John Pilger - and others known in their own locales and projects, though not necessarily more widely.

In  the future, IOPS is conceived to become a federation of national branches which are in turn federations of city or other local chapters, all operating as they choose in their own locations. What will characterize or define each level of IOPS, and the whole of it, is a set of statements about its vision, organizational commitments, and programmatic priorities. All this can be easily accessed at the IOPS web site at http://www.iopsociety.org Future decisions will be made by all those affected, through their chapters and branches, with the ICC no longer needed.

If I had to summarize IOPS commitments, what I find perhaps most distinguishing are:

(1) Its addressing issues of kinship, culture, politics, economics, international relations, and ecology each in their own right, but also in all their entwinements and especially without presupposing that any one is prior to any other.

(2) Its continually enlarging upon its initial vision bearing on each of these priority areas, and

(3) That its initial vision is in many respects, regarding all the areas, special to IOPS, for example, regarding classlessness, political self management, cultural diversity, and gender redefinition.

Likewise, among its organizational and programmatic commitments, I of course favor the strong IOPS commitment to self management both for society and internally, and I particularly find IOPS's emphasis on internal diversity of views very positive. I like that IOPS pledges that beyond what defines IOPS and is agreed to by all members, dissenting views should be afforded space to mature and contend. Also striking is the IOPS commitment to bettering the lives not only of constituencies in society, but also of its own members.

During the twentieth century two particularly significant events occurred that all current revolutionary organisations probably ought to draw lessons from. The first was the Russian Revolution. The second was the Spanish Civil War. So for starters, what, in your view, do you think are the important lessons to take away from the Russian Revolution that have informed IOPS?

There are many lessons of the Russian Revolution, of course, but if I had to name just a couple that help inform IOPS commitments, I would highlight politics and decision making not he one hand, and economics and class on the other.

About politics and decision making, IOPS has a flexible and evolving vision for legislation, adjudication, and collective implementation in society that could not be more contrary to the Russian experience and that is at least in part informed by understanding the flaws of that experience. In brief, IOPS political vision is about participation and apportioning appropriate self managing say to all affected. IOPS thus rejects, for example, not only the horror that was Stalinist dictatorship, but also the seeds from which that horror grew, including the vanguardist approach to organizing and the democratic centralist approach to decision making.

About economy and class, IOPS rejects private ownership of the means of production, and so that much is common with the Russian experience. However, IOPS goes much further, pledging to implement full classlessness which for IOPS includes eliminating class division based not only on property, but also on some economic actors monopolizing empowering work and other economic actors being left with only rote and obedient work. IOPS rejects that the former, who I tend to call the coordinator class, becomes a ruling class above the latter, who I call the working class.

This class division between coordinators above and workers below characterizes what is now typically called twentieth century socialism (but which I tend to call coordinatorism, naming it for the dominant coordinator class of roughly 20% who monopolize empowering circumstances and tasks). IOPS rejects this condition not only for society, but internally for itself.

What about the Spanish Civil War. What are the important lessons IOPS has learned from this important historical event?

In my limited understanding of the history, the Spanish revolution is harder to take lessons from. For one thing, it was relatively quickly drowned in blood. For another, the documentation and discussion of its history is less developed.

Nonetheless, I guess if I had to highlight a lesson it might be that even the best intentioned efforts imbued with anti classist desires not only at the broad base, but at every level of participation, can nonetheless fall into accepting institutions that violate its worthy desires. I have in mind the Spanish revolution's relative inability to get beyond markets for allocation.

But, again, I wouldn't want to stress much about that epoch as definitive evidence for some claim, other than mainly taking strength and inspiration from what the Spanish anarchist activists' wide and deep participation shows about the potential of people in motion, because it is so hard to know even what happened, much less to disentangle what factors may, or may not, have affected results.

 ...so are you saying that, whilst the Bolsheviks conceptualised and successfully implemented an alternative to competitive markets (albeit a coordinatorist one) the anarchist movement has failed to come up with a both classless and efficient alternative for allocation at all? If so, couldn't similar conclusions be drawn regarding the political system which addresses issues relating to law enforcement etc?

Central planning with state ownership is an alternative to markets plus private ownership the way strychnine is an alternative to arsenic. It eliminates economic domination by private owners,yes, but it retains class rule, though with the coordinator class elevated to ruling position instead of capitalists. I think there are very large numbers of marxists - and of leninists - indeed most of each - who had and who have no such desire. They typically sought and seek real freedom, participation, and classlessness. But the institutions their movements favored and implemented violated those desires.

Anarchism, however, is very broad and deep. Within it, there are many strands. Some elements are quite contrary to even thinking about vision and institutional aims. Other elements have desires consistent with and in pursuit of real classlessness - not only emotively, but also by their horizontalist and anti hierarchical commitments. Still, I guess I would agree that anarchism as a broad school of thought hasn’t rallied, yet, around economic structures consistent with its aspirations.

As to law enforcement, legislation, and adjudication, again, I think there are in anarchism many strands. Some reject all this as if we can have societies without political structure of any kind, or as if we can spontaneously redetermine everything with each new day. Others, however, both in the long heritage and currently, want a new kind of polity - not no polity - in which there is real self management, no state above the populace, but also not no political relations at all.

You were very active in the 60's and 70's. Are there any particularly important lessons you have taken away from your experiences then that have informed your politics now and that are identifiable in IOPS?

I suspect most people have times in their lives when they learn a whole lot of their primary or central beliefs, and that was certainly true for me in the period often called the sixties, which were far more instrumental in molding my most basic values and commitments, I think, than any other period.

Sometimes, we have to admit, however, that beliefs we arrive at in pivotal times in our lives have tenacity in an unhealthy way. I held the views then. Therefore I come to feel that I must keep holding them or admit to having been wrong. I refuse to admit error. I hang on. That kind of tenacity is obviously counterproductive.

Other times, views we adopt at formative times persist because the evidence around us continues to substantiate them. I hope that is the case for why I still have views quite consistent with, albeit developed considerably beyond, what I learned in the sixties.

So, even by 1968, I had many criticisms of old style left ideology and practice which, though they have been refined since, I think it is fair to say I still have.

Likewise, I learned, in the sixties, various positive ideas, like that people should control their own lives and that economics should generate classlessness rather than class division, and that issues of kinship and race and polity, and not only economics, are paramount, and that the absence of vision is deadly for outreach and morale - that for me, again, still persist.

Of course, the sixties and seventies weren’t the only time one could arrive at ideas like those that are at the core of IOPS. But that is when I grew up and got a lot of insights that trumped prior misconceptions and biases.

For some people, IOPS will appear seemingly new in history - perhaps even to become their key learning moment, their memorable time. For other people, IOPS will seem to have its roots way back in councilist and anarchist tendencies from well before the sixties and seventies. For still others, I suspect it will seem to owe much to the sixties, or perhaps to the later no nukes era, or to the wisdom and practice of the later anti corporate globalization movements.

For me, I suppose there is a sense in which IOPS is an embodiment of the insights of the civil rights and black power movements, the early women's movement, the anti authoritarian youth movements, SDS, and, ultimately, the movement against the wars in Indochina, and then against imperialism and capitalism, all of which insights have percolated through the history since, and through all the movements and projects since - and, in that journey, I hope have been made more insightful and wise in the minds and practice of new folks.

As a thought experiment, suppose IOPS had been around and inspired wide support at the time of the Russian Revolution, Spanish Revolution, and the Sixties. Do you think things would have turned out differently, that things would be different, now?

Some would answer, don't be silly - we don't know enough to deal with questions like that - we shouldn't entertain such hypothetical situations. We'll just look stupid or silly doing so. Others would answer, don't be silly - material conditions were such as to permit what occurred, but no more. I think both those answers would be wrong-headed and that your question is a very good one to entertain.

I think if the Bolsheviks had had an organization with politics and structural commitments like IOPS, then their feminism would have been much stronger, their navigation of cultural issues would have been much wiser, popular initiatives would not have been destroyed at the base but would have multiplied, the Soviets would not have been crushed but instead made central, political structures would not have been made horribly hierarchical but replaced with participatory and self managing innovations, and workplaces would not have been kept "Fordist" with even Taylorism in play, and especially with corporate divisions of labor and central planning, but, instead, would have been re-conceived and reconstructed to have balanced job complexes and self managed decision making which would together have eliminated corporate hierarchy, and to have participatory planning which would have made allocation compatible with self managed classlessness.

But, it is also true that had all that been occurring, the Russian revolution would have been a very much larger threat to elites all over the world even than it was. So if the commitments to these type goals were only operative in Russia, then I fear what would have been a much deeper revolution there may well have been crushed, though its lessons and inspiration would have been immense and would have spurred new gains later instead of spawning a horribly oppressive system blocking advances for decades.

However, if the Bolsheviks were just the Russian Branch of an International IOPS-ish structure of the time, and if the rest of that international organization was also quite advanced, and in any case able to block interventions from abroad into Russia, then I suspect the revolutionized Russian Revolution would have succeeded and dramatically spread, and the subsequent world would have been something quite remarkable for us all.

Somewhat similarly, if the Spanish movement had had IOPS like organization and commitments, which would, I think, have meant somewhat greater sensitivity to class relations what I call workers and coordinators, much more awareness of the ills of markets, and a lot more attentiveness to issues of race and gender, then it too would have been even more of a threat to world elites than it already was. And while these changes might have enabled it to hold out somewhat longer due to even more tenacious support, and while its example would have been in that case even better, still, the gains, assuming it was crushed, probably wouldn't have transformed our current world. However, if the other countries of Europe and the U.S. - much less Russia - had strong IOPS movements that were part of the same international organization as the Spanish anarchists, and if they were not only able to send partisans to aid the Spaniards, but, even more so, were able to restrict interventions from abroad - then, again, the impact on the subsequent world would have been enormous and we would be living in participatory societies.

 ...and during the Sixties?

I think if we had had IOPS in 1965 in the U.S., say, where I was first active, and if it had captured the imagination of all the various strands of opposition and informed the widespread creation of alternatives at the time in the U.S., and also around the world, then movements would have become more coherent and stronger, better able and more willing to mutually aid one another, better able to empower and enrich the lives of their members, and thus better able to retain their members, as well as more astute about winning practical institutional changes that could accumulate by the logic of the struggle into paths of development of wider support and deeper awareness - all ultimately leading, I admit, I think, to a new world.

Indeed, I live with this belief in what might have been all the time. I do not believe history is a given. What we do matters. I do not believe it is impossible to envision paths and then follow them, albeit with many surprises along the way.

Then what do you hope for now, for IOPS? And, perhaps first, while having over 2,500 members is impressive, I suspect it is also less than you hoped to have, after, say, five months. What do you think has kept the numbers joining down?

I think two main things, and probably lots of lesser things I can't address, keep membership below what it ought to be where what I mean by "what it ought to be" is the number of people around the world, who, on examining the commitments, would agree with them, and who would be very very happy to hear that IOPS, with those commitments, had 10,000 or 50,000 members, and was growing. I think they should all join, but only a small fraction of them have done so.

On the one hand, we have people from that universe who have heard about IOPS and looked at it, but not joined. My guess is that the two biggest reasons are that they feel they don't have time for it, or they feel like it won't succeed, and therefore giving it any time would be a fool's errand.

My answer is, they could and of course should and would allot time as they choose, not least, in light of how it is doing. And whatever their fears may be about failure, the odds of its succeeding will soar if everyone who feels that it won't, will give it a chance to do so, by joining. A long time ago I decided I wouldn't applaud and hope for success for political activities which I could plausibly be part of, and not be a part of them. I wish others had that same stance.

Then there are the many folks who don't know IOPS even exists, or who maybe just barely know, but who haven't really looked at the commitments to see what they think of them. For some of these, it is the it won't work feeling at play. But for most, and certainly for all the one's who don't even know IOPS exists, the problem is visibility.

The fact that almost no alternative and left media, even on the internet, have bothered to cover IOPS, republish its materials or even publish an open letter about it signed by all kinds of people they celebrate, critique it, or do anything other than ignore it, has been a very frustrating obstacle. First, this silence keeps people from knowing about IOPS, at all. Second, probably even more damaging, the silence says to those who do know that the alternative media doesn't give a damn, or is negative, so IOPS won't go anywhere and probably is just nonsense. That is what ignoring it conveys - sort of like ignoring an inane conspiracy theory.

So why is there an alternative media blackout regarding IOPS? That is hard to answer. For some media, it is feeling it is not their thing to comment, cover, report. For some, it is feeling IOPS will go nowhere, so why give it space. For some, however, and I suspect it is more this than the other, it is the publishers of the media not liking the IOPS commitments. What is frustrating is that no one will say what it is - or have said so, at any rate, in public. They won't criticize, they won't report, they won't celebrate, they won't give reasons. Nothing. They won't even run, unless pushed awfully hard, the open letter signed by very prominent people, urging attention to IOPS.

I did have one very prominent left journalist give me an answer privately: Do you expect us to be pr flacks for IOPS?

I thought this was incredibly, and quite inadvertently, revealing. Isn't that precisely one of the main things alternative media should do, make known to people radical and otherwise innovative projects and efforts that of course won't be visible in the mainstream? The comment was so absurd, that I could only wonder what it rationalized.

IOPS has as members writers who alternative media all over the world routinely publish. Alternative media typically hunger for everything these people generate, including Z, where I work. Yet these prominent writers and activists, Chomsky, Shiva, Pilger, and many others, who everyone publishes join an organization and issue an open letter seeking to prod serious attention, and alternative media ignores them, and it.

I hope it is just that it takes awhile to get around to coverage of something new. If so, maybe we will turn the corner on people commenting, whether critically or supportively, quite soon. I hope so. If media journalists and editorial writers think the IOPS commitments are flawed and they say so - explaining why - that would be great. That would be constructive. If they say the commitments are really nice and they like them - that would be even better. But to be utterly silent - to even reject open letters and other submissions - I am sorry, perhaps it is my intellectual and media ignorance, but I can see no way that that is either responsible or helpful.

You asked my hopes for IOPS. I would like to see it grow dramatically, of course. To my thinking, with serious alternative media coverage and ensuing serious debate and discussion, followed by maturation and refinement, I could see IOPS being founded at a convention in a year or so, or even less - having as many as 10,000 members and 200 working chapters, or even more - and then embarking on diverse local, national, and international program.

In the long haul, I hope IOPS will get much, much larger than that, and will contribute mightily to the emergence of shared ideas, vision, and strategy for the left, and to their utilization in programs that win gains, win more gains, and, in the end, win a new world.

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First published: 28 September, 2012

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