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Why has the ISO collapsed?

Submitted by martin on 16 April, 2019 - 2:58 Author: Martin Thomas

On our last count, Stephen Wood’s piece on the collapse of the USA’s International Socialist Organization was the most-read of Solidarity’s articles on our website.

In the next issue of Solidarity we hope to have further coverage from one of our people who is in Chicago for a while, and will have a chance to talk face-to-face with ex-ISOers and other left-wingers who’ve been able to observe the ISO up close. Chicago was the ISO’s main base.

As yet, there are many questions about the ISO collapse to which we can’t even guess answers. It’s a strange business.

The French Trotskyist group which is now Lutte Ouvrière collapsed in 1950. But it was very small and political conditions were very adverse. Six years later people from the 1950 group came together again to restart collective activity, and the group continues to this day.

Gerry Healy’s Workers’ Revolutionary Party collapsed in 1985. But it had imploded politically a decade earlier, coming to rely on money from the Iraqi and Libyan dictatorships. A number of fragments tried to sustain continuator-groups.

In Italy in the early 1970s there were far-left groups, highly active, with thousands of members, and sometimes daily papers and radio and TV stations of their own - Lotta Continua, Avanguardia Operaia, PdUP, and Potere Operaia (which mutated into Autonomia Operaia).

They all collapsed. Lotta Continua wound up in 1976 after reaching an impasse over the competing claims of “identity politics” and coherent organisation. The others were all gone by the early 1980s.

They had had unrealistic “ultra-left” outlooks in the early 1970s. They thought they could dismiss the mass Italian Communist Party (by then de facto social democratic) as an outdated rump. When AO, PdUP, and others ran as a coalition in the 1976 elections (and that move in itself was a step back from their earlier “ultra-leftisms”), they got just 1.5% of the vote and saw the CP increase its vote sharply (to 34%).

They were all more or less “soft Maoist”, some of them what French leftists called “Mao-spontex”. Their theories were an incoherent mix of enthusiasm for the Cultural Revolution in China, “Third Worldism”, and “spontaneism” or quasi-anarchism.

They had no stable body of theory which would enable them to adjust to mistakes and to survive big disappointments. They would have been dismayed by the downfall of the “Gang of Four” in China (1976) and the outcome of the Stalinist victories in Vietnam and Cambodia. They all, to one degree or another, tended to substitute street-fighting for politics.

Repression speeded their decline: many leaders were jailed or had to flee to France or Canada. But the essence of the collapse lay in the fact that all groups subsisted on an improvised collection of enthusiasms in place of a coherent theory with a well-traced tradition and line of development, and a strategic overview about transforming the existing labour movement.

The ISO until its collapse it was the most active group on the US revolutionary left, with maybe 900 members. The US labour movement is in a bad way, but the popularity of general socialist ideas among young people in the USA has risen; and more US workers were involved in work stoppages in 2018 than in any year since 1986.

Not an obvious time to give up on a decades-long project of building a socialist organisation.

I know a bit about the ISO’s sister group in Australia, Socialist Alternative. Both groups are splinters (though at different times) from the international network centred on the SWP in Britain.

S Alt has built itself into the biggest group on the Australian far left by a tenacious focus on running regular stalls and meetings on campuses. As far as I understand it, the ISO has done similar.

S Alt defines itself as not “democratic centralist”, because (it says) it’s too small (maybe 300-400 members) to make “democratic centralism” meaningful. That argument seems to depend on interpreting “democratic centralism” as the SWP-UK model: all members are obliged to pretend in public that they agree with the majority “line”, little scope for debate outside prescribed pre-conference periods.

S Alt in 2013 welcomed a small Castroite group, RSP, into membership, on the basis that ex-RSPers could be open in public about their differences with the S Alt majority.

In practice, ex-RSPers have not been vocal. S Alt has little culture of public debate.

At its public meetings I’ve had uptight, angry responses when I’ve raised mild questions. (To be fair, that’s often from young organisers, no doubt nervous about “their” meeting going off piste, and more experienced members can be more open).

The ISO-USA’s regime, as far as we can make out, has been similar: more civilised than the SWP-UK, but recognisably of the same sort.

John Passant, a long-time “semi-detached” member of S Alt, wrote when resigning in 2013 that “part of the culture in the organisation doesn’t seem to be about Marxism but more about action”.

That is a parallel with the Italian far-left groups of the 1970s, though on a very different form and scale.

ISO and S Alt had and have a “tradition” to draw on – from the SWP-UK. But that “tradition” is full of unaccounted-for twists; and in any case both ISO or S Alt have done little to educate members in the tradition, or to explain where, in fundamentals rather than tactics, they diverge from the SWP-UK. In the post-collapse discussions, the references are only to a vague idea of “socialism from below” rather than sustained theory.

Both ISO and S Alt have and had many well-read intellectuals. But their organisations, as organisations, have been held together more by “action”, tactical recipes that “fit the mood”, catchy slogans, than by theoretical tradition.

In Britain in recent years we have seen three large splinters from the SWP – Counterfire, ISN, and RS21, all of them with talented people – collapse or dwindle into near-invisibility, and surely in part because they based their existence on tactics rather than principles.

Has something similar happened with the ISO?

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