A crisis which looks terminal is gripping the International Socialist Organization (ISO), the largest would-be Trotskyist organisation in the US.
In a letter to ISO members of 15 March, now published at socialistworker.org, the Steering Committee elected at the ISO convention in late February to replace the old leadership describe the convention as their “most painful.” “Much of the convention was devoted to reckoning with the damaging impacts of our past practices and internal political culture. As branches have reported back and opened up these discussions, more examples of a damaging political culture have come to light.”
Already a large number of the ISO’s active branches have disaffiliated. An increasing number of individuals have resigned too. It seems as if the organisation, as such, will dissolve. All the historic leaders of the organisation have resigned. Or, as the remaining members would put it, resigned in “disgrace”. 11 days after the 15 March statement, there have been 28 proposals (many now withdrawn) on the way forward. Almost all of them call for the dissolution of the ISO, either immediately or over a process of some months. The proposal which has the widest support, with 113 supporters, says they should:
“Develop a process for dissolving the ISO. Maintain the website and SW [Socialist Worker] online as a forum for discussion for the time being.
“Branches that wish to remain together should do so and may rename their locals as they see fit. Any working group or caucus (POC [people of colour], trans, survivors, teachers, Latin America, etc.) that wishes to continue working may do so under their own name as we go forward.
“Everyone is encouraged to pursue activism, labor work and outward activities, whatever form that takes in their local situation.”
Publishers of Socialist Worker and International Socialist Review, and until recently having additional influence through the Center for Economic Research and Social Change and the Haymarket Books publishing house, the ISO have had a reach within the US and internationally well beyond their numbers, estimated at about 900. As with the 2013-14 crisis within the SWP (UK), the spark was the mishandling of an allegation of sexual assault. The case was one in 2012, which had been dealt with by the 2013 Steering Committee (SC). Then the member against whom charges had been laid in 2012 was elected at the 2019 convention to the SC, and things unravelled very fast.
The SC met with the National Committee (NC) and subsequently with members of the ISO’s National Branch Council (NBC), the newly formed “survivors’ caucus” and the “#MeToo commission” and came up with proposals. The SC member against whom charges had been brought in 2012 was asked to identify themselves, and did. They have now been suspended and subsequently expelled. Three members of the 2013 SC were then suspended from the ISO pending investigation. An NC member accused of undermining the role of their National Disciplinary Committee (NDC) at the time was also suspended.
The SC now says it will “empower a body independent of the current SC that can investigate the conduct of the 2013 SC and other participants in that 2013 process. Whether that should be the recently formed #MeToo commission, the NDC or some other body still needs to be determined, but will be soon”. The crisis over the 2012 case has evidently fed into long-brewing discontent with what the 15 March statement calls the ISO’s “damaging political culture”.
The ISO can trace its history back to the Independent Socialist Club formed in Berkeley in 1964 by Hal Draper to regroup people round the politics of the old Independent Socialist League (1949-58) and Workers Party (1940-9) after the dissolution of the ISL into the Socialist Party in 1958 and a drift to the right by the old ISL leadership round Max Shachtman. The ISO as such was formed as a “Cliffite” sister organisation of the SWP-UK, one of the six or seven fragments created when the International Socialists (successor to the ISC) broke up in the late 1970s.
For a quarter-century it pretty much copied the “party-building” tactics and structures of the SWP-UK. In 2001, the SWP-UK expelled the ISO from its international network, for reasons still obscure (the SWP said the ISO was sectarian towards the “new anti-capitalist” youth movements then bubbling, but in fact it was hard to see more than nuances of difference there). Since then, the ISO has developed its own international links with the “Mandelite” Fourth International, and with other “dissident-SWP” groups like Socialist Alternative in Australia and DEA in Greece. It has had nuances of difference with the SWP on issues like Syria and Iran, and allowed a bit more scope for public debate. But the new ISO steering committee now describes the old leadership as “unaccountable”, and especially undemocratic to members of colour, who (so the new SC says) had their commitment to the organisation and to revolutionary socialism questioned as a method to quash suspected turns to identity politics.
A lot of different critiques of the organisation are being posted on socialistworker.org and on personal blogs from members, both long term and newer. They are keen to emphasise that their first priority is not the organisation but to provide “accountability”. The historic leaders of the ISO have responded by resigning, with a joint statement, but there is little political content in that statement.
The 2013-14 crisis in the SWP-UK has, rightly, led to rethinking on the left about disputes and complaints processes and codes of conduct. The AWL reviewed our own procedures back then; more recently we have overhauled those procedures in light of our investigation into a claim made in early 2018 by a former member that they were sexually assaulted by another former member in 2005. The ISO seems to have (like the SWP) maybe covered for a member they saw as a valuable asset, and also to have believed that as a small organisation mostly of volunteers they were qualified to investigate such matters adequately on their own (one of the things we’ve written into AWL’s new procedures is the use of external checks in such matters). But, it seems, the ISO’s political project was so shaky that the shock has sent it into collapse.
On all sides there are promises to uphold the politics of “socialism from below”, but that phrase is not sufficient to address what any of those who have left or who have stayed intend to do. The only response I’ve found which contains some commitment to keeping an organisation and calls for developing the best traditions of “democratic” as opposed to “bureaucratic” centralism is one by Paul Le Blanc, written for the Australian Castroite Links: Journal of International Socialist Renewal.
Le Blanc is a veteran Trotskyist who joined the ISO ten years ago. Apparently he is outside the USA at present. Much of the rest of the published content is hand-wringing about the difficulties those left and around the ISO now face. People from the now dissolved Canadian New Socialist Group have offered, as their answer, the critique of activist revolutionary socialist organisation which Hal Draper developed when he quit the International Socialists in 1971 (Draper argued that socialists should instead organise loose circles round publications and editorial boards).
“One of the great problems with the dominant model of ‘Leninism’ on the far-left is the idea that the legacy of Bolshevism involves steadfastly building a small group that eventually wins leadership of the working-class movement. Given that there is no army, no class vanguard, ready to be lead, the small group project becomes the construction of an ostensible leadership-in-waiting.
“This then gets transmuted into the notion that the task is to make sure ‘we’ll be ready’ — with a disciplined cadre and a determined leadership — when the masses look to the left. In the process, a completely undialectical notion of leadership develops — one in which ostensible ‘leaders’ can be selected and trained outside the process of building a real mass working class movement.
“A hothouse conception of leadership thus comes to the fore, according to which revolutionary cadres can be artificially bred in the atmosphere of the disciplined small group.
“All of this produces a fetish of leadership. Since we are incapable of building a mass organisation, goes the thinking, we’ll do the next best thing — maybe even the best thing — and build the leadership without which revolution is impossible. And all of this — the building of a leadership and disciplined membership — comes to comprise the core of a doctrine called ‘Leninism’.”
Paul Le Blanc reasonably responds: “Democratic centralism was not quite the hallmark of Leninism that many make of it. Use of the term has been found in the German workers’ movement of the 1870s, and it seems to have been introduced in a positive way into the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party around 1905 by the Menshevik faction, although the Bolsheviks embraced it as well.
“It seems to me to involve a democratic common sense for any serious organisation, and at the same time its implementation necessarily involves a reasonable flexibility.
“If the organisation has a full, democratic discussion regarding actions to be taken and makes a decision (determined by majority vote) – then the organisation carries out the decision that was democratically decided upon. If the decision is to support a strike action, or an anti-war action, or an anti-racist action, then no comrade is to work against the action.
“On the other hand, if a majority of comrades in the organisation have a specific position regarding a philosophical question, or an understanding of history, or a specific political analysis, there is no reason why dissident comrades cannot openly, publicly state their own views, if they have them. Nor are they prohibited from expressing disagreements with the leadership or with majority decisions on other matters as well, even publicly”.
An assessment of what is going on is difficult. In what I’ve seen so far, little has been said about the state of class struggle in the US or what activists should be doing within that struggle to build “socialism from below”. Although questions of electoral intervention, relations to the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), and attitudes to candidates that seek the Democratic ballot-line like Bernie Sanders have been up for public debate in the pages of Socialist Worker, and may be part of the background to the crisis, they have not yet been dealt with in the current flurry of disputation.
Former ISO member here. The pro-Bernie view was only supported by a tiny minority of members, almost all of whom came out of NYC. The issue had already been resolved at the previous convention with a resounding vote against supporting a Sanders run, but the really divisive issue was, as you point out, political culture and racism in the organization. The fact that there was also a brief debate about electoralism going on was a coincidence.