Losing the thread: ISO’s collapse

Submitted by AWL on 5 June, 2019 - 11:16 Author: Martin Thomas

The veteran Marxist writer Paul Le Blanc has written the most substantial and critical account yet of the collapse of the USA’s International Socialist Organization, of which Le Blanc was himself a member, though not a central one.

The ISO was the most active revolutionary socialist organisation in the USA, with 800 or 900 members. At its convention in late February 2019, opposition groups displaced its longstanding leaders with a platform promising wider activism. Le Blanc (who was outside the USA at the time) reports “at the convention’s conclusion there seemed among people I trust considerable optimism about the future of the ISO”.

Then “two scandals erupted – (1) what was seen as a possible rape cover-up, and separate from this, though in some ways related, (2) revelations of what was seen as a pattern of abusive and unacceptable behaviour by a central figure of the once-dominant leadership”. Of course resignations, expulsions, nasty disputes followed. Also, within a few weeks and not at all “of course”, followed complete collapse.

By 19 April the ISO’s publications Socialist Worker and International Socialist Review had ceased. Its website had stopped taking new posts. Its summer school had been handed over to the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), Jacobin magazine, and the Haymarket publishing house. It was all over.

Le Blanc reports that friends have complained to him that in the arguments that led to winding up the ISO “the primary focus has been on exposé, indignation, anger, pain, at times flowing into a destructive and depressing trashing of former comrades and former beliefs, with contributions laced with one variety or another of ‘purist’ conformism, followed by multiple ‘likes’ spiced by jokes and flashes of going one better than what the last person said.

“Some inclined to disagree have held back... because they do not want to become the focal-point of online trashing. All of this has seemed to my outside interrogators to be the opposite of serious revolutionary politics...”

Le Blanc does not say that his friends are wrong — and, myself, I think they are right — but he says that they have missed part of the picture. The ISO, writes Le Blanc, had usefully recognised that it was “the nucleus of the revolutionary vanguard party”, already fully-formed except in not yet being big enough. But, he writes, “For some members, the ISO was more or less an affinity group of those who believed socialism is a good idea, and also an educational and discussion group for those who share such an affinity.

“More than this, it was an outreach organisation designed to draw more such people into the socialist circle. That was the purpose of paper sales, public forums, socialism classes and even – in the minds of some – participation in political demonstrations...

“There was an inclination to see the ISO as an association of the good people, of pure souls, standing up against the immorality and viciousness of capitalism, animated by the hope or promise that the workingclass majority also has the potential for such purity...” Le Blanc quotes some ex-ISOers: “Our politics were mostly good in the abstract. But in practice [when the ISO went beyond general advocacy of socialism] we adapted to the hostile territory”.

The ISO, from Le Blanc’s description, focused heavily on establishing regular local public meetings and stalls, especially at university campuses. I have observed a similar focus by the ISO’s Australian sister-group, Socialist Alternative (SAlt).

In our times, when young people gather on university campuses in much larger numbers than anywhere else, and it is easier to run and advertise stalls, meetings, etc. on those campuses than anywhere else, I think that is sensible. It’s worked well for SAlt. Despite what some ISOers seem to have said, such regular activity is nowhere near so demanding as to exclude activity in unions, strikes, etc. Yet the heavy focus on apparently “educational” activity left the ISO with a culture that went not far beyond moralistic self-praise: “we’re the good guys, the socialism-from-below guys”. And despite being perceived by those around it as very active and “punching above its weight”, the ISO “adapted to the hostile territory” and did not work as an ideological lever to transform the labour movement.

Any broad political explanation leaves questions unanswered. That not a single member of the ISO had the will and energy to continue the building of a revolutionary socialist organisation is astounding. Every single one, apparently, opted for becoming inactive, continuing only in a local ex-ISO collective, disappearing into the DSA, or (presumably, for the old leadership) officiating over the large leftish publishing house previously linked to the ISO, Haymarket Books.

As they say, a pet is not just for Christmas. And commitment to build a revolutionary socialist organisation is not just for a few years when you are young and healthy and footloose, or when there are no nasty jolts or setbacks. It is a life’s work.

The completeness of the ISO collapse suggest some prior personal exhaustion in the old leadership. Maybe the recent rise of the DSA, and setbacks from the ISO arising from DSA competition (ISO is reported to have gone down from 1,300 members in 2013 to 800 or 900 before the collapse), demoralised them. I don’t know. An article on ”why organise” which SAlt published as an implicit response to the collapse of its sister group (though without telling its readers about that collapse!) gives us clues about general political issues behind the paradoxes.

The article cites two models of how a revolutionary socialist organisation can do good work. Not the Bolsheviks. Not the Trotskyists who kept the flame alive in hard times and were then able to do much in the explosions of 1968 and after. No: the syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World, before 1914, and... the Communist Party of Australia in the 60s and 70s.

They are models because they encouraged and facilitated mass struggles. What of the politics of the IWW and the CPA (beyond general advocacy of socialism)? Their programme? The fact that the same CPA headed off the mass strike wave of 1975 and aligned the unions behind the union-Labor Accord which after 1983 devastated the Australian labour movement? Not mentioned.

A small organisation, like SAlt or ISO, is building rot into its foundations if it develops on the basis that precise programme doesn’t matter — if it suggests that being (1) a socialist “virtue-signalling” group, and (2) energetic in pushing along whatever is broadly defined as left-wing, is enough.

To be sure, the fact that they have systematically organised meetings and put out publications puts SAlt and ISO ahead of other currents of the left. The ISO had, and SAlt has, a good number of impressive young writers and speakers. Yet their press and their meetings have been largely devoid of intra-socialist debate or polemic (and, in my experience at SAlt meetings in Australia, often actually hostile to debate). They have largely lacked effort to establish continuity with or reasoned departure from the hard-won traditions of revolutionary Marxism, the “classics”.

The British revolutionary left in the late 1960s and the 1970s, when I first became active, was not much more numerous than it is now. It was materially much poorer in its facilities for publishing and communicating. Yet if you were an activist then, you would have many political arguments every week — sometimes foolish, sometimes off the wall, but real arguments, referring to more-or-less Marxist common stock — in individual conversations, in meetings, in print.

Now you’re more likely to have your adversaries throwing personal abuse via social media, and your friends telling you that they don’t dispute your politics but are “too stressed” to join in. As Sean Matgamna wrote in Solidarity 469: “The atmosphere on the ostensible left is heavily charged with heresy-hunting, trolling (which is only another name for gang mobbing and bullying), shouting-down, and drowning-out. There is little or no real political debate or dialogue...

“Malice does service for information, hostility is enough to establish guilt on whatever charge you can think of. Anything-goes demagogy smothers reasoned, truthful discussion...

“Social media both are the vehicle, and provide the new model of discourse. There is it possible to spread opinions without knowledge, and rampant prejudice with no basis other than itself”.

ISO and SAlt have adapted to and skirted round that soundbite, virtue-signalling/ vice-denouncing culture, rather than fighting it. And that has rotted the ISO, at least (I wouldn’t expect SAlt to collapse, unless and until its longstanding leaders suffer personal meltdowns. I say only that what it does is politically inadequate).

A low level of direct working-class struggle, and a consequent pressure to look elsewhere for socialist virtue, frames all this. We cannot raise that level at will. We can and must be aware of the effects on the culture of the left, and fight against them. The ISO collapse is a startling example of the possible consequences if we fail.

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