Theory and Practice of Idealism in Trotskyism and the International Socialist Organization


The attitude of a political party towards its own mistakes is one of the most important and surest ways of judging how serious the party is and how it in practice fulfills its obligations towards its class and the toiling masses. Frankly admitting a mistake, ascertaining the reasons for it, analyzing the circumstances which gave rise to it, and thoroughly discussing the means of correcting it — that is the earmark of a serious party; that is the way it should perform its duties, that is the way it should educate and train the class, and then the masses.

-Lenin, Left Wing Communism (1920)

We are a group of former International Socialist Organization (ISO) comrades from the San Francisco Bay Area.

We have been heartened by the critiques of the ISO that Shaun Joseph, Scott J., and the Chicago comrades have offered. We want to express our overall agreement with the thrust of the critiques they make and add our voices to theirs.

All of us worked very closely together during the years we dedicated to building the ISO, and consider that collaborative work the most important accomplishment of our lives. We remain committed to socialist revolution and, as Leninists, still consider the accomplishments of the Russian Revolution the high point of human history, and the construction of a working class vanguard a historic necessity for the possibility of capitalism’s overthrow.

In the years since we have left the ISO, we have remained in touch with one another and have been discussing our experiences in an attempt to come to grips with what went wrong.  We believe there is a deep crisis within the International Socialist Tendency (both here and abroad), as well as an overall crisis in the revolutionary socialist left that requires anyone committed to the project of socialist revolution to take a sober and critical look at both of the state of our project and the organizations attempting to lead such a project.

Overall, we believe the picture is not a pretty one, but we share with the above-mentioned comrades an commitment to come to grips with the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.  While in the ISO, we found an increasing gap between our experienced reality and ever rosier predictions of growth, postulates of continual “leftward shifting consciousness,” and claims of both an ever growing “radicalizing minority” and developing class consciousness (even growing revolutionary or Social Democratic consciousness) within the working class.

Attempts to question these perspectives were met with suspicion and ultimately derision by a national leadership who saw such questioning as an obstacle to growth. Since we each held these views, we were seen as a hostile faction within the ISO that needed to be split up by any means necessary.

Like the Chicago comrades, we too experienced what they describe as “simple questions” being “treated as dissent,” as well as a leadership “compelled to argue against simple questions; questions become arguments, arguments become arguments with the leadership.” While we all experienced this in our isolated locales, and may be tempted to view these experiences as a purely local phenomenon, we believe such a view would be a mistake.  We believe these practices originate from the top of the organization.

Let us be clear.  While we all did not know about each other across the organization, or know that many of us shared growing concerns about both ISO practices and perspectives, the national leadership surely did.  Far from highlighting these disparate disagreements emerging among the national cadre and exposing the growing discontent and strains within the organization to us all (which is the job of any group claiming to be an actual ‘national leadership’), the leadership took an “isolate” and “divide and conquer” approach to the cadre of the organization. This method is completely antithetical to the steps required to actually build a network of cadre that can act as the nucleus for the reconstruction of a vanguard.

On this basis alone, we find the actions of the ISO Steering Committee to be contemptible and urge comrades who are upset at Shaun, Scott, or us, as we attempt to bring deep-rooted problems to light, to not blame the messenger.  The blame for these problems coming to light outside the organization rests entirely with the Steering Committee, which has developed an internal leadership method which isolates, marginalizes and silences dissenting voices, instead of amplifying and exposing them so problems can be resolved within the organization.

This method created a situation where many comrades tended to keep their heads down and mouths shut. For that reason, it was very difficult to get a sense of how one’s own disagreements were reflected across the organization. The comrades mentioned above have given us the great gift of ending our feeling of isolation. We hope by offering our support, and our own explanation of what went wrong, more comrades will come forward to give us all the benefit of their experience and insight.

We do not pretend to have worked out all the questions we have been grappling with since leaving the ISO, and we don’t agree with everything the other comrades have written. Nonetheless, we thought it would be most productive to mark out where we do agree, offer a few insights of our own, and let people know what we think needs to happen to correct the problems within the organization that we gave the best years of our lives to, and by extension address deep-seated problems within the international revolutionary left.

IDEALISM, CONSCIOUSNESS AND UNEXAMINED INHERITANCES

To start with, after two years of discussion amongst ourselves, we have come to the conclusion that there is a theoretical underpinning to the problems we (and others) experienced in the ISO, including continually erroneous perspectives which were rarely assessed, a leadership method that emphasized cheerleading and exhortation over sober assessment of the challenges we were facing, a tendency to tail the liberals both politically and organizationally (opportunism), a growing separation between our Marxist theory and our practice (a hallmark of opportunism), a sectarian attitude towards the revolutionary left (other socialists and anarchists alike), and an intolerance toward ongoing political disagreement within the organization.

As Lenin said, “Without revolutionary theory, there is no revolutionary practice.”  It is also true that theoretical errors lead to ongoing mistakes in practical work. We believe the root of the problems in the Trotskyist tradition are to be found in an idealism that Trotsky introduced into Marxism.

Trotsky’s oft-quoted formulation is a good place to start: “It is not the party that makes the program [the idea]; it is the program that makes the party.” In a personal letter to James Cannon, Trotsky wrote:

We work with the most correct and powerful ideas in the world, with inadequate numerical forces and material means. But correct ideas, in the long run, always conquer and make available for themselves the necessary material means and forces.

And in 1938:

To adapt the mentality is a pedagogical task. We must be patient, etc. The crisis of society is given as the base of our activity. The mentality is the political arena of our activity. We must change it. We must give a scientific explanation of society, and clearly explain it to the masses. That is the difference between Marxism and reformism. (Trotsky, “The Transitional Program”)

And in 1946 by SWP National Committee member, John G. Wright:

Trotsky saw that the world party of the working class is first of all a closely knit system of ideas, that is to say, a program…From the given system of ideas – or program – flows a corresponding system of strategic, tactical, and organizational methods. The latter have no independent meaning or existence of their own and are subordinate to the former…. Indeed we can say without any fear of exaggeration than none attach greater significance or power to ideas than do the revolutionary Marxists. Like Marx, Engels and Lenin, Trotsky regarded ideas as the greatest power in the world…. Lenin’s Bolshevik Party valued its ideas as its most potent weapon. Bolshevism demonstrated in action, in 1917, that such ideas, once embraced by the masses, become convened into an insuperable material force.

We read statements like these as expressions of an idealist conception of both how a party relates to the class and how ideas develop within the class.  This idealism finds its clearest expression in Trotsky’s “The Transitional Program” in 1938.  Here, Trotsky lays out a prognosis for how a tiny and politically isolated 4th International could emerge as mass, international party capable of leading the working class to revolution in the context of the global capitalist crisis expressed through the horrible events of the inter-imperialist rivalry of WWII.

While a fuller critique of “The Transitional Program” goes beyond the scope of this document, there are some features we see in it that comrades will recognize in the practices of the ISO, despite its official non-adherence to that document:

  • overestimation of class consciousness and revolutionary consciousness within the class
  • an emphasis on ideas (Transitional Program), and the right leadership to develop those ideas, as a prescription for growth, and for developing consciousness and organization within the class
  • an emphasis on objective circumstances (crisis) for developing class consciousness and an underestimation of the impact of ruling class ideology and organization (liberalism) on restricting the development of class consciousness
  • a resulting underestimation of the need for a rooted, working class militant layer (cadre) in order to overcome ruling class ideas and the liberal leadership of our class

In a nutshell, “The Transitional Program” has acted as a de facto blueprint for “get rich quick schemes” for the revolutionary left, by which small, isolated radical groups could become mass leaders in a short period – schemes rooted in perceiving “correct” ideas (not the actual party and certainly not the cadre in the party) as the material basis for the possibility of building ideological and organizational influence within the class.

Revolutionary organizations have sought such a magic bullet for growth over the last several decades with terrible consequences: organizations that are smaller, less rooted in the class, less experienced overall, wholly practiced at sectarianism with relation to each other, and incapable of sustaining debate internally. This, we believe, is rooted largely in the ideological and organizational legacy of “The Transitional Program” and the organizations that sprung from it.

Looking for this magic bullet has led to a tendency (not only in the British SWP and the American ISO, but familiar in all of Trotskyism) to treat the highest leadership bodies of the organizations as an irreplaceable priesthood necessary for finding those right ideas; a leadership that saw the role of the party cadre as implementing the leadership’s plans.  Any cadre who did not agree were ultimately seen as an obstacle to both organizational growth and to the development of the party’s influence within the class. This concept of leadership — as a layer separate from and above the cadre — reflects an idealist conception of party building which unmoors the building of a vanguard party from the people that might constitute the nucleus of that vanguard: working class militants in the party who have absorbed Marxism and see it as the theory that guides their practice.

It is these idealist notions that form the basis of the continual errors of the ISO and Socialist Worker in declaring “turning points” and “new movements,” and continual promises of growth, while neglecting to  assess whether or not these turning points, new movements, or growth actually materialized (and if not, why not).

In the ISO today, this idealism takes the form of a mistaken, non-materialist understanding of the relationship between class struggle, organization, and consciousness. This has produced a deterministic postulate on the development of class consciousness which over-emphasizes the role of objective circumstances in producing changes within the working class, regardless of the state of working class organization or of revolutionary organization. Ironically, this idealistic notion of how class consciousness develops tends to factor out the role of the party in the process, and leads to a downplaying of the need for a party at all.

Further, there has been an ongoing problem in the ISO of equating attitudes on social questions (such as police racism, U.S. Wars, and LGBT rights) with class consciousness.  As Marxists, we understand class consciousness to mean the recognition of workers that they are a class in opposition to the interests of the ruling class, and the necessity of organizing as such to defend their interests.  So while attitudes on social questions are important and give socialists a sense of working class ideas on the issues of the day, they are certainly not the best barometer of class consciousness.

Historically, class consciousness has been measured by the unionization rate among workers, the total number of days workers have been on strike, the character of those strikes (economic or political), the size of the revolutionary organization within the class, and the breadth and depth of the implantation of that organization (generally measured through membership size, the class character of the organization, and paper circulation).

Because these measures have remained flat and even declined over the last two or three decades, the ISO has jettisoned most of these measures in favor of polls, election results, and sporadic demonstrations, which can be used to paint a picture of a working class on the move and on the cusp of an “upturn.” This fits the ISO’s “transition period” and subsequent “new period” models, that claim an end to the “downturn” of the 1980’s, and put the organization in the posture of constantly searching for that promised “upturn.”

The point is not that shifts in poll numbers or election results tell us nothing about the general opening to left-wing ideas, but that they tell us little about the cohesion of those ideas and what people are doing based on them — i.e. how the class is organizing. Opinion polls offer only a snapshot of a consciousness that is entirely malleable and can shift rapidly in the absence of working class or revolutionary organization. Looking at actual numbers on class struggle and levels of working class organization is a much better way of gauging the level of consciousness because it tells us something about what people are doing in relation to what they think.

This error – attempting to judge consciousness based on opinion polls, under conditions of historically low levels of point of production struggle – has been repeated again and again in ISO perspective documents and in Socialist Worker. Equally erroneous is the tendency to assert radicalization based exclusively on worsening conditions for the working class alone:

  • “Young radicals today enter politics with a much deeper understanding of class society – since class inequality continues to grow…” (Organizational Perspectives 2005)
  • “But because the movements have been at a standstill, it would be easy to miss the existence of the radicalization at all.” (Organizational Perspectives, 2005)
  • “…mass consciousness has clearly been shifting leftwards.” (Organizational Perspectives, 2006)
  • “At last, the level of struggle was beginning to catch up to rising class-consciousness.”  (Organizational Perspectives, 2007)
  • “The spirit [our emphasis] that animated the Wisconsin struggle hasn’t disappeared.” (Organizational Perspectives, 2011)
  • “There are signs of growing struggle or the desire to struggle [our emphasis] that are appearing.” (Organizational Perspectives, 2011)
  • “…gap between consciousness and mobilization…”(Organizational Perspectives, 2013)

These formulations help foster a reversal of the Marxist understanding of the relationship between struggle and consciousness.

It is idealist to continually argue that anger builds, consciousness develops, and it is out of that consciousness that people act. This led many comrades to believe that consciousness was continually well ahead of where it actually is and consequently have an unrealistic expectation of what was possible after some of the explosions in struggle we have seen in the last decade. Socialists must develop a deeper theoretical understanding of the dynamic at play. To do so, we need to go back to some basic tenets of Marxism.

“Being determines consciousness” is one of these basic tenets. Or as Engles put it, “In the beginning was the deed.” In other words, people generally act beyond their consciousness and only begin to understand their actions later. It is also why, in some cases, spontaneous action can go beyond not only the consciousness of the class, but even beyond the consciousness of the most developed leaders.

The Paris Commune taught Marx the form “at last discovered” that working class reorganization of society would take; the February 1917 revolution taught Lenin that his idea of the Russian Revolution being limited to a bourgeois revolution was mistaken.

Gramsci explained why this happens this way:

The active man-in-the-mass has a practical activity, but has no clear theoretical consciousness of his practical activity, which nonetheless is an understanding of the world in so far as it transforms it. His theoretical consciousness can indeed be historically in opposition to his activity. One might almost say that he has two theoretical consciousnesses (or one contradictory consciousness): one which is implicit in his activity and which in reality unites him with all his fellow-workers in the practical transformation of the real world; and one, superficially explicit or verbal, which he has inherited from the past and uncritically absorbed (Prison Notebooks).

So the dynamic is more along the lines of people acting well ahead of their own consciousness and, under the right circumstances, consciousness catches up to action. Lenin argued in What is to be Done that “catching up” is by no means spontaneous. In fact, in the absence of conscious intervention by socialists, most people will begin to doubt that they have learned anything new by taking action and will drift back towards bourgeois ideology that has been pounded into them since the day they were born.

It is worth remembering what Lenin said regarding the tendency for the working class to gravitate to left wing ideas: “The working class is instinctively, spontaneously Social-Democratic…” But in order to clearly understand the challenges facing socialists and socialist organization today, we need to look at Lenin’s oft-cited quote in full: “The working class is instinctively, spontaneously Social-Democratic, and more than ten years of work put in by Social-Democracy has done a great deal to transform this spontaneity into consciousness.” For over a decade, the ISO national perspectives have inverted the relationship between consciousness and struggle and continually see workers ideas as ahead of their actions and organization.  This is thoroughly idealist, non-materialist and non-Marxist.

In the ISO, we often talked about confidence. Particularly after the 2008 election of Obama, this took the form of the ‘confidence’ that workers would have to struggle, as a result of the election of a bourgeois party candidate. First, such a statement is an inversion of reality. The election of a bourgeois candidate by the working class, who expects that candidate to perform deeds in the name of the working class, is a result of a profound ‘lack of confidence’ by the class. In reality, confidence without a material basis to hinge it on is just wishful thinking. We have seen the evidence of this in the last several years. Despite some explosive moments in struggle (e.g. Wisconsin, Occupy), in the absence of a coherent left that can give a struggle some continuity, initial confidence can quickly turn into demoralization.

Without organization, ruling class ideology will always re-impose itself because, as Lenin said: “bourgeois ideology is far older in origin than socialist ideology, … it is more fully developed, and … it has at its disposal immeasurably more means of dissemination.” While these Lenin and Gramscio quotes may be entirely familiar to the Steering Committee of the ISO, their implications find no echo in ISO perspectives:

  • “Young radicals today enter politics with a much deeper understanding of class society – since class inequality continues to grow(Convention Perspectives 2005)”
  • “Now we have entered a new era, in which the level of struggle is finally beginning to catch up with mass consciousness—even as class-consciousness is growing at a pace not witnessed in generations (2009 Organizational Perspectives).”

These formulations are rooted in placing an emphasis on consciousness that is always ahead of struggle. This leads to the idea that somehow without sustained struggle and without exposure to left wing organizations or socialist arguments, young workers today naturally have a greater understanding of class society (what class they are for and in and what class they are against) than young people in the past.  All of this somehow achieved as unionization rates continue to fall in the US, the number of strikes reach historic lows and left-wing organization withers.

Overall, we agree with the Chicago comrades that the ISO has experienced:

a failure to come to terms with some of the key features of the current (and to some extent recent) political period(s): leftward-moving consciousness, interest in radical ideas, episodic struggles, low-level of class struggle, a small and disorganized revolutionary and reformist left, the impact of the fall of Stalinism, etc

But to be clear, we find the ISO’s formulation of a “leftward-moving consciousness” fundamentally flawed. Consciousness can move leftward (and it does), but as we have seen time and time again in relation to attitudes on the war, women’s rights, racial profiling and immigrant rights, attitudes can shift rightward as well and they have vacillated in both directions continually over the last decade.

It makes no sense for the leadership of the ISO to assert that “struggle is finally beginning to catch up to mass consciousness” (from the 2009 perspectives documents) when we cannot point to a sizeable and coherent left in this country which has as its historical task the role of helping give shape (i.e. consciousness) to the spontaneous resistance of the working class. These kinds of statements about consciousness (of which there are examples in every set of convention documents going back at least 9 years) reveal that the leadership of the organization never entirely understood what Duncan Hallas wrote in 1971 about the implications of the absence of a coherent left or “vanguard” – despite the frequent quoting of his article and its republication by both Haymarket and the International Socialist Review:

A vanguard implies a main body, marching in roughly the same direction and imbued with some sort of common outlook and shared aspiration.

When, for example, Trotsky described the German Communist Party of the 1920s and early thirties as the vanguard of the German working class, the characterisation was apt. Not only did the party itself include, amongst its quarter of a million or so members, the most enlightened, energetic and self-confident of the German workers; it operated in a working class which, in its vast majority, had absorbed some of the basic elements of Marxist thought and which was confronted, especially after 1929, with a deepening social crisis which could not be resolved within the framework of the Weimar Republic.

In that situation the actions of the party were of decisive importance. What it did, or failed to do, influenced the whole subsequent course of European and world history. The sharp polemics about the details of tactics, history and theory, which were the staple output of the oppositional communist groups of the period, were entirely justified and necessary. In the given circumstances the vanguard was decisive. In Trotsky’s striking metaphor, switching the points could change the direction of the whole heavy train of the German workers’ movement.

Today the circumstances are quite different. There is no train. A new generation of capable and energetic workers exists but they are no longer part of a cohesive movement and they no longer work in a milieu where basic Marxist ideas are widespread. We are back at our starting point. Not only has the vanguard, in the real sense of a considerable layer of organised revolutionary workers and intellectuals, been destroyed. So too has the environment, the tradition, that gave it influence.

If the implications of what Hallas wrote 40 years ago were understood there would be none of the ISO’s trumpeting of a “transitional period” and then the “new period,” where somehow a decimated left was expected to cohere due to a “leftward moving consciousness” that finds expression in episodic demonstrations, sit-ins and opinion polls.

This idealist fromulation grossly underestimates the important role the mass parties mentioned above — whatever their weaknesses — had in giving everything from the labor movement of the 1930’s to the social movements of the 1960’s their coherence, thus helping create the environment for the radicalization in those eras.

It is understandable that a small, inexperienced organization completely isolated from the working class would have trouble orienting itself in a period like this one.  It is even understandable that such organizations might periodically grasp at phantasms with hopes of breaking out of that isolation.  There is little excuse for holding onto such a practice for decades when it has produced little to nothing. But given our small size and collective inexperience, there is no excuse for hounding members out of the organization when they persist in pointing out the gap between expectations and reality.

That these errors have not been looked squarely in the face and corrected is organizational habit and a practice that ought to be corrected. The fact that attempts to question these perspectives, and to do so openly on leadership bodies and in front of the membership, led to a series of what can only be called unprincipled behaviors of the ISO leadership towards dissenting members is just inexcusable. There should be no room anymore for the organizations of the revolutionary left to act in fear of either internal disagreements or of these disagreements reaching the outside world. We would be wise to remember what Trotsky actually wrote about democratic centralism:

Freedom of criticism and intellectual struggle was an irrevocable content of the party democracy. The present doctrine that Bolshevism does not tolerate factions is a myth of the epoch of decline. In reality the history of Bolshevism is a history of the struggle of factions. And, indeed, how could a genuinely revolutionary organization, setting itself the task of overthrowing the world and uniting under its banner the most audacious iconoclasts, fighters and insurgents, live and develop without intellectual conflicts, without groupings and temporary factional formations’? The farsightedness of the Bolshevik leadership often made it possible to soften conflicts and shorten the duration of factional struggle, but no more than that. The Central Committee relied upon this seething democratic support. From this it derived the audacity to make decisions and give orders. The obvious correctness of the leadership at all critical stages gave it that high authority which is the priceless moral capital of centralism (Trotsky, Revolution Betrayed).

TURNING POINTS AND NEW MOVEMENTS

We appreciate the persistence of Shaun Joseph in both raising disagreements and seeing them through to the end, as well as his emphasis on building the left wing of movements.  HiswritingabouttherecentMarchonWashington is particularly important since it’s the first thing we have seen in print from an ISO member (now former member) that echoes our own criticisms of the constant “turning points” such events are supposed to represent. We want to draw particular attention to his observation in the evaluation of the March on Washington that,  “correct predictions suggest a correct framework, and incorrect predictions the opposite. (Hence assessment is a crucial moment in any truly Marxist politics.)”

For us the refusal to assess past perspectives in the light of developments sums up succinctly the experience we had and why we ultimately left the ISO.  The struggle at Republic Windows and Doors was supposed to herald the return of class struggle; it didn’t.  The immigrant rights movement was pronounced “here to stay;” it wasn’t. The election of Obama was heralded by the Steering Committee as ushering in a sea change in US politics; it didn’t.  Neo-liberalism was reported as ‘dead;’ it is alive and kicking.

The biggest problem is not that the leadership was wrong and has been wrong so many times we have begun to lose count of all the examples. The problem is that the leadership did not make pains to publicly  announce these mistakes thereby forming the basis of an assessment (and re-assessment) of the period.  Secondly, the leadership has done everything in its power to marginalize cadre who have attempted to point these errors out. Instead of honest assessment, we get well worn platitudes like the one Todd Chretien offers in his response to Adam Turl in Socialist Worker where he recounts the high points (“dots”) of struggle over the last 20 odd years and says:

Now, it is possible that we will look back in five (or ten or more) years, those dots will have created some sort of coherent picture as the pre-history of the United Front, so to speak, and our attempts to construct united front-type things along the way will have built critical relationships and taught us valuable lessons. Or maybe we are in for an even longer and more protracted struggle than any of us envisioned.

This kind of equivocal generalization has been the stock answer for years when movements have collapsed, leaving no organizational legacy.

Scott J takes up the same “turning points” theme in his critique of the ISO (we have curtailed this for length, but it is worth reading his blog for those interested):

There is a regular hailing of some movement or event as the way forward, “The Next Big Thing”–or “The New Civil Rights Movement”–and regardless of how many times ISO members continuously assert that “we are not just moving onward and upward,” this same triumphal attitude seems to occur over and over again… the election of Barack Obama and the factory occupation of Republic Windows and Doors seemed to open a new era in struggle from which we would never go back. In fact, there have been countless moments after which the world would never be the same, although, eventually it always is. The Republic battle–as inspiring as it was–produced not a single similar example in the months following. Yet, leading members of the ISO literally predicted that there would be an explosion of labor struggles in 2009 and those who disagreed with this optimistic assessment were browbeaten and labelled as pessimistic cynics and driven out of the organization.

We couldn’t agree more. All of us are among, “those who disagreed with this optimistic assessment [and who] were browbeaten and labeled as pessimistic or conservative cynics and driven out of the organization.”

Here are just a few of the many, many examples of this sort of “turning point” lean from the past handful of years:

  • In 2007 the ISO Organizational Perspectives documents stated, “we remain in a Transition Period” but with a “forward trajectory of class struggle.”
  • In 2009, the ISO National Committee admitted that Obama presidency had been immediately and shockingly much worse than expected, but did little to examine why this mistake in perspectives was made and did even less to clarify and take the membership through an assessment of the drastic consequences for activism this Democratic presidency was having.
  • In 2011 the Steering Committee confidently declared, “two years of Obama’s steady trek rightward have not quelled the radicalization but further fueled it.” Rather than diving into a thorough examination of the dynamics that created volatile flashpoints with little organizational legacy, like Wisconsin and the months of Occupy, the Organizational Perspectives concluded, “The movement is not dead, but there is not yet a clear indication of its future momentum” [in reference to LGBT organizing] and, on immigrants rights, “This movement is not gone, but it is not currently flourishing.”
  • Also in the 2011 Organizational Perspectives documents the Steering Committee asserts, “But the anger of the exploited and oppressed can be contained only for so long before it gives way to resistance and ultimately to revolution.” The word ultimately here implying an inevitability that has no place in Marxism.
  • 6 months later the National Committee declares, “The Wisconsin uprising was not an isolated episode, but rather an opening shot in the coming rise in the class struggle.”

The failure of this general approach, and an inability to correct these fundamental errors, means that assessment remains at a superficial level (‘Obama didn’t act how we expected’), or is avoided altogether in favor of ‘looking forward’. Deeper assessment that begins to touch on the fundamental problems of this approach is treated as hostile critique. IWhen comrades continue to pursue these critiques, next follows the kind of bullying, manipulative and deceitful practices by representatives from the Steering Committee and local leaderships (with the blessing of the Steering Committee) that we experienced in our district, as they attempted to isolate the source of the critique.

This failure to come to grips with reality has led to a leadership method that emphasizes exhortation by always pointing out the new opportunities and new movements and associates leadership with ‘inspiring’ people.  There seems to be a fear to tell things like they are so not as to demorale people.  In fact, telling the truth about what a deep crisis the Left is in would be a welcome starting point for anyone serious about wanting to overthrow capitalism (socialist and anarchist alike).

Our bedrock is not hope based on people feeling more confident or people getting angrier and our method is not cheerleading.  Our bedrock is Marxism and the reality of capitalism as a class divided system whose only solution is found in the dictatorship of the proletariat and an abiding knowledge there is nothing inevitable about the outcome of that struggle, for it can end in the common ruin of contending classes or in socialist revolution.  Our method is telling the truth to our class and to ourselves about how far our class is, both politically and organizationally, from that task and how weak the Left is in relation to that project.

The failure to come to grips with reality by the Steering Committee has lead to a separation of theory and practice, since the focus becomes increasingly on day-to-day developments within movements and the wider world, missing the depth of Marxist politics that should guide the work in both leading movements and winning a layer to revolutionary politics. A key consequence of this in the ISO has been a separation in publications between ‘news and analysis’ articles and Marxist theory, and ultimately the downgrading in prominence of Marxist theory both within practical analysis and in the publications as a whole.

OPPORTUNISM AND SECTARIANISM IN THE MOVEMENTS

One important result of the constant “turning point” perspectives is an organization-wide expectation that there will one day be a big wave that will dramatically change things, drive large numbers of people to draw radical conclusions and seek out a revolutionary organization to join. This factors out the activity of conscious, organized socialists in constructing that very vanguard to which the party relates; it is an essentially passive position for the party (no matter how much activity or bustle goes on) because it is waiting for this layer to form.

As we have so often seen with the ISO, this gives rise to a consistent approach of “we don’t want to cut ourselves off,” “we don’t want to counterpose ourselves to developments,” a tailing of liberal leaders and an approach that then has the ISO trying to shield the bulk of a liberal-led movement from its more radical elements, e.g. anarchists, “the ultra-lefts” and “the sectarians.” More and more we began putting building relationships with the liberal leadership ahead of building relationships with their more radical anarchist political cousins. This is what facilitated the slide into opportunism.

Scott J also highlighted this tendency of the ISO to orient to liberals at the expense of more radical allies, and illustrated this well with respect to antiwar work. We would add the following examples:

  • tailing Cleve Jones into the ‘Equality Across America’ strategy by adopting his national strategy building an LGBT rights movement whole cloth without developing our own strategy
  • chasing DREAM activists in the immigrant rights work and celebrating their struggle as an important potential advance for the immigrant rights movement when in fact, the DREAM struggle represented a decisive rightward shift in the movement as it collapsed into the Democratic Party
  • uncritically tailing Slut-Walk activists by echoing their identity politics frame, accommodating to the use of the term ‘slut’ and the impact of raunch culture upon current feminist politics
  • aligning with liberal trade union leaderships and supporting concessionary contracts in UTLA in the face of a significant “No” vote by left-wing trade unionists
  • equivocating around the recall in Wisconsin that was patently a means of diverting the movement into a failed electoral strategy and away from class struggle – it should have been explicitly and clearly opposed

The ISO increasingly behaves like Second International socialists, without even attracting a mass base as payoff for such opportunism.

We would extend this critique to the ISO work in CTU. It is entirely understandable that Karen Lewis would seek to shut down the strike given the pressures the union faced and the fact that politically she’s a liberal trade union militant. The question that ISO members should ask is should revolutionary socialists have called for the pulling down of picket lines only 9 days into the strike? Do we have the same politics as Karen Lewis or even the best of the trade union militants today? No, we don’t. Our role in that strike should have been to call for a “no” vote on the agreement and for a return to the picket line until we could assure contractual protections, from the backlash everyone knew CTU faced, that eventually led to record number of school closures.

It is worth remembering the words of James P. Cannon in warning fellow comrades about the pressure to accommodate even in a much larger and more rooted party.

We are not progressives, but revolutionists. Our role in the trade union movement is to organise the masses for the proletarian revolution and to lead them in the struggle for it. All of our daily work must be related to this, and subordinated to it. The test of our work can never be made by formal victories on paper, but by the development of class consciousness in the ranks of the workers, the degree of their organisation on that basis and the increasing influence and leadership of our party. Strategic positions in the labour movement are of importance chiefly from the standpoint of enabling the party to advance and develop its work of revolutionising the masses. […]

Active unionists, especially those who hold office, are beset by a thousand temptations to turn aside from the road of the class struggle. Only their close union with the party will enable them to overcome these temptations. 

That means Lee Sustar (as well as ISO member and CTU Vice-President, Jesse Sharkey) need to write articles calling for a different way forward for the union than what is seen as ‘practical’ by the remaining non-socialist leadership. No such articles can be found in the pages of Socialist Worker and the existing articles largely tailed the CTU leadership in the struggle. We believe extending the strike was the right thing to do and would have produced a better outcome for the CTU workers and the class overall.

For the ISO, far from isolating themselves, such a lead would have solidarized them with the Left-wing and put them in a position to provide leadership to the most radical elements within CTU and in the trade union movement beyond it. Instead they tailed the CTU leadership and accused anyone to the left of them as hopeless sectarians and ultra-lefts.

For the writers of this document, our starting point and bottom line is the critical need for rebuilding a revolutionary party. How we approach the rest of our work – including in movements and union organizing – necessarily flows from this. It is our belief that those activists that the ISO often accuses of being ‘ultra-left’ or ‘sectarian’ are actually the very forces we should be engaging (disagreement and all) with the idea of THOSE people as the most solid and politically advanced section from which to reconstruct a political vanguard in the United States.

Instead (and we find this a pattern in virtually all ISO work), the ISO tails the left wing of the liberal movement while simultaneously castigating and cutting itself off from the revolutionary Left (such as it is).  This puts the ISO in the position of giving left cover to the liberals while disrupting the formation of political and organizational ties with the Left that we should be most active in facilitating. Historically, opportunism and secteriansim have been two sides of the same coin.

Scott J makes similar claims of opportunism in the practice of the ISO and we agree. But we do not agree that this stems from the drive to recruit. There is no question that there has been a longstanding tendency to recruit new activists as opposed to the more difficult task of engaging and recruiting longstanding activists – no disagreement there. But the root of the problem is an attempt to reach a “larger audience” in hopes of a promised membership breakthrough that continually fails to materialize, a willingness to jettison a cadre critical of the approach and a tendency to shift ever rightward in effort to reach an audience claimed to be moving “leftward.” That this leftward shift has proven ephemeral or short-lived has  led to a rightward pressure on the ISO, so as not to “cut itself off.” This fuels only bigger rifts between the Steering Committee, grasping for new growth with increasingly opportunistic methods, and a cadre trained in Marxism, but increasingly seeing its own organization diverge from those roots.

We also agree that ISO practice is sectarian in relation to the revolutionary left (especially the anarchists). There was seldom a real attempt to engage longstanding activists around our revolutionary politics. In practice this took a number of different forms. Sometimes it was soft selling or avoiding our politics  altogether in coalition or union work, coupled with the near abandoning of selling Socialist Worker in any consistent way. Another manifestation of this was downplaying the systematic work needed to bring people closer to joining revolutionary organization, with claims that they were already “close to us” or just outright mistaking “building relationships” for actually bringing people closer to our politics. In the past we referred to these practices as movementism, but Scott more accurately calls this opportunism. This separation of our politics from our practice leads to opportunism in the movement strategy and sectarianism toward other left radicals.

Scott’s quote of Trotsky is apt:

…just because I see Scheidemann [a leader in the Social Democratic Party of Germany] on the one side and, on the other, American or Spanish or French syndicalists who not only wish to fight against the bourgeoisie but who, unlike Scheidemann, really want to tear its head off-for this reason I say that I prefer to discuss with these Spanish, American and French comrades…

The ISO has both a hostile attitude to the rest of the revolutionary left and a tendency to tail left-wing liberals. This dovetails internally with the hostile attitude of the Steering Committee to the cadre whose developing experience diverges from their own and a tendency to romanticize the newest member as both politically ahead of the backward cadre and unsullied with the taint of ‘experience’ which was seen as leading to burn out (not to a better understanding of connecting Marxist theory to practice).

As the Chicago comrades point out:

 …there has been a tendency to fetishize talented new members and denigrate long-standing cadre, an approach influenced by Tony Cliff’s distortions of Lenin. Talented new ISO members were often treated like gold; experienced cadre – especially cadre who raised questions or criticisms – were too often seen as expendable.

We believe that Tony Cliff’s distortions of Lenin, including a fetishism of “going to the base” to discipline the supposedly predictably-conservative “committee-men,” continue to play out routinely in ISO practice. But we also believe the source is the mistaken idea of a “leftward moving consciousness” and its more modest version ‘the radicalizing minority”.

There are no shortcuts to the rebuilding of a revolutionary left.

We believe that, whether within the ISO or outside of it, revolutionary practice today demands a focus on rebuilding of a radical left in a principled manner, neither disguising political differences nor making these the basis for sectarian hostility, while winning a core to Marxism. While we are aware that our criticism here (and the ones raised by Scott J., Shaun J. and the Chicago comrades) will be largely seen as hostile to the ISO’s project and characterized as attempts to destroy the organization, we believe the opposite is true.

This document, and the ones we read by former and current comrades who are criticizing the ISO, are being written with the sole intent of beginning a discussion we hope can help re-orient the ISO or any set of revolutionaries, nationally or internationally, looking to recover a more sound basis for rebuilding a revolutionary vanguard steeped in Marxist thought and rooted in the working class. Whether or not the ISO, as it exists, can help form the basis of that revolutionary left remains to be seen. We don’t believe it can unless comrades within the organization are able to make some significant changes aimed at creating the space for genuine assessment, thoroughgoing debate and the linking of theory with practice.

It is not enough to identify the problems. There must be concrete organizational conclusions for the ISO. Here are five things we believe would begin this process:

1. The right to form permanent factions

In order to develop meaningful criticism across a national organization it is essential that comrades are able to organize in an ongoing and open way around their differences. Factions were not outlawed in the Bolshevik Party until 1921. Our organizations are legal, function above ground, and are not subject to political repression. An attitude towards factions that amounts to banning them does not keep us safe from state repression or capitalist counter-revolution, it keeps the leadership safe from dissent. Some debates take time to resolve. There is no real assessment, no real debate, and ultimately no real clarity,  without the possibility of this taking organized form within the ISO. It is not enough to say “room is needed for debate;” room has to be made for debate.

2. Elected District Organizers

Having District Organizers who are dependent on staying in good favor with the national leadership to maintain their positions has meant instead of helping hold that leadership accountable they crack down on those who raise criticisms. Leadership needs to be won locally instead of being anointed from above.  The Bolsheviks under Lenin elected their organizers (see Lars Lih’s article Democratic Centralism: fortunes of a formula). There is no reason we shouldn’t elect ours.

3. All debates to be aired in public in the Socialist Worker, instead of using “internal bulletins”

The building of a strong revolutionary organization founded on principled debate is thoroughly connected with the building of principled debates with sections of the working class and other members of the left. An organization that aims to contend for leadership of movements now and ultimately aims to contend for leadership of the class must be built openly not behind closed doors.

4. End the slate system for electing the Steering Committee

Abolish the slate system of elections in favor of an ordinary process of electing candidates (as was the practice of the Bolsheviks until 1921). This is the most straightforward way of ensuring that significant disagreements and differences in political position, including those expressed in factional form, are allowed a full airing throughout the organization, including on the Steering Committee (and other leadership bodies).

5. Elect a new Steering Committee

Based on our experience, the Steering Committee as it is currently constituted will need to be replaced if the organization is to move forward. The committee demonstrates an inability to honestly and openly assess the impact of its persistent mistakes. Steering Committee members’ ongoing hostility to criticism and their use of behind-the-back slander and outright lies to discredit critics makes them unfit to lead.

Roger Dyer was a member from 2000 to 2011, in the San Francisco Bay Area, branch committee, convener and district committee member, district organizer for immigrants rights, active in local anti-war and immigrants rights movements, and delegate to National Conventions.

Rachel Morgan joined the ISO in 2006 (until 2011), after 4 years in a sister organization in Australia, where she was on branch committees and the National Committee. In the Bay Area, she was active in the local anti-war movement, and led nationally in the campus anti-war network. She was a member of branch committee, convener, district committee member and delegate to National Convention.

Adrienne Johnstone was a member of the ISO from 1994 until 1995 (in New York) and from 2002 until 2011 (in San Francisco), branch committee, branch convenor, district labor organizer, district committee, National Committee member, National Convention delegate, candidate for president of United Educators San Francisco with Educators for a Democratic Union, organizer for the March 4 walk out against budget cuts, contributor to Education and Capitalism: Struggles for Learning and Liberation (Haymarket Books)

Christine Darosa was a member from 2003 to 2011 in San Francisco. She was a contributing writer for Socialist Worker, and participated in the production of Haymarket’s Meaning of Marxism, Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution, and a contributor to 101 Changemakers. She was active in LGBT rights work, as well as many local initiatives. She was a member of branch committees and delegate to National Conventions.

Andy Libson was a member of the ISO from 1999 to 2011. In the San Francisco Bay Area, branch committee, convenor and district committee member.  Founding member of Educators for a Democratic Union and Vice-Presidential Candidate for EDU in recent election for leadership in United Educators for San Francisco.

Brian Belknap was a member of the ISO from 1986 to 2010.

11 thoughts on “Theory and Practice of Idealism in Trotskyism and the International Socialist Organization

  1. Steve Bloom

    First, my thanks to Brian and other comrades from the ISO who are grappling with this difficulty and have decided to go public with their conversation. I do not agree with the assessment of the Transitional Program presented here which, it seems to me, is wrenched out of the historical context that actually gave rise to that document. Much of the critique of more contemporary theoretical errors, in particular a refusal to draw balance sheets, has the ring of truth though I have significant disagreements here and there. (I do very much identify with Brian’s statement that “revolutionary practice today demands a focus on rebuilding a radical left in a principled manner, neither disguising political differences nor making these the basis for sectarian hostility.” Amen brother.)

    Still, it seems to me that none of the assessment in this essay regarding historical or theoretical errors (real or imagined) actually addresses what is most essential if we want to understand the “tendency . . . to treat the highest leadership bodies . . . as an irreplaceable priesthood necessary for finding [the] right ideas” or why “any cadre who did not agree were ultimately seen as an obstacle to both organizational growth and to the development of the party’s influence within the class.”

    The observation that this phenomenon has not been unique to the experience in the ISO or its international current is, I believe, most important. It is, instead, part of a pattern of experience on the Trotskyist left broadly defined. In a sense it is possible to deepen that observation beyond the Trotskyist left, but in a different sense it is also reasonable to speak about Trotskyism specifically–because Trotskyism was founded on the principle of defending democratic functioning within the working class movement (within revolutionary organizations in particular) whereas other currents which have experienced similar problems were burdened with bureaucratic distortions from the outset. We have grown ours organically. Why? What to do about it? These are good questions.

    I believe it is quite natural for those who have gone through an experience like this to start by considering specific errors, theories, or organizational norms that they have personal experience with. Those of us who were expelled from the US Socialist Workers Party during its purge of dissidents in the 1980s did the same thing. We can certainly learn a lot by looking critically at such matters. But we cannot seek the root cause of the abusive organizational practices here for two reasons:

    * If it is true that the organizational distortion is shared widely by many different Trotskyist currents, the root cause of it cannot possibly be located in the political insufficiencies of any one current.

    * We will never have a revolutionary collective that is error-free, has perfect theories and organizational norms which it follows perfectly. Instead of (or, better, in addition to) examining the political insufficiencies of any one current, or even of Trotskyism as a collective current, we need to ask ourselves why we have not been able to develop a process by which our organizations can collectively assess, reassess, and make corrections to any theoretical or practical errors such as those described here. Why have our errors, whatever we define our errors to be, taken control of us leading to these kinds of organizational abuses, rather than us taking control and correcting our errors?

    After a lifetime of experience and observation (I joined the SWP in 1968) it is clearer to me than ever before that there is no constitution or set of procedures, and surely no organizational or political theory, that can guarantee an openness to internal dissent unless there is also a critical-minded and mobilized rank and file that sees one of its most central tasks as keeping close watch on potential abuses of power by any leadership. My only experience of the ISO has been from the outside, and so my observations on this point may be limited. But one of the reasons I always excluded the ISO from a list of groups I might join was, precisely, the level of group-think that seemed to be part of its internal culture. Critical-mindedness was not a valued commodity. Brian notes the same difficulty. But he seems to identify it primarily as an effect. I see it as a cause in its own right, at least equally.

    The other key to a genuinely democratic internal functioning on the revolutionary left comes, I believe, from the other side of the equation, from the approach to leadership. Since the death of Trotsky we seem to congenitally lack leaders who have the self-confidence and integrity to welcome questioning and even active dissent as a creative force for collective growth and development rather than as a threat to their status as leaders. Aside from the one very small organization that I was a founding member and national secretary of (and which ended up going out of existence after 8 years precisely because we did, in fact, welcome questioning and dissent as a creative force for collective growth and development)–the Fourth Internationalist Tendency–I have not found a single other group with a leadership up to that challenge. Even the organization I currently belong to, Solidarity, which is better than most because it does not feel as if it has to actively weed out dissent and disagreement, tends not to really welcome these things either. Far too often Solidarity, especially on the level of its leadership, reacts defensively when confronted with an internal challenge on any question that really matters for the group.

    I have not yet found the magic wand that will create the rank and file or the leaders we need, and at the age of 67 I have to acknowledge that it is beginning to get late for me. I doubt if I have more than a decade or two of active political life left. But I do continue to hope that we might, at some point, generate a conversation and collective experience which will make a broader layer of activists at least conscious of these challenges. That seems like a necessary first step. Perhaps the present discussion, based on events in the ISO, can be a place to start. So thanks again to the comrades who have raised their experience with us.

    One more thought before signing off: The Trotskyist tradition comes with another unfortunate legacy–the idea that in all circumstances there is one and only one right answer to a particular question and our task is to discover what it is. This contributes mightily to the search for the all-knowing leadership which must be “correct” in the answers it promotes in order to validate itself as a leadership.

    There are moments in the class struggle when there is one right answer that we have to seek. And they are usually the most decisive moments–such as whether to give critical support to the provisional government or call for all power to the soviets in Petrograd in 1917. But the generalization of this to all times and all places is simply wrong. I would tend to say that most of the time, in particular when it is not a life and death question for the class struggle, it is reasonable to consider alternative choices, each with its own positives and negatives to be weighed. Let me suggest that Brian’s comments on the Chicago Teachers Strike, for example, might be formulated a bit differently if he considered it from this point of view.

    Further, if we are able to absorb such an approach in our day-to-day organization-building efforts it will underline the necessity for an informed and critical rank and file which can help any leadership explore all of the positives and all of the negatives of different possible courses of action in order to make the most reasonable and informed choice (not necessarily “THE RIGHT” choice)–without concluding that all those who might favor a different choice represent the enemy. And the task of leadership can be reconceived as well, no longer to produce the “right” answers by itself, but to facilitate the kind of collective discussion in the broader organization that can lead to an informed and intelligent choice about what to do. It also allows us to underline the need for periodic assessments and balance sheets.

    I hope others find these thoughts productive and useful.

    Steve Bloom

    Reply
    1. Steve Bloom

      My apology to the other authors of the original text for attributing it to Brian alone. I only realized after posting that I had been confused by the abrupt ending followed by signatures.

      Steve

      Reply
  2. Jack Gerson

    I agree with much of what you write in “Idealism in Trotskyism & the ISO”, and think that it applies to far more than just the ISO. I agree with your characterization of the ISO’s combined opportunism and sectarianism in mass movements and labor work; indeed, in my union work (Oakland teachers union) I frequently came up against ISO members “aligning with liberal trade union leaderships and supporting concessionary contracts”, and acting as the protectors of the Democrats and the union bureaucrats (as you put it, “trying to shield the bulk of a liberal-led movement from its more radical elements”).

    I agree as well on the need for a revolutionary organization to embrace the broadest possible internal democracy — including the rights of minorities to organize factions and to be represented on leading bodies (so: no slate voting), to publish in the group’s external press as well as in internal bulletins. Although I have never been a supporter of the ISO, I have over the years encountered several former ISOers, and their description of the ISO’s internal life matches yours. The lack of real internal democracy inevitably leads to stifling dissent (and therefore discussion), marginalizing and / or forcing out those who speak out, an entrenched and therefore increasingly sterile permanent leadership, and eventually an organizational unraveling (whether by explosions or implosions). The British SWP has exploded. The ISO may be starting to implode.

    I do have questions about your critique of Trotsky and his method around the Transitional Program. I think it’s important to place this in its historical context. Trotsky wrote the Transitional Program for a specific conjuncture: deep economic depression; mass strike waves in the U.S. (and just after the great Flint sit-down strike); fascism in power in Germany, Italy, and Austria (and about to completely conquer Spain). Trotsky had spent the years leading up to 1938 campaigning for the mass social democratic and communist workers parties to form united fronts against fascism. I expect we can agree that there was no idealism in Trotsky’s (in my estimation) brilliant writings on the united front.

    The united fronts were not consummated because of combined sectarianism, opportunism, and class collaboration on the part of the reformist leaders of the Second International and the Stalinist leaders of the Third International. Then, with class struggle continuing to build in the U.S. (e.g., Flint), with fascism on the rise, with the united front rejected, and with world war looming and inevitable, what recourse was left for Trotsky other than to cohere an international organization around a program for organizing to confront the looming catastrophe?

    So in my opinion, Trotsky’s formulation of a transitional program, to attempt to provide an organizing framework for bridging the gap between the subjective consciousness of the working class and the objective need for socialism, was appropriate under the conditions of the late 1930s. But sectarians have taken it not as a program for a conjuncture, but as eternal. Furthermore, they have not seen it as a bridge, to be crossed in steps, but rather as a teleportation device that must be applied all at once and at full power to beam them across the chasm. And of course, there is no acknowledgement that in the 75 years since 2013, there have been all manner of developments that weren’t foreseen by Trotsky and require redrafting a transitional program for today.

    But notice I wrote “a transitional program”. Instead, it was received as “THE Transitional Program”. And, although in my opinion the Transitional Program was written for a conjuncture, it says that it’s for an epoch: “The Epoch of Decay”. Trotsky did make statements that could be interpreted as eternal: the Stalinist bureaucracy would not outlive the war, the Russian proletariat would rise up and take political power; no return to sustained prosperity, no material basis for reformism; national revolution in colonial lands required proletarian leadership (the permanent revolution). But Stalin and his leadership survived the war. There was a sustained post-war boom. Imperialism was overthrown in China, Southeast Asia and Cuba, but not under proletarian leadership. Trotsky was murdered in 1940; the American Trotskyist party split down the middle in that same year; several European Trotskyist leaders were killed during the war. There was clear disorientation following the war — several leading Trotskyists insisted that the war hadn’t really ended (Stalin was still in power, etc.); there was stubborn refusal on the part of some to recognize the post-war boom when it arrived (“Epoch of Decay”, etc.). I believe that this disorientation played a big part in a fragmentation of opportunist tendencies as well as sectarian ones: the sectarians insisted on rigid adherence to THE program; the opportunists scrapped it altogether in favor of tailing each, as you put it, “Next Big Thing”. I don’t think the problem is captured by “idealism”.

    I’ve already gone on longer than I intended. As some of you know, I’m now affiliated with the WIN network. Roger Silverman,a principal author of WIN’s perspectives documents, is also posting to your blog. I think it’s fair to say that your views on the importance of internal democracy as well as the sense of what you’ve laid out about work in mass movements are shared by WIN as a whole, as I think Roger’s statement will convey.

    I hope we can continue this discussion — most importantly of all, on developing a program and method for revolutionary practice today, together with democratic organizational forms that allow maximum participation, development, and growth.

    In solidarity,
    Jack Gerson

    Reply
  3. Jack Gerson

    Roger Silverman has asked me to post the following comments for him (he encountered technical problems when trying to post) — Jack Gerson

    Greetings from London.

    I have read your statement, published in Counterpunch. I congratulate you on its courage, honesty and seriousness. It is a sober analysis of the ISO’s eclecticism. Although I don’t know much detail about the record of the ISO, the content of your critique rang true. Similar criticisms can be made of the SWP in Britain, and in some respects of the CWI, with which I am more familiar. All of them are prone to similar vices: a wilful denial of their isolation from the working class, combined with a reckless desperation to break out of it. That explains, for instance, the erratic and opportunistic conduct of the SWP, lurching from its capture and subsequent disbandment of the Socialist Alliance, to its reliance on the Stop The War coalition, its sponsorship of and later withdrawal from Respect, its establishment of a rival anti-cuts trade union campaign (both politically opportunistic and organisationally sectarian), etc.

    There have been similar episodes in the history of Militant/the Socialist Party (CWI), though not quite so crude. To quote one especially glaring early example, here is the statement put out by Militant as long ago as on the defeat of the great British miners’ strike in 1985: “This is not 1926 when the miners suffered a crushing defeat. That was the end of two decades of struggle. Today the miners and the trade union movement retain enormous strength and the strike marks a decisive milestone – the beginning of a whole new era of intensified class struggle.”

    (Peter Taaffe was later to justify this statement with the most outrageous defence: “The author of this document perhaps overstated the case when referring to the ‘beginning of a whole new era of intensified class struggIe’. But, in appraising the position of the organisation at that stage, it is necessary to differentiate between a public statement which attempted to counter the demoralisation amongst workers at the outcome of the strike, and the sober assessment we made in internal documents of the consequences of the miners’ defeat. Roger will find nothing similar in the sober assessments that we made internally at the end of the miners’ strike.”) Nothing could be further from the tradition of the Bolsheviks, whose first principle was always to tell the workers the truth.

    There are serious lessons to be learned from the fissures that have opened up in many of the old left groups, including the ISO, SWP and CWI, which are of common value to all socialists seriously looking for a means to break out of our isolation and connect with the mass movement sweeping the world against capitalism. Of course, nothing could be more futile than to gloat or score cheap debating points about it. No socialist groups can claim to have emerged with any great honour or glory from the struggles of the last few years sweeping the world from Egypt to Greece to South Africa; they have been largely bypassed by them. What useful lessons can be learned?
    The bullying bureaucratic manner in which the leaderships of these groups have tried to suppress dissent, and the extent of the revolt against it, is an indication also of a loss of political authority by the leadership. One short-term expedient or tactic after another has collapsed.
    There is a lack of confidence affecting all the left groups. Why, when the workers are under attack like never before in two or three generations, and when tens of thousands have been demonstrating against capitalism, are the left groups still marginalised and stagnating? It is because they are all equally guilty of sectarianism in one form or another; of a messianic leadership complex. This comes from a false assessment of the tasks facing socialists today which has historical roots.
    It is no longer socialists’ priority to build a “vanguard” and claim leadership of the working class. It is necessary to draw together the forces fighting capitalism the world over into a new broad anti-capitalist front, to build an international forum in which a new programme, strategy and tactics can be thrashed out democratically, in the traditions of Marx and Engels at the time of the First International.
    The proletariat is for the first time a majority of the world population. The centre of the world proletariat has shifted away from Europe and America. For every worker in the old metropolitan countries there are now five spread across the globe. China has twice as many industrial workers as all the G7 countries put together. The entry of the Chinese working class on to the world stage could transform the face of the world labour movement as dramatically as did the German working class in building the Socialist International, or the Russian working class the Communist International.
    There is only one point in your article about which I have reservations. I’m not sure it is justified to blame Trotsky for what is called in your article the “idealism” of the ISO – if what is meant by this is a disproportionate reliance on the subjective factor. Mention is made specifically in your document of the role of the founding conference of the Fourth International in 1938. It is true that that conference was based upon an incomplete perspective – namely, of a worldwide revolutionary upsurge following the second world war comparable to that of 1917-21, which would put the establishment of a new international on the immediate agenda of the working class. However, in the conditions of 1938 it would have been a dereliction of responsibility for the Trotskyists to be content to remain a mere critical opposition faction of the Communist International, and, based on the experience of the First World War and the perspectives of that time, it was right to raise the banner of a new international: not as a founding congress but as a conference – a meeting analogous to that of the Zimmerwald left in 1915, as an anticipation of the nascent new international.

    I call Trotsky’s perspective “incomplete” rather than completely “mistaken” because there was indeed a massive tidal wave of class struggle following the Second World War, resulting in insurrections in Eastern Europe, civil war in Greece, revolution in China, guerrilla victories in the Balkans, popular front governments in France and Italy, etc. The perspective was nevertheless incomplete, insofar as events subsequently stabilised with the economic upswing and the consolidation of Stalinism.

    The crucial difference between the political context at that time and today is the eclipse of a socialist or strong class consciousness within the working class in the USA and Western Europe. That is linked to a number of factors: principally the decline of industry and of proletarian industrial communities in their traditional homelands, the collapse of Stalinism, the environmental crisis, etc. Conversely, there have been corresponding formidable positive advances worldwide: the massive development of the proletariat in China, Asia and South America; the fact that the proletariat is for the first time a majority of the world population; the worldwide proletarianisation of women; the heightened awareness and integration of workers and youth worldwide through modern telecommunications ; etc.

    I don’t want to bombard you with yet more reading, but in addition to our definitive documents Preparing for Revolution and The Future International, I suggest you might find especially relevant a comparison of your critique of the ISO with a document that I wrote in 1996 drawing a balance sheet of the experience of the CWI. I am attaching a copy in case you find time to read it.

    It is urgent that we build a force capable of overthrowing capitalism and saving the world from extinction through war and ecological catastrophe. WIN is a network of socialists around the world who have tried to draw conclusions from our common mistakes of the past. We have invited anyone searching for a serious solution as to how to rebuild the mass socialist traditions of the twentieth century into a force capable of changing the world to contact us.
    I am very keen to continue this discussion, as I am sure that we of WIN have a lot to learn from your experience and your analysis. Unlike the leaders of the ISO or the CWI, none of us would dare to claim to have all the answers to the most crucial and complex problems facing humanity today. It is only from humility and a serious approach to discussion that we can hope to find a solution.

    With comradely greetings,

    Roger Silverman

    Reply
  4. Richard Mellor

    Hello Comrades,
    Like Roger Silverman, I am also a former member of the CWI. I am here in the Bay Area. I was expelled along with four other comrades in 1996. The “official” reason for my expulsion was that I violated Democratic Centralism. I spent more than 25 years as an activist in AFSCME and my local, 444, which represents the blue-collar workers at EBMUD, the water district in the East Bay. Along with Sean O’Torrain in Chicago, who was expelled after 25 years as a full timer for the CWI, we organize a blog called Facts For Working People which is loosely affiliated with the Workers International Network (WIN). There are a number of pieces at the top of our blog from former CWI members as well as WIN documents.

    Reading the documents from the former ISO comrades in Chicago and San Francisco they raise issues myself and others have been discussing over the past period such as the undemocratic internal life of the left groups, including the CWI of which I was a part, and the refusal to reflect on our mistakes, the slandering of comrades who question etc.

    One example that stands out in my experience in the CWI was the position we had for decades that capitalism would never return to the Soviet Union, the masses would rise up and complete the political revolution and build workers democracy. I ardently, and as it turned out incorrectly, argued this view to workers on the job and with new comrades. As we all are aware, capitalism did return to what was the Soviet Union. This was a huge shock to all of us along with all the other incorrect perspectives that became apparent. An unhealthy internal life really began to take its toll as the CWI experienced major splits and went from around 14,000 members to 2000 or so.
    As if this is not a serious enough development, there was no serious analysis or debate about this in the organization. We all made mistakes. Why did we make them? Was it simply human error, or an incorrect method in general? The five of us were officially expelled for trumped up reasons but behind it all were political differences around the intervention in Mazzochi’s campaign around a labor party, the relationship to the union hierarchy and that comrades were raising issues that threatened the leadership’s line. Two of the expelled were IS members. We were beginning to raise the issue of our mistakes and why we made them and this was not acceptable. The leadership to this day has not publicly admitted to making a huge blunder regarding the former Soviet Union.

    In my work in AFSCME when I was still a member of the CWI, I started a newsletter called the AFSCME Activist. I had gone to the AFSCME convention in 1992 with a one page article I had written to test the waters and it tapped in to the mood. My local was central in getting this off the ground as were some AFSCME local leaders in Wisconsin. It was agreed it would be a united front type publication as my attendance at international conventions and the connections I had nationally led me to believe that there was some considerable discontent within the national body and among many local leaders. The newsletter gained support eventually being circulated to 10 locals across the country and more than 200 individual subscribers. We organized a caucus meeting at the AFSCME convention in Chicago in 1996 which was attended by more than 100 rank and file workers, not leftists, but rank and file members or leaders, many of them women. We formed an editorial board and were on the verge of forming a genuine rank and file caucus within AFSCME nationally..

    The CWI leadership with support from the overwhelming majority of the US membership wanted to drive myself and other independent thinkers out of the organization. One of the dirty tricks they used was to go after the AFSCME activist. It came to light that they had been having secret meetings with another left organization behind the backs of the Oakland branch which was mainly union comrades. They now declared that the Activist was not a united front publication and caucus but a CWI one and demanded I hand over the newsletter and the addresses of all the subscribers to the CWI. I did not agree with this and explain it now as putting the interests of the group, or what was actually, the majority of the CWI, ahead of the interests of the working class and these activists in AFSCME.

    The AFSCME Activist had been built as a united front caucus, I was trusted by the women who helped me get this publication and caucus off the ground and grow; I never hid anything from them. So I refused the CWI’s directive. It was up to the caucus to decide not the CWI. I was expelled for that. In retrospect, I was expelled for opposing left sectarianism. This sectarianism wrecked the AFSCME Activist, the beginnings of a real rank and file caucus in the AFL-CIO’s fastest growing union at the time.

    While I feel the CWI was the group that in general had the best approach to trade union work, and also clearly oriented to the working class, when it came to internal struggle the CWI was prepared to destroy emerging oppositions in the working class in order to further its own sectarian interests. The same organization that was so correct in the early union work during a period when it’s analysis was generally correct and it was on the way up, played a totally different role in the changing objective conditions that followed and when things were more complex. It’s easy to be magnanimous when you’re on top I suppose.

    Looking back on it, the CWI was also sectarian in another way. We called all other groups sects and described ourselves as the “genuine Marxists”. This appealed to me at the time as none of the left groups I approached were capable of helping me fight on the job or with that most complicated of all struggles, the internal union battles with the bureaucracy; this was particularly so of the Trotskyists. I supported Trotsky’s views in general but the groups that took his name really put me off. I couldn’t take them in to my workplace I felt. To be honest, there were times when the ISO comrades I ran in to were indistinguishable from the labor leadership. The left in general during all the years I was in the Alameda Labor Council covered for the labor leadership consciously or not. This is a major problem with the left fr0m my trade union perspective, their refusal to wage an open struggle against the bureaucracy and their policies. Engaging in such a struggle is what attracts the best workers and is inevitable.

    Comrades, your statements are important as they show that there are others trying to learn from the past as we say. A comrade of mine always makes a point of the fact that there are many more revolutionary socialists outside of the left groups than in them. There is something wrong with the left groups; we must recognize this. How come the left has never built a left current among the working class in this country? (I am an immigrant and my experience in socialist politics began in the late 70’s.) I came to revolutionary socialism not through university but the workplace and not until I was 30 years old although I always identified as a worker.

    I also believed in building a vanguard or what I would prefer to call an organization of advanced workers. But I never saw nor do I see this as something separate from the class but fused with it, born out of it. I am determined not to join an organization that does not allow democratic debate and factions, I am determined not to join an organization that has a top down elitist directorship of individuals who see themselves as modern day Trotsky or Lenins and whose participation in debate and discussion is primarily to win the argument in the individual battle of polemicists rather than raise to the consciousness and confidence of the worker.

    In the past I supported keeping issues and disagreements within leading bodies private and supported a slate system despite feeling in my gut that it was not healthy. I no longer support these positions. We all have egos, and can all make mistakes, but we have to recognize that and as a friend is always saying, we have to harness our ego to the movement.

    I too do not have all the answers. I look forward to hopefully meeting the comrades and others who are inspired by the former ISO comrades and the points made in the documents, the overwhelming majority of which I feel we can all have general agreement with. These are good developments for socialism and the working class.

    Thank you for publishing them.

    Reply
  5. Barry Sheppard

    Comments on the discussion initiated by ex-ISO comrades

    By Barry Sheppard

    The two documents made public, one by comrades in Chicago and the other by comrades in San Francisco shed light on what another ex-ISOer, Shaun Joseph describes as the International Socialist Organization’s failure to “progress by [the ISO’s] own definition of progress: first and foremost, the quantitative growth of the organization. But there are other signs too: the collapse of Socialist Worker sales; the loss of the campus bases (once the backbone of the organization); a series of local crisis over the last five years, including (at least) the districts of the Bay Area, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York City, and Boston; and, over the same period of time, the loss of many senior cadre.”

    This quote is from a long article posted on Shaun’s blog, which I won’t discuss especially since he says he is in complete agreement with what the Chicago comrades wrote.

    First of all, we should note that these comrades’ criticisms are not meant to harm the ISO, or repudiate it. They mean their criticisms to be constructive, and to offer a way out of the ISO’s crisis. They not only assert this as their aim, the whole tenor of their documents affirms this. These observations are not those of embittered disillusioned has-beens who have turned their backs on their own past.

    Both documents refer to the implosion of the British Socialist Workers Party and distortions of Leninism introduced by Tony Cliff into the British SWP and to its International Socialist Tendency (IST) worldwide, including the U.S. ISO.

    I began a relation with the ISO after it had broken with one aspect of the IST’s distortion of Leninism – its conception of international democratic centralism. The ISO left the IST in 2001 or thereabouts over its super-centralism, where the leaders of the British SWP would dictate policy, strategy and even tactics to the sections of the IST.

    This was a very positive development. It soon led the ISO to seek broader relations with others internationally. One example was that ISO leaders attended an Asia-Pacific Solidarity Conference in 2001 organized by the Australian Democratic Socialist Party. The conference brought together many different parties and groups in the region from different backgrounds. I was not at that conference, although I had been at previous ones. However, it was there that the ISO leaders learned of my existence, as I had been in close touch with the DSP.

    Following that conference, ISO leaders Ahmed Shawki and Todd Cretien arranged to meet Caroline Lund and myself at our house. This began a relation that lasted for some years. I would attend ISO national conventions and educational conferences, as well as Bay Area ones, and Caroline did also, but less frequently due to her work schedule.

    At that initial meeting, or sometime soon thereafter, I raised with the ISO comrades aspects of the degeneration of the U.S. SWP. Since they explained to me their break with the IST, the subject of international democratic centralism came up. I pointed to one aspect of the U.S. SWP’s degeneration, which was its relationship to groups it had organized in other countries, usually called “Communist Leagues.” Representatives of these groups would attend U.S. SWP national committee meetings and conventions, and would have speaking rights but not voting rights. But these national gatherings would set the line for all the Communist Leagues, even though they had no vote on the line. I was flabbergasted when the ISO comrades told me that was how the IST operated too!

    This aspect of the U.S. SWP’s degeneration was a complete reversal of our historical position and practice. We were part of the Fourth International, which held world congresses of delegates from its sections who were elected by each section after discussions on resolutions, including minority viewpoints, on both an international and national level. These delegates then adopted by vote at the world congress the International’s positions.

    The U.S. SWP was known for its opposition to super international democratic centralism, rejected any attempts to impose tactics on the sections, and championed the right of all sections to adopt their own positions including on “international” questions even if these contradicted majority positions adopted by the International as a whole.

    The IST’s practice ran counter to the practice of the Communist International in Lenin’s time, as can be seen by even a cursory glance at the record, even though the CI was far more centralized than the U.S. SWP thought was appropriate for the much weaker Fourth International in much more unfavorable circumstances.

    The Chicago comrades say, “The ISO has produced over many years an atmosphere in which dissent has been tolerated only to a minimal degree and simple questions have been treated as dissent. In this hothouse atmosphere, the leadership often feels compelled to argue against simple questions; questions become arguments, arguments become arguments with the leadership, thereby making too many lines of discussion in the organization vertical. This is in part related to mistaken lessons about Leninism inherited from the British SWP.”

    The San Francisco comrades echo this view. They add, “while we all experienced this in our isolated locals, and may be tempted to view these experiences as a purely local phenomenon, we believe such a view would be a mistake. We believe these practices originate from the top of the organization….While we all did not know about each other across the organization, or know that many of us shared growing concerns about both ISO practices and perspectives, the national leadership surely did,,,, [The leadership] has developed an internal leadership method which isolates, marginalizes and silences dissenting voices….”

    The political result of these leadership methods resulted in a long series of political errors over the years that were not acknowledged and therefore not corrected. Both documents list a long series of such, and agree on their character. The Chicago comrades: “…perspectives which consistently exaggerated the potential of coming struggles – always just over the horizon – and turning points that never became qualitative turning points.” The San Francisco comrades: “While in the ISO, we found an increasing gap between our experienced reality and the ever rosier predictions of growth, postulates of continual ‘leftward shifting consciousness,’ and claims of both an ever growing ‘radicalizing minority’ and developing class consciousness…”

    I remember from when I attended ISO conventions (I believe the last one I was invited to observe was in 2007) there were exaggerated projections of growth and radicalization in the immediate period ahead. I thought these were limited to a single individual. But the quotations the comrades give from ISO documents from 2005 to 2013 leave no doubt that the leadership as a whole was responsible.

    I am reminded of an error made by the U.S. SWP which was also never acknowledged or corrected. When we made our “turn to industry” in 1978, we gave as one of the reasons for it the projection of an immanent “political radicalization of the working class.” This was based in part on our experience with the Steelworkers Fightback campaign in the mid 1970s and the great Mineworkers’ strike of 1978. We saw these developments as the harbinger of even more powerful movements, but it turned out they signaled the end of a period, not a new beginning.

    Another reason given for the turn was that the capitalist offensive against the working class (which has deepened to this day) would automatically result in a mass working class response. It did not and has not. These projections were of a type that is often made: a logical projection of what one hopes will happen, rather than basing projections on what has begun to happen. (I leave aside whether the turn to industry was correct for other reasons – I think it was.)

    As the Chicago and San Francisco documents note, it is not that mistakes were made. It is that they weren’t acknowledged and corrected. That was true for the SWP, too.

    The SWP continued for years to see a radicalization “just around the corner.” Without correcting this error (and some other similar errors of exaggerated projections), the error compounds, and the organization becomes increasingly divorced from reality. This has reached truly grotesque proportions in the SWP, which has become an abstentionist sect with politics moving to the right.

    In the case of the SWP, the organizational development that precluded correcting the error was a long process beginning in the 1970s of the formation of a cult around a single leader, Jack Barnes. By the early 1980s, this resulted in crushing any opposition to his policies, within the leadership and among the ranks, and a fear of raising any criticisms lest one be driven out.

    In the ISO there does not appear to be a cult. From the documents, it appears that a different mechanism is involved.

    The Chicago comrades say, concerning discussions about the leadership’s exaggerated initial projections about the August 24 March on Washington this year, “In the most recent debates around the March on Washington there was, evidently, a debate among Steering Committee (SC) and National Committee (NC) members. It was resolved. But when rank-and-file ISO members raised similar issues their views were treated as outliers. The idea that the leadership must be seen as infallible is papal not Marxist.

    “Why is it not appropriate, when there is a substantial debate among the leadership, to open up that debate to the entire membership? That this is not seen as appropriate is a hangover from Zinovievist (British SWP) notions of Leninism: the debates are not had out in the open; the leadership is a monolith; the center leads the party; the party leads the class, etc. This may lead to an ossification of the political life of the organization.”

    The Chicago comrades also say, …”there has been a tendency to fetishize talented new members and denigrate long-standing cadre, an approach influenced by Tony Cliff’s distortions of Lenin. Talented new ISO members were often treated like gold; experienced cadre – especially cadre who raised questions or criticisms – were too often seen as expendable.” The San Francisco comrades quote this observation and add, “We believe that Tony Cliff’s distortions of Leninism, including a fetishism of ‘going to the base’ to discipline the supposedly predictably-conservative ‘committee-men,’ continue to play out in ISO practice.”

    I’ll refer to how experienced cadre are treated below, but want to first draw attention to what the comrades describe concerning central leadership functioning. What they are describing is the central leadership functioning as a faction in relation to the rest of the organization. That is, the “real” discussion is held in the central leadership. From what the Chicago comrades say, it is even possible that differences in the central leadership are “resolved” by majority vote. In any case, the central leadership then presents a monolithic front to the rest of the organization.

    The comrades are right that this is a distortion of Leninism. When there are substantial differences in the leadership on any level, they must be taken to the membership, at the appropriate (but timely) time. The membership must be informed of what the elected leaders think, including any differences among them. There is no other way for the membership to make informed decisions.

    What is described is a central leadership faction, which bypasses the experienced cadre who are most likely to make corrections, and appeals to the newest members against any of the experienced members who are a priori labeled “predictably conservative” in a schema devised apparently by Tony Cliff. This would be an especially effective method in stifling criticism of a central leadership that is guilty of ongoing and repeated errors of hyping the objective situation and attacking any criticism as “conservatism.”

    Let’s look at the proposals both documents make concerning how to help rectify the situation in the ISO.

    Both seek to reach out to revolutionists nationally and internationally in discussions, and in the case of the Chicago comrades, explicitly including Solidarity. They add, “Only a collective nation-wide leadership of a wide layer of comrades (both ISO members and other socialists) will be able to figure out – through discussion and practice – new perspectives for the current era. This national discussion, of course, will have to be held in concert with the global discussions of the revolutionary left.”

    The San Francisco comrades say, “We believe that, whether within the ISO or outside of it, revolutionary practice today demands a focus on rebuilding of a radical left in a principled manner, neither disguising political differences nor making these the basis for sectarian hostility, while winning a core to Marxism.”

    Both documents raise points of possible areas for such discussions.

    I think Solidarity should welcome these initiatives and respond to them in a positive way.

    The San Francisco comrades raise some concrete points for reform of the ISO, and by implication, points for wider discussion among revolutionists more broadly.

    The first is “The right to form permanent factions.” This could be misinterpreted to mean an advocacy of permanent factionalism in an organization. That would tear any organization apart. Also, factions formed around specific points should not be seen as places to hash out new issues. That is, we should not advocate that new issues be first discussed in ongoing factions, and only then in the organization as a whole. Agreement on old issues should not be automatically assumed to imply agreement on new ones. When new issues arise, quite possibly there would be new alignments, if there were differences on them in the organization. A related point is that factions should not be so disciplined that its members would be compelled to speak or vote for positions they disagreed with – that cuts across democracy and falsifies discussion. If it is true that the leadership of the ISO functions in this manner, it is an unprincipled faction. Honest presentation of all positions should be the norm.

    However, the whole tenor of the comrade’s arguments goes against any such misinterpretations. What they are clearly opposed to is the practice of not allowing factions to continue following discussion and vote. They should not be banned from doing so. They must be allowed to continue to discuss among themselves to prepare to raise again at the appropriate time unresolved issues, or even to come to the conclusion that one side or another has been proven correct by events, or that events have superceded the earlier differences. I agree with the comrades when they say, “An attitude towards factions that amounts to banning them does not keep us safe from state repression or capitalist counter-revolution, it keeps the leadership safe from dissent. Some debates take time to resolve. There is no real assessment, no real debate, and ultimately no real clarity, without the possibility of this taking organized form within the ISO. It is not enough to say ‘room is needed for debate;’ room has to be made for debate.”

    (As an aside, in the U.S. SWP we made a distinction between factions and tendencies. Organized tendencies were formed around political documents put forward for vote, while factions in addition were disciplined organizations needed to fight to form a new leadership or to protect from being expelled.)

    The second point they raise is that “district organizers should be elected.” When I was on a speaker tour concerning the first volume of my political memoir about my time in the U.S. SWP, my first meeting was in New York. A substantial number of ISO comrades, mostly young, participated and asked many questions about the radicalization of “The Sixties,” which the book centered on. The next day, I had a discussion with Meredith, the New York district organizer at the time, and we went over many points. Somehow, it came up that she, as district organizer, was not elected by any district convention or in any other way by the comrades she was organizer of. She was not responsible to the New York comrades, but to the national central leadership who had appointed her. I was flabbergasted. While there may be extreme situations where such a practice is justified (severe repression) it should be the norm that at every level leaders are elected by those they lead, who can also remove them. Meredith later left the ISO, stating she no longer believed in “Leninism,” but was she referring to such practices?

    [I’ll backtrack here to the question of working with other revolutionists outside the ISO. I’ve noted how the ISO leadership attended Asian Pacific Conferences in Australia. They also began to attend meetings of the Fourth International and some of its sections, including the French Revolutionary Communist League. I noted that Ahmed and Todd sought out Caroline and I. The ISO also worked with Peter Camejo, and discussed with Solidarity. I was invited to a number of ISO national gatherings, as well as some in the Bay Area. But then I was suddenly no longer invited. An exception was in 2009, when I was invited to speak at the ISO summer school in San Francisco (another one was held in Chicago). At about the same time, I got a long phone call from Ahmed. He told me that how the ISO had treated me and Caroline had been a mistake (he met with us in 2006, and told us we could not join the ISO because of our political position against the overthrow of the Cuban government but for its reform). He also said that the ISO should have listened more to things Peter Camejo had brought up as suggestions. They had been sectarian, he said. But after that I was again iced out.]

    The third suggestion is “All debates to be aired in public in the Socialist Worker, instead of using ‘internal bulletins.‘ ” I think this goes in the right direction, but is overstated. Some discussions should be internal for security reasons. Also, it could inhibit comrades from presenting their ideas in a political discussion if they knew everything they said would be open to public scrutiny. There has to be space for internal discussion to be held among members only, so comrades feel free to change their minds, say things in a different way after other comrades criticize their points, etc. We shouldn’t trample on the rights of comrades to be tentative, or not to be made public spectacles. And minorities should have the right not to have their views made public if they don’t wish it. I think a balanced approach has been realized by the Australian Socialist Alternative, a sister organization of the ISO. The Australian comrades have put into their new constitution the right of minority viewpoints to be published in the organization’s press. They have put this into practice, including public debate. I believe that holding such public discussions would be attractive to people becoming interested in socialism, raise the consciousness of both members and non-members, and assure potential recruits that their ideas would be given serious consideration if they join. It presents an important example both of openness and of seriousness to have major political discussion in the open.

    The forth suggestion is to “End the slate system for electing the Steering Committee.” I assume this is opposed to the system of the outgoing central leadership proposing a slate of members to be elected by the national convention, and then having any other proposals in the form of opposing slates, or amendments proposing removal of candidates and replacing them with others. The comrades propose instead “an ordinary process of electing candidates.” By this I assume they mean free nominations of anyone, and then election by secret ballot to determine who is elected. I would add that there should be a guarantee that any political minority should have representation proportional to their strength in the organization.

    The method of a slate of candidates being nominated by the outgoing leadership can work if that leadership is sensitive to various viewpoints in the organization, and so forth, and the slate is inclusive. But it can be misused by the leadership to foreordain the election. The proposal to use an “ordinary method of election” I think is superior.

    (In the SWP we had a modified version. Branch delegations to the convention would elect one or more (depend on the branch size) of their delegates to be on a nominating commission. This commission would hear and discuss nominations, and come up with a proposed slate of nominations. Then at the convention the floor would be open for further nominations (not substitutions), and all nominations would then be equal, and the election would be by secret ballot. This method could only avoid the pitfalls of the outgoing leadership making the nomination of a slate if the outgoing national leadership kept its hands off the whole process and made no attempt to intervene. This was our norm, until in the process of the degeneration under the cult, Jack Barnes directly intervened to manipulate the nominating commission, which enabled him to throw off previously established cadre and put newer more pliable comrades on the committee, much as the Chicago and San Francisco comrades explain was done by a different method in the ISO.)

    This relates to another point. At the ISO conventions I observed, delegates to the convention by the branches were not elected according to proportional representation reflecting the political majority and any minorities established by vote on conflicting resolutions, if there were differences. Perhaps this was a reflection of the discouraging of organized minorities. Without doing this, the relative strengths of a majority and any minorities cannot be known, and there cannot be proportional representation.

    The final point is “Elect a new Steering Committee.” The comrades state that they have lost confidence in the present Steering Committee to make the necessary changes. That should be the right of those who agree with them in this assessment.

    There are many things I haven’t taken up, including what tactics should have been taken in the Chicago teachers’ strike, the “Dreamers” and other questions. These and other points could be taken up in a fraternal and sisterly discussion.

    Another point is the San Francisco comrades’ attempt to find original sin in Trotsky’s alleged introduction of philosophical idealism into the movement. I don’t agree, and it seems to me to be beside the points the comrades make about past and present errors and what to do about them. I also support the method of the Transitional Program, but that is another discussion.

    Finally, I would say that the errors of the ISO discussed here are nowhere near the point of the degeneration of the U.S. SWP after 1980, as it evolved into an abstentionist sect. The ISO is still an interventionist organization in the mass movements. Its leadership can learn from them. One example is the important correction Sharon Smith made concerning the ISO and women’s liberation. The people I got to know in the ISO, including Ahmed Shawki, Sharon Smith, Todd Cretien, Jessie Muldoon, Loretta Capeheart, Brian Belknap, Adreienne Johnstone, and many, many others I admire and respect, whether they are in or out of the ISO at present.

    It is my hope that the criticisms made will lead to steps forward for the whole of the revolutionary socialist left.

    Reply
  6. Andy Libson

    This is from a comrade formerly of CWI (Sean Loughlin).
    Thank you Comrades for these posts. They are important to all our work as they raise issues we are all grappling with.

    My feeling in that the nature of this period is that capitalism has been on the offensive since the early 1970’s. This offensive has been given increased impetus by the collapse of Stalinism.

    The leaders of the mass workers organizations have and are cooperating with this capitalist offensive. So this offensive rolls on and gains steam.

    There are no mass workers forces of a revolutionary left nature to take on and throw back this offensive. The tiny revolutionary left groups have no real influence so the capitalist offensive rolls on. I believe this is the nature of the period.

    The great mass uprisings are of course of extreme importance but they are not sufficiently cohesive or not sufficiently conscious or not sufficiently equipped with a clear program to halt and throw back the capitalist offensive and open up a new offensive of the working class. Such a new working class offensive would put the major issues on the agenda once again, especially capitalism and the alternative socialism.

    There are similarities to the period of the building of the First International. But there are important differences also. The working class is much much more powerful now than it was then. The working class is spread to virtually every country, half of all factory workers are women, the working class is potentially much stronger now than it was at the time of the First international. This is a major step forward.

    So what is to be done? I believe the priority is to build united fronts of direct action struggle around a program which takes up and opposes the capitalist offensive, halts and throws back this offensive. In the past those of us from a CWI background used to insist that a united front was only a united front if it was made up of the mass organizations. This was wrong. There are all sorts of united fronts. Occupy I believe was a united front. The key is to have united fronts on a program and demands which halt and throw back the capitalist offensive and does so with strategy and tactics of a mass direct action nature so that the working class begins to rise to its feet, feel its power as a class, and act independently as a class.

    I am a Marxist. I could never have understood the world without the ideas and method of Marxism. So I believe that we have to build a Marxist current within this mass movement we are seeking to build. But do so in a non sectarian way, do so in a way that this Marxist current exchanges views with the broader working class movement, discusses also with other forces which want to overthrow capitalism but do not see themselves as Marxists.

    As we do this we have to openly and honestly discuss the mistakes the revolutionary left have made over the decades, the sectarian top down internal lives, the ultra leftism, the opportunism, out of this if we are successful can develop mass revolutionary parties and a mass revolutionary international unified world wide and able to take power internationally.

    These are a few thoughts.

    Sean.

    Former Comrades of the ISO. Sean here, a former member of the CWI IS . I sent you a post yesterday. I would like to also say that myself and Comrades especially agree with the points you make (see below) regarding changes in organization that are needed. We have discussed these similar issues and come to the same conclusions. We also recognize that for most of time in the old CWI and in revolutionary politics we were guilty of the mistakes that still haunt so much of the left. We are trying to draw the lessons now and for this we would like to get together with you and receive your insight and thoughts.

    I would be interested in getting together. I live in Des Plaines.

    Sean.

    These are the points you make which we have also concluded are necessary. Sean.

    It is not enough to identify the problems. There must be concrete organizational conclusions for the ISO. Here are five things we believe would begin this process:
    1. The right to form permanent factions
    In order to develop meaningful criticism across a national organization it is essential that comrades are able to organize in an ongoing and open way around their differences. Factions were not outlawed in the Bolshevik Party until 1921. Our organizations are legal, function above ground, and are not subject to political repression. An attitude towards factions that amounts to banning them does not keep us safe from state repression or capitalist counter-revolution, it keeps the leadership safe from dissent. Some debates take time to resolve. There is no real assessment, no real debate, and ultimately no real clarity, without the possibility of this taking organized form within the ISO. It is not enough to say “room is needed for debate;” room has to be made for debate.
    2. Elected District Organizers
    Having District Organizers who are dependent on staying in good favor with the national leadership to maintain their positions has meant instead of helping hold that leadership accountable they crack down on those who raise criticisms. Leadership needs to be won locally instead of being anointed from above. The Bolsheviks under Lenin elected their organizers (see Lars Lih’s article Democratic Centralism: fortunes of a formula). There is no reason we shouldn’t elect ours.
    3. All debates to be aired in public in the Socialist Worker, instead of using “internal bulletins”
    The building of a strong revolutionary organization founded on principled debate is thoroughly connected with the building of principled debates with sections of the working class and other members of the left. An organization that aims to contend for leadership of movements now and ultimately aims to contend for leadership of the class must be built openly not behind closed doors.
    4. End the slate system for electing the Steering Committee
    Abolish the slate system of elections in favor of an ordinary process of electing candidates (as was the practice of the Bolsheviks until 1921). This is the most straightforward way of ensuring that significant disagreements and differences in political position, including those expressed in factional form, are allowed a full airing throughout the organization, including on the Steering Committee (and other leadership bodies).
    5. Elect a new Steering Committee
    Based on our experience, the Steering Committee as it is currently constituted will need to be replaced if the organization is to move forward. The committee demonstrates an inability to honestly and openly assess the impact of its persistent mistakes. Steering Committee members’ ongoing hostility to criticism and their use of behind-the-back slander and outright lies to discredit critics makes them unfit to lead.

    Reply
  7. Pingback: A Response to Our Socialist Worker Critics » CounterPunch: Tells the Facts, Names the Names

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