Debate Inside International Socialist Organization: A Sign of the Times

For the first time in over 75 years “socialism” is becoming nearly a household word. That is why what happens with the different socialist groups matters, despite the fact that they are very small.

With this in mind, we should consider the crisis that is wracking one of the larger socialist groups in the US – the International Socialist Organization (ISO). This is a crisis whose immediate issue is the revelation that a rape complaint by one of its former leaders had been covered up by the then-leadership (in 2013). In part, we all have the Me Too movement to thank for bringing this sort of thing to the light of day. As such, the entire working class movement – and socialists within it – have learned a lot and have more to learn about these sorts of issues.

But there is more: Two articles in the Socialist Worker open a window to this crisis. One is from the Steering Committee of ISO. The other is from Elizabeth Wrigley Field, a leading comrade in ISO. Both are a serious and thoughtful attempt to assess the crisis. Other socialists would do well to consider their approach. Field, for example, comments that “we must publicly discuss and assess our mistakes… [with our] friends and allies,” outside of ISO. Where has this ever been suggested in any “democratic centralist” socialist group recently? That call, alone, is cause for hope.

The Steering Committee statement goes further. “Without a political assessment and engagement with the world around us, the important internal issues that need time to be heard out, developed, and transformed will narrow to interpersonal dynamics,” they write. This is exactly on the mark. In fact, it was political developments that even led to this crisis.

Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.
The rise of this wing of the Democrats has set off discussion and debate among socialists.

Rise of Bernie Sanders and “socialism”
The rise in popularity of “socialism”,
the support for Bernie Sanders and the election of other alleged socialists like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have stirred up questioning and debate within the socialist left. Should socialists join in and support these figures? Should we ever support any Democrats? Where is this all headed? Will the Democratic Party split? These and more questions are being discussed. In fact, in the period leading up to the recent DSA national convention, different factions formed around exactly those questions. In other words, there was increased discussion and debate.

Elizabeth Wrigley Field apparently refers to this when she writes, “Three weeks before this crisis emerged, the ISO elected a new leadership because our members overwhelmingly wanted to both democratize our organization and integrate our socialist politics more fully with all of the struggles happening around us.”

Vs. Lack of democratic culture
This ran counter to what the Steering Committee describes as a “culture presided over by a leadership that exerted control and had far too little accountability.” Again, to be clear: This is absolutely the general rule within the different socialist groups; there is nothing unique about the ISO in this.

This sort of culture tends to encourage some of the more abusive personality types to rise to the top as well as to bring out the worst in people. In such a situation, it is inevitable, in patriarchal America that some leaders, especially men, would tend to take personal advantage of that to sexually harass others, especially women.

But how and why did such a culture develop in the first place?

Turning inward
Oaklandsocialist has written a longer article on what happened to revolutionary socialism.
Without going into depth, we think this bureaucratic culture resulted from the extremely difficult situation that socialists found themselves in for many decades, plus the extreme confusions sown by Stalinism. One result of this was a turning inward, a tendency to focus more on what became a left ghetto, rather than towards the working class as a whole. When an individual faces an unrelentingly extremely difficult situation, he or she may tend to turn away from seriously examining reality; they may turn inward. In fact, they may focus on having conversations with themselves! That’s what happened with many socialists, including focusing on talking among ourselves only. A corollary to this is to start with “what should we do? What is our program?” rather than starting from “what are the objective developments around us and how can they combine and where might they lead?”

Teachers in West Virginia strike. Their example has been followed many times over since then.

That may be starting to change in ISO as those articles in Socialist Worker plus discussions with some ISO comrades show. But maybe it needs to go a step further. Field refers to the discussions inside ISO prior to the national convention. Prominent in those discussions was a recognition of the development of the “left” in the Democratic Party (Ocasio-Cortez, etc.) and how should ISO respond. Three different tendencies apparently arose:

  1. First was the old guard that said that ISO should simply keep going as-is.
  2. Second was a tendency that argued that the Ocasio-Cortez wing would tend to split and form a new left party and that ISO should be part of that process, break from its past tradition and support select Democrats.
  3. Third was a tendency that also recognized the importance of the Ocasio-Cortez wing and sees it as showing the potential for a new, mass left political party in the US. They argued that ISO should reach out to other socialist groups such as Socialist Alternative to form a socialist united front as a preliminary step towards the building of a new, mass left or socialist party.

Political parties and the class question
Oaklandsocialist thinks that this sort of discussion is extremely healthy, but that it
doesn’t go far enough in breaking with the past traditions of the socialist movement here in the United States. The starting point is that of the class forces at work, or to be more concrete, the fact that every political party is based on one class or another. Frederick Engels, co-thinker with Karl Marx, explained “The first great step of importance for every country newly entering into the movement is always the organisation of the workers as an independent political party, no matter how, so long as it is a distinct workers’ party.”

That is the question – the class basis of the party, and what follows from that is not “what should we, a small group of socialists, do?” but “how is the working class liable to move, through what process might it tend to move towards forming its own party?” Only then, with this approach, can we start to figure out what “we” should do, or in other words how we can intersect with this process.

A split in the Democrats?
A side note is this: It’s very difficult to see how those like Ocasio-Cortez could split from the Democrats before the process of the working class, or some significant sector of it, building its own party is well under way. Think about it just from her point of view: She got elected as a Democrat. Her ties are already with the Democratic Party. Significantly, she knows full well that even running as an incumbent if she were to break from the Democrats her chances of getting reelected are very slim in the absence of a serious alternative having already developed.

In other words, the Sanders/Ocasio-Cortez wing of the Democrats may well split from them, but only after a working class alternative is already developing on a powerful basis.

Yellow vest protest in France.
Is a similar movement coming to the United States?

How could a working class party develop in the US?
It seems that there are two ways in which a working class alternative to the Democrats could start to develop (or that the two processes could combine):

  • We have already seen the tendency for some local activists to run for local office. In some cases, these were members of socialist groups, but in others not. Examples of the former were, most famously, Kshama Sawant in Seattle and Ginger Jantzen in Minneapolis. The latter include candidates like Nikita Oliver in Seattle and Cat Brooks in Oakland. In neither of these last two cases did the candidates clearly put the matter on a class basis, but the tendency was there. There were also other similar candidates, such as Sarah Morken in Tacoma and Cliff Willmeng in Colorado. As different struggles develop, for example the teachers strikes that are spreading across the country, it’s possible that explicitly working class candidates could arise from these struggles, candidates who clearly explain that they represent a first step towards the building of a working class party. If this tends to coalesce into a national coordinating body, that could be the first step towards a working class party.
  • We also have to consider that a working class party will not only exist to run candidates and pass legislation. Just as the capitalist parties organize the capitalist class, so would a working class do the same for its class. Such a party could arise directly out of the resistance movement in the streets, work places, working class communities and schools. A powerful movement similar to the French Yellow Vest movement could start to develop here. In France, we are seeing a tendency for the development of a national council or something of the sort which would clarify the program of that movement and coordinate and lead it forward. If something similar happened here, what would it be but the beginnings of a new working class party?

When seen from this point of view, the question becomes how can we encourage such possible developments in the working class itself?

The government shutdown
A few months ago, the political crisis expressed itself in the form of a government shutdown. The socialist movement, especially DSA, largely missed the boat on this issue. It should have been building protests in every major city in the country. It should have been heading out to the airports to see if there was a potential for airport shutdowns like what happened when Trump first came into office and imposed the Muslim ban.

Teachers strikes
Now, we are seeing the exciting rise of teachers strikes throughout the US. One potential to look into is the idea of a national student walk-out. (The graduate student union at UC Davis actually passed a call for a state-wide student walkout.) Socialists should also be exploring how they can help this strike tendency to come together and to be generalized.

Support Sanders?
This relates to the issue of whether or not to support Bernie Sanders (and other candidates like him). While these left Democrats might make some good speeches and propose some positive legislation, the key issue is what do they propose to do, other than vote for this or that candidate
or sign this or that petition. The government shutdown was a prime example. In that crisis, the only proposal from Sanders was to sign a petition aimed at Mitch McConnell. It is exactly because DSA is so tied to the Sanders machine that they were paralyzed and did little if anything significant in that crisis. In other words, voting for Sanders means campaigning for him and in the present situation that overwhelmingly tends to mean getting drawn into his methods rather than the methods of the working class. However, if people want to vote for Sanders, that should serve as no barrier whatsoever to appealing to them to join in trying to build a working class mobilization.

The 1999 SF Bay Area carpenters wildcat strike.
This rank-and-file strike involved vigorous discussion and debate. A renewed working class movement would do so many times over.

We have to use our imagination here. Can you imagine the beginnings of a real, radical, fresh but also (inevitably) very confused working class movement bubbling up from below here in the United States? Imagine the involvement of socialists – both individuals and groups – in such a bubbling cauldron. Not to “teach” and lecture, but to grow and learn along with the movement itself. This doesn’t mean we abandon our views or our understanding of history, nor that we hide those views; it means that we struggle to figure out exactly what is happening and how our views are expressed in the present struggle. Imagine what a fermenting, bubbling cauldron of discussion and debate would be set off, not only within the wider movement, but among those serious socialists too!

In that sort of atmosphere, all the old dictate-from-the-top, follow-by-rote methods would tend to be collapse like a house of cards. It doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t have to be vigilant against it and how it would tend to be expressed. That includes through sexism, racism, homophobia and also through class prejudice (which is hardly ever recognized on the left). Old habits die hard, after all, and we’re still living under capitalism. But the very situation of a movement from below would tend to help us combat it.

What a potentially exciting period lies ahead!

5 replies »

    • What happened with members of different sects in the past may not be the same as today, because the situation is so different today. There is so much more happening in the world around us today. The situation is so much more complex. I do think that the crisis that many members of ISO are going through will cause them to be open to rethinking things and be more open to the world around us.

  1. I have followed ISO for many years. It is a hardened sect that is more ponzi scheme than political body. Its core staff and leadership have survive on dues flows from a constantly shifting membership which runs into periodic crisis like this (not the first by a long shot) and then leave the entity only to have it revived with a new generation of suckers. This is also the pattern of its British counterpart, the SWP.

    • I’m sure there are some who are set in their ways. Even if they “change”, they won’t change. But I do think that this shock will get many members to reassess things.

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