With the recent dissolution of the International Socialist Organization (US), a former member asks, what exactly did it build for forty years?
“The purpose of a system is what it does. This is a basic dictum. It stands for a bald fact, which makes a better starting point in seeking understanding than the familiar attributions of good intentions, prejudices about expectations, moral judgements, or sheer ignorance of circumstances. ” — Stafford Beer
The International Socialist Organization in the United States, founded in 1977, survived for over forty years before its members voted recently to dissolve it. There were many obvious problems that arose over the years, but it seemed far more likely to shrink into obscurity and continue indefinitely like the Socialist Workers’ Party (in either the US or UK for that matter) than to disappear entirely. The cruel irony is that, when the organization was finally turning a corner, finally recognizing and abandoning a number of restrictive, top-down organizational methods, that very turn toward openness exposed the full depth of the rot, convincing most to abandon it.
How this all played out is documented well here, so we will only review it briefly in summary. First, there was a widespread discussion about bullying and abusive practices to keep people in line. After this was widely accepted as a problem, people of color began openly talking about how they in particular had been bullied, shut down and dismissed for so long in the organization, and how they in particular had been a victim of these attitudes. Accusations of transphobia soon followed. Then, the straw that broke the camel’s back, or perhaps sped up the breaking of the camel’s back, was the revelation that the Steering Committee of 2013 shut down the investigation of a rape by a member who would in 2019 be elected to the leadership himself.
In a period of weeks, the ISO went from putting itself on the cusp of turning a corner to dissolving itself entirely.
These issues of bullying and racism and transphobia and misogyny, discussed out in the open, made the continuance of the group impossible. An open discussion of those issues will hopefully continue by those who experienced them. What this article will discuss is, what exactly was the ISO?
If we look at the concrete goals of the ISO, to build an organization based in the working class and playing a role in leading workers struggles, we can make a judgment about that. The ISO never accomplished this, not because it was never able to reach the size it aspired for, nor because it was impossible. Instead, for the most part, it put off this goal indefinitely. It was always an organization that wanted to do this in the future, but never “right now.” There was always a reason or, less generously, an excuse, to do something else instead.
Between things ended and things begun
“Between things ended and things begun” — International Socialist Review editorial, June 2001
“Between things ended and things begun” — International Socialist Review editorial, March 2018
For over forty years, the ISO always remained if not a campus-based then at least largely a campus-built organization. Overwhelmingly, members were recruited as college students, sometimes from elite universities, or they were college graduates who tended to find themselves in post-college Left environments. The ISO had a number of off-campus branches, but many of them struggled and in many cases they went from operating in a neighborhood (in Oakland, for example) before retreating to a campus (such as UC Berkeley) where recruitment was much easier, and then back again to the neighborhood after a year or two. No matter what happened, whatever difficulties the they faced, ISO branches could always retreat to the campuses to pick up some members and renew the organization’s morale.
For almost twenty of the ISO’s forty years, the perspective was that we were in a period “between things ended and things begun.” That is, the bitter defeats of the 1980s were over but a new era of rising, mass struggles of the working-class had not yet arrived.
This essentially codified the ISO’s lifelong perspective: the working class is not ready to revolt, so neither are we. One wonders where they thought that working-class revolts come from. Yes there are “spontaneous” upsurges of militancy throughout history, but class struggles have often been led by revolutionaries among the working class. Everybody agrees on that. But revolutionaries are not just the people we read about in books who lead mass struggles, they are also the people who lead small struggles that fail, and then get punished for their efforts with job loss and imprisonment. The idea of waiting for working class rebellion before building a workers’ organization that could lead working class rebellions, is completely foreign to revolutionary politics, except those politics that thrive on a college campus.
The ISO always remained fundamentally a group focused on meetings, recruitment, paper sales, as well as activism, which tended heavily toward panel discussions and marches. It occasionally was involved in things like strikes and abortion clinic defense and, very occasionally, eviction defense. But these tended to happen episodically and were rarely (if ever) the long term focus of an ISO branch. The focus of every branch was to grow. When a branch shrank or stagnated, the leadership flew in to blame somebody local and set them back on track to focus on branch building.
The purpose of a system is what it does. Not what it wants to do or says it will do, but what it actually does, in this case for forty years. The purpose of the ISO was to recruit itself into being a larger organization, and there was really no endgame beyond that.
The “between things ended and things begun” perspective also codified the ISO’s rigid, unchanging internal life. One account of the ISO’s demise by one of the group’s leading reformers, describes the problem as follows:
In the end, the ISO had two dialectally-intertwined obstacles. We couldn’t do anything about objectively-given circumstances, the neoliberal defeat of the working class and oppressed. And although we struggled mightily against subjectively-generated internal shortcomings, by the time the objective situation finally changed (2017-19), our shortcomings undid us . . . [I]t was always a race against time.
There is quite a bit of truth about this statement, but there is so much more that needs to be said.
On the comment that “we struggled mightily against subjectively-generated internal shortcomings,” it has to be asked, who do you mean “we?” That same author, one of the ISO’s main enforcers of the now-discarded old guard, just a year ago was attacking union members in the ISO for “factionalizing,” ie talking to each other without the permission of the Ivy League educated leadership, many of whom have not worked a real job in decades.
He spent just the past few years defending the ISO’s members in the union bureaucracy who campaigned for Democrats and promoted pension reform for public sector workers, as well as arguing for due process over believing survivors of sexual assault accusations, even arguing that those who disagreed were adapting to “identity politics.” This is just a sample of the glory that some of the ISO’s leading reformers have wrapped themselves in over the years.
Some of these reformers now claim that, “for the life of them,” they cannot understand how the previous leadership could think that covering up a rape accusation would be successful. Perhaps they might take into account how a number of people inside and outside the ISO argued how poorly and dishonestly the ISO was dealing with a very similar issue at exactly the same time–and how some born-again reformers went out of their way to shut down people raising those concerns for years. On the other hand, some of “us” have challenged this situation for years, and accepted the consequences for having done so. “We” did not have the luxury of knowing that anybody was going to have our back, we simply spoke up because it was the right thing to do, and more important than avoiding the wrath of petty, arrogant assholes in the leadership.
If this is the face of ISO reform, it is no wonder that the reform failed. Such revolutionaries would only reform this rotten situation when it was absolutely essential for the ISO’s survival which, it turns out, was far too late to do any good. Their one saving grace–and it is literally their only saving grace–is that most of the ISO’s reform leaders were not in the wrong place at the wrong time: on the ISO Steering Committee in 2013, when it was covering up a rape investigation. Many of them were lucky enough to only join the Steering Committee a year later. Every other thing that the ISO did wrong, these folks are responsible for carrying out.
If it was a race against time to fix the ISO’s internal life, then it was a marathon that lasted forty years, where the runner walked slowly the entire way, and every time somebody pointed out that they were veering on the wrong path they just covered their ears and walked slower. Time has rarely ever been so generous to a group of revolutionaries, who had over 40 years to get their shit together, “subjectively” speaking.
If some of these leading reformers had actually tried racing against time earlier, like a decade ago, then perhaps the ISO would exist today. Instead, they spent the last ten years attacking any effort at reform–until it was too late.
What changed, quite suddenly and unexpectedly, was the rise of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), during the Bernie Sanders campaign for President but even more so after the election of Trump. The DSA went from a paper membership of a few thousand to a paper membership of today more than 50,000, but still so large on the ground that some city branches have regular meetings in the hundreds. Not only was this an alternative to the ISO, it was much more appealing, not because the politics or the strategy were better but because it was a blank slate. Nobody can tell you in the DSA (though they might try) that you cannot hold an opinion or express it openly. This, and not anything in particular in the class struggle, is what made the ISO no longer tenable, as members fed up with the ISO’s bullshit left for greener pastures.
Around 2017, most ISO members began realizing that the organization was woefully inadequate in the DSA-era, and then, yes, it seemed like a race against time, because the clock should have started ticking years ago. For many of us it did, and watching the ISO go through a tragicomedy of errors and self-inflicted wounds was like watching the SWP in slow motion, carried out by people who insisted they were not the SWP. It turns out now that they were exactly as bad as the SWP.
The ISO only changed when it had to, for its own survival, not because the class struggle needed it, but because the ISO needed it. Until then, far too many were far too willing to accept the status quo.
In the end, time had nothing to do with it. There was a race against reality, and reality caught up.
An organization is like an organism, it has to meet certain needs if it is going to survive. An organization does not need to have a paid staff, but if it does have a paid staff, then it will quickly rack up bills in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. This requires a consistent base of dues payers, even if the membership is a revolving door. But even a revolving door requires a steady base of experienced members, a “cadre,” to carry out this recruitment and they have needs as well. They need to be convinced that the ISO is worthwhile. They need to find some value in paying dues and going to meetings. And for the amount of effort required to build the ISO, they need to believe it is really going to pay off some day. The ISO did not need to play a leading role in the class struggle, the membership just needed to believe that maybe it could in the future. For the ISO to survive, it merely had to keep people excited and engaged enough to pay dues, go to meetings, and recruit.
Of course, many ISO members lived paycheck to paycheck, were burdened by student loans, were evicted from their apartments and struggled to pay for their healthcare. The problem is, the ISO did not really do anything about these things that would concretely help their members, except in particularly rare circumstances. People did not join and stay in the ISO because it helped them keep their job (unless their job was being an ISO organizer) or protect them from other social ills. People joined the ISO for the promise that it could help make these things happen some day in the future. That promise usually came in the form of a meeting or a non-confrontational march.
Every year, the ISO held panel discussions at their national conference in Chicago in front of a thousand cheering socialists. These events were never going to impact the class struggle, but they were exciting enough to feel like they might impact in the class struggle, and that was enough. The purpose of these events was to keep the machine running. Most members were too excited to appreciate that maybe something was amiss, and that was largely the point.
The contradiction at the heart of the ISO is that the full-time leadership needed to keep criticism to a minimum so that they could maintain their positions more or less indefinitely, but the membership needed to believe that the ISO could play a role in a future revolution. Some rank-and-file members would help shut down criticisms precisely because that conflicted with their need to hold onto this belief, and because the tension created by the criticism was a drag on the enthusiasm of the branch. This also helped strangle the ISO’s ability to flourish. For forty years the membership and the leadership maintained this relationship, until the DSA made it no longer tenable and the whole thing blew up.
Building a university-dominated socialist group (instead of a class struggle organization) for forty years was not a mistake, or at least not an accident, regardless of what intentions anybody had. It was planned from the very beginning and a necessity for survival.
The ISO’s founding myth
“Communism is for us not a state of affairs which is to be established, an ideal to which reality [will] have to adjust itself. We call communism the real movement which abolishes the present state of things. The conditions of this movement result from the premises now in existence.” — Marx and Engels
The ISO was founded (so I heard many times from its founders) and initially led largely by a group of people, many in and around university politics, mostly in their early twenties. They split from the their predecessors in the International Socialists (IS) over a number of things, including the IS’s perspective of focusing on industrial workplace organizing and an overly optimistic perspective for the class struggle in the short term. The split was at the instigation of the British Socialist Workers’ Party, which the ISO remained aligned with for many years.
Again, this is simply the narrative that I understood from older ISO members. But putting exactly what happened and why and who was right and wrong aside, the ISO found itself in a particular position at a particular place in time. That is, being a group of 100 or so people in or recently graduated from (often elite) universities in 1977, what were they to do?
If the ISO needed to play a role in the class struggle in order to survive, it would have ceased to exist long ago. Instead, it was specifically designed to be a buffer against the misery of class struggle. Unions were getting hammered, strikes were going down in defeat, attempts to resist the capitalist system with militancy were being isolated. No problem, said the ISO throughout the 1980s, we will simply hunker down and build a group of people who are not going to be affected by these things.
Believing (correctly, it turns out) that the working class was entering a period of defeats and not victories, which would drastically push back the class struggle and worker organizing for many years, which would drastically isolate and demoralize much of the Left, and being small, and having no base in the working class anyway, they decided that it made far more sense to build up their forces by training and recruiting a socialist cadre to keep the flame of Marxism alive for the time being and hoping to play a role in building some kind of workers’ revolutionary organization in the future. Even this was not always easily done, but it was most easily done on college campuses where, it turns out, the ISO was already quite comfortable.
How could the ISO have been different? Take, for example, what happened after Trump was elected in 2016. Among the various pockets of organizing was a widespread recognition of the need to defend immigrants against deportations. This included building networks of people who not only knew immigrants’ legal rights but also prepared to resist immigrant roundups and provide refuge for those who needed to go into hiding.
This sort of organizings begs the question–why could not the ISO have done this kind of thing consistently over its forty years of existence? Or something like it? There is no reason why it couldn’t have, except that it didn’t need to do it in order to survive, and was built as a refuge against the dangers of this type of activity. And there are certainly dangers, and there were even more dangers in the 1980s. But what is the point of a revolutionary socialist organization if it does not do these things? It would have been more valuable–to the class struggle and to the Left–to engage in this sort of activity as best they could, succeed where they could, and pass on the lessons for the future. In other words, it could have made efforts to build a revolutionary workers organization from the very beginning, it just didn’t need to in order to survive.
What does it take to build a revolutionary workers’ organization? It takes two revolutionary workers.
Organizing a general strike, or even a regular strike, may take much more obviously. Of course, an ideological Leftist might thumb their nose at an organization of two people. No, we need a mass party for mass action, they would say, and that is all fine. But what does an individual worker need? They need another worker, or preferably more, to help them deal with whatever challenges the capitalist system is throwing at them–defending their job, dealing with their boss, defending themselves from their landlord, not to mention defending themselves against sexual harassment, police brutality, or gay bashing. All of these efforts would benefit from a mass party of hundreds of thousands, but none of them necessarily require more than a few people in order to do something at all and sometimes succeed.
The next big thing
The ISO did some of these things, some of the time but typically abandoned long-term efforts in favor of movements where they could more easily recruit people. At which point the relationships built by hard-working comrades would be abandoned in favor of The Next Big Thing, which was usually a mass march with no direct action component, out of which the ISO expected to recruit, often successfully.
The ISO needed The Next Big Thing–whatever it happened to be at any one time–in order to survive. It kept the members engaged and it kept the revolving door of recruitment continuously revolving.
Working class people who face the brunt of the capitalist system do not throw themselves into action in order to recruit people to ideas. They move to act in order to defend themselves or others, and they “recruit” people who will be equally courageous and self-sacrificing, not those who can write an interesting article about China or convince a room of college students that Sweden isn’t socialist or get people to go sell newspapers. None of this is socialist activity, if by “socialism” we mean the struggle for working-class self emancipation.
This is the founding myth of the ISO–we are too small and isolated to do much, so we will recruit and train Marxists to launch a future workers’ party. This may have even made sense for a few months, or even a year or two, although I doubt it. But the idea that doing this for decade after decade would eventually yield something different than what it was doing was just a myth. Such a thing was unlikely to ever happen successfully under any scenario.
The purpose of a system is what it does, and what the ISO did for forty years was its purpose. What the ISO did not do for forty years was not its purpose or its goal, no matter how clearly these other goals were laid out in the Where We Stand section of Socialist Worker. Some far off idea of launching a revolutionary party someday was just a convenient motivating factor to keep the machine running.
The smartest guy in the room
With all the terrible things we hear about the ISO, one might wonder, why would anybody ever join it?
For many, the ISO and similar organizations are a repository for the hopes and dreams of young socialists. They may not need the class struggle themselves–although most of them would certainly benefit from things like free healthcare–but they definitely want it.
A class struggle organization that can really challenge capitalists interests will often face bitter, cruel defeats and will often not feel like a place people can go to indulge their excitement about socialism. An organization where people can indulge their enthusiasm for socialism is unlikely to play a serious role in class struggle. This is the great irony for this model of organizing, an irony that is extremely difficult to grasp for those fully ensconced in their own enthusiasm.
For some, becoming a Marxist allows you to be The Smartest Guy in the Room. There have been any number of graduate students, for example, who went through the ISO for whom proletarian revolution was a means for projecting their own self image. They could give talks to captive audiences, write articles, maybe even books. And when internal political battles came up, so long as they stood on the right side (the side of the leadership) they could self-confidently and arrogantly crush their opponents. They rarely have to deal with the world telling them how wrong and incompetent and worthless they are–the sort of things that poor people hear about themselves every day. Being a clever Marxist in an organization that is so wrapped up in its ideas is fantastic for the ego of the intellectual.
Members with this personality type create a perfect buffer for the lifelong, full-time socialist leader who needs people to defend them. And a group like the ISO is the perfect space for these people to strut their otherworldly intelligence to well-meaning people who are intimidated into agreeing with them.
This sort of thing is perfect ego fodder for the aspiring intellectual, who see themselves as the potential subjective factor of history, so long as everybody else recognizes their self-importance. They are sure that they are smarter than most people, they relish the power of being able to shut down their critics with the stroke of a pen and a turn of phrase from a podium. The ISO gave them the opportunity to fulfill this very dream. Unfortunately, working class struggles are led by very different people, who have no such aspirations or delusions of grandeur. Unfortunately, the Marxist intellectual has far too much invested in their own intellect, and their special role in history, to ever appreciate this irony.
Alternatives to “Leninism”
People who build organizations because they have to, not because they want to, end up building very different types of organizations. For example, a homeless camp is an organization–often a very complex one, with enormous challenges, weary veterans, young upstarts, leaders, followers, etc. A group of women who work together and meet for lunch and drinks after work to talk about how to keep the boss from sexually harassing them, is also an organization. A group of Black teens who march against the police and throw rocks at cop cars is an organization, sometimes (but not always) a temporary one.
These organizations need to recruit people, they need to vet them, kick them out, keep them around, and many other things a group like the ISO does. And yet, they do this with a completely different set of strategies and criteria for judging success. For example, people without homes do not look at the state of the class struggle and decide, well, not much is possible, so we are better off having a Marxist study group instead. They do what they need to do to survive–sometimes battling the police and politicians along the way. Not building some sort of encampment may not be an option. These things could not possibly be done by people who did not have to do them. Their organization is fundamental to their survival and they will fight like hell to defend it, and if it is destroyed, they will build another one, not because they want to but because they have to.
These organizations do not hold panel discussions or convince people of the need to build a revolutionary party. They do not herald a new socialist mood based on opinion polls or election results (in fact they tend to be the most cynical and apathetic section of the population regarding elections), or split over disagreements about the nature of Soviet Russia. All of this would be silly and counterproductive. Rather, they are stuck dealing with hard, bitter realities which will not be so easily resolved by finding a bunch of enthusiastic college students at Berkeley, Columbia or Brown.
So this is one reason why the ISO had to grow as it did–only impressionable young people with little previous political experiences could have been won over by the fables of Leninism pushed by the ISO. Veterans of left-wing politics–or “cynics” as the ISO would call them–would never be particularly impressed by a group of Brown and Columbia and Northwestern alumni proclaiming their path to the revolution.
This changed a bit in the late 1990s, when the ISO had recruited enough of us young people to start looking impressive. This was the ISO shell game–put enough pieces in place and maybe you can conjure a socialist movement with big enough numbers and large enough banners. Or as Hal Draper would say, you want there to be a socialist movement so you go about inventing one out of thin air, without realizing that this is not how a socialist movement is created at all.
The ISO played a better shell game than most, but at some point the game had to end and reality had to begin.
Scott Jay was a member of the International Socialist Organization in the SF Bay Area from 1997 – 2011.