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Putting the Sect Into Sectarian

Inside the International Socialist Organization

by LOUIS PROYECT

Whenever I reflect back on my decade-long experience in the American Socialist Workers Party during the Vietnam War epoch, I feel like I am auditioning for the lead role in Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape”:

Just been listening to that stupid bastard I took myself for thirty years ago, hard to believe I was ever as bad as that. Thank God that’s all done with anyway. (Pause.) The eyes she had! (Broods, realizes he is recording silence, switches off, broods. Finally.) Everything there, everything, all the– (Realizing this is not being recorded, switches on.) Everything there, everything on this old muckball, all the light and dark and famine and feasting of . . . (hesitates) . . . the ages! (In a shout.) Yes! (Pause.) Let that go! Jesus! Take his mind off his homework! Jesus (Pause. Weary.) Ah well, maybe he was right.

I suppose that the one benefit derived from my misspent youth was learning enough about “Marxist-Leninism” first-hand so that I could be credible to young people today about avoiding my mistakes. Fortunately, the weight of history makes it much more difficult for groups like the SWP to attract new members since the “Russian” paradigm that they are based on is extinct.

One of the more dynamic and attractive groups on the far left is the International Socialist Organization (ISO). The ISO’ers made a splash recently by going on a campaign to expose the editors of CounterPunch as a bunch of sexist frat boys in the “Animal House” vein with Jeff St. Clair and Joshua Frank reprising Bluto and Otter. My intention here is not to reopen the brouhaha but to take a look at the ISO from the perspective of Jeff St. Clair’s recent article on the Silent Death of the American Left. I will argue that there is a relationship between a left so badly in need of resurrection now and transcending the type of sectarian divisions associated with the “Russian” paradigm.

The ISO was born in 1976 as a result of a faction fight in a group called International Socialism (IS). Ideologically the IS rested on a theory called “bureaucratic collectivism” cooked up by Max Shachtman and that regarded the USSR as a kind of new society ruled by bureaucrats who were exploiting the workers in the name of socialism. Later on, there was a conversion to “state capitalism”, a theory that looked just as askance at the USSR but through a somewhat different ideological prism. For those with a taste for these kinds of Talmudic disputations, I would refer you to Barry Finger’s article “Bureaucratic Collectivism” as well as my own dissection of state capitalism. It is the sort of thing that I used to find interesting, when disco was king.

That was when I first encountered “state capitalist” theory–in the early 1990s. I had trouble understanding how the term capitalist could be applied to the USSR since the lash of market relations was nowhere to be seen, especially for a labor force that had little to worry about runaway shops and unemployment. If you read the Communist Manifesto, it will be clear that capitalism was ruled by a bourgeoisie that “cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society.”

But what in the world did this have to do with a Soviet Union that moved at a snail’s pace, particularly when it came to high technology? I was always reminded of Spalding Gray’s “Monster in a Box” monologue where he describes a visit to Russia. In attempting to explain in his own off-kilter manner why the USSR collapsed, he compares the communications system on an American battleship to its Soviet counterpart. It turns out that the Russian admiral uses an old-fashioned tube to speak to his men down in the engine-room.

The people who left the IS to form the ISO were given substantial support by the British IS’ers, who were in the process of forming the British SWP, a group now embroiled in controversy over a top leader not being punished for raping a young female member, a result of his crony ties to the investigating committee.

The British SWP was the mother ship of a worldwide movement in the mold of Leon Trotsky’s Fourth International, which was itself modeled on the Comintern. While Leon Trotsky was a very astute critic of Stalin, his party-building methodology yielded nothing but sects and cults. By the 1950s there were almost as many “Fourth Internationals” as Elvis imitators in Las Vegas, each with its own batty pretender to the throne. For example, Juan Posadas was the genius at the helm of his own International based in Latin America. He argued that UFO sightings were an indication of advanced socialist societies in outer space and advocated a preemptive nuclear strike against the USA by the USSR, so that socialism could arise out of the nuclear ashes.

Tony Cliff was the founder of the British SWP. Born Yigael Gluckstein in 1917, Cliff was a charismatic figure with a particular appeal for intellectuals such as Christopher Hitchens who joined the movement during the Vietnam antiwar movement. One major intellectual who has stuck with the party through thick and thin is Alex Callinicos, the author of 30 books and countless articles and now Professor of European Studies at King’s College London.

Jim Higgins, who died in 2002 at the age of 72, was a chastened ex-member of the British SWP and author of “More Years for the Locust: The Origins of the SWP”, a witty and knowing account of what it was like to belong to such a sect, especially its tendency to live in the past:

It does not require a particularly profound knowledge of the Trotskyist tradition to notice certain similarities between Marxist obscurantism and an addiction to Christian arcana, together with shared fissiparous tendencies. There is Trotsky, like Peter, the first and the best of the disciples and then there is the ever-growing proliferation of sects, sectlets and insects claiming direct descent from the master. Each one of them has a cast iron reason for standing against the rest. If the class nature of Stalinist Russia seemed of vital import to Trotsky in 1940, then it must be at the centre of our thoughts in 1996. Never mind that country no longer exists; the maintenance of the argument is the maintenance of the tradition, it has become an end in itself. So powerful is this yearning for the certainties of the past that even the way some of us talk and write is redolent of Comintern jargon of the 1920s, freshly translated from the Russian by an incompetent.

Somewhere along the line friction developed between the ISO and the mother ship. In early 2001 there was a bitter divorce between the two groups over a number of issues, with the British SWP accusing the Americans of not understanding “the lessons of Seattle”, which meant having a different take on the anti-globalization protests of 1999. How dare they? Plagiarizing Dreiser, Callinicos referred to his former comrades as an “American Tragedy” in a 2001 article that complained among other things about how his tiny group of his supporters were being treated by the party’s overwhelming majority: “The ISO’s December 2000 convention in any case marked a further qualitative stage in the group’s sectarian degeneration. In an almost hysterical atmosphere, a minority within the ISO that defended the analysis of the anti-capitalist mood shared by the rest of the IS Tendency were subjected to vilification, bullying, and intimidation.”

This of course is par for the course in such organizations. When you are in the minority, you get bullied, vilified and intimidated for not recognizing the brilliance of the leadership of the moment. A couple of months ago a sizable minority of the SWP walked out after realizing that trying to bring the leadership to account over the rape scandal and overcome a general lack of democracy would lead to them being treated like pork-eaters in a Mosque. Among the dissidents were the gifted Verso author Richard Seymour and science-fiction maven China Mieville. I strongly suspect that any left organizing they’re involved with will bear fruit and serve as an inspiration for the left in the USA. That’s just my opinion.

Once the ISO was unmoored from the SWP, it went from strength to strength. It threw itself into the antiwar movement as well as many campus-based struggles. During my 21-year tenure at Columbia University, I ran into them at a campus literature table on many occasions. Their success was an inspiration to two old friends who like me had broken from the Trotskyist movement. One was Sol Dollinger, the husband of the UAW Flint Women’s Auxiliary leader Genora Dollinger. The Dollingers followed Harry Braverman and Bert Cochran into the Socialist Union of the mid to late 1950s. Known as the “Cochranites”, the group had the audacious idea that unity rather than sectarian divisions on the left was necessary. As anybody old enough to remember the 1950s can attest, these were not good times to start any kind of new left group—sane or batty. So they fell apart in 1959. Braverman, of course, went on to write “Labor and Monopoly Capital”, a classic study of changes in the American economy.

Peter Camejo was another old friend who grew to respect the ISO’s work on the Nader campaign and what he regarded as their respect for democratic rights. Peter had problems with any group that adhered to the “Russian” model but saw them as a kind of butterfly struggling to break through the confines of the chrysalis they had inherited from the British SWP.

To some extent, the ISO’s growth must be attributed to the sorry state of the competition. My own group—the American SWP—had 2000 members in the year that the ISO was formed but drove most of them out over the next thirty years because they were not “Bolshevik” enough to go from one crappy factory job to another in search of a revolutionary proletariat, like Captain Ahab looking for Moby Dick. The only other sizable group on the left was the Workers World Party that suffered a walkout from the people who went on to form the Party for Socialism and Liberation. They were far more important to the antiwar movement than the ISO but have failed to capitalize on their accomplishments, probably because of the generally crude nature of their party organs that read like they were written for a kindergarten class and their ingrown culture.

In 2008 Lars Lih wrote a book titled “Lenin Rediscovered: What Is to Be Done? In Context” that posed a fundamental challenge to the way that groups like the ISO was organized. Lih claimed that Lenin did not create a party of a new type but simply tried to copy the example of the German Social Democracy of Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, a pluralist and transparent organizational model that had little to do with the “vanguard” conceptions that allowed Alex Callinicos to give the boot to his American comrades.

If you are not that familiar with the German socialist movement of 100 years ago (who can blame you?), it might make more sense to think in terms of Eugene V. Debs’s Socialist Party or the IWW, organizations that sprang from the native soil. There is little question that once groups in the USA began imitating Lenin’s party in a mechanical fashion, the road to ruin was guaranteed.

The ISO is trying to give Lih his proper due (Haymarket Books, their publishing house, has put out a paperback version of his book) but continues to insist that a new type of party did come into existence in 1917. This involves putting a positive spin on the questionable initiatives of the Kremlin (mostly cooked up by Gregory Zinoviev, who was played to perfection by Jerzy Kosinski in Warren Beatty’s “Reds”).

Paul Le Blanc, an ISO member who has made explaining the Comintern as relevant to our tasks today a high priority, has twisted himself into a virtual pretzel trying to make its early history look sensible. At a conference sponsored by Historical Materialism that took place at NYU in April, Le Blanc tried to put a positive spin on the “21 Conditions” that had to be met in order for a working-class organization to get stamped as kosher by the Kremlin in 1919. Condition number ten called for the formation of “Red Trade Unions”, a totally idiotic measure that would have divided the working class and made it more vulnerable to attacks by the bosses and the cops. Condition twenty-one made sure that anybody sitting on the fence would get the message: “Those party members who fundamentally reject the conditions and Theses laid down by the Communist International are to be expelled from the party.”

After Peter Camejo had been expelled from the American SWP along with hundreds of others including Le Blanc, he went to Venezuela to read Lenin and figure out what went wrong. When he returned, he met with me and pointed out that in the entire history of the Bolshevik party, only a single person had ever been expelled—namely Bogdanov, the author of a third-rate science fiction novel and some distinctly odd philosophical notions. Who knows, maybe Edmund Wilson was right that things went downhill from that point?

Le Blanc went even further out on a limb on May 31 at the “Dangerous Ideas for Dangerous Times” conference in London organized by Tariq Ali and other independent radicals, and even seemed ready to saw it off. Speaking on the topic of “Leninism for Now”, he tried to somehow make Morris Lewitt seem reasonable. Lewitt was a top leader of the American SWP who died at the age of 95 in 1998 and was some kind of inspiration to Le Blanc. Goodness knows why.

In 1944 Lewitt gave a report to the American SWP that included this super-sectarian formulation: “We can tolerate no rivals. The working class, to make a revolution can do it through only one party and one program… We are monopolists in politics and we operate like monopolists. Either through merger or irreconcilable struggle. We have proved this by the whole history of our movement.” When I first came across this howler in the early 1980s, everything fell into place. No wonder the SWP went from 2000 members to about a hundred. But why would anybody see it as anything else except a sectarian rant? Le Blanc justifies it, or at least tries to put it into context, by stating that the Trotskyists were up against “authoritarian Stalinism”.

Well, yes and no. Just three years later in 1947 Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman would defend working with the Communist Party in the UAW against the Walter Reuther bureaucracy that was about to impose a loyalty oath on the union. The “Stalinists” were ready to join forces with the Trotskyists, who had sizable auto union representation in Detroit and Flint, including Ernie Mazey who would eventually become part of the union bureaucracy along with his Socialist Party brother Emile. For the time being, the radical members of the UAW believed that anti-Communism had to be resisted. There had to be a united front against the gathering McCarthyite tide.

However, James P. Cannon, the leader of the SWP, and his top lieutenant Morris Lewitt would have none of this. They ordered the UAW members to bloc with Walter Reuther. Since Stalinophobia ran so deep in the Trotskyist movement, the Cochranites felt that they had no other recourse except to form their own organization based on a more inclusive approach.

In May 1954 Bert Cochran wrote an article titled “Our Orientation” that includes words as germane today as they were back then:

Our purpose is to bring our ideas into the mass movement, and to gradually raise the consciousness of the ranks to the historic tasks. But the last thing in the world we should attempt is to inculcate the ranks with the necessity of adopting our specific tradition, and impressing upon them the truth of all the evaluations and proposals broached by Trotsky from 1923 on. The thought that in the coming period of our activity we have to go out of our way to mention the name and work of Leon Trotsky, and the name and the existence of the Fourth International, shows how far all of us have become infused with narrow group thinking, and organizational fetishism, how far we have traveled from the outlook of Frederick Engels, who warned the Socialists in America not to publish the Communist Manifesto, as it was based on old-world experiences, and that the American labor movement, developing under different conditions, would not understand it, and would not know what Marx and Engels were talking about. Why isn’t it possible for us to take this simple thought of Engels and apply it to ourselves and our work? If Engels didn’t think this was putting a question mark over his revolutionary integrity, why should we?

Probably I am the last person in the USA that the ISO wants to take advice from. But I will give it anyway. To start with, I think they should really think about using a new name. Practically anything would be better than International Socialist Organization. It would also be a good idea to dump the visual clichés like the clenched fist. I suppose that they have a handle on these sorts of problems inasmuch as nary a hammer-and-sickle can be found on their website. Smart people internationally are beginning to think hard about these questions. Naturally the folks who left the British SWP are on the leading edge as indicated by Tom Walker’s contribution on May 2nd:

Intervene. Build. Cadre. Recruit. Centralism. Discipline. Indiscipline. Smash. Oppositionist. Comrade. Purge. Bourgeois. Layer. Expel. Vanguard. Front. Turn. Propaganda.

All these words and more are part of the very particular jargon we have been used to, both in the Socialist Workers Party and on the wider revolutionary left. Taken together, they are certainly evocative – and not in a good way.

Now I have no ideas on what words should replace this hoary lexicon but I am sure that the bright young things in the ISO can come up with something better.

Finally, and on somewhat of a more challenging basis, there really has to be a rethinking of the whole “democratic centralism” question. I think that most people understand that the ISO develops its strategy and tactics internally and then “intervenes” with them in the mass movement as indicated in Tom Walker’s note above.

I think that ideas have to be considered on their own merit in the mass movement independent of who is articulating them. My own experience in the American SWP is that people hated our guts even when they agreed with our ideas. It was quite off-putting to see every single SWP’er at an antiwar conference in the late 60s voting in the same way no matter what other people had to say. What was the point of having a conference? You could just invite one SWP’er to the conference who had been assigned 5 or 6 hundred votes and put an end to the charade.

On my own Marxism mailing list of 1500 subscribers, I have debated Cuba over the years with ISO’ers (they think it is a totalitarian dungeon) with an ever-increasing sense of futility. Even if what I say makes sense, they won’t buy it. The simple truth is that intellectual conformity in such groups is not a function of bureaucratic measures such as expulsion (although it obviously comes into play during sharp debates). It is all about peer pressure. Who would want to get on the other side of a heated debate with the people you hang out with all the time and who you consider to be the smartest people on earth? Of course, there are people like Jeff St. Clair, Joshua Frank, and me who don’t mind thinking and speaking for ourselves.

Just call us CounterPunchers.

Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.wordpress.com and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.