The ISO, Caterpillar and Democratic Accountability


I was dismayed to see a spat over Angelina Jolie’s surgery quickly degenerate into an idiotic war, with the International Socialist Organization (ISO) issuing an open letter warning the world about the degenerates running CounterPunch as if they had done something serious, like cover up a rape allegation, a crime that elicited only a lukewarm protest from the ISO as it ripped the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) apart.

Rather than privilege-bait the ISO’s leadership as Jeffrey St. Clair did or meander aimlessly over the irrelevant as Louis Proyect did in his “Inside the International Socialist Organization,” I thought I’d inject a bit of substantive criticism of the group’s inner workings based on my seven years as an ISO member. Like everyone else, I thought Proyect was going to bring some misdeeds to the light of day given the title of his piece. What follows is an excerpt from a lengthier critique of the ISO’s practices and methods.

On paper, the ISO seems to be democratic. The highest decision-making body is its yearly convention, made up of elected delegates from local branches. Any member can submit a resolution or a position paper for consideration. The Steering Committee is elected by the convention to lead and run the organization between conventions.

What these democratic forms amount to in practice is a different story.

There are no horizontal channels of communication between branches and the general membership; information and political arguments at the rank and file level therefore move in only one direction – vertically, upwards, through branch leadership committees, citywide leadership committees, the national committee (an advisory body to the Steering Committee elected by the convention), and the Steering Committee. Someone with an idea or proposal has to either fight for their view through these successive administrative layers either on their own as an individual or wait until the yearly pre-convention discussion period to propose it before the organization, but they cannot form a faction to fight for their viewpoint at convention because ISO members do not have a constitutionally guaranteed right to form factions. The most they can do is caucus.

This is a major reason why change in the ISO comes from above, not below.

Dissidents and deviationists face not an uphill battle but a veritable cliff to break through hardened groupthink just to gain a hearing; often an idea or proposal that is generally dismissed or derided when it comes from a rank-and-file member will be readily and eagerly adopted when that same idea or proposal comes from the Steering Committee or other leading personnel.

The organization’s conformist political culture is both a blessing and a curse, allowing it to persist and grow in the Reagan-Obama era while preventing it from fully prospering now that objective conditions are favorable for a mass-based radical left. Given the current political climate, there is no reason the ISO shouldn’t be growing exponentially and qualitatively to become a hegemonic force not only over the far left but the broad left. Thriving not surviving is the order of the day.

The ISO continues to use the British SWP’s closed slate system to elect its leadership, meaning the previous year’s Steering Committee submits the coming year’s Steering Committee to the convention as a single bloc for an up-or-down vote by a show of hands rather than a secret ballot. This makes it impossible for the membership to hold even one Steering Committee member accountable unless they can assemble 12 or more additional names for an entirely new slate. This practice is winner-take-all run amok, and the result is not a one-party state but a one-slate party; as far as anyone knows, the ISO has never had a competitive election for its Steering Committee since it was founded in 1977. Conventions are exercises in unanimity rather than a place where substantive differences are aired and ironed out in a vigorous and above-board manner.

The easiest way to understand any institution or organization in capitalist society is to do just one thing – follow the money. Doing so reveals how power and status is really distributed and how organizations actually function.

What is remarkable about the ISO in this regard is its lack of transparency. Dues are paid, money is raised, merchandise (books, magazines, and newspapers) is sold, but rare is the ISO member who knows that the organization’s 501(c)(3) – the Center for Economic Research and Social Change (CERSC) – bought and sold thousands of dollars in Caterpillar stock in 2010 in spite of the ISO’s support for the Palestinian boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign’s targeting of Caterpillar for selling Israel the bulldozers it uses to demolish Palestinian homes and kill activist Rachel Corrie.

Whether or not buying and selling Caterpillar stock in defiance of the BDS campaign is right or wrong is not my place to decide, it is for the ISO’s membership to decide, and they cannot do so when they have no clue what the organization’s assets or liabilities consist of and are denied any formal control over CERSC. They cannot discuss and decide how best to spend CERSC’s $1.5 million in yearly revenue on organizing projects when these matters are handled internally as a state secret and questions about them from members are viewed as a sign of disloyalty to socialism rather than what they actually are – a principled commitment to the basic democratic norms working-class people are entitled to in their organizations.

Unions run in this manner are criticized by the left for disempowering the rank and file thereby undermining labor’s ability to fight capital, but how does wrong become right when the same methods are employed by a self-styled revolutionary organization aiming not just to fight capital but to end it?

Pham Binh is co-founder of The North Star. His writings on the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street, and socialism can be found at PlanetAnarchy.net.

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