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Theory and Practice of Idealism in Trotskyism and the ISO
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.
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 Workerand 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 toEducation 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 Changemakers 101. 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.