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Inserting Democracy in the ISO

Listening to the rhetoric at Socialism 2013, the summer conference run by the International Socialist Organization (ISO), a group claiming to have the largest membership on the American revolutionary left, one would get the impression that the ISO was moving in a less sectarian and more internally democratic direction. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case. This is frustrating for those of us who believe a more accountable organization with significantly fewer ideological litmus tests could be larger and more effective without moving rightward.

An example of this apparent newfound openness to debate and willingness to work with others can be found in remarks made at the conference by leading ISO member Ahmed Shawki (available at WeAreMany.org).

“We have to become a place which is habitable to people moving in a radical direction,” Shawki said. “And also the place that becomes a home to people who will not share every dotted eye and crossed ‘t’ on perspective.”

Elevating the need for “vigorous debate,” Shawki said that in order to “move beyond the margins of the left” socialists must stop insisting on “a common line on every question.” He even suggested the ISO would be interested in merging with other organizations, were there any of comparable size.

And yet this seeming glasnost only goes so far. Pham Binh, a former member who was with the organization for the better part of a decade, recently wrote a detailed critique of the ISO’s structure and practice. He submitted the piece to SocialistWorker.org and it was rejected. A link to the piece that was posted on the Socialist Worker’s Facebook page was promptly deleted. As far as I am aware, the organization’s leadership has not acknowledged the critique whatsoever.

In his piece, which is titled “Thinking of Joining the ISO?” and is available at TheNorthStar.info, Binh explains how the ISO uses a closed-slate election system.

“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,” Binh writes.

A single Steering Committee member cannot be challenged without offering a whole new slate of a dozen names. As a result, Binh writes, “as far as anyone knows, the ISO has never had a competitive election for its Steering Committee since it was founded in 1977.”

Rank-and-file members are kept in the dark about everything from the organization’s size to its assets, so much so that most members, according to Binh, are unaware the ISO violated its support for the Palestinian boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign by purchasing and selling thousands of dollars worth of Caterpillar stock.

Additionally, the ISO insists on an ideological uniformity that stifles the goal of increased membership, which would require a big-tent organization.

“As you begin going to study groups,” Binh writes, “you discover the ISO as an organization has a whole range of positions on theoretical, historical, and foreign policy questions ranging from topics like privilege and the one-state solution in Palestine to Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution that you are expected (or even duty-bound) to defend even if you personally disagree with them.”

Search the archives of SocialistWorker.org, an ISO publication, and you will find the socialist intellectual Noam Chomsky quoted approvingly quite frequently. Yet the range of debate within the ISO is so limited that Chomsky, who has called the Bolshevik Revolution a “coup,” would presumably be drummed out of the group. At the very least he would likely not be allowed to express his views on the matter in ISO publications. And when the most widely-respected, living, anti-capitalist intellectual might not be able to make a home in your organization, that’s a decent indication you’re too sectarian.

That socialists must share an exact interpretation of an historical event that happened nearly a century ago in order to coordinate their class struggle efforts of course makes no sense, as Binh points out. Obviously capitalist parties don’t demand that prospective members accept a specific interpretation of, say, World War I, in order to join the organization. That would be ridiculous.

The ISO’s constant turnover and membership plateau, two things the group itself admits to be problems, should come as no surprise given the organization’s narrow-mindedness and anti-democratic structure. Who wants to belong to what, in many ways, I’m sorry to say, amounts to a cult-like sect, however well-intentioned it may be?

Let me be clear about my relationship to the ISO so I’m not accused of having a personal axe to grind. I attended some meetings of the organization’s Burlington branch in my freshman year of college. I was impressed by the members’ political knowledge and commitment, but I did not join the group because I was uncomfortable identifying as a Trotskyist, as I remain today. I’ve been a semi-regular reader of SocialistWorker.org for many years, and have been published on the site. I have recommended the site to members of my community, and took out a subscription to the print edition for my hometown library. ISO writers have greatly sharpened my thinking, dull as it still might be, and I have great respect for all the rank-and-file members with whom I’ve come in contact. So when I say this isn’t personal, I mean it.

Readers might ask, why not just start a new organization? To which the answer is, perhaps we should! But the ISO—with its dedicated membership, excellent writing staff, and well-respected publishing arm in Haymarket Books—is influential on today’s far left. By criticizing the organization constructively we may help it reform itself. At worst, we may help ensure that a future group doesn’t make the same mistakes.

Jon Hochschartner is a freelance writer from upstate New York.

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