FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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.

More articles by:
Weekend Edition
April 20, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Ruling Class Operatives Say the Darndest Things: On Devils Known and Not
Conn Hallinan
The Great Game Comes to Syria
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Mother of War
Andrew Levine
“How Come?” Questions
Doug Noble
A Tale of Two Atrocities: Douma and Gaza
Kenneth Surin
The Blight of Ukania
Howard Lisnoff
How James Comey Became the Strange New Hero of the Liberals
William Blum
Anti-Empire Report: Unseen Persons
Lawrence Davidson
Missiles Over Damascus
Patrick Cockburn
The Plight of the Yazidi of Afrin
Pete Dolack
Fooled Again? Trump Trade Policy Elevates Corporate Power
Stan Cox
For Climate Mobilization, Look to 1960s Vietnam Before Turning to 1940s America
William Hawes
Global Weirding
Dan Glazebrook
World War is Still in the Cards
Nick Pemberton
In Defense of Cardi B: Beyond Bourgeois PC Culture
Ishmael Reed
Hollywood’s Last Days?
Peter Certo
There Was Nothing Humanitarian About Our Strikes on Syria
Dean Baker
China’s “Currency Devaluation Game”
Ann Garrison
Why Don’t We All Vote to Commit International Crimes?
LEJ Rachell
The Baddest Black Power Artist You Never Heard Of
Lawrence Ware
All Hell Broke Out in Oklahoma
Franklin Lamb
Tehran’s Syria: Lebanon Colonization Project is Collapsing
Donny Swanson
Janus v. AFSCME: What’s It All About?
Will Podmore
Brexit and the Windrush Britons
Brian Saady
Boehner’s Marijuana Lobbying is Symptomatic of Special-Interest Problem
Julian Vigo
Google’s Delisting and Censorship of Information
Patrick Walker
Political Dynamite: Poor People’s Campaign and the Movement for a People’s Party
Fred Gardner
Medical Board to MDs: Emphasize Dangers of Marijuana
Rob Seimetz
We Must Stand In Solidarity With Eric Reid
Missy Comley Beattie
Remembering Barbara Bush
Wim Laven
Teaching Peace in a Time of Hate
Thomas Knapp
Freedom is Winning in the Encryption Arms Race
Mir Alikhan
There Won’t be Peace in Afghanistan Until There’s Peace in Kashmir
Robert Koehler
Playing War in Syria
Tamara Pearson
US Shootings: Gun Industry Killing More People Overseas
John Feffer
Trump’s Trade War is About Trump Not China
Morris Pearl
Why the Census Shouldn’t Ask About Citizenship
Ralph Nader
Bill Curry on the Move against Public Corruption
Josh Hoxie
Five Tax Myths Debunked
Leslie Mullin
Democratic Space in Adverse Times: Milestone at Haiti’s University of the Aristide Foundation
Louis Proyect
Syria and Neo-McCarthyism
Dean Baker
Finance 202 Meets Economics 101
Abel Cohen
Forget Gun Control, Try Bullet Control
Robert Fantina
“Damascus Time:” An Iranian Movie
David Yearsley
Bach and Taxes
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail