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Notes on a Staggering ISO

It might be obvious from articles appearing on CounterPunch (“A Response to Our Socialist Worker Critics”, to name just one) that former members of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) have decided to subject the self-described “Leninist” group to a withering critique.

In a recent development, current members constituted as the Renewal Faction have joined the chorus of critics as well, something that will obviously irk a leadership accustomed to fawning approval from the ranks. Indicating the general movement toward web-based debate and discussion and away from the print-based medium favored by small propaganda groups operating in the “Leninist” tradition, the faction launched a website titled “External Bulletin”, a term that very likely challenges the notion of the “Internal Bulletin”, the members-only medium that allows such groups to conduct their discussions without the prying eyes of non-members.

Unfortunately for the ISO, the internal bulletin might have become a relic of the Leninist past after a disgruntled member or members decided to forward PDF’s of 30 (at last count) documents to selected critics of the ISO, including me. Over the past few days, I have read maybe 100 pages worth of internal discussion articles and want to offer my analysis of what is happening with the largest “Leninist” organization in the United States (I exclude the CP, which operates more as a wing of the Democratic Party.) As someone who spent nearly 12 years in the American Socialist Workers Party from 1967 to 1978 (now there’s a screenplay begging to be written: “12 Years a Sectarian”), I can recognize the pressures operating on the ISO that will inevitably generate discontent.

One wonders if the ISO leaders might have anticipated the “security breach” that allowed the documents to become public. After all, in the electronic age, what’s to prevent a Marxist version of Edward Snowden from cropping up? This is especially true given the leaks that took place in the British SWP, the group that spawned the ISO. Those leaks were focused primarily on the British SWP’s refusal to punish a top leader who had allegedly raped a young female member. As is the case with bureaucratic institutions in general such as the Catholic Church and the military, there is a tendency to defend those in power, no matter what they do. If you’ve reached the point where you’ve become tired of bureaucratic abuse from the ISO leadership, why not let the rest of the left know what’s going on behind closed doors?

I want to address the question of the “right” of a Leninist organization to keep its discussions shielded from public view at the end of this article, but will start with an evaluation of the ISO’s current woes, which according to both sides in the dispute is very real.

The best place to start is with an article titled “Why have we stagnated?” written by someone who appears to be supporter of the leadership. He writes:

We Have a Problem 

Frustration and disorientation are prevalent throughout the ISO right now and have been for a few years. There are multiple symptoms – the persistent difficulties maintaining SW tablings or a host of other routines (treasury, ISR, publicity); the need to repeatedly push for regular public meetings, many of which aren’t all that “public”; the greater number and length of extended breaks or leaves taken by experienced members (particularly over summer). Much of our leadership spends much of its time propping up basic aspects of branch activity or trying to win frustrated members back to activity. These are the signs of malaise, not of vitality.

When I read this, everything fell into place. This sounds exactly like what happens in all “Leninist” groups during the “mature” phase of their life cycle. Unless a group becomes a full-blown cult, as was the case with the American SWP, there are centripetal forces that operate on the rank-and-file as they begin to reach their thirties and discover that a socialist revolution is not on the immediate agenda. “A host of other routines” begins to compete with raising kids, shopping, working overtime, and just generally doing what it takes to survive life in capitalist America. Like most groups that operate in the name of the proletariat, the plain fact is that the ISO recruited most of its members from college campuses rather than the factory. After they graduated, they probably took whatever jobs were available in a declining economy: public schoolteachers (a strategically important job for leftists), web developers, social workers, librarians, etc. As far as I can tell, the ISO never carried out a “turn” toward the proletariat that would have forced its members to work in a slaughterhouse or textile mill. That would have only accelerated the phenomenon of “extended breaks”. Trust me on that one.

As might be expected, ISO leaders took the opportunity to rally the troops but without the piss and vinegar that such occasions demand. In a key document titled “Perspectives”, the tone was one of “hang in there, comrades”. This was written in the name of The Steering Committee, a body that is all-knowing and all-powerful:

No one really believes that it’s going to be “onward and upward” from the first protest or movement planning meeting. That caricature defies even a few days’ experience as a socialist. But it’s sometimes hard to shake the sense that a period of political unrest and polarization ought to have at least a general upward trend. The reality, though, based on the experiences of the past, is more complicated. Sometimes there are sharp and sustained breakthroughs, and sometimes there are a steady stream of advances. But there are also ups and downs in a struggle or movement, and in the midst of a down phase, it’s not clear if or when the next up is coming.

If it is difficult to predict when “the next up is coming”, what do we do in the meantime? A large part of this boils down to “keeping the powder dry”, going out on training exercises, and doing all the things a “cadre” is expected to do until the next war began. I remember when I first heard the term cadre from a veteran SWP’er in 1968—he pronounced it “codder”. It came from the military and meant “officer corps” basically. When a war broke out, the officers were expected to lead enlisted men. The left adopted the term to mean those people with an advanced understanding of Marxism who would be the natural leadership of the proletarian masses. Since the Trotskyist movement is the Oxford/Harvard of the left—at least in the eyes of its adherents—you would expect it to be the main supplier of cadre. For obvious reasons, the proletariat found it quite easy to ignore such self-designated leaders in large-scale revolutionary struggles.

In an article titled “Theory, cadre, and continuity: Building revolutionary organization today”, a long-time leader speaking for The Steering Committee made the case for the Marxist version of Officers Candidate School:

But regardless of the period, the state of the class struggle, and the size of the revolutionary left, what is absolutely essential is the training of cadres capable of thinking and applying Marxism creatively and able to both learn from and provide leadership in struggle.

Unfortunately what is missing from this calculation is any understanding that “training” is inimical to the development of Marxist thinkers and activists. Whether or not these people are consciously making a parallel with the military, the fact is that “training” in small propaganda groups inevitably turns out people who imitate the party leaders, just as a West Point freshman would emulate a General Petraeus. This is in the nature of all institutions, Leninist, military, or clerical. A revolutionary movement is strongest when it can rely on the talents of people who have learned to think and act for themselves. While revolutions are a product of collective action, they only succeed when strong-minded and strong-willed people come together to change society—not sycophants. Leninist groups unfortunately are schools for sycophancy.

A large part of the article is directed against Shaun Joseph, a former member who is sensitive to the question of developing true cadre. In other words people who have the backbone to tell an Ahmed Shawki that he is full of beans when the occasion demands it. Joseph wrote an article titled “Valences of the united front (III): The struggle for culture” that did not mince words:

The common view in the ISO, I think, is that the comrades at the Center are the “top cadre” of the group. Actually they are not cadre at all. That’s not to say they’re unimportant: a centralist organization needs national leadership just like an army needs generals. However, a cadre that identifies itself with the national leadership, that does not see itself as an independent and irreverent layer, is not fulfilling its function as a cadre–just like an army full of sycophantic captains is doomed to fail in battle.

Although I would prefer that the term cadre go into the ashbin of history, Joseph’s notion of “an army full of sycophantic captains” pretty much sums up the secondary leadership of all Leninist organizations. How can it be otherwise? When I joined the SWP in 1967, I was told that Leon Trotsky, who was Lenin’s choice for assuming leadership of the Communist movement after he passed on, trained the leaders. I told myself , these people must really be something special. Who am I to question them? I can’t say that my experience is at all typical of those who have “graduated” from such sects, but being forced to think and act for myself was the only way I could truly develop politically.

The peer pressure in groups like the ISO is enormous. Although their constitution is filled with guarantees of the right to criticize the party line, they are beside the point. For the average member of such groups, you tend to parrot what is in the party press and look for reassurance from those around you. Shunning or even the threat of shunning is the main instrument of ideological conformity in Leninist groups, when all is said and done.

Try as they may, there is no way that the ISO can break through the glass ceiling that is keeping them at their current levels of membership and political influence. It is their very nature that condemns them to “stagnation”. It is their “Leninism” that works against them since it is a barrier reef that separates them from the tens of thousands of people anxious to resist the capitalist system but not ready to hook up with a small propaganda group that puts onerous restrictions on their ability to live a normal life. Not everybody is a footloose rebel with an Ivy League degree or in some cases a trust fund after all.

All such groups have a natural life cycle, just like a plant or animal. They usually start out with a charismatic leader—usually a man but not exclusively–in his 20s or 30s who has both the time and the energy to build up a following, generally from the middle-class. Within a year or so, depending on the proximity of their ideology to the actual political conditions, they can build up to several dozen members. And then if the stars align themselves correctly, they can become an organization of a thousand or more. When the ISO was riding high in the saddle ten years ago, I am sure it projected unlimited growth. I attended an evening session of a conference they hosted in 2004, mostly in order to hear my old friend and comrade Peter Camejo. It was like attending a pep rally with the speakers leading the audience in chants as a warm-up for Peter.

Ten years can be an eternity for members of such groups. So many pep rallies, so many newspaper sales, and so many singings of the Internationale but capitalism keeps rolling along. Was this what I signed up for, many members must ask. Thus we see the “the greater number and length of extended breaks or leaves taken by experienced members”, a prelude to the inevitable resignation for “personal reasons”.

All in all, another approach is not only possible but also desperately needed. To put it in shorthand, we need something like an American Syriza—a broad left-of-center party that can accept people on their own terms ideologically as long as they adhere to key programmatic demands such as:

–Run election campaigns opposed to corporate rule, against both Republicans and Democrats.

–Organize campaigns against environmental despoliation from fracking to mountaintop removal.

–Strengthen the trade unions through organizing drives aimed at the most exploited workers.

In reality, these sorts of demands are not that different from those of the Communist Manifesto that calls, for example, for “A heavy progressive or graduated income tax” and “Free education for all children in public schools.”

Once you dump overboard all the ideological baggage that comes with groups posturing as a latter-day Bolshevik Party and stick to basic demands that lend themselves to independent mass political action, recruitment is no longer a big problem. Nor is burnout, a function of small groups trying to substitute themselves for the muscle of a large party that can attract real-life workers, something that is simply beyond the means of small propaganda groups trafficking in the iconography of the Russian Revolution. We need our own political symbols and language; let’s consign the hammer and sickle and the red star to the museum or mausoleum where they belong.

Finally, on the question of “security”, as if putting the ISO documents on the Internet is going to jeopardize their members. Does anybody in their right mind not understand that the CIA, the FBI, the NSA, and local red squads know exactly what every single ISO member is up to? Mike Ely, the leader of an Internet sect called the Kasama Project, has been raising hell over the publication of the documents but that’s what spending too much time in Bob Avakian’s Revolutionary Communist Party can do to a person.

The real issue is not security, but the right of a sect to keep its deliberations a secret. When you stop and think about it, all of these “Leninist” groups operate on a mercantile basis that is concerned with maximizing market share. Their internal bulletins are analogous to reports discussed by the board of directors leading up to a sales campaign. What business is it of Pepsi to know what Coca-Cola is up to? How can we let Socialist Alternative know what we have planned for 2014? Hush now, comrades. Mum’s the word.

While I will not be around fifty years from now, I am convinced that “Leninism” will be long dead. If we are fortunate enough to be capable of rallying the forces needed to transform American society, it will be on a basis that has little to do with the imagery associated with the Smolny Institute and the Winter Palace. We will write our own future based on the living struggle that we surely have in front of us. Every effort has to be bent toward uniting the greatest number of people on a principled class basis. In a way it is too bad that ISO cannot understand the role it can play in helping to catalyze such a movement. One hopes that they can figure out a way to emerge out of the existing stagnation and rise to the occasion.

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

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

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