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Notes on the Dissolution of the ISO

During 2013 and 2014, a rift opened up in the International Socialist Organization (ISO) over the results of a rape investigation that some members found to be little more than a cover-up. The Socialist Workers Party in England, which had played a major role in the formation of the ISO, was also convulsed over a sexual attack and cover-up around the same time. Both groups suffered defections but the British fared much worse, with perhaps half the membership jumping ship. In the USA, the ISO had fewer losses but the cover-up resurfaced again this year when a letter to their 2019 convention precipitated a new investigation into the events of six years ago. This time, the members voted to remove those who had covered up for the perpetrator in the name of “due process” and begin a soul-searching self-examination that led to a startling conclusion. The ISO, which is the largest group in the USA that defines itself as “Leninist”, has just voted to dissolve itself. To get a handle on this turn of events, I urge you to see the items posted to their website.

In both the case of the ISO and the SWP, the sexual attack triggered a discussion over whether the “Leninism” that both groups swore by might have led to a cover-up. SWP leader Alex Callinicos, who only referred euphemistically to a “difficult disciplinary case” in a February 2013 article titled “Is Leninism Finished”, argued that it was their model of democratic centralism that allowed the SWP “to concentrate our forces on key objectives, and thereby to build so effectively the various united fronts we have supported.” Instead, the combination of a cover-up and fetishized Bolshevik norms have cost the SWP both members and influence as it staggers along just like the American SWP that has a much more advanced case of political dementia.

Richard Seymour, who was one of the best known and best respected SWP members, would have none of Callinicos’s hooey. In an reply titled “Is Zinovievism Finished”, Richard wrote:

The model operated currently by the SWP is not that of the Bolshevik revolution. It is a version of the Zinovievite model adopted during the period of “Bolshevisation” in the mid-1920s and then honed by ever smaller and more marginal groups. When Alex implies that somehow we have developed a ‘distilled’ version of Bolshevik democratic centralism he is not holding to the tradition of October: it is asking us to choose the model that has led to three of the most serious crises in the SWP’s history in quick succession over the model that actually did lead the October revolution.

I had my own reply to Callinicos in an article titled “Leninism is finished: a reply to Alex Callinicos” that made essentially the same points as Richard Seymour except with some added observations on how such an organizational method leads to intellectual and political monolithism:

Discipline has meant enforcing ideological conformity. For example, it would be virtually impossible for SWP members in Britain to take a position on Cuba identical to the American SWP’s and vice versa. As it turns out, this is a moot point since most members become indoctrinated through lectures and classes after joining the groups and tend to toe the line, often responding to peer pressure and the faith that their party leaders must know what is right.

While disassociating itself from the SWP on what Callinicos called “a difficult disciplinary case”, the ISO stuck to its guns on the need for democratic centralism. Paul Le Blanc, who has written many articles defending this practice, came out with a book titled “Unfinished Leninism” in 2014 that had a chapter answering my critiques. I cannot recommend the book because its shelf-life has long since passed, especially with the ISO voting to carry out the agenda of “Leninism is Finished” by dissolving itself. Le Blanc wrote a shorter piece titled “Leninism is Unfinished” in 2013 that takes aim at Callinicos for being too rigid and for me being too loosey-goosey. Like Goldilocks, he found a democratic centralism that fits just right.

In my article, I wrote that  after taking power in 1917, the Bolsheviks were dealing with a hostile capitalist press. Lenin favored their expropriation and party leader David Riazanov supported “freedom of the press”. When reading John Reed’s “10 Days that Shook the World”, I discovered that Lenin and Riazanov debated these issues out at a mass meeting and then voted against each other. I characterized this as “normal Bolshevik functioning”, something that Le Blanc considered “too narrow” an interpretation. Let’s put it this way, in my advanced years, I didn’t get out much in the 2000s but I doubt that you ever would have found ISO leaders Lance Selfa and Paul D’Amato having such a heated debate except in a closed meeting. In fact, if there is one thing that experience in a Leninist sect has taught me, it is that heated debates inevitably lead to splits.

When the question of avoiding splits comes up, modern-day “Leninists” tend to look back at the Bolshevik/Menshevik split as an excuse for splitting hairs and then fragmenting like an amoeba. However, the truth is that these were two factions of the same party until after 1917. Furthermore, in the entire history of the Bolshevik faction, there was only one expulsion—that of Alexander Bogdanov in 1909. By comparison, latter-day Leninist sects spit people out routinely as “revisionists”, “Mensheviks”, “petty-bourgeois elements”, “class traitors”, etc. By comparison, they make the various religious denominations look split-proof.

A close study of the Russian left would reveal that Lenin and Bukharin debated each other over the national question in rival newspapers. In fact, there were numerous Bolshevik newspapers, all with their own independent editorial boards that saw things their own way and wrote about them with their own perspective. Not only that, the Bolsheviks occasionally put out newspapers jointly with their supposedly worst enemies, the Mensheviks. One such newspaper was Severny Golos (Voice of the North) that called for a general strike and insurrection in 1905. Around that time the Bolsheviks were grappling with the significance of 1905. Nachalo, an official Bolshevik paper, called for a dictatorship of the proletariat while another paper Novaya Zhiznadvocated a democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry. Now we all understand that such doctrinal differences have led to numerous splits in the Trotskyist movement, but back in the good old days it did not seem to bother Lenin very much who wrote, “But have not disagreements of this kind been observed at every socialist party in Europe.”

While I doubt that the ISO members who just voted to dissolve their organization have any intentions of starting up the same, old Leninist contraption, it is worth examining the dynamics that keep wreaking havoc with such attempts.

In an article titled “Reflections On Coherence and Comradeship” that does not refer directly to the events leading up to the dissolution, Le Blanc makes an appeal for retaining the security blanket that has smothered so many revolutionary groups in the cradle:

If the organization has a full, democratic discussion regarding actions to be taken and makes a decision (determined by majority vote) — then the organization carries out the decision that was democratically decided upon. If the decision is to support a strike action, or an antiwar action, or an antiracist action, then no comrade is to work against the action.

On the other hand, if a majority of comrades in the organization have a specific position regarding a philosophical question, or an understanding of history, or a specific political analysis, there is no reason why dissident comrades cannot openly, publicly state their own views, if they have them. Nor are they prohibited from expressing disagreements with the leadership or with majority decisions on other matters as well, even publicly.

Unfortunately, there is a flaw in this logic that is probably not obvious to Le Blanc. The types of groups he is talking about usually start with a small number of people who have a very fixed understanding of Marxism that they closely guard as revealed truth. In the case of the ISO, you are talking about a cadre for whom state capitalist theory is sacred. In theory, no ISO member would be prevented from writing an article hailing Cuba as a society moving toward socialism but in practice this would take more fortitude than any member could possibly muster. In small groups, peer pressure operates much more effectively than diktat, after all. It is a self-policing form of discipline that through its practice perpetrates the illusion that ideological diversity is the norm.

Another feature of latter-day Leninist groups who have both feet on the ground unlike, for example, the Spartacist League or David North’s Socialist Equality Party, is a disavowal of the idea that they are a vanguard party. For one thing, it is laughable to think that a group of several hundred people, which 98 percent of the working class has never heard of, can be called a vanguard. So, the notion put forward by the ISO was instead that they will at some point in the future become part of a broader coming together of a broad revolutionary movement that can be a true vanguard, almost like the smaller rivers flowing into the Mississippi.

However, in the here and now this stance is a block to left unity. The simple truth is that when it comes to domestic issues, there is very little to distinguish the ISO from Kshama Sawant’s Socialist Alternative. Or, even from the Workers World Party or the Party for Socialism and Liberation. What causes these groups to operate independently and in competition with each other is historical and international questions like what went wrong in the USSR or whether or not Cuba is capitalist.

In my view, it is not only possible but mandatory for a socialist organization in the USA to regard these questions as secondary. Take Cuba for example, as long as you oppose the blockade and CIA subversion, it should be possible to have multiple interpretations of the Cuban revolution with articles by both Sam Farber and someone like myself having their disagreements aired publicly in a party newspaper or magazine. Ideally, these kinds of debates would be conducted in the theoretical magazine and would actually be a welcome mat to the average leftist who is wary of ideological straitjackets.

There is no doubt in my mind that a left party that focused on “American questions” like fracking, trade union struggles, LGBT rights, police brutality, racism, etc. could not only rapidly gain more than 100,000 members but begin to function like Lenin’s party. Keep in mind, the Russian Social Democracy did not make a litmus test on whether to support the Girondins or the Jacobins. It was all about how to struggle against the Czar. Even when the Mensheviks opportunistically supported the Cadets, this was not a split question.

In the late 1950s, the American Trotskyists had trouble figuring out Fidel and Che. Unlike the SWP, the July 26th Movement did not have interminable debates about what went wrong in the USSR or what attitude to take toward Nasser or Sukarno. It was focused narrowly on getting rid of Batista and gaining freedom from American imperialism. The Trotskyist leaders viewed the July 26th movement as a “blunt instrument” that only succeed by taking power because Batista was such an isolated and weak figure, like a house whose foundation had been eaten away by termites. In reality, Fidel and Che were far sharper than their left critics because they understood the need for broad unity unlike the tiny Trotskyist groups in Cuba that saw themselves as the future vanguard of the Cuban revolution even if they were ignored by the masses.

For the USA, the question of armed struggle is not on the agenda, notwithstanding the black bloc antics that have thankfully receded into the background over the past couple of years. The main challenge is advancing the class struggle against not only Trump but the entire political and economic status quo. You get a feel for the potential for a broad-based movement by looking at the widespread support for Occupy Wall Street and even by the rapid growth of the DSA.

In fact, the DSA is the kind of organization that is needed today because its “big tent” approach allows for people with variegated ideological predispositions to join and become actively involved with all sorts of struggles. Unfortunately, its pro-Democratic Party orientation prevents me from recommending it.

I have no idea what the next step for ex-ISOers is. I can say this. From what I have seen of its publications and participation in various struggles, they are very capable and principled despite having failed to respond to the leadership’s abuse of power much earlier. As an ex-SWPer who voted for all sorts of outrageous disciplinary measures in a decade of membership, I understand how this happens. It is called peer pressure. I can’t turn the clock back but I can certainly do everything in my power to warn the next generation to not make the mistakes we made.

In my post-SWP political career, there have been two figures that have had a major influence on my thinking about “Leninism”. One was Peter Camejo, who founded the North Star Network in the early 80s to unite the left. It had a short shelf-life but the ideas behind it still make good sense. Besides Peter, there was the Socialist Union of the 1950s that was founded by Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman in the same spirit as North Star. I was close to both Peter Camejo and to Sol Dollinger, who was a veteran of the Socialist Union that subscribed to the Marxism list in the early 2000s. Both Peter and Sol supported the ISO as the best thing happening on the left. I am not sure how they’d be reacting to its dissolution but I am sure that they would have high hopes for the ex-members figuring things out for themselves and moving forward.

When the ISO was dealing with the convulsions inside its ranks over the 2013 sexual assault five years ago, I wrote an article for CounterPunch titled “Notes on a Staggering ISO” whose conclusion is just as appropriate now as it was back then:

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 Louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.