Archive for the ‘International Socialist Organization’ Category

The ISO: Where the Personal Becomes Political

May 31, 2015


Lately, I have been thinking about an incident that happened when I was a member of the Los Angeles ISO branch in the late 1990’s. I think it illustrates a problem that far left groups sometimes run into.

One Saturday afternoon I received a phone call from a woman who was a member of the branch committee. She told me there was going to be an emergency branch meeting that evening and everyone was required to attend. When I asked her what this emergency was, she refused to tell me. This greatly annoyed me, because I had already made plans for the evening. However, being the “Leninist” that I thought I was, I felt obligated to go.

The meeting was held in the apartment of one of the branch members. There were about ten of us. There weren’t enough chairs, so some people sat on the floor. It turned out that the “emergency” consisted of this: two people (one of whom was the woman who called me on the phone) had been assigned the task of designing a flier for an upcoming event. One of them, the woman who called me on the phone, had gone ahead and made the flier and distributed it without consulting the other person. When this person complained to another branch committee member about this, he responded by calling her a “Menshevik”. (I’m not making this up. People in the ISO actually say things like this.)

So, this was the “emergency” that had caused me to cancel my plans. What struck me was how incredibly seriously everyone took this. (Everyone with the exception of me, that is.) A branch committee member read passages from Lenin and from James Cannon. He then lectured us about what a “cadre” is. (I swear, I’m not making any of this up.) He then claimed that there was a faction within the branch. (In the ISO, factions are considered to be very bad things.) I don’t remember much else about what was said. My mind had pretty much tuned out at this point.

When I drove home that night, I felt angry with myself for having allowed these people to waste my time with such nonsense. I was tempted to quit the ISO. But I didn’t. (The woman who was called a “Menshevik” left the ISO shortly afterwards.) I think this was because I liked the ISO’s politics, even though I didn’t always agree with what they did in practice. And I didn’t know of any other groups that had quite these same politics.

The point I’m trying to get at here is that one of the pitfalls of working in a small group is that people tend to develop strong personal ties to one another in this situation. A disagreement over a flier becomes an “emergency” that threatens to tear the group apart. It seems to me that the best way to try to avoid this sort of thing is to try to organize on as broad a basis as possible. I admit that’s not an easy thing to do, especially considering the deep divisions that exist on the Left at the moment. But I don’t see any other way to move forward.

Secrecy, the ISO, and the Left, Part 2

February 26, 2014


By now, most people on the Left have heard about the sexual assault allegation against a member of the International Socialist Organization (ISO). It is discussed in the ISO’s Internal Bulletin #19, which can be found on the Internet. What’s interesting about this is that this document was originally meant to be read by ISO members only. It appears that a disgruntled ISO member gave a bunch of the ISO’s internal documents to Ross Wolfe, who posted them on his blog, The Charnel House. This greatly angered many ISO members, even though there is nothing in these documents that is embarrassing or damaging to the ISO. Some of them said very insulting things about Wolfe. I find this inexplicable.

By now, most people on the Left have heard about the sexual assault allegation against a member of the International Socialist Organization (ISO). It is discussed in the ISO’s Internal Bulletin #19, which can be found on the Internet. What’s interesting about this is that this document was originally meant to be read by ISO members only. It appears that a disgruntled ISO member gave a bunch of the ISO’s internal documents to Ross Wolfe, who posted them on his blog, The Charnel House. This greatly angered many ISO members, even though there is nothing in these documents that is embarrassing or damaging to the ISO. Some of them said very insulting things about Wolfe. I find this inexplicable.

As I explained in my previous post, secrecy can be justified in some situations. However, most of what’s in these documents could just as well have in Socialist Worker. There is a danger in making a fetish out of secrecy. I remember when I was in the ISO, I would sometimes meet people who were hostile to our group because they saw us as secretive. As I said before, when you keep secrets, people assume you have something to hide. (Consider all the wild conspiracy theories that have circulated around the Freemasons, who are really just a glorified stag drinking club.) The ISO might consider having more openness.

Secrecy, the ISO, and the Left

February 14, 2014


Ross Wolfe, who edits the website The Charnel House has posted a number of internal documents of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) online. He claims that a disgruntled ISO member gave him these documents. At first, I was not sure what to think about this. (Personal disclosure: I am a former member of the ISO.) Mike Ely, who edits the Kasama Project website, has written an open letter to Wolfe, asking him to take the documents down. The letter is well-argued and well worth reading. Among other things, he points out:

    If we are to have necessary security cultures (and private debates) within specific left circles — we must of necessity respect the security and privacy of other organizations (even ones we consider wrong, corrupt or compromised.)

I agree with this. If the Left is going to be anything more than a sectarian hellhole, some standards of behavior need to be maintained.

I remember when I was in the ISO, their whole practice of having secret internal documents struck me as unnecessary and impractical. However, I never objected to it, mainly because I didn’t see it as important. (I remember once asking a “cadre” why we had secret documents. He replied that “sectarians” would take people’s arguments out of context and ascribe to the ISO positions that it doesn’t hold. In hindsight, I realize I should have pointed out to him that the “sectarians” were already doing this with the articles in Socialist Worker.)

I have recently discovered that some people see the ISO’s secrecy as extremely important. These people are mostly NOT in the ISO. When you do things secretly, people assume you have something to hide. Of course, I realize that in some cases secrecy is necessary, as when when a group is being targeted by the police. Aside from such situations, I believe that openness is the best policy.

In response to Ely’s letter, Wolfe has said he will take down the documents. (Except for one bulletin that deals with a controversy I will discuss in a future post.)

The ISO and the Future of the US Left

October 4, 2013


I was a member of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) for many years. When I left, it was because of health problems I was having, not because of any disagreements I had with the group. However, the recent crisis in Britain’s Socialist Workers Party (which the ISO models itself after) has caused me to have second thoughts about the viability of democratic centralism as an organizing principle. This is a question I am still grappling with.

Up until now, all of the critiques of the ISO that I have read have been either ill-informed or downright dishonest. However, a recent article on the To the Victor Go the Toils website is a refreshing change. Although I don’t entirely agree with the article’s arguments, the author, a former ISO member, makes some shrewd observations about how the group operates. This article should be read not just by people interested in the ISO, but by people who are trying to come to grips with the question of how the Left should organize in the current political climate.

Victor Toils says that the ISO places a heavy emphasis on recruitment, which jibes with my own experience with the group. The argument that was made to me by “cadre” members was that the ISO needed to have many members to accomplish its goal. And what is its goal? Victor Toils succinctly explains it:

    The goal of the ISO is to create a vanguard party. That is, a mass organization of the most militant members of the working-class, the best and most consistent fighters who know how to build workplace resistance and mass struggles but also have their eye on the larger goal of societal transformation.

    Nonetheless, the ISO does not claim to be a vanguard party, not simply because of its size but because the vanguard of the working-class does not yet exist. It will be created, they say, not by the ISO, but by the working-class itself, which will throw up leaders as class struggle increases. The goal, then, is to have an organization sufficiently large, experienced, sophisticated and rooted in the working-class in order to help shape and organize the vanguard as it is created and launch a vanguard party in the future.

If the goal of the ISO is not to become the vanguard party, but rather to influence the creation of such a party, does it really need to have a large number of members? Relatively small groups of people can sometimes have a surprisingly large amount of influence during political struggles. The Workers World Party, which is much smaller than the ISO, has (unfortunately) exerted a remarkable amount of influence in the various anti-war movements that have come and gone over the years. Even the shriveled up Communist Party has sometimes been able to exert influence in certain struggles. (Again, with unfortunate results.)

The real reason for the ISO’s need for heavy recruitment is its high turnover rate in members. I know about this from personal experience, as well as from conversations with other ISO members. During the time I was in the Los Angeles branch, it underwent an almost 100% turnover in members. There are probably a number of reasons for this. Some people eventually decide that they don’t really agree with the ISO’s politics. Others strongly disagree with a particular position the ISO has taken. Others decide that they simply don’t like having to sell the newspaper. Another reason, though, may be what Victor Toils calls the “Big Bang Theory”:

    …at some point the American working-class would explode as it did in 1934–with three mass strike in three different cities, all led by radicals–and then newly-radicalized workers would flood the organization, especially since the Stalinists were no longer an alternative. Therefore, it was necessary to urgently build and recruit and grow to meet this future challenge.

This strikes a nerve with me. When I joined the ISO in the mid-1990’s, it had a perspective that said there would soon be a huge upsurge in working class struggle. To help prepare its members for this, the leadership urged them to read Teamster Rebellion, Farrell Dobbs’s account of the 1934 Minneapolis General Strikes. (I have heard many people speak highly of this book, but I must confess that Dobbs’s turgid prose defeated me. I was unable to get more than halfway through it.)

The leadership was so impressed by this book, that they adopted the dubious “buddy system” that Dobbs describes in it. In this system, party members are divided up into groups of two. Each of these couples are required to spend a certain amount of time each week discussing Marxist theory with each other. The “cadre” assigned to me as a buddy was a person who, they said, was an experienced member who could answer all my questions about the ISO’s politics. My “buddy” turned out to be a painfully shy little man who seemed to have to force himself to look me in the eye. We met in a Manhattan coffee shop. (I joined the ISO when I was living in New York.) I found that getting him to discuss ideas of socialist politics was like pulling teeth. I remember this as one of the most awkward and uncomfortable experiences of my life. A week after this meeting, the guy quit the ISO. To my relief, I was never assigned another buddy. For months afterwards, though, I would always feel a vague sense of alarm whenever I heard someone utter the words “buddy system”.

The successful UPS strike of 1997 seemed to confirm the ISO’s perspective. However, it was not followed by an upsurge in labor struggle. Instead, Ron Carey, the leader of the strike, was railroaded out of the union on trumped up corruption charges and replaced with the genuinely corrupt Jimmy Hoffa, Jr. Even so, the ISO carried out paper sales outside UPS hubs around the country. In the Los Angeles branch, which I was then in, we managed to recruit a UPS driver after months of selling papers. It turned out, however, that what he really wanted was to shack up with one of our female members, which he succeeded in doing. The two of them then quit the ISO. The UPS paper sales were eventually discontinued because members were finding them demoralizing.

The Battle in Seattle and later the Occupy movement both raised similar hopes that were similarly dashed. The expectation of the Big Bang can lead to disappointment and in some cases demoralization. (An interesting question here is why the Big Bang hasn’t come. That is something I will have to take up at another time.)

Victor Toils also comments:

    The same leading member who renounced “The Big Bang Theory” has also praised the ISO’s work around the death penalty, in which individual members have built up real relationships with family members of death row inmates. This slow, patient work actually built up networks and relationships with working-class Blacks and Latinos who are fighting around real political issues dear to their lives. And yet, year after year, this work is deprioritized. Why? Because it is so much easier to recruit college students.

This jibes with my own observations. The Los Angeles branch was able to build strong alliances in the black community in that city because of its anti-death penalty work. It’s worth asking if that type of organizing is more valuable in the long run than recruiting college students.

Victor Toils also argues that the ISO’s “bigger and broader” approach to movement building sometimes results in it siding with liberals against radicals. This is true, but it is not necessarily a bad thing. It depends on the particular circumstances and the particular arguments made by the contending parties. There are self-styled “radicals” out there who have some dubious ideas (conspiracy theories, support for dictators, etc). Just because someone calls himself a radical doesn’t automatically mean that he is right about every issue.

This article has caused a good deal of discussion both inside and outside the ISO. Debate and discussion are always healthy things, despite what some may say.

Pham Binh and the Egyptian Revolution

August 14, 2013

I first became aware of Pham Binh during the late 2000’s. Don’t ask me why, but I had developed a fascination with British political blogs at the time. Binh would often comment on their threads. He would give the impression of being an ISO member (he had actually just left the ISO), while making snarky comments about Alex Callinicos and the British SWP. This struck me as an odd thing for someone to do.

In recent years Binh has taken to writing articles for The North Star website, which is definitely a step up from making weird sectarian comments on British political blogs. His latest article is titled Egypt’s Revolution: Democratic, Not Socialist. It begins:

    In Marxist lexicon, there are two types of revolution: democratic and socialist, or more scientifically, bourgeois-democratic and proletarian-socialist. These two types of revolution involve different class alignments, have different tasks, and lead to different outcomes, although a two-stage uninterrupted revolution that is initially democratic and becomes socialist is possible. The socialist revolution is a battle between the whole of the bourgeoisie and the proletariat for political supremacy and ends with the victory of either the capitalist or socialist social systems. The democratic revolution is a battle against autocratic rule that removes fetters on capitalist development between a great variety of classes – peasants, workers, students, landlords, capitalists, small business owners. In democratic revolutions, bourgeois forces can be found on both sides of the barricades (unlike in socialist revolutions) and their concrete outcomes can vary tremendously because of their class heterogeneity. Making accurate generalizations about democratic revolutions is difficult since they have occurred on every inhabited continent in one form or another beginning at least 300 years ago.

This sounds ponderous, but it is actually simplistic. Some revolutions don’t quite fit the neat categories that Binh posits. The American Revolution, for example, involved a number of different class forces, and it was led by an alliance between Northern merchants and Southern plantation-owners who wanted to preserve slavery. Binh’s comment at the end about the “difficulty” of “making generalizations about democratic revolutions” is perhaps meant to acknowledge this. However, Binh then proceeds as if he never made this qualification.

Binh tells us that the Egyptian revolution is a bourgeois-democratic revolution, even though the Egyptian military is defending the interests of the Egyptian bourgeoisie. And Mohamed Morsi is a bourgeois democrat, even though he tried to assume dictatorial powers. Binh therefore argues that it was a strategic blunder for the Revolutionary Socialists and other Egyptian left groups to join the millions of Egyptians calling for Morsi’s ouster. So what should these leftists do about this? Binh tells us:

    Championing the democratic revolution in Egypt now means not only condemning the coup and the SCAF-controlled interim government in words but actively organizing to reverse the coup in deeds by literally breaking Morsi out of jail and returning him to his rightful office. The weapon of criticism cannot replace the criticism of weapons, condemnation without action is phrasemongering.

    Marxists are not supporters of Morsi, but letting him rot in a Republican Guard cell and allowing the coup to proceed as planned is a death-blow to a democratic revolution barely begun and without the freedoms its victory will bring, no powerful proletarian movement can develop. Our loyalty is not to Morsi (who we will not hesitate to overthrow and defeat) but to the working class specifically and the democratic revolution generally. Breaking him out of a military jail today does not preclude arresting, overthrowing, or un-electing him tomorrow, nor does it imply an ounce of political support for the bourgeois-obscurantist Muslim Brotherhood or Morsi’s reformist ineptitude any more than the Bolsheviks’ active defense of the Kerensky government from Kornilov’s coup make them supporters of Kerensky’s strike-breaking and repression of peasant committees.

So, Binh is saying that having called for Morsi’s overthrow, the Egyptian leftists should now call for reinstating him, so that at some unspecified future moment (“tomorrow”), they can again call for his overthrow. Is he serious? Let me me point out here that calling for returning Morsi to the presidency is supporting Morsi, so it is nothing at all like the Bolsheviks’ position on Kerensky during the Kornilov coup. One of the reasons the Bolsheviks were successful in 1917 was that they maintained more-or-less consistent positions. They did not make sharp reversals, such as what Bingh is urging Egyptian leftists to do.

The Egyptian Left is facing a difficult situation, and, unlike Binh, I don’t pretend to be able to tell them what course of action they should take. One thing, however, is clear to me: the worst thing they could do is adopt a hare-brained scheme that is based on over-simplified Marxist theory and a faulty historical analogy.