The organizational crisis and its political roots

The International Socialist Organization (ISO) has been in a general crisis since 2009. This has not been experienced or understood as a general crisis, but rather a series of disconnected and personalistic branch crises. But if we merely list the crises that we know about, the general nature of the problem becomes clear:

  • In 2009-11, political disagreements in the Bay Area result in the departure of six longstanding cadre; the Steering Committee is directly involved.
  • From 2009-11, a series of disagreements in the Chicago district–many of which were never raised to a political level–results in the departure of seven longstanding cadre (the Socialist Outpost group); members of the Steering Committee are directly involved, in particular the National Secretary.
  • In 2010, a modest document on recruiting and retaining members of color draws a furious reply from the New York City District Committee, throwing the district into crisis; the Steering Committee is involved, encouraging the DC to issue a “hard” reply. The repercussions of this reemerge in 2013, when a (correct) attempt to apologize for the reply reopens unresolved political problems.
  • In 2010, an expulsion in Washington DC leads to the resignation of eight other members–most (if not all) of the branch’s members of color. The expulsion is very possibly justified, but handled so badly that major damage is done to the branch; the Steering Committee is directly involved.
  • In 2010, differences in Boston over the possibilities for building a branch in Cambridge culminate in the resignation under duress of a leading cadre member and the subsequent loss of several members and contacts; the Steering Committee is involved via the Northeast Regional Organizer, who acts (by his own account) as its representative.
  • In 2013, Shaun J is publicly slandered by the Boston leadership, leading to his resignation; “coincidentally” he is the leading critic of the local and national political perspectives. Although the Steering Committee is not involved in that attack, they panic when Shaun rejoins the group, condemning his branch leadership as “provocateurs” and threatening their expulsion.

Even in branches where we cannot identify any particular cataclysm, we observe serious organizational problems:

  • The Los Angeles branch is extremely passive; while individual members may be quite active, the branch as a collective takes virtually no role in directing comrades’ activity. Our teacher comrades, for instance, operate as a fully-independent detachment.
  • The Seattle branch is, similarly, less a branch and more a series of related clubs. Furthermore, the sectarianism of the local (and national) leadership toward Socialist Alternative meant that the branch was a severe latecomer to the Sawant campaign.
  • Most of the Texas branches have shrunk significantly or collapsed. In Austin, the oldest Texas branch with the most cadre, about a dozen members have been lost in the last few months.

Taken altogether, it is likely that the majority of ISO members have experienced some form of organizational crisis, at least among those who have been members more than three years.

At the very least, we think the Steering Committee should have communicated these arguments, disagreements, and problems to the whole of the organization. We think it is the responsibility of leadership to bring forth such issues so they can be thought through and debated by the whole of the organization.

It is also likely that the organization is much smaller than claimed. At the last Convention, a member of the Steering Committee (Ahmed S) estimated the ISO’s size to be about 800. However, we know from the latest report of the National Committee that many “members” pay no dues. The NYC district has 120 members on paper, but the number of members active on a week-to-week basis is lower, with turnout at district events usually between 70 and 80. The Bay Area claims 75 members, but at most 40 attended the recent Pre-Convention meeting. This suggests that our true membership–comrades who pay dues and take an active role in the organization–is more like 500.

The organizational crisis in the ISO is therefore an immanent crisis; that is, a failure to progress even by the organization’s own metrics of success, especially membership growth and retention. Comrades who accuse us of “crisis-mongering” merely shut their eyes in the face of objective realities, many of which are admitted by the leadership, even if they fail to put the pieces together themselves.

Clearly “something happened” around 2009. To fully understand what that was, though, one needs to put the preceding 30-odd years of ISO history into some perspective.

In his 1973 report on the British International Socialists, written for its US sister group, Sam Farber makes a very insightful point:

Those who would have us imitate our British comrades should take careful note of the key role played by the theoretical “capital” that the IS built during the sixties…which greatly enhanced its understanding of British society and the British working-class movement. Since they have worked out their politics and theory, they do not need to engage in endless rediscussion of the line whenever they want to make a new organizational turn.

Farber highlights in particular the IS’s sophisticated analysis of reformism, combining the economic and political planes, and the group’s (closely related) rank-and-file strategy.

This begs the question: what was the ISO’s “theoretical capital”? Because it was very successful, albeit in relative terms; that is, the ISO, under basically its current leadership since 1983, grew roughly an order of magnitude over the neoliberal period–while every other group on the far left collapsed. Groups that were once much bigger and more influential than the ISO, such as the Communist Party or Socialist Workers Party (US), are now much smaller and weaker than us (although we are still smaller and weaker than they were 30 years ago).

So what was our theoretical capital? Surely the answer is: the downturn perspective.This was the argument, initially developed by Tony Cliff in the late 1970s, that the trajectory of class struggle was headed downward after a sustained ascent from the mid-1960s. After being adopted by the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) after a long debate–Cliff was, at first, in a minority on the leadership, but insisted on his right to bring his views before the membership–the downturn perspective was exported to the SWP’s sister groups.

The downturn perspective fell rather short of a characterization of the conjuncture, but it did suggest strategic conclusions that were quite correct: a shift from agitation to propaganda, a shift from workplace to campus, and rejection of “regroupment” efforts on the far left. These strategies were implemented and met with success, becoming the standard practice of the group, the “routines and methods” that we recognize today: individual recruitment, branch meetings, paper sales aimed primarily at the “general public,” educational conferences, a certain standoffishness to the rest of the far left, etc.

From the mid-1990s, the SWP and, following the SWP, the ISO, abandoned the downturn perspective in favor of the “transitional period” perspective (TPP), stating that the downturn was over and an upturn in class struggle was in the future. This new perspective did express some important new realities in US politics, in particular the fall of the USSR and the turn away Reaganism; however, the downturn in class struggle continued. Hence the perspective was basically wrong.

Fortunately–or rather unfortunately–the TPP was something of an empty shell. The one clear thing it did suggest–that the level of class struggle should not tend to decrease–was false. Other than that it didn’t really say anything, making it “compatible” with whatever wound up occurring. It accommodated a retrospective rather than a predictive politics: you couldn’t say what was going to happen, but you could explain the “transitional” nature of what had already happened.

All that being said, the “routines and methods” developed in the 1980s continued to be successful in the 1990s. Why? Because the political period had not fundamentally changed–we remained in the neoliberal phase of capitalism. However, the opportunities for individual recruitment improved. Attitudes toward radicalism became more accepting as organized radicalism continued to retreat; the collapse of the USSR made Stalinism less of a “hang-up” while also validating the idea of capitalism as the “end of history.”

Problems with our organizational methods began to manifest seriously during the “late neoliberalism” of the 2000s. Practically, a bunch of students recruited in the 1990s are going to be a bunch of non-students in the 2000s; so a campus focus stops fitting the membership. Deeper social transformations, such as the penetration of the Internet into everyday life, were also engaged, affecting Socialist Worker most obviously, but also challenging the group’s “common sense” about what could and should be aired publicly. But these issues were “masked,” in a sense, by the post-9/11 reaction: there was an obvious and true explanation for any difficulties the organization may have been experiencing.

Matters only really came to a head after the crash of 2008 and the onset of the Great Recession. The organization was right to say that this was the onset of a new economic and therefore political period; however, the “transition period” perspective now took its inevitable revenge on us, because by its logic, we were in an upturn. This caused the leadership to profoundly exaggerate the political break with neoliberalism and predict an immediate rise in class struggle; when in fact the break with neoliberal policy has been severely retarded by the persistence of a very low level of class struggle and a still-tiny international radical left.

The leadership perspectives were deeply wrong, but beginning in 2009 a sequence of arguments within particular branches or districts leads to the departure of cadre who diverged from the line (often without any consciousness that they were doing so). This included both comrades who thought that the leadership was too sanguine (eg, the Bay Area group) and those who felt that it is not sanguine enough (eg, the Boston group in 2010).

In the meanwhile, the perspectives’ confrontation with reality lead to a sequence of political zig-zags. The Convention 2009 prediction of rising class struggle is (correctly) acknowledged to be wrong at Convention 2010–albeit without a deeper reexamination of the implications. For Convention 2011, with the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings in the background and the Wisconsin occupation underway, the return of “two-sided class struggle” is declared, and a wave of public sector union struggles is said to be on the cards.

This last prediction turns out to be not only false, but anti-true: public sector unions are defeated without a struggle almost everywhere. Occupy comes “out of nowhere” in the fall of 2011–and seemingly goes back to whence it came several months later. From this point forward, the Center goes into drift mode. The leadership does not even write a perspectives document for Convention 2012; the document for Convention 2013 is a poorly-transcribed extemporaneous speech that moreover appears too late (14 days before Convention) to be discussed seriously. (The leadership’s proposed perspectives for Convention 2014 are addressed elsewhere in the platform.)

To sum up, the political roots of the ISO’s organizational crisis lie in the group’s failure to adequately theorize the neoliberal phase of capitalism. Its past practices are increasingly ineffective in a new conjuncture, but it lacks the “theoretical capital” to invest in the ideation of strategy. Itself impoverished in ideas, the leadership has adopted a defensive posture, concerned–in many ways legitimately–that a politically weak organization cannot handle the internal struggles that will be required to generate and test new ideas. But there is no alternative to this internal struggle if the organization is to progress.

6 thoughts on “The organizational crisis and its political roots

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