A guide to bad arguments and distractions

One of the elements of the degeneration of our democratic structures has been an infestation of distractions and bad arguments, sometimes called logical fallacies, that have all too often replaced reasoned debate. If we are to renew our democratic culture, we need to recognize these problems in both other comrades’ arguments and our own. It must be emphasized that while this document was written in preparation for debate around the ISO Renewal Faction criticisms, most of the these have been going around for years, and they aren’t acceptable in any debate.

  1. That’s not Leninist
  2. That’s anarchist
  3. That’s anti-leadership
  4. The ISO is under attack!
  5. These criticisms should have been brought up earlier
  6. This is the wrong way to bring these issues up
  7. They’re on their way out of the ISO
  8. Why should we care, they’re just ex-members
  9. They want to destroy the ISO!
  10. Of course they would say that, they’re middle class
  11. Here’s a list of exciting things!
  12. That’s factionalizing
  13. Other problems

That’s not Leninist

The ISO describes its organizational practice as Leninist; this means that there is a body of ideas about organization that we learned from studying Lenin and the Bolshevik party, agreed on, then packaged together and called “Leninism”. There’s nothing wrong with naming a body of ideas, of course–although the fact that so many other groups also call their organizational ideas “Leninism”, no matter how wildly different their practice is from ours and from each others, indicates that the label is of limited use.

If “Leninism” were just a convenient label, it would be useless as an argument; saying that we have (for instance) unelected district heads “because we’re Leninists” is saying that we do it because that’s what we decided is the right thing to do.

When “Leninism” is used to invoke some kind of historical authority, however, it’s far worse.

Why it’s wrong

  1. Just because something is called “Leninism”, that doesn’t mean it has anything to do with Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov’s actual practice.
  2. The fact that Lenin did something doesn’t mean it was the correct thing to do at the time.
  3. Even if it was correct in early twentieth century pre-revolutionary Russia, that doesn’t mean it’s right in modern-day America.
  4. Finally, just because we say we use a particular practice doesn’t mean we actually do it.

Every single resistance movement throughout history that has had any kind of success has adopted organizational practices based on its specific circumstances–and the really successful ones changed their practices as their circumstances changed (and changed them). To simply do something that someone else did and expect it to work for us is anti-historical. And those who think they’re merely copying Lenin’s methods with adjustments for local conditions should note that Lenin himself thought he was copying Social-Democratic methods with adjustments for local conditions–and he was very wrong about that.

The right way

To correctly defend a practice on solid historical ground, we’d have to establish that (1) it was actually done by the Bolsheviks, (2) it worked, (3) the reasons it worked can be translated effectively to the present conditions, and (4) we’re doing it correctly.

If we can’t do that, we should just argue about what’s the right thing to do here and now without trying to claim historical authority.


Many of the same points here could also be made for the label “Marxism”. When used as an argument, though, “Marxist” usually has a specific methodological meaning separate from “what Marx did”. Most of the time when people in the ISO call an argument “non-Marxist”, they mean it’s “non-historical-materialist”–that is, it doesn’t take into account the way the material conditions that affect people’s lives shape the social structures and constrain the possibilities for struggle. So calling something “non-Marxist”–in that specific sense–is fine, as long as we then explain why that is. But we should never defend a practice or idea simply because “we’re Marxists”.

That’s anarchist

Why it’s wrong

Of course, it’s absurd to speak about anarchism as if it’s a coherent set of ideas. But to the extent that there is a definable anarchism, it shares too much with Marxism for us to simply condemn it by name. Opposition to the police, the major political parties or even capitalism is often dismissed as anarchism in wider society, so there’s no value in saying that an idea is wrong just because anarchists believe it.

The right way

We can and should criticize those anarchist ideas that we disagree with, but we need to stop using “anarchist” as an insult. For those seeking to really engage with anarchist ideas, Eric Kerl’s ISR article is a good start.

That’s anti-leadership

Why it’s wrong

This is typically used to amalgamate criticisms of the current (local or national) leadership into criticisms of the ISO’s approach to leadership, which is portrayed as beyond debate. This is wrong, and should be unnecessary – the current leadership can defend their ideas politically themselves. In fact, that’s a large part of what leadership means to the ISO.

But a debate on practice can certainly become a debate on method, and if someone really is questioning the current concept of leadership in the ISO, so what? Our methods are always open to criticism and we should change them as needed.

The right way

If someone criticizes our idea of leadership, we should engage with that criticism in an open and honest way; if they’re merely criticizing the current leadership, we should do the same. Saying that they’re “anti-leadership” is not a response.

The ISO is under attack!

Why it’s wrong

There actually was an incident a while back where members of the Spartacist League physically assaulted one of our leading comrades. Apart from that, though, the ISO has never been “under attack”. Anyone who thinks that spirited debate is a form of “attack” should know that they’re organizing with revolutionaries, and if we get what we want we’ll be facing much more than criticism.

The right way

If there are gangs of fascists roaming the streets, or the government is actively harassing or imprisoning the ISO, we should probably deal with that first and put other concerns on the back-burner. Otherwise, we are not “under attack”.

These criticisms should have been brought up earlier

The democratic crisis in the ISO has indeed meant that criticisms tend to be bottled up until they can’t be contained. This is a real problem, but the solution is to provide frequent opportunities for discussion–not to condemn criticisms after the fact.

Why it’s wrong

The fact that a criticism is badly timed doesn’t mean it’s not true.

The right way

Timing is everything in politics, and tactical criticisms certainly lose value with time. Still, we must be able to have full assessments of all our political decisions, and negative assessments are crucial.

This is the wrong way to bring these issues up

This is all too often the first thing a new member hears when they bring up their concerns or even ideas, and it can discourage them from ever bringing them up again.

Why it’s wrong

Unfortunately, for those of us in ISO Renewal, experience has shown us that there isn’t a right way to be critical of the current leadership. Even when a supposedly right way is explicitly provided, it can quickly become the wrong way after we do it.

The right way

The only correct way to tell a comrade that they’re doing it wrong is to provide a real and effective way to do it right and help them through it. To do otherwise is to suppress dissent.

They’re on their way out of the ISO

In the present context, this is more of a threat than an argument.

Why it’s wrong

This is a self-fulfilling prophecy. When comrades develop views that are different from the ISO’s current positions, the discussion should be had out in the open–so that both sides can be convinced. Characterizing comrades with disagreements as being “on their way out” encourages others to ignore their arguments, making it harder for them to get support for their views and eventually ensuring that they do leave–and that nothing is learned.

The right way

If people are leaving the ISO–as many have done in the past few years–then it’s a sign that we’re doing something wrong. We need to prioritize the concerns of the people who might leave, not dismiss them.

Why should we care, they’re just ex-members

Of course, this one has come up a lot recently in response to the criticisms of the ISO from ex-members’ groups, which have also encouraged and been encouraged by opposition inside the ISO.

Why it’s wrong

Putting aside the issue of those who have been driven out, people leave the ISO voluntarily for a variety of reasons. If they left because their politics became incompatible with ours in a fundamental way, there may not be much to say. But this is usually not the case, and the attitude of seeing non-members as either contacts or enemies is more suited to a sect or cult than a real political group fighting for mass self-emancipation.

The right way

Todd Chretien’s response to Scott J is an example of actual engagement with political arguments from ex-members.

They want to destroy the ISO!

There have been a number of people who left the ISO feeling bitter because they weren’t taken seriously, but this has been brought up recently against the recent ex-members’ groups and the opposition inside the ISO.

Why it’s wrong

First of all, if that many members or ex-members of our small group actually did want to destroy it, that would say much more about us than about them.

And, even if it were true, it wouldn’t negate their arguments; Trotsky’s pamphlet was called Their Morals and Ours, not Their Facts and Ours.

More importantly, though, the whole thing is ridiculous. Those of us in the ISO Renewal Faction have spent between 2 and 17 years of our lives building, defending and financially supporting the ISO. This has taken much dedication, time, and sacrifice, and we count the time we spent pointing out problems and proposing solutions as part of that revolutionary project. Saying we’re out to destroy the ISO is fear-mongering that’s clearly meant to prevent rational discussion of real problems. It has no place in our organization.

The right way



It should be noted that the most important of the ex-members’ critiques, at Socialist Outpost, is also the most comradely and helpful.

Of course they would say that, they’re middle class

Or white, male, straight, cis, etc. Marxism was created by dead white men, some of whom were loaded–and the ISO itself has more than its share of Brown and Columbia alumni. So these kinds of arguments (called class-baiting, race-baiting, etc.) haven’t been too popular with us. But they have started to come up and they aren’t helpful.

Why it’s wrong

The myriad attacks and humiliations that make up modern-day American racism certainly do provide an education on the subject of injustice, and the same could be said for every other form of oppression. But facing a particular form of oppression doesn’t automatically give someone insight into the structural roots of that oppression or how to fight it; if it did, we would be getting our perspectives on racism and sexism from Barack Obama and Sarah Palin. The kind of collective understanding of oppression we need will require years of analysis, history and debate involving many people–including, crucially, those with first-hand experience.

But ultimately, the only way that millions of working class people will learn to fight oppression is to engage in unified struggle against capitalism–including all the oppressions it employs. Baiting can only hold back that struggle.

The right way

None of this is to deny the crucial role that personal experience plays in the development of political consciousness. And the recent attention in the ISO to the way oppression operates on an interpersonal level is very welcome. If someone is arguing about the political effects of police harassment, rape culture or the price of milk then it’s entirely right to say “Comrade, I face this every day and I know what I’m talking about”–and to follow it up with an explanation. But lack of experience shouldn’t be used to dismiss a valid argument.

Here’s a list of exciting things!

Kshama Sawant! Ecosocialism! Syriza! Mass strikes in Greece! Revolution in Egypt! And Tunisia! And Syria! The CTU strike! Occupy Wall Street! Shipping shutdowns! The student strikes in Quebec! And Chile! Slutwalks! Trayvon Martin protests! Walmart walkouts! Fast food strikes! Republic Windows and Doors! Some poll about socialism! Etcetera!

How could we waste our time on internal stuff when all these things are going on?

Why it’s wrong

Listing things in this manner is sometimes intended to make a point about the nature of the period, but the fact that we’ve seen these lists throughout at least the past 10 years indicates that they don’t tell us much; outside of a fascist crackdown, there’s always some sort of exciting movement going on.

But these lists are often used as a distraction from criticisms. Yes, things are happening that we have to react to and intervene in–but that’s exactly why we need to figure out how to react and where to intervene. And if there’s something wrong with the process by which we figure these things out, we need to fix it.

As an example, Kshama Sawant’s election is certainly exciting, and has reopened the conversation about socialists and elections. But the ISO’s endorsement came very late, we didn’t dedicate many resources to the campaign and we totally stayed out of her first run.

It’s not enough to merely change our line; we have to admit that our old position was wrong and understand the process by which we came to that position.

The right way

Outside the ISO, there are many people who think that the (American) working class is done for and there’s no hope for resistance–the kind of thing the capitalists want us to believe. In that context, and only in that context, listing a few exciting things is good way to argue.

That’s factionalizing

This accusation has been around for a while, long before the ISO had a real faction–some comrades have been accused of being factional before they even knew what a faction was. In fact, this was a self-fulfilling prophesy; suppressing debates by calling them “factional” was one of the practices that led to an actual faction.

Why it’s wrong

It’s senseless–if someone has a minority viewpoint, why shouldn’t they organize with like-minded people to develop their ideas and win support? That’s a significant part of what the ISO is doing itself, and what we should be training people to do in unions and everywhere else!

The right way

The practice of ongoing (or “permanent”, to use the Trotskyist term) factions is certainly contentious. But history has not been kind to the idea that repressing factions makes things any better, and neither has the ongoing crisis in the British SWP. The only way to deal with long-term factions is to let the disagreements be had out in the open, where they can be fully developed and measured against the real social conditions that we face collectively. This document is a contribution to that process.

Other problems

This list is incomplete, of course; one significant omission is the extremely dangerous method of expressing disagreement only to the leadership, which then deals with it as a problem. There’s also the problem of directly excluding anyone who takes an opposing view from the discussion, thus ensuring a boring non-debate. But by avoiding the methods listed here, we can substantially improve our democratic culture and make it much easier deal with the very real problems facing our organization.

Yuval S (Boston)

This is a Discussion article; it does not define faction policy and is not binding on members of the faction.

6 thoughts on “A guide to bad arguments and distractions

  1. “Finally, just because we say we use a particular practice doesn’t mean we actually do it.”

    Could you clarify that a little bit? I’m not totally sure if I’m interpreting that correctly.

    • In my opinion that means, a group could claim to be democratic centralist while actually all its decisions are effectively made by a small few. Or maybe a group talks about the importance of connecting with movements but doesn’t succeed in doing so. Etc etc. Many groups have talking points which they don’t actually implement when you give it a critical look.

      • Pat, what I mean is that an honest understanding of our own practices, without idealism or reverence, is necessary for the development of any kind of theory including historical analogy.
        This is most crucial when applied to democratic structures, as Saturnite points out, but applies generally. There needs to be an understanding of how we actually decide things, how we actually intervene in movements, how we’re actually educating members, even how we actually use our newspaper – or else we’re measuring a particular reading of history against idealized goals and slogans.

  2. This is a really great explanation of the many logical fallacies that people have been hearing. When a few of us were viewed as dissidents in our branch two years ago these a number of these baseless accusations were used to discredit us. I hope every member of the ISO and other left groups read this. Thanks again!

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