On the organizational perspectives of the ISO leadership

[I began writing this during Convention, but the Renewal Faction’s exclusion from Convention, followed two days later by our expulsion from the ISO, led me to abandon it. However, as it contains some possibly useful considerations of a general nature, plus some possibly funny jokes, I’ve decided to publish it, in spite of its incompleteness and abrupt ending. –SJ]

The “Organizational Perspectives” of the Steering Committee appear in Pre-Convention Bulletin (PCB) #27, which was promulgated to the International Socialist Organization (ISO) membership–and dozens of others who happen to be on an “internal” list–on 14 February 2014 at 6:31PM. The Convention began the next morning; that is, the Convention is expected to pass judgement on a document that it will have seen just the night before. Or if you want the real truth: it is not expected to pass judgement on the document. It is expected to accept it.

An amusing aside: all of the documents in PCB#27 are submitted by the Steering Committee (SC) or its members, with the partial exception of the report from the Rules Commission, which contains four SC members (out of six total). The declared deadline for PCB submissions was 12 February; yet one of the documents in PCB#27 was a reprint of an article by Mike Ely that first appeared on 13 February. Thus we see that the Center has “helped itself” to the bulletin after its own deadline, with the nifty effect that it is impossible for anyone to respond to them. This is the kind of bureaucratic trick to which ISO “dissidents” are quite accustomed–and perhaps the kind of thing that Comrade Ely might have inquired about before lecturing on “revolutionary ethics” to the applause of the leadership faction.

Be that as it may. The “Organizational Perspectives” (OP) document shows every sign of being written in a hurry: it’s poorly-edited and desultory in substance, like a necklace strung together indifferently from heterogeneous pieces of macaroni. Now in fairness to the SC, my reply is also written in a hurry. In fairness to me, I don’t get paid to do this.

On broad political matters the OP makes no advance on what the SC has already published, which Renewal has already criticized at length. I will only note, as it is one of my “favorite” leadership faction errors, that the analysis of aggregate data–with the notable and telling exception of opinion polls–remains completely foreign to the Center. Instead a series of events, great and small, are “plucked out” of recent history in order to “prove” whatever the leadership faction is saying. No one less than our exalted friend Lenin knew the bankruptcy of this method, writing that “in view of the extreme complexity of the phenomena of social life it is always possible to select any number of examples or separate data to prove any proposition.” But it is practically a law of political life that those who shout the most about “Leninism” have the least idea of what Lenin was up to.

The Center’s broad organizational proposals–which I will punctuate with exclamation points to make them seem more exciting–are: public meetings! paper sales! Marxist education! The comfy routines of the organization, those warm hoary chestnuts, that every member who can think knows are not working. This is why it has not been only Renewal comrades who have expressed discontent at the state of the group (although I think we have done more than anyone to link and politicize the array of organizational problems). All of the critical voices in the ISO have been completely ignored.

Be that as it may. Some routines are better than others. Paper sales are, of course, universally despised: probably the one thing that all former (and plenty of current) members agree on is that it sucks to sell Socialist Worker. The devotion to the print paper is a hilarious anachronism in the age of social media and smart phones. This does not mean that putting ink on dead trees is outmoded in all circumstances. The OP, for instance, notes that many Occupy encampments started their own print papers. Very true–but if you’re camped out in a shared physical space, a print paper makes a lot of organic sense.

Additionally, the Occupy papers were intensely local, politically diverse, and “near the action.” How any of this translates into an argument for a tendentious nationwide socialist tabloid monthly, published and mostly written by full-timers in Chicago, and shipped to branches via “scaffolding” provided by UPS or FedEx, is unclear.

Marxist education, on the other hand, is an unambiguously good idea. For a group that has a lot of weird ideas about itself, the ISO has always been frank in admitting its low level of theoretical development. But the question rarely asked is: why is it chronically unable to get better? I dealt with this question to some extent in another article; while I think what I said there was true, one should also admit that, here as always, the fish rots from the head. Ahmed Shawki, for example, is the editor of what amounts to the ISO’s theoretical journal, the International Socialist Review. For the journal he has written, by my count, three articles in the last ten years (not counting interviews). Lenin, for what it’s worth, wanted to throw Axelrod, Zasulich, and Potresov off the Iskra editorial board for writing more articles than that in less than a third of the time.

You can advance theoretically with a top-down culture if the leadership’s actually productive. You could also do it, conceivably, if the leadership were unproductive but relaxed. But a leadership that produces very little yet simultaneously demands that all theoretical innovation originate from itself is not going to take a group very far intellectually. Thus the ISO is stimulating for a newcomer to Marxism–because it’s genuinely exciting to discover Marxist ideas–but generally cannot guide its members beyond the very basics. This is also why the group has been largely at a loss to relate to the renewed interest in left-wing and Marxist theory, while a sophisticated newcomer like Jacobin has leapt from success to success.

All that being said, in my view the really crucial aspect of the OP is the call for greater centralization, aka “The need for greater organizational cohesion” (the subhead so nice, they used it twice). This runs notably counter to what Renewal proposed, and one is tempted to guess that it was worked out under the guidance of Mao’s aperçu, “We shall support whatever our enemies oppose and oppose whatever our enemies support.” (More Kasama influence?) Certainly there was no hint of the astonishing proposal to create what amounts to a Politburo inside the Steering Committee until it was “dropped” on the membership in PCB#20, released eight days prior to Convention. Regardless of how well or poorly thought-through the centralization push is, however, it responds to something very real.

It is fairly clear from a number of documents–though you need to read between the lines–that the ISO is being pulled apart because neither the objective nor subjective conditions exists for political centralization of the class struggle: there are neither really nationwide mass movements, nor a vanguard layer of the working class that seeks coordinated action. As the handful of comrades retained from the 1990s and 2000s have grown older, some have tried to sink roots in their neighborhoods and workplaces, pulling them away from the branch “center” with its “routines” divorced from everyday life. Simultaneously the campus branches have mostly collapsed as debt-burdened students increasingly juggle academics with full-time work; this, plus the consequent delay in attaining a degree, means that “student life” as a distinct “phase” of early adulthood is being effaced, save perhaps at the elite campuses.

Renewal’s response to all this has been basically to accept that it’s being driven by forces well beyond a small group of revolutionaries’ control; and to try to devise structures that fit the period better, relying on local autonomy informed by a national discussion and debate. Or as our nifty slogan has it: federalize the initiative, centralize the political lessons. (This explains, incidentally, the “inconsistency” discovered by the leadership faction in our documents. “In one document you say that decentralization proves a crisis,” they cry, “and in the next you promote federalism!” The point, of course, is that the same phenomenon may be either helpful or bad, depending on whether it comports with or defies your intentions. A fire in the fireplace is pleasant; a fire in the kitchen is not.)

The leadership faction’s response has been to pull the reins tighter, putting more power in fewer hands, while dignifying the whole thing with some prêt-à-porter Comintern quotes. The opening of the SC to members not resident in Chicago, an opportunity to broaden the social and political base of the leadership, actually manages to narrow it: four of the five new members on the SC-proposed SC slate–virtually guaranteed to pass–are ISO (CERSC?) staff, the fifth a loyalist academic. No really fresh faces, no truly fresh ideas in a leadership that will be comprised entirely of staff and academics (plus one financial speculator).

Shaun J (Cambridge, MA)

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5 thoughts on “On the organizational perspectives of the ISO leadership

  1. The point about over-reliance on public opinions polls is an interesting one. It’s a constant feature of ISO analysis which I’ve always found both deeply irritating and politically problematic. I remember particularly how this sort of data was (mis)used to bolster the ISO’s borderline popular frontist attitude toward Obama (“Cut with the enthusiasm,” remember?). One instance that stands out in my memory is Eric Ruder saying that over 70% of those surveyed thought that Obama would end the war in Afghanistan. Curious, I looked up the poll in question after I got home. It turned out he’d badly misstated the poll question, which actually was “Do you think Obama will win the war in Afghanistan?”

  2. As a long admirer of Shaun J’s inimitable writing style and penetrating political analysis, I read with considerable interest and amusement his discussion of organizational perspectives in the ISO. One gets the impression from his latest article, and his less than flattering references to Ahmed S, that he has abandoned all further hopes of being re-admitted to the ISO.

    I discovered a long time ago that the ISO national perspectives on antiwar work were subject to drastic revision every few years. Yet these dramatic shifts in antiwar strategy seldom seemed to have any solid political justification, other than that the leadership had decided to change course.

    Samson and others have correctly referred to the ISO’s near love affair with Obama after his election. I started publicly criticizing Obama three days after his election in 2008, and my critiques were posted on numerous regional and national antiwar listservs. In response, an ISO executive with a long involvement in the antiwar movement wrote to me suggesting that my comments were unhelpful, because people were really energized by the Obama victory and we needed to build on that enthusiasm. As a non-member of the ISO, I was able to give his advice the attention it deserved…………none.

  3. I think Shaun J’s article here hits on some pretty good points. Ex-Members aren’t a monolith -I don’t think that any seriously “revolutionary” organization should be completely open about everything (actually I thought the ISO was too open in some regards)- that is attempting to tear down the ISO in grudge-based sectarianism. I think the organization is severely limited for many of the reasons being brought up by Shaun J here, or the RF’s criticisms in general.

    The organization limits itself organizationally by strict -and rather passive- interpretations of Leninism that was put into praxis a hundred years ago. Aside from not changing their leadership in decades, and a lack of internal democracy, I believe that this stems from a severe lack (and open hostility toward) philosophy and political theory in the organization. The literature is dominated by the SC’s own books, in a rather shameless self-promotion, which continues to contribute to the mythologies surrounding the elder members. The books are actually very basic and very badly written. This would be all fine I suppose under the context of introducing people to Marxism for the very first time, which many of the members are experiencing. But unfortunately the ‘education’ stops there in terms of theory.

    What follows is a constant reigning-in of people discovering this stuff for the first time into rather simple Leninist-Trotskyist-Cliffist pop-philosophy, rather than a growth in intellectual engagement with the theory. It’s a total bastardization of the Marxist’s relationship with theory. Whenever I would try to introduce literature that is even slightly more sophisticated than the served-up opinions of the SC, or something that at least attempts to update the theory since the 1920’s (outside of modern interpretations of Lenin/Trotsky), I would be met with hostility and cold-shoulders. Other members, although genuinely and independently interested in theory that lies outside of the purview of accepted SC discourse, were consistently discouraged from engaging with it, and consistently shamed for taking certain positions with subtle but obvious hazing tactics.

    Unfortunately the organization continues to hold itself back, and hold back the potential of many intelligent anti-capitalists. It will continue to do so until it can seriously engage with many of these criticisms and offer real changes. Unfortunately, they are unable to see that folks like the RF are attempting in their own way to throw off these fetters for the benefit of the organization and its many young members. I quickly outgrew the organization both intellectually and in terms of my radical engagement with the ideas and praxis, and am working with many other ex-members to build real alternatives. So yes, I am building alternatives and not just ‘trying to tear down the ISO’ as many current members are saying on this board, but we must be able to recognize, engage with, and transcend the limitations of what came before.

    • It wasn’t that long ago that the ISO leadership told branches to stop having internal meetings and open them all up to the public. And not long before that, the ISO officially practiced — unofficially, it still does practice — “open recruitment” in the same manner as the British SWP. Their present hand-wringing over “security” is completely disingenuous,

      • The organizing branch meetings are hypothetically open to anyone, but they’re not advertised and new comers aren’t exactly the most welcome. That said, in practice (at my former branch anyway), there are meetings and conversations that happen internally and privately among the most ideologically swayed members of the branch that is kept secret from the public, and even kept secret from newer members. This is especially true in times of movements, like Occupy. Of course, I’m definitely not opposed to this. You just can’t be open about your strategies and tactics if you’re serious about being a revolutionary organization. I suppose I’m more opposed to the poverty of theory and philosophy in the organization, and these meetings only come to serve as a way to reign folks into a pop-philosophical Leninist stance and mythologies surrounding the ISO as an organization and its SC.

        There is open hostility to philosophy in the ISO, which is both disingenuous (as they engage in philosophy, just really lacking philosophy), and severely limiting for the organization and its members.

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