Is the International Socialist Tradition finished?

[I wrote the first draft of this essay as a report for the Renewal Faction’s second in-person meeting in late December 2013 and completed the draft below by the end of January. Although it is written from the perspective of someone still formally within the IS Tradition, it expresses a deeply critical attitude towards it–and a desire to transcend it. I have reproduced it here without revisions; even though some of the formulations are clearly outdated, I think it may still be useful to comrades who are navigating these issues. –SJ]

Given the crisis in the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the series of crises and splits in the International Socialist (IS) Tendency, and the problems we ourselves are confronting in the US International Socialist Organization (ISO), it is natural for comrades to ponder the fate of the “IS Tradition” generally. One may even ask: is the IS Tradition finished? This is, of course, an ironic nod to Alex Callinicos’s “Is Leninism finished?” but by no means do I wish to repeat the hoary IS device of asking the question in a purely rhetorical way in order to refute it.

In the first place, it’s a serious question that ought to be seriously considered. In the second place, I think that the IS Tradition is indeed finished in a quite substantial sense, as I’ll argue here.

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The great Lenin debate of 2012

(Or, the bankruptcy of “Leninism” Rediscovered)

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Over the past several decades, much of the international Left has come to question the “Leninist” party-building model that was hegemonic among Western socialists for the majority of the twentieth century. In the United States, it appears that the crisis of “Leninism” has sharpened in the years since 2008. While “Leninist” groups are notoriously prone to factional strife in general, this period seems to have witnessed an intensified tendency toward splinters and splits within these groups. Inevitably, this trend has generated new scatterings of disaffected ex-members, at least a portion of whom remain active in politics and activism. This process has been aided by the writings and (in some cases) the ongoing interventions of previous generations of ex-”Leninists,” who have, no doubt, helped many newly purged and “bureaucratically excluded” comrades to make sense of their experience within the sect-based Left. To this end, influential roles have been played by the likes of Louis Proyect and other former members of the 1970s-era U.S. Socialist Workers Party. Many former “Leninists” have also been influenced by such historical critics of sect-based socialist organizing as Hal Draper and Bert Cochran.[1] Continue reading

Assessing the Year-Long Inaction Regarding Charges of Sexual Violence in the ISO (Updated)

At last year’s convention, many members recoiled in horror at the complete mishandling of the allegations of sexual assault brought against “Comrade Delta,” a leading member of the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP). It was at this same convention that comrades discussed the case of an activist in Boston who had recently been accused of multiple cases of sexual assault. What the majority of those in attendance at the 2013 Convention did not know was that at least one member of the ISO’s Steering Committee had heard similar reports of sexual misconduct from a long-standing member in “Xville” six months prior.

The existence of these allegations emerged just over a week ago in a document included in Pre-Convention Bulletin #19. The authors of the document, “Addressing Allegations of Sexual Misconduct Made Against Members of the ISO,” argue that the current procedures of the organization do not go far enough in seriously addressing issues of sexual harassment, assault, or other forms of intimate violence. While we in the ISO Renewal Faction agree with that conclusion, when presented alone it is, at best, myopic in its understanding of the organizational dynamics that allowed a much-liked, long-term member to remain a member and elected leader of the organization a year after the allegations of the assault first emerged.

According to the Xville document, “Daniel” (the pseudonym the Xville comrades use) was accused of sexually assaulting a woman in July 2012. Though several members of the branch, including those on Branch Committee (BC), knew about the allegations, they wouldn’t become public knowledge until the following year, when an activist mentioned the case on Facebook in July 2013. Then, and only then, did this become an official branch matter.

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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.

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