Fwd: dsanet: The International Socialist Org. : An Analysis

Macdonald Stainsby mstainsby at SPAMhotmail.com
Sat Oct 2 04:53:45 MDT 1999

> >This message is from: Jason Schulman <jschulman at world.oberlin.edu>
> >
> >A very good (if typically interminable) post by Joe. :)
> >
> >As for the ISO popping up on many campuses.  You have no idea how much
> >I've wanted to raid their database and send out the following essay,
> >written by me, to all of their members.  The essay will be published in
> >the young socialist journal *HX*, edited by our own Kevin Pranis.
> >
> >---
> >
> >By Jason Schulman
> >
> >At the moment, the largest campus-based socialist organization in the
> >United States is the International Socialist Organization, with eight
> >hundred or so members.  Over the last few years, the ISO has been
> >successful in recruiting hundreds of students, and has played a
> >significant role (or has at least been noticeably present) in the
> >struggles against the sanctions on and bombing of Iraq, to end the death
> >penalty, and to save the life of Mumia Abu-Jamal.
> >
> >What is this group, and why has it been so effective in attracting
> >members and generating a public presence?  More importantly, why have
> >new members often not remained in the organization, and what can the
> >non-sectarian Left learn from its experience?  In short, what is the
> >good and the bad about the ISO?
> >
> >The ISO is an "unorthodox Trotskyist" grouping, differing with the
> >"orthodox Trotskyist" Left in that while the latter saw Stalinist Russia
> >and its satellites as "bureaucratically deformed workers' states," with
> >social bases more progressive than capitalism and therefore worthy of
> >being defended against imperialist aggression, the ISO and its sister
> >organizations see the Stalinist states as having been "state capitalist"
> >societies unworthy of any sort of political privilege.  (While the
> >collapse of Stalinism worldwide might make this argument irrelevant in
> >the eyes of most rational people, the ISO still maintains theoretical
> >orthodoxy on the matter.)  The group was founded in 1977 as the U.S.
> >branch of the "International Socialist Tendency," the largest branch of
> >which remains the Socialist Workers Party of Britain.  Unlike rival
> >campus-based Trotskyist groupings, which had decided to have their
> >members get factory jobs in order to bring revolutionary theory to the
> >blue-collar workforce, the ISO made the conscious decision to focus on
> >its college campus presence.  In the conservative 1980s, it hardly
> >seemed as if the working class was open to socialist agitation; hence,
> >the ISO concentrated on building a committed activist cadre from college
> >campuses, who would remain dedicated and ready to recruit workers when
> >the next "upturn in struggle" arose.
> >
> >Up to a point, this strategy worked.  While other far-Left groups
> >stagnated or collapsed, the ISO managed to grow, ever so slightly.  Yet
> >many of those who joined the group soon drifted away, realizing that
> >despite the ISO's rhetoric of synthesizing all militant movements for
> >social change, its real priority was - and is - the use of progressive
> >movements merely as recruiting grounds for the group, a process which is
> >seen by the ISO's top officers as defining what it means to "build the
> >socialist alternative."  As former ISO member John Lacny has put it:
> >"Then as now, the few who stayed in the group saw the high attrition
> >rate not as a sign that the ISO itself might be doing something wrong,
> >but as proof positive that not everybody was cut out to be part of the
> >would-be Vanguard of the Revolution.  The result was the creation of the
> >hardened cadres the group was designed to create, and they were hardened
> >still further by a siege mentality which was far from unjustified in
> >those years of the Grenada invasion, Rambo, Ollie North, Bitburg, and
> >Ketchup-as-Vegetable."
> >
> >These cadres would begin recruiting in earnest in the 1990s, attracting
> >radical-minded youth with their loud, brash presence and relentless
> >poster-plastering.  This frenzied level of activity - the ISO allows for
> >no "part-time revolutionaries" - is largely financed by members going
> >into debt for the sake of the organization.  While the group's
> >headquarters in Chicago might take money from the various branches, it
> >never gives out money.  (Indeed, the employees for the ISO's bi-weekly
> >paper, Socialist Worker, have gone without pay for weeks at a time.)
> >While this intense devotion makes for some fairly stunning successes -
> >the ISO recruited around two hundred people in one week during the UPS
> >strike last year - few new recruits stick around for very long.  The
> >main reason is that the group is simply incapable of functioning in a
> >truly democratic fashion.
> >
> >While there might be an appearance of democratic debate within the group
> >at the branch level, ultimately, everything is pretty much decided by
> >the center in Chicago. One observer has noted that floor discussion at
> >ISO branch meetings is limited to national and local leaders; branch
> >cadres are effectively frozen out from taking the floor.  While
> >favorites are selected by the national leadership to give talks, the
> >cadres have to be satisfied with writing questions on "speaker slips"
> >which might - or might not - be addressed from the podium.  Such
> >meetings are intended to consolidate members' adherence to the ISO's
> >theoretical "line," which - despite leaders' denials - is fixed in
> >stone.  While those who disagree with one aspect of the line or another
> >are not technically unwelcome in the organization, when members voice
> >these disagreements, they are badgered by the leadership, who intend to
> >essentially pound the erroneous thinking out of the deviator.
> >
> >All of this is par for the course in most "Marxist-Leninist"
> >organizations.  And the ISO certainly does romanticize the years of
> >Leninism under Lenin in Russia, just as it condemns the years following
> >Lenin's death and the eventual exile of Leon Trotsky.  While the ISO
> >might admit that "mistakes were made" by the Bolsheviks before Stalin's
> >rise to power, they are all said to be purely the result of "objective
> >conditions"; no basic problems with Leninist thought or practice are
> >ever acknowledged.  The ISO claims to maintain the "democratic
> >centralist" mode of organization, in which internal debate is ostensibly
> >unrestricted, but once the entire group votes on a particular question,
> >all members are required to defend that position in public as the
> >position of the group.  In ISO practice, this means that dissidents must
> >voice a "line" which they do not believe, lest they be denounced as
> >"petit bourgeois dilettantes" by the line-enforcers.  Those unable to
> >follow the line either leave or are kicked out with due haste, hence the
> >ISO's high membership turnover rate.
> >
> >Effectively, the ISO considers itself to have a monopoly on radical
> >wisdom in the U.S., and hence it is unwilling to recognize the merits of
> >views outside its particular version of Leninism.  This sectarianism
> >manifests itself in the group's view of Black radical organizations, for
> >example; groups such as the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement and the
> >Black Panther Party are judged solely on how closely they resembled the
> >Bolsheviks, or at least what the ISO thinks the Bolsheviks were. The ISO
> >has no appreciation for the indigenous Black organizations or politics
> >such as those which emerged from Mississippi in the early 1960s, or
> >Montgomery in the late 1950s.  These are seen as starting points in the
> >natural progression toward union based Black militancy - which was
> >weakened, in the group's eyes, by Black Nationalist tendencies in both
> >DRUM and the BPP.  The line on other movements is identical - the more
> >like the Russian Revolution, the better.  Any deviation is not a result
> >of differing conditions, but of "alien class forces" within the
> >movement. (The ISO condemns the whole of feminism, as men don't "really"
> >benefit from sexism under capitalism, just as the solution to racism is
> >simply "Black and White Unite and Fight!!")
> >
> >Despite the ISO's flaws, on many college campuses it is the only
> >socialist "game in town," and it will doubtless continue to recruit
> >students (and the occasional non-student worker) who have come to
> >radical political conclusions.  It is, after all, apparently doing
> >something right, if only by being loud, active and organized.  The fact
> >that it seems to have a simple answer to every political question does
> >not necessarily hurt, either - after all, this was also true of Ronald
> >Reagan.  Those of us in openly pluralist socialist organizations should
> >not attempt to emulate the ISO's frenzied level of activity, as it leads
> >to "burnout" for many.  But we could stand to have a far greater public
> >presence.  (In New York, at least, it is rare that one sees banners or
> >posters proclaiming "Committees of Correspondence" or "Democratic
> >Socialists of America," for example.)  While the theoretical knowledge
> >of the ISO's cadres is to be admired - their meetings and literature
> >provide a supportive and accessible introduction to Marxism and to the
> >history of the Marxist Left - we have no reason to follow their example
> >in hammering out a "line" to be enforced, even if we should aspire to
> >the greatest possible "unity in action."
> >
> >One wishes the non-sectarian Left could emulate the ISO's production of
> >slick literature and appearance of being a national, or really
> >international, organization.  This, of course, takes money - and the
> >question of how to generate funds without putting members into debt is
> >open to debate. But we should certainly take note of the ISO's focus on
> >local activism around national issues - the death penalty, police
> >brutality, etc. We have to set our agenda nationally, and encourage
> >locals to work on national and international issues (which, of course,
> >are of interest locally).
> >
> >One ex-ISO member recently suggested to me that we are currently in an
> >era where any radical grouping might achieve explosive growth, thanks to
> >the end of the Communist bogeyman.  Given the dire need of our country
> >for a mass, pluralist radical Left, one hopes he's right, lest we leave
> >the fight for socialism in the hands of an organization which - like the
> >solitary man in a empty chamber - will forever hear the echo of its own
> >voice and mistake it for the roar of the masses.
> >

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