The ISO

On Sun, 6 Dec 1998 alexlocascio@juno.com (Alex LoCascio) writes:

I'm frankly surprised that groups like Solidarity and the Committees of Correspondence don't have a larger membership base.

I would think so also, but let me comment/ask briefly two things:

1.) What are membership number of SWP let's say in comparison to Solidarity? I don't have the exact figures for Solidarity, though I think last time I read was that we had about 500+ dues paying members. My comment is that organizations like RCP, SWP, et al inflate their membership figures. From my personal experience, SWP would count among their members or supporters anyone who would subscribe to their magazine among their numbers.

2.) I think ISO, SWP, etc. get college students because one major factor: ignorance of Socialist history in the U.S. On my personal experience, when I was 17 (I'm am now 29), any organization with "socialist" in it was fine with me. When I got to the University and saw an add for the SWP, I thought, "That's it. I am joining. It's a socialist organization. What difference could there between DSA and SWP and CP? None, they are all socialist." Well, knowledge of socialist history does make a difference. I think many of that age go through the same experience.

Lou seems to think that the reason sectarianism thrives is due to the appeal of imminent revolution, that people are more likely to join a party if they think a new world is just around the corner. I don't think this is the only factor.

Neither do I, but I think it *does* play major role psychologically on the membership. If you are 17 and ready to confront the world, an organization like Solidarity that says that you have study Marx et al, organize step-by-step, debate in a comradely way, go to community/union meetings, etc. is not as "sexy" compared to X sectarian organization that says they are going to whoop some capitalist ass by going to a rally, meeting a paper quota, and putting on a Zapatista shirt. I am not saying that all youth (even though I am stepping out of that "youth" label) think in a hormonal violent manner, but there is something about "imminent revolution" imagery that is attractive. I guess that is why you see more young people wearing N.W.O. t-shirts with a wrestler saying they will whoop your ass rather than wearing "I am part of the Human Race. End Prejudice" shirts.

comradely, erik toren (pharr, tx)


I don't think the ISO is very sexy at all. (I am not making a crude joke here; it's Erik's terminology and not mine.) They do indeed tell you you have to study Marx and so on, but they do this in a mechanical and religious way, and it all has to be distilled through the official ISO line. This kind of shit has less than zero appeal to the masses of college students, and the tiny minority of students who are involved in the radical/left/socialist milieu find the ISO-- and sects generally-- dogmatic and boring.

I am speaking largely from my personal experiences here at Pitt, but I would venture to say this is the case nationwide. The reason the ISO survives here is because (1) it has status as an official student organization, which it achieved several years ago, back before the purge which cleared out nearly all of the branch's membership, (2) its core members, like the core members of any vanguardist organization-- or the core members of any cult, for that matter-- are fanatical in their devotion to the organization, keeping up an unceasing level of activity, and (3) this unceasing level of activity gives them visibility on campus beyond the five or so people who are their only real members. At any given time, the branch may have half-a-dozen to ten or a dozen members, but only the core members stay on. The rest are people who are picked up by the group because they are progressively-minded people who want to do something, and the ISO is simply the first thing that's available, because it has such high visibility.

John Lacny


A very interesting thread. Let me try and contribute a little from my own experience of the Left. ISO in Australia degenerated into a cult around a man called Ian Rintoul. It is not much point talking about Ian to people on this list. He is not at all remarkable in any way. The least talented of the ISO leadership, the least theoretical, the least human etc he made the perfect leader for the sect.

The ' brilliant' leadership that foisted him on us in Brisbane had him foisted on them by the 'brilliant' leadership from England. Why they did that who knows? But it speaks badly for the ISO in England. Presumably they were attracted to the cult of the strong man, the fanatic, the no nonsense fellow, who preaches that the line is always correct until it is changed. Ian represent all these sectarian values and will to the end of his days. He attracts around him wave upon wave of young people. They are put through the system and come out the other end ex-socialist, ex-Marxists, ex-revolutionaries. Though a small organization ISO (around 100?) has probably churned its way through many times that.

You could repeat this tale for any organization of revolutionaries around the world. The key comparison is not however with the Bolshevik Party but with groups like the Moonies or The Jones Cult. It will always be so as long as the working class remains quiescent. Only when a significant section break with reformism or to be more accurate capitulationism will there be a chance of a mass party. Until that day we will have the same vicious little sects of bitter and disillusioning revolutionaries.

Now there has been a misunderstanding of Lou position I believe. Lou holds that folk like Barnes need to keep preaching the final catastrophe is nigh as a means of disciplining the members. If the ultimate crisis of capital is at hand then we had better stick to our leaders and party discipline had we not?

Catastrophism also works against what we desperately need - the development of theory. this requires time and an atmosphere which encourages the cadre to read and discuss everything. Such is never the case in the left groups. I recall vividly the reaction from leading cadre in ISO when I began to read Althusser. This was taken as proof of my unreliability. We were supposed to seek truth only from Tony Cliff's book on Lenin. Those who had ambitions within the organization bought the book and learned to quote from it at appropriate times. That proved they were of the right stuff.

Yet Cliff's turn to Lenin and Trotsky at the beginning of the 80s was nothing short of a disaster. He 'hardened' the organization when he needed to broaden it. He correctly saw the down turn in the working class but drew the entirely wrong conclusions from it.

Here in Australia the hard and inhuman seized upon Cliff's example. Thus a half-human fanatic by the name of Mick Armstrong waged war within ISO on tendencies from the movements. So we had a great struggle unleashed against women's caucuses in the organization. We were told this belong not the politics of Bolshevism but to the wishy-washy counter revolutionary politics of the middle class movements. Dutifully we all voted against women's caucuses except one female member. This kind of 'ideological struggle' was supposed to harden up the members. What it did was to cement a kind of leadership and isolate the organization from the outside world. Which of course was always the intention of Cliff's Bolshevikisation.

Armstrong was to perish in the purge led by Rintoul. The word 'perish' is perhaps too much of a Freudian wish. History repeated itself as farce and no one was physically harmed or beaten up in the ISO purges, but the psychological damage to human beings was terrible.

Now ISO is a scandal to Marxist politics. Their sectarian opportunism is breathtaking. Everything they touch is damaged. But for them this is nothing. If they recruit one or two members from any struggle then that is all that matters. They usually do get the members and in a few years time they have left revolutionary politics. But nothing daunted Rintoul carries on and blindly a little core follow him. They have to believe he is Australia's Lenin because they have given their lives to this notion. Too late to turn back now.

For the rest of us - we the victims of 'party building' it was a struggle to recapture one's independent identity and to refuse the sect's image of us. For a long time after I was expelled from ISO I hoped that I would get a phone call from the leadership saying all is forgiven and asking me to come back. It took a long time for me to work out that I was expelled because they feared that the group around me would seize the leadership from them. It had nothing to do with politics and everything to do with the will to power. Inevitably so because of our political isolation from the working class.

regards

Gary McLennan


 

I was pretty amused to have opened up my email this morning and seen my name used as part of a subject heading -- I thought for a moment that someone had started posting crap from APST to my mail (just from the style, etc.), but quickly realized that it was from the Marxism list...

I debated briefly whether or not to respond, but, in the end, felt that the message contained enough confusion that it might be worthwhile to jot down some notes.

I can only assume that "Macdonald Stainsby" is a pseudonym for someone here in Vancouver -- to the best of my recollection, I have never met this person (at least not by this name), and I thought I was pretty familiar with most people on even the broad left here in the city.

Although I don't want to turn this into a long thread, at risk of that, I'll give a go at a few responses, as follows:

 

Tony Tracy is an interesting man, I know him from the street scene here in Vancouver. His party is a fine example of how sectarianism survives. From the I.S. (SWP in Britain), he and some other comrades of the party split to form "socialism From Below", an organization also called "Trotskyist" and definitely had the same style line. The party says that "Cuba and China have nothing to do with socialism" and other stuff that is vague, unassuming, full of diatribes against communism in practice --(We're are all Stalinists, didn't you know??), as well as the impeccable ability to avoid debate on any matter. They call for votes to the NDP, but will suspend or fire those members that work with other groups. (There is apparently not this last problem in the new incarnation, SFB).

There is so much confusion within this brief section that it is hard to know where to start... Yes, as I've said on this mailing list before, I was a member of the International Socialists (the sister organization of the american ISO and the british SWP) for eleven years, leaving in early May of this past year with a sizable chunk of the Vancouver branch due to longstanding (several years long) arguments and disagreements with the leadership of the organization over the IS's increasing sectification (and inability to work with other groups and politically active individuals) as well as several on-the-ground tactical disagreements and severe disagreements about the "nature of the period". As I have reported before, we experienced, while we were in the IS, many of the same problems and frustrations that have been reported by others (Louis Proyect comes to mind) who were in Trotskyist sects throughout the seventies, eighties, and nineties (every six months or so there would be a new "turn" which was to be unquestionly implemented, the "leadership" was essentially an unaccountable and unchallengable body which issued decrees, etc.). The "final straw" in our case was a serious of disciplinary actions which were handed down following the successful organization of an anti-nazi demonstration in Surrey, BC in September of '97. The local ("branch") leadership stood behind our collective decision to concentrate our efforts on anti-facist organizing for a period of two weeks during September rather than on increasing the number of paper sales on campuses in that period of time.

When it became clear that we would have to leave the IS or simply wait for our expulsions (long-term suspensions had already been handed down over disagreements with the national leadership), the majority of the local branch leadership (including such local socialist activists as Garth Mullins, Megan Adam, Margot Brennan and myself) argued for the formation of a modest socialist study and activist circle (in the spirit of Eugene Debs' statement: "an unorganized socialist is a contradiction in terms") which would be founded on non-lineist principles (ie. there would be no homogenous "line" around issues such as the nature of China, etc.). We met with members of the New Socialist Group (which had its' roots in a split with the IS from a few years ago) and the Freedom Socialist Party to discuss, in advance of the formation of a the Socialism From Below Group, how we could best work together in a non-sectarian fashion. Members of these groups, as well as members of Socialist Challenge, have since regularly attended our weekly meetings and fully participated in all of our discussions around both theory and practice and have been intregal to the work that we have been doing. In practice, we are moving towards some type of regroupment of socialist activists in Vancouver through doing joint work, etc. with these comrades in a friendly and fraternal fashion.

I don't defend any of the sectarian approaches of the IS, and certainly take responsibility for my role in sectarian divisiveness over the eleven years that I was a member of the IS, but wish to state unconditionally that our approach to organizing since that time has been one of wishing to work with the broadest layer of groups and individuals possible *in common action*. Our approach, simply, is that we don't have the time or the energy for unending debating societies that do not conclude with a concrete action.

Not only do we not "suspend or fire" members who are involved with other groups, we encourage it. There are members of other left groups (such as the above named, as well as members of the Young New Democrats) that consider themselves *also* members of Socialism From Below Group. Additionally, members of Socialism From Below are members of a variety of city-wide organizations and groups (the Vancouver Right To Protest Coalition, Democracy Street, East Vancouver Against The Nazis, International Womens Day Committee, The Jean Chretien Welcoming Committee, Communities Against Racism and Extremism, the Canadian Federation of Students, etc.) and work in solidarity with a variety of groups, including the Poverty Action Network (members of SFBG have been involved in raising funds for their newspaper, "Class Antagonist" and have offered technical help with the future production of that paper, including scanning, layout, etc. as required), La Quena collective (we work closely with members of the collective on a variety of coalitions and leading members of the collective are known to attend our weekly meetings and participate freely), and a variety of other groups.

In no way do we consider ourselves "the nucleus of a revolutionary party" or "the vanguard" or whatever. We hope that we are contributing in a concrete way to practical unity within the Vancouver broad left, but we have set our sights on fairly modest goals (in fact "modest" is the word we use most to describe our group).

Recently (over the summer), a few of us have joined the social democratic "New Democratic Party" -- not so much as a formal/traditional trotskyist "entrist" strategy but rather as a modest strategy to make contacts and have arguments and discussions with leftward-moving social democrats. This has been relatively successful -- Megan Adam, for example, was elected as editor of the Young New Democrats magazine, "Forward", and we have been able to utilize that publication as a vehicle for debate and discussion on the progressive left. While we have no illusions in social democracy in power (the word "sell-out" is the mildest of the terms we would use for social democratic leaders), we understand that a vote for the NDP is a vote with our class, and that the NDP contains the broadest segment of working class militants. While we are constantly re-evaluating the usefulness of our continued membership in the NDP, we have been able to successfully argue, especially within the Young New Democrats, for activism in the streets as compared to a focus on the ballot boxes. I expect that many american socialists can identify with our reasons for joining the social democratic NDP, especially given the building of the Labor Party in the US. Within the Socialism From Below Group, however, we have many who would never consider joining the NDP, and a few who (for some very good reasons) couldn't even stomach voting for them (our advice "hold your nose while you're voting" can only go so far...).

 

There is a group I am proud to be amongst called the left unity group. We are all independant Marxists, inviting co-operation amongst parties in Vancouver. The CPC-ML right through to very tame Trotskyists have participated, quite a feat and we are quite proud of this and wish to plow forward. The Tony in question attended only two of our gatherings to my knowledge, both times unannounced. When he railed against Cuba, many (independant) people got choked at this, and demanded an explanation. A sort of gobbledy gook calling Fidel a dictator and hollering about democracy and free speech "this is no real workers state" is all we got in return. The line was approx: We support any movement that weakens the regime in Cuba just as we would in Canada", which just made him many friends in Miami he probably didn't know he had.

We are quite familiar with the so-called "left unity group", which we would consider to be a rather interesting talk-shop that, almost on principle, does not organize activity of any type.

I think that the reports of my attending only two gatherings of this group are accurate -- my memory is of only two meetings. In both cases, I was approached long in advance by organizers of the meetings (longtime socialist activists such as William Kay, Michael-David Goodman and Ken Hiebert) to attend in an "official" capacity and sit on a panel during one of their many debates (I rarely have time to go anwhere "unannounced"). In the first instance, the topic was the 80th anniversary of the October Revolution (in early November of '97) -- I brought greetings & solidarity from my branch of the International Socialists (which I was still a member of at that time) to the gathering and sat and listened as a "Trotsky versus Stalin" debate erupted. My only intervention in that meeting was a repeated suggestion that the 40 or so assembled self-declared socialists would be of great asset in helping a small group of workers who had recently occupied the CanFor forestry plant/sawmill in Marpole, and could participate in a very productive fashion in building a support committee for the Postal Workers who were about to go on strike -- unfortunately, no one in the room seemed interested in picket support work and the "Trotsky/Stalin" debate continued as I left. Unfortunately, I never did see anyone from that meeting at the occupied CanFor plant or on the picket lines with the Postal Workers (before they were legislated back).

In the second case, in the late spring (just after we left the IS), I was asked to be on a panel on Cuba, together with comrades from Freedom Socialist Party, Socialist Challenge, the Communist Party, and others. The points I made were very simple: while I don't, personally, consider Cuba to be a "workers state" or "socialism in practice" (the theoretical criteria which I hold up is workers direct control over the means of production), I argued that it is a brilliant national liberation movement that should be supported and that the conditions for building socialism in Cuba were better than in much of the world because of that successful national liberation struggle. My understanding is that the position of the Cuban Communist Party is that Cuba is not "socialist" or a "workers state" but is striving towards creating the conditions for socialism. I applauded and defended the shooting down of an american aircraft that was in Cuban airspace and argued that we had to do everything we could practically on the ground to defy the american blocade (some of our work within the May Day Committee of the Vancouver and District Labour Council has been in getting medical supplies and educational supplies to Cuba). "Free Speech" is not something I mentioned, and is certainly not something I fetishize (I oppose "free speech" for fascists, for example). I was directly asked whether I felt that a social or political revolution would be required to bring about socialism in Cuba, and my answer was that a workers state was all about the *self-emancipation* of the working class, and that bureacratic fiddling would not bring about a workers state, but could easily bring about gains that should be defended at all costs (healthcare, education, etc.). My view of "democracy" is one that is centred in the workplace, not one which is based on casting a ballot every four or five years. However, I made it clear that I support, unconditionally, Cuba against American imperialism and argued that this support must be concrete, and not just theoretical (ie. break the blocade). As I said at that time, a position on the class nature of Cuba is an interesting theoretical discussion, but if there are no practical conclusions than it is just a waste of time. Since that time, I have considered going on a work brigade for a month to Cuba to better understand the conditions there, and have spoken to members of the Freedom Socialist Party, who often organize such brigades.

Unfortunately, I had to leave that meeting somewhat early -- as I had announced from my seat on the panel, we were organizing an occupation of the Canadian Immigration offices in conjunction with a large group of refugees and immigrants (the state had escalated deportations of refugees back to their "home" countries, where they would often be in danger of being killed). I invited people from the "left unity" group to join us in this concrete action for the next morning... only a few people of the 40 or so assemble chose to show up the next day.

In short, we don't have much time for talk-shops and perpetual debating-societies that refuse to take practical steps in action.

The main point i wish to raise here is simple: these "Marxists" have a tendency to only wave the "ideal" in a flag sense, never digging at issues. An ad-hoc style argument is made that works: Labels that do not matter. "State Capitalist" is their favourite, and there is definitely something to the original theory. Yet, to call China this is silly, and amounts to just brushing it aside (Outright capitalist or not is a worthy debate). There is something very disturbing about what they propose to people: Cake and a meal. You won't loose any bourgeois rights, we'll build socialism too!! It is also the most visible party of the left in Vancouver by a long margin, always recruiting in colleges, and getting the young to sell papers, some who make a lifestyle out of it. Here are the two things at once that I come to watching this party operate. 1) By playing with the prevalent Anti-communism that exists, they can approach people on a more readable level, yet complete skewer the recruits ability to see beyond the pale.This I can recount anecdoctally: Once I was trying to discuss Afghanistan with an IS cadre. He denounced Soviet motivations as non-altruistic. I asked for a class analysis of what was at stake for Afghani citizenry, and was given "You're an apologist, a Stalinist apologist!" It seemed kinda culty, dare I say. It was ignorant at the least. Not the argument, but rather the lack of it. The paper is vulgarized and the points get lost in double-speak that sounds like a left opposition within the existing framework. I don't want to beat the point to death, but this is both where the appeal of the group is, AND its faults.....BECAUSE It offers the membership the ability to sound like every day Joe's who also just happen to care about the "working people". The people that they speak to are privileged North American kids, who also want a dose of self- cleansing self righteousness. I have friends in the two groups, and I like them, but this is not a Marxist org. It doesn't speak about much, other than local petty bourgeois (albeit extremely important) issues, like gay legislative protection, abortion rights,etc. The international coverage is so backward: A movement is good if it fails or if it doesn't establish socialism when it succeeds. Hence: FARC hating, indonesian student loving. Communist Party of The Philipines hating, Aquino movement loving (unlike most Trots, they talk as if hating communist parties is obvious, no need to discuss that party, just ignore it). It is very long and painful for a youngster in North America to realize that most of history as it was tought to us is a lie or a distortion. This line gets the IS members by coopting rather than changing this in practice.

Again, in terms of an attack on me, the above is a bit mis-placed. The Socialism From Below Group does not publish a paper at present (although members of our group are active in the publication of other papers: Garth Mullins is an editor of the Student Activist, a leftwing activist paper which is distributed on campuses nationally, and Megan Adam is editor of "Forward", ostensibly the paper of the BC Young New Democrats). I do, however, defend both gay liberation and abortion rights as working class issues, and see the author's attacks on these as "petit-bourgeois" (I'll forgive the mis-spelling of "petit") to be rather odd (perhaps due to inexperience in the Canadian union movement -- most large unions in the country have gay caucuses that have won brilliant advances and unions were on the forefront of fighting for abortion rights -- some of the first abortion clinics in Canada were in trade union federation buildings in Quebec).

I won't bother quoting the authors position on the struggle within Imperialist countries, but I will state that it is my position that we strengthen the conditions for socialism abroad by weakening the state domestically. Additionally, a strong working class here is better able to solidarize with workers abroad. I defend unconditionally the fight for reforms domestically, including the fight for higher wages, for better working conditions, for education and social programs, etc. I am an internationalist, and fight for generalizing the struggles here with the struggles abroad. I don't write off workers in Canada (or the US), and am inspired by the long history of working class struggle in these countries (I particularly look to the struggles in Quebec since the sixties for inspiration...). While working class people in the imperialist countries may very well be "priviledged" in comparison to workers abroad (televisions and VCRs are often thrown at me as examples of such "priviledge"), I understand that they are *exploited*, and that the rate of surplus value extraction from them, in many cases, is higher. This is basic Marxism -- nothing particularly advanced or highly theoretical.

Anyway... I'd be keen to get back to a discussion of sectarianism and how to fight it, as well as a discussion of *practical* and *applied* unity on the left.

In solidarity,

Tony Tracy


On Tue, 15 Dec 1998, Jim heartfield wrote:

I have a question. I've noticed that of the many splits from the International Socialists, across the world, most of the complaints against the leadership follow a particular pattern.

As a rule, it seems to me, anyway, the differences are largely over organisational discipline and tactical disagreements. Not wishing to trivialise Tony's experience, but most IS splits seem to involve a great deal of personality clashes, rising and falling stars in the party organisation, and tensions over the extent of joint work with others (the charge is often made against the British SWP that it refuses to work with other groups - which is not entirely true).

But for all the growing number of groups breaking away from the SWP and IS, I have never known a substantial political disagreement with the leadership expressed. In fact it is remarkable how all of the different breakaway groups and individuals reproduce the same basic approach, often accusing the leadership of straying from the original goals of the IS, to which they are loyal. But I cannot think of one time in the last twenty years when anyone coming out of the IS produced a document or article that explained where they thought the analysis of the IS had failed, or what the theoretical differences were. Can it all really be down to personality clashes?

First off, Jim, I think that it's pretty difficult to draw the line between "personality clashes" on the one hand and the inherent problems with the IS on the other. When you're dealing with a sect, a lot of the differences are personal. In my own experience with the ISO, they've had a tendency both to conflate the two and to draw a distinction between the two when there is none. I could give some examples, but that would make this thing really drawn out.

The point I'm trying to make is that when people point to problems of organizational rigidity, dogmatism, and the like, they are pointing out political problems, because those problems are what renders IS organizations politically ineffective.

I don't know if you've read the article I've written about my split from the ISO, but I thought there were some outlines of theoretical differences in that, even if I didn't spell them out. That simply wasn't the purpose of the article, actually; it's purpose was to warn newcomers to the left that the ISO was bad news and ought to be avoided. Nevertheles, during my time in working with the ISO I made clear many of my theoretical differences, including especially my opinion that Leninism has been rendered more or less irrelevant given the objective circumstances of the late-twentieth-century USA. My point was that such theoretical differences are not all that important, and shouldn't keep us from working together on various projects (in my case, a very low-level, localized solidarity campaign with the maintenance workers at the University of Pittsburgh-- a topic to which I will return shortly in light of Michael Yates's e-mail), but that the ISO does not believe this, and, like all sects, seeks to swallow up all political activity within itself.

I guess my perspective is quite different from Tony's, however. I entered the ISO already convinced of its irredeemability, while he spent 11 years in it. He, like many IS defectors with many years in the organization, resorts to the standard Trotskyite explanation of finding a point where the organization "degenerated," rather than finding fundamental problems with the organization itself throughout its history-- a conclusion which might cast aspersions on the relevance of years of work within the organization. I don't mean to be unduly harsh on Tony and the SFBG, since they seem to me to be doing some pretty constructive work, and probably did some constructive work during their time in the IS, as well. But I think Jim's perception is correct in that their critique of IS theory and practice may not be thorough enough.

John Lacny