The Case for a More Democratic, Less Narrow ISO

by Jon Hochschartner on August 5, 2013

Listening to the rhetoric at Socialism 2013, the summer conference run by the International Socialist Organization (ISO), a group claiming to have the largest membership on the American revolutionary left, one would get the impression that the ISO was moving in a less sectarian and more internally democratic direction. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case. This is frustrating for those of us who believe a more accountable organization with significantly fewer ideological litmus tests could be larger and more effective without moving rightward.

An example of this apparent new-found openness to debate and willingness to work with others can be found in remarks made at the conference by leading ISO member Ahmed Shawki (available at WeAreMany.org).

“We have to become a place which is habitable to people moving in a radical direction,” Shawki said. “And also the place that becomes a home to people who will not share every dotted eye and crossed ‘t’ on perspective.”

Elevating the need for “vigorous debate,” Shawki said that in order to” move beyond the margins of the left” socialists must stop insisting on “a common line on every question.” He even suggested the ISO would be interested in merging with other organizations, were there any of comparable size.

And yet this seeming glasnost only goes so far. Pham Binh, a former member who was with the organization for the better part of a decade, recently wrote a detailed critique of the ISO’s structure and practice. He submitted the piece to SocialistWorker.org and it was rejected. A link to the piece that was posted on the Socialist Worker Facebook page was promptly deleted. As far as I am aware, the organization’s leadership has not acknowledged the critique whatsoever.

deleted

In his piece, “Thinking of Joining the ISO?,” available at The North Star, Binh explains how the ISO uses a closed-slate election system: “The previous year’s Steering Committee submits the coming year’s Steering Committee to the convention as a single bloc for an up-or-down vote by a show of hands rather than a secret ballot.” A single Steering Committee member cannot be challenged without offering a whole new slate of a dozen names. As a result, Binh writes, “as far as anyone knows, the ISO has never had a competitive election for its Steering Committee since it was founded in 1977.”

Rank-and-file members are kept in the dark about everything from the organization’s size to its assets, so much so that most members, according to Binh, are unaware the ISO violated its support for the Palestinian boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign by purchasing and selling thousands of dollars worth of Caterpillar stock.

Additionally, the ISO insists on an ideological uniformity that stifles the goal of increased membership, which would require a big-tent organization.

“As you begin going to study groups,” Binh writes, “you discover the ISO as an organization has a whole range of positions on theoretical, historical, and foreign policy questions ranging from topics like privilege and the one-state solution in Palestine to Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution that you are expected (or even duty-bound) to defend even if you personally disagree with them.”

Search the archives of SocialistWorker.org, an ISO publication, and you will find the socialist intellectual Noam Chomsky quoted approvingly quite frequently. Yet the range of debate within the ISO is so limited that Chomsky, who has called the Bolshevik Revolution a “coup,” would presumably be drummed out of the group. At the very least he would likely not be allowed to express his view on the matter in ISO publications. And when the most widely-respected, living, anti-capitalist intellectual might not be able to make a home in your organization, that’s a decent indication you’re too sectarian.

That socialists must share an exact interpretation of an historical event  that happened nearly a century ago in order to coordinate their class struggle efforts of course makes no sense. Obviously capitalist parties don’t demand that prospective members accept a specific interpretation of, say, World War I, in order to join the organization. That would be ridiculous.

The ISO’s constant turnover and membership plateau, two things the group itself admits to be problems, should come as no surprise given the organization’s narrow-mindedness and anti-democratic structure. Who wants to belong to what, in many ways, I’m sorry to say, amounts to a cult-like sect, however well-intentioned it may be?

Let me be clear about my relationship to the ISO so I’m not accused of having a personal axe to grind. I attended some meetings of the organization’s Burlington branch in my freshman year of college. I was impressed by the members’ political knowledge and commitment, but I did not join the group because I was uncomfortable identifying as a Trotskyist, as I remain today. I’ve been a semi-regular reader of SocialistWorker.org for many years, and have been published on the site. I have recommended the site to members of my community, and took out a subscription to the print edition for my hometown library. ISO writers have greatly sharpened my thinking, dull as it still might be, and I have great respect for all the rank-and-file members with whom I’ve come in contact. So when I say this isn’t personal, I mean it.

Readers might ask, why not just start a new organization? To which the answer is, perhaps we should! But the ISO—with its dedicated membership, excellent writing staff, and well-respected publishing arm in Haymarket Books—is influential on today’s far left. By criticizing the organization constructively we may help it reform itself. At worst, we may help ensure that a future group doesn’t make the same mistakes.

{ 46 comments… read them below or add one }

Pham Binh August 5, 2013 at 1:33 pm

I was amused to see Shawki lampoon the idea of six people gathering in a room to declare a party since that is exactly how the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense began in Oakland, 1966. Surely the ISO with over 1,000 members in 40 cities and a $1.5 million/year nonprofit would have a headstart by comparison. They lack the will and ambition to follow through on these speeches and so it all remains a dead letter, and we’re all worse off for it.

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Ariel Cruz August 6, 2013 at 3:42 pm

Binh,

Hey it’s Ariel. I got a text this morning from Treese of all people linking to Counterpunch, which eventually brought me here. I’ve been reading through your writing on the ISO days with some bemusement and nostalgia. I don’t know of a particularly safe way to give you my contact information, but I’m guessing you might have access to the email address I’m required to affix to this post. Shoot me a message if you’d like to catch up. At any rate, great work here.

All the best…

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Pham Binh August 5, 2013 at 8:46 pm

A question for Jon: what did the Burlington comrades have to say (if anything) on Bernie Sanders and the Vermont Progressive Party?

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Jon Hoch August 5, 2013 at 9:06 pm

Well to be fair I prolly attended five meetings or fewer. But I don’t really remember Bernie coming up. This was like 2005-2006. I think that year or the year after was an election year, because he was the first person I voted for.

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Douglas M August 5, 2013 at 9:23 pm

Ahmed has been giving versions of this speech for years. I remember back in 2003 being really impressed with him talking about the ISO as a starting point out of which a party would grow through fusions and splits with other groups and through struggle. The period we were entering then was one, he said, of an opening to radical politics a and one that required a greater openness. I don’t think it is faux humility but an inflexibility honed from years of operating a certain way that is preventing the organization from making moves in this direction. I also think that the dominant view is that other socialist organizations are competition that need to be sidelined. I suppose the other groups of radicals that are seen as possibilities for fusion would be smaller circles of radicals or new grouplets being swallowed by the bigger ISO.

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Saturn August 6, 2013 at 8:09 am

The perception between socialist groups as competitors is one of the hugest problems the Left faces.

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Ben Watson August 7, 2013 at 2:57 am

Isn’t it just? What a paradox! I mean “competition” is what capitalists are meant to do, isn’t it? Thing is, I read Marx excoriating Proudhon and learn a great deal (just read some great Peter Hudis on that) but that is principled, theoretical disagreement, not pragmatic out-manoeuvering. I hate the pragmatism of the ISO’s treatment of Chomsky, reminds me of the SWP here in the UK, welcoming in the big names the CC totally disagrees with (eg Terry Eagleton) whilst stifling voices of party activists who are committed to the party’s politics but have the temerity – and commitment/knowledge – to criticise the current CC’s interpretation of them (eg me!). I believe “the current CC” is a phrase we should use today, versus this business-model in which CC membership becomes a job-for-life, a place “on the board” (the slate system).

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Douglas M August 7, 2013 at 3:36 pm

At minimum there should be a humbleness on the left about any group’s ideas and arguments. There should be discussion, and even encouragement and collaboration, about different attempts to organize resistance and political poles of attraction. Since no one has “it” right we should be open to many different strategies. However, seeing every other group as competition for political space is counter-productive to building the left (and hasn’t been much successful thus far). This could even mean organizational flexibility on the local level. In many ways the leadership of the ISO talks about this abstractly but in practice is inflexible in instituting it. The adherence to branch structures and paper sales are just two pieces of evidence of this.
But it’s not just the ISO’s problem nor are they the worst offenders. Discussion on the left tends to stuck in being filtered through these prisms of “that idea is reformist and leads right to supporting the Democratic Party” and “that idea is ultra-left and is impracticable,” and only one route of action is seen as viable. I’m not saying ideas cannot be debated or that all are equal but I am saying that some of the ways the socialist left needs to shifted away from current practices for there to be growth.

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Remaining Anonymous August 6, 2013 at 7:25 am

I just read this, the article by Pham Binh it referenced, and the discussion thread to that article.It was painful but compelling. Similar to Binh, and several others in that discussion, I joined the ISO in the mid-90s and left in the mid-00s.

Years ago, I saw some reference to the ISO, in Counterpunch I think, along the lines, “Never has a group struggled so long and so hard to accomplish so little.” The ISO is, fundamentally, neurotic. It cannot and will not acknowledge that its theory and practice are fundamentally flawed; that the ISO doesn’t grow because most people who encounter it quickly recognize that it has no future. The fetishization of a printed newspaper is the most obvious symptom, and symbolic of its neurosis.

Theory follows from practice. And what groups, what sorts of activists, do you see growing and learning from experience? Not the ISO, which vanished into the fog as soon as I’d left. There are no more lessons to be found there.

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Saturn August 6, 2013 at 8:07 am

Sad thing is, while a great deal of what North Star says is true, it is not the voice that is going to reform the ISO because of its storm of sectarian attacks during its founding moments. This is a problem in relationships/diplomacy that will simply never go away: North Star is widely perceived as the disgruntled anti-ISO site now and it would take tremendous work or total rebranding/refounding to change that. Also I think submitting a piece to the ISO that is more concise and focused more on solutions than problems might have been a better tactic, for the future.

Fortunately North Star does serve other useful purposes like creating a discussion space for strategy and embracing radical transparency on the Left. Just some honest accounting.

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Pham Binh August 6, 2013 at 9:14 am

Don’t kid yourself — the problem is that they take any form of criticism as a “sectarian attack” no matter how diplomatically it is worded or how the criticism is framed. Just look at Paul D’amato’s response to my Cliff book review which didn’t even mention the organization. The problem that won’t go away is the ISO’s inability to reform.

If you want to test your thesis that The North Star is too tainted to do the job, I suggest starting a brand new site, something like ISN or the SWP tumblr page, and see how far the ISO reform effort gets. Good luck.

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Ismael Diablada August 20, 2013 at 1:04 am

RedPleb weighs in. Wonder why he just doesn’t post here?:

“I will point out this as well from the same sectarian article’s comment section. Saturn is a former ISO member that I knew back in the day, who I know is a very well meaning person who has honest disagreements and is no sectarian. Saturn is nominally quite sympathetic to the North Star and Pham Binh’s ideas on left unity and the big tent model and has expressed themselves as such before. But Saturn is pointing out what is a very real issue, that The North Star has developed a reputation for being an anti-ISO sectarian blog that’s just attacking the ISO from the sidelines in a similar way as the WSWS. But what does Pham Binh do, in responding to a person who is on his side but is pointing out some issues? Jump down his fucking throat. The guy is a sectarian, plane and simple.”

http://redplebeian.tumblr.com/post/57704555244/i-will-point-out-this-as-well-from-the-same

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Emily Reynolds August 6, 2013 at 11:29 am

Hey all,
I am also a comrade from Burlington. I need to express the incredible amount of divisive so called “interventions” that the ISO has tried to place on social movements within Burlington. Activists who are not part of the ISO such as feminists, anarchists, environmentalists from all over have scathingly critiqued the ISO for attempting to take over and steer movements. They come to meetings an actions, organized by other people, not to help build a movement but to sell the socialist worker and recruit for their party. They are mainly concerned with recruiting to the party, rather than building a mass anti-capitalist movement. There are better organizations in Burlington, such as the Workers Center which won the right for universal healthcare and undocumented workers to have licenses and Rising Tide which is actively fighting against all new pipelines in VT. I would suggest that you give the anarchist movement a try.

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Jon Hoch August 6, 2013 at 11:39 am

Hey Emily,

Thanks for joining the discussion. Unfortunately I’m no longer in Burlington though.

Best,
Jon

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Charles August 6, 2013 at 1:48 pm

What Emily writes is my experience of Trotsky inspired groups (not only, but most) since forever. It is an organizationally selfish outlook that would rather recruit one member and destroy a healthy campaign than to see a campaign win but end up with no new members. In general, folks I know see a newspaper being offered outside an event as a sign of sectarian derangement syndrome and walk the other way.

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Andrew Stewart August 6, 2013 at 12:52 pm

The ISO is nothing akin to either a union or a political party. Rather, when people wake up and realize that the ISO is merely the over-glorified street promotion team for the capitalist Haymarket Books, then this will be a serious conversation. How come all the other leftist groups are always down to risk themselves seriously, and Haymarket Socialist Publishing Organization always use this idea of ‘broadening their base’ to delay action? Because, while a union or political party can be so, a for-profit corporation can’t risk it’s volunteer interns causing trouble or the Chicago publishing headquarters would be charged not with political crimes but petty vandalism. Are you kidding, really, if the Left spent more time and energy bashing real people, like Rand ‘Outright Fascist’ Paul, instead of the ISO and this petty shit, there could be real change in the world. But instead the Left is reduced to blog posting about which kids they don’t like at school, FaceBook politicking, and gripes about this crap?

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anon August 7, 2013 at 5:38 am

i agree. who cares about whether a post was liked or deleted on facebook? seems a bit highschool.

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jack August 9, 2013 at 1:38 pm

honestly, you have a good point. we need to stop the pointless attacking and do shit.

As much as I am critical of the group (which controls most chicago activism, sadly), we are going to do more if we actually engage outside the sad leftist subculture.

However, it is healthy and warranted that major groups get some due criticism.

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Red Blob aka Steve Owens August 7, 2013 at 8:42 am

A revolutionary socialist group exists for one reason only and that is to play a decisive role in a revolution when it comes. The ISO is correct not to call themselves a party simply because they are not a revolutionary party they don’t have anywhere near enough members whose main occupation is fomenting revolutionary ideas and they don’t have influence among the working class. The ISO is and should be single minded about recruiting people who share its vision. There is very little gain in bringing in people who have Chomsky politics. People like him would only obstruct the ISO’s main game which is to recruit people who want to build towards a revolutionary party. Its just not good enough to recruit people who are anti capitalist if they don’t add to the reason for the group to exist. Internal democracy is very nice but it cant stand in the way of a revolutionary organization acting together as a unit rather than a bigger organization that is paralyzed.
Let me give a concrete example. Here in Australia we have had two revolutionary organizations that have had significant working class support. One was the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) and the other was the CPA (Communist Party of Australia). During WW1 the IWW was suppressed by the state, its leaders thrown in jail and its press confiscated. Its newspaper failed to appear once suppression commenced. The organization open, anarchistic, bold, brave could not survive when the state got serious.
The other organization was the CPA who were also outlawed during WW2, the difference was that the CPA continued and its paper increased in circulation. Anti democratic, Stalinist yet when the state got serious so did the party.
One organization failed to function when the state flipped the switch to oppression and the other organization didn’t miss a beat.
The ISO are not wrong in wanting to build an organization that can act as a unit rather than a debating club and they are not wrong in wanting to create an organization that doesn’t fall apart as soon as those in charge decide that we don’t really live in a democracy at all.
PS I was in the Australian ISO for over a decade. I never worried about slate voting or show of hands voting because those thing are relatively unimportant. What is important is does what the organization say make sense, when it doesn’t then that’s the time to leave.

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Jon Hoch August 7, 2013 at 10:10 am

Wow, I’m not even sure where to begin with someone who will outright defend anti-democratic structure.

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Douglas M August 7, 2013 at 3:57 pm

Leaving aside all other problematic ideas here, you state that “he ISO’s main game which is to recruit people who want to build towards a revolutionary party.[…]The ISO is and should be single minded about recruiting people who share its vision. There is very little gain in bringing in people who have Chomsky politics. ”
Arguably Chomsky has a bigger influence on more people than the ISO does. If a person were to have many of Chomsky’s politics, pro-worker / union, anti-imperialist, feminist, etc. but was skeptical and or weary about political parties, you don’t believe that such a person should be brought into a socialist party? How then should a socialist party relate to this person?
Building a party based on organizational norms and practices from historical circumstances 96 or 60 years ago doesn’t make sense. If you see your audience as people who are already convinced of your ideas you won’t grow larger than a dinner party. There are many more people who have a heterogeneous set of ideas and are more open to socialist politics than not, who listen / read Chomsky, Zinn, etc, and might even hold their noses and vote for Democrats, than there are revolutionary workers waiting to be recruited into a party. Socialist need to learn how to relate to them, not vice-versa.

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Red Blob aka Steve Owens August 7, 2013 at 6:55 pm

Douglas M This thread is about how the ISO could change to become bigger and more relevant. I am trying to present a case for why the ISO would see it differently. The essence of the ISO’s politics is that there will come a time when the working class will need decisive leadership.(A revolutionary party able to withstand repression) All the suggestions that the ISO should be more inclusive, more democratic run counter to the key idea that gives the group a reason to exist. I’m not arguing for their politics I’m trying to explain what their politics are and why they wont change.
I mean really how could someone like Chomsky survive in a Leninist party while going around calling the Russian revolution a coup. I’m no Leninist but I know a right wing idea when I see one and the revolution wasn’t a real revolution comes straight out of the rights playbook.

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Richard Estes August 7, 2013 at 7:25 pm

“I mean really how could someone like Chomsky survive in a Leninist party while going around calling the Russian revolution a coup.”

Most people could care less about this sort of thing. I have encountered people who read Chomsky (I’m not one of them, oddly enough), but I have never encountered anyone who deferred to him as a political leadership figure. Conversely, if Leninism as practiced by the ISO is hindering the development of a left movement, then, maybe, the ISO should think about modifications. Remaining engrossed in the conflicts of the past is an excuse for failing to engage the present.

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Red Blob aka Steve Owens August 7, 2013 at 8:20 pm

Richard this big tent small tent argument is as old as the hills. The ISO are committed to small tent but that doesn’t stop us big tent guys from building the biggest tent anyone ever saw. We should leave them alone with their small tent project but may I say having been in a few big tent attempts it aint that easy.

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ebr August 7, 2013 at 11:06 pm

“Arguably Chomsky has a bigger influence on more people than the ISO does…If a person were to have many of Chomsky’s politics…but was skeptical and or weary about political parties, you don’t believe that such a person should be brought into a socialist party?”

Uhh. This may be the most counter-intuitive thing I’ve ever read.

Also, Chomsky has quite an influence. But since when is “influence” alone the sole marker of how we judge who and how we on the Left relate to other forces? Van Jones has a much wider influence than Chomsky, and he was even in a Maoist organization once upon a time.

I mean, surely commitment to building a revolutionary socialist party should be at least ONE OBVIOUS basis for membership, don’t you think?

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Jon Hoch August 7, 2013 at 10:33 am

As far as I’m concerned, people who are anti-democratic don’t even belong on the left. And how you’re going to build a more democratic society with an anti-democratic organization is beyond me. Oh, but wait, that sounds like pre-figurative politics. Guess I should get back to hitting the Leninist books. lol.

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Adam August 7, 2013 at 2:51 pm

Jon, your above response is childish. There are many critiques to make of the revolutionary left … that is not one of them. “Democracy” is not a pure concept. It is incredibly problematic and loaded. Any serious discussion of reformation of the left will need to address that theoretical an practical problem. Read a book: Gramsci or Poulantzas would be a great place to start. This post and subsequent thread is mere stone throwing. I invite you to pull up a chair and do some heavy lifting–or reading, that is.

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Jon Hoch August 7, 2013 at 3:20 pm

Dude, get real. You don’t need to read Gramsci to understand if an organization is democratic or not.

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Jon Hoch August 7, 2013 at 3:26 pm

Anyone who says “Internal democracy is very nice but it cant stand in the way of a revolutionary organization acting together” isn’t a part of any left I want to belong to, and I dare say the overwhelming majority of people I know, politicized or not, feel same way. So good luck with that and have fun repeating the mistakes of 2oth century leftism!

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Red Blob aka Steve Owens August 7, 2013 at 6:37 pm

Jon what Im trying to get at is that there are circumstances where democracy is an impediment to action. There have been some classic revolutionary examples where peoples formal commitment to an idea such as democracy prevented them from taking effective action.
My point is that organizations need to balance their commitment to democracy with the situation they face. I would rather see an organization take effective action than see that organization fail to take action because it couldn’t come to a decision. As I said I didn’t see any problem with slate voting or show of hands when I was in the Australian ISO.
As to having someone like Chomsky in a revolutionary organization well s/he wouldn’t want in because Chomsky and the ISO are an incompatible mix, the aim might be similar the critique of capitalism might be similar but the method of getting to socialism are opposed to each other.
With the examples I gave about the IWW and the CPA, to me the IWW was a much more attractive organization but a clear headed review of their performance shows that their inability to deviate from their principals ie running an open democratic organization was inferior to the party that knew how to run underground work.

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Richard Estes August 7, 2013 at 7:29 pm

“I would rather see an organization take effective action than see that organization fail to take action because it couldn’t come to a decision.”

Effective actions require the commitment of those who participate in it. That happens more often when people believe that their opinions have been heard and respected. What that said, there are a lot of ways to accomplish that, depending upon the people involved.

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Red Blob aka Steve Owens August 7, 2013 at 8:12 pm

Richard one of the aspects that attracted me to the ISO tendency was the high level of democracy that the organization tolerated. Even at the organizations worst moments people had the right to argue against the positions taken by the organization. I have seen a lot of left organizations that could only dream of the level of democracy practiced by the ISO.
There is a dynamic tension between democracy and effectiveness. My point is to say that if the choice is between inner group norms and doing something in the outside world well put me down with the advocates for effective action rather than in the group that sees the inner workings of the group as primary.

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Douglas M August 7, 2013 at 8:27 pm

Above you mentioned that you were in the organization for over a decade, what caused you to leave? Granted you were in the Australian ISO not the US, but what reason do you see for the organization’s lack of growth in the current period?

The ISO has done (and does) some really good work and it has many talented and hardworking activists and yet it grows at a sluggish pace.
At OWS (at least in NYC, where I saw them) they appeared to be very much on the outside of what was happening, despite a book table and paper sales in Z. park. This was true of other socialist organizations.
My critique isn’t really about democracy in the organization, although this is part of the issue. OWS was called by AdBusters and spearheaded by anarchist leaning activists. Socialist groups are largely stuck following what is “happening” (from campus anti-sweatshop movements, to WTO protests, to now OWS type events). Often when organized socialists show up there is tension there because it seems like the organized group is out to either politically lead and/or recruit activists out of the movement into the organization. I don’t think that ISO members or folks from other groups intended to do this in a negative way, but the political world view dominant inside the groups create this approach. So yes, socialists should want people to join their organizations but the current method isn’t one that is working. There answer isn’t going to be found rehashing old forms.

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John Halle August 7, 2013 at 9:27 pm

Graeber on the ISO (in the run up to OWS): “In the spectrum of activists, the Workers World Party is probably on the opposite pole from anarchists, but the International Socialist Organization is annoyingly in the middle: as close as you can get to a horizontal group while still not actually being one. They’re Trotskyists, and in principle in favor of direct action, direct democracy, and bottom-up structures of every kind–though their main role in any meeting seemed to be to discourage more radical elements from actually practicing any of these things. . . . their higher ups (despite the theoretical support for direct democracy the group had a very tightly organized, top down command structure) did allow them to work in coalitions they didn’t control–if only with an eye to taking them over.”

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Redjeffery August 9, 2013 at 2:17 am

This quote is probably the most concise and accurate criticism of the ISO I’ve ever read. Wish you had provided a link.

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John Halle August 9, 2013 at 9:57 am

Sorry, it’s from Graeber’s Democracy Project, p. 28-29.

Red Blob aka Steve Owens August 7, 2013 at 10:24 pm

Douglas I left because of political differences they wanted to support the Iraqi resistance and I wanted to support Iraqi elections.
As to non growth well the miracle is if you can hold a left group together at all.
In Australia the CPA used to have tens of thousands of members now they don’t exist.
Other pro China or pro USSR Communist parties used to have membership of over a thousand each. These parties are currently just PO boxes if they exist at all
Communists used to be influential in several union now none.
The Social Democratic Left used to be big now hardly exists.
The left of the Liberal (Conservative Party) were all purged.
The attempts at big tent left parties New Left Party, Socialist Alliance both went nowhere. The Biggest left group is Socialist Alternative an off shoot of our ISO and they might have 300 members.
So I don’t think the question why don’t these groups grow but by what miracle do they survive at all.

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jack August 9, 2013 at 1:32 pm

SA in Australia is pretty heavy on campus activism. I used to be in contact with some members for years. I think they get enough kids to keep it together.

Especially since most of the uni students end up focusing more on activism than career development, they kinda get tied to the whole thing.

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dave riley August 19, 2013 at 8:50 pm

Sorry but this spin gets irksome. Socialist Alternative is not the biggest socialist left group on the Australian left, the Socialist Alliance with around 600+ members is.Socialist Alternative is bigger in some centres but it has neither the spread of membership depth, pluralism nor ‘influence’ as the Alliance. The Alliance after all is the outfit behind Green Left Weekly and ‘chapters’ across the country including regional centres.

Unity discussions are proceeding between both groups, however…
http://links.org.au/node/3420
and there is a unity momentum in Adelaide between various left groups as well. Socialist Alternative great strength is its base on campuses and its gregariousness. The Alliance wad a sponsor of their last Marxism conference — 1200 attendees — and Alliance initiated and with Soc Alt toured ISO’s Paul LeBlanc here a few months ago as part of the ongoing discussion about ‘what sort of party?’

(The ‘differences’ between the two outfits are congealing a bit and I’d hope the discussion will get more concrete.]

The CPA does exist as an ageing project (it took the name after the old CPA suicided into the New Left Party)but has recently got a local councillor elected in Sydney. Nationally the Alliance have two councillors elected (Fremantle and Coburg) — and in the recent run for mayoralty of Geelong its candidate received some 10,000 votes in a very working class regional centre. In some local government elections we are picking up to 18% of the vote,and what we do with any position is evident here:
http://www.suesmorelandreport.org/

The New Left Party did indeed go nowhere and very soon folded. The Alliance is alive more than 10 years after its creation in 2001, but it isn’t easy going on the far left as simply being there doesn’t necessarily ensure the regroupment you wish for .

One complication in Australia is the role of the Greens which have soaked up the electoral space left of the ALP and engineered a very reformist ideological pole which is becoming increasingly pragmatic. Another is the dead hand of Laborism in the trade union movement in the context of a struggle downtourn.

Even after being around 10 years, by the late 1990s the Greens had only about 750 members. It was the 2003 Iraq War and their cross over to more social justice issues, in the context of more gross neolibearlsim by the major parties, that kick started their growth and pushed up their electoral weight. It has got as high a 11-14% (2010).

The federal election in September should be interesting but I don’t see SA candidates support rising sharply in the context of a polarised election.But our campaign approach is getting more focused and agitational. ..and in terms of promoting ‘an alternative’ a election time we are getting better at the task. Although elections is a one day of the year activity for the Alliance as our primary focus is outside parliament.

But it is a mistake, I think, to attack the US ISO without considering the many steps that may be required to move forward. Many of the suggestions that get bandied about here on the North Star are features of the Alliance’s existence. Openness, accountability, pluralism, disowning dogma…whatever — we have turned the old rigid bolshevism game on its head a bit. We try to engineer reach out alliances and are open to exploring any unity initiative.

But for now, the motion and dynamic isn’t vigorous. Things will change — maybe even quickly — but you have to deal with the here and now. ..and whatever opening you think may exist. We’ve picked up folk from the Greens, the ALP and from among the far left and we willingly say ‘its Ok if you keep dual membership’ … but at some point the key subjective factor is that more people have to believe that regroupment politics opens up the possible..and that you have an active role in making that happen.

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Andrew August 7, 2013 at 6:10 pm

Pham Binh has a sectarian obsession with attacking the ISO.

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Redjeffery August 9, 2013 at 2:19 am

Oh…let me guess…you’re new to the ISO?

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Jon Hoch August 7, 2013 at 6:50 pm

Hey folks,

I wanted to gauge interest in people who would be interested in setting up a non-sectarian left organization that reflects the “big tent” approach of The North Star website. So if you’re interested, please join the Facebook group “The North Star Network” and invite your friends.

It can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/177586715753839/

It would be great if someone could write some kind of unifying statement that could be posted as an article here and other leftist outlets that could link to the Facebook group.

Anyway, hopefully there will be some interest. Personally I’m sick of talking about these non-sectarian, democratic organizational forms and not just creating them. But who knows, maybe everyone else is a lot more patient than I am. If so, that’s cool. But I thought I’d give it a shot. :)

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Ismael Diablada August 20, 2013 at 1:06 am
Daniel August 11, 2013 at 6:49 am

I didn’t find Jon’s articles very convincing, and I do think Pham’s article was too excessively antagonistic to be comradely. He has some points though.
That said, the American left is in challenging times and the ISO is not exempt. I hope this discussion can continue but that folks on the fence will not dismiss an organization which has been so good for me and others. There is firstly a great deal of regional variance and secondly there’s a tendency of people to complain without trying to improve things because Americans aren’t used to operating in a democratic fashion.
I congratulate my New England ISO comrades. I also think we need new /strategies/ for organizing struggles.

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Alan Peck August 13, 2013 at 10:11 pm

Hey everyone, I’m a little late to the game here but I thought I’d offer my perspective. I found most of Jon’s critiques thoughtful, and will keep them in mind as I navigate the ISO as a member of only a couple years. In general, I’m persuaded that the amount of democracy an organization can sustain is dependent on circumstances. Whether or not the ISO ‘has it right’ at the moment is something worth discussing, and we do in my experience.

I’ve found that at least in San Diego we work very well with non-members in movement work. There’s not much quibbling over somewhat obscure left ideas on this or that historical event when we’re in the middle of fighting against a racist homicidal police force or dealing with a sexual predator as mayor.

As far as papers and recruiting, my experience has been that we make use of the website far more, and recruiting is a rather passive process. We definitely encourage people to attend events where we put our politics out, but this notion that we opportunistically pepper ourselves in movement work just to take over other groups doesn’t at all jive with what I’ve experienced, from my first introduction to the ISO in our local Occupy Labor Solidarity Committee, to queer liberation struggles, to anti-imperialism.

In any case, it’s my firm belief that we will all be on the right (correct) side when the factory occupations begin, so until then comrades, solidarity!

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