Two Steps Back, One Step Forward

by NF on August 10, 2013

Recent events involving the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) – the rape allegations, the revived charges of the theoretical, political and personal misogyny of its past and present leadership – have led once again to international discussions  about women’s liberation and revolutionary socialism within the groups and among individuals who are or were in the International Socialist Tradition.

The International Socialist Organization (ISO) has decided, after 30 years of “Marxist anti-feminism”, to change course. In so doing, they totally ignore, reject, and write out of history the fact that the ISO was founded in 1977 totally committed to feminism and identified with the various political strands and complexities within the left feminist movement.

At the ISO’s 2013 Socialism Conference, Abby Bakkan said Marxists should:

“embrace feminism and understand its various and contradictory components. Feminism has many definitions. It is reasonable, for the purposes of this discussion, to consider it to mean the theory and practice associated with the struggle for women’s equality, rights and emancipation, or liberation. Marxists have unique insights to bring to feminism…”

This was exactly the ISO’s position from 1977–1983. Its political position was based upon a pamphlet entitled Revolutionary Feminism which demonstrated the interconnection between socialism and feminism and brought to light activities of socialist and Marxist feminists, those women (and men) too long hidden from history.

Sharon Smith, one of the leaders of the ISO, agrees with Bakkan that they must “break from this sectarian method.” However, in true sectarian form, she omits her own history:

“That might seem like a fairly obvious point to make, and I can’t fully explain why it’s taken me (or any of us in the ISO) so long to fully appreciate this fact. But it is absolutely crucial that we break from this sectarian method now that we are facing a level of class inequality not seen since the Gilded Era, against the background of an outbreak of outright misogyny and racist hysteria that so often accompanies economic crisis.”

Smith certainly knows why it has taken her 30 years to break with the British SWP position. She and the current ISO leadership followed the British SWP directives in 1983 to lead a faction fight to overthrow the ISO’s then support for feminism and black liberation. In England, Tony Cliff and Chris Harman led the fight to dismantle Women’s Voice and Flame, organizations and newspapers in the tradition of radical left feminist and black freedom struggles and they demanded that the ISO follow their lead. Smith did Cliff’s bidding One only has to compare the ISO’s “Where We Stand” from 1977-1983 to its post-1983 positions.


No one would question the ISO’s involvement in many struggles involving women’s rights. As Smith explains, “marching and organizing side by side in the fight for reproductive rights, against rape and violence against women, and for a broad range of other struggles for women’s rights–we also regarded ourselves not only as outside the feminist tradition but, in many respects, hostile to it.”

The challenge the ISO faces is how to undo 30 years of sectarian Marxist anti-feminism and re-train two generations of Marxist anti-feminists while being led by people who cut their political teeth as Marxist anti feminists. Smith proudly admits that she wants “to make clear that Chris Harman was one of the greatest Marxists of his time, who played a key role in training many of us in the ISO,” when this same Harman was well-known theoretically, politically, and personally as an obnoxious misogynist who would refer to comrades he disliked as “cunts.”

Thirty years of its admitted sectarian Marxist anti-feminism has meant that the ISO was not integrally involved in the exciting and intense activities and debates among left feminists in the intervening years about a whole range of topics, including but not limited to: disability, objectification, power, rape, age,  reproduction and the family, science,  race, ethnicity, nationality, sex and gender, violence, education, sex market, perspectives on the self and on trans issues, the nature of paid labor, unpaid labor, work, housework, homework, domestic work, contested meanings of feminism, patriarchy, global feminism, third wave feminisms and the challenge to the wave metaphors.

The list goes on forever. Furthermore, during the past 30 years, there has been little engagement by those within the International Socialist Tradition with left feminist theorists. The names on that list could go on and on as well.

Time will test Bakkan/Smith and the ISO’s “new” commitment to women’s liberation. However, unless there is a political struggle waged by the entire organization to change its political position — as opposed to a directive from the top — any change will be superficial and/or short lived.

The ISO’s rewriting of its own feminist history is even more puzzling in the light of the newly published International Socialist Review (ISR) article by Candace Cohn, “Working-Class Women’s Liberation and Rank-and-File Rebellion in Steel.” Cohn recounts in detail the industrial strategy of the ISO’s predecessor, the International Socialists (IS), in the mid 1970s. Readers can decide for themselves whether or not the article explains the IS’s contribution to building a working-class women’s liberation movement or if it is a recapitulation of the IS’s labor perspective. What is missing from Cohn’s meticulous rendering of the IS’s entire strategy for building a working-class movement and a revolutionary organization was that, in the midst of this campaign, one-third of the IS coalesced to oppose this strategy, called themselves The Left Faction, and were immediately expelled. The Left Faction went on to form the ISO in March 1977. One of the basic founding principles of the Left Faction, later the ISO, was opposition to this strategy uncritically outlined by Cohn to send middle-class (overwhelmingly white) IS women into the trucking industry, basic steel, and automobile plants – industries overwhelmingly male – as the basis for a working-class women’s liberation movement. At least the IS was committed in theory and on paper to feminism and women’s liberation as opposed to the post-1983 ISO. Perhaps the editors of the ISR published this as an interesting piece of history of a failed strategy. Soon after the Left Faction’s expulsion, the IS lost another one-third of its members who later founded the socialist organization Solidarity and no longer exists today.

For a fuller discussion about the IS, the Left Faction, and the ISO on issues of “industrialization,” “women’s industrialization,” and “revolutionary feminism,” see Milton Fisk, Socialism from Below in the United States and Barbara Winslow, Revolutionary Feminism.

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

ebr August 10, 2013 at 2:33 pm

“The ISO had a position 35 years ago and they changed it! Hypocrites!” Jesus, this could be copied and pasted right into a FSP or Spart newspaper and nobody would know the difference. Has there ever been a group so laughably un-self aware?


Jack August 11, 2013 at 12:54 am

I’m a burned out Ex-ISO with an axe to grind, and even I’m a little blown away by how pissy this article was.

When I was a member (just 1 year ago), there were many feminists, the same kind of feminists the ISO was against or whatever. I think at one time, they were on the Cliff/SWP bandwagon of lunacy but weened off.

It’s had a strong feminist current. If anything, this publication/blog thing or whatever should give them some encouragement.

Maybe to balance it out, someone should write something nice about the ISO.



ebr August 10, 2013 at 3:06 pm

If you search on for “ISO” you get 250 hits. If you search for “sexism” you get 39. If you search for “abortion” you get 19. This is supposed to be the non-sectarian alternative?


Jack August 11, 2013 at 12:55 am

…that could also be because of me….or comments…

….I participated a lot in recent articles…


admin August 11, 2013 at 3:51 pm

Content reflects what is submitted.


ebr August 11, 2013 at 7:57 pm

Content reflects the political priorities of a sectarian grouplet.


admin August 11, 2013 at 11:28 pm

You’re welcome to submit something, provided it meets the guidelines.


Jon Hoch August 12, 2013 at 12:18 am

Hey ebr,

If you feel like it, you should submit a critique of the North Star. I bet they’d publish it! From my experience they take this non-sectarian stuff pretty seriously. :)


Louis Proyect August 12, 2013 at 8:46 am

In fact this website, and all political blogs for that matter, have a leg up over the “vanguard” websites that prohibit comments. In Shawki’s speech to the ISO last month, he stressed how open the group would become and pointed to the relaunch of the ISR as a prime example. But if you go there, you will see no room for comments. Sheesh.


Deran August 14, 2013 at 2:11 pm

Content reflects an attempt to build a new independent multitendency socialist party in the United States. I’m sure the ISO and similar Leninist sectlettes can be vital parts of something new and bigger, but their vanguardism gets in the way.


MMist August 10, 2013 at 7:17 pm

Sharon Smith acknowledges that the sectarianism of the ISO’s position on feminism shut itself off from discussions and contributions of feminism for the past few decades. This article points out that fact as if she had not. What is that supposed to prove?

Also, who cares about the faction fight with the Winslows? It is irrelevant. Not mentioning it is not omitting history, except in the most trivial sense.

Finally, I fail to see how publishing an article about IS women in the steel industry, by a participant, is somehow something that needs to be criticized. The author of this price doesn’t take issue with anything actually written in the article. The author only blabs about how the article doesn’t address the faction fights in the IS.


Brandy Baker August 12, 2013 at 9:08 am

“Also, who cares about the faction fight with the Winslows? It is irrelevant.”

No it isn’t. In ’83, they were booted by the sexist pigs in the SWP-UK, and this was when the ISO changed course on feminism. Barbara Winslow was (and still is) a great socialist-feminist scholar, and contributed much to the group when she and Cal were at the helm. She introduced the very first resolution on womens’ liberation in the IS-Great Britain, where she first became attached to the IS.

“Revolutionary Feminism” is a terrific pamphlet and one can still get it today, even though it is out of print. Haymarket should re-release it.


admin August 12, 2013 at 9:21 am

Revolutionary Feminism is hyperlinked in the text of this piece to the PDF:


John August 10, 2013 at 9:33 pm

To the people complaining that the North Star does not offer any alternative, that we just talks about it and constantly complain about the ISO, I just want say those days are over! We have started a Facebook page. Jon H. has started the brand new Facebook page and a few people have already “joined” it, so the ball is really rolling in our non-sectarian direction.


Jack August 11, 2013 at 12:56 am

I’m trying to set up a physical group in chicago. right now, I’m focusing on university campuses, as I’m a uni student. want to make it go beyond that? hit me up


Brandy Baker August 12, 2013 at 9:10 am

Most of the articles on here are not about the ISO, whiners are going to whine.


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