You hate capitalism.
You understand that a system that puts profits over people by giving taxpayer bailouts to greedy, insolvent banks while refusing to help working people keep their heads above water has got to go.
You realize our standard of living is going to keep getting worse until something is done about it.
You hate racism, Israel’s brutal ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, the idiocy of the Republicans and the corruption of the Democrats, the fact that LGBTQs face tremendous oppression, violence, and harassment, and you’ve found a group that gives you hope that if we organize and fight, things can be different. You’ve found the International Socialist Organization (ISO), an unapologetically pro-Palestinian, anti-capitalist, anti-oppression group that is active, confident, and organized. You agree with most of what you read in the International Socialist Review and Socialist Worker, and you like what you hear at public meetings, conferences, and study groups.
You are thinking about joining the ISO or you’re a member already.
If the above describes you, I hope you read this with a critical and open mind.
My goal in writing this is to encourage a fundamental re-thinking of “Leninist” party-building efforts in order to help end the unnecessary separation between the socialist movement and the working class that has blocked both movements from beginning to reverse the balance of class forces in America. I strongly believe such party-building efforts have helped perpetuate rather than undermine this crippling separation.
What follows is a critical examination of the ISO’s methods, practices, and structures compared to those of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) which the ISO holds up as its organizing model, as well as some suggestions for a better, more effective political practice.
Full disclosure: I was a member of the ISO for seven years (1999-2006) and a supporter for five (2007-2011). I did a lot of political work as a member of the ISO that I will always be proud of. I didn’t join the group in order to write a polemic attacking it. I genuinely believed our activities were a (small) part laying the basis for the creation of a party of worker-radicals down the road when the level of class and social struggle rose. The realization that this was not the case came as a rude and unexpected shock to me.
Priority #1: Self-Perpetuation
Most of your time as an ISO member, day to day, week to week, is spent on two things: recruiting new members and retaining existing members. This is what the ISO means by “party-building.”
This is not to say that the ISO doesn’t get involved in struggles or do activist work. There are death row prisoners who are alive today in part because of the ISO’s activities, for example. But issue-based activism rarely takes up the majority of an ISO member’s political time no matter how deeply involved they are in a campaign or struggle.
Recruiting and retaining members are the key priorities in just about every Socialist Worker sale, branch meeting, study group, movement “intervention,” phone call, and even conversation ISO members engage in. Many of these activities are preceded by meetings (called pre-meetings) at which ISO members hash out the political arguments and organizational details aimed at accomplishing those two goals.
ISO leaders not only lead these pre-meetings but also have separate leaders’ pre-meetings where plans and proposals to be put forward in the all-member pre-meetings are discussed and decided upon. Thus, when the ISO gets involved with an activist campaign, the number of meetings and pre-meetings a person goes to multiplies exponentially. There is the minimum of activities required of all members, the branch meeting and paper sale; then there is the campaign/coalition meeting, the ISO pre-meeting to discuss and plan beforehand, as well as campaign/coalition activities such as weekly meetings, flyering, tablings, and phone banking.
All of this takes up a huge amount of energy and time from the average ISO member, perhaps 10-20 hours a week; it takes even more energy and time for members on ISO leadership bodies, maybe 20-30 hours a week. It is very difficult if not impossible to sustain this level of activity for the long haul, and long-term activism is the key to winning important victories. It took the civil rights movement almost a decade (1955-1964) to win the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act; it took almost as long to put an end to the Viet Nam war; it has taken years of activism to reverse the state-by-state bans on gay marriage that passed in 2004 and repeal the military’s anti-gay Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.
The frenetic pace of meetings, pre-meetings, paper sales, study groups, and branch meetings eventually takes its toll and large numbers (perhaps a majority) of people leave the organization within a few years of joining because these activities do not directly and concretely contribute to winning tangible gains or changing people’s lives for the better. The rate of turnover is especially high among workers and people of color, the very people who historically have been the backbone of socialist and radical movements.
Most ISO members would respond to this fact by saying that people who join and leave are “not won to our politics” or that they are “not committed” to being lifelong revolutionaries.
This argument has some truth to it. Not everyone who joins and leaves the ISO considers themselves to be a Marxist, socialist, or revolutionary, so in the long run it makes sense for them not to be part of such an organization. However, this line of thinking misses two things:
- The people who leave do so with the impression that recruiting and retaining members is primarily what “party-building” and being a revolutionary socialist are all about, so it should come as no surprise that they do not self-identify as such if that is why they leave and
- The very real problem of burnout among ISO cadre (cadre meaning members who have been in the organization for years, serve on leadership bodies, and/or oversee areas of work). Their dedication to the cause and commitment to the ISO’s politics cannot be questioned or dismissed so easily because they spent years building the ISO.
The commitment escalator in terms of time has a counterpart on the political or ideological side. When you first join the ISO, you are told by who ever recruits you that agreement with the politics outlined in “Where We Stand” is the political requirement for membership. As you begin going to study groups, 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 that you are expected (or even duty-bound) to defend even if you personally disagree with them. This practice is fundamentally at odds with the practices of the Bolsheviks who never insisted that members defend a particular view of the European revolutions of 1848 or the French revolution of 1789. Lenin and Bukharin hotly debated the question of national self-determination and independence for countries like Ireland during World War One precisely because there was no Bolshevik line on questions of this sort.
Many of the ISO’s veterans who burnout are lost to activism entirely because they have been taught that political activism in any other form than how the ISO does it is, by definition, “failing to build a socialist alternative,” “movementism,” or “failing to build the revolutionary party.” This loss is a real shame because it is totally unnecessary and, as anyone who has done any organizing in America can tell you, we do not have an overabundance of socialist activists who are theoretically sophisticated and knowledgeable about radical history.
The ISO’s focus on self-perpetuation stands in stark contrast to the Bolsheviks who saw their organization solely as “a lever for enhancing the activity of the advanced workingmen” as Trotsky aptly put it. The RSDLP was built through mass agitation and organization of the working class, not through endless contact meetings and relentless individual follow-up.
Membership Figures: a Well-Guarded Secret
The ISO’s revolving door membership is obscured because national membership figures are kept secret from the organization as a whole although local membership figures are routinely discussed at the branch level.
This practice is indefensible for a number of reasons:
- The RSDLP, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks alike, openly discussed membership figures at their party congresses even though the party was illegal and infiltrated from top to bottom by the Tsarist secret police (hence how Tony Cliff could write about said figures in his book, Building the Party). The ISO does not face anything like Tsarist illegality, so security is not a valid reason.
- Since recruiting and retaining members is a central ISO activity, keeping these figures secret is akin to a corporation refusing to disclose its profit margins in the sense that the results of the organization’s main activity remain hidden.
- Without membership figures, there is no metric or political basis for judging whether the organization is thriving, stalling, or shrinking, making it impossible to assess whether the organization’s leadership is worthy of re-election.
In practice, this means only the ISO’s leadership and the Federal Bureau of Investigation know how many members there are at any given time. The rank and file is in the dark.
Despite this, it is possible to come up with an estimate of the ISO’s growth based on the publicly announced registration figures for its yearly summer conferences held in Chicago. When I joined in 1999, 800-900 registered; in 2011, 1,300 registered. This means the group grew by about 500 over a decade at an average rate of 50 members per year, or 1 member per branch per year since there are roughly 50 branches throughout the country. This slow accumulation of members might look good on paper, but it’s important to keep the rate of attrition in mind. As long as more people join than leave/burnout, the organization succeeds in growing, never mind the fact that the average member puts in 10-20 hours a week for 52 weeks a year just to gain one recruit for their branch.
Unlike the ISO’s slow, linear growth, the RSDLP grew (and shrank) exponentially with the ups and downs of the Russian class struggle. During the 1999-2011 period, there were four distinct political upsurges from below in the United States: the anti-globalization movement (cut short by September 11), the 2003-2005 movement against the Iraq war and occupation, the 2006 immigrants’ rights movement that culminated in a one-day political general strike by immigrant workers on May 1, and the 2011 Occupy movement that began with Occupy Wall Street. The ISO did not grow exponentially the way RSDLP did in 1905 and 1912-1914 during these upsurges because the organization’s practice is too rigid and conservative to attract radicalizing workers, students, and oppressed people who want to get onto the field of battle and fight, not attend an endless series of meetings, pre-meetings, post-meetings, Socialist Worker sales, contact meetings, new member meetings, and study groups that constitute the ISO’s “branch routines.” Activists and fighters who join will find themselves in a self-enclosed world with its own practices, habits, culture, norms, and hierarchy/pecking order that have little to do with winning change or leading struggles to victory and a lot to do with the group’s self-perpetuation. The primary focus of their practical and political activity will shift from local activist work to the ISO.
The ISO and Movements
The ISO insists that there is no contradiction between building itself and various movements. Often times, ISO members will argue that joining the ISO is a way of uniting disparate causes (such as fighting against the death penalty, for union rights, against budget cuts, for solidarity with Palestine) into a single project of overturning capitalism.
While there is no inherent contradiction between recruiting to the ISO and movement building in the abstract, in practice things are more complicated. Because of the ISO’s strong emphasis on individual recruitment through ideological conversion, fellow activists often see or feel that the ISO – as an outside, pre-existing entity – is opportunistically “raiding” a coalition for new members. These feelings are heightened if and when the ISO’s involvement comes to an end because it has concluded that the fight is going nowhere in the near term or that people are not moving in the ISO’s direction (towards recruitment) politically. Rarely is there the feeling among non-ISO activists that ISOers involved are truly “one of us” due to this habit of popping in when a struggle heat up and dropping out when things cool down.
When a conflict does arise between the ISO’s party-building imperatives and movement work, the ISO will go to great lengths not to change what it does and how it operates even at the movement’s expense. This tendency is compounded by the ISO’s rigid interpretation of “democratic centralism” in which all members in a given area of work are bound by “party discipline” to act as a single unit in accordance with the decisions of ISO bodies such as fractions or branch committees, robbing them of the necessary tactical flexibility and political autonomy for consistently solid grassroots movement work. Nothing is more damaging to the ISO’s relationships with its friends and allies in coalitions than having a small phalanx of ISOers doggedly arguing for and pushing a pre-set party line that seems perfectly reasonable to ISOers in internal discussions but comes off as just the opposite to everyone who is a non-member.
If I believed it was possible to reform the ISO and change the practices I’ve criticized through its internal democratic mechanisms, I would be a member today. Unfortunately, my experience and the experiences of others who have tried changing the group through these mechanisms indicates that they are not an effective means of changing ISO policies and practices.
On paper, the ISO seems to be democratic. The highest decision-making body is its yearly convention, made up of elected delegates from local branches. Any member can submit a resolution or a position paper for consideration. The Steering Committee is elected by the convention to lead and run the organization between conventions.
What these democratic forms amount to in practice is a different story.
There are no horizontal channels of communication between branches and the general membership; information and political arguments at the rank and file level therefore move in only one direction – vertically, upwards, through branch leadership committees, citywide leadership committees, the national committee (an advisory body to the Steering Committee elected by the convention), and the Steering Committee. Someone with an idea or proposal has to either fight for their view through these successive administrative layers either on their own as an individual or wait until the yearly pre-convention discussion period to propose it before the organization, but they cannot form a faction to fight for their viewpoint at convention because ISO members do not have a constitutionally guaranteed right to form factions. The most they can do is caucus.
This is a major reason why change in the ISO comes from above, not below.
Dissidents and deviationists face not an uphill battle but a veritable cliff to break through hardened groupthink just to gain a hearing; often an idea or proposal that is generally dismissed or derided when it comes from a rank-and-file member will be readily and eagerly adopted when that same idea or proposal comes from the Steering Committee or other leading personnel.
The organization’s conformist political culture is both a blessing and a curse, allowing it to persist and grow in the Reagan-Obama era while preventing it from fully prospering now that objective conditions are favorable for a mass-based radical left. Given the current political climate, there is no reason the ISO shouldn’t be growing exponentially and qualitatively to become a hegemonic force not only over the far left but the broad left. Thriving not surviving is the order of the day.
The ISO continues to use the British SWP’s closed slate system to elect its leadership, meaning 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. This makes it impossible for the membership to hold even one Steering Committee member accountable unless they can assemble 12 or more additional names for an entirely new slate. This practice is winner-take-all run amok, and the result is not a one-party state but a one-slate party; as far as anyone knows, the ISO has never had a competitive election for its Steering Committee since it was founded in 1977. Conventions are exercises in unanimity rather than a place where substantive differences are aired and ironed out in a vigorous and above-board manner.
The easiest way to understand any institution or organization in capitalist society is to do just one thing – follow the money. Doing so reveals how power and status is really distributed and how organizations actually function.
What is remarkable about the ISO in this regard is its lack of transparency. Dues are paid, money is raised, merchandise (books, magazines, and newspapers) is sold, but rare is the ISO member who knows that the organization’s 501(c)(3) – the Center for Economic Research and Social Change (CERSC) – bought and sold thousands of dollars in Caterpillar stock in 2010 in spite of the ISO’s support for the Palestinian boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign’s targeting of Caterpillar for selling Israel the bulldozers it uses to demolish Palestinian homes and kill activist Rachel Corrie.
Whether or not buying and selling Caterpillar stock in defiance of the BDS campaign is right or wrong is not my place to decide, it is for the ISO’s membership to decide, and they cannot do so when they have no clue what the organization’s assets or liabilities consist of and are denied any formal control over CERSC. They cannot discuss and decide how best to spend CERSC’s $1.5 million in yearly revenue on organizing projects when these matters are handled internally as a state secret and questions about them from members are viewed as a sign of disloyalty to socialism rather than what they actually are – a principled commitment to the basic democratic norms working-class people are entitled to in their organizations.
Unions run in this manner are criticized by the left for disempowering the rank and file thereby undermining labor’s ability to fight capital, but how does wrong become right when the same methods are employed by a self-styled revolutionary organization aiming not just to fight capital but to end it?
Merging the Socialist and Worker Movements
No socialist organization should devote most of its time and energy to recruiting and retaining members, especially if they claim that the Bolshevik RSDLP is their organizing model. Lenin’s Collected Works contain zero references to recruiting and ideologically converting new members to the party because that is not how radical mass workers’ parties are built – never have been, never will be.
RSDLP members spent most of their political time organizing the unorganized to struggle for higher wages, against repression, for democratic rights – in other words, the bulk of their time was spent on movement work, on activism. It was through this tireless movement work and activist agitation that the RSDLP built a mass following among Russia’s workers.
The RSDLP was not unique or special in this regard. The same was done by the Debs-era Socialist Party, the Haywood-era Industrial Workers of the World, the 1930s-1940s era Communist Party that built the CIO from scratch, and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Not one of them engaged in “party building” or “building socialist organization” the way the ISO does. “You don’t do any singing; you’re too busy swinging,” is how Malcolm X put it.
All of these groups set out to do just one thing – serve the people, courageously, tirelessly, and selflessly by organizing the unorganized. In so doing, they attracted legions of the most courageous, tireless, and selfless activists of their times to their banners and organizations.
An organization that does not set out to serve the people ends up getting people to serve the organization, recreating the debilitating alienation that Karl Marx identified as one of capitalism’s core evils and ensuring that said organization never becomes a mass-based socio-political force.
Movement-building is party-building; activism is the one and only way to engage in “building the party.”
Class struggle is not something socialists “intervene” into like some imperialist power the better to colonize it with socialist ideas and recruits, it is something we are organically part of. And if we aren’t part of it, we can become part of it and meld with it but only by dropping the conversion/recruitment fetish and throwing all the resources we have into the battle. Then and only then will working people once again see socialists as “one of us” rather than awkward outsiders peddling an ideology that will supposedly liberate them, as comrades worth listening to, as tireless champions willing to pay any price and make every sacrifice for them and their cause.
To lead is to serve.
Until we socialists learn to do this and structure our organizations and activities accordingly, the crippling separation of the worker and socialist movements in the United States will continue to the detriment of both. Majority support for unionization will persist even as the unionization rate is pushed into the single-digit range; socialist groups will continue to tread water by recruiting twos and threes to replace the ones and twos that burn out even as millions of people ache for an alternative to the bleak future the 1% have planned for us.
We owe it to them and ourselves to do better.