Whither now, comrades?

Transparency and solidarity

Mike Macnair looks at the procedural questions that precipitated the collapse of the ISO

The International Socialist Organization in the United States has just decided, by an online voting process ending on March 29, to dissolve itself: “Nearly 500 members, participants in disaffiliated branches and recently resigned members took part in the vote.”1

The background is at least in part a ‘#MeToo’ story. At the ISO’s February 2019 convention, its long-standing leadership was overthrown - for reasons which remain unclear in the published texts, save that the new leadership was more than 50% “people of color”/native American.2 The new steering committee’s March 17 letter to ISO members, which announced the story and seems to have been the immediate trigger of the collapse, listed the following tasks as set by the convention:

1. Establishing both an internal #MeToo commission and starting to plan for organizing an activist #MeToo conference on tasks the SC and other bodies are addressing in the coming weeks.

2. Public perspectives laying out the ISO’s goals and areas of work for all to see (this was mandated to appear by the end of March).

3. Developing an affirmative action policy (we are forming a subcommittee to study hiring, resources and more).

4. Public apology from the outgoing and incoming SC to comrades of color (convention mandated 90 days, but we hope to have this published by the end of March).

5. Elections committee to support independent candidates and ballot initiatives, and study how the ISO can relate to socialist campaigns run on Democratic ballot lines. (The SC will appoint this in the next week or two.)

6. Support preparation for a Special ISO Convention in September, focused on electoral strategy and anti-oppression struggles.

Reading between these lines, one would suppose that there had not been a sustained faction fight, through which a clear alternative political strategy or perspectives could be developed, but a very rapidly developed revolt of the base against the old leadership - to a considerable extent animated by ‘identity politics’ (aka ‘intersectionality’ ideas), but also (secondarily) by concerns that the ISO had not worked out how to relate to a new left electoral politics and the startling growth of the Democratic Socialists of America to 50,000 members by September 2018.

But external comments make the point that there had in fact been a sustained faction fight, running since 2013, uniting some ISO members with some ex-members, who published externally.3 The fight had merely not been conducted in a way which generated political clarity.

While members of the new SC were drafting this letter, they and others were informed that one of the people elected had in 2013 been charged with rape in an internal procedure and convicted by the national disciplinary committee (NDC); but that the old SC had ‘leaned on’ that committee to retract its decision, and had then sent the case to the appeals committee, which found it not proven. The new SC proceeded to restore the original decision and to suspend and then expel those involved in the 2013 SC intervention.4

The ‘old guard’ leadership resigned from the organisation before the dissolution decision. It is unclear what their views of the events are. Various bloggers refer to the resignation statement as ‘weak’ or ‘lazy’, but it does not seem to be available online.5

What is available is a separate resignation letter by old-timer Joel Geier, who was one of the SC members involved in the reversal of the disciplinary decision in 2013. Geier argues for the SC and appeals committee’s 2013 decisions, on the basis that socialists have to defend rights to elementary due process, and in this case the NDC had refused the accused even a hearing, let alone notice of the case against him.6 New York lawyer Don Lash responds to Geier’s argument in a March 28 article on the US Socialist Worker website, titled ‘We can believe survivors and presume innocence’.7

Meanwhile, comments both on the Socialist Worker site and elsewhere blame the collapse on the model of ‘democratic centralism’ and the ‘party model’; but conversely continue to defend Hal Draper’s (and the ISO’s, British Socialist Workers Party’s, and so on) ‘socialism from below’. The ISO has merely dissolved; but the counter-model in proposals for the future made in the collapse phase has been along the lines of ‘networks’ and suchlike.8

I am not going to attempt to ‘diagnose’ the causes of the ISO’s collapse. That task must fall to comrades who have more detailed and up-to-date knowledge of US left politics than I do. I am going to make merely two points. The first is that - no matter what howls of outrage this may provoke - on the issue of rape allegations and the disciplinary or ‘disputes’ procedures of parties and other voluntary organisations, Geier is more than half-right and Lash is more than half-wrong. That will be the subject of this week’s article.

My second point, which I will tackle next week, is that the phobia about ‘democratic centralism’ rests on two false narratives of the origins of this organisational concept - one about Russian originality, and one about ‘Zinovievism’. And the result of this phobia is to poison organisational conceptions in groups which make no claim to be ‘revolutionary parties’.

Due process?

Geier argues that,

in any given case, we must ensure the most basic rights and protections of revolutionary socialist democracy for all sides. This includes the right to democratic procedures; to fair, impartial judging panels and actual hearings; to the opportunity to present and challenge evidence and testimony; and, if you are the one charged, to know what the charges against you are and be given the opportunity to face and question either the claimant or the claimant’s advocate.

He says that the 2013 NDC reversed its decision because it acknowledged that it had violated these principles:

… this hearing has ended in a procedural mistrial. After coming to a unanimous decision, we now rescind our votes, our verdict, and our recommendations ... No hearing was ever convened, the respondent (a) never had the opportunity to address the committee and attempt to convince them of his innocence; and (b) the respondent never had the opportunity to rebut witness testimony.

This is, then, not about the defendant being denied the opportunity to cross-examine in person as a form of humiliating the complainant; nor is it about a ‘complainant’s prior sexual conduct’ defence; or any of the other common abuses in rape trials. It is about very elementary audi alteram partem - ‘hear the other side’.

Step two was that the appeals committee heard the case de novo (as if for the first time) and found insufficient evidence. Geier is a lot less explicit on the basis of this decision; but it seems that it is this which Lash attacks, when he says:

Concepts like the inadmissibility of hearsay evidence, the right to confront all witnesses and the need to prove guilt beyond reasonable doubt all developed in the context of a criminal trial, in order to restrain the power of the state to deprive someone of their liberty. The ISO never had such power.

This is true enough about “reasonable doubt”, but simply incorrect about hearsay and confronting witnesses - rules/requirements which go back to Roman times. The rhetorician-advocate Quintilian, writing around the 90s CE, remarked that witnesses who speak to hearsay “are not really witnesses, but are merely reporting the words of unsworn persons”. Hadrian (emperor 117-138 CE) ruled that a provincial governor should “believe witnesses, not affidavits [testimonia]” and that “the evidence of witnesses actually present has a different weight to that of affidavits recited in court”. The point is in the Christian Bible (also reporting Roman law).9

The relevance of the history is that secret trials without confrontation, and decisions resting on hearsay, facilitate false claims.

We should not accept the version which was offered in 2013-14 by the ISO leadership, and is now repeated by the Socialist Equality Party: that there is a real risk that this individual case and this collapse is due to a provocation in the style of the FBI’s 1960-70s infiltration and provocation operations against the left.10 The ISO is, in the present political context, too trivial to attract the attention of such an operation.

Moreover, the ISO’s continuing belief in the ‘Syrian revolution’ in part effectively supported US Middle East policy, while its continuing enthusiasm for Black Lives Matter indirectly supported the Clinton wing of the Democratic Party’s use of this to race-bait the Sanders movement. So it would be politically surprising for the FBI to target the ISO for such an operation.

But what we do have going on, right now, is a smear campaign against the Labour left on the basis of wholly unfounded and dishonest allegations of ‘anti-Semitism’. Labour’s ‘improved’ private disciplinary/disputes procedures, designed to prevent ‘victim-blaming’ and promote ‘believing the victim’, have functioned most efficiently to make this smear campaign work. We have reported this in this paper at tedious, but necessary length over the past four years. This is not an FBI-style provocation (through there are some rightist social media provocateurs pretending to be Corbynistas involved), but it is nonetheless an instrument of class war on the bosses’ side.

Not unique, either. ‘Modernised’ private disciplinary/disputes procedures in the UK group, Left Unity, founded in 2013, produced a backlog of unfounded and unserious allegations; we reported one in particular, against our own comrade, Laurie McCauley, who was suspended from membership for more than a year on spurious charges of ‘bullying’ motivated by political disagreement.11

There therefore has to be some testing of allegations made. It is not enough for a disputes committee, or whatever, merely to receive papers (Hadrian’s ‘testimonia’), discuss them in private and come to a conclusion. Paradoxical as it may seem, this was part of what was wrong with the ISO’s 2013 proceedings: the privacy (adopted for the sake of complainant and defendant) produces lack of confidence in the proceedings.

There is a step further which comes from this point. Lash says: “The only power the ISO had was to tell one of its members that it chose not to have him associated with its political project, and that it no longer chose to allow him to exercise power at any level over members and contacts.”

But in fact this is straightforwardly untrue. Supposing that the respondent in this case was guilty of rape, for the ISO not to publish the fact would inevitably be to empower him to commit another rape - and to say that it was no longer responsible would be mere hand-washing. Supposing that the respondent was not guilty of rape, the reverse arises: to publish a ‘determination’ that he was guilty would be defamatory. His public reputation would inevitably suffer: rightly if he was guilty, wrongly if he was not. It does not help to expel him without giving reasons - both because of the rumour mill and because, if he was guilty, this would still be empowering him to further offences.

Hence, Lash is wrong to suggest that the issue of guilt can be dodged. It is, of course, true that the civil standard of proof (‘balance of probabilities’) rather than the criminal standard (‘beyond reasonable doubt’) can be employed; but what is precisely at issue is whether a voluntary organisation, like the ISO, SWP, etc, has the power and processing capacity to get to the truth or any sort of approximation of it about whether the respondent is guilty of the offence charged.

I have made the point before that for left groups to attempt to deal with such issues is seriously problematic; first, because we lack the resources for finding the truth. We do not have forensics departments, the power to search without consent or the power to arrest and interrogate under arrest until a confession is forthcoming.12 Second, by unsatisfactory investigations we will contaminate the evidence, and therefore prevent the complainant obtaining justice before the regular courts. Privacy of proceedings worsens these problems.

I previously came to this conclusion, which is worth repeating:

Suppose that the left were to abandon central structures on the basis of the manifestly corrupt and useless character of the existing regimes - but to retain the practices of secrecy/confidentiality, imagining that the underlying problem is sexism or that it is only ‘leaderships’ or ‘bureaucracies’ which are to blame. The result would be substantially the same as the present problem with the left organisations trying to handle sexual assault allegations: because the problems of secret trials and individualisation would go unaddressed.

We could do better than these disputes show us doing. But the core of doing better is to create more transparency - and by doing so to enable more solidarity13.



  1. https://socialistworker.org/2019/04/02/the-isos-vote-to-dissolve-and-what-comes-next.

  2. https://socialistworker.org/2019/04/03/towards-a-critical-defense-of-identity-politics (introduction). ‘People of color’ is a decidedly ambiguous expression currently fashionable in US identity politics, which fuzzes over conflicts between distinct ‘non-white’ groups as well as those affecting class and gender.

  3. https://louisproyect.org/2019/03/20/the-iso-metoo-and-the-need-for-a-fresh-start; https://louisproyect.org/2019/03/27/a-reply-to-paul-le-blanc-on-the-iso-crisis; https://thecharnelhouse.org/2015/04/01/leaked-iso-internal-bulletins-2015-edition; Cf also www.wsws.org/en/articles/2019/04/02/inte-a02.html from the other side.

  4. https://socialistworker.org/2019/03/15/letter-to-the-iso-membership.

  5. Eg, https://failedharvest.com/blog/socialism1org.

  6. http://likembe.net/Documents/ISO%20Preconvention%20Bulletins%202019/Joel-With%20Profound%20Regret%203-21-19%20.pdf.

  7. https://socialistworker.org/2019/03/28/we-can-believe-survivors-and-presume-innocence.

  8. Various material at https://socialistworker.org.

  9. Quintilian: HE Butler (translator) Institutio Oratoria Harvard 1935, Vol 2, p171. Hadrian: Digest book 22, title 5, 3.3-4. I have varied the translation to replace “depositions” with “affidavits” for reasons of accuracy. Bible: Acts 25.16.

  10. ISO leadership in 2014: https://thecharnelhouse.org/2014/02/17/unredacted-rape-controversy-and-internal-strife-within-the-international-socialist-organization-usa; and https://thecharnelhouse.org/2015/04/01/leaked-iso-internal-bulletins-2015-edition. SEP: wsws.org above n3. COINTELPRO: convenient summary at Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/COINTELPRO.

  11. A year in limbo’ Weekly Worker May 21 2015. Cf also P Demarty, ‘Confidentiality is a bosses’ tool’, June 26 2014; and M Macnair, ‘Transparency is a principle’ September 25 2014.

  12. I Bryan Interrogation and confession Ashgate 1997, on the importance of confessions to criminal convictions in practice.

  13. .