Learn the lessons
Peter Moody comments on the collapse of the most prominent revolutionary group on the US left
As readers will know, on March 29 the International Socialist Organization - likely the largest US grouping that could be reasonably described as on the revolutionary left - voted to dissolve itself.
In a statement put out on the website of its newspaper outlining the decision, the immediate reason is said to be due to the discovery of a cover-up regarding sexual assault in one of the organisation’s branches in 2013.1 As the dissolution statement notes, while a disciplinary committee drawn up to investigate the incident recommended expulsion for the perpetrator of the assault, the national steering committee of the ISO at the time “interfered with the committee’s work, overturned its decision and effectively silenced anyone who dissented from the course it chose”. And, when a new steering committee came into power earlier this year as a result of a - frankly momentous - change of leadership, the full extent of this interference and cover-up was made public, profoundly shaking the ISO as a whole and setting it on the course which led to the collapse.
This is not the first time this incident has been made public. Over the later part of 2013 and into the beginning of 2014, a group within the ISO calling itself the Renewal Faction waged an internal struggle against what it saw as inaction from the national leadership on the question.2 Its comrades were expelled for their efforts. This raises the question about what is different now: perhaps the fact that the Renewal Faction was engaging in an open factional struggle (something which is considered verboten outside of strictly prescribed periods by the political tradition from which the ISO descends) or that Renewal published documents regarding potential financial malfeasance within the organisation and its non-profit partner (again something which would likely not endear loyalists) meant that the charges levied by the faction were merely seen as the jibs of malcontents. No doubt a sufficiently thorough cover-up by the old leadership would help perpetuate this conception.
The dissolution statement, however, does not go into detail about what changed between 2014 and now; while the ISO does have a perceived reputation for a high rate of membership turnover, it is difficult to believe that no-one apart from the old leaders who are (now ex-) members of the ISO was not around five or six years ago, though an account of one individual’s grappling with the allegations has been published on the Socialist Worker website, and other statements on the website suggest that the sentiment expressed there are shared by others.3
Despite this sordid history, it would be wrong to assume that protecting abusive members and lack of transparency around accusations of sexual assault are the sole provenance of the ISO’s now former leadership. Over the past year, the Workers World Party underwent two splits, both of which claim to be related to sexual assault within that organisation’s Baltimore branch.4 The Democratic Socialists of America have also recently mishandled sexual assault cases, both on the national and local level.5 So, while it might be tempting for people aiming to score sectarian points against the ISO - or against self-described ‘democratic centralist’ groups more generally - to depict these problems as somehow inherent to such organisations, reality suggests otherwise. What does seem clear, however, is that the left is usually no more capable of delivering justice in situations such as these than the bourgeois legal system, where people in positions of authority are able to use their connections and authority to cover up abuse - and they have access to useful financial and institutional channels if accusations of abuse come to trial.
In a certain sense, this is not surprising. Despite whatever growth has occurred in the past decade, the US left in general is still only just emerging from a period of historical defeat, and our internal capacity is as such in the early stages of redevelopment. Moreover, we are still saddled with organisational frameworks that downplay abuse and prevent open and just proceedings from occurring. On the one hand, there is the ‘activist sect’ model, which treats the perpetuation of the organisation as paramount, which can lead to its members being unwilling to ask hard questions (whether on transparency of leadership or of political differences); this likely did play a role in ISO activists rallying around five or six years ago. On the other hand, there is the habituation towards bourgeois legalism brought in by the pro-state politics of social democracy (and adapted to by sections of ‘official communism’ and other tendencies), which replicate the problems of the bourgeois legal system in the workers’ movement. The specific solutions are yet to be determined, but these frameworks directly oppose the transparency and political democracy that the workers’ movement needs to both adequately conduct its own affairs and provide the basis for its establishment as the ruling class in society.
The political elephant in the room, however, is the relationship that the ISO has had to the growing (if still vague) positive sentiment towards socialism in the United States - in particular its expressions in the closely intertwined phenomena of the Sanders campaign and the DSA - and how that relationship will affect the trajectories of both now-former ISO members and whatever new grouping that may emerge. Indeed, the change in leadership that precipitated the recent chain of events seems to be related to whether the ISO was able to ‘go on in the old way’ in terms of its organisational norms and how it related to the movement (or movements) that it considered itself a part of.
A piece written by a former ISO member notes that, in addition to the main fight between “reformers” on the steering committee and the old leadership, a smaller third faction existed, which advocated a positive orientation towards the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign and “democratic socialist” congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. If adopted, this would have marked a significant step away from the ISO’s historical opposition to the Democratic Party.6 This tendency represents a significant phenomenon on the left to integrate with broader forces in order to more effectively ‘do the work’ of rebuilding the movement - an ostensibly laudable goal, but one which often has the consequence of either shutting up about political differences, so as not to jeopardise that work, or explicitly abandoning long-term political strategy for the sake of more immediate and ‘achievable’ goals. This has already started to happen, with former ISO members who have left in the past few years entering the DSA and to a greater or lesser degree integrating with its social democratic and pro-Democratic Party strategy. The collapse of confidence in the ISO’s organisational model will likely accelerate this process, since the DSA alternative appears to remain credible.
This would be a tragic coda to the ISO’s dissolution. First, as mentioned above, the DSA itself has had problems handling sexual assault, particularly when the perpetrators are well-positioned within the organisation. Second, self-described revolutionaries working in DSA as individuals, without presenting a clear political alternative to the social democratic orientation of the leadership, will most likely end up burning out from stifled factional struggle, from replicating the problems of the ‘activist sect’ model on a lower political level, or from simply adapting to the dominant politics within the DSA. This would be a loss for the left as a whole, especially as ‘socialism’ becomes a more popular label, as it is now more critical to fight for a conception of socialism that is based around the working class taking political power and remaking society as a whole.
Fortunately this is hardly a guaranteed outcome of the ISO’s dissolution, and all communists should offer both a frank and friendly hand to now-former ISO members, who are no doubt still struggling with what they have gone through over the past few months, so that the left in general may rebuild itself on a higher level.
The two groups - the Communist Workers League and Struggle for Socialism - do not go into much detail about what they thought was the problem with the handling of the incident, so their specific views on the case are unclear.↩
The national-level case involved a member of the organisation’s national political committee, who did eventually leave his position. An ongoing local case in the DSA’s Los Angeles branch involved sexual assault and harassment, with an accessory to the harassment himself being a former member of the ISO.↩