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September 16, 2019

When socialist organization fails: the ISO collapse

By Robin Wiley

The conundrum of socialist organising

In 1981-82 I attended two International Socialist Organization (ISO) conferences, in Cleveland and Cincinnati, where American comrades grappled with the need for a fundamental change in methods and, ultimately, leadership in the face of a radical decline in militant struggles. The result was a new leadership committed to a student focused, more propaganda oriented socialist group.

Over the following four decades, the ISO survived the downturn in class struggle, and expulsion from the International Socialist Tendency, to build an impressive organization with nearly 800 active members, some 40 branches, the weekly (later daily online and monthly printed) newspaper Socialist Worker, a theoretical journal (IS Review), a publishing house (Haymarket Books), and an annual socialist educational event drawing more than 2000 activists from around the world.

The ISO became the dominant Marxist organization in the United States based on the international socialist tradition of socialism from below.

In 2019, however, the ISO collapsed. The upturn in struggles in America since Trump, from migrant rights to #MeToo to teachers’ strikes, put the downturn perspective to the test and it failed. A rigid insistence on a campus focus, denial of affinity groups, and a failure to sufficiently engage new struggles, generated enormous tensions against what was perceived as an increasingly authoritarian and out of touch leadership.

At the 2018 ISO national convention, delegates voted to remove the senior leadership and install a new leadership committed to a more multi-faceted perspective with an active relation to the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the social democratic caucus within the Democratic Party whose membership has rocketed from 2000 to a claimed 60,000.

What also emerged was an ethical crisis with reports the senior leadership covered up a failed investigation of sexual assault. Members’ reaction to the cover up and confusion on reorienting to the upturn in struggle created an extremely volatile situation. A seemingly positive convention in February 2019 suddenly led to resolutions to resolve accountability over allegations of assault and harassment to question socialist organization itself. By the end of winter, a majority of members voted to dissolve. By April, the ISO was no more.

What now?

For committed organized Marxists the situation is dire. The ISO senior leadership issued a protest letter of resignation abdicating personal and political responsibility. The comrades who formed a crisis leadership team to manage the end of the ISO now seem to be committed to adapting to the DSA. This has resulted in profound demoralization of much of the branch cadre, though not all. Some branch leaderships in the Midwest, along with individual comrades across the country, have committed to a discussion to rebuild a socialism from below network.

The sooner this happens the better for the longer an organizational vacuum exists the more difficult it becomes to regroup.

For the Long Term

Building Marxist organisation is a high risk enterprise. Opportunities to grow are often brief. Repression is real. As well, transformative ideas and disciplined, democratic and flexible organization are challenging questions in developed nations where ‘common sense’, individual anger and material interests are powerful barriers to a system alternative politics.

These challenges put a premium on absorbing and creatively adapting the revolutionary socialist tradition to make the most of struggles in both periods of ascent and decline through practical solidarity activity and continuous reflection. This creativity will require ‘turns’, or major adjustments in response to class struggle dynamics.

Foreknowledge, however, will not be enough. There will be a price to pay for every turn as working methods change that will alienate some, yet aim to win new members, bigger audiences. The Greek Workers’ International Left (DEA) rightly engaged Syriza in a united front, but split in the aftermath of Syriza’s predictable adaptation to market priorities when an alternative left electoral united front failed.

So we have to ask ourselves: are we stronger or weaker for making a turn – and able to adjust again? Or do we fail to turn? And, if we fail, can confidence in the Marxist political tradition and organization itself collapse?