As a former member of the International Socialist Organization who is now a member of the Freedom Socialist Party, I take ISO’s recent implosion seriously. As a revolutionary, my biggest concern is whether those comrades who invested some part of their political lives in the ISO will remain radicals or instead be lost to cynicism, despair, or … the Democrats.
ISO’s extraordinarily rapid decision to close up shop came about through a somewhat dubious process — an online poll and then a phone call involving several hundred of its members. This course was precipitated by revelations about ISO leaders’ mishandling and cover-up of a 2013 rape charge against a member who, six years later, had just been elected to ISO’s highest leadership body. Members heard about the suppression of the case on March 11 of this year; by the end of the month, the ISO was no more.
Of course this is hardly the whole story of why the ISO fell apart. There are lessons to be learned by examining its politics, structure and leadership, all of which were fatally flawed.
At the same time it is necessary to defend the work that ordinary comrades did, based on an earnest desire to build an organization that they saw as instrumental to winning a better world.
The high of having all the answers
I was in the ISO from about 1997 to 2002. That is to say, from the time of Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright’s murderous sanctions and bombings against Iraq, until shortly after some of my closest comrades split from the ISO to form a now-dissolved group called Left Turn.
I participated wholeheartedly in the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, went to summer school in Chicago (which later became the annual “Socialism” conference), and eagerly sold the Socialist Worker newspaper. I gave an educational for the Harlem branch on the life of Che Guevara. It was a privilege to read the newly reincarnated International Socialist Review magazine, and to be responsible for its distribution in New York City. It was exciting to think of being part of a group of young, smart people who wanted to change the world.
There is a euphoria that comes from being so confidently busy and knowing that you’re so right about everything you do, about every opinion you have, and about every political statement you make. It leaves you with very little time to question or understand the possibility that not everything might be so perfect.
But certain things came to bother me. One was the tendency of my branch to drop one area of unfinished political work to pick up something else. Another was an avoidable level of organizational sloppiness — for example, frequent running around at the last minute to secure a venue for a regular weekly meeting.
I began to wonder about the correctness of ISO supporting Ralph Nader for president in 2000. Why did we vote for a pro-capitalist “left” celebrity? Why not for other socialists?
And could it be true that white privilege really does not exist, as ISO claimed in those days? And what was up with the ISO’s longstanding, explicit hostility to feminism? Was feminism really by nature “bourgeois”?
My comprehension of the bigger historical issues was limited. For example, the slogan “neither Moscow nor Washington” went along with ISO’s stance that the Soviet Union was “state capitalist” — but what did that really mean? Much later I came to understand that this position (like the endorsement of Nader) was opportunist — that is, convenient rather than principled. The roots of the ISO are in a political grouping that was unwilling at the beginning of World War II to take the “unpopular” stand of defending the USSR against U.S. aggression.
Leadership of the wrong kind — but what were the causes?
After four years or so, I had a lot of unresolved questions about ISO’s program. In addition, it turned out that some of the people in leadership could be downright nasty, and I didn’t like that at all.
In a personal example, I was called a dilettante by one of the prominent NYC organizers because I occasionally volunteered in a soup kitchen.
At an East Coast conference, a national leader once berated a comrade who was studying law. She did it from the podium, in a room with more than a hundred people. It was shocking to hear her say, “You want to be a lawyer? Go ahead and be a fucking lawyer!”
Only years after leaving the ISO in 2002 did I understand that the lack of democracy, the unaccountability of leadership, and the rejection of feminism were fundamental flaws which led to such abhorrent behavior.
Even more recently, I learned that some members were increasingly questioning the official antagonism of ISO leadership toward autonomous organizing by female comrades and comrades of color. It makes sense that it would be the women and people of color who were ultimately going to expose the internal contradictions which had existed for decades, and which eventually unraveled the fabric of the organization in late March of this year.
From these political deficiencies arose problems of the organizational culture.
A longtime West Coast leader, Steve Leigh, had this to say in a written contribution about the crisis: “From the beginning, modesty and a sense of humility was part of the DNA of the ISO.”
This is a most telling example of how the lSO as an organization had long insulated itself from reality.
What really existed was the opposite: a general hubris prevailed. ISO members were taught never to back down from an argument. This meant that members knew everything, that nobody in the organization would ever say to a non-member, “You know, I never thought of that. You might be right.” This arrogant mindset also bears responsibility for the fact that ISO was rarely involved in coalition work unless it, as the “largest socialist group on the Left in the U.S.,” could call the shots.
At a Trotsky Conference in the Bronx, the same national leader who publicly berated the comrade studying law offhandedly responded to a lunchtime conversation about sexism and the necessity for a socialist feminist program by saying, “We don’t have those problems in the ISO.”
What had developed was an organization whose leadership, and until recently much of the membership, actually believed themselves immune to the social prejudices in capitalist society in general. In other words, sexism, racism, heterosexism and so on were not problems inside the ISO. Therefore only theory was needed, and then only for the world outside of the organization, because the body itself had already been purged of these problems.
Pressured by the resurgence of women’s activism via the MeToo movement and the matter-of-fact acceptance of feminism of many of its newer and younger members, the ISO of late began to head in the direction of socialist feminism. It is ironic that people who joined in the last year or two were largely unaware of its traditional rejection of it.
Feminism: not the problem but the solution
After leaving the ISO, I wanted to avoid three things above all: to drop out of revolutionary political activity altogether, to go back to the Democratic Party, or to become bitter and even hostile toward serious party-building. I saw at least two former comrades eventually reject the need for a vanguard party along with the ISO’s distorted, bureaucratic organizational norms.
As I shopped around for another political center of gravity, I found that only the Freedom Socialist Party had a program and practice that was both proudly feminist and truly revolutionary.
Socialist feminist theory is as simple, profound and obvious as the theory of surplus value: that for the emancipation of women to become a reality, women have to be in the leadership of the revolutionary process. Same for the leadership of Blacks, other people of color, and all the specially oppressed who have suffered the worst that the capitalist system delivers.
Simply stated, feminism is not the problem, it is the answer. Only socialist feminism can correct what Frederick Engels called “the world historic defeat of the female sex.” It is not feminism but sexism which is divisive. ISO had this tragically and fatally wrong.
One of the most satisfying episodes of my ISO experience was promoting and attending several productions of Howard Zinn’s play “Marx in Soho.” Marx comes into the present for an hour or so, to clear his name and explain why his ideas are still relevant.
In one section he mentions the collapse of the Soviet Union, and explains why it’s wrong to equate Stalinism with communism. He says: “Socialism is not supposed to reproduce the stupidities of capitalism!”
The ISO would have done well to consider this statement as it reproduced yet another top-down, undemocratic, macho structure which was bound sooner or later to collapse.
In retrospect, it seems that it would have been so easy for ISO to consider programmatic feminism as necessary political fabric, instead of issuing reams of tortured and twisted arguments against it! But bureaucratic leadership insulated the group from correction until it was too late.
Anyone who wants to see a human society based on cooperation rather than competition, where people get what they need and can finally live lives that are their own, needs a revolutionary political home. There is no antidote to pessimism more powerful than organizing along with people with whom you passionately agree! That’s why people joined the ISO. That it turned out not to be what it appeared is no individual’s fault, but a result of something deeper.
Some former ISOers will no doubt regroup and form yet another organization. I hope that others might at least find my journey from the ISO to the FSP interesting enough to inquire more about what I consider the original socialist feminist party.
Email the author at email@example.com.