ISO: the picture from Chicago

Submitted by AWL on 1 May, 2019 - 11:08 Author: Eduardo Tovar

On 19 April, the International Socialist Organization (ISO), previously the largest far-left group in the US, announced it had completed the process of winding itself up.

The decision to dissolve came in the wake of a major controversy over the ISO Steering Committee’s mishandling of a sexual assault allegation in 2013. The row began on 15 March with the publication of a letter from the new ISO Steering Committee elected at the organisation’s national conference in late February.

The echoes with the 2013 “Comrade Delta” scandal that led to mass departures from the SWP are difficult to ignore.

Across the US, local ISO groups are rebranding themselves as “Chicago Socialists”, “NYC Socialists”, and so forth. Many ex-ISO members have jumped ship to the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and begun to involve themselves in its left caucuses.

The annual Socialism Conference that the ISO used to sponsor is due to take place on 4-7 July in Chicago, only this year it is sponsored by Jacobin magazine, Haymarket Books (a publishing company linked to the old ISO leadership), and the DSA instead.

I suspect that the political circles around Jacobin’s editorial team will pick up a good number of former ISO members.

As Stephen Wood reported in Solidarity 500 and 501, the ISO was a “Cliffite” sister organisation of the UK Socialist Workers’ Party (SWP). It split from the SWP’s international network in 2001, but largely retained the SWP model of organising. I believe that this rigid organisational model, which allows members to form political factions and to voice political disagreements in the group’s press only in very limited circumstances, was a major contributing factor to the ISO’s dissolution.

With such a brittle organisational structure, the ISO was unable to withstand the mounting pressures from within, including the ever-growing rifts between members over key political issues, such as how to orient towards “identity politics” and the left-wing of the Democratic Party.

Nonetheless, these structural factors only provide part of the explanation. After all, much of the old ISO leadership was ousted in the Steering Committee elections in February 2019, and the new leadership had committed to reforms to the voting system and to a more accommodating stance towards matters of gender, race, and sexuality.

One therefore has to ask why, given this changeover in leadership and wider hopes for structural change, most ISO members preferred to dissolve the organisation rather than reform it.

Moreover, when the mass departures from the SWP occurred after the Delta Scandal, the splinter groups — RS21 and the International Socialist Network — emerged on the basis that they would continue and build a better organisation. No such organised and programmatic splits have come from the ISO.

Going by conversations with former ISO members here in Chicago, I suspect that there were a few key factors that resulted in the drive to dissolve without immediately forming a splinter group. For one, the pro-reform members who became the new ISO leadership in February quickly concluded that the rot in the organisation ran deeper than they had realised. And many branches resentfully felt that they had been tightly controlled from the organisation’s centre at the expense of being able to discuss and develop political ideas.

The more that the new leadership members encountered and shed light on the extent of bureaucratic suppression within the group, the more sceptical they became of the ISO’s viability as a vehicle for socialist organising. Additionally, many more dedicated ISO activists felt burnt out from years of intensive activity.

Others became somewhat insular in mentality: their activity in unions and other sites of struggle came to be seen as in conflict with their ISO branch duties, as opposed to integrating these different fronts of political activity into an approach to socialist organising that facilitates exposure to other ideas on the left and engages in comradely debate with people who hold such ideas.

Whilst different ex-ISO members have starkly different perspectives on the matter, plenty found that the weeks of gigantic conference calls during the crisis period just kept airing out too much “dirty laundry”. These multiplying revelations and accusations further fuelled distrust and resentment.

The experience left many who had committed to organisational reform feeling that they had bitten off more than they could chew. Soon the dominant mood among ISO members was simply to “burn it down”. Many who had hoped that the ISO would survive the crisis eventually came to favour dissolution because they believed it would allow them to “step back from” all the bitterness and toxicity surrounding the debate.

At least some of these members are open to forming a successor group once they feel they have had the time and breathing space to draw firmer conclusions about the ISO’s organisational failures.

There is a good deal of movement amongst the ruins of the ISO, but it will probably be a good while before someone tries to build a new house from the rubble.

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