At Socialist Alternative's (S Alt's) "Socialism Sydney 2019" event I was able to talk with some people from S Alt about the collapse and disappearance, in March-April this year, of the International Socialist Organisation USA.
The ISO was the biggest group outside Australia with which S Alt had links. With maybe 900 members, the ISO was, and had been for a while, the most active revolutionary socialist group in the USA. Its political history could be traced back (with twists and shifts along the way) to the Workers' Party of Max Shachtman (from 1940).
Revolutionary socialist groups often suffer splits, setbacks, periods of decline. But for a relatively sizeable, active, and well-placed group, with some political tradition, to collapse completely, is a first - an unprecedented turn, which calls for investigation and discussion.
Mick Armstrong was a founder of S Alt in 1995, when the ISO-Aus (the Australian group linked to the SWP-UK) expelled him and other former ISO-Aus leaders in a fight over the SWP early-1990s turn to a more bombastic orientation. He was at the ISO-USA convention in February (which led in to the collapse) and has attended other ISO meetings.
S Alt, he said, had had some differences with the ISO, but mostly he gave me a picture of the old ISO leadership (in office largely unchanged since the early 80s) losing energy and will.
Ahmed Shawki, the best-known leader, had been out of action through ill-health. The ISO leaders were uncertain about and divided on the rise of the Bernie Sanders movement and of the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America, formerly a not-very-active left social-democratic group, now over 50,000 strong). Alan Maass and Todd Chretien were the "right", Joel Geier the "left".
At the convention - before anyone was talking of collapse, and in fact while new ISO leaders were talking about a turn to more activity - the old leaders did not even stand for re-election. When the storm over the ISO's handling of a rape charge some years back broke, after the convention, the old leaders just resigned.
The convention, said Mick, was a mess. The ISO, he thought, had been affected by ideas circling round "identity politics": some political debates, for example, would be stalled by claims that to argue further would be inconsiderate of so-and-so's mental health.
Sadia Schneider, a younger S Alt leader, said to me that the collapse came from the ISO leaders dealing poorly with the rape charge. (But why ever should that lead to giving up on the whole project of building a revolutionary socialist organisation, rather than to changing procedures, replacing officials?)
The rise of the DSA had thrown the ISO into disarray. (But why should that make the ISO dissolve itself, rather than get into difficult debate or even split?)
More relevantly to my mind, Sadia said that the ISO-USA had been short on political education. It had tended to "movementism" and light-on-theory activism. It lacked political leaders intermediate between the top few and its local activists. The organisation was dispersed, with concentrations in Chicago and New York but lots of small groups scattered in other cities across the wide expanses of the USA.
My best guess is that the ISO decayed because it relied more and more on reactive, catch-penny politics, and neglected the task of investigating and developing its political tradition.
As Rosa Luxemburg put it in an article on the 1905 revolution, "the extent to which the party rises to the occasion" at a challenge "depends in the greatest degree on... the extent to which it was already [before the big upheavals] successful in putting together a solid central core of politically well-trained worker activists with clear goals".
A lot about the ISO we still don't know. I learned something from Mick and Sadia. It's a pity that S Alt, who maybe have more information about the ISO than anyone outside the vortex of its collapse, do not discuss the collapse in writing.
A 14-page feature on "Rebuilding the revolutionary left today" in the current issue of the S Alt paper Red Flag doesn't even mention the collapse.
• See also 'Losing the Thread' by Paul Le Blanc.