People from the leadership of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) which was in place before the ISO’s convention in February 2019, have launched a new website, the International Socialism Project (ISP), internationalsocialism.net, and some forums in Chicago.
The project also involves one or two former members of the “Orthodox Trotskyist” (in fact, semi-Assadist) Socialist Action group.
Background: the ISO was long the most active group on the US far left, with up to 1500 members. Apparently overwhelmed by criticism from the ranks, the old leadership (many of them leaders since the 1980s) stood down at the February 2019 convention. Soon after that convention, the new leadership, thrown off balance by an emerging scandal, disbanded the ISO.
Unsurprisingly the articles published so far on the new website reflect some bitterness.
In the only piece centred on the dissolution of the ISO, by one of those leaders, “Did a ‘rape coverup’ destroy the ISO?”, Sharon Smith gives her version of events. She argues that the way she and the old leadership had handled the issue was correct, if not perfect.
The main thrust of her piece is to attack what she describes as a call-out culture and tone of debate at the convention and in the run-up to it.
The ISP people all argue that the ISO became inward looking. Focus on building opposition to Trump and the big political issues of the day became secondary to dealing with perceived problems in the ISO culture, and that covered for more fundamental political differences.
They state they stood down from leadership to avoid a damaging faction fight. Evidently none of them believed that within a matter of months the organisation would be completely dissolved. They all now seem quite shell-shocked.
In their view, the fundamental political issue was how revolutionaries should orient to the DSA and the Democratic Party, in particular the Bernie Sanders Presidential campaign. The post-February leaders of the ISO wanted to “wait and see” and have a special convention to decide their attitude to Sanders if he won the Democratic nomination for President. The ISP ex-leaders were far more explicitly against supporting Sanders running on a Democratic ticket, and sceptical about the DSA being more than a funnel for support for Democratic party candidates.
Todd Chretien and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, both former senior ISO members, have both joined the DSA. Chretien has explained his reasoning in Jacobin magazine (see here).
“Rather than revolutionary socialists and democratic socialists defining our ‘points of honour’ that ‘distinguish’ one from the other, it is time to merge the best of our ideas, many of which we share to begin with. Socialists from different traditions will find themselves agreeing and dividing over many of the battles to come, but I suspect that these confluences and arguments will not fall neatly along the theoretical or traditional lines developed in the period of defeat”.
There is much to debate about the relationship revolutionaries should have to the DSA. What neither side has put forward is an exact aim for activity within the DSA, if it is to be undertaken.
The example of the "French Turn"
After 1934, in many countries, the small Trotskyist organisations entered larger reformist socialist parties, in the so-called “French Turn”.
Max Shachtman at the time one of the leaders of the Workers Party (US) later the Socialist Workers Party (US) wrote, ‘’[O]ur French comrades do not orient their fundamental perspective upon the prospect of capturing a majority in the SFIO [French Social Democratic Party], not because it is ‘theoretically impossible’, but because... it is practically unlikely that the SFIO can be captured by the Fourth Internationalists.
“But for the Bolshevik-Leninists [Trotskyists] in the SFIO to proclaim in advance that they have no hope or aim of capturing (‘reforming’) the SFIO, would mean to defeat their aims in advance. It would mean, first, laying themselves open to the charge of driving immediately towards an artificial split and thus giving the bureaucracy unnecessary pretexts to expel them prematurely.
“It would mean, second, that they would get no hearing from the leftward moving workers in the SFIO who labour under the illusion that all that is required to make their party all-sufficient is the gradual victory of a revolutionary group inside of the party and the consequent adopting of a revolutionary program and leadership...
“’You want to reform your party, comrade?’ our people will and do say. ‘Very well, then, join with us in an organised way in order to fight against [SFIO leader] Blum and Co. and for the revolutionisation of our party. We shall soon see whether or not M. Blum and his cohorts will allow us to progress in our party along our line without resorting to bureaucratic expulsion measures” (bit.ly/sha-35).
The DSA has rules that are meant to ban “democratic centralist” organisations from affiliating or working inside it, but it seems those rules have not been tested, or put to the new members. The DSA has many platforms, none of which organise on such a basis, but surely some come close to it.
Chretien may well have some merit in calling for revolutionaries to work inside an organisation like the DSA, but the aim is important. If it is to dissolve the differences with, and merge ideas with, the reformists, then the tactic is fatal.