Socialist organization

The ISO has become unstuck in time

If you belonged to the world, then the world would love you as its own. But I chose you from this world, and you do not belong to it; that is why the world hates you. –John 15:19

Several thousand people over the last few decades have dedicated their blood, sweat, and tears to building the International Socialist Organization. For those of us at the heart of the project, this activity formed the political core our adult lives. I have a shelf full of books about the Black Panther Party, Eugene V. Debs and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the Bolsheviks, Sandinismo and more. I doubt anyone will write a book (at least not a good one) about the ISO for a long time. I know one comrade who is assembling the archives and if anyone can do it he can. However, any such project will face a challenge: either write about the internal life of the organization — which will only be comprehensible to insiders (and their close friends) — or write about the historical seas upon which our tiny boat was tossed. Bringing both onto the same analytical plain runs the risk of raising the ISO’s importance to the level of real social and political force or, conversely, diminishing the determining power of global tides that shaped the lives of billions, rose up and tore down states and nations, and have driven the planet to the edge over the last forty years.

To be in the world, but not of it. It’s a common problem for radicals and revolutionaries. Someone made this point about Trotskyism as a whole although I can’t recall the reference. But John got there first in his gospel talking about early Christian egalitarian life under the Roman Empire. And Kurt Vonnegut’s opening lines to Slaughterhouse-Five, “Listen: Billy Pilgrim has become unstuck in time,” point to the same. That is, despite references to cults and conspiracies, it is perfectly possible to do good work — to organize solidarity with immigrant families, lead strikes, demand justice for victims of racist police terror, organize unions, defend abortion clinics, march against homophobia, misogyny, and transphobia, be arrested opposing wars and interventions, fight for justice for Palestine, campaign against climate change, and educate thousands in the ABCs of Marxism — while at the same time being radically isolated from social forces. If Victor Hugo is right that armies cannot stop an idea whose time has come, how can we understand those who try to put into practice ideas whose time has not yet come… and who have only imperfect ways of determining when or if it might?

ISO comrades have been locked out of the world for too long, and we did our fare share of damage to one another along the way, making virtues of necessities. Some of us then wielded these supposed virtues against what were, in fact, real necessities. Habits and routine crowded out daring and initiative. Along the way, wrongs disproportionally fell on those comrades whom capitalism targets for special and intersecting oppressions. Our worst — but not our only — collective sins of omission and commission sprang from this failing. We created a gender and color-blind “Bolshevik” culture in which voluntarism, substitutionism, and bravado were the price to be paid for survival. Within this framework, degrading pathologies smothered a few of our best minds, twisting the trappings of leadership into barbed wire to fend off criticism, review, and accountability. And freed from any of that, a sense of privilege allowed for the unforgivable to hide.

Coming to grips with the crisis of the ISO means understanding that while we almost survived decades “unstuck in time,” the structures we adopted to do so, as Daniel Bensaïd once suggested, generated both general and specific pathologies that we must now overcome in order to integrate ourselves into the world as rebels, yes, but not outsiders. If we can, or at least if we can do so to a sufficient degree (forget about perfection), then some of the lessons, knowledge, and experience we accumulated — and the persons who accumulated all that — can be useful, maybe even very useful, for a new generation of socialists. This will take some time and be more difficult for some than others. The “we” of the ISO has broken down, the old “we” cannot, and should not, be put back together again.

Yet, the elements of revolutionary transformation — time (politics) and the world (forces) and knowledge (socialism) — show some early signs of converging. Maybe, just maybe, Hugo’s armies will get a run for their money and the oppressed and exploited will rise up in the coming decades. We should recognize this potential as a precious gift that previous generations were denied. The geniuses of what DuBois called the General Strike of enslaved Africans during the Civil War conquered Emancipation and Radical Reconstruction. But Redemption and Jim Crow buried the generation of Juneteenth long before the New Negro Movement and the CIO and Black Power were in the world. Likewise, those most committed to the emancipationist impulses of the Russian Revolution and the wave of workers and peoples’ struggle that crested after World War I were inundated by Stalinism. The best forces of 1917 were drown before they could pass along their stories and commit their energies to the 68ers. And those 68ers themselves are now divided from the new socialist youth by a half century of neoliberal attacks, mass incarceration, war, and climate disasters. The few that have survived are precious.

Keep in mind that all those generations did what we have done to one another, and done worse at times. But I am convinced that the great majority of our heroes have only one real regret: most perished under the blows of Redemption, Stalinism, and Neoliberalism and did not live long enough to merge with a new generation of revolutionaries. If we can recognize it, this opportunity is what has arrived on our doorstep. We must take some time to ponder it, to rest, to think, to ask questions, and to ask for help. It is only human to feel sadness, regret, disorientation, and fear. There is no shame in any of this. But then we should open that gift and see what it holds in store for a new “we.”

3 replies »

  1. “In the world and not of it” was something I wrote in a piece Binh published in the North Star years ago which he called “The Limits of Trotskyism.” Others certainly could have said it as well.


  2. By this time tomorrow the ISO may no longer exist, as the result of being dissolved by membership vote. There has been a lot of negative comments, about the events leading up to this month long crisis in the ISO. What is overlooked, were the positive achievements by the ISO.

    Just to mention one campaign, I was heavily involved in was the Charleston 5 Defense Campaign, in 2001. Four Longshoremen and one Longshore Clerk, members of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) were facing possible prison sentences, as the result of defending their picket line against a police attack in January, 2000.

    I’ll post a link, to an article giving more details about the background to this campaign. I want to concentrate on the role of the ISO. When ILA local 1422 President Ken Riley, was visiting San Francisco, as part of a speaking tour, I was assigned by the ISO to invite him to the ISO Midwest Conference. Another union leader, was invited to the ISO Northeast Conference. They both accepted.

    With union support, union members and other supporters demonstrated at the State Capitol in Columbia, SC, during the summer of that year, about a week before the Socialism 2001 Conference in Chicago. Several dozen, possibly 100 ISO members on the east coast mobilized to attend that demonstration.

    At Socialism 2001, Ken Riley was one of the speakers at the opening plenum. As soon as he was introduced the audience of several hundred were on their feet, chanting, “Free the Charleston 5!”

    The ISO organized support meetings nation wide, including securing invitations for representatives of the campaign at local union meetings. The campaign was successful. Of course the ISO doesn’t deserve all the credit. The most significant contribution was from the union movement, in money, and solidarity, internationally, as well as nationally. Even so, the ISO did much more than could be expected from an organization it’s size. I think the term is “punching above one’s weight.” Of all the actions I’ve participated in, being able to do my small part in keeping five workers out of prison, is one of the proudest moments of my life. The ISO as well has every right to be proud of it’s contribution in this important struggle.


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