Setting our record straight

October 16, 2013

Todd Chretien, a longtime member of the International Socialist Organization, the publisher of this website, responds to a recent critique of the organization.

IN A two-part article (here and here), a former member of the International Socialist Organization from the Bay Area, Scott J., puts forward "A Critique of the International Socialist Organization." (The article first appeared anonymously, but Scott has since said that he is the author, so I will refer to him directly.)

I believe the following is a fair summary of Scott's critique:

Although ISO members are "genuine revolutionary socialists," they "act as 'liberals in practice'" and "ally themselves with liberals and against radicals, not just occasionally, but consistently and out of habit." This flows from the ISO's strategy of "uncritical participation in symbolic movements," which leads us to "not see how the[se] practices...can potentially damage the class struggle." As a consequence, "the more movements become genuinely militant, the more the ISO will have a problem relating to them in a way that can move them forward."

Why would "genuine" socialists act this way? Because the ISO is "merely...a machine dedicated to its own self-reproduction." We focus on recruiting young students--or "low-hanging fruit," as Scott calls them. This has allowed the ISO to grow into the largest revolutionary socialist group in the U.S.; this is a problem, however, because to do so, we have had to act as "liberals in practice."

ISO members march against police violence and the NYPD's "stop-and-frisk" policy

Since young members don't know any better, the ISO essentially organizes a sort of alternative political universe, within which these newbies are kept safely away from anyone with competing radical ideas. Hence, the ISO organizes united fronts with "liberals against radicals" for this end. While these efforts may produce safe, "symbolic" protests, they never accomplish anything.

How can such an organization sustain itself? Since "spending a few years doing this would turn anyone into a cynic," the ISO leadership must constantly promise the membership the moon with "Big Bangs" and "turning points," which are allegedly right around the corner. Inevitably, some comrades wise up and object. They run into a stonewall of "browbeating," however, and are quickly "forced out after objecting to this faulty method."

Scott attempts to prove his assertions with references to ISO practice over the past 15 or so years. But he can only do so by distorting the theory and practical record of the ISO beyond all recognition--by stringing together bits and pieces of that record, torn out of context when they are accurate at all, to draw the picture he wants. Further, that picture is of an ISO frozen in time, as if we have learned nothing, nor developed at all after all our efforts.

Finally, while Scott aims his critique specifically at the ISO, he in fact ends up rejecting almost all the premises of the conception of revolutionary organization derived from the experience of the Bolshevik Party of the Russian Revolution and continued by revolutionary socialists since then, in different circumstances and conditions. Scott is well within his rights to change his mind, of course, but it seems clear to me that he has adopted a different set of ideas--an amalgam of certain strands of anarchism, syndicalism and Left Communism, chiefly--than he held when he was a member of the ISO, and these are at the heart of his critique.

Let's look more carefully at each of these points.

How Scott Distorts the ISO's Record

Scott presents a list of examples from the history of the ISO, which he believes prove his case. The list is too long to answer in detail, so I will focus only on the antiwar movement during the 2000s and the Occupy struggle.

But it must first be said that as long as his list is, it barely scratches the surface of the many efforts and initiatives we've participated in over the years. To list only some: Occupy, the Wisconsin uprising, opposition to the 1991 Gulf War and every U.S. military intervention since, the Ralph Nader presidential campaigns, the global justice movement, opposition to the anti-same sex marriage Proposition 8, the protests against the Trayvon Martin's murder, solidarity with the struggle for Palestinian liberation, the Campaign to the End the Death Penalty, movements against police brutality, abortion clinic defense, SlutWalk, the struggle for immigrant rights, and solidarity with a host of labor struggles, from Hormel in the 1980s, to the "Illinois war zone" struggles of the mid-1990s, to the UPS strike in 1997, and most recently the Chicago Teachers Union strike and Fight for 15.

It isn't possible to review our actions in all, or even most, of these struggles in a single article. Yet it strikes me that we may not have done a good enough job educating people less familiar with the ISO about all this history, and that we might need to dedicate some more effort to doing so--if for no other reason than that the one-sided view provided by Scott does not go unchallenged.

The ISO and the Antiwar Movement

One focus of Scott's critique is on the ISO's role in the antiwar movement after the September 11, 2001, attacks and the Bush administration's declaration of the worldwide "war on terror."

First, what was the real record of the ISO on 9/11 and after? Did we "act like liberals"? As people everywhere were grappling with the enormity of the loss of life on September 11, we sprang into action, alongside other people who didn't want to see tragedy turned into war. That was true in New York City, too, where it was harder to be antiwar than in the Bay Area, where both Scott and I were active.

It doesn't seem like Scott checked with any comrades in New York to see if they were accused, in their unions, schools or neighborhoods, of "acting like liberals" for taking an antiwar stand after the World Trade Center towers fell. My guess is that other epithets, such as Islamophobic slurs, were more common.

We ought to be proud that the ISO's immediate response was to oppose war. We weren't alone either. There was, however, a debate about what demands the left should raise, during the first wave of protests immediately after 9/11 and ones to come later. This particular question is what Scott's arguments rest on.

In organizing meetings, the ISO argued that the antiwar movement should stand for demands like "Stop the War" and "Defend Civil Liberties for Muslims and Arabs"--and then later "End the Occupations," which came to include not only Iraq and Afghanistan, but Palestine as the movement developed.

Scott is free to argue that we ought to have included "Free Palestine" among our demands in the first days after 9/11, but that was a tactical question about what should be the points of unity in the initial stage of the movement, when people not familiar with anti-imperialist politics nor the long history of the U.S.-Israel alliance wanted to show their opposition to the drive to war.

However, Scott is either misremembering or is willfully misrepresenting the facts if he thinks the ISO ever--and I mean ever--provided "a platform for liberal Democrats while denying a platform for the issue of Palestine." Which Democrat? Name an instance when we prevented, or even voiced opposition to, a speaker on the Palestinian struggle so as to not antagonize a "liberal Democrat." Scott cannot do so, because it never happened.

Certainly the Palestinian left won't agree with Scott that the ISO ignored the issue of Palestine. Our commitment on this question, before and after 2001, is well known and respected. Indeed, when there was an open conflict in 2004 after the liberal wing of the antiwar movement tried to sideline the issue of Palestine, the ISO argued strongly that the movement must make support for the Palestinian struggle a central demand.

And we opposed at every moment any hint of political support for the Democratic Party--even when that meant championing a national challenge to the 2004 Democratic presidential campaign of John Kerry in the form of the Nader-Camejo independent campaign. Any of us who remembers being spit on--I mean that literally--by liberals during that campaign year will know how wrong Scott is to claim we made any tactical decisions based on the fear of alienating Democrats.

The ISO and Occupy Wall Street

Scott also spends a lot of time critiquing the ISO's participation in the Occupy Wall Street movement. He has a lot to say, but I want to focus on a point that relates to his criticisms regarding us and the antiwar movement--that the ISO prioritizes "symbolic" protests and united fronts with liberals over more radical action. In the case of Occupy, according to Scott, we were confronted with a movement that had moved beyond our tame priorities, so we ended up on the wrong side of the political debate.

Is any of this true? Speaking to the experience in the city where both Scott and I were active, Occupy Oakland's single most important action was actually an excellent example of applying the united front method.

After Iraq war veteran Scott Olson was almost killed by the Oakland police during an Occupy demonstration, the General Assembly here voted to call a "general strike" on November 2. Occupy activists rightly took this demand to the Alameda Central Labor Council and secured a (very) partial agreement for cooperation on the day. While unions did not generally "strike," thousands of workers turned out for a march to shut down the Port of Oakland. The first wave of marchers was led by a contingent of more than 100 teachers from the Oakland Education Association.

Scott hardly mentions the Oakland General Strike of November 2. Why? It is an inconvenient fact that doesn't fit his narrative. Instead, Scott writes, "What is significant about the Occupy movement is that it avoided merely symbolic protests in favor of a variety of direct actions and illegal occupations. These actions put participants in direct conflict with their city governments and police."

The November 2 mass mobilization, involving official union support, if not an all-out general strike call, doesn't fit the bill for Scott. One action that did, however, was the December 12 Port Shutdown Day--because in Scott's telling of the story, the shutdown was accomplished by "Occupy groups" (thousands of people marched to picket the Oakland port under the Occupy banner) and not by the unionized workers, so no united front was necessary with union officials.

Actually, clauses in the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) contract allowed dockworkers to respect the Occupy picket lines, on the grounds that they could be seen as a threat to "health and safety." This is an excellent tactic that the ILWU has used on many occasions, and Occupy activists were absolutely right to rely on it for this action. But it's obviously not as simple as Scott makes it--that Occupy shut down the ports. ILWU members had something to do with it.

As for the ISO, Scott does admit that we were involved on December 12, as we were on November 2--though he downplays the extent of our involvement.

His real fire, however, is reserved for a dispute about a public forum that took place in Seattle in January 2012. This is a very specific incident, but I'll try to summarize the details.

The forum was held in solidarity with an ILWU struggle in Longview, Wash., where the shipping bosses were attempting to open a scab grain terminal. At one point during the Seattle forum, some ILWU officials and members physically disrupted the meeting, even though it was held to build solidarity for a dockworkers' struggle.

In a article, Seattle ISO members called the actions of the ILWU members "reprehensible." But the authors also criticized activists from a small group called the Black Orchid Collective, who ISO comrades judged had adopted a provocative attitude towards official and rank-and-filers in the Seattle ILWU. Scott thinks this one article had an "enormous potential...for damaging the effort toward actual class warfare." My opinion is that the comrades in Seattle made a responsible assessment, though other members of the ISO had a somewhat different take on the conflict at the forum.

But however you judge this difference of opinion, it is quite a stretch to follow Scott all the way to his conclusion--that the SW article exemplified a "combination of sectarianism and opportunism," based on ISO members' compulsive "desire to criticize other radicals."

Next, Scott objects to our criticisms--including in an article I co-wrote--of an Occupy Oakland initiative to seize the mammoth Kaiser Convention Center. The January 28, 2012, action was called "Move-in Day."

To make a long story short, a secretive band of Occupiers led the January 28 demonstration, which drew less than 1,000 people, on a wild goose chase through the streets, before a confrontation with police during the futile attempt to "occupy" the convention center. The police easily overwhelmed the march, and the leaders of the action got what they wanted--a chance to test out their homemade shields against the cops. Needless to say, the shields failed--eventually, 400 people were kettled and arrested. Meanwhile, a small group of people broke into City Hall, trashed some architectural displays and burned an American flag--which, naturally, was the main story in the media the next day.

In response to all this, ran an editorial pointing out the problems with these sorts of actions, and how they were being used by liberals--real liberals like Oakland Mayor Jean Quan--and the police to isolate the dedicated core of Occupy activists from any broader support, by branding the movement as bent on adventurist stunts and vandalism.

Scott says he agrees that the City Hall break-in was foolish, but he criticizes the ISO and SW for using "the sort of tactic liberals use to divide movements" by saying so openly and at the time.

Scott backs up his argument by stating that he refused to criticize the break-in during a radio interview--but he doesn't mention the interview was on a right-wing radio news station. I would have done the same in that circumstance. But SW is part of the left press, and if we can't comment on, criticize and discuss the tactics of our "comrades in struggle," what exactly is it for? If Scott thought the City Hall break-in was a "tactical mess," why didn't he welcome other activists making the same case, so the movement could achieve greater clarity?

I think the reason is that Scott believes the tactics used in the attempt to take over the Kaiser center could have worked and led to a regeneration of the Occupy movement, if only the attempted occupation had--somehow or other--succeeded. Scott wrote at the time: "We might have been heroes." We disagreed with him and tried to engage him then in a comradely discussion through an article at, but Scott didn't reply to the substance of our disagreement--nor does he today.

What the ISO Has Learned

One piece of Scott's theory about why the ISO "acts like liberals" is that we must do so to keep new, inexperienced recruits around and in a constant state of anticipation of the next "Big Bang."

A bit of history is useful here. The ISO was, for decades, part of an international coalition of socialist groups called the International Socialist Tendency (IST), within which the Socialist Workers Party-Britain (SWP) was by far the largest organization. This is once again making a long story short, but the origins of the "Big Bang" fable began with the SWP arguing that the 1990s were like the "1930s in slow motion"--meaning we ought to expect huge upsurges of working-class struggle after the fall of the former USSR and the onset of economic crisis and political polarization in the early 1990s.

The ISO never fully accepted this outlook, but we did operate to a substantial degree in accord with it during the early and mid-1990s, and we did suffer, as a consequence, from too much of a revolving door of membership because of what we later described as "instant recruitment"--asking anyone who came into contact with us if they would join, whether or not they had any substantial knowledge of or commitment to our politics.

After recognizing the problem, we decided to change our practice--and put a much higher stress on long-term movement work, political education, and building alliances and relationships with other activists and political forces.

In 1999, when the Battle of Seattle against the conference of the World Trade Organization took place, and the global justice movement took off, we were very much part of that movement. We participated in dozens of protests--which, often enough, ended in arrests--and helped build the movement's different initiatives. But we pointedly refused to hail this movement as the "Big Bang," as the SWP did, and pressured us to do as well. In 2001, the ISO was actually expelled from the IST--precisely because we rejected the attitude that Scott charges us with holding today.

In reality, both before and after our expulsion from the IST, the ISO's practice was and has been to do exactly what Scott claims we don't: "engage in complex discussions about the actual state of consciousness among the American working-class and its diverse subpopulations, or the nature of actual revolutionary struggles and their challenges."

Our method has not been "triumphalism," but to employ the dictum of the Italian revolutionary Antonio Gramsci: to have "optimism of the will, pessimism of the intellect." This is easier said than done. But I have to say that we have gotten better at it over the years.

No doubt we have made mistakes where we tended toward too much "optimism of the will"--though, again, when you look at the list of the struggles the ISO has participated in, many of them warranted optimism. But we have always come to terms with whatever is required by "pessimism of the intellect." If people believe we need to lean more in this direction, than that must be debated out in a focused and responsible manner--and on the basis of a commitment to the project of building revolutionary socialist organization. Which brings me to my last point.

Why Leninism Still Matters

While not explicit in his critique, I think it's fair to say that Scott is not simply rejecting what he sees as a faulty application of the correct concept of building an explicitly revolutionary organization. He is questioning the possibility of doing this in anything like the way the ISO operates. He is rejecting the lessons of what we have generally called Leninism. The ISO and others are engaged in a wide-ranging debate over the exact nature of Leninism and its lessons today, but Scott throws the baby out with the bathwater.

What is Scott's alternative, and how is it different? That remains unclear, but he summarizes his critique of the ISO and its organizational practices neatly in one paragraph at the end of his first part. I will offer a positive response, line by line.

1. Members of the ISO spend a substantial amount of time and energy building the organization and recruiting new people...

Yes. Absolutely. We believe that ordinary people can be convinced of socialist ideas and that they can become "genuine revolutionaries." We don't rely on self-selection for this process, but seek out people who, whether or not they have participated in political struggles, are attracted to a socialist alternative. And we do spend a substantial amount of time not only convincing these folks to join, but helping them develop into sophisticated Marxists and political leaders.

That task does require time and energy. Capitalism and capitalist ideas saturate every bit of society, and we believe we must consciously fight to present an alternative opinion, both in person at meetings and demonstrations, but also in websites, newspapers, journals and books.

Many, though not all, of the people who join the ISO are "new" to politics. But most of the people who joined Occupy were "new" as well. Because we don't use the method of "instant recruitment," I think the young people who join us today generally display as much commitment to politics and struggle as anyone. Certainly it's pretty insulting to refer to them as "low-hanging fruit."

Scott claims the ISO does not recruit "experienced activists." This is simply not true, although we recognize it can be more challenging. We believe any healthy revolutionary organization must attract both activists with a wealth of political experience and people relatively new to the struggle--as well as build strong relationships with other activists, writers and leaders in other areas of work, who may or may not choose to join the ISO.

2. While many [ISO members] are also involved in various movements and may even play a leading role, they generally do not spend much time or even any time organizing direct actions or other non-symbolic protests.

Yes again, to the first part of the sentence. Many of our members are deeply involved in unions, civil rights organizing, and LGBT and women's rights activism. We work in the movements to defend Palestine and to build solidarity with the Egyptian Revolution. We helped initiate protests in many cities against the acquittal of Trayvon Martin's murderer. Our comrades are proud members and leaders of teachers unions and of struggles for education justice around the country. The list could go on and on.

As for "organizing direct actions," we have done that as well, in many of the struggles listed above, though not because we reject or belittle other forms of protest. We even helped organize some of the actions Scott believes were "non-symbolic" during the Occupy movement.

But Scott, I believe, is getting at something else. I think he believes the new model should be the activity of the Occupy movement, particularly in Oakland and particularly in the later phase of the movement when, in my opinion, broader support had fallen away, leaving a smaller core of the most committed activists who were determined to take the boldest action possible, even if they were isolated.

I am fully in favor of utilizing militant tactics when this is possible and makes sense. Again, the high points of the Occupy movement were bound up with actions like taking over public spaces in defiance of the authorities and marching to the gates of the Oakland port. But the most important thing about these actions wasn't the tactics, but the mass character of the protests.

That involvement of large numbers of people can't simply be conjured up. A movement has to be brought into being and nurtured once it exists--and that requires using many other sorts of strategies and tactics, even if they aren't as seemingly radical on the surface.

Scott's celebration of "direct actions or other non-symbolic protests" ends up being very narrow in practical terms. By upholding the experience of Occupy, he seems to imply, for example, that the Chicago teachers strike wasn't a "direct action"--and that Occupy actions like the Port Shutdown Day, because they were led by "Occupy groups" and not workers themselves, were actually more important than strikes.

3. To turn the ISO into a fighting organization of militants would require confronting serious challenges that most of the members have not met, regardless of how hard they currently work building the ISO.

This is an extremely vague statement, to say the least. But I will say this: Being in the ISO is not a spectator sport. Our members make an enormous commitment of their time and energy to political activity. Why? Because we believe this is necessary to not only fight capitalism and all its filth, but to build an organization of people who can participate throughout society in all the manifestations of that fight.

The ISO does not claim to be the only organization with such goals, nor that it is the future revolutionary party which we believe will be necessary to successfully challenge capitalism. We only claim that we are dedicated to building socialist organization that can work alongside other forces in all the struggles and movements in society.

Scott seems to be saying that the effort to build explicitly revolutionary organization--or at least our effort to do so--necessarily avoids or ignores the challenges of organizing in the wider movement. But this is exactly the opposite of what we believe. Our whole concept for the kind of organization we want to build is directed toward equipping its members to participate and offer a lead in any struggle or political situation where they find themselves.

If Scott has an alternative model to the kind of revolutionary organization I've described as the ISO's goal, he doesn't offer it. But it seems to me that this must logically accompany his critique of the ISO.

I look forward to hearing what he has to say on this score, and the historical and theoretical references he relies on to support his conclusions. But since this isn't simply a rhetorical exercise, I also anticipate a comradely assessment to judge, in practical terms, the effectiveness of those ideas, and whether or not they lead to a bigger, more cohesive and more effective revolutionary organization and movement.

4. Whether and how the ISO confronts that challenge will determine whether it will be a force for radical action or merely continue as a machine dedicated to its own self-reproduction.

As should be obvious, I reject the idea that the ISO is parasitically involved in political movements in order to recruit new members, as this sentence implies and as Scott suggests elsewhere more directly.

This is actually a very old smear against socialist organization, and it is no truer today when Scott employs it. Once again, I think our involvement in a wide range of activist movements and political activities--which is the result of a lot of hard work by a lot of people--shows a very different ISO than one "dedicated to its own self-reproduction."

The ISO is an organization of hundreds of revolutionaries with experiences in many political areas and the need to build up our experiences in many others. We emphasize the necessity of learning the lessons of past struggles and the centrality of Marxist theory as a guide to action, while recognizing that we need to greatly increase our depth and knowledge.

Being a part of such an organization means being involved in intense discussion and debate, with sharp arguments emerging sometimes. Democracy in a revolutionary organization must not be passive and academic, but must be contentious, because we believe that the decisions we come to after our discussions matter. I think that we should be proud that so many of our members have learned to simultaneously stand up for their opinions and to debate them in a comradely and productive manner.

For those in the ISO who want more critical discussion, now is the time to contribute. For those who have left the ISO over the years, but who genuinely want to see us grow stronger, consider rejoining or collaborating with us more closely.

For those who, like Scott, have left and now have sharp criticisms of the ISO, I would say that you should present your ideas in a clear and comradely manner if you believe they will advance the movement. I believe Scott fails to live up to this standard in what he has written so far, but I hope I have responded in a way that opens the door to future discussion and debate.

Further Reading

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