Separating what’s good from what’s rotten

March 21, 2019

Helen Scott wrote the following letter to her branch as part of her own reflections on how to regard the many years she spent as a member of the ISO.

WE ARE all devastated by the revelations about the rot — sexism, secrecy, abuse and cruelty — in sections of the national “leadership” of the ISO. These are profound betrayals and far worse than anything we could have imagined. The behavior is devastating precisely because it is antithetical to everything we hold dear. This is not the organization we thought we were building.

We must not let these wrongs negate the larger project of socialism from below. The list of our achievements is immense, and I am proud of all we have accomplished. This is true at the national and local level: the strikes, protests, movements, and publications.

Although I have not been very active in the branch in recent years, I have been immensely proud of the work of Burlington comrades — the strike support, coalition work, effective protests, political and cultural events that have drawn large crowds and enriched the community. I am proud to count you as comrades. You have given me a community based on the principles of solidarity, equality, justice and compassion, and intolerance for all forms of prejudice, exploitation, oppression.

I reject the idea that the worst of this organization invalidates our project. In good faith, we have variously committed ourselves to and participated in building a revolutionary socialist current that is absolutely necessary in the U.S. and the world. We were right to do so. I do not regret my part in this, because I know we have made a difference, and helped carry forward the tradition of socialism from below. I believe it has also made me a better person, and has helped me to understand the world and our place in it.

I always knew that the organization was only the vehicle, not the destination. I always knew that it was flawed, but I believed it could be used and changed, and I didn’t see a viable alternative. I’ve come to realize that in fact our best achievements have been despite the organizational model, not because of it.

IN THE last week I have repeatedly asked myself how this contradiction — between my experience of the ISO and the behavior of its corrupt leadership — can exist. I do not have all the answers but I have some. We know that the filth of our society gets into every institution and walk of life, and this is true for the left and progressive movements as well as the establishment.

We are also starting to see more clearly that there are things about the form of the organization itself that made this more likely. We inherited this “micro vanguard” model, built in a period of defeat, and accepted its emphases on ideological conformity, vertical leadership, de facto isolation of a layer of national “trusted leaders” from the rank and file of the membership.

These systemic problems generated flawed methods and approaches, including moralism, hyper activity, an “all or nothing” mentality. The fact that I have not been able to be an active member of my branch because I have MS is itself evidence of a failure, and I wish that I had said this and argued for a change, rather than simply remove myself from the branch when the work conflicted with my wellness.

Why didn’t we see all this? Partly, the structure itself explains this. We were relatively isolated from the Chicago clique, and our daily experience was mostly positive. On the whole, our branch has operated with transparency and democracy. While we have certainly made mistakes and have used methods that stem from a faulty model, we have always been guided by socialist principles. The closer members got to the official national leadership — really a clique — the more they saw of the problems, but for most members these were invisible.

At the same time, many of us did see problems. Some left, and some didn’t raise their concerns. Others tried to point some of this out, and we didn’t listen. While we encouraged full political debate, we didn’t have a culture that allowed for systemic criticism of the organization itself. This was part of the syndrome.

The fight in the Steering Committee and the breaking of silence by comrades of color about racism precipitated the dramatic transformation of the leadership witnessed at the last convention. These were urgent and positive changes, leaving us with a new leadership, set of principles and operating assumptions. The revelations about sexism have come out now because of that opening up and are part of a profoundly necessary and important process of assessment and redress.

The task now is separating all that was good and valuable in our project from all that was rotten. I have been encouraged and inspired by seeing the continuing efforts of the current leadership to move forward, and I hope that they lead to the kind of organization based on the best of what we are, without the fetters.

However individuals decide what comes next, I support each of you. As you go forward, be careful to avoid the pressures towards hyperactivity and self-sacrifice. The success or failure of the project of socialism from below does not rest on any individual. When the pace becomes frenetic, remember that nobody should do more than they are able.

Remember there is a world out there: we are always at our best when engaged in class struggle and world politics, rather than internal operations. Take care of your own physical and emotional health, be kind to each other, and shun the toxic blame culture. Socialism at its core is about deep faith in the potential of humanity, and it calls on us to treat each other with respect and compassion.

I know I’ll be in struggle with many of you now and in the future. Whatever happens I celebrate what we have done, and treasure my work with you.