What models of organization can guide us now?

March 28, 2019

SW has been publishing articles on the question of how socialists should organize as part of the reflections on the ISO’s crisis stemming from a sexual assault case. Here, Steve Leigh offers some comments on the discussion of organization and the ISO.

THANKS TO Socialist Worker for its series on the lessons from the internal crisis of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and to the participants for their thoughtful contributions. The lessons learned will be influential in the shaping organizing at least among a layer of people on the left.

The detonator for this crisis is an appallingly mishandled sexual assault case. Members learning the details of what happened are rightly horrified, including at the behavior of some leaders who did what they did in the name of Leninism.

That is an ugly picture that other contributors have taken up, and I support many of their conclusions. But I wanted to write to focus on other questions related to the future of the ISO and revolutionary socialists — in particular, the possibility that outrage at a top-down and unaccountable version of Leninism will lead some to reject Leninism altogether.

Many people reflecting on this crisis have cited a criticism made by David McNally in an essay recently reprinted at SW:

One of the great problems with the dominant model of “Leninism” on the far left is the idea that the legacy of Bolshevism involves steadfastly building a small group that eventually wins leadership of the working class movement. Given that there is no army, no class vanguard, ready to be lead, the small group project becomes the construction of an ostensible leadership-in-waiting.

This then gets transmuted into the notion that the task is to make sure “we’ll be ready” — with a disciplined cadre and a determined leadership — when the masses look to the left.

Reflections on our crisis

This is an accurate criticism of the model of many left groups today. I do not believe that it actually applied to the way the ISO organized.

ISO self-definitions always stressed a different goal: The ISO was a propaganda group that wanted to be part of the process of building an actual revolutionary socialist vanguard party. This meant that it wanted to influence the politics of the organic leadership of the working class, which would develop as class struggle increased. This vanguard, not the current ISO, would need to form a party to lead the working class revolution.

The vast majority of ISO members did not see their leadership as the leadership of the coming revolution. Nor did ISO members see the ISO as even the embryo of a future revolutionary party.

From the beginning, modesty and a sense of humility was part of the DNA of the ISO. For example, the ISO broke with the Socialist Workers Party-Britain (SWP) in part over its attempt to create a disciplined revolutionary international of tiny groups when there was no material basis for a real revolutionary international.

SO IF the distortion of Leninism cited by McNally and the Canadian comrades in their letter wasn’t the problem in the ISO, what was?

The problems flowed from an over-rigid propaganda group model. A discussion group is open to almost any ideas. All is up for consideration.

By contrast, a propaganda group distinguishes itself in trying to propagate a definite set of ideas to the world. Since offering a set of ideas to the world is the unifying goal, there is pressure for all in the group to conform to those ideas. Dissidence from those ideas is seen as distracting from the project.

The leadership sees its role in part as enforcing the discipline of the organization’s reason for existence — that is, its unique viewpoint. Within the organization, the membership as a whole feels the same pressure. The pressure for this was increased during the period in which the ISO arose — a period of downturn in class struggle when most of the left was disintegrating or moving to the right.

When a left organization is small and unable to regularly lead struggles, the propaganda group model makes sense. If a group can’t widely influence struggle, it can influence the ideas of a certain set of activists and lay the basis for the future.

Preserving revolutionary ideas under siege is a worthy goal. Using those ideas to influence struggles as much as possible is also important even in a period of low struggle. The ISO was able to make significant contributions to the success of particular struggles and to spread and clarify Marxist ideas. In the face of the collapse of Stalinism for example, it clarified the real Marxist tradition of workers’ self-emancipation.

The problem comes with over-rigidity in the model. While putting forward an analysis of the world that clarifies long-term goals and helps influence struggle is essential, developing self-critical comrades is just as important.

It is also just as important to always apply, update and make relevant the basic ideas of the group. This means encouraging debate, even when it challenges the official position of the organization, is just as important as maintaining a set of Marxist principles.

The ISO did encourage debate, but the debate was hobbled by the drive for unity flowing from the rigid propaganda group model. Members with dissident positions were often seen as bad members and were sometimes pressured out of the organization. This sometimes happened at the direction of the leadership, but often even at the behest of rank-and-file members.

Accelerating this process was, in the interpretation of the British SWP, an aspect of Leninism known as “bending the stick.” The idea was that the whole organization needed to, at the leadership’s direction, uniformly and quickly move in a set direction. Those who questioned the new perspective were seen as conservative obstacles to the success of the group.

The fundamental politics of the organization were confused to an extent with whatever the new perspective was. This often resulted in wild swings that overcorrected for previous wild swings.

One example of this was the overreaction against “identity politics” and adherence to a rigid campus perspective, which in turn downplayed struggles of the oppressed. This in turn set up the situation that led to the current crisis from disastrously wrong handling of a rape allegation.

HOW CAN this be avoided without making a group so diffuse as to be ineffective?

Ironically, considering the current crisis in the ISO, it was already moving toward a more open application of the propaganda group model, even while moving toward engaging in more agitation and intervention in movement activity — this was described as “becoming an organization of struggle” — though the bending-the-stick approach hadn’t yet been modified.

As a result of the problems with the 2018 ISO convention, several changes took place at this year’s convention. National leadership bodies were elected on an individual basis rather than by slates. Each nominee had the opportunity to state their own political positions to motivate their election. The national leadership was revealing debates among itself on perspectives and organizational issues. Summaries of those debates were to be open to the full membership.

These changes helped to legitimate structured debate within the organization and legitimate debate in general. This resulted in the formation of several “platforms” for the 2019 convention. Instead of the previous denunciation of factionalism, the right of factions to organize was supported. Overall, debate and transparency were rapidly rising in the ISO.

Even before the 2019 Convention, Socialist Worker had opened up its pages to a debate on if and how the ISO should relate to Democratic Party campaigns. This debate went on from summer 2018 through the February 2019 convention and beyond. This was a debate on even a fundamental principle: independence of the working class from capitalist politics.

For the ISO or any future organization on the left, these new improvements in ISO practice are important. We want organizations that encourage internal debate not just in theory, but in practice. We want transparency — i.e., we want to know what leaders actually think before and after electing them. We don’t want organizations that are monolithic in every aspect of their politics.

But given this need for openness, debate and transparency, is there anything we can adapt from Leninist principles of organization?

OF COURSE, Leninism will be applied differently in different periods depending on political circumstances, the size of the organization, how rooted it is in class struggle and so on.

However, there are some key Leninist principles that apply even to propaganda groups that are small, but that also engage in struggle.

We want to make the maximum impact on the debate over political ideas and tactics that we can. Therefore, Lenin’s idea that the party or organization should be revolutionary is essential. This means that it should only be open to those who accept the need for revolutionary transformation. An organization that includes large numbers of revolutionaries and large numbers of reformists leads to a muddle with no clear solid influence on struggles.

Adherence to other fundamental principles such as opposition to all forms of oppression and imperialism and support for internationalism are also needed in order for the group to provide a clear analysis and influence movements in a productive way .The early history of the U.S. Socialist Party is testament to the disaster that can result from lack of clear unifying principles.

This is not to say that broader organizations have no place. It is just to say that Leninist organizations have a particular contribution to make.

Secondly, within a revolutionary organization, democratic centralism — often summarized as “freedom of discussion, unity in action” — allows for the maximum influence to be exerted by the group. If an organization adopts a campaign, it will have more impact if everyone carries it out. This allows for a scientific evaluation of the success of the campaign.

In the realm of ideas, the organization should take clear stands in its publications. It should allow for dissent from members and others, but the position of the majority of the organization should be clear.

Though members should be recruited to the fundamental ideas of the organization as expressed in the Where We Stand or other foundational statements, once they join, debate on all aspects of the groups politics should be open.

This means that comrades with minority viewpoints should be seen as good members as much as those who fully agree with majority positions. Comrades should be free to explain their differences with the majority in branch meetings or in other public forums, while letting people know what the majority position of the group is.

As the watchword of the recent ISO convention debate put it: “Unity in action, not necessarily unity in thought.”

This approach will allow the ISO or any new group to have the maximum impact on the world while also developing new theory and critical, thoughtful comrades who can most significantly contribute to struggles and organization.

The ISO’s internal crisis opens up a crucial and important re-evaluation of the best ways to structure socialist organization. We should learn the lessons of ISO history, but also retain the historical lesson of the need for revolutionary political organization from previous periods. We should not throw out the Leninist baby with the overly rigid bathwater.