We must continue to fight for socialism from below

March 29, 2019

Haley Pessin argues that the failures of the ISO should be understood and used in order to improve the revolutionary socialist project, not abandon it.

IMMEDIATELY BEFORE the crisis currently rocking the International Socialist Organization, our members fought hard to change it.

We fought to transform our group into one that would be run by its own members, open to multiple perspectives (without any illusions that only the “leadership” had the right answers), and fit to bring the politics of socialism from below into and alongside a growing, radicalizing left — and we won.

In the aftermath of this crisis, I was furious that our victory was being cut short by the retroactive impact of leaders whose actions proved more damaging than we could have imagined.

It seems like we are at the beginning of one of the moments revolutionaries prepare their whole lives for — a rebirth of a socialist left, complete with the return of class struggle and movements for social justice. And yet, the discovery that the leaders of an avowedly anti-sexist organization intervened such that a member accused of rape was allowed to rise to our highest leadership body has been so destructive that it is hard to figure out how we can participate and move forward.

Reflections on our crisis

But I keep coming back to something my dad (who is also an ISO member) raised in response to the crisis: What if our organization had imploded due to these revelations not now, at the very beginning of a rebirth of the socialist left, but once we were much further along in the development of this new left?

It is no accident that this crisis happened after a change in leadership — not because we were wrong to fight to democratize the ISO, but because that was the only context in which there was a realistic sense that any exposure of wrongs by the past leadership would get a hearing.

Of course, whatever was rotten in the ISO is not reducible to its leadership, past or present — there are bigger, explicitly political and organizational questions that this throws up not just for us, but for the whole left. But I also don’t believe these revelations invalidate the need for revolutionary organization or the project of fighting for socialism from below.

My work in the ISO is still the thing I am most proud of. My most fulfilling experiences as an activist have come at the height of struggles in which the ideas of thousands of ordinary people suddenly matched or exceeded the sense of possibility that, most of the time, was only held by a tiny section of us on thelLeft who insisted that another world is possible.

It’s why this beautiful Howard Zinn quote still resonates so much with me: “To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.”


NONE OF this is invalidated by an organizational structure, leadership or practice that was never worthy of our members or our politics, even if we are right to raise big questions about what needs to change and how we can open ourselves up to the traditions, ideas and (most of all) people who we were previously trained to write off because they “didn’t have our politics.”

I understand that grappling with this, for many of us, means we will need to proceed at a much slower pace or even take a step back from activity for now. But I still believe there is a need for an organization that both unites and captures the collective strength, knowledge, experience and dedication of militants, organizers and activists who agree on the fundamental need to win a society run by those who make it run, in the interests of the majority, and not for profit.

And while its true, and an excellent thing, that we aren’t (and never were!) the thing ensuring that a revolutionary party representing the interests of the working class will develop in the U.S., and while it’s true that we are just at the beginning of this rebirth of the left, the stakes remain high — for defeating the right, for protecting the future of the planet, for rebuilding the labor movement and the infrastructure for sustaining struggles against all forms of oppression.

The need for revolutionary organization remains because there is still a need to unite the militants who have (unevenly) drawn these conclusions, and because there are no guarantees that we will win.

Even if, as others have said, the ISO can no longer be the vehicle for connecting people who share these convictions, or who are coming to these conclusions and eager to figure out where to plug in and fight, I don’t think we should dissolve without a strategy for maintaining our connections to each other.

I’m committed to figuring out what that looks like with whoever is ready and willing to do so. And, thankfully, I know I’m not alone.