Defending time-honored principles

February 25, 2014

Guy Miller comments on a discussion taking place about the ISO and Leninism.

LOUIS PROYECT recently used the website Counterpunch to launch an attack on the International Socialist Organization (ISO) titled "Notes on a staggering ISO."

Louis and I have at least two things in common: 1) We are both outsiders looking through the window of the ISO's public face; and 2) We're both survivors of the American Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Our years in the American SWP overlap, mine being from 1967-82, minus one year in the middle 1970s when I was expelled. There, the similarities end.

I do not want to take on the question of Leninism. Either with, or without the quotation marks that Comrade Proyect insists on using, I remain convinced of the need for a Leninist organization--but there are others, far more qualified than I am, who can address that question. I will only touch lightly on internal matters. There is only so much that an outsider can know for sure about such things, and whereof one can't speak, one should remain silent. Instead, I will focus on my interactions with the ISO and its members over the last five years.

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It was the 2003 invasion of Iraq that jump-started my dormant political battery. Through much of the 1990s, I was content to go to union meetings and count the days to retirement. Iraq changed all that. My wife Linda and I threw ourselves into the movement against the invasion--first in the run-up to March 2003, and then in all the subsequent actions following it. After a 15-year gap, it was a radically different political landscape from the one I remembered. The one group from my old tradition, the Trotskyist tradition, that was at every demonstration--in force--was the ISO.

However, it wasn't until the battle over health care became a defining issue for us that I began to work closely with members of the ISO. The demand for single-payer health care was something Linda and I felt passionately about. When I was fired from the railroad in 2008, it became a personal as well as political fight for us.

Working closely with Chicago ISOers, we found them incredibly easy to collaborate with. They were knowledgeable and hard-working, but were willing to let others share in leading the movement. When there was a picket line at an odd hour at an odd place, the ISO could be counted on to show up, usually with the appropriate signs.

When an old comrade of ours from the SWP days was arrested in Canada for aiding Salvadoran immigrants, we went to the Chicago left for help in building a defense case around him. We had a good reaction from Freedom Road Socialists, the Committee Against FBI Repression and Solidarity. The ISO also stepped up to the plate. One of its national leadership comrades pulled me aside and said, "If there is anything else we can do, here's my home phone number, feel free to use it."

THE CHICAGO Teachers Union (CTU) strike is where the ISO really came into its own.

I can state, unequivocally, that without the role of the International Socialist Organization and Solidarity, the teachers' strike would not have happened. Their cadre--unlike Louis, I find the term a badge of honor--were everywhere. Some of them as leaders of the CTU, many of them as rank-and-filers. Constantly educating and agitating for a fighting perspective. Applying lessons learned from the "tired old 1930s"--especially from the Minneapolis Teamsters strike--the teachers built a militant victorious strike that morphed into a movement.

It was in the Teachers Solidarity Committee where I really experienced the ISO's ability to build real movements in real time. By this point, I knew who was in the group and who wasn't. This allowed me to watch them function in a coalition environment. In the beginning, the Solidarity Committee meetings averaged around 90 people. Often, a quarter of them were ISO people, more than enough to force a takeover--something they never did. I noted that they often spoke on different sides of questions and occasionally voted differently. I would ask myself, "Who the hell is their floor leader?" I don't know if there was one.

In the summer of 2009, my personal finances hit rock bottom. Surviving on Railroad unemployment, our income was slashed by 80 percent. We resorted to cashing in the penny jar and borrowing from friends and relatives. One of the leading ISO comrades asked me if I were going to their Socialism conference that June. I told him we were flat broke and couldn't afford to go. He generously made sure that Linda and I could attend all three days. This came with no recruitment pitch and no hard sell, just good, old-fashioned solidarity. All in all, a class act.

Let me close with some observations about the ISO's annual summer conference. Many of the presenters are not members, but are drawn from a wide spectrum of the American and foreign left. Sam Gindin, Richard Wolff, Jeremy Scahill, Dave McNally, Alan Wald, John Riddell and Michael Smith are just some of the nonmembers who gave talks at the last conference. If this is sectarianism in action, give me more of it. The level of discussion is very high. Yes, some of the newer, young members sound like they are parroting a line, but many of the more seasoned members show a much more critical aspect.

Are there internal problems? Of course there are. Are they insurmountable? Of course they are not. The ISO does not have delusions of grandeur about being THE revolutionary party. Rather, its self-stated goal is more realistic and modest: "To achieve socialism, the most militant workers must be organized into a revolutionary party. The ISO is committed to playing a role in laying the foundation for such a party."

We are a long way from achieving that goal. There will be zigs and zags, speed bumps and breakdown lanes before we can build such a party. But build it we must.

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