Workers Vanguard No. 1154
3 May 2019
Anti-Communists Go Home to the Democrats
ISO: Rest In Pieces
After nearly half a century in the orbit of the Democratic Party, the International Socialist Organization (ISO) has finally landed. In March, the reformist group and publisher of Socialist Worker voted to disband following internal disarray over how to capitalize on the “emerging socialist movement”—which is neither socialist nor a movement but a layer within the capitalist Democratic Party. The popularity of Bernie Sanders and the growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), with its rising Congressional star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, posed an existential crisis for the ISO, which had long assumed dominion over petty-bourgeois “fight the right” activism in the U.S. The collapse, spurred by a scandal involving an alleged cover-up of an alleged sexual assault in 2013, also laid bare an organization mired in bureaucratic rot.
As its former members perform a political autopsy, what is in the guts of the ISO is no mystery: anti-Communism. The organization was born upholding imperialist “democracy” against Soviet “totalitarianism,” promoting the cause of imperialist-backed counterrevolutionary forces whose aim was the destruction of the Soviet bureaucratically degenerated workers state. The domestic corollary of its anti-Sovietism was to chase after a supposed “progressive” wing of the bourgeoisie at home, that is, the Democrats, and prettify capitalist rule. Though paying occasional lip service to Marxism, the ISO was always a staunch enemy of proletarian revolution.
For the last two years, the ISO has been eclipsed by the DSA in the anti-Trump “resistance,” whose entire purpose is to get Democrats elected in 2020 by selling the lie that they can represent an alternative for workers and the oppressed. Within the left, the prevailing pro-Democratic Party pressures of the Trump era have fractured other pseudo-socialist groups like Socialist Alternative and Workers World Party.
The DSA, with its nearly 60,000 members, has attracted droves of millennial Berniecrats behind the trending banner of “democratic socialism.” The expressed goal of the DSA, which is organically embedded in the Democrats, is to “realign” the party of slavery, Hiroshima and Vietnam. The ISO wanted a cut of the DSA’s electoral success, but was stifled by the fact that it was supposed to feign at least one degree of separation from the Democrats by not openly endorsing them. At the same time, the ISO always gave Democrats backhanded support or celebrated them outright, as it did with Wall Street’s man Barack Obama.
Last summer, a debate ran in the pages of Socialist Worker between those advocating a “clean” versus a “dirty” break from the Democrats, a squabble over whether to officially campaign for candidates running on the Democratic ballot. Well before the ISO’s annual convention in February, which established an “Elections committee,” the organization had been touting a new crop of Democratic Party “progressives” and the 2020 presidential bid of long-serving imperialist politician Sanders. The tomes of internal bulletins published in the lead-up to the convention document the enthusiasm for joint work with the DSA and support to DSA candidates.
After all, if the DSA represented a supposed “unprecedented” opening and if the Sanders campaign put “socialism in the air,” why not swim with the big fish? Former honcho Todd Chretien lamented during a workshop at the DSA-affiliated Jacobin’s “Socialism in Our Time” conference in New York last month that the ISO had been “built for a period of defeat,” i.e., with the labor movement in steep decline, and thus was unable “to adapt our politics and our form for a new sort of movement.” Far from advancing the cause of socialism, Sanders, Ocasio-Cortez and their ilk serve to deepen deadly illusions in the capitalist Democratic Party. Such illusions are the greatest political obstacle to militant class struggle and a key mechanism for co-opting discontent among youth.
As we wrote in “Opponents of the Revolutionary Internationalist Workers Movement,” published alongside the SL/U.S. Programmatic Statement in 2000:
“Lacking a revolutionary perspective, the reformist left is inexorably led to the gates of the Democratic Party, reinforcing its influence. This has many expressions, from overtly calling for votes for Democratic candidates to somewhat more masked appeals to ‘fight the right’ (i.e., the Republicans) to working hand in glove with the labor bureaucracy. Deriving from the reformist view of the ‘neutrality’ of the capitalist state, and in the absence of a mass social-democratic party in this country, the Democratic Party is offered as the vehicle through which the capitalist state can be pressured to serve the interests of the working class and oppressed.”
Shachtmanism Full Circle
The ISO and the DSA have a common granddaddy, Max Shachtman, who split from the Trotskyist movement in 1940, dumping the position for the unconditional military defense of the Soviet Union and subsequently rejecting its class nature as a workers state. Shachtman eventually ended up an unabashed social-patriot in the right wing of American social democracy, working in the Democratic Party and with the agencies of U.S. imperialism to push counterrevolution. He became the most effective ideologist of “State Department socialism.”
The ISO’s forebears flunked the most basic acid test for Marxists: defense of the world’s first workers state, born through the October 1917 Russian Revolution led by V. I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky’s Bolshevik Party, which was a historic victory for the international proletariat. Despite its subsequent degeneration under a conservative bureaucratic caste headed by J. V. Stalin that seized political power in 1923-24, the key gain of the October Revolution remained: the collectivized economy, which laid the basis for full employment, universal health care, free education and affordable housing.
To his dying day, Trotsky fought to defend the workers state, which was being undermined by the Stalinist bureaucrats. These misrulers had renounced the struggle for workers revolution internationally in the name of building “socialism in one country” and seeking “peaceful coexistence” with imperialism. Trotsky’s last political struggle was against Shachtman and others on the Russian question. We Trotskyists in the ICL fought for the unconditional military defense of the USSR against imperialism and capitalist counterrevolution, as well as for proletarian political revolution to replace the Stalinist bureaucracy with a government based on workers democracy and revolutionary internationalism.
Both Michael Harrington, who was the founder of the DSA, and Hal Draper, whose Independent Socialist Clubs were the precursor to the ISO, followed Shachtman into the Cold War Socialist Party (SP) in 1958. Harrington, a leader of the SP until 1973, was a loyal servant of U.S. imperialism, supporting its war in Vietnam and acting as a consultant to the Kennedy and Johnson administrations. Draper, a left-wing critic of the SP leadership, split in the early 1960s, coalescing his group around the New Left student movement in Berkeley. As the student protests grew more radical, old-style Cold War social democracy was pushed to the sidelines. Renaming itself the International Socialists (I.S.) in 1969, Draper’s group used Marxist-sounding rhetoric about revolution and claimed to be “anti-imperialist,” but anti-Communism was its real program and essential reason for existing.
The I.S. had a loose association with Tony Cliff’s followers in Britain. Capitulating to the Cold War Labour government, Cliff had refused, in 1950, to defend the North Korean and Chinese deformed workers states against a counterrevolutionary war on the Korean peninsula by U.S. imperialism and its British allies. Cliff came up with a theoretical justification for his programmatic departure from Trotskyism by maintaining that the Soviet Union was “state capitalist” and that the bureaucracy was a new ruling class. (See “The Bankruptcy of ‘New Class’ Theories,” Spartacist [English-language edition] No. 55, Autumn 1999.)
In 1977, with the U.S. capitalist rulers about to launch Cold War II, a section of the I.S. split off to form the ISO, adopting Cliff’s “state capitalist” line and claiming to stand for an illusory “third camp” between capitalism and Stalinism—encapsulated in the slogan “neither Washington nor Moscow.” In reality, the so-called third camp was always the camp of imperialism. Cliff’s equally Stalinophobic British Socialist Workers Party was affiliated with the ISO until the early 2000s, when its American satellite split away after a bitter factional struggle over competing opportunist appetites.
Like Shachtman, who supported Washington’s Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, Cliff and his American cothinkers worked overtime in support of imperialism. In the 1980s, the ISO threw its lot in with the forces of capitalist restoration in Poland around the purported “union” of Solidarność, which was an instrument of the Vatican, Wall Street, and Western social democracy. The ISO also championed the CIA-backed mujahedin fundamentalists in Afghanistan against the Soviet Army’s military intervention—one of the few progressive acts carried out by the Moscow Stalinist bureaucracy—which could have crushed the woman-hating butchers. We said, “Hail Red Army!” and denounced the Kremlin’s withdrawal of Soviet forces in 1988-89 as a betrayal. The ISO, in contrast, rejoiced: “We welcome the defeat of the Russians in Afghanistan. It will give heart to all those inside the USSR and in Eastern Europe who want to break the rule of Stalin’s heirs” (Socialist Worker, May 1988).
In the early 1990s, the ISO—along with every imperialist ruling class on the planet—got what it wanted. The restoration of capitalism in the USSR and East Europe had the U.S. bourgeoisie rejoicing over the “death of communism” and the Cliffites were singing in tune, trumpeting that Boris Yeltsin’s coming to power “should have every genuine socialist rejoicing” (Socialist Worker, September 1991). The final undoing of the Soviet Union in 1991-92 ushered in a global offensive against the world’s working class and oppressed by the imperialist ruling classes, as well as profound economic and social devastation. The collapse of the USSR qualitatively threw back political consciousness such that advanced workers generally no longer identified their aspirations for a better life with the fight for workers power and a classless, communist future.
The ISO assumed that the post-Soviet world would generate mass radicalization and open up a left niche. Today, some former members admit that this demented fantasy was off. For the last 25 years, these opportunists tried to cash in on the backward ideological climate—to which they had in their own way contributed—by moving farther to the right. ISOers continued their practice of hyper-activism within single-issue “movements,” acting as a barnacle on whatever liberal coalition was on offer from the campus left and trying to maneuver their way into positions of leadership.
With Cold War season over, the ISO still promoted the “human rights” guise for U.S. imperialist intervention. Socialist Worker spent the last few years supporting the CIA-backed “democratic” rebels in the so-called “Syrian Revolution,” berating Washington for not doing enough while slandering leftists opposed to U.S. intervention for their “Islamophobia.” The ISO also echoed the Democratic Party’s hysteria against Russia, the main ally of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. (See “Pimps for U.S. Imperialism,” WV No. 1097, 7 October 2016.)
Class Independence vs. Class Collaboration
The ISO’s plunge into demoralization and self-destruction was evident at its February convention, described as the “most painful” in the history of the organization. There, several longtime leaders like Ahmed Shawki, Paul D’Amato, Sharon Smith, Lance Selfa and Lee Sustar—regular writers for their International Socialist Review journal and publishing company Haymarket Books—were voted off the Steering Committee. Things blew up just three weeks after the convention when a letter was circulated alleging that the former leadership had protected a member accused of sexual assault in 2013 and then concealed it from the membership. We have no way of knowing the truth of the allegations. A mere two weeks later, the ISO ceased to exist.
Following the letter’s receipt, nearly the entire 2013 Steering Committee was either suspended or forced to resign. The new leadership had no qualms over dumping the old guard, which had already been sacked from leading bodies for putting up some resistance to dissolving whole hog into the Democrats. These gestures by the old guard, labeled the “arch-conservative” minority, were nothing more than an attempt to preserve the organization’s existence. As then-Socialist Worker labor editor Lee Sustar put it: “If the ISO were to accept that its independence from the Democratic Party is ‘strategic’ rather than a principle, then the question arises as to why the ISO should exist outside the DSA.”
The ISO’s occasional talk of “independence” from capitalist parties was fraudulent. Among other things, it politically endorsed and ran its own candidates on the ticket of the capitalist Green Party, which acts as a shill for the Democrats. Todd Chretien’s Green campaign in 2006, as well as the ISO’s support to union-buster Ralph Nader earlier and Green Party activist Jill Stein later, were the very opposite of fighting for the necessary independent mobilization of the working class against the capitalists and all their parties.
In the labor movement, the ISO’s activity reinforced illusions in capitalist politicians and state agencies by acting as waterboys for a wing of the labor bureaucracy. Union formations it supported over the years, from the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) to the CORE caucus in the Chicago Teachers Union, regularly endorsed Democrats for office and proved themselves to be total class collaborationists when in leadership positions. The TDU were cheerleaders for government intervention, inviting the courts into the affairs of the union to supposedly “clean out” corruption, although the purpose of the state was to destroy the powerful Teamsters. (See “Lawyers for Government Union-Busting,” WV No. 738, 30 June 2000.)
As further proof of being deep in the pockets of the class enemy, the nonprofit that managed the finances for the ISO and Haymarket Books—the Center for Economic Research and Social Change (CERSC)—received money from sources tied to U.S. big-business interests, including the Wallace Global Fund and Rockefeller Brothers Fund. CERSC accepted grants from a variety of bourgeois “charitable” sources and liberal institutions. Such ties recall the old saying: “He who pays the piper calls the tune.”
Leninism: What It Is and What It Isn’t
In search of the ISO’s original sin, a number of former members have published documents attacking Leninism, even though the ISO’s life and death had zilch to do with Lenin. The Cliffite castoffs are burnishing their anti-Communist “god that failed” credentials as they dive headfirst into the DSA. Both groups have embraced every rotten social-democratic position that Lenin and the Bolsheviks had to defeat in order to lead the October Revolution.
The March 21 “A Letter from Canadian Comrades” published on socialistworker.org grotesquely links the ISO’s purportedly “Leninist party model” to the alleged sexual assault cover-up. The letter claims: “When people make the stability or preservation of the leadership and its ‘Leninist’ authority their top concern, they may avoid suspending or expelling members, especially ‘leaders’ for oppressive behavior,” adding, “We’re convinced that what should be discarded isn’t socialism from below, but the ‘Leninist’ micro-party model.” The ISO’s mantra of “socialism from below” is its way of saying that Leninism is elitist, a version of the bourgeois lie that Leninism leads to Stalinism.
The ISO never had any semblance of or need for Leninist organizational practices, because it was thoroughly hostile to the entire purpose of a Leninist vanguard party: to lead the working class, through conscious and collective action, to the taking of state power. All experience has shown that even the most militant struggles by the workers spontaneously produce a consciousness that is limited by a framework that accepts capitalism. Socialist consciousness can only be brought to the working class through the intervention of a democratic-centralist Leninist vanguard party—made up of advanced workers and declassed intellectuals—which seeks to instill in the working class an understanding of its historic revolutionary mission of abolishing the rule of capital.
The purpose of democratic-centralism is for the party to speak and act with a single voice while allowing the fullest possible debate among its membership. Unlike the Cliff tendency, we do not publicly thrash out internal differences. Doing so is tantamount to inviting more backward layers of society to be the jury to decide matters of revolutionary strategy, and making the party more permeable to bourgeois ideas. Regarding Leninist organizational principles, the founder of American Trotskyism, James P. Cannon, wrote:
“Democratic-centralism has no special virtue per se. It is the specific principle of a combat party, united by a single program, which aims to lead a revolution. Social Democrats have no need of such a system of organization for the simple reason that they have no intention of organizing a revolution.”
—“Leninist Organization Principles,” 3 April 1953, Speeches to the Party (1973)
Insofar as the ISO honchos displayed any pretensions to Leninism or democratic-centralism, it was to justify the bureaucratic suppression of their membership. The external reflection of this internal bureaucratism was the ISO’s hatred of open political debate on the left and rejection of elementary workers democracy. The ISO had a special animus toward us as revolutionary Trotskyists: it regularly resorted to red-baiting, exclusion and thuggery against our organization.
The task of a vanguard party is also to act, in Lenin’s words, as a “tribune of the people” championing the cause of the exploited and oppressed and combating every manifestation of national, racial and sexual oppression. As opponents of workers rule, the ISO could provide no program for the liberation of black people or women, which requires the overthrow of the system of exploitation in which their oppression is rooted. Instead, the ISO, having rejected the working class as the motor force for revolutionary change, embraced petty-bourgeois liberalism like #MeToo feminism and Democratic Party constituency politics. The ISO simply reaped what it had sown.
The difference between the ISO and the Spartacist League always came down to the difference between reform and revolution. For revolutionary, proletarian, internationalists in the U.S. imperialist belly of the beast, our central strategic task remains the same: breaking the allegiance of the working class to the Democrats to forge a revolutionary vanguard party that can lead the fight for socialist revolution. It is only under the banner of Leninism that the workers of the world can at long last sweep away the capitalist exploiters into the dustbin of history.