The Crisis and Collapse of the International Socialist Organization
The largest Trotskyist organization in the United States has dissolved in the aftermath of a deep crisis. For the left it is fundamental to understand this collapse and work to prevent future organizational disasters on this scale.
The End of the Largest Leninist Organization in the United States
The remnants of the International Socialist Organization have voted to dissolve after weeks of debate and an ever intensifying crisis. It marks the end of an organization with more than 40 years of history and which was the most significant force on the far left in the United States since its rapid growth throughout the 1990's.
A contested convention led to the first significant shakeup of the party leadership in decades and broke the hold of the long-standing leadership clique. A membership backed palace coup constituted of mid and upper ranking members pushed out the leadership clique around Sharon Smith and Ahmed Shawki; the longstanding, essentially uncontested leaders of the organization.
In the aftermath the entire bureaucratic apparatus and leadership culture was exposed; with the most explosive accusations centering around a sexual assault investigation in 2013. New accusations plunged the reform leadership into crisis and brought on a wave of resignations; culminating in a vote by the remaining membership to dissolve the organization.
As it was until recently the largest force on the US far left, the crisis absolutely must be carefully reconstructed so that the lessons of this organizational catastrophe can be debated.
Outline of the Crisis
The crisis opened up with a membership backed palace coup. In the lead-up to the ISO’s 2019 convention a range of mid and upper ranking cadre set the ground to push out the old leadership. Previous efforts had been made for Ahmed Shawki to step aside within debates among the ISO’s leadership, but all had been brushed aside or ultimately defeated.
Controversies around his behavior (public drunkenness, extremely rude behavior, occasional sexist commentary) were persistent but ultimately ignored even when on public display before both the membership and contacts. This scandal became more public and more difficult to ignore when Charlie Post’s private document (which discussed exactly this) reporting on an ISO convention was leaked and eventually circulated to the entire ISO membership. However while the majority of the membership was conscious about these controversies, few outside the inner circle of the ISO leadership were even aware that Shawki played such a central role. Information as to the actual functioning of the inner party apparatus has always been tightly filtered and obscured to the vast majority of ISO members.
“Democratic Centralism” in the ISO
The International Socialist Organization formally expressed party democracy through an annual convention composed of elected delegates from each branch. The convention can be attended as either a voting delegate or invited guest. All members have the formal right to submit documents for a pre-convention bulletin (though documents have been censored or left unpublished). As the convention period progresses and in the lead-up to the convention voting delegates will be elected to attend the Chicago conference. At the branch and district level both paid organizers and long time cadre have a considerable input on proposing who will be the delegates. This body votes yes or no on changes and political perspectives presented in the bulletins and beyond this elects the Steering Committee, the national body which manages the day to day organization of the ISO.
Historically this vote has always been for a unified slate proposed by the outgoing Steering Committee, as well as a seal of approval for the perspectives laid out by this same committee. The convention itself is controlled through a series of mechanisms; at the first level a proposal can simply be ignored. As well as perspectives and proposals the pre-convention bulletins are also packed with what amount to basic branch reports; the bulletins can add up to a significant amount of reading and it’s easy for proposals to be lost. A proposal must be seconded by a sufficient number of voting delegates to be taken to the floor. A proposal which was received poorly by the existing leadership may not even be contested in the bulletin itself (before the view of the whole membership). Rather they would wait to tear down the proposal at the convention itself. Any proposal brought forward only by a single delegate or dissident branch can be effectively squashed in this way.
Given the difficulty of horizontal communication within the ISO (basically non-existent until the advent and growth of social media, and strongly discouraged under potential accusations of factionalism), that is where most opposition ended.
In the case of a more widely contested proposal the center held a number of other significant options. Every region had its own paid organizer who was not elected by the region but rather was accountable to the Steering Committee and in practice, directly to Sharon Smith and Ahmed Shawki. These organizers had considerable influence and they as well as the local branch leadership shaped who was chosen as an elected delegate. In a secure convention with safe debates it can be argued that delegates should represent the diversity of opinion within the organization. In a more contested one or where the branch contains more dissidents, the argument will be made that only the most experienced members should be the delegates.
What emerges is a formally democratic shell, even a somewhat democratic culture, but one which poses no threat to the leadership clique - as long as the paid organizers remain loyal. The 2013 efforts of a grassroots “Renewal Faction” to increase transparency and internal democracy were resoundingly defeated even though in the aftermath of what has now been exposed, almost every ISO member would concede that they were mostly correct. Only when a critical mass of organizers and Steering Committee members turned against the leadership clique did it become possible to overcome the obstacles to internal debate and discussion.
The Non-Profit Shell
Alongside this formal organization there was also a mostly unaccountable parallel organization. Leading members would all deny that CERSC (the non-profit behind Haymarket Books and much of the ISO’s paid positions) was controlled by the ISO. However it was the most readily apparent lie, a lie told repeatedly with sub-context that this was necessary for security reasons. In the paperwork for CERSC as a legal organization it is clear that all the leading employees were members of the ISO leadership. The most detailed investigation of CERSC’s recent financial records was done by the renewal faction in 2013 and is available here:
Key takeaways are that no-one was paid more than would be expected, however the total resources at the non-profits disposition are considerable. In 2012 CERSC spent $756,995 in total employee compensation. That is the backbone of the paid apparatus of the ISO and Haymarket Books, an apparatus which is completely unaccountable to the ISO’s annual convention. There are also a number of serious questions around the fact that CERSC applies for and receives funding from a number of liberal foundations which support NGO work; a significant contradiction for what should be an independent structure financed and supported by the working class.
Breaking down the Labyrinth
This byzantine structure with power deeply concentrated in the hands of Sharon Smith and Ahmed Shawki began to unravel as a majority of organizers, who up until this point had been the main enforcers of political orthodoxy, began to put together a plan to oust the central leadership. The details of this progression internally are harder to trace out, but clearly were planned months in advance and were sophisticated enough to not only wrest control at the convention, but even of having a sufficient number of people within key positions of CERSC onboard to seize control of the non-profit structure.
The more open progression of the debate within the broader ISO is easier to trace out. There was a clear push for far more active member participation and a significant loosening of ideological restrictions. The pre-convention bulletin swelled to over a thousand pages and unleashed a number of bottled up frustrations among the membership related to the organization’s handling of race, gender and sexuality. Significant criticisms were levied at how comrades of color were shut down in the past.
In the lead-up to the convention there were in effect 3 factions; the SC Majority composed of the reformers, the SC Minority composed of Ahmed+Sharon and their core loyalists; and a smaller faction effectively pushing a pro-Bernie/AOC line within the organization. The emergence of the latter is a sign of the significant pressure that is now being applied to adapt to the left wing of the Democrats.
Much to the initial relief of many ISO members the SC Majority succeeded at winning support for a significant reform that transformed the voting system into a democratic one based on individual votes rather than a slate. They won and constituted the new Steering Committee with many members emerging from the convention motivated and excited to reshape and rebuild the organization.
However a wave of resignations and suspensions followed as the post-convention equilibrium was shattered by revelations around the 2013 Steering Committee's handling of a Sexual Assault accusation. An accusation against a member who was now part of that new reform Steering Committee Slate. Members of the new reform Steering Committee who held positions of authority in 2013 were implicated.
This article will not focus on the details of the case, something about which there are vastly more qualified commentators. What will be stated about the particular case is a general endorsement of a proposal which emerged from the LIT-CI (La Voz) in the aftermath of a public crisis in the Mexican section of the Trotskyist Fraction (Left Voice). In response to accusations around Sergio Moissen, a leader of the MST and a professor at UNAM, the LIT-CI proposed an Independent Commission composed of members of the student and labor movements to lead an investigation and give a balanced verdict. Details of their perspective on that case and the LIT-CI’s proposal are available in Spanish here:
It has been shown that it is practically impossible to expect an effective investigation from a small political organization, more so when it involves members in leadership. The individual party tends to be gripped by an institutional logic which is more likely to render an institutional judgement. Someone loyal to and useful to the leadership clique is likely to be defended and considered to have unimpeachable morals, while accusations would immediately be accepted against dissidents or the opposition. In the case of the ISO and in many similar situations even if an internal investigation were carried out flawlessly, it would inevitably be doubted by broader organizations since it is a self-investigation conducted in secret.
An investigation conducted independently requires independence from the institutions which are inherently under question in such a case. At the local level a committee composed of members of community and political organizations, at higher levels potentially one composed of members of a conjuncture of organizations.
From Crisis to Collapse
The revelations around the 2013 case set in motion a series of resignations, suspensions and expulsions. The accused was on the new reform steering committee as well as one of the members who had a significant influence on the 2013 Steering Committee's treatment of the case.
This already tense situation of political reckoning was than accelerated when one of the paid organizers wrote an extensive document detailing their own experience of an abusive organizational and personal relationship with Ahmed Shawki. The personal accusations will not be detailed here (out of respect for requested privacy around that document), however even just on an organizational level much of what it revealed showed a culture steeped in emotional manipulation and abuse; tools which emanated out from the central leadership and were reproduced by the organizers and cadre who mediated between the leadership and the wider membership.
This second document revealed the deeply broken culture at the core of the ISO and proved to be a turning point for many branches and members as disaffiliations and resignations came in ever greater numbers. On March 24th a conference call among remaining members debated dissolution, with the overwhelming majority supporting this proposal. The remnants of the organization proceeded to debate the best way to move forward with dissolution and tallying up formal votes for the measure among the remaining membership. The results of the vote were recently revealed and the organization will be formally dissolved. (See: https://socialistworker.org/2019/04/02/the-isos-vote-to-dissolve-and-what-comes-next)
The incredible pace of events from convention to dissolution, has been difficult to keep pace with. A project to which militants dedicated years and even decades of their life has in the course of a few weeks completely dissolved.
The revelations around the 2013 case and even the behavior of the old leadership are insufficient to explain this total collapse. While devastating, the revelations about leadership abuse and cover-ups could be overcome and the organization rebuilt without them. If the organization played a vital role in workers struggles, in oppressed communities, members would find a way to reconstruct and salvage an otherwise effective project. However what the convention had already begun to reveal was that this authoritarian, sect leadership was in fact the glue holding together an increasingly contradictory set of ideas and practices.
One of the best comments on the crisis came early on from Tithi Bhattacharya, who wrote:
"My full solidarity is with the new comrades who continue to press on this. But comrades, one commits a “mistake” once or twice. To commit them for decades is actually a set of politics."
To avoid repeating past mistakes and to salvage the most of what we can out of the wreckage that’s left, we must interrogate this set of politics.
The Value of the ISO’s Project
There were tremendously positive political aspects of the ISO especially within the difficult context of organizing in the United States. The hard line against the Democratic Party and on the class character of Police stand out as being the necessary foundations for any revolutionary organization in the United States. In terms of its political education, the kind of content you would find in the more theoretical works published under the ISO’s umbrella provided exactly the kind of arguments needed to arm socialists. Haymarket Books has played a tremendous role in making essential political texts accessible and educating new generations of revolutionary cadre.
The principals of the ISO, the Marxist education it advocated and worked for, the driving ideas of working class self-emancipation, all of these were and are fantastic and are what inspired so many to join and help build the organization.
The ISO did so many things right on paper that it was very hard to argue against it. Especially when the only forces on the revolutionary left which did so were either extreme sectarians like the Spartacist League or Anarchists completely hostile to the idea of a cadre organization. The competition which the ISO had on the left from Socialist Alternative, Solidarity or the DSA has generally been positioned to the right of the ISO, leaving the organization with a national (if not always local) monopoly on the far left.
Yet there was always a clear gap between these principles and the often quite limited practice of the ISO.
An organization founded on the principle of working class power had no real strategy towards building itself among key sections of the working class. Instead it clung to a campus driven approach that has been increasingly unsuccessful at even building campus branches.
An organization founded on opposition to the Democratic Party tempered its criticisms and constantly sought to adapt itself to liberal sympathies for the Democrats. Slogans like “Tax the Rich” have easily fit within the political lexicon of the Democrats left wing.
An organization founded on internationalism had no real international connections. An organization founded on the fight against US imperialism had no real links to Latin American revolutionary organizations.
An organization founded on a democratic, anti-bureaucratic political methodology was in fact extraordinarily undemocratic around any internal debate which challenged the leadership.
In my own experience and disillusionment with the ISO (2008-2013), for me it wasn’t that the organization demanded too much, but rather that it demanded so little considering the stakes. Attend a weekly meeting, sell Socialist Worker once a week, pay your dues. One of the most disillusioning experiences for me early on was being elected (as part of a slate) to the regional leadership, going in with the hopes that now they would finally let me know what the strategy was. There wasn’t any.
The ISO was constantly moving but never arrived anywhere. And how could it if there was never any real direction? To actually chart out a course would imply that the leadership be held accountable for their failure to arrive at any given strategic destination.
The characterization of a revolutionary organization as “Centrist” can be overly strong to me in the case of the ISO, and is tainted by the association of this critique with genuinely sectarian groups like the Spartacist League. “Centrism”, much like “Ultra-Leftism”, are political concepts which were forged and had meaning to revolutionary marxists within the context of revolutionary situations. Germany from 1918-23, Spain over the long course of revolution and counter-revolution. Comparing the ISO of 2019 to the POUM of 1939 is almost as strained as using Lenin’s “Left-Wing Communism: An Infantile Disorder” against the “black block”.
However the core concepts, like those which we attempt to extract from the historical experiences of workers movement, remain useful tools of analysis. What the concept of Centrism employed by Trotsky accurately described were organizations which existed in a sort of permanent incongruity between revolutionary theory or principles, and a practice which was disconnected from these principles.
“Left centrism, above all in revolutionary conditions, is always ready to adopt in words the program of the socialist revolution and is not miserly with sonorous phrases. But the fatal malady of centrism is not being capable of drawing courageous tactical and organizational conclusions from its general conceptions. They always seem to it to be “premature”; “the opinion of the masses must be prepared” (by means of equivocation, of duplicity, of diplomacy, etc.)”
This aspect of equivocation and duplicity is central to the political role the ISO has played and to this recent crisis within it. For the leadership of the ISO, not even the membership was prepared for the truth. The twisted version of democratic centralism already described was multiplied exponentially by another; a “unity of thought” (not just action) of the leadership against the membership. This was present down to the branch level, where branch committees would meet separately, debate and than agree on a united course of action to be presented to the branch at large.
This kind of approach is fueled by an inherent mistrust and underestimation of the wider membership. It was accompanied by an underestimation of the organization’s periphery, of potential recruits and of the wider political scenario. Duplicity radiated outward from the central leadership to the organization’s broader political approach.
An unshakable characteristic of much of the party’s work was tailing liberal (in the US sense of the word) movements, adjusting rhetoric rightwards to more closely match their pace, and hoping to move a few participants step by step to the left. Perfect examples of this are the organization’s approach in the face of Obama’s election (maintaining a principled theoretical critique, while simultaneously bending over backwards to seem sympathetic to mass enthusiasm), or of raising central slogans like “Tax the Rich” (not even really positioned to the left of the Democrats).
Beyond being dishonest, this approach simply didn’t work. The spectacular growth of DSA completely bypassed the ISO and has provided a welcome home to forces to its right; winning someone from DSA to a more active, more disciplined or revolutionary politics requires winning them to an alternative strategic project. If your goals are to talk to liberals and use left talking points to incrementally push them to the left, you’ll be vastly more effective at this within DSA anyways.
Central to both political and organizational duplicity has been a lack of accountability. This has been most egregiously apparent around the key sexual assault case and in accusations of sidelining and silencing dissident members. However this ran deeper, it was present in significant political stances of the organization as well as its orientation in the key moments of the Class Struggle in which the organization was involved.
The most prominent example from the class struggle was the involvement of the ISO in the Chicago teachers union. Jesse Sharkey, the VP of the union under Karen Lewis, was a member of the ISO with close ties to leading members. While an ISO member he led one of the most important strikes in recent history. He also later acted as an enthusiastic advocate for Chuey Garcia’s challenge to Rahm Emmanuel from within the Democratic Party. Eventually he left the ISO, yet there was no political interrogation of the whole episode. A member of the ISO had played a key role in a pitched battle of the class struggle and capitulated to the left wing of the democratic party. Even if an argument could be made that this was unavoidable, necessary or desirable, no such argument or debate took place. He was quietly dropped and there was self-interrogation or self-criticism on the part of the ISO as to what led to this or how to prevent it in the future.
Less concrete examples abounded in the the political analysis of the organization. In 2008 the organization was convinced Obama’s election would mean a sort of return to Keynesianism in a new guise. ISR articles were written about the new deal and Keynesianism, study groups organized and a political approach drawn out on this basis. None of this materialized, Obama’s governance economically represented total continuity of the existing neo-liberal order. As this became apparent, the organization adapted its analysis to match this. Yet there was never any critique, any interrogation of the previous approach. At no point would the leadership come out and simply say that their analysis was incorrect and had to be changed.
Internationally one of the most promising theaters of battle for the radical left in this decade was Greece and support or opposition to the political strategy of Syriza is one of the defining lines which divided the international left. The ISO (like most US and European Trotskyist organizations) clearly placed its faith in the DEA’s efforts within Syriza to first elect it and than fight for a left opposition/break from Syriza. The scale of Syriza’s subsequent betrayal of the Greek working class was enormous; the new “broad left” party for all its initial grandstanding ended up as nothing more than a left face for the Troika’s austerity measures. Massive demoralization followed and the left break from Syriza failed to even achieve parliamentary representation. Again there was no serious critique, no political investigation or debate into this tremendous defeat and the political line which led to it.
An Order Built on Sand
The sum of these contradictions is an organization which was united around the study of a Marxist theoretical base (mostly confined but not strictly limited to the IS tradition) and propaganda work around spreading these ideas. This theoretical tradition was accompanied by practical activity which often (though not always) was to the right of the organization’s own political principles. A rightward drift which was convenient and sometimes effective in an era before the emergence of the DSA but which left the organization stranded in the aftermath of the DSA’s rise.
For the purposes of a sect’s survival, this was perfectly convenient. However even before the DSA provided competition it had a steep cost. Many of the potentially most dedicated activists would be driven off and shed in one of two directions: Either following the day-to-day line of the ISO’s movement activism towards ideas which matched their already reformist strategies (the case of Jesse Sharkey, for example), or alternatively developing a left critique of the organization's political activity and its undemocratic structures, attempting to apply this, and being driven off by the leadership.
The bureaucratic manipulation of the leadership was what held these centrifugal forces together. Criticism could be isolated, social pressure could be brought to bear on any dissident, challenges could be contained and many members were willing to compromise so as to defend the very real Marxist principle of organization. The apparatus itself had a tremendous value for the diffusion of socialist ideas which was worth defending to those who stayed with the organization.
The mishandling of the 2013 case is not enough alone to explain the speed and extent of the ISO’s dissolution. What the case (and subsequent revelations) did was strip away all the prestige and confidence held by the party leadership and the apparatus. A healthy organization with a clear political vision and strategy could recover, the ISO is dissolving because precisely that apparatus and leadership were the only thing holding it together.
What Shall Be?
Having undone the bonds of the bureaucratic leadership, the organization’s former members can move towards one of two distinct directions; either effectively joining the left wing of the Democrats within DSA, or recommitting to many of best core principles which drive the traditions of Trotskyism and constitute the most important anti-bureaucratic aspects of “socialism-from-below”. The rapid dissolution of the International Socialist Network in the aftermath of the British SWP’s crisis is a significant warning of what could be lost without any independent organizational project. The British far left has essentially never recovered from the collapse of the SWP and there is no significant force to the left of Jeremy Corbyn.
The collapse of the ISO will demoralize many of the core activists, some will withdraw from political activism, others will melt into the DSA either as a left caucus or as less active, passive members. For many to its right the collapse of the ISO is likely to be used as an example of the failure or in-applicability of Leninist organizational models.
For the remnants of the ISO discussion has opened up around constructing a new type of socialist network, a project which remains undefined but which has the potential to at least be one contribution to forces which are firmly to the left of the Democratic Party and DSA.
Organizational models should be built and adjusted to political tasks. The ISO was perhaps particularly vulnerable to degeneration since in practice it had no political task beyond recruiting to and expanding its own limited organizational model. Its most firm commitment to political strategy was its hard opposition to the Democrats, a commitment which at the beginning of the crisis was being questioned by the organization's right.
For whatever form this new network takes to have any significant growth or influence it would need to more clearly define itself around political strategy than the ISO has in the past. The ISO's "Where We Stand" did not represent its positions on far more important questions for the left; questions like how we relate to the Union Bureaucracy or which sectors of the workers movement should we concentrate in. With no programmatic discussion through which the base could hold the center accountable, these were basically left to the leadership to chart out an unaccountable line on what constituted "right" or "ultraleft" activity.
Criticism of the “micro-sect” model has also resurged among commentators on the collapse, emphasizing the qualitative transformation which an organization modeled after a mass party undergoes when this is attempted on a smaller scale. It is worth drawing attention to the fact that looser organizational models have their own weaknesses and abuses as some of the local crisis which sections of DSA are experiencing attest to.
While they have their own contradictions, there are international examples that revolutionaries can look towards of Trotskyists that have been far more successful at integrating themselves with the working class and projecting a national political presence.
These are not be found in the floundering projects of entryism into Podemos or Syriza, but in a number of large, principled organizations which despite their very real flaws have been able to link themselves with the working class and make real contributions to revolutionary politics. Argentina has the largest, most influential Trotskyist organizations in the world today; able to win legislative seats (and achieve 4-5% in Presidential elections) but far more importantly has concrete, recent histories of winning important workers struggles. Examples stand out such as occupying factories and setting them to work under workers control. The Partido Obrero, The Partido de Trabajadores Socialistas and Izquierda Socialista which together compose the FIT (Left and Workers Front) each have tremendous lessons to teach US revolutionaries.
Certain levels of sectarianism, organizational bureaucracy or conservatism may be unavoidable in revolutionary organizations as they struggle to survive through both upsurges and retreats. The ISO is far from the first organization to degenerate under adverse conditions (See the original SWP).
This potential degeneration is not unique to the imperialist core, though this position exacerbates both political and organizational dangers. To one extent or another it has affected every major revolutionary socialist current. Where it has been best contained or overcome are those regions (in particular in Latin America) where there has been a broad diversity of different Trotskyist organizations competing with, critiquing and collaborating with each other. Where these organizations have also committed to embedding themselves in the working class, giving them a real foundation beyond propaganda work.
A single revolutionary organization which monopolizes the left is hard to break from or critique. The leadership of the ISO was able to make so many cadre into willing accomplices of anti-democratic practices based on a real fear of being pushed outside what seemed like the only hope for the left. Furthermore the organization was free to drift rightwards given the ease with which left criticism could be dismissed as sectarian (and when it came from the Spartacists or the WSWS, it certainly was).
In the absence of a historical conjuncture which allows a mass revolutionary party, collaborative disunity, the comradely clash of many schools of thought, presents one potential solution. It is not necessary to abandon our vision of political organization (something which when applied correctly can be tremendously effective in the workers movement), but we can reinvent a more pluralistic vision of that revolutionary organizing, situating it within a revolutionary left ecosystem. One of the best aspects of the Argentinian FIT (Left and Workers Front) is that it shows the fierce inter-organizational criticism can coexist with effective electoral and political fronts.
Even where it can be hard to keep a single organization honest about itself, if we rebuild a culture of criticism and polemics between the far left we can narrow debates down to their political core and draw conclusions based off testing differing strategies in practice.
Two, three, many revolutionary organizations, with a culture of serious debate between them, would go a long way towards checking the worst tendencies of any one and preventing new organizational tragedies.