Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 18, 2014

Notes on a staggering ISO

Filed under: aging,Counterpunch,sectarianism,Trotskyism — louisproyect @ 11:03 am

Counterpunch February 18, 2014

The Slow Death of “Leninism”

Notes on a Staggering ISO


It might be obvious from articles appearing on CounterPunch (“A Response to Our Socialist Worker Critics”, to name just one) that former members of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) have decided to subject the self-described “Leninist” group to a withering critique.

In a recent development, current members constituted as the Renewal Faction have joined the chorus of critics as well, something that will obviously irk a leadership accustomed to fawning approval from the ranks. Indicating the general movement toward web-based debate and discussion and away from the print-based medium favored by small propaganda groups operating in the “Leninist” tradition, the faction launched a website titled “External Bulletin”, a term that very likely challenges the notion of the “Internal Bulletin”, the members-only medium that allows such groups to conduct their discussions without the prying eyes of non-members.

Unfortunately for the ISO, the internal bulletin might have become a relic of the Leninist past after a disgruntled member or members decided to forward PDF’s of 30 (at last count) documents to selected critics of the ISO, including me. Over the past few days, I have read maybe 100 pages worth of internal discussion articles and want to offer my analysis of what is happening with the largest “Leninist” organization in the United States (I exclude the CP, which operates more as a wing of the Democratic Party.) As someone who spent nearly 12 years in the American Socialist Workers Party from 1967 to 1978 (now there’s a screenplay begging to be written: “12 Years a Sectarian”), I can recognize the pressures operating on the ISO that will inevitably generate discontent.

read full: http://www.counterpunch.org/2014/02/18/notes-on-a-staggering-iso/


  1. […] Louis Proyect writes today (extracts), […]

    Pingback by Leninism on Way Out as ISO Crisis Deepens. | Tendance Coatesy — February 18, 2014 @ 12:32 pm

  2. Where are you going with all of this, Louis? Yours is a familiar and valid critique that many of us who spent time in one or another cadre organization during the 60s and 70s share. Archaic, distorted forms of vanguardism, Leninism, call them what you will, may well be a pathetic, wasteful hindrance at this point, but are they really the primary obstacle to left progress in this country? Are the delusions of our sectarian groupings really a bigger roadblock than say, the challenge we face in understanding the changing class structure and the cultural or political consciousness it has produced? And by the way, do not Syrzia and other far left blocs in Europe include a number of self-styled Leninist formations that seem capable of uniting rather than competing for market share in the manner of similar groups in the United States?

    Comment by burghardt — February 18, 2014 @ 12:34 pm

  3. And by the way, do not Syrzia and other far left blocs in Europe include a number of self-styled Leninist formations that seem capable of uniting rather than competing for market share in the manner of similar groups in the United States?

    I absolutely hail the “Leninists” who have joined SYRIZA as opposed to the coalition of Maoists, Trotskyists et al that the British SWP supports. I don’t get the sense that the leftists inside SYRIZA are carrying out an “entryist” tactic like the Trotskyists of the “French turn” period or what Ted Grant did in the Labour Party. Finally, I don’t see the sects as a barrier. Sooner or later the pressure of events will force the left to transcend its fragmented status. Capitalism is breaking down everywhere and sooner or later we will see a reemergence of Occupy type protests. My hope is that independent Marxists can serve as a lever to move broader forces into motion around a new revolutionary movement.

    Comment by louisproyect — February 18, 2014 @ 12:47 pm

  4. I consider your insistence that the left communicate with people on their own terms, emphasizing issues that will make a difference in their daily lives, to be the most important feature of your article. One quibble, I think that more is required in regard to the left’s relationship with trade unions beyond supporting them in their efforts to organize the most vulnerable, disadvantaged people in the workplace. US unions suffer from many of the same problems that you address in regard to Leninist organizations, and, for such efforts to bear any fruit, it is urgent that the left support those within the labor movement who are attempting to democratize them. The refusal of VW workers in Chattanooga to vote to join the UAW despite a neutrality agreement with VW is indicative of the mistrust that many US workers have towards unions. To overcome it requires more than pointing towards the usual villains, Republicans, corporations, the Supreme Court, etc.

    Comment by Richard Estes — February 18, 2014 @ 6:12 pm

  5. But Louis the problem is not that some organizations have failed, or are failing surely; but that while for decades critics from Beyond the Fragments onwards have also failed, usually having achieved a lot less than the “Leninists” they criticized. So as Duncan would say the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Decades of lets have a broad cuddle far left have produced anything, anywhere, my presumption on your comments on Syizia is that you are not paying much to the events in Greece.As the Right leadership drags the bulk of the organization further right where will that leave the far left in Syizia
    To be honest I think in an upturn in class struggle it doesn’t much matter how bad the politics of the far left are, or how loose or authoritarian they are (you do remember what far left politics across the world looked like in 68-73), the far left grows. Of course with rotten politics they will implode pretty quickly, better politics can hold them together for a long while. The question is the level and state of the class struggle and the politics of any far left group relating to it.
    Therefore the crisis in far left everywhere is about the continuing retreat of the working class in the old industrialized world, the failure of any real class struggle to emerge in the new areas like China and the complete refusal to acknowledge any of this by the far left. Hence Syrzia is heading for disaster unless the far left within it, whether they have hard or loose political structures, can address the fact they live in a severe downturn.
    In this situation I hope any far left group, hard or loose, anywhere begins to grasp it. Politics come first whether I agree with an organization’s structures or not; those can developed to suit the needs of the country by the comrades on the ground, without the politics all else fails. And its for that reason that I, a critical admirer of you, find you gleeful tone as far left groups collapse very disappointing. Especially as your place of choice to criticism the ISO is on a site that hosts anti-Semites, right wing libertarians and some nut jobs with little politics at all. Yes some leftists like you use it, your mistake. The British SWP of course moved beyond inclusion as a left group by its leadership corruption in the face of the sexual harassment (at the least) of one of them. Every serious socialist is out of the SWP. The question of the ISO is different, its politics are so bad at the moment that don’t even address the lost UAW yet on their front page, and they struggle to comprehend what is happening in Greece, Egypt and Ukraine. Still I would have thought comrades would like to see them think themselves of this crisis rather than cheer as if a rival football team has been beaten.
    In truth if the Occupy Movement was growing and creating something, I’d cheer even if I thought their structures would fail some future test, the same with Syrzia. If they disappear without a trace, its what I expect but not something I’d welcome or cheer on; which what you seem to do about the ISO. While I’ll still lap up your film reviews, cultural commentary and much of your musings, on this issue I think you have lost any serious working class perspective.

    Comment by Harry Monro — February 18, 2014 @ 8:34 pm

  6. I don’t agree with everything Harry says here, but he makes some persuasive points. I’d only add that working class struggle and radical, ideological organizations have a symbiotic, or should we say, dialectical relationship to each other. Attributing the left’s decline too much to its own sectarian failings is as much as mistake as blaming ruling class strength simply on mass distraction and ignorance.

    Comment by burghardt — February 19, 2014 @ 12:13 am

  7. I’m a non-affiliated left-leaner. This post is a bit off-topic, but I haven’t found a proper place for it, so here goes:

    Where do you turn in e.g. Washington, DC when you want to meet serious and trustworthy people and be in an atmosphere where something besides property values and Our Love for the Police are on the agenda?

    — The CPUSA? Need I say more?

    –Whatever they call it– “Intersectionalism” or whatever–postmodernist bullshit, not to be taken seriously. An excuse for petty-bourgeois individualist poseurs to pose and exhibit Moral Superiority.

    –The Platypus Society–a bad joke only a little funnier than Lyndon LaRouche. Yuppie Marxists: narcissistic, paranoid,and repellent.

    –The ISO–to be avoided at all costs despite harboring a number of decent writers. They are organized and do have meetings one might go to, but from all I read, it would be a complete waste of time to go to their meetings.

    –Other Trotskyist formations–may write something worth reading, but are absolutely not to be trusted politically. (I used to read the World Socialist Web site daily, but would not be caught within shouting distance of the Socialist Equality Party. They do have chapters in a lot of places and claim to have meetings, however tiny.)

    –The self-denominated Maoist sects–living nightmares, just like their grandmother, the execrable Progressive Labor Party?

    –The Democratic Socialists and their kind–a lot of loopy transcendentalists who are all hypnotized by their neurotic obsession with violence and the need to eschew it before actually doing anything. Believe firmly that you can have socialism and a stock market all at the same time.

    With gentrification, particularly, cities offer no gathering places except for the rich, play host to no local publications of merit, and offer no easy route to solidarity or organization. If you are neither a student nor a member of a university faculty, what choices are there?

    Comment by Kay Bonham — February 19, 2014 @ 3:52 am

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