Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

May 29, 2019

Paul Le Blanc’s lamentations

Filed under: ISO,Lenin,socialism — louisproyect @ 7:56 pm

paulleblancphotobyalexbainbridge
Paul Le Blanc

Despite being highly critical of Paul Le Blanc’s dead-end support for “Leninism”, I found something poignant about his 6,100 word attempt to provide an answer to “What happened to the International Socialist Organization?” This is now his third attempt at constructing or reconstructing a Leninist party in the USA. In the first go-round, he was one of the many long-time members of the SWP who was expelled for opposing Jack Barnes’s ideological assault on Trotskyism that was carried out bureaucratically. He then became part of a group led by Frank Lovell and George Breitman that published the Bulletin in Defense of Marxism, a futile attempt to persuade the SWP membership to return to the party’s roots. His next stop was Solidarity, a group that wisely eschewed “Leninist” norms but was never able to become much more than a network of people around the magazine Against the Current. His final stop was the International Socialist Organization, a group he joined a decade ago and that has just disbanded. My guess is that this will be his last hurrah as far as Leninism is concerned unless in the next decade or so there is a massive radicalization in the USA that will help to foment a revolutionary socialist organization that is the counterpart of Lenin’s party. If that happens, you can be assured that such an organization will look nothing like the myriad of groups that sought to construct one from scratch. As a rule of thumb, revolutionary organizations can only emerge out of a mass movement and all such attempts to create an embryo of one according to some ideological construct will either implode like the SWP or ISO, or muddle along like the British SWP, Lutte Ouvriere or others too obscure to mention.

Paul states that the analytical framework he uses in trying to make sense of what happened “can be found in various writings (particularly the essays in Unfinished Leninism published by Haymarket Books in 2014).” Since there are arguments against my critique of Leninism in that book, I was obviously motivated to compare his analytical framework to mine on the passing of the ISO.

Paul subheads the section that deals with the ISO’s failed attempt to live up to his Leninist ideals Avoiding sterile ‘vanguardism’, which leads me to pose the question whether ‘vanguardism’ can ever be anything but sterile. For Paul, this is an opportunity to find a silver lining in the SWP’s dark cloud. He writes that George Breitman and Frank Lovell were quite open and non-dogmatic in their approach, as opposed to the younger leadership loyal to Barnes. I didn’t know Breitman and Lovell all that well but since they gave their blessing to Jack Barnes’s “turn to industry”, I have my doubts. In fact, just before I left NY to save my soul in a Kansas City factory, I challenged Lovell’s assertion at a city-wide meeting that in 1978 the American working class was more radical than ever. It was only in the hermetically sealed environment of American Trotskyism that such a workerist dogma could be expressed.

Paul saw the ISO as better and more open than this, which I would describe as setting the bar about an inch off the ground. He assures us that by the time he joined, there were no delusions of grandeur about it being the revolutionary vanguard party or even the nucleus of the future mass revolutionary party. Unfortunately, this concession to reality made little difference since the group dynamics were pretty close to that of the SWP or any other “Leninist” group. As a rule of thumb, any group that publishes a magazine and newspaper, which for its entire history hosts not a single debate by party members, is willy-nilly creating a homogenous political culture that fosters “sterile dogmatism”. In contrast to Lenin’s party that used Iskra to provide a platform for debates, the Socialist Worker newspaper has never reflected the diversity of opinion that exists on the left. It was always seen as the voice of an ideological current associated with Tony Cliff seeking to preserve market share on the left. Who knows how they envisioned a future revolutionary party? Would it be something like a holding company that had different brands, with state capitalists being offered to consumers alongside Maoism and old-school Trotskyists like those in Alan Woods’s orbit? That has been tried both in England and Australia with meager results. When a true Leninist party emerges in the USA, it will likely be focused on contemporary American issues rather than when Russia became state capitalist. That, of course, pretty much describes the DSA and what would be exactly what is needed right now if it stopped functioning as the leftwing of the Democratic Party.

Some of what Paul writes strikes me as buyer’s remorse. He extols the practical activism in social movements that was essential for SWP branches but not the norm for the ISO. Practically sneering, he describes this as a deficiency all-too-often justified by what struck him as pseudo-revolutionary strictures against “movementism.” Now I have no idea what ISO norms were like but I would guess that given the low ebb of social movements in the past 30  years or so it reflected a more realistic expectation of membership. After 1973, I saw the “activism” of the SWP as artificially generated, an attempt by the party tops to provide “busy work” to keep us from drifting away. By 1977, this was superseded by the “turn to industry” with its absurd job committees meeting 3 times a week to figure out how to place members in factories or, failing that, at least getting them to go out six in the morning to sell the Militant at plant gates to bleary-eyed workers speeding by en route to the parking lot.

Missing from Paul’s analysis is any engagement with the obvious growing resistance to “democratic centralist” norms suffocating the ISO. Sometimes I wonder whether Paul bothered to reply to a crank like me when he wrote Unfinished Leninism on the outside chance that ISO’ers were being seduced by my anti-Leninist notions. Among the documents submitted to the most recent convention of the ISO was one titled “For building a new model of revolutionary socialism” that was signed by 133 members. Here is a relevant paragraph:

Since our break with the British Socialist Workers Party, the ISO has asserted that it is not the nucleus of a revolutionary party. While we understood this in the most vague and long term of ways, the seeds of that conception remained, as reflected in the distorted way that building the ISO as the ISO became an end in and of itself. Democratic centralism meant two people holding the information and building based on what ended up being unwarranted trust. [emphasis added]

In the concluding paragraphs of his article, Paul writes:

How should revolutionaries organize themselves today in order to do what must be done?

We are not starting from scratch. There are residual elements from the ISO itself – formally independent entities that it helped bring into being and sustain: the Center for Economic Research and Social Change (CERSC), connected with both the immensely valuable publishing operation of Haymarket Books and the yearly Socialism conferences. Former ISO members can connect with these and various other publications and conferences. There are also other socialist organizations, some avoiding the pseudo-Leninist trap of “vanguardism” – and former ISO members are considering options and possibilities. Realities are fluid, and other structures might be developed to facilitate networking and collaboration, as we seek to transform this defeat into a luminous victory.

In my view, there are some encouraging signs on the left. Despite my sharp disagreements with the hopes of the people around Left Voice to breathe life into the Leninist project, they at least have the courage of their convictions to challenge the “democratic socialist” circumlocutions of the Jacobin/DSA. They have not yet cohered into a cadre organization and might yet be convinced that a united revolutionary organization around basic core agreements on the environment, class struggle unionism, anti-imperialism is still possible. You also have the Marxist Center that has brought together groups like the Philly Socialists. What they might lack in numbers as compared to the DSA, they certainly make up for with class struggle principles and rootedness in communities of those fucked over by capitalism. I also have hopes that Howie Hawkins’s campaign for President will help generate some momentum back into the Green Party. There was a time when the ISO made up the activist core for Peter Camejo’s campaign for governor in California and perhaps the ex-members can see the wisdom of helping Howie’s campaign serve as an alternative to whatever the Democrats offer up, even—dare I say it?—if it Bernie Sanders.

Speaking of Peter Camejo, the last time I saw him before he died, he was a guest speaker at an ISO regional conference at CCNY. We briefly spoke about the prospects of the ISO that he regarded as the best thing happening on the left. That was something I also heard from Sol Dollinger who was a member of Bert Cochran and Harry Braverman’s Socialist Union in the 1950s, a group I strongly identify with.

Although I obviously had much less of a commitment to the ISO than either of these two old friends and comrades, I—like Paul—was sorry to see it fold. I had been sustained for the past 7 years by the courageous and principled articles about Syria in Socialist Worker, as well as the uncompromising resistance to joining the leftwing of the Democratic Party.

I plan to be at the Socialism 2019 conference in Chicago between July 4—July 7, the first ISO conference I have ever attended. Ironically, I am still looking forward to it even if it is now being co-sponsored by Jacobin/DSA. There is intense interest in how to move the left forward in a period of deepening social and political crisis and I would hope that others make plans to attend this conference since it will surely draw the lessons of the passing of the ISO and enhance the prospects of something rising Phoenix-like from its ashes.

April 4, 2019

Notes on the Dissolution of the ISO

Filed under: Counterpunch,ISO — louisproyect @ 12:53 pm

COUNTERPUNCH, APRIL 4, 2019

During 2013 and 2014, a rift opened up in the International Socialist Organization (ISO) over the results of a rape investigation that some members found to be little more than a cover-up. The Socialist Workers Party in England, which had played a major role in the formation of the ISO, was also convulsed over a sexual attack and cover-up around the same time. Both groups suffered defections but the British fared much worse, with perhaps half the membership jumping ship. In the USA, the ISO had fewer losses but the cover-up resurfaced again this year when a letter to their 2019 convention precipitated a new investigation into the events of six years ago. This time, the members voted to remove those who had covered up for the perpetrator in the name of “due process” and begin a soul-searching self-examination that led to a startling conclusion. The ISO, which is the largest group in the USA that defines itself as “Leninist”, has just voted to dissolve itself. To get a handle on this turn of events, I urge you to see the items posted to their website.

In both the case of the ISO and the SWP, the sexual attack triggered a discussion over whether the “Leninism” that both groups swore by might have led to a cover-up. SWP leader Alex Callinicos, who only referred euphemistically to a “difficult disciplinary case” in a February 2013 article titled “Is Leninism Finished”, argued that it was their model of democratic centralism that allowed the SWP “to concentrate our forces on key objectives, and thereby to build so effectively the various united fronts we have supported.” Instead, the combination of a cover-up and fetishized Bolshevik norms have cost the SWP both members and influence as it staggers along just like the American SWP that has a much more advanced case of political dementia.

Richard Seymour, who was one of the best known and best respected SWP members, would have none of Callinicos’s hooey. In an reply titled “Is Zinovievism Finished”, Richard wrote:

The model operated currently by the SWP is not that of the Bolshevik revolution. It is a version of the Zinovievite model adopted during the period of “Bolshevisation” in the mid-1920s and then honed by ever smaller and more marginal groups. When Alex implies that somehow we have developed a ‘distilled’ version of Bolshevik democratic centralism he is not holding to the tradition of October: it is asking us to choose the model that has led to three of the most serious crises in the SWP’s history in quick succession over the model that actually did lead the October revolution.

I had my own reply to Callinicos in an article titled “Leninism is finished: a reply to Alex Callinicos” that made essentially the same points as Richard Seymour except with some added observations on how such an organizational method leads to intellectual and political monolithism:

Discipline has meant enforcing ideological conformity. For example, it would be virtually impossible for SWP members in Britain to take a position on Cuba identical to the American SWP’s and vice versa. As it turns out, this is a moot point since most members become indoctrinated through lectures and classes after joining the groups and tend to toe the line, often responding to peer pressure and the faith that their party leaders must know what is right.

Continue reading

March 27, 2019

A reply to Paul Le Blanc on the ISO crisis

Filed under: democratic centralism,ISO,Lenin,sectarianism — louisproyect @ 4:53 pm

Paul Le Blanc

Rumor has it that the ISO is all set to dissolve itself, a consequence of the membership’s wholesale rejection of a leadership that had covered up the rape carried out by a leading member. He has been expelled and the old guard leadership, including Sharon Smith, Ahmed Shawki, Lance Selfa, Paul D’Amato and Joel Geier, have all resigned. Some speculate that the ISO membership will join DSA en masse. If that takes place, it will be a tragedy. In my view, the best of all possibilities would be for them to reconstitute themselves organizationally in the spirit of their Canadian comrades, whose March 21 communication can be read on the ISO website:

We’re concerned that some people will respond to the ISO’s crisis by jettisoning revolutionary socialist politics and/or the effort to politically organize around them in some way. This letter doesn’t address the range of challenges with which you are grappling at this difficult moment. We write at this time to argue a single point that we think is important: the tendency to jettison socialism from below politics and organizing is increased when people mistakenly believe that the “Leninist” way the ISO has long organized itself — using what we call the micro-party model — is an essential part of revolutionary socialism.

A day later, the ISO posted a letter they received from David McNally, a leader of the Canadian group, that had been sent to them in 2009. It advised them to break with “Leninism”:

As I see it, the necessity of “a new left for a new era” forces all of us to confront — and break with — the legacy of the micro-party approach. At its heart the micro-party perspective consists in believing that building a small revolutionary group is in essence the same thing as constructing a revolutionary party. Fundamentally, then, this perspective involves a simple syllogism:

    • There can be no socialist revolution without an authentically revolutionary party;
    • Our group is the custodian of the authentic revolutionary tradition;
    • Therefore, there can be no socialist revolution without our group (i.e., building our organization is the key to constructing a mass revolutionary party)

Rather than address the really crucial questions — how is the left to rebuild practices, organizations and cultures of working class self-mobilization so that a working class vanguard might actually be re-created, and a meaningful party built in its ranks — real social-historical problems get reduced to questions of building the small group: recruiting more members, selling more papers, creating new branches.

Essentially, the Canadians were making the same recommendation I had made here on March 20th. Of course, I doubt that my article would appear on the ISO website even though it makes exactly the same points: “One of the side-effects of the rape crisis in the British SWP was a re-examination of Leninism, the poorly understood organizational model embraced not only by the ISO, the British SWP but just about every other group on the left that has a schematic understanding of the Bolshevik Party.”

In 2011 or 2012, I began funding a website called The North Star in honor of the network that Peter Camejo founded in the early 80s. Edited by someone who preferred to remain anonymous (although his identity was an open secret), it became a pole of attraction for ex-members of the ISO who were advocating the same organizational principles as the Canadians. In addition, some of them were trying to cleanse the ISO of sexual abusers. The disgraced ex-leader Sharon Smith characterized their efforts as slander.

Perhaps if the editor at the time had been more stable politically (now he is an anonymous Sandernista), he would have been able to create a pole of attraction for people leaving the ISO. You can get a feel for the affinities between North Star and the ISO’ers at the time from a blogpost on Red Atlanta that had been started by an ex-ISO’er from the Renewal faction whose criticisms have now been adopted by the new ISO leadership.

To summarize my story in very brief, I was booted out of the ISO in February alongside my comrades in the (now officially disbanded) ISO Renewal Faction. During the course of our hard-fought factional struggle within the ISO, members of the Renewal Faction discussed a number of articles critical of “Leninism” and socialist sects. To mention a few pieces in particular, at the height of the factional fight, we passed around and debated Hal Draper’s “Toward a New Beginning” (1971) and “Anatomy of the Micro-sect” (1973), as well as a number of more recent documents, including Scott Jay’s “On Leninism and anti-Leninism.”[2] Naturally, these pieces helped us make sense of the stultifying, undemocratic environment within the ISO and our experience of being ostracized and defamed by the leadership and their loyalist followers. Notably, since being purged from the ISO, members of the Renewal Faction appear to have adopted differing views on the subject of Leninism – and, for that matter, Trotskyism, as well. Nonetheless, it’s safe to say that our experience has led us all to develop profound critiques of the party-building approaches adhered to by socialist sects like the ISO.

Unfortunately, the North Star was just too weak organizationally and politically to have served the kind of regroupment efforts seen during the breakup of the SWP in England that went through the same kind of crisis. Perhaps the most viable remnant of the large-scale exodus is Revolution in the 21st Century that has been superseded to some degree by the Corbynista movement. I suspect that if the ISO transforms itself into a model similar to the Canadians, it will be under the same kind of pressures from the Sandernistas.

When I noticed that Paul Le Blanc had written a long article titled “Reflections On Coherence And Comradeship” on the crisis in the ISO that did not go too deeply into the specifics, I decided to write this reply. Since Paul and I were both members of the American Socialist Workers Party, we were both used to the experience of a party imploding. After being expelled in the early 80s, he became part of the Bulletin In Defense of Marxism group (BIDOM) that hoped to persuade the SWP to return to the road of Cannonism. At the same time, I became part of Peter Camejo’s North Star Network that shared David McNally’s perspectives.

I am not sure when Paul became an ISO member but it did not take him long to become a leading spokesperson on Lenin within the group. As a member of BIDOM, Paul wrote a very good book in 1990 titled “Lenin and the Revolutionary Party” that made effective criticisms of the sectarian approach of groups like the SWP but that remained wedded to the Cannonist model. In fact, leading SWPer George Breitman advised Paul to write such a book since it would help to make sense out of “what went wrong”.

When I got on the Internet in the same year that Paul’s book came out, I began writing a series of articles inspired by Peter Camejo’s North Star orientation but that were much more grounded in a reading of early Soviet history and the emergence of “Zinovievism” as an organizational model shared by virtually every “Leninist” group in existence, including the ISO.

Before long, my articles must have attracted some interest in the ISO since Paul spent virtually an entire chapter in his 2014 “Unfinished Leninism: The Rise and Return of a Revolutionary Doctrine” answering me. The book is a collection of articles written by Paul to shore up the Leninist foundations of the ISO, including one similar to the one responding to me in the book that can be read online. I can’t be sure how close it is to what appeared in the book but for what it’s worth I respond to what’s in the book here.

Needless to say, I was curious to see if Paul’s latest article contained the same old defense of Leninism as the group he belonged to appears ready to leave it behind.

Unfortunately, Paul seems wedded to the past:

Focusing on the matter of organizational structures for a moment, it occurs to me that the old and much-maligned and sometimes grotesquely distorted term democratic centralism continues to make a considerable amount of sense.

I am absolutely opposed to the follow-the-leader interpretation which tells us that some central authority (the wise leader, the top cadres, the central committee or whatever) should be the brain that does the thinking and gives the orders — after which we should “democratically” discuss it all and then carry it all out as disciplined little soldiers. That is the opposite of the actual democratic centralism I believe in — a phony “Leninism” associated with pretentious clowning and the organization falling flat on its face (to paraphrase Lenin’s Left-Wing Communism, An Infantile Disorder).

All this is well and good but it does not really address the dynamic that exists in such organizations. The “wise leader, the top cadres, the central committee or whatever” emerge out of the subsoil of groups that are constituted on the basis of the organizational model that goes back to the Bolshevization Comintern of 1924 in which Zinoviev’s schemas were ordained as “Bolshevism”. It had the unintended consequence of turning such parties’ key leader into a demigod, whether it was Jack Barnes or Bob Avakian. Even in the case of groups that were fairly sane, it meant that an Ahmed Shawki or a Alex Callinicos had enough unchallenged power to cover up a rape.

I should add that democratic centralism does not lead to sexual attacks but it does facilitate cover-ups when and if they occur.

Paul continues:

If the organization has a full, democratic discussion regarding actions to be taken and makes a decision (determined by majority vote) — then the organization carries out the decision that was democratically decided upon. If the decision is to support a strike action, or an antiwar action, or an antiracist action, then no comrade is to work against the action.

On the other hand, if a majority of comrades in the organization have a specific position regarding a philosophical question, or an understanding of history, or a specific political analysis, there is no reason why dissident comrades cannot openly, publicly state their own views, if they have them. Nor are they prohibited from expressing disagreements with the leadership or with majority decisions on other matters as well, even publicly.

Once again, this sounds reasonable but in practice it goes by the wayside. Groups such as the ISO, the American SWP, Progressive Labor, the CPUSA are all characterized by ideological homogeneity. A new member will tend to hold the teachings of the masters close to his breast. I say that from experience going through indoctrination in the SWP back in 1967. You read something like “In Defense of Marxism” early on, which defends Trotsky and Cannon against Shachtman, Burnham and Abern. For a young, new member to say in a study group that such debates have little bearing on current society takes more nerve than anyone can muster, including someone like me. I only began to think for myself after leaving the SWP in 1978.

In order for true democratic centralism to work, a party has to have what might be considered a minimal program today. Instead of wrangling over when the USSR became capitalist or remained a “workers state”, it should focus on the basics such as ecosocialism, building militant trade unions, free speech rights such as the kind that the IWW fought for, abortion rights, GLBT rights, Black liberation, etc. Marxist principles should underpin the party’s campaign around such issues rather than tailing after the Democratic Party. If a group of 4 to 5 hundred Marxists staked out such an approach, who knows how far it can go?

Other than Paul’s attempt to revive the dying patient called democratic centralism, the rest of his article makes many good points and is worth reading.

 

 

March 20, 2019

The ISO, #MeToo, and the need for a fresh start

Filed under: #MeToo,ISO — louisproyect @ 7:02 pm

In recent years, I have developed a grudging admiration for the International Socialist Organization for its outspoken opposition to the Assadist left and for its refusal to adapt to the DSA’s “inside-outside” Democratic Party orientation. Furthermore, its willingness to open its newspaper up as an open forum to debate out whether to support the Sandernista movement impressed me as a sign that rigid “Leninist” norms are being abandoned even if with baby steps. Finally, someone I have deep respect for is an ISO member and a highly regarded journalist whose membership is an open secret. I was able to have lunch with him about four months ago and the topic of the ISO came up. I told him that I was pleased with the growing openness and flexibility of the group. So was he, he said, but added that it still had a long way to go.

So, despite all the articles I have written for the past 20 years holding the ISO’s feet to the fire, I am saddened by its current crisis that reflects both a malignant misogyny in the organization as well as a tendency by some of the top leaders to tolerate it, if not participate in it personally.

This has been a simmering dispute since 2014 when ISO members complained about a rape culture in the organization that ironically mirrored the British SWP being torn apart by the refusal of the Callinicos leadership to expel a party leader charged with raping a rank-and-file female member. Both state capitalist groups were going through the same crisis simultaneously and both were in a state of denial.

In the SWP’s case, the denialism led to a massive loss of members. Like a time-bomb with a very long fuse, the ISO’s denialism has finally caught up with it. At least you can say that unlike Callinicos and company, they seem up to the task of cleaning house.

At the 2014 ISO convention, there were concerns about the leadership not giving due weight to the woman’s side in a rape investigation in an article titled “Believing Survivors: A Response to Concerns”:

The first disagreement S raises in her document is an argument that due process is fundamental to democracy, and that the changes we suggest would eliminate due process. We believe our policy would not eliminate due process, which is fair treatment in adjudication. We maintain that anyone accused of sexual assault or intimate partner violence in our organization should have an opportunity to defend themselves, make a statement, produce evidence, and, if desired, appeal a decision.

Our disagreement is centered around what constitutes sufficient evidence to find that someone has violated our organization’s code of conduct in these cases. The Steering Committee document suggests we should be predisposed to believing accusers, while simultaneously presuming the innocence of the accused. Here we run up against a problem: Is it desirable – or even possible – to believe both accuser and accused? We believe that logically, practically, and politically speaking, the answer is no. [emphasis in the original]

The S referred to above is Sharon Smith who was the National Organizer of the ISO at the time and who emphasized in her article titled “The complexities of rape and sexual assault: a contribution” the need for “due process” in judging whether an accused member was guilty or not.

In this year’s convention, not only was Sharon Smith’s “due process” argument rejected, she and other long-time members were voted off the Steering Committee and replaced by those who would have agreed with the authors of “Believing Survivors: A Response to Concerns”. A letter by a former member [FM] to the convention was the trigger:

You have recently elected the respondent in the NDC’s (National Disciplinary Committee) first sexual misconduct case to the ISO’s highest leadership body. This member was accused of rape. My committee voted to expel him, but we were pressured to rescind our verdict. This is not a document I want to write. But my conscience will not allow me to keep quiet. Few in the organization know about this case, in part because the former leadership obscured its existence. The fact that the accused ultimately rose in stature within the ISO is a testament to how unevenly sexual assault cases have been handled.

This was enough to foment a determined revolt against the Steering Committee members aligned with Sharon Smith, Lance Selfa, Paul D’Amato and Ahmed Shawki and to produce badly needed reforms. (I only mention these people because of their high profile.)

The SC [Steering Committee] had an emergency meeting last night to begin a discussion of the implications of this document and what next steps need to be taken. Here are some of the immediate steps we have taken:

    • We immediately responded to FM and to the allies who were copied on the email to thank her for sending it, informing her that we would be sending it out and discussing as a leadership and stating that we take this very seriously.
    • After SC members asked that the respondent identify himself and resign, Joe R identified himself and voluntarily resigned from the SC and said he would take a leave of absence. We voted to suspend him and stipulate that a decision will be made on his membership status after a body independent of the SC had deliberated, created a process and made recommendations based on further investigation into this case.
    • In addition to a process for taking up these very serious allegations, we need to empower a body independent of the current SC who can investigate the conduct of the 2013 SC and the central participants in that 2013 process. Whether that should be the recently formed #MeToo commission, the NDC or some other body still needs to be determined, but will be soon.
    • We are organizing a joint meeting with the NC this week to discuss this fully and to develop a process for a public statement about this. We will also be inviting the original NDC members to this meeting. In addition, this meeting will be discussing how to create a space for membership-wide discussion.
    • Nikki W from Portland is organizing a support call for survivors or others triggered by this document. It will include trained mental professionals who can help comrades to process this. We will send these details out today; you can also reach out to her at nikkiwilliams23@gmail.com if you need resources or support before the call. The document is very clear and rather than editorializing, we will leave comrades to read and assess it for themselves. We will be writing assessments, a public statement and providing space for analysis and discussion of what took place, lessons learned from it and what needs to change in the coming weeks. We believe it speaks both to failures of our political culture that we have identified as well as failures to adequately address the needs of survivors, a lack of understanding of the dynamics of rape and sexual assault and the failure to create a process that could prioritize doing our best to determine the truth of what happened over bureaucratic proceduralism. This is not separate from the issues we have been reckoning with and the culture we are fighting to transform – though this experience is a particularly acute and devastating manifestation of this culture. There is no way to move forward from this without the utmost honesty and critical assessment.

One of the side-effects of the rape crisis in the British SWP was a re-examination of Leninism, the poorly understood organizational model embraced not only by the ISO, the British SWP but just about every other group on the left that has a schematic understanding of the Bolshevik Party.

Richard Seymour, who was one of the leaders of the SWP that resigned over the rape cover-up, wrote an article titled “Is Zinovievism finished? A reply to Alex Callinicos” that drew a dotted line between covering up sexual predation and Leninism:

Alex Callinicos’ article on the crisis in the SWP purports to be a defence of Leninism in the face of a ‘flood of attacks’ – by which Alex means the crisis that has engulfed the party over the mishandled investigation of allegations of rape and sexual harassment against a Central Committee member.

The piece does nothing of the sort, but is rather an encapsulation of the flaws that have brought us to this pass. It is clearly intended as an opening salvo in the CC’s response to the growing opposition within the party. In particular it draws on the long tradition of dealing with dissent over particular issues by means of the absurd implication that that dissent is an attack on the heritage of the October revolution, accompanied by an airy dismissal of the actual facts. This maneouvre assumes the following equivalences: that ‘revolutionary party’ means the model of democratic centralism adopted by the SWP in the 1970s; that this model replicates that of the Bolsheviks in 1917 and the decisions of the current leadership therefore embody the legitimacy of that revolution, which we can expect to be replicated in the conditions of the UK in the 21st century. This is pure substitutionalism – and on its own measure of providing strong interventionist leadership, is a complete failure.

Isn’t this the same dynamic that was at work in the ISO?

There is just too much of a pattern in these “vanguard” organizations for it to be only a coincidence. The first major occurrence was when Gerry Healy got booted from his own sect-cult after imposing himself on just one too many young female members. It took years for him to be punished, just as it took such a long time for Harvey Weinstein to face arrest.

My own former organization has had the same track record. A member named Mark Curtis was arrested for the attempted rape of a 15-year-old African-American girl in 1988 and served 8 years of a 25-year sentence. At the time and even now, Jack Barnes insisted that he was innocent. After Curtis was released from prison, he was arrested for soliciting prostitution by an undercover cop. This time, he was expelled from the SWP. When Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s “When Skateboards Will Be Free: A Memoir” appeared, I characterized his account of being molested as a young child by an SWP member who baby-sat for him as bogus. I refused to believe that the party, no matter its other deep faults, would not let such behavior go unpunished. Now, I am not so sure.

What do all these groups have in common? To start with, rape and sexual harassment are not universal. Some groups are totally innocent. It is not as if reading “What is to be Done” gives some alpha male the idea of raping a female member. But when and if an alpha male does carry out such a crime, there is a tendency to clear his name because the thought of losing a star member who might be the Lenin of our age is too much to bear.

It is a fixation on the idea, even if unstated, that all are led by Lenin’s avatar. Whether it is someone batshit crazy like Jack Barnes and Gerry Healy, or relatively sane like Alex Callinicos and Ahmed Shawki, there is undue confidence in the helmsman. You can see how ruffled the feathers of a leadership can become when faced by such charges. They say that the fish rots from the head downward. This is just as true of Leninist formations as it is for the mafia. On February 19, 2014 The Steering Committee and National Committee of the ISO issued a statement titled “A Response to Slander” that fired back at the Renewal Faction, whose views are now embraced by a new steering committee. The statement says:

The former members, grouped together in the “Renewal Faction,” cynically distorted an account of a case–written in a document meant to be for internal discussion about the process of dealing with such cases, given their rarity in our organization–in order to falsely equate a local situation in the ISO with the mishandling of rape charges against a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party-Britain that caused a profound crisis in that organization.

In fact, the equation was mathematically, morally and politically correct. I have no idea whether the new leadership can do everything that is necessary to restore confidence in the organization but I wish them the best. I don’t believe that the ISO is a nucleus of a vanguard party that is so necessary but until the real thing comes along, they are the best people on the left as far as I am concerned, warts and all.

 

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