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We Need More Leninism, Not Less

The sudden and rapid demise of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) has sparked a debate about party building, internal democracy and the kind of organization that socialists need in the fight against capitalism.

Juan Cruz Ferre

May 4, 2019
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ISO members marching in San Francisco. (Josh On/Socialist Worker)

The dissolution of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) has taken place in the context of a socialist revival and a new wave of labor unrest. At the same time the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has emerged as a reformist Left of national significance. A renewed left wing of the Democratic Party elbows its way into Congress, generating illusions of lasting transformations. Meanwhile, the downfall of the once-largest Trotskyist organization in the United States, together with the alignment of most of the left behind Bernie Sanders campaign for 2020, has left thousands of radicals without a political home. The situation is even more pressing given the rise of the far right in Europe and the United States.

Why did the ISO collapse? A neo-Kautskian current blames Leninism for all the evils that afflicted the ISO and uses this narrative to lay down a policy of capitulation to the Democratic Party. But behind the debate around what kind of organization we need lies a debate on strategy. Most of the commentaries have revolved around organizational problems, the bureaucratic leadership and the ISO’s toxic internal dynamics. This is understandable: The cover-up of a rape case in 2013 by the ISO leadership warrants a deep reflection on organizational structure and accountability. But without a deeper analysis of the ISO’s politics and its connection with the organization’s trajectory, its sudden, unexpected collapse is left largely unexplained. The knee-jerk conclusion is that the project of building a disciplined revolutionary organization can lead only to failure and despair.

Leninist organizations, so the argument goes, are intrinsically prone, if not absolutely condemned, to degenerate into cult-like sects. Yet a critical assessment of the ISO’s demise cannot be drawn in a vacuum, detached from the politics that led to, or at least reinforced, a bureaucratic degeneration. In other words, the shallow criticism of the “form” leaves out the much richer discussion of the “content.”

Campus Socialism

The ISO famously managed to thrive during the worst years of neoliberalism and working-class retreat. It did so following Tony Cliff’s recipe for building in the downturn, that is, focusing on propaganda and political agitation to win people over through ideas, and less so through common experience in class struggle. “If we don’t do this,” Cliff concluded, “then as the downturn continues we are going to find ourselves high and dry. The swamp will surround us and get bigger, so we have to build our little island to keep ourselves out of it.”

The successful campus-based recruitment strategy led the ISO to become, before the turn of the century, the largest socialist organization in the United States. The growth in numbers was accompanied by the success of Haymarket Books, a publishing house that the ISO leadership controlled through the Center for Economic Research and Social Change (CERSC).

But as the organization’s membership approached (or passed) the 1,000 mark, the social composition of its ranks changed little. Heavily influenced by its Cliffite tradition, the ISO never made a concerted effort to gain a stronger foothold in organized labor. The leadership discouraged members from “salting,” and the organization as a whole neglected work in the unions. The ISO never attempted a plan to build a revolutionary current in the labor movement.

When ISOers did get involved, their approach was usually not based on a rank-and-file perspective, but a “strategy of permeation” (borrowing Kim Moody’s term). This may not be true of all ISO members, but it holds for the most prominent cases, the ones that matter the most since they are held as examples. They did not focus on building currents of revolutionary militants in the unions, putting all the organization’s weight behind every battle against the bosses and offering an uncompromising critique of the union bureaucracy. Instead, they coexisted with “progressives” in the leadership of unions, such as those in the Chicago teachers’ union (former ISO member and CTU President Jesse Sharkey being a case in point) or in UTLA (before the current caucus took over). Moreover, they either failed to criticize the union bureaucracy when it capitulated or they published confusing (and confused?) accounts when the union bureaucracy sold out. We need to be clear: This is not a mere difference in “tactics.” Class struggle is the main catalyst for consolidating a militant current in the labor movement, thereby opening the possibility for socialists to win over some of the most militant organizers to revolutionary ideas.

Despite some weaknesses, Hal Draper’s much-cited article, “Anatomy of the Micro-Sect” has the merit of stating clearly how the sect mentality and orientation lead an organization to try to build its ranks in isolation from workers’ struggles—Tony Cliff’s “little island.” The basic strategy of building a socialist movement, Draper contends, following Marx, “lies in fusing two movements—the class movement for this-or-that step which gets a decisive sector of the class into collision with the state and the bourgeoisie; and the work of permeating this class movement with educational propaganda for social revolution.”

But this fusion with the most advanced and militant workers (the workers’ vanguard, or the militant minority) will simply not happen if the organization is not engaging in workplace organizing and rank-and-file, class-struggle unionism. Embracing the framework of a historical “downturn” in labor unrest meant for the ISO that it was not the time for advancing class-struggle organizations or militant unionism. But this is not the case. Revolutionaries take lessons from defeats as well as from victories. A correct understanding of the union bureaucracy’s role allows revolutionary organizations to anticipate their capitulation and to prepare for that moment. If there is enough groundwork with rank-and-file union members pushing for their demands, it is not hard to turn a betrayal into a key learning experience and to use the anger against the leadership as a springboard to launch (or strengthen, as the case may be) a left opposition in the union.

The ISO transformed its tactical orientation for building in the downturn into an atemporal strategy. Sooner or later there would be a reckoning. The main responsibility for this flawed orientation lies with the leadership. As different accounts show, there were many attempts by rank and filers and dissenting factions (like the Renewal Faction in 2014) to address problems in the organization—to no avail.

Most Marxists trace the origins of Lenin’s party model to his 1902 pamphlet “What Is to Be Done?” There, he argues precisely against the predominant role of middle-class intellectuals and makes a case for encouraging the emergence of “professional revolutionaries”—not in the sense of paid, full-time organizers but of individuals who dedicate their lives to revolutionary politics.

Drifting Away

With all its flaws, the ISO remained for several decades a bulwark of Marxism in the U.S. political landscape. It typically refused to endorse Democratic Party candidates, denounced the two-party system and the bankruptcy of U.S. democracy and produced an important body of socialist literature, both theoretical and political. For this reason, the downfall of the ISO is bad news for the U.S. left. It means we no longer have the healthy left pressure of a several-hundred-strong organization of committed militants fighting for socialism.

There are hundreds of former ISO members who, after the ISO’s dissolution, remain intent on organizing for working-class, revolutionary politics. This makes it all the more important to draw the right lessons from the ISO’s demise. In this regard, some of the conclusions by former leaders are remarkably poor. In Todd Chretien’s account, for example, the ISO did the best it could in a period that was very hostile for the left. But if the ISO did everything right, then there is little that we can learn to make sure new attempts to build a revolutionary project do not end the same way.

If we scrutinize the ISO’s political record, however, we can find some reasons for the organization’s breakneck spiral into dissolution. Although maintaining a formally independent working-class politics, the ISO zigzagged in the terrain of electoral politics. After Barack Obama’s first victory in 2008, the cover of the International Socialist Review (ISR) featured a rising sun and a clenched fist with the title “Politics and Struggle in a New Era. Yes We Can!” The editorial was more moderate in its assessment of Obama’s politics, but it still encouraged illusions in Obama’s presidency.

The missteps around Obama’s election were not the only equivocation in the ISO’s electoral politics. The organization consistently supported the Green Party and ran candidates on its ballot believing that, even if the Greens are not a working-class party, the growth of a “third party” is in itself a step forward for socialists in the United States. The class line, then, became increasingly blurry.

We can find a similar diversion from “orthodox” Marxist politics when it came to international positions. It was reflected in the ISO’s support for the broad-left Greek party Syriza (inside which the ISO’s sister organization in Greece, DEA, organized) and its celebration of left-populist formation Podemos in Spain (although more critical in more recent articles). Similarly, the uncritical reproduction of statements by Marea Socialista, a left split from the Chavista Socialist Unified Party of Venezuela (PSUV), which openly defends the legacy of Hugo Chávez, further contributed to the confusion about the role of socialists with regard to the capitalist state.

These positions are often justified as an attempt to advance socialist politics in dialogue with real social phenomena that are moving left. Furthermore, a principled opposition to these attempts to manage capitalism with a socialist or anti-austerity rhetoric is taken as a sectarian shortcoming that would prevent the growth of an organization. But this is not true. The Party of Socialist Workers (PTS) in Argentina, member of the Workers’ Left Front (FIT), arguably the most dynamic revolutionary left party in the world today, forged its membership in the heat of debates against currents that defended Latin America’s Pink Tide governments. Nevertheless, the PTS/FIT became a leading party on the left in Argentina.

All the ISO’s departures from revolutionary socialist principles inevitably had a tangible effect on the organization. The “red lines” of class politics became hard to find. Because the ISO did not intervene in the labor movement as a socialist, revolutionary current, its missteps and ambiguities in the field of electoral politics and on international issues further blurred an already fuzzy program. It became harder and harder to see the revolutionary project put forward by the ISO.

By the time the DSA rose as a mammoth organization of the U.S. left, the pressure to jump ship was too strong for many ISO members. After all, the ISO’s politics didn’t differ that much from the DSA’s left wing. Over the last two years, the ISO slowly lost many of its cadres to the DSA, including members of several years. Under tremendous pressure from an increasingly popular reformist left, the ISO leadership decided in 2018 to openly debate—in its paper, Socialist Worker—something that should be a given for any so-called revolutionary left organization: What position to take on the Democratic Party. Although the majority opposed endorsing Sanders as a Democratic Party candidate, the fact that the ISO had to openly discuss whether to support a bourgeois party’s candidate showed that the crisis was deep. After years of supporting the Green Party as an adequate first step toward an independent working-class party, the fact that ISO members began openly entertaining the idea of endorsing a Democrat represented a qualitative shift.

When a new leadership took over after the national convention this year and the mishandling of a rape accusation case in 2013 came to light, the centrifugal forces were already too strong. The bureaucratic methods that had kept the organization together in the past were now obsolete. The dam had broken.

Social Movements

The ISO eagerly participated in social movements. As part of a trend in the international left to take part more wholeheartedly in these movements, and in the absence of a resolute intervention in labor, agitating for the rights of women, LGBTQ people and immigrants, and against racist police brutality, became the bread and butter of the ISO’s activism. The general approach, however, was typically not to open a debate inside these movements on politics and strategy, but rather to join them as they were, advance the demands that were natural to the movement and fight tooth and nail for them alongside other activists. The ISO’s reliance on building in the universities favored certain racial composition of its membership. Having a weak insertion in communities of color, it was difficult to intervene as active members of those movements and put forward an orientation.

While joining progressive social movements and fighting in them alongside other activists is a requisite for any organization that wants to have an impact on the real world, revolutionary militants do not shy away from political debates and anti-capitalist agitation. When social movements develop some structure and leadership, it is not unusual for the latter to advocate using institutional channels to achieve certain goals. A glaring example of this was the Women’s March, which was led and politically capitalized by Democratic Party politicians and supporters. Another example is the platform “Movement for Black Lives,” which emerged in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests and tried to channel all their anger and disruptive power into policy proposals to be advanced through lobbying.

If socialists don’t challenge those emerging (or established) bureaucracies rising on the shoulders of real movements, they don’t forge the collective tools to debate with currents that are indifferent or hostile to socialism: liberal feminism, petty bourgeois black nationalism and so on. Ignoring the differences or shying away from a political debate (usually for the sake of “unity” in the movement) is a lost opportunity at advancing revolutionary politics and forming a radical left current inside the movement. Furthermore, I would argue that the pressure of these movements—with their contradictions—made themselves felt inside the ISO. At the ISO’s last convention, members rightly addressed the burning problem of the organization’s racial and gender composition (a problem by no means exclusive to the ISO), but the main proposal to address it was to establish quotas for the leadership bodies. In other words, to a serious problem of organizing among the most oppressed, and training and enabling them to become political leaders, the response was a maladroit organizational fix.

Democratic or Bureaucratic Centralism?

Absent the prospects of building revolutionary currents in the labor movement, the ISO continued to focus on campus organizing, even when it had several hundred active members. As a consequence, the party apparatus acquired disproportionate weight. Saman S. and Adam T. point out that this setup enabled a certain “economics” of the organization, in which those comrades who were loyal to the party line were rewarded with articles in Socialist Worker or even book contracts with Haymarket. With an annual budget of several million dollars, Haymarket and the CERSC became the material base for a layer of full-timers in charge of key organizing activities and responsible for laying down the party line. Those who strayed out of line were pushed aside, ostracized or expelled.

Some people on the left, particularly social democrats campaigning for Sanders, were quick to celebrate ISO’s collapse—in a more or less veiled fashion—and ascribe its downfall to the flaws intrinsic to “Leninism.” Democratic centralism, they claim, inevitably leads to the concentration of power in a few hands. But a key aspect of democratic centralism is, precisely, internal democracy.

Lenin argued for a certain level of discipline and homogeneity in the ranks of the party in order for it to be an efficient revolutionary organization. In one sense, he advocated centralism as coordination. The “army” of revolutionaries, in other words, had to strike together in one blow when the situation demanded it. But this “central coordination”—without which workers’ struggles would be disconnected from each other and the action of socialist activists would never go beyond local issues—needs to be complemented with the most unrestricted, and sometimes heated, deliberation over orientation, strategy and tactics. Internal debates, faction fights and public polemics were the lifeblood of the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party (RSLP) from which the Bolsheviks emerged as the leading faction. Even inside the Bolshevik Party, when it started to function as a de facto party around 1903, debates were not shut down but welcomed and encouraged. Lenin’s “April Theses” are probably the most remarkable example of how even the most respected leader among the Bolsheviks had to make his case for the party to adopt his orientation after a heated deliberation. And they were discussing nothing less than what position to take vis-a-vis the provisional government!

The level of “openness” and debate, as explained by Lenin in different writings, depended on the circumstances: When democratic rights allowed the party to organize legally and engage in a variety of public actions, the “democratic pole” would predominate. When circumstances pushed the party to go underground, a more centralized command was needed to keep the party from being dismantled by state repression. The same is true for specific moments that demanded expeditious action. In those situations, increased centralization was imposed by the class struggle and the repressive power of the capitalist state.

It needs to be emphasized that the model of a democratic-centralist organization allows for a much more democratic internal life than any other type of political party. Traditional social democratic parties have relied on a mass base that expresses its support through the polls but that has little influence over the party’s politics, which are determined by the leadership’s professional politicians. Similarly, broad left parties such as Syriza or Podemos have shown themselves to be especially prone to the concentration of power in the hands of charismatic leaders (Alexis Tsipras and Pablo Iglesias, respectively). They have, moreover, been incorporated surprisingly fast into the structures of power—most tragically in the case of Syriza, which has implemented austerity policies, privatized public goods and openly repressed protests.

Party and Strategy

A common trope among anti-Leninists is that his revolutionary strategy is obsolete today. In advanced capitalist societies, they claim, bourgeois hegemony is exerted predominantly through consent. Democratic rights, liberal democracy and parliamentarism generate such support for the capitalist state that it is only by conquering the government through elections that a socialist force could have the legitimacy and, therefore, the popular support to effect a definite break with capitalism.

The historic record of peaceful attempts to achieve socialism through elections is nothing but a daunting enumeration of tragedy, defeat and betrayal. Faced with this overwhelming evidence, anti-Leninists are forced to admit that, at some point, there will need to be a rupture with the capitalist state, in order to defeat the inevitable capitalist boycott of the transformative process implemented by the socialist government. But this will come at a later moment, not now. Now we have to focus on winning elections.

Of course, the moment of rupture never comes. But by propounding this strategy, they can still claim they are fighting for socialism—and not just for the crumbs a capitalist state can afford here and there for the working class. This is the reason behind the attempts to recycle the theories of Karl Kautsky, a character who had been rightfully consigned to the dustbin of history. This position is best laid out today by the social democratic pole around Jacobin magazine and the DSA members behind the publication The Call.

As Nathaniel Flakin explains, Kautsky’s strategy of attrition proved a failure during the German revolution of 1918. His “grand strategy” of slowly eroding the capitalist system through elections and partial victories until the right time comes for a revolution amounted to plain reformism. When the revolutionary situation came, in 1918 and in 1923, his party failed the test.

This is actually not surprising since, as Eric Blanc admits, Kautsky “avoided putting forward a rigid or detailed stance on how the transition to socialism should proceed.” If the party he was leading (the German Social Democratic Party) capitulated to nationalist pressures in the lead-up to WW I, collaborated with the Freikorps to murder Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht, and finally proved incompetent at fighting fascism … what is it that Kautsky really has to offer?

The real answer is this: a classy name for the same old reformism. Even worse, activists around Jacobin have found in Kautsky’s theories the perfect justification for orienting the DSA toward working inside the Democratic Party—a road that many generations of socialists have known to be a dead end. They share this agenda with the DSA’s old guard, which has historically favored a strategy of pushing the Democratic Party to the left.

A Party for the Revolution

There is a reason why Kautsky’s insistence on accumulating forces in parliament left the party ill prepared for the revolutionary situation that opened in 1918. A party can’t switch from electoralism to revolutionary struggle overnight. If a party’s “center of gravity” is on winning elections, as Emilio Albamonte and Matías Maiello explain, its ability to engage in extra-parliamentary action is blunted. It becomes impossible to achieve the concentration of forces necessary to lead the decisive battle for power, which will necessarily involve an open confrontation with the capitalist state when the time comes.

For those who have hopes in a gradual transition to socialism, it makes sense to build a relatively loose organization that focuses on “base building,” leading campaigns for reforms here and there, and guided by the overarching goal of accumulating forces in Congress. But for those of us who understand the need for a revolutionary break with the capitalist order, such a political tool will always prove inadequate.

A party of combat that fights all kinds of oppression and helps prepare the ground for the decisive battle requires us to focus on fostering workers’ self-organization, engage in class-struggle unionism in opposition to the union bureaucracy and, most importantly, advance an independent, working-class program. These tasks need to be at the center of our political activity today.

For these reasons, Draper’s model falls short of the strategic cohesiveness needed to build a common political project and, as brian bean points out, it has failed the test of time.

In this scenario, where a revived left is experiencing rapid growth and where a new generation of socialists is debating the hard questions of working-class independence, internationalism and the strategy to take power, a strong revolutionary left is more necessary than ever. The path propounded by Kautsky and his followers leads to co-optation and defeat. We need more Leninism, not less.

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