[Note: From 1977-1979, Michael Letwin was a founding member of the International Socialist Organization.]
Resignation From the International Socialist Organization (ISO)
July 13, 1979
We have decided to resign from the ISO. Though dissatisfied with the organization for some time, we have tried to find a way to remain members, since it most closely represents our politics on the fundamental issues of socialism. However, we cannot bring ourselves to participate in or build the organization as it presently exists. This has not been an easy decision, so we want to explain it, not in terms of personalities, but through a discussion of the ISO’s direction and its consequences.
Our position begins with the view that we should today be able to be optimistic about the prospects for building a socialist organization rooted in the American working class. There is an extreme cynicism about American capitalism among large numbers of workers and the oppressed. This sentiment will only be deepened by the growing economic crisis.
While it is true that for many this sentiment is combined with racism, sexism, patriotism and pessimism, it is also the case that there are more than enough working class people open to alternatives to make progress in the building of a small revolutionary workers’ organization right now. The ability of socialists to make something of this potential will have a lot to do with determining whether the long-term solution to the crisis of capitalism is socialism, or fascism.
At the same time, we are witnessing the most advanced decay of our political tradition in the U.S. since the 1950’s. There are at least three “IS” groups: the old IS, a small core of which still relates exclusively to older, white, male Teamsters in an evermore conservative way, and with no more than a hint of socialist politics; a new grouplet just out of the IS, with little discernable clarity or agreement about lessons to be learned from the IS experience or perspectives for the future; and the ISO, a group which reacted to the IS’s failure by throwing out the best of the IS (its working class, and at times, black and youth orientations), and retaining the worst (undemocratic, apolitical internal functioning). All in all we don’t see much to choose from among the existing formations.
Much can be said about all of these fractions, but since it is from the ISO that we are resigning, this document will deal with our analysis of it. To do this, however, requires us to trace the political origins of the organization.
Out of the International Socialists
The ISO came into being nearly two and a half years ago as a result of a crisis in the International Socialists, characterized by the demoralization of nearly the entire membership and the resignation of many members. Those of us in the Left Faction (later the ISO) saw the IS becoming increasingly conservative in its trade union work; increasingly concerned with white, male workers and left-talking union bureaucrats; and increasingly oriented away from minorities, women, gays and youth. In nearly all areas, it was failing to argue socialist politics.
The IS had also developed the grandiose view that it would, within a short period of time, develop into a major organization on the basis of leading large masses of workers on basic rank and file issues, hopefully on the lowest political basis possible.
The best example of the IS’s direction in all of these areas was in its “greatest success”—Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU). This external practice was accompanied by an IS leadership which was becoming increasingly undemocratic and hierarchical, discouraging free and open discussion through slandering, isolating and driving out those who refused to follow it uncritically. These internal practices were justified as the necessities of building a “workers’ combat organization.”
The ISO identified the cause of many of these problems both in the IS’s long-term strategies of sending white, middle class members into industry to “lead the workers,” (which succeeded primarily in conservatizing those who tried), and of “prioritizing” certain heavy industries (auto, steel, and trucking) as the only areas fit for serious revolutionary organizing, and its later developed belief that the collapse of capitalism was just around the corner, the conclusion of which was that revolutionaries were faced with the immediate task of building a large working class party to lead the masses if the opportunity for revolution was not to be lost. This belief led the IS to the position, in practice, that “anything goes” in socialist politics.
The ISO’s Original Perspective
While the ISO rejected much of the practice of the IS, it did so from the belief that the direction of the IS prevented the success of what had been a correct attempt to turn from a middle class to a working class orientation on a political basis. As the first document of the Left Faction put it: “The argument concerns the question of how to build a proletarian party, not whether a proletarian party is desired.” (“A New Course for the I.S.,” Special Bulletin Number Three, 12/11/76, p. 10).
The perspective of the ISO was to return to the long, arduous process of creating a revolutionary socialist organization realistically oriented toward the working class—a workers’ organization.
First, we said, the new organization must abandon the pretentious self-conception held by the IS that a small group of revolutionaries could today, as a rule, lead mass struggles, and on that basis, recruit large numbers of workers. The ISO, we said, needed to accept its role as a “propaganda group,” an organization [that], in this period, would usually recruit workers in the ones and twos, based both on our political arguments and ability to relate to their struggles. This perspective could only succeed by creating an organization “habitable” to workers, an environment where workers could teach and learn, grow and recruit others.
Unlike the IS majority, we had a broader conception of the working class and how to reach it. We said it was impossible to know in advance which workers or oppressed communities would soon be in struggle or open to revolutionary politics, but that given the experiences of the last 15 years (the Black and women’s movements, the Vietnam War, Watergate and the economic crisis), we believed there was a small layer of workers, who, even today, could be convinced to join the struggle for socialism, or, if already socialists, our group in particular.
Instead of ignoring those who didn’t fit the description of a 55-year-old, white, male Teamster, we saw our organization as being composed largely of minorities, women, gays and youth, those most generally disaffected from American capitalism today, and therefore most open to our politics.
While we recognized the need for a revolutionary organization rooted in large-scale production industries, we also saw the low-wage and public sector industries, as well as working class and oppressed communities as important.
We said that the organization could not be built exclusively, or even primarily, by sending middle class students into industry. Efforts would have to be made “from the outside,” supporting immediate working class struggles as they arose and using our newspaper to express our politics, as a way to get “on the inside” through the recruitment of workers. We believed such work would enable us to recruit workers in diverse situations who would in turn organize where they worked and lived; that if we developed a strong working class orientation in our day to day work, we could afford to recruit middle class members, so long as they were committed to relating to the working class. Anyone interested in building such an organization was welcome.
But recruiting, we believed, was not enough. Success demanded an organization that wouldn’t tokenize working class members, but rather would be a place where the experiences and ideas of new and old members were exchanged—where we learned from workers and workers learned from the organization.
Equally important, we swore that never again would we tolerate an organization which intimidated members into silence or which was ruled by cliques. We knew that unless we built this kind of organization from the outset, we would never be able to attract or hold thinking members. And thinking members were absolutely essential because we knew from our experience that, since we were far from having all the answers about the road to revolution, we needed not only to tolerate, but to encourage every member to think critically for his or herself.
It is a great tragedy that this perspective, which we in the Left Faction and then the ISO presumably shared in the beginning, was never implemented by the ISO.
First, the ISO never, in practice, oriented itself primarily toward the working class, but rather has, from the beginning, been concerned with various middle-class movements (anti-nukes, southern Africa, upper class college struggles). At best, work such as strike support has been inconsistent and peripheral to the focus of the group. The main exception has been UPSurge, but, leaving aside the quality of that work, it is an isolated example whose origins were in the IS, not the ISO.
In the middle class movements that form the meat of ISO activity, members, while raising other political points, haven’t fought for the movements to adopt an orientation toward the working class.
The newspaper has been a useful indicator of the ISO’s perspective. Its choices about what to cover have reflected the paper’s lack of interest in many important working class issues, examples of which were the near total absence of reporting or analysis on the Newport News, J.P. Stevens and Teamster strikes and the multitude of contracts that are coming up this year and next.
The same class orientation is applied to student struggles, where the paper has given extensive coverage to struggles at upper class schools while ignoring, for example, the movement of working class students in Massachusetts state schools to ward off attacks on their education.
Socialist Worker has also made little attempt to argue our politics to workers; it has failed to anticipate the major questions in the minds of those who were, or should have been its readers, to address the main arguments spewed out by the capitalist media every day.
Instead, SW articles have consisted of poorly written “lines” which do little to convince readers of a position they don’t already agree with. Often, the paper has lapsed into left rhetoric, reflecting the fact that the “political” articles, i.e., those dealing with issues that go beyond a particular strike report, have been addressed not to workers, some of whom will be coming across socialist politics for the first time, but rather to left-oriented college students and activists (and it is debatable that SW is useful in winning even this audience to our politics). (For a more thorough analysis of Socialist Worker, see “Pushing Our Politics Does Socialist Worker Do The Job?” by Michael Letwin in ISO Bulletin, January 1979).
The ISO’s public meetings have also demonstrated the organization’s lack of concern with working class attendance or workers’ experiences. Most deal with topics removed from the American scene, let alone working class issues. Only minor attempts have been made to make working class people feel comfortable at the meetings of what is a predominantly white, middle class, male organization.
Similarly, the internal discussions of the ISO have rarely dealt directly with issues confronting American workers and have been carried on in such a way that only those familiar with Marxist jargon have felt free to participate. All in all, it’s not surprising that the ISO has recruited few workers and held fewer.
The ISO has also failed to take seriously those traditionally ignored issues of special oppression, i.e., oppression that goes beyond class.
SW has missed most of the important issues facing working class Blacks, examples of which are the anti-Klan struggles in the South, the Weber case and affirmative action, the character of the so-called national Black leadership and the Black movement generally. It has completely ignored Latinos (soon to be the largest nonwhite minority in the U.S.), Asians and Native Americans.
The ISO has produced not one pamphlet, and has had no discussion or theory on their liberation. The few Black members of the ISO have faced condescension and tokenism not much different from what existed in the IS.
The ISO has dealt little with heterosexism, except as it relates to attacks from the right. Reporting of it has been totally lacking of any analysis of gay oppression or the gay movement. The organization has had no discussion of, or publications about, gays.
The one area of special oppression addressed by the ISO has been the oppression of women, but the quality of this work is questionable. While there has been considerable pro-abortion work in Cincinnati, there is little inconsistent emphasis on women’s issues in other cities.
SW, while running articles on women’s liberation, often fails to connect the questions with the lives of working class women and has had little to say about the middle class orientation of the women’s movement. The ISO has produced only one pamphlet on women’s liberation, Revolutionary Feminism, which dates to the IS.
Moreover, the theoretical work concerning women’s liberation has been unclear. An example is the ambiguous use of the concept of “independent” or “autonomous” organization of women, which many ISO members, when questioned, are at a loss to explain. The result is that the ISO’s attempt at feminist theory has done little to break through the barrier between those who consider themselves feminists as opposed to Marxists.
Nor has the feminism of the ISO had a great deal to do with the internal dynamics of the organization. The women’s caucus plays no role in promoting a sense of sisterly consciousness among the women or in making sexism and the development of women an important issue within the group.
Young working class people, in the IS’s experience one of the groups most receptive to revolutionary politics, have been completely ignored by the ISO, despite the fact that youth are vital to a socialist organization and are important links in making contact with the Black and other minority communities.
For all of our correct criticisms of the mistakes of the IS, the ISO is further from success in relating to and recruiting workers, nonwhites, women, gays or youth, and the organization is not greatly concerned with this. Where in the IS we had real work in some of these areas to discuss, in the ISO the discussion must begin with the fact that the group has almost none.
The ISO is still a relatively young organization. It cannot be blamed for failing to achieve success in every area. In part, these problems reflect the objective difficulties of building a revolutionary organization based today in the working class and specially oppressed. However, the absolute failure of the ISO to concern itself with the way in which success might eventually be achieved cannot be laid only to hard times, but also to the very avoidable error of an incorrect class orientation.
Lip service is paid to working class issues, Black history, etc., but the weight of the ISO’s practice is elsewhere, usually with middle class college students and independent leftists.
We are not against recruiting middle class students or leftists. The question is: to what kind of organization and on what terms? Our politics tell us that the working class is the only force capable of bringing about socialism, and that the success of socialism requires the existence of a revolutionary party rooted in the working class.
While in principle few socialists would deny the need for such an organization, for a white, middle class, largely male organization, its creation is not an easy or natural task. The tendency is always for an organization to be dominated by those already making it up and for its members to find it easiest to relate to themselves and to others like them. Only the most determined and sustained effort to break with this dynamic has even a chance of success.
Therefore, recruitment of middle class students and leftists must be based not only on an abstract agreement with our politics (important as this is), but also on the commitment to apply them in practice, to break with the natural desire to dominate and organize the group around their own interests, and instead to promote the recruitment, learning from and teaching of working class members. Only in this way will an organization attract middle class members with a working class orientation, let alone workers themselves.
A working class orientation cannot be put off to another time, for a group which fails to organize itself on the correct class basis from the beginning will be unable to learn from working class people and to mold itself according to their experiences and needs. The members of such an organization will be unable to relate to workers today, or in the future, and it is only by building up a cadre of workers and the specially oppressed today, however small, that socialists will be able to relate to larger numbers when the class struggle does pick up. As Chris Harman put it in a recent article:
‘Where the chains of capitalism are forged, there they must be smashed.’ And the link with the working class movement has to be an active one. The revolutionary organization has to search out and connect with the smallest spark of working class resistance against the system, even in a period in which its own growth comes mainly from marginal areas. Otherwise it will not be able to relate to the agent of revolutionary change when it begins to stir. (“The Crisis of the European Left,” International Socialism 2:4, Spring 1979, p. 84, emphasis added.)
The debate is not over whether or not an organization should be “political,” but rather over the way in which politics should be conducted. A workers’ group must develop theory, both by addressing socialism in general, and, if it is to be relevant, the particular issues facing American socialists.
However, it is useless unless it can be carried on in a clear, down-to-earth manner that makes possible and encourages working class participation—that makes socialist politics the property and sphere of workers, not only middle class intellectuals.
An Apolitical Organization
The ISO’s middle class direction could, perhaps, be challenged and corrected in an organization [that] welcomed internal criticism and discussion. However, the ISO has failed to apply the lessons about democracy and a political approach which it claimed to have learned from our experiences in the IS, or for that matter, from the history of the revolutionary left in general. There is little political discussion or education in the organization that would excite or in some cases, equip members to deal with issues as they arise so that they might themselves direct the organization.
Instead, the “leading members,” as they have come to be called, have from the outset acted as though only they are capable of giving the ISO the “correct” direction, and consequently see criticism within the group as the worst heresy. Members who disagree have been harassed and isolated by the inner circle, resulting in the resignation of a number of fine members. Above all, the leadership has dealt with political disagreement not through political argument, but through accusations of personal demoralization and dishonesty.
Such functioning is hardly unique—as members of the IS we faced the same methods, both before and during the faction fight of 1976-77, with the same result: the diversion of attention from politics to slanders followed by demoralization and resignations. In light of this, the earlier oaths of the ISO leadership to reject such practices have proved to be so much posturing.
The apolitical attitude of the ISO leadership derives from its lack of faith in the ability of the members to discuss, evaluate and make decisions. Unfortunately, the passivity of the membership indicates that it too lacks confidence in its own abilities.
This passivity is due not only to general demoralization resulting from the demise of the IS tendency in the U.S., but also to the ISO leadership’s apolitical functioning. Sensing the way in which criticism is viewed and lacking any encouragement to the contrary, older and newer members alike have found it easier to bury their heads when faced with difficult problems than to try to resolve them. Understandably, many members feel they have “had enough” of internal hassles, and want only to focus on their external work, which, after all, is the point of a revolutionary organization. But the result of this approach is the inability of the ISO to continually review its work and correct its mistakes; to train a self-confident, political membership; and to progress.
In place of a membership grappling with the difficulties and political questions that confront socialists building an organization in the U.S., the ISO has tried to substitute the resources of the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP), relying on it almost completely for speakers, pamphlets, and entire areas of SW writing to the point where the ISO has come to look like the public relations firm for the British organization.
The paper is one extreme example. It leans on the British comrades for obviously British-authored articles. In its extreme case of Anglophilism, it reports on British events and the SWP in a manner reflecting the centrality of both to the ISO, but out of proportion to the relevance of that experience in this country. Worst of all, it does this in place of reporting on and analyzing issues facing American readers.
A good example of this can be found in the May 1979 issue of SW, which devoted 3/4 page to the police murder of Blair Peach in London, while giving all of 3 inches to the death of 299 people at the hands of the Philadelphia police in the last nine years. The unsaid hope is that the ISO will grow not on its own merits, but because it holds the franchise of the British SWP in the U.S.
This dependence has led to the automatic acceptance by the ISO, without serious consideration, of SWP political positions. One example is the way in which the organization adopted the position that the so-called “socialist” countries are state capitalist (a position with which we agree), an analysis adopted not because the membership had a thorough discussion of the theory and its challengers and decided that it was the soundest conclusion, but because it’s the SWP’s position. The ISO’s position on Israel and the Middle East [with which I also agreed] was adopted in the same way.
The same method applies to style. The ISO’s SW looks like the SWP’s SW not because the organization ever discussed it and decided that its was the look best suited to the needs of the ISO, but because it looks like the paper put out by the British comrades.
The result is that the ISO is unable to function independently in its own hemisphere. It makes little attempt to confront issues facing American socialists (for example, the trade unions, racism, sexism, the economy or domestic politics, to name a few), or to deal with more general theory, since it lacks the skills and practice to apply Marxist politics to its own situation.
Most destructive is the fact that serious discussion about the ISO’s direction has been carried out not among the members of the ISO, but between a couple of “leading members” and the representatives of the Central Committee of the SWP.
The best example is that the ISO’s current student/left direction has never been written down, presented, or voted on by the ISO. Where did it come from? It was not part of the original documents of the Left Faction (the only place where the original perspective of the ISO was ever written). We can only assume that the ISO’s practice is what it is because a few members of the ISO and SWP decided that it would be.
And where did the inspiration for this perspective come from? Presumably from the belief that the ISO is imitating the process by which the SWP built itself into an impressive organization in Britain. No doubt it is thought that, just as the British IS of the 1960’s, the ISO should start off as a student group and worry about the workers and oppressed only sometime in the distant future. After all, the argument probably runs, if the British built their group this way, so can we. Just as 15 years ago they were a middle-class-dominated sect, so are we today. Just as they are now largely composed of workers, so will we be 15 years from now.
This reasoning is incorrect partly because, as we have argued earlier, an organization can’t start off by ignoring the working class and end up successfully. But what is important to understand here is that the notion that the British SWP (or its predecessor, the IS) ever resembled the ISO is false and is a slander against the SWP. Even when composed primarily of middle class members in the 50s and 60s, the British IS never lost sight of, or touch with, the British working class. It always had a number of working class members and made every effort to orient itself around working class activity in Britain. As Tony Cliff explains:
Always in the history of our group [the SWP], even when we were tiny, we always put the emphasis on the working class. And not in the abstract, but in the concrete. In 1956, when 12,000 workers were fired at Standard Triumph in Coventry our tiny group began a very serious debate about the tactics of fighting unemployment. Notwithstanding the fact that we had not one single member at Standard Triumph and we didn’t sell one copy of the paper in Coventry. But we cared very much about it. (ISO’s Socialist Worker, May 1979, p. 15)
The British group also bore no resemblance to the American ISO of today in that the British took very seriously the task of developing theory and analysis of many of the crucial issues confronting British socialists. Their theoretical analyses spanned a broad range of political issues from the reaffirmation of the essentials of Marxism (the Russian Revolution, the nature of Stalinism, the centrality of the working class, the revolutionary party), to a very specific analysis of contemporary Britain (the economy, hold of reformism, trade union movement, Labour Party, Communist Party, immigration, Ireland, etc.).
It was this overall Marxist theory, analysis of immediate questions and “emphasis on the working class” throughout the group’s history that made it possible for the British IS/SWP to enjoy major successes in relating to and recruiting workers when the British economic crisis and class struggle accelerated in the late ’60s and early ’70s, thereby coming to represent a serious political organization on the British left, and to us in the U.S. It is this method, as opposed to an ability to parrot specific “lines,” which is absent from the ISO.
It’s not that the ISO should be unconcerned with the experiences of the SWP. They are extremely important to American revolutionaries. Nor should we refuse aid from or cooperation with the SWP. It is an impressive organization [that] shares our politics. We should learn from and collaborate with it.
But the most important lesson of the SWP is that their theory, literature and speakers, valuable as they are, cannot be substituted for a working class orientation and ongoing Marxist analysis of the U.S. and socialist theory by an American organization through the development of the capabilities of American socialists who must think for themselves.
There are at least three reasons why this is true. First, the British comrades have not always set a good example, the most obvious example of which is that for years the IS/SWP had a miserable attitude toward women’s liberation (and it can be argued that many of its members still do).
Second, for all the similarities, Britain is not the U.S. Where Britain has an intact tradition of socialism, class-consciousness, left-wing reformism and an advanced economic crisis, the U.S. does not. The reverse is also true. Can visiting SWP speakers develop theory or speak on the American trade union movement, Latinos, Blacks, Native Americans, Asians, women, gays, youth or domestic politics? While the British have made important political contributions to American socialists, it is also the case that most of what analyses the IS did develop about the U.S. were not provided by the SWP, but were the result of work done by American ISers, inadequate though that theory may be. Third, we have the practical experience of the British IS/SWP’s leadership in the IS and ISO, a record that has not been marked by its great success. It was, after all, the British IS which, without reservation, endorsed the IS’s basically incorrect “Turn to Agitation” in 1975, a turn that contributed not only to the IS’s right-wing direction, but also to the 1977 split and eventual disintegration of the American branch of the tendency.
Today, the SWP is the guiding light of the ISO. The point is not that the SWP is to blame for what happened to the IS and ISO; we must take responsibility for our own actions. It is clear, however, that the British have been unable to provide the correct direction for American socialists in a whole number of areas, including a number of basic policies, nor can they, or anyone else, be expected to.
While the condition of our political tendency in the U.S. is depressing, we are not pessimistic about the future. The objective conditions in the world and this country are such that the struggles of the working class and oppressed will increase, providing important opportunities for revolutionary socialists. But opportunity will not be enough if we do not begin to seriously and continually evaluate our experiences.
We don’t claim to have all the answers, or even most of them. But we do know that those answers will only be worked out by an organization dedicated to a working class and analytical approach today, a group which steers the largely uncharted course between the dangerous shores of the old IS on the one side and the ISO on the other.
Michael Letwin [co-signers redacted]