Few thoughts on ISO
The International Socialist Organization, a Trotskyist sect that grew into the biggest socialist organization in the US for some time (centered overwhelmingly on campuses), recently dissolved itself in the wake of a rape scandal. A popular movement that many on the left were dismissive of as “identity politics” and “bourgeois feminism,” the #metoo movement, was the wind under the wings of the women who came forward and broke an institutional cover-up of leaders who were also mashers and rapists. All I can say is, “good riddance to this moribund ‘democratic centralist’ cult.”
I spoke at their events during the antiwar reaction to Bush II, let them interview me, corresponded with some, participated in actions with many, and was friends with several members centered on the Triangle in North Carolina. As to joining, I was always stopped by my objection to their tactics — including rule-or-ruin and the colonization of other people’s work and movements — and my refusal to undergo their catechesis, which made my Catholic catechism look positively casual by comparison. Sects like ISO demand absolute ideological conformity; so when the ideological constructs are wrong, the wrongness is given to the whole group like Jim Jones Kool-aid.
ISO grew out of one of the several Socialist Workers Parties, all of which followed Trotsky as the true heir to the works of Lenin. Lenin is seen as the infallible font of all political wisdom, against whom all subsequent leftists were measured. Their organizational model, designed to ensure ideological purity and “strategic unity,” was “democratic centralism,” which is never democratic in practice . . . at least, I’ve not seen it yet, and I was in two DC formations (CPUSA and one faction of Freedom Road).
In addition to colonizing other people’s work and disrupting the organizing of others who didn’t meet their ideological purity codes, ISO’s street work was very basic. (1) Find public venues and hawk their newspaper, Socialist Worker, (2) while pumping up the membership with promises that the Rev was just on the horizon, and (3) explaining to potential members that the solution to capitalism and its depredations was to join ISO.
You can see how this fetishization of the organization might produce some toxic substances, more than just a haven for mashers and rapists at the top.
Every process of institutionalization is pregnant with the potential for what I call “dog-waggery,” wherein the managerial layer begins to put its own interests as managers ahead of the institution’s stated mission — the tail wags the dog. This is only exacerbated when the organization, in this case, calls itself the vehicle for The Revolution™.
But there are two other dynamics in play besides the inhering dangers of institutionalization and the grotesque grandiosity of believing themselves to be the Vanguard of the Inauguration of the New Age. One is sectarianism, and the other is a strategic mindset.
Sectarianism, that tendency to regard everyone who disagree with anything your organization claims as Truth as an enemy standing in the way of the Grand March (led by them) into the New Future. This was amplified for the ISO and every other leftist sect from the late 1970s until recently, when “socialism” was effectively associated in the public mind with Stalinism. There was a scarcity economy on the left, where the few people (mostly college students or college educated) who were open to socialist ideas were seen as potential recruits into the various vanguards . . . setting up a fierce competition between them for new members. This scarcity recruiting leads recruiters to emphasize and amplify the differences between themselves and competing sects. So what are actually minor disagreements take on an aspect of world-historical conflict, and the left spends more time attacking the “enemies within” than doing any work with regular people that regular people might find attractive or helpful.
Competitive sectarianism of this sort also led to tokenism, as each sect tried to “corner the market” on being the “allies” of various oppressed social groups. Freedom Road was an exception here, but only because they grew substantially out of left-oriented Black nationalist organizing.
The strategic mindset is a bit more difficult to explain, in large part because we are all infected with this delusion. Long-story-short, strategies only work for the strongest. We are not the strongest. When we play at strategy, we are playing by the rules of the strong when we are weak, and we will have our collective ass handed to us again and again and again. Weaker forces are most effective through tactical agility, for which strategies are an impediment. Strategy, as De Certeau explained, is “a self-isolating calculus.” Because strategy is not simply a plan.
First, strategy is part of a war episteme. War has always been a masculine enterprise, and inheres with a thick historical connective tissue that is patriarchal all the way down. So it not only puts off most actual people, who are not keen for fantasy wars, and self-limits any group who imagines the whole world can stand up as their soldiers, it is a hostile episteme for women.
Strategy divides the strategists from the rest of “the environment,” a Cartesian conceit that means there is a headquarters, a center, a cell, a bunker, etc. from within which the strategist and staff can exert control over “the environment.” The necessity of isolation of the Strategist (be that a command staff or a central committee) makes “the strategic center” the Subject who then manipulates and controls the Object (environment). That means everyone and everything outside the center . . . or the strategy will be destroyed — as unforeseen consequences alter the conditions upon which the strategy is predicated. But when you pretend you are strong, and when you pretend you are an army, then you’ll be tempted to try on strategies . . . and the self-isolation of strategy, with its conspiratorial secrecy, sets up a situation in the headquarters for sustained abuse.
Now, just add to this control-freakery hetero-men’s (even leftist het-men’s) patriarchal conviction that they are entitled to sex, meaning (to them) they are entitled to women’s bodies.