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The ISO’s Collapse: ‘A Political Assessment’ by Lance Selfa and Paul D’Amato

November 26, 2019

Introductory Note by John Riddell: The unexpected dissolution of the U.S. International Socialist Organization in April 2019 has provoked wide concern and debate among socialists. The ISO had long been the largest and most effective revolutionary socialist group in the U.S. Until the last few months before its demise, it was at its peak in size and effectiveness.

This collapse was all the more surprising given the context: an encouraging revival of labour struggles and interest in socialism after decades of retreat.

On May 26, 2019, former ISO member Paul Le Blanc published a searching study of the ISO dissolution on this website: “What Happened to the International Socialist Organization?”

Lance Selfa and Paul D’Amato, long prominent figures in ISO leadership, have submitted to this website a response to Paul Le Blanc’s article, “What Happened to the ISO: A Political Assessment” (see below). The article first appeared on “International Socialism Project” [ISP], a new website seeking to continue the heritage of the former ISO.

One of the related articles on the ISP site, “The Crisis of the ISO,” presents the assessment of Antonis Davanellos, a leader of the former ISO’s sister organization in Greece, the DEA. Three items on my website report on Davanellos’s views on  the strategic vision of a workers’ government, a concept relevant to socialist struggle in the U.S.

I collaborated with the ISO over fifteen years with regard to my publishing work on the early Communist International. My views are remote from those of the ISO and ISP on many vital questions. (Compare, for example, the ISP’s reprint, “Bolivia: A Popular Uprising Hijacked by the Far Right” with my coverage: “Evo Morales and Alvaro García Linera Analyze Bolivia Coup.“)

Nonetheless, during my collaboration with the ISO, I came to appreciate its importance as an institution of socialist memory and education, not only through its national conferences but at the local level. In presentations to the ISO, I mentioned on occasion the value of this education to the working class as a whole. Perhaps I should have said more. The ISO’s dissolution leaves a gap in this domain that will be very hard to remedy.

Lance Selfa and Paul d’Amato’s analysis emphasizes the impact on the ISO of the electoral gains achieved by socialists utilizing the ballot status of the Democratic Party – the “Bernie Sanders” phenomenon. This development led many ISO members to leave the group and join the Democratic Socialists of America, who have made this policy their raison d’être.

Lance and Paul, like Paul Le Blanc, strongly reject any concept of converting the Democratic Party into a vehicle for working-class political action. Yet, in my view, there is a crucial weakness in Lance and Paul’s argument: they do not suggest any alternative course of action. This absence characterized the ISO as a whole during the run-up to its dissolution. This was surely a significant factor in the ISO’s demise. ­– John Riddell


What Happened to the International Socialist Organization (ISO)? A Political Assessment

Lance Selfa and Paul D’Amato, in a response to an article by Paul Le Blanc, offer their analysis of why the ISO dissolved after more than 40 years. October 30, 2019.

The passage of time has a way of clarifying issues that seemed so fraught and confusing in the heat of the moment. For us, this point was reached on June 18, 2019, almost three months to the day after we left the International Socialist Organization (ISO). On that day, Todd C., a long-standing leader of the ISO, took to Facebook to announce his decision to join the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), to wide applause on the left. On the same day, KYT, another long-standing leader of the ISO, published a laudatory review of Sen. Bernie Sanders’ June 12th speech on “democratic socialism,” also to wide applause across the left.

The connections between these two events couldn’t be more apparent. Both represented a decisive shift—months or years in the making—from the politics of “socialism from below” to what Hal Draper called “socialism from above.” Therefore, those who think that the dissolution of the ISO had to do with an unhealthy internal political culture or a botched disciplinary case are missing the point. As we hope to show below, these were pretexts mobilized in the service of the real issue: the decision of a section of the ISO’s leadership and some of its most experienced members to liquidate the ISO’s historical political project. This has opened the road for many to travel the path of too many of our socialist predecessors—toward accommodation with that “graveyard of social movements,” the Democratic Party.

We commend Paul LeBlanc for his comradely accounting of the dissolution of the ISO. Of course, we don’t agree with everything that Paul wrote, as we’re sure many who will read this won’t agree with us. However, we think that Paul’s attempt to step back from the fraught and hot-housed period of March/April, 2019 to provide a political explanation of the ISO’s demise is a good model to follow. The authors of this article don’t purport to address every issue that Paul L raises, nor to address them in the detail they require. Others will address what we’ve left untouched. But we do want to present what we think are the underlying politics of the ISO’s implosion, which is the only way to understand it independently of the individuals involved.

There’s no escaping the fact that Paul wrote an obituary of an organization whose most articulate advocates for its dissolution were found among the leadership elected at its February convention—just weeks before. They had successfully marginalized most of the organization’s longest standing leaders and could have—one would have thought—devised a way forward from the March crisis that would have preserved the organization. Instead, they chose to call for the ISO’s liquidation.

We think that the next months and years will clarify for many the motivations that led people who spent years building the ISO to advocate this destructive course. Todd C., one of the main advocates for the ISO’s dissolution in the newly elected ISO leadership, took the occasion of Sanders’ speech—which essentially defined “democratic socialism” as a culmination of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal—to announce his support for Sanders in the 2020 Democratic Party primaries on Facebook:

I believe that anti-racist, working-class, feminist, internationalist socialists can disagree with Bernie about any number of things (and they shouldn’t be quiet about it), and I respect anyone who remains wary of the U.S. electoral system in general and/or who believes the Democratic Party in specific will get the better of us (as I argued for nearly 30 years). And there are many other ways to fight back without supporting Bernie. But there is something happening here. Hundreds of thousands of new socialists will organize for Bernie over the next year and we should join them. Backing a socialist running in the Democratic primaries can be a slippery slope, but that’s why you wear cleats in the batter’s box.

Todd’s leap into the batter’s box shouldn’t be seen as something separate from the decision to dissolve the ISO. As the April 19 statement “Taking Our Final Steps,” put it: “We were faced with the situation of the organization becoming a barrier to our members playing important roles on the socialist left.” With the ISO no longer able to exert an organizational pull in the other direction, it will seem both logical and natural to hundreds of ex-ISO members looking for a new political home to join the DSA, accepting the consequences of its position of support for Democratic Party candidates as the part of the bargain. In 2019, the Socialism conference, whose origins lie in the ISO’s past Socialist Summer Schools, was essentially handed over to the DSA and its political perspectives. One can simply compare the program from 2019 to the archive of recordings of presentations from previous conferences to see what is undeniably a shift to the political right into an embrace of social democracy, US-style.

Todd’s full endorsement of Sanders is simply the logical conclusion of an evolution that was hidden in plain sight. But our predicting this only a few months earlier produced howls of outrage from other members of the ISO steering committee. How could any of us think that they would follow the same path into the Democratic Party that many former revolutionaries have followed since at least the 1930s?

Even if one doesn’t accept our explanation for the ISO’s dissolution, the end result is the same. The US left now has no nationally organized and substantial non-sectarian, anti-imperialist organization that represents the revolutionary politics of “socialism from below” in the International Socialist tradition.  Without the existence of the ISO as a revolutionary alternative, the social democratic politics of the DSA largely represents socialism in the US today. It is not at all surprising that many young socialists will turn first to social democracy in the early stages of this radicalization. But their own frustrations with the limits of reformism—and its accommodation to imperialism—will lead many of them toward revolutionary politics in the future. What revolutionary organization will exist to welcome them into its fold at this later stage of the radicalization? The ISO could have played a role in this development, if it had not been destroyed from within….

For the remainder of this 9,000-word article, please click on  internationalsocialism.net.

Related Article on this Website:

What Happened to the ISO,” by Paul Le Blanc

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