I put this as a personal question: What kind of organization do I want? rather than the usual question: What kind of organization do we need?, because in the wake of the ISO’s disintegration I cannot speak for anyone else.
Part of answering that question comes from my having been a member of the ISO for nearly 30 years. Why did I join, and why did I stay? What did we get right? Is this experience shared by others, and if so, could it make a difference in conversations about how to go forward? So: What did the organization have going for it?
- Cadre training: In the ISO, we were damned good at training each other in history and theory; we were also damned good at training each other in activist intervention. We aimed to be terrific militants and knowledgeable Marxists in struggle. No other organization was as serious in the project as the ISO.
- Seriousness: The ISO was not only for the springtime member. The organization involved its members in weekly meetings, tablings, coalition meetings, study groups, and increasing numbers of activist opportunities. Changing the world is serious business.
- Political and organizational clarity: As we found out, too much enforced clarity is not a good thing. However, in general, being in an organization that had solid Marxist politics adapted to our assessment of opportunities and constraints in any given time period was unlike anything I had experienced before.
- The capacity to assess our work: The principle of united action after vigorous debate is very important to the success of the socialist movement. When we act together, we can assess what happened, what succeeded, what failed; what was our fault, what was situational–therefore, what we should try next time. With different parts of an organization going all different ways (the model of diversity of tactics), it is impossible to reflect on our collective efforts and set a course forward.
- An established history of militant activism: The ISO could look back to the 1970s to see that its members had been crucially involved in all of the movements of the day, and continued to build and initiate vital campaigns.
- Commitment to liberation from exploitation and oppression. In print and in practice, the ISO dedicated itself to fights against racism and all oppressions, and for women’s and gender liberation. In many ways, the organization was faithful to that dedication. (And in other ways, not.)
- A national presence: Although very small, the organization had an important influence on Left politics in this country. We had the budding capacity to intervene in struggle on a national level, and that capacity made us stronger.
- A political and personal home: While we were sometimes told that you couldn’t be friends with everyone in your branch (and boy, is that true) and urged to remain professional activists, everyone in the ISO looked to our people and meetings, strangely, to rest, to breathe freely among other revolutionary socialists, to affirm our politics and work, to belong.
These are the characteristics that committed me to the ISO for most of my adult life.
What did we get wrong? I think that the answers to that question lie in every category of what we got right. Seriousness and rigid attempts at clarity, if fetishized, can lead to bureaucratism and bad politics. Not allowing for significant and widespread enough debate makes unity in action and assessment hollow. If your commitment to fights against oppression don’t include internal reflection, you can’t mount the fight beyond. And if the home is oppressive and exclusionary, violent and abusive, then it is no home at all.
What this brief assessment means to me is that the foundations of our organization–Marxist politics, democratic centralist organization, militant activism–were what drew me and many others to the organization. It may be controversial among many comrades to say:
They are still the right basis for organizing.
Why had we been doing them so badly? Perhaps an ninth criterion should be added:
9. Democracy and transparency in our operations and discussions and openness to controversy.
This last is what a new generation of members demanded at our last and final convention. Such openness is risky, since experimentation might draw us away from long-held principles, including some the really important ones, like socialism from below. But in an open debate, you have to win others to a platform, a program, a method, a point of view.
What I saw as the drift toward the Democratic party during the convention left me feeling that this was not the organization I had joined. I feared losing the political clarity of my political home. I wanted and still want to warn comrades about the consequences of electoral hopes. I want to make my arguments with theory and history (of the Popular Front, for example).
So even before the actual dissolution of the ISO, I felt that I was already losing it. It wasn’t the organization I had joined. Actually, it could have become something much better, more open, more transparent, more democratic, more inclusive–and still rooted in Marxist politics, democratic centralism–dare I say, Leninism?–and the principle of socialism from below.
Many comrades are concluding from the collapse of the organization that everything about it was wrong, that every principle was disciplining, every call for organization stifling, every method bureaucratic, every direction illegitimate, every discipline oppressive.
That is not the conclusion I would draw.
Former members in some locales are maintaining their local groups to carry on the struggle. There is a focus on honoring survivors of sexual violence and conversation about how to organize in safety. There is an amplified consciousness about anti-racist struggles and a breakdown of orthodoxy regarding independent organization of oppressed groups. There is conversation about electoral politics in a changing political landscape. No doubt there are many other conversations happening among stranded revolutionaries.
What kind of organization do I want? The organization that I want is an organization. Perhaps regionally and then nationally, there will be a conversation about how to rebuild–not the ultimately tragic group that we have lost–but what we wanted and needed in the first place.