On personalism, politics, and the ISO leadership’s self-fulfilling prophecies

Throughout the course of the recent factional struggle within the International Socialist Organization, one of the main arguments put forward by the ISO leadership in their effort to discredit the Renewal Faction was the claim that the faction’s documents are apolitical and personalistic. This particular assertion was repeated in, among innumerable other sources, the ISO Steering Committee’s document, “Holding the Renewal Faction accountable,” contained within Pre-convention Bulletin #27. The document proclaims that “the output of faction members – as well as the faction itself – has tended toward… personalistic, destructive material.”[1]

This accusation is ridiculous. Throughout the entire pre-convention period, the Renewal Faction’s documents have, without exception, sought to address vital political and organizational questions facing the ISO. (I encourage anyone that believes otherwise to revisit — among other pieces — the Renewal Faction’s platform documents). Furthermore, to the extent that it can be said that the debate around the Renewal Faction came to take on a personalistic tone, this development was almost exclusively the result of the hostile stance adopted by the ISO leadership and its loyalist defenders. From the outset, the leadership consistently refused to engage the Renewal Faction on a political level. Instead, their approach hinged – above all else – on an effort to discredit the Renewal Faction by accusing us of committing a series of procedural heresies. By adopting this approach, the ISO leadership avoided addressing the innumerable political questions raised by the faction.

In this regard, the ISO leadership’s response to the Renewal Faction closely parallels their response to the Socialist Outpost comrades – a group of seven ex-ISO members from Chicago. After Socialist Outpost published “A Letter to Comrades in the International Socialist Organization” in October, the ISO leadership responded — in part — by questioning the personal intent of the Outpost comrades in choosing to go public with their complaints. In addition, the ISO leadership contested Socialist Outpost’s assertion — as stated in the group’s initial letter — that some of its members had been “forced out” and some “dealt with in an uncomradely and undemocratic manner.”[2] In a Socialist Worker article from November, Eric Ruder and Alan Mass insisted that “counter to what the various authors of articles critiquing the ISO have stated or implied… none of these former members were expelled, forced out, silenced, denied the right to air their views or victimized by campaigns against them.”[3] The refusal of the ISO leadership to acknowledge the legitimacy of Socialist Outpost’s complaints about internal democracy within the ISO dovetailed with a series of other deceptive claims propagated by the leadership. As Socialist Outpost has pointed out in a recent collection of documents — after the group went public with their initial letter in October — they were then “accused of having been a wrecking operation, of being duplicitous, of being bullies, of having not been shy![4]

At the same time, the ISO leadership failed to respond to the political content of Outpost’s initial letter. As the group further summarizes,

Since the SC has no answer for the serious political points raised by the Outpost comrades, they attack a distorted reformulation of a point they think no one can prove. This is a ruse to avoid responding to our political points. Indeed, no political response has yet come forth; the argument by amalgam produced by Eric R. and Alan M. does not address the political issues we raise.[5]

The ISO leadership’s repeated attempts to discredit the Outpost comrades eventually prompted the group to respond by personally defending themselves. In their February 12 document, “Setting the Record Straight,” Socialist Outpost describes the dilemma posed by the ISO leadership’s personalistic response to the group:

The Outpost comrades wrote a thoroughly political letter that intentionally avoids any details that might shift the focus from a political discussion to a personal one; it was (and remains) our intention to engage in a productive debate, not fuel the fires of gossip and innuendo. The ISO’s responses, by calling us duplicitous, liars, and bullies, have created a situation whereby we either respond with details to defend ourselves against these attacks or we remain silent, thereby lending credence to their attacks.[6]

To resolve this conundrum, this document includes a series of detailed personal accounts that expound upon the contentious circumstances that led to the individual departure — or, in the case of Saman S and Sophie H, bureaucratic exclusion — of the Outpost comrades. These letters provide ample additional evidence to back up what many ISO members and ex-members have already come to learn through experience: the ISO leadership does not tolerate dissent. This problem – while likely present to some extent since the ISO’s inception – appears to have grown substantially worse in recent years.

To date, the ISO leadership’s only response to Socialist Outpost’s most recent collection of documents is a short statement by ISO Steering Committee member Lee S, also contained within Pre-convention Bulletin #27. Ironically, Lee’s rebuttal argues that this collection provides evidence that Socialist Outpost is an apolitical formation that – he claims – is motivated by personal animus. On this basis, Lee declares, “I have little time for, and even less interest in, making a detailed response in order to dispute several lengthy personal statements that have more to do with bruised egos and bitterness than serious political debate.” He adds, “In hindsight, the initial Outpost document seems to be a mere prelude to the current statement, which aims to discredit the ISO and raise doubts about the leadership.” Lee goes on to decry “the personalism and resentment that characterize the latest Outpost document.”[7]

The obtuseness of these claims is astounding. The entire reason why the Outpost comrades chose to write this collection of documents in the first place was to defend themselves against the personalistic distortions propagated by the ISO leadership. Now these documents have been thrown back in Outpost’s face as supposed proof of the group’s malicious, personalistic intent. To put this a different way, the ISO leadership has essentially condemned the Outpost comrades for the crime of falling victim to a self-fulfilling prophecy set up by none other than the ISO leadership.

A similar dynamic unfolded in how the ISO leadership responded to the Renewal Faction. In this case, however, the leadership’s approach was far more vitriolic. This phenomenon can be attributed, for one thing, to the comparatively recent nature of the bureaucratic exclusion of Shaun J and Vanessa B last fall.[8] Without a doubt, this contributed to the rawness and unchecked animosity that characterized the debates surrounding the Renewal Faction. A far more significant reason for this, however, relates to the fact that – unlike the Socialist Outpost group – the Renewal Faction emerged as a well-organized grouping of current members whose political program directly challenged the ISO leadership. On this basis, the Renewal Faction was immediately perceived by the leadership as being a grave threat to the interests of the ISO (which the leadership envisions as being synonymous with its own interests). The leadership thus felt compelled to go out of its way to neutralize the threat.

The ISO leadership’s “seek and destroy” response to the Renewal Faction had a distinct influence on the trajectory of the faction’s development. During the early stages of the pre-convention period, several of the faction’s members had discussed plans for writing documents that addressed strictly “political” issues – that is, issues not directly focused on the organizational crisis within the ISO. For instance, I had initially intended to write a detailed document outlining my thoughts on the recent surge of low-wage worker organizing campaigns like Fight for 15 and OUR Walmart, which I see as a particularly promising development with potential to upset the balance of class forces across the board in our side’s favor.

But after coming face to face with the ISO leadership’s unrelenting campaign against the faction – which made it appear increasingly unlikely that I’d remain an ISO member after the convention – I was inclined to set this document aside and begin focusing on other questions. More broadly, the leadership’s crusade against the Renewal Faction pushed us as a group to devote our collective efforts to further understanding the nature of crisis within the ISO. Within this context, we began to ponder the material issues later laid out in our document, “Questions and concerns about the ISO and CERSC.”[9] While the ISO leadership has sought to denounce this particular document as being some sort of unspeakable act of sabotage, the questions that it raises are, without a doubt, of tremendous political importance. As this document reveals, the ISO now derives the majority of its material base from sources external to the membership.

Anyone that believes that this is immaterial to the ISO’s functioning as a Marxist organization is not viewing this matter as a materialist.

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

1. ISO Steering Committee, “Holding the Renewal Faction accountable,” ISO Pre-convention Bulletin #27, February 14, 2014.

2. Socialist Outpost, “A Letter to the Comrades in the International Socialist Organization (ISO),” Socialist Outpost (blog), October 9, 2013.

3. Eric Ruder and Alan Maas, “The challenges facing socialists today,” Socialist Worker, November 20, 2013.

4. Socialist Outpost, “Setting the Record Straight,” Socialist Outpost (blog), February 12, 2014.

5. Ibid.

6. Saman S and Sophie H, “Saman S’s & Sophie H’s Statement,” Socialist Outpost (blog), February 12, 2014.

7. Lee S, “A brief note on Socialist Outpost,” ISO Pre-convention Bulletin #27, February 14, 2014.

8. See, ISO Renewal Faction, “In defense of our comrades,” External Bulletin (blog), November 26, 2013. Also, Vanessa B, “My Bureaucratic Exclusion from the International Socialist Organization,” External Bulletin (blog), February 17, 2014.

9. ISO Renewal Faction, “Questions and concerns about the ISO and CERSC,” External Bulletin (blog), February 1, 2014.

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