The following article was first published in Proletarian Revolution No. 58 (Winter 1999). It is also available in German.

In and Out of the German ISO

by A. Holberg

Last year I left the Internationale Sozialistische Organisation (ISO), one of the three groups in Germany politically linked to the International Socialist Tendency (IST) led by Tony Cliff and the British Socialist Workers Party.

My first political affiliation was with the German Communist Party (DKP). I joined it in the early 1970’s because I was never very much interested in the cultural-revolutionary aspect of the left-wing student movement, and therefore looked for “the real thing” – a party that claimed to be part of a worldwide movement of millions of workers. At the time, I had hardly heard about Trotskyism nor met a living Trotskyist. In contrast to other countries like France, Trotskyism was in fact never a big thing in Germany.

After a while, I found that I kept making criticisms from the left of the practice of the DKP. I thought that all members were agreed on basic Leninist principles and that the party was only making mistakes. But little by little I became more estranged from what I regarded as anti-working-class positions. So I finally left the party and concentrated on writing for various papers which were close to the party but also more independent. That gave me more freedom to voice my own more left-wing views.

Since I was particularly interested in “third-world” movements, after leaving the party I got into contact with people who worked on the same subject. Like many others, I mistook radical movements like the Palestinian PFLP, the Filipino PCP/NDF/NPA and later the Kurdish PKK for proletarian revolutionary organizations.

From Stalinism to Cliffism

I had never been much attracted to the reality of the “socialist countries,” but at the time of their demise I realized that I could no longer afford to ignore them; I had to get interested in what had happened there. The collapse of “socialism” forced me to re-explore the centrality of the proletariat. I had to understand the nature of the Stalinist system as an enemy of the workers, to the extent that East German workers were driven to unify with West German capitalism.

By chance I got hold of Cliff’s book on Russia and some writings by Trotsky. That way I learned that some of the ideas I had defended for many years (and which I had for some time thought were positions of the DKP as well) were in fact Trotskyist; I also found some other ideas new to me that could hardly be challenged. As a result, in the early 1990’s I joined the existing Cliffite organization, the Sozialistische Arbeitergruppe (SAG: Socialist Workers Group).

But the SAG turned increasingly away from building a Marxist cadre in favor of working at a lower political level. It focused on the youth movement, which at that time was particularly engaged in the fight against fascist groups. The anti-fascist work was important, but the SAG tried to blend into it on a more or less exclusively “anti-fascist” basis, without bringing up revolutionary politics. They tried to get rich quick organizationally by jumping on a bandwagon which was already slowing down.

As a result, three comrades, myself included, decided to leave the SAG in 1992 and form the Initiative Sozialistischer Internationalisten (ISI: Initiative of Socialist Internationalists), thinking that we were the true representatives of Cliffism.

The ISI saw itself as a propaganda group mainly engaged in ideological struggle. However, whenever an opportunity arose, we also, of course, took part in demonstrations. We based ourself on a critique of the SAG, pointing out that they typically made erratic movements from left to right; thus they were unable to hold on to the people they had won from one move as soon as they moved in a different direction, for unexplained reasons. We still regarded the SAG as a fraternal group with which we hoped to reunite as soon as possible – i.e., when they gave up their wrong “tactics.” I believed that Cliffism was genuinely Leninist and that only their practice, not their theory, was bad. We had left the SAG because we wanted to build a theoretically clear organization, the nucleus of the revolutionary party. We thought that the IST writings supported our view.

The crisis of the SAG had started with the collapse of the Stalinist states. The SAG, like other anti-Stalinist leftists, thought that now they would really grow. They did not notice, and still do not, that the collapse of Stalinism has affected the whole “socialist” left inside and outside of the labor movement. While most leftists now have fewer illusions in Stalinism, this does not lead them toward becoming Leninist/Trotskyists but cynics. They think that it is really the working class that has failed, not the social-democratic, Stalinist and centrist leaderships. In sum, all the SAG’s fishing grounds dried up.

Founding the ISO

In 1994, when the ISI had grown to about 10 members, a second, bigger, group of comrades left the SAG. They could not accept the decision to liquidate the SAG and make its members enter the Jusos (Young Socialists, the youth group of the Social-Democratic Party, the SPD). This was at a time when the SPD was moving ever more to the right, and the Jusos were far from a point of attraction for revolutionary-minded young people. (At about the same time, the members of the German Militant Tendency, after many years of deep entrism, finally decided to leave the SPD.) The SAG’s decision was bureaucratically implemented: many members found out that the SAG had been dumped only when they returned from their summer holidays. From what I could tell, the British SWP had decided that the SAG experience had failed and probably thought that any new left upturn would have to go through the social-democratic parties.

The ISI and these comrades joined together and founded the ISO, still regarding ourselves as the true practitioners of Cliffism. The entrist faction supported by the SWP became the “Linksruck” (Left Turn) group within the Jusos.

Since the new comrades had not supported our criticism of the SAG in 1992, I thought it necessary to point out after the founding conference that the ISO would not have any future unless we made every effort to build a truly Leninist organization and thereby demarcate ourselves from the rest of the left in theory and practice – still believing that this was in line with the true meaning of Cliffism. Since we in the ISI had a theoretical magazine and had been very active in publishing pamphlets, we thought we would be able to lead the bigger group ideologically. After a while, however, it became obvious that there had been no definite break between the right opportunist practice of the SAG (and as far as I was able to detect from reading Socialist Worker, the SWP) and that of the ISO.

This meant in particular the practice of accommodation to the trade union bureaucracy and the permanent electoral block with the social democrats so dear to the IST everywhere. Furthermore, their way of recruiting and educating new comrades was absolutely minimal – like that of the reformist parties (including the Stalinists), except that the Cliffites are permanently active. As always with the Cliffites, they have a theory which at first sight sounds very left and a practice which is not. For example, in their theoretical writings you find all the basic Marxist stuff about the trade union bureaucracy – while they reject Lenin’s theory of the labor aristocracy, on which the bureaucracy rests! So in practice they adapted to the same layers as the bureaucrats.

Out Of the ISO – and Back In

Becoming more and more estranged from the organization, I finally left in June 1995. My criticism at that time concerned the way the program was implemented, and I did not yet see the theoretical basis for their right opportunist practice. After a year in the ISO, the other former ISI comrades broke away again, but on the basis of the same Cliffism. The former ISI, now called the Internationale Sozialisten (IS), was the harder-working and more disciplined organization, but it retained more of the traditional right opportunist positions. The ISO was larger and seemed to be more open to new ideas – but that was because they were softer on almost everything. As a result, there are now three Cliffite organizations in Germany: the original SAG, now Linksruck, the ISO, and the IS.

After leaving the ISO, I happened to meet an LRP comrade in London and bought a copy of Proletarian Revolution. I thus found out that the LRP had similar historical links with the IST and seemed to have made a more consistent critique. I therefore wrote to New York, and we engaged in an intense discussion on Cliffism and many other questions. I began to see that the practical “errors” of the Cliffites were expressions of an overall middle-class outlook, and that a counterposed approach to understanding and acting in the world was necessary.

Since I had left partly as a result of a clash with the quasi-religious Cliffite outlook of those comrades who founded the IS, the ISO made a great effort to recruit me again. After many discussions with one of their leading comrades I thought that they were distancing themselves more and more from the IST. With the agreement of the LRP, I decided to become a member again, to help deepen the rift between the ISO and Cliffism, and to find comrades who could eventually be recruited to the Trotskyist positions of COFI.

When I entered in June 1997, I told them that I supported their “What We Stand For” statement but not the Cliffite interpretation of it, and that I believed that the LRP/COFI theory was correct – for example on the analysis of the Stalinist states as statified capitalist. I would add now that it is also terribly weak as a statement of internationalism, calling for solidarity with workers in other countries but omitting the need for the world revolutionary party.

Signs of their relative left turn were the fact that the ISO openly rejected the so-called “Coalition for Work” between the government, the capitalists and the trade unions, while Linksruck had at first taken an unclear position on it. As for the IS, while criticizing this blatant class collaboration in their paper, in their actual work (as at a big national trade union rally in Bonn) they focused on defending the trade union bureaucracy from an alleged attack by the government – while there was nothing but collaboration in reality. Also, in 1997 the ISO decided not to call for a vote for the SPD in the upcoming national elections, while both Linksruck and the IS, maintained the traditional Cliffite line, although they criticized the anti-working class policies of the SPD. However, the ISO did not say “Don’t vote for the SPD”; instead they called for a vote against the conservative-liberal government then in office, thus leaving it open what other anti-working-class party workers should vote for.

The ISO’s Centrism

After a year of membership, I had to face the fact that the centrist character of the ISO had not changed, even though it was the farthest-left IST group in Germany. For all its left talk, it still could not carry out a revolutionary line. One example: an ISO leader had written an article on the Congo in June 1997 which gave political support to the bourgeois regime of Kabila. Kabila’s seizure of power was called a “democratic revolution” which Marxists had to support; this article also warned of the “danger” that leading cadres of the rebels would develop a new “bureaucratic upper stratum.” (For the COFI analysis, see PR 55.)

I wrote a letter to the editor, pointing out that non-working-class revolutions cannot carry our even the democratic program under imperialism, and that the absorption of the rebels into the ruling class was unavoidable – therefore proletarian revolution was the only way. The ISO leaders then officially endorsed my position. But this did not mean they had understood anything. A year later they ran an article on Indonesia praising the People’s Democratic Party (PRD) for denouncing the dictator Suharto as “a tool of capitalism” and for supporting the independence of East Timor – but saying nothing about the PRD’s popular-front strategy of tying the workers and peasants to the anti-Suharto bourgeoisie. Theoretical questions like permanent revolution, even though they have enormous practical implications, obviously do not really matter to the ISO leadership.

Furthermore, the ISO accepts the standard Cliffite view that polemicizing openly against other left-wing organizations amounts to sectarianism. So it has never published any article about either the Linksruck group or the IS to explain why there are three Cliffite groups in one country. I wrote a harsh critique of Linksruck’s populist slogan, “Tax the Millionaires,” at the request of the ISO, but it was not published – without any explanation. With such an attitude the ISO cannot educate its own members to face any serious ideological challenge.

The ISO tends to be opportunistic towards anti-Leninist sentiments on the left. For example, Rosa Luxemburg is widely claimed by left liberals to be a champion of workers’ democracy against authoritarian Leninism, even though this is hardly the real difference between them. (See “Lenin, Luxemburg and the Party” in the Australian Workers Revolution No. 21.) The ISO leadership published an article about Luxemburg which did not include one single word about the disputes between her and Lenin on crucial questions like the right of national self-determination, the Bolshevik agrarian policy or the theory of imperialism.

Another example of this opportunism is an article by one ISO leader called “What is a socialist revolution?” which did not even mention the vanguard party. In both of these cases, since I had been a regular writer for the ISO papers, I wrote long letters to the editor explaining what was wrong. But they never gave any answer, which shows that the leadership did not see the need to convince even the organization’s membership.

One sign that seemed hopeful at first was the leadership’s declaration at the November 1997 convention that it intended to undertake contacts with organizations other than those in the Cliffite IST – an idea which I of course welcomed, since that would open up the possibility of discussions with and about COFI. But the leadership was particularly interested in contacting the New Socialist Group, a rightward split from the Canadian IS. I wrote a lengthy critique of the NSG to counter the ISO leadership’s enthusiasm. Again my critique remained unpublished – indeed there was no Internal Bulletin at all in the seven months since the convention. I had to conclude that the opening to non-IST groups was no break with Cliffism but rather an indication of further ideological softness and an opening to the right.

Whither the ISO?

Cliffism in its “left” form relies on the centrist notion of spontaneism, a theory that regards the revolutionary party as merely of organizational significance, not as an organ of struggle for the political leadership of the working class. The ISO orients to militants at their present level of consciousness without fighting to change it. It concentrates on “action” in order to downplay cadre education – a practice which is especially deadly now, when the most crucial task is to train cadres politically for the time when there will be an upsurge in the class struggle. The ISO has abandoned its more theoretical review Internationaler Sozialismus (even though as a theoretical magazine it was not really serious), while it continues to publish a paper that reads most of the time like a sort of left-wing high school paper.

The lack of an Internal Bulletin was symptomatic of the ISO’s disease. It meant that there was no way for members to initiate or take part in internal discussions, and that the ISO therefore could not be genuinely democratic centralist, since one of the conditions for party democracy is political discussion and debate among all comrades. The lack of internal discussion shows that the ISO’s revolutionary claims are window-dressing, since a Marxist organization requires counterposition and criticism of ideas to remain politically alive. I was particularly concerned by the absence of the Internal Bulletin, since, because of my geographical isolation from other ISO comrades, this was the means I intended to use to introduce new ideas and critiques of the Cliffite theories.

History has proved that an organization which is not built on a clear theoretical understanding will be of no use in a revolutionary situation, no matter what its size – indeed, it will turn out to be a stumbling block for the advance of the working class. It was clear that I could do revolutionary work only under the banner of COFI, the international tendency led by the LRP.

The overall situation in Germany is still rather quiet. The left, while in the midst of an internal crisis, is not yet confronted with major social unrest and thus with the necessity to make clear choices. The first choice the ISO has to make might come if the Linksruck group – probably with a lot more members but even less cadre training than the ISO – turns to the left after leaving the SPD. Since the ISO has not broken ideologically from Cliffite centrism, it will then have no political reason not to reunify. But when mass political struggles break out, the International Socialist Tendency is unlikely to remain unified. When members don’t have a solid political understanding, they will be driven in different directions by the upsurge of struggle.

Today a number of revolutionary-minded comrades have been attracted to the IST because it is one of the largest left tendencies, emphasizes industrial militancy and expresses anti-parliamentary sentiments despite its long-term electoral support for social-democratic parties. It is necessary to establish a genuine revolutionary proletarian current internationally, one of whose tasks is to combat the Cliffites and their radical-sounding compromises with reformism.