Open Letter From Three Former ISO Members

To all ISO members

Hundreds of young radicals are here at this year’s ISO Conference. For many it’s their first time being around so many other like-minded people, and it’s exciting. But when everyone goes back to their local Branches, something goes wrong that each Conference never seems to fix. Last year hundreds of young radicals also gathered, but many aren’t here this year – they’ve since dropped out. And so it was with the year before, and the year before that. The well-known revolving door of ISO membership continues to turn, and lately it’s been spinning faster than usual in branches like Chicago and New York.

Under these conditions, life in the ISO for new recruits can be dizzying. People join this “Marxist” organization with as little as a commitment to oppose racism and sweatshop exploitation and “sell the paper.” They may at the same time support Democratic Party liberals, Amnesty International, or religion, and know little or nothing about Marxism.

Unfortunately little is done to change this state of affairs. Political education of members is a low priority, and when it is conducted, members are fed the versions of Marxism according to ISO leaders and are not encouraged to study the writings of the great Marxist leaders like Marx and Engels or Lenin and Trotsky, to see if the ISO really represents their ideas, and if not, why? Similarly, ISO leaders warn their members not to read the literature of other groups, for fear of having to defend the ISO’s politics from more left-wing ideas. When that fails, ISO leaders most often resort to slander, from the relatively benign nonsense that their left opponents are “do-nothings,” to more outrageous labels like “crazy,” “violent,” or anything else they can think of.

The ISO’s leaders (and many of its members) don’t experience the extremely low level of understanding of Marxism and socialist politics among ISO members as a big problem, however. No wonder, since specifically Marxist and socialist ideas play so little role in what ISO members do and say as they take part in various struggles.

Bureaucratic Leaders

Under such circumstances, the membership is treated as a plaything in the hands of the leadership. Indeed the leaders’ attitude toward their members is more like that of shepherds to sheep. Members are expected to blindly follow their masters, and not ask too many questions lest they meet with the wrong end of the shepherd’s big stick.

But in spite of the ISO leaders’ best efforts, time and again people who join the ISO looking for a genuinely working-class, revolutionary socialist organization do question the ISO’s politics, and turn to the writings of the great Marxist leaders for help. This is often stimulated by the bitter experience of being used as uncritical footsoldiers for the reformist, pro-capitalist misleaders of every struggle that comes around, from union bureaucrats and anti-police brutality clergymen, through Democratic Party liberals in the Campaign to End the Death Penalty, to the openly nationalist and pro-capitalist liberal Ralph Nader in the last Presidential elections.

The recent split between the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP-GB) and the ISO has gotten a lot of ISO members asking questions. If Tony Cliff was supposedly so infallible for decades, how could he be so obviously wrong in his last years? What does it mean to have a genuine international tendency? What are the real political differences among groups that call themselves socialist? Each of us asked those questions and came to a common conclusion: that the theoretical legacy of Cliff, and all the political leaders who base themselves on it, have nothing to do with the genuine Marxist tradition. We found that the League for the Revolutionary Party (LRP) represents the genuinely revolutionary socialist politics we were looking for.

To comrades starting to raise these questions, we say: don’t give up on your critical thinking, and don’t be intimidated. Study the writings of the great Marxists. Read widely from the views of different socialist groups. Make up your own mind about what political ideas really represent the interests of the workers and poor in their struggle against capitalism.

For our part, we will use the rest of this open letter to explain some of the conclusions we came to, and how subsequent experience of the ISO’s role in struggles compared to that of the LRP, has only confirmed our conclusions.

Supporting Pro-Capitalist Reformists

1. Supporting the Cincinnati Rebellion’s Betrayers

This April, a rebellion of historic importance broke out against racist police terror in Cincinnati. Thousands took to the streets in protest when a racist cop shot and killed Timothy Thomas, an unarmed Black man. This was the fifteenth cop killing of a Black man in Cincinnati in less than five years, and the fourth in the last year.

What made the rebellion so historic was that it was a conscious and explicit rejection of the pro-capitalist establishment leaders of the Black community. Several days in a row these establishment leaders, headed by Cincinnati’s most prominent community leader, Rev. Damon Lynch III, attempted to lead peaceful protests calling for hopeless reforms. Each time, the Black masses, led by the youth, rejected calls for peace without justice, and fought back.

The day after Thomas was killed, hundreds took over the City Council, and when the councilors refused to answer their questions, they trashed the place, breaking windows and taking down the Stars-and-Stripes only to re-fly it upside down. They rallied at police headquarters thousands-strong and rejected pleas for calm from Lynch. Instead, they threw stones and bottles at the cops and their headquarters, breaking its windows and doors.

The next day, when Lynch attempted to lead a peace march to calm things down, the masses again rejected him. They broke the windows of businesses and set dumpsters ablaze to make their point. When Lynch attempted to lead the crowd back to his church, they refused to go, and stayed to fight the police. A full-scale rebellion was on. Stores were looted, fires set, and the cops fought. Many senseless acts of violence took place, but this was inevitable when the masses were declaring their will to fight but not finding a new leadership prepared to show the way forward. The City’s rulers called a state of emergency, announced a curfew that denied Black people the right to walk the streets, and enforced it with a massive police crackdown, arresting hundreds. Amid this, Lynch and the other reformists of course called for an end to the rebellion and for people to respect the curfew.

Later, a youth speakout against police brutality attracted hundreds who cheered speeches that denounced the sellout leaders. “Our Black leaders are not leading us,” explained 14 year old Derrik Blassingame, for example, “Some of our leaders just want their faces on TV. They are in this for four things only: reputation, power, politics and money.”

With a small group in Cincinnati, the ISO could have made a big impact. By encouraging the masses’ rejection of their leaders, advancing a program of mass struggle, and explaining that the answer to the sellout leaders is the building of a revolutionary socialist party to lead the masses’ struggles, the ISO could have made a great contribution.

Instead, the ISO rushed in veteran leader Lee Sustar, whose immediate reaction was to support the leaders. While the masses were rejecting Rev. Lynch on the streets and in meetings, Socialist Worker gave Lynch a photo and a box in the paper’s center-page spread in which to put forward his views without a word of criticism, including his dead-end call for hiring a new police chief from out of town. Indeed the ISO joined others identifying themselves as “principally from the white community” (shame on any socialist who identifies themself as part of the white community!) in signing a “statement of support for and solidarity with the African American community.” The statement condemned racist police brutality, but urged idiotic reforms like that “new people and ideas should be brought in from outside the Department.” When the promise of phony reforms was being used by reformists to demobilize the rebellion, the ISO even supported the stupidest and most wishy washy!

Rank-and-file members of the ISO probably didn’t know what to expect of a revolutionary group in such a situation, but surely it wasn’t this. It was left to the LRP to send comrades hundreds of miles from various cities to advance a revolutionary program for the struggle. Our bulletin, Long Live the Rebellion Against Racist Police Terror! was enthusiastically received, particularly by Black youth who were in the rebellion, many of whom committed themselves to continuing the discussion of revolutionary ideas with us.

2. The Campaign to End the Death Penalty

While not as important in the overall class struggle as the Cincinnati rebellion, the Campaign to End the Death Penalty (CEDP) plays a central role in the life of the ISO, and has been a scene for similarly craven capitulations to reformist misleaders.

Having started their campaign with the principled insistence on abolishing the death penalty, the ISO moved to the right at the first chance of uniting with liberal politicians. When demands for an abolition of the death penalty coincided with scandals that exposed outrageous frame-ups and wrongful convictions of death-row inmates, some Democratic and Republican politicians started to talk of the need for a moratorium on all executions. This tactic was designed to prevent a mass movement to abolish the death penalty and to institute reforms that would pacify white liberals and strengthen the state against future challenges. The ISO responded by downplaying their slogan for the abolition of the death penalty and uncritically hailing the idea of a moratorium. While a moratorium would be a temporary victory that revolutionaries would support, by not warning of its dangers the ISO helped bourgeois politicians divert the struggle.

The ISO held meetings in several cities publicizing Rep. Jesse Jackson, Jr.’s bill for a moratorium on the death penalty in which ISO members were strictly forbidden from criticizing Jackson! The organization treated him to a hero’s welcome for merely sponsoring a bill in Congress that he knew had no chance of passing without massive pressure being put on the state. And did the ISO put any pressure on Rep. Jackson to build any demonstrations supporting the moratorium bill? No! Why do that? It might embarrass their newfound friend; after all, Jackson was too busy at the time demobilizing workers and activists, encouraging them to put their faith in the Democratic Party.

3. The Nader Campaign and Class Collaborationism

The ISO leadership has long been frustrated by the fact that they could not match their support for liberal and reformist politicians on the local level with support to such misleaders nationally. Since strict opposition to support for the capitalist Democratic party is ingrained in the American socialist movement, the ISO leaders always held back. But when liberal pro-capitalist reformer Ralph Nader decided to run a real campaign for the Green Party, the ISO leaders were overjoyed, and rushed to support his candidacy.

The ISO claimed that Nader’s campaign was somehow opposed to both capitalism in general, and to the Democratic Party in particular. But Nader himself rejected both suggestions. Nader explained that the reforms he fought for were intended to save “American corporate capitalism from itself.” Regarding the Democrats, Nader said that they are “no longer the party of working families” – of course they never were, and the Democratic Party Nader longs for is the one that ruled domestically by combining “New Deal” reforms to stifle union struggles with brutal Jim Crow racist segregation in the South, and used war and repression to extend American capitalism’s imperialist domination of the world. Moreover, Nader made clear many times that his real opposition was to the Clinton/Gore leadership, and that his campaign would help Democrats regain control the House of Representatives and perhaps strengthen Democratic liberals so they could “take back” their party. Nader even endorsed a number of local Democrats during his campaign. Thus the ISO enlisted in a campaign to strengthen Democratic Party liberalism (for more, see our “Nader: Saving Capitalist America From Itself,” Proletarian Revolution, No. 62).

The bankruptcy of endorsing Nader should have become obvious after the US presidential election ended in chaos for the ruling class. When the fraud of US democracy was exposed with the racist disenfranchisement tens of thousands of mostly Black Americans, Ralph Nader, the champion of “grassroots democracy” refused to speak out. When outraged voters marched in the streets in protest, Nader joked about flipping a coin to choose the president. Some champion of democracy he turned out to be! While the ISO joined the protests against this crime against democracy, they did not utter a single word of criticism of the candidate they had cheered on, until months afterwards.

This was not just a tactical mistake. Basic principles of Marxism teach that the working class’s interests are absolutely hostile to the capitalists, and that workers can only effectively defend their interests through an absolutely independent struggle against their rulers. That’s why Lenin and Trotsky insisted that while critical electoral support could be considered for bourgeois-led workers parties like British Labour with the purpose of exposing their leadership, absolutely no such support could be given to candidates or parties based on the middle class or bourgeoisie. For Marxists to endorse outright bourgeois parties means crossing the class line and endorsing class collaboration. Middle-class populist candidates like Nader, however radical or “independent,” only reinforce workers’ disbelief in their own class’s ability to fight and to produce its own leaders.

This was not the first time the IS Tendency crossed the class line, however. The SWP(GB) supported the popular front campaign of Ken Livingstone in last year’s London mayoral election, during which Livingstone openly stated his plan to bring Tories into his government. The IST voted for the African National Congress in South Africa, and the IST group in Zimbabwe ran candidates on the ticket of the bourgeois, pro-IMF Movement for Democratic Change.

Anti-Globalization Opportunism

The mass protests in Seattle in 1999 against the World Trade Organization were an inspiration to millions who want to struggle against capitalism. The power of the protests in Seattle came from the fact that student activists were joined by a massive mobilization of workers. Union leaders had mobilized tens of thousands of their members with the aim of only having a passive protest. But many of the workers wanted a real fightback, not just a passive display. So when they saw the opportunity to break from the assigned route of the march to join protesters blocking the streets around the WTO conference, they seized the chance. The union bureaucrats lost control and the repressive apparatus of the state was taken by surprise. Workers and students joined together and succeeded in shutting the meeting down (for more, see “Battle Over Seattle” in PR, No. 60.)

Seattle confirmed the arguments of genuine revolutionaries – that a struggle is needed against the union bureaucrats and other misleaders if the masses are to be able to unite in effective struggle. This, was a central idea that revolutionaries had to take to the recent massive protests against the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA) Summit in Quebec City. The LRP distributed a bulletin which explained how the FTAA fits into the imperialist world system and how a struggle for socialism is needed. It also explained that if the protests were to be a success, the union bureaucracy’s attempt to hold back the struggle would have to be challenged. We also pointed out that:

unfortunately, all the major supposedly “anti-capitalist” forces involved in today’s protest fail to challenge the union bureaucracy. On the one hand, while some socialist groups ... [including the] International Socialists have participated in the official, union-led coalitions, they have done so without raising the demand on the union leaders to mobilize to shut the summit down. Thus they tacitly accept the union bureaucrats’ aims of avoiding a real struggle. [On the other hand] the direct actionists in ... CASA and ... CLAC have also let the union tops off the hook by refusing to challenge them to join the actions to shut the summit down. By-passing the established leaders of the working class leads only to weak parodies of mass action. ... failing to challenge the politics of pro-capitalist misleaders again leads to their continued domination of the struggle.

The experience of the protests in Quebec confirmed our analysis to the word. On the first day of the protests, direct actionists managed to tear a hole in the massive wall that had been built to protect the conference, but failed to get any further under intense police repression. The next day, when tens of thousands of workers rallied to the unions’ call to demonstrate, the union leaders linked arms to keep protesters away from the wall, and led them in a march away from the summit all together.

The ISO’s front page article in Socialist Worker complained how “labor leaders had marshals stand with linked arms” to prevent an attempt by union workers to march on the summit, but concluded:

The mobilizations were wonderful. But we haven’t even begun to show our full strength. Our task is to mobilize a force strong enough to pull down whatever walls the bosses put up to keep their system of power and privilege in place.

Thus the ISO leaders let the pro-capitalist bureaucrats off the hook. Clearly the problem wasn’t the size of the protest (over 50,000 militant workers was more than enough to shut the Summit down), but the betrayal of the union leaders. The SW article’s headline – “Our answer to the bosses’ trade summit: Solidarity!“ exemplifies the problem. Solidarity, without a revolutionary leadership prepared to fight the pro-capitalist misleaders betrayals, is no answer. Months later in their “Lessons of Quebec City” (ISR No. 18) the ISO repeats its criticism of the union bureaucrats, but again fails to draw the conclusion that revolutionaries must combine their organizing work with a campaign to expose and replace these betrayers.

At this weekend’s conference the ISO leaders will be debating Soren Ambrose of the group 50 Years Is Enough and Kevin Danaher of Global Exchange over the topic ‘After Quebec: Where Does The Global Justice Movement Go from Here?’ Neither ‘50 Years’ nor Global Exchange stand for the overthrow of capitalism or for socialism. ‘50 Years’ urge that the World Bank and IMF reform themselves, forgiving debts, ending their privatization programs, and use their capital for people-friendly economic development. But capitalism relies on brutal exploitation and oppression to survive, and will never be able to concede all these demands.

Far worse is Global Exchange (GE), which is opposed to the idea of workers struggling against capitalism, and instead seeks to unite unions with capitalists in a “Fair Trade Federation.” Prominent GE leader Medea Benjamin and other GE figures made themselves infamous when they linked arms to protect NikeTown and other stores from being trashed by protesters in Seattle, and called on the cops to arrest militant protesters. As Benjamin explained to the New York Times: “Here we are protecting Nike, McDonalds, the GAP and all the while I’m thinking, ‘Where are the police? These anarchists should have been arrested’.”

Benjamin and GE were widely condemned for their pro-cop role in Seattle, but the ISO’s leaders won’t talk about that. After all, the ISO campaigned for Benjamin in the last elections, when she ran as a candidate on Nader’s Green Party ticket!

Another thing you won’t hear about from the ISO’s leaders in the discussion of the “anti-globalization” movement is that when the struggle began, over the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the ISO took no position! Around 1993 when the debate over NAFTA was at its height, members were told to abstain so as to avoid being confused with NAFTA’s right-wing opponents like the Kirkland leadership of the AFL-CIO. Articles in Socialist Worker claimed that NAFTA’s effects were “unclear.” Later, when the new Sweeney leadership of the AFL-CIO began making noices about cooperating with Mexican workers against NAFTA, the ISO leaders announced that it was now OK to oppose NAFTA. Thus the ISO leaders were incapable of seeing NAFTA for the obvious imperialist ‘free trade’ attack it was, and couldn’t make up their minds until they had some sellout leaders to show them the way.

ISO Theory – Rationalizing Opportunism

The case of NAFTA shows how pathetic the ISO leaders’ purported understanding of capitalism and Marxism is. Indeed the ISO’s theoretical understandings are little more than a rationalization for their opportunist role in the class struggle.

For example, Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky all explained the grip reformism has on the working class in countries like the US by pointing to how capitalism uses imperialist exploitation around the world, and racist oppression domestically, to create a privileged layer of workers who gain partial and temporary benefits from the system that blind them to their fundamental interest in uniting with the most oppressed workers for the overthrow of capitalism. The ISO rejects this analysis, saying that reformism, as well as the nationalist and racist views of many workers, are little more than bad ideas.

Thus, for example, the ISO argues that white workers gain nothing real from racism. Their main booklet on racism, Alex Callinicos’s Race and Class, states:

White workers accept racist ideas not because it is in their interests to do so ... At most what white workers receive is the imaginary solace of being members of the superior race, which helps to blind them as to where their real interests lie.” (p. 44)

This crap should be outrageous and offensive to every anti-racist fighter. The difference between ghetto and barrio life on the one hand, and the average white working class neighborhood on the other, is not imaginary. Nor is the fact that workers of color are so often forced into the hardest, worst paying jobs, and a multitude of other forms of oppression and exploitation.

White workers enjoy the privilege of being spared the worst forms of oppression and exploitation, which capitalism saves for people of color, in order to divide and rule. Interracial working class unity against capitalism will not be achieved by ignoring the real divisions that exist within the working class under inane slogans like “Unite and Fight,” but by focusing attention on these lines of oppression and consciously fighting them.

Similarly, American workers are pacified by the higher standard of living and democratic rights they enjoy as a direct result of American capitalism’s imperialist super-exploitation of the ‘Third World.’ They will not be able to overthrow capitalism until they are won to the perspective of uniting with their brothers and sisters in other countries fighting US imperialism.

Such rotten excuses for Marxist theory as the ISO’s understanding of racism are indicative of their approach to all theoretical questions. Many of the ISO’s theoretical views are examined in the pamphlet LRP vs. ISO: Trotskyism Versus Middle Class Opportunism (click here for examples), and in the LRP’s major theoretical work, The Life and Death of Stalinism: A Resurrection of Marxist Theory.

ISO/SWP Split Shows Political Bankruptcy

Perhaps the most stunning recent evidence of the ISO’s theoretical bankruptcy came with the split between the ISO and their sister organization, the SWP. No fundamental principles of theory or program were raised by either side in the struggle, yet the SWP felt comfortable in expelling the ISO from their tendency. For its part, the ISO sees the SWP’s bureaucratic action as totally and inexplicably exceptional to the SWP leadership’s otherwise flawless political judgement!

Just when you would think that such a massive shakeup in the ISO’s political life would provoke a thorough re-examination of the IS Tendency’s politics in an attempt to explain what happened, the ISO moves on as if nothing happened. There are, for example, no sessions at this weekend’s conference in which such issues are discussed. That’s because the ISO and SWP have always been national opportunists: each group would conduct the opportunist policy that fit the moment in their respective country, and between them would share a vague agreement on the overall theory that could justify both.

In the end, the split between the SWP and ISO was provoked by the ISO leaders’ feeling strong enough to think just a little bit independently of the SWP’s leaders, and then becoming the victim to the same bureaucratic regime they use to control their own organization, in which only the house-broken who don’t ask difficult questions can be allowed to remain.

An Appeal to ISO Members Who Think

We hope this letter has helped stimulate the thinking of ISO members. The ISO leadership’s miseducation of members to not think critically has already corrupted the minds of many. But even a minority who are courageous enough to ask the tough questions, and committed enough to study Marxism and test its ideas in the class struggle, can have a great effect. Pick up some more of the LRP’s literature, or check out the LRP’s website. Most importantly, write, e-mail, or call us – we would welcome the chance to answer any questions, and discuss these issues more.

Yours in Solidarity,

John F. (former member, New York City District, 1997-2000)

Joseph T. (former member-at-large, 1996-7; Chapel Hill branch organizer, 1997-8)

Tony G. (former member, Chicago District, 1994-5)