Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

March 20, 2019

The ISO, #MeToo, and the need for a fresh start

Filed under: #MeToo,ISO — louisproyect @ 7:02 pm

In recent years, I have developed a grudging admiration for the International Socialist Organization for its outspoken opposition to the Assadist left and for its refusal to adapt to the DSA’s “inside-outside” Democratic Party orientation. Furthermore, its willingness to open its newspaper up as an open forum to debate out whether to support the Sandernista movement impressed me as a sign that rigid “Leninist” norms are being abandoned even if with baby steps. Finally, someone I have deep respect for is an ISO member and a highly regarded journalist whose membership is an open secret. I was able to have lunch with him about four months ago and the topic of the ISO came up. I told him that I was pleased with the growing openness and flexibility of the group. So was he, he said, but added that it still had a long way to go.

So, despite all the articles I have written for the past 20 years holding the ISO’s feet to the fire, I am saddened by its current crisis that reflects both a malignant misogyny in the organization as well as a tendency by some of the top leaders to tolerate it, if not participate in it personally.

This has been a simmering dispute since 2014 when ISO members complained about a rape culture in the organization that ironically mirrored the British SWP being torn apart by the refusal of the Callinicos leadership to expel a party leader charged with raping a rank-and-file female member. Both state capitalist groups were going through the same crisis simultaneously and both were in a state of denial.

In the SWP’s case, the denialism led to a massive loss of members. Like a time-bomb with a very long fuse, the ISO’s denialism has finally caught up with it. At least you can say that unlike Callinicos and company, they seem up to the task of cleaning house.

At the 2014 ISO convention, there were concerns about the leadership not giving due weight to the woman’s side in a rape investigation in an article titled “Believing Survivors: A Response to Concerns”:

The first disagreement S raises in her document is an argument that due process is fundamental to democracy, and that the changes we suggest would eliminate due process. We believe our policy would not eliminate due process, which is fair treatment in adjudication. We maintain that anyone accused of sexual assault or intimate partner violence in our organization should have an opportunity to defend themselves, make a statement, produce evidence, and, if desired, appeal a decision.

Our disagreement is centered around what constitutes sufficient evidence to find that someone has violated our organization’s code of conduct in these cases. The Steering Committee document suggests we should be predisposed to believing accusers, while simultaneously presuming the innocence of the accused. Here we run up against a problem: Is it desirable – or even possible – to believe both accuser and accused? We believe that logically, practically, and politically speaking, the answer is no. [emphasis in the original]

The S referred to above is Sharon Smith who was the National Organizer of the ISO at the time and who emphasized in her article titled “The complexities of rape and sexual assault: a contribution” the need for “due process” in judging whether an accused member was guilty or not.

In this year’s convention, not only was Sharon Smith’s “due process” argument rejected, she and other long-time members were voted off the Steering Committee and replaced by those who would have agreed with the authors of “Believing Survivors: A Response to Concerns”. A letter by a former member [FM] to the convention was the trigger:

You have recently elected the respondent in the NDC’s (National Disciplinary Committee) first sexual misconduct case to the ISO’s highest leadership body. This member was accused of rape. My committee voted to expel him, but we were pressured to rescind our verdict. This is not a document I want to write. But my conscience will not allow me to keep quiet. Few in the organization know about this case, in part because the former leadership obscured its existence. The fact that the accused ultimately rose in stature within the ISO is a testament to how unevenly sexual assault cases have been handled.

This was enough to foment a determined revolt against the Steering Committee members aligned with Sharon Smith, Lance Selfa, Paul D’Amato and Ahmed Shawki and to produce badly needed reforms. (I only mention these people because of their high profile.)

The SC [Steering Committee] had an emergency meeting last night to begin a discussion of the implications of this document and what next steps need to be taken. Here are some of the immediate steps we have taken:

    • We immediately responded to FM and to the allies who were copied on the email to thank her for sending it, informing her that we would be sending it out and discussing as a leadership and stating that we take this very seriously.
    • After SC members asked that the respondent identify himself and resign, Joe R identified himself and voluntarily resigned from the SC and said he would take a leave of absence. We voted to suspend him and stipulate that a decision will be made on his membership status after a body independent of the SC had deliberated, created a process and made recommendations based on further investigation into this case.
    • In addition to a process for taking up these very serious allegations, we need to empower a body independent of the current SC who can investigate the conduct of the 2013 SC and the central participants in that 2013 process. Whether that should be the recently formed #MeToo commission, the NDC or some other body still needs to be determined, but will be soon.
    • We are organizing a joint meeting with the NC this week to discuss this fully and to develop a process for a public statement about this. We will also be inviting the original NDC members to this meeting. In addition, this meeting will be discussing how to create a space for membership-wide discussion.
    • Nikki W from Portland is organizing a support call for survivors or others triggered by this document. It will include trained mental professionals who can help comrades to process this. We will send these details out today; you can also reach out to her at nikkiwilliams23@gmail.com if you need resources or support before the call. The document is very clear and rather than editorializing, we will leave comrades to read and assess it for themselves. We will be writing assessments, a public statement and providing space for analysis and discussion of what took place, lessons learned from it and what needs to change in the coming weeks. We believe it speaks both to failures of our political culture that we have identified as well as failures to adequately address the needs of survivors, a lack of understanding of the dynamics of rape and sexual assault and the failure to create a process that could prioritize doing our best to determine the truth of what happened over bureaucratic proceduralism. This is not separate from the issues we have been reckoning with and the culture we are fighting to transform – though this experience is a particularly acute and devastating manifestation of this culture. There is no way to move forward from this without the utmost honesty and critical assessment.

One of the side-effects of the rape crisis in the British SWP was a re-examination of Leninism, the poorly understood organizational model embraced not only by the ISO, the British SWP but just about every other group on the left that has a schematic understanding of the Bolshevik Party.

Richard Seymour, who was one of the leaders of the SWP that resigned over the rape cover-up, wrote an article titled “Is Zinovievism finished? A reply to Alex Callinicos” that drew a dotted line between covering up sexual predation and Leninism:

Alex Callinicos’ article on the crisis in the SWP purports to be a defence of Leninism in the face of a ‘flood of attacks’ – by which Alex means the crisis that has engulfed the party over the mishandled investigation of allegations of rape and sexual harassment against a Central Committee member.

The piece does nothing of the sort, but is rather an encapsulation of the flaws that have brought us to this pass. It is clearly intended as an opening salvo in the CC’s response to the growing opposition within the party. In particular it draws on the long tradition of dealing with dissent over particular issues by means of the absurd implication that that dissent is an attack on the heritage of the October revolution, accompanied by an airy dismissal of the actual facts. This maneouvre assumes the following equivalences: that ‘revolutionary party’ means the model of democratic centralism adopted by the SWP in the 1970s; that this model replicates that of the Bolsheviks in 1917 and the decisions of the current leadership therefore embody the legitimacy of that revolution, which we can expect to be replicated in the conditions of the UK in the 21st century. This is pure substitutionalism – and on its own measure of providing strong interventionist leadership, is a complete failure.

Isn’t this the same dynamic that was at work in the ISO?

There is just too much of a pattern in these “vanguard” organizations for it to be only a coincidence. The first major occurrence was when Gerry Healy got booted from his own sect-cult after imposing himself on just one too many young female members. It took years for him to be punished, just as it took such a long time for Harvey Weinstein to face arrest.

My own former organization has had the same track record. A member named Mark Curtis was arrested for the attempted rape of a 15-year-old African-American girl in 1988 and served 8 years of a 25-year sentence. At the time and even now, Jack Barnes insisted that he was innocent. After Curtis was released from prison, he was arrested for soliciting prostitution by an undercover cop. This time, he was expelled from the SWP. When Saïd Sayrafiezadeh’s “When Skateboards Will Be Free: A Memoir” appeared, I characterized his account of being molested as a young child by an SWP member who baby-sat for him as bogus. I refused to believe that the party, no matter its other deep faults, would not let such behavior go unpunished. Now, I am not so sure.

What do all these groups have in common? To start with, rape and sexual harassment are not universal. Some groups are totally innocent. It is not as if reading “What is to be Done” gives some alpha male the idea of raping a female member. But when and if an alpha male does carry out such a crime, there is a tendency to clear his name because the thought of losing a star member who might be the Lenin of our age is too much to bear.

It is a fixation on the idea, even if unstated, that all are led by Lenin’s avatar. Whether it is someone batshit crazy like Jack Barnes and Gerry Healy, or relatively sane like Alex Callinicos and Ahmed Shawki, there is undue confidence in the helmsman. You can see how ruffled the feathers of a leadership can become when faced by such charges. They say that the fish rots from the head downward. This is just as true of Leninist formations as it is for the mafia. On February 19, 2014 The Steering Committee and National Committee of the ISO issued a statement titled “A Response to Slander” that fired back at the Renewal Faction, whose views are now embraced by a new steering committee. The statement says:

The former members, grouped together in the “Renewal Faction,” cynically distorted an account of a case–written in a document meant to be for internal discussion about the process of dealing with such cases, given their rarity in our organization–in order to falsely equate a local situation in the ISO with the mishandling of rape charges against a leading member of the Socialist Workers Party-Britain that caused a profound crisis in that organization.

In fact, the equation was mathematically, morally and politically correct. I have no idea whether the new leadership can do everything that is necessary to restore confidence in the organization but I wish them the best. I don’t believe that the ISO is a nucleus of a vanguard party that is so necessary but until the real thing comes along, they are the best people on the left as far as I am concerned, warts and all.



  1. Good post, Lou. I don’t know if you remember this. It was posted on the Marxism List around 2001 by a former National Committee and Political Committee member of the SWP (US). He gave his real name in the original post but there’s no need to repeat it here. It has eerie parallels with the most recent ISO case:

    “1. A young woman, who had resigned from the party about two years earlier but who had remained a supporter and regular Militant Labor Forum participant, called me one Saturday morning during August 1995. She called me because I was the organizer of the Des Moines branch, and she wanted to report a serious problem involving another member of the branch.

    2. This is what she (henceforth “F”) reported to me: She had attended the previous evening´s forum, and afterward had had a couple drinks in the bookstore, chatting with a comrade who will be known as M. They had been casual friends, in the manner of many young comrades and young people on the periphery of the party, and they decided to go to her apartment to watch TV. Sometime later, M. sexually assaulted her (raped her, to be precise, from her description).

    3. The SWP has a mechanism to deal with disciplinary problems. Charges are filed against a comrade; a sub-committee is established, usually consisting of the executive committee members; an investigation is conducted; and a report is brought before the branch. If a comrade is found guilty, the branch can vote for censure, suspension for a given period, or expulsion.

    4. Charges were filed, and an investigation conducted. Based on the interviews of F. and of M.–whose own testimony was unintentionally damning on key points–the trial commission determined that comrade M. was guilty, and that expulsion should be recommended to the branch.

    5. Before bringing the report to the branch meeting, the E.C. sent a copy to the Political Committee in New York. Jack Barnes, after reading the report, called Norton Sandler, a long-time member of the national committee who was also on the Des Moines E.C. and on the trail commission. (The P.C. should have directed any thoughts on the matter to the branch organizer, myself.) Sandler communicated Barnes´ concerns to the E.C./trial commission. Barnes objected strongly to the report on these grounds: first, by including certain facts, the report promoted “the pornographication of politics”; second, M. could not have committed sexual assault or rape, because he had been invited into the apartment (Sandler used the formulation “the door was not broken down, therefore no rape occurred” twice in this meeting, and once again in the subsequent branch meeting). Based on his conversations with Barnes, Sandler made the following proposals: comrade M. be found not guilty; F. be removed from the mailing list for the Militant Labor Forum, and her participation in party-organized activities “discouraged.”

    6. Three years earlier, while a member of the party in Des Moines, F. had been the object of the unwanted advances of a young male party member. The E.C. had discussed the situation, and had talked with the male comrade. This comrade had not committed any abusive acts or anything, and he was simply told to “chill out” and not cause discomfort for F. or embarrassment for himself. Two members of the E.C. from that time were among the four members of the later E.C. and trial commission. They had reported, in our deliberations about the case of comrade M., that F. had conducted herself entirely appropriately in the earlier matter, and that there was absolutely nothing from the earlier episode that indicated either that she provoked untoward behavior, or that she was inclined to make unwarranted accusations.

    7. Nevertheless, Sandler said that the fact that F. had been “involved in an earlier such incident” indicated something suspicious, “a pattern” on her part. More seriously, Sandler–based on his conversations with Barnes–accused F. of “implicitly threatening the party.” F. had stated to the comrades who interviewed her that “she trusted the party to handle this appropriately.” Sandler now declared that this remark carried an implied threat to go to the police if we failed to handle the matter to her satisfaction. The other comrade who had conducted the interview did not share this interpretation–at which Sandler only arrived after talking with Barnes–and to the contrary was impressed with her faith in the party, and with the fact that she did not expect to be informed of any actions taken.

    8. The E.C. brought a report to the branch which had no details about the incident. Instead, we simply reported that we had investigated the matter, and concluded that the comrade was not guilty. The report included the slanders against F., and made the proposal “discouraging” her participation in party-organized activities. The report was passed unanimously.

    9. A few days later, a comrade from the E.C. reported to F. that the branch had discussed the matter that she had brought to our attention, and had settled this matter, but that we could not tell her, as a non-member, about any actions taken or not taken. She had no questions, and, although she would later see M. conducting party work, she never raised any objections or followed through on the perceived “implicit threat.”

    I have recorded these facts accurately, and as flatly (without commentary) as possible. Defenders of the party can take no solace in the hope that this is wildly exaggerated, or at least distorted. The facts speak for themselves. There is no defense for such conduct, and the conclusions from this episode are obvious. I am sure that the organizer of this web page will welcome any rebuttal to my version of these events–or to anything else in these articles–should anyone from the party leadership be so bold.

    What is most appalling and outrageous, I am not sure–the complete ignorance of women´s issues and of the problem of sexual assault and rape, which is usually committed by an acquaintance, not requiring any “kicking down of a door”? The fact that the party did exactly what any defender of women´s rights would rebel against–to victimize the victim? The instinctual defense of the male, and the gratuitous slander of the female? The dishonesty of the entire charade–the manner in which the national secretary intervened, the fact that we accepted the judgment of a man 1,500 miles away over that of the two E.C. members who knew how F. had conducted herself in the previous matter? That the branch could unanimously approve a report that contained no facts, and that simply requested that they accept the decision of the E.C.? I always considered myself to be a relatively independent-minded party member, and yet I also voted for the report, while speaking in the branch meeting against Sandler´s contention that rape could not be committed by a friend or acquaintance of the victim. My disgust over the affair, and my recognition that I had been corrupted by my brief years as a “party leader,” contributed greatly to my decision, a half-year later, to resign. “

    Comment by John B. — March 20, 2019 @ 10:44 pm

  2. “It’s been a long time coming, it’s gonna be a long time gone.”

    An embrace of identity politics plus the recent electoral gains of the DSA has rendered the ISO irrelevant and without a niche.

    Soft on Hamas and scornful of the communist leadership in Cuba, there is zero chance they will recover.

    Comment by Ding Dong David — March 21, 2019 @ 12:31 am

  3. Plus, they don’t have a good position on Jew-hatred and the FBI conspiracy against Donald Trump, comrade Ding-Dong-Doody-Head.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 21, 2019 @ 12:37 am

  4. It’s hard to say where the ISO will go from this point. The rape cover-up controversy has temporarily sidelined debates within the organization about its orientation toward the DSA, the Sanders campaign and politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Several prominent members, even before the recent convention that overthrew the Old Guard, have made the transition to DSA and events since the convention have accelerated this trend. The new leadership deserves credit for facing this crisis head-on and I wish them well.

    By the way, eight of the deposed leadership group, including Ahmed Shawki, Sharon Smith, Paul D’Amato and Lance Selfa, have announced their resignation from the ISO.

    Comment by John B. — March 21, 2019 @ 1:49 am

  5. I really think it’s a stretch to connect Leninism so closely to sexual predation like there are no other influences that affect human behavior. What you are seriously lacking is an understanding that sexual predation happens EVERYWHERE in society against women; it was in my family, it’s been in my workplace, it’s been in the bars I used to go to and in the bands I used to see, in the church I used to go, it’s from the fucking upstairs neighbor friend who I was enjoying a beer with on the roof, and sadly now, I’m aware it was in the group of my most trusted comrades. I’m not saying all these experiences ended in sexual assault, but the predation component is universal, not exclusive to the Leninists. Plus, I don’t think you characterize the ISO position toward Lenin fairly.

    Comment by Terri Smith — March 21, 2019 @ 4:32 am

  6. I don’t connect rape with Leninism. I connect the cover-up with Leninism. I’ll probably make that clearer when I get a chance.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 21, 2019 @ 11:32 am

  7. The Canadian comrades of the ISO make the same connections between “Leninism” and the cover-ups of sexual attacks and harassment as I did in this article.


    Comment by louisproyect — March 21, 2019 @ 11:58 am

  8. On the one hand, as a petit, gay man, I have had a number of unpleasant experiences during my lifetime with men, so I have never simply dismissed the accounts of others. On the other hand, as a Sixties activist and organizer, I clearly recall the situation of Cde. William Albertson of the CPUSA who was fitted with a “snitch jacket” by US government operatives. One can only imagine the psychological torment he suffered… And, of course, there were COINTELPRO operations against other organizations on the Left, including some in which Louis and I were members. Be patient; we have only really heard about 1/3 of the story so far.

    Although I’m an Anarchist today, I agree with Louis and others that the International Socialist Organization is far from being the worst organization on the American Far Left….I have met many fine comrades in the struggle who are ISOers…Too much newspaper hawking, though…

    Hopefully this is the beginning of a process of reforming/transforming the ISO from a micro-party Leninist sect into part of a much broader American Left response to the austerity of neoliberalism…

    These leaked International Socialist Organization Internal Discussion documents should help to give folks an insight into the ISO political and social culture that lead to this internal crisis for the organization: http://libcom.org/forums/organise/leaked-internal-documents-international-socialist-organization-us-08022014

    Kurt Hill
    Brooklyn, NY

    Comment by Kurt Hill — March 21, 2019 @ 2:03 pm

  9. DSA is the only genuinely democratic organization for socialists and the reason many ISO members are switching to it is because DSA is actively working to correct itself and the reason it is actively doing so is because we are under constant scrutiny of our members. When rape accusations were levied against a recent NPC member he was removed from his position. It is mandatory that all chapters have grievance officers whose job is to examine and mediate accusations such as sexual misconduct. DSA is he only socialist org that is actually open and willing to listen to its members and because of its emphasis and genuine interest in membership democracy we have been the most active in correcting the issues of institutional sexism and patriarchy which plaque all socialist orgs.

    Comment by James J Jackson Jr — March 22, 2019 @ 1:36 am

  10. Yes, the DSA does not tolerate rapists but unfortunately it has an orientation to the Democratic Party that has been responsible for rape, torture and murder in the countries it invades.

    Comment by louisproyect — March 22, 2019 @ 2:35 pm

  11. Joel Geier has resigned from the ISO. His resignation letter here:

    Click to access Joel-With%20Profound%20Regret%203-21-19%20.pdf

    Comment by John B. — March 22, 2019 @ 3:10 pm

  12. Louis &, indirectly, Kurt usefully linked to ISO documents posted at https://thecharnelhouse.org/. Yesterday, Th21Mar, all was fine. Today: “rosswolfe.wordpress.com is no longer available.”

    Many appreciate Ross’ architectural & political blog, although he has posted little since December 2017. He still tweets a lot, but he hasn’t mentioned what may a takedown because of his ISO postings.

    Comment by Jara Handala — March 23, 2019 @ 3:41 am

  13. Agreed.

    Comment by Mike howells — March 23, 2019 @ 4:18 am

  14. I am now a member of the DSA that some comrades here will remember from, times past, perhaps under the pen name “Joaquin Bustelo” .

    I challenge the idea posted above that the DSA is a “genuinely democratic organization.” The DSA is barely an organization *at all.*

    The National Political Committee is not a leadership in the conventional political sense of the word, as it does nothing to convince the membership of what it decides or try to organize the group to carry it out, the NPC’s Bernie campaign plan being an especially prominent example. The committee seems to be dominated by a workerist/economist and sectarian faction or perhaps unprincipled bloc would be a better term. It has adopted a set of rules for our upcoming Atlanta convention that could have been copied from any bureaucratic union’s bylaws (and probably were).

    The DSA’s sole virtue –and it should be an absolutely decisive one for any Marxist– is that it is an advanced expression of an actual movement of working people towards cohering as a class-for-itself. Mostly simply because it exists. But, for example, in my chapter, Atlanta, we regularly have no more than 50 members at a meeting — way less than 10% of our membership, and often we don’t meet the quorum (which is calculated by another formula but amounts to 4%, or about 30 or 30-some people).

    There’s quite a few posts on my blog, http://hatueysashes.blogspot.com/ about the DSA beginning last summer and more recently including a couple of polemics. –José G. Pérez

    Comment by Jose G Perez — April 3, 2019 @ 10:59 pm

  15. How do you feel about the ISO now that they disbanded and their members joined the DSA and Democrats?

    Comment by Big Mike — August 15, 2019 @ 4:23 am

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