Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 28, 2019

Notes on the International Socialism Project

Filed under: democratic centralism,ISO,Lenin — louisproyect @ 10:01 pm

Today I had a chance to review the International Socialism Project website that was launched primarily by former ISO members associated with the old guard: Paul D’Amato, Patrick Gallagher, Sharon Smith, Ahmed Shawki, Bridget Broderick, Lance Selfa, and Carole Ramsden. In addition to this group, there are two former members of Socialist Action—Adam Shils and Carrie Hewitt—that agree with their “socialism from below” perspective. While the ISO voted to liquidate itself this year, SA instead suffered a split, largely it appears over the “tankie” perspective associated with its Grand Poobah Jeff Mackler. At the time of the ISO liquidation, I had high hopes that a new network of revolutionary socialists might be born under the leadership of people like Todd Chretien. I had no idea at the time that Chretien was about to become a DSAer and not even a critical one. His breathless paean to Bernie Sanders on FB might have even been rejected by Jacobin for going overboard.

As it happens, the International Socialism Project website was close to what I expected to come out of the ISO wreckage. Despite Sharon Smith’s convoluted attempt to absolve the old guard’s handling of the rapes that Chretien’s faction took a proper stance on, it is her politics that I identify with. Given the “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” seed-pod that seems to have replaced the Todd Chretien I once admired with a glassy-eyed Sandernista, I have to give critical support to this new attempt to reconstitute a revolutionary socialist movement. As is also the case with Left Voice, an attempt to build a Morenoite party in the USA, there are questions about whether they have a grasp of the organizational norms that are appropriate for the period. That being said, they have the Democratic Party question right.

Two articles reminded me of why I always valued the ISO despite the Sam Farber hogwash. Lance Selfa wrote a reply to Paul Le Blanc’s autopsy on the ISO titled “What happened to the International Socialist Organization?: A political assessment” that demonstrates the old guard’s commitment to socialist principles even if it still fails to come to terms with the “Leninist” baggage that helped to deepen the crisis in the ISO. The same mixture of wisdom and confusion exists in Paul D’Amato’s “Principles, strategy, culture, and revolutionary organization” that, like Selfa’s article, steps gingerly around the “revolutionary organization” question despite its title.

Turning first to Paul D’Amato’s article, it originated as an ISO convention document that explained the role of “socialists” in the Democratic Party. For many on the left, the idea of “radical” Democrats is a novelty. Having lived through the sixties, I saw many DP politicians with credentials as solid as A. O-C’s even if they didn’t bother to call themselves socialists. In NYC, Ted Weiss and Bella Abzug were outstanding. They could always be called upon to speak at an antiwar rally or to raise hell in Congress against Republican or Democrat war-maker alike.

A lot younger than me, D’Amato looks at a more recent example of this Democratic Party leftism:

While many seem to think the election of Tlaib and AOC represents something entirely new, this isn’t true. The path from participation in radical social movements to Democratic Party politics has been tread many times and in many eras of US history. Those who have done it don’t see this path as selling out, but as a logical step in a process of trying to make a difference.

Take one example, Luis Gutierrez, who served as a US representative for US 4th Congressional district for Illinois from 1993 to 2019. As his Wikepedia entry states:

Of Puerto Rican descent, he is a former supporter of Puerto Rican independence, and the Vieques movement. Gutiérrez is also an outspoken advocate of workers’ rights, LGBT rights, gender equality, and other liberal and progressive causes.

I have personally seen Luis Guttierez deliver speeches that are every bit as radical as Tlaib or Ocasio-Cortez. Some comrades seem to think that AOC’s attendance at rallies and sit-ins is something new. It is not. Progressive and liberal Democrats have been doing it for a long time. Jesse Jackson has been attending protests, and getting arrested at them, for decades. Luis Gutierrez was arrested several times in protests and civil disobediences—in protests on the island of Vieques, PR, in protests and marches for amnesty for undocumented immigrants, and in defense of the Dream Act and other immigrant rights issues. His most recent arrests were in August and September of 2017 at the White House and at Trump Tower in Chicago.

That of course didn’t prevent him from being a strong backer of Chicago mayor Rahm Emmanuel and Hilary Clinton in her 2016 election bid. Being the consummate political maneuverer, his last act being an end of the wire announcement of his retirement in order to ensure a quick succession without challenge to allow Jesus Chuy Garcia to take his place.

Referring to pod person Todd Chretien obviously, D’Amato also makes another important point:

As a long-standing member, Todd C. knows well that the reason the ISO has not supported Sanders is not based on our criticisms of his support for building a fighter jet in his home state, or because his radicalism doesn’t reach very far beyond support for a stronger welfare system, but because he is running as a Democrat and is helping to increase the electoral fortunes of that party. It is therefore indicative of a political shift that he can write in an October 18 FB post that, “I campaigned for Ralph Nader twice, and he was far more objectionable than AOC in all sorts of ways.” That may be true, but our position on Democrats is not conditioned by their political positions, but on the party they represent.

This is a crucial point. When Henry Wallace ran for President in 1948, there was plenty to take issue with, especially his adaptation to the CP on the USSR. Also, Ralph Nader had plenty of fucked up positions when he ran for President especially his Jeffersonian illusions in the value of small businesses. However, going up against the two-party system makes up for any programmatic flaws. It sets an example for independent political action that might spur workers into running their own candidates. Proof of both Wallace and Nader’s value was the absolutely vicious attacks on them by the DP that made Barack Obama’s opposition to Bernie Sanders’s candidacy look tame by comparison. The two-party system is a fundamental prop of the capitalist state in the USA and any attempt to make the DP look salvageable only serves to legitimize that state in the same way that the Cadet Party in Russia propped up absolutism.

In a section of his article subtitled “Implications for our organizational forms”, D’Amato correctly defines opposition to the DP as a sine qua non for the ISO and any other revolutionary organization. While I agree with that, I am afraid that he really hasn’t thought through the “Leninism” problem. He writes: “The point being made here is not that there haven’t been cases where members have stifled discussion or read too much into questions, even if inadvertently, by aggressively asserting a position—this has happened more often than all of us would like.”

Well, “aggressively asserting a position” is not exactly the problem. Rather, it is the whole idea of defining state capitalism as the basis for Marxist rectitude. As much as I admired the ISO, I could never join an organization that made a position on the “Russian question” so central. Even when Paul Le Blanc claimed that this was no longer a defining part of the ISO program, it was still obvious that those who disagreed with Sam Farber’s critique of “the Stalinist Castro” would never feel at home in such a group. Furthermore, even on other questions peer pressure came into play just as it did in all such “Leninist” organizations. In Stalinist parties, administrative measures ensured a homogenous organization. In Trotskyist or post-Trotskyist groups like the ISO, it was always peer pressure that maintained ideological uniformity.

Following up on this line of reasoning, D’Amato wrote: “The ISO, for example, need not have a line on intersectionality, or a line on Political Marxism, or whether or not there is a tendency for the rate of profit to fall, and many other questions.” That’s pretty clear, given the lively debates on the Brenner thesis in the ISR, a magazine I sorely miss. But what about Cuba? In my view, there’s room for Sam Farber’s views and there is also room for someone coming from a Monthly Review tradition. The best thing is to unite around specific policy questions such as opposing the embargo but allow debates of more theoretical questions to take place in a party’s journal. The Cubans themselves are open to that, in fact. In the conference on Trotskyism that took place this year, there were papers given that were much closer to the ISO than to the Cuban Communist Party. It is interesting that there is more ideological diversity in Cuba than there is in these “socialism from below” groups so proud of their openness.

Turning now to Lance Selfa’s “What happened to the International Socialist Organization?: A political assessment”, it was written as a reply to Paul Le Blanc’s article of the same title. (My own commentary on Le Blanc’s article is here.)

It reveals that there was three groups in the ISO defined on their relationship to the Democratic Party. Selfa and the other people who have launched the International Socialism Project saw opposition to the DP as a bedrock basis of unity. On the opposite side was a tendency called the Socialist Tide that was gung-ho for Bernie Sanders. In the center was a grouping led by Todd Chretien that tried to mediate between the two poles. It was shortly after the ISO dissolved that Chretien revealed himself to be no different than the Socialist Tide.

In the last year of ISO’s existence, Selfa and his co-thinkers had become a minority on the ISO Steering Committee and Chretien a majority. It is clear that by pushing for liquidation, Chretien facilitated the mass entry into the DSA by just about everybody in the ISO who considered opposition to the DP an ideological straight-jacket. (It does strike me as odd that Selfa does not take note of Paul Le Blanc’s conversion into a Sandernista. Maybe Todd Chretien snuck into his bedroom when he was fast asleep and put a seed-pod at the foot of the bed.)

While I wholeheartedly support the creation of a revolutionary organization that makes class independence of the DP at its core, I do have some issues once again on the organizational question. Selfa alludes to opposition to the “Leninist” organizational methods that Paul Le Blanc has defended in numerous articles and at least one book:

The critique of the ISO’s “culture” was introduced in the pre-convention period as a rejection of the ISO’s so-called “unity of thought” in regard to questions like support for the Democratic Party. The SCMaj’s proposals for “retooling” the ISO, which were widely accepted, envisioned an organization that would grow rapidly because it would require less of individual members, including limiting branch meeting requirements to once a month, while specialized “working groups” would carry out most of the organization’s activities. This plan to adopt many of the DSA’s organizational practices promised rapid growth—as if only the ISO’s organizational “culture,” rather than the general political environment—explained DSA’s growth and revolutionaries’ difficulties during today’s “social democratic moment.” Soon, this developed into a critique of the ISO’s organizational norms that leading members—including members of the SCMaj—described as “undemocratic,” “toy Bolshevik” and reflective of marginalization in the “Trotskyist ghetto.” “Culture” became an all-things-to-all-people critique of the existing ISO that unified a Steering Committee majority bloc, and the other currents, when they were divided on other questions.

Granted that Todd Chretien’s faction was more interested in ideological retooling than anything else, it sounds to me that any new revolutionary group that Selfa et al would like to see built has to take up this question of organizational norms. This charge of “toy Bolshevik” and “Trotskyist ghetto” has to be taken seriously. Any attempt to preserve the organizational norms that Paul Le Blanc defended will lead to grief. The ISO’s politics are my politics but so are the Left Voice’s in many ways, as is the split from Socialist Action. However, all of these comrades are kidding themselves if they think mechanical applications of Bolshevism  have a future.

The truth is that despite its shitty opportunism, the DSA’s organizational norms are much more suited to the tempo of the class struggle today. There is absolutely no question in my mind that a new organization to the left of the DSA can attract tens of thousands of working class people but it has to be on a basis much more like Debs’s party or, for that matter, Lenin’s party that was not even “Leninist”. The SWP that I belonged to for 11 years and the ISO adopted norms that were introduced by Zinoviev at the 1924 “Bolshevization” Comintern conference. It is high time to retire them.


  1. OK Boomer

    Comment by tony — November 29, 2019 @ 1:46 am

  2. Really Tony? That’s all you can say? Repeating an ignorant catch phrase of the day does not render you cool. Just ignorant.

    How about, “Where’s the beef?”

    There is a TON of beefy (meaning, substantial) issues raised in this post, and this is all you came to say? Maybe you’re too heavy-lidded with the turkey, the mashed potato and gravy, creamy corn casserole and too many servings of stuffing?

    Comment by Reza — November 29, 2019 @ 2:45 am

  3. Thank you Louis for this.

    I have been a regular lurker here because I learn so much that would otherwise take me forever to learn. Here is a question and request for further explanation:

    I (and perhaps many other readers here) don’t know in any significant detail the exact organizational specifics of the DSA. It would be great if you could expand on your assertion that: “the DSA’s organizational norms are much more suited to the tempo of the class struggle today.”

    Which specific organizational features of DSA are you referring to? And which specifics of the current state of the class struggle make those organizational features more suited to expanding the revolutionary (as opposed to reformist) tendencies within the current wave of anti-systemic movements (to use Wallerstein’s terminology)?

    Comment by Reza — November 29, 2019 @ 2:59 am

  4. Moe later, but just briefly, this is one of the clearest, sanest expressions of a socialist outlook I’ve seen in a while. (The word “outlook” is deliberately vague.)

    Comment by davidberger6799 — November 29, 2019 @ 4:29 am

  5. The current crisis of Leninism appears to be most acute within those organizations which identify with the Trotskyist tradition. Sectarianism, abstentionism, and “purity” of program won’t cut it in the 21st century. Since the demise of the Soviet Union, Trotskyism has lost its relevance…

    Comment by Kurt Hill — November 29, 2019 @ 3:10 pm

  6. Oh, by the way, Tony, you might like to know there is an even newer expression going around: “Okay Xer” (pronounced ZED-er)

    Comment by Kurt Hill — November 29, 2019 @ 3:16 pm

  7. OK 68er would be the Left-appropriate version

    Comment by tony — November 30, 2019 @ 12:56 am

  8. “OK, 68er” … Meaning what exactly?

    Is it too much to expect a clearly spelled out line of logical reasoning that runs for at least a short paragraph, explaining your main idea? Or, is the already-cliché one-liner all you can afford?

    Comment by Reza — November 30, 2019 @ 1:04 am

  9. Unless the topic is Kurds, Tony is catatonic.

    Comment by louisproyect — November 30, 2019 @ 1:16 am

  10. actually, your opinions on Kurds make me just as catatonic

    Comment by tony — November 30, 2019 @ 4:42 am

  11. Tony, man, you must be in catatonic state … like, a lot.

    Comment by Reza — November 30, 2019 @ 5:54 am

  12. […] Source: Notes on the International Socialism Project | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist […]

    Pingback by Notes on the International Socialism Project  – 1848+: The End(s) of History — November 30, 2019 @ 5:36 pm

  13. Smash the state, catatonic or not…

    Comment by Kurt Hill — December 2, 2019 @ 5:15 pm

  14. The worst effect of the Russian disinformation initiatives in the US is the proliferation of Tony-esque dimwits on the left. Smugness allied to stupidity–the cult mentality without the energy to form or join a cult.

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — December 4, 2019 @ 2:47 pm

  15. I’ve been denounced on pravda,ru. Bet you haven’t

    Comment by tony — December 4, 2019 @ 6:55 pm

  16. The “From Alpha to Omega” podcast has an interesting episode about Marx and Engels’ concept of the party. To get access to this particular episode you have to become a paid member via Patreon.


    Comment by Mike — December 4, 2019 @ 10:28 pm

  17. I can hardly understand this faction of the American left. I understand that small groups without any implantation in social, labor and popular struggles usually fill their publications with international histories and events, but how it is the priority of a socialist group in the United States to publish articles justifying the coup d’etats of the United States in Latin America?

    Comment by Xavi — December 10, 2019 @ 6:03 pm

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