The Fall of the ISO and the New Generation

Context

I’m not going to give a thorough history of the ISO here, nor of it’s politics. Other comardes like Paul Le Blanc or Saman and Adam have done better jobs of dissecting the group and the events leading to the disintegration. Instead, what interests me is sharing what I’ve observed from my time as an on-the-ground activist in both the ISO and the DSA because these lessons can help figure out a way forward for revolutionaries.

I was a member of the ISO from 2006–2010. I remained close to the ISO right up to it’s dissolution.

In late March 2019, the ISO voted to dissolve itself to head-off a catastrophic meltdown.

All too often, people drag out relationships well beyond their actual expiration dates. Many activists can’t let go of the movements and/or organizations that they’ve built (or the habits that went with them).

Comrades in the ISO were honest about the state of the group and gave it a coup de grâce, rather than letting it drag on and die.

I think that this was the right way to go. The ISO had been flailing since the rise of Bernie and the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). While the DSA swelled and gained name-recognition in the mass media, the ISO struggled to relate to the new generation of activists. To be clear, they did succeed at working with the DSA on various projects. But these collaborations didn’t benefit the ISO regarding recruitment and retention.

In my view, this struggle was due to three things:

  1. The new generation of activists have an aversion to protest. They lived through Occupy and Black Lives Matter (BLM) and they didn’t see either of these movements create concrete change, via protest.
  2. They feel the urgency of the situation and prefer action over study. They aren’t averse to study groups, but the emphasis is definitely on action and any political leadership that doesn’t keep them busy loses their regular attendance.
  3. They support Bernie Sanders and were radicalized by him. They see his election to the presidency of the US as something attainable and worth fighting for, whether or not he runs as a Democrat.

I want to emphasize these three points because they would have been a barrier to the ISO, even if it had avoided: the rape cover-up, internal racism, and undemocratic practices. Even in the healthiest scenario, there were elements of the ISO’s orientation that simply would not have allowed it to connect with activists in this new, post-2016 political context.

I should also add that a section of the final, new leadership seems to have recognized that they needed some kind of an electoral strategy. But we didn’t get the chance to see how they would have navigated that.

Protest aversion (electoral predilection)

The ISO prized protest as the primary method for politics. This is a major draw back in the current US political climate.

Today’s radicalizing socialists want to win concrete changes. Living in a bourgeois democracy means that they want to canvass. They will canvass for petitions, referenda, and politicians (i.e. added up, these all constitute electoral work). They rightly see these as avenues to change laws and institutions. They are disinterested in symbolic work.

They witnessed the heroic protest movements that set the stage for Bernie. They watched Occupy, BLM, The Women’s March, etc all take the stage… without changing anything. They want to change things and we can’t blame them for feeling disillusioned by protest. Revolutionaries should be proud of these movements that we supported and helped shape. But we also have to admit that we have little to show for them outside of shifting the US political dialogue to the left.

The ISO could have created a tradition and routine around canvassing operations. We could have fought for things in this arena. But we threw the baby out with the bathwater. We refused to do electoral work that might connect us with The Democrats. We neglected to come up with a political lead on how to navigate any non-partisan spaces (again: petitions, referenda, non-partisan offices). So our dedication to not work with the Democrats became a de facto position of not engaging in any electoral work, nor even considering how we would go about it.

With the ISO unable to provide a political lead in the electoral arena, and the new socialists disinterested in protest: we had nothing to offer their struggle.

All study and no play…

All socialists need to study. We have a radically different view of the world compared to what we are told by the bourgeoisie and their: mass media, politicians, and cultural institutions. However, we also need action.

The fact that the ISO only used protest as the method of political engagement meant that it was difficult to build sustain routines of political activity. During times of constant action, like Occupy, there would be political work to do. But for the most part, protests tend to be one-time events. At best, there can be months of sporadic events (but that is rare). So what do you do with the down time?

The down time could have been used to canvass for some electoral work. But with that door closed, this led to endless study groups. These study groups were wonderful. They provided me with an education that was as good as, if not better than, my college education.

But people feel the urgency of the moment. Bernie and the DSA are giving people hope. So while many DSA comrades have been interested in going to socialist night schools, they’ve mainly wanted to participate in campaigns to change things.

The study groups offered by the ISO did not connect with people at a time when wanted action. This can change. Whenever the socialist politicians begin to disappoint this new layer of activists (or are defeated), they will want to step back and reassess their strategies, tactics, and overall political perspectives. But at this particular moment, this is less interesting than hitting the doors for something tangible.

Bernie Sanders (Rorschach test)

When many ISO comrades saw Bernie, they saw a problem to overcome. When many DSA comrades saw Bernie they saw the vehicle for their dreams.

There was no getting around this. Since 2016, the US Left has revolved around Bernie. Let me repeat: for the last three years the US Left has revolved around Bernie. He hasn’t gone away. 2020 might be the end. But based in the last three years, I wouldn’t bet on it.

The ISO watched socialist politics finally return to the US. But return via Bernie: a man that has run for president on the Democratic Party ticket. The ISO found this torturous. To add insult to injury, the group that benefited from Bernie was the DSA. The ISO saw itself as the standard-bearer for US socialism. It felt passed over.

Rather than figure out some way to politically relate to this new political climate, the majority of ISO members decided to stay on the sidelines. Dodging the question of Bernie could have been fine, if the ISO had been able to provide a concrete project, or series of projects, to get these new socialists mobilized.

But with a lack of class struggle to connect too, and all of the points listed above: the ISO was simply out of touch with this new generation. Worse, when the new generation discussed their hero they were met with silence or hostility.

Conclusion

I want to emphasize the complete absence of any electoral strategy as the major weakness of the ISO. This would have led to its demise, even if the rape cover up and lack of democracy hadn’t created the additional toxicity.

In fact, building an organization that was committed to protest and study only, had to become undemocratic and toxic. How else would you contain the energy of comrades that would logically want to expand into the electoral arena?

By having the correct assessment that the Democratic Party is the graveyard of movements, and simultaneously acknowledging that building a third party is a prohibitively Herculean task: the ISO abandoned all electoral politics. Even non-partisan electoral work, like canvassing for petitions or running for City Council, was abandoned. In other words, all concrete work that most US residents see as the way to change things was abandoned. I can’t emphasize this enough.

This created an over-dependence on protest and study groups. But protests are sporadic. They can’t be relied on for systematic routines of political work and political change. If a group doesn’t have concrete political work to do, then activists leave the organization and look for organizations that will concretely activate them.

The major task of the US revolutionary left is to develop our own approach to electoralism. This is the outstanding task if we want to become relevant in this new political terrain.

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Ken Barrios

Ken Barrios

Born and raised in Chicago to immigrant parents. A member of the ISO from 2006–2010. DSA member since 2018. Revolutionary abolitionist socialist for life.