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Ahmed Shawki (US ISO): `We can forge the basis for a new and different party' (now video)

July 7, 2013 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The above talk,"Perspectives for the left", was presented by the US International Socialist Organization's Ahmed Shawki at the organisation's annual Socialism conference in Chicago, June 27-30, 2013. It outlines the ISO's current perspectives, in particular it's task of rebuilding the left in collaboration with other parties and tendencies. This and other talks are also available at Wearemany.org.

Shawki is author of Black Liberation and Socialism and editor-in-chief of the International Socialist Review.

Comments

Does this mean that the ISO

Does this mean that the ISO has acknowledged its own mistakes? There are many stories of people being pushed out by bureaucratic centralist process including mine own experience. Reading about the UK SWP meeting processes sounded eerily familiar. If a new and different party can not own up to its mistakes including an understanding of why and how they happened and how not to repeat them its really not all that different. These same things will happen and more people will leave and you will never get back the people that were driven away. Honestly I think the ISO needs to apologize to me and to others who it has mistreated. I doubt it will though.

a new working class party

A task incumbent on the US working class is to build a working class political party, with politics that advance the interests of the working class around the world. The ISO is far from that. It is not based in the working class. It may have a lot of members compared to other left grouplets, but members is not the same as cadre. In addition, the ISO has the deserved reputation for opposing every successful revolution that occurred, in the Soviet Union, China, North Korea, Vietnam. They even advocate overthrowing the working class government of Cuba. Certainly an organization that opposes, not celebrates, the victories of the international working class is not going to amount to much. In addition they give a left cover to imperialist intervention in Libya and Syria.

ISO should be more democratic, less sectarian

Listening to the rhetoric at Socialism 2013, the summer conference run
by the International Socialist Organization (ISO), a group claiming to
have the largest membership on the American revolutionary left, one
would get the impression that the ISO was moving in a less sectarian
and more internally democratic direction. Unfortunately, this does not
seem to be the case. This is frustrating for those of us who believe a
more accountable organization with significantly fewer ideological
litmus tests could be larger and more effective without moving
rightward.

An example of this apparent newfound openness to debate and
willingness to work with others can be found in remarks made at the
conference by leading ISO member Ahmed Shawki (available at
WeAreMany.org).

"We have to become a place which is habitable to people moving in a
radical direction," Shawki said. "And also the place that becomes a
home to people who will not share every dotted eye and crossed 't' on
perspective."

Elevating the need for "vigorous debate," Shawki said that in order
to"move beyond the margins of the left" socialists must stop insisting
on "a common line on every question." He even suggested the ISO would
be interested in merging with other organizations, were there any of
comparable size.

And yet this seeming glasnost only goes so far. Pham Binh, a former
member who was with the organization for the better part of a decade,
recently wrote a detailed critique of the ISO's structure and
practice. He submitted the piece to SocialistWorker.org and it was
rejected. A link to the piece that was posted on the Socialist
Worker's Facebook page was promptly deleted. As far as I am aware, the
organization's leadership has not acknowledged the critique
whatsoever.

In his piece, which is titled "Thinking of Joining the ISO?" and is
available at TheNorthStar.info, Binh explains how the ISO uses a
closed-slate election system.

"The previous year’s Steering Committee submits the coming year’s
Steering Committee to the convention as a single bloc for an
up-or-down vote by a show of hands rather than a secret ballot," Binh
writes.

A single Steering Committee member cannot be challenged without
offering a whole new slate of a dozen names. As a result, Binh writes,
"as far as anyone knows, the ISO has never had a competitive election
for its Steering Committee since it was founded in 1977."

Rank-and-file members are kept in the dark about everything from the
organization's size to its assets, so much so that most members,
according to Binh, are unaware the ISO violated its support for the
Palestinian boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign by
purchasing and selling thousands of dollars worth of Caterpillar
stock.

Additionally, the ISO insists on an ideological uniformity that
stifles the goal of increased membership, which would require a
big-tent organization.

"As you begin going to study groups," Binh writes, "you discover the
ISO as an organization has a whole range of positions on theoretical,
historical, and foreign policy questions ranging from topics like
privilege and the one-state solution in Palestine to Trotsky’s theory
of permanent revolution that you are expected (or even duty-bound) to
defend even if you personally disagree with them."

Search the archives of SocialistWorker.org, an ISO publication, and
you will find the socialist intellectual Noam Chomsky quoted
approvingly quite frequently. Yet the range of debate within the ISO
is so limited that Chomsky, who has called the Bolshevik Revolution a
"coup," would presumably be drummed out of the group. At the very
least he would likely not be allowed to express his views on the
matter in ISO publications. And when the most widely-respected,
living, anti-capitalist intellectual might not be able to make a home
in your organization, that's a decent indication you're too sectarian.

That socialists must share an exact interpretation of an historical
event that happened nearly a century ago in order to coordinate their
class struggle efforts of course makes no sense, as Binh points out.
Obviously capitalist parties don't demand that prospective members
accept a specific interpretation of, say, World War I, in order to
join the organization. That would be ridiculous.

The ISO's constant turnover and membership plateau, two things the
group itself admits to be problems, should come as no surprise given
the organization's narrow-mindedness and anti-democratic structure.
Who wants to belong to what, in many ways, I'm sorry to say, amounts
to a cult-like sect, however well-intentioned it may be?

Let me be clear about my relationship to the ISO so I'm not accused of
having a personal axe to grind. I attended some meetings of the
organization's Burlington branch in my freshman year of college. I was
impressed by the members' political knowledge and commitment, but I
did not join the group because I was uncomfortable identifying as a
Trotskyist, as I remain today. I've been a semi-regular reader of
SocialistWorker.org for many years, and have been published on the
site. I have recommended the site to members of my community, and took
out a subscription to the print edition for my hometown library. ISO
writers have greatly sharpened my thinking, dull as it still might be,
and I have great respect for all the rank-and-file members with whom
I've come in contact. So when I say this isn't personal, I mean it.

Readers might ask, why not just start a new organization? To which the
answer is, perhaps we should! But the ISO—with its dedicated
membership, excellent writing staff, and well-respected publishing arm
in Haymarket Books—is influential on today's far left. By criticizing
the organization constructively we may help it reform itself. At
worst, we may help ensure that a future group doesn't make the same
mistakes.

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