Paul Le Blanc -- Why I'm joining the US International Socialist Organization: Intensifying the struggle for social change
By Paul Le Blanc
October 2009 -- I have decided to join the International Socialist Organization (ISO) because I believe socialists can and must, at this moment, intensify the struggle to bring about positive social change. I have been active in this struggle for most of my life -- as a member of the "new left" in the 1960s and early '70s (first in Students for a Democratic Society and briefly in the New American Movement), then in the Trotskyist movement (the Socialist Workers Party for ten years, briefly in Socialist Action, the Fourth Internationalist Tendency for another eight years). I have always considered "Trotskyism" as the same as revolutionary socialism, associated with some of the most useful ideas and most inspiring traditions that ever existed -- something I will come back to shortly.
Since 1992 I have been a member of Solidarity, which over the years has attracted a number of fine people who have done excellent work, although it has never proved able to sustain a membership of more than 300. I feel I have done all that I can to help build Solidarity. At this point I believe I may have more to contribute to building the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and am hopeful that the ISO can play a badly needed role in the intensification of the struggle to bring fundamental social change.
In this decision, I feel there is a continuity with commitments and efforts of more than four decades, and I definitely do not intend to cut myself off from the friends and comrades in other organisations. I want to touch on such things more in this statement, but first I want to emphasise the sense of urgency that has caused me to take this step.
Urgency and hope
Developments unfolding over the past decade have been propelling me in this direction. These include the horrific events taking place in my own country on September 11, 2001, combined with the horrific events involved in the subsequent invasions and occupations by my own country of Iraq and Afghanistan -- making me feel a greater urgency than ever that we must eliminate the underlying causes of such deadly horrors.
There were also ten years of right-wing Republican Party rule under George W. Bush -- in which big money and fear and lies and bigotry were used to fabricate a "virtual reality" that seduced many millions of good people, hurt in multiple ways by the policies they were being fooled into supporting. No less instructive has been the performance of the Democratic Party, which vacillated between, on the one hand, assuming conservative postures to "out-Republican" the Republicans, and on the other hand assuming a more liberal and "progressive" posture while being no less tied to preserving the power of the multinational corporations at the expense of the rest of us. Time and again we have experienced stirring and hopeful rhetoric being hollowed out by pathetically disappointing performance.
Particularly sobering has been the impact of what is gently referred to as "the economic downturn", which has been -- and will continue to be -- so damaging for many millions in my own country, and for billions worldwide, even as politicians and governments rally to put the best face on it all and to assist the big corporations, banks and wealthy businessmen who have done this to us. Even more sobering is the ongoing degradation of the Earth's ecosystem, the dramatic acceleration of global warming, the multiple forms of pollution and poisoning that have become so much a part of the world around us.
There is something more hopeful that also motivates me. It is related to the saying, "Because things are as they are, they will not stay as they are." The terrible things that have been happening have caused more and more people to think, and to think again, and to think more deeply -- to go to the root of these problems, which is the original definition of the word radical. There is a radicalisation process that has been going on in our society. Barak Obama recognised this when he campaigned for the US presidency -- and because so many millions of people responded so hopefully to the inspiring radicalism of his rhetoric, he was able to win. But there is a growing realisation among millions of people that his victory was not our victory.
There is a potential for the crystallisation of a mass radical movement in our country -- one that can push effectively against the terrible and destructive realities that have become so evident, and that can help to bring about another world than the one in which we find ourselves.
Socialism and the future of the working class
I want to see a world in which humanity's economic resources are socially owned, democratically controlled, and utilised to allow for the free development of all people, and this in a manner that does not threaten to destroy the thin film of life which covers our planet. That is the definition of socialism. This is something I have believed in since I was 16 years old, a belief shared with members of my family going back at least three generations before I came into this life. It stands in contrast to bureaucratic tyrannies and paternalistic compromises that have sometimes been called "socialist". Socialism means rule by the people over our political and economic life, with liberty and justice for all.
A majority of the people that I have known and loved and cared about are, like myself, part of a vast and multifaceted working class -- those who make a living (or are dependent on a family member making a living) through selling one's ability to work for a pay cheque. This is the class whose energy and creative labours make our society possible. Men and women of all races and ethnic backgrounds and national origins, of all ages and religious persuasions, of all sexual orientations, of all cultural preferences, of multiple occupations -- that's us, the US working class. Each and every one of us has a right to the tree of life, and we can make that happen if we join together in a struggle to make it so.
The ISO is committed to this majority class taking political power in order to establish a socialist democracy. The ISO seeks to help people understand, struggle against, and put an end to all forms of oppression -- seeing the source of much of this oppression flowing necessarily from the authoritarian, amoral, destructive qualities inherent in the capitalist system. The ISO believes, as I have believed for many years, that only through the struggles and triumph of the working-class majority -- through winning the battle of democracy -- can we bring about a better world.
Revolutionary Marxism and US revolutionary traditions
There are other organisations sharing these commitments. Many of them -- like the ISO -- also share a connection with the theoretical and political tradition associated with Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, developed as part of the working-class movement in the 19th century. Carrying this Marxist orientation into the 20th century were such revolutionaries as Rosa Luxemburg, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, Leon Trotsky, Antonio Gramsci and others. Times have changed since these people lived and died. But the intellectual and political tools that such people developed -- basing themselves on profound analyses and the experiences (both defeats and victories) of mass struggles -- still have relevance for our own time. It is important to me to be part of the political tradition associated with them.
There is more. The revolutionary democratic ideology one finds in the US Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address, and even in some of the wording of the Pledge of Allegiance, is at the core of my own beliefs. I draw inspiration especially from the most radical of the American revolutionaries, such as Tom Paine. I identify with those who sought to make our early republic live up to its revolutionary democratic ideals -- Francis Wright, William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frederick Douglass, and many more.
I am no less influenced by such radical pacifists as Dorothy Day, A.J. Muste and Martin Luther King, Jr. I am inspired by the contributions to our democratic culture of such people as Henry David Thoreau, Margaret Fuller, Herman Melville, Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg, Claude McKay, Woody Guthrie, Langston Hughes, Mary McCarthy, and C.L.R. James. I identify fiercely with the radical labour traditions associated with such people as Albert Parsons, "Mother" Mary Jones, Eugene V. Debs, "Big Bill" Haywood, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Ben Fletcher, A. Philip Randolph, Carlo Tresca, James P. Cannon, Genora Dollinger, and so many, many others.
The question is how can such intertwined traditions be taken seriously and utilised to help bring about the changes we so badly need. It seems to me that the ISO is striving to take these traditions more seriously than some of the other groups have been able to do, and with no hint of apology or embarrassment. I like that very much. But it is heartening to be able to emphasise that there are other groups and currents sharing these very same commitments.
Relevance and openness
The fact that the ISO is by far the largest socialist organisation in the United States today, attracting to revolutionary ideas a much larger number of young activists than any of the others, is very definitely part of the attraction of that organisation for me. I believe this is a reflection of the actual and potential relevance that the ISO has to the US political scene. I believe it is also related to a certain openness that is developing, among the ISO comrades. I have experienced this openness in regard to my own point of view, and I want to address that matter before going on to broader dimensions of this reality.
I have been quite explicit in discussions with ISO comrades about views that are at variance with details of their own specific tradition. I continue to identify with the Fourth International, established by Leon Trotsky and his co-thinkers in the 1930s, and more recently associated with such figures as Ernest Mandel and Livio Maitan and with the on-line journal International Viewpoint. While the ISO had its origins in a British current led by Tony Cliff which left the Fourth International in the early 1950s, I find that the ISO presently maintains a positive relationship with the Fourth International (along with various other international revolutionary currents), and my own ties to it are no obstacle to ISO membership.
I have also been clear with ISO comrades that I continue to adhere to Trotsky's analysis of the USSR as representing a bureaucratically degenerated workers' state, not something called "state capitalism". I don't agree with the "state capitalist" conceptualisation developed by Tony Cliff and his closest co-thinkers. But there are, in fact, already different points of view in the ISO on such questions -- and at the same time an agreement throughout the organisation on what I believe is a key point: the institutionalisation of workers' democracy (including freedom of expression, the right to organise, and other requirements for genuine majority rule) remains essential for any healthy workers' state, and there is no possibility of genuine socialism without that. Lenin was fond of quoting the poet Goethe -- "theory, my friend, is gray, but ever green is the tree of life". As we struggle together for a socialist democracy in the complex swirl of life (in the tradition of Lenin and Trotsky and Luxemburg), we can allow ourselves differences in theoretical conceptualisations regarding what used to be the USSR.
Yet this historical difference does come into play regarding the question of Cuba today. There is a tendency in the ISO to depict the current regime as a variant of "state capitalism". I don't agree with that, nor do I call for the revolutionary overthrow of that regime by the Cuban working class. My own views are similar to those developed in the US Socialist Workers Party by such comrades as Joseph Hansen and George Breitman -- involving critical support while calling for radical reforms to institutionalise workers' democracy. Indeed, my adherence to that position after 1980 (when the SWP's new leadership developed a very uncritical attitude and broke from Trotskyism) was one of the causes for my expulsion.
The positions I share with all ISO comrades -- favouring workers' democracy in Cuba, insisting that the Cuban people themselves must have the decisive say in such matters, and absolutely defending the self-determination of Cuba in the face of imperialist hostility and aggression -- provide ample common ground on which to stand. The kinds of thoughtful evaluations I have heard from some ISO members and supporters in regard to the legacy of Che Guevara and regarding current struggles in Latin America -- Venezuela, Bolivia, Brazil and elsewhere -- also provides much common ground on which to stand.
It is not the case that ISO comrades with whom I have differences are inclined to sweep these under the rug, or to shrug off their own particular theoretical traditions. But neither are they inclined to establish a sectarian Orthodoxy with which to prove their own superiority to all others. Another way of saying this is that the ISO does not see itself as "The Revolutionary Vanguard" -- although it is very much committed to helping create a genuine revolutionary vanguard, that is, an actual layer of the working class having revolutionary class-consciousness that would be the base for a genuinely revolutionary party. It seems to me that ISO comrades are generally inclined toward a serious, and therefore open and critical-minded, approach to the interplay of revolutionary theory and political practice. This makes it possible for us to come together. And it helps the ISO play a valuable role in the struggles of our time.
I have seen the ISO relate very positively to outward-reaching political initiatives in which other political tendencies have considerable influence. As a member of the Political Committee of Solidarity some years back, I worked closely with ISO comrades and others to organise what I think were valuable sessions at gatherings of the World Social Forum movement in Mumbai and Boston. I also was impressed by the serious collaboration of the ISO with Peter Camejo (formerly a leader of the old SWP) in the important effort to build effective left-wing campaigns of the Green Party. There has also been the ISO's very positive approach to the incredibly important Labor Notes project initiated by and to a large extent sustained by comrades who identify with Solidarity.
Another example has been its active engagement in the National Assembly to End the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and Occupations, in which members of Socialist Action have played an outstanding role. Last year the ISO joined together -- in a comradely and fruitful manner -- with many of us who were veterans of the SWP (representing a diversity of perspectives) to help organise a successful and valuable conference on "The Legacy of Leon Trotsky and U.S. Trotskyism" (July 25-27, 2008). And many of us in Pittsburgh can attest to the excellent coalition work the ISO engaged in to help build effective responses to the G-20 Summit [that took] place here in September 2009.
More than this, the pages of the ISO's widely distributed political magazine, International Socialist Review, have for years featured articles by various figures on the US and international left who come from political traditions other than their own. The same is certainly true in regard to the publications of Haymarket Books and of other publishers which the ISO energetically helps to distribute. One finds the same dynamic in regard to the speakers at its impressive educational "Socialism" conferences.
All of this flows, I think, from the ISO's very healthy desire to reach out to more and more people, and also relates to the notion that a future mass working-class socialist party will involve the coming together of activists from different historic traditions -- but with a principled commitment to revolutionary socialism. That is what explains the fine role I have increasingly seen ISO members playing in mass struggles against war, racism, sexism, homophobia; for workers' rights, global justice, human rights, preservation of our planet, and more. I see ISO members gaining experience in building coalitions and united fronts of diverse forces, and in some cases helping to lead such forces in winning victories. At the same time, I see them working hard to spread and deepen socialist consciousness -- which is a precondition for the better world that we so badly need.
Now more than ever is the time to intensify the struggle for social change. In order to do that more effectively, I have decided to join the International Socialist Organization.
[This statement has appeared on several public email lists. Le Blanc has for many years been a teacher and activist in Pittsburgh. His books include Lenin and the Revolutionary Party and A Short History of the US Working Class. His articles in International Viewpoint are available HERE.]