From International Socialist Organization to Central Ohio Revolutionary Socialists

By Coco Smyth

In March of 2019, the International Socialist Organization entered a terminal crisis after a comrade who left the organization revealed the historic leadership’s malicious mishandling of a case of sexual assault within the organization. The release of the information took place soon after the ISO’s 2019 Convention, the most contentious of the organization’s entire history. The subsequent majority vote to dissolve the organization by its remaining members left many on the rest of the left confused, with varying interpretations and perspectives. In the interest of clarifying the meaning of this vote, and the events which led to the formation of CORS and its political trajectory, I will offer a chronological summary of the last months of the ISO.

The lead-up to the 2019 Convention was the most contentious pre-Convention period of the organization’s history. Each year, every branch of the ISO would send delegates to the National Convention, the highest decision-making body of the ISO, to discuss, debate, and decide the organization’s trajectory for the coming year. Notably, the 2019 Convention had a record amount of internal documents, numbering over 1000 pages, written by the membership. Also notable, four different organized tendencies developed in the organization to push forward competing visions and goals for the organization. These four tendencies were the Steering Committee Majority (SC Majority), the Steering Committee Minority (SC Minority), the Socialist Tide (ST), and Independence and Struggle (IS).

Before the Convention, the standing Steering Committee, the highest leadership body in the ISO, split over a number of questions, particularly regarding organizational perspectives and internal culture, as well as relationship to the new socialist movement. The Steering Committee Minority, primarily representing the “old guard” of the ISO leadership supported maintaining the perspectives of the organization, offering few concrete changes. On the other hand, the Steering Committee Majority, comprised generally of more recent additions to the Steering Committee, was for opening up the organization, addressing longstanding criticisms of organizational culture, and creating a more loose and flexible model.

Meanwhile, at the base of the organization, two additional tendencies were created. The first, the Socialist Tide, was comprised of a layer of right-ward moving cadre who both advocated for more democracy, flexibility, and transparency in the organization, in addition to amending the ISO’s historic categorical opposition to the Democratic Party to open up the potential of endorsing “socialist” Democratic Party politicians like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. This tendency perceived the ISO’s refusal to endorse Sanders and his co-thinkers as indicative of sectarian dogmatism within the ISO which would ultimately lead to the organization’s obsolescence in the new socialist movement.

The second member-run tendency was Independence and Struggle. This left tendency argued similarly for greater transparency and democracy in the organization while upholding the ISO’s position of class-independence. The key argument of Independence and Struggle was that, without developing a coherent revolutionary strategy, the ISO would not be able to become a relevant force in the new socialist movement. The focal point of IS’s strategic argument was the need to develop a coherent labor orientation based on strategic implantation and the rank and file strategy while developing an electoral strategy of running revolutionary socialists in elections to cohere a visible base for revolutionaries and make a strategic intervention for radical perspectives on electoral work in contrast to the Democratic “ballot-line strategy” of much of the reformist left.

The Columbus branch of the ISO was in its majority in support of the perspectives of Independence and Struggle and the SC Majority.

Struggle, Disillusion, and Hope: The 2019 ISO National Convention

At the 2019 ISO National Convention in February, the mounting conflict came to a head. While the debate around the democrats was heated throughout the Convention, with the vast majority of members opposing throwing out the position of class independence, the major fault-line revolved around the organizational culture of the ISO. In a particularly important session, comrades of colors recounted the number of ways in which their attempts to form caucuses, engage in independent anti-oppression work, and argue with the ISO’s position on “identity politics” were shot down, unheard, or de-prioritized by local and national leaders of the ISO. The sum of the discussion in this section clearly demonstrated significant flaws in the ISO’s approach to fighting oppression. While the ISO’s theorization of racism, sexism, homophobia was generally quite good, and the organization had an admirable history orienting towards struggles against oppression, there was a clear contradiction between the image the ISO fostered and the real treatment of comrades of marginalized identities. Comrades of color recounted many instances of problematic treatment by leaders of the organization. Particularly, these comrades consistently faced the smear of adhering to “identity politics” rather than Marxism if they brought up criticisms about the internal culture of the ISO or its theory and practice in relation to struggles against oppression.

The leadership elections in the ISO resulted in around 40% of spots for the SC Majority and Independence and Struggle, and 10% for Socialist Tide, with the SC Minority refusing to put themselves up for reelection.

The election results appeared to the vast majority of the ISO membership as a huge victory, and the start of a new path for the ISO; one which was proactively concerned with fore-fronting the leadership of marginalized comrades, developing a healthy and democratic internal culture, and with an ambitious relationship with the growing socialist movement, labor struggles, and elections. Many members were very bruised by the contentious Convention, but there was a subjective feeling of hope among the membership that tomorrow would be a new day for the ISO.

The reveal of the case of sexual assault completely mishandled by the old leadership unraveled this tenuous sense of hope and pushed the organization quickly into a downward spiral. In the ensuing days and weeks, dozens, and soon, hundreds of members resigned from the ISO, often in the form of lengthy criticisms of the organization via social media.

Dissolution and Recomposition: From ISO to CORS

At the ISO Columbus branch’s first meeting after the release of information regarding the sexual assault, comrades moved quickly from shock to a vote to conditionally split with the ISO. The Columbus branch had planned to write a document outlining a list of demands to the organization regarding the handling of the disciplinary process as conditions for reentry into the organization. While many of these original demands, such as the expulsion or immediate suspension with investigation of the accused and the historic leadership were quickly adopted, the quick unraveling of the ISO nullified these demands. Only a couple of weeks from the initial revelation, the organization voted in its majority to dissolve itself.

During those weeks, members of the ISO Columbus branch spent many hours reflecting together about our experience of the organization, and particularly the errors we had made. The crisis and dissolution of the ISO allowed members, and especially local leaders, to reflect with new eyes on our experiences and actions over the years, leading many to recognize a number of negative tendencies, particularly in relation to organizational culture, that some had previously been quite dismissive of. Among these errors were an implicitly elitist understanding of “cadre,” a dismissive attitude towards identity politics, a fear of strategic disagreement, a rigidly schematic approach to internal organization, a tailist relationship to social struggles, and a moralistic attitude towards differing levels of involvement in the group.

While our local branch generally avoided the worst manifestations of the toxic organizational culture at play in the national leadership and among many branches, the various errors we made at particular junctures led to the burning of bridges with a number of comrades, strained relationships, prevalent burnout, and dampened success in our relationship to working class struggles.

In the process of founding Central Ohio Revolutionary Socialists, a local communist collective, we have drawn a number of positive and negative lessons from the organization which many of us had been trained in. Some of the positives we seek to build on are the need for independent organizations of revolutionary socialists, a clear line of class-independence from bourgeois parties and their candidates, a focus on the education of comrades and working people on the theory and history of our movement, and a commitment to active intervention in both social and labor struggles. Critically, we aim to distance ourselves from an interpretation of “Leninism” which confuses strategic and principled debate (raising tactical and strategic disagreement to unbridgeable antagonisms), seeks to preserve particular doctrines rather than utilizing Marxism as an open and living system which integrates the lessons of views outside of its own specific tradition, shies away from base-building and long-term strategic planning in favor of “hopping” from one popular social movement to another, and places too much emphasis on the generative power of cadre and leaders instead of creating a dialectical leadership between leaders, membership, and the working class itself.

It is necessary to emphasize that Central Ohio Revolutionary Socialists is only at its beginning. It is comprised of a small group of committed communists who, in the main, are quite new to the organized left. Of necessity, there are many, many things to work out on the level of theory and strategy which we will have to learn through practice. We are only beginning to conceptualize our potential relationship with struggles here and to the left nationally and abroad. But, while we are still at our humble beginnings, I have confidence that Central Ohio Revolutionary Socialists will contribute a crucial element to the development of a revolutionary communist movement in our city and hopefully much further.

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About the author

Coco Smyth


Coco is a member of CORS.