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The Internationalist
June 2019

Max Shachtman, Hal Draper, Tony Cliff...

The ISO and “Socialism from Below”

“With all its flaws,” claims one post mortem, “the ISO remained for several decades a bulwark of Marxism in the U.S. political landscape.” Lamenting the “sudden and rapid demise of the International Socialist Organization” as “bad news for the U.S. left,” the lengthy analysis by Left Voice (4 May) calls the ISO, which dissolved in March, “the once-largest Trotskyist organization in the United States.” Seriously? The ISO, whose program and practice trampled Marxist principle from its inception, was the antithesis of Trotskyism.

That Left Voice would nonetheless make such claims speaks volumes about its modus operandi. The grouping bills itself part of an “international network of revolutionary online publications.” If you keep following the links and scrolling down, you will eventually find that this network is the media outlet of the “Fracción Trotskista.” Led by the Argentine Partido de Trabajadores por el Socialismo (PTS – Party of Workers for Socialism), the FT is an example of what Trotsky called centrism, which sometimes poses as “revolutionary” in words, while opportunist in deeds. In the case of the FT and Left Voice, we are dealing with a form of right centrism whose endless maneuvers require sidling up to larger, reformist groupings. This means scorning as “sectarian” the revolutionary duty to tell it like it is.

Reality Check

In fact, the politics of the ISO were counterposed to Trotsky’s on every key issue. Against the Marxist struggle for political independence of the working class, it avidly campaigned for anti-immigrant populist Ralph Nader, supported the bourgeois Green Party and ran on its ticket. As Bernie Sanders was pulling millennial youth into the Democratic Party, the ISO proclaimed that he put “socialism in the air.” Leninism calls for building a revolutionary workers party as tribune of all the oppressed, for the proletariat as a class to take on the struggle to uproot racial, gender and all other forms of oppression. Counterposed to this, the ISO’s tailing of Democratic Party-aligned “movements” led it to embrace the liberal sectoralism known as “identity politics.” Far from fighting to mobilize the power of the multiracial working class to defeat fascist and racist provocations, the ISO went so far as to ally with Democratic politicians against such efforts.1

To the degree that the ISO had an organized presence in the labor movement, it was to build deeply unprincipled groupings like Teamsters for a Democratic Union, which ran to the U.S. Labor Department and the capitalist courts to win the leadership of the truckers union, which it then handed over to the feds. More recently, the ISO was the prime mover of the Caucus of Rank-and-file Educators (CORE) which runs the Chicago Teachers Union. CTU then vice president Jesse Sharkey, at the time and for many years a prominent ISO supporter, played an essential role in selling out a 2012 school strike, while the union regularly endorsed Democrats from local aldermen and mayor up to the White House.

In New York, the ISO was central to the Movement of Rank-and-file Educators (MORE) in the United Federation of Teachers. In August 2014, MORE notoriously denounced the union from the right for endorsing a Staten Island march against the racist police murder of Eric Garner and called to “unite” with the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association and “our brother and sister officers” of the NYPD. In Los Angeles, prominent ISOers have joined the ruling pro-Democratic Party teachers union bureaucracy, helping ram through the sellout contract that ended the L.A. teachers strike this past January.2 These are but a few key examples of what ISO politics meant in reality on its home turf.

“The Decisive Criterion”

Echoing key themes of U.S. imperialism from the Cold War to today, the ISO was created in visceral opposition to what Trotsky always considered central to the movement he founded. This was the revolutionary Marxist position on the “Russian Question,” which the founder of U.S. Trotskyism, James P. Cannon, called “the decisive criterion separating the genuine revolutionary tendency from all shades and degrees of waverers, backsliders and capitulators to the pressure of the bourgeois world” (“Speech on the Russian Question,” October 1939). Though this is dismissed by “left” philistines as ancient history, the world we live in today was shaped by the revolutionary creation of the Soviet state in the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, its Stalinist degeneration under the relentless pressure of world imperialism, and the wave of capitalist counterrevolutions that were hailed by the ISO.

For Trotsky, Cannon and their co-thinkers, the duty of every class-conscious worker was intransigent defense of the Soviet Union, a bureaucratically degenerated workers state, against world imperialism. The capitalist class internationally, and U.S. imperialism above all, viewed the very existence of the USSR – derived from the biggest victory the working class had ever achieved, the October Revolution of 1917 – as a threat to its domination. Trotsky and his Fourth International explained that their “unconditional military defense” of the USSR went together with the struggle for a “proletarian political revolution” to oust the Stalinist bureaucracy that treacherously undermined the gains of the revolution. Only this, restoring the proletarian democracy of the soviets (workers councils) and the program of world revolution, could prevent capitalist restoration and open the way toward socialism.

Two ghouls of socialism. (Left) Tony Cliff. (Right) Max Shachtman.

Against Trotsky and Cannon, anti-Soviet “socialists” such as Max Shachtman in the United States and Tony Cliff in Britain broke with Trotskyism to proclaim what they called a “Third Camp” (“Neither Washington nor Moscow but international socialism”) that time and again lined up with U.S. imperialism. What has the capitalist counterrevolution that destroyed the USSR meant for the working class and oppressed peoples around the world? This historic defeat – cheered on by the ISO and its British co-thinkers at the time – brought massive impoverishment and nationalist fratricide, while emboldening the U.S. ruling class for mass murder abroad and an onslaught on workers and the oppressed “at home.”

Cliff and Cold War “Socialism”

Left Voice’s article refers to what it correctly calls the ISO’s “Cliffite tradition” – that is, the fact that the ISO was created, shaped and led by followers of the late Tony Cliff, founder of the “International Socialist Tendency” (centered on what is today the British Socialist Workers Party). It focuses on Cliff’s recipes for party-building in a “downturn” of class struggle. It favorably cites a related article by Cliff’s fellow proponent of “Third Camp socialism,” Hal Draper. For decades a lieutenant of Max Shachtman, who led the anti-Soviet opposition to Trotsky and Cannon in the historic 1939-40 split over the Russian Question, Draper founded one of the ISO’s predecessor groups, and coined its motto of “socialism from below.”

Yet Left Voice’s article is an exercise in evasion. This almost 4,000-word piece manages to say not a word about the central defining feature of the ISO’s “Cliffite tradition” and so-called “socialism from below”: virulent opposition to the Trotskyist position defending the former Soviet Union, and the remaining bureaucratically deformed workers states, against imperialism and counterrevolution. ISOers were taught to revile as “ortho-Trots” the upholders of Trotsky’s position, put forward in crucial works like The Revolution Betrayed and In Defense of Marxism, the record of his final struggle, against what he rightly characterized as the “petty-bourgeois opposition” of Shachtman, Draper & Co.

The calling card of Cliff and his followers was his “theory of state capitalism.” This was such a vulgar pretext for anti-communism that it literally stated that the USSR participating in the “arms race” – against the U.S. imperialists who dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and repeatedly threatened to use them against the Soviet bloc and colonial peoples – constituted “competition,” thereby “proving” it was a capitalist country. Indeed, the Cliff tendency’s demonstrative break with the Trotskyist movement came during the Korean War, which it grotesquely characterized as a war between two “imperialisms,” publicly denouncing the Fourth International’s elementary revolutionary position of defending North Korea and China against the genocidal onslaught of U.S. imperialism.

As for Mr. “Socialism from Below,” Hal Draper, he was the editor of Shachtman’s Labor Action (28 September 1953) when it boasted that propaganda leaflets by Shachtman and the Socialist Party of Norman Thomas had been dropped “by U.S. bombers ... presumably through the sponsorship of the State Department,” during that war. This was cited as evidence by the Shachtmanites to show that as an anti-communist group, the Independent Socialist League of Shachtman and Draper should not be included on the government’s “subversive list.”3

Once Again, “Left Voice” of Social Democracy

Of course, while shamelessly burnishing the ex-ISO’s credentials as a supposed “bulwark of Marxism,” Left Voice does chide it for some things. These include what Left Voice calls “missteps around Obama’s election” such as the infamous cover of the ISO’s journal International Socialist Review (January 2009) celebrating the election with a rising sun, clenched fist and the title “Politics and Struggle in a New Era. Yes We Can!”4 In large part, their critique of the ISO centers on its failure to pursue an orientation to labor based on what Left Voice calls a “rank-and-file strategy.” In reality, “rank-and-fileism” has characteristically been a pretext for opportunist blocs counterposed to building a revolutionary leadership based on a clear class-struggle program. On its own home turf, Left Voice avidly promotes the aggressively anti-communist “CUNY Struggle” grad-student grouping at the City University of New York.5

No doubt, what Left Voice does and doesn’t say about the ISO is partly a matter of flattering former members in the hopes of gaining some recruits on the cheap. Yet that is only part of the story. More fundamentally, Left Voice presents itself as part of a confraternity of well-intentioned soft “socialists” to whom it can offer helpful pointers because, despite pretensions to “Leninism,” it is largely on the same wavelength as its social-democratic cousins. It joined the ISO in enthusing over the growth of the DSA and its electoral successes, lightly saucing this with “comradely” critical commentary and friendly suggestions. Like the ex-ISO, Left Voice assiduously tails every new “movement,” notably the feminism that the ISO embraced and which wound up putting the final nails in its coffin.

At the level of theoretical abstraction the Fracción Trotskista, of which Left Voice is the U.S. affiliate, postures as more “orthodox,” but its day-to-day political work is governed by opportunism and tailism. If the reformist ISO’s political method was to place itself a step to the left of the liberals and nudge them in that direction, the right-centrist FT’s is to do the same with each new “movement” and the reformist left. In line with this, it presents its denatured “Trotskyism” as part of a continuum with fellow “socialists” like the ex-ISO, the DSA et al. Far from a sharp break with the reformists, drawing a clear line of demarcation against their phony “socialism,” it graces them with advice, critiques and suggestions for doing a better job. As Trotsky noted, a centrist organization, always dependent on groupings to its right, “views with hatred the revolutionary principle: state what is,” substituting “maneuvering and petty organizational diplomacy” for the principled policy of revolutionary Marxism (“Centrism and the Fourth International,” February 1934).

The Left Voice/FT “project” of making their claims to represent Trotskyism amenable to anti-communist social democrats cannot, to say the least, be squared with Trotsky’s position on the Russian Question. The “anti-Trotskyist ‘Fraction’ links arms with the latter-day Cliffites of the ISO and the left-over Shachtmanites of the DSA” over North Korea, as we noted in “‘Socialists’ Who Capitulate to Imperialism” (The Internationalist No. 50, Winter 2017). Left Voice has repeatedly chimed in with scare-mongering imperialist war propaganda against North Korea’s efforts to develop a nuclear deterrent in the face of threats by the U.S., which flattened all its cities and murdered 3 million in the Korean War.

Nahuel Moreno. The Trotskyist Fraction claims to have broken with Morenoism but maintains its “democratist” strategy.

This goes back to the origins of their tendency. As we wrote: “When it comes to bedrock Trotskyist principles, the PTS and FT were marked from their inception by their rejection of Trotsky’s intransigent defense of the USSR against world imperialism, as they tailed the capitalist counterrevolution that destroyed the Soviet-bloc degenerated and deformed workers states in 1989-92.” In this they were following in the footsteps of their progenitor, the Argentine pseudo-Trotskyist Nahuel Moreno, who was so viscerally anti-Soviet that he hailed the (U.S.-armed, trained and financed) Islamist mujahedin in their “holy war” against Soviet intervention in defense of a reform government in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

In his famous “Speech on the Russian Question,” Cannon emphasized that it draws “a sharp dividing line through the labor movement of all countries.” Lauding the Cliffites of the ISO as fellow supposed “Trotskyists” is one more example of which side of that line the misnamed “Fracción Trotskista” is actually on. Today, as China faces growing military threats and trade war from U.S. imperialism, the FT joins a host of other anti-Trotskyists in echoing claims that China is supposedly capitalist. In contrast, having intransigently defended the former USSR during the anti-Soviet Cold War, the Internationalist Group and League for the Fourth International uphold the Trotskyist program defending the Chinese bureaucratically deformed workers state against imperialism and counterrevolution.

The Low-Down on “Socialism from Below”

“We must continue to fight for socialism from below” was the title of one of the final pieces on the International Socialist Organization’s website (socialistworker.org, 29 March). This was a common refrain from many who had been its members and were bidding adieu upon its demise. From its inception, the ISO summed up its politics with the motto “socialism from below.” To understand how far those politics are from genuine Marxism, it is important to look at where the mantra comes from.

Its author was Hal Draper, who had served for decades as a key lieutenant of Max Shachtman, and followed him into arch-Cold Warrior Norman Thomas’ Socialist Party in the late 1950s. But when his mentor supported the Bay of Pigs invasion, Draper, together with future ISO leader Joel Geier (then a student at UCal Berkeley) and others, parted ways with him and founded the Independent Socialist Committee (subsequently International Socialists), one of the predecessors of the ISO.

In the mid-’60s, amidst the growth of the New Left, Draper coined “socialism from below” to repackage Third Camp “anti-totalitarianism” for sectors disillusioned with standard Cold War liberalism but loath to risk association with “the other side.” Marketing this toxic content with a simple, catchy phrase, the slogan was the political equivalent of an advertising jingle, It sought to sell the same old “socialist” anti-communism in friendlier-sounding form for the New Left generation. (Most – repelled by decades of anti-red propaganda and inspired by defeats inflicted on U.S. imperialism by the Cuban Revolution and the heroic “Viet Cong” – weren’t buying.)

The gospel according to Hal Draper.

The “socialism from below” motto was rolled out in “The Two Souls of Socialism” (1966), Draper’s best-known work. This short course in revisionist history was promoted by the ISO to the bitter end. (See, for example: Joel Geier, “Hal Draper’s contribution to revolutionary Marxism – Socialism from below,” in the ISO’s International Socialist Review, Winter 2017-18.)

Draper’s piece is a morality play of totalitarian-minded bad guys standing for “socialism from above” versus democratic good guys advocating “socialism from below.” For the purposes of this construct and its dumbed-down motto, no amalgam is too crude or ahistorical. Founders of anarchism like Mikhail Bakunin are tossed into the “socialism-from-above” bag (together with Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong and others). Draper casts Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels among the “from below” crowd, though Bakunin denounced them as seeking to transform society from “above,” since they insisted on the need for the working class to seize power and build a workers state. Thus, against those who counseled the workers to put their confidence in enlightened bourgeois rulers, Marx and Engels underlined that the “emancipation of the working class must be the act of the working class itself.” Only workers rule, the “dictatorship of the proletariat,” they explained, could lay the basis for a classless, stateless socialist society. And this requires revolutionary leadership.6

Engels demolished Bakunin’s vapid demagogy about how “all revolutionary action from above was an evil, and everything should be organized and carried through from below” (“The Bakuninists at Work” [1873]). As for Lenin, opponents of Bolshevism have long pushed the anti-communist claim that his insistence on a democratic-centralist vanguard party, and on the role of the workers state as a weapon in the class struggle, both domestically and internationally, supposedly led “logically” to Stalinism.

Lenin’s classic 1904 polemic against the Mensheviks, “One Step Forward, Two Steps Back,” denounced their “hostility to the idea of building the Party from the top downwards, starting from the Party Congress and the bodies set up by it,” and their empty chatter about building it “from the bottom upwards, allowing every professor, every high school student and ‘every striker’ to declare himself a member.” The fight for revolutionary leadership has nothing in common with the advertising jingle that Draper came up with to sell “Third Camp socialism” – that is, capitulation to the U.S. imperialists who ran roughshod over the world and rained death “from above,” from Hiroshima to Korea to Vietnam.

Today, resolving what Trotsky’s “Transitional Program” of the Fourth International called the “historical crisis of leadership of the proletariat” is the central, urgent task. Unmasking the fraud of “socialism from below,” and the anti-communist heritage of Max Shachtman, Hal Draper, Tony Cliff et al., is an element of that struggle. ■

The above article is part of the Internationalist Group pamphlet, Left Reformists in Existential Crisis (June 2019). To download a pdf copy of the pamphlet click here. To order a print copy of the pamphlet, click here.

  1. 1. See, for example,“ Portland Labor Mobilizes to Stop Fascist Provocation” and “How Do You Spell Class Collaboration? ISO,” in The Internationalist No. 48, May-June 2017.
  2. 2. See the article by Class Struggle Education Workers, “Powerful L.A. Teachers Strike Was Betrayed in Settlement,” The Internationalist No. 55, Winter 2019.
  3. 3. The leaflets were stuffed into canisters that were otherwise used in germ warfare and dropped on the Koreans. See “The Real Heritage of Michael Harrington’s DSA,” in International Group pamphlet, DSA: Fronting for the Democrats> (February 2018).
  4. 4. See our article: “The ‘Obama Socialists’,” The Internationalist No. 28, March-April 2009. The day after Obama’s election the ISO plastered NYC’s Hunter College with posters bearing his catchphrase “yes we can” (see “Yesterday’s ‘Obama Socialists,’ Today’s Bernie Boosters,” The Internationalist No. 42, January-February 2016.
  5. 5. See “How They Rammed Through Anti-Red Ban,” Revolution No. 16, May 2019.
  6. 6. In 1973, Draper left the International Socialists, renouncing any pretense of trying to build a Leninist party in an article titled “Anatomy of the Micro-Sect.” Instead, he argued, “the individual socialist who wants to ‘do something’” should make contact with some kind of loose “political center that makes sense from your own point of view,” in hopes of “a genuine socialist movement arising out of such a hang-loose complex of relationships....” The article was favorably cited by a number of those seeking to pin the blame on “Leninism” as the ISO collapsed this year. For many, this will be one more rationale for gravitating to the DSA.