The ISO on Cliff on Trotsky on substitutionism (what a lousy title)

Before I joined the ISO in 1991, I was part of a study group with comrades from various socialist groups and some of the leading activists from the Barnard/Columbia Anti-War Committee, which for some reason we pronounced “B-kawk,” like the sound a chicken makes. After a couple months, I decided to join the ISO, putting us more or less over the 150 mark. A couple weeks later, as we marched through the West Village with Act Up, I ran into a comrade from Socialist Action who shouted through the crowd, “You joined the wrong group!” Later, an older member from Solidarity sat me down and gave me a stern warning.

Why did I join the ISO?

I spent 9 months in El Salvador and Nicaragua in 1989 and 1990. There I became convinced that the U.S. Empire would not permit progressive change internationally, so it had to be confronted internally.

And, I witnessed Daniel Ortega’s naked betrayal of rank-and-file Sandinismo when he and his brother called out the army to break general strikes in order to hand power over to U.S.-backed Violeta Chamorro. It was one thing to respect the election results — though many rank-and-file Sandinistas in barrio Máximo Jerez where I lived preferred to arrest Chamorro and dare Bush I to invade — it was quite another to bash open the state-property piñata to enrich himself and his cronies.

Thus, the ISO’s clear anti-imperialism and its critique of socialism or Sandinismo from above attracted me. But that was not enough. While I understood the ISO’s assessment that the Soviet Union was a state capitalist regime, I could never fully shake Trotsky’s analysis describing it as a degenerated workers state. It may sound odd today, but I hesitated for some time over this question.

In the end, I joined the ISO because I believed its analysis was plausible (what JM and I call “in the ball park” or within a “bandwidth” of reasonable theoretical claims) and the ISO’s members were dynamic, young, and personable organizers… and they were ambitious.

Returning home from witnessing the wars in Central America to join in mass marches, civil disobedience, and occupations against Bush I’s invasion of Iraq, I was in no mood to wait around for objective conditions to improve. I wanted to organize for socialism and fight to build a party. The ISO’s ambition to do so sealed the deal for me. And a year later, when I went to the 5-6,000-strong British SWP’s Marxism conference, I believed I had glimpsed the future of what we could become.

On the one hand, if you wanted to write up a perfect recipe for voluntarism — a belief that force of will and small groups can change the world — there it is. On the other hand, the ISO explicitly took this danger into account and constantly polemicized against the threat of radical political parties (and especially their leaderships) substituting themselves for the masses a la Ortega or Stalin or Mao. (Che was always thrown into the list, something which I never fully accepted, but that’s for another time.)

I still have a mimeographed copy of a 1960 article by the founder of the International Socialist Tendency Tony Cliff titled, “Trotsky on Substitutionism.” Cliff wrote this when he was in his Luxemburgist frame of mind and it is a clear-headed analysis of how revolutionary parties, even genuine mass parties like the Bolsheviks, face the constant danger of putting themselves above the working class instead of acting as a part of it, and leaders in such a party can easily substitute themselves and their own discussions and debates for democratic participation.

While the piece focuses on Russian conditions, Cliff argues that any political project must take into account the following:

The party has to be subordinated to the whole. And so the internal regime in the revolutionary party must be subordinated to the relation between the party and the class. The managers of factories can discuss their business in secret and then put before the workers a fait accompli. The revolutionary party that seeks to overthrow capitalism cannot accept the notion of a discussion on policies inside the party without the participation of the mass of the workers – policies which are then brought “unanimously” ready-made to the class. Since the revolutionary party cannot have interests apart from the class, all the party’s issues of policy are those of the class, and they should therefore be thrashed out in the open, in its presence. The freedom of discussion which exists in the factory meeting, which aims at unity of action after decisions are taken, should apply to the revolutionary party. This means that all discussions on basic issues of policy should be discussed in the light of day: in the open press. Let the mass of the workers take part in the discussion, put pressure on the party, its apparatus and leadership.

Now this is very good advice, but like all good advice, it is easier to apply it to others than to oneself… a problem that Cliff himself stumbled over badly.

In the end, the ISO had two dialectally-intertwined obstacles. We couldn’t do anything about objectively-given circumstances, the neoliberal defeat of the working class and oppressed. And although we struggled mightily against subjectively-generated internal shortcomings, by the time the objective situation finally changed (2017-19), our shortcomings undid us. As JM says, it was always a race against time.

Which brings me to a peculiarity that marked the ISO off from our kin in the international Trotskyist movement. Now this is a very big generalization, so please take it as a provisional thesis.

When Trotsky and his co-thinkers founded the Fourth International (to replace the Stalinist-dominated Third International) in 1938, he wrote a pamphlet called “The Transitional Program.” It is still worth reading today. In it, Trotsky tries to demonstrate how revolutionary socialists can make themselves relevant to mass struggle by fighting for concrete demands in the interests of ordinary working-class people in such a way that these battles open up “transitions” from one state of struggle. The idea is not to win reforms for the sake of reforms, but to launch an escalating assault on the entire system in which workers can see for themselves why they cannot stop fighting until they take power.

Unfortunately, the Trotskyist movement was never able to implement this program because its tiny forces were marginalized by Stalinism and social democracy. Compounding the difficulty, a tendency developed among Trotsky’s followers after his assassination in 1940 to see the program as a formula that might propel them out of their isolation. Thus, splits proceeded based on small groups attempting to perfect the program. If only just the right demands could be developed, then the program could speak to whole layers of the working class.

I was trained in the ISO to deprecate these “orthodox” Trotskyists, a fault that I began to overcome in the last ten years, mostly through translation and international solidarity work. I doubt 10 percent of ISO members have ever read the Transitional Program. There’s a kernel of truth in the ISO’s critique, but many comrades from around the world put the program, and the method behind it, to good use in ways we knew little about for too long.

But insofar as there were comrades who made a fetish out of the program, we created our own fetish: the organization and its perspectives. As with the program, there is a logic to our own fetish. That is, rather than making large-scale predictions about which demands might appeal to millions, the ISO always focused sharply on what we might be capable of doing given our existing forces. Rather than the program moving millions, we asked how our organization of hundreds might move a small layer in our immediate periphery. Normally this layer ranged into the hundreds, while at others it might include thousands or hundreds of thousands — more on those instances below.

The strength of this method was that it kept our feet on the ground and it allowed us to  propagandize for socialism, its weakness was that it limited our vision and tended to make us inflate the importance of whatever we decided to do in opposition to other reasonable areas of work or methods. For instance, setting aside organizational animosity and perfectly natural human friction (which was a two-way street with comrades in Solidarity), it should not have taken us so long to develop a better working relationship with Labor Notes. And, sometime between 20 or 30 or 40 years after the fact, we ought to have publicly (not in back rooms) discussed a merger with Solidarity itself, and possibly others. At least part of the barrier to such moves was a too-strident critique on our part about long-term, base-building work inside unions. The Philly Socialists and others have tried to show that such work in neighborhoods and communities need not theoretically be counterposed to open socialist recruitment, education, short-term initiatives, etc. But we assumed (not without some reason) that it was in most instances.

Furthermore, in the absence of powerful class or social movements to discipline the ISO (or anyone) to loyalty to their own needs and dilemmas, we found it relatively easy to move from priority to priority at a fairly dizzying pace. In sum, we placed a bet that it was better, in general, to trade size for roots. Comrades from Solidarity essentially placed the opposite bet. Over time, we each developed a bit of both, but left the contradiction unresolved.

In general, my opinion is that no left current was able to get very far in the neoliberal period. No one figured out “the” way to organize a vibrant socialist, class-based, multiracial, multigender movement and/or organization because the power of capital on the offensive was simply to great. The ISO cannot be blamed for failing to achieve the impossible. We can critique ourselves (and others can join in) for tending to see the method we choose to pursue as inherently superior to others or, on our worst days, identical with what we called Bolshevism. And we should connect this shortcoming to damaging internal methods that took their greatest toll on comrades from oppressed backgrounds, but also impacted trade union activists and the organizational as a whole.

So how, for better and for worse, did voluntarism and substitutionism actually work in the ISO? Tune in next time.


**Couldn’t think of a better way to illustrate the dangers of substitutionism than a pic from reading Kevin Anderson’s excellent book at an A’s game some years ago as the only ISO member in a crowd to 10,000… Hey, it was the A’s on a weekday.