ISA 13th World Congress: Preparing for new twists and turns in the ‘age of disorder’

Report from International Socialist Alternative’s World Congress

Danny Byrne, ISA International Executive

(This article was first published on 15 February 2023)

Between 30 January and 5 February, over 100 delegates and visitors participated in International Socialist Alternative’s 13th World Congress. Participants hailed from over 30 countries, across all continents.

Most delegates participated in person, gathering in Belgium. Others were forced to participate in the congress’ proceedings online, some denied visas due to the racist policies of our mortal enemies — the capitalists and imperialists worldwide — and others unable to travel due to war and imperialism. Most importantly, we emerge from this congress in a stronger position to turn our full attention to bringing about the overthrow of these decadent powers, through a mass movement of the organized working class and oppressed internationally.

The World Congress is ISA’s highest decision making body. Elected delegates from all sections discuss, debate and decide on the main lines of ISA’s political programme, organizational plans and orientation, and elect its leadership bodies. World congress is an event which is infinitely more democratic than the stage-managed gatherings held by different shades of pro-capitalist, social democratic or reformist parties around the world. The outgoing leadership does not have a vote (besides an indicative one) in proceedings, and congress can be recalled at any time to hold leading bodies to account.

This congress was an impressive exercise in collective leadership. 36 different comrades gave introductory or concluding speeches in sessions, a number which is greater than the total number of full members of the outgoing International Committee. An appetite for discussion and debate saw sessions repeatedly extended into the evening during a dynamic and lively seven-day meeting.

Age of disorder — Sharpening our analysis

And in the midst of a new “Age of Disorder” in global events — marked by multiple and overlapping historic crises of capitalism — intense discussion and debate is exactly what Marxists need to understand the situation around us and the tasks it poses for us in building the struggle for socialism. In the opening session — introduced by Vincent Kolo and Sonja Grusch, with Serge Jordan closing the session — Financial Times contributing editor Adam Tooze was quoted saying, “Welcome to the world of the polycrisis”.

Dramatic twists and turns on a national, regional and global level, coming in quick succession can be disorientating if they are not understood in the context of deeper processes which illuminate what is happening and why. ISA refers to our attempts to develop such an understanding as “World Perspectives”, and it was with a two-day discussion on this topic which the World Congress began. Two draft documents which had been presented in advance of congress by the outgoing leadership — one on global international trends and processes, another on how these are manifested in different regions — were intensely discussed and amended by delegates before being passed unanimously. The plenary session was supplemented by commissions which discussed events in Europe, Latin America, China and Africa in greater depth.

Following our last world congress in 2020, ISA began to develop a framework which attempts to tie together the manifold threads of capitalist crisis, all with their manifestations in politics and the class struggle. In documents, articles and discussions, we have attempted to draw an outline of a new age of disorder replacing the era of neoliberal globalization, with several key characteristics. These include: deglobalization and the return of the nation state to the fore, a new era dominated by geopolitical (aka inter imperialist) rivalry, with the New Cold War between the US and China at its heart, a deepening political crisis marked by the collapse of the “center” and deep polarization, and a new epoch of revolutionary potential intertwined with counter-revolutionary danger.

Contributions to the discussion from comrades from around the world decidedly confirmed that events have continued to reinforce this framework. While the IMF has recently softened its predictions for the global economic crisis, little optimism is to be found in any bourgeois quarters for the short term future of the system. Different comrades commented on the prospects for the world economy, as the crisis of “stagflation” continues to dominate, now accompanied by new waves of disruption from the calamitous impact of China’s reversion “from zero Covid to maximum Covid”, as Vincent Kolo from the China, Hong Kong, Taiwan section, put it.

Marcus from Brazil and Dagga and Daniel from Nigeria spoke about some of the most important episodes highlighting the political volatility and instability which has spread throughout the world. Only two weeks prior to traveling to the World Congress, Brazilian comrades had to take to the streets in opposition to the Bolsonaristas coup attempt. In Nigeria, crucial presidential elections in February this year will take place in the context of a devastating currency and energy crisis, which is heating up the rivalries between different groups of pro-capitalist political bandits. With Labour Party candidate, Peter Obi, a multi-millionaire, former governor and vice presidential candidate for the ruling parties, now presented as a “newcomer”, currently leading the polls, it remains to be seen if the country’s fragile bourgeois “democratic” institutions can withstand the whirlwind of crises which is converging on the country, hammering its long-suffering population which despite untold misery and bleak prospects, have shown a remarkable willingness to fight in recent years.

Comrades from England, Wales and Scotland and Belgium were among some of those to bring reports of a significant international upswing in workers’ struggles as strike waves and even general strikes return to the order of the day. Nico from Belgium also spoke about France, where an almighty showdown between the classes has been triggered by Macron’s pension counter-reform which will have international ramifications. The ongoing popular revolt in Peru was also examined in interventions by several comrades.

While maybe smaller in scale, perhaps the most momentous protest movement of the recent period has come in China, where brave workers, women and youth made the CCP capitalist tyrants tremble in a short-lived wave of protests against the state brutality which characterized the Zero Covid policy.

Events taking place outside the meeting hall during the week only enriched this understanding of the world. On Saturday (the second to last day of congress), the US military shot down a Chinese surveillance balloon [at the time of writing the first of 4 “unidentified” objects shot down by the US and Canadian military] triggering a new diplomatic escalation in the New Cold War and torpedoing vain hopes for a thawing of relations.

The climate crisis, which featured heavily in discussions throughout the week, claimed dozens of victims as wildfires raged in Chile as the congress met.

Kevin McLoughlin from Ireland reported on a spate of anti-refugee protests, which represent an extremely concerning development through which the racist far-right is beginning to raise its ugly head with greater confidence in Southern Ireland. In this new age of disorder, the threat of reaction goes hand in hand with the potential for progressive radicalisation and socialist change, and as the congress discussed these developments Socialist Party (ISA in Ireland) comrades were organizing a fightback on the ground, building protests to demand working class unity in a mass struggle for homes for all, against racism.

Comrades from Latin America and Erin Brightwell from the United States reported on the crisis facing the various strands of Left reformism in the context of capitalism’s deep crisis. In the latter case, the abject failure of the “Squad” to challenge the Democratic establishment is being further highlighted by the much more effective efforts of the Republican right-wing “Freedom Caucus” to exercise its leverage in the House of Representatives.

Ukraine War

Of course, many bombs fell in Ukraine during the week and many lives were lost on all sides, as this inter-imperialist conflict rages on, moving from one escalation to another. A special day-long session on the war reflected its central importance in world events — another colossal global turning point, coming after the Covid pandemic, which underlines the key features of the Age of Disorder.

The starting point for our anti-war programme, in opposition to the Russian invasion, is that the primary victims of the war — the workers, poor and oppressed of all parts of Ukraine — do not have their interests represented by any “side” of the competing bands of imperialists who have made Ukraine a battlefield in their global power struggle. Congress reaffirmed our commitment to a consistently internationalist, anti-imperialist policy, and support for independent working class resistance to the war on an international scale.

This includes support for an independent armed working class resistance to the Russian invasion in Ukraine itself, which must stand independent from the pro-imperialist Zelensky regime. Such a force could undermine even further the cohesion of the invading Russian troops, with an internationalist class appeal to working class soldiers to join forces in opposing the warmongers and fighting for a better, socialist society. Several comrades spoke about the different programmatic questions such a force would face, including the need for a programme that clearly stands for the right of self-determination both for Ukraine as a nation and for all minorities within its borders to determine their own futures.

Sebastian Rave from Germany spoke about the growing chorus of establishment voices in favor of greater escalation of arms shipments to Ukraine, part of the growing wave of militarism which is sweeping the world. Swedish comrades reported on the “shock doctrine” instrumentalisation of the war by the establishment to further beef up the military and join NATO. The latest turning point in this process was the decision to send tanks to Ukraine, and in the days following the congress momentum was already building for this to be taken to the next level, with Zelensky achieving at least vague indications on a visit to London that fighter jets could soon follow.

With both sides “locked in” to this high-stakes conflict and no prospects of an end to fighting in the short term, there is no reason to predict an end to escalation any time soon. As congress delegates were returning home, UN General Secretary, Antonio Guterres, was telling diplomats in New York that “I fear the world is not sleepwalking into a wider war. I fear it is doing so with its eyes wide open.”

In any wartime scenario, amid abounding nationalism, militarism and jingoism of all kinds, Marxists are often forced to swim against the stream, and resist strong pressures to capitulate to “our own” side in an inter-imperialist conflict. Mametlwe Sebei from South Africa reminded congress that such pressures are not only felt in the West, where pressure comes in the form of a propaganda onslaught to get behind Zelensky and NATO. In many parts of the neo-colonial world, the experience of the masses and their distrust in Western imperialism has led many to develop illusions that China and Russia are progressive alternative counterweights to US domination, ‘an enemy of my enemy is my friend’ perspective that is pushed by many pro — capitalist and reformist politicians seeking to strengthen their economic ties with China

In this war, and the wider Cold War, Marxists must be clear that the only progressive force in this conflict is the international working class, which must be organized and armed with a programme for socialist revolution in both the East and the West, to avoid the threat of ever-greater bloody conflagrations.

This session also featured an important debate, which since developing over the last few months, has helped to sharpen our understanding of the war and the tasks it posed. Congress discussed ISA’s Russian section publicly expressing support for Western military “aid” and summarising their position in the slogan “victory to Ukraine!”. Congress decisively (with one opposing vote) rejected this position, and agreed to continue to discuss intensively with all comrades on an internal level, conducting a comradely discussion with a view to uniting around a programme of consistent internationalism and anti-imperialism.

Socialist feminism

Understanding the importance of the global revolt against capitalism’s many forms of oppression and the role it plays in the wide class struggle has been a crucial part of ISA’s political orientation over the past years. As Laura from Ireland explained in a lively one-day plenary discussion on socialist feminism, this has been dramatically borne out, most recently in the heroic movement of the Iranian masses, drawn together under the banner of “Woman, Life, Freedom”.

Despite important recent setbacks, such as the overturning of Roe v Wade in the US, and attacks on abortion rights in Ecuador, the global wave of feminist struggle has not been extinguished but remains very much alive. It has also made itself felt in the upturn in industrial struggle, with woman-dominated workforces in healthcare, education, and elsewhere in the vanguard of the working class fightback against the impact of inflation and to settle the scores of the pandemic. As reactionary bottom-feeders like Andrew Tate come to prominence, attempting to normalize misogynistic barbarism in the 21st century, the righteous anger against these figures and ideas will see women, girls and LGBTQ+ people be the protagonists of new social explosions.

For ISA, this understanding is also about action. From the US to Austria, to South Africa to Brazil, comrades spoke about socialist feminist campaigning work, which is part of the lifeblood of ISA and all of its sections. Keely from the US reported on how Socialist Alternative brought thousands out onto the streets in several cities against the overturning of Roe, including co-organising the single biggest protest to have taken place on the issue to date (of over 20,000 people in New York). Comrades from Belgium have built a powerful record of socialist feminist struggle through the ROSA campaign, which has repeatedly mobilised thousands of young people and begun to make its mark on the labour movement.

Several comrades spoke about ROSA International, which has huge potential to attract the most conscious and combative elements in this global wave of struggle and radicalisation. Ambitious plans for 8 March will see ISA and ROSA International act together on a world scale, which will be followed up by a much-anticipated conference of ROSA International in Vienna on 18 and 19 March.

Claire from England, Wales and Scotland, Anja from Belgium and several other comrades spoke of another crucial aspect of our socialist feminist work: ideological struggle to establish a Marxist, class struggle-based perspective and fight for its adoption by new mass movements.

An international “Code of Conduct” was also agreed by congress, a very important document which aims to serve as a clear and effective political as well as concrete framework for dealing with situations of abuse, violence, sexual harassment or assault (or any other important grievance), if/when they do unfortunately occur within our ranks. A team of Safety and Complaints Officers was also elected to assist in implementing the Code.

New wave of class struggle

One of the congress’ sessions which was reported on most enthusiastically was the commission on Trade Union and workplace work. Comrades reported on the role ISA sections and comrades are playing in the context of a resurgent labour movement internationally. Especially appetite-whetting were reports from comrades in the US about the giant steps forward for labour organizing there being prepared by the wave of unionization drives in Starbucks and, even more crucially, in Amazon.

Socialist Alternative US have turned energetically towards this process, stepping in to play leading roles in key campaigns. The recently-launched campaign to win union recognition and a 30/hour minimum wage in Amazon’s biggest ‘airhub’, in Kentucky, is an extremely high-stakes battle for the entire labour movement. But opportunities to build working class power and organization in this crucial corporation for global capitalism are not confined to the US alone. Comrades from Britain and Germany commented on important struggles being waged by Amazon workers in their countries, as well as in France. Deepening the international links between Amazon workers in struggle is a crucial strategic task, and one which ISA is eager to assist with, offering a bold programme to build democratic and combative mass organizations to organize the unorganized across the economy.

Amazon’s “Prime day” stunt on 11 and 12 July can present an opportunity to shine a spotlight on the titanic struggle of these crucial workers internationally, with ISA committed to discuss taking initiatives around this date. In the same spirit, we discussed preparing for 12 May, which is officially “International Nurses’ Day” as an opportunity to highlight and internationalise the struggles of this crucial sector, which is in the vanguard of developments in the labour movement internationally. Watch this space!

Comrades from Belgium reported on the strike movement there as well as the radicalisation of the demands being put forward by workers in struggle, in particular for nationalisation of the energy industry, which socialists fully support, putting forward the need for nationalisation under workers’ control and integrated into a democratic socialist economic plan. Sebei from South Africa reported on the important Clover strike in which WASP (ISA in South Africa) played a crucial role, including in building international solidarity through the work of ISA and its sections.

Congress also discussed the launch of ‘Workers’ Strike Back’ by Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative, a broad initiative which aims to assist in building a mass rank and file movement on the streets and in workplaces, linked to the struggle for working class political independence. This follows a decade of immense achievements by Kshama and Socialist Alternative in Seattle city council, creating a living example of how victories can be won with bold socialist politics and the methods of class struggle.

Building the forces of Marxism — The road to a bigger, stronger ISA!

A twin conclusion which flows from all political discussions in the current period, including those which dominated the World Congress is: on the one hand, the burning need for the building of much bigger and stronger revolutionary marxist organizations on a world scale, and on the other, the growing possibilities that exist in the world situation to do just that. Following this logic, congress closed with a plenary session on party building titled “The Road to a Bigger, Stronger ISA” introduced by Els Deschoemacker from Belgium and Elan Axelbank from the US, and replied to by Andy Moxley. The plenary was supplemented by commissions dealing with youth work, trade union and workplace work, finance, the paper and consolidation.

Since the 2020 world congress, several ISA sections have undergone impressive growth. Nof from England, Wales and Scotland and several comrades from the United States all reported on examples of significant waves of recruitment in their countries. Cristian Tello from Mexico reported on the building of ISA’s new Mexican section — recognised as a full section for the first time at congress! — from one member to several dozen since the last congress. Sections in South Africa, Canada and Israel/Palestine have all seen their membership numbers grow significantly. Exciting new breakthroughs were also reported on, with ISA conducting organized work in several countries where this had not been the case in 2020, including Chile, Colombia, Argentina and India.

Several comrades commented on the need to follow up recruitment with serious efforts at politically educating members, encouraging them to be active in the class struggle and integrating them into important roles in the party in order for growth to be on a solid basis. Key to this, and to all our party building work, is the role of the Marxist paper, which is the backbone of our national sections’ political work and activity. Congress also discussed making improvements to our international publications, including and the Socialist World journal.

While reflecting positively on our achievements, congress was also clear that ISA’s growth had not matched its potential in the coming period. We confidently set out targets to remedy this in the months and years to come, including establishing a more intense coordinated international effort to maximise our potential to grow, especially in key countries, in the coming period. Crucial to this will be doubling down on our determination to turn to the youth! Comrades emerged from the commission on youth work determined to make this turn a concrete reality, an integrated part of ISA’s many interventions into feminist, labour, environmental and other struggles.

Congress closed with all participants’ thoughts firmly focused on the future, and approved an ambitious calendar going forward. This includes an intense and exciting period of socialist feminist work around 8 March, new ambitious international trade union initiatives, international mobilisations to climate demos and important strike movements, and building towards another historic ISA World Cadre School in July.