ISO: The Joy of Sects

Chuck0's picture

by John Lacny

A wit once remarked that of all the Jesuits, the worst are the Protestant ones. I have come to the conclusion that this cogent observation has a counterpart when it comes to the world of the sectarian left: of all the Stalinists, the worst are the Trotskyites.

And among these, there is the group that a member of which once proudly described to me as "the fastest-growing organization on the Trotskyist left": the International Socialist Organization (ISO). Properly speaking, the ISO is not Trotskyist, since most such organizations saw progressive features in the USSR even during the Stalin era, while the ISO dismisses the entire post-Trotsky Soviet venture as "state capitalism." But since the group vociferously claims the mantle of the exiled founder of the Red Army, it seems a little perverse to deny them the label they seek for themselves. On the surface, though, the ISO is not as objectionable as the three other main Trotskyite groupings in the United States: the Castro-worshipers of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP, publishers of The Militant), not to be confused with the ISO's British "sister organization" of the same name; the Socialist Equality Party (SEP, publishers of the Internet-only International Workers Bulletin), which dismisses all trade un ions as "reactionary"; and the certifiably lunatic Spartacist League (SL, publishers of Workers Vanguard), which still boasts of its support for Soviet military operations in Afghanistan throughout the 1980s. But anyone who has ever worked with the ISO - and, as a consequence, has been incessantly solicited to purchase a copy of its biweekly tabloid, Socialist Worker- knows that the ISO can hold its own with its factional rivals in terms of fanatical persistence.

Before this author relates the story of his own involvement with the Trots-of-choice for more college students than all the other leading brands combined, let him give you one piece of advice: Kids, don't try this at home. As a small-town high-school student, yours truly was a diligent reader of the left-wing press, both big and small, reliable and zany, thoughtful and dogmatic. As a result, he had honed his skills at being able to tell the real deal from the charlatans, and the committed from the merely cultish. Therefore, he knew what to expect from the Jehovah's Leninists, and joined them only for the sake of expediency, with plans to get out as soon as possible. The inexperienced and the less wary may be in for an unpleasant surprise, so be forewarned.

So why did I join an insular clique whose methods I found ineffective and often juvenile, and which I knew I would leave at the first opportunity? Even now, writing this little polemic, I feel nothing like the defectors who left the Communist Party or radicalism in general to write numerous self-serving mea culpas over the years. All of these- from the annoying Arthur Koestler of The God That Failed in the early Cold War days to the nauseating David Horowitz today- have whined and complained of being duped and misled. I, however, knew exactly what I was getting into, and had no illusions about joining a movement which would one day bring in the Workers' Paradise. One cannot seriously be a defector from an organization in whose methods one never believed in the first place.

So, once again, why? To be crudely frank, I had no other choice. The sad fact is that the ISO is the only game in town when it comes to many college campuses nowadays. Part of this phenomenon is a result of the group's own strategy. At some point most college-based Trots, Maoists, and other left-wing nut-cults- especially after the disintegration of the once-vibrant Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1969- made the decision to "industrialize," i.e., have their members get jobs in factories in order to bring the Holy Word to the unwashed masses of the American working class. All of these attempts failed, and some of these groups (most notably the SWP of the USA) are still mired in this strategic dead-end. The ISO, however, never fell for th is trap. Shortly after its founding in 1977 as the American branch of the "International Socialist Tendency" (the largest branch of which was and is the Socialist Workers Party of Britain), the ISO made the conscious decision to base itself on college campuses. Their thinking was that- especially during the conservative Reagan years- the working class was demoralized and not ripe for revolutionary agitation. Therefore, they would concentrate on "building" a committed corps of activists from college campuses, who would be in it for the long haul and ready to recruit workers when the next "upturn in struggle" occurred.

As far as it went, the strategy worked. While other sects stagnated, the ISO grew, if only by ones and twos. Throughout the 1980s they picked up a welfare-rights or environmental activist here, a Central American solidarity or anti-apartheid protester there. They claimed to advocate that synthesis of all militant movements for social change that socialists at their best have always promoted- a prospect that was, is, and ought to be appealing to many activists. One should never doubt, though, that the majority of recruits drifted away from the group in those days for the same reason they drift away from it now: the discovery that the ISO's priority is not the support of all militant movements for social change, but rather the use of progressive moveme nts as recruiting grounds for the ISO (a process which the organization's commissars see as ipso facto synonymous with "building the socialist alternative"). Then as now, the few who stayed in the group saw the high attrition rate not as a sign that the ISO itself might be doing something wrong, but as proof positive that not everybody was cut out to be part of the would-be Vanguard of the Revolution. The result was the creation of the hardened cadres the group was designed to create, and they were hardened still further by a siege mentality which was far from unjustified in those years of the Grenada invasion, Rambo, Ollie North, Bitburg, and Ketchup-as-Vegetable.

But, as I have mentioned, the ISO's own actions are only part of the explanation for its disproportionate visibility on campuses. The other part of the explanation is the sluggishness of most of the rest of the left. Too often, the majority of would-be activists are outmaneuvered by a tiny but persistent sect which is ready to latch on to any hint of a movement and make it into its own, and whose members are kept energized by an unceasing schedule of routinized- almost rhythmic-activity. This is the situation I encountered when I entered the University of Pittsburgh as a freshman in the fall of 1997.

The maintenance workers at the University, represented by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 29, were engaged in a prolonged dispute with the administration. As of this writing, in fact, they are still without a contract, and have been so since December of 1995. It was obvious to me that this issue should have priority for the campus left, given its proximity. This went doubly so for me, as I was (and am) attending school on a scholarship from the University, and so had an obligation as a beneficiary of the system not to ignore the plight of those who were (and are) marginalized by that system.

The local branch of the ISO, comprising some half-dozen members, was (rightly) pouring all of its energy into the issue. Among both students and faculty, no one else--literally no one--was doing anything. As a result, a situation quickly arose in which anyone who wanted to act in solidarity with the union had to work side-by-side with the ISO. The group made contacts with the union leadership, which was more than willing to accept help from anybody. I made the decision to join very early on. It seemed the rational thing to do at the time for several interrelated reasons: most importantly, the minute I showed interest, I was besieged with demands to join. These were fast acquiring the irritating quality of a broken record, and as long as the expedient would do no harm, the simple desire to do what was necessary to shut them up was good enough for me. Second, I had a hunch that being on "the inside" would put me in a better position to do what I could to reign in the damaging tendencies I was sure the Trots possessed. In hindsight, I can't help but conclude that I was more or less correct in making the decision I did. Being a member, and an active one at that, allows you to see the logic behind the ISO's sometimes bizarre behavior. Most have contact with the ISO only because of one of their vaunted weekly "public meetings"--you know, when they practically bathe their habitat in posters inviting the public to come hear the ISO's take on a particular topic of social, political, or historic interest, and end up invariably offering the same solution: Join The ISO. But beyond these, there are the "cadre meetings," which are members-only events where the apparatchiks see to it that the foot-soldiers are behaving in a manner conducive to "building" the organization. (Incidentally, while use of the verb "to build" is fairly common--especially on the left--in reference to parties and coalitions, the ISO has an inordinate fondness for the word. They build the ISO. They build Socialist Worker paper sales. They build "fightbacks." They build meetings. They damn well build near everything. Their use of the idiom has reached a point where it is devoid of content and is little more than a rhetorical device; they might as well be building a "bridge to the twenty-first century.") The meetings are also intended to consolidate members' adherence to the theoretical line of the organization, which- despite the leadership's insistence otherwise- is more or less written in stone. Because the ISO is so small, those who disagree with one aspect of the line or another are not technically unwelcome in the organization, but when members voice these disagreements, the response of the commissars is to say: "Well, we'll have that argument." And they do not lie; the argument follows shortly. The understanding, though, is that those disagreements that do exist will eventually be pounded out of the deviationist, and that said member will eventually recognize the error in his/her thinking.

An arcane but illustrative topic is the ISO position on the Soviet Union. Here, as elsewhere, the group has a set dogma: unadulterated glorification of the early years following the Revolution coupled with unadulterated vilification of the years following the death of Lenin and the eventual expulsion of Trotsky. The position is free of nuance; all of the problems that arose during the early years are blamed on circumstance, and while the ISO admits that the Bolsheviks made "mistakes," they can acknowledge no fundamental problems with Bolshevik theory, practice, or organization. Similarly, they acknowledge none of the positive effects of the later USSR on world politics (such as the fact that the Soviet Union defeated Hitler, or that its indispensable aid to the Cuban Revolution and to the African National Congress struggle against apartheid were, on the whole, good things). Personally, I found the ISO position doctrinaire, although somewhat preferable to that of anarchists who dismiss the entire Revolution as a coup by the power-hungry Bolshies. But in any event, one would think that we could all agree to disagree, as the vast distance in time and the incredible difference in circumstances between Russia in 1917 and the United States eighty years later would have rendered the entire subject sufficiently unimportant. Not so; anyone who has spent more than five minutes in conversation with an ISO member knows that they have the capacity to talk endlessly about the Russian Revolution and the necessity of accepting their assessment of its history. Granted, no historical event is entirely devoid of lessons for current practice, but no matter what a person's position on what happened in Petrograd in 1917, it should be obvious that Leninist theory and organization hold very little relevance for practice today. Tactics and strategy originally developed for use by a persecuted band of revolutionaries in early-twentieth-century Tsarist Russia would have to be altered unrecognizably to fit the circumstances of the late-twentieth-century USA. But the ISO does not recognize this fact, and that is the real reason for their obsession with the Defense of October.

While the group has the good sense to call itself the International Socialist Organization, rather than ridiculously terming itself a "party," it makes no secret that its activities are intended to be the "beginning stages" of building a party. (No doubt the plan is to follow the example of its parent organization, the International Socialists of Britain, who renamed themselves the Socialist Workers Party in the mid-1970s. The group's own estimates--which are not necessarily to be trusted--put its membership at over 10,000. That's a lot o' Trots, but even still does not qualify as a real political party. The designation is arbitrary, and ultimately rests only with the group itself.) And the kind of party it intends to build is clearly to be modeled on classic Leninist lines, with an emphasis on the principle of "democratic centralism." This principle states that debate within the organization is to be unrestricted, but that once the entire party votes on a particular question, all members are obligated to defend that position in public as the position of the party. To a degree, this position makes sense; it is argued that at some point action needs to be taken without the group being hamstrung by infighting. But in practice, the result is even more infighting, as orthodox members sow suspicion of those who voice dissident opinions or who seem otherwise insufficiently committed.

And while the Trotskyite movement has always claimed to be a more democratic alternative to Stalinism, Trotskyite organizations have historically been plagued by factionalism to a greater degree than any other "democratic-centralist" movement of similar pretentions. Historically, those who have disagreed with a party line in some way have been expelled or forced to quit (usually with mutual accusations of counter-revolution) and subsequently formed their own organizations, which subsequently split as well, and so on. While I know of no organized Trotskyite groups which began as spinoffs formed by expelled ISO members, I do know of at least one spinoff of the British SWP, and the pressure to conform within American ISO circles is undeniable.

I know for a fact that there was at least one purge within the Pittsburgh branch some two or three years before I arrived on campus. The local commissar who was directly responsible for it told me her version of the story, beaming with pride at how she had engineered a virtual coup to clear out the "petty-bourgeois intellectuals" from the branch. I have spoken to several of those who were purged as well, and their story jives with that of the apparatchik- excepting, of course, that it is told from the other side. Apparently, the Pittsburgh ISO had around a dozen members at the time the above-mentioned member arrived from the branch in Providence, Rhode Island. This member got in contact with "the Center" (the ISO's name for its Politburo in Chicago), which in turn sent an agent to Pittsburgh to set the branch on the approved course. He held a meeting in which he denounced the members for allegedly running a mere "intellectual" talk shop, for insufficient aplomb in selling Socialist Worker, for not recruiting enough members, and for being "petty-bourgeois." All of the branch quit, with the exception of the local enforcer of the Party Line. This particular action was part of a wave of crackdowns by the Center on branch autonomy throughout the country. And while I cannot substantiate the hunch, there are indications that there may be another purge occurring within the ISO right now. This is a ripe time for such an event, because the ISO has undeniably seen some growth in its membership since the victory of the Teamsters' strike at UPS, which raised the profile of the labor movement in general. Having temporarily switched to a more liberal membership policy, the Center may now be trying to fully impose organizational discipline on newer members. The branch in Pittsburgh was far too small to exhibit any of the telltale signs of this, but I have heard stories of members in other cities being insulted for being "class traitors" and for "opting out of the class struggle," with some leaving the group in tears. And even in Pittsburgh, I recently talked to another member with years of experience who left after a barrage of insults (a matter to which I will return), thus reducing the membership of the Pittsburgh branch to five. A fine achievement, indeed, for a group that expelled ten or twelve "petty-bourgeois intellectuals" several years ago for their ostensible failure to recruit enough members.

"Cadre meetings" are festivals of both Maoist-style "self-criticism" and backstabbing of other left activists, as well as speculation on the loyalties of those members who do not attend them. In the case of suspect activists, without and sometimes withi n the organization, the term "petty-bourgeois" gets thrown around a lot. It would be too simple of me to point out the fact--and it is a fact--that those members who come from the most privileged backgrounds are the most likely to use this term as a pejorative. The issue is not whether the ISO is itself petty-bourgeois; rather, the ISO is merely petty. That is why one shouldn't feel the slightest bit guilty about criticizing them. Granted, left unity is important, and we should never offer encouragement to the red-baiters and witch-hunters of the right. But the ISO has no problem with castigating other progressive groups for alleged inaction, nor does it hesitate to take a piss on any and all democratically-elected union leaders who do not meet the standards of this self-appointed Vanguard of the Working Class. Red-baiting is a serious problem which has had disastrous consequences in the United States, but the ISO belittles this terrible history by dismissing any and all criticism as "red-baiting ." Its members are literally unable to tell the difference between a statement such as "Go back to Russia, you commies" and a statement more along the lines of "Look, I don't wanna buy your goddamn newspaper, I'm just here to support issue x." Similarly , even though the last thing the Movement needs these days is a lot of senseless infighting over who is or is not a Genuine Prole, the ISO uses the term "petty-bourgeois" to refer not to a person's class, but to anyone who disagrees with the ISO, which through a dialectical process holds the real "working-class" position.

A counterpart to the group's smug class-baiting is its paranoid anti-intellectualism. This latter tendency is not to be confused with legitimate criticism of intellectuals. Noam Chomsky, for example, has severely criticized those intellectuals who make apologies for the Establishment and its atrocities, but Chomsky has done so as an intellectual and with respect for the intellectual tradition. The ISO is suspicious of intellectuals in general for the simple reason that it is suspicious of any kind o f independent thinking. Anti-intellectualism is the first sign that a given group is about to make you toe the Party Line, and the ISO has plenty of it. Furthermore, for the ISO, anti-intellectualism serves much the same function that August Bebel once attributed to anti-Semitism: it is "the socialism of fools." While no ISO member is going to admit it to you, the sect's contempt for intellectuals has a corollary, and that is its contempt for the intelligence of the average person. They seem to believ e that real working people don't do a lot of thinking, so "intellectuals" are potential "class-traitors" and perhaps even outright "petty-bourgeois." How else to explain the style of Socialist Worker? The paper openly apes the style of supermarket tabloids, complete with large-type front-page headlines phrased in the most maudlin manner, and heavily-simplified articles with scores of adjectives and exclamation points.

As with all Leninist sects, supreme emphasis is placed on the sale of the organization's newspaper. There is little I can say about this newspaper other than what I've already said. The two-page feature "On the Picketline" is half-decent, although it is nowhere near what I heard one member call it: "the best labor reporting in the country." (That distinction goes to the Communist Party's People's Weekly World.) For the most part, Socialist Worker fits precisely the description that *Nation* columnist Christopher Hitchens has bestowed on its British counterpart: "principally made up of exhortation and, of that exhortation, principally composed of crude syndicalist diatribe .... [A] record of strikes that didn't come off, and of strikes that did while failing to make any difference." (Hitchens, incidentally, was a member of the original International Socialists in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when it was apparently a more creative and intellectually vibrant organization. Those with access to a library with a good periodicals section may want to check out Hitchens's ruminations on this topic in the London Review of Books, 6 January 1994.)

One of the more surreal moments of my ISO experience surrounded the sale of Socialist Worker. At one cadre meeting, we were discussing the reluctance of branch members to sell it. As you can imagine, I was one of the worst offenders: I would carefully hide my copies of the paper under my petition in favor of the maintenance workers. After asking people to sign the petition, I would merely thank them, and they would generally be on their way. Rarely did I ever bother to make the pitch for the paper, and then only to placate a nearby ISO comrade. In any event, other members were somewhat reluctant as well. Speaking to this problem, one member had a bizarre piece of advice on how to overcome shyness: "I have been reluctant to approach people, too, but when I stop to think about the fact that I'm willing to die for this ..." etc.

Such ruminations are not at all out of character for the ISO. They forget that they are merely half-a-dozen people peddling papers on the street, not seasoned insurrectionary leaders who are in imminent danger of being forced to make the ultimate sacrifice for the Revolution. The most severe example of this tendency in Pittsburgh is the purge-initiating commissar I described above. At one public meeting during my membership in the organization, we were discussing (what else?) the Russian Revolution and the reasons for its failure. The principle problems, the ISO contended, were isolation, foreign invasion, and counter-revolutionary violence. At this point, though, the commissar stood up to assuage the fears of the wary: have no fear, she pointed out , when we have a revolution in this country, we will have no trouble defending it, because as in all revolutions the army will come to our side. She specifically mentioned that the Revolution would have access to tanks and F-14s. Tanks and F-14s in the service of humanity: what an image, huh?

The worst example I know of, though, occurred after my departure from the organization, so I did not hear the statement directly, but I heard it from the veteran ISO member mentioned above who was recently forced to leave. I had remembered the commissar and the rest of the branch backstabbing this particular individual even while I had been a member. She had a class scheduled the same night as branch meetings, which annoyed the more orthodox to no end. All of their displeasure with her boiled over in a cadre meeting. The commissar and her closest associate (the vice-commissar who had made the statement about being willing to die) had just come back from a meeting of the ISO's National Convention. The commissar brought the news that the Midwest ISO organizer had called the Pittsburgh branch "uncreative and inward-looking," and then asked the branch for its opinions. When the soon-to-be-ex-member stated that this description of the branch was more or less correct, the commissar proceeded to blame the branch's entire debacle on this member, calling her a "petty-bourgeois dilettante." When the "dilettante" (whose father, incidentally, is a Teamster) replied that she "really didn't give a shit" what the commissar thought, the commissar answered: "I'm not the only one who thinks this," and then proceeded to have the other members denounce the "dilettante" for "putting limits on her time" and "only doing things half-way." After this miniature *Darkness At Noon* scenario had been carried out, the commissar then proceeded to state emphatically: "You know, I don't even care that much that we're only five members, because that way we'll be tight, we'll know what we're about, and we'll have our perspective right, because when the Revolution comes, we're going to have to kill people."

The stories of ISO fanaticism and incompetence could go on, but by now the reader should have a sufficient understanding of the nuttiness of the sect. That does not necessarily solve the problem of how to deal with them, however.

In my personal case, I was the first to jump on a proposal by the ISO leadership that we initiate a broader coalition to incorporate all who were interested in acting in solidarity with the maintenance workers. The ISO intended the group to be a front. The commissar told me flatly: "No, we don't do that," but of course I knew otherwise. I had other intentions: the ISO veterans were principally graduate students, but I was closer to three other newer members who were undergraduates. I collaborated with these members- who had quickly realized the extent of the ISO's disengagement from reality- and together with some people who were not members of the ISO we planned to make the new group-- Students in Solidarity with Local 29--a truly independent organization, and I planned to quit the ISO at an opportune time. The ISO veterans eventually caught on that something was up, and they clearly didn't like it. At one meeting, the vice-commissar stood up and denounced what she saw as a tendency of "some members " to see work on Local 29 solidarity as a substitution for work in the ISO. By that time, though, two other members and I had already made plans to get out, and we decided to do so before Christmas break, because we didn't want the issue to be hanging over our heads, nor did we want ISO members hassling us over the break (which we judged them completely capable of doing). We quit in early December; my own membership in the ISO had lasted less than three months.

We had at best mixed success in our struggle for a better movement, though. The workers themselves were largely unwilling to take part in pressuring the University, a fact which the ISO blamed on the elected union leadership. The ISO repeatedly suggested that "we" had to "give the lead," per their usual habit of thinking themselves the true leaders of the working class. We had held a somewhat successful rally in October, drawing several dozen workers and upwards of one hundred students, in the days when contract negotiations had just been heating up. Now it was the spring semester, contract negotiations were in a quagmire, and the ISO called for another rally. The rest of Students in Solidarity agreed, but the rally was a failure, drawing no workers and almost no students other than members of the group. Almost immediately, though, the ISO wanted another rally, and this time we shot it down. The ISO clearly had no creative tactics, much less a coherent strategy aside from a passionate desire to "take it to the streets." We had no creative tactics, either, but we at least admitted as much. We were willing to take action, but only to a certain point beyond what the union itself was willing to do, and we were not about to turn the student labor solidarity movement into a ridiculous band of street noisemakers who protested in futility every week without the presence of the very workers we claimed to support.

Some time late in the spring semester, though, the union itself called another rally, once again sparsely attended by workers. The difference this time, though, was that quite a few students showed up, and I am proud to say that almost all of them were organized as a result of the activity of the non-ISO members of Students in Solidarity. The problem was that we were a workers-solidarity movement without the workers. But we could at last say that we had done our job.

The ISO deserved credit, of course, for being on top of the issue when no one else was. But their sectarian behavior scared people away. By the spring semester, there were more students in the larger Students in Solidarity with Local 29 group than there were in the ISO, even if the group itself was still small. Yet even after the last rally, I have no doubt that the vast majority of the student body still associated the Local 29 solidarity movement with the ISO. This more than anything made me upset with the ISO: they were unwilling to drop the egotistical advancement of their sectarian interests even when these were hurting the movement as a whole.

Nevertheless, I can't help but mention that I was much more annoyed at those who sympathized with the workers yet would not help due to personal distaste for the ISO. And I know that there were at least ten of these for every one of us that stuck with it. At colleges across the country, it is people like this who allow the ISO to pass itself off as the exclusive voice of the left, and thereby to stunt the growth of the campus left in general. So long as these individuals stay silent, the ISO will always have recourse to its most powerful weapon: the question, "What are you doing?" What the ISO is doing is not constructive, for all their pretentions about "building a movement." But they are doing something, and until the rest of the left gets off of its collective ass and does something real, it will have no right to scorn groups like the ISO.

(From the zine Retrogression)


By Jason Schulman

At the moment, the largest campus-based socialist organization in the United States is the International Socialist Organization, with eight hundred or so members. Over the last few years, the ISO has been successful in recruiting hundreds of students, and has played a significant role (or has at least been noticeably present) in the struggles against the sanctions on and bombing of Iraq, to end the death penalty, and to save the life of Mumia Abu-Jamal.

What is this group, and why has it been so effective in attracting members and generating a public presence? More importantly, why have new members often not remained in the organization, and what can the non-sectarian Left learn from its experience? In short, what is the good and the bad about the ISO?

The ISO is an "unorthodox Trotskyist" grouping, differing with the "orthodox Trotskyist" Left in that while the latter saw Stalinist Russia and its satellites as "bureaucratically deformed workers' states," with social bases more progressive than capitalism and therefore worthy of being defended against imperialist aggression, the ISO and its sister organizations see the Stalinist states as having been "state capitalist" societies unworthy of any sort of political privilege. (While the collapse of Stalinism worldwide might make this argument irrelevant in the eyes of most rational people, the ISO still maintains theoretical orthodoxy on the matter.) The group was founded in 1977 as the U.S. branch of the "International Socialist Tendency," the largest branch of which remains the Socialist Workers Party of Britain. Unlike rival campus-based Trotskyist groupings, which had decided to have their members get factory jobs in order to bring revolutionary theory to the blue-collar workforce, the ISO made the conscious decision to focus on its college campus presence. In the conservative 1980s, it hardly seemed as if the working class was open to socialist agitation; hence, the ISO concentrated on building a committed activist cadre from college campuses, who would remain dedicated and ready to recruit workers when the next "upturn in struggle" arose.

Up to a point, this strategy worked. While other far-Left groups stagnated or collapsed, the ISO managed to grow, ever so slightly. Yet many of those who joined the group soon drifted away, realizing that despite the ISO's rhetoric of synthesizing all militant movements for social change, its real priority was--and is-- the use of progressive movements merely as recruiting grounds for the group, a process which is seen by the ISO's top officers as defining what it means to "build the socialist alternative." As former ISO member John Lacny has put it: "Then as now, the few who stayed in the group saw the high attrition rate not as a sign that the ISO itself might be doing something wrong, but as proof positive that not everybody was cut out to be part of the would-be Vanguard of the Revolution. The result was the creation of the hardened cadres the group was designed to create, and they were hardened still further by a siege mentality which was far from unjustified in those years of the Grenada invasion, Rambo, Ollie North, Bitburg, and Ketchup-as-Vegetable."

These cadres would begin recruiting in earnest in the 1990s, attracting radical-minded youth with their loud, brash presence and relentless poster-plastering. This frenzied level of activity--the ISO allows for no "part-time revolutionaries"--is largely financed by members going into debt for the sake of the organization. While the group's headquarters in Chicago might take money from the various branches, it never gives out money. (Indeed, the employees for the ISO's bi-weekly paper, Socialist Worker, have gone without pay for weeks at a time.) While this intense devotion makes for some fairly stunning successes--the ISO recruited around two hundred people in one week during the UPS strike last year--few new recruits stick around for very long. The main reason is that the group is simply incapable of functioning in a truly democratic fashion.

While there might be an appearance of democratic debate within the group at the branch level, ultimately, everything is pretty much decided by the center in Chicago. One observer has noted that floor discussion at ISO branch meetings is limited to national and local leaders; branch cadres are effectively frozen out from taking the floor. While favorites are selected by the national leadership to give talks, the cadres have to be satisfied with writing questions on "speaker slips" which might--or might not--be addressed from the podium. Such meetings are intended to consolidate members' adherence to the ISO's theoretical "line," which- despite leaders' denials-- is fixed in stone. While those who disagree with one aspect of the line or another are not technically unwelcome in the organization, when members voice these disagreements, they are badgered by the leadership, who intend to essentially pound the erroneous thinking out of the deviator.

All of this is par for the course in most "Marxist-Leninist" organizations. And the ISO certainly does romanticize the years of Leninism under Lenin in Russia, just as it condemns the years following Lenin's death and the eventual exile of Leon Trotsky. While the ISO might admit that "mistakes were made" by the Bolsheviks before Stalin's rise to power, they are all said to be purely the result of "objective conditions"; no basic problems with Leninist thought or practice are ever acknowledged. The ISO claims to maintain the "democratic centralist" mode of organization, in which internal debate is ostensibly unrestricted, but once the entire group votes on a particular question, all members are required to defend that position in public as the position of the group. In ISO practice, this means that dissidents must voice a "line" which they do not believe, lest they be denounced as "petit bourgeois dilettantes" by the line-enforcers. Those unable to follow the line either leave or are kicked out with due haste, hence the ISO's high membership turnover rate.

Effectively, the ISO considers itself to have a monopoly on radical wisdom in the U.S., and hence it is unwilling to recognize the merits of views outside its particular version of Leninism. This sectarianism manifests itself in the group's view of Black radical organizations, for example; groups such as the Dodge Revolutionary Union Movement and the Black Panther Party are judged solely on how closely they resembled the Bolsheviks, or at least what the ISO thinks the Bolsheviks were. The ISO has no appreciation for the indigenous Black organizations or politics such as those which emerged from Mississippi in the early 1960s, or Montgomery in the late 1950s. These are seen as starting points in the natural progression toward union based Black militancy - which was weakened, in the group's eyes, by Black Nationalist tendencies in both DRUM and the BPP. The line on other movements is identical - the more like the Russian Revolution, the better. Any deviation is not a result of differing conditions, but of "alien class forces" within the movement. (The ISO condemns the whole of feminism, as men don't "really" benefit from sexism under capitalism, just as the solution to racism is simply "Black and White Unite and Fight!!")

Despite the ISO's flaws, on many college campuses it is the only socialist "game in town," and it will doubtless continue to recruit students (and the occasional non-student worker) who have come to radical political conclusions. It is, after all, apparently doing something right, if only by being loud, active and organized. The fact that it seems to have a simple answer to every political question does not necessarily hurt, either - after all, this was also true of Ronald Reagan. Those of us in openly pluralist socialist organizations should not attempt to emulate the ISO's frenzied level of activity, as it leads to "burnout" for many. But we could stand to have a far greater public presence. (In New York, at least, it is rare that one sees banners or posters proclaiming "Committees of Correspondence" or "Democratic Socialists of America," for example.) While the theoretical knowledge of the ISO's cadres is to be admired--their meetings and literature provide a supportive and accessible introduction to Marxism and to the history of the Marxist Left--we have no reason to follow their example in hammering out a "line" to be enforced, even if we should aspire to the greatest possible "unity in action."

One wishes the non-sectarian Left could emulate the ISO's production of slick literature and appearance of being a national, or really international, organization. This, of course, takes money - and the question of how to generate funds without putting members into debt is open to debate. But we should certainly take note of the ISO's focus on local activism around national issues--the death penalty, police brutality, etc. We have to set our agenda nationally, and encourage locals to work on national and international issues (which, of course, are of interest locally).

One ex-ISO member recently suggested to me that we are currently in an era where any radical grouping might achieve explosive growth, thanks to the end of the Communist bogeyman. Given the dire need of our country for a mass, pluralist radical Left, one hopes he's right, lest we leave the fight for socialism in the hands of an organization which - like the solitary man in a empty chamber - will forever hear the echo of its own voice and mistake it for the roar of the masses.


Comment 1

Well, after I read this article [Jason Shulman's], I finally felt compelled to stop lurking and add to the already heavy traffic on this list. As a former ISO member, I can say that this article is very accurate, but that it leaves out a couple of very important components of ISO activities.

First is the selling of the newspaper. So much emphasis was placed on this activity alone that it was a requirement listed on the membership card that one signs upon joining. The ISO considered themselves the only legitimate heirs of Trotsky and Lenin, and their newspaper, Socialist Worker, the new Iskra. This was the main vehicle through which we were going to spread "socialist ideas and revolutionary consciousness." Never mind that the paper reads like a grade-school synthesis of the bourgeois press with some stock socialist phrases tacked on to the end of each paragraph. Those of us who took the time to write articles for the paper ourselves also found them transformed into this watered-down, pedantic copy. We were all supposed to sell the paper at least twice a week at designated paper sales in addition to selling it at events. At the end of the sale we all had to report how many papers we sold, so that those of us didn't sell "enough" could subject ourselves to self-criticism in front of the group. Looking back on it I sound like I am describing a caricature of Maoism, rather than the "Unorthodox Trotskyism" and Leninist ideas the ISO is purported to believe in, but that is really how it was.

The paper sales were also a time to collect people's names and phone numbers, under the guise of signing a petition, to use as "contacts." We were supposed to trick people into signing up for defending immigrant rights, health care, or whatever issue was on the petition, when really we were planning to call these people and badger then about coming to ISO meetings and events. If we did not also ask people to join the ISO when we sold them a paper we were also harangued by the branch leadership, which was usually the bulk of the people who actually showed up at paper sales (I was an unfortunate exception.) When I used to point out that we should be honest with people that we weren't really going to send these petitions to anyone, but keep them for internal use, I was told by the leaders that this sort of dishonesty was a necessary revolutionary tactic. In fact, nearly everything that I objected to was characterized as such. It was an easy way out of actually having to defend tactics to the membership based on merits.

The branch meetings were very well characterized in the article, but they also had in addition to the "educational" component dedicated to inculcating the ISO line in members a second part, called the branch report, which was when the branch committee (the leadership) told the membership for 10 minutes how we weren't recruiting enough, how we needed to "step up" our activity, and other general guilt-tripping. I usually ended up feeling very inadequate and vowing to myself to do better each week, especially if I hadn't brought any contacts to the meeting. Recruitment was the constant refrain - when I voiced the opinion that we should concentrate on keeping members around and developing cadre rather than just recruiting new people I was criticized for being too timid with strangers and thus "not wanting to build".

The ISO behaves essentially as a cult - it has its prophets (Tony cliff, callinicos et. al.), its leaders (the branch committees and Chicago), its doctrine ("How Marxism Works", a 40 page book, was seen as "all a new member needed to know" about Marxism), and its rituals, such as the ones I have described. the leadership of my branch took an overly personal interest in the activities of its members, even going so far as to try and tell us who we could socialize with, that we should quit our jobs and work at UPS, that we should leave our committed relationships because the partner wasn't in the ISO, or was hostile to it, and so on.) Reading this article and its dead-on description made me think about just how fortunate I was to realize that the ISO is not the revolutionary vanguard and that it was trying to make me into a Socialist Worker-selling automaton! Even today - I left the ISO in Jan. 98 after almost 3 years as a member - I sometimes go to demos and feel like I should be doing something other than participating, and then I realize that I am feeling residual programming from the ISO, who tried to make me feel guilty for not selling enough papers.

Those on the left who might feel envious of the ISO's numbers (I think 800 is an exaggeration, it's really closer to 500 dues-paying members nationwide) would do well to read this article and ask themselves the question, is it really worth it to be in a group that has a lot of members if they are part of an anti-democratic, obnoxious cult?

Maya O'Connor

Comment 2

(posted originally on the Marxism list)

I was a member of the International Socialists (the sister organization of the american ISO and the british SWP) for eleven years, leaving in early May of this past year with a sizable chunk of the Vancouver branch due to longstanding (several years long) arguments and disagreements with the leadership of the organization over the IS's increasing sectification (and inability to work with other groups and politically active individuals) as well as several on-the-ground tactical disagreements and severe disagreements about the "nature of the period". As I have reported before, we experienced, while we were in the IS, many of the same problems and frustrations that have been reported by others (Louis Proyect comes to mind) who were in Trotskyist sects throughout the seventies, eighties, and nineties (every six months or so there would be a new "turn" which was to be unquestionly implemented, the "leadership" was essentially an unaccountable and unchallengable body which issued decrees, etc.). The "final straw" in our case was a serious of disciplinary actions which were handed down following the successful organization of an anti-nazi demonstration in Surrey, BC in September of '97. The local ("branch") leadership stood behind our collective decision to concentrate our efforts on anti-facist organizing for a period of two weeks during September rather than on increasing the number of paper sales on campuses in that period of time.

When it became clear that we would have to leave the IS or simply wait for our expulsions (long-term suspensions had already been handed down over disagreements with the national leadership), the majority of the local branch leadership (including such local socialist activists as Garth Mullins, Megan Adam, Margot Brennan and myself) argued for the formation of a modest socialist study and activist circle (in the spirit of Eugene Debs' statement: "an unorganized socialist is a contradiction in terms") which would be founded on non-lineist principles (ie. there would be no homogenous "line" around issues such as the nature of China, etc.). We met with members of the New Socialist Group (which had its' roots in a split with the IS from a few years ago) and the Freedom Socialist Party to discuss, in advance of the formation of a the Socialism From Below Group, how we could best work together in a non-sectarian fashion. Members of these groups, as well as members of Socialist Challenge, have since regularly attended our weekly meetings and fully participated in all of our discussions around both theory and practice and have been intregal to the work that we have been doing. In practice, we are moving towards some type of regroupment of socialist activists in Vancouver through doing joint work, etc. with these comrades in a friendly and fraternal fashion.

I don't defend any of the sectarian approaches of the IS, and certainly take responsibility for my role in sectarian divisiveness over the eleven years that I was a member of the IS, but wish to state unconditionally that our approach to organizing since that time has been one of wishing to work with the broadest layer of groups and individuals possible in common action. Our approach, simply, is that we don't have the time or the energy for unending debating societies that do not conclude with a concrete action.

Not only do we not "suspend or fire" members who are involved with other groups, we encourage it. There are members of other left groups (such as the above named, as well as members of the Young New Democrats) that consider themselves also members of Socialism From Below Group. Additionally, members of Socialism From Below are members of a variety of city-wide organizations and groups (the Vancouver Right To Protest Coalition, Democracy Street, East Vancouver Against The Nazis, International Womens Day Committee, The Jean Chretien Welcoming Committee, Communities Against Racism and Extremism, the Canadian Federation of Students, etc.) and work in solidarity with a variety of groups, including the Poverty Action Network (members of SFBG have been involved in raising funds for their newspaper, "Class Antagonist" and have offered technical help with the future production of that paper, including scanning, layout, etc. as required), La Quena collective (we work closely with members of the collective on a variety of coalitions and leading members of the collective are known to attend our weekly meetings and participate freely), and a variety of other groups.

In no way do we consider ourselves "the nucleus of a revolutionary party" or "the vanguard" or whatever. We hope that we are contributing in a concrete way to practical unity within the Vancouver broad left, but we have set our sights on fairly modest goals (in fact "modest" is the word we use most to describe our group).

Recently (over the summer), a few of us have joined the social democratic "New Democratic Party" -- not so much as a formal/traditional trotskyist "entrist" strategy but rather as a modest strategy to make contacts and have arguments and discussions with leftward-moving social democrats. This has been relatively successful -- Megan Adam, for example, was elected as editor of the Young New Democrats magazine, "Forward", and we have been able to utilize that publication as a vehicle for debate and discussion on the progressive left. While we have no illusions in social democracy in power (the word "sell-out" is the mildest of the terms we would use for social democratic leaders), we understand that a vote for the NDP is a vote with our class, and that the NDP contains the broadest segment of working class militants. While we are constantly re-evaluating the usefulness of our continued membership in the NDP, we have been able to successfully argue, especially within the Young New Democrats, for activism in the streets as compared to a focus on the ballot boxes. I expect that many american socialists can identify with our reasons for joining the social democratic NDP, especially given the building of the Labor Party in the US. Within the Socialism From Below Group, however, we have many who would never consider joining the NDP, and a few who (for some very good reasons) couldn't even stomach voting for them (our advice "hold your nose while you're voting" can only go so far...).

Tony Tracy

Comment 3

(posted originally on the Marxism list)

A very interesting thread. Let me try and contribute a little from my own experience of the Left. ISO in Australia degenerated into a cult around a man called Ian Rintoul. It is not much point talking about Ian to people on this list. He is not at all remarkable in any way. The least talented of the ISO leadership, the least theoretical, the least human etc he made the perfect leader for the sect.

The ' brilliant' leadership that foisted him on us in Brisbane had him foisted on them by the 'brilliant' leadership from England. Why they did that who knows? But it speaks badly for the ISO in England. Presumably they were attracted to the cult of the strong man, the fanatic, the no nonsense fellow, who preaches that the line is always correct until it is changed. Ian represent all these sectarian values and will to the end of his days. He attracts around him wave upon wave of young people. They are put through the system and come out the other end ex-socialist, ex-Marxists, ex-revolutionaries. Though a small organization ISO (around 100?) has probably churned its way through many times that.

You could repeat this tale for any organization of revolutionaries around the world. The key comparison is not however with the Bolshevik Party but with groups like the Moonies or The Jones Cult. It will always be so as long as the working class remains quiescent. Only when a significant section break with reformism or to be more accurate capitulationism will there be a chance of a mass party. Until that day we will have the same vicious little sects of bitter and disillusioning revolutionaries.

Now there has been a misunderstanding of Lou position I believe. Lou holds that folk like Barnes need to keep preaching the final catastrophe is nigh as a means of disciplining the members. If the ultimate crisis of capital is at hand then we had better stick to our leaders and party discipline had we not?

Catastrophism also works against what we desperately need - the development of theory. this requires time and an atmosphere which encourages the cadre to read and discuss everything. Such is never the case in the left groups. I recall vividly the reaction from leading cadre in ISO when I began to read Althusser. This was taken as proof of my unreliability. We were supposed to seek truth only from Tony Cliff's book on Lenin. Those who had ambitions within the organization bought the book and learned to quote from it at appropriate times. That proved they were of the right stuff.

Yet Cliff's turn to Lenin and Trotsky at the beginning of the 80s was nothing short of a disaster. He 'hardened' the organization when he needed to broaden it. He correctly saw the down turn in the working class but drew the entirely wrong conclusions from it.

Here in Australia the hard and inhuman seized upon Cliff's example. Thus a half-human fanatic by the name of Mick Armstrong waged war within ISO on tendencies from the movements. So we had a great struggle unleashed against women's caucuses in the organization. We were told this belong not the politics of Bolshevism but to the wishy-washy counter revolutionary politics of the middle class movements. Dutifully we all voted against women's caucuses except one female member. This kind of 'ideological struggle' was supposed to harden up the members. What it did was to cement a kind of leadership and isolate the organization from the outside world. Which of course was always the intention of Cliff's Bolshevikisation.

Armstrong was to perish in the purge led by Rintoul. The word 'perish' is perhaps too much of a Freudian wish. History repeated itself as farce and no one was physically harmed or beaten up in the ISO purges, but the psychological damage to human beings was terrible.

Now ISO is a scandal to Marxist politics. Their sectarian opportunism is breathtaking. Everything they touch is damaged. But for them this is nothing. If they recruit one or two members from any struggle then that is all that matters. They usually do get the members and in a few years time they have left revolutionary politics. But nothing daunted Rintoul carries on and blindly a little core follow him. They have to believe he is Australia's Lenin because they have given their lives to this notion. Too late to turn back now.

For the rest of us - we the victims of 'party building' it was a struggle to recapture one's independent identity and to refuse the sect's image of us. For a long time after I was expelled from ISO I hoped that I would get a phone call from the leadership saying all is forgiven and asking me to come back. It took a long time for me to work out that I was expelled because they feared that the group around me would seize the leadership from them. It had nothing to do with politics and everything to do with the will to power. Inevitably so because of our political isolation from the working class.


Gary McLennan

Rate this article: 
No votes yet
John Lacny