An article on the ISO

megan megan at
Mon Nov 1 16:15:34 MST 1999

The only comment that I would make to this is that I find it pathetic that
one left group would waste the newsprint to bash another one....

no wonder the socialist left is so unattractive to the majority of

(who's sick of sectarian socialism having spent too long inside the IS in
her youth)

"If we are to vent our riotous anger let it be before they try to murder
Mumia Abu-Jamal, not after."
   ----------------------Michael Parenti, 1995
Find me at -

On Mon, 1 Nov 1999, Macdonald Stainsby wrote:

> This list contains at least a couple of former Canadian IS'ers, I wonder if
> either (any?) would like to comment on this piece?
> >To be printed in the CofC's youth journal, whenever the next issue comes
> >  out.
> >
> >
> >
> >  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.
> >
> >
> >
> >Louis Proyect
> >
> >(The Marxism mailing list:
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