An article on the ISO

David Welch david.welch at
Wed Nov 3 08:42:06 MST 1999

While I'm sure it's possible to make many legitimate criticisms of the
politics and tactics of the SWP/ISO, I'm not sure that the commitment it
requires from its members is one of them. After all its cadres have joined
with the ostensible aim of overthrowing their own state, I wouldn't have
thought that committing a substantial amount of time (and money) to ISO
activities was unreasonable. Comrade O'Connor says she felt inadequate
after being criticised by her cell, I don't mean to sound harsh but isn't
this a good thing? Part of developing and retaining party cadre must be
for them to develop and internalize the discipline necessary to retain
their commitment during a long period without any immediate prospect of a
breakthrough. On the British left, there have been a few big implosions
like the WRP, most of casualties of the last twenty years or so have been
from organisations which have simply given up or faded away. I think its
possible to understand why a party leadership might be reluctant to allow
branch activity to be reduced.

On Tue, 2 Nov 1999, Maya O'Connor wrote:

> Well, after I read this article, 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?

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