An article on the ISO

Macdonald Stainsby mstainsby at
Mon Nov 1 15:01:04 MST 1999

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
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