An article on the ISO

Maya O'Connor oconnorm at
Tue Nov 2 11:39:32 MST 1999

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

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
oconnorm at

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