ISO: The Joy of Sects

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 unions 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 this 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 movements 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 pretensions. 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 of 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 believe 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 pretensions 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.