Tendance Coatesy

Left Socialist Blog

On the American International Socialist Organization: the Joy of Sects.

with 7 comments


Since the Fall of the British SWP some people have got interested in the American IS (full name International Socialist Organization).

Now there are some solid reasons to like the International Socialist Organization (though I can’t say I will ever get round to that ‘Z’).

Let me list them.

  • They have a link with Hal Draper, who is the Tendance’s all-time favourite American Marxist (also about the only one,  but there you go). We are aware that there were, shall we say, differences between Draper and the ISO  (see in detail here) But their basic  ideology, democratic Marxism,  is not too far off ours.
  • My beloved comrade Steve Buttle (1 January 1953 – 5 June 2012), the footballer, was a member of the ISO in Seattle for some years. He had a good opinion of them.
  • The British SWP CC don’t like them. The CC  told the ISO  to sod off because they had some sensible things to say about the anti-globalisation movement. That is, as far as we can grasp, they said was not the next wave of the world revolution. The ISO were right, doubly right.

Against this we have this.

  • They sell a paper and have an on-line daily called Socialist Worker.
  • Oh and there’s this,


“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.

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”.

The comrade continues,

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.

Read the full article here.

Sticks in yer gullet.

No amount of pro-ISO comments can wipe that away.


Written by Andrew Coates

March 24, 2013 at 12:16 pm

7 Responses

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  1. skepoet2

    March 24, 2013 at 1:21 pm

  2. I also know next to nothing about the ISO either but it should be noted that the Lacny article you link to was last updated in 2004 and is clearly describing the ISO of the late 90s (the author states that his encounter with the Pittsburgh ISO began when he entered the uni there in 1997) or at best early 2000s.

    And while Trot sects are extraordinarily conservative in terms of their internal politics it is at least possible that things have changed for this one over a decade or more.

  3. Second what Roger said. I too have little contact with ISO but I’ve been to the last couple of Socialism conferences in Chicago and I’ve been impressed with the group’s youthful enthusiasm and lack of dogmatism (for instance meetings were announced there for 12-Step program and Yoga, something anathema to the oh-so-disciplined sects I’m familiar with.)

    I was a member of the (US) SWP from 1970-84 and watched with dismay its decline from a rather dynamic, relevant organization to a zombified sect, a fate shared by some other US marxist groups, at least the ones that didn’t fold up their tents completely and jump headlong into the Democratic Party (this is what happened to the US Maoist movement). The ISO deserves a lot of credit for having avoided some of these pitfalls in very difficult circumstances.

    One thing I was also impressed by the Socialism conferences was the Haymarket Books room had a complete selection of literature from across the left-liberal to Marxist spectrum (although not the Stalinists), including generous selections of books by James P. Cannon and Che Guevara. The organization seems open to incorporating traditions outside the “International Socialist” mindset. This is what attracted Paul LeBlanc and several other former members of the SWP-US to it.

    My main criticism of the ISO would be its overwhelmingly student and middle-class composition (something in common with other US left groups, although at least the ISO has the decency to not mask this with a lot of über-“proletarian” posturing). Also its tendency to “best-builderism,” to try to be the “left wing of the possible” and its political squishiness. In practice this means there’s not a sharp delineation between the ISO and the “left wing” of liberal-bourgeois public opinion, people like Glenn Greenwald, Noam Chomsky and Michael Moore.

    The split with the British SWP had a salutary effect on the ISO, in my opinion. It’s not without its problems, but your harsh judgement, and Lacny’s, seem unwarranted.

    David Altman

    March 25, 2013 at 1:30 am

    • The Lacny article had stuck in mind because I was a frequent contributor to the same journal, What Next. (Now defunct but still on the Net).

      It really seared into me, and it has obvious relevance in the present context.

      As I said I really like Hal Draper, and leftists like Paul LeBlanc are very obviously salt of the earth.

      Apart from that I am in no position to pass in-depth judgement about the American left.

      There are obviously loads of really solid good types out there.

      But our contexts are indeed different.

      To cite one, I’m not too sure about the way the “12-Step program” would go down with my mates in the local real ale pubs.

      Or the bleedin’ yoga!

      Andrew Coates

      March 25, 2013 at 12:02 pm

  4. Yeah, I hear you. I take it the 12-step and yoga workshops were initiatives by individual members, not the organization as a whole. My point is something like that would never have been tolerated in my former group, the Barnesite US-SWP. It struck me as a welcome change of pace from the stodginess of most lefty groups.

    David Altman

    March 25, 2013 at 2:51 pm

  5. … [Trackback]…

    […] Read More here: tendancecoatesy.wordpress.com/2013/03/24/on-the-american-international-socialist-organization-the-joy-of-sects/ […]…

    My Homepage

    March 27, 2013 at 9:11 am

  6. I could post tons of dirty laundry, but this will suffice: http://www.counterpunch.org/2013/05/31/the-shame-merchants/

    Pham Binh

    June 3, 2013 at 6:54 pm

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