Thinking of Joining the ISO?

by Pham Binh on June 24, 2013

You hate capitalism.

You understand that a system that puts profits over people by giving taxpayer bailouts to greedy, insolvent banks while refusing to help working people keep their heads above water has got to go.

You realize our standard of living is going to keep getting worse until something is done about it.

You hate racism, Israel’s brutal ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians, the idiocy of the Republicans and the corruption of the Democrats, the fact that LGBTQs face tremendous oppression, violence, and harassment, and you’ve found a group that gives you hope that if we organize and fight, things can be different. You’ve found the International Socialist Organization (ISO), an unapologetically pro-Palestinian, anti-capitalist, anti-oppression group that is active, confident, and organized. You agree with most of what you read in the International Socialist Review and Socialist Worker, and you like what you hear at public meetings, conferences, and study groups.

You are thinking about joining the ISO or you’re a member already.

If the above describes you, I hope you read this with a critical and open mind.

My goal in writing this is to encourage a fundamental re-thinking of “Leninist” party-building efforts in order to help end the unnecessary separation between the socialist movement and the working class that has blocked both movements from beginning to reverse the balance of class forces in America. I strongly believe such party-building efforts have helped perpetuate rather than undermine this crippling separation.

What follows is a critical examination of the ISO’s methods, practices, and structures compared to those of the Bolshevik faction of the Russian Social-Democratic Labor Party (RSDLP) which the ISO holds up as its organizing model, as well as some suggestions for a better, more effective political practice.

Full disclosure: I was a member of the ISO for seven years (1999-2006) and a supporter for five (2007-2011). I did a lot of political work as a member of the ISO that I will always be proud of. I didn’t join the group in order to write a polemic attacking it. I genuinely believed our activities were a (small) part laying the basis for the creation of a party of worker-radicals down the road when the level of class and social struggle rose. The realization that this was not the case came as a rude and unexpected shock to me.

Priority #1: Self-Perpetuation

Most of your time as an ISO member, day to day, week to week, is spent on two things: recruiting new members and retaining existing members. This is what the ISO means by “party-building.”

This is not to say that the ISO doesn’t get involved in struggles or do activist work. There are death row prisoners who are alive today in part because of the ISO’s activities, for example. But issue-based activism rarely takes up the majority of an ISO member’s political time no matter how deeply involved they are in a campaign or struggle.

Recruiting and retaining members are the key priorities in just about every Socialist Worker sale, branch meeting, study group, movement “intervention,” phone call, and even conversation ISO members engage in. Many of these activities are preceded by meetings (called pre-meetings) at which ISO members hash out the political arguments and organizational details aimed at accomplishing those two goals.

ISO leaders not only lead these pre-meetings but also have separate leaders’ pre-meetings where plans and proposals to be put forward in the all-member pre-meetings are discussed and decided upon. Thus, when the ISO gets involved with an activist campaign, the number of meetings and pre-meetings a person goes to multiplies exponentially. There is the minimum of activities required of all members, the branch meeting and paper sale; then there is the campaign/coalition meeting, the ISO pre-meeting to discuss and plan beforehand, as well as campaign/coalition activities such as weekly meetings, flyering, tablings, and phone banking.

All of this takes up a huge amount of energy and time from the average ISO member, perhaps 10-20 hours a week; it takes even more energy and time for members on ISO leadership bodies, maybe 20-30 hours a week. It is very difficult if not impossible to sustain this level of activity for the long haul, and long-term activism is the key to winning important victories. It took the civil rights movement almost a decade (1955-1964) to win the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act; it took almost as long to put an end to the Viet Nam war; it has taken years of activism to reverse the state-by-state bans on gay marriage that passed in 2004 and repeal the military’s anti-gay Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy.

The frenetic pace of meetings, pre-meetings, paper sales, study groups, and branch meetings eventually takes its toll and large numbers (perhaps a majority) of people leave the organization within a few years of joining because these activities do not directly and concretely contribute to winning tangible gains or changing people’s lives for the better. The rate of turnover is especially high among workers and people of color, the very people who historically have been the backbone of socialist and radical movements.

Most ISO members would respond to this fact by saying that people who join and leave are “not won to our politics” or that they are “not committed” to being lifelong revolutionaries.

This argument has some truth to it. Not everyone who joins and leaves the ISO considers themselves to be a Marxist, socialist, or revolutionary, so in the long run it makes sense for them not to be part of such an organization. However, this line of thinking misses two things:

  1. The people who leave do so with the impression that recruiting and retaining members is primarily what “party-building” and being a revolutionary socialist are all about, so it should come as no surprise that they do not self-identify as such if that is why they leave and
  2. The very real problem of burnout among ISO cadre (cadre meaning members who have been in the organization for years, serve on leadership bodies, and/or oversee areas of work). Their dedication to the cause and commitment to the ISO’s politics cannot be questioned or dismissed so easily because they spent years building the ISO.

The commitment escalator in terms of time has a counterpart on the political or ideological side. When you first join the ISO, you are told by who ever recruits you that agreement with the politics outlined in “Where We Stand” is the political requirement for membership. As you begin going to study groups, you discover the ISO as an organization has a whole range of positions on theoretical, historical, and foreign policy questions ranging from topics like privilege and the one-state solution in Palestine to Trotsky’s theory of permanent that you are expected (or even duty-bound) to defend even if you personally disagree with them. This practice is fundamentally at odds with the practices of the Bolsheviks who never insisted that members defend a particular view of the European revolutions of 1848 or the French revolution of 1789. Lenin and Bukharin hotly debated the question of national self-determination and independence for countries like Ireland during World War One precisely because there was no Bolshevik line on questions of this sort.

Many of the ISO’s veterans who burnout are lost to activism entirely because they have been taught that political activism in any other form than how the ISO does it is, by definition, “failing to build a socialist alternative,” “movementism,” or “failing to build the revolutionary party.” This loss is a real shame because it is totally unnecessary and, as anyone who has done any organizing in America can tell you, we do not have an overabundance of socialist activists who are theoretically sophisticated and knowledgeable about radical history.

The ISO’s focus on self-perpetuation stands in stark contrast to the Bolsheviks who saw their organization solely as “a lever for enhancing the activity of the advanced workingmen” as Trotsky aptly put it. The RSDLP was built through mass agitation and organization of the working class, not through endless contact meetings and relentless individual follow-up.

Membership Figures: a Well-Guarded Secret

The ISO’s revolving door membership is obscured because national membership figures are kept secret from the organization as a whole although local membership figures are routinely discussed at the branch level.

This practice is indefensible for a number of reasons:

  1. The RSDLP, Mensheviks and Bolsheviks alike, openly discussed membership figures at their party congresses even though the party was illegal and infiltrated from top to bottom by the Tsarist secret police (hence how Tony Cliff could write about said figures in his book, Building the Party). The ISO does not face anything like Tsarist illegality, so security is not a valid reason.
  2. Since recruiting and retaining members is a central ISO activity, keeping these figures secret is akin to a corporation refusing to disclose its profit margins in the sense that the results of the organization’s main activity remain hidden.
  3. Without membership figures, there is no metric or political basis for judging whether the organization is thriving, stalling, or shrinking, making it impossible to assess whether the organization’s leadership is worthy of re-election.

In practice, this means only the ISO’s leadership and the Federal Bureau of Investigation know how many members there are at any given time. The rank and file is in the dark.

Despite this, it is possible to come up with an estimate of the ISO’s growth based on the publicly announced registration figures for its yearly summer conferences held in Chicago. When I joined in 1999, 800-900 registered; in 2011, 1,300 registered. This means the group grew by about 500 over a decade at an average rate of 50 members per year, or 1 member per branch per year since there are roughly 50 branches throughout the country. This slow accumulation of members might look good on paper, but it’s important to keep the rate of attrition in mind. As long as more people join than leave/burnout, the organization succeeds in growing, never mind the fact that the average member puts in 10-20 hours a week for 52 weeks a year just to gain one recruit for their branch.

Unlike the ISO’s slow, linear growth, the RSDLP grew (and shrank) exponentially with the ups and downs of the Russian class struggle. During the 1999-2011 period, there were four distinct political upsurges from below in the United States: the anti-globalization movement (cut short by September 11), the 2003-2005 movement against the Iraq war and occupation, the 2006 immigrants’ rights movement that culminated in a one-day political general strike by immigrant workers on May 1, and the 2011 Occupy movement that began with Occupy Wall Street. The ISO did not grow exponentially the way RSDLP did in 1905 and 1912-1914 during these upsurges because the organization’s practice is too rigid and conservative to attract radicalizing workers, students, and oppressed people who want to get onto the field of battle and fight, not attend an endless series of meetings, pre-meetings, post-meetings, Socialist Worker sales, contact meetings, new member meetings, and study groups that constitute the ISO’s “branch routines.” Activists and fighters who join will find themselves in a self-enclosed world with its own practices, habits, culture, norms, and hierarchy/pecking order that have little to do with winning change or leading struggles to victory and a lot to do with the group’s self-perpetuation. The primary focus of their practical and political activity will shift from local activist work to the ISO.

The ISO and Movements

The ISO insists that there is no contradiction between building itself and various movements. Often times, ISO members will argue that joining the ISO is a way of uniting disparate causes (such as fighting against the death penalty, for union rights, against budget cuts, for solidarity with Palestine) into a single project of overturning capitalism.

While there is no inherent contradiction between recruiting to the ISO and movement building in the abstract, in practice things are more complicated. Because of the ISO’s strong emphasis on individual recruitment through ideological conversion, fellow activists often see or feel that the ISO – as an outside, pre-existing entity – is opportunistically “raiding” a coalition for new members. These feelings are heightened if and when the ISO’s involvement comes to an end because it has concluded that the fight is going nowhere in the near term or that people are not moving in the ISO’s direction (towards recruitment) politically. Rarely is there the feeling among non-ISO activists that ISOers involved are truly “one of us” due to this habit of popping in when a struggle heat up and dropping out when things cool down.

When a conflict does arise between the ISO’s party-building imperatives and movement work, the ISO will go to great lengths not to change what it does and how it operates even at the movement’s expense. This tendency is compounded by the ISO’s rigid interpretation of “democratic centralism” in which all members in a given area of work are bound by “party discipline” to act as a single unit in accordance with the decisions of ISO bodies such as fractions or branch committees, robbing them of the necessary tactical flexibility and political autonomy for consistently solid grassroots movement work. Nothing is more damaging to the ISO’s relationships with its friends and allies in coalitions than having a small phalanx of ISOers doggedly arguing for and pushing a pre-set party line that seems perfectly reasonable to ISOers in  internal discussions but comes off as just the opposite to everyone who is a non-member.

Internal Reform?

If I believed it was possible to reform the ISO and change the practices I’ve criticized through its internal democratic mechanisms, I would be a member today. Unfortunately, my experience and the experiences of others who have tried changing the group through these mechanisms indicates that they are not an effective means of changing ISO policies and practices.

On paper, the ISO seems to be democratic. The highest decision-making body is its yearly convention, made up of elected delegates from local branches. Any member can submit a resolution or a position paper for consideration. The Steering Committee is elected by the convention to lead and run the organization between conventions.

What these democratic forms amount to in practice is a different story.

There are no horizontal channels of communication between branches and the general membership; information and political arguments at the rank and file level therefore move in only one direction – vertically, upwards, through branch leadership committees, citywide leadership committees, the national committee (an advisory body to the Steering Committee elected by the convention), and the Steering Committee. Someone with an idea or proposal has to either fight for their view through these successive administrative layers either on their own as an individual or wait until the yearly pre-convention discussion period to propose it before the organization, but they cannot form a faction to fight for their viewpoint at convention because ISO members do not have a constitutionally guaranteed right to form factions. The most they can do is caucus.

This is a major reason why change in the ISO comes from above, not below.

Dissidents and deviationists face not an uphill battle but a veritable cliff to break through hardened groupthink just to gain a hearing; often an idea or proposal that is generally dismissed or derided when it comes from a rank-and-file member will be readily and eagerly adopted when that same idea or proposal comes from the Steering Committee or other leading personnel.

The organization’s conformist political culture is both a blessing and a curse, allowing it to persist and grow in the Reagan-Obama era while preventing it from fully prospering now that objective conditions are favorable for a mass-based radical left. Given the current political climate, there is no reason the ISO shouldn’t be growing exponentially and qualitatively to become a hegemonic force not only over the far left but the broad left. Thriving not surviving is the order of the day.

The ISO continues to use the British SWP’s closed slate system to elect its leadership, meaning the previous year’s Steering Committee submits the coming year’s Steering Committee to the convention as a single bloc for an up-or-down vote by a show of hands rather than a secret ballot. This makes it impossible for the membership to hold even one Steering Committee member accountable unless they can assemble 12 or more additional names for an entirely new slate. This practice is winner-take-all run amok, and the result is not a one-party state but a one-slate party; as far as anyone knows, the ISO has never had a competitive election for its Steering Committee since it was founded in 1977. Conventions are exercises in unanimity rather than a place where substantive differences are aired and ironed out in a vigorous and above-board manner.

The easiest way to understand any institution or organization in capitalist society is to do just one thing – follow the money. Doing so reveals how power and status is really distributed and how organizations actually function.

What is remarkable about the ISO in this regard is its lack of transparency. Dues are paid, money is raised, merchandise (books, magazines, and newspapers) is sold, but rare is the ISO member who knows that the organization’s 501(c)(3) – the Center for Economic Research and Social Change (CERSC) – bought and sold thousands of dollars in Caterpillar stock in 2010 in spite of the ISO’s support for the Palestinian boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign’s targeting of Caterpillar for selling Israel the bulldozers it uses to demolish Palestinian homes and kill activist Rachel Corrie.


Whether or not buying and selling Caterpillar stock in defiance of the BDS campaign is right or wrong is not my place to decide, it is for the ISO’s membership to decide, and they cannot do so when they have no clue what the organization’s assets or liabilities consist of and are denied any formal control over CERSC. They cannot discuss and decide how best to spend CERSC’s $1.5 million in yearly revenue on organizing projects when these matters are handled internally as a state secret and questions about them from members are viewed as a sign of disloyalty to socialism rather than what they actually are – a principled commitment to the basic democratic norms working-class people are entitled to in their organizations.

Unions run in this manner are criticized by the left for disempowering the rank and file thereby undermining labor’s ability to fight capital, but how does wrong become right when the same methods are employed by a self-styled revolutionary organization aiming not just to fight capital but to end it?

Merging the Socialist and Worker Movements

No socialist organization should devote most of its time and energy to recruiting and retaining members, especially if they claim that the Bolshevik RSDLP is their organizing model. Lenin’s Collected Works contain zero references to recruiting and ideologically converting new members to the party because that is not how radical mass workers’ parties are built – never have been, never will be.

RSDLP members spent most of their political time organizing the unorganized to struggle for higher wages, against repression, for democratic rights – in other words, the bulk of their time was spent on movement work, on activism. It was through this tireless movement work and activist agitation that the RSDLP built a mass following among Russia’s workers.

“When I rise, it will be with the ranks, not from the ranks.” – Eugene V. Debs

The RSDLP was not unique or special in this regard. The same was done by the Debs-era Socialist Party, the Haywood-era Industrial Workers of the World, the 1930s-1940s era Communist Party that built the CIO from scratch, and the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. Not one of them engaged in “party building” or “building socialist organization” the way the ISO does. “You don’t do any singing; you’re too busy swinging,” is how Malcolm X put it.

All of these groups set out to do just one thing – serve the people, courageously, tirelessly, and selflessly by organizing the unorganized. In so doing, they attracted legions of the most courageous, tireless, and selfless activists of their times to their banners and organizations.

An organization that does not set out to serve the people ends up getting people to serve the organization, recreating the debilitating alienation that Karl Marx identified as one of capitalism’s core evils and ensuring that said organization never becomes a mass-based socio-political force.

Movement-building is party-building; activism is the one and only way to engage in “building the party.”

Class struggle is not something socialists “intervene” into like some imperialist power the better to colonize it with socialist ideas and recruits, it is something we are organically part of. And if we aren’t part of it, we can become part of it and meld with it but only by dropping the conversion/recruitment fetish and throwing all the resources we have into the battle. Then and only then will working people once again see socialists as “one of us” rather than awkward outsiders peddling an ideology that will supposedly liberate them, as comrades worth listening to, as tireless champions willing to pay any price and make every sacrifice for them and their cause.

To lead is to serve.

Until we socialists learn to do this and structure our organizations and activities accordingly, the crippling separation of the worker and socialist movements in the United States will continue to the detriment of both. Majority support for unionization will persist even as the unionization rate is pushed into the single-digit range; socialist groups will continue to tread water by recruiting twos and threes to replace the ones and twos that burn out even as millions of people ache for an alternative to the bleak future the 1% have planned for us.

We owe it to them and ourselves to do better.

{ 187 comments… read them below or add one }

Mark Lause June 24, 2013 at 10:14 am

I have repeatedly raised the question of why an organization like the ISO (or the SWP-YSA decades ago) tends to be incapable of getting beyond a certain size–a glass ceiling in membership. There has rather consistently been zero interest in exploring this issue, a militant and scornful disinterest on the part of most of the smaller groups which wallow in their delusion of righteous purity. But the problem’s a very real one for a group the size of the ISO that actually wants to have a bigger impact on the world.

It should be added, though, that even flawed organizations are certainly capable of moving the struggle forward. Nothing showed this better than the SWP during the anti-Vietnam War movement. And the general impact of the ISO has certainly been very positive, albeit within serious limits.


RedPleb June 24, 2013 at 11:53 am

You really have this persistent axe to grind, don’t you


RedPleb June 24, 2013 at 11:55 am

“The left is hindered by our boundless sectarianism. We need to get over our sectarianism by sectarianly attacking all perceived shortcomings of every other organization and tendency in the history of the left.”


Daniel June 24, 2013 at 6:15 pm

As someone who organizes with the ISO, I support Pham Binh’s right to criticize the group. I’ve been feeling similar criticisms for a while and am glad that someone with more theoretical experience has expressed them so well.
Even with these problems, I still see the ISO as a valuable organization worth organizing with which is in the least, the best the left currently has.


Ismael Diablada June 24, 2013 at 10:00 pm

Daniel, I’ve never worked as an organizer with the ISO, but I’m sympathetic to your position here. One of the consequences of sectism is that one cannot offer a critique of any of these organizations without some sect member inevitably pole-vaulting across the room to intervene and defend the honor of their group. (RedPleb is exemplary in this respect.) Yet, much as I agree with Binh’s critique, we should emphasize that it’s a critique that could be made against virtually all the sects and various traditions that compose the fractured Marxist left. Whatever the merits or demerits of the ISO’s political work, I think its publishing house, Haymarket, is possibly the best in the country and its books are a crucial contribution to our movement.


Ethan Young June 24, 2013 at 12:41 pm

The CP did not build the CIO from scratch. It played a big role, but if it hadn’t been there the industrial unionism movement would still have swept the country – and it would have emerged in different forms, with different politics. How different, we can only speculate.

I think this only enhances Pham’s argument.

Sectarianism is not just hating on other groups. There are good-natured sects. The problem is fetishising the form, through messianic impulse or group loyalty.


Brandy Baker June 24, 2013 at 4:30 pm

The word, “sectarianism” has been dishonestly employed by some in order to silence criticism. The truer meaning of the word is strict adherence to a sect, dogma, ideology, or factional viewpoint. Who does THAT sound like?


Louis Proyect June 24, 2013 at 1:20 pm

While not quite in the same category as trading in Caterpillar, the SWP owned “new economy” stocks when the Militant was railing against the phony “new economy”.

The figures below are part of the portfolio of the Anchor Foundation, the nonprofit corporation set up by the Socialist Workers Party, asreflected in IRS Form 990 for tax year 2001, on public view at All of these stocks fall under the rubric of New Economy hype.

Security————–Number of Shares———-Gain(Loss)

Ericsson L M Tel Co———1,500————–(19,129.05)
Global Crossing Inc———–700————–(15,162.21)


Pham Binh June 24, 2013 at 1:34 pm

I don’t think the U.S. SWP was calling on anyone to divest from those companies as part of a broader campaign in 2001. To me, that’s not comparable to calling on people/institutions to divest from Caterpillar while simultaneously investing in Caterpillar as part of the BDS campaign.

I think the “so and so owns stock in x and y” is not necessarily grounds for criticism; that sounds moralistic.

However, based on your post, it looks like the SWP took some big losses in 2001. Maybe they should have read their newspaper a little more closely?


Louis Proyect June 24, 2013 at 2:32 pm

I just think that it was hypocritical to tell its readers that the New Economy (symbolized above all by Enron) was bogus while at the same time they were buying Enron stocks. I should add that I think the whole idea of “responsible investing” is pretty bogus when it comes to individuals. Camejo made a bundle out of this strategy in the 1980s, I should add.


Pham Binh June 24, 2013 at 2:47 pm

I tend to agree with you about “responsible investing.” As soon as an individual or organization decides to invest money in stocks or bonds, I think you’re plunged into a very murky area politically trying to figure out what the “least evil” corporation/institution is. Every institution that dumps Caterpillar stock as part of BDS is probably investing instead in Google, Goldman Sachs, UBS, WellPoint, or any number of morally reprehensible outfits. Maybe Citgo is the best out of the lot? I don’t even know if they have stocks you can buy, but I do buy Citgo gas when I buy gas.


Julia June 24, 2013 at 2:10 pm

Pham Binh, what organization are you in now?


Pham Binh June 24, 2013 at 2:48 pm

I’m not in a political organization at this time. Unless you count the Central Intelligence Agency. Why do you ask?


RedPleb June 24, 2013 at 3:20 pm

So CERSC is failing at BDS even though they specifically ‘Divested’ from Caterpillar stock?


Pham Binh June 24, 2013 at 3:48 pm

Buying a stock and then selling it to make money is usually not considered a divestment.


RedPleb June 24, 2013 at 3:58 pm

You do know that non-profits oftentimes receive bundles of stocks as donations, and that’s precisely what happened in this case, right?


Ben D June 24, 2013 at 4:25 pm

Actually it looks like according to the form above it was a purchase rather than a donation. Also are you really justifying CERSC waiting to *divest until 2010? Didn’t we all know about this company a bit before that?


RedPleb June 24, 2013 at 4:37 pm

Fine. I admit being wrong on that one, I misread the form. But it still seems like fishing for mud to sling, that you’re going through 3 year old tax documents for any thing to attack. The whole piece is so imbedded with spite and old baggage, it does make me wonder whats the point. If the goal right now is to build greater left and socialist unity (something I am actually quite sympathetic towards) then how is being accomplished by broadsides like this? This piece totally crosses the line from just a regular anti-ISO attack, to full on trying to undermine and sabotage the ISO


Pham Binh June 24, 2013 at 4:48 pm

The point is that the sect model inhibits the re-merger of the socialist and worker movements, which is not an exclusively ISO problem. This is simply a case study.

I don’t need to sabotage the ISO when it refuses to adapting its forms and practices to historically-specific circumstances continues to adhere to a model that is incapable of producing success, thereby sabotaging itself. No matter what way you look at it, each member of a branch spending ~10 hours a week 52 weeks a year to gain 1 new branch member net is probably one of the least cost-effective ways to spend labor time.

The fact that you can’t come up with any conceivable justification for CERSC violating the BDS campaign (I couldn’t either) ought to serve as a lesson as to why transparency is so important.


RedPleb June 24, 2013 at 4:58 pm

All I can say is do it your way and see if that works. If you think the ISO way of doing things (which I think by the way you terribly misscharacterize) is awful, fine, then go out and prove you can do better. But don’t do that by trying to spitefully torpedo all other groups and then building whatever you’re trying to build out of the rubble, thats not the way to go about it.


Hegelian Christian Dialectician June 24, 2013 at 5:10 pm

The Fall preludes the Rise, my friend…


Hegelian Christian Dialectician June 24, 2013 at 5:12 pm

The ISO needs an internal revolution (preferably by the youth).


Pham Binh June 24, 2013 at 6:15 pm

You’re welcome to write a response. So far, you haven’t responded to any of the arguments and have instead complained about tone, which is so neutral it borders on Mr. Rogers-ish.

I wish the ISO would change for the better. We’d all be better off if the group had excellent relationships with the far and broad left and was influencing everyone from Jacobin to the Green Party to the spin-offs of Occupy. With the ISO’s resources and a concerted five-year good-faith effort, we could easily create a radical organization of ~10,000 people.


Daniel June 25, 2013 at 1:47 am

WHAAAAAAAAT? How to reach 10,000 people in 5 years?! Need you to write an article explaining this!


Jon Hoch June 26, 2013 at 2:40 pm

If you think how many folks were involved in Occupy I don’t think this is at all outlandish. You just need a big-tent organization that doesn’t insist everyone identify with a very specific strand of socialism.

Ben D June 24, 2013 at 4:57 pm

I was in the ISO in Madison WI for nearly five years from 2006 to 2011 including being on BC and convening until being told by Sharon Smith that, “maybe the ISO is not the organization for me” at a bullshit emergency meeting at which our document was condemned without us being given a speaker while there were two speakers for the bureaucracy. This whole situation was full of name calling of us as anti-leninist, anti-leadership, having anarchist tendencies, and being unserious. It felt like I was being persecuted by a Stalinized organization. I seriously wondered what might have happened to me if the ISO was in power. The ISO is functionally like the it’s IST ancestor the UK SWP and if it can not recognize that it has been basically the same in its behaviors and that it needs to make amends to past victims of its abuses it will never succeed in building positive force for change. How can anything improve without self reflection on serious wrongs? I have been an in-activist for two years now because of the ISO. I am still furious with my former comrades at all levels of the organization as I still hear to this day what absurdities deform their judgement. If the ISO will not change I would rather people interested in activism do basically anything else instead of joining the ISO. I don’t want what happened to me to happen to anyone else and I have and will continue to warn others of this until I am convinced that the ISO has changed.


Brandy Baker June 24, 2013 at 5:17 pm

Ben, your story has been told many other times from many other ex-members who were in branches across the country.

If you do not mind my asking, what was your document about? Most of the time, it is about democratizing the practices of the organization.

And how come every time we read about some members in a branch get together to present a document on how to democratize the organization, a piecard is flown out and starts expelling people, or at least tries to get rid of the with the old, “maybe this organization is not for you”?


Ben D June 25, 2013 at 2:02 pm

The disagreement started about whether or not we could discuss certain political things informally. Specifically two of us were told by another member that we could not discuss ‘perspectives’ informally. We disagreed and it ultimately culminated in a document which encouraged thinking about democratic centralism more, thinking about how to improve it, what makes it not work, etc. This was the document that was voted to be condemned.


Brandy Baker June 24, 2013 at 4:25 pm

According to the 990 above, it was not a donation, but a purchase.

May want to take a look at that.


Pham Binh June 24, 2013 at 4:41 pm

Yes, I am aware of that.

What does your point about donations have to do with CERSC’s purchase of 86 shares of Caterpillar stock on February 26, 2010 for $4,906?


Nome de guerre June 24, 2013 at 6:20 pm

Given the timing of the buying and selling of the shares, I would venture to guess the caterpillar purchases were part of the debatable tactic of getting into shareholders meetings to disrupt them. Though I’m not sure why 86 shares were bought (a typical lot is 100, and there are usually no lower limits on how many shares are needed to vote, so 1 would have sufficed), the date is about 100 days prior to the 2010 Caterpillar shareholders meeting. This is significant because typical corporate rules of governance require a 90 day lead time on certain shareholder activities, including being able to nominate member for the board, declare a proxy to vote in one’s place or even to vote at all. This date also is only a few days after it was reported that Rachel Corrie’s family was granted entry into Israel to take the Israeli government to court over her death-by-bulldozer.

The sell date indicates very poor portfolio management as the stock had only been rising for a month prior to the sale. Though foresight is impossible, a search of news sources (try google for “caterpillar profits” between 8/30/2010 and 12/5/2010) at the time indicate that even a conservative trader would know hold onto their shares for a while. Indeed, had they waited only a few more months they could have made several thousand more dollars off the shares. I suppose they probably unloaded them for tax reasons.

This is of course all conjecture, and CERSC could clear it all up rather easily if it wanted to.


samson June 26, 2013 at 8:59 am

I’m doubtful. Socialist Worker has never mentioned a single Caterpillar shareholder action, much less one at that particular meeting. The more likely explanation, IMO, is simply that principles tend to fly out the window when it comes to building or financing the organization.

And yes, CERSC could easily clear it all up. Information on the organization’s purchase of Caterpillar shares has been working its way around the web for a couple of years now. So why haven’t they?


Saturn June 25, 2013 at 1:53 am

RedPleb, as someone who was a member of the ISO for five years and who still has a lot of love for the organization, people like you and me need to take criticisms of its organizational aspects seriously. Speaking from experience, they are often undiscussed or brushed over within the ISO and that’s wrong — there is too much lumping together of the million random assholes who say dumb stuff about the organizing methods, and new members who are really onto something with a fresh pair of eyes.

I know it’s an ego-attack when someone attacks your group, but if you really do believe in the ISO, read the points above carefully, try to integrate the points above into your political practice and raise the issues you think are serious within the organization.


JB June 24, 2013 at 3:38 pm

If we are laying the groundwork for a new organization here, why not make one of the number one goals to orient the organization to serve the needs of local socialist, anarchist, left progressive and other activist groups? What I mean by this is, instead of an organization that attempts to be the leader in any way, ideological 0r organizationally, an organization that is designed to facilitate the work of local groups of a multitude of ideological stripes and link them up with each other in order to better do the ground work of organizing.

I’m a member of a Unitarian Universalist church, and in terms of organization we use a model very much like this. All real decision making power happens at the local level. Local churches decide their own philosophical orientation, their own programs, what clergy they will have (if any), finances, etc. The central Unitarian Universalist association is sustained by contributions from local congregations, and undertakes work that no individual church could have the resources to do on it’s own (media, books, church plants, background checks on clergy etc.). They also have staff available to help with church growth campaigns, organizational issues, religious education etc. but they don’t have the power to force these resourcs on local congregations. Instead, they offer them as a resource for churches to use as they see fit. I could imagine a leftist organization fulfilling a same role, helping to pool resources, connect groups, and hire and retain effective and experienced staff to help at the request of local groups, sustained by the voluntary contributions of local groups, and answerable democratically to local groups. This would be a way to build a national organization that could include socialists, progressives and anarchists without raising the spectre of autoritarianism.


Andrew Gorman June 24, 2013 at 4:32 pm

The UU princples are also something I think leftists could learn from for non-sectarianism. I think you make a very good point about structure and funding.


Jon Hoch June 24, 2013 at 4:05 pm

I think this criticism is pretty right on. But I guess I think that to be a large party, an organization needs to get away from “Leninism” in scare quotes, but also proper Leninism, however you imagine it to be. Large organizations need to be big tents with room for a lot of different currents so long as they’re all headed in vaguely the same direction. Kind of like I said earlier, the Republican party doesn’t go around describing itself as a “Friedmanist” organization and such. Leave the worship of individuals to religion. Any organization that weds itself to one individual so closely, however accurate its representation of that person might be, is doomed to be small, sectarian and stuck in past, IMO.


Jeff K. June 24, 2013 at 6:11 pm

Problem is, how do we prevent such an organization from being co-opted by liberals or social democrats?


Mark Lause June 24, 2013 at 5:19 pm

There is absolutely no reason people haven’t formed their own non-partisan committee to foster independent radical action at the polls. You put together a set of the key principles. Something short, not the kitchen sink, not a dogmatic and religious obsession with terminology. Raise money and organize at the local, district and national level. Something like the approach the Nader campaign had to 2004 or 2008. Raise money and organize the clout to support for candidates who are interested in bringing together the largest possible campaign around those issues–whether they’re Greens, Socialists or whatever. If you have more than one candidate that claims agreement, use the funds and the clout to make them come to an argement, if you can. This falls way short of some “cadre” organization but it’s an essential thing to do and it’s not been done.


Wayne June 24, 2013 at 6:13 pm

Pham Binh makes interesting comments about the ISO. I was never a member, but was a member, ages ago, of the Independent Socialist Committees, and then of the International Socialists (US), the predescesor groups. My group, which became the Revolutionary Socialist League, split from the IS before the tendencies evolution into the ISO (and Solidarity). Anyway, I want to say that I like much of what the author writes, but…. While it is excellent to be anti-sectarian, and against doing everything for the supposed party and not so much building the real movements, surely something would have to be said about program and theoretical development? I assume that PB does not say a word of criticism of the ISO’s theory and program because he is, in general if not on every point, in agreement with them?


Christian June 24, 2013 at 6:23 pm

To the credit of the ISO, they started out at a time when far left politics were becoming rapidly unpopular in America. The starting point of a high political basis for someone joining made a lot of sense, I think, in decades like the 1980s, when things got very conservative. They were trying to preserve socialist politics in living memory, more so than I think they were trying to build a mass organization because the perspective was that it wasn’t the right conditions to build a mass organization. I think they were right and the fact that they were able to survive and grow while every other group shrank is credit to their theory.

I also think a lot of their intellectual tradition and focus on socialism from below is right on, and certainly a lot of people including Binh, myself, and several hundred former and current members of the organization had their political educations enriched by the organization in a way that would have been a lot slower if the group never existed.

Rather than this being a “smear” piece, I think it poses very serious questions by a former activist. I recall the bolsheviks under Lenin agreed with debating political and organizational ideas publicly, in pamphlets and newspapers and discussions with non-members, and I think us doing that today is helpful. Certainly, the horizontal ism of discussion sites like this one breaks through a lot of the political isolation “in a hole” (to borrow an analogy from lenin), where members of many groups often find their experience contained.

Are slate elections problematic, undemocratic, and should they be replaced by another form?

Are we spending too much time trying to recruit people to a set of political ideas that we think are right in theory, and not enough time educating ourselves in practice? Can we use our 10-15 hours a week to get share our message, get recruits, and be a meaningful part of local struggles more efficiently?

Why are the people on the Steering Committee the same people who were there 20 years ago? Is that a hallmark of a democratic organization? Wouldn’t Steering Committee members have a better sense of ordinary people’s lives if they spent more time out of the bubble of hyper-politicization and full time organizational staffing? Wouldn’t 2nd and 3rd layer cadre activists gain more leadership experience serving shorter stints on bodies of national leadership, rather than always relying on deferring to “experts”?

And why doesn’t or the ISreview have comments sections on their websites? The internet is how people get and share news, and almost every news site (progressive and otherwise) has adopted comments sections. Wouldn’t that interactivity attract people to the organization’s publications, and facilitate more horizontal communication and learning?

If anything, it is remarkable that the ISO has been able to do so much good work in spite of these handicaps. Even a tool that isn’t the most efficient can be used to good result if the person using it is highly motivated. From the perspective of having been a leading activist in the pro palestine, antiwar, and global justice movements, I think the ISO allowed us to do a great deal of good. I do, however, think there could be some better ways to do things, though neither Binh nor myself nor anyone seems to have the correct blueprint for a new organization.

Certainly, you can propel and steer a canoe with a shovel, or even with your hands… but after doing that for a while one becomes rather eager for a properly constructed paddle.

If the 1980s were a time with very little dynamism to the American socialist movement, it made sense that predictable routines would develop. But today maybe we are too stuck in routines and unable to experiment (I use “we” here in the sense of members of all socialist, and anarchist, groups and ideologies). Now should be a time to experiment with new routines, accept new ideas, try new strategies, and reach out to others.

The NSA spying scandals, the dissatisfaction with drones, the hatred for wall street, the international revolutions, and the life experience of people in their 20s-30s right now places them a lot farther to a basic socialist understanding of the world than anyone in America had circa 2000 when I joined the ISO. It’s not the time to nit pick obscure theory, or to even worry that some one is joining this or that organization. It’s time to involve the greatest numbers of people possible in tangible, local struggles that accomplish concrete changes, teach new activists organizing skills, and inspire confidence in our communities.

The people who can do this the most effectively, collaboratively, innovatively, and successfully, will gain the interest, respect, and adherence of our generation’s most intelligent and eager fighters. You win that respect by doing things in practice, not by convincing someone of a political argument, or having the “right” political line on things.

I think that given the long amount of time Binh spent in the organization, it would be appropriate for current members of the ISO to consider these points, and it would also be appropriate for leading members to respond to them.


Douglas M June 24, 2013 at 8:28 pm

As far as a response all I have to offer is that I agree with you. The ISO was a tremendous place of learning for me in terms of the socialist tradition and political discussion. That is something that is undervalued in this conversation. However, at this point there are probably more members who agree with need for socialism but are either burned out of the organization or see the problem with that version of Leninism than there are current active members of the ISO. A start would be gathering the unorganized before trying to get the ISO to listen.


Douglas M June 24, 2013 at 8:21 pm

I was an ISO member from 1997-2005 and much of this piece resonates with me. I was fully convinced of of the organization’s arguments about movements as a member. The cracks first appeared in the fallout of the post Iraq invasion period when I felt like I was spending an inordinate amount of time in meetings but neither the anti-war movement nor the organization were getting anywhere from it. After being inactive for a few years in both movements and the organization I went down to OWS. I realized there that, truly, the ISO acts as this strange outside thing that doesn’t effectively relate to the people who should be their audience. When you are inside the group it is difficult to see how outside the movement you are.
Politically I still agree with many of the ISO positions but I also see the organization’s problematic rigidity. The question that I’m still trying to work out is how to build (or be involved with, really) a socialist organization that is effective. Because, to be frank, the method of the ISO isn’t working.


Pham Binh June 24, 2013 at 8:48 pm

Hi Doug (wish I could put a face to the name because I’m certain we saw each other at some point during those years).

The comparison I keep coming back to is it’s like being in a fishbowl. You can see what’s going on outside the bowl, what’s going on inside the bowl, but no matter how hard you try you cannot see the fishbowl, where and how it is situated, and how it looks to other people. I started to learn this when I left to work 7 days a week for 3 years. Suddenly I was in the working class without my newspaper and my weekly meetings to keep me too busy (exhausted) to sit and think, to stop and listening to what was and was not going on around me amongst the 99.999% of the working class that is not political.

Part of the reason I helped start this site is to have that conversation about where we go from here. I wish I had a magic bullet but all I know is what doesn’t work and that we need to start experimenting in an open-ended and honest way. With enough participation and input, I’m optimistic we’ll figure out how to incorporate the ISO’s strengths and avoid its weaknesses and flaws. It’s the beginning of a lengthy process but it’s not a problem that is going to solve itself.


Karl Grant June 24, 2013 at 8:58 pm

Very valuable post, the importance of organizational culture is too often neglected by the radical left.

I especially appreciated the commentary on the impact of the ISO’s opaqueness about recruitment figures and how it raises issues about accountability, especially within an organization that identifies as ‘democratic-centralist’. If there is no metric to evaluate the performance of the leadership and no effective actual internal democracy then you have the reality – a leadership, organization, and culture that has been frozen still for the last thirty years.

Equally important is honest discussion about the type of culture that is created by the constant sprint towards organizational self-perpetuation. There is the well-known problem of retention within the organization. Couldn’t the aspects of the ISO’s inner life described by Binh be a large part of this? How can we account for the fact that the biggest radical left group in the US is likely the ‘ex-ISO’?

Any organization of even a slight degree of professionalism introduces routine exit-interviews when it is hemorrhaging members in a particular department. This reads to me like Binhs’ and I bet a lot of ex-members would have similar stories to tell. Folks in the ISO’s periphery or ex-members should use this space to weigh in on the discussion and send in an exit-interview. What made you leave the organization or prevented you from ever joining?

I know for myself the stiff edges of the ISO’s recruitment culture rubbed me raw from the first encounter with them.


Thomas Barton June 24, 2013 at 9:40 pm

A useful and for the most part thoughtful discussion, to a point.

That point is: what organization is now proposed?

The only useless answer is: none.


Julia June 24, 2013 at 9:50 pm

So which leftist political parties and organizations are less sectarian? I know the IWW and the SPUSA are multitendency, but the IWW seems to be mostly anarchist (not necessarily a bad thing.) I met some Worker’s World comrades and they were Leninist, but seemed to be open to new ideas (many of them I’m surprised said that both Trotsky, Lenin, and Stalin had good ideas that we could learn from.) I’m personally someone new to the left without a set political tendency and am currently floating around different organizations (and reading history/theory) to figure out which one I fit in. The huge number of organizations is a bit overwhelming and
it’s difficult that most of the branches are in large cities (at least in the Northeast United States.) I live in Northeast PA and want to start some sort of organization there after college but I’m not even sure which one I’d want to belong to. I do know there are leftist around though, and feel that old industrial towns could have a lot of potential.


Tim Horras June 26, 2013 at 2:47 pm

Hey Julia,

I agree with the organizing potential of old industrial towns, especially in the Lehigh Valley area. When I moved to Philadelphia, I helped start up a local socialist collective which, instead of affiliating with a national group, focused on being the type of organization we would have wanted to join if it had been around.

It turned out that that sort of group (non-sectarian, focused on real-world organizing, etc.) was something a lot of other folks were interested in too, and now that group (Philly Socialists) has grown to over a hundred members. You can check more info on our FB page:

My advice if you do indeed try to start up a group at some point would be: 1) Find 1-2 people you trust to help get the group started; it’s a big task and many hands makes the work lighter, 2) Pick projects which can be taken on and completed by a small group (6-7 people), 3) Don’t listen to discouragers and disorganizers. Some people will want more than anything for your efforts to fail. Stick to your guns and prove them wrong, I promise it is well worth it.

If you have any interest in keeping in contact with a fellow Pennsylvania red, feel free to email me at tim [at] Best of luck!

Tim Horras
Chair, Philly Socialists


Robert Gahtan July 6, 2013 at 6:19 pm

Tim Horras, I think you r advice is good, but I think Julia would be better served by starting by adding the following to her reading list.
Lenin’s What is to be Done (1902),
Saul Alinsky’s Reveille for Radicals (1989),
Randy Shaw’s The Activist’s Handbook (2001),
Prokosch, Laura Raymond’, and Naomi Klein’s The Global Activist’s Manual (2002),
Marshall Ganz’s Why David Sometimes Wins (2010),
Gene Sharp’s From Dictatorship to Democracy (2012),
Aiden Ricketts’s The Activist’s Handbook (2012).
Playbook for Progressives (2013)


Pham Binh June 24, 2013 at 10:01 pm

Re: Karl Grant’s exit interviews idea:

– It is not unheard of for contacts (non-members interested but not yet convinced of joining) and new-ish members to one day completely drop out, stop answering emails, stop answering phone calls from ISOers. This used to mystify me but now it makes sense; people tend to react this way when they feel something is wrong, fucked up, and they become increasingly uncomfortable but the atmosphere/interactions are such that they can’t argue against the groupthink/pressure to conform in a meaningful or productive way. So they stonewall and vote with their feet.

Good getting them for an exit interview!

– One of the things that really rubbed me the wrong way in mid-late 2006 before I effectively dropped out was how the NYC district organizer, who had served 15 years in her position, was well-liked, popular, and an all-around nice person became an unperson overnight when she stepped down from her position and a few weeks/one month later resigned and dropped out altogether. That somebody quits wasn’t the problem; it was the fact that nobody in the district 1) knew why she left and 2) wanted to talk about #1.

I couldn’t get any answers from anyone, so I just called her myself and we had a long talk. She told me she didn’t “agree with Leninism as practiced by the ISO” — in my fish bowl view (see previous comment to Doug for reference) — there was no other way to skin the Leninist cat. 2 paper sales a week and a branch meeting was the law of ISO land! She explained that she felt we put way too much emphasis on “support the Iraqi resistance” in anti-war work which alienated 98% of anti-war forces at a time when the movement was struggling for survival with passivity and demoralization. I didn’t really agree with her until I looked into the 2005 Fayetteville incident and the destruction of Students Against War (both hyperlinked above).

She also said she was pressured from above by the regional organizer and the Steering Committee not to air disagreements along those lines in front of the membership because it would undermine their leadership, i.e. violate “democratic centralism.” She was actually sympathetic to this view given that she technically was their employee (an appointed from above rather than an elected from below position) but felt too strongly that it was wrong for her to implement a line she just didn’t plain agree with.

Our conversation was pleasant enough because I really wanted to find out why she left and listened hard, a rare act for those still in the fish bowl. After she told me, I still couldn’t figure out what was so threatening about addressing why she left in an open manner within the organization; only now do I see why avoiding questions and re-assessments was so critical.

– So yes to exit interviews. It’s a necessary part of a political culture of accountability, openness, and sustainability.


David Walters June 25, 2013 at 12:33 am

Interesting discussion. I was the US SWP for a long time and saw it evolve from around 1972 onward until I left it in 1981, a few years before the big purge that took place where they expelled all the old, and many young, Trotskyists. AS most know they dumped “Trotskyism” for a bizzaro alternate universe reality version of Fidelismo…though I doubt the Cuban’s…any Cubans, would of reorganized the mutated form the SWP turned itself into. Thus we had what can only be described as orthodox Trotskyists defending anti-sectarianism and mass action against a faux-Castroist leadership abstaining from the every struggle…I haven’t even mentioned the counter-cultural internal life in the organization.

But Pham’s essay reminds of my own criticisms developed much later about the hyper-activity of the membership which, while different specifically, was similar to that of the ISO. I should add that part of the ISO’s growth…the group started in 1976…was in *part* the result of the YSA pulling completely off of campus to make “The Turn To Industry”. The ISO smartly focused on campus work and profited quite nicely from it. Point to the ISO on that.

But the hyper activity is an interesting thing. I used the term ‘counter-cultural’ because I think it is. Pham didn’t mention dues and I’m curious how the ISO handled this. I can’t believe it was even close to the demands the SWP put on it’s membership, where members making $300 a week gross (circa 1980) would fork over $40..a WEEK out of that. Real human beings living in capitalist society would look around a utter the period’s equivalent of “say what?” and think of us as some strange cult. Like Moonies, but without the chocolate treats offered to prospective members of the Unification Church.

For me, activity should be based not on some ‘collective agreement’ but a sort of minimum activity *as it relates to the actual living…or not so living…class struggle*. The ISO isn’t the only group that demanded twice-weekly paper sales, 3 meetings and perhaps a mandatory social at some comrades house (only fully insulating members from actual working people). That sort of activity, or level of activity, is for when the masses are in motion, during highs in the class struggle, not during long retreats or major ebbs in the struggle. Socialists can’t be seen as Jahovah’s Witnesses standing on the street corner pushing stuff that has no relation to the actual lives of workers. This is what I meant by counter-cultural.

Every group I’m aware of in the 1970s had the exact same modus operandi. Most of the larger Maoist groups and all the Trotskyist groups, only varying in degree. Of course in the early 70s we DID think the revolution was sort of around the corner but to carry on that way was simply crazy.



Saturn June 25, 2013 at 2:09 am

My ending point was when I raised the issue of third party strategy shortly after Occupy, and everyone stared at me like I had two heads and said my questions were “speculative” and “abstract.” No bureaucratic repression was used against me, but there was a very entrenched culture of disregarding and ignoring anything outside of their norm or usual thought channels.

I’m willing to put up with a certain amount of crap from an organization, if they seem to be the cutting and leading edge with answers for the movement in that time and place — but when they cease to provide that leadership, my reasons for tolerating the BS dissipate, and I leave. **If you have nothing to say about elections at this point in time, then you have nothing to say to me.**

Disloyalty is a virtue. I will follow until I don’t.


Jack July 5, 2013 at 3:15 am

That internal culture is real bad. I remember essentially being blocked from sending a document thing to the party convention stating how expansion should include making friends with outside groups (at the time, trying to make friends with the SPUSA guys who were booted).

I remember this guy Tom tried to open up transparency in the groups financing and membership #’s. it made it to the docket for the convention, but he got some letter from the CC saying it was “not correct for the ISO” or something. This means they have something to hide from the membership (’cause the NSA surely would already know if they had something to hide from Uncle Sam, let’s be honest that argument of repression is shit now. pfft, probably always has been).


David Ellis June 25, 2013 at 5:47 am

I think you’ll find that the ISO take their role as `organic intellectuals’ and `hegemony’ builders seriously. Too seriously in fact. Without the support of the SWP or the SP in the UK you will have great difficulty becoming a trade union rep or branch secretary in established unions where generous facility time is made available to reps by the employer or `expenses’ are reimbursed. Nothing wrong with that per se unless of course it leads you to become an integral part of the labour and trade union bureaucracy albeit its more left wing manifestation rather than a genuine tribune of the people. The sectarianism of the SWP is purely opportunist. Strange that your solution to the mindless apolitical single issue activism of the ISO is to propose much, much more of the same. The selfless activity of the Bolsheviks was the continuation of their politics. Wrong politics, wrong activity even if it looks almost identical. The activity of the sects is entirely self-serving and politically apolitical (Stalinist in fact).


Jules Verne June 25, 2013 at 11:18 am

It would just take too long to pick apart everything that’s wrong with this article, as well intention as it may be, since Binh seems to be shouting into the wind. I will note a few problems.

I will start off with a basic one. Doing a google search for the specific word “recruitment” in Lenin’s works as proof of how the RSDLP(B) oriented to the working class in Russia is breathtakingly facile. Here Binh is just repeating the canard that Lenin was an orthodox follower of Kautsky’s “party of the whole class” approach. Concepts can be present in writings and practices, even if the word we currently use to denote that concept is absent. Just ask yourself: if the RSDLP(B) did not organizationally differentiate itself from other activists or the class as a whole on a political basis, and along with that did not seek to win people to their organization by advancing their ideas in struggle, then why on Earth did the Bolsheviks ever split from the Mensheviks in the first place? Expulsions and splits are the flipside of recruitment, and both are attempts to maintain a degree of homogeneity. Both were routinely practiced by the Bolsheviks before 1917, and articulated formally after the Bolsheviks’ break from the Second International in 1914.

Having pretended that the Bolsheviks were orthodox Kautskyists through 1917, and that Leninist democratic centralism had no relationship to the success of October, Binh then rushes to disparage these principles as obstructing the democratic functioning of the ISO. Readers unfamiliar with the long and rich heritage of debates surrounding issues of democratic centralism might miss the way that Binh conflates ISO internal practice with democratic centralism. A variety of admittedly problematic issues exist within the ISO, including rapid membership turnover, leadership bodies running roughshod over the rank and file members, among others. Binh does a laudable job of drawing these to people’s attention.

Where he gets into trouble is in implying that these are the natural extensions of Leninist democratic-centralist norms. In fact, just the opposite is true: they are a reflection of the way the ISO maintains some forms of democratic-centralist structures while filling them with a content that is unmistakeably opportunist and second-internationalist. Binh seems unaware of how remarkable his observation was that “Not everyone who joins and leaves the ISO considers themselves to be a Marxist, socialist, or revolutionary.” But this is the root of the ISO’s rot. It tries to sweep up as many members as possible, reifying recruitment, without ensuring that these new members are educated and confident enough to be able to assert themselves or make independent contributions to internal debates. The result is the kind of massive coercion and browbeating that Binh mentions, but the cause is not “democratic centralism.” The cause is the ISO deviating in basic ways from the classic Leninist vision of how the party should function in regards to the working class in a period where a revolutionary mass movement is absent.

Revolutionaries don’t need to ask Binh to try to implement his approach to advancing revolutionary politics. He has predecessors who shared his vision in the German SPD, and they very much succeeded in constructing the kind of political organization Binh, at least in this piece, seems to hint is a “non-sectarian” and fruitful way to go about overthrowing capitalism. History has shown what these “non-sectarian” groups do in a period of intense ferment and revolution: swamped by reformist currents they ended up siding with their national bourgeoisies and turning against revolutionists. It’s a failed model, and one wonders why Binh is wasting so much of his time trying to revive it.


Christian June 25, 2013 at 1:42 pm

I liked this comment:

“The ISO isn’t the only group that demanded twice-weekly paper sales, 3 meetings and perhaps a mandatory social at some comrades house (only fully insulating members from actual working people). That sort of activity, or level of activity, is for when the masses are in motion, during highs in the class struggle, not during long retreats or major ebbs in the struggle.”

I think during 2002-2005, when the anti Iraq war movement was at its height, and there was a chance that mass action might have actually stopped it or pressured and early end, that level of activity was in many ways appropriate. I think if we had never met the ISO, many members in that period would still have been as active in some local organization.

After 2005 (and indeed during a lot of 2004) much of the formerly politicized population made a decision in their lives that activism wasn’t getting them results and wasn’t worth their time. I think many former marchers in this period even began appreciating the media blockade on the Iraq war because they didn’t want to be reminded about it and have their consciences troubled.

For about 2 or 3 months in 2006, and during Occupy, the level of mass activity in politics came back. For many of us around Occupy it became our whole lives for a couple of weeks, and we spent that much time in the movement voluntarily.

In between those times, I think we should have tried to come up with a more sustainable schedule. In particular I noticed while organizing on campuses our bar for activity was often well beyond what free time working students who were while simultaneously trying to keep their grades up to keep a partial scholarship were able to contribute. This was a shame, because arguments about class and inequality tended to resonate the best with this kind of people. They were passionate and dedicated, but could only really spent less than five hours a week on politics.

When the level of struggle is lower, that is when you need to give people more of their own free time. Otherwise they burn out and get lost to activism. The proof is this is the way people have voted with their feet. I estimate there are at least as many “cadre level” socialists under age 35 with good marxists educations and organizing experience outside of the organization than in it.


chegitz guevara June 25, 2013 at 2:43 pm

While I have no love for the model being criticized by Binh, his alternative, simply serving the people, doesn’t have a terribly good track record in the past 50 years. Nearly all of the organizations which adopted this model ended up in the Democratic Party, or, at the very least, organizing for the “defeat of the Republicans,” as if that means something different. Even the Panthers ended up organizing for Jerry Brown’s campaign for governor of California back int he 1970s. And there’s a material reason for that, because that’s how they got the money to do their social work.

I think sects have their purpose … keeping the ideas alive and training cadre, but their rigidity, which they needed to survive the hard times, prevents them from being able to adapt to new periods. But there has to be a better way to do it.


Jack July 5, 2013 at 3:24 am

I disagree. Sects cause a lot of problems. they burn people out more than help building a political alternative.

I know more people completely dissuaded from Marxism (I’m almost to that point) because of the idiocy of such groups. Its not because they think Socialism is bad or Marxism as a tool of political analysis is bad, it has more to do with that sects make it into some sort of cult like experience or make the environment of the left less political and more subculture like. They’ve taken a group of wonderful political ideas and methods and turned it into dogma.

Joining a cult does not make anyone become a life long religious. Joining a sect does not make most into a hardline activists for socialism.


David Walters June 25, 2013 at 4:56 pm

Chegtiz, excellent comment. A point I was going to note that it seems the whole cacophony of…”anti-sectarian sectarians” appears more at keeping people out of organizations than actually launching a movement that can build a workers party (however one wants to define it) for the *class* to adhere to, use, and become tribune for. Organizing socialists to build a class party (I’m assuming this what one wants to do not just build a bigger, kinder socialist non-sect), a party that kind represent our class a whole and fight for a better society, should be the goal.

I don’t see that here. I see a kind of “unite the left” which doesn’t seem to want to be a party of our class bather rather a pressure group of some sort.

No socialist movement has really had the kind of impact that the old SP and CP had and that when the class struggle itself was at a huge level. Keeping cadre trained, trying to provide leadership to struggles, is very important or there is no residual benefit when the ebb starts to fall.

I think some of Pham’s original essays, such as his first one on the ISO, and how socialists should relate to the occupy wall street movement, are very helpful. It all breaks down, however, when nothing is proposed after leveling criticisms at existing socialist organizations. I’m very much an advocate of new radicalized youth and workers joining ‘cadre’ organizations. I’ve seen the power such organizations can use in California during the campus budget cut battles (vs those with no organization or those opposed to socialist organizations, reduced, as they were, to atomized individuals).

Good discussion.


Louis Proyect June 26, 2013 at 12:00 pm

I’m very much an advocate of new radicalized youth and workers joining ‘cadre’ organizations. I’ve seen the power such organizations can use in California during the campus budget cut battles (vs those with no organization or those opposed to socialist organizations, reduced, as they were, to atomized individuals).

Well, the debate is not over whether activism is worth it or not. There is little doubt that the ISO and Socialist Alternative, to single out a couple of the saner groups, do good work. However, the real question is how to build a revolutionary party. There is little doubt that the ISO methodology works to create a relatively successful group of anywhere from 1000 to 2000 members. But then as Mark Lause points out it hits a glass ceiling, mostly attributable to its insistence on a “program” that cannot speak for a highly diverse revolutionary-minded population. If you go back and study the Erfurt Program, it was minimalistic by comparison. Furthermore, the social democracy of the pre-1917 period was far more flexible than today’s “Leninist” organizations. We obviously need something more like that, even though the ISO is free to follow its own path.


David Walters June 26, 2013 at 1:16 pm

Of course it’s about building a revolutionary party. Quoting Mark Lause however is somewhat interesting considering Mark’s advocacy of an electoralist (how I interpret what he says) with just about anything to the left of the Democrats. Hardly revolutionary. In fact, the big problem is the hyper anti-sectarianism of Louis, Pham, et al hasn’t resulted in any initiative toward developing a party or even a movement that seeks the overthrow of capitalism in the US.

In comments down below it is noted that the common thread here is not toward ‘building’ anything, but tearing down existing and historical experiments without pointing to any initiative that would build such an organization. It’s introverted as it the title of this essay. The basis of building any serious party that can help lead our class to power will be based not on reshuffling the deck chairs but on recruiting new youth, workers and people of color to such a “party”. There is zero perspective being supplied here.



Arthur June 26, 2013 at 2:11 pm

“the social democracy of the pre-1917 period was far more flexible than today’s “Leninist” organizations. We obviously need something more like that,”

There’s the problem. Its obvious we don’t need the sects. When mass movements died down the embryonic revolutionary organizations that were beginning to form naturally died away as well. Its been decades with nothing but sects.

In the next period of mass upheaval the sects will remain as insignificant as they are now and new types of mass based revolutionary organization will emerge.

But instead of offering ideas about how to prepare for new types of mass based organization for discussion, we are both told implicitly and now explicitly that it is “obvious” we need something much like a very old type of organization, the social democracy of the second international.

But that path has been tried and failed. It is very far from obvious that present or future conditions suit it better than those from a century ago.

Its a very real problem and I don’t claim to have a solution.

But those implicitly or explicitly proposing the social democratic form of organization from a century ago should at least ATTEMPT to deal with its notorious failure.


A random ISO member June 26, 2013 at 9:28 am

Pham, you’re right about some of the things you say, but you’re so off base on others that it’s hard to take the critique in good faith. At points this feels more like a throw-everything-that-might-stick hit piece than an attempt to contribute to a serious discussion. Of course you’re entitled to say that you don’t think people should join the ISO, but have you set out with that as the conclusion here and then found arguments to back it?

But hey, I’ll write a substantive comment anyway…

The CERSC bit is the worst, of course. The reason that ISO members “cannot discuss and decide how best to spend CERSC’s $1.5 million in yearly revenue on organizing projects” is that CERSC is not the ISO and the ISO is not CERSC. CERSC is run mostly by people who are also members of the ISO, and the ISO has done various things to support CERSC, but they’re separate organizations. CERSC is a 501c3 which means that it’s legally restricted in the kinds of political stances it can take, which the ISO is not. If the ISO actually controlled CERSC it would be inviting state repression on the grounds of tax evasion. And while people who just see ISO members selling Haymarket books might reasonably be confused about this, Pham, you shouldn’t be.

Given that, I have to assume the reason CERSC comes up in your discussion of internal democracy is to provide a pseudo-principled excuse to bring up the Caterpillar stock for headline shock value. I don’t know the story there, but it’s pretty obvious that it’s not a case of financial speculation, since it’s a trivial amount of money for an organization that runs a publishing house, and it’s the only stock trade disclosed on that year’s capital gains form.

Not everything in the article is so wrong. It’s true, for example, that the ISO asks a lot of time from its members. There aren’t enough of us, and there’s a lot to do! I think there’s an important discussion to be had here about making that work with people’s lives, although I’m not sure this article provides the framing to do it. The ISO is hardly the only organization to ask a lot of time, after all; in a great deal of movement work the pace is set by NGO employees for whom it is part of their day job, and in the biggest coastal Occupy encampments, you didn’t have a real voice in many important decisions unless you were prepared to spend 4+ hours in a general assembly almost every night.

Burnout is also hardly a problem unique to the ISO. Pham, you make much of the fact that many people who leave that organization end up leaving politics entirely. But how many of those people would have abandoned activism anyway, perhaps more quickly, as their lives and the struggle changed? It’s hard to know, but remember that a million people marched in February 2003. Most of them never joined the ISO. And anybody’s capacity to mobilize for an antiwar demonstration is now practically zilch.

I don’t think the ISO has really figured out how to do mass working-class politics in an era when the number of us who are ‘naturally’ brought together by our workplaces or neighborhoods is steadily dwindling. Has someone else?

I do think we’re trying, and I think anyone reading this who thinks that’s an important project, and wants to work on it with a group of people with a vast diversity of experience and knowledge, who take this project of re-building a revolutionary current in the working class very seriously, and try to learn from history in carrying it out, should consider joining us.

I think the ISO could stand to report membership figures more systematically and regularly, but they’re not actually a secret internally. I have never found anyone reluctant to discuss them. I don’t particularly want to post numbers on the Internet, but the conferences are a reasonable order-of-magnitude approximation. Note that approximate numbers are all anybody has, since the number of people who have at some point signed a membership card and never formally left is larger than the number who are actually active.

Exponential growth would be nice, but all I can say to this:

“With the ISO’s resources and a concerted five-year good-faith effort, we could easily create a radical organization of ~10,000 people.”

… is, LOL

The question of growth and conservatism is interesting though. I raised a question with some comrades recently – if we could choose between two strategies, (A) having a 10% chance at explosive growth, 10,000-20,000 members in a couple years, but a 90% chance of total collapse, and (B) having a 100% chance at 10% growth in that period, which would we choose? We agreed on (A) – an organization the size of the ISO now just isn’t worth that much in a revolutionary situation, so it makes sense to go for broke. But that’s easier said than done. How do you tell the 10% moonshot from the 0.1% one?

Pham, you can’t seem to decide what direction you actually think the ISO is erring. You say we’re “rigid and conservative”, but in almost the same breath you criticize our alleged “habit of popping in when a struggle heat up and dropping out when things cool down.” Time is, as you note earlier, finite. Keeping involved with a movement over the long haul is, in and of itself, a conservative practice – but one that has very strong arguments in its favor!

This is a real thing – the main reason we only had a handful of members at OWS in its first week was that most of our membership was focused on organizing to save Troy Davis’ life, as part of a campaign we’d worked on for many years.

There’s another important discussion to be had about how to work through this dilemma, but here we seem to be at another point where you, Pham, are in throw-shit-and-find-what-sticks mode.

I’ll take up the question of recruitment as my last point since it flows from the previous one. Which means I’ll leave out the questions of “line”, and factions, and slates, and horizontal communication (except to say that after watching the SWP’s implosion, we’ve created a year-round internal bulletin). I do have limited energy, even though you are wrong on the Internet.

Skipping backwards through the history you allude to, I want to note that no organization Malcolm X helped build was actually centrally involved in Civil Rights activism (sit-ins, rallies, etc). The NOI talked a militant talk, and operated with internal discipline, but avoided protests – one reason Malcolm left, probably, after leading many recruitment meetings for them. Even the organization he worked to build at the end of his life, OAU, never got past the recruitment & organizational stage into mass activism, although possibly only because of Malcolm’s assassination. But if Malcolm hadn’t been a great recruiter, he wouldn’t be famous today.

The CP most certainly recruited, as did the Wobblies. The Wobblies were recruiting to a union, not a party, usually in the context of disputes at a particular workplace, but nevertheless undoubtedly through “contact meetings and relentless individual follow-up” – because that’s how organizing works. The times when anybody can give a speech and have her audience simply join up and get active on their own are few and far between. That’s true of union and movement organizing as much as it is of revolutionary organizing – perhaps a business union which relies on a union-shop contract to retain its membership can get away without individual followup, but a minority union can’t.

It’s probably not wise to try to directly adopt much from the pre-revolutionary Bolsheviks at this level of practical detail given that they were always operating in conditions of illegality (also a century ago in a semi-developed country), but they did recruit individually in between mass upsurges. Remember, they produced a newspaper and sold it to individuals – presumably mostly to personal contacts, not on the street corner, given that they didn’t want to get arrested! And the whole split with the Mensheviks began over conditions for joining.

As for the ISO, its recruitment strategy has changed a great deal over the course of the years; I have heard that several decades ago you had to be voted in, while 10-15 years ago people were often handed membership cards at their first meeting. Neither of those is true anymore. I don’t know whether we’re doing it right today–I’m sure not exactly–but I do know that personalized followup and persuasion isn’t an alternative to “mass agitation and organization of the working class”, it’s part of what makes up the latter.

It seems to me, Pham, that while you identify some real challenges, you are looking for easy fixes–easy in that if we just go with the flow of movements, a revolutionary current will come together naturally, and easy in the more personal sense that the ISO is a lot of work and much of it is of a patient, one-on-one kind that perhaps you do not enjoy.

I wish you luck. But I would not recommend that anyone follow your advice, and expect to make a revolution without working through messy personal relationships, making hard tradeoffs among priorities, simply placing your trust in some comrades, and watching others get burned out or, occasionally, really pissed off.


John June 26, 2013 at 10:35 am

Save it about CERSC.

CERSC is run by ISO leaders and it is out of the hands of the membership for a reason. So that they cannot control it and the leadership does not have to be accountable to the membership. Don’t pis on our legs and tell us that it is raining.


A random ISO member June 26, 2013 at 12:11 pm

I mean, that’s just not true. I know some of the people involved and I’m going to guess you don’t, so, not sure why you’re so confident.

But even just looking at it from an outside perspective, do you really think such a conspiratorial view of how the ISO leadership operates makes psychological sense? I grant you the Left has its share of petty authoritarians, but are they self-conscious and conspiratorial about it? Why would somebody dedicate their lives to manipulatively keeping control of an organization with so few material rewards to offer them?


A random ISO member June 26, 2013 at 12:18 pm

Actually, reading your other comments, it sounds like you do have some personal experience here – members weren’t your friends and excluded you from their “cliques”, so you’re mad. I don’t know whether they’re the assholes or you are–and I’ll hold open either possibility, because God knows I don’t like everybody I’ve met through political organizing, whatever their politics–but either way, maybe, uh, try to let go?


John June 26, 2013 at 12:34 pm

Instead of trying to put me on the couch with scenarios that are not rooted in anything that I said or are even rooted in reality, maybe you should actually try to be political and ask yourself why so many ex-members and those who have worked with the ISO have such similar complaints. And instead of worrying about me or any other individual, why don’t you ask your leadership why they bought and sold Caterpillar stock under CERSC and did not even inform its membership of that decision, because based on reading the posts of ISOers on here, none of you had a clue about it.


A random ISO member June 26, 2013 at 12:58 pm

I’m sorry, I guess I confused you with no-H Jon below. I retract my second reply and stick by my first!

So given that you’re John-with-an-H, which complaints are you actually talking about? Maybe you could spell that out instead of trying to get me upset about a 2010 minor stock transaction neither of us knows the reason for. (I may ask about it if I remember, actually, cause I’m kinda curious now. But I might not.)


John June 26, 2013 at 4:58 pm

I am not a member of the ISO. I do not have to know the reason for the purchase of the stock, but as a member, you should and have a right to demand an explanation. Even if CERSC were not run by the leaders of the ISO, as you claim (though it is and anyone looking at the CERSC board members on paper can see this reality), the fact is that ISO members are compelled to sell Haymarket books, just as they are compelled to sell Socialist Worker, the mandate to sell Socialist Worker is on the membership card that one signs to join the organization, at least it was when I joined.

Anyway, selling Haymarket Books is not optional, even according to your own PDF membership packet. The point is that you are compelled to sell books from a publisher that bought and sold Caterpillar stock in 2010, which is something that you, as a seller, especially a revolutionary socialist seller who supports BDS, have a right to know.

Now, getting back to the reality that indeed, the leadership of the ISO heads up CERSC, they kept the Caterpillar purchase from all of you, if they did not volunteer the information to the rank and file of the ISO, which, according to your responses, they did not, none of you knew and one member above thought it was a donation. Forming a 501 c 3 to keep the R&F at bay and to allow the leaders to unilaterally make decisions about finance and publishing? That is not how leaders, unopposed leaders who have been leading for decades, mind you, are supposed to run a democratic organization of the working class. And even if they were overthrown in the ISO by a new slate, they would still head up CERSC. Another way to guarantee no change even if a faction did successfully run a slate against those who are entrenched.


A random ISO member June 26, 2013 at 5:17 pm

“Even if CERSC were not run by the leaders of the ISO”

I didn’t actually deny this. Nor do I deny that support for CERSC and Haymarket is an organizational decision, not an individual one.

I asked you about the “similar complaints” that you say “so many ex-members and those who have worked with the ISO have.” Did you mean about the CERSC/Caterpillar thing? Because I haven’t actually heard complaints about it before.

Since that’s what you seem to want to talk about, I think I could find out the story if I made the effort, but I’m not sure I’m going to bother. Two reasonable explanations are that the stock was purchased to get seats at a shareholder meeting or for some other kind of activist project that required being a shareholder, as somebody speculates upthread, and that it was a donation (probably by somebody feeling guilty) and that the form above has a typo. The only sinister explanation I can think of, that somebody at CERSC was engaging in speculation for personal or organizational financial gain, doesn’t really square with the small amount of the stock purchase or the fact that it’s the only stock trade reported on the tax form. What I know of the people involved also inclines me to trust them.

If this is the reason you (presumably) left the organization, though, and not just a handy stick to swing at us, that might be enough to motivate me to inquire further.


John June 26, 2013 at 5:40 pm

You keep making a lot of assumptions about me, someone that you do not know, based on, well, nothing. And a quick read of this comments section contains many ex-member stories, and many more can be found in many places on-line.

“Handy stick”? Get this: CERSC is a 501c3, its is a public charity, its activities are the public’s business. The ISO claims to be an organization to mobilize the working class, its actions are it members’ business. Trying to paint yourselves as victims is lame, accusing others of swinging at you while implying that it could be a typo is lame, and my motivations for bringing it up should have nothing whatsoever to do with the reality that it occurred and membership has the right not only to know about it after the fact, but to weigh in before anything like this BEFORE it was done. Stop making it about us.

You, like the other members on this page, just don’t like criticism of your organization. Too bad. That is your problem, not mine.


A random ISO member June 26, 2013 at 5:57 pm

You referred in your last comment to something on the “membership card that one signs to join the organization, at least… when I joined.” Did you forget that? So you have been a member, and you don’t sound like one now. Exactly what unwarranted assumption am I making about you?

You act like I’m trying to make this about you, somehow, but you replied to me, you just said you were at one point a member, and you said I should listen to ex-member stories. Of course you’re under no obligation to provide your story, but it’s pretty weird to act offended when I ask.

It’s also weird that you’re saying I’m painting myself as a victim. I’m just entertaining myself at my desk job. You’re the one who keeps talking about my rights as a member, and trying to find something about CERSC that proves they aren’t being respected.

Finally, it’s a bit weird that you feel the need to clarify that what I like isn’t your problem, given that you’re the one who started the conversation. What’s going on? Is there more than one John-with-an-H on this subthread or something?

Pham Binh June 26, 2013 at 5:34 pm

Apparently Random is okay with their elected leaders violating the BDS campaign which I presume was a democratically-agreed upon decision of the organization. “Democratic centralism” and expulsions for breaches of discipline are for the rank and file, not the leadership, it seems.


John June 26, 2013 at 5:49 pm

I really expected better arguments from these people, at least arguments with some substance. I truly am surprised.

Here’s to hoping that we can move forward and have a democratic peoples’ organization become the largest on the Left, not one that is primarily designed to keep their bureaucrats at the steering wheel.


A random ISO member June 26, 2013 at 6:28 pm

Neither of the reasonable explanations I suggested above for the stock trade would be a clear violation of BDS, although I suppose you could argue against either.

Also, I’m pretty sure nobody’s ever been expelled for violating BDS. It’s amazing how vindictive the fantasy image of the ISO is in some people’s heads, especially when those people ought to know better.


Pham Binh June 26, 2013 at 8:30 pm

Hypothetical explanations count for nothing. The only people who have that answer are CERSC officers. How about you ask them?

chegitz guevara July 1, 2013 at 4:59 pm

The rules by which 501c3s are run are pretty harsh. If the ISO was shown to have control of it, then it would lose its tax-deductable status. There can be dual members, but they have to operate as completely separate entities. Something like this was the cause of the recent split in the News and Letters organization. And the restrictions on 501c3s are why the former New World Resource Center (bookstore, meeting place, etc) in Chicago refused to organize as one.

That said, there could still be more transparency in how CERSC is run.


Jack July 5, 2013 at 4:02 am

I was an ISO member and I can say that CERSC is separate on paper only. Ahmed Shawki, Alan Maas and Eric Ruder, all are paid employees of CERSC. Oddly enough, all 3 are on the CC of the ISO. You being a current member should know that (I can prove they are with documents if you need proof).

Eric Kerl (who is a pretty chill dude. We were a bit strained towards the end,mostly my bad, but I respect the bloke), the guy who runs a branch in chicago came to my school, selling books from haymarket for a haymarket talk, along with an ISO sign up sheet.

ISO members sell books published by Haymarket. CERSC’s Site/podcast “we are many” pretty much only publishes ISO conferences. It is considered By the ISO’s digital media guy, john kurinsky to be the ISO’s podcast. At least, that is what he told me.

See, I wouldn’t care because I love the stuff CERSC produces. Meaning of Marxism is a wonderful primer on a lot of basic texts from the Marxist tradition and explains them in laymen’s terms. I’m still flipping through sexuality and socialism, but I’m enjoying the history bits. I subscribe to We are many for fuck’s sake.

My issue is that Ahmed, Alan, and Eric R. fuck over all of those guys, from the dudes at the top to the newbs at the bottom by encouraging them to “volunteer” for tableings selling these books, and worse requiring newspaper sales. Who benefits? the 3 dudes in the CC. the volunteers are just that, volunteers. they bust their ass so 3 dudes, who have run the organization since the 80’s, don’t have to get real jobs.

Some people get this rush from building the ISO from all that effort. and maybe you find that to be worth it. Maybe you see 3 people who run the ISO as visionaries who need to be supported. maybe you think they deserve to make money from their work while you make a sacrifice, working for free.

I don’t.

I simply refuse to push good honest people, including my friends who share my politics, into all that work to benefit 3 people.I refuse to work and encouage other people to work, unpaid, while others are. I have many other misgivings (few of which are on actual politics), but this is what really made me question this group.

I think the ISO has done some good things, and still does. I don’t have this bloodlust to end the group. But it needs to get its shit together.

A solution. I would love to see a united front, a real formal one where the sane groups: the ISO, PSL (which I also was formerly associated with, and ugh the north korea love got to me), SA, DSA, FRSO, the Four star anarchist group and other anarchist groups, get together a form a solid left wing front that communicates like adults. That’s my solution to the major problem, irrelevancy and pointless sectarianism.

the ISO itself? end the slate system, pay people for working for cersc or no one gets paid,and encourage critical thinking and ideas beyond what haymarket publishes and the CC decides. Like read other politics. encourage true intellectual growth in those study groups. focus more helping people get involved in activism, and lessen the focus on meetings! felt like sunday church service (or what I assume it is, been a dirty heathen my whole life), with the money bowl and selected readings n’ all.

get your shit together guys.



Jack July 5, 2013 at 4:04 am

BTW the tax form for your viewing pleasure:

alternatively, use this:

to search for this: Center for Economic Research and Social Change

you’ll find what you find most enlightening.


Interested spectator June 26, 2013 at 1:52 pm

I was curious to read your response, as an ISO member, to this piece. But was very disappointed that you didn’t address what I thought to be the central question, that of “democratic centralism.” I’ve had people try and recruit me into the ISO, and when I’ve brought up the question of internal democracy and how I don’t feel comfortable with “democratic centralism,” instead of a defence of these practices as democratic, I’ve been basically asked to take it on faith that the ISO is actually democratic by its member, that they wouldn’t be part of an organization that they didn’t think was democratic. That’s a thin defence of very problematic practices. “Democratic centralism” is the elephant in the room, you can’t go around ignoring it forever.


A random ISO member June 26, 2013 at 2:17 pm

There have a been a lot of debates about democratic centralism and Leninism in a lot of places recently and I didn’t think there was much new here on that question or that I had much new to contribute. Paul LeBlanc has had some exchanges with Pham and other people, and Paul D’Amato with Alex Callinicos over the recent SWP faction fight, and a bunch of the internal documents from that are worth reading (mostly the opposition ones) – on what a reasonable practice of democratic centralism actually looks like.

Do you have specific concerns? I can try to say more than “trust me”, at least.


Pham Binh June 26, 2013 at 2:45 pm

Your “refutation” is actually a confirmation of many point:

– CERSC is not controlled by the ISO membership, therefore all fund-raising activities undertaken by ISO members on its behalf are an example of alienation as understood by Marx, e.g. people participating in institutions and social relationships over which they exert no control.

I’m certain that if CERSC was controlled by ISO members that it would abide by the BDS campaign instead of violating it. Whether that “shocks” you or not is of no concern to me, but your willingness to turn a blind eye to such hypocrisy is a bit shocking.

– Burnout. I never claimed the ISO was the only/main one doing it and your defense of ISO’s burnout-producing practices amounts to the old “but Mom, everbody else is doing it!” line. A weak argument if there ever was one.

– You seem to think there is a contradiction between saying the ISO’s practice is rigid and conservative and noting how it tails movement activity — in when it’s hot, out when it’s not. The two actually go hand in hand; that is the only way the ISO knows how to relate to movements and struggles. The organization does not have the patience to work through the difficult downturns in a fight that pave the way for upturns; people engaged in the actual organizing view this opportunism with contempt, and rightly so. It’s a bit like that fable the Little Red Hen — nobody wanted to help the hen do the hard work to bake the bread but wanted to come eat it when the bread was done. Good luck influencing movements of bread bakers like that. It’s a big reason why the ISO almost never recruits seasoned activists or politicos or cadre but politically inexperienced students.

– Troy Davis was killed on Sept. 21, 4 days into OWS and before it became a mass movement. How that excuses the ISO’s uninvolvement is beyond me, but hiding behind Davis’s corpse like that is unseemly.

– Malcolm X recruited thousands and tens of thousands into NOI in the space of a year, every year. Has the ISO also done this? Of course the CP recruited, but not by putting people through ideological bootcamp; same with IWW. The ISO’s method and their methods couldn’t be more different, a point you ignore.

– Iskra was not a Bolshevik paper nor was it sold. Pravda was a joint Menshevik-Bolshevik production and was popular the way OWSJ was among OWSers. No one had to be convinced to sell either paper; people did it of their own volition. Refuse to sell SW and you can be expelled.

– You laugh at the notion that a radical left organization with a different modus operandi could have 10,000 people in 5 years if it had the ISO’s resources without actually attempting to think through how that could be accomplished or why I said it. The sad thing is the ISO won’t get that big in its next 30 years or even after I’d dead and buried because of the flaws I’ve outlined here. Ending the revolving door problem would probably get us halfway to the 10k figure in five years. 30% of the country, or 90 million or so people, think socialism is good. 10k is decidedly pessimistic given objective conditions.


A random ISO member June 26, 2013 at 3:26 pm

In order:

– CERSC: Many of us find it worthy to support political projects we don’t control, as long as they seem to be valuable and we expect that to continue. There’s nothing sinister about this. For most participants in Occupy the movement fell in that category, by the way.

– Burnout: I’m saying everyone has a problem we should think through. It’s not meant as a defense but a suggestion that to think it through we shouldn’t start with what’s distinctive about the ISO. The conversation would be more likely to be productive if you weren’t so focused on defense and attack.

– Conservatism/tailing: I’m saying there’s an actual practical tension here, which you’re choosing not to address, again apparently because you are primarily interested in proving the ISO wrong.

– Troy Davis: The ISO was heavily involved in Occupy. It was much, much bigger than us, but we did throw ourselves into it – just, honestly, not so much in the first week. I’m not trying to excuse something, because there’s nothing for me to excuse; I’m trying to point to a dilemma that organizing presents to all of us that you are choosing to ignore, as above.

– Recruitment: I’m glad you now recognize that recruitment is part of political organizing, but since this is new, I’m not sure how you think that the ISO’s methods are distinctive and worse. I’d be curious to hear what you think the differences are.

– “No one had to be convinced to sell either paper; people did it of their own volition.” This is ludicrous. Everyone just spontaneously decided to distribute or sell a newspaper on their own, without any centralized suggestion, let alone direction? Please. It’s really amazing that you can pretend you don’t think political organizing involves “convincing” people, given how long you’ve allegedly been doing it.

– I laughed that you think this problem is easy – your word, not mine. If it was easy, somebody would have done it already. If it was easy, you might even be able to do it – but I’ll bet against you, because your attitude says you have really barely begun to think seriously about what the challenges are.

Look, if you want to talk seriously about how to commit to long-haul organizing while still being able to throw oneself into whatever openings occur, or about how prevent burnout while still having the potential to start filling the vast vacuum that exists on the Left in the US, or what revolutionaries today could take from the specific day-to-day practices of the CP or the NOI or whoever, I’ll continue the conversation. And I’m happy to take ISO practices as examples. But if your next reply is just another list of points you want to count up against us, I’ll bow out with this.


Pham Binh June 26, 2013 at 4:18 pm

– I never argued against party-building/recruitment in the essay, so there was no shift in my position on that.

– I saw people grab stacks of OWSJs and distribute them to passerbys, in their neighborhoods, and on the subways without any centralized direction at all with my own eyes. I guess my eyes were lyin’.

Nobody ever got expelled from the RSDLP for not selling Pravda. If only the ISO could say the same about SW.


A random ISO member June 26, 2013 at 4:50 pm

– You argue for “dropping the conversion/recruitment fetish and throwing all the resources we have into the battle”. Minus the overheated rhetoric, you’re exactly arguing against recruitment.

– Remember we were talking about usually-illegal newspapers distributed during downturns as well as upturns in struggle, as a piece of evidence that the Bolsheviks (and Mensheviks) did indeed consciously recruit?

– The ISO is an organization that can expel you if you don’t follow democratically-agreed upon decisions. It’s true, although rare enough I’ve never seen it happen myself in the several years I’ve been a member.

But, you know, I said I’d bow out if you just kept up with the point scoring, so let me just sum up. The way I see this conversation, you posted a critique of the ISO and asked members to read it with “a critical and open mind”. I read it, thought you were full of shit on some points, but on others identified real problems–although ones where I don’t see an obviously better model–and said both. Your response to the former was predictable, but your response to the latter has been revealing; you just pretend my comments are intended defensively and say my defense is “weak”. I’m at work and don’t feel like working, but I still have better uses for my time than dealing with that. So, peace. Take the last word if you feel you need to.


Pham Binh June 26, 2013 at 5:15 pm

Believe it or not, there is more than one way to recruit. The ISO way — showing up at other people’s protests and picket lines and trying to argue people into joining — is the least effective. More effective is showing up to other people’s struggles with a big donation and a willingness to do the grunt work they need to win the fight for as long as it takes. In that case you won’t have to fight with people ideologically to get them to see the virtues of your organization, people will beg you to join an organization that is so selfless and effective. That’s how Occupy won thousands of recruits in a few short weeks, that’s how the Panthers became a mass organization, that’s how the old CP carried on too.


Douglas M June 26, 2013 at 6:30 pm

You’ve bowed out of the conversation but maybe others will take up the thread. The debate here is too focused on getting a specific detail right but misses the bigger question.
Take selling SW for instance – why does the ISO do it in the way they do? The arguments that are presented are usually: the Bolsheviks had a paper, that it organizes activists, we meet contacts this way. As it is currently used is the SW effective at organizing activists? Are people in the movements that you take part in clamoring to buy SW? Are fruitful relationships built out of sales? In my experience the answer is often “no.” (as for the Lenin and his paper — 1905 or 1917 are not 2013)
Instead if you are a member you have three sales per week and if its not gaining the organization ground it is not time well spent. I can remember spending 3+ hours on a Saturday sale – 1 hour of paper discussion (sometimes with a pre-meeting) 1 hour selling, 1 hour post sale warp up and contact calls (and sometime fraction meetings or BC meetings). If this is a worthwhile activity then it might make sense but the reality is that if you work all week and you only have your two days to have a life and spending a huge chunk of your Saturday selling SW for little or no gains most working people are not going to stick around.
While its true that I don’t know of anyone who was expelled for not selling SW it is also not a negotiable activity. You are immensely pressured to sell but it is dressed up in political language. If you don’t think selling in your work place is the best way to advance socialist politics you are labeled a “workerist.” If you argue that not selling a paper in a movement meeting but instead really focusing on building a strong movement relationships you could be labeled a dilettante or that you aren’t building the socialist movement. Disagreement on this issue is always seen as evidence of a political weakness that a person needs to be won away from.
On a college campus whipping out the SW after a meeting is odd but in a workplace pushing to get sales and having artificial conversations is far from effective.
I’m not saying that a socialist organization shouldn’t comment on the news or that it can’t put its perspective out there on movement issues. What I am saying is that the ISO has a fetish for SW that is holds back its growth because its one of the implied conditions for membership.


Pham Binh June 26, 2013 at 8:45 pm

The people who went on to form Left Turn in 2000-2001 were expelled for not selling the paper. I have no idea if this is true but that was what we were told.

Paper selling is nothing more than liturgy. It has no basis in Bolshevik precedent. Iskra was not a Bolshevik paper nor was it sold; Pravda was a joint Menshevik-Bolshevik production and no one was mandated to sell it. Popular, well-written papers distribute themselves, something I learned when every day during OWS you couldn’t stop people from grabbing tons of OWJs to hand out, just like well-cooked food requires no arguments or convincing to get people to eat it. SW is neither and so everything about it is forced. People get tired of hearing “eat your veggies” every Saturday and so most of them vote with their feet.


Mike June 26, 2013 at 11:25 pm

‘Popular, well-written papers distribute themselves…’

You have clearly been inspired by your OWS experience. Good – we all need inspiration. But I think you are in danger of tipping-over into dream-like wishful thinking.

Outside the very particular conditions of OWS, a good political newspaper requires organised distribution and some effort to sell it. The alternative is what exactly? Hope that the masses spontaneously respond to the ‘quality’ of what you have produced, find their way to your office, and avail themselves of the paper – on a regular basis.

The main problem is when a small political organisation subordinates itself to the production and selling of a paper. Having decided to invest considerable time, money and energy in producing a paper, the risk is that the imperative to sell it becomes an end in itself. Keeping it going becomes a ritual – usually regardless of how useful and effective it is proving to be in the outside political world.


Pham Binh June 27, 2013 at 8:55 am

OWS had organised distribution. The people behind it (Jed Brandt of Kasama, among others) published it and brought it to the park. From there, it was out of their hands.

What you believe is wishful thinking is how most independent political newspapers, from Pravda to the Panthers’ paper, were distributed. Pravda even printed office hours and an address on its masthead so working people could stop by and talk with someone about problems with their bosses or whatever was on their minds.

The bottom line is that selling newspapers is a commercial act, not a political one. Newspapers that enjoy mass distribution do not require a huge amount of labor time from activists to sell them. The old Appeal to Reason had a circulation of over 500,000 in 1910 — do you think that was because the Socialist Party’s 58,000 members spent 5-10 hours a week 52 weeks a year hawking the paper on street corners? Hardly. People did sell individual subscriptions but most of the circulation came from union halls and corner stores where the paper sat side-by-side with other papers of the time.

There’s a reason you don’t read much in memoirs by Bolsheviks, IWWs, Socialist and Communist Party members about going around selling newspapers. They just didn’t do it that much.


Jon Hoch June 27, 2013 at 4:00 am

So I totally agree with the “eat your veggies” sentiment. It’s something I’ve been harping on here at NS for a bazillion years (or, more realistically, a few weeks, haha). But we really, really need popularizers capable of boiling down complex ideas into sound bites as much if not more than we need theoreticians.

All that said, to be totally fair, I think the popularity of the OWSJ had more to do it being tied to a mass movement that gave it relevance than anything about the quality of the writing.


Pham Binh June 27, 2013 at 9:01 am

Right, but why is it that socialist papers can’t be similarly tied to mass movements and sentiments when 30% of people say they have a positive view of socialism?


Louis Proyect June 27, 2013 at 2:08 pm

In the 1960s there was a radical newsweekly called the Guardian that probably had 4 times the number of readers than the Militant, without anybody hawking the paper. They used to give it away at big antiwar demonstrations and that was about it. It was much closer in spirit to Iskra than any of the sectarian newspapers. They used to have a debate page that had readers and reporters exchanging ideas about who to support in Angola, the character of the Balkan wars, etc. That’s what we need on the Internet today. I had hopes that MRZine would have become something like that but they fucked it up royally. I obviously have a connection to Counterpunch but it has a broader focus than the one that is needed. ZNet is far too much the fiefdom of Michael Albert. Well, they say that necessity is the mother of invention…

David Walters June 27, 2013 at 4:00 pm

@Louis: Actually for a VERY brief period The Guardian may of been like that. But as the 60s drew to a close, and into the 70s, contributions had to increasingly be “pro-China” and the sectariana of the Maoist movement (there were 46 maoist groups and collectives by 1970) was reflected in it’s pages. The Guardian may of had an open letters page, but it quickly devolved into reflecting the expulsions from its editorial board of this or that Maoist current. It also never was *anything* like Iskra, itself reflecting an actual workers movement building a revolutionary social-democracy. The Guardian was no such thing.

Pham Binh June 27, 2013 at 4:53 pm

David, Iskra degenerated when it became a factional organ of the Mensheviks and its “openness” was probably equal to the Guardian’s during its period of decline. Louis’ point about movement papers versus sect papers is sound.

A random ISO member June 27, 2013 at 4:15 pm

I’m not interested in racking up points versus Pham anymore, but I’m happy to keep talking about actual stuff, although I’m shorter on time today.

I share your experience that selling SW sometimes feels like a mostly pointless activity. In the midst of the immigrant rights movement or Occupy, it was actually very easy and positive; we would routinely have great conversations selling at Liberty Square and sell lots of papers without much advance work around signs etc. But on any given Saturday in times like these, not so much.

I think you’re overestimating the ISO’s attachment to SW. Selling it is a requirement of membership right now, yes, but we came pretty close to getting rid of the paper version entirely and going online-only a couple years back. It would have been rough not to have the print edition around when Occupy kicked off, but having something that could be used at protests without a weekly sale routine does seem possible, although potentially practically challenging. Of course, there’s also a difference in the utility of SW (not to mention the utility in general) at protests in the middle of a mass movement, with a high proportion of people who are interested in new ideas, and protests consisting of a bunch of dispirited people, showing up out of duty, who’ve got that heard-it-all-before attitude.

I do think it’s important for any would-be socialist to routinely go out and talk politics with people who aren’t already activists or politicized. I’m not sure that tabling with SW is the best way to do that, at least now that people mostly don’t get their news from paper newspapers. What are the alternatives? Door-knocking, tabling just with flyers/etc for a particular event or campaign, spending the time writing for the website (or another website) instead? If any of those made me think “that’s the one!” instead of “meh”, I’d probably be arguing to replace weekly sales.

There are also the options of “just make SW itself better / more attractive” and “just make tablings better /more attractive” (with artistic signs, campaign themes, a protest atmosphere, etc). But both of those are easier said than done, especially the former when print newspapers are fading and news cycles are shortening. If a print paper is a novelty or anachronism, that might make it cool the first couple times you see it at a mass march, but it won’t make it interesting in a lull.


Louis Proyect June 27, 2013 at 4:54 pm

The one thing that the ISO could do is run something like disqus underneath the articles so that you could actually see what people think of it. This is what Greenleft has been doing with Links and it is really good.


Douglas M June 27, 2013 at 6:54 pm

A random ISO member — I’m curious, why do you think the ISO has such a high turnover rate? Why is there a difficulty of retaining mid-level cadre long term? Why has the organization’s membership stayed at a near steady level for the past decade plus, especially given that it has been a decade of war, financial crash and ideological exposure on the part of the ruling class? (Some context: back in 1998 there was just under 2000 people at what was then called summer school, in 2004 it was just slightly over 2000)

I’ve come to the conclusion that while I agree with a majority of what the ISO stands for there are structures and political conclusions that prevent real growth. When I was in the fishbowl (as Pham put it) I had an response to each question but now I have different answers. I’m curious how a current member views it.


A random ISO member June 27, 2013 at 7:57 pm

If I had really complete answers to those questions, I’d be campaigning based on them. What I can say is somewhat scattered:

* I don’t think there’s a particular turnover of mid-level cadre. I used to think something like that, but over time I have come to see turnover happening for members at all levels of experience in approximate proportion to how many there are.

* I also think your conference numbers are off, not that it really affects your point.

* The ISO spent much of the first half of the last decade trying to recruit people we just met on too low a political basis, leading at times to a revolving-door effect. I think we’ve improved, and growth has still been modest, but that was certainly one problem.

* I agree that it seems that the opportunities for more rapid growth should have been out there. But it’s worth noting that as far as I’ve seen other organizations with any kind of revolutionary project, some with pretty different modes of operation, aren’t growing either, whether anarchist, Maoist, or the DSA – at least, not at any scale, and some are shrinking. And that includes new formations like Advance the Struggle and Kasama, not to mention Respect and the NPA internationally. Know of an exception? Anonymous, maybe arguably?

So why do people leave?

Most, in my experience, don’t do so on the basis of an explicit political or organizational disagreement, though there are exceptions. Conscious political disagreements more often arise after-the-fact – it’s hard to know how much this is people becoming conscious of what was previously unconscious, and how much it’s just a person changing positions in a different context. Sometimes it’s personal, or part of the effect of an oppressive society on personal behavior–there’s no branch or district big enough for personal relationships not to be a significant factor. If somebody does something seriously fucked up to somebody else, at least one party is probably going to leave one way or another, and sometimes both.

But most often, I think people leave because they don’t feel that they’re accomplishing enough, even if they don’t have a coherent explanation as to why. That might sound like we’re getting somewhere, but it’s also kind of frustratingly obvious and circular – we’re not growing enough because we’re not growing enough, and if we could grow more we could grow more? It is a truism that in politics you don’t stand still, you go forwards or backwards, but…

I do think the membership has grown qualitatively more than the numbers might show in time I’ve been in the organization – in terms of experience, political education, implantation.


Pham Binh June 27, 2013 at 8:46 pm

Seattle Solidarity Network and Philly Socialists have grown quite well in the past 3 years (sans burnout/revolving doors) and eclipsed the ISO in their respective cities from what I understand, both in terms of core membership and mobilizing capacity. We hope to have more material from/about them soon on this site. :)


A random ISO member June 27, 2013 at 9:32 pm

I guess I forgot to say explicitly, but I’d like to read your own answers to these questions.


Arthur June 28, 2013 at 2:06 am

“it’s worth noting that as far as I’ve seen other organizations with any kind of revolutionary project, some with pretty different modes of operation, aren’t growing either, whether anarchist, Maoist, or the DSA – at least, not at any scale, and some are shrinking. And that includes new formations like Advance the Struggle and Kasama, not to mention Respect and the NPA internationally.”

True. Claims that there may be some exceptions seem like clutching at straws.

“But most often, I think people leave because they don’t feel that they’re accomplishing enough, even if they don’t have a coherent explanation as to why.”

Precisely. Since these organizations have in fact accomplished nothing, whatsoever the only surprise is that it sometimes take so long for people to figure that out. Their main function seems to be to innoculate people against radical politics by convincing them it is boring and futile.

In reality the overwhelming majorty of people who were active in the last radical upsurge (1960s) naturally stopped being organized when that movement subsided. That is now about half a century ago. The sects that remained are basically “undead” creatures with no real life.

The politics they advocate has become more and more stulified and is now well to the right of the conservative mainstream (eg rabidly hostile to democratic revolutions on the one hand and to economic progress and living standards on the other).


Jon Hoch June 28, 2013 at 4:49 am

“In reality the overwhelming majorty of people who were active in the last radical upsurge (1960s) naturally stopped being organized when that movement subsided. That is now about half a century ago. The sects that remained are basically ‘undead’ creatures with no real life.”

But if we’re being honest, don’t we have to go back even further than that? I’m not a history buff, so correct me if I’m wrong, but the 1960s weren’t really about class. The issues of the day were more civil rights, anti-imperialism, women’s rights, etc. All stuff that was incredibly important. But the last big workers’ movement in the US was further back, no?

Arthur June 28, 2013 at 4:42 pm

Yes, the 1960s was a “radical upsurge” rather than a big workers movement.

The zombie sects that originated from earlier upsurges (and originally had more of a working class base), eg the “Communist” parties, were generally perceived as enemies of the radical upsurge, not part of it. The current crop of zombie sects will be seen the same way in the next upsurge.

Jack July 5, 2013 at 4:12 am

To be fair, I never sold a single SW and was never kicked out for it.

…I ended up leaving on my own accord.

IMO, the method of organizing and recruitment in the ISO, is too much like those nutty Christians on the CTA and street corners. Not trying to make some grand point, so don’t get your jimmies rustled. I’m just saying it’s eerily similar.


Jorge Marquez June 26, 2013 at 9:47 am

Pham’s basic message: “I know you want to, but don’t do it, kids! Just say no!”

This article–indeed virtually everything Pham Binh writes–is exactly what the left needs a lot less of: inward-looking hyper-sectarianism and polemical hit jobs.

This article is alarmingly sloppy. There are huge accusations thrown around without any evidence except the questionable anecdotes of Pham. Most importantly, however, there are number of falsehoods purveyed in this article, and I would encourage folks to engage with the ISO themselves and make up their own minds about how the group actually organizes itself. To say that there is internal unanimity and zero debate on questions of substance within the group is preposterous. All this talk about “pre-meetings” and the like has little to do with reality. Go to an ISO branch meeting or interact with members in movements and make up your own mind.

We might turn around Pham’s “well if this worked, why haven’t we had a revolution yet?” argument: if his “hard won insight” is so sharp, so perfect for the period we’re in, where are the legions of workers lining up behind him to build whatever it is he thinks they should build? I can imagine he finds it frustrating to be marginal and ineffective as far as building the movements and the left is concerned.

The ISO, on the other hand, has a number of impressive, hard-fought activist victories under its belt. It’s also the largest, most vibrant, growing socialist organization in the US at the moment. And with the Socialism conference coming up–featuring the likes of Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill–might it not be that Pham is a little jealous and eager to cut down his former group when their prospects look rather good?


John June 26, 2013 at 10:57 am

There is nothing “sectarian” about Binh’s piece. The ISO has rightfully taken apart other organizations, such as United For Peace and Justice, and has pointed out that many on its board are in the Communist Party, and that this can partly explain its orientation to the Democratic Party.

To attribute a valid critique to, “sectarianism” or “jealously” speaks volumes about the person waging such an accusation. You are looking quite petty.

The shoe is on the other foot, and you don’t like it. This is not a branch meeting where you can fly out a party bureaucrat from Chicago and order expulsions for such blasphemy, this is the internet, a free and open forum, and there is not a goddamn thing that you people can do about it.


Jules Verne June 26, 2013 at 12:42 pm

I have stated already what I think some of the problems in Pham Binh’s article are. However, it is unfair to say that he claimed that there was “no debate” in the ISO. His statement about unanimity was made in the context of his point about how the convention elections for a leadership slate have, to the best of his knowledge, never been meaningful contests. This is a perfectly valid point to bring up, as it reflects either a belief among an overwhelming majority of the organization’s members that the leadership has been performing superbly for decades, despite sometimes abrupt shifts in strategy that would seem to suggest at least some acknowledgement of error. Or it reflects the fact that the rank-and-file do not have the opportunity or the skill to cobble together a meaningful challenge to the established order. I know which possibility I find more likely. You may disagree.


Pham Binh June 26, 2013 at 4:26 pm

– Never urged anyone to “just say no to the ISO.” I only ask that people join with their eyes open to how the group works and functions.

– Never blamed the ISO for not having a revolution. If only it were large enough to make that kind of difference, eh?

– Given that this piece has over 2,000 views, I’d say there are quite a few people (workers) interested in what I’m saying/doing politically. Translating that into an organization is not easy, but it’s something The North Star collective is working on. Give me 30 years and maybe whatever comes out of this will be bigger than 1,300 people.

– I documented what I said with hyperlinks where possible. So far, I haven’t found any evidence of a contested election for the Steering Committee nor a case where a rank and file proposal got enough support to get passed at convention, but when I do, I’ll be glad to post it here.

– I’m glad Scahill and Greenwald are the flavors of the month for the last couple years running. I remember when Camejo and Nativo Lopez were in their shoes. Call me when Evo Morales’ VP speaks as he did for the Left Forum.


Jon Hoch June 26, 2013 at 4:48 pm

So to be even handed, even though I agree with what Pham wrote, I also think this piece is very “inward-looking” as Jorge says. Personally, I think Pham is an incredibly smart, persuasive writer and wish he would use his talents to address a broader audience than those who already have decided they want to replace capitalism. But who knows, maybe this article will lead to a more democratic and less sectarian ISO.


Jon Hoch June 26, 2013 at 6:39 pm

So, yeah, while I agree with what he says, I think this piece is way too “inward-looking” for someone of Pham’s talents, who should be writing for a mass audience, rather than writing a detailed takedown of an organization–that, what, one in maybe every 10,000 Americans have heard of? All that said, I’d have tremendous respect for the ISO if they published this piece in their “Reader’s Views” section.


Pham Binh June 26, 2013 at 8:34 pm

Don’t hold your breath for that last one!

I see nothing wrong with subjecting the ISO to a historical materialist analysis. Marx had to untangle Feurbach, Lenin critiqued the Narodniks, Draper wrote “Anatomy of a Microsect,” and Camejo wrote about the SWP. It would be a weird omission not to discuss the ISO within the context of the Lenin debates that I triggered from 2012 onward.


Jer July 4, 2013 at 9:31 pm

I’m certain my newspaper would publish it if he dared to actually submit it


Pham Binh July 5, 2013 at 12:59 pm

I dare:

I’m still waiting for the ISR to publish my critique of Tony Cliff’s book that triggered responses from Paul Le Blanc and Lars Lih and did a lot to ignite all the “Leninism” discussions since early 2012:


Jon June 26, 2013 at 11:47 am

Overall, I’ve been put off by members I’ve met. They only talk about why I should join, and when I express that I’m not interested, they have no further interest in even being my friend. Regardless of ideas, I’ve not met people that want to make me be around them. They’ve also slandered other groups including local unions, telling members they can’t belong to both at the same time, therefore causing workers-rights groups, or themselves, to lose members. This has gone to the level of slandering particular members of unions, etc. Not even over values, but just general hate-gossip about who is/isn’t a nice person and why so-and-so sucks, etc. Highschool shit. The local ISO where I live has only made me feel like it is a group for those who didn’t get enough of highschool cliques and need a new one. I could never get past the abrasive used-car-salesmen recruiting, which seems to be all they can talk about, to even learn much about their ideals. Regardless of their beliefs, and how much I agree or disagree with them, I simply don’t want to hang out with these people.


Jack July 5, 2013 at 4:22 am

This is sadly true. the main cliques in chicago were the veteran activists, who were kinda rude and snooty (my dumb ass thought If I acted high and mighty they’d respect me. pfft.), the quit rank and file who just did shit and provided warm bodies at meetings, and the out-group of kind of socially awkward folks and newbs.

They speak much more highly of unions and rights groups here. I found them to be actively trying to help build movements, mostly with the goal of gaining influence/members in the group.

the snubbing of other left groups was rampant though.


Jeff June 26, 2013 at 2:36 pm

Wow. Being a member of the ISO sounds about as productive and worthwhile as a swift kick in the balls. This article pretty much confirms all the suspicions I’ve had against the ISO for years now. Very well said.

I think it’s also very important to point out that the ISO’s organizing model is not designed to perpetuate revolution, or empower the working class to overthrow their capitalist overlords. It is solely designed to preserve an internally built status quo that exists for the benefit of its leadership. And this is by no means unique to the ISO. I’ve seen it in countless other “member-driven” organizations. ISO just happens to be the shadiest.


Mark Lause June 26, 2013 at 3:50 pm

David equates my advocacy of a broad independent radical electoral front with “electoralism.” This is no difference than the way people speak disparagingly about antiwar demonstrations as “peace parades.”

The point is that we need to do what we can when we can.

There is no reason why what I sketched out couldn’t have been done by radicals in and out of socialist organizations in the last election or 2008 or earlier. People involved in all sorts of struggles would find it useful. And people in and out of organizations would have an opportunity to look for common ground and find it.

The fact is that several million American voters in 2000 went for Ralph Nader, who advocated positions that were entirely compatable with ours, as far as they went. In Occupy, communities with nothing going on–like my city–suddenly had over a thousand people in the streets.

What did the socialist Left done with either? It blows opportunities in the real world when they come up. And then it tends to retreat into learned discussions about James Cannon and whether Lenine cleaned his own bowling balls.

What’s lacking in this entire discussion here is any sense of urgency . . . any sense of the insufficiency of discussion.


samson June 26, 2013 at 8:06 pm

The ISO resembles nothing so much as an insular religious sect. Jeffrey St. Clair was far too harsh in comparing them to Scientologists, but Jehovah’s Witnesses would not be too far off the mark.


Brandy Baker June 26, 2013 at 10:02 pm

….or Jews for Jesus.


Jack July 5, 2013 at 4:25 am

Like I said….they have tables…with books…talking about how this one thing will change your life and save the world…..

It’s an awful lot like the blokes on the CTA and street corners.


Jack July 5, 2013 at 4:29 am

Granted, the SEP is much more evil. Jerry white, their presidential candidate came to my school ranting about how evil the ISO is and how we need to stop pablolites and other shit.

those people are crazy. I mean they started talking about how they were presecuted because the workers approached them for the truth.

They’re jehova’s witnesses. the ISO is like the catholic church. A much more poor version. if they just fessed up to the bad things, made things more fair, and sold off the gold it would be fine.


An Ex-ISO Member June 27, 2013 at 10:24 pm

As an ex-member of the ISO I read this article with great interest.

I was in the ISO for three years.

Everything that Pham writes in this article about the organization is absolutely true.

The inner workings, the lack of transparency, its party building methodology, recruitment.


I want to comment on one particular thing.

It is something Pham mentioned in the Comments section regarding the NYC District Organizer.

I was in the ISO when that person (M), I believe that is who Pham is referring to but please correct me if I am wrong, left the ISO.

During the time that it happened I asked other ISO members, including cadre in the branch that I was in, why M had left and not only did I not receive an answer, I was treated as if I was asking the most inappropriate and offensive of questions.

I also got to witness up close how M became an “unperson”.

I was upset with the secrecy regarding M’s departure and disgusted at how I was made to feel for asking a simple and legitimate question.

I left around the same time that you did Pham and that particular incident was a real eye opener for me which made me learn a real difficult lesson.

I’ll share something else.

One night at an ISO gathering, outside of the confines of a branch meeting, I asked a group of cadre the following:

Why are there so few Blacks and Latinos in the ISO?

Upon observing the ensuing death stares all around me I realized that my question would not be well received. And it wasn’t.

It was a long night.

I never raised the question again.

I want to congratulate you Pham on writing this great piece on the ISO.

It needed to be written and I’m really glad that you did.


Pham Binh June 28, 2013 at 8:39 am

Thank you. You’re welcome. And correct.


PatrickSMcNally June 28, 2013 at 9:51 am

“Why are there so few Blacks and Latinos in the ISO?”

While I’ve never been a supporter of the ISO, this is based on a common misconception which is worth correcting. There has long been an assumption on sectors of the Left that during periods when a significant portion of straight white male workers are voting for Ronald Reagan that should be able to turn to gays, blacks or women and achieve some recruitment there at least. That is not how the world works.

A worthwhile reference is the relation of Jews in Czarist Russia to the Left of that time. Contrary to what has been widely promoted on the Right at various times, it is not true that Jews gravitated towards the Bolsheviks. There was even a joke in circulation which Stalin repeated (though he didn’t invent it) to the effect that the way for the Bolsheviks to fight the Mensheviks was to have a pogrom. It was meant as a wise-crack about the fact that Jews who became Marxists were much more likely to go towards the Mensheviks. Even there, one shouldn’t overstate the degree to which Jews became Mensheviks either. The majority of educated Jews in Czarist Russia tended to hope for some type of constitutional liberalism, rather than looking to Marxism in any form.

It was only when the Russian Civil War began and the Whites initiated mass-pogroms all across Russia that Jews began to move towards the Bolsheviks. Most accounts show that Jews usually welcomed the Whites in the early stages on the Civil War because they did not like the restrictions on commercial activity which the Bolsheviks enforced. Pogroms forced them to change their minds and in the early 1920s the percentage of Jews in Bolsheviks rose to about 23% (although Jews never became a majority in the party, contrary to some Right-wing claims).

By way of analogy, if the Great Depression had returned after World War II (as Cannon & the SWP were expecting), and if the result had been a revolutionary civil war where the Ku Klux Klan launched a wave of lynching everywhere across the south of the USA, then under those conditions one would expect any competent revolutionary leadership to draw in significant numbers of black people. But outside of such an extreme scenario, the more common pattern is that if white workers are voting for George W. Bush then black voters will support the campaign of Al Gore. There would have to be a real clear sign that revolution is coming right now for any notable number of black people to make the decision to break from the Democrats and join a socialist party of any type.

One other relevant example can be seen from looking at people like Rosa Luxemburg, Alexandra Kollontai and some other notable socialist women of a century ago. I can’t think of any women socialists in recent decades who have played such a notable role as these ones did. Of course, in these decades there really haven’t been any socialists (male or female) who have played a role comparable to what the revolutionaries of a century ago were doing.

But the point is that sexism did not prevent people like Luxemburg or Kollontai from becoming socialists. By any objective standards, the socialist movement was vastly more infused with sexist attitudes than anything which we’ve seen since the 1960s. Women like Luxemburg & Kollontai gravitated towards the socialist movements of their time not because the men weren’t sexist but because it really seemed like this was where the center of action for the future lay.

When most people look at the way that capitalism has shown an apparent capacity for sustaining itself over the last century, they usually draw the conclusion that the road to the future is centered on working within the existing major parties. If someone feels that they have some special issues related to ethnic background or sexuality, then they will quite automatically gravitate towards working within the Democrats. The unavoidable result will be that those small grouplets which maintain some devotion to socialist ideas will usually be preponderantly straight white male in membership. While that doesn’t mean that there aren’t things which the little groups could and should be doing a better job of, but this is not really something that will change until the objective conditions have changed.


Pham Binh June 28, 2013 at 10:10 am

The issue isn’t really why are there so few people of color in the ISO, the issue is why is it when members/non-members ask this question openly they are greeted with hostility and derision:


PatrickSMcNally June 28, 2013 at 10:21 am

Feuds like this very quickly turn bitter since all sides are usually based on false premises. One side starts with the premise that we are at a revolutionary turn and the party is preparing itself for a strong wave of recruitment. The other side accepts this premise but proceeds to point out how odd it is that in the midst of this approaching revolution, there still isn’t a larger percentage of ethnic minorities. This side proceeds to recommend suggestions for the alleviation of this apparent problem. The first side now points out that such measures, if truly followed up on, would effectively dilute the whole socialist program and reduce the organization to just another liberal activist groups. From there on the feud turns into a bitter cat-fight.


Pham Binh June 28, 2013 at 10:50 am

There is nothing in An Ex-ISO Member’s member’s comment that indicates he/she thought, “we are at a revolutionary turn and the party is preparing itself for a strong wave of recruitment,” nor is there any justification for an honest question turning automatically into a feud or “a bitter cat-fight.” Reacting like that instead of honestly discussing the problem is what is wrong.


PatrickSMcNally June 28, 2013 at 3:01 pm

The idea that an allegedly socialist organization should attach a special priority to recruiting specifically black members could only make sense in a context where one is already expecting a surge in membership by the white working class. If the white working class is not interested in joining a socialist party, then one can safely assume that black workers won’t be either. This is not just some off-the-cuff judgment. Everything in the last 200+ years supports the conclusion that ethnic minorities do not tend towards would-be revolutionary parties in non-revolutionary times, but gravitate instead towards a moderate Left-of-Center position.

In Czarist Russia this took the form where Jews either tended towards the Mensheviks or towards some non-Marxist brand of liberalism or even sometimes radicalism a la the Social Revolutionaries, but only rarely towards Bolshevism. In the USA today, it takes the form of black majorities heading to the polls to vote for Al Gore, but not Ralph Nader (and never mind any other more Leftist candidates). Under such conditions there is no way that a miniscule would-be socialist party could ever accomplish any significant recruitment of black people without in practice tossing the socialism overboard and becoming an open adjunct to the Democratic Party.

So, yes, the argument that such small parties should be specifically seeking black recruits does assume that a revolutionary turn is imminent, when such an argument is not openly made as an argument in favor of joining the Democrats. A socialist party acting in non-revolutionary times may very well do good work around things like the Troy Davis case, Mumia Abu Jamal, and other similar cases. But the argument that such a party should be expecting to recruit black members on a wide scale needs to be evaluated separately from all of that. The politics of the Bolsheviks were not really all that different during the White pogroms of the Civil War when many Jews began joining them. It would have been a wasteful diversion if the pre-1914 Bolsheviks had expended resources on trying to recruit more Jews specifically.


Pham Binh June 28, 2013 at 3:22 pm

Because Jews = blacks and USA 2013 = Russia 1917. Got it.


Arthur June 28, 2013 at 4:50 pm

The comparison of the sects with the bolsheviks was even odder than the comparison of Jews and blacks and USA 2013 and Russia 1917.

Nevertheless, I think PSMcN has a more realistic appraisal of where the working class and ethnic minorities are currently at than those who imagine there is some current basis for mass recruitment.


Karl Grant June 28, 2013 at 3:48 pm

There are plenty of class struggle organizations making inroads into immigrant and POC communities through a wide variety of methods. As an example, workers centers have gained popular bases in Latino communities by offering ESL classes and training workshops. They have channeled that support into campaigns around wage theft and housing issues, and in many cities amplified those activist networks into the framework around which tens of thousands mobilize on May Day.

The failure of the radical left to be a relevant tool to POC and immigrant communities is an extension of its failure to plant roots in the larger working class. Selling SW simply isn’t a relevant or realistic form of activity for the low income masses, and to me the way that the radical left reaches back to Czarist Russia to map its civil rights policy is indicative of the frozen organizational cultures this article outlines.


PatrickSMcNally June 28, 2013 at 5:53 pm

“Selling SW”

I heartily agree that that is totally ridiculous in the age of the internet. Since I have never in my life been an ISO-supporter (unlike some others here) I can join with anyone in laughing at that. The fact is that in the age of the internet people’s habits of buying literature have been altered. At a much younger age I used to wander into book stores, search around, and if something caught my eye then I’d buy it. This also influenced my typical response to people hawking newspaper subscriptions. If it caught my fancy well enough then I’d go for it.

That is not at all how I behave today. Nowadays I would never place a subscription for anything unless a sufficiently broad internet search had persuaded me that it was worth getting in hard copy form. If I was a college freshman right now who was just hearing of the ISO-paper for the first time then I would refuse to take any subscription to it until I had looked for it on the web and very thoroughly examined what they had to offer there. Considering how most freshmen today are confronted with mounds of debt that I never had to deal with, it’s unrealistic to expect them to want to buy subscriptions.

“reaches back to Czarist Russia to map its civil rights policy”

You’re confusing civil rights policy with the issue of building a revolutionary working class party. Although Russia a century ago that it can only be examined cautiously and critically for it to be of any relevance, the fact remains that we don’t have any good functional models of how to build a revolutionary working class party within the modern First World. So Russia retains some natural interest.

If one is simply debating how to handle civil rights policy then this should be clearly demarcated from the issue of building a revolutionary socialist party. Any good civil rights policy will be one which allows many liberals who don’t subscribe to any brand of socialism to join in a march for Mumia Abu Jamal or whoever. But we again come back to the fact that most of these people will remain committed Democrats or whatever and will not be won over to socialism. That fact should always be kept clear without leading to a refusal by socialists to support Troy Davis or whoever.


Louis Proyect June 28, 2013 at 5:40 pm

I have a totally different take on recruitment of Blacks or Latinos. There’s not a reason in the world that they should not have their own organizations working in tandem with other organizations of a more mixed composition. The key term is flexibility. Marc Solomon wrote a very interesting book on the early days of Black involvement with the American Communist movement that raised the possibility of Black groups working separately but together.

A new book on blacks and the CPUSA

While most scholarship has used the correspondence between the Kremlin and the American Communist Party, that was made available after the collapse of the Soviet Union, for reactionary purposes, there is at least one very important exception. Taking advantage of archival material, Mark Solomon has written what might be the definitive history of the CPUSA’s involvement in the black struggle during the period of the party’s formation to the beginning of the popular front turn. (“The Cry was Unity: Communists and African Americans 1917-1936,” U. of Mississippi).

Solomon is emeritus professor at Simmons College and a member of the Committees of Correspondence. The CofC split from the CPUSA because of objections to the dogmatism and bureaucracy of the Gus Hall regime. The event that finally led to the formation of the CofC was Hall’s support for the coup against Gorbachev. Some of the most prominent black members of the CP went with the CofC, including Charlene Mitchell who is co-chair of the CofC with Manning Marable, department head of African-American studies at Columbia University. Although Solomon is white, he explains in his introduction why he was drawn to the black struggle:

“The environment we knew was one of spirited demonstrations to save the lives of Rosa Ingram, Willie McGhee, the Martinsville Seven, and other victims of a racist legal system. It included attending vibrant interracial dances at Rockland Palace in Harlem, sitting in awe in the back of Birdland to ask Charlie Parker to support Du Bois for the Senate, and listening to Miles Davis, engaged by the unhip Marxist Labor Youth League, which somehow thought that Davis’s brilliant, elliptical bebop was right for dancing. All of that had nearly disappeared by the mid-1950s. But that defiant interracialism, grounded in the unity of cultural traditions, of shared support for all who labored for an end to oppression at home and abroad never died. Its special commitment to, and admiration for, black culture, history, and community life survived and fused with a pervasive sense that the liberation of one group was essential to the spiritual and physical freedom of all.”

What is significant, however, is that Solomon understands the progressive character of black nationalism as well, sparing no effort to show how the Communist Party at various points in its history embraced such initiatives. I want to focus in one particular moment in party history, which is highly revealing for the affinity black party members had for nationalism, namely the African Blood Brotherhood. Despite the separatist name, this group was the instrument of Communist Party involvement in the black struggle in the early 1920s.

Cyril Briggs was the founder of the African Black Brotherhood. Born in 1888 on the Caribbean island of Nevis, he always considered himself a “race man”. His father was a white plantation overseer and this accounted for Briggs’s light complexion, which earned him the description of the “Angry Blond Negro” later in life, just as Malcolm X was dubbed “Detroit Red” before becoming a nationalist for similar reasons. Briggs moved to Harlem in 1905 and launched a writing career, finally landing a job with the Amsterdam News in 1912.

Briggs was swept up by the self-determination rhetoric of WWI which inspired his editorial, “Security for Poles and Serbs, Why not for Colored Nations?,” a call for a separate black state in the United States. He was also a strong supporter of the Irish Easter Uprising of 1916.

Briggs started a new magazine called the “Crusader” in 1918 to focus on the struggle for self-determination and black pride. The magazine made no distinction between such goals and more immediate social and economic issues. It backed the Socialist Party electoral campaigns of A. Philip Randolph and exposed lynchings in the south and job discrimination in the north.

In the February 1919 issue, the Crusader began demonstrating a concern with class in the Marxist sense. Comparing the forced removal of black workers from a Pennsylvania steel town (where they had migrated to during wartime labor shortages) to the Palmer Raid deportations of white foreign-born radicals, The Crusader attributed such actions to the “mailed fist of capitalism.” By May and June, the magazine was equating capitalism and colonialism, and projecting proletarian unity between black and white workers as a way to eradicate national oppression of black people.

The direction the Crusader was taking made it receptive to the left wing of the Socialist Party, which was about to split and form the first Communist Party in the US in September, 1919. It was during the summer of 1919, when antiblack riots were erupting across the United States, that Briggs finally came to the ideological conclusions that would lead him to join the CP. He saw national, race and class consciousness as dialectically interlinked. While claiming that his true home was Africa, Briggs also declared that the Negro’s place was “with labor.” Blacks would benefit from “the triumph of Labor and the destruction of parasitic Capital Civilization with its Imperialism incubus squeezing the life-blood of our race.”

In the first months of American Communism, Briggs drew close to two members of the party’s underground, Otto Huiswoud and Claude McKay, who would later become known as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance. (Huiswoud, another Caribbean immigrant, was a charismatic figure in his own right. He got involved with the Socialist Party while studying agriculture at Cornell University. During a summer job working on a cruise ship, Huiswoud organized a successful job action by black members of the crew for higher pay and better working conditions.) Solomon believes that Briggs became a party member in mid-1921. This connection influenced the direction of Brigg’s own organization, the African Blood Brotherhood, which would begin to absorb Marxist influences.

The 1920 ABB convention defined resistance to the KKK, support for a united front of black organizations, and promotion of higher wages and better working conditions for black workers as paramount. While calling for “racial self respect,” it also maintained that cooperation with “class-conscious white workers” was necessary. As the ABB drew closer to the Communist Party, nationalistic prejudices as such became less frequent. The Crusader, which was now the semiofficial organ of the ABB, declared that while the oppression of blacks was more severe, blacks and Jews shared a historic experience of persecution.

Furthermore, Briggs began to, as Solomon puts it, “…fuse his own sense of African identity and national culture with Leninist internationalism. He found in African antiquity the primitive communism that provided an Afrocentric root to the vision advanced by the Third International.” As opposed to Garvey’s nationalist movement, the Marxists of the ABB did not view “Africa for the Africans” as an invitation to capitalist development. He wrote, “Socialism and Communism [were] in practical application in Africa for centuries before they were even advanced as theories in the European world.” Within a year or so, the ABB would have evolved into a full-fledged black Marxist organization. Solomon describes the process:

“The Brotherhood was being drawn irresistibly into Marxism’s field. The Crusader eagerly echoed (and perhaps inspired) the Communist Toiler’s assertion that the underlying motive of whites in the Tulsa carnage was to grab African American oil lands. Tulsa was now within the vortex of Marxism’s assault on capitalism and on those who supported the system — white or black. There was no justice in capitalist America, the Crusader asserted. How many more Tulsas would it take before Negroes rejected their treacherous bourgeois allies and joined with ‘the radical forces of the world that are working for the overthrow of capitalism and the dawn of a new day, a new heaven on earth’?

“Briggs and the New Negro radicals who gravitated into the Communist orbit were staking out new ideological grounds on the black political landscape. Shortly after the ‘Salvation’ article, Briggs joined the Communist Party and resolved some of the article’s ambiguities, softening (but not renouncing) the nationalist temperament. He and his ABB comrades now clearly advocated a historic shift in the objectives of the black freedom struggle from assimilation into the bourgeois order to a socialist transformation; in the class composition of black leadership from middle class to proletarian; and in the class character of African American alliances with whites, from bourgeois liberal to the working-class left. The difficulty of the task was acknowledged in a Crusader editorial that grappled with the pervasive suspicion among blacks about the reliability of white labor as an ally. It said that those blacks who saw only white hostility had been soured by false protestations of friendship in the past. It was futile to deny that the white working-class majority was racist. At present, it said, ‘every white worker is a potential enemy of the Negro,’ but not the actual enemy. Racism existed in the working class; it had to be rooted out so that blacks could willingly join in an alliance arising from common interests and common ground. This view had a powerful impact on the racial policies of American communism.”

Within two or three years, the Comintern began to lay down a much more narrow understanding of Communist Party organizational principles that would make semi-independent formations such as the ABB impossible. Under Zinoviev’s dubious stewardship, new guidelines for “Bolshevization” were proposed at the 5th Comintern world congress in 1924. After it was approved, foreign language federations within the CP were abolished. Party membership was tightly restricted to shop or neighborhood units and party members were pressured into speaking English. On the racial front, organizational meshing of blacks and whites was mandatory and the African Blood Brotherhood was deemed as an exception to the “Bolshevization” guidelines. Party work shifted to the American Negro Labor Congress. Solomon states that this organizational-political turn pulled some blacks in the party away from their community roots.

The “democratic centralism” which was now institutionalized in both the CP and its rivals in the tiny Trotskyist movement implied a negative view of independent black formations like the ABB. Whenever motion would appear in party ranks to foster such formations, the inevitable lecture would proceed from on top that this was a new version of the Jewish Bund that Lenin had viewed as a threat to Bolshevik unity.

But in reality, unity can not be forced on the revolutionary movement. It has to be generated organically through struggle from the bottom up. There is very little likelihood that new revolutionary formations in the 21st century will adhere to the schematic organizational principles of the “Marxist-Leninist” variety handed down from the 1920s. It is entirely possible that the revolutionary movement in the United States will be a broad alliance of various working-class and nationality-based organizations, with a kinship to such formations as the FSLN and FMLN of the 1980s in Central America. Within these alliances, there will be overlapping memberships and programmatic fluidity. Perhaps the best expression of this possible new approach is the fact that the African-American director of the AFL-CIO’s education department is now the chairman of the Black Radical Congress.

For insights into how the early Communist movement operated in such broad parameters, I strongly recommend Mark Solomon’s book, which is also valuable for its stirring description of Communist Party involvement in a myriad of struggles that in many ways are the antecedents for the monumental struggle underway to save the life of Mumia Abu Jamal.


Jules Verne July 1, 2013 at 12:37 pm

Wait. Where do you see anybody talking about “attaching a special priority to recruiting specifically black members”? I thought the issue we were talking about was the venom directed at somebody who asked, not why special efforts weren’t being made to attract racial minorities, but just why racial minorities seemed to be underrepresented in relation to their percentage in the population as a whole. It’s a legitimate question to ask, and has nothing to do with these other issues you bizarrely keep wanting to interject.


An Ex-ISO Member June 28, 2013 at 11:48 am

“Feuds like this….”


What feuds?

That is a complete mischaracterization of what I said.

The question that I asked a group of cadre that I knew, worked with, and respected did not turn into a feud.

What did happen though was that I was chastised and ridiculed for asking, what was made very clear to me, a pointless and irrelevant question.


PatrickSMcNally June 28, 2013 at 3:23 pm

PB specifically gave a link to a piece by a former member which I was responding to. While I can’t pretend to know any of the real details within the ISO, or care very much about them, but the arguments which that member was citing from the ISO sounded perfectly valid. The member was talking about some people who had advocated that the ISO should specifically seek to recruit ethnic minorities in order to shore up a broader base within such minorities. That was the feud that I was referring to, and from the few details I could gather it sounded as if the ISO members made perfectly reasonable counter-arguments. Because it really is not possible for any serious socialist party to recruit substantive numbers of ethnic minorities during non-revolutionary times when the main body of the working class supports the capitalist system. Workers World may be able to organize a good demonstration in support of Mumia Abu Jamal which attracts a lot of black people to join in. But once the demonstration is over the vast majority of those black people will simply go back to the Democratic Party where the more progressive white workers are. There is no way of dodging around this and somehow tricking more blacks into joining a socialist party which white workers don’t want to join.


An Ex-ISO Member July 5, 2013 at 1:58 am

Patrick, regarding feuds, I was reading a little too fast and missed the reference. Sorry about that.


An Ex-ISO Member June 28, 2013 at 1:31 pm

“this is based on a common misconception……”

There was no misconception on my part.

The question that I raised was completely based on REALITY.

The reality that I saw in every branch that I worked in.

The reality that I saw when I met ISO members from other branches.

The reality that I saw at every annual convention that I attended.

The reality of the conversations that I had with Blacks, Latinos, and other people of color who I met and attempted to recruit.

The reality of how the ISO and therefore I as a member were viewed by Black and Latino activists from other groups that I had a working relationship with.

The lack of people of color in the ISO was not a figment of my imagination.

It was a daily reality that manifested itself in every aspect of my participation in the ISO.

The response or lack of response that I received from the ISO members that I worked with closely and highly respected was shocking and hugely disappointing to me.

I could not believe at the time that a question that I felt was important and highly relevant to the organization could be so easily dismissed in such a disdainful manner.

It had an enormous impact on me and it was a turning point for me as I began to reassess many things. Among those things, my membership in the ISO and the organization itself.


PatrickSMcNally June 28, 2013 at 3:12 pm

I certainly did not dispute the fact that not only the ISO just about any socialist group that you can find is predominantly white in membership. What is a major misconception is the notion that this somehow can or should be changed under conditions where the white working class stays miles away from any socialist party. It’s a very deep misunderstanding of how most members of ethnic minorities reason. If the vote among white workers is creating a close call between Bush & Gore, then the majority of black workers will simply try to tip things in favor of Gore. Ethnic minorities do not tend to lean more than slightly to the Left of the ethnic majority. As long as the white working class shuns socialism, there won’t be any significant recruitment of colored people into any serious socialist party. That’s the way the world works, whether or not you want to acknowledge it.


Jules Verne July 1, 2013 at 12:48 pm

You are confusing two separate issues. Nobody is asking why the ISO lacks a large number of blacks in an absolute sense. If they were, your response about how the ISO lacks a large number of white workers would be on point: the ISO isn’t going to contain large numbers of anybody until the political context changes. The question, if I am not mistaken, is why the ISO was unable to recruit the small numbers of people of color necessary to roughly match within the organization their numerical proportion in larger society. Saying that there aren’t a lot of white people in the ISO, and that the majority of white workers shun socialism, is a non-sequitor.


An Ex-ISO Member July 5, 2013 at 4:36 am

Jules Verne, I totally agree with your comments.

And as far as my situation, that was pretty much the question that I was asking.

It eventually became very frustrating for me because it was an issue that I had to deal with especially working with Latino activists from other groups.

It came up frequently in conversations and it was pointed out to me many times.

I felt it was an absurd situation that I was in because I should have been able to turn to the leadership in my branch for an open discussion about it and for some guidance.

But that did not happen because it was not allowed to happen.

Here I was, involved in serious political work with important contacts, developing important working relationships and alliances, and in the midst of all of this always mindful of recruitment (as was required).

Yet I was struggling to address their questions and concerns regarding the lack of people of color in the ISO, what that meant to them, how it related to the political work that we were involved in and how it informed their view of the ISO.

All of this mattered.

I knew it mattered.

However, I was on my own, without any support, trying to figure out how to effectively engage with all of theses issues.

It was a situation that should not have happened.


Jules Verne July 5, 2013 at 11:27 pm

The elephant in the room here is the fact that the ISO focuses its recruitment and organizing efforts on college campuses, places where people of color are under-represented (as are young people with working-class backgrounds). But then this just raises the question of why a group that places strategic priority on the working class would focus on campuses.


Red Blob June 28, 2013 at 7:17 am

Interesting article, I also was in the ISO but the Australian section. I think Pham that your joining date colors your view just a little. I joined in the early 1990’s and at that time there was no obsession with recruiting in fact it was the opposite. Members were seen as hard to come by and members were encouraged to read more in preference to promoting the organization, membership was granted after the candidate had acquired a certain level of theoretical agreement. Then on cue from England it all changed. Our leadership went to Marxism Britain and the whole world changed suddenly members could be found everywhere, membership requirements became anyone who opposed Capitalism, now we had to be organizing around anything that was moving the masses and heaven forbid anyone who wanted to talk theory. There was a big hew-ha when a branch had a talk about the Marxist philosopher Lukacs instead of something concrete.
I don’t regret my time in the ISO, I learn t a lot about politics and a lot more about the dynamics of small groups.
What I noticed was that the leadership could careen off into any direction but the best way of insulating yourself against becoming a zombie socialist was to cultivate the outsider group. They always exist and they tend to have a fair dose realism when everyone is affected by the current madness.


Pham Binh June 28, 2013 at 8:38 am

From what I gather, in the 1980s one had to be able to recite Tony Cliff’s “State Capitalism in Russia” backwards from memory to join.

Not really, but the theoretical requirements were much higher back then. I didn’t think I painted a picture of relentless “join us” culture, but it is the end goal of just about every conversation and/or meeting with non-members.

You raise a topic I didn’t even broach, which is the tendency of Cliff groups to chase the latest fad and inventing fads where they don’t exist. “Swimming against the stream,” “the radicalizing minority,” “bending the stick,” and “back to basics” were the buzzwords handed down from on high that animated every discussion on political perspectives. It’s this kind of thing that allowed the Jack Barnes-era SWP to talk itself into colonizing industry.


Mark Lause June 28, 2013 at 10:32 am

The turnover question is another way of getting at the glass ceiling problem.

The first few years I was associated with the SWP-YSA, I kept track of membership turnover and was rather horrified that I seemed to be the only person doing so or even interested in the problem. Perhaps in sheer disgust, I’ve inadvertlently allowed the exact figures to disappear into my archives beneath things that have taken on much greater importance over the years. It was one of the most shocking experiences of my political life–something that seriously shook my confidence in the group’s leadership–to hear the announcement at the 1971 YSA conventions that the group had recruited 600 members since the last convention. The actual number was around 1200 and differed from the figure announced in 1970 by only a small number. This meant that, at the height of our involvement in various struggles and in a very good political climate, the group had a turnover rate approaching 45% in a year. (This was before some of the later drives to “graduate” YSA members into the SWP.)

What was most disturbing to me was when I asked national leaders about this turnover, they blew the question off entirely. I pointed out to one of them that if we could do something to reduce the turnover by half, we’d have several thousand members in a few years. There was not only no interest in this but the lesser deities of the organization replied by getting quite snarky about my superficial and “entirely matehematical” identification of the problem.

The political conditions for our growth in the mid-1970s were excellent. We had beaten the ruling class policies over Vietnam, helped create conditions that drove a president from office, and seriously dented the self-condient Cold War delusions of American ideology. Yet growth continued only on the most incremental level.

Since, American capitalism has suffered one hit after another. Only a few years back, we saw the largest proportion of American voters since 1948 break from the Democrats in favor of an independent progressive ballot. We also witnessed the explosive appearance, growth, and (in most places) implosion of Occupy. Not only do I think the ISO should have 10,000 members, but there should probably be multiple socialist currents with tens of thousands of members.

I talk with anybody and everyone over this issues and the subtext of most of what I’ve heard from leadership people in organizations has been smug self-satisfaction. We find ourselves leaping from a discussion of existing realities to what Jim Cannon would have done or whether or not Lenin did this or that.

Insularity describes the results, but it is such an intense insularity that I’d be surprised to hear them actually identify and acknowledge the problem in the first place.


Mark Lause June 28, 2013 at 4:48 pm

“[T]he argument that such small parties should be specifically seeking black recruits does assume that a revolutionary turn is imminentt . . . .”

This is unintentionally a rather persuasive argument that the ISO has failed to accomplish what I suspect many of us would regard as a basic feature of educating cadres. A serious socialist organization must root itself as much as possible in the most oppressesd sections of the working class. If it’s not proportionately recruiting blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans as much as whites–if not more than whites–we might as well as join what’s left of the SLP and go to lectures on surplus value.


A random ISO member June 28, 2013 at 6:01 pm

I do not think that Patrick has claimed to be an ISO member or represents the opinion of most on this. He certainly doesn’t speak for me.


Pham Binh June 28, 2013 at 6:23 pm

I don’t criticize them for failing I criticize them for refusing to try. The link I posted in debating PSM shows that the organization opposes affirmative action internally and equates such measures with liberal/identity politics.


John June 28, 2013 at 7:56 pm

Not only that: the ISO once bragged that because no one in their membership ranks requested the formation of Black caucuses/Women’s Caucuses that this was proof that none was needed and showed that they were right to not have them.

However, what they do not say is that the pressure to abandon such a proposal would be so great that it most likely would not make it to the level of a full vote by the membership.

Tricky spin.


Jack July 5, 2013 at 4:34 am

When I was a member, there were a lot of non-white, not middle class, not college educated types. There were also a bunch of people from pilsen organizing a lot of people from predominately spanish speaking backgrounds. they still didn’t get a full fraction and most of the mexican and latin ameircan folks wanted a fraction to organize wround issues in that community.

they also really started to focus on race stuff, probably after the purge thang.


Mark Lause June 28, 2013 at 9:09 pm

The failure that I was criticizing was not the failure to recruit more black, Latino or native members or even the failure to try harder, but the failure to educate its membership as to the importance of the question right now–and that it is not some “civil rights” issue.

Louis’s point is quite valid, of course. I’ve argued that antebellum political organizaiton among African-Americans was generally far more similar to the clearly revolutionary societies in Europe than were those among white socialists and radicals here. At this point, though, there seems to be no such coherent forces as the African Blood Brotherhood with which white radicals could collaborate. The future will tell us how this will go.

I think that the one way we can be sure it won’t happen is for the tiny organizations that currently exist to soldier on as they have until they have somehow become attractive enough for hundreds of thousands of people to join them and then, at the brink of a crisis, impliment some “civil rights” policy to put forward spokespeople of color.


Jon Hoch June 29, 2013 at 4:31 pm

I really feel like we need a Gawker-like site for anti-capitalists.

Something snarky, light and fun from a socialist standpoint that is updated multiple times a day covering pop culture and politics. You know, TNS is great, but it’s a bit academic and insider-baseball-y for my tastes. There really haven’t been any links for instance that I would have wanted to show to my general Facebook friends. I feel like a site like this could be put together relatively easily if we got together a lot of contributors. Many hands make light work.

I know it’s possible. A group of San Fran AR folks put out a sort of veganized Gawker here: They cover everything from clothes to food to agriculture legislation.

Anyway, I think it would be awesome if we could do something like that for radical labor–something light, fun, and geared towards a general audience. But what can I say, I’m a dreamer, and unlike Lennon said, I’m probably the only one.


Brandy Baker June 29, 2013 at 11:42 pm

It is a fantastic idea.


Jon Hoch June 30, 2013 at 6:11 am

Well, you could count me in for one light, snarky, socialist post a week. (They wouldn’t have to be long. A lot of the Gawker posts are a paragraph or so.) If there were three posts a day, seven days a week that means we would only need like 21 more people, haha.


chegitz guevara July 1, 2013 at 5:03 pm

I thought that was FaceBook.


Jack July 5, 2013 at 4:37 am

This guy nik and I had an idea like that. I was going to call it girondist, poking fun at Jacobin for being to pretentious for our taste.

He had the idea of calling it “bonapartist”

Anyone want to shell out some cash.

c’mon let good ol’ saucy jacky help ya out mate.


Jon Hoch June 29, 2013 at 5:02 pm

Sorry if that sounded like one big tremendous whine. I’ve been losing my mind waiting for my job to start. Hopefully it will be this Tuesday. On the happy side though, I won my case against my last employer, so I’ll have some decent bank soon.


Courtney S. July 4, 2013 at 6:03 pm

First, I would like to thank Pham Binh for a very engaging and serious piece and for those who are taking this discussion seriously. I think he raises many worthwhile questions and makes claims from a point of experience, claims I can corroborate with my experience of being a member of the Pittsburgh branch from summer 2004 to spring of 2012. Around the G20 in Pittsburgh in fall of 2009, the national leadership was able to put together a branch of three: of myself, another young female member from Vermont and a new prominent member who was recruited by the leadership over a number of years (Paul L). I took the helm, reluctantly. I had a part-time job out of college and I had already committed to being on the board of directors of the Thomas Merton Center which I let consume me (this was judged as a worthwhile sacrifice by the national ISO leadership even as I became disillusioned). I threw myself into all of this and had conversations with the regional organizer, Shaun H, on a regular basis. Despite being overcommitted, I thought things were fine. While my experience up to that point was mixed due the chronic weakness of the Pittsburgh branch after the tragic departure of two leaders early on in my tenure, I held out hope I could see the ISO work the way I was told it should and someday grow. When I started having criticisms, they were often in the direction of orthodoxy but always toward more functionality and membership development.

In the summer of 2010, I met my now-husband Nick, and he (having been a longtime activist of an anarchist persuasion who had been convinced of Trotskyism and had joined by surveying all the groups and deciding on the ISO) had similar criticisms – where’s what the handbook says? Why don’t we have fractions? Why don’t we do paper sales? Why have members not developed politically? Why aren’t we reading? Why have we become older, whiter and more male and why doesn’t this concern people? Before I was unelected as branch organizer, Paul was promoted to co-branch organizer, presumably in order to wear me down. Despite the fact that a diverse, young, self-sufficient branch was impossible with a guru leader, he was not reigned in, but I was. We acted as a faction and both of us were on the branch committee until fall of 2010 when Nick was voted off by a special election of an alternate slate proposed mostly in the language of mental illness. Paul L admitted in an email he proposed this special election to remove Nick (since there were no term limits and elections are democratic, no problem, right?). I resigned as co-branch organizer and from the BC at this point.

I admit that my eventual burnout was inevitable. For some reason, Paul was allowed to undermine my leadership by talking over my head to the national leaders. The only way to explain this is that keeping Paul happy was seen as the priority by Shaun and Sharon S, not developing a young female leader and not taking seriously questions of the functionality of a branch that could not retain members. Paul was just such a “get,” that we could have an unorthodox branch for a couple years and no one flew in and smashed us like what happened in the 1990s. It was disturbing that three men (two much older than me) sat down with me before Convention 2011 (a sort of emergency meeting, if you will) and told me to calm down. Both Nick and I had entertained the notion of submitting a counter-assessment of the branch, to challenge the rosy one written by Paul in the style of an old SWP Tasks & Perspectives document. It trumpeted basically his accomplishments and downplayed weaknesses, which would lead people to assume some norms were being followed (or at least attempted) when they were completely absent.

Nick was “granted medical leave” and I was still a member for a bit, during which time I had a personal conflict with a returning female member from a while back who wanted similar reforms (she had to move though before achieving her reform agenda). She had a similar friction with Paul and had to have sit downs with him to remind him to not undermine her leadership in front of a small branch of all men, more than half of them in their 50s and 60s. I realize at this point my behavior was problematic and causing anxiety in the branch. It was hard to figure out what I could do when Paul’s opinions formed the branch and I disagreed with them – didn’t I have a right to? The branch was in bad place and was demoralized. However, my behavior was directly caused by the way I was treated so I refuse to accept sole responsibility for it. Were we to have done serious reading (which was like pulling teeth to get a professor of history to agree to, somehow), engage in consistent activism (all of us not just a couple people who did a lot) and jointly strategize on how to change the branch, I have no reason to think this situation would have developed. Accusations of misogyny could be leveled against Nick when it was convenient, but I could be treated very harshly because it served “higher aims”. When I tried to reach out to people I knew in the ISO in other cities, I was told I was undermining the national leaders by trying to obtain advice from other comrades.

When Occupy happened, which was pretty significant in Pittsburgh, the encampment lasting until February 2012, besides Paul’s presence, the branch as a whole was only intermittently engaged. No one had the instinct to engage with the people during the initial march or at the general assemblies. The current branch organizer (as far as we know) was basically recruited by Nick, who noticed he had an ISR at the second general assembly and walked up to him and actually talked to him. At most events, Nick was the only person who had any interest in talking to people there, in selling the paper and was probably the only person besides Paul who knew how to do these things (despite many members being around a long time).

I was a member sort of for a few months in 2012 (after a house fire, no less) and eventually, after a tearful conversation with Sharon S, I left for good. To me, this was such a blow because I defined myself and my adulthood by being an ISO member (I could not even imagine how I could be a Marxist and not be a member). Everything I learned, I learned in reference to and in the context of the ISO. After about a year of inactivity and intellectual disengagement, I finally came to my senses and developed similar criticisms to many ex-members. I developed them out of analyzing why I was treated the way I was. I also realized I had betrayed Nick – I had abandoned him to equivocate and support Shaun and Sharon, which led to my being treated in a preferential way. I was “allowed” to take a break, it was suggested I get therapy and come back when I was ready. It was never once acknowledged that anything political was happening (or that my state of mind was dialectically related to what was happening in the ISO), aside from me undermining the leadership. Occasionally I was told that some of my criticisms were valid, I just had to stop being so “negative.”

As a member, I always felt that I needed to read more because it seemed the ultimate achievement was knowing the best way to justify the line. There are so many positions to learn and explanations of those positions. I had not been an activist before and my activism was greatly shaped by the ISO but we never really operating fractions the way we were supposed to, so I can’t strictly speak to pre-meetings and fractions meetings (in fact I complained to the outgoing regional organizer in 2009 that we weren’t doing fractions and she was unconcerned and dismissive). I became a hardworking, knowledgeable, confident activist. But my focus was all off and I found myself being intolerant and tribalistic toward other left activists, always rushing to categorize their tendency. I probably missed out on learning so much from anarchists and others who I dismissed out of hand, as well as those who just weren’t “politically won” to our politics (which are considered the only politics for serious revolutionaries). Despite talking a game of being “part” of the eventual formation of a revolutionary party, you wouldn’t know that from how we acted. The groupthink is rather astonishing if you pause to notice it. I attended perhaps four conventions and only later on did I notice how steered from the top they were. Most things were basically put forward to be rubber stamped or meant to be informational only. [Also, we didn’t almost get rid of the paper, I can assure you. Despite a flurry of documents, the group at the Convention most steadfastly advocating an online-only paper was severely marginalized.]

I was made a pariah in much the way other now-ex-members were, but because I allowed myself to have my own self-hatred reflected back at me, many phone conversations but no flights were organized. It wasn’t necessary. I was much easier to deal with than that. I have a tremendous amount of respect for the people who shaped me and the friends I made. But it’s telling that I realized this after I had to rebuild my life and not during my time in the organization for nigh on eight years. I am in the beginning stages of figuring out what I think would work better, so I can’t speak to that most prickly question. Were the leadership structure totally rebuilt, political and cultural changes would result, I would seriously consider joining.


Nick R. July 6, 2013 at 11:46 pm

I also want to thank Pham Binh for writting this. After the experiences Courtney and I had, which she describes above, I feel much less isolated reading this.

If anything I feel like this doesn’t go far enough describing the problems with the ISO’s model. I mean we used basically all the same structures as the British SWP, inherited directly. This goes for bans on fractions, extreme internal secrecy, uncontested slate elections. As far as I know the ISO has never covered up a rapist, but my experience has not left me without much hope that it wouldn’t if they felt it was someone important enough. The ISO leadership’s reaction to the case in the SWP was disturbing too. They advised against involving the police in ‘revolutionary groups’ and decided to defend true ‘Leninism’. Like that was what was really the danger of the scandal, people would have a bad opinion of Leninism and the police might investigate some sect they probably already have spies in. No one wanted to think about the poor young woman who was victimized or all the others who might be targets!

I think the basic structure of how the ISO operates is really potentially even more problematic. Most of the organizations leadership have both elected authority positions (unchallenged) and are paid as organizers or by one of the offshoots like Socialist Worker, International Socialist Review, and Haymarket Books. Since most of the money for these comes from members dues or sales efforts, much of the leadership lives off exploitation of the membership. This must effect the political outlook of the organization. It probably explains why there is such a focus on recruitment, why leadership is uncontested and finances and many other matters are so secret. Actually we were asked to do yearly fundraisers for CERSC too.

I also wanted to say that I actually made a point of talking to serveral people who left the ISO while I was still a member after they left. So I did do sort of ‘exit interviews’ with several people. One told me she wasn’t interested in socialism at this point in her life, another that she regretted not having as much time to focus on real activism anymore and a third that she was really disturbed by how much emphasis was put into building the organization at the conference. So I think what many people are assuming are reasons people leave are basically correct.

I have a many other thoughts racing but I will leave it there for now.


Redjeffery August 8, 2013 at 5:58 am

I am also a former member of the ISO (2006-2012) and can only agree with what Pham and others have so accurately described here. I joined the ISO after several years of anti-war activism as a veteran of the Iraq War (I was also a member of another problematic organization- IVAW) because I am a Marxist and agreed with much of the ISO’s supposed political line. They seemed a genuinely coherent, organized socialist force with resources…very attractive to someone growing in their political awareness and radicalism like I was at the time.

What I found out about the ISO once I relocated to NYC to pursue grad school and be closer to the center of the organization’s political action was very disappointing. Over the course of 4 years I came to know many very nice grassroots members who are great at what they do (and would still be if they left the ISO). I also met many individuals that as another commenter said earlier “I wouldn’t have wanted to hang out with” if they hadn’t been in the ISO. I found this to be something of the normal run of things for the first year or so, until I noticed that the vast majority of the membership that I found so off putting were actually its LEADERS.

Yes, one of the biggest problems with the ISO is it’s religious like focus on “building the party”…or recruitment. An example:
Upon arrival in NYC I attended a social that was at an apartment shared by several members with my partner (not a member). We were greeted nicely enough, but as the party progressed, my new branch organizer kept coming up to us and asking interrogating questions like he was trying to determine if we were genuine or not. I felt creeped out at the time and so did my partner. Her response was “why is that strange guy following us around with that creepy smile, asking us all of these political and personal questions, and then saying nothing?” Why indeed?
After reflecting on this event for several years now, I honestly think that he was acting creepy because he was probably compelled to interrogate me by the district organizers and was also very committed to RECRUITMENT.
This obvious underlying agenda of the ISO always seemed to affect interactions with other activists and prospective members negatively. Anytime I raised this as a concern, I was defensively and derisively told how dedicated every member had to be to “building the ISO”. What’s interesting is that with all this “building” the ISO remained the same exact size the entire time I was a member. Like Pham Binh and many others… I couldn’t help to wonder why?

On internal democracy- this is probably the biggest problem (and most noticeable to new members) within the organization. Pham is so correct in his assessment of this issue that I found myself shouting “Yes!” as I read it. Democracy in the ISO is largely a formality that isn’t really practiced. As an ready example, let me illustrate how the NYC ISO District operates internally:
Since I moved to the New York, ONE SINGLE FAMILY has pretty much been running the show. The District Organizer (Jen R.) has been so for almost the entire last 6 years at least (with the exception of a maternity leave I think). Her partner Shawn is in charge of organizing Haymarket and it’s events (and helping him with this work IS mandatory BTW). Her sister-in-law was usually my branch organizer or her partner was (often because she had been put in charge of another of the city’s branches). Occasionally, a reshuffling of a very small deck of cards would occur in the branch or district, but the same few faces always seemed to be in charge. Voting was just a formality, as the slates are predetermined before hand by the district leaders and no one ever contested them.

Exacerbating this sterile, lifeless “democracy”, grassroots members who also happen to be genuine WORKING CLASS wage earners are at a great disadvantage in this organization of students, teachers, and intellectuals. It quickly became noticeable to me that any prospective working-class member usually didn’t stick around very long. The reasons became too clear to me as my time in the ISO passed. The ISO depends on a set of routines that makes it nearly impossible (I would argue very much intentionally) for most real working people to be members. Others have expounded on this point too accurately, I won’t waste time explaining again how mandatory weekly paper sales (and cult like group assessments after), branch and district meetings, Haymarket events, “interventions”, and contact meetings/calls make active membership almost an impossibility that any real working person with a family just can’t fulfill. Additionally, it seemed to me that any such new comers that displayed any level of understandable ignorance concerning the ISO’s EXACT political line or any other thing for that matter were often marginalized. Therefore you have a self-reinforcing feedback loop composed largely of declassed intellectuals and their student hangers- on. Not the recipe for a mass party.
Yeah, any former member will confirm what an attitude you receive from these more “dedicated” cadre if heaven forbid, you have to take a night job that interferes with your ability to make the organization’s endless meetings and “talks”. That was my case repeatedly, and a seeming total lack of comprehension was usually the response I got from the leadership cadre.

Agitation? Yes, if you think selling SW on a street corner is the sum of it. No other propaganda need be distributed or put up apparently…just go out to a physically and socially safe area of the city such as Washington Square Park and attempt to SELL SW. Go to East New York, the South Bronx, or any other working-class minority neighborhood in this city to do a sale or a meeting? Well, that always seemed to be “too logistically difficult for most branch members to get to”. Convenient if most of your district membership is alienated (rightfully so) upper-middle class white university students who have never really known any real poor people of color on a personal basis or visited their neighborhoods. The leadership cadre always argued that they had attempted recruiting in such neighborhoods before but with little success. Further, no attempt was apparently made to understand as a group why so many genuine radical working people walked away after a single meeting or a few.

The emphasis on Haymarket is also very often debilitating and off putting. For example:
On the announcement of the first large scale demonstration of the Tea Party in Manhattan in early 2009, I suggested adamantly that the ISO should organize a counter demonstration to refute and strangle these crypto-fascist nitwits in the cradle. I was told that “unfortunately” a Haymarket Books event had been scheduled for the same night and was “more integral to building the ISO”. When I argued that countering racist, reactionary scum might be more important and I was counter-demonstrating without them, I was apparently noticed by the leadership clique (and boy is it a CLIQUE) as a growing voice of dissent…this very disagreement would be used as evidence against me several years later (along with a recorded list of other minor political disagreements) by Jen R. and my branch organizer when I was asked to agree to my suspension. If your an ISO member, rest assured EVERYTHING you say and do that conflicts with their “agenda” is being noted and recorded by your branch and district leaders as well as other higher cadre.
On Haymarket, the ISO pushes its members to purchase, purchase, purchase! Don’t worry if you really can’t afford it…CERSC accepts credit cards. I’ve personally witnessed members purchase WAY MORE than I suspected they could afford…is this pressure to spend right? On top of this, members were harangued every December (yeah, that’s the month when everyone is flush with extra cash!) to donate MORE money to CERSC. Shameless.

And finally, although I’ve far from exhausted my list of issues with the ISO, I’ll end with one more critique that no one to my knowledge has yet raised on this thread…the overwhelming current of SEXUAL MORALISM that oppresses (yes, that IS the right word) many within the organization. Want to attend the WORST PARTY EVER? Go to one hosted by the ISO. Social events are supposed to be just that…but apparently the priority of the ISO is ALWAYS building the ISO and condemning anyone clueless enough to try to interfere with this mission by actually socializing, carousing, or even attempting to hook up with anyone they find attractive. All romantic relationships seemed to be conducted in secret with no outward signs of affection seemingly socially allowed. Most cadre members never discussed their personal lives with each other unless they had been close friends previous to their membership in the ISO. It was years before I knew some cadre members were in a relationship with each other. Very few members ever bring their non-ISO partners to events. After the recurrent overwhelmingly silent reception my loved one always received, I didn’t question why. Any alien visitor to our planet who happened to stumble into an ISO party their first night on earth would be convinced that humans reproduce asexually. Now, I don’t expect orgies to break out at national conferences…but Jesus, I never even once saw anyone making out at any of their late night gatherings. When you consider most of the membership is made up of young single college students only one word comes to mind…WEIRD.
I hope I’ve added some more kindling for your fire Pham…good luck.


Karl Grant August 8, 2013 at 1:53 pm

Great contribution, the sum total of stories like this goes a long way towards painting a picture of life inside a sect for those outside, and together they offer some perspective on why the left has failed to take root.

One divergent perspective on the last issue you raise which you term ‘sexual moralism’. I’m glad you brought this issue up and I’d be curious if anyone else had a story which offers more color on this. For my part I have come away with the opposite impression from my interactions with ISO members.

Locally it seems almost literally every member of the ISO is dating another member with occasional reshuffles. This chaffs me a bit because it implies a certain bias within the organization, a shortcut to getting articles published in SW for instance, and presents the uninitiated with an insular group where everyone seems to be fucking each other. In the IST vocab – its permanent factionalism!

Another point is that left groups have had a problem (most recently the British SWP) with cultivating a safe environment for their membership, especially w/old gurus in positions of power preying on young radical women (WRP & Healy). On a smaller scale I’ve heard from many friends in left groupettes/parties that they frequently have problems with creepy dudes joining and attempting to do creepy things amongst the membership. Within this context I appreciate at least making a gesture towards professionalizing the space inside the organization and discouraging folks seeing the party as a place to score.


Redjeffery August 8, 2013 at 5:33 pm

Excellent reply Karl!
Yes, I think that you may be right. The move to “professionalize” these groups is understandable and may be absolutely necessary. Yes, sexual predation by older established leaders is ALWAYS a problem. Maybe what I observed was the stultified, sterilized result of such concerns…my partner for her part thought that it increased the ‘cult-like’ character of the ISO. She’s one smart woman. I’m not sure what the solution is.


Karl Grant August 8, 2013 at 6:00 pm

I’ve experienced the same problem but would explain it as part of the obsessive drive towards recruitment within the organization where that’s essentially the only ‘ask’ they are trained to put forward to new contacts.

At nearly every meeting or ISO event I’ve experienced, I came away with much the same feeling as I imagine your partner did. Every conversation was plugged back into a Haymarket book I needed to read, every comment a measurement of my politics against the ISO line, every movement an assessment of whether I’m recruitable. I’m not saying you shouldn’t build your organization, but when every interaction reeks of it then people go running, feeling like they are being browbeaten or manipulated.

For my partner its much the same. When she comes to radical events which bring her into contact with the sectlets she is similarly rubbed raw by their obsessive measurement/categorization of her politics through the framework of recruitment and 20th century Marxism. I imagine this is just as true amongst organizers within movements as it is amongst partners at social functions, and just another indicator of why the ISO is incapable of the kind of growth it needs to fulfill its mission statement.


throwaway August 8, 2013 at 2:13 pm

Reading between the lines of the “sexual morality” stuff might give you a better sense of why Jeff was actually suspended.


Redjeffery August 8, 2013 at 5:26 pm

That’s beyond a cheap, uninformed shot. Thanks for playing, but I never brought up the cold, sterile, social functions that I regularly attended with anyone in the ISO, I was involved with my partner the entire time of my membership and just found what I saw most of the time as strange considering the age demographic of most of the ISO’s membership. If it looks weird and unnatural to me, rest assured it looks weird to others as well. For your information, I was suspended for calling out the leadership for what they are. As Karl Grant so eloquently just described, it’s an “insular group” that, like high school cliques, likes to play favorites, exclude those they find social unsuitable, and finally push out any who point this obviousness out.

Why in the greatest city in the world, a city of over 8 million people, the capital of world finance capitalism, is the ISO’s membership steadily around 100 or less members?
Could it be because Pham, myself, and the other critical and accurate voices on this thread are absolutely CORRECT?


Pham Binh August 8, 2013 at 6:11 pm

Speaking of high school:

When this is the best a group can come up with, you know there’s a problem. :)


Richard Estes August 8, 2013 at 7:33 pm

“Others have expounded on this point too accurately, I won’t waste time explaining again how mandatory weekly paper sales (and cult like group assessments after), branch and district meetings, Haymarket events, “interventions”, and contact meetings/calls make active membership almost an impossibility that any real working person with a family just can’t fulfill.”

Of course, a century ago, working class people did dedicate incredible amounts of time despite such constraints. It may be unrealistic to expect working class people with families, or anyone with a family, for that matter, to fulfill such commitments now because of changing social values, but I emphasize this to observe that people will dedicate lots of time and effort when they are motivated to do so. So, the question becomes why doesn’t the ISO and most other left organizations do it?


TRPF August 13, 2013 at 2:44 pm

“Of course, a century ago, working class people did dedicate incredible amounts of time despite such constraints. It may be unrealistic to expect working class people with families, or anyone with a family, for that matter, to fulfill such commitments now because of changing social values, but I emphasize this to observe that people will dedicate lots of time and effort when they are motivated to do so. So, the question becomes why doesn’t the ISO and most other left organizations do it?”

Black sharecroppers in the 1930s South joined the Communist Party even though it meant tremendous sacrifice and at great risk to themselves personally because they saw it as pretty much the only vehicle capable of winning improvements in their standard of living. No one has ever joined a newspaper-selling outfit and won $15 an hour on the job, beat their landlord to get their security deposit back, or got union recognition as a result because those outfits are geared towards self-perpetuation rather than changing people’s lives and objective conditions for the better which goes a long way towards explaining the motivation problem you point to.


Funf September 17, 2013 at 3:01 am

EXCELLENT! As someone who will always appreciate the fact that there is an organized group out there such as the ISO with brilliant political ideas and such amazingly passionate members, I do believe we need something better. From my soured experience, I came to the conclusion that whenever the many have to volunteer in order for the (unelected) few to get paid, these dynamics will be inevitable.


exx February 15, 2014 at 12:40 pm

I was briefly in the ISO more than 20 years ago, and all the problems sketched out in the article here, and in the comments below … are pretty much exactly the same problems the group had then. Not suprisingly, since the political philosophy of the group is based on a sort of political fundamentalism that regards never changing your mind on things due to outside influences to be the highest virtue. And because, a few “new” people aside, it’s all the exact same people at the top of the organization.

And that idiotic fetishization about selling the paper. Ugh. I was terrible at it, and always felt embarassed as hell. I asked why we couldn’t just leave little stacks of them around for people to pick up. But that wasn’t how Lenin did it, I was told.

I’m convinced that any positive effects the group has on organizing protests, etc. is outweighed by the demoralizing effect it has on so many young activists that join and burn out quickly and then quit — though “burn out” may be the wrong word, as I suspect many of them leave out of frustration with the ISO’s undemocratic and sectarian bullshit. And at least when I was in the group it seemed to spend as much time undermining other groups trying to organize things as it did trying to organize anything itself, something I didn’t fully realize until after I was out. The ISO leaves a lot of anger and bitterness in its wake.

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A member of ISO January 27, 2018 at 3:32 pm

I’ve been a member of the ISO at a college branch in NYC for about a year now and I’ve recently been having serious doubts about the organization and its potential to be a beacon for activists; I am now considering leaving. I’m the Socialist Worker coordinator of my branch and have been highly active last semester but I’ve been practically MIA and silent on conference calls for the past month because I’m starting to think that tabling, as we do it, is a waste of time. I’ve tried pitching creative ideas regarding how to get people on campus thinking about politics and agitating them but my ideas have been rejected by the organizer in favor of the same old ‘come up with a lead and try to sell the paper’ routine, with virtually the same results every single time.

Your article has helped me understand my feelings about the ISO and reading some of the comments made me realize that my being MIA is a perfectly normal manifestation of my feelings toward the organization. I haven’t spoken to anyone about leaving yet out of fear that the conversation will cycle into how I’m not a dedicated socialist. However, I do think that ISO members are intelligent people and highly capable activists despite their cult mentality and close-mindedness in regards to activism, I get a lot out of the yearly Socialism and Marxism conferences, and I do think that the ISO is capable of doing some very good work so I don’t want to burn my bridges with the organization.

With that said, I have a couple of questions:

1. How did you approach to the conversation regarding leaving? Who did you speak to? How did you get it so that they stop taking dues money from you?
2. Do you have any recommendations for socialist organizations that do actual party building and community work as opposed to goddamn busywork


al November 28, 2013 at 8:59 am

“Random ISO Member” kept trying to change the subject to wiggle out of having to ‘splain, lol.


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