The International Socialist Organization (ISO) is by far the largest revolutionary organization in the United States. With as many as 1,000 to 1,500 members, it is positioned in most large cities and major university campuses to remain relevant in struggles for years to come.
Many radicals, anarchists and others look upon the ISO as “liberals in practice.” Yet, any member of the ISO accused of this would look upon the accuser as though they were living in a fantasy world. Of course we are revolutionaries, they would say. Obviously, only a bitter sectarian would conclude otherwise.
And yet, while bitter sectarians revel in these sort of accusations, this view is also quite common among unaffiliated radicals. How, then, to reconcile these wildly differing assessments from inside and outside of the ISO? Are they in fact reformists in disguise, who do not really want to see fundamental change in society?
Certainly not. ISO members do not dedicate years of their lives and hundreds or even thousands of dollars a year in dues, subscriptions, travel and other expenses to support the organization simply to put a damper on radical struggles. They genuinely want to get rid of capitalism and see mass struggles led by a militant working class as being fundamental to that.
However, there are a number of organizational and tactical assumptions–all of which seem completely reasonable on the surface to most ISO members and to many people who come around them–which lead to the practices which appear to many to accommodate liberalism. The assumptions that lead to these practices are rarely addressed by the ISO in part because they prove successful in the short-term, thus creating a self-fulfilling prophecy about how to organize.
On the other hand, there are many problems with how the ISO develops perspectives–that is, how they assess the mood of struggle for a period of months and develop a plan of action for the organization. Often, these perspectives seem incredibly short-sighted, focusing on an immediate opportunity while watering down a deeper analysis of the problems in various struggles and containing a certain triumphalism. Any whiff of pessimism by ISO members is quickly denounced as a barrier to reaching out to a layer of new, young radicalizing people who are excited by some new event.
What do these two things have in common? Everything. The issue of how the ISO develops its perspectives and carries them out on the one hand and how the ISO act as “liberals in practice” are completely intertwined.
The ISO positions itself as the “best fighters for reform” with the goal being to show that their ideas lead to a successful practice and people will join based on seeing that success. Ideally, victorious struggles led by the ISO will show in practice the tactics needed to win various battles, thus leading people to join based on their agreement with those tactics.
But it needs to be asked: Does the tail wag the dog? That is, does the ISO steer their protest activity not toward threatening the status quo but merely toward creating an audience from which it can recruit instead?
Historically, the ISO has succeeded in building a base on campuses and in fact has succeeded while the rest of the socialist left has utterly floundered and disintegrated. College students are young, idealistic and looking for new ideas and the ISO has successfully created an organization largely–though not entirely–from this base. The other benefit of campus work has been that it is free from the squabbles of sectarian left groups. College students can be recruited largely in the absence of sectarian attacks and denunciations sometimes found in city-wide organizing.
Regardless of anything else happening in the world, the ISO has always been able to “fall back” on campus work because it is relatively easy to recruit from this base. It takes a lot of work, but it usually pays off. While many of the recruits are very smart and thoughtful activists, there is such pressure to recruit in the organization that the ISO often goes after the “low-hanging fruit”–young people who are not the leading activists but are participating more passively. For them, the ISO offers a group with interesting ideas and seemingly sane strategy and tactics in a safe, easy and interesting space to be political with a low likelihood of arrest.
And what are the tactics which appeal to this base? Bigger and broader movements are better than a small hard core of radicals. Demands should be kept minimal in order to encourage the largest participation in the movement. This is based on the idea of the United Front, an approach which cannot be fully considered here, but involves building alliances with reformist forces in order to build a broader struggle and show in practice the cowardly behavior and tactics of these forces.
Of course, all of this makes perfect sense on the face of it. Larger protests are better than smaller protests. Unity is better than division. A few radicals by themselves may not be a threat but a large, diverse constituency including ordinary people–most of whom do not fit into some radical ideology or grouping–will be much more powerful than a small group that can be simply dismissed as outsiders or irrelevant. Along with this comes a natural and highly appealing argument for democracy in a movement.
Who could possibly oppose this? Young people who are newly radicalizing are especially open to this argument, especially those who have not yet been jaded by failed struggles and internal bickering. By positioning itself thusly, the ISO succeeds quite well at recruiting where others fail. More importantly, while it may look like a cynical maneuver it is, in fact, completely honest. ISO members believe in this strategy to their core. They see no contradiction toward building a mass movement in this way and recruiting from it. Most of them were recruited in this way themselves. In fact, it seems crazy to them that anybody would think otherwise, a feeling that is only increased by grandstanding sectarians who offer seemingly little other than loud denunciations.
And yet there is plenty wrong with this approach. Rather than engage in complex discussions about the actual state of consciousness among the American working-class and its diverse subpopulations, or the nature of actual revolutionary struggles and their challenges, the ISO emphasizes the need to build a “big, broad movement.” One leading ISO member even described the problem with the theory behind this approach in what he called “The Big Bang Theory.” That is, it was always assumed by the ISO, almost explicitly, that at some point the American working-class would explode as it did in 1934–with three mass strike in three different cities, all led by radicals–and then newly-radicalized workers would flood the organization, especially since the Stalinists were no longer an alternative. Therefore, it was necessary to urgently build and recruit and grow to meet this future challenge.
After years of expecting this, it was announced that this was far too simplistic and optimistic a view. Running around after “anything that moves,” any small struggle that presented itself as though it were some decisive turning point, recruiting anybody possible in a desperate effort to grow, with the expectation that this method would draw great fruits within years when a mass struggle presented itself, made less sense as decades went by without such a “Big Bang.”
And yet, the ISO falls back precisely on this method over and over again. Why? Because it works. Regardless of other challenges, there will always be a new class of freshman recruits who are ripe for the picking.
The same leading member who renounced “The Big Bang Theory” has also praised the ISO’s work around the death penalty, in which individual members have built up real relationships with family members of death row inmates. This slow, patient work actually built up networks and relationships with working-class Blacks and Latinos who are fighting around real political issues dear to their lives. And yet, year after year, this work is deprioritized. Why? Because it is so much easier to recruit college students.
There is a regular hailing of some movement or event as the way forward, “The Next Big Thing”–or “The New Civil Rights Movement”–and regardless of how many times ISO members continuously assert that “we are not just moving onward and upward,” this same triumphal attitude seems to occur over and over again. The election of Bill Clinton in 1992 was supposed to create a new political environment, and yet the 1990s saw a new stabilization of capitalism in spite of the LA Rebellion early on. The UPS Strike in 1997 was to usher in a new mood in labor, but that seemed to stop after a year or so. For over a decade, the movement around the first Iraq War of the early 1990s was hailed as a prescription for growth, but mass protests in the anti-globalization movement and even larger ones during the 2003 invasion of Iraq came and went.
Finally, the election of Barack Obama and the factory occupation of Republic Windows and Doors seemed to open a new era in struggle from which we would never go back. In fact, there have been countless moments after which the world would never be the same, although, eventually it always is. The Republic battle–as inspiring as it was–produced not a single similar example in the months following. Yet, leading members of the ISO literally predicted that there would be an explosion of labor struggles in 2009 and those who disagreed with this optimistic assessment were browbeaten and labelled as pessimistic cynics and driven out of the organization.
In early 2011, as labor occupied the Wisconsin capital and teachers struck against a proposed anti-labor law, the ISO declared “The End of the One-Sided Class War.” Technically, many in the ISO would argue that this simply means that workers are fighting back at some level and not simply taking defeats without a battle, but this triumphal proclamation is clearly code for “the decisive labor struggle that we have been waiting for.” In other words, “The Big Bang.” But the Wisconsin battle went down in defeat–out-maneuvered by Republican Governor Scott Walker and then demobilized by the Democratic Party and the labor unions. While there have been continued labor struggles–such as the longshore workers in Longview, WA, and the Chicago teachers–this triumphal proclamation seems to have come a bit too early. On the other hand, it was recently suggested that the one-sided class war may be ending yet again.
The ISO’s formal analysis of the labor movement is that it will not succeed until there are a sufficient number of rank-and-file radicals and militants who can challenge the conservative union leadership. It will need to challenge anti-labor laws and risk having people go to jail, in spite of injunctions against picketing, not to mention actually shutting down production. And yet this analysis goes out the window once there is a sufficiently large strike, as evidenced by their proclamation around the Democratic Party-led battle in Wisconsin. Suddenly, the turning point is here, even though a radical, rank-and-file alternative has not yet been built.
Why does this analysis go out the window? The answer is that internally the ISO needs to rally the morale of its membership and these battles are a convenient propaganda tool for recruiting the uninitiated. “Look,” they say, “workers can fight can back!” With the troops rallied, a whole new wave of recruitment is expected and sometimes achieved. Those who disagree with this starry-eyed assessment are labelled as cynics who do not see the new opportunities. But once the “opportunities” slip away, the cynics are never given credit for predicting how limited the opportunities really were.
If, as they say, economists have predicted nine of the last five recessions, the ISO has predicted ten of the last zero decisive turning points in working-class struggle. They may have been mistaken, but the mistakes were methodical, and since the method never changes the “mistakes” will predictably continue. They are not mistakes but rather an organized consequence of the method. They will predict the next several “turning points” as well, in spite of the objective conditions and very thoughtful analytic skills of many of their leading members, but will do so because of the needs of the organization to send their comrades into recruitment mode.
In this way, the tail clearly wags the dog. The ISO is so desperate for a mass struggle to break out–and why shouldn’t they be?–that their analysis ends up being filtered through the lens of the needs of the organization. Is it a problem that the Wisconsin capitol occupation was led by the Democratic Party? No, goes the unspoken logic, these events show that struggle is possible and that is all that matters. The analysis of current events flows from there–rather than relying on an understanding of liberalism and union leaders as playing a role that will consistently sell out the movement, the ISO constantly falls back on simply using these events merely to excite its base. The problems with this approach should be obvious, although the fact that this occurrs is completely unconscious to ISO members. They are not trying to provide cover for these liberal forces, but this sort of uncritical triumphalism inevitably does.
It is this strategy of declaring “opportunities” that is cynical, not the “cynics” who refuse to lie to their own comrades year after year and refuse to be browbeaten into going along with a message that experience has taught them not to believe. It is this strategy which is, in fact, training people to be cynical, not the tendencies of these comrades who simply want to look reality in the face.
But year after year, these same issues arise. Why? Because it is inherent in the ISO’s recruitment strategy, which is the lifeblood of the organization, and it works. A few people will eventually join and all the discord will fall by the wayside.
If the ISO does not grow it will shrink. Members will–and have–become disillusioned by the infeasibility of the project and stagnation will–and does–lead to members leaving. Such stagnation/regression makes the project even more unlikely. But a few good meetings and a few new recruits does wonders for morale–or at least help some pretend to temporarily boost their morale–and of course the best way to do this is by appealing to young people and college students.
The low-level of political sophistication–and even lower level of tactical movement experience–is a result of the fact that sophisticated political analysis and strategic thinking is not necessary in order to build the ISO. What is necessary is some movement work and a decent understanding of the basic politics in order to bring in the next layer of young people, who will be expected to do the same as well.
Toward a vanguard?
The goal of the ISO is to create a vanguard party. That is, a mass organization of the most militant members of the working-class, the best and most consistent fighters who know how to build workplace resistance and mass struggles but also have their eye on the larger goal of societal transformation.
Nonetheless, the ISO does not claim to be a vanguard party, not simply because of its size but because the vanguard of the working-class does not yet exist. It will be created, they say, not by the ISO, but by the working-class itself, which will throw up leaders as class struggle increases. The goal, then, is to have an organization sufficiently large, experienced, sophisticated and rooted in the working-class in order to help shape and organize the vanguard as it is created and launch a vanguard party in the future.
However, the party-building strategy described above in the previous sections is not a path to developing a vanguard party but rather something else. The members who are recruited, all too often, are not the leading activists in struggles and, in fact, all too often the ISO finds itself at odds with other radical activists. The contradiction of this–building a vanguard by recruiting the new people–is rarely considered. The work of building the ISO is very difficult and just recruiting anybody is a big morale boost. The inconvenient fact that they are not the leaders in movement work is swept aside in favor of endless fawning over a new member whose questions and comments show no hint of “jaded” long-term radicalism–or the militancy and sophistication that comes with that experience.
Yet, it is precisely those experienced activists who would need to be recruited in order to create a vanguard organization–or something approaching it, considering the current circumstances. Yet the posture of the ISO is all too often to recruit less sophisticated people away from other radical activists, who are often hostile toward the ISO’s practices, which only reinforces the ISO’s assumption about them as “anti-Leninist” or “sectarians.”
The ISO has organized along these lines for so long that it has shaped every facet of the organization, from the level of political discussion in meetings to the knee-jerk reactions to other activists. Most importantly, though, is its role in building movements.
The ISO’s movement-building method has a strong preference toward symbolic protest. The idea of building a broad movement fits very well into the strategy of recruiting the uninitiated who have not yet been disillusioned by symbolic protest. A series of well-organized marches and rallies not only can improve the morale of ISO members but can put them into contact with people who are not experienced–and “jaded”–radicals. This cycle can continue indefinitely–a march introduces the ISO to new people, a few of them join, they help build other rallies to meet more new people, etc.
The problem, of course, is that symbolic protest has very little effect on the powers-that-be. It can, of course, be precisely the thing that tips the scales for an embarrassed politician or university administrator, but it is a very limited approach to radical activism. The ISO knows full well that far more will be required to win serious demands, and yet the world the ISO lives in seems to be ruled by symbolic protest and panel discussions.
Why? Because this is all that is necessary to find and meet and recruit new people.
The landscape of activism in the US is dominated by well-rehearsed protests organized by unions and nonprofits which are entirely predictable and threaten nothing. There is little threat of anything getting out of control, which might actually break the grip of the state or capital over the lives of working-class people. And yet these protests provide an audience for the ISO, they can be used as “proof”–to newer members–that people are fighting back, and are often assessed uncritically on that basis. “It’s a good thing this is happening,” ISO members will say, rather than “why aren’t the organizers doing something more militant?” The fact that some of these unions and nonprofits may be allies in other United Front campaigns certainly encourages this attitude. “We are participating in the struggle and even leading it,” they will say.
This strategy is dangerous, far more so than the ISO realizes.
What first needs to be made clear is that this strategy actively discourages radical demands and actions. “Broader” protests always lead to less radical demands and ISO members find themselves fighting against a movement taking on too radical a posture. They do not do this because they want to keep movements “safe” for liberal Democrats and union leaders and yet it has precisely this effect. They can explain as well as anybody the detrimental role of the Democratic Party and the backward character of trade union bureaucrats. And yet the pressure to recruit and the unquestioned assumption that “bigger and broader” is always better–and the experience of growing out of such movements–leads to precisely the same practical conclusion as if they believed otherwise.
The worst part is that this approach leads the ISO to ally themselves with liberals and against radicals, not just occasionally but consistently and out of habit. Radicals want to impose demands that will make the movement smaller and therefore weaker, goes the argument. We will build a stronger–read bigger and broader–movement and we will show in practice to the new people not yet infected by cynical radicalism, that our politics and organization are better suited to lead struggles. And, of course, this approach often works, if by “works” you mean build symbolic protests and recruit out of them.
An example of this is the anti-war movement that built up around the Iraq war. The ISO was well aware, far more than most people, that the war in Iraq was inevitable and that mass, symbolic protest was not going to stop it. But there was an opportunity, it was argued, to build an anti-imperialist wing of the anti-war movement out of the mass outrage that would occur. Yet the primary tactic of the ISO was symbolic protest, although they did participate in direct actions and took arrests on the first day of the war. Throughout the war and its immediate aftermath, the ISO argued against the anti-war movement raising support for Palestine as a point of unity. Doing so would exclude people who did not agree or understand that point, thus making the movement smaller and therefore weaker, they argued. The ISO took this attitude in 1991 and 2003 as well as during the post-9/11 protests against the Afghanistan War. This approach did not change until after the “success” of the Iraq invasion and campus anti-war activism took a turn toward solidarity with the second Intifada.
An alternative strategy would have considered that such a point of unity might not have turned away masses of angry protesters. The ISO also could have argued for Palestine as a point of unity and lost the argument in practice (ie by losing a vote in a broad coalition) while aligning themselves with radicals who wanted to build an anti-imperialist movement. More importantly, by putting a halt to Palestine as a point of unity they were playing precisely the same role as the moderate, liberal forces who in fact did want to keep it safe for liberal Zionists and Democrats.
In fact, at the same time the ISO was arguing against Palestine as a point of unity, it was advocating for the inclusion of liberal Democratic politicians on the speaker platforms of the anti-war protests. The ISO believes that the particular features of US politics requires revolutionaries to build United Fronts with liberal Democratic politicians. Though this is rarely discussed in the pages of Socialist Worker, it is well known among ISO veterans who call for the inclusion of these speakers at events.
Of course, the ISO also has an analysis that the left-wing of the Democratic Party enables the right-wing. That is, Jessie Jackson, Barbara Lee and Dennis Kucinich enable the right-wing of the party by providing them a left cover. Since they are all in the same party, it looks like there is room to debate and pressure the party platform and maybe even have an impact on a Democratic president like Clinton or Obama. The ISO is clear about this dynamic, but nobody ever asks, if the left Democrats enable the neoliberal Democrats, who enables the enablers?
To have suggested to a member of the ISO that they were acting like liberals–when they were providing a platform for liberal Democrats while denying a platform for the issue of Palestine–would have met with a blank stare. Of course not, they would say, we are building a revolutionary organization and building a mass movement. And they would be telling you the truth. There was no secret plan to keep the movement safe for liberal Democrats, even though their actions were doing just that.
What, then, could they possibly have meant by building the anti-imperialist wing of the movement? It meant building the ISO. At no point did the ISO propose launching an explicitly anti-imperialist coalition or front to organize anti-war activity. Every move in that direction by ISO members or their fellow activists was opposed by the leadership as being “sectarian.” Rather, the emphasis was always on a broad front with minimal demands which is welcoming to all political forces and does little to move the struggle in a more radical direction, emphasizing numbers of participants instead. The ISO typically criticizes the Socialist Workers Party US of the 1960s as positioning itself in the left-wing of liberal and pacifist activism, rather than relating directly to the growing radical and revolutionary left at the time. Yet, this is precisely the approach of the ISO.
None of this is to say that the ISO has no self-criticism–far from it. But the criticism is often within a certain narrow confines. Significantly, they often assess their movement work as falling within the poles of two common mistakes–sectarianism and accommodationism. Sectarianism involves standing outside of a movement on grounds of principle or demanding that a movement take up revolutionary principles rather than concretely work to make a movement politically stronger. Accommodationism involves quieting one’s politics in order to participate in a movement and not lose friends by raising important criticisms. The problem with accommodationism is that a socialist “pole of attraction” is not built within the movement and therefore nobody sees why they should join the ISO.
But the real error is not so much accommodation but opportunism. That is, taking advantage of an opportunity for the organization that in fact has a detrimental effect on working-class struggle. The classic example of opportunism is the socialist parties in Europe that voted to support World War I and send their members off to kill other workers, so they could maintain their seat at the table in a bourgeois parliament. Obviously, the ISO is responsible for no such crime. But, while ISO members often criticize themselves for sectarianism and sometimes for accommodationism, they almost never raise the criticism of opportunism. This is seriously short-sighted and will be even more problematic as the organization grows.
A strategy for what?
Many activists have had discussions in recent years about the success and failure of certain tactics and these discussions have largely been ignored by the ISO. For example, the effect–or lack thereof–of the symbolic protests against the war in Iraq, for one. Also, whether the mass “day of action” model that sprung up around the anti-globalization movement has any value or is in fact detrimental to local organizing has been widely discussed.
Additionally, there are many discussions among activists about “peace policing”–physically stopping protesters from committing illegal acts–and the role of well-rehearsed, top-down marches by unions and non-profits and how they restrict spontaneous action. There are countless protests organized by institutional forces that are more concerned about stopping their own marchers from doing anything illegal than they are with doing anything threatening to the people they are protesting. The ISO has nothing to say about these issues and most ISO members would be surprised to hear these questions asked at all, or dismiss them as irrelevant to building a broad, mass march.
These questions have been largely ignored by the ISO for a very simple reason–these political issues have no affect whatsoever on their strategy. Symbolic protests and mass days of action and even top-down marches pose absolutely no problem for the ISO. These are not problems, they are solutions, opportunities to show people that “struggle is possible,” to meet an audience new to radical ideas and to give the members something to be excited about. The problems with the actions are largely irrelevant to the ISO.
None of this is to say that the ISO is a social democratic party in waiting, just sitting on the opportunity to sell out the revolution. The members are committed to revolutionary struggle, they just never consider the contradictions between their revolutionary theory and their moderate practice. At the very least, however, for the ISO to play a significant role in a militant struggle will require a transformation of the internal culture and decades-long habits of the group.
Members of the ISO spend a substantial amount of time and energy building the organization and recruiting new people. All of these practices are filtered–conscious or otherwise–through the lens of recruitment. While many are also involved in various movements and may even play a leading role, they generally do not spend much or even any time organizing direct actions or other non-symbolic protests. To turn the ISO into a fighting organization of militants would require confronting serious challenges that most of the members have not met, regardless of how hard they currently work in building the ISO. Whether and how the ISO confronts that challenge will determine whether it will be a force for radical action or merely continue as a machine dedicated to its own self-reproduction.
The author is a former member of the ISO. This article has focused on the methods behind the ISO’s practice. A future article will look at more concrete examples of this method in practice.