The ISO: Where the Personal Becomes Political


Lately, I have been thinking about an incident that happened when I was a member of the Los Angeles ISO branch in the late 1990’s. I think it illustrates a problem that far left groups sometimes run into.

One Saturday afternoon I received a phone call from a woman who was a member of the branch committee. She told me there was going to be an emergency branch meeting that evening and everyone was required to attend. When I asked her what this emergency was, she refused to tell me. This greatly annoyed me, because I had already made plans for the evening. However, being the “Leninist” that I thought I was, I felt obligated to go.

The meeting was held in the apartment of one of the branch members. There were about ten of us. There weren’t enough chairs, so some people sat on the floor. It turned out that the “emergency” consisted of this: two people (one of whom was the woman who called me on the phone) had been assigned the task of designing a flier for an upcoming event. One of them, the woman who called me on the phone, had gone ahead and made the flier and distributed it without consulting the other person. When this person complained to another branch committee member about this, he responded by calling her a “Menshevik”. (I’m not making this up. People in the ISO actually say things like this.)

So, this was the “emergency” that had caused me to cancel my plans. What struck me was how incredibly seriously everyone took this. (Everyone with the exception of me, that is.) A branch committee member read passages from Lenin and from James Cannon. He then lectured us about what a “cadre” is. (I swear, I’m not making any of this up.) He then claimed that there was a faction within the branch. (In the ISO, factions are considered to be very bad things.) I don’t remember much else about what was said. My mind had pretty much tuned out at this point.

When I drove home that night, I felt angry with myself for having allowed these people to waste my time with such nonsense. I was tempted to quit the ISO. But I didn’t. (The woman who was called a “Menshevik” left the ISO shortly afterwards.) I think this was because I liked the ISO’s politics, even though I didn’t always agree with what they did in practice. And I didn’t know of any other groups that had quite these same politics.

The point I’m trying to get at here is that one of the pitfalls of working in a small group is that people tend to develop strong personal ties to one another in this situation. A disagreement over a flier becomes an “emergency” that threatens to tear the group apart. It seems to me that the best way to try to avoid this sort of thing is to try to organize on as broad a basis as possible. I admit that’s not an easy thing to do, especially considering the deep divisions that exist on the Left at the moment. But I don’t see any other way to move forward.

2 Responses to “The ISO: Where the Personal Becomes Political”

  1. Andrew Coates Says:

    It’s the kind of thing that once you’ve had experience of the broad labour movement (unions, mass parties) really gets on your nerves.

    I could give a few merry tales about the British SWP when I was involved in the Socialist Alliance – it was if they had (despite in fact some of them being even older than me) remained stuck in their adolescent world.

    Not that the above mass organisations are without problems!

    • The Spanish Prisoner Says:

      Yes, mass organizations do have their problems, but they are the only things that have the potential to move forward.

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