I was a member of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) for many years. When I left, it was because of health problems I was having, not because of any disagreements I had with the group. However, the recent crisis in Britain’s Socialist Workers Party (which the ISO models itself after) has caused me to have second thoughts about the viability of democratic centralism as an organizing principle. This is a question I am still grappling with.
Up until now, all of the critiques of the ISO that I have read have been either ill-informed or downright dishonest. However, a recent article on the To the Victor Go the Toils website is a refreshing change. Although I don’t entirely agree with the article’s arguments, the author, a former ISO member, makes some shrewd observations about how the group operates. This article should be read not just by people interested in the ISO, but by people who are trying to come to grips with the question of how the Left should organize in the current political climate.
Victor Toils says that the ISO places a heavy emphasis on recruitment, which jibes with my own experience with the group. The argument that was made to me by “cadre” members was that the ISO needed to have many members to accomplish its goal. And what is its goal? Victor Toils succinctly explains it:
- 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.
If the goal of the ISO is not to become the vanguard party, but rather to influence the creation of such a party, does it really need to have a large number of members? Relatively small groups of people can sometimes have a surprisingly large amount of influence during political struggles. The Workers World Party, which is much smaller than the ISO, has (unfortunately) exerted a remarkable amount of influence in the various anti-war movements that have come and gone over the years. Even the shriveled up Communist Party has sometimes been able to exert influence in certain struggles. (Again, with unfortunate results.)
The real reason for the ISO’s need for heavy recruitment is its high turnover rate in members. I know about this from personal experience, as well as from conversations with other ISO members. During the time I was in the Los Angeles branch, it underwent an almost 100% turnover in members. There are probably a number of reasons for this. Some people eventually decide that they don’t really agree with the ISO’s politics. Others strongly disagree with a particular position the ISO has taken. Others decide that they simply don’t like having to sell the newspaper. Another reason, though, may be what Victor Toils calls the “Big Bang Theory”:
- …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.
This strikes a nerve with me. When I joined the ISO in the mid-1990’s, it had a perspective that said there would soon be a huge upsurge in working class struggle. To help prepare its members for this, the leadership urged them to read Teamster Rebellion, Farrell Dobbs’s account of the 1934 Minneapolis General Strikes. (I have heard many people speak highly of this book, but I must confess that Dobbs’s turgid prose defeated me. I was unable to get more than halfway through it.)
The leadership was so impressed by this book, that they adopted the dubious “buddy system” that Dobbs describes in it. In this system, party members are divided up into groups of two. Each of these couples are required to spend a certain amount of time each week discussing Marxist theory with each other. The “cadre” assigned to me as a buddy was a person who, they said, was an experienced member who could answer all my questions about the ISO’s politics. My “buddy” turned out to be a painfully shy little man who seemed to have to force himself to look me in the eye. We met in a Manhattan coffee shop. (I joined the ISO when I was living in New York.) I found that getting him to discuss ideas of socialist politics was like pulling teeth. I remember this as one of the most awkward and uncomfortable experiences of my life. A week after this meeting, the guy quit the ISO. To my relief, I was never assigned another buddy. For months afterwards, though, I would always feel a vague sense of alarm whenever I heard someone utter the words “buddy system”.
The successful UPS strike of 1997 seemed to confirm the ISO’s perspective. However, it was not followed by an upsurge in labor struggle. Instead, Ron Carey, the leader of the strike, was railroaded out of the union on trumped up corruption charges and replaced with the genuinely corrupt Jimmy Hoffa, Jr. Even so, the ISO carried out paper sales outside UPS hubs around the country. In the Los Angeles branch, which I was then in, we managed to recruit a UPS driver after months of selling papers. It turned out, however, that what he really wanted was to shack up with one of our female members, which he succeeded in doing. The two of them then quit the ISO. The UPS paper sales were eventually discontinued because members were finding them demoralizing.
The Battle in Seattle and later the Occupy movement both raised similar hopes that were similarly dashed. The expectation of the Big Bang can lead to disappointment and in some cases demoralization. (An interesting question here is why the Big Bang hasn’t come. That is something I will have to take up at another time.)
Victor Toils also comments:
- 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.
This jibes with my own observations. The Los Angeles branch was able to build strong alliances in the black community in that city because of its anti-death penalty work. It’s worth asking if that type of organizing is more valuable in the long run than recruiting college students.
Victor Toils also argues that the ISO’s “bigger and broader” approach to movement building sometimes results in it siding with liberals against radicals. This is true, but it is not necessarily a bad thing. It depends on the particular circumstances and the particular arguments made by the contending parties. There are self-styled “radicals” out there who have some dubious ideas (conspiracy theories, support for dictators, etc). Just because someone calls himself a radical doesn’t automatically mean that he is right about every issue.
This article has caused a good deal of discussion both inside and outside the ISO. Debate and discussion are always healthy things, despite what some may say.