(From the zine *Retrogression*)

ISO: THE JOY OF SECTS by John Lacny

A wit once remarked that of all the Jesuits, the worst are the Protestant
ones. I have come to the conclusion that this cogent observation has a
counterpart when it comes to the world of the sectarian left: of all the
Stalinists, the worst are the Trotskyites.

And among these, there is the group that a member of which once proudly
described to me as "the fastest-growing organization on the Trotskyist
left": the International Socialist Organization (ISO). Properly speaking,
the ISO is not Trotskyist, since most such organizations saw progressive
features in the USSR even during the Stalin era, while the ISO dismisses
the entire post-Trotsky Soviet venture as "state capitalism." But since the
group vociferously claims the mantle of the exiled founder of the Red Army,
it seems a little perverse to deny them the label they seek for themselves.
On the surface, though, the ISO is not as objectionable as the three other
main Trotskyite groupings in the United States: the Castro-worshipers of
the Socialist Workers Party (SWP, publishers of *The Militant*), not to be
confused with the ISO's British "sister organization" of the same name; the
Socialist Equality Party (SEP, publishers of the Internet-only
*International Workers Bulletin*), which dismisses all trade un ions as
"reactionary"; and the certifiably lunatic Spartacist League (SL,
publishers of *Workers Vanguard*), which still boasts of its support for
Soviet military operations in Afghanistan throughout the 1980s. But anyone
who has ever worked with the ISO - and, as a consequence, has been
incessantly solicited to purchase a copy of its biweekly tabloid,
*Socialist Worker*- knows that the ISO can hold its own with its factional
rivals in terms of fanatical persistence.

Before this author relates the story of his own involvement with the
Trots-of-choice for more college students than all the other leading brands
combined, let him give you one piece of advice: Kids, don't try this at
home. As a small-town high-school student, yours truly was a diligent
reader of the left-wing press, both big and small, reliable and zany,
thoughtful and dogmatic. As a result, he had honed his skills at being able
to tell the real deal from the charlatans, and the committed from the
merely cultish. Therefore, he knew what to expect from the Jehovah's
Leninists, and joined them only for the sake of expediency, with plans to
get out as soon as possible. The inexperienced and the less wary may be in
for an unpleasant surprise, so be forewarned.

So why did I join an insular clique whose methods I found ineffective and
often juvenile, and which I knew I would leave at the first opportunity?
Even now, writing this little polemic, I feel nothing like the defectors
who left the Communist Party or radicalism in general to write numerous
self-serving mea culpas over the years. All of these- from the annoying
Arthur Koestler of *The God That Failed* in the early Cold War days to the
nauseating David Horowitz today- have whined and complained of being duped
and misled. I, however, knew exactly what I was getting into, and had no
illusions about joining a movement which would one day bring in the
Workers' Paradise. One cannot seriously be a defector from an organization
in whose methods one never believed in the first place.

So, once again, why? To be crudely frank, I had no other choice. The sad
fact is that the ISO is the only game in town when it comes to many college
campuses nowadays. Part of this phenomenon is a result of the group's own
strategy. At some point most college-based Trots, Maoists, and other
left-wing nut-cults- especially after the disintegration of the
once-vibrant Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in 1969- made the
decision to "industrialize," i.e., have their members get jobs in factories
in order to bring the Holy Word to the unwashed masses of the American
working class. All of these attempts failed, and some of these groups (most
notably the SWP of the USA) are still mired in this strategic dead-end. The
ISO, however, never fell for th is trap. Shortly after its founding in 1977
as the American branch of the "International Socialist Tendency" (the
largest branch of which was and is the Socialist Workers Party of Britain),
the ISO made the conscious decision to base itself on college campuses.
Their thinking was that- especially during the conservative Reagan years-
the working class was demoralized and not ripe for revolutionary agitation.
Therefore, they would concentrate on "building" a committed corps of
activists from college campuses, who would be in it for the long haul and
ready to recruit workers when the next "upturn in struggle" occurred.

As far as it went, the strategy worked. While other sects stagnated, the
ISO grew, if only by ones and twos. Throughout the 1980s they picked up a
welfare-rights or environmental activist here, a Central American
solidarity or anti-apartheid protester there. They claimed to advocate that
synthesis of all militant movements for social change that socialists at
their best have always promoted- a prospect that was, is, and ought to be
appealing to many activists. One should never doubt, though, that the
majority of recruits drifted away from the group in those days for the same
reason they drift away from it now: the discovery that the ISO's priority
is not the support of all militant movements for social change, but rather
the use of progressive moveme nts as recruiting grounds for the ISO (a
process which the organization's commissars see as ipso facto synonymous
with "building the socialist alternative"). Then as now, the few who stayed
in the group saw the high attrition rate not as a sign that the ISO itself
might be doing something wrong, but as proof positive that not everybody
was cut out to be part of the would-be Vanguard of the Revolution. The
result was the creation of the hardened cadres the group was designed to
create, and they were hardened still further by a siege mentality which was
far from unjustified in those years of the Grenada invasion, *Rambo*, Ollie
North, Bitburg, and Ketchup-as-Vegetable.

But, as I have mentioned, the ISO's own actions are only part of the
explanation for its disproportionate visibility on campuses. The other part
of the explanation is the sluggishness of most of the rest of the left. Too
often, the majority of would-be activists are outmaneuvered by a tiny but
persistent sect which is ready to latch on to any hint of a movement and
make it into its own, and whose members are kept energized by an unceasing
schedule of routinized- almost rhythmic-activity. This is the situation I
encountered when I entered the University of Pittsburgh as a freshman in
the fall of 1997.

The maintenance workers at the University, represented by Service Employees
International Union (SEIU) Local 29, were engaged in a prolonged dispute
with the administration. As of this writing, in fact, they are still
without a contract, and have been so since December of 1995. It was obvious
to me that this issue should have priority for the campus left, given its
proximity. This went doubly so for me, as I was (and am) attending school
on a scholarship from the University, and so had an obligation a s a
beneficiary of the system not to ignore the plight of those who were (and
are) marginalized by that system.

The local branch of the ISO, comprising some half-dozen members, was
(rightly) pouring all of its energy into the issue. Among both students and
faculty, no one else- literally no one- was doing anything. As a result, a
situation quickly arose in which anyone who wanted to act in solidarity
with the union had to work side-by-side with the ISO. The group made
contacts with the union leadership, which was more than willing to accept
help from *anybody*. I made the decision to join very early on. It seemed
the rational thing to do at the time for several interrelated reasons: most
importantly, the minute I showed interest, I was besieged with demands to
join. These were fast acquiring the irritating quality of a broken record,
and as long as the expedient would do no harm, the simple desire to do what
was necessary to shut them up was good enough for me. Second, I had a hunch
that being on "the inside" would put me in a better position to do what I
could to reign in the damaging tendencies I was sure the Trots possessed.
In hindsight, I can't help but conclude that I was more or less correct in
making the decision I did. Being a member, and an active one at that,
allows you to see the logic behind the ISO's sometimes bizarre behavior.
Most have contact with the ISO only because of one of their vaunted weekly
"public meetings"- you know, when they practically bathe their habitat in
posters inviting the public to come hear the ISO's take on a particular
topic of social, political, or historic interest, and end up invariably
offering the same solution: Join The ISO. But beyond these, there are the
"cadre meetings," which are members-only events where the apparatchiks see
to it that the foot-soldiers are behaving in a manner conducive to
"building" the organization. (Incidentally, while use of the verb "to
build" is fairly common- especially on the left- in reference to parties
and coalitions, the ISO has an inordinate fondness for the word. They build
the ISO. They build *Socialist Worker* paper sales. They build
"fightbacks." They build meetings. They damn well build near everything.
Their use of the idiom has reached a point where it is devoid of content
and is little more than a rhetorical device; they might as well be building
a "bridge to the twenty-first century.") The meetings are also intended to
consolidate members' adherence to the theoretical line of the organization,
which- despite the leadership's insistence otherwise- is more or less
written in stone. Because the ISO is so s mall, those who disagree with one
aspect of the line or another are not technically unwelcome in the
organization, but when members voice these disagreements, the response of
the commissars is to say: "Well, we'll have that argument." And they do not
lie ; the argument follows shortly. The understanding, though, is that
those disagreements that do exist will eventually be pounded out of the
deviationist, and that said member will eventually recognize the error in
his/her thinking.

An arcane but illustrative topic is the ISO position on the Soviet Union.
Here, as elsewhere, the group has a set dogma: unadulterated glorification
of the early years following the Revolution coupled with unadulterated
vilification of the years following the death of Lenin and the eventual
expulsion of Trotsky. The position is free of nuance; all of the problems
that arose during the early years are blamed on circumstance, and while the
ISO admits that the Bolsheviks made "mistakes," they can acknowledge no
fundamental problems with Bolshevik theory, practice, or organization.
Similarly, they acknowledge none of the positive effects of the later USSR
on world politics (such as the fact that the Soviet Union defeated Hitler,
or that its indispensable aid to the Cuban Revolution and to the African
National Congress struggle against apartheid were, on the whole, good
things). Personally, I found the ISO position doctrinaire, although
somewhat preferable to that of anarchists who dismiss the entire Revolution
as a coup by the power-hungry Bolshies. But in any event, one would think
that we could all agree to disagree, as the vast distance in time and the
incredible difference in circumstances between Russia in 1917 and the
United States eighty years later would have rendered the entire subject
sufficiently unimportant. Not so; anyone who has spent more than five
minutes in conversation with an ISO member knows that they have the
capacity to talk endlessly about the Russian Revolution and the necessity
of accepting their assessment of its history. Granted, no historical event
is entirely devoid of lessons for current practice, but no matter what a
person's position on what happened in Petrograd in 1917, it should be
obvious that Leninist theory and organization hold very little relevance
for practice today. Tactics and strategy originally developed for use by a
persecuted band of revolutionaries in early-twentieth-century Tsarist
Russia would have to be altered unrecognizably to fit the circumstances of
the late-twentieth-century USA. But the ISO does not recognize this fact,
and that is the real reason for their obsession with the Defense of October.

While the group has the good sense to call itself the International
Socialist *Organization*, rather than ridiculously terming itself a
"party," it makes no secret that its activities are intended to be the
"beginning stages" of building a party. (No doubt the plan is to follow the
example of its parent organization, the International Socialists of
Britain, who renamed themselves the Socialist Workers Party in the
mid-1970s. The group's own estimates- which are not necessarily to be
trusted- put its membership at over 10,000. That's a lot o' Trots, but even
still does not qualify as a real political party. The designation is
arbitrary, and ultimately rests only with the group itself.) And the kind
of party it intends to build is clearly to be modeled on classic Leninist
lines, with an emphasis on the principle of "democratic centralism." This
principle states that debate within the organization is to be unrestricted,
but that once the entire party votes on a particular question, all members
are obligated to defend that position in public as the position of the
party. To a degree, this position makes sense; it is argued that at some
point action needs to be taken without the group being hamstrung by
infighting. But in practice, the result is even more infighting, as
orthodox members sow suspicion of those who voice dissident opinions or who
seem otherwise insufficiently committed.

And while the Trotskyite movement has always claimed to be a more
democratic alternative to Stalinism, Trotskyite organizations have
historically been plagued by factionalism to a greater degree than any
other "democratic-centralist" movement of similar pretentions.
Historically, those who have disagreed with a party line in some way have
been expelled or forced to quit (usually with mutual accusations of
counter-revolution) and subsequently formed their own organizations, which
subsequently split as well, and so on. While I know of no organized
Trotskyite groups which began as spinoffs formed by expelled ISO members, I
do know of at least one spinoff of the British SWP, and the pressure to
conform within American ISO circles is undeniable.

I know for a fact that there was at least one purge within the Pittsburgh
branch some two or three years before I arrived on campus. The local
commissar who was directly responsible for it told me her version of the
story, beaming with pride at how she had engineered a virtual coup to clear
out the "petty-bourgeois intellectuals" from the branch. I have spoken to
several of those who were purged as well, and their story jives with that
of the apparatchik- excepting, of course, that it is told from the other
side. Apparently, the Pittsburgh ISO had around a dozen members at the time
the above-mentioned member arrived from the branch in Providence, Rhode
Island. This member got in contact with "the Center" (the ISO's name for
its Politburo in Chicago), which in turn sent an agent to Pittsburgh to set
the branch on the approved course. He held a meeting in which he denounced
the members for allegedly running a mere "intellectual" talk shop, for
insufficient aplomb in selling *Socialist Worker*, for not recruiting
enough members, and for being "petty-bourgeois." All of the branch quit,
with the exception of the local enforcer of the Party Line. This particular
action was part of a wave of crackdowns by the Center on branch autonomy
throughout the country. And while I cannot substantiate the hunch, there
are indications that there may be another purge occurring within the ISO
right now. This is a ripe time for such an event, because the ISO has
undeniably seen some growth in its membership since the victory of the
Teamsters' strike at UPS, which raised the profile of the labor movement in
general. Having temporarily switched to a more liberal membership policy,
the Center may now be trying to fully impose organizational discipline on
newer members. The branch in Pittsburgh was far too small to exhibit any of
the telltale signs of this, but I have heard stories of members in other
cities being insulted for being "class traitors" and for "opting out of the
class struggle," with some leaving the group in tears. And even in
Pittsburgh, I recently talked to another member with years of experience
who left after a barrage of insults (a matter to which I will return), thus
reducing the membership of the Pittsburgh branch to five. A fine
achievement, indeed, for a group that expelled ten or twelve
"petty-bourgeois intellectuals" several years ago for their ostensible
failure to recruit enough members.

"Cadre meetings" are festivals of both Maoist-style "self-criticism" and
backstabbing of other left activists, as well as speculation on the
loyalties of those members who do not attend them. In the case of suspect
activists, without and sometimes withi n the organization, the term
"petty-bourgeois" gets thrown around a lot. It would be too simple of me to
point out the fact- and it is a fact- that those members who come from the
most privileged backgrounds are the most likely to use this term as a
pejorative. The issue is not whether the ISO is itself petty-bourgeois;
rather, the ISO is merely *petty*. That is why one shouldn't feel the
slightest bit guilty about criticizing them. Granted, left unity is
important, and we should never offer encouragement to the red-baiters and
witch-hunters of the right. But the ISO has no problem with castigating
other progressive groups for alleged inaction, nor does it hesitate to take
a piss on any and all democratically-elected union leaders who do not meet
the standards of this self-appointed Vanguard of the Working Class.
Red-baiting is a serious problem which has had disastrous consequences in
the United States, but the ISO belittles this terrible history by
dismissing any and all criticism as "red-baiting ." Its members are
literally unable to tell the difference between a statement such as "Go
back to Russia, you commies" and a statement more along the lines of "Look,
I don't wanna buy your goddamn newspaper, I'm just here to support issue
x." Similarly , even though the last thing the Movement needs these days is
a lot of senseless infighting over who is or is not a Genuine Prole, the
ISO uses the term "petty-bourgeois" to refer not to a person's class, but
to anyone who disagrees with the ISO, which through a dialectical process
holds the *real* "working-class" position.

A counterpart to the group's smug class-baiting is its paranoid
anti-intellectualism. This latter tendency is not to be confused with
legitimate criticism of intellectuals. Noam Chomsky, for example, has
severely criticized those intellectuals who make apologies for the
Establishment and its atrocities, but Chomsky has done so *as an
intellectual* and with respect for the intellectual tradition. The ISO is
suspicious of intellectuals in general for the simple reason that it is
suspicious of any kind o f independent thinking. Anti-intellectualism is
the first sign that a given group is about to make you toe the Party Line,
and the ISO has plenty of it. Furthermore, for the ISO,
anti-intellectualism serves much the same function that August Bebel once
attributed to anti-Semitism: it is "the socialism of fools." While no ISO
member is going to admit it to you, the sect's contempt for intellectuals
has a corollary, and that is its contempt for the intelligence of the
average person. They seem to believ e that real working people don't do a
lot of thinking, so "intellectuals" are potential "class-traitors" and
perhaps even outright "petty-bourgeois." How else to explain the style of
*Socialist Worker*? The paper openly apes the style of supermarket
tabloids, complete with large-type front-page headlines phrased in the most
maudlin manner, and heavily-simplified articles with scores of adjectives
and exclamation points.

As with all Leninist sects, supreme emphasis is placed on the sale of the
organization's newspaper. There is little I can say about this newspaper
other than what I've already said. The two-page feature "On the Picketline"
is half-decent, although it is nowhere near what I heard one member call
it: "the best labor reporting in the country." (That distinction goes to
the Communist Party's *People's Weekly World*.) For the most part,
*Socialist Worker* fits precisely the description that *Nation* columnist
Christopher Hitchens has bestowed on its British counterpart: "principally
made up of exhortation and, of that exhortation, principally composed of
crude syndicalist diatribe .... [A] record of strikes that didn't come off,
and of strikes that did while failing to make any difference." (Hitchens,
incidentally, was a member of the original International Socialists in the
late 1960s and early 1970s, when it was apparently a more creative and
intellectually vibrant organization. Those with access to a library with a
good periodicals section may want to check out Hitchens's ruminations on
this topic in the *London Review of Books*, 6 January 1994.)

One of the more surreal moments of my ISO experience surrounded the sale of
*Socialist Worker*. At one cadre meeting, we were discussing the reluctance
of branch members to sell it. As you can imagine, I was one of the worst
offenders: I would carefully hide my copies of the paper under my petition
in favor of the maintenance workers. After asking people to sign the
petition, I would merely thank them, and they would generally be on their
way. Rarely did I ever bother to make the pitch for the paper, and then
only to placate a nearby ISO comrade. In any event, other members were
somewhat reluctant as well. Speaking to this problem, one member had a
bizarre piece of advice on how to overcome shyness: "I have been reluctant
to approach people, too, but when I stop to think about the fact that I'm
willing to *die* for this ..." etc.

Such ruminations are not at all out of character for the ISO. They forget
that they are merely half-a-dozen people peddling papers on the street, not
seasoned insurrectionary leaders who are in imminent danger of being forced
to make the ultimate sacrifice for the Revolution. The most severe example
of this tendency in Pittsburgh is the purge-initiating commissar I
described above. At one public meeting during my membership in the
organization, we were discussing (what else?) the Russian Revolution and
the reasons for its failure. The principle problems, the ISO contended,
were isolation, foreign invasion, and counter-revolutionary violence. At
this point, though, the commissar stood up to assuage the fears of the
wary: have no fear, she pointed out , when we have a revolution in this
country, we will have no trouble defending it, because as in all
revolutions the army will come to our side. She specifically mentioned that
the Revolution would have access to tanks and F-14s. Tanks and F-14s in the
service of humanity: what an image, huh?

The worst example I know of, though, occurred after my departure from the
organization, so I did not hear the statement directly, but I heard it from
the veteran ISO member mentioned above who was recently forced to leave. I
had remembered the commissar and the rest of the branch backstabbing this
particular individual even while I had been a member. She had a class
scheduled the same night as branch meetings, which annoyed the more
orthodox to no end. All of their displeasure with her boiled over in a
cadre meeting. The commissar and her closest associate (the vice-commissar
who had made the statement about being willing to die) had just come back
from a meeting of the ISO's National Convention. The commissar brought the
news that the Midwest ISO organizer had called the Pittsburgh branch
"uncreative and inward-looking," and then asked the branch for its
opinions. When the soon-to-be-ex-member stated that this description of the
branch was more or less correct, the commissar proceeded to blame the
branch's entire debacle on this member, calling her a "petty-bourgeois
dilettante." When the "dilettante" (whose father, incidentally, is a
Teamster) replied that she "really didn't give a shit" what the commissar
thought, the commissar answered: "I'm not the only one who thinks this,"
and then proceeded to have the other members denounce the "dilettante" for
"putting limits on her time" and "only doing things half-way." After this
miniature *Darkness At Noon* scenario had been carried out, the commissar
then proceeded to state emphatically: "You know, I don't even care that
much that we're only five members, because that way we'll be tight, we'll
know what we're about, and we'll have our perspective right, because when
the Revolution comes, we're going to have to kill people."

The stories of ISO fanaticism and incompetence could go on, but by now the
reader should have a sufficient understanding of the nuttiness of the sect.
That does not necessarily solve the problem of how to deal with them, however.

In my personal case, I was the first to jump on a proposal by the ISO
leadership that we initiate a broader coalition to incorporate all who were
interested in acting in solidarity with the maintenance workers. The ISO
intended the group to be a front. The commissar told me flatly: "No, we
don't do that," but of course I knew otherwise. I had other intentions: the
ISO veterans were principally graduate students, but I was closer to three
other newer members who were undergraduates. I collaborated with these
members- who had quickly realized the extent of the ISO's disengagement
from reality- and together with some people who were not members of the ISO
we planned to make the new group- Students in Solidarity with Local 29- a
truly independent organization, and I planned to quit the ISO at an
opportune time. The ISO veterans eventually caught on that something was
up, and they clearly didn't like it. At one meeting, the vice-commissar
stood up and denounced what she saw as a tendency of "some members " to see
work on Local 29 solidarity as a substitution for work in the ISO. By that
time, though, two other members and I had already made plans to get out,
and we decided to do so before Christmas break, because we didn't want the
issue to be hanging over our heads, nor did we want ISO members hassling us
over the break (which we judged them completely capable of doing). We quit
in early December; my own membership in the ISO had lasted less than three
months.

We had at best mixed success in our struggle for a better movement, though.
The workers themselves were largely unwilling to take part in pressuring
the University, a fact which the ISO blamed on the elected union
leadership. The ISO repeatedly suggested that "we" had to "give the lead,"
per their usual habit of thinking themselves the true leaders of the
working class. We had held a somewhat successful rally in October, drawing
several dozen workers and upwards of one hundred students, in the days when
contract negotiations had just been heating up. Now it was the spring
semester, contract negotiations were in a quagmire, and the ISO called for
another rally. The rest of Students in Solidarity agreed, but the rally was
a failure, drawing no workers and almost no students other than members of
the group. Almost immediately, though, the ISO wanted another rally, and
this time we shot it down. The ISO clearly had no creative tactics, much
less a coherent strategy aside from a passionate desire to "take it to the
streets." We had no creative tactics, either, but we at least admitted as
much. We were willing to take action, but only to a certain point beyond
what the union itself was willing to do, and we were not about to turn the
student labor solidarity movement into a ridiculous band of street
noisemakers who protested in futility every week without the presence of
the very workers we claimed to support.

Some time late in the spring semester, though, the union itself called
another rally, once again sparsely attended by workers. The difference this
time, though, was that quite a few students showed up, and I am proud to
say that almost all of them were organized as a result of the activity of
the non-ISO members of Students in Solidarity. The problem was that we were
a workers-solidarity movement without the workers. But we could at last say
that we had done our job.

The ISO deserved credit, of course, for being on top of the issue when no
one else was. But their sectarian behavior scared people away. By the
spring semester, there were more students in the larger Students in
Solidarity with Local 29 group than there were in the ISO, even if the
group itself was still small. Yet even after the last rally, I have no
doubt that the vast majority of the student body still associated the Local
29 solidarity movement with the ISO. This more than anything made me upset
with the ISO: they were unwilling to drop the egotistical advancement of
their sectarian interests even when these were hurting the movement as a
whole.

Nevertheless, I can't help but mention that I was much more annoyed at
those who sympathized with the workers yet would not help due to personal
distaste for the ISO. And I know that there were at least ten of these for
every one of us that stuck with it. At colleges across the country, it is
people like this who allow the ISO to pass itself off as the exclusive
voice of the left, and thereby to stunt the growth of the campus left in
general. So long as these individuals stay silent, the ISO will always have
recourse to its most powerful weapon: the question, "What are *you* doing?"
What the ISO is doing is not constructive, for all their pretentions about
"building a movement." But they are doing *something*, and until the rest
of the left gets off of its collective ass and does something real, it will
have no right to scorn groups like the ISO.