A Critique of a Few Aspects of the International Socialist Organization’s Strategy

The ISO’s emphasis on recruitment, and the policy of getting involved in as many struggles as possible, severely limits the effectiveness of its members, as well as the potential impact the organization as a whole could be having on building class consciousness in the United States.

The question of building a communist party seems to be getting increasingly popular throughout radical leftist circles in the United States.  My understanding is that the question of “when is the right time to start building an official Party” is what lead to the splitting of the New Communist Party into its two branches, the Organizing Committee and the Liaison Committee.  Even ultra-leftists have been discussing the notion of a Party.  And of course, the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and other Trotskyist groups have a stated goal of ultimately building a Party.

Personally, I’m not entirely sold on the need for a Party–and certainly not the kind of Party that focuses mostly on contesting elections and seeking power through liberal-bourgeoisie institutions.  But I am sold on the need for more coordination and collaboration between the various movements, organizations, and groups that are already trying to deal with the various pieces of the general capitalist system (I wrote a piece about a year ago on this matter, specifically thinking about the situation in the San Francisco Bay Area).  And it may well be the case that a conscious process of integration will result in the creation of some sort of Party.  But in my mind, the real question is exactly how such a process of integration comes about, and what it should look like–and what the role of Marxists and communists is in such a process.

The ISO and the Problem of Chasing Movements

The ISO, which is probably the biggest Trotskyist group in the Bay Area (not sure about the rest of the US), seems to have a general intention of engaging in some sort of integrative process between the various progressive and working-class movements.  But as always, the devil is in the details, and I’m rather skeptical that the current strategies deployed by the ISO are effective at bringing different segments of the working class and the activist left into relation with one another.

To understand the ISO’s strategy, its useful to look at this transcript of a speech given at the Socialism 2006  conference in New York City.  The speech is generally about the decline of the radical left in the West after the 1960s, but ends with discussing what strategy should look like today.  In particular, I think this passage is highly informative:

We believe that the main task for us is to be sure as an organization that we are involved and develop links and relations with every sector possible in the struggle against capitalism, racism, militarism, sexism–to be an organization with not just commentary or criticism on struggles, but one that places itself fully in solidarity with and involvement in those struggles.

It’s impossible for an organization of our size to do everything, but it is possible to ally ourselves with or solidarize with every struggle–even as we have priorities about what we believe we can best contribute to.

I think it is critical to recognize the contradiction present here.  On one hand, you have a goal of developing relationships with “every sector possible in the struggle against capitalism, racism, militarism, sexism”, and on the other hand, you have an organization that is too small “to do everything”, and sees relationships limited to allyship.  But is there not a direct relationship between an organization’s size and capacity, and its ability to develop strong, genuine relationships with other groups, movements, and collectives?  The likely result from this contradiction is an organization that is stretched thin, and its relationships with the various sectors of anti-capitalist society lack sustainability, resilience, and generally any sort of longevity.

I feel like this is what I myself have observed when seeing the ISO’s activities in the Bay Area.  While individual cadres tend to be intelligent and passionate, and genuinely care about the different movements they contribute to, the ISO’s strategy of being involved with “every sector possible” creates pressure for their work to be short-term and fleeting.  One moment, they are involved with fossil fuel divestment; the next moment, minimum wage organizing; and the next moment, Palestine solidarity work.  And as members shift into new struggles, the relationships built up in other, previous struggles start to fray and evaporate.  And people that joined the ISO during one moment, because they wanted to engage in a certain struggle through the lens of Marxism, end up leaving when the ISO decides to no longer be involved in that struggle.

What ends up happening is a kind of hamster-wheel: ISO cadres are forced to continually chase whatever social movement is visible at the moment, and are unable to really dig down and focus on any one particular area or build up local power, and as such continually lack the internal capacity or the external networks to do anything other than tail movements and struggles that other people have developed and are committed to.  And when you combine this pattern of short-term engagement with the ISO’s emphasis on recruitment, people start to view the ISO as somewhat opportunistic and therefore inherently untrustworthy–even if they are giving positive contributions to the struggles they show up at (which in the Bay Area, I believe to usually be the case).

Alternative Paradigms and Strategies

I think the fundamental paradigm behind the discussed strategy of the ISO is a belief in the need for the ISO to be at the center of any process of working-class, progressive, and radical integration.  Of course, this is hardly unique to the ISO–it is a very standard belief across most Marxist-Leninist organizations, from what I can tell.  The idea seems to be that class consciousness is built by workers hearing about the idea of Marxism, getting convinced of the need to build a workers’ party, and subsequently joining the ISO and help spread the gospel of Marxism.

But is this not fundamentally an idealist understanding of history, rather than a materialist one–that is, a Marxist one?  Class consciousness does not develop because of (just) ideas, but because of the actual concrete experiences that oppressed populations have while fighting alongside one another, and through the realization that we are all fighting against the same overarching systems.  Given this framework, the strategy of a Marxist organization should be to not focus on recruiting people to its own space by running around chasing movements and asking them to join, but to help facilitate connections and networking between local movements and struggles, and thus contribute to the development of spaces where class consciousness grows.  And for such a strategy to be successful, the focus of the organization’s work should not just be on engaging in already ongoing work, but in trying to find overlap between different movements and helping bring them into closer relationships with one another.

A few simple, short-term projects that I think would help working-class networks better than current strategies:

  • A potluck for fast-food workers (currently fighting for minimum wage hikes) and food justice activists (who might be working on anything from urban gardening to food policy) to talk about the overlaps and contradictions between the two movements
  • A panel discussion between the different student-based organizations fighting to get their universities to divest from certain spaces (fossil fuels and Israel seem to be the two most developed divestment movements at the moment)
  • A conference to bring together railroad workers and environmental activists to discuss the use of blockades and strikes to both advance labor rights as well as environmental protections (such a conference actually just took place)

Note that all of these spaces create something new, and adjacent to and between existing movements that focus exclusively on one sector.  Again, these kinds of networking events are far better at building class consciousness, and facilitating working-class integration, than showing up at other people’s meetings and rallies and soap-boxing about the need for a workers’ party.  And the other advantage in engaging in concrete, tangible projects is that it is probably much, much better in the long run for recruitment.  Many people, perhaps even most people, are not interested in joining an organization because of the organization’s ideology–they are interested in joining an organization because it is involved in interesting projects that feel like they are making a difference.  Most people are simply not interested in joining an organization whose main purpose is to be get more people to join the organization.  People want to act, not talk, and this is perhaps why so many anarchists, Marxists, socialists, and communists end up in non-radical organizations–because while these organizations have severe ideological deficiencies, they are at least engaged in concrete projects!

The other organizing model that should be emphasized is the need for long-term, consistent engagement.  Focusing on one or two projects, and following through with them, is a far, far better way to both affect change and keep members motivated than incessantly changing directions and switching causes.  As such, the idea mentioned in the speech transcript quoted above–the alleged need to “ally ourselves with or solidarize with every struggle”–is, to be blunt, a terrible idea, that directly undermines an organization’s ability to be effective and efficient.  There needs to be disciplined resistance against wanting to run after a movement when it is in a seeming upswing, and then leave for another one as soon as it dies down.  This is not to say that an organization shouldn’t continually seek to expand–it should–but such an expansion must be done based on a realistic assessment of organizational capacity, and not simply because there is a new and fashionable cause in town.  It is precisely in those apparent down-times, when mass mobilizations have subsided, that the most important and most difficult work must be undertaken.


Given the ISO’s size, and the fact that many members (at least in the Bay Area) are intelligent, passionate, non-sectarian, and highly open to coalitions and collaboration, there is huge potential for the organization to build revolutionary communist organizing in the United States.  And I say all of this even as somebody who has serious gripes with Trotskyism and democratic centralism and the idea of a workers’ party (gripes that I will save for another essay!).  But for this potential to be unlocked, certain paradigm shifts need to occur in terms of how we understand the development of class consciousness and effective, sustainable organizing.

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7 Responses to A Critique of a Few Aspects of the International Socialist Organization’s Strategy

  1. I appreciate your post and think it is very on-point. In my time with the ISO, I experienced them to be very opportunistic, rather than showing genuine solidarity with those in the midst of struggle. At one point, they told me and another activist not to get involved in a certain struggle; however, once they saw that it was getting a lot of visibility and a good possibility of victory, suddenly they were all about this struggle… until something else came along. You mention them “incessantly changing directions”: Again, my region of the ISO would dissolve viable neighborhood branches simply because they thought other neighborhoods currently had more “cache.” People in these struggles aren’t dumb and see that the ISO wasn’t truly interested in solidarity and a long fight; they were simply looking to gain some of the spotlight and new recruits. This changeableness, combined with their “democratic centralism” (which is more centralist than democratic!), made for a very unsatisfactory experience for me as an activist and organizer in that it prevented me from truly developing relationships of solidarity and seeing struggles through to victory (or noble solidarity in defeat). As I ended up saying shortly before I left the ISO, if I wanted to be bossed around, I can go to my job!

    Thank you for your thoughtful analysis. You not only offer a valid critique, but also some hopeful suggestions for moving ahead.


    • Arjun says:

      That is unfortunate to hear. Again, I do think that there is a lot of geographic variation in how the ISO (and any kind of large organization with many different chapters) operates; the folks here in the Bay Area are generally non-opportunistic and genuinely believe in the different struggles that are unfolding–for example they were a great help with some of the climate justice work during the few months that they made that the focus. Its just that official ISO policy seems to restricts how effective these folks can be.


  2. Michael Fiorillo says:

    ISO is “non-sectarian?”

    You’re kidding, right?

    In fact, ISO is probably the current poster child for opportunistic intrusions into mass organizations for the purpose of recruiting and “building the Party.”

    I speak from direct experience as a member of an opposition caucus in the AFT that must periodically deal with ISO’s underhanded maneuvers and duplicity. All because, for the time being, their Steering Committee has decided that our organization is to be one of their major Labor plays in NYC.

    I should also add that while, yes, they are passionate, intelligent (though for highly-educated people they frequently do incredibly stupid things) and hard working, they are fickle and, demographically speaking, about as close to a working class movement as the Hillary Clinton campaign. In fact, I’m certain that Hillary’s campaign (ugh!) has far more working class representation in its ranks than ISO does.

    Personally speaking, I’m really tired of Brown graduates lecturing me about how racist I am when I disagree with them, and being quick to opportunistically use Identitarian politics in place of class analysis. Isn’t class analysis what Leninsts are supposed to do?

    ISO offers a useful marker for the absence of a real organized Left in this country: as long as articles like this treat these Ivy League-educated, erstwhile overseers of the working class as contenders, then we know how irrelevant the organized Left is.


  3. Allisun says:

    Just imagine… if the ISO could have a campaign or two… building workers unions or organizing within the current ‘alt-right’ (the alt-right probably wouldn’t even be in existence if there was more organization around this years ago)… The left would be much larger and organized. The ISO is a solid organization, very organized internally and very impressive. They’ve got the people with experience, the book, the analysis.. All they need is a consistent plan. A campaign. Networks could be easily built off of existing and flourishing resistance. For example, if the ISO had a national campaign for organizing food workers (you mentioned), black activists and groups (Fight for 15, BLM, m4bl) could have been connected. I love your ideas too. I also think overtime, the ISO will evolve. The ISO is too dope not to.

    I think another problem that some members have is their lack of capability to relate peoples experiences to socialism. My local ISO is not necessarily new member friendly. There needs to be more resources and efforts for new people, because most don’t even know what socialism is let alone current news (political).

    This post put words to my thoughts though. Happy I found this and your blog.


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