A Letter to Comrades in the International Socialist Organization (ISO)

Dear Comrades:

We are a group of former ISO members from the Chicago district.

We left the organization over the past two to five years (at different points) but remain loyal to the ISO and the politics of International Socialism.  

We estimate we have one hundred years combined experience in the ISO.

We have developed, or have on reflection developed, some serious concerns about organizational practice within the ISO and its approach to its membership and political perspectives.

Some of us were dealt with in a uncomradely and undemocratic manner upon raising political disagreements. Some of us were forced out of the organization.

Some of us were part of leadership teams that acted (at times) in an uncomradely and undemocratic manner towards comrades who raised dissenting viewpoints; such actions were not individual aberrations at the level of district or branch committees but were directed from the highest ranks of the ISO.

All of us began to ask questions about the underlying causes of these problems and, while we are not in agreement on everything, we have come to a few conclusions.

1) The ISO has produced over many years an atmosphere in which dissent has been tolerated only to a minimal degree and simple questions have been treated as dissent. In this hothouse atmosphere, the leadership often feels compelled to argue against simple questions; questions become arguments, arguments become arguments with the leadership, thereby making too many lines of discussion in the organization vertical.

2) This is in part related to mistaken lessons about Leninism inherited from the British SWP.

3) More importantly, it is related to perspectives which consistently exaggerated the potential coming struggles – always just over the horizon – and turning points that never became qualitative turning points.

4) These perspectives errors are related to a failure to come to terms with some of the key features of the current (and to some extent recent) political period(s): leftward-moving consciousness, interest in radical ideas, episodic struggles, low-level of class struggle, a small and disorganized revolutionary and reformist left, the impact of the fall of Stalinism, etc.

Despite our concerns we did not “air dirty laundry in public.” We knew, on balance, that the ISO contributed a great deal to the development of the U.S. and international left. We had (and have) no desire to see the organization or its work harmed.

We, like most current and former members, recognize the important role ISO comrades – along with other comrades on the left – played in the Chicago teachers strike, as well as in the fast food workers struggles, the ongoing work against racism, and many other important activist arenas.

These successes, however, do not change the fundamental problems and issues at hand.

Moreover, until now, we did not believe our criticisms would be seen as constructive, believing they would add fuel to the fire of cranks and sectarians and find little audience among comrades. We thought our criticism would be perceived as a public attack by comrades eager to defend the organization.

But things have changed.

  1. An accumulation of members with different sets of experiences and backgrounds, the growth of comrades in the organization, a political maturity attained from putting down roots in certain areas of work (rather than relying on episodic struggles) means that these comrades’ experience may run counter to the espoused perspective of the “next turn” on the horizon, raising questions about the functioning of the organization.  

  2. The implosion of the British SWP and the failure of a series of political assumptions associated with the International Socialist Tendency (IST) has opened up an important space for rethinking the tasks and organizational conclusions of revolutionaries today. While the ISO did not share all the same political problems as the SWP, it is nevertheless marked by our common political evolution. American ISO exceptionalism is an insufficient response to the questions posed by the failures of the British SWP.

  3. The convergence of points 1 & 2 create a moment that not only invites but requires responsible political self-reflection. The questions of the moment are becoming clearer even if our answers to those questions have yet to be formulated. It is clear to us, based on a reading of last year’s convention documents as well as recent debates in and around the organization, that the national leadership has not led an adequate discussion about how to meet the challenges of the current period. This does not mean that the lead being provided on the ground in specific areas of work is necessarily wrong; there are many talented comrades leading such areas of work. But the national perspective / lead seems fragmented and empirical rather than unified and dialectical.

  4. Whatever mistakes he may or may not have made we are very concerned about the forced resignation of Shaun J.—a comrade with 14 years of dedicated membership in the ISO. This forced resignation comes after Shaun raised a number of concerns (very legitimate concerns in our opinion) during last year’s convention discussion and concerns (again, very legitimate concerns) about a national march in Washington, D.C. that was run by some of the worst liberal shills connected to the Democratic Party. We are not saying Shaun was right or wrong but rather that the events surrounding his case are exceedingly troubling. Most importantly, they are indicative of a method of functioning that is out of step with the demands of the current political moment.

We therefore offer the following points for consideration—all of which relate to the two main issues of democracy and perspectives that we believe should be up for discussion in a dialectically linked manner.

Organizational Issues

  1. There needs to be a thorough accounting of the question of democracy in the ISO. In the most recent debates around the march in Washington there was, evidently, a debate among Steering Committee (SC) and National Committee (NC) members. It was resolved. But when rank-and-file ISO members raised similar issues their views were treated as outliers. The idea that the leadership must be seen as infallible is papal not Marxist.

  2. Why is it not appropriate, when there is a substantial debate among the leadership, to open up that debate to the entire membership? That this is not seen as appropriate is a hangover  from Zinovievist (SWP) notions of Leninism: the debates are not had out in the open; the leadership is a monolith; the center leads the party; the party leads the class, etc. This may lead to an ossification of the political life of the organization.

  3. Not all disagreements with the leadership are anti-leadership or anti-Leninist. By exaggerating the scale of critiques the leadership itself runs the risk of escalating debates about organization, theory and perspectives into existential questions—that the leadership is “under siege,” etc.—when in fact no such existential threat exists.

  4. Only a collective nation-wide leadership of a wide layer of comrades (both ISO members and other socialists) will be able to figure out—through discussion and practice—new perspectives for the current era. This national discussion, of course, will have to be held in concert with the global discussions of the revolutionary left.

  5. A relatively small SC or NC does not need to come up with all the answers. On the contrary it needs to lead and help facilitate democratic discussion. Any assumption – whether by the leadership or the rank-and-file – that political questions such as perspectives are to be answered solely by the leadership is a hindrance to the growth and maturation of the organization.

  6. Related to this, there has been a tendency to fetishize talented new members and denigrate long-standing cadre,  an approach  influenced by Tony Cliff’s distortions of Lenin. Talented new ISO members were often treated like gold; experienced cadre – especially cadre who raised questions or criticisms – were too often seen as expendable.

  7. In the long run this can create not only a brain drain in the organization but also a process by which some of the most principled cadre may leave or are driven out of the organization. See the current sad state of the British SWP for example. This fact, combined with the exhaustion of “war footing” and “turning points,” is the most important subjective factor for the loss of ISO members.

Political Issues

  1. Both the IST and the ISO expected that the late 20th century and early 21st century would produce a larger explosion of struggle than has so far occurred. This expectation of sustained struggles, whether arising largely spontaneously or led by liberal or social-democratic forces outside the radical left, has proven erroneous (noted exceptions aside).

  2. The exaggerated expectations therefore had a contradictory and distorting impact on the organization’s relationship to struggle and its self-replication.

  3. The organization burned many longstanding comrades out through hyperactivity. Long-standing cadre who became outliers in terms of the perspectives tended to be marginalized or removed.

  4. Conversely, the organization was unintentionally passive about the possibility of initiating new centers of organizing. While the ISO has done much impressive work, too often it has found itself in the position of “waiting for Godot”—waiting for external developments.

  5. This contradiction helps explain the vacillation between “war footing” and “turning points” on the one hand and recurring “back to basics” campaigns on the other.

  6. The ISO did not make as many or as extreme mistakes at the SWP. Moreover, the political period has continued to develop. But some of these mistakes echo into the current failure of the ISO leadership to fully lead.

  7. The current period is marked by the following characteristics in the U.S.: a widespread interest in socialist and even radical ideas, a low level of class struggle proper, extremely episodic social struggles, a weak organized labor movement, a small revolutionary left, increasingly dysfunctional mainstream politics, the increasing immiseration of the working-class, the ongoing impact of the global reorganization of capital and production, and the primitive formation of radical politics among the “radicalizing minority.”

  8. In other words the conditions do not exist at the moment for the revolutionary left to consistently play the role of the “left wing” in larger reformist or liberal led struggles. Such events and movements do occur but they are not a defining characteristic of the present moment.

  9. The question is posed to the revolutionary left of initiation of struggle: ideological, physical and strategic.

  10. For some time it has been axiomatic that we are not in a position like that of the third international, the fourth or the second. We may be closer to  the position of the first international: one of building almost from scratch. Of course like all historical analogies this is insufficient. Regardless, the question that such an objective situation would pose is: what can the radical left initiate?


  1. See here some of the largest successes in recent years (some of which involved ISO comrades, some of which did not): The CTU strike (and the role of socialist and radical teachers in reforming the union and leading the strike), the fast food workers campaigns of the IWW a few years ago, the initiating of Occupy Wall Street by small groups of radicals, the counter-strategic centers of the Wisconsin uprising, the modest but very real electoral inroads being made by Socialist Alternative, etc.

  2. What other possibilities are there? Summits for alternative ideas of labor organizing with socialists, independent trade unionists and the better anarchists? Electoral alliances with Socialist Alternative (or others) running targeted local socialist political campaigns? Inviting other relatively sane Trotskyists (Solidarity, Socialist Action, etc.) to co-organize Socialism 2014 as partners? Beginning an open dialogue with appropriate parties on questions of regroupment / alliances in the pages of the ISR?

  3. Would it be possible through such projects to create a much more significant pole of attraction for the  thousands of U. S. residents and citizens who think of themselves as socialists but who are not yet ready to join a revolutionary organization? Or, the hundreds or few thousand Marxists  in the U.S. who are quite politically principled but have no desire to be a part of what seems to be a mere sect?

  4. To be clear we do not favor liquidation. We continue to believe in the need for revolutionary organization and the basic politics of International Socialism. Were the ISO to become part of a larger party (one that included reformists) we would favor the right of factions or platforms.

  5. Regardless, we believe that the questions of the political moment have become clearer even as the political mistakes of our former tendency have come into sharper relief. Now is the time to shift towards an honest and open discussion about both—to eschew finger pointing and defensiveness alike.

We do not claim an infallible purchase on truth. We, like all comrades, have made mistakes. We fully expect that some of these mistakes might be aired in response to our letter, and we are willing to own those.

Regardless, we offer these concerns not as a condemnation of the current leadership or any individual comrades.

We offer them in the hope that the ISO and its leadership will begin to correct some of  its errors—and initiate a modest (but nonetheless historically important) discussion (and experimentation) on the U.S. Left.

In struggle,

Adam T., Bob Q., Hector R., Loretta C., Rossana R., Saman S., Sophie H.