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International Socialist Organization

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The International Socialist Organization was the street team of American publisher Haymarket Books, Inc.[note 1] an American Communist Party that proclaims themselves Trotskyist, despite the fact that they were kicked out of their sponsoring international party – founded by Tony Cliff – for not being revolutionary enough. Despite the fact they are a group of political people, they never run a candidate for office, don't try to form coalitions with unions, are known for turning any event they are invited to into a show-stealing spectacle of self-aggrandizement, and have been known to be especially nasty to those they don't feel are committed to the cause enough. This sounds familiar, and will become more so as you read on.


The ISO had its roots in the split in the American Socialist Workers Party following the Molotov-Von Ribbentrop PactWikipedia in 1939. A large minority led by Max Schachtman took the pact as a evidence that the Soviet Union was no longer a "workers' state" worthy of defense by Marxists. The Schachtmanites splintered into groups that maintained varying degrees of adherence to Trotskyist and socialist ideology. James BurnhamWikipedia rapidly abandoned socialism and published The Managerial Revolution: What Is Happening In The World and Suicide Of The West, seminal works of American "movement" conservatism (cited by Pat Buchanan and such). Others such as Irving KristolWikipedia drifted towards the social democratic movement, which was itself drifting rightward during the Cold War with the neoconservative movement traceable to it. ISO arose from the splinter that remained Marxist and nominally Trotskyist, although they were considered "petty bourgeois opposition" by Trotsky himself and were not recognized by the Fourth International. The "International" component of their name reflected their ambition to replace the Fourth International with an organization more militantly opposed to Moscow-line Communists. The closest that came to fruition was the affiliation of the British followers of Tony Cliff with the ISO until they fell out over organizational issues.

ISO positioned itself as an intellectual vanguard of the left, sponsoring study groups, conferences, and publications. As such, they attracted wannabe theoreticians and pundits, but engaged in little issue-oriented activism. Christopher Hitchens cut his teeth with ISO before his career as a public intellectual. ISO's long-term modus operandi with protest movements had been to show up with their newspapers and leaflets, and to generally attempt to impress activists with their theoretical prowess.

Intellectual Bullying[edit]

According to various accounts[1], the experience of joining the ISO was kind of like joining the Jehovah's Witnesses or Mormons.

First, a genuine desire for a world-shaking shift in your view of reality installed the need for 'The Truth'. Like the aforementioned religions, usually the first encounter with the faith will be with a missionary, proselytizing away for anyone to hear and distributing literature like no one's business (they maintain a weekly tabloid-style newsletter, International Socialist, as well as a publishing house, Haymarket Books, that issues handsome volumes filled with ISO dogmas and teachings). The irony that self-proclaimed socialists make such a big issue out of filling sales quotas on their literature is not lost on anyone in the know.

Once in the fold, new recruits were fed a steady diet of dogmas and doctrines, most of which have more to do with the ideology of their paper-company sponsors out of Chicago and less to do with those writings by Marx. In fact, Haymarket Books has plenty of books on Marxist thought but doesn't even publish Das Kapital, which is sort of like a Christian publisher not printing a Bible.

Once the acolyte was properly prepared, they are given their missionary role and asked to draft peers into the group while keeping up sales of the newspaper. Many former members can go on about how they felt more like over-glorified volunteer paperboys than real revolutionaries, which speaks volumes about what this whole mess really was about.

Then, of course, is the meeting. Accounts vary, but the main idea is that the new guy went through shaming exercises about not selling enough papers, not recruiting new peers, and not toeing the revolutionary line properly. The other big part of a meeting consists of focusing on some rudimentary Marxist texts and agreeing that the ISO version of its interpretation was the only proper one. Independent thinkers were often chastised for the thought crime of challenging the Party line.

Capitalizing on Marxism Exploitation[edit]

But the crème de la crème of the ISO had to be their obsession with Soviet history. Unless you agreed with their extremely convoluted account of St. Trotsky's life – a narrative which excuses him for every mistake he ever made and blames everyone else for his failures – you are nothing but a counter-revolutionary. According to this line of thought, Emma Goldman was being a class-traitor when she infamously called Leon a crybaby and hypocrite for complaining about Stalin's purges while a decade before he had held his own purge at Kronstadt.[2] In summation, this is less of a reading circle or political party than the cult of a dead personality.

According to 'the real Marxists', the international socialist organization does not pass the purity test.[3]


  1. cf. David Graeber, Direct Action: An Ethnography. It's pretty clear that the coalition-building orientation, as opposed to Direct Action, has something to do with a publishing firm not wanting to be connected to anything illegal, or else they would be much less antagonistic to the American union movement, who they call 'reactionary'.