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The International Socialist Organization (ISO) was an American Marxist group that was founded in 1977 and dissolved in 2019. The organization held Leninist positions on imperialism and the role of a vanguard party. However, it did not believe that necessary conditions for a revolutionary party in the United States were met; ISO believed that it was preparing the ground for such a party. The organization held a Trotskyist critique of nominally socialist states, which it considered class societies. In contrast, the organization advocated the tradition of "socialism from below." Initially founded as a section of the International Socialist Tendency, it was strongly influenced by the perspectives of Hal Draper and Tony Cliff. It broke from the IST in 2001, but continued to exist as an independent organization for the next eighteen years. The organization advocated independence from the U.S. two-party system but sometimes supported electoral strategies by outside parties.
The organization emphasized educational work on the socialist tradition. Branches also took part in activism against the Iraq War, against police brutality, against the death penalty, and in labor strikes, among other social movements. At its peak in 2013, the group had as many as 1,500 members. The organization argued that it was the largest revolutionary socialist group in the United States at that time. The ISO began to experience discord in the beginning of 2019, as the result of a scandal becoming public whereby its leadership mishandled an accusation of sexual assault in 2013. The ISO voted to dissolve itself shortly after.
The ISO advocated replacing the capitalist system with socialism, a system in which society's collective wealth and resources would be democratically controlled to meet human need by those who produce that wealth, i.e. the working class. The organization believed that this working-class majority could end capitalism by leveraging their power over production through mass strikes.
Supporters of ISO referred to their beliefs as 'socialism from below', a term attributed to Hal Draper. This concept can also be traced back to the rules of the First International which stated: "the emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves." ISO saw this as distinguishing themselves from socialists who work within the Democratic Party and from various forms of what they disparagingly term Stalinism — nominally socialist politics, usually associated with the former Soviet Bloc and the old Communist Parties. These are seen as advocating socialism "from above". Because capitalism is a global system, the ISO argued that capitalism could not be successfully overthrown in individual countries. They agreed with Leon Trotsky that socialism in one country is an impossibility. The ISO held that the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc were examples of bureaucratic, class-stratified states, not socialist societies; and that the People's Republic of China and post-revolutionary Cuba had emulated this model.
Some of the political theories adopted by the ISO had been developed in the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP), including that of "state capitalism" developed by Tony Cliff, the party's founder. State capitalist theory identifies the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc as exploitative class societies driven by military competition with private Western capitalism, rather than as the "deformed workers' states" that Trotsky maintained they were in The Revolution Betrayed. The organization tended to follow Cliff's view of these governments as state capitalist, although not all members held this analysis. After the split with the International Socialist Tendency in 2001, this particular characterization became less strict.
Following Vladimir Lenin, the organization believed the creation of a revolutionary workers' party was necessary in coordinating and building the power of a revolutionary working-class vanguard. However, ISO believed that the historical conditions in the United States were insufficient for the existence of such a vanguard party. For this reason, the organization saw itself as a preliminary group that could help to win reforms and raise consciousness until such time that a revolutionary party could be formed. Nonetheless, it aimed for a Leninist principle of democratic centralism in its internal deliberation process. The ISO emphasized the training of cadre, seasoned and educated militants. In theory, these cadre would build the organization as well as engaging in movement work, and would someday cooperate with other groups in order to build a new vanguard party.
The ISO supported struggles for economic, political, and social reforms while also maintaining that exploitation, oppression, war, and environmental destruction could not be eliminated until the overthrow of capitalism and its replacement with socialism.
The organization offered critical support to national liberation movements. Most notably, the organization advocated solidarity with Palestine and supported the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. ISO also supported Syrian revolutionary groups against Bashar al-Assad.
The organization advocated the right of gays and lesbians to marry as well as social validation of transgender identities. In the final years of its existence, the organization was more strongly aligned with socialist feminist ideas and particularly Black feminism and intersectionality.
The ISO originated in 1976 among a number of groups in the American International Socialists (IS) that were growing increasingly critical of the organization's leadership. Among them was the self-identified Left Faction, which was led by Cal and Barbara Winslow and supported by the IS's Canadian and British members. The Left Faction and its international supporters maintained that the IS's leadership had acquired a top-down style of operating that depoliticized the organization and placed too much emphasis on sending student activists into working class employment (a tactic referred to as "industrialization"). These disputes followed the disagreements over the 1974 revolution in Portugal. Additionally, the main part of IS thought that there should be attention to rank and file or reform caucuses in unions, whereas the Left Faction contended that in addition to rank and file work, agitation at the workplace for socialism should continue. In 1977, the Left Faction was expelled from the IS and immediately formed the International Socialist Organization. The ISO began publication of its paper, Socialist Worker, shortly after its formation and produced a monthly print version as well as a daily updated website until 2019. The ISO was initially the U.S. section of the International Socialist Tendency (IST), and followed closely the positions of the British Socialist Workers Party.
In 2001, the ISO was expelled from the IST after a dispute with the British SWP. This dispute was framed by the SWP as a critique of the ISO's conservative approach to the anti-globalization movement. The ISO disputed this claim and criticized the SWP for maintaining what the ISO viewed as an exaggerated perspective for the 1990s, which the SWP characterized as "the 1930s in slow motion". However, the organization continued to grow. Juan Cruz Ferre writes, "The ISO famously managed to thrive during the worst years of neoliberalism and working-class retreat."
By 2009, members argued that it was "by far the largest socialist organisation in the United States today, attracting to revolutionary ideas a much larger number of young activists than any of the others." Four years later, an outside observer estimated that the organization had "at least 1500 members." The ISO also helped to organize the Chicago Teachers Union strike of 2012, which it characterized as an example of a new era of Social movement unionism.
Even after the split with the IST, ISO continued to receive informal guidance from leaders of the UK SWP, such as Chris Harman. This relationship further deteriorated, however, after Harman's death and the 2013 crisis in the UK SWP. The ISO sharply rebuked Alex Callinicos for his "bureaucratic tendencies" in maintaining control in the fallout of a rape allegation. Ironically, a similar situation led to the dissolution of the ISO six years later.
At this time, the organization also became somewhat more open to ideas outside the tradition inaugurated by Cliff. In 2013, Richard Seymour noted a "lack of a set of 'lines'". He wrote, "I know ISO members who are straightforwardly 'state cap', others who are 'bureaucratic collectivist'. I know members who are 'Political Marxists', others who are more orthodox ... This is a far more diverse ecology inside one organisation than I have been used to." This period of openness led to controversy. While some commentators viewed this positively, others claimed that the organization remained sectarian. For example, Jeffrey St. Clair wrote in CounterPunch that ISO had become less socialist in membership and identification, and opined that they were more concerned with "lash[ing] out at nearly every popular uprising of the last 50 years for being doctrinally impure, from the Cuban Revolution to the Zapatistas, from the protests at the WTO to the Bolivarian Revolution".
In November 2013, nine members of the ISO, mostly in Providence and Boston, announced the formation of the ISO Renewal Faction, resulting in the organization's first national-level faction fight since the dispute with the British SWP. The faction claimed that the ISO was going through an organizational and political crisis and that members critical of the leadership had been "bureaucratically excluded". The ISO leadership denied these claims, stating that "the ISO is more experienced and more engaged than ever". In February of 2014, the ISO expelled the Renewal Faction. The following month, the organization's student branch at Brown University resigned, citing the expulsion of the faction as an indication that the organization had "shown itself to be undemocratic." Beginning in 2017, many of ISO's cadre began to resign in order to join Democratic Socialists of America.
In the mid-2010s, the organization became involved in the new campus anti-rape movement, associated with figures such as Emma Sulkowicz. In 2017, ISO members strongly supported the Me Too movement. The organization began to embrace theoretical influences from intersectional feminism at this time.
At the ISO's 2019 convention, much of the long-time leadership of the organization was voted out of office over concerns about "unaccountable leadership structures and a damaging internal culture that had a disproportionate impact on people of color and others with oppressed identities." Soon after, an allegation of rape that occurred in 2013 surfaced against a newly elected leader. It was soon revealed that the leadership at the time forced the national appeals committee of the ISO to overturn an earlier finding of rape in order to clear the accused. The organization was thrown into a crisis, with up to a third of the membership resigning and several local branches disaffiliating. After several weeks of crisis and debate, the membership voted on March 28, 2019 to dissolve the organization.
The ISO published a daily online and monthly print newspaper, Socialist Worker, with a bi-monthly Spanish language supplement, Obrero Socialista. The ISO also distributed the International Socialist Review and titles from the publishing house Haymarket Books, both of which were run by the non-profit Center for Economic Research and Social Change.
The ISO participated in several local and national progressive movements. These include the antiwar movement, efforts to end the death penalty, support for gay marriage and abortion rights as well as the struggle for immigration rights, among others.
The ISO did not support the Republican Party or Democratic Party, both of which it viewed as political representatives of corporate power. However, the group has campaigned for the Green Party in various races and assisted Ralph Nader's presidential campaigns in 2000 and 2004. In California, ISO member Todd Chretien challenged Dianne Feinstein for a seat in the Senate on the Green Party ticket, receiving 139,425 votes (1.8 percent) in 2006.
The ISO was the co-sponsor, along with the Center for Economic Research and Social Change, of an annual conference titled Socialism. Speakers at past Socialism conferences include filmmaker and author Tariq Ali, actor Wallace Shawn, The Nation sportswriter Dave Zirin, writer Glenn Greenwald, journalist Amy Goodman, scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, environmental writer John Bellamy Foster, The Nation contributor Jeremy Scahill, science-fiction author China Miéville, Iraq Veterans Against the War member Camilo Mejía, Palestinian rights activists Omar Barghouti and Ali Abunimah and actor John Cusack.