Years for the Locust? Part One: The Myth of the Microsect

In the wake of the 2018 collapse of the International Socialist Organization, some socialists have argued that this disaster is proof that the small group as a model to build the movement is a dead end. History proves them wrong. A look at the past development of socialism shows a small organization with discipline and clear ideas is often the best starting place for growing mass revolutionary politics.

by | Jun 21, 2023


“Trotsky considers the opportunist current and its leaders somewhat as victims of circumstances… There is no doubt that opportunism, like all else in the world has its objective causes in external conditions. But in politics more than anywhere else, to understand is not to forgive.”
– Gregor Zinoviev, 1916, Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International1

For nearly a decade, I worked in the restaurant industry. I used to see hundreds of people every month, but it wasn’t often I met a fellow socialist.

One Monday in mid-2019, I was serving a table out on the patio. “I like your button,” a thin customer with bushy hair told me. He was motioning to the white pin I had fastened to my apron, just above my pocket. It was emblazoned with the signature red fist of the International Socialist Organization. I had worn it proudly for so long — you do that after eight years in an organization. Now, after the organization had dissolved that spring, it was there more from habit.

We got to talking. He used to be in Socialist Alternative, “until a few years ago.” A couple hundred people and a few whole branches left after the leadership suddenly changed course on the Democrats and endorsed Bernie Sanders. We commiserated; we were both now stranded on the political seas without a ship. The captains of our old vessels had run us aground. When I asked him if he was involved in anything now, he looked down sheepishly. “No… I thought about joining DSA, but it’s not for me…” he trailed off. We felt the same way: lost, disappointed, and a bit bitter. As I walked inside to punch in the order, I wondered: how many more of us are out there? Was the ISO’s work all for naught, just “years for the locust”?

The self-destruction of the ISO was a loss for the revolutionary movement. It was also a long time coming — a product of long-simmering abuses and horrifying acts. This series of articles will look at why the ISO fell apart and what must come next. We need a revolutionary organization moving forward. It will have to look different from what came before, but we still need a vessel to sail an independent course.

Leading into and since the dissolution, some commentators and former members have drifted away from revolutionary socialism. Some have blamed Leninism and cadre-building for its downfall, from both the left and the right. Some have said it was too sectarian, shutting us out of relevancy. Others say it was too “centrist,” torn apart by the pulls between the group’s left and the right poles. Some former ISO members have washed towards anarchism, others towards social democracy.

We need a revolutionary organization moving forward. It will have to look different from what came before, but we still need a vessel to sail an independent course.

There are merits to some of these analyses; a common sense underpins the drift one way or the other. But this series will argue the following: The ISO was a product of its time — four decades of ruling-class assault. It operated as a propaganda group, an often necessary stage of development for revolutionary movements. But the ISO was hampered; its development was arrested. Partly the long downturn deformed it. But it also inherited a commandist model of Leninism, passed down from its British and American parents. In emancipating itself from the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP-UK) and the American International Socialists (IS-US) it failed to fully break from that past. In trying to keep revolutionary socialism alive until the next upswing, the leadership came to see those politics expressed in a single organization, in a single perspective, in a single leadership. This explains not only the abuse of dissidents, but the abuse of oppressed identities and the coverup of “inconvenient” realities — alleged threats to both its politics and its organization.

At its best, the ISO sought to train a cadre — a collective body of revolutionary activists that could think independently and act together — to form a link between hard-earned lessons of the past and future upsurges. Though the exact mix and method failed, that project is more important than ever. Those future promises we talked about in the ISO are increasingly our present reality. We must chart a path now that takes the best fighters left and reaches out to old allies and new voices. Building a truly mass revolutionary force in this country is daunting but also realistic. It remains the only way out of capitalism’s disasters.

The myth of the “micro-sect”: propaganda group as stage of development

“The assertion has, therefore, repeatedly been made, that the men of the Socialist Labor Party were a set of querulous individuals who wasted their time in mutual recriminations and accomplished little for their cause. Nothing can be more unjust…
For almost a generation they plodded at their self-imposed task in the face of adversities which have no parallel in the history of the socialist movement in any other country. Their internal strifes were only the natural echo of great struggles with hostile surroundings, and may be easily pardoned; their courage, perseverance, and devotion to the cause cannot fail to arouse admiration.
In the socialist movement they performed a great mission. Through their trials and failure they evolved working methods of socialist activity, and through their ceaseless propaganda they prepared the ground for a genuine American movement of socialism.”
— Morris Hilquit, History of Socialism in the United States2

“But because our movement is a mass movement and because the dangers menacing it are not derived from the human brain but from social conditions, Marxist doctrine could not assure us, in advance and once for always, against the anarchist and opportunist tendencies. The latter can be overcome only as we pass from the domain of theory to the domain of practice but only with the help of the arms furnished us by Marx.”
— Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution3

“Just as in our first days we had rejected the premature demand that we — with our little handful of people — drop everything and jump into the mass movement, so now, toward the end of 1933, having completed our preliminary work and prepared ourselves, we adopted the slogan: ‘Turn from a propaganda circle to mass work.’”
— James P. Cannon, The History of American Trotskyism4

In trying to explain what happened to the ISO, we must go back to the very beginnings — not just of the ISO, but the movement for socialism itself. Some have argued that the ISO proves the “sect” or small-group model to build a socialist movement is a dead end. In doing so, they often draw upon Hal Draper’s articles, “The Anatomy of a Micro-Sect” and “Toward a New Beginning.” Seemingly convincingly, Draper puts forward that “There has never been a single case of a sect which developed into, or gave rise to, a genuine socialist movement.”5

History, however, proves Draper wrong. The propaganda group — a small party or organization that has clarified its ideas and attempts to convince others of those ideas — is often the starting place for mass socialist movements. The propaganda group is not a “blind alley,” but an often necessary stage of development. It serves to bring together the first cadres and constructors of a movement. That movement can only be built from interacting with the masses in motion, but that movement requires ideas, organization, and initial human material for construction to begin.

Are sects and propaganda groups the same? In Draper’s 1971 article “Towards a New Beginning,” he writes: “To Marx, any organization was a sect if it set up any special set of view (including Marx’s views) as its organizational boundary; if it made this special set of views the determinant of its organizational form.”6 In comparison, as the Independent Socialist League explained in Labor Action in 1949 (when Draper himself served as editor), after Third Camp forces reverted from a party to a propaganda group:

“A mere discussion group, by definition, either has no group program, line or policy on the questions it discusses, or — if a vote is taken — considers the majority view merely an advisory or recorded expression of opinion, in any case involving no discipline or obligation to act. In any case also, it feels no obligation to adopt any view on the important questions before it, nor to integrate whatever views it expresses. A propaganda group is based on a program — namely, the program for which its members are obligated to propagandize actively.”7

As it states further:

“The main difference [between a propaganda group and a party], perhaps, revolves around our attitude toward types of activity like agitational campaigns, election campaigns, demonstrations, etc. By no means must it be understood that these are excluded; in particular, a demonstration may at times be a useful propaganda medium, and an election campaign under favorable circumstances can be carried on as an intensive period of propaganda. Nor is there anything in the nature of a group which is primarily a propaganda group which prohibits it from even carrying through strictly agitational activities, again especially under favorable circumstances.”8

For Draper in 1971, this Independent Socialist League declaration was honest in stating “that all the socialist groups, including ours, were in reality sects — at best ‘propaganda groups’; that one could only hope to be a good sect, a sensible sect, rather than a stupid, fantasmagorical and self-deceiving sect.”9

The propaganda group is not a “blind alley,” but an often necessary stage of development. It serves to bring together the first cadres and constructors of a movement. That movement can only be built from interacting with the masses in motion, but that movement requires ideas, organization, and initial human material for construction to begin.

A propaganda group is not a party, as the 1949 document makes clear. But it is not aloof to struggle either. What is most important is how a propaganda group orients to struggle: to win a smaller number of people to its ideas. Unlike a discussion group, a propaganda group has discipline among its members: a discipline based on politics. But it often isn’t able to agitate and organize among the masses yet, either. Here is the organizational form of the ISO, as we were for 40 years. Yes, we agitated, but we mostly participated in movements to find the “ones and twos” to build the group. While propaganda always has a place in a revolutionary movement, propagandism is a bridge — often necessary but necessarily temporary.

The Socialist Labor Party – born from “micro-sects”

Before “Leninism” and before “Socialism from Below,” there was the American Socialist movement. Those who carry Draper’s “micro-sect” torch often cite the Socialist Party of America as the first mass socialist party in the United States and a model to emulate. They often celebrate the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) as its modern descendant — the party we once lost and now found.

But they miss the SP’s immediate lineage: the American Socialist Labor Party (SLP). It had a mass character: at its height, 10,000 active members in a country one-sixth the size it is today, several newspapers in multiple languages and a voting strength of 50,000 to 100,000 votes. And it was born from “micro-sects.”10

In 1876, the SLP formed out of a merger of several propaganda groups: the North American Federation of the International Workingmen’s Association (affiliate to the First International), the Social Democratic Workingmen’s Party of North America, the Labor Party of Illinois, and the Sociopolitical Labor Union of Cincinnati. These were sects by Draper’s definition. The largest, the Social Democratic Workingmen’s Party, had 1,500 members. The smallest, the Sociopolitical Labor Union, had just 250. (The Labor Party had 593 members; the North American Federation had 635).11 These groups’ operations would be familiar to anyone on today’s revolutionary left. Consider the North American Federation’s resolution on political campaigns:

“The Federation will not enter into a political campaign or election movement before being strong enough to exercise a perceptible influence, and then… always in conformity with the Congress Resolutions.”12

Meanwhile, the Social-Democratic Workingmen’s Party had a defined political program, an elected “control committee” (the equivalent of a Central Committee) for party administration, and a newspaper. Over their existence, these groups fought amongst and within themselves. The longest war was between the electoral-minded followers of Ferdinand Lassalle and the trade-union Marxists. The former pooh-poohed protest movements and any work to build unions; the latter saw the mass movement of workers and the oppressed as the key arena to build first, with independent electoral campaigns coming later. Though this rivalry continued well into the SLP, the party’s formation and the merging of these factions marked a major advance for the American socialist movement.

Albert Parsons, later an 1886 Haymarket martyr, joined the Social-Democratic Workingmen’s Party out of a couple of public forums. This hero of our movement became a socialist thanks to a flyer, two speeches, and one answered question at a meeting — all thanks to a “micro-sect.”

Yet that’s not to say the four original groups that formed the SLP weren’t important or influential. Though “micro-parties,” they took action and built modest ties with the labor movement. Many had been local sections of the First International, which had a combined membership of nearly 5,000 in the U.S. in 1872.13 These parties fought successfully to get Black workers admitted to the central labor body in New York, organized solidarity protests for Parisian Communards, and built mass meetings for visiting Irish freedom fighters. After the market crash of 1873, these groups led unemployed movements, including a 20,000-person protest in frigid late-December Chicago, to demand aid from city governments. They didn’t just participate in movements either; these “sects” recruited and educated crucial cadres. Albert Parsons, later an 1886 Haymarket martyr, joined the Social-Democratic Workingmen’s Party out of a couple of public forums. This hero of our movement became a socialist thanks to a flyer, two speeches, and one answered question at a meeting — all thanks to a “micro-sect”.14

“Volatility” in the Gilded Age

In July 1876, these sections of the First International met in Philadelphia, voted to dissolve the rump international body, and a few days later established the Workingmen’s Party of the United States (WPUS, later named the SLP). The new party had a Marxist-influenced program but mostly the Lassallean wing at its head. Once formed, the party got to work among the masses.

The Workingmen’s Party/SLP entered an emerging American capitalism rife with crisis and inequality. The Long Depression of 1873 had another two years left in it, and it was driving workers into complete destitution. Wages in the building trades had fallen 40 percent in two years; textile industry bosses had slashed wages by 45 percent between 1873 and 1880. Railroad workers faced wage cuts of 30 to 40 percent from 1873 to 1877.15 After the depression, inequality remained. In 1883, the average expenses for a worker’s family in Massachusetts were $754.42 while a worker’s earnings were only $558.68.16 Trying to stay above water drove entire families into factories and sweatshops. At the same time, with American capitalism’s rise it needed millions of immigrant workers to satisfy production demands. More than 12 million immigrants entered the U.S. between 1870 and 1900. These factors created the conditions for resistance and radicalism.

The party’s first major test came with the Great Railroad Strikes of 1877. Already at the brink, railroad workers on the Pennsylvania railroad faced another 10 percent wage cut that June. They refused to starve slowly, and went on strike. Soon, the movement ignited the long-simmering hatreds of railroad workers and middle classes against the companies. As the New York Tribune described, “the manifestations of Public Opinion are almost everywhere in sympathy with the insurrection.”17 Masses of strikers and unemployed physically blocked trains; local militiamen refused to disperse crowds; Pittsburgh’s railyards went up in flames. The strike spread nationally and cities across the country erupted in near-revolution.

Due to the electoral-minded Lassalleans’ leadership, the Workingmen’s Party had little organic contacts to railroad workers before the strike, but once the movement began the party dove in head-first. The WPUS held mass meetings in Philadelphia, Newark, Patterson, Brooklyn, and New York (including 12,000 at Tompkins Square), and drew 10,000 people into the streets of San Francisco.18

In Chicago, the WPUS drew out 20,000 people to a mass meeting, where Albert Parsons and other party cadres spoke. Once the rail strike reached the city, a party committee and rank-and-file party activists among cigar makers and furniture workers helped the movement spread to a four-day general strike. Police and Board of Trade-organized “citizen patrols” fought pitched battles with armed worker brigades, ultimately ending with the strike’s repression. Though their strike was defeated, hundreds of workers joined the WPUS through the struggle.19

The state of their organization mirrored the volatility of late-19th century American capitalism, class struggle, and the politics within the movement. After it had grown to 10,000 at the start of 1879, the party had disintegrated by that December’s convention.

In St. Louis, the WPUS’s activity in the strikes reached its zenith. The WPUS brought out several thousand to a July 22 mass meeting in support of the national strike. The meeting turned into a mass delegation to visit rail workers in East St. Louis, who, steeled with the support, voted to walk off and created a strike committee. The strike committee organized on a citywide basis, sending delegations to other worksites to get workers to join them. Starting July 29, Black and white workers united in shutting down the entire city for an entire week, directed by WPUS cadres leading the general-strike executive committee. Again, though, the strike was brutally repressed by armed vigilantes and the National Guard.20

Thanks to the uneven nature of the party, a conglomeration between reformist and revolutionary impulses, the WPUS failed to push the movement evenly in every locale. While the party was leading in Chicago and St. Louis, in Philadelphia their two mass meetings sought “to discuss in a quiet and moderate manner the pending dispute between capital and labor, to express sympathy with the strikers, but to declare energetically against any destruction of property.”21

After the Great Railroad Strikes, the party made further advances in the working class. SLP members were essential in organizing central labor councils and trade assemblies. With a huge proportion of German members, the SLP had a major influence in United German Trades federations and they often supported its candidates in elections. SLP members like P.J. McGuire organized carpenter strikes, winning wage increases and co-founded the United Brotherhood of Carpenters. Socialists in unions in New Orleans, Houston, Savannah, and Galveston were instrumental in getting Black workers’ unions admitted into trade assemblies and in undermining divide-and-rule segregation in the Southern labor movement.22 Post-1877, workers nationwide began forming independent labor parties or acted through Greenback third parties. The SLP capitalized on this political growth as well. In Fall 1878, St. Louis elected three SLP members to the state legislature, and in New York the socialist vote doubled from the previous election. Socialists utilized their influence in the movement and trade-union organization to increase their votes.23

The SLP’s work in Chicago in particular reveals how much influence the party had built. After his leadership in the general strike, Albert Parsons helped to organize and was elected president of the Amalgamated Trade and Labor Unions of Chicago and Vicinity.24 Like in St. Louis and New York, 1878 was a good year for Chicago socialists at the ballot box. In city elections, SLP candidate Frank Stauber received nearly as many votes as the Democratic and Republican candidates combined, electing him as alderman in the 14th ward. Meanwhile Albert Parsons and another SLP member just narrowly lost their aldermanic races. “One of the chief reasons for [Stauber’s] political victory was the cooperation of the trade unions, which stood solid behind the party ticket.”25 The next year, Chicago socialists won four state legislative, one senate, and one aldermanic seat. In March 1879, roughly 100,000 people came out (40,000 packed into the Industrial Expo building and 60,000 overflowing outside) to an SLP-organized celebration of the 1848 revolution and 1871 Paris Commune.26 This was a party with mass influence.

It wasn’t all smooth sailing, though. The state of their organization mirrored the volatility of late-19th century American capitalism, class struggle, and the politics within the movement. After it had grown to 10,000 at the start of 1879, the party had disintegrated by that December’s convention.27 All eight of its English-language party newspapers had closed up shop due to economic woes. Membership dropped to 2,600 by 1881 and 1,500 by 1883.28

In large part, the SLP’s membership disintegrated thanks to two painful splits, mainly against the opportunistic Lassalleans dominating the leadership. The first split came from revolutionaries who felt side-lined by the top leaders’ hyper-electoral focus. Friedrich Sorge, a founder of the First International in America, and others left the party in 1878 to form the International Labor Union. Another group on the SLP Left split from the party within a few short years. Before and during the repression of the 1877 strikes, workers had set up armed self-defense groups, notably the Lehr und Wehr Verein. Some WPUS/SLP members were active leaders in these groups. But for the Lassalleans, their movement’s bullet was the ballot, not literal ones. They forbade SLP members from working in such armed self-defense groups. Though just a few years before the party had allowed the Lassalleans to run in local election campaigns in violation of the national platform, the leadership now came down hard on the revolutionaries.

Abandoning the party, members like Albert Parsons and August Spies set up the Revolutionary Socialist Party and later joined the anarchist International Working People’s Association (IWPA). When we learn about the Haymarket Martyrs, keep in mind the IWPA would not exist but for their exit from the SLP. The SLP, in turn, lost cadres that would contribute immensely, in life and death, to the movement. Here, the SLP’s opportunism, not “micro-partyism,” was to blame. And after conducting a sustained propaganda campaign against anarchism and shifting to the left, the party had surged again to 7,000 members and eighty branches across the country by 1885.29

If we are to take Hal Draper and others’ thesis at face value, both the SLP and the micro-sects should have been incapable from the start of relating to the broader working class.

Amid these swings in membership, the SLP consistently struggled with rooting itself in the English-speaking majority of the working class — “Americanizing” as the party called it. On the one hand, the party had itself to blame. Its membership often looked down on the American labor movement. When the Eight-Hour League emerged, Chicago SLP leader Tom Morgan debated Albert Parsons on whether the SLP should support the movement. Morgan argued the demand for an eight-hour day “was not fundamental enough, that only a revolutionary change… could better the economic status of workers.”30 The party was also heavily based in immigrant communities, especially German ones. Partly, this was a boon, given the millions of immigrants that had flowed into the U.S. But in Friedrich Engels’s words, the SLP would “have to doff every remnant of foreign garb” to become a truly mass force in society:

They cannot expect the Americans to come to them, they, the minority and the immigrants, must go to the Americans, the vast majority and the natives. And to do that, they must above all things learn English.31

Engels’s advice on language was no exaggeration. By the time Daniel De Leon joined in 1890, only 17 of the party’s 77 sections used English as their common language. Just two of the party’s National Executive Committee spoke English fluently.32 Though the party did have mass influence at times, including within the American-born population like during the 1877 strikes, it did have some significant blindspots as well.

But these policies also shaped the SLP’s responses to challenges outside their control. The party did participate earnestly in unions and movements beyond themselves; they attempted to “bore from within.” By 1885, the SLP in New York City had successfully built the Central Labor Union. That central labor body, in turn, formed an independent labor party, and the SLP was key both in the party’s formation and in securing middle-class reformer Henry George’s nomination for the 1886 mayoral campaign. “[T]he Socialists joined the independent political movement to participate in a struggle of labor against capital and, as the New York Volkszeitung put it, accepted [Henry] George ‘not on account of his single tax theory, but in spite of it.’”33 SLP members were the most enthusiastic activists for both the United Labor Party and George, but within a year were expelled thanks to red-baiting by Henry George himself. The SLP and its labor allies again formed their own party, but the SLP learned the price of working with middle-class progressives. Likewise, in 1881, the SLP’s Progressive caucus in Cigarmakers’ Local 144 won a union election against the leadership of Samuel Gompers and his allies. But Gompers flatly refused to hand over their offices or the union’s treasury. In frustration, the Progressives left the union and formed District 49 of the Knights of Labor — pioneering the common sectarian practice of dual unionism.34 In these ways, facing frustrations and failures trying to “bore from within” and already in tune with standing outside the class, the SLP turned further and further into substitutionism.

Despite advances, the SLP failed to connect its politics with the working-class upsurge. It failed the test of sailing between the rocks of sectarianism and opportunism. Drawing wrong lessons and failing to “Americanize,” it finally and fully gave in to the danger of substitutionism. Though the party grew during the upsurge of the 1880s and 1890s, it remained mostly aloof to expressions of resistance like the growing People’s Party. As Philip Foner writes,

“From the birth of the People’s Party, the SLP, dominated by Daniel De Leon, refused to see anything of value to labor in the new movement. De Leon argued that the farmer and the political expression of his discontent, the People’s Party, was essentially reactionary… Therefore, De Leon urged all local sections of the SLP to have nothing to do with the ‘middle class corruption’ of the Populist Party.”35

The SLP’s 1896 convention was an important turning point, and revealed how out of touch the party was. In the party’s convention manifesto, it correctly predicted Populism’s decline as it “will have the wind taken out of its sails by the silver development in the Democratic camp” in the form of William Jennings Bryan. But the party leadership considered that cooptation a good thing:

“It will cease to stand in our way and hinder the growth of our party in Western States… The lines will be drawn much clearer and more distinct, and it will be easier for men to know on what side of the fence they really belong.”36

The party had little success in drawing people away from the Democratic-Populist movement to vote for its own presidential ticket. Instead, some socialists who bucked De Leon’s orders were drawn into Bryan’s campaign.

In labor struggle it fared no better. Again at its 1896 convention, just two years after the Pullman Strike, when hundreds of thousands of workers rebelled and shut down train lines across the country, the party declared “pure and simple” trade-unionism dead: “The pure and simple union is no longer an organization that even pretends to better the condition of its members by fighting the boss.”37 The convention celebrated the American Railway Union and the Pullman Strike, but how did the SLP seek to relate to the upsurge? The party set up a separate revolutionary union federation, the Socialist Trade and Labor Alliance. The party leadership predicted quick success winning the allegiance of the working class away from “labor fakirs” like the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor. Instead, while some unions drew towards the STLA at first, it quickly became a rump labor front, tightly controlled by the party.

In short, the SLP had an overblown perspective of the period. Frustrated at the obstacles placed before it, it imagined them away. Alone, that could be fixed. But error compounded with further crime: they doubled down and tightened up. As Morris Hilquit, a former SLP member, put it:

“A relentless war was opened on everything within and without the party that did not strictly conform to their conception of orthodox socialist principles and tactics. The columns of the official party paper… were filled from week to week with violent tirades against the ‘corrupt pure and simple labor-unions’ and their ‘ignorant and dishonest leaders,’ and against the Populist, Nationalist, and other reform ‘fakirs.’
Side by side with this crusade against the ‘fakirs’ outside of the party a process of ‘purification’ of the party members was begun. Had the party officers heretofore been strict disciplinarians, they now became intolerant fanatics.”38

Or in De Leon’s words in 1896, presaging other future party authoritarians:

“No organization will inspire the outside masses with respect that will not insist upon and enforce discipline within its own ranks. If you allow your own members to play monkeyshines with the party, the lookers-on, who belong in this camp, will justly believe that you will at some critical moment allow capitalism to play monkeyshines with you; they will not respect you, and their accession to your ranks will be delayed.”39

Hillquit argues that the party’s “highly centralized form of organization” and dogmatism didn’t attract masses of newly converted socialists. Times dictated a new form of organization. Thus, in 1900, the party suffered a major split. Hilquit’s forces left the SLP and later joined with Eugene Debs’ and Victor Berger’s followers, ultimately creating the Socialist Party of America (SPA). On the one hand, Hilquit made the right move. The SLP that remained deteriorated further and further into a sect – where it remains even today, with a few souls that still preach the word of Daniel De Leon. On the other hand, those like Hilquit quickly moved to the right once inside the SPA. Despite important left-wing expressions like the Industrial Workers of the World, it would take another 20 years for a really revolutionary party to develop in the United States.

Despite advances, the SLP failed to connect its politics with the working-class upsurge. It failed the test of sailing between the rocks of sectarianism and opportunism.

In reality, the problem with the SLP wasn’t so much the form of organization but that form in relation to the politics and methods employed. Amid the crises and resistance of the late-19th century, its leadership swung between crass opportunism (alienating Parsons and the revolutionaries in 1880) and vulgar sectarianism (alienating a potential mass audience). Though local branches and rank-and-file members made major contributions to the movement over the SLP’s life, the party often failed to profit from these few relations with broader forces. After being burned too many times trying to “bore from within,” the party fully embraced substituting its own organization for the broader movement.

Perhaps with some irony in light of debates today, the intransigent revolutionaries weren’t the first sectarians. The reformist Lassalleans were. They were so hung up on electoral politics under the socialist banner they laughed aside trade unions and wage gains. By the time Daniel De Leon led the party, the grooves of substitution were well-worn.

If we are to take Hal Draper and others’ thesis at face value, both the SLP and the micro-sects should have been incapable from the start of relating to the broader working class. Their very nature, as setting up a “special set of view… as [their] organizational [boundaries],” should have isolated themselves. In reality, the small groups of the First International made heroic contributions to the American socialist movement. So too did the SLP, for a time. It was only through a whole series of missteps, mistakes, and false lessons, did it become a model for the rigid sects rightly criticized today. Even then, without these groups, later parties like the mass Socialist Party of America or Communist Party would not exist.

What the Third World teaches us

Already, the “micro-sect” thesis comes under some suspicion. But the SLP and its sect forebears aren’t the only evidence on offer. There are numerous examples, particularly in the Third World, of small propaganda groups becoming mass parties.

Partido Comunista de Mexico

In Mexico in early 1919, a couple of dozen people formed the Partido Socialista (PS), including the Communist International’s pioneer on the national question, M.N. Roy. They declared themselves a Communist party (Partido Comunista, PCM), with a defined program and Central Committee, before having even 100 members.

In its early years, the PCM waged a propaganda campaign for communism, even as it organized trade unions and tenant movements. Like Draper’s conception of a sect, it sought to define itself against the rest of the movement: “The PCM struggled at first to dominate and then to differentiate itself from the largely anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist-influenced radical milieu from which it sprung,” writes Barry Carr.40

“The PCM’s membership in the 1920s rose slowly from less than a hundred in 1920 to about fifteen hundred by 1929. The party’s growth was not a smooth, uninterrupted affair,” with government repression, changes in leadership personnel, and periods of ultra-leftism all hampering its growth.41 But despite fits and restarts, grow it did. From its humble propaganda-group origins, by 1939 its membership reached 25 to 30,000 members.42

Communism in the Middle East and China

A similar process played out on the other side of the world, in the Middle East and China. The Egyptian Communist Party, the Iraqi Communist Party and the Chinese Communist Party were all born from small intellectual circles.

In Egypt, socialism came from two sources. Egyptian students in Europe in the early 20th century joined associations friendly with the social-democratic parties of the Second International. When the students returned home, they brought their interest in Marx, Lasalle and the Fabians with them.43 Meanwhile, cells of migrant-worker and emigré socialists (mainly Greek and Russian), agitated among their fellow countrymen in Cairo and Alexandria and stayed connected to their radical movements back home. While the former explored socialist thought in Arabic-language intellectual treatises, the foreign-born socialist circles were often short-lived.44

The Egyptian Communist Party, the Iraqi Communist Party and the Chinese Communist Party were all born from small intellectual circles.

This changed after the anticolonial revolt of 1919. Joseph Rosenthal, a Russian Jew with links to the Bolsheviks and perhaps the most important migrant in Egyptian radical history, established the first socialist discussion circle among native Arab intellectuals. This circle of a dozen or so members formed the initial nucleus of the Egyptian Socialist Party, established in August of 1921. Building links with workers and supporting a series of major strikes, the party was able to quickly grow to 1,500 by late 1922.45

But that growth was short-lived. Within eight years, the movement had fractured under the pressure of events and internal conflict. It suffered debilitating repression from the British occupation forces. For a period after, the party existed in name only and was represented in Communist International matters by the Palestine Communist Party.

Likewise, the Iraqi Communist Party emerged from small discussion groups and journals disseminating socialist ideas. When the party was first born under illegality in 1934 and 1935, its newspaper The Struggle of the People only had a circulation of just over 500 copies.46 Though the state repressed the party and jailed its leaders after only five issues, a new communist cell re-emerged in 1938. Its next paper The Spark grew from a 90-copy circulation in 1940 to distributing 2,000 copies within two years. Over the course of the next eight years, through organizing among industrial workers and participating in mass insurrection against the monarchy, the party had grown to 4,000 members.47 Unfortunately, the party faced another intense round of repression and its leaders were publicly hanged. Under this weight, the movement splintered into five different factions.

Further east, the Chinese Communist Party also had roots as a small group. When the party formed in 1920, it claimed just 12 members. By 1923, it had 432. Within a few short years organizing in mass strikes, anticolonial struggles, and an aborted revolution, the party rocketed to 57,900 members.48


Though propaganda groups are a necessary stage of development, that doesn’t suggest a simple, linear process. The development of a socialist or radical movement is shaped by objective and subjective factors: the state of the class struggle, the strength of a state’s repressive apparatus, the threads of radicalism a movement can draw upon. Firstly, there are exceptions to the sketch laid out here. Growing in the birthplace of modern socialism and amid the wars and revolutions that created a modern, unified Germany, the German Social-Democratic Party had a peculiar path: it grew out of mass worker education clubs, and a merger between the Lasalleans and the Marxists.49

More importantly, though, the propaganda group is only one stage. There comes a time when the movement outgrows this stage and must advance. Its growth and the demands of the class struggle strain at the bounds of the propaganda model. At the same time, the maturation of the socialist movement can also be interrupted. A movement must grow, die, or wither on the vine.

For a propaganda group to continue its path towards a mass movement, at least three things are necessary: physical cadres; the correct policy; and a rising class open to its ideas, action and leadership. “Policy” may not always mean the right “political line,” but an ability to connect one’s politics with an audience and keep them organized. We can see positive examples of this: the Chinese Communist Party’s exponential growth amid the anticolonial struggle and workers strikes of the 1920s; the Partido Comunista de Mexico’s growth from a dozen people and a newspaper to recruiting tens of thousands; the Socialist Labor Party’s heyday between the Great Railroad Rebellion of 1877 and the rise of Populism. We can also see the negative examples: the Egyptian Communist Party’s disappearance in the latter half of the 1920s; the SLP’s degeneration into sterile sectarianism by 1900.

The ISO operated as a propaganda group for nearly its entire existence. Its “Where We Stand” served as its program: the ideas and tradition “for which its members [were] obligated to propagandize actively.” It participated in struggles, and even played an outsized leading role in some battles, but it mainly built itself on the strength, and perpetuation, of its ideas: the International Socialist tradition, Third Camp socialism, and socialism from below.

If the propaganda group is a stage of development, does that mean the micro-sect is merely a boogeyman? No, the threat of irrelevance is real: a threat drawn from both objective realities and subjective choices. Colossal obstacles in the class struggle and sectarian responses tore the SLP asunder. With the PCM and ECP, their setbacks were temporary. Working-class upsurge and anticolonial struggles came back after periods of repression. But suppose these struggles didn’t. Suppose there were few openings for a genuine revolutionary socialist movement to gain a hearing, and all it could do was hold on for dear life. How would that transform, or deform, a movement?

If we are to understand the ISO’s failures, we must dispense with generalities and get specific. Rejecting propaganda groups or “micro-sects” in toto, as Draper and his descendants do, can easily end in chucking Leninism or revolutionary socialism as well. In their place, political centrism, social-democratic amalgamation, or dialogue and writing divorced from collective practice offer readymade but false substitutes. In the next article of this series, I will further examine the history of our movement, and how the last 90 years of American Trotskyism and International Socialism bore a contorted, deformed, but at times still vibrant ISO. If we are to build something better, we must grapple with the inheritances of the past.

Continued in Part Two


  1. John Riddell, ed., Lenin’s Struggle for a Revolutionary International: Documents, 1907-1916, the Preparatory Years (New York, NY: Pathfinder Press, 2002), 165.
  2. Morris Hillquit, History of Socialism in the United States (United States: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1910), 198.
  3. Rosa Luxemburg, Reform or Revolution (London: Militant Publications, 1908),
  4. James P. Cannon, The History of American Trotskyism (New York: Pioneer Publishers, 1944), 113.
  5. Hal Draper, “Anatomy of the Micro-Sect,” 1973,
  6. Hal Draper, “Toward a New Beginning – On Another Road,” 1971,
  7. Independent Socialist League, “Why Workers Party Formed ISL,” Labor Action, May 16, 1949, p. 4.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Draper, “Toward a New.”
  10. Hilquit, History of Socialism, 209, 240.
  11. Ibid, 191.
  12. Ibid, 185.
  13. Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, vol. 1 (New York: International Publishers, 1947), 413.
  14. Alan Calmer, Labor Agitator: The Story of Albert R. Parsons (New York: International Publishers, 1937), 20-22.
  15. Foner, History, vol. 1,
  16. Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, vol. 2 (New York: International Publishers, 1955).
  17. quoted in Foner, History, vol. 1, 465.
  18. Hilquit, History, 203; Foner, History, vol. 1, 470.
  19. Ibid, 471.
  20. Ibid, 471–473.
  21. Hilquit, History, 203.
  22. Foner, History, vol. 1, 498–499.
  23. Ibid, 494.
  24. Calmer, Labor, 36–37.
  25. Ibid, 36.
  26. Ibid, 42–46.
  27. Hilquit, History, 205–207.
  28. Ibid, 207, 217.
  29. Ibid, 221; Foner, History, vol. 2, 40–41.
  30. Calmer, Labor, 46.
  31. Foner, History, vol. 2, 42.
  32. Bernard Johnpoll and Lillian Johnpoll, The Impossible Dream: The Rise and Demise of the American Left (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981), 250.
  33. Foner, History, vol. 2, 120.
  34. Foner, History, vol. 1, 517–518.
  35. Foner, History, vol. 2, 304.
  36. “Report of the National Executive Committee, Socialist Labor Party,” in Proceedings of the Ninth Annual Convention of the Socialist Labor Party (New York, 1896), 10.
  37. Ibid.
  38. Hilquit, History, 296.
  39. Daniel De Leon, “Reform or Revolution?” (speech, Boston, MA, January 26, 1896), Marxists Internet Archive,
  40. Barry Carr, Marxism and Communism in Twentieth-Century Mexico (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1992), 28.
  41. Ibid, 9, 37.
  42. Ibid, 10.
  43. Tareq Y. Ismael and Rifa’at El-Sa’id, The Communist Movement in Egypt 1920 – 1988 (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1990), 1– 3.
  44. Rami Ginat, History of Egyptian Communism: Jews and Their Compatriots in Quest of Revolution (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2014),
  45. Ismael and El-Sa’id, The Communist Movement, 21.
  46. Tareq Y. Ismael, The Rise and Fall of the Communist Party of Iraq (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 2012), 23.
  47. Ilario Salucci, A People’s History of Iraq: Workers’ Movements and the Left, 1924 – 2004 (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2005), 23– 29.
  48. Nigel Harris, The Mandate of Heaven: Marx and Mao in Modern China (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015), 4, 13.
  49. Gary P. Steenson, After Marx, Before Lenin: Marxism and Socialist Working-Class Parties in Europe, 1884– 1914 (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1991), 55– 61.
E. Reed
(he/him) is a founding member of the Boston Revolutionary Socialists and Firebrand. He has been involved with the revolutionary socialist left since 2011 and is a former member of the International Socialist Organization.

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