Joining The Party: SPUSA VS. ISO VS. Socialist Action (Part VIII)

It’s been a long time coming, but round two of eliminations has begun. No, the ISO still hasn’t gotten back to me, but since I’ll be looking primarily at the structural aspects. I might find something here that pushes me to make a final decision.

Now since the ideological side of things has been more or less taken care of, I’ll be focusing on five key elements: party size, electoral involvement, activism, membership expectations, and resources.

So let’s get right to it.


Party Size:

Let’s face it, size matters. While a small party certainly offers one the chance to be (more easily) heard and to make a name for oneself, ultimately, a party’s clout comes from the number of members. The larger the party, the more voters, the more activists, the more opinions and ideas. Bottom line- big is (almost always) better.

Socialist Party USA:

  • Roughly 1000 due-paying members

International Socialist Organization:

  • Roughly 1000 due-paying members

Socialist Action:

  • Between 200-300 due-paying members

The Winner:

SPUSA and ISO tie.


Electoral Involvement:I don’t believe that elections are the answer to the problems we’re facing. Ultimately, winning every seat in government isn’t (as Rosa Luxemburg pointed out) the answer- change has to happen from the bottom up, not from the top down. Revolution, not regulation. Power to the people, not the polticians.


You know the slogans.


But that said, I don’t believe, as some leftists do, that getting involved in elections is pointless. Far from it. Sure elected officials might not be able to solve the issues we’re confronted with, but they can certainly fight on behalf of the workers, the poor, the homeless, and the oppressed. So naturally, I’ll have to examine the three parties’ track records when it comes to (1) involvement in the political system and (2) general success.

Socialist Party USA:

  • Submits party candidates
  • Has had success in local elections

International Socialist Organization:

  • Does not submit party candidates
  • Has backed Democrat Ralph Nader’s 2004 campaign

Socialist Action:

  • Submits party candidates

The Winner:




I said “big is (almost always) better”, however, I was careful to add the “almost” bit. While size is important to a party, it is so only in relation to activism. At the end of the day, it’s better to be part of a tiny party that’s actually involved in the struggle, than tied to massive party that doesn’t actually do anything. For the activism aspect, we have to take both the range of issues confronted by the parties and the level on which they engage those issues. A good sense of balance is needed here- we can’t be immersed in only a single cause, or only nominally confronting a vast array of problems.


Socialist Party USA:

  • Engaged in a wide array of campaigns in the US.

International Socialist Organization:

  • Engaged in a wide array of campaigns in the US and internationally.

Socialist Action:

  • Engaged in a wide array of campaigns in the US.
  • Supportive of, though not directly involved in, international campaigns.

The Winner:



Membership Expectations:

Essentially, we need to take into account what the party expects of it’s members. This can mean membership dues, recruitment initiatives, fundraising, involvement within the party, and so on. And to be perfectly honest, it’s tough to gauge any of this without actually being a member of the party, but let’s work with what we have.


Socialist Party USA:

  • Membership dues vary, but tend to be relatively cheap. As a student, I would only have to pay 15 dollars annually.
  • Members are encouraged, but not required, to volunteer to support the party, both financially and through individual talents (there’s currently a call out for technological and editorial service).

International Socialist Organization:

  • Membership dues are fairly steep, with a minimum payment of 240 dollars annually.

Socialist Action:

  • Membership dues are set a universal rate of 60 dollars annually.
  • Members are encouraged, but not required to, be involved in the internal workings of the party (decisions are made via direct democracy).

The Winner:




Any political party or organization is meant to be a give and take. As much as individual members need to contribute to the party, the party, in turn, needs to be helping individuals. Of course, joining any party offers the immediate benefits of being able to communicate and network with other revolutionaries, and the ability to vote and voice opinions within the party, so we’ll just leave those as given. What I’m looking for here is something that makes a party stand out- a service or an opportunity that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to find.

Socialist Party USA:

  • Membership includes a subscription to the SPUSA publications The Socialist, Socialist Women, and the local SPUSA newsletter.
  • Access the SPUSA internal discussion e-mail list, Hammer & Tongs

International Socialist Organization:

  • I was unable to find any. Think ISO members might get discounts on Haymarket Publication books, but I’m not sure.

Socialist Action:

  • Extensive say in the internal affairs of the party (against, SA functions as a direct democracy).
  • Due the party’s small size, there is (potentially) the chance to be directly involved in the party structure.

The Winner:



Total Score:

SPUSA- 4, ISO-2, Socialist Action- 0.

SPUSA it is then.

16 Responses to “Joining The Party: SPUSA VS. ISO VS. Socialist Action (Part VIII)”

  1. 1 David
    August 19, 2011 at 7:52 pm

    Thanks for the posts on this. I have also been looking at the same organizations and you just tipped me towards SPUSA instead of ISO.

  2. 3 redmetalgeek
    August 25, 2011 at 11:49 pm

    To be fair to the ISO on elections, one of their prominent members, Todd Chretien, ran for US Senate in California back in 2006. However, he did so on the Green Party ballot line, when there is an explicitly socialist party (the Peace and Freedom Party) on the ballot in CA. I also am unsure if he ran openly as a socialist or not.

  3. 4 geez
    August 26, 2011 at 5:17 pm

    No benefits with the ISO. You pay dues and Chicago, which calls all of the shots, pressures branches into quarterly fund drives (“how much can you raise?” “oh no, you can do better than that!”) and no resources for the branches—they sell papers, have meetings recruit, and raise funds for national.

    I do like the ISO, I am friends with some of the members and we always work with them on actions, but I would never join for above reasons.

    I recently joined SP-USA, as I said in a below comment on your post, for pretty much he same reasons you have. šŸ™‚

  4. 5 Andrew
    October 1, 2011 at 6:05 am

    Not true that the ISO demands $240 — dues are based on a sliding income scale.

  5. 6 Reader
    October 23, 2011 at 6:11 pm

    The SP-USA doesn’t have 1,000 members…it has 1,000 donors. If you are speaking in the sense Lenin did regarding members, then members do actual work, i.e. activism and party-building. And while there are some good activists in the SP-USA, they are limited to only a few major cities and most of them don’t have much influence in the party (or when they do, they get pushed out). The leadership of the SP-USA, as it stands, is a thoroughly NON-revolutionary group (as can be shown by the expulsion of several different “Revolutionary” tendencies from the party). If you are looking for Revolutionary Socialists, then of the three you have on here, ISO and SA are the only real candidates. The SP-USA is a largely paper organization, similar to the CP-USA, in the sense that the vast majority of their “members” are people who give them money on the internet and don’t actually do anything.

    As far as resources from the ISO, there isn’t really much you get that you don’t get as a non-member. Socialist Worker newspaper and the International Socialist Review magazine are both free online (though ISR article don’t come out til a month after publication). There aren’t really “perks” to being a member as that is not what the ISO perceives membership as being. Membership in the ISO is a commitment to activism, party-building, and internal democracy. As a public organization, all the things written by ISO members or published by the ISO are easily and pretty much freely accessible to the public, member or not alike. As regards your concern about membership expectations, members are expected to pay what they are capable of in dues, the sliding scale is recommended, but people have plenty of different situations. As well, members are expected to be activists within their community and to function as open socialists. This leads to one of the other responsibilities of members, party-building. Those who are best known as activists and open socialists in their community will become known as leaders of struggles in that community and will thus be a pole of attraction for radicalizing people. The goal of building a revolutionary vanguard party is one of the main purposes of the ISO, though it does not consider itself that vanguard, thus it is the responsibility of every member to educate themselves, help with recruitment of the best activists and radicals in the community, and to generally help build the foundation for a future mass revolutionary workers’ party.

    • 7 geez
      December 14, 2011 at 10:52 pm

      The ISO does not have internal democracy. A few elite at the top pull the strings and have a firm grip on the locals with a trained and trusted few. The same handful who run Haymarket books. Try changing anything for the better, and you are out on your ass. Ask the wonderful activist from Mass, Brian Kwoba.

      • November 6, 2012 at 6:45 pm

        That’s flat-out false. We have an annual convention which seats delegates on the basis of the size of the branch. These delegates elect the committees and vote on perspectives.

      • 9 HIgh 5
        February 1, 2013 at 5:35 am

        It most certainly is not false: the steering committee is elected by closed slate and with a show of hands: no secret ballot. The same old guard has been running the group since the late80s/early 90s.

  6. 10 CWest
    December 9, 2011 at 6:14 pm

    As someone interested in joining the SPUSA I really appreciate the work you put into these articles. I have yet to actually get around to joining, but I’m interested in knowing what it’s like being a member.

  7. 11 Ian
    December 15, 2011 at 1:56 am

    Hey, I’m a former member of the SP-USA and now member of the ISO and I wanted to add a little to this.
    First, the ISO, as stated by Reader does have great resources with the SW and the ISR. Also, Marxism Conferences and Socialism are pretty great resources in their own sense.
    The Socialist is dreadful… I read plently of better papers including SWP’s Militant (Great stuff… just a few too many articles about how many Militants were sold last month), and the PSL’s Liberation (Lost me on Gaddafi) and the SW is one of the best.
    But papers don’t make revolutions, they are simply tools. And in Providence there are more than a dozen members with an equal number of sympathizers. Easily the largest leftist organization in Providence. And the most active. A number of comrades live in Occupy Providence’s People’s Park, and every comrade has been active with OP.
    As for electoral politics, at the New England Marxism Conference, attended by a few hundred, I asked the question of the ISO and electoral politics and the response was that it must be remembered that the most famous socialist, Eugene Debs, ran for president multiple times and used those campaigns to bring thousands into revolutionary politics. I would love to see that sentiment expressed more. We did support Nader and was able to use his campaign and speeches to raise awareness of socialism though…
    It is true that ISO dues are prenty high… But, the unemployed comrades up here only pay what they can, and there has been no problem with that.
    As for internal democracy… SPUSA is not the place for democracy as last convention and the harassment of Revolutionary Unity proved.

    I hope this does not sound bitter. My fellow Bolshevik Beach Bums (My SPUSA local) in South Florida are absolutely fantastic. Great group of revolutionaries (not reformists like the Greens in the party…) and my overall view of SPUSA is pretty good. As a Leninist, my thinking is a bit closer to the ISO, but more importantly, the ISO is the most active group in the pretty active city (Plently of libertarian socialists/council communists and Wobblies in the area).

    It really comes down to the local though. National politics is important, obviously, but I’ld take building the movement first over building the Party anyday.

  8. September 2, 2012 at 1:51 pm

    I’m curious what your experience with the SP is. I have some observations on Socialist Action that are very different from yours.

  9. September 2, 2012 at 2:16 pm

    Just a few observations on Socialist Action. Contrary to what you say, SA only has about 100 dues paying members. About 2/3 are organized in branches, the rest in an at-large status. SA has run candidates in the past and may do so again, but this isn’t the primary pre-occupation of the group. Their main focus is on mass action type activity. The main activist arena is the antiwar movement.

    Dues are $5 a month like you say, but members are encouraged to give an additional sustainer.

    You say “Members are encouraged, but not required to, be involved in the internal workings of the party (decisions are made via direct democracy.” This is not correct. Members are expected to be active in the internal life of the group and to be active in some mass activity. The highest decision making body is the national convention and branches are given some flexibility in how to apply the political line on the ground. The Political Committee in reality calls the shots between conventions. The NC barely functions. Direct democracy is not an accurate description. They function according to democratic centralism.

    I’m a former NC member and branch organizer. I would not encourage /anyone/ to join SA. I’m happy to discuss SA with anyone via email

    • 14 trotskyite
      September 2, 2012 at 4:03 pm

      Simply put, I’ve had no experience with the SPUSA- I joined up, but every attempt of mine to get in contact with any of their branches just never produced any results. Aside from getting a copy of their newspaper, I never heard from ’em.

  10. September 2, 2012 at 4:09 pm

    No surprise. The SP is, IMO, a pretty worthless group. There are some good folks in the SP- don’t get me wrong – but the organization itself will /never/ be a revolutionary org. Let’s discuss more via email if you want.

  11. September 11, 2012 at 11:02 pm

    thanks for your extensive and thoughtful analysis – i went through a similar process of gathering information and discernment a few months ago, and continue to revisit the issue – i am currently a dsa member, but am considering joining the chicago socialist party as well (which is affiliated in some way with the sp-usa) – i also keep tabs on the socialist equality party – happy to have found your weblog – solidarity!

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