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The ISO: Where do they get all that funding?

The International Socialist Organization (ISO), operates as a recipient of grants from the Center for Economic Research and Social Change. The latter's assets comprised largely of Wall Street stock...until they sold it to pay themselves.
We've seen the ISO at community meetings, on campus, and in rare exceptions, in the workplace. With their authoritarian tendencies, attacks on anarchism and anarchists, historical revisionism on radical labor politics, cult-like recruiting tactics, and bizarre social manipulations of groups, many anarchists have asked the $60,000 question: are these folks paid, and who pays them?

The Center for Economic Research and Social Change is the paper organization for the ISO and their activities. They are a 501c3 organization (also in Chicago) that files 990s with the IRS every year. It is a common practice amongst activists to have a non-profit act as a steward for managing funds of other groups. Activist organizations often umbrella under non-profits, in order to save the administrative and bureaucratic hassle of getting a tax exemption-even anarchists.

In the last few years, the ISO has gotten pretty consistent with their presence in various places; the International Socialist Review is a slick, professional looking left magazine, and the ISO conventions run in the tens of thousands to organize. You can set your watch to when they will show up at various spots to sell the SW. If you think it is hard to believe that the ISO can pay for all of this with dues money and Socialist Worker sales, especially when publications with no advertising do not turn a profit, then you're on to something.

According to the 990 IRS forms filed in 2001, the Center received a large donation--perhaps a good chunk of the startup funds, from a man named Kevin Neel, who donated over 1.2 million in stock. The stock acquired by the Center is in Oracle and Phillip Morris. The Center has been selling off portions of this stock every year in excess of several hundred thousand a year, to fund a huge payroll, including $45,000 a year plus benefits to the Center's president Ahmed Sehrawy. For the year 2000-01, the total payroll in wages and benefits was $185,000 (presumably disbursed to several party organizers and staff-only $27,000 went to pay two officers of the Center.); in 2001-02, over $400,000, and in 2002-03: nearly $500,000. In 2002-03, Sehrawy made nearly $60,000 in wages and benefits.

For the past three years, the Center has also derived its funding from a handful of activists, much of it in cash. What this tells us is that the workers do not support the Center and the ISO-a few men with disposable income do. And given that fact that the Center's bottom line continues to show a net loss, these funds will soon dwindle, and magazine and paper sales will be as crucial as ever. This is in spite of a net increase of literature sales and monies raised at their yearly socialist conference in Chicago.

In the left, all one has to do is follow the money, to see who controls the politics. More research will reveal specifics on the relationship between the ISO and the Center's stock "trust fund". These "trustifarians" simply wear a blue collar. Thing is, who's on the rest of their payroll is not a matter of public record. And it would be too much to expect an organization for the workers to actually tell the workers who is on the payroll.

well, what I heard 19.Dec.2004 04:43


I'm under the impression that the ISO charges its members SUBSTANTIAL dues -- somewhat like "tithing," like 10% of your income -- along with demanding X hours a week selling their silly paper, and that nobody gets paid. Somehow they keep getting more people to do this. Amazing what you can accomplish by focusing single-mindedly on a limited set of fixed goals and not letting messy details like internal democracy get in the way.

I dont get it 19.Dec.2004 05:14


Look. I'm no fan of ISO. I've always thought they were narrowminded and sectarian, a kind of political cult. However, your vague innuendos are out of line. If they are "spending down" a pot of money from some sugardaddy once upon a time, where's the evidence that they're towing someone's line based on cash? Wouldn't that rather show that they may have failed to tow the right line? I don't suppose you'd argue that they've been pro-Philip Morris, for instance. Would you have them not take the cash? Or are you criticizing them for not husbanding it wisely and lavishing it on salaries, conferences, and glossy publications? You can't have it both ways. I think you're just anti-ISO. If they had made the pot increase and kept their own salaries miserly, you'd cite that as further evidence against them for being "profiteers." If they spent the money on glossy publications and staff salaries, then they're profligates.

If you're criticizing them for wasting the money on things that haven't effectively advanced their goals, that might be fair. But your argument style comes off as paranoid and reflexively anti-ISO. There could be corruption in the ranks of ISO. There's corruption in our society in general, and as ISO points out themselves, the "level of struggle" in our society is very low. So even in the most disciplined organizations, there are liable under the circumstances to be corrupting influences, as people start to value their own comfort too highly in the face of the prospect of perpetual, ruthless capitalism with no light at the end of the tunnel. However, that wouldn't necessarily be a very good basis for categorically condemning the ISO as a whole. And $60,000 for an organization chief's salary is relative chickenfeed in the world of "corruption." Your argument seems more cranky than convincing to me.

What's Wrong Here 19.Dec.2004 09:45


This is what the libertarian socialist, World Socialist Party (WSP) says about this same ISO article on their news blog.


The following is a posting from the Anarchist Infoshop website. It deals with the financial set-up of the Trotskyist International Socialist Organization (ISO).

We feel it is important that radicals understand why the backroom financial dealings within pseudo-socialist organizations such as the International Socialist Organization (ISO) as anti-working class.

Real working class organizations run on the rotation of organizational duties and anti-careerism. These principles have guided the WSP since its inception in 1916. They also animate such unions as the IWW, United Electric (UE) and the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). If an organization pays the staff, they pay them the average members wage. (Do you really think the average ISO earns $60,000/year?- Rab) Working Class organizations also limit the length of time members can serve as officers and staff of the organization. These principles are necessary to prevent careerism, staff led organizational conservatism, power cliques and to safeguard internal democracy.

One also has to wonder what effect upon internal organizational democracy the fact that one individual underwrites over $200,000 a year of wages and publication costs. Would such an organization jeopardize their income to take position which the sugardaddy disagrees with?

Career Opportunitites 19.Dec.2004 11:22


When an organization grows to a certain size, it makes sense to compensate one or two people to handle the administrative work. A $400,000 annual budget seems a bit much for the ISO and their parent organization. Since the ISO is mostly students, I cannot imagine that tithing is required unless you have moved up in the organization. New church members are never required to cough up 10%.

However, lets look at the track record of the ISO.

They are intolerant of internal criticism. Those of us who have been in "the game" long enough know of at least one person thrown out for not towing the line, not being "committed" enough, or not selling enough papers. I have met two such people, and the stories are so horrific and personal it would be disrespectful to repeat them in a public forum.

They are revisionists, and for years held "panel discussions" about the IWW in past term tense: "used to", "believed", etc. Now for the most part they just refuse to acknowledge the current contributions of the IWW in general.

Like many other M/L organizations, they will lambast anarchists, unless they are potential recuits. I have a leaflet in my archives, an ISO leaflet entitled "why anarchists can't organize". It was issued in Seattle before the WTO protests.

In organizational settings, if they cannot destroy the social leadership in order to take over, they will simply ignore that political issue or cause. And when the group formed around the issue loses interest collapses as a result of this disruptive behavior, they declare the people apathetic and move ahead with their agenda. Real vangaurds operate with support, not as a clique.

I'm told that since Tony Cliff passed on, the national leadership is becoming more pragmatic in their approach to the movement at large, which may be a good sign, but the ISO has a lot of baggage--and a lot of apologizing to do, before I will ever consider them any more then a liability and an obstruction to practical work, particularly in the workplace.

I have also witnessed a patronizing attitude toward people of color and women in recruiting; picture white guys telling people of color and women to go to ISO workshops to learn about their oppression. They have been effectively 86ed from the Central District in Seattle. (At least the RCP made the attempt to change after being severely criticized.)

And in reference to the article above: they have SERIOUS transparency issues, and while the article itself is unclear in parts, it needs to be recognized that there is a difference between an organization with broad based funding and support, and one that receives large contributions (and stock dividends) to create a spectacular illusion that they are supported by the community.

But hell, don't take my word for it. If you are aquainted with these folks, ask them hard questions and see where it gets you.

much ado about nothing 22.Dec.2004 01:00

D slum_villa@yahoo.com

I originally saw this "article" (slander) on Infoshop and posted the following comment:

Did Ann Coulter write this?

No one should give this article any credibility.

Sadly, this is like an anarchist version of right-wing Frontpage Magazine ( http://www.frontpagemag.org) who recently accused the ISO of being the "parent organization" of ANSWER ( http://www.internationalanswer.org).

This article deserves to be in the class of "journalism" that Fox News belongs in.

How is paying dues a version of tithing? Tithing is a biblical mandate. Members are not required to pay 10%, they choose to pay whatever they can. Some members pay as little as $5 a month. The ISO is not awash in money contrary to what this article claims.

(  http://www.infoshop.org/inews/stories.php?story=04/12/18/3006900 )

Non profit 990s 22.Dec.2004 21:36


You can do a search for them at www.guidestar.com. The article checks out.

shame on you 05.Dec.2005 22:59

frank c.

In addition to working full time, I've been an active ISO member for a couple of years now. I sell SW at community meetings, on campus, and in my union and workplace. Look, SW costs more to produce than we sell it for. the paper is a tool we use to engage with people who are radicalizing under the current assaults by the bosses and state, to generalize local rank and file struggles, and hopefully draw more people into organized class struggle. If you have political disagreements with the paper, say so. Your implication that the ISO is somehow a capitalist tool, because a few of our staffers earn a decent wage for the 16 hour days they put in is contemptable. Just like you, we don't own the fucking means of production so in order to operate, we have to engage with the existing system. I wish revolutionaries had tons of money to gather materials to organize with. As a rank and file member, I've never been denied an accounting of our funds or expenditures by our democratically elected leadership. More importantly, ALL MEMBERS ARE ENCOURAGED TO LEAD, OPENLY ORGANIZE, AND CHALLENGE WHAT WE DISAGREE WITH. And yes, we do have internal disagreements and debates about prioritizing our resources. a major influence on my decision to join, after years of skepticism bred by lifestyle b.s. and pointless sectarian jargony sniping was simply witnessing the high political calibre and commitment of ISO members and staff. they remain the most dedicated revolutionaries i've ever met in my life, the vast majority of our work is donated time and many of us do political work until forced to sleep. i'm sure you agree, there are so many important struggles people must win, along with trying to rally what remains of the left AND train a generation of revolutionary fighters.
As far as "cult-like recruiting tactics, and bizarre social manipulations of groups" give some examples, cause i think it's bullshit. If you're referring to the fact that some members become close friends or lovers, so what? Its always true when people work in important ways closely together for long periods of time. We also have members who personally despise one another but are united politically. Apparently, you have political disagreements ("authoritarian tendencies, attacks on anarchism and anarchists, historical revisionism on radical labor politics"). Fine. make a political argument. I hope you're successfull in your work organizing a revolutionary left. I have every confidence in what working people decide to do when they start feeling their class' inherent power. You're article is wrong about the ISO. What's your motivation for such flimsy innuendo? Is it political? Then address it politically. Otherwise lets both just get back to smashing the capitalist class once and for all.

thank god for shame on you 01.Mar.2006 23:11


I was a member of the ISO for over 10 years. I dropped out for personal reasons but remain a defender of the organization, particularly against such drivel as spewed here. The members of the organization, in my time, finacially supported it. People paid what they could but if you made a decent wage you were expected to give, your time and money. And when I was a member, we were all working class and students. Given they recruit on campus, members will generally go into decently paid jobs, if not well paid jobs. If I was still a member and if Ahmed is really making $60,000 a year then we would be making the same salary. I remain an exploited member of the working class as does he, except he works for something he believes in and is passionate about. If he works as hard as he did back then, he should be approaching exhaustion. And if I won the lottery or had an inheritance, I would give ALOT to the ISO and I feel absolutely confident they would use it wisely. You don't think this is actually how they got what money they have, other than member support?

The reason I would trust them is often a major criticism. They are not democratic and that the same people remain in leadership. Have you ever thought they might be really good leaders? In my time there was a clear agenda and committment to encouraging everyone to be leader. Everyone was being trained to go out and make the arguements, build the group, build the movement, build the challenge to capitalism. That is a good thing.

It was clear what kind of organization we were and they are still, and what they are trying to built. A Leninist organization with a very committed cadre. If you didn't want to be that, leave. So many people are embittered with them because they wanted the ISO to be what they needed in life, instead of the ISO being the organization that will challenge the capitalist system. It's just a bunch of egomanical trantrums. I was checked more than once when I didn't quite argue the line. Some of those times I still feel I was absolutely right, and other arguments I realized then or in the time since, that others were right. But we had the arguments. And, yes, if you challenge, you better make the case because these are alot of people with experience and knowledge and will (and the best read bunch I've ever met)that might challenge you. I felt respected by this not bullied. And I want leaders like that!

As I sit here in the Republican bastion of Cincinnati and look around at all the fascist religious right just growing I am ever more thankful that the ISO exists in the world and give them God speed. Yeah that was one of our disagreemnts. I was soft on religion. The ISO response was to let me give an educational on it and argue and defend my position. Though we disagreed, we remained on the same side.

So recognize if you want to bash the ISO ask yourself if you really have a politcal point or are you just a baiter? If there are truely political differences then recognise them and move on. But stop bashing the only socialist organization that is thriving.

The fire next time will be here before we know it.

Don't underestimate the "tithe" 13.Nov.2009 07:11


I was a member of the SWP, the ISO's sister organisation in the UK, for five years in my early twenties. It was only after I moved away that I started to look critically at it, and suffice it to say, I'm rather embarrassed now about a lot of the things I went along with.

However, I will say that the ordinary rank-and-file activists I met were, almost without exception, very generous with their time and their money (and, I should state, genuinely idealistic and not at all like the Machiavellian "Central Committee"). The "tithe" referred to above was quite real: they asked for a share of your income structured like a progressive tax, with a 10% minimum bracket, increasing to 100% [sic] of every pound earned above GBP40,000. Real money. As I said, people were committed.

I don't find it hard to believe that this level of commitment could cover the cost of printing of a newspaper and magazine.