Source: Self-published pamphlet, February 1, 2002
Mark-up: by Steve Painter
[The International Socialist Organisation national conference in early 2002 was preceded by an extensive internal discussion.]
The socialist left in Australia is numerically the smallest it has been for about 100 years, and proportionately even smaller if you consider that in the early years of the 20th century, when the Marxist left was about the same numerical size as it is today, Australia had a population of about four million, compared with nearly 20 million now. The overthrow of Stalinism in the Soviet Union, the removal of the greatest obstacle to healthy socialist movements for most of the 20th century, has not led to the more or less automatic flowering of a better socialist movement.
The self-liquidation of the major Stalinist organisation in Australia, the Communist Party of Australia, has not led to significant growth in healthier revolutionary socialist groupings to fill the ecological niche left by the CPA. The far left in Australia now numbers, at most about 1000, broken down roughly into 40 per cent in the hardened and efficient, self-perpetuating sect known as the DSP, another 40 per cent in three groupings: the Socialist Party, the Socialist Alternative and the ISO, and the final 20 per cent made up of ageing Stalinist groupings such as the rump CPA (formerly SPA), the Progressive Labor Party, and a number of tiny Trotskyist groups and circles.
I address myself to the comrades in the ISO in the context of their current internal crisis because, in some significant ways, the ISO is healthier than the other groups. The internal discussion in the ISO, precipitated by the factional struggle in that organisation, has thrown into sharp focus a number of questions that are critical to the future of the Marxist left in Australia, if it is to have a future.
I base my observations on my knowledge of the activities of the ISO in spheres in which I have also been active, and my experience and reading of the history of the Australian labour movement. The political upheavals of the past year in the ISO, and the IS tendency internationally, have been well-documented in The Activist, the internal bulletin of the rival organisation, the DSP.
Paradoxically, the members of the DSP are much better informed about the factional disputes and crisis of the IS tendency internationally than the members of the ISO, because The Activist has published, for internal DSP consumption, a number of documents giving the viewpoints of all the contenders in the ISO conflict internationally, whereas the Australian ISO has only published the viewpoint of the British SWP leadership.
There has been a marked development and refinement of debate. In the ISO bulletins, as the discussion has proceeded, the tone of the contributions has moderated, which indicates that there is a large “centre” in the organisation, and all participants seem to want to avoid an immediate split, even the supporters of the British SWP leadership.
A number of the contributors make very specific, concrete and sometimes quite complex proposals for the organisation, and these proposals cut across factional lines, although there is clearly a fierce underlying factional tension. There is an enthusiastic spirit in a lot of the contributions, despite the commentary in them on the chaotic nature of the outfit that they have joined. Many of the participants clearly want to make the ISO work.
The weakness in the ISO’s internal discussion, seems to be in the area of the concrete issues, and current strategic questions that are erupting in the Australian labour movement, the unions and the ALP. The ISO’s Socialist Alliance ally, the DSP, is totally unrepentant, and the DSP’s formidable organisation is implacably grinding along with its exposure-of-Laborism strategy, and in opposition to any practical united front with the Laborites. It does not even draw back from rejoicing in the current conservative push to remove the unions from the ALP.
In the face of the considerable weight of the DSP on the far left, the failure to have a serious consideration of these issues, seems to me a big defect in the ISO’s internal discussion. I will therefore raise a number of those questions in this document. My frame of reference is the set of perspectives, for which I argue on the far left, which I summarised at the end of my recent critique of a DSP historical pamphlet The Red North, which I repeat below.
A perspective for Marxists in the 21st century
It follows from any serious appraisal of the current circumstances that the following perspective is useful to any group of serious Marxists.
The Marxist groups, including the DSP, should adopt a rational strategy, summarised in a slogan like “build a class-struggle left-wing in the labour movement”. A genuine attempt to build an actual class-struggle left wing, rather than the demagogic caricature of such a left-wing advocated by the DSP, would inevitably involve ditching the completely futile and destructive expose-Laborism-and-all-its-works strategy of the DSP.
In sum, all the above perspectives, if practised seriously, would necessarily involve the adoption of a united-front strategy towards Laborism, and would also involve the socialist groups encouraging the serious development of the Labor Left, rather than regarding the Labor Left as an organisational rival to be destroyed. Such a reorientation, the adoption of a thoroughgoing united front strategy, is obviously a necessary precondition for Marxist groups to be able to adopt any serious orientation towards trade unions, the organised labour movement and the working class.
A similar united front strategy should be adopted by the socialist groups towards the Greens, with the encouragement of the development of a socialist left within the Greens. Such a strategy towards the Greens should begin forthwith.
Much of the discussion in the IS tendency internationally and in Australia has focussed on the nature of the period. This discussion takes a slightly curious form, arising from the cultic tradition of the IS tendency around the figure of the founder, Tony Cliff. An energetic and effective theoretician and organiser, Cliff was, like Gerry Healy for his outfit, its major creator.
A tendency developed in the IS current, thankfully not nearly as pronounced as in Healy’s organisation, for the tactics and strategic instincts of the leader to be taken as a kind of gospel. Cliff argued, mainly accurately, that there was a downturn in the class struggle in the 1980s. Discussion in the IS tendency on these matters tended to become refinement and commentary on Cliff’s frequently correct, but sometimes wrong, tactical instincts.
In the early 1990s, Cliff decided, less correctly, in my view, that the situation had changed fundamentally, and indirectly introduced the idea that enormous possibilities had emerged for revolutionary socialists, in a rather obtuse throwaway remark, that the 1990s were the 1930s “in slow motion”, whatever that means.
This proved to be a singularly confusing comparison, which was accentuated by the way it became a shibboleth in the IS tendency, where the British SWP leadership insisted on the use of this incoherent formula as some kind of keynote for the discussion of the period.
The 1990s did not resemble the 1930s in most major respects. Fascism did not develop as a mass current in any major country in the 1990s. Social Democratic governments came to power in most western European countries, and one gigantic bourgeois superpower, the United States, became more or less dominant in the world, although in conflict with Europe, China and Japan. There was no global economic crash of the scale of the 1929 Depression, which shaped the 1930s.
The difference between the 1930s and the 1990s were so enormous, organic and fundamental as to make this throwaway remark by Cliff a source of immense confusion. The reverent way Australian ISO supporters of the British SWP leadership attempt to frame their arguments in terms of this inane formula as a way of invoking clan loyalty underlines a certain deterioration in the political understanding and perception of the supporters of the leadership of the British SWP.
The real content of this confusing comparison was to suggest that there is enormous immediate scope for the growth of the IS tendency, by an intensification of (rhetorically and mentally) elevating even small radicalisations in any sphere, into “major radicalisations”, which justifies an increasingly authoritarian “campaigning” regime inside the organisation.
I’ll return to that aspect later. In the debate about the general character of the period, internationally and in Australia, it is superfluous to repeat the points made by Tom O’Lincoln in his contributions in the IS internal bulletins. They are potent and unanswerable, and I note that those who wish to establish themselves as the Australian ISO leadership, with the support of Callinicos and the British, have not even seriously attempted to dispute O’Lincoln.
His statistics about strike levels are particularly compelling. I have also found useful Ahmed Shawki’s long article from the US ISO magazine, reproduced by the DSP, and the short piece by the ISO group in Dunedin, New Zealand, also reproduced by the DSP. I would add the following comments of my own, drawn from my own experience on the left and labour movement in Australia, and observations of the movement internationally.
There were three periods of sharp general radicalisation in the 20th century. The first from 1917 to 1923. The second very uneven one, from about 1934 to 1948, punctuated by World War II, and the third from about 1965 to 1983. To equate, or even seriously compare, the current radical movement in opposition to globalisation in continental Europe, and to a lesser extent in Britain, the United States and Australia, with any of these past radicalisations is an absurdity.
In particular, to compare it with the late 1960s and the early 1970s, which is the most common comparison, simply underscores the limited nature, so far, of the current movement. Quite obviously, the most substantial difference is the much lower level of economic and social class struggles, which is the case partly because of the substantially reduced weight and influence of trade unions in many countries.
This is most pronounced in the English-speaking world, where unions were a powerful institutional force, and the natural seedbed in past upsurges of the economic class struggle. The late 1960s and the early 1970s were a kind of high point for union-located class struggle in those countries. The 1990s were their low point, although there is a small, barely perceptible improvement in this respect right now.
Marxists ought to start their general perspectives from what exists, particularly in the class struggle, not what they would like to see. One feature of the 1960s and 1970s radicalisation in Australia was constant interaction between developments in the labour movement and unions, and the radical activities of the antiwar movement, youth, students and radicalised members of the middle class.
Lindsay German has this piece of double-talk in the January 2002 issue of the British Socialist Review:
“But in Britain the political revival of the working class movement in recent years has been much more rapid than its organisational revival. The level of knowledge and understanding among the people who have become involved in the anti-capitalist movement is, on average, extremely high. The fight against privatisation is not just fuelled by the knowledge and inclinations of the workers in threatened industries but by books such as George Monbiot’s Captive State, which demonstrates the links between government, private capital and the erosion of democracy. The cumulative effects on the decline of old Labourism, the rise of Blairism, the disillusionment in Labour’s first term, the failure of trade union leaders to express that opposition, the mass working class abstention in last June’s election and the rise of the Socialist Alliance, have all added a sharper aspect to any protest movement against this Government.”
The influence of books on radicalisations
I don’t share Lindsay German’s view that any book of superficial journalistic commentary has the decisive impact that she gives to Monbiot. Slightly fashionable books of radical journalism come and go. They do have an effect on movements, but so do objective conditions — much more so — and the movement of the working class is the major factor, which the SWP used to know.
The striking thing about the literature of the current anti-globalisation movement is, broadly speaking, its underlying hostility to Marxism on the key point of the role of the working class and of the labour movement.
Monbiot is quite representative in this respect. By way of comparison, the literature of the 1960s and the 1970s had two major streams, an anti-Marxist stream, epitomised by Herbert Marcuse and Daniel Cohn Bendit, and a more or less Marxist stream, across a very wide spectrum, from Mao’s Little Red Book to Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution.
From memory, the six most widely read books were Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man and Cohn Bendit’s Obsolete Communism (from the anti-Marxist stream) and David Horowitz’s From Yalta to Vietnam, Mao’s Little Red Book, Chomsky’s American Power and the New Mandarins, Seal and McConville’s Penguin Special on May 1968 in France, and Che Guevara’s Bolivian Diary (from the Marxist stream).
The classics of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, and the anti-classics of Stalin and Mao were also read widely. One Trotskyist sect in Australia that grew quite large and sustained a twice-a-week paper of 16 pages, with a circulation of 4000-5000 per issue, for some years — the Socialist Labour League — actually originated from an extended study group that used as its text Ernest Mandel’s massive book, Marxist Economic Theory.
In the 1960s and the 1970s, the wave of students going into the universities — then rapidly expanding — read books a fair bit, and their attention span had not been undermined in the way that computer games have undermined to some extent the attention span of the current generation of students.
One only has to describe the healthy ideological ferment, and the circumstances among the newer strata in the 1960s and 1970s to understand the distinct limitations of this current radicalisation.
In addition to this, the cane-toad ideological influence of postmodernism has dramatically dumbed down the general ideological atmosphere in universities. (While the all-pervasive influence of post-modernism is a retarding influence on students, it presents an opportunity for Marxists in universities. There is a widespread and generalised resentment of its obtuseness among the more serious minority of students, and a forthright struggle for basic Marxist ideas can carve out an audience, provided that Marxism is sharply contrasted to postmodernism.)
From that point of view, the controversial program of meetings on the revolutionary ideas of Karl Marx, in the midst of the Nader electoral campaign, conducted by the American ISO (maligned by the British SWP) seems pretty smart to me. A vigorous intellectual struggle is required in universities to interest radicalising students in the working class and labour movement in a way that has something in common with what the IS current internationally used to do (albeit in a rather leftist way).
Such a serious ideological struggle for Marxism ought not to conflict with maintaining a united front with people being radicalised in the anti-globalisation current. This radicalising current certainly does exist and it is entirely sensible for socialists to try to get a foothold in these circles, but it is not useful at all to wildly over-generalise the development, and to exaggerate its magnitude, to justify an authoritarian “campaigning” regime in socialist organisations at the expense of the serious political discussion in the socialist movement that is actually required in this situation.
The (always imminent) economic crisis
Tom Barnes, in a long-winded way, does his loyal bit to defend the line of the British SWP in IS Bulletin No 3. Up to a point, his economic observations are accurate enough, although derivative. He does what we would all have done (at different times) since about 1971, when Gerry Healy decided that the abolition of the Bretton Woods Agreement heralded an imminent crisis of a catastrophic sort related to the declining rate of profit and the question of value in the capitalist economy.
Indeed, since 1971 there have been a number of major recessions and economic upheavals in the capitalist system. The present crisis in Argentina is the second of its type in the past 15 years. I have done a bit of this sort of crisis-mongering myself! In an article attacking Keith Windschuttle’s shift to the right a couple of years ago, I correctly pointed to the dotcom crash as indicative of the endemic crisis of the capitalism system, but my unspoken implication in that article, that it would lead to something more generalised, proved in the event to be mistaken — so far.
Tom Barnes faces the same problem. His implication of the strong likelihood of a massive collapse of the capitalist economy in the immediate future might be proved correct, but I’ve stopped holding my breath in such matters. Neither Tom Barnes nor I have any special knowledge in this sphere, and Barnes is clearly using his economic speculations (obviously derived mainly from the British SWP) to underpin an argument in favour of a batten-the-hatches “campaigning”, authoritarian regime in the ISO.
I’ve been having a dialogue in my shop for many years with one of my customers, a now-retired school teacher, an ex-member of the CPA and the SLL, who used to go to ISO Forums, when they were held, who is an extremely knowledgeable and widely read student of Marxism.
His main preoccupation is the broad sphere of Marxian economics. This bloke has, for the 30 years or so that I have known him, been predicting, on the basis of each new conjunctural event, and the broad sweep of Marxist theory, about which he is exceedingly knowledgeable, the almost imminent collapse of the system.
Gerry Healy used to do the same thing, and Healy persuaded me of this for a few years, and my customer half-persuades me from time to time. The problem is that we haven’t had a crash in the classic catastrophic form since 1929, despite the inbuilt instability of the global capitalist system.
What comes into play is Lenin’s well-known, broad general proposition that in the absence of an adequate Marxist leadership to overthrow it, there is no crisis out of which the ruling class and the capitalist system can’t scramble. One feature of the economics of modern capitalism is that while the underlying contradictions of the system can’t be removed, the ruling classes and strata of the capitalist world have developed a number of mechanisms for fine-tuning the technical problems of the system.
They also change the rules by a continued expansion of credit arrangements at all levels. It is not excluded that we may again one day experience a global 1929, but it’s pretty stupid to make your predictions of such a development so forceful. Tom Barnes’ indication of a more-or-less imminent economic crisis from conjuctural political developments is a Red Professor act to buttress his politically dubious propositions for the internal life of the ISO.
As Tom O’Lincoln points out, constantly and very effectively, if a massive economic collapse, like 1929, were to occur, after the first initial shock its short-term impact would be to drown the economic class struggle in the desperate proletarian struggle for survival, as it did in the 1930s. It was only after the beginnings of an economic revival in the mid-1930s that manifestations of the economic class struggle began to revive.
The turn to the working class
The group in the ISO who wish to establish themselves as the new leadership, with the support of the British SWP, are working themselves into a lather about a need for a “turn to the working class”, hoping to down their opponents with this slogan as their left face.
When examined, their proposals amount to elaborate schemes for paper sales outside factories. This is obviously a rather cynical further development of the British SWP’s turn to a “campaigning” organisation, in which the “leadership” is totally dominant, and internal political discussion is minimal.
Contributions by trade unionists in the ISO advance a much more modest and sensible perspective, which is that there should actually be functioning union and workers' fractions in the ISO, concretely planning some union work in a realistic way, including a carefully considered program of paper sales.
It can be confidently predicted, on past form that, if the supporters of the British SWP win the current battle there will be no ISO organisation in trade unions as advocated by most of the ISO trade unionists, although there may be some sporadic and soul-destroying (in the current context) attempts to flog a few papers, more or less indiscriminately, outside factories.
Not surprisingly, most of the students and most of the trade unionists in the ISO seem rather cautious about this rhetorical “turn to the working class”, although these critics are all in favour of a seriously and deliberately developed turn to the working class.
Anne P’s “Key Tasks for the Australian Working Class”
In her usual forthright, businesslike, sharp and stentorian way, obviously influenced by the “turn to the working class” rhetoric of the national committee members oriented to the British SWP, Anne P belts out the following key tasks for the Australian working class. They are:
On an initial reading, it is hard to know quite what to say about this formulation. It is pretentious and meaningless for socialists to pose “tasks for the working class” in this kind of way. If you were to pose a set of tasks like this for socialists in the working class it might be more meaningful, but even then it would be saner to put point three first and have it followed by a couple of other critical industrial questions before you took up the political ones.
Anne’s point two is the strangest. Apparently, she believes the immediate task of the working class movement is to join the anti-capitalist movement on an organised basis. Socialists in unions should, certainly, argue for their unions to support anti-capitalist demonstrations, but it is unsound to suggest it should take the priority over industrial matters that Anne would give it.
The notion that the existing trade union movement could infuse the anti-capitalist movement with (socialist) working-class consciousness runs up against the grim reality that the working class, at this time, doesn’t have such a socialist consciousness to infuse.
This kind of noisy rhetoric is really a justification for subordinating all existing industrial preoccupations to the (partly notional in Australia) “anti-capitalist movement”. It is an attempt to give this general idea a left-sounding proletarian veneer.
The open letter of the British SWP to the ISO Conference, which is clearly directed at assisting the British SWP supporters to seize the leadership, says, in passing:
“Thus the priority that we rightly give to united front work is itself a cause of fragmentation. In Britain we are involved in the following major united fronts: the Socialist Alliance, the Stop the War Coalition, Globalise Resistance, the Anti-Nazi League, Defend Council Housing, and the Committee to Defend Asylum Seekers. All of these are real movements, with their own distinct constituencies and programs of activity. There is a natural tendency for SWP comrades to gravitate towards the united front that best suits their own circumstances, predilections and talents. The effect is to create powerful centrifugal forces within the party. It is very easy for comrades to be active in various campaigns, but only very intermittently involved in the life of the SWP as such.”
One interesting aspect of the above paragraph is that none of the above five spheres of activity into which the British SWP has largely dissolved has any clear or direct industrial, trade union, labour movement or working-class emphasis. In that context, it is reasonable to regard the turn-to-th- working-class rhetoric of the Australian supporters of the British SWP as mostly noise directed at helping in the achievement of the desired organisational outcome in the election in the ISO at the conference.
One thing that emerges in the ISO discussion, and from articles about Green Left Weekly paper sales in The Activist, is Tom O’Lincoln’s general point about the persistence of the downturn in manifestations of the economic class struggle. The ISO’s paper sales are less than 400 an issue, and most of those who claim to be members of the ISO don’t get the paper, which is an interesting commentary on the weird conception of membership (carried over from the British SWP).
The DSP, although a standalone sect, is much more professional and efficient in its newspaper production and distribution than the ISO. It is having great problems selling Green Left Weekly. Its circulation is down to 2000-3000 weekly and falling despite the best efforts of the rather systematic DSP, while its predecessor, Direct Action in some periods sold 5000 a week.
This drop in sales has led the DSP to reduce the size of the paper and reduce the price. This fall in paper sales, replicated in the bourgeois print media, has obviously got something to do with the internet, cable television, etc, but it is also commentary on the relatively low ebb of the economic class struggle, because sales of socialist papers, “optional extras” to most of their target consumers, tend to go up sharply during intense class struggles, strikes or other popular mobilisations, for obvious reasons.
The greatest weakness of the British SWP’s pragmatic Cominternism is that it takes minimal account, most of the time, of national peculiarities or circumstances. (There are some exceptions to this. For reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me, Cliff and Callinicos took the initiative for a small group in their German section to go into the youth group of the German Social Democratic Party, the Jusos. This entry group founded an organisation called Linksruck, which has grown spectacularly. As far as I know, Linksruck is still partly inside the SPD.)
The Callinicosintern does not seem, however, to take any particular note of specific features of the current state of the workers’ movement in Australia. Here, the labour movement has a different structure and tradition to the British labour movement. For a start, Australia is a federation of states and territories, and the existence of these states and territories has a real geographical and social basis.
Australia is the most urbanised country in the world and the states are mostly focussed on the major cities, Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide. State governments are still a decisive part of the political set-up, and the states have many more powers than, say, the Scottish or Welsh assemblies.
The labour movement, industrially and politically, for obvious reasons, reflects this geographical and governmental pattern. Trade unions and the Labor Party started in the separate colonies before federation in 1901, and each state has distinct historical traditions. The standardisation of the ALP political set-up (mostly in 1971) took place during the last great upsurge in the class struggle, but it also reflected the specific geographical circumstances and state traditions.
ALP structures were adopted in all states and the two territories that embodied the principles of proportional representation for right, left and centre at state conferences, and in five states the conference delegate ratio was fixed at 60 per cent from trade unions and 40 per cent from ALP electorate branches.
In South Australia and the two territories the proportion is 50:50. In all states and territories except NSW, where individual branch members vote in preselection ballots, the structure for ALP to select parliamentary candidates is collegiate, with branches and trade unions having a vote under a proportional representation arrangement.
This general ALP set-up gives the trade unions considerable institutional power. The shift of the labour movement to the right in the prices and incomes accord period was not the fault of the institutional influence of unions in the Labor Party, or of this 60:40 set-up. It took place because of the ideological collapse of the left in the labour movement, and its conversion by Laurie Carmichael, the Communist Party trade union leader, to the virtues of an accord, which had such disastrous consequences for trade unionism, particularly trade union density.
Despite the all-pervasive accord environment, the 60:40 proportional representation set-up at state conferences made possible sporadic instances of successful resistance, such as the defeat of electricity privatisation in NSW and the pressure on state Labor governments to remove many aspects of industrial relations legislation that handicap unions in the state arena. In all states and territories outside NSW, the trade union balance of forces favours the left, and so does the balance of forces in the ACTU.
With the gradual, albeit rather bureaucratic, renewal of the trade union movement by a new generation for whom civilised social practices (like a humane attitude to refugees and indigenous people) are almost axiomatic, and who aren’t great shakes, either, on the old accord arrangements that crippled the unions, it has obviously become desirable from the point of view of the ruling class to head off the possibility of future radicalisations by a headlong attack on trade union influence in the Labor Party.
On the left and trade union side, the unlikely, but very important initiative for the beginnings of a radicalisation have come from within the heartland of the NSW ALP right wing, the NSW Labor Council, with its very deliberate sponsorship of Labor for Refugees.
The scene is now clearly set for a major political battle in the labour movement, the two key features of which will be the resistance of the most conservative forces in the ALP parliamentary party, right and left, to the policies of Labor for Refugees, and the push by the same forces to drive the major influence of the unions out of the Labor Party.
The proverbial Blind Freddy could see that serious Marxists must take energetic initiatives on these questions. Unfortunately there’s no such Australian exceptionalism for the Australian ISO supporters of the British SWP. They do not even dignify these critical questions in the workers’ movement with any serious discussion, but in one mealy mouthed aside they say the decisive question in this situation is to emphasise to the participants in this battle that they should help build the socialist alternative outside the ALP.
Some help that is in the current circumstances! It’s obviously a bit of a gesture to the right-wing sectarians of the DSP. The obvious problem with this approach, and with the DSP’s approach, is the DSP’s facile assertion that if the unions are forced out of the Labor Party they may in the future form a “True Workers’ Party” with the DSP and the ISO. This is metaphysical bullshit. The infinitely greater probability is that, in current circumstances, the defeated unions would fall back into passivity and neutrality, and not form a “true workers’ party” with anyone, particularly not with small socialist groups. The DSP’s line in these matters is “the worse, the better”, in spades, and it is very dangerous.
If the current move to drive the unions out of the Labor Party and overturn proportional representation were to succeed, it would shift the labour movement, and the atmosphere in society, dramatically to the right. It would retard the development of radicalisations like the current one.
Happily, the predictions of the pundits, including the DSP pundits, that it will succeed are like the rumours of Mark Twain’s death — greatly exaggerated. With an appropriate agitation, this push to the right is likely to be defeated. The untidy but useful truth is that the present set-up gives all Labor Party and trade union factions and sub-factions, right and left, a vested interest in ALP affairs, including preselections for public office, and influence in governments, particularly state governments.
Properly organised and mobilised, none of the various ALP factions, trade-union-based as they are, are likely to respond to the appeal for a “self-denying ordinance” that would push them out of their influence in ALP affairs. It is hopelessly right-wing for some people who claim to be Marxists not to throw their full energies into the coming battle against the push by the ruling class to drive the unions out of the ALP.
One of the supporters of the British SWP in the ISO discussion glibly repeats an urban myth that campaigning for Labor in the 1966 elections led to the collapse, for a period, of the movement against the Vietnam War. Ashley Lavelle considerably refutes this in his contribution, but even Ashley concedes a bit too much to that lie.
I was there. As secretary of the Vietnam Action Campaign, I fought hard organising a number of demonstrations, including the Johnson demonstration, and the demonstration at Holt’s meeting at Rockdale, as well as campaigning energetically for Labor in the elections. In practice, the two spheres never were counterposed.
Our demonstrations against the war were increased in size by Labor leader Arthur Calwell’s courageous opposition to the war, and he spoke at several public meetings organised by VAC. A mere six weeks after the election defeat we had the biggest demonstration up to that time against the war, during the visit of Ky, the South Vietnamese leader, under the Harbour Bridge at Milson’s Point, where 10,000 people were addressed by Arthur Calwell before most of us marched on Kirribilli House. All through 1967 the VAC continued to organise vigorous demonstrations against the war at the same time as resisting the push within the ALP, supported from outside by the CPA, to ditch the withdrawal policy.
As a branch delegate to the 1967 NSW June ALP annual conference, I led the opposition to ditching the withdrawal policy, and rallied the overwhelming majority of left-wing delegates, and some of the right, against this proposal to abandon withdrawal, for which piece of indiscipline I was expelled from the Steering Committee, the broad left caucus in the NSW ALP. There was no Chinese wall between the battle against the Vietnam War in the streets, and the battle in the ALP.
The January 31, 2002, successful RAC Rally for Refugees, to which Labor for Refugees was an important contributor, addressed by Labor Council Secretary John Robertson, suggests that the character of the agitation against the Vietnam War in the 1960s, may be repeated today, and socialists should energetically participate in this struggle in the spirit of the 1960s, without sectarianism.
In the student movement, which is inevitably the main arena for issues such as the anti-globalisation campaign, and the pro-refugee mobilisations, the DSP proudly proclaims its intention of treating the Laborites, left and right, as the day-to-day political enemy (and the broad lefts also, insofar as they make any bloc with the Laborites).
The DSP’s activities are extremely disruptive in the student sphere, where a tactic of a broad united front with all forces moving leftwards, including everybody from the autonomists to the Labor right, is really what is required. Unfortunately the pressure from the British SWP has led to the ISO as a whole, while thankfully and sensibly still practising its own united front line in student politics, trying to avoid any serious confrontation with the DSP on this issue. This avoidance of direct debate with the DSP on the united front in the student movement, is short-sighted. Because the DSP constitutes about 40 per cent of the far left, a serious debate with them on these questions can’t be avoided, and will be very educational.
The run-up to, and the Asia-Pacific International Solidarity Conference itself, at Easter, should be used as the framework for a wide debate on the far left on these issues. It is worth noting that a significant, although very party-loyal opposition has emerged inside the DSP against its opposition to a united front in student affairs (and in opposition to some aspects of the authoritarian internal atmosphere in the DSP).
It is interesting that both the ISO student opposition and the DSP opposition say it is sectarian to automatically split the structures thrown up by the globalisation radicalisation on lines convenient to the narrow recruiting interests of the socialist groups, and both oppositions are obviously correct on this question. Both these oppositions to sectarianism concerning the united front in student affairs, will eventually be forced by events to take up the battle against sectarianism regarding Laborism in general.
It appears to me, on the basis of my observation of the cultural and political climate amongst students — which is rather concrete because of my interests and my occupation as a bookseller (a large proportion of my customers are students, and my shop is in Newtown, close to Sydney University) — that rather than being at a high political level, as Lindsay German would have it, in the patch that I inhabit the political debate among students is at a comparatively low level, despite a certain radicalisation.
This set of circumstances, grasped creatively, could be a big opportunity for socialists in universities. As it happens, in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra, there are quite a few younger academics and postgraduate students with a good deal of knowledge of and education about Marxism, the history of the labour movement, etc, and quite a few of them are in or around the ISO and Socialist Alternative.
Some ISO members who aren’t currently in universities, like Anne P., have considerable knowledge of the history of the labour movement, which was demonstrated to me by Anne’s exceptionally useful paper on Langism at the ISO’s Marxism conference last year. I have a vision of the possibility of organising such people as Anne P., Sara, Di Fieldes, Tom O’Lincoln, Phil Griffiths, Tom Bramble, Rick Kuhn, Mick Armstrong and others to organise very serious seminars, about fortnightly on Sunday afternoons, say, in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Canberra at least, directed in the first instance at students, with a heady diet of basic Marxism and labour movement history, as well as intellectual combat about the ideas current in the anti-globalisation movement etc.
Such discussions would, in the current climate, rapidly attract a very large audience, and would have far more impact than some of the rather degraded “activism” that passes for political activity in the whirling Dervish strategy advanced by the supporters of the British SWP.
The electoral results for the Socialist Alliance were very small, any way you squeeze it. The average result was a bit more than 1 per cent in the lower house, compared with 2.5 per cent for the Socialist Alliance in Britain, to say nothing of the 6-10 per cent achieved by some electoral candidates of the far left in Western Europe.
ISO members who might think it wasn’t a bad result ought to read carefully Tony Cliff’s autobiography and note the summary way he quickly dismissed electoral experiments that didn’t work in the history of the British SWP, and dumped this tactic when it was clearly unsuccessful. The Australian supporters of the British SWP, who persist in holding out hopes for the electoral possibilities of the alliance when they clearly don’t exist, have moved a long way from Cliff’s realism in electoral matters.
The Socialist Alliance could have another, more useful future, as the arena for a serious political discussion among the far left.
Despite my sharp disagreement with the politics of the DSP, which is shared by many in the ISO, it is not possible to wish away their existence, as they are 40 per cent of the far left. It is equally impossible for James S and other supporters of the British SWP in the ISO, to wish away the existence of Socialist Alternative, an organisation of similar size to the ISO, however much they dislike it.
In the real life of the far left and the student movement, and even the workers’ movement, insofar as socialists have any influence there at this time, the reality is that the existence of the three significant socialist groups is an almost insuperable obstacle to any one of them eliminating the others. From this situation flows the necessity for a serious political discussion on all the disputed theoretical, tactical and historical questions that divide the groups. In particular, the questions of perspective, and how to get a toehold in the working class, are common questions in all the groups.
It would be far saner to have a public, horizontal, serious political discussion among all the groups on the far left, both their members and their leaders. That is the kind of regroupment that is required, rather than an awkward electoral alliance with no real electoral possibilities cobbled together at the top level between the leaders of the groups.
This is particularly important for the ISO because the DSP has the initiative in the electoral alliance arena, and the Socialist Alternative shares the initiative in the student area with the ISO. The ISO has the initiative in the vital area of the defence of refugee rights. (As I write this, Augustine, the friendly leftist printer across the road, is printing an Australian edition of James P. Cannon’s Struggle for a Proletarian Party, for the DSP. They will no doubt use it for two purposes in their party education, the first being to inculcate into the members a crudification of Lenin’s conception of the party, and secondly to indoctrinate DSP members against the theory of state capitalism.
The DSP’s Australian publication of this book underlines the practical impossibility of continuing to avoid a serious political discussion with them, so why not institutionalise it and make it public?
It is clear that the British SWP leadership, and the Australian DSP leadership, are engaged in a cautious mating dance around each other for some kind of regroupment. Both the DSP and the British SWP are also engaged in regroupment discussions with the LCR in France, and the United Secretariat of the Fourth International.
Given the multiplicity of Trotskyist organisations in most countries, any serious moves towards some sort of regroupment are a good thing, but the problem is that, with highly centralised groupings like the DSP and the British SWP, regroupments tend to be agreements between leaderships that exclude serious general discussions between the members of the organisations to resolve past differences, and particularly to clarify questions of perspective. In my considered view, serious perspectives can only be elaborated, initially in a national framework, although taking into account international factors, and only brought together at an international level after they are hammered out in the particular countries.
Most of the “Tendencies” and “Fourth Internationals” have perspectives cobbled together in London, Paris, New York, or Buenos Aires, and then rammed down the throats of the local sections, without too much attention to “uneven and combined development” and national peculiarities.
If one takes as an example the Militant Tendency internationally and in Britain, the following problems emerge from an exaggeratedly, crudely centralised neo-“Leninism”. In practicing this kind of regime, the Militant Tendency has split with its very successful Scottish group, and one way or another, expelled two thirds of its members in Britain, as well as throwing out large organisations, bigger than the Militant Tendency in Britain, in Spain and Pakistan. These splits have taken place obscurely, around essentially tactical questions, with very little scope for internal discussion in the organisations.
And again, the example most relevant to the IS tendency, the history of Gerry Healy’s International Committee (in Britain the WRP and in Australia the SLL). I was personally in the orbit of this grouping in the late 1970s because it seemed to me, at the time, that it had a very serious orientation to the working class.
Its Australian newspaper was circulated widely in the working class. Internally, however, it was an autocracy, and in particular, the British WRP — Healy’s base — adopted a style and set-up very similar to the organisational arrangements that are beginning to develop in the British SWP.
Healy’s British outfit, driven by the need to sell Gerry’s brainstorm, the daily paper, became a totally militarised formation, with small “campaigning” branches that were really paper-selling organisms with no internal life. There was an almost complete gap between the members in these branches and a totally centralised leadership, which was constantly “making turns”, and whipping the members into line behind the new turn. There was no real scope for influencing the bright ideas of the leadership.
The “International Committee” of the world Healy tendency was a total autocracy, completely under the thumb of the British WRP and Healy personally, and Healy and the WRP constantly intervened in the national groups, removed leaderships, sent them “Open Letters”, took leading members from the sections to London to knock them into shape, etc, and from time to time sent plenipotentiaries as kind of political receivers, closing down whole sections, like the group in Peru.
My friend, Phil S, stayed around in the orbit of the SLL-WRP a good deal longer than I did, and he may soon publish an account of that experience. Simply describing the evolution of the SLL-WRP, which culminated in the mid-1980s in its implosion, has rather sharp echoes for the current evolution of the British SWP.
The structural form of the evolution of the British SWP is strikingly similar to what developed in Healy’s organisation: small campaigning units, an immensly powerful leadership and a constant sense of crisis to keep the members in line. Happily, the British SWP doesn’t have such an authoritarian tradition as Healy’s organisation. In particular, it doesn’t have the extraordinary cult of the leader himself, on anything like the scale of Healy’s organisation, so the comparison has limits. Nevertheless, once that kind of process has commenced in an organisation it is hard to reverse.
It would be absurd to make a mechanical comparison between the affairs of any modern Trotskyist international grouping and the Stalinist Comintern and the CPs. For a start, the powers of the leaders of international Trotskyist groupings, not having a degenerate but enormous state apparatus behind them, are not as effective and, happily, not as lethal. With this necessary caveat, it is still quite useful to look at modern developments in the mirror of the history of the Comintern, the Communist Parties and, in this instance, the Australian CP.
The first thing that must be said is that the degeneration of the Comintern and the CPs had its origins in objective circumstances that were entirely natural, which was that the Russian Bolsheviks had enormous authority from the success of the Russian Revolution, and this authority was strengthened by excitement about the worldwide revolutionary upsurge. Most members of the CPs went along with the degeneration of their organisations, because, in the previous period — that of Lenin and Trotsky — the Comintern had immense prestige with advanced workers.
It is often forgotten that the Comintern gave effective and useful advice to the national sections in its early years before the Stalinist degeneration seriously set in. The degeneration of the Comintern, once the degeneration had really got under way in the Russian Party, was advanced by the centralisation of the Comintern, which had some advantages earlier. In the early period, however, perspectives were rarely elaborated in a crude, globalistic way, without attention to national peculiarities.
The degeneration of the Comintern was particularly marked by the adoption of the Third Period universal line for all countries, which took no account at all of the national characteristics of particular labour movements. The very fact that the Third Period was so crazy was in fact an effective device for breaking the spirit of the leaders and ranks of communist organisations and getting them to follow with blind loyalty,anything that came out of the Soviet Union. This is all documented in great detail in Duncan Hallas’s extremely useful book on the Comintern, and in Tony Cliff’s autobiography, both of which are available from the ISO.
The Stalinisation of the Australian Communist Party is documented in a considerable literature, largely illuminated by new material obtained since 1990 from the Comintern archives. I have just acquired for sale, at the cheap rate of $5 each in my shop, two important recent issues of the 200-page periodical Labor History, which have two important articles, one of them by Barbara Curthoys, a historian from the CP tradition, which recounts the details of the decisive Stalinisation of the CP in 1929, and the other very useful article by Beris Penrose, a historian in the IS tradition, which uses similar Comintern material to take the story of the Stalinisation further.
The striking thing about the story of the Stalinisation of the Australian CP is how similar the actual form of the events is to the history of the repeated interventions of the British SWP leadership in the Australian ISO. The similarities include taking people to Moscow for indoctrination, sending plenipotentiaries to Australia to enforce the Comintern line, and several “Cables from Moscow” similar to the British SWP’s “Open Letters”.
J.B. Miles, the Stalinist leader of the Australian CP, was famous for getting an airmail copy of Inprecor the Comintern journal, so that he could get the new line before everybody else, which considerably increased his reputation for omniscience. The Third Period line was used to “Bolshevise” the CP by imposing frenzied voluntaristic activity justified by the enormous, in this case real, nature of the economic crisis. The old saying is that history repeated too often becomes farce.
The new “Open Letter” from the British SWP to the Australian ISO, is an iron fist in a velvet glove. It implicitly supports the bid for leadership of the ISO faction the British leadership wants by demanding acceptance of the general perspective laid down by the British SWP. Anyone who seeks to vary it too much is clearly threatened with excommunication, thrust into the exterior darkness, like the 1000-strong US ISO, the Socialist Alternative and half the Greek group.
It is implied that removing those groups, because of (fairly minimal) tactical differences, is totally justified by the urgency of the situation, and that outer darkness is the fate of any group that does not recognise the new turn of the British SWP. Happily, the world does not really function in this way. Groups and organisations still live, and are tested in the material world, even if they have been thrust, by self-appointed leaderships, out of “Internationals” or “International Tendencies”.
There is a fair amount of serendipity in socialist politics. I’m told that Alex Callinicos, the confident, polished academic who is the main international leader of the British SWP, is a descendent, (along with a current historian, also named Acton) of Lord Acton, the noted 19th century British historian. Lord Acton, an accomplished English Catholic, and a liberal Whig in politics, was the redoubtable man who conducted a vigorous campaign against the proclamation of Papal Infallibility in the Catholic Church. His ancestry should cause Alex Callinicos to be extremely cautious about the implicit claims of the British SWP leadership to a kind of political infallibility. (Lord Acton was famous for his statement, “All power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”)
More serendipity: Callinicos was born in Zimbabwe, where the masses are fighting to get rid of the dictator Mugabe. The vigorous and courageous Zimbabwe ISO has been up to its ears on the political and trade union fronts to overthrow the dictator, and has even succeeded in electing a member to the parliament as part of the coalition opposing the regime, and has threaded its way fairly successfully through all the major political pitfalls thrown up by the upheaval in Zimbabwe. In the midst of all this it has also found the time, and been courageous enough in the world IS Tendency, to publicly register its disagreement with the exclusion of the US ISO.
The Australian ISO should, as Tom O’Lincoln suggests in one of his contributions to the discussion, elaborate its own political line, based on objective conditions in Australia and the world, and not worry if that upsets the British SWP leadership. It is time for the Australian ISO, if one can paraphrase Karl Marx a bit, to “Learn to speak Zimbabwean”.
Events surrounding its conference reflect a real crisis in the ISO. ISO membership has obviously dropped, and the ISO is squeezed from two directions. One direction is that of the Socialist Alternative group, which is a direct competitor of the ISO in all the cities where the ISO exists except Perth. Socialist Alternative has grown rapidly and is at least the same size as the ISO, and possibly a little larger.
Socialist Alternative operates what could be described as a more sophisticated version of the old ISO orientation: a primarily propaganda orientation to university students, combined with a certain amount of ultraleftism in some demonstrations.
The other group squeezing the ISO is the DSP, which has pushed very hard to turn the Socialist Alliance into a kind of public vehicle for the DSP, with the ISO and the smaller groups as kind of appendages. The ISO’s sharp rejection of the DSP’s proposal to make the Socialist Alliance the main sphere of its activity, thereby increasing the pressure on the other groups, has caused the DSP to draw back a bit, but its intentions concerning the Socialist Alliance remain quite clear, and spelled out forcefully by DSP leader Peter Boyle in a controversial report outlining how the DSP will be transformed into the Democratic Socialist Tendency of the Socialist Alliance.
The DSP’s approach to the Socialist Alliance seems to be driven by a recognition within its leadership that this is a very difficult period for Marxists. This gives rise to a desire to occupy as much as possible of the space available to small Marxist groups by drawing lesser rivals into their orbit.
The DSP has actually dropped a little in its capacity to mobilise members for big events, despite the development of the Socialist Alliance, and this drop is clearly one of the things driving the approach of the DSP towards the alliance.
At least the DSP leadership is relatively realistic about the period we are all in, even if its style of activity is a bit of a threat to the other groups. The electoral aspect of the Socialist Alliance is clearly of little ongoing significance. There is no way that any independent Marxist electoral force is going to improve on the result in the recent Victorian elections because of the way the ALP and the Greens occupy nearly all of the electoral space on the left of society. In quite a short space of time all the Marxist groups will have to recognise this obvious reality and minimise the effort put into independent Marxist electoral activity, if any is maintained at all.
There will be a strong push at the ISO conference for the ISO to leave the Socialist Alliance, and it appears likely that the vote on this will be close. In my view, leaving or staying in the Alliance is not the critical question facing the ISO conference.
Whether in or out of the Alliance, the ISO faces the problem of the vigorous and vocal existence of two other major organisations of a Marxist character competing in the same field: the DSP and Socialist Alternative. Whether the ISO is in or out of the Socialist Alliance, this problem will not go away because all three organisations are competitors, allies, allied competitors, or whatever, in the student movement, the antiwar movement and the refugee movement, which are the main spheres of activity for all three groups.
All three groups face the common problem that the two far bigger forces on the left of Australian society, the ALP-trade-union continuum and the Greens, occupy most of the available space.
Major tactical questions are in dispute inside all three organisations, and between them, revolving around how small Marxist groups can intervene effectively to influence developments and exercise a Marxist influence on the organised working class, the progressive sections of the new social layers, and among students. This boils down to what strategy and tactics to adopt towards the ALP, the trade unions and the Greens.
These questions have not yet been resolved on the far left in Australia, and they are critical questions. To some extent the discussion in the ISO has been dominated by an apocalyptic perspective, introduced from overseas, about immense possibilities opening up for socialists in something that is described as the anti-capitalist movement in Australia.
The reality of the past couple of years has demolished this apocalyptic perspective. No matter how much you talk about it, there is not the slightest sign in Australia of the generalised anti-capitalist movement that exists in some parts of Western Europe. Attempts to breathe some life into such a perspective by extravagant rhetoric are of no use to serious Marxists, and should be quietly pushed to one side.
If the internal struggle continues in the ISO, and focuses for much longer on this unrealistic perspective about the massive anti-capitalist movement that is said to exist, it is likely that the ISO may collapse in the very short term, and that would not be a good thing from the point of view of Marxists in Australia.
Many of the people involved would simply drop out of politics, rather than joining another group. The ISO needs to focus on realistic and achievable objectives. One of the obvious problems that affects the ISO, the DSP and Socialist Alternative (despite SA’s current triumphalism) is the persistent low political level in all three groups and the persistent low political level in the radical student movement, where they all operate. This is a very difficult period for Marxists.
In my view, the ISO should try to turn this crisis into something useful. Whatever the outcome of the discussion about whether to leave the alliance and how to respond to Socialist Alternative’s unity proposal to the ISO, (which unity proposal explicitly ignores the problem of the DSP) the ISO should do the following:
A real attempt should be made to conduct all these discussions in a comradely way, while also ensuring that serious political differences are actually discussed in a rounded fashion.
Between all three groups, and in the smaller groups and among Marxist independents, such as myself, there are a large number of people who could be integrated into such a serious, ongoing political discussion.
For instance, in Sydney, Anne P or Sarah in the ISO could give very useful and informed and professional classes on labour history. Tad T and others could produce a series of lectures on basic Marxism, and if you brought into play the intellectual resources of the other groups and independents, it would not be too difficult to create a serious intellectual pole of attraction in most cities and most universites. Intellectually, there is no serious competition for such a project on the left of Australian society.
Marxists in Australia face a real crisis of relevance, and the crises in the ISO and the DSP, and the crisis that will inevitably develop in Socialist Alternative (which is currently rather self-confident as a result of its relative current success among students) reflects the general crisis of Marxism in making itself relevant to the new conditions that now prevail.
In these circumstances this period is clearly one in which serious political discussion and training should take priority for a period over mindless activity. Obviously, mass activity and the agitational activity of socialists must continue, particularly in the face of Bush’s impending war on the world, and the crisis in the federal ALP over refugee policy and other matters, which has produced the resignation of Carmen Lawrence from the ALP shadow cabinet.
Even to successfully continue these necessary mass activities, however, a real forced march is required to raise the cultural and political level of the activists in the socialist movement. As an example of what I mean, quite a few of the students who have drifted out of the ISO in the last period have drifted out of Marxist politics, one hopes only for the time being.
This drifting away, however, reflects a real crisis of perspective in the Marxist groups, and a simple appeal to loyalty, to whip the troops into a further burst of, often poorly thought-out, activism is unlikely to get any better result than the relative triumph of a similar sort of appeal at last year’s ISO conference.
The leaderships of the three major organisations resist the idea of a serious public discussion of the major tactical questions. The leadership of Socialist Alternative presses a unity suit on the ISO, trying to restrict the discussion within the framework of the ISO tradition. The DSP leadership presses an organisational manoeuvre, such as the “dissolution” of the DSP into the Socialist Alliance, but it tends to try to avoid a comprehensive tactical discussion with the membership of the DSP, Socialist Alternative, the ISO and the other groups.
The ISO leadership isn’t too keen on discussion either, so the discussions that take place tend to be between leaderships, and the serious differences tend to be fudged. Continual organisational manoeuvres between the leaderships of the groups, without serious public discussion on outstanding questions, is a formula for disaster, particularly for the ISO, the weakest group of the three.
The ISO is having a relatively healthy and untrammelled internal discussion, but that discussion is not well focussed, and is not too easy to finalise or resolve because the issues facing the group are common to the other two groups.
It is an open secret that the Sydney “loyal opposition” in the DSP, has similar views on a number of questions to a number of the students in the ISO, but discussions of strategic issues between these groups are necessarily informal because no structure exists for public discussion.
It is hard to see how a serious alliance between any of the groups can proceed for very long without a sensible tactical discussion. There are some healthy signs emerging from the DSP, alongside some signs that are more problematic.
It seesm that most of the far left, particularly the Socialist Alternative and the DSP, and to some extent the ISO, have united behind a realistic project of a bloc of the whole left, including the ALP left, in preliminary caucuses before the National Union of Students conference next week.
This is a very hopeful sign. It is a bit amusing that the DSP tries to insist, in a po-faced way, that has really been its line all along. Nevertheless, it is a very good development that, so far, the DSP has behaved sensibly towards this necessary alliance.
On the other hand, it’s clear from the DSP internal bulletin, and a post by Peter Boyle on Marxmail about the Greens and the Victorian elections, that the DSP is about to make a dramatic turn towards a united front with the Greens, while, on the other hand, maintaining its opposition to any united front strategy towards the ALP.
These contradictory developments in DSP circles underline the need for a realistic and careful public discussion of the major disputed tactical questions among all the Marxist groups.
The ISO in Zimbabwe has taken a strong stand against the expulsion of the US ISO from the international IS Tendency. The Australian ISO should join with the Zimbabwe ISO on this question.
Unnecessary splits are an absurdity in the context of the general recognition of the need for some kind of socialist regroupment. One of the leaders of the Zimbabwe ISO has published an important document favouring the right to public tendency in Leninist parties, and Alex Callinicos and the British SWP leadership have replied rather forcefully.
I generally agree with the point of view of the leader in Zimbabwe, and I commend all the questions raised in the discussion between the Zimbabwe ISO and Callinicos for careful consideration.
For the past four months, a major discussion on Marxist perspectives in Australia has been raging on the US-based email discussion list, Marxmail. Ed Lewis and I have also set up an Australian website, Ozleft, on which we have posted many documents relevant to the Australian left and socialist movements.
December 6, 2002
See also The roots of the crisis, The economic and political situation, A crisis is also an opportunity (Tom O’Lincoln)