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Socialist Alternative and the ISO – Perspectives for Socialists

Socialist Alternative (SA) was established in July 1995 after a group of comrades were expelled from the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) following a lengthy debate about perspectives. The split came as a result of the failure of the ISO to face up to the political situation in Australia in the 1990s and what it meant for a small socialist group. The ISO leadership made it very clear that they were determined to force a split. However, in principle, there was no reason why the split should have happened: the differences that led to the expulsions should have been able to be handled within the one organisation. The comrades who formed SA opposed the split. We argued that the issues in dispute were not ones of political principle and that having two groups with the same basic politics competing with each other would only weaken the forces of revolutionary Marxism in Australia. Instead we argued that the issues – the analysis of the political situation, perspectives for building the group, internal democracy – should continue to be debated within the ISO.

Nonetheless, the political differences were important. This document will start with SA’s analysis of what the differences were and why they led to a split. It will then examine the development of the two groups since the split and how the original differences over perspectives gave rise to differences over broader political issues.

Background to the 1995 split

The radicalisation of the late 1960s and early 1970s challenged the post-war stability of world capitalism. Towards the end of the 1970s, however, the wave of working class militancy and political radicalisation began to be pushed back. The 1980s were a difficult period for socialists – a period of downturn in industrial and political struggle, a marked shift to the right and a restabilisation of capitalism after a decade of upheaval. The downturn of the 1980s meant that the business of building revolutionary organisations would be slow and painstaking. The number of days spent on strike crashed in the 1975 recession and never fully recovered. The Accord between the Labor government and the unions from 1983 meant that strike action was even less frequent. Without the underpinning of a combative working class, the radical social movements declined – their rank and file lost heart while their leadership shifted to the right.

There were, of course, exceptions to this picture. There were big class battles during the 1980s. Queensland electricity workers in 1985, the BLF in 1986-7, and the pilots’ union in 1989 were all taken on and smashed. The Bicentenary of invasion day prompted demos of up to 50,000, and the introduction of HECS in 1988 saw a brief flowering of the student movement. Still, there was nowhere near the confidence of the early 70s. The fights were overwhelmingly defensive and ended in losses for our side. Those won to ongoing political activity were numbered in handfuls rather than in hundreds or thousands. Those open to being recruited to the IS (as it was then called), it was generally accepted, were numbered in the ones and twos. Moreover, since so much of the world was moving to the right, members had to be armed with a fairly high level of theory if they were to resist demoralisation and the rightward pressure.

This period of conservative stabilisation was brought to an end by the revolutions that swept Eastern Europe in 1989, the collapse of Stalinism in Russia, the Gulf War against Iraq and the world recession of the early 90s. The 90s were to be a much more unstable period than the 80s. But if by the early 90s the downturn was over, the new political period was not one of a straightforward upturn in struggle or significant shift to the left. Instead, socialists faced a contradictory political environment. Workers in a series of countries showed they were willing to fight when their traditional leaders gave a clear call. However, despite the undoubted discontent, workers, with rare exceptions, were not confident to take the offensive or to openly defy their union leaders. And there was no sizeable left with serious roots in the working class to provide an alternative lead or a set of politics to tap into the discontent.

In the depths of the downturn the IS suffered a split in 1985. The issues then, as ten years later, were the nature of the political period and how a small propaganda group should relate to it. The IS moved in a sectarian direction but by the end of the 80s the atmosphere in the group was healthier. Socialist Action, as the other group was called, was involved in the industrial disputes and gained experience, but was not able to grow. A proposal for unity from the IS led to a fusion of the two groups in 1990. The new organisation was called the ISO. The ISO was far from clear what the new period meant for socialists but, nevertheless, it was able to mount impressive interventions in the campaigns against the Gulf War, the Aidex arms exhibition and the visit of George Bush Snr. The ISO established a small, but genuine, base on campus and carried out serious union work in the public service. This was a period of real growth in the number of active and committed members. Impressive activists were recruited, some of whom began to develop into a new layer of cadre. The ISO managed to turn outwards and, yet, at the same time carried out significant theoretical work.1

From mid-92 these gains were progressively thrown away as the ISO, following the lead of the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP), developed a wildly exaggerated assessment of the political situation. The political climate was changing in a favourable direction for revolutionaries but the ISO sharply telescoped the pace of developments. The leadership argued that the upheaval against Kennett, which included a march of 150,000 through Melbourne in November 1992, was the precursor of a wave of struggle that would lead to a sharp political polarisation from which the ISO would grow rapidly. The leadership declared that the dynamic was “towards deeper anger and class confrontation”. This new situation meant that “the terrain is more favourable to us than at any time in the past 20 years…our own self-confidence and aggression are now the key factors in our ability to grow”.2

Many of the events the leadership pointed to in order to justify the radical change of perspective were real enough. However, the momentum was not maintained. It was increasingly obvious that the SWP, and the ISO following in its wake, had exaggerated the pace of developments. Moreover, the ISO’s overblown analysis of the political situation underpinned a prognosis for growth that was never going to be met by a small organisation – which will always face obstacles that mere “self-confidence and aggression” cannot overcome.

During 1993 and 1994, precisely when the ISO leadership’s rhetoric was becoming increasingly overblown, the pace of events moved in the opposite direction. By mid-93 the unions had wound down the campaign against Kennett. The level of politicisation nationally was on the downswing and the economy began slowly to recover from recession. The economic recovery gave the ruling class more room to manoeuvre. For a period the ISO leadership denied there was an economic recovery, then downplayed its significance (condemning as “corrosive” the idea “that the recovery means the ruling class has room to manoeuvre”) and when finally forced to concede there was a recovery, implied that it would rapidly lead to an upsurge of strikes. Indeed, in January 1994 the leadership argued that “the past year has seen a string of mass national strikes...Hundreds of thousands of workers were involved.”3 This was a straightforward denial of reality, as the number of strike days had declined to a record low.

The overstatement of workers’ willingness to fight and of the degree of radicalism led to an overly agitational style which pervaded Socialist Worker and most aspects of the ISO’s work, and to a downplaying of the need for political argument to win people to socialist ideas. This was most clearly seen with the downplaying of the importance of branch meetings. “You do not have to come to a socialist meeting to hate the system, to want a revolution, to argue the ideas in our paper”, the leadership proclaimed.4 Even when the leadership reluctantly acknowledged the need for political argument, their exaggeration of the level of radicalism meant that often the arguments in Socialist Worker failed to convince the audience that did exist for socialist ideas.

The leadership’s overblown approach (summarised by the slogan “the audience is everywhere”) led them to substitute organisational measures – a network of paper sellers, doorknocking houses to sell papers, suburban street sales, recruitment teams – for political discussion in an attempt to force the pace of growth. In a more polarised political environment, and if the ISO had been much larger, some of these proposals may have been successful. But in the political climate prevailing in the 90s they were bound to fail. When they did fail, the leadership’s response was to blame members for being “stuck in the eighties”. All members had to do, according to the leadership, was to turn outwards, break with their sectarian attitudes, embrace the latest get rich quick scheme from Britain and mass recruitment would follow. This emphasis on organisational solutions, when combined with a phoney agitational style, led to depoliticisation.

By the mid-90s the ISO no longer put the emphasis on intervening in campaigns and debates in society with political arguments; nor on winning people to a socialist world view. This made it difficult to take advantage of the opportunities that did exist. A small number of hyperactive members came to substitute for an increasingly passive membership. Heaps of new people signed membership cards, but the number of active members declined. The inevitable consequence was demoralisation and cynicism among considerable sections of the membership. There was a high turnover of new members and many experienced members dropped out or reduced their level of activity.

The 1930s in slow motion

“The nineties resemble the 1930s in slow motion” was the schema developed by the SWP in the early 1990s to describe the political climate. This profoundly disorienting analysis was imposed on all the groups of the International Socialist Tendency (IST), of which the Australian ISO is part. Recently the SWP have further ratcheted up their analysis, arguing that the crisis “resembles the 1930s in slow motion (but speeding up)”.5 To see what is wrong with this analysis it is necessary to give a brief sketch of what happened in the 1930s.

The early 1930s was a period of economic catastrophe. A Depression of unparalleled proportions plunged workers in the US, Britain, Australia, Germany and much of the rest of Europe and South America into poverty. Industrial production collapsed. Unemployment rates rocketed to 25 or 30 per cent. The economic collapse provoked a profound social and political polarisation. Hundreds of millions of workers and middle class people were plunged into despair and began to question the very basis of the capitalist order. On the left, tens of millions of workers searching for a way out of their misery looked to Stalinist Russia as a beacon of hope. On the right, large sections of the “respectable” middle class turned to fascism. In Australia, right wing secret armies with tens of thousands of armed followers received massive funding from big business.

In 1933 Hitler came to power in Germany by crushing the most politically conscious working class movement in the world. The scale of the defeat stunned workers. Some succumbed to despair. Millions more were inspired to make a stand. In Austria workers fought a heroic armed revolt. In France the threat of fascism inspired an uprising of revolutionary proportions. In Spain in 1936 a fascist military coup provoked a workers’ revolution. In Britain, the Battle of Cable Street saw 150,000 workers fight block by block to prevent fascists marching through the East End of London.

The economic crisis was so severe that it was only the enormous military build-up associated with World War II and the destruction of huge amounts of “surplus” capital that restored the rate of profit and ended mass unemployment. The war was a direct product of the Depression. Economic collapse not only heightened class tensions, but led to bitter rivalry between the Great Powers which fought to preserve their share of a declining world market at the expense of their capitalist rivals. The trade war between the Great Powers prepared the ground for the shooting war – the most destructive imperialist war in history.

Even this cursory sketch of the 1930s demonstrates that the economic, political and social climate over the last decade has been in no way comparable. The recession of the early 90s, though severe by post-war standards, did not lead to a collapse in industrial production. The recovery from recession has been protracted but unemployment on anything like the scale of the Depression has not reappeared in the West. If the economic crisis today is nowhere near as severe as the 1930s, neither is the social crisis. The re-emergence of fascist movements in Europe is worrying. However, these modern fascist movements are as yet incomparably weaker than the Nazis. On our side, the last few years have seen the rise of an inspiring anti-capitalist movement, but the level of strike action with a few important exceptions (Italy, Spain and Greece) remains low. There have been no upheavals in the West to compare with the thirties – the June 1936 revolt in France, the Spanish revolution, the wave of sit-down strikes in the US, the upheaval in Australia over the sacking of the Lang Labor government in 1932.

The overblown assessment encapsulated in the formula “the 1930s in slow motion” led the ISO to lose its bearings. The leadership set tasks for the ISO which would have been impossible to achieve even if the political climate had been as favourable as they made out. Even in a favourable climate it would not have been possible for the ISO, given its small size, to develop a grandiose network of paper sellers (the pet project in the mid-90s) nor to develop a swathe of suburban branches, establish Global Action clubs with thousands of student members, establish an electorally successful Socialist Alliance or revive the anti-war movement. A socialist group is never going to be built by grandiose proposals that take no account of the capabilities of the organisation or by downgrading the need for political argument to convince people of socialist ideas. In fact, in a period of intense politicisation, with all sorts of confused ideas competing for a hearing, an emphasis on political clarity is even more important.

A propaganda group

In the late 80s this understanding of the tasks of small socialist groups (i.e. that the IS was a propaganda group reliant on the clarity of its ideas) would have been uncontroversial. However, today the ISO treats the term propaganda group as a term of derisive abuse. For the ISO, saying you are a propaganda group implies that you hold a pessimistic assessment of the political situation and want to build a narrow sectarian group cut off from activity in the real world. The ISO operates as though they are a scaled down version of a mass revolutionary party (and a highly depoliticised party at that). This approach breaks with the Marxist tradition on the question of political organisation.

In the Marxist tradition there are three main types of organisation: discussion circles, propaganda groups and parties. These categories are not arbitrary, but are used to describe qualitatively different types of organisation. Discussion circles are tiny groups attempting to establish a Marxist tradition. Their main orientation is to theoretical clarification. Political activity such as organising campaigns is a low priority. They recruit on the basis of a high level of theory.

Propaganda groups are involved in activity, but because they are small and lack influence in the working class, they recruit on the basis of ideas. Socialists make a distinction between two kinds of propaganda: general (sometimes called abstract) and concrete. Discussion groups are mostly concerned with general propaganda arguing the basic ideas of Marxism. But a propaganda group engages in concrete propaganda also. By this we mean propaganda which might at times seem agitational, i.e. calling for action. The slogan “tear down the fences” is an example of concrete propaganda. A small socialist group cannot organise masses of people to tear down all the detention centre fences. But by raising it as a possibility for the refugee campaign, we appeal to people who agree that the campaign should move towards that kind of activity. At the Maribyrnong demo this year, SA drew around us a layer of people who agreed with our arguments even if we couldn’t put words into action.

A more common kind of concrete propaganda is many of the arguments socialists make about refugees. We use the specific facts of the refugees’ situation and the government’s actions to build up an argument to convince someone it would be better to let refugees in. General (abstract) propaganda begins from a general proposition of Marxist internationalism and gives a more theorised argument about why someone should support the socialist position of open borders. It should be clear from this example that there is not always a clear dividing line between concrete and general propaganda. A propaganda group uses both, and while involved in activity, even at times leading small events, it cannot recruit primarily by demonstrating its politics in action.

SA calls itself a propaganda group, not because we don’t want to intervene in campaigns and political debates, or because we only want to relate to small numbers of people. A propaganda group does need to intervene, recruit and lay the basis for a revolutionary party, but it will rely primarily on propaganda rather than agitation to do so. Calling ourselves a propaganda group is a recognition of the reality of what we are. Being clear on what kind of organisation you are is vital if you are to build on a secure foundation. For revolutionary groups to go forward they have to understand the basics of Marxism and apply them to events in the world – Bush’s War on Terrorism, the refugee crisis. But having a grasp of Marxist politics is not sufficient to build successfully. Socialists must be able to answer the central question in politics – what to do next. To answer that question, you need a coherent analysis of the political situation and a realistic assessment of what your organisation is capable of.

The ISO’s abhorrence of the term propaganda group is part of the depoliticisation of the organisation and reflects their move away from what were basic Marxist concepts in the IST until the early 90s. Socialist groups have come to grief because they overstated their ability to lead struggles. They often spurned the conception of being a propaganda group and tried to act as “activist groups” or pretended to be parties. They put out papers that seemed agitational with heaps of reports about strikes as though they had a working class readership. Usually this comes across as phony. The workers whom they aim to influence easily detect that the group has no influence in the unions. The only people fooled are the socialists themselves, who mistrain their members to believe they are genuinely engaged in agitation. Agitational headlines that don’t move workers into action are not agitational in any meaningful sense. They are make-believe.

Similarly, small groups of socialists that declare themselves to be “agitational groups” or parties are deluding themselves. Because of their tiny size they remain propaganda groups, whatever they think they are. But they are confused propaganda groups and therefore a hell of a lot less effective than they could be. Reflecting the same tendency to downplay the importance of ideas, for a period in the ISO even the basic Marxist conception of the need to develop cadre – a layer of experienced and highly active members, well-versed in the politics, who are capable of assessing the tactics needed to build the group and of taking initiatives to lead the work on the ground – was treated as a swear word and a sure sign of sectarianism.

Marxists can’t simply proclaim themselves to be a revolutionary party. A party, if the term is to be meaningful, has to be able to lead sizeable bodies of workers in struggle. In a country like Australia, we are talking about an organisation with tens of thousands of members. A revolutionary party will primarily win workers to its ranks because it can demonstrate in practice that it is better able to champion their interests than the ALP and union leaders. Propaganda is important for a party. However, precisely because a party is capable of leading mass struggles, the emphasis of its work will be more agitational than a group of a few hundred.

The foregoing analysis was at one time the accepted wisdom of the IST. But by the mid-90s, overwhelmed by the impatient approach associated with the “thirties in slow motion” analysis, the ISO abandoned nearly all the lessons learnt about the tasks for building small groups. Virtually every hard earned lesson from the previous 15 years of building the ISO was junked as “sectarian”. The leadership wrote off the ISO’s past as hopelessly “sectish” and promised new vistas of growth as the group “turned outwards”. There is no reason to be uncritical of the ISO’s early history; there were innumerable errors (sectarian and otherwise). One lesson should have been that impatience over debates that were necessary to re-orient the group to a new period had caused an unnecessary split in 1985.

However, the new, supposedly outward-looking approach offered no corrective to sectarian tendencies. It sent the ISO spiralling backwards. Rather than breaking with sectarianism, the ISO became more cut off from developments in the world – all of which had to be fitted into the schema of “the thirties in slow motion”. Consequently the ISO became more and more incapable of answering the questions of new people and more and more trapped within its own narrow agenda – sectarian in the classic meaning of the term. By 1996 the ISO had lost most of its roots on campus and in the public sector union and became more and more isolated.

Democratic Centralism

The leadership’s overblown analysis and its failure to deliver results led to a series of distortions in the ISO’s internal life. As early as mid-93 it was apparent that the new perspective was not producing growth. Instead of facing up to the problem and re-examining the perspective to bring it into line with the actual development of the class struggle, the leadership looked for scapegoats. Sandra Bloodworth and Mick Armstrong, who at that stage did not disagree with the perspective, were summarily purged from the ISO leadership without any discussion amongst the membership – let alone a vote. This was to become a pattern as the leadership became increasingly frustrated and impatient because of their failure to take the ISO forward and in the face of the consequent criticism from members.

The leadership began to argue that the reason the ISO was not going forward was because of opposition to the perspective by many Melbourne members. The ISO’s democratic traditions were increasingly eroded. Prior to the 1995 conference the leadership used threats of expulsion to inhibit debate. At the conference not one of the comrades who were critical of the perspective was given an opportunity to make a presentation to outline their position – a radical break from the ISO’s democratic traditions.

Given their failure to motivate members by political argument, the leadership resorted to a command mentality. The leadership did not seriously evaluate the work of the ISO and discuss what political arguments members should address. Instead the emphasis was on organisational tasks and issuing orders. This was justified on the spurious grounds of “democratic centralism”.

The core of genuine democratic centralism relates to how a mass party, like the Russian Bolsheviks, attempts to clarify its ideas in order to lead the working class. So we need to be cautious in applying democratic centralism to a propaganda group with no roots in the working class. But even in the case of the Bolsheviks, despite the myths to the contrary, democratic centralism did not mean a dictatorship under Lenin’s control. The Bolsheviks were a highly democratic party, noted for wide ranging debates. The Bolsheviks were able to effectively intervene in the workers’ movement as a disciplined party because members were convinced by political argument about the course to follow – not because they were following orders. Small socialist groups, precisely because they are more dependent on ideas for recruiting people than a party, have to have a relaxed attitude to disciplinary measures and put a premium on political argument to convince members about what needs to be done to build the group.6

As interpreted by the ISO leadership, “democratic centralism” became a caricature, with the emphasis overwhelmingly on centralism over the democratic component. Whenever leaders of socialist groups start making a fuss about “democratic centralism”, alarm bells should start ringing. It is a sure sign that something is wrong. At the very least it indicates that the leadership is inflating its importance in the world out of all proportion. Usually it indicates there is a crisis that the leadership feels incapable of resolving by debating the issues, and instead is preparing organisational measures to silence its opponents. That is exactly what happened in the years leading up to the 1995 split.

The events immediately before the split highlighted the ISO’s internal degeneration. Initially five comrades were expelled on specific charges. Then two days later the leadership stated they had expelled the five to “begin the process of a split”. Yet at no stage did the leadership openly prepare the ISO for a split. If the differences over perspectives were sufficient to justify a split, the leadership should have argued this at the conference that had taken place a few months previously. Instead at the 1995 conference the leadership avoided the issue and argued that comrades who complained about threats of expulsion were “scaremongering”. This was because the leadership knew they were unlikely to win a clear majority for the expulsions. So they waited until after conference to act behind the back of the membership.

Student work

One of the issues in the SA/ISO split was the relative importance of student work. Socialists want to build a workers’ party to challenge capitalism. But where do you start when you only have 50, 100 or 300 members? One of the first things you have to do is to identify your audience. Who are you trying to recruit? An audience is not a static body of people. It changes depending on political circumstances, the ebbs and flows of the class struggle and the size of the propaganda group. But socialists have to do more than identify an audience. We have to be able to find the issues that provide an opening to discuss socialist ideas with them.

Traditionally, socialists had a guide to their audience: they related to the vanguard – the most politically conscious workers. When Marx and Engels wrote The Communist Manifesto, they did not aim it at the mass of workers, but at those who considered themselves communists. Marx and Engels polemicised against the erroneous conceptions of these early communists – their conspiratorial methods, their utopianism – and tried to win them to their world view. Similarly, after the 1917 Russian revolution, when the Bolsheviks established the Communist International, they won their first supporters from the left wing of the reformist parties. It was on this basis that Communist Parties of hundreds of thousands of workers were built in Europe. However, this approach presents today’s revolutionaries with a problem. In most countries there is no large radical organisation, nor any sizeable current of politicised workers. There are, of course, in every workplace, a few militants who are more politically advanced. But they do not form an organised layer that revolutionaries can relate to. Nor are they, as yet in Australia, moving towards socialist politics.

The absence of an organised layer of radicals or a current of politicised workers has meant that for most of the last twenty years, the audience for revolutionaries has been scattered individuals. The emergence of the anti-capitalist movement partly changed this situation and created a new leftward-moving audience. It was vital for socialists to relate to this anti-capitalist audience. Nevertheless, even at its peak, the anti-capitalist milieu never made a significant penetration into the working class. This doesn’t mean there aren’t people open to socialist ideas. There are plenty of people with doubts about the present system. The trouble is that they are not cohered politically. They are scattered among different workplaces, campuses and schools, and are not necessarily even involved in any political activity.

At times particular issues – Hanson, the refugees, Bush’s war drive – push a greater number of people into activity – even if that is only signing a petition or buying a magazine that relates to their concern. So while over the last decade we could generally only define our audience as “scattered individuals” (the anti-capitalist movement being a significant exception), occasionally a particular issue helps to better define these people. How do we meet them? We do stalls campaigning around issues like the war, and turn up to demos and meetings to intersect with individuals interested in our ideas. We put up posters advertising our meetings. Obviously, as a small organisation, we can’t be everywhere – and it would be disastrous to try. As a group with limited resources, it is important to prioritise. Once you have met people who are interested, it is then a question of following them up with a phone call or arranging to meet over coffee to chat about politics.

The fact that socialist groups are small today suggests another audience – one which is not defined politically, but sociologically, i.e. students. But how does this fit into building a workers’ party? Perhaps the first thing to state clearly is that Marxists do not look to the working class because of some moral concern. Socialists look to workers because, as a class, they have the potential power to overthrow this society, and in the process develop the collective organisation necessary to build socialism. This potential exists whether workers are struggling or not. Our approach begins with the understanding that the current lull in working class militancy is temporary. The task is to build an organisation capable of winning workers to revolutionary politics when larger numbers move into struggle and consequently begin looking for new political ideas.

So where do students fit in? Students neither own capital nor sell their labour. For the time they are at uni, their identity as students can be stronger than that of their family background (i.e. their parents’ class).7 Their future career remains uncertain. Students, then, are defined socially by their transitional situation. But they are also an oppressed group. They are atomised by the competitive assessment system and have no control over the decisions that affect their lives.

The life of students is unstable compared to workers who have a discipline imposed on them by employment. This means that they are potentially more volatile than workers. In a workplace it makes no sense to strike if only ten per cent are willing. This does not apply to students. If ten per cent of students were involved in a campaign every activist would be over the moon. When a couple of thousand attend a rally in Melbourne or Sydney, it seems like a serious campaign – yet, this is out of a student population of over 100,000 in both cities. It is not rare for such a tiny minority to take militant action in the firm belief that they represent “student interests”. Clearly, the dynamics are radically different, and partly explain the volatility. The youth of students adds to the volatility. Revolutionary movements have always found a resonance amongst youth, who are less restrained by traditional loyalties. Today, students not only form a large percentage of young people, but are concentrated on campuses of tens of thousands.

The different ways that students and workers move into struggle has further consequences. The experience of surviving in the workplace – and a need to involve a majority of the workforce in action – makes workers more practical than students. If they have been involved in political activity, it will probably have been through their union, which can deliver mass action. Compared to that a socialist group, which can’t deliver working class solidarity, often won’t seem relevant. Among students, because a small minority can carry out meaningful activity, small socialist groups can seem to offer a realistic alternative. That’s why over the last 30 years the membership of the revolutionary left has predominantly been students and ex-students.

It should be obvious by now that the argument for revolutionaries to relate to students does not imply that most students are radicals. Actually, the main aim of education is to train people to work for industry, so students are taught some variant of the dominant ideology. However, there is an inbuilt contradiction in the bosses’ need for education. If you want creative workers, you have to allow a certain amount of debate. Study involves research that can lead students to question what they’re taught. This is not an automatic process. However, for those few years in tertiary study, students deal in ideas in a way that most people do not. It is a combination of all these factors that creates the possibility of socialists finding an audience among students that they can’t currently find among workers. Moreover, unlike in the workplace, it is possible to hold regular socialist meetings and stalls on campus.

The ISO at times argue that a revolutionary organisation built initially amongst students will be incapable of relating to workers. It is true that such a group is likely to develop ways of doing things that might seem strange to some older workers. However, this is much less the case than 50 years ago. Then students were an elite. Yet even then a minority was pulled towards socialism. And those small numbers were an important nucleus for an organisation that did relate to workers. The Bolsheviks had many students who played a vital role in winning workers to Marxism. The same phenomenon was evident in the late 1960s, when revolutionaries with a presence amongst students were able to grow rapidly among workers during these intense years of struggle.

Moreover, the problem of students having difficulty relating to workers, while real, is often overstated. The expansion of education has brought about significant changes to the workforce. In 1998 14.3 per cent of the workforce had a degree. In addition, the pressures on students for survival are forcing them to work at increasing rates. The accusation that socialists who relate to students are “too intellectual” for workers assumes a divide between the two that doesn’t in reality exist. For one thing, the majority of students end up as workers. In the 1970s, ex-student radicals played important roles in pushing the teacher and public service unions to the left, and they continue to provide many activists. So in a sense, recruiting students does over a period build up a worker membership if socialist organisations can keep them involved once they leave campus.

From at least the 1930s in Australia it was never sensible for socialists to be defensive about student work. In the 1940s the Communist Party established a sizeable presence on campus. Today, a failure to make student work a priority is a recipe for failure to develop a socialist organisation capable of relating to workers when they begin to move into struggle. A socialist organisation with a base among students, with a membership used to intervening in struggle and clear about how best to win arguments about class politics, will have no trouble learning to relate to the aspirations of workers when the time comes.

Understanding that student work is vital to the growth of a socialist group doesn’t mean that socialists should not try to do serious union work. Socialists who work need to be politically active in their workplaces to the extent that they are able. Where it is possible, socialists should try to become the union delegate at work. Basic trade union work and raising politics with your fellow workers (and selling a socialist publication to the two or three who are open to left wing ideas and inviting them to socialist meetings) is important experience. This activity can over time help develop a layer of members who can lead those around them both in political debates and in the day-to-day class struggle. There is no reason why individual workers can’t be recruited out of this basic political activity at work. Nevertheless we have to be realistic. While socialist groups are small, basic trade union work and talking politics to your workmates is not going to be a major source of recruitment.

Why did the ISO persist in the mistaken perspective?

Socialists are bound to commit errors in their reading of the political situation. This is no tragedy. The problem is when they persist in these errors in the face of contrary evidence. How are we to explain why the ISO persisted in their perspective for a decade when events proved them so wrong and when the rapid growth they predicted, time and time again, did not occur?

There were a series of factors. There is always a resonance in revolutionary organisations for an “optimistic” perspective. People join socialist groups to change the world. A perspective that offers the prospect of rapid growth is bound to appeal to some members with little experience in activism or in building a revolutionary organisation. Comrades who argue for a realistic assessment can be painted as “pessimists” in the eyes of enthusiastic new members. The ISO leadership did demagogically use this accusation against its opponents – and still does against SA. But it is not just new members who can be attracted to an unrealistic perspective that offers rapid gains. After the difficult years of the downturn, a section of older members and of the leadership wanted to believe that things were on the up and up. It seemed that all the energy they had invested in the difficult times was about to come to fruition.

Once adopted, the perspective reinforced itself. The perspective depoliticised the ISO and there was little theoretical education of members. The lowering of the political level meant that fewer members were in a position to develop a serious assessment of the political situation or to debate the issues with the leadership. This pattern was reinforced by a high turnover of members. Experienced members lowered their sights and became more cynical. New members had no knowledge of the ISO’s history and of the previous failures of the perspective. These factors, combined with the expulsion in 1995 of experienced comrades who were critical of the perspective, meant that for a number of years the leadership went unchallenged. ISO comrades who did become critical were hesitant to raise criticisms as they knew they were likely to be clamped down on.

As to the leadership, even if they had doubts, they were reluctant to make an open retreat, as they had put so much of their credibility on the line – going as far as forcing a split over the perspective. To acknowledge they had made serious mistakes would be an admission that the comrades who formed SA had been right on key issues. In any case to defeat the opposition and maintain their leading positions, the ISO leadership had become dependent on the SWP. To move to a more realistic orientation would have meant a sharp break with the SWP and that was something the leadership was not willing to contemplate.

The role of the British SWP

The driving force behind the ISO’s degeneration was the SWP. The analysis of the period and the organisational methods adopted by the ISO leadership were not their creation. They were mechanically transposed from Britain. The SWP developed the theory of the “1930s in slow motion” and generalised it to the IST, regardless of circumstances. The SWP did not simply “convince” IS groups but endorsed/orchestrated splits in country after country. In 2001 the SWP expelled one of the largest groups from the IST – the ISO US – for daring to criticise the perspective. This is not to excuse the leaderships of the small groups, who were often willing accomplices. Though to be fair, sections of the leadership in a number of countries did eventually come to oppose elements of the perspective. That was why the SWP intervened and helped create splits in IS groups in at least 11 countries.

After the removal of the more independent section of the leadership of the IS groups, those leaders loyal to the SWP became a cipher for decisions made in London. We don’t know exactly how much of the detail of the orientation adopted in Australia was explicitly argued for by the SWP and how much was just uncritically copied by the ISO. However, in the course of the 90s the ISO leadership became unwilling even to attempt to develop an independent analysis of the political situation and of the tactics to employ. The ISO leadership became answerable to the SWP, not to the ISO membership and cadre. No significant change in the direction or leadership of the ISO can take place without at least the acquiescence of the SWP.

But why haven’t the SWP pulled back from the perspective when it has produced crisis after crisis in IS groups and a significant decline in their own membership?

We can only offer tentative answers at this stage. Firstly, just as in Australia after the long years of the downturn, a section of the SWP leadership and membership wanted to believe that they could break out of their isolation on the margins of political life. They felt that at last they could go from a membership of a few thousand into the big league. Once they had settled on the perspective, to admit they were wrong would have meant a major loss of face for the leadership. This is especially so now that they have expelled the ISO US from the IST for disagreeing with the perspective. There were other factors. The perspective of “the thirties in slow motion” was as out of kilter with reality in Britain as Australia. However, it did not have the same impact on the SWP. The SWP’s greater resources and cadre meant it was better placed to survive some of the perspective’s worst effects than the fragile small groups. Some of the organisational proposals were not as ridiculous for an organisation with a few thousand members as for tiny groups. The SWP leadership had great authority in the organisation and could impose their perspective with little opposition. The SWP leadership was more tactically flexible and able to adapt pragmatically to tidy up some of the mess. Furthermore, the SWP did not face significant rivals on the left who could take advantage of their mistakes.

Most importantly, the SWP leadership did not split. The late 1970s had seen a bitter fight amongst the leadership over perspectives that almost wrecked the SWP. The leadership seems to have determined after this not to risk major open disagreements. This undermined democracy in the SWP. The leadership trained a cadre in their own image that is not prepared to fight. The cadre might think a lot of what the leadership says is rubbish, but they are not prepared to stick their heads up. The leadership has become unchallengeable and this leaves little space for internal correction.

It is too early to write off the SWP. We do not have enough information to draw definite conclusions about how the SWP will develop. It is conceivable that at some point a differentiation will occur in the leadership that will open up space for a thorough re-evaluation of the SWP’s direction. Though there is precious little evidence of that at the moment.

After the 1995 split

The ISO leadership claimed after the 1995 split that with the expulsion of the “sectarians” and “pessimists” the ISO would go forward rapidly. It didn’t happen. Over the next few years plenty of people signed membership cards but the ISO did not grow. Every conference the leadership seized on anecdotal evidence of a few strikes to show that industrial activity was on the rise. There are always some strikes revolutionaries can take heart from. But our first task is to look reality in the face and admit the working class remains underconfident to flex its muscles on a wide scale. There was constant talk from the leadership of crisis and economic collapse. In December 1998 they wrote: “The economic collapse that began in Asia in 1997 has become a crisis of world capitalism.”8 But as with their other predictions of imminent crisis, it never happened. There were repeated voluntarist calls to “not stop half-way” and “Just Do It!” Every little campaign was “an opportunity to transform the group”.9 The slogan for the 1999 conference was: “Politics for the crisis – Moving Off The Margins”.10 As though it was conceivable that a tiny group like the ISO could move off the margins in the space of a few short years.

It is difficult to work out the ISO’s membership because the criteria for what it means to be a member – level of activity, meeting attendance, paper sales and so on – have been downgraded significantly compared to the early 90s. Nevertheless, while there were ebbs and flows and variations from branch to branch, the overall pattern during the 90s was slow decline. This was reflected in a decline in the number of active members, a fall in meeting attendance, a further erosion of the ISO presence on campus and a decline in paper sales. By late 1998 the leadership acknowledged that membership had declined to 208 from 234 a year earlier. Paper sales had fallen to a “paid sale per issue of around 965…about 100 fewer” than a year earlier.11 The leadership claimed the ISO grew slightly in 1999 from 208 to 227. But only half these members bought the paper and sales declined by a third to average 582 per issue.12

The leadership responded to this situation by denying for some years that any decline had taken place, blaming the members for failing to seize the opportunities, promising massive gains if only members would break with “sectarianism” and importing round after round of get rich quick schemes from London. The fads from London included the Action Program which supposedly would win the ISO mass influence by the use of transitional demands, suburban branches (11 in Melbourne at one stage) for “sinking roots in the working class”,13 paper drops to members and supporters using detailed area maps, a network of paper sellers, branch plans to turn each branch into a “combat unit”,14 doorknocking suburban streets. Most of these schemes were soon unceremoniously abandoned to be replaced with the next fad from London without any honest accounting of why they failed.

There were numerous backflips. One of the ISO leadership’s most strident attacks on those of us who formed SA was over our emphasis on student work. But by the late 90s the ISO was stressing student work, going as far as forming student branches. There is nothing wrong with changing course but, when it occurs without acknowledgement by the leadership of past mistakes, no lessons are learnt and nothing is clarified for the future. Such pragmatic shifting further undermined traditions of open, honest, democratic debate in the organisation.

One of the leadership’s consistent themes was blaming the members for the problems. The members, according to the leadership, had not broken with sectarianism and would still not accept that there were all these opportunities. The leadership made repeated calls “to not stop half way”: “we have to extend the measures taken over the last 12 months to turn the group more thoroughly outwards”.15 “At times the group had appeared on the verge of breaking out…only to have fallen back again. In truth we have changed the practice of the group over the past year, but only half-way. That means that we break with old habits and turn decisively to the new methods of party building…”16 “Before Marxism 98, we produced a bulletin arguing to double the number of members actively working with people beyond our ranks. But the numbers barely shifted. This is related to how far we still have to go to transform the group into an organisation of activists.”17

It never seemed to cross the leadership’s mind that their inability to convince members “not to stop half way” reflected the fact that the approach they were arguing for was impossible to achieve. It was out of kilter with reality, both in terms of the capabilities of their tiny organisation and of the overall political environment.

Because the ISO never re-evaluated what was wrong with their approach during all these years, they were poorly placed to take advantage of the major opportunity that did open up for socialists with the emergence of the anti-capitalist movement. Indeed, the ISO’s inability to take advantage of the improved political climate brought on a severe internal crisis.

Seattle, S11 – responding to the anti-capitalist movement

The Seattle protest of late 1999 had a dramatic impact. A number of jaded leftists were revitalised. A considerable number of new people were inspired and began to identify as “anti-capitalists”. The S11 protest in Melbourne consolidated this trend. Within the student movement a layer of activists moved sharply left away from identity politics. There was an important radicalisation of Queer activists. The anti-capitalist movement was a decisive test. The ISO had been proclaiming what fantastic opportunities there were to grow for years. Now a radicalising milieu had emerged, but the ISO’s overblown perspective meant they were unable to relate successfully to this political opening. Their failure to orient correctly to the anti-capitalist movement provoked a serious crisis in their ranks.

S11 raised the hopes of ISO members but they were soon shattered. It seems as though S11 was the last throw of the dice for a layer of members. When the ISO failed to make the hoped for gains, they either dropped out, drifted into inactivity or adopted an oppositional stance. In the aftermath of S11 all the socialist groups grew. The ISO recruited significantly on campus. During 2000 and early 2001 the ISO national student caucus expanded from about 30 to about 70.18 However the ISO’s exaggeration of the scale of radicalisation and the hyped-up, depoliticised atmosphere in the group made it harder to hold new people. The “Just Do It!”19 approach was not conducive to winning recruits to socialist politics. The ISO National Committee imposed incredibly grand demands on a fragile group:

“The biggest shift for the ISO is to become a group that leads within the movement. We must lead in campaigns inside and connected with the anti-capitalist movement and also lead and cohere the movement in its own right…Our aim is to link together all the various anti-capitalist milieus and unite them with the wider mood for change amongst workers”.20
Even a revolutionary party with tens of thousands of members would be flat-out playing this leadership role, let alone a group with at best a couple of hundred. No wonder new members were soon disoriented and drifted away. The ISO massively over-hyped their gains from S11, claiming they recruited 308 members in Melbourne. In the aftermath of S11, the ISO set up a swathe of suburban branches in Melbourne, including the outer suburbs of Frankston and Dandenong. In October 2000 the ISO claimed 11 branches in Melbourne, 6 in Sydney, 4 in Brisbane, 2 in Canberra plus Adelaide and Perth.21 Yet in the next breath the leadership conceded that Socialist Worker sales had declined to a paid sale of 422 an issue. Despite the supposed influx of members, “the number of members sales averages 93.”22 Unsurprisingly by mid-2001 all the suburban and student branches had disappeared. Many of the student recruits had been lost. By the time of the July 2002 NUS Education Conference, according to former ISO organiser Jess Whyte, only three students were prepared to identify as ISO members.23

Part of the reason for the failure to integrate recruits and hold pre-existing members was the constant organisational changes, reflecting the latest fads from London: suburban branches, then student branches, then fractions, then Marxist Forums – none of which were successful. On campus they developed grand plans for setting up Global Action clubs with thousands of members. It was a predictable and demoralising failure. An even more important reason for the ISO’s inability to integrate recruits, especially students, was that they made accommodations to movementist ideas and to reformist and autonomist currents within the student and anti-capitalist movements.

The accommodation to autonomist ideas took various forms. One element of it was the downplaying of politics. An exaggerated stress on activity, rather than arguing Marxist ideas, meant that the ISO was poorly placed to win to Marxism students influenced by autonomist ideas who joined the ISO. These students were not empty vessels with no political ideas in their heads. They were not about to spontaneously adopt Marxist ideas. Marxist ideas had to be argued for. The ISO’s failure to politically educate in Marxism the students they recruited meant that they were not won away from the ideas that dominated the reformist student left (a softness on the student bureaucracy combined with ultra left posturing, movementism, anarchism and feminism).

What made the situation even worse was the overstatement of the level of socialist consciousness within the anti-capitalist and student movements. This was summed up in the formula (again imported from Britain) of “90 per cent agreement, 10 per cent disagreement” with other activists in the movement. As though Marxists had anything approaching 90 per cent agreement with currents such as the anarchist AWOL (Autonomous Web of Liberation), Indy Media, FoE, the Christian anti-debt group Jubilee, pacifist groups, church groups or prominent figures such as Naomi Klein.

This “90 per cent agreement” formula became a pressure on the ISO to downplay socialist politics and adapt to the predominant reformist/autonomist politics of those they were working alongside. Given that the other forces in the movement had nothing like 90 per cent agreement with socialist ideas, the only way that socialists could reach 90 per cent agreement with them was by shifting to the right and fudging their socialist ideas. One element of this shift away from basic socialist ideas was the ISO’s tendency to accommodate to autonomism, though in the Refugee Action Collective (RAC) in Melbourne the ISO even started to promote figures like Malcolm Fraser, the former union-bashing Liberal PM.

The accommodation to autonomism was not just an Australian problem. As the SWP admits, many groups in the IST “threw themselves so deep into the anti-capitalist movement that they came close to liquidating themselves”.24 The German IS group, Linksruck, aped the Black Bloc anarchists. On their way to the Prague anti-capitalist protest, Linksruck members were involved in anarchist style attacks on McDonalds’ stores. Unsurprisingly, an autonomist current emerged within Linksruck and eventually split away. In Europe, IS groups had to deal with autonomist groups that were a significant current, attracting young people that socialists wanted to influence. In Australia, anarchist groups were tiny and sectarian and fortunately did not grow out of the anti-capitalist movement, so there was no serious autonomist milieu with which socialists had to work. This did not mean socialists adopting a sectarian orientation to new people influenced by soft anarchist ideas. But it did mean that it was ridiculous for socialists to proclaim, as ISO members did on occasions, that the emergence of groups like AWOL was a fantastic development or that socialists had to take on board some of the autonomists’ organisational ideas.

The ISO’s accommodation to autonomism stored up problems. Because they did not win a section of their members to a Marxist world view and a Marxist approach for building a revolutionary organisation, the ISO laid the basis for a semi-anarchist opposition to emerge within their ranks. By mid-2001 many student members were demoralised and disillusioned by the direction of the ISO. However, rather than just rejecting the leadership’s perspective, some members were half influenced by autonomism and alienated by the ISO’s bureaucratic, undemocratic internal life. This combination led them to view the whole project of building a socialist organisation as sectarian and to reject the idea of revolutionary leadership, rather than to a re-appraisal of the perspective which underpins the degeneration. With the emergence of this semi-anarchist liquidationist current, the chickens had come home to roost for the ISO leadership.

It wasn’t just the accommodation to anarchism that became a problem. There were also examples of accommodation to mainstream reformist forces. The ISO recruited full time student union officials and NUS bureaucrats on an opportunist basis. Most of these student officials were influenced by a bureaucratic, top-down approach to politics. Some of them were also influenced by autonomism. There is no contradiction here, as anarchist ideas are commonly associated with elitist and bureaucratic politics. Some of these student bureaucrats did little to identify publicly as ISO members and were allowed to simply function as bureaucrats. Indeed, some of the bureaucrats seem to have been recruited on an explicit understanding that they did not have to sell Socialist Worker or operate openly as ISO members.

To win full time NUS positions the ISO resorted to the number-crunching antics of the reformist bureaucrats. They got involved in dubious deals with the Labor Right to obtain positions in the NUS bureaucracy when they had little support amongst students. This opportunistic short-cut was justified with crazy rhetoric about the need to “get your hands dirty” in the fight for “the leadership” of the student movement. But the only “fighting” the ISO were engaging in was against those in the student National Broad Left who argued against rotten deals with the right. Meanwhile, ISO leaders were busy patching up deals with reformist bureaucrats in the back rooms at NUS conference. SA was not opposed to recruiting student officials (and we did recruit some) but it needed to be on a principled basis. They had to be won to revolutionary politics and be subject to the discipline of the organisation and publicly identify as socialists – doing regular SA stalls, selling Socialist Alternative magazine and so on.

The huge gap between rhetoric and reality was bound to have an influence on the ISO’s practice. The leadership promised radical, mass movements again and again plus rapid growth. This increasingly led to the practice of declaring small, even tiny demos and events as exciting and important. So a protest of fewer than a dozen people was said to have “put the Liberals on the run” at the beginning of the campaign around refugees in 2001. And to prove they could recruit, they were under enormous pressure to sign people up on an unprincipled basis (as with the student bureaucrats) or pretend that lists of hundreds from events like S11, that were only really lists of potential sympathisers, were membership lists.

The same logic underpins the 90 per cent, 10 per cent formula – to prove there are all these radicalising people you have to downplay your Marxist politics to minimise the differences that exist with other activist milieus. This then feeds into the scare talk about “sectarianism” that has been the stock and trade of the ISO leadership since the early 90s and fuels the idea that selling a socialist paper, arguing for socialist ways to build the campaign, and recruiting activists are sectarian “raiding” – the classic red-baiting phrase of reformists.

The United Front

To make a revolution, socialists have to win the leadership of the majority of workers. The united front strategy was elaborated by Lenin and Trotsky as a method by which revolutionary parties could achieve this objective by winning workers away from the leaders of reformist parties and unions. The basic conception was that a revolutionary party should propose to both the leaders and members of reformist organisations joint struggle around concrete demands for the defence of living standards and democratic rights. The idea was that if the reformist leaders agreed to participate in such united activity there was a greater chance of these struggles being successful and that in the course of struggle the revolutionaries would have an opportunity to demonstrate to the supporters of the reformist organisations the superiority of revolutionary politics in practice.

The united front is not a trick. Revolutionaries are committed to winning the demands they campaign around. But neither is the united front about unity for the sake of unity. It is the key means of undermining the hold of reformism. In the course of struggle around the demands of the united front, the reformist leaders, flowing from their approach of compromising with capitalism, are bound to be half-hearted and undermine the campaign if it starts to challenge the powers that be. This opens up space for revolutionaries to split the base of the reformist parties and unions from their pro-capitalist leaders.

However, for revolutionaries to have a chance of pulling the mass of workers behind them, it is vital that while participating in the united front they should not dissolve into it. The revolutionary party has to maintain its separate propaganda and profile within the united front so that it is a pole of attraction to leftward moving workers. This approach is summed up by Trotsky’s slogan: “March separately! Strike together!” If the revolutionaries do not maintain an independent presence within the united front, they will end up accommodating to the reformists. Rather than the united front drawing workers to revolutionary ideas, the reformists will benefit.25

Lenin and Trotsky were clear that the united front would only be meaningful when revolutionaries had sizeable forces of their own. When socialist organisations are small they are incapable of playing a serious role in mass struggle and the reformists would have little interest in reaching agreements with them. If the reformists did reach such an agreement, it would not benefit the revolutionaries. They would be in no position to offer an alternative leadership to the reformists when they betrayed the struggle. All “united fronts” between small socialist groups and mass reformist organisations would achieve is to give a left cover to the reformists. Trotsky was clear that it was when “the Communist Party already constitutes a big, organised, political force…wherever the party embraces organizationally, let us say, one-fourth, one-third, or even a larger proportion of the organized proletarian vanguard, it is confronted with the question of the united front in all its acuteness”.26

The ISO, under the SWP’s influence, moved away from this understanding of the united front. Inflating their own importance, the ISO believe they can establish united fronts when they have no following in the working class. They equate campaigns, such as RAC, with united fronts. At one level this is just hype. The trouble is that the hype leads to a misunderstanding of how socialists should operate in campaigns. Ironically it leads to both sectarian and opportunist errors.

Campaign collectives, like RAC, are organising bodies of activists; they are not united fronts of reformists who can mobilise tens of thousands of workers and a revolutionary party that can organise sizeable worker support. So there is no point in socialists trying to reach agreements with the usually non-existent reformist leaders to engage in mass struggle. The reformists in campaign groups usually don’t have the ability to mobilise workers. They are often not even reformists but small “l” liberals, environmentalists, Christians, anarchists or whatever. There is no way campaign groups can be used by revolutionaries to demonstrate the superiority of their politics to sizeable bodies of workers and win them away from the reformists.

Instead, socialists need a modest approach to campaign groups. We need to work in a comradely fashion to build the campaign, arguing a socialist perspective for how to win. Socialists would like to mobilise masses of workers but the reality is that the campaign groups we operate in today are rarely going to be able to mobilise workers. It is only more powerful forces than groups like RAC – union leaders, the ALP and so on – that can mobilise the working class. Socialists should argue for an orientation to the working class because of its power to transform society. However, this is an example of concrete propaganda. It is not because socialists or the campaign are capable of mobilising significant numbers of workers independently of the union leaders. The ISO’s grandiose approach of considering every campaign a “united front” at times leads them to posture in a sectarian fashion. They come to campaign meetings (such as S11 in Melbourne) with lists of overblown proposals that the campaign has no hope in hell of being able to mobilise enough people to carry out and then denounce people who sensibly argue for the campaign to prioritise one or two things as “pessimists” who don’t understand “the anger” out there amongst the mass of workers.

ISO comrades, along with the DSP, have criticised SA for supposedly only wanting to relate to the militant minority and opposing mass campaigns. This seems to reflect a misunderstanding of SA’s approach and a failure to understand the vital role of building a militant left wing of campaigns. SA is not interested in building the militant minority for its own sake or just recruiting the militant minority. We are for building broad campaigns. It is only when you have a sizeable campaign that a genuine militant minority can cohere. Revolutionaries can’t artificially create one. But in a serious campaign, the militant minority, the left wing activists – whatever you want to call them – is vital. This militant minority can drive the campaign forward, inspire new activists to get involved and begin to challenge the powers that be. It should be ABC for socialists that they want to build the left wing of a campaign. We hardly want to build the right wing. This is not counterposed to building a successful campaign. It is essential, if the campaign is to have the most radical impact. Naturally socialists want to recruit the most left wing people. Otherwise why be a socialist?

Of course, exactly what tactics socialists argue for is a concrete question. To attempt to force the pace beyond what the campaign can sustain at any point of time is a mistake. It is equally a mistake to consistently make concessions to the right wing of the campaign that hold back the campaign’s capacity to mobilise radicalising forces.

One effect of the ISO’s misunderstanding of the united front is that it has pushed members away from revolutionary politics in a movementist direction. The ISO have made building “united fronts” the centre of their politics. Instead of operating in campaigns as socialists, ISO comrades often come across as simply campaign activists, indistinguishable from activists that don’t have socialist politics. The ISO’s overestimation of the degree of radicalisation (eg that people in campaigns were already 90 per cent in agreement with socialist ideas) led to a downplaying of the need to make political arguments to win people to socialism. The ISO argued they would recruit by being the most dynamic builders of the united front. Indeed, in some campaigns in the absence of reformist forces with real social weight, the ISO tend to substitute for the reformists. In RAC in Brisbane the ISO orient to conservative forces such as the churches and in RAC in Melbourne and Sydney, the ISO promoted Malcolm Fraser and they originally opposed a serious attempt to organise direct action at the Maribyrnong protest.

At the start of 2001 the ISO leadership argued not to do ISO stalls on campus and instead do Global Action stalls. On some campuses the open selling of Socialist Worker effectively ceased. Some members took this further arguing according to ISO organiser Tom Barnes that ISO stalls were “sectarian”: “To sum up, this is the comrades’ approach to the united front: don’t argue the way forward because this is ‘sectarian’. Instead, we must act only if the left agrees.”27 This tailing behind conservative forces on the left became the hallmark of ISO work in Activate at Monash Uni. The ISO’s attitude to Global Action was incredibly confused. A section of the leadership, reflecting their over-estimation of the scale of the anti-capitalist movement, believed it could attract thousands of members. When predictably (as SA pointed out at the time) this didn’t happen, the ISO at Melbourne Uni in a sectarian fashion treated Global Action as their front group and adopted a hostile attitude to other left groups that tried to get involved in it.

Socialist Alliance

The ISO’s confusion over the united front is reflected in their description of Socialist Alliance as a united front. Socialist Alliance brings together a few socialist groups and a few independent lefties to contest elections. Socialist Alliance involves no serious reformist forces and organises no mass struggles. It is simply an electoral alliance. There is nothing inherently wrong with socialists participating in an electoral alliance. However it is more difficult to do so in a principled fashion when the socialists are under the illusion that they are participating in a united front that mobilises workers in struggle.

Socialist Alliance proved an abject failure. The ISO simply imported the idea from Britain and it was based on an exaggerated assessment of the extent to which workers in Australia were open to voting for socialist candidates. In Britain there was a right wing Labour government in office which was starting to anger some of its working class supporters. By contrast in Australia, Howard was in office and there was a sizeable Greens Party, which with its softer politics, was much better placed to benefit from the vague shift to the left by layers of young people and some workers. The other factor undermining the viability of Socialist Alliance was the small size of the left groups that founded it. There was little evidence that the left groups would be able to involve significant forces outside their ranks, or inspire a significant vote. This has been proven in spades, with Socialist Alliance getting derisory votes. Yet the ISO continue to put effort into it. With the decline in ISO membership Socialist Alliance in a number of cities is becoming just a front for the DSP.

Involvement in electoral politics is a risk, as it places a right wing pressure on the organisation. Taking that risk would be justified if Socialist Alliance connected with layers of workers breaking to the left from the ALP. However, while there is disillusionment with the ALP, the low level of industrial struggle means that even militant workers lack confidence in their ability to change the world, and this severely limits their openness to socialist ideas. Furthermore, Socialist Alliance has not been able to attract young people radicalised by the anti-capitalist movement as a counterweight to its conservatising electoral routine.

The ISO leadership originally argued for Socialist Alliance on the basis that there would be a low key involvement initially, that the ISO would not substitute itself for other forces and that it would rigorously assess developments. This did not happen. Instead the ISO began to substitute itself for the lack of real forces, hyped up the prospects of Socialist Alliance and stopped looking at the actual electoral results. It is significant that many ISO members involved in Socialist Alliance are relatively older and have little involvement in other ISO activities. This should be a warning sign that Socialist Alliance can become a right wing pressure and lead to a leakage of ISO members away from building a revolutionary organisation into electoral politics.

The latest phase of the crisis in the ISO

In the course of 2001 confused but bitter divisions opened up within the ISO National Executive (NE). ISO National News of 10 August 2001 announced the sacking of NE member Richard Bailey as National Student Organiser. No political explanation was offered for the sacking. At the same time NE member Jess Whyte, who was politically allied to Richard Bailey, resigned as Melbourne organiser and Dave Charlton resigned as Brisbane organiser. Again no political explanation was offered for this major change in personnel. The same National News announced another wild lurch – the launching of a weekly Socialist Worker despite reporting derisory sales of the then fortnightly (paid sales for issue 461 were only 258 copies and for issue 462 129).

In the lead-up to the February 2002 conference a debate broke out on a scale not seen since the expulsion of SA. The NE majority put out a separate perspectives document. This was largely a reiteration of themes the leadership had argued for years, but it set the scene for a showdown with the opposition. A “turn to the working class” was enthusiastically argued for by Socialist Worker editor Tad Tietze and a bit more half-heartedly by the NE majority as a panacea for the ISO’s problems.28 Reflecting divisions even within the NE majority, the issue of Socialist Alliance was fudged in their document.

Opposition documents proliferated, including by NE members Ian Rintoul and Richard Bailey. The opposition documents made valid criticisms of the leadership’s approach. However, hardly any of the critics (an exception being Tom O’Lincoln) challenged the leadership’s analysis of the political period, the thirties in slow motion perspective and so on. Virtually none of the critics (except for Tom O’Lincoln) had an understanding that a key root of the ISO’s problems was its unwillingness to face up to the fact that it was a propaganda group dependent on its ideas for recruiting people. Nor did the critics point to the disastrous impact the SWP had on the direction of the ISO. Because most of the critics did not get to the root of the problems – indeed they often accepted the leadership’s super-optimistic analysis or were influenced by workerist and movementist ideas – they were unable to provide a coherent alternative.

Just prior to the conference, the SWP intervened with a letter effectively calling on the leadership to calm the “intense and highly polarized debate”.29 With their offensive against the opposition undercut, the leadership pulled back. But the opposition, because they were unable to offer a clear solution to the ISO’s problems and because of the demoralisation of their supporters and the divisions in their ranks, were not able to take advantage of the leadership’s hesitancy and seize the initiative. The SWP intervention made the conference less bitter than it might have been and ensured that the leadership did not expel the leading oppositionists. However, it also ensured that the conference clarified nothing. No perspective was adopted. Some members felt better because of this. They had been allowed to raise their concerns and up to a point opposition had been legitimised. The immediate crisis had been contained. In the short term there were no large scale resignations.

However, precisely because no clarity came out of conference the ISO was directionless and in the medium term the crisis could only get worse. In the months since the February conference the ISO has not developed a road forward. The leadership seems to have run out of ideas and the SWP, on whom they have been dependent for so long, is offering no decisive direction. So the ISO has drifted. The result was that by mid-2002 some of the members who were briefly buoyed up around conference and hoped that it promised some solution began to drop out – either resigning or sinking further into inactivity. Some oppositionists drifted further towards movementist and autonomist ideas. By mid-2002 the ISO had still not adopted a perspective. Reflecting the continuing divisions, the July 2002 National Committee was unable to develop an agreed analysis of the anti-capitalist movement.

It is not going to be easy to regalvanise the ISO. A sizeable layer of members is disoriented, demoralised, inactive, cynical or semi-oppositional. To get the ISO moving again the leadership has to come up with a perspective that inspires confidence in at least a section of members. That will not be an easy task, as the leadership, because of its ties to the SWP, has to pay at least lip service to the 1930s in slow motion analysis. Developing a half-sensible perspective is just part of the problem. To have any hope of saving the ISO the leadership has to recohere those members still committed to building a socialist organisation. It has to win to Marxist politics those members impacted by movementist/semi-anarchist ideas. This includes not only oppositionists but also leadership supporters. Much of the political work of ISO members does little to build a socialist organisation. It is simply movement work that any activist, whether or not they were a socialist, could carry out. Few ISO members do the work that is vital to build a socialist organisation – ISO stalls, trying to recruit contacts, attending ISO meetings, selling papers and so on.

The leadership have let things drift for quite sometime. This has avoided a blow-up, but it makes it harder and harder to turn things around. To go forward the leadership has to get more members actively building the ISO. But that means arguing with members to do things and the danger for the leadership is that could accelerate the drift out of the ISO. A number of inactive members (including leadership supporters) maintain formal membership and pay dues, as long as they are left alone. They could resign if they are argued with to become active. Their resignations could in turn provoke more resignations or opposition from other members which could have a snowball effect. The reality is that things are very fragile in the ISO. It is not simply that a lot of members have drifted into inactivity or resigned but that the cadre and leadership is much thinner than it was even two years ago. A layer of members who were national leaders, fulltime organisers or Socialist Worker staff have either resigned (Jess Whyte, Liz Humphrys), become oppositional (Ian Rintoul, Richard Bailey) or cut back their level of activity markedly (Alison Stewart, Tad Tietze, Dave Charlton, Anna Duff).

The draft perspectives document published by the ISO NE on 27 June 2002 hardly indicates that they have anything approaching a road forward. The positive side of the document is that it acknowledges that the ISO is in a mess and pulls back from the “turn to the working class” the leadership advocated prior to the February conference. However, when it comes to a road forward it sets a series of grandiose tasks:

“Establish social forums that unite activists from the anti-capitalist movement with people disaffected with Labor…Establish campus activist hubs that unite activists on campuses…Re-build the anti-war movement…Build the refugee rights movement…Building Socialist Alliance fits the task of relating to the crisis in social democracy…Build Marxism 2002…a major opportunity to pull the threads of the campaigns together…” and so on. 30
Maybe, if the ISO had 5,000 members and the political climate was a lot more favourable, they could pull off some of these initiatives. As it is, given the current state of the ISO, these grandiose proposals can only add to the disorientation in their ranks. This perspective will do nothing to stop the haemorrhaging of members, let alone help recruit and politically integrate a new layer of members. The ISO needs a more modest perspective that starts from the actual state of play politically in Australia and which maximises the potential for intervention by their limited forces. They need to start by acknowledging the disorienting impact “ the 1930s in slow motion” analysis has had and that they are a propaganda group dependent on the clarity of their ideas for winning people to socialism.

SA takes no satisfaction from the problems besetting the ISO. The loss from political activity of a considerable number of socialists is a setback for all of us who want to overthrow capitalism. It is over seven years since the split in the ISO that give rise to SA. We in SA think it is an appropriate time to try to clarify with ISO members the issues that lay behind the split and to discuss the strategic challenges facing socialists today. SA does not claim to have all the answers. However, we believe that our experiences in building an organisation over the last seven years, and in particular the lessons from our growth over the last few years, can make a contribution to the discussion of the way forward for socialists.

SA started out much smaller than the ISO in 1995 and many of our comrades were demoralised by the bitter split that had taken place. By a combination of tenacity and a level-headed assessment of political realities we were able to survive the 90s. Far from being “conservative sectarians”, when the political climate shifted with the emergence of the anti-capitalist movement, we responded enthusiastically. We were able to make gains by a combination of arguing principled socialist politics and involving ourselves wholeheartedly in the new campaigns that emerged. George Bush’s “war on terrorism” raises further challenges and opportunities for socialists. If socialists have a sense of proportion and a realistic assessment of the political situation and the capabilities of their organisation, they can make important gains. We would like to open up a dialogue with the ISO. We appeal to ISO members who are interested in seriously discussing the questions of how socialists can most effectively build today to approach us.

Socialist Alternative National Executive

2 September 2002


1. Five issues of a theoretical journal, Socialist Review, were published between January 1990 and Autumn 1992.

2. “The return of the working class”, ISO Internal Bulletin No 1, March 1993.

3. ISO Conference Bulletin No 2, January 1994.

4. ISO Conference Bulletin No 3, 24 January 1994.

5. See for example Socialist Review, London, June 2002, p12.

6. For a more detailed discussion of the theory of democratic centralism see Mick Armstrong, Revolutionary Organisation Today, Socialist Alternative and Sandra Bloodworth, Marc Newman and Mick Armstrong, Lenin: Debunking the Myths, Socialist Alternative.

7. For a detailed analysis of the role of students see Mick Armstrong, 1, 2, 3, What Are We Fighting For? The Australian student movement from its origins to the 1970s, Socialist Alternative, Melbourne, 2001.

8. 1999 ISO Conference Bulletin No 1, 9 December 1998.

9. ISO Conference Bulletin 3, 31/1/96.

10. 1999 ISO Conference Bulletin No 1, 9 December 1998.

11. 1999 ISO Conference Bulletin No 1, 9 December 1998.

12. ISO Conference Bulletin, 23 November, 1999, p14.

13. ISO Conference Bulletin 3, 31/1/96.

14. ISO Conference Bulletin, 23 November, 1999, p17.

15. 1999 ISO Conference Bulletin No 1, December 1998.

16. ISO Conference 2002 Discussion Bulletin No 1, p3.

17. 1999 ISO Conference Bulletin No 1, December 1998.

18. ISO Conference 2002 Discussion Bulletin No 1.

19. University of Queensland Branch Report, ISO Conference Bulletin No 2, p22.

20. “Taking a lead on Anti-Capitalism”, ISO National Committee, 3 August 2001.

21. Socialist Worker, 6 October 2000.

22. ISO Conference 2001 Bulletin No 2, p9.

23. Jess Whyte, Letter of resignation from ISO. Undated.

24. Bambery and Callinicos, 15 January 2002.

25. For more on the United Front see “Trotsky on the United Front”, International Socialist Review, No 17, April-May 2001, Chicago.

26. ISR No 17, p59.

27. Tom Barnes, “War, Anti-capitalism and the working class: tasks for the ISO and problems we face”, ISO Conference 2002 Bulletin No 3, p44.

28. "For a turn to the working class” Tad Tietze, ISO Conference 2002 Discussion Bulletin No 1, p22.

29. Chris Bambery and Alex Callinicos for the Central Committee of the Socialist Workers Party (Britain), 15 January 2002.

30. ISO National Executive, “Towards A Perspective for Building the ISO Today” 27 June 2002.