Australian Cliffite group splits

Marcus Larsen of the Communist Party Advocates reports from Australia

THE AUSTRALIAN detachment of Tony Cliff’s SWP, the International Socialist Organisation (ISO), has split. The split is the result of long-running tensions in the organisation on matters of orientation and organisation. This is by no means the collapse of the IS tendency in this country, but has nevertheless temporarily weakened it, especially in Melbourne. More importantly it points to problems in the method of organisation as practised by the ISO and its tendency internationally.

As the process of communist rapprochement develops in Britain, it is instructive to examine how the SWP operates in miniature in its overseas manifestation. Although it only has a membership under 200, the ISO is one of the most visible left groupings in Australia.

The split in the ISO has led to the formation of a smaller grouping, the Socialist Alternative. This is no great surprise to many. What is so unusual about another splinter group forming amongst the Cliff-inspired tendency? In one respect nothing. However, there are two issues that do give this split significance. Firstly, the manner in which it occurred. Socialist Alternative was formed after two waves of expulsions of 16 ISO members over one week in July. Secondly, the context in which this developed is important. The ISO has gone from a position of ultra-leftism and irrelevance at the fringes of the left/revolutionary movement in the 1980s to being one of the two main revolutionary groupings in Australia today.

The International Socialists (IS), as they were then known, had a fairly major split in 1985 with some core IS members forming Socialist Action. This breakaway lasted five years until they re-merged with the IS, the fused group taking the name ISO.

This fusion was not based on any thoroughgoing analysis of the problems that led to the split in the first place. In many ways the unresolved issues from that time prepared the ground for this latest split. The internal regime of the ISO remained largely the same, ensuring adherence to one platform. The strategy of recruitment involved tailing the latest social movement and picking up individuals here and there. Added to this is the necessity of following the latest turn of the SWP leadership in Britain. This bureaucratic regime rightly stuck in the throat of some of the longer-term members and many of the new recruits.

In 1993 two leading members of the ISO, Mick Armstrong and Sandra Bloodworth, were removed from the national committee for continued oppositional activity. It was this move that precipitated the long-running tension. Instead of open debate throughout the organisation, in front of the class, discussion has been stifled and any effective potential opposition silenced.

Of course, situations like this do not remain static. They fester and grow if left untreated. You cannot ‘silence’ oppositions through bureaucratic manoeuvring.

This unhealthy situation led to a stagnation in the organisation. Many of the people recruited in the early 1990s as the ISO turned outwards had drifted away. Indeed, the leadership’s own pre-conference document this year admitted that “almost none of the people who joined at the end of 1993 were retained as members”. Yet this admission is followed by an analysis based on the numbers of ‘members’, and no real analysis as to the real growth or decline of the organisation. It reads like the financial report on movement of stocks: “Brunswick started with 18 and grew to 36 in ten months before setting up Coburg at Christmas, which started at 10 and now has 13. Surry Hills has recruited 10 since it was set up in September.” In the lead-up to the 1995 conference held in April, an open oppositional position developed - in the only time allowed in the ISO, during the pre-conference period.

The leadership’s pre-conference document, The promise of struggles to come, concentrated on the need to build suburban branches, ‘tap the anger’ and build door-to-door and locality work. This is, coincidentally I am sure, the perspective of the SWP (Britain). This is a toning down of the ISO’s previous position that the mass strikes in Victoria in 1993 were leading to a revolutionary upsurge.

The ‘opposition’ document, although impressively titled After a year of stagnation ... it’s time for a new perspective, did not fundamentally address the method of organisational orientation or internal democracy in the ISO. The major differences were on who the major audience was for the ISO and what was the level of ‘anger’. The opposition argued that the main audience is on campus and that the level of ‘anger’ was exaggerated by the leadership. It also argued that the organisation’s  paper, Socialist Worker, which is a carbon copy of its British namesake, should change format and that the articles were “simplistic and patronising”. The tactical and strategic difference between the leadership and the ‘opposition’ are certainly not grounds for a principled split; neither are they grounds for expulsion.

The final resolutions adopted by the conference were a sop to the opposition. While adopting the basic positions of the leadership, they included resolutions which recognised “there is a conflict situation in Melbourne that will require patience and goodwill to resolve”. Ominously, it continued: “While formal discipline and expulsion remain legitimate last resorts, we don’t envisage their use in this case.”

Further, rather than build a strong organisation based on open debate around disciplined unity in action, the conference passed a resolution which conceded that

“individuals who can’t implement [conference decisions] ... should not obstruct them. Refraining from a particular activity on these grounds is not regarded as sabotage.”

After the conference, a fax arrived at the ISO national committee from Chris Bambery, national executive member of the British SWP. The fax, dated May 2 1995, mainly dealt with the implementation of the national conference decisions. Bambery expressed his hope that “we can win all the comrades” to the leadership perspective. He went on to recommend that if “there is any recurrence of factional organisation, I am in favour of taking swift action”.

On July 24, swift action was taken. Five leading members of the ISO were expelled, with a further eleven later that week. The ‘crimes’ of the initial five expelled (they received identical letters) were trifling and included discouraging “new members from attending a Socialist Worker fundraiser”; the five were blamed for creating an atmosphere that led to “only three” people being recruited at an anti-nuclear demonstration and they were accused of holding a “caucus” on organising anti-nuclear work. Heavy stuff! The clincher, however, was that it was the “opinion” of the national committee that those expelled “played a central part in maintaining a ‘factional’ situation in Melbourne”.

The 10th Congress of the Bolsheviks banned factions - in hindsight, probably a grave mistake. But this is not Soviet Russia in 1921; this is Australia in 1995!

Of course, none of this imbroglio was discussed in the pages of Socialist Worker. ‘Angry’ workers obviously do not want to bother themselves with ‘irrelevant’ issues such as the process of building revolutionary organisation. They just want to fight!

As the dust settles, it is fairly clear that Socialist Alternative is not a serious organisation. It is almost exclusively student-orientated. It is not surprising that the expulsions and split did not get a mention in Socialist Worker. That is to be expected from a leadership resorting to bureaucratic methods to hide its shortfalls.

What is telling is that Socialist Alternative failed to mention the split in its first publication. Its method of politics and organisation remains the same. It presented itself as if it fell from the sky.

Rather than form a dead-end grouping, the best and most serious elements of those expelled and those who left the ISO should remain as part of the ISO and fight a principled factional battle for real democratic centralism in the ISO. It has been suggested to me that this is not possible because the leadership “won’t allow it”. Well, the capitalist class is not going to “allow” you to overthrow its system. Revolutionaries do not start with what we think we can achieve: we start with what is necessary.

Many will use the split to drop out of politics altogether. The better elements will drift along in isolation and, after some time in Coventry, find some way to rejoin the ISO.

In the short term, this split has had a strong impact on the ISO’s ability to recruit and sell papers - its main activity. But it has a strong core and will bounce back and continue to develop along the course as laid down from London.

So what are the main lessons for communists in this affair? Clearly, what has developed in the ISO in its period of growth is a contradiction between its anarchistic worship of spontaneity, its tailing of Laborism and an increasingly bureaucratic centralist regime around the central tenets of Cliffism. Maintenance around rigid schemas without any real debate is bound to develop splinters and schisms as real life passes it by.

Following every turn of its parent organisation in Britain shows the inadequacies of the ISO’s perspective on party building. Tom O’Lincoln, one of the founders of the IS tendency in Australia in the early 1970s and a leading figure in forming the Socialist Action split in the mid 1980s, wrote a letter of protest over the expulsions:

“The role of the British leadership should not escape comment. Two years in a row, key national committee members [of the ISO] have flown back from London with a mandate to provoke conflict. Two years in a row, British CC members have flown out here, presumably [at our expense] ... not to tour the country building the group, as they once did, but purely to lend spurious authority to an NC that was clearly out of its depth” (Letter to ISO national committee, July 31 1995).

This clearly shows a bureaucratic regime operating in the ISO.

But the ISO cannot be easily dismissed. It successfully filled part of the vacuum left by the collapse of ‘official’ communist parties and the USSR, although being sucked along by the putrid winds of Labourism. It has been able to grow, dramatically at times. So it is not going to disappear. This makes it a barrier to reforging a communist party in Australia. Although its growth is not principled, although it is set up in opposition to the interests of the class as a whole, it still remains one of the main revolutionary groupings in Australia.

In making the initial steps towards reforging the Communist Party in this country, we must take on the politics of the ISO, which has been quite aptly described as ‘anarcho-Stalinist’. Through open ideological debate and disciplined unity in action, the ISO can be confronted. Some of its members will be part of the process to reforge the Communist Party.

This split gives us an informative view of the IS tendency’s bureaucratic regime. From it we must learn and move forwards.