Socialist Alliance Australia: Shape of things to come

The 'Resignation statement', signed by 25 members of the International Socialist Organisation in Australia, is only a foretaste of what will sooner of later happen to any sect - big or small - that stands in the way of left unity and the fight for a revolutionary party of the working class. Marcus Ström reports

The ISO,  as most readers will know, is the Australian ‘sister’ organisation of the Socialist Workers Party in England and Wales. It is also an affiliate of the International Socialist Tendency, which is run as a private concern by the London quadrivirate of Alex Callinicos, John Rees, Chris Harman and Chris Bambery. So what the ISO does in Australia directly reflects the tactical thinking and calculations in London.

Hence a rebellion against the bureaucratic centralism and sect-building project of the ISO is also a rebellion against the bureaucratic centralism and sect-building project of the SWP. Of course, the comrades in Australia say they are still loyal to the traditions of the IST and its founder Tony Cliff. In a way this reminds me of Stalinites slaughtered in the 1930s. Many of them died with ‘Long live Stalin’ on their lips. To pledge commitment to the “fundamental politics” of a tendency that has replicated itself as a series of micro-control organisms across the world shows these comrades have not looked very closely at the IST’s methodology. On the other hand their attachment is perfectly understandable. Having being hard-working partisans of the ISO, some for a considerable period, one should expect nothing else. And, of course, in the process of clarification and struggle, the comrades will learn.

Significantly the rebellion against the ISO’s stifling bureaucratic centralist regime occurs in the context of a forward-moving partyist project. The Socialist Alliance in Australia - led by the Democratic Socialist Party - is set on a course to establish a multi-tendency socialist party. Over the weekend of May 10-11 the SA national conference made the historic decision to unite the parts into a greater whole - while allowing full minority rights - and reach out to wider forces, above all in the working class and labour movement.

Such conditions act as a democratic acid which rapidly dissolve the mental and organisational chains that sustain bureaucratic centralism. That is why John Rees and the SWP instinctively recoil from any mention of transforming the SA in England and Wales into a party. It spells death for him.

In certain respects it might be said that the statement of the 25 is slightly disappointing. No clear political principles for the break are given, apart from what appears to be an understandable frustration with the ISO leadership. If we had had their ear we would have urged an open rebellion on the solid basis of partyism. The comrades should have begun publishing their criticisms openly. That would undoubtedly have resulted in expulsion after expulsion - but so what? The rebellion would have been carried deeper into the ranks of the ISO and the left in general would have received a very instructive education.

On balance though that is a minor criticism. Communists are in full solidarity with those who rebel against bureaucratic centralist regimes and who show a real commitment to theoretically develop themselves and redouble their political involvement.

The ISO is very much in decline. Privately they are talked about within leading SWP circles as being “a bit mad”. Nevertheless, despite such dismissive, almost colonial attitudes, the ISO has always exhibited in extremis the anarchistic and bureaucratic politics of the SWP/International Socialist Tendency in London. The ISO was virtually carried kicking and screaming into the SA under instructions from comrades Alex Callinicos and John Rees in London. The more anarchistic elements flaked away. Involvement in the SA was largely seen as optional for ISO members. Some boycotted active involvement.

The initial 25 who have rebelled are no raw recruits. The most notable departure is that of Ian Rintoul, who was acting as an ISO national organiser. Comrade Rintoul, I have been told, fronted ISO work in the Socialist Alliance. Mark Goudkamp is a former full-timer on the Australian version of Socialist Worker and Michael Thompson is also a senior and long-standing member. He is a leading trade unionist in the National Tertiary Education Union, sitting on its national executive.

The SWP in England and Wales has been able to pursue its sectarian, anti-party agenda in the Socialist Alliance with some impunity. For the moment it possesses overwhelming numbers in relation to other affiliates. Which also means it is able to attract tame independents - who can be rewarded for services rendered. The International Socialist Group/Resistance bloc essentially acts in this dishonourable manner.

In Australia, the ISO is middle-ranking in comparison to the largest affiliate, the DSP. Worse still for the sectarian ambitions of the ISO and its masters in London, the DSP wants the Socialist Alliance to learn from the successes of the Scottish Socialist Party. Not that the DSP seeks to break up Australia into its constituent federal parts or push for the independence of Tasmania. The DSP leadership has not fallen for petty nationalism.

But the DSP can hold out the realistic prospect of a far more viable political project and meantime encourage the expression of differences. The SA regime in Australia is in this respect a model from which we in Britain - Scotland included - would do well to follow. Revolutionary groups are seen as part of the solution - not a problem. Their literature is not banned or only kept for closed meetings. It - all of it - can and should be on public display on every SA stall and at every SA event. Excellent. And such a principled approach brings its just rewards.

One of these rewards is the steady disintegration of its largest rival in the Socialist Alliance - the ISO. Many have simply dropped out of politics - natural, given the magnetic pull of bourgeois life. However, a good number have reconstituted themselves independents in the SA. The 25 are soon to consider their options. As a transitional measure the best thing to do is surely to affiliate to the SA as a loyal pro-party group.

As to the rump of the ISO - now reportedly less than 50 active members, from the ‘height’ of 300 some years ago - it is to remain within the SA. Unfortunately reports reaching me from Australia indicate that this is largely intended as a wrecking operation - not in the spirit of carrying through the decisions of the annual conference to establish the alliance as a party. The ISO will therefore work along the same narrow lines we have seen with the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty in England and Wales. The ISO will strike a pro-SA pose when it suits, but will act in a way that undermines the project.

However, the ISO still has one plus point in relation to the Socialist Alliance. The DSP characterises the Australian Labor Party as a “capitalist party” with no qualification or caveat. It seems intent on aping the SSP’s sectarian orientation to the Labour Party in Scotland. The ISO correctly argues that “the crisis in the ALP is central to the alliance project” (Socialist Worker May 22). Yet the group merely wants to create a “safe home” for reformists, keeping its r-r-revolutionary credentials pure and separate. Not a recipe for advance.

A previous split from the ISO in 1995 produced the largely Melbourne-based Socialist Alternative with around 90 members (www.sa.org.au). It has been a thorn in the side of the ISO since its formation, exerting constant anarchistic pressure. It has steadfastly avoided the Socialist Alliance as an “electoralist” diversion from its ultra-left agenda.

The resignation statement points to the continued sectarian failures of the ISO - its inability to engage with the anti-war movement and to build on the campuses. The statement points to “heavy-handed organisation measures and the refusal to discuss differences in a comradely manner by the ISO leadership”. Sounds familiar?

But will the 25 learn the real lessons? One can only hope so. My sources in the Socialist Alliance in Australia suggest that a few will move in a “movementist”, or liquidationist, direction. However, it seems that most of the comrades will engage positively with the Socialist Alliance project. This is good news indeed.