Three of the four International Socialist Tendency groups in Australia have merged. Marcus Strom was there
Given its history of hair-trigger splits over issues real or imagined, it is not every day that groups from the Trotskyist tradition merge. Yet over the first weekend of February this year three groups in Australia from the British Socialist Workers Party’s International Socialist Tendency agreed to form a single organisation.
Activists from the International Socialist Organisation, Solidarity and the Socialist Action Group voted to merge and form a new group - Solidarity - with a magazine of the same name, which will appear monthly. The decision to merge was unanimous, but the vote for the name was close, with 27 votes for ‘Solidarity’ and 24 for ‘International Socialist Group’.
Any move by Marxists in the direction of unity is positive, however small the numbers. What is more, this development goes against the grain for the IST - its various organisations have tended to splinter or decline over the past 15 years, the ISO in Australia included. And the SWP mothership is in disarray, as it continues with the farce that Respect has become.
I attended the first day of the conference as an observer. (My attendance was controversial, with a request to observe rejected by the organising committee. This decision was overturned after some members said they would move a motion at the opening of the conference to allow observers on the first day.) My general impression was of a small number of senior cadre coming together with some relatively inexperienced university students. Few members have leading roles in unions or community organisations. Membership is overwhelmingly young and white.
The comrades voted for the organisation’s monthly publication to have a magazine format, as opposed to that of a newspaper. A debate around whether or not to sell it on stalls was revealing, in that it showed that the new organisation has very little, if any, membership in working class suburbs - stalls were discussed as if they will only occur on campuses and the more gentrified urban areas. It also revealed a liquidationist tendency that was not comfortable selling the publication at all, while another section favoured ploughing on with the same approach to paper sales and recruiting mainly students.
A few comrades seemed to be interested in exploring ideas that could orientate Solidarity more towards working class and migrant organisations, opening up the publication to minority viewpoints and those of non-members, and doing serious fraction work in the trade unions. There was agreement that “intervention work” will also be directed towards the Greens (there was much use of the word “intervention”, but not so much consideration of theoretical and practical leadership).
A motion to make the magazine “of the vanguard, for the vanguard” was deferred to the incoming national committee. In part it reads: “[The magazine should] adopt a relatively open publishing policy, with the space for members and readers of the publication to publish considered responses to content and to submit articles where appropriate for publication without excessive editing or censure. We should include open debates where different approaches to a question arise in the context of a more general agreement on issues of principle.”
This is a very healthy impulse, but it will need to be followed through by those comrades supportive of this position at upcoming NC meetings. My guess is that it will not come to fruition unless there is a conscious fight within Solidarity for such openness, as opposed to the secretive culture that has usually existed within IST groups.
The other main contentious issues were around the election of leading committees. There were differences between those wanting a centralist configuration and those favouring a more federalist approach. This reflects deeper contradictions within the IST itself, which has been accused of anarcho-bureaucratism in the past. An unhappy compromise was reached - on the one hand, IST-style “democratic centralism” (read bureaucratic centralism) was rejected; on the other, there was expectation that Solidarity members will adhere to “the traditions of the tendency”.
This, then, was not the fusing of militant workers from various political traditions into the beginnings of a mass organisation able to challenge the power of capital and unite layers of the working class around a democratic Marxist programme. It was 80 or so individuals from the same political tradition coming back into a single organisation that should never have divided in the first place. Like quarks behaving erratically, the sub-atomic particles have returned to where theory would expect them to be located. As one leading member told me, it is the “rebooting” of the IST in Australia. Another comrade said: “We are not even back to zero - more like minus one.”
During its three decades of organisation in Australia, the IS tradition has never broken out of the student milieu and the leftist ghettos of Sydney and Melbourne - except for perhaps the first few years of its existence prior to the ‘downturn’ perspective developed in London in the early 1980s that was so crudely implemented in Australia.
So should we even be concerned with such a tendency? Activists who dedicate themselves to work in various movements of the class and to making propaganda for socialism need to be taken seriously. Their errors need to be highlighted, lessons learned and positive moves encouraged.
Until February 3 there were four grouplets in Australia pledging fealty to the political thinking of the late Tony Cliff, founder of the SWP. That they had split is a reflection not only of the IST’s own internal problems, but also of the state of the far left in general and the concrete circumstances it encountered in Australia. These divisions had not been caused by disagreement over principles, but, on the one side, trivial internal questions such as those that surfaced during the ISO’s disorderly retreat from its failed involvement with the Socialist Alliance project, and, on the other side, differences over perspectives that ought to have been openly debated and contained within the same organisation.
A split came in 1995, with the departure from the ISO of the group that went on to form the anarchoid Socialist Alternative, which now claims 200-300 members. It exists as a pristine expression of boycottist, ultra-left propagandism. It is almost exclusively involved in churning through students as members and has an internal culture more akin to a religious group than a socialist organisation. Needless to say, it was not involved in the unity conference. The Socialist Action Group, which did attend, is a Brisbane-based split from Socialist Alternative.
The next ISO splinter came in 2003 when dissidents left to form Solidarity in reaction to the ISO’s continued adherence to the Socialist Alliance, its bureaucratic method of operation and unthinking following of the SWP in Britain. By this time the SA was becoming indistinguishable from the Democratic Socialist Perspective and has since operated as the DSP’s electoral arm. The DSP had aimed to see off the ISO as a rival through the Socialist Alliance tactic and in this it was successful.
Solidarity left the ISO, it said, to get off the treadmill of merely building for the ‘next big event’ and instead pursue theoretical work more seriously within an “organisational structure that fits with the period and the needs of a small group”. In practice, however, its comrades threw themselves into campaign work: on campus, and in the refugee and anti-war movements. Members tell me there were attempts to re-examine IST politics, even if, in the end, such politics were confirmed. However, they tended to downplay the importance of party-building.
With the obvious failure of the SA as a broad socialist project in Australia and the crumbling of the Respect project in Britain, the ISO’s haemorrhaging of members continued and it was barely able to function beyond producing its newspaper. It, too, began to question IST politics and no longer automatically regurgitates the perspectives of the SWP.
Of course, the re-formed Solidarity will also be linked to the SWP. A motion moved successfully at conference reads: “That we affiliate to the International Socialist Tendency and inform other organisations in the tendency of the success of our conference.” But what sort of success was it?
I am happy for the IS activists involved that they have a common framework within which to sort out their campaigning priorities, but there was a marked absence of any recognition of the need for the principled unity of all Marxists. Neither was there any serious thirst for new ideas. Instead it was student work, union work, anti-war work, refugee work. Not Marxism, but campaignism. Same old stuff.
A meeting on tasks and perspectives soon after the merger conference did offer a glimmer of hope. For the first time in the memory of some participants, two presenters gave different analyses on the situation in Iran. A debate took place. Of course it is unlikely this will appear in the pages of Solidarity.
However, on February 16, I was involved in trying to organise a solidarity picket with the Iranian students arrested in Tehran last year. A member of Solidarity and an Iranian fellow traveller initiated this and sought to involve the Iranian left in Sydney. It was met with a hostile reaction from some leading members within Solidarity. While the new group supposedly does not practise ‘democratic centralism’, leading Solidarity figures implied that it was disloyal to organise an action supporting imprisoned Iranian students, as this was contrary to the politics of the IST. One actually said that it was not the policy of the tendency to call for the downfall of the Iranian regime.
Unfortunately for these people, an article in Socialist Worker (Britain) called for support for a similar protest in London on the same day. With political egg on their face, they have since fallen silent on the matter, and the member who had tried to initiate the picket with me was not offered any apology. Neither was there any real attempt to relate to the International Trade Union Confederation day of action for imprisoned Iranian trade unionists on March 6.
This does not augur well for the new grouping. Unless this merger is seen as an opportunity to take stock and pursue a strategy of the broader unity of Marxists around a common democratic and socialist programme, Solidarity will merely represent the various grouplets coalescing like so many drops of mercury around the same old sect project and methodology.
Socialists in the Labor Party should work with Solidarity wherever possible, but, unless the comrades start to review their own perspectives on Marxism and the unity of communists - and adopt a method based on genuine democratic centralism - they will merely remain at best competent activists unable to play a leading role in the building of a revolutionary alternative.