Split in Australian ISO
MSTROM at nswtf.org.au
Fri Oct 27 14:55:59 MDT 1995
Australian Cliffite group splits
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 split, which
by no means is the collapse of the IS-tendency in this country, has
nevertheless temporarily weakened the ISO, especially in Melbourne.
More importantly, it points to problems in the method of organisation
as practised by the ISO and its tendency internationally.
Communists, in Australia and Britain, can draw lessons from this schism which
has produced yet another spawn for the menagerie of splinters that Cliff's
tendency has brought forth. As the process for communist rapprochement
develops in Britain, it is instructive to examine how certain sections of one the
communist party's main rivals, 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 the country.
The split in the ISO has led to the formation of a smaller grouping, Socialist
Alternative. This is no great surprise to many. What is so unusual about
another splinter group forming amongst the the Cliff inspired tendency?
In one respect, nothing. However, there are two issues that do give this
split significance. Firstly, the manner in which this split 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.
Before drawing out the major issues this splits reveals, a brief account of
the lead up to the split is in order.
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 remerged with the IS; the fused group
taking the name ISO.
This fusion was not based on any thorough going 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
In 1993, two leading members of the ISO, Mick Armstrong and
Sandra Bloodworth were removed from the national committee for continued
oppositional activity. This move precipitated the long running tension in the
organisation. Rather than engaging in open debate throughout the organisation,
in front of the class, debate has been stifled and any effective potential
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 times allowed in the ISO, during the pre-conference
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'm sure, the perspective
of the SWP (Britain).This is a toning down of their 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 for
the ISO and that the level of 'anger' was exaggerated by the leadership. It also
argued that their paper, Socialist Worker, which is a carbon copy of the British
paper, 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". It continued, ominously stating that
"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 allowed
for "individuals who can't implement [conference decisions], they 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".
This is not Soviet Russia in 1921, this is Australia in 1995! The 10th
Congress of the Bolsheviks banned factions, in hindsight, probably a grave
mistake. Here we see Chris Bambery issuing an edict from London suggesting
expulsions in the ISO in Australia for the maintenance of factions.
Of course, none of this imbroglio was discussed in the pages of Socialist
Worker. 'Angry' workers obviously don't want to bother themselves with
'irrelevant' issues such as the processes 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 oriented. It isn't
surprising that the expulsions and split didn't get a mention in Socialist
Worker. That's 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 remain the same.
They presented themself as if they 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 isn't possible because the leadership 'won't allow it'. Well the
capitalist class isn't going to 'allow' you to overthrow its system. For
revolutionaries, we don't 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 they have 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 them by.
Following every turn of their 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 wrotea letter of protest over the expulsions. He said that "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, 31.7.95)
This clearly shows a bureaucratic regime operating in the ISO.
But the ISO cannot be easily dismissed. They 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 Laborism. They have been
able to grow, dramatically at times. So they are not going to disappear. This
makes them a barrier to reforging a communist party in Australia. Although
their 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 making the initial steps towards reforging the communist party in this
country, we must take on the politics of the ISO, quite aptly described as
'anarcho-stalinist' by some. 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 a view inside
the IS tendency's bureaucratic regime. From it we must learn and move forwards.
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