iso response to soc alt unity proposal

NIBS nibs at
Tue Nov 26 21:18:47 MST 2002

List members might remember the Soc Alt unity proposal that someone posted
a few weeks back. Here's the ISO response. The document referred to
('Socialist Alternative and the ISO: Perspectives for Socialists') is
available from

Jeff Sparrow
To the Socialist Alternative national executive

November 21, 2002

We have received your letter of October 16, in regard to opening
discussions about potential unity between our organisations. We certainly
agree that the current circumstances present fresh opportunities – and
fresh challenges – for revolutionary groups.

Our starting point on the question of regroupment is the degree to which
revolutionary groups respond positively to the challenges of the current
period, the way in which they engage with current political struggles and
social movements. In this respect, we agree with the main thrust of Alex
Callinicos's arguments in his recent article "Regroupment, Realignment and
the Revolutionary Left"‚ (available at

Callinicos argues that the revolutionary left has faced two political
shockwaves in the last decade – the collapse of the Stalinist bloc and the
rise of the anti-capitalist movement. These events had very different
impacts on the left. The collapse of Stalinism led to considerable
demoralisation for much of the left, with the disintegration of some once
major organisations and the rejection of any notion of revolutionary
politics by others. The main cause of this was widespread illusions about
the nature of the USSR and its satellite states. In this context, the
question of one's theoretical understanding of the USSR was of paramount
importance. The theory of state capitalism helped the IS Tendency to
understand the changing world around us and helped us reorient on the new
struggles and opportunities created by renewed economic and political

The rise of the movement against global capitalism after the watershed
Seattle demonstration against the WTO in November 1999 had the reverse
effect. Since Seattle we have seen a renewal of the left on an
international scale – for example, the recent results in the Brazilian
elections, the revival of the student movement in the US, the explosion of
political struggle in Italy, and the millions of votes received by
Trotskyist candidates in the French presidential elections. The renewed
confidence of whole sections of the left has more recently helped
invigorate exciting movements against Bush's "war on terror" across the world.

While the Australian experience is not as developed as places like France
or Italy, nonetheless we have seen our own process of political renewal
since the S11 demonstration in Melbourne two years ago. The rise of the
Greens as a political expression of growing opposition to war, racism and
economic rationalism is perhaps the most obvious example of this,
highlighted by their recent victory in the Cunningham by-election. A new
mood has also been expressed in the refugee rights movement, and in the
response to the threat of war on Iraq, highlighted by the 30,000-strong
demonstration in Melbourne.

In this context, however, there is nothing automatic about revolutionary
groups being relevant. People politically generalising against the system
may shift sharply to the left, but will not necessarily move towards
revolutionary conclusions. This is why we believe the biggest test of
revolutionary socialists right now is to throw themselves into joint work
alongside others fighting against the different effects of the system – for
example over the war, refugee rights, higher education or industrial
struggles. Only by working alongside others consistently in a non-sectarian
way can revolutionaries hope to make their distinctive politics relevant to
a new generation.

Regroupment is being posed as a question internationally by revolutionary
groups that have attempted in some way to do this. The experience shows
that socialists do not have to necessarily have the formally "correct"
politics to achieve success. For example, Rifondazione Communista, a mass
left reformist party, has been instrumental to the anti-capitalist movement
in Italy. LCR, the leading section of the orthodox Trotskyist Fourth
International, has attempted to respond to anti-capitalist protests in
France, and more recently to the challenge of fighting fascism.

Again, the Australian experience is much more modest, but shows signs of
the same process. The ISO has tried to work constructively in a range of
struggles. We have worked in a comradely way with other left groups in the
Socialist Alliance. We have helped build a broad-based refugee rights
movement and are now engaged in helping to build an anti-war movement. Our
attempt to find points of agreement with organisations and individuals to
our right while arguing our distinctive position have found expression in
the social forums in Brisbane and Sydney, where we have played a leading
role while collaborating with a wide range of campaigns and political

While we have committed many mistakes, our general orientation has been to
intervene and work alongside others in a non-sectarian way. For us, the
starting point over the question of regroupment with other socialist groups
is the degree to which they are committed to the same general approach. For
this reason, we believe that the fact the ISO and Socialist Alternative
share the political heritage of the British SWP is of secondary importance.

We are sure you are aware of the discussions within the Socialist Alliance
about the Democratic Socialist Party's proposal to become a tendency within
the Alliance after their January congress. While this discussion has
various aspects to it, and although we have more fundamental political
disagreements with the DSP, such as our understanding of Labor and
reformism, permanent revolution, and so on, we are happy to engage in a
comradely discussion about how our organisations can work together.

We note your letter and are quite happy to discuss the various questions
posed by our interventions in current struggles. Discussion and
clarification of our respective approaches is an essential pre-cursor to
any question of organisational fusion.

Let us address some specific questions regarding the relationship between
the ISO and Socialist Alternative. The key question for those of us in
small revolutionary groups emerging out of the difficult days of the 1980s
downturn was whether we were capable of breaking with the sectarian habits
that the period tended to encourage.

This was at the heart of the split in 1995 when the five members of the ISO
who were expelled for maintaining a permanent faction went on to found
Socialist Alternative.

The ISO had recognised that while a sectarian group could grow
quantitatively, qualitative growth could come only from participation in
the political debates and struggles of the class, on campus and activity in
the various movements. With the break in the political situation in the
early 1990s (the collapse of Stalinism, growing opposition to economic
rationalism, etc) we anticipated more opportunities for revolutionaries to
work constructively alongside others shifting to the left. Confident,
independently minded revolutionary socialists were not born, we argued –
they were made by a dialectical interaction between building the struggles
and building the party.

We freely confess that we have found the practical application of both
these parts of the equation difficult. We continue to experiment and debate
how to balance and meld building the movements and building our
organisation. But our difficulties flow from participation in campaigns,
and movements and the political challenges of the period (such as the rise
of Hanson's One Nation, Australia's intervention in East Timor, NATO's war
on Serbia, etc). We have gone a long way towards building a reputation and
profile for the ISO as an organisation which is committed to comradely
collaboration – undoing some of the damage brought about by sectarian
practices in the past.

A lot has happened since 1995, but it seems to us that there remain quite
different approaches that need to be clarified and discussed.

We were the driving force in establishing the Refugee Action Collective in
Melbourne in response to riots by Woomera detainees in June 2000. The
refugee movement has been the single most significant development of
opposition to the Howard government. Yet in 2001, Socialist Alternative
comrades told us that building the refugee rights movement was a
"diversion" from building for anti-capitalist demonstrations such as M1 and

While mindful of the limitations on a small group, we have consistently
argued that the role of RAC is to build the refugee rights movement as
broadly as possible. This involves a range of tactics from mass marches to
civil disobedience, with a particular orientation on winning workers away
from racist ideas. The 20,000-strong Palm Sunday march in Melbourne, the
hugely successful Woomera2002 protest, and the various broad public
meetings we helped organise across the country point to how we can break
public opinion away from the Liberals' racist scapegoating. More recently,
our comrades have helped establish workplace refugee groups at Sydney Uni
and RMIT, and in the public sector and building industry in Melbourne.

Of course, actions such as Woomera can help build a bigger, more vibrant
campaign, but the idea that a small minority of activists can defeat
Ruddock's racist policies by physically tearing down the fences is
ridiculous and ultra-left. To confirm this, the mid-year action at
Maribyrnong detention centre, which RAC wrongly focused on as the priority,
was a failure with only 200 people showing up.

We have sought to break with any remnants of a sectarian perspective in
which priorities are determined on the basis of immediate recruitment
prospects, identified by focusing on perceived weaknesses of the movement,
or by highlighting the differences between the movement and a revolutionary
group. For us the fortunes of the ISO and the campaigns in which we are
involved are interlinked. The far left has for too long been identified by
putting the interests of the revolutionary group before the interests of
the movement. We have made a point of seeking common agreement among
activists in order to maximise the possibilities for the most effective
united action, rather than intervening on the basis of short-term recruitment.

It is for this reason that some of your actions have concerned us. For
example, we are well aware that your comrades in Brisbane did not seriously
mobilise for Woomera2002 because they felt they could not recruit any of
the activists who were going. Similarly, you ignored the successful Pine
Gap anti-war protest, while we sent 15 members.

At Woomera2002, on one occasion, you attempted to hijack an action called
by the Greens into another direct action against the fence.

Having derided the refugee movement for more than a year, you turned to
work in RAC. In Melbourne, your heavy-handed approach has led to a
deterioration in RAC. Rather than patiently winning arguments with other
activists, your approach has been characterised by mobilising members not
involved in the campaign to try to win specific votes.

One example was your intervention in Melbourne RAC after Woomera to force
through a mobilisation at Maribyrnong. This was a continuation of your
method in the campaign against war in Afghanistan.

If there is one thing that the ISO has become convinced of over the past
few years, it is the limitations of an approach to campaigns that is
determined by the narrow opportunities for "party building" rather than a
long-term commitment to most effectively building the movement.

We raise these concerns not to point-score, but to identify some of the
political and practical issues that we believe any discussions would have
to address.

We are also confused about your approach on the question of unity between
our organisations. While we are happy to have further dialogue, we note
many of your leading members have approached the issue in a less than
positive way. Earlier this year, a member of your national executive,
comrade Diane F, approached a member of the ISO NE, Ian R, to report that
Socialist Alternative was in favour of unity discussions with the ISO and
to gain an informal response to the prospects of such an approach. While it
was conveyed that unity with Socialist Alternative had not been the subject
of any discussion within the ISO, this has unfortunately been described as
the ISO telling Socialist Alternative to "f**k off" (this was the precise
language, repeated on a number of occasions). This is not true. There was
never a formal approach of any kind.

Instead, several ISO members were given a document ("Socialist Alternative
and the ISO: Perspectives for Socialists") by leading SA members. This
document is mostly a lengthy one-sided rehash of events in 1995 and a
diatribe against the ISO rather than a positive attempt to analyse the
tasks facing revolutionaries (and the basis for common action) in the
present period – the drive to war, the refugee movement, the crisis in
Labor, etc.

This same document was distributed privately by your members, including at
least one NE member, at our Marxism conference in early September. Your
intervention at Marxism consisted of silence in the public discussion and
the targeting of individuals during the breaks.

More recently, one of your members, Fleur T, has been approaching our
members individually and without notifying our leadership. This is an
indication that Socialist Alternative is more interested in poaching
individuals from the ISO than it is in genuine discussion on unity between
our organisations. Such cynical sectarianism is typical of Socialist
Alternative's approach.

It strikes us that this is not the most constructive approach for an
organisation seriously interested in a genuine comradely discussion about

Furthermore, your conference in August carried a resolution which, in part,

Other significant political differences between the ISO and SA have
developed since 1995, eg. over electoral work in the form of the Socialist
Alliance, the analysis of the anti-capitalist movement and how to respond
to it, the analysis of the united front and the associated question of
movementism, and the functioning and role of an international tendency.

To that we would add the issues we have raised above – the war, refugees,
Labor's crisis and developing a non-sectarian approach to working within
movements and building the left.

For any leadership to leadership talks to be meaningful, we would need some
indication that Socialist Alternative is re-evaluating its approach on
these matters, and that you are abandoning your predatory and secretive
approach to our members.

Yours in struggle,

Tom Barnes,

for the ISO national executive

Jeff Sparrow
New International Book Co-operative
Trades Hall
Box 18
54 Victoria St
Carlton Sth 3053
Mon-Fri 9am-6.30 pm Sat 11am-5pm
tel 03 9662 3744 fax 03 9662 4755

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