Letter of resignation from the Australian ISO

by

May 25, 2003

To the International Socialist Organisation

Dear Comrades,

It is with reluctance that we have decided to resign from the International Socialist Organisation.

The downward spiral of the group over the last two years shows no sign of abating. The respite from the general atmosphere of hostility and defensiveness following our last conference in December 2002 was only temporary. The resignations of long-standing comrades since conference have been met with indifference from the ISO national leadership.

Despite a stated commitment at conference to resolve our differences in the context of building the movement and the ISO, we have seen heavy-handed organisational measures and a refusal to discuss differences in a comradely fashion by the ISO leadership.

“Looking reality in the face” is the starting point for correcting mistakes, but there is a complete failure to acknowledge the scale of crisis that confronts the group. Critical comments are dismissed out of hand or met with allegations of factionalism. We have no confidence that this is about to change.

Following conference, we saw the emergence of a massive international anti-war movement and the largest anti-war demonstrations in Australia’s history. That the ISO failed to grow out of this movement, has no greater political coherence, no larger established periphery and if anything smaller meetings is a serious indictment of the current practice of the group. This compares poorly with the dramatic political response and growth the organisation experienced in the first Gulf War. In itself, this recent failure should cause serious self-reflection on the part of the group. That this follows two years of intense internal crisis is why we have decided to act today.

Similarly, despite the resilience and significance of the refugee movement, the group seems unable to systematically integrate the campaign into its political work. On campuses, we have failed to build out of any of the very significant movements that have punctuated political life on campus. Discussion of the ISO’s failure to build has been limited and discouraged.

This failure to analyse the current period or to reflect and appraise our own successes and failures in relating to the period, must cause confusion for all members at all levels of the ISO and may go some way to explain the malaise we believe is endemic in the organisation.

“A good militant today is an informed militant,” wrote Susan George soon after Seattle. Yet the underplaying of politics has been a persistent feature of the group’s perspective in recent years. Conference itself recognised that there had been a one-sided emphasis on activism that had depoliticised the group. However, there has been no attempt to systematically redress this problem.

At the last conference, many comrades attempted to identify the issues underlying the crisis in the ISO. This was an attempt to assess the state of the group and try to understand the causes of our lack of growth in a period that is a very positive one for socialists.

Many of the issues raised in the pre-conference document An Urgent Need to Take Stock remain relevant. Two of them are of particular importance.

(i) Ideological intervention and the role of a small group. The emphasis on building the “next big event” means that the question of political intervention is constantly down-played. Consequently, despite overstatements about the possibility of “leading the movement” the organisational response means that we don’t offer a political lead on campuses, local groups or in campaigns where we can find an audience for our ideas and have some influence. The group shifts from issue to issue often without any political discussion and without a sustained commitment to the campaigns. This makes it impossible to build long term relationships with other activists.

(ii) An organisational structure that fits with the period and the needs of a small group. The period demands a high level of political discussion and debate, yet current Marxist Forums are often devoid of theory, polemic, traditions and historical experience. These are crucial to respond to and to explain the political questions thrown up in campaigns as well as general questions presented by the crisis in capitalism which comrades face when interacting with classmates, co-workers and friends.

There is also a lack of political space for the very thing that is crucial to developing members’ confidence to understand and to lead – discussing and learning from intervention in the campaigns themselves.

It has become impossible for us to discuss our differences with the current perspective and practices of the ISO within the framework of the ISO. Attempts to do so are met with animosity. In turn this animosity clouds the issues, avoids responding to the substance of any criticism and most importantly impedes the process of understanding the world and our role in it. We hope a resolution of these differences will become possible as we work together in future struggles.

We remain committed to the need for revolutionary organisation, the essential elements of socialism from below and the fundamental politics that distinguishes the International Socialist Tendency.

We take seriously the task of bringing Marxism to the layers of people influenced by anti-capitalism and who are politicised by the anti-war and refugee movements. We will shortly convene meetings to discuss how we can begin that task.

By establishing a practice of working alongside others on campus, in trade unions, in campaigns and other work, we hope to make socialist ideas relevant to the struggles in which they are involved and to show the links between those immediate struggles and the capitalist system.

We believe that a lively, comradely and political practice of discussion and debate is central to building a socialist movement.

We don’t underestimate the difficulties, but there is no doubt that the questioning of the prevailing world order holds many opportunities for socialist ideas to gain a significant hearing. The sheer numbers of people who came out again and again to oppose the war on Iraq against the lies of our rulers and their media as well as the determination of the refugee movement are evidence of that possibility.

We therefore tender our resignations from the International Socialist Organisation.

Emilie Awbery, Greg Brown, Brett Cardinal, John Cleary, Scott Gault, Paul Gibens, Mark Gillespie, Mark Goudkamp, Kym Hickey, Paul Jacobs, Silja Leskinen, Shelly Menzies, Eliot Morland, Jean Parker, Ian Rintoul, Andrew Rivett, Nikki Thiedeke, Liz Thompson, Michael Thomson, Jess Reed, Josh Wood

Discussion, Discussion, Discussion


Letter to the Weekly Worker

Educational standards have fallen to a pitiful level when basic arithmetic is beyond the abilities of your correspondents. As an irregular reader of the Weekly Worker I expect little more than gossip and an eclectic politics lashed together by the nebulous conception of partyism. However I do expect your correspondents to be able to count. Therefore I was amused to note that Cde Marcus Strom seems to believe that 25 cdes signed a resignation statement from the International Socialist Organisation in Australia. In fact 21 cdes signed the document which was published on the 25th of May.

Were this the only error of fact in the article we could pass it over with a smile. Yet Marcus also claims that the Socialist Alternative group is both anarchistic and ultraleft, and consists of some 90 members based in Melbourne. Happily this is not the case and SocAlt has recently grown considerably, to some 200 members, due to the disciplined interventions of its militants in the anti-war movement and on the campuses. It also engages in some limited work, where able, within the unions. There is no ultraleftism or anarchism — SocAlt stands firmly on the Marxist tradition on all questions — in any of this work. Marcus is clearly either misinformed or does not understand this organisation and its ideas that he so blithely dismisses.

Marcus also discusses the Democratic Socialist Party, the largest tendency in the Australian Socialist Alliance and comments that it has not fallen for petty nationalism, along the lines it is implied of the Scottish Socialist Party whose electoral successes it wishes to emulate, and indeed it has not. No, the DSP is happy to go the whole hog and has in the recent past embraced imperialist nationalism as when it backed Australian military intervention in East Timor. Nothing petty concerning this unprincipled stance, which Marcus passes over in a fashion I can only describe as curious given that an article appeared in the pages of the Weekly Worker denouncing this reactionary capitulation to imperialism at the time. In fact the DSP is a former Orthodox Trotskyist (sic) grouping, which has adopted many of the hallmarks of pseudo-Leninism, in fact an ideology fabricated by Zinoviev that is a left version of Kautskyism, that the Weekly Worker also espouses.

Marcus sees fit to argue that those comrades who have now left the International Socialist Organisation have done so because the formation of the Socialist Alliance has acted as a “democratic acid” breaking down the “bureaucratic centralist” sectarianism of the ISO, which is described as a “micro-control organism” no less! The reaffirmation of the former ISO comrades to the International Socialism tradition is also described, obscenely, as comparable to the lip service made to Stalin by the victims of the Great Purge of the 1930s. This coming from a journalist on a paper which claims to be that of the Communist Party of Great Britain, which party supported the purges, is a disgraceful lie. Despite too many years of political and organisational degeneration the ISO and the allied Socialist Workers Party (Britain) remain opposed, formally at least, to the Stalinist politics and method which the founders of the Weekly Worker have never fully broken from.

The importance of a relatively small number of comrades leaving their organisation may not be clear for many socialists living in Britain, so it is worth explaining why events in the Australian left should concern us. Briefly the Australian left finds itself in a very similar situation to that here, although with significant differences. As here, the Australian left is faced with a bureaucratised Union movement which is linked to a right-wing Labor Party, although the formal link with the Unions does not exist in Australia the real linkages are more alive than here and the Labor Party not quite as rotten, and as in Britain a decaying milieu of aging Stalinists retains some influence within the union bureaucracy. Again just as in Britain the far left finds itself marginal to the workers movement and split into a multitude of competing groups.

Faced with the impasse of a low level of strike action and social struggles the far left has sought ways to break out of its isolation and as in Britain unity based on the lowest common denominator of electoral campaigning has appeared attractive to many. Given that the far left is divided, in Australia as in Britain, into a myriad of competing groups organisational unity is an attractive prospect for many. The relative success of the SSP also seems a path forward which merits emulation in Australia and here. This unity of the assorted left groups, based on electoral work and little else, should be the beginnings of a ‘partyist’ project according to Marcus’s schema. What kind of party this needs to be and what the nature of the politics it should fight for is left vague. As it must be if this sectarian schema is to gain any audience amongst the existing left. Some token revolutionary phraseology being confined to the pages of the Weekly Worker, at best.

In Australia the DSP has long participated in elections to no discernable effect within the working class and the opportunity to emulate the perceived success of the SSP provided them with the impetus needed to launch a Socialist Alliance. Their project was boosted by the turn of the ISO, the second largest far left group in Australia, to working in such an alliance. This turn being based on the rather over optimistic basis that the 1990s was to witness struggles of a similar magnitude to those of the 1930s. Such a perspective has since been seen to be as witless as SocAlt and others within the IS Tradition argued it was. Nonetheless the Socialist Alliance did draw in almost all the disparate groups and individuals of the far left in Australia and its success has been as minuscule as the Socialist Alliances in England and Wales. In short the Socialist Alliance in Australia has been a dismal failure in its own electoral terms and as a project to construct a new mass workers party.

None of this has deterred the DSP, which dominates the Socialist Alliance in a fashion only marginally more democratic than the suffocating leadership of the SWP in England and Wales. The Socialist Alliance is then declared a success (!) and steps are taken to convert it into a fully fledged party in which the affiliated groups will become factions. All this at the behest of the DSP and a grouping of independent members of the Socialist Alliance, who on closer inspection tun out to be close friends with the DSP and in many cases its former members. This is what has precipitated the revolt in the ISO as it has meant that tensions in that group, which arose as a result of the 1930s in slow motion perspective foisted upon them by our own SWP, has reached boiling point. Contrary to Marcus’s assertion that the comrades leaving the ISO will work within the Socialist Alliance they have been united on little beyond opposition to the Socialist Alliance becoming a fully fledged miniature party. It is not then the “democratic acid” of the Socialist Alliance, which has produced this rupture but the failure of the Socialist Alliance to be anything other than an electoral front for it’s leading faction. This has served to illustrate the failings of perspective and organisational structure, and it is implied failings of democratic functioning, within the ISO.

These same failings exist within the Socialist Alliance in England and Wales, where the SWP plays the leading role. Despite years of campaigning the Socialist Alliance has won only a single council seat in its own name and its largest second component, the Socialist Party, has left in disgust at its non-democratic structures. In fact it has had far less impact at elections than the British National Party. But most importantly the SWP’s rationale for joining the Socialist Alliance, which was that it would provide a political space for former Labour Lefts and youthful Anti-Capitalists, has proven a fantasy. Its one legacy being that the Alliance has campaigned on a platform, reformist in both form and content, far to the right of those adhered to by almost all its constituent parts. Politically the Alliance has proven to be far less than the sum of its parts. Having led the Socialist Alliance, a parody of the United Front, away from any meaningful activity apart from electioneering, the SWP now plans to subsume it into a wider radical alliance with Muslim obscurantists and via the remnant Communist Party of Britain with that wing of the Trade Union bureaucracy which reads The Fading Star, a parody if you like of the Popular Front.

In Australia the course of development is somewhat different and the Weekly Worker‘s schema of turning the Socialist Alliance into a party has been passed. No doubt when this new party becomes reduced to nothing more than the present DSP the Weekly Worker will find reasons enough for its failure. It is possible, however, to indicate today why this putative party will fail with some degree of certainty. Any party worth its salt needs must have a united view of the major questions facing it both nationally and internationally, it must have a single programme which all accept. This quite simply cannot be achieved in Australia unless some of the constituent parts of the new party abandon principled positions in favour of those of the DSP who will form the leading faction in the party. The only other alternative is compromise and obfuscation designed to conceal deep-going principled differences. Just to take a few examples of the questions facing the new party. How will its militants operate within the unions? Would the new party support imperialist intervention as the DSP did in East Timor when next Australia violates the sovereignty of others? How will the Socialist Alliance Party relate to the Labor Party? What attitude should be adopted towards Palestine? All of these questions, and more besides, are probable split questions for at least some of the various tendencies now trapped into a spurious unity with the DSP.

Where, then, does this leave those comrades who have left the ISO and those SWP comrades who still wish to build a revolutionary workers party? Well, Marcus’s suggestion that the best thing the Australian comrades could do is remain in the Socialist Alliance, reassess their politics and fight for the SA to become a revolutionary party is an idiocy. A nonsense indeed when the entire political tradition of these comrades must mean that they reject the ideas Marcus claims as revolutionary, ideas that are in fact nothing but Kautskyism given a left gloss. Better that they do reassess their past, of course, but collectively outside the ranks of the Socialist Alliance, asking how and why the IS Tendency has moved away from the politics of working-class emancipation, socialism from below, and engages in squalid manoeuvres with groups like the DSP. Better yet they enter into discussions with SocAlt, who correctly predicted that the Socialist Alliance was a dead end, in order to resume building a revolutionary alternative. In Britain the scene is far darker for revolutionaries who would take their stand on the IS tradition, what is for certain is that they will need to argue within the SWP to abandon the fruitless petty electoralism of the Socialist Alliance, leave alone the impending lash up with a noxious mix of aged Stalinioids and Muslim obscurantists, and return to the task of building a revolutionary alternative in the working class and in the colleges.

For Communism,
Mike Pearn

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