The politics of the International Socialist Organisation
and the Democratic Socialist Party
Part I. The political method of the International Socialist
By Chris Gaffney
The need to restore the socialist project
Restoring the validity of the socialist project is not merely
academic. The events of 1989-90 have been seen as the death of
communism and socialism and the final triumph of Western capitalism.
The standing of Marxism and the whole socialist project has
been lower. It is not only the former supporters of the Eastern
European regimes that have disappeared (in the case of the Communist
Party of Australia), or faded (in the case of the Socialist Party of
Australia); the left as a whole has suffered a malaise. Neither the IS
nor the SWP (both from anti-bureaucratic traditions) prospered,
although the IS had constantly argued that the Soviet regime had little
to do with socialism.
This inability to gain from the fall of these regimes
part their small size, which never approached that of the CPA, or even
that of the smaller SPA. Both the CPA and the SPA equated socialism
with the USSR. The IS and the SWP were also victim to the views of the
popular press, which confirmed that what the readers saw in the USSR
Secondly, despite the presence of many working-class people in
challenge to the bureaucracies in 1989-90, the working class marched
behind other banners and there was no mass independent working-class
response to events, nor has this yet evolved in the post-communist
free-market states. This put back further any revival of the socialist
alternative in the popular mind.
Are the IS or the SWP parties that we can expect to play an
important role in the revival of the working class political activity
and the winning of the workers to the socialist cause?
Concretely, this means that the working class must develop
confidence in such a Marxist party. It must have faith that the party
will tell them the truth; that the party can correctly identify the
real social forces involved; can distinguish between rhetoric and the
real interests being pursued; can perceive the long-term interests of
the class and the way to achieve them. Most importantly, the working
class needs a party that will not sacrifice its political independence
to an alliance with its national capitalist class.
Lastly, in the era of imperialism and the global economy,
owners of capital span continents, more than ever such a party must
have an internationalist perspective: that is one which views the
struggle between the classes as an international one.
Three basic Marxist criteria
We can state three fundamental guides to a Marxist party if it
carry out the tasks of winning leadership of the working-class and the
more immediate task of re-establishing the validity of socialism as a
real alternative to capitalism after the fall of the bureaucratic
states. For a Marxist party such criteria are not arbitrary, because
they are central to Marxism itself.
Remembering Lenin's dictum: "Without
revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary movement"1,
what should distinguish a Marxist party in its efforts to understand
and change the world is the materialist
conception of history2,
which starts with the nature of the productive forces and the
relationships that they determine between the classes and the struggle
between classes, which was neatly summarised by Marx in his Preface to a
Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (1857).
Secondly, from Marx's dictum that the liberation of the
working class must be achieved by the working class itself and from The
Communist Manifesto of 1848 to The
Civil War in France of 1871, written after the fall of the
Paris Commune, that the needs of the class struggle require that the working class must have an
independent voice3 and that no other
class or social layer can substitute for it.
Thirdly, and flowing directly from this, is the Marxist
of internationalism. It was the international contacts made during the
course of the Polish insurrection of 1863 that led directly to the
creation of the International Workers Association (The First
International) in 1864, which proclaimed the need for "international proletarian
solidarity"4 a feature repeatedly
emphasised in Marx's Civil War in France.
When we turn to the Second International, established in 1889,
the question of internationalism that was the source of contention,
when in 1914 the vast majority of the parties voted for war credits in
the interests of their own capitalist class. This was contrary to the
antiwar resolutions passed only months before. The Bolshevik Party of
Lenin was a notable exception. After the abandonment of
internationalism in 1914, the parties of the Second International, the
"labour parties", confirmed their nationalist perspective and their
reconciliation with their own ruling classes. To Lenin, and the Third
International of 1919, the concept of internationalism
The revolutionary wave that brought the Russian Revolution of 1917
quickly faded, as did the tentative grip of the Russian working class
upon the newly created Soviet state. It was replaced in the 1920s by an
emerging Soviet bureaucracy based on the CPSU and the Soviet state. Its
leader was Stalin. The term Stalinism will be used to designate views
that express the interests of this social layer, the Soviet bureaucracy.
The conservative nature of this new social layer was nowhere
better demonstrated than in the theory
of socialism in one country.6 This was a
theory that cut off the Soviet workers from the world's working classes
and from its dependence on revolution in
the rest of the world.7
It was an inward-looking policy, which facilitated the growth of the
bureaucracy and put workers' loyalty firstly to a national state that
was building socialism in one country. Like all forms of nationalism
"Soviet" nationalism bound oppressed and oppressor behind the same
banner. It subordinated the interests of the working classes locally
and internationally to the interest of a national bureaucracy.8
The critical point is that before Stalin, Marxists opposed popular
fronts, however they were named, which subordinated the interests of
the working class to those of another
class or layer.9
So the perspective of the Marxists, namely that of the
working class, is inseparable from the need of the class to maintain
its class independence. The abandonment of one is the abandonment of
the other. The politics of socialism in one country were imposed on the
world's Communist parties.10
Their politics were now directly related to the needs of
Soviet foreign policy as determined by a privileged bureaucratic layer.
Relating to the former USSR
In examining the politics of the IS and the SWP, it is their
relationship to the former USSR that will be primarily examined. Both
parties took as part of their orientation, a rejection of the USSR as a
model of socialism, and their inspiration from the ideas of Leon
Trotsky. In the case of the SWP it came from the international
organisation of workers' parties called the Fourth International,
established by Trotsky and others in 1938. Both parties agreed that
Stalin represented a defeat of the worker's revolution, and that the
resultant bureaucracy was neither revolutionary nor internationalist,
but a counter-revolutionary layer anxious for a status quo relationship
with imperialism (of which "peaceful coexistence" would be a prime
example), which was put ahead of the international class struggle.
There the similarities ended. The IS believed that capitalism
been restored in the USSR and that it took the form of "state
capitalism". A similar view had first been put by James Burnham and Max
Schachtman in the debate with Leon Trotsky in the US SWP during 1939-40.
Trotsky, on the other hand, argued that the Soviet bureaucracy
caste but not a new social class. He described the Soviet Union as a "degenerated workers' state".11
This difference of designation was important. For the forebears of the
IS, a social, political, and economic revolution was needed to
overthrow state capitalism in the USSR. In contrast, Trotsky envisaged
only a political revolution, which would remove the bureaucracy and
restore working class control of the state without requiring a
fundamental change to the property relations established by the October
revolution. Trotsky further insisted on the unconditional defence of
the Soviet Union in the event of imperialist attack, whereas Schachtman
and Burnham argued for working-class neutrality. This was a stance the
British IS repeated during the Korean War on the basis that both sides
were capitalist. Finally, and most importantly for us, these
differences between the IS and the Australian SWP were critical in
their analysis of the events in the USSR, in the years 1985-91.
It will be argued that the IS position was not a Marxist
based on the historical materialist method of Marxism, but a moral and impressionist position12
that was inadequate as a tool of analysis and which locked them into a
position that left them ill-prepared for understanding the
post-communist societies of the 1990s.
Notes to The need to restore the socialist project
1. V.I. Lenin What
is to be Done?
Foreign Languages Press, Peking, 1973, p 28. See also p 29, Lenin's
elaboration: "we only wish to state that the role of vanguard fighter
can be fulfilled only by a party that is guided by the most advanced
2. This is Marx's description of his
The terms "dialectical materialism" and "historical materialism" which
are more explanatory, were coined later. See Marx by David
McLellan, Fontana, London 1975, p 38
3. See also Theses, Resolutions
and Manifestos of the First Four Congresses of the Comintern.
London, Pluto Press, 1980 p 396
4. Franz Mehring, Karl
Marx, Allen and Unwin, London 1936, p 327
5. V.I. Lenin, What
is to be Done? op cit, p 29, and Theses, Resolutions and
Manifestos, op cit, p 124: "the emancipation of the workers is not
a local, not a national, but an international question". See also The
Communist Movement by Fernando Claudin, Penguin, 1970, p 46, and Founding
the Communist International: Proceedings and Documents of the First
Congress, Pathfinder Press, New York, 1987
6. The first statement of this new
social layer was in the second edition of J. Stalin, Foundations of
1924. This was a revision of the first edition of the same year, which
had repeated the Bolshevik orthodoxy that the victory of socialism in
the USSR depended upon revolution in the advanced countries. Fernando
Claudin, op cit, p 71-72. For dozens of examples of Bolshevik orthodoxy
see Robert Black, Stalinism in Britain, New Park, London, 1970.
See also Leninism under Lenin by Marcel Liebman, Jonathan Cape,
London, 1975, pp 360-61.
7. The historical context of the Soviet
from 1923 on was one of isolation as the post-war revolutionary wave
had passed. The tentative Soviet republics of Hungary and Austria had
been defeated, and 1923 confirmed the failure of revolution in Germany.
The need to defend the remaining citadel in the Soviet Union could
hardly be denied. The defeat of the British 1926 General Strike and the
Chinese revolutions of the late 1920s confirmed the pessimism about the
imminent extension of the revolution.
8. F. Claudin, op cit, p 387 "the
of socialism in one country can be stated as the subordination of
revolutionary action in any part of the world to the interests of the
9. The popular front was a tactic
Communist parties from 1934, after the victory of fascism in Germany.
It was different to the united front, which was an alliance of
working-class parties around limited working class demands. The popular
front was an attempt to unite with sections of the bourgeoisie who
opposed fascism on a purely liberal platform. Working-class demands
were subordinated to achieving this alliance. The Comintern had seen
the independence of the Communist parties in relation to the
bourgeoisie and "their complete freedom of action" as "the most
important historical achievement of the proletariat". See Theses,
Resolutions and Manifestos op cit, p 396.
10. Claudin op cit, p 117-124; also
Victor Serge, From Lenin to Stalin, Monad, New York, 1937, p
52. See Tom O'Lincoln Into the Mainstream, Stained Wattle
Press, NSW, 1985 p 36.
11. Reproduced as In
Defence of Marxism,
Leon Trotsky, New Park, London, 1966. Andrew Milner argues that the
"degenerated workers' state" formulation is based on the transitory,
unstable nature of the Soviet system, which he claimed proved to be
perpetual. The Road to St Kilda Pier, Westgate, NSW, Stained
Wattle Press, 1984, p 86.
12. The term "impressionism"
refers to a
political method that makes judgements on the surface appearance of
events rather than examining the social and economic foundations and
history of the thing studied. A non-IS example, the conclusion that
Stalin and Hitler were essentially the same because both their
countries adopted totalitarian practices, ignores completely the
different class relationships and recent history of both countries.
Origins of the International Socialists
The International Socialists, established around 1972, have
held the position of state capitalism on the Soviet Union since at least 1974.1
Although the "bureaucratic collectivist" designation was still used as late as 1976,2
the theory adopted by the IS was that of Tony Cliff of the British SWP
in his book State Capitalism in Russia.
The state capitalist position of the Australian IS on the
Soviet states, and the connection with its mentor, the British SWP, has
remained unchanged since that time. It is what immediately identifies
the IS as a separate organisation on the far left, and what
historically has separated the state capitalist parties from the Fourth International3
parties throughout the world, which continued to argue that the Soviet
Union remained a degenerated workers
The debate between these two formulations has continued until this day.5
The International Socialists, as they became known from 1977, have
never wavered from or changed their state capitalist viewpoint and they
believe the events in Eastern Europe have confirmed their analysis
completely. They have left the theoretical defence of the theory to
their British counterparts, but it has remained the fundamental thread
in their analysis, which is applied equally to the USSR, China, the
post-war East European states and Cuba, and by July 1989 Burma, Algeria and Iraq.6
The state capitalist theory
Prior to the crisis in the bureaucratic regimes, the validity
state capitalist theory was not tested by events. It had undeniable
propaganda advantages for the IS. It allowed it to argue for socialism
without embracing Soviet-style regimes as socialist, without the
explanatory problems the Fourth International had in designating
regimes as "degenerated workers' states" when they were conspicuous by
their absence of workers' power, but which the FI still qualified as
"workers" states, however degenerate. An additional propaganda
advantage allowed the IS to portray both the Western capitalist class,
and the bureaucracies, as united against "socialism from below" which,
taking its cue from Marx's observation that the liberation of the
working class must be achieved by the workers themselves, looks solely
to the self-activity of the working-class. This "socialism from below"
had to fit into a state capitalist framework where Eastern Europe was
In assessing the IS, we must therefore deal with the policies
state capitalism. Is state capitalism a Marxist response to the
developments in Eastern Europe? Does it correctly identify the
principal contradictions in the bureaucratic state? But more to the
point, what are the political results of this analysis and what does it
tell us about the political methodology of the IS?
Quite apart from the obvious absence of working-class control
industry, growing inequalities, and the exclusion of the wording class
from political power, the IS had solid grounds in Marxism for denying
the label socialist to the Soviet-style
Rather than repeat the detailed debate between the British SWP
theoreticians and Ernest Mandel of the Fourth International, we can
pose queries about the state capitalist position based on Marx's brief
summary of historical materialism in his Preface to the Critique of Political
The IS has argued consistently that the bureaucracy based on
Soviet party and the state came to power with the victory of Stalin
after Lenin's death in 1924, and against which Lenin himself had begun
to fight in collaboration with Trotsky.9
This bureaucracy began as a broker between the rival classes in Russia
and the outside imperialist powers and then gradually began to rule in
its own interests with its own theory, Stalin's theory of socialism in
one country. The bureaucracy became, by the late 1920s, a new state
capitalist ruling class living off the surplus value produced by the Soviet working class.10
According to the Preface, it is necessary if a new
to establish new productive relationships that dominate society, for
there to be, in Marx's words, "an epoch of social revolution". Where
and when in Russia did such a revolution occur that put a "new" class
in power? We are left to suppose that it happened gradually. It was a
strange capitalist class indeed that, in its first five-year plan,
attacked private property in land, and collectivised agriculture. What
did occur was the separation of the Soviet state and the Communist
Party from the working class that had made the revolution in 1917.11
We can trace the bureaucratisation of the Soviet regime at the state
level, but note that this did not require the destruction of the
collective nationalisations, most of which took place as early as 1918 and 1919.12
It was therefore a political, but not a social or economic
More surprisingly the IS seems never to have been able to tell
exactly when this counter-revolution took place. We are left with
references to the late 1920s, although mostly it is equated with the
triumph of the Stalinist faction of the Communist Party without
specifying any particular time. This lack of precision, in what is
critical to their case historically, leaves open the suggestion that
the new state capitalist class achieved power, not in a revolutionary
way, but gradually over a period of years. This opens up the
possibility of the peaceful, or gradual, transition from one class
society to another, which entirely contradicts Marxist ideas and would no doubt be rejected by the IS.13
At first sight all the usual elements of capitalism appeared
to be missing in the Soviet Union, namely capital,14 capitalists15
Instead of the market allocating capital on the basis of
profitability, the bureaucratic plan imposes a command economy, with
its quotas and norms, in which the working class has no say. This is
not socialism, but it is also not capitalism; nor were the lack of
profits, and the often grossly over-manned factories and enterprises,
temporary or recent, which were endemic to bureaucratic
mismanagement over decades.17
One would also expect that if the Soviet bureaucracy were a
capitalist class, then, in line with every other powerful capitalist
class, it would act on the international arena to extract profit from
overseas investments, exploiting Third World labour, etc. But, on the
contrary, the Soviet economic links with its "colonies" consisted of
Soviet subsidies for flagging Eastern European economies. The political
consequence of the withdrawal of Soviet aid to Cuba (and Vietnam and
Mongolia), shows clearly in which direction the funds were flowing, as
Cuba's economy has been in acute crisis
The state monopoly of foreign trade, plus the small part
trade has played in the Soviet economy in the past, has meant that
market forces have been denied an obvious point of entry into the
With all these factors arguing against the state capitalist
position, the IS has only one consistent explanation for why Russia is
a capitalist country, which has appeared in many issues of the IS
paper, formerly The Battler, now The Socialist.
After using a very arguable interpretation of Frederick Engels,
concerning Bismarck, Robert Bollard in 1992 argued: "What is important
is who controls production and to what ends. In Russia a vast
bureaucratic layer has controlled those means since it decisively
entrenched itself in power during Stalin's first Five Year Plan. It
used that control to build up the Soviet economy at the expense of the
mass of the population—the workers and peasants—and gained wealth and
privilege to itself. It competed on the world stage, attempting to
match the US military—a competition which indirectly brought the
pressure of the world market into the autarchic Russian economy. This surely is capitalism."19
This represents a new definition of class. It confuses the
regime of a society with economically dominating class in that society.
Capitalism as an economic system has had a variety of political
regimes, from parliamentary democracy to fascism, in which the
capitalist class held little or no political power in the state, yet
the country remained capitalist. Could it be argued that such a state,
in which the working class seized state power and destroyed the
capitalist class, might cede state power to a bureaucracy in conditions
of backwardness and isolation, but still retain the collectivist nature
of the productive forces?
Ultimately the test must be for Marxists: does the economy
"generalise commodity production" or does it, as did the Soviet Union,
restrain it? This will identify the class nature of the society and the
context in which the nature of the state will be decided. It is clear
that the working-class was not in control of state power from Stalin's
time on, but did this make the USSR a capitalist country?
Apart from superficial similarities with the United States,
IS argument lies in the pressure of military competition. The steps to
Bollard's conclusion were more clearly set out in the IS paper. It
argues that the surplus produced by Russian workers was needed to
produce armaments to match the Americans. "This drive to accumulate
capital in order to compete with its rivals is nothing less than the
logic of capitalism" argues the IS. The whole of Russia is likened to a
giant business, "Russia Inc".20
Apart from an apparent confusion between competition and
value, the Soviet military need to compete militarily with the US,
which took about 13 per cent of GNP in 198821,
clearly has not been reflected in any competition between Soviet and US
washing machines and cars, nor has it ensured that the Soviet Union
address the gross overstaffing and inefficiency
of its factories.22
The IS use of supra-historical categories, which have no
connection with the relations of production prevailing in a particular
country, is a method that must be queried.
Workers have no power under capitalism.
The logic appears to be:
Workers have no power under the bureaucrats.
Therefore the bureaucrats must be capitalist.
One suspects that the demands of propaganda work are the
driving force behind this piece of
There is no analytical dynamic in the theory that prevents
propaganda extending the analogies endlessly. The Soviet state control
of the economy, in order to focus resources on armaments, is compared
without reservation to Japan and Germany in both world wars.24
Robert Bollard reveals the inherent weakness in his Socialist
article when he concludes: "revolutionaries must reject any idea that
the Stalinist regimes were in any way preferable to western capitalism"
(my emphasis). This is the substitution of a moral judgment for an
objective class analysis. One can argue whether such regimes are
preferable or not; the point is, are they the same? A judgment based on
moral preferences is a poor analytical tool.
When the IS confronts opponents of its views, it is
the opponent takes their stand on the defence of the Soviet regimes as
socialist, and in the case of the SWP/DSP, which saw the Gorbachev
reforms as a socialist renewal of Soviet society. The IS criterion of
workers' power, "socialism from below", allows it to embarrass the
SWP/DSP, which was effectively identifying the socialist cause with
Gorbachev's attempted reforms. Gorbachev's increasingly authoritarian
stance and the failure of perestroika made it easy for the IS to argue
that this was not the road back to workers' power in the USSR.
When confronting views that see the USSR as neither
capitalist, but rather a highly unstable and contradictory formation
that was transitional in its character, capable of allowing the
restoration of capitalism, but also vulnerable to a political
revolution by the working class against the bureaucracy, the IS is
incapable of breaking out of its moralistic dichotomy. It is surprising
that the IS so rarely addresses the degenerated workers state scenario,
given that it is the principal rival view that does not defend the USSR
as being socialist. It is not until September
198925 that The Socialist
addresses the problem. The IS argues that Trotsky was "forced" to argue
that the working class had to make the revolution against "their" state
to restore workers' control. This, according to Mick Armstrong, was
based on Trotsky's misconception that workers' power was determined by
the nationalisation of the economy. In any event, no evidence is
offered. The IS returns to the
in a polemic against the SWP/DSP and its support for the Gorbachev
leadership as the agent of democratic socialist renewal in the USSR.
However, the IS lumps the SWP/DSP position together with the
degenerated workers' state theory of Trotsky and the Fourth
International, which explicitly rejected the role of Gorbachev as
having anything to do with the restoration of working-class power in the USSR.27
The sympathy of the IS for the working class is never in
they remove the dialectical and scientific heart from Marxism, which
sees change as proceeding from contradiction, and replace it with a
moral stance that views the world in fixed, stable categories. To the
IS, either it is full socialism from below, the self-emancipation of
the working class, or it fails to meet the criteria for socialism
anywhere. Furthermore, it is morally bad and therefore there is no
difference between the capitalist societies of the West and the
allegedly state capitalist societies of the East.
State capitalism and the fall of the bureaucracy
The fall of the Communist party regimes in Eastern Europe in
was a test of the various theories of the nature of these regimes, and
the political method behind these theories. Despite the demonstrations
and the strikes, particularly the Soviet
miners'28 strikes of June and July 1989,
and the large number of workers on the street (except in Poland and
Hungary) during 1989,29
the workers presented no coherent program of working-class opposition
to the advocates of the market, and certainly nothing like a
"revolution from below" or the political working-class revolution
envisaged by Leon Trotsky.
The IS, for its part, lauded each expression of working
and the theory and method of state capitalism was said to have been completely confirmed.30
To the IS the crisis in the East was just part of the
of the capitalist system. Like the West, the East was affected by the
falling rate of profit, but again, arguing by analogy, we are told that
this was expressed by falling
growth rates.31 State capitalism and the
free market are seen as two sides
of the same coin.32
The IS saw no essential difference between the pre-1989
Eastern Europe and the free-market regimes that followed them. It was
only a "step sideways", according to lan
The IS may acknowledge that neither option is a realisation of
working-class interests, but it eliminates any understanding that the
working class, although it has no interest in defending the Communist
parties and their rule, does have a stake in defending certain
protections, or even gains, by the working class under that system. Job
security, subsidised food and housing and a stable currency are a few
of the obvious ones.
The IS response also underestimated the significance of
which it saw only as a propaganda adjunct to perestroika, but glasnost
had more important effects. It allowed political criticism of the
political monopoly of the CPSU and its privileges. It saw the emergence
of independent working-class activity (the miners' strikes for example)
and strengthened demands for independence by the oppressed
nationalities. The rapid decay of bureaucratic rule proceeded to the
point where the ruling "class" in Hungary could, in October 1989, vote
to dissolve itself without waiting for an onslaught of popular revolt.34
This apparently unique behaviour by a supposed ruling class,
abdicating power, showed that unlike the capitalist class in the West,
the bureaucracy rested only upon a brittle form of rule through the
political monopoly of the Communist Party. Once this went, as it did in
early 1990, the days of the bureaucracy were numbered. It had no other
long-term options. Compare this with upheavals in the West, which can
bring enormous change in the form of political rule without the
economic and social dominance of capital being
This is the point: that the dominance of the bureaucracy flowed almost
exclusively from its political control, and not from its economic and
social dominance of society. Such reasoning was not considered by the IS.36
The inadequacy of the state capitalist position to give any
understanding of the events of 1989-91 flows from its determination
throughout its history to see no difference between capitalism and
"state capitalism". The events of 1989-90 and since, particularly in
terms of the living standards of the working class, would appear to
contradict this view.
Even as late as April 1989 the IS was stating that the
Eastern Europe was just part of the special crisis of the capitalist
system, and no different to the crises in China and Chile (sic),37
although it notes some differences, such as the mass of unprofitable
enterprises that would not have survived in the West, but which, until
the fall of Gorbachev, were a fact
of Soviet life.38 It elsewhere
acknowledged that profitability was not a factor in production in the USSR.39
The IS clearly sees such differences, with their obvious effect on the
working class, as of little significance because to do so would be to
recognise the increasingly obvious differences between state capitalism
and capitalism. This does not imply, as the IS suggests, a preference
for either alternative.
Ian Rintoul, in an article titled Is Capitalism Being Restored in the
shows the dilemma the IS is facing. According to Rintoul, the
introduction of the market into the Soviet Union does not mean a
restoration of capitalism because capitalism run by the state was
introduced in the late 1920s. To Rintoul, what matters "is not the
property forms but the relations of production—what portion the worker
has in the process of production".
Given that the IS is arguing that the position of the worker
the same, its stance of opposing privatisation of the Eastern European
economies is never explained. "But socialist opposition to
privatisation is not based on opposing capitalist restoration," he
"The command economy of the East and the market economy of
are not fundamentally counterpoised economic systems, but rather
different aspects of development of the same system. Both produce
resistance from workers and therein lies the hope for the future."
The theory makes it difficult to see on what basis the
oppose the sackings, the removal of subsidies on daily goods, or the
closure of unprofitable enterprises, with resultant unemployment. The
IS quotes a Harvard study that envisages 38 million workers unemployed
as a result of the successful introduction
of the market.41
"Different aspects of development of the same system … different sides
of the same rotten coin" explained nothing. "Hope for the future" is a
moral stance and is no substitute for a Marxist analysis that can
supply a program to fight for the political leadership of the working
class today in Eastern Europe.42
Despite the politics of the IS, the actual differences
command economies of the East and free-market capitalism inevitably
David Lockwood, in China, Marx, Mao or the Market?
examining the new free-market economic zones of China, reveals
conditions substantially worse than in the rest of China. Here,
Lockwood notes, the money-based class system has produced conditions
"not out of place in Victorian England based on the narrowest class
interest", seeing workers as "the object of market forces and not the
subject of history". In June 1990, Lockwood notes the emergence in
China of a wealthy new class outside the party hierarchy, which is
producing tensions with party
The point was not lost on other IS members. Diane Fields, in
letter, chastises Lockwood for describing the emerging rich as if they
were members of a separate class to those who dominate Chinese society.
Despite noting that the emerging rich want the stability of law rather
than the whim of the bureaucracy, Fields sees the new rich as a section
of the same wealthy class that makes up the party hierarchy: that is, a capitalist class.44
But clearly, one wing of this class has political power and the other
does not, so the criterion of class offered contradicts the IS
insistence that the nature of the state capitalist class flows from its
control of the state. Again, apart from the call to the Soviet working
class to take matters into their own hands, and applauding their role
in thwarting the August 1991 attempted
coup in the USSR45, the IS was unable to
make much sense of the differences between the wings of the bureaucracy.
The Socialist saw the coup as an attempt by a section
of the bureaucracy to shift politics to the right and was carried out,
in the "interests of the ruling
class".46 As David Lockwood pointed out
in a letter,47
this does not help to distinguish between the coup forces and the
anti-coup forces. Having labelled both the state bureaucrats and the
free marketers as different forms of the same thing, their opposition
to the coup, or the role of the working class strikes against the coup,
is not clear. The IS says only that the workers opposed a "very sharp
shift to the right" because it threatened the recent rights gained.48
David Lockwood, criticising the IS response to the coup
points out that the programs of the State Emergency Committee on one
side, and Yeltsin and Gorbachev on the other, were quite different:
"and that it would be a serious mistake to dismiss the coup as simply
an exercise in the ruling class changing its outward appearances. Just
as in the East European revolutions of 1989-90 there is more to it than
that. Something has changed in these societies. One wing of the ruling
class has decisively defeated the other. The victors intend to proceed
with a program of restructuring which will necessarily destroy the
state as we have come to understand
Ian Rintoul defends50
the IS line by arguing that the decisions within the bureaucracy
reflect the economic strength of the various republics, and not the
programmatic differences listed by Lockwood as involving preservation
of the Soviet Union, whether the introduction of the market could be
achieved within the Union or under the auspices of the party. Rintoul
further suggests that little has changed in the USSR, because the USSR
remains capitalist and the Soviet ruling class remains the ruling class.
This is an effective denial of the differences between the
economy and Western capitalism, which leaves the working class
ill-prepared for the enormous sacrifices that the full-blown
introduction of the market outside any state control will bring. These
will inevitably bear heaviest on the working class in terms of jobs and
living standards—a point one suspects is not lost on David Lockwood,
who in a letter in the next issue,51
argues for a recognition of the differences between state capitalism
and Western capitalism. Although he describes it as "useful to see
state capitalism as a continuum stretching … from the local electricity
board to all the way through to the Gosplan", he diplomatically
suggests a cut-off point is needed to distinguish the two systems.
Of course, as a member of the IS he has to work within the
capitalist theoretical framework. His proposed solution is that the
most important cut-off point for "full-blown state capitalism" is the
fact "that military competition takes precedence over everything else
since the Soviet economy was too weak to compete in any other way".
There is no doubt that military expenditure represented an intolerable
burden on the Soviet economy and hastened its crisis, but this also
meant identifying the crises, not as the waste and inefficiency of the
bureaucratic command system, but a purely external pressure imposed by imperialism.52
Having raised the inadequacies of the state capitalist
David Lockwood, committed as he is to state capitalist dogmas, is
unable to find a way out.
One last aspect of the fall of communism, which illustrates
essential differences between western capitalism and the bureaucracies,
was the Gulf War of 1991. The collapse of the regimes in the East gave
an unparalleled freedom to the United States and contributed to the
isolation of the Iraqi regime.
To the workers and peasants of Iraq and Cuba, the historical
differences were by no means academic, and yet IS does not address the
reasons that now allowed first Bush and then Clinton to impose, at
will, a New World Order. Such a query is obscured by the IS insistence
on the essential similarity between free-market capitalism and the
bureaucratic states of the East.
Local practice and perspectives
"any current with a flawed understanding of the world and of socialist
strategy will ultimately come to grief" (The Socialist, No. 227,
July 1989, p.9)
It is hard to trace accurately from the IS press its
various activities. Phil Ilton has given a detailed summary of IS
activity in the period up to 1976. IS membership was said to be 70 at
the end of 1977, rising to 100 in 1980; it is said to be 220 in 1993.53
Branches were established in Sydney and Brisbane, and temporarily
Attempts to build rank and file groups in the unions
throughout the 1970s through a policy of industrialisation — sending
students into factories. This policy collapsed by 1976, although the
organisation was not without success according to Ilton54,
particularly in the public sector.55
Even at this early stage, IS involvement in student politics was
evident in their particiapation in the struggle against assessment and
police intervention at Monash. Typical also, was the IS disruption of
lectures by the racist theorists Eysenck and Jensen at the universities.56
By the early 1980s this rank-and-file work seemed to have
substantially receded with the admission that the IS had no real
influence in the working class.57
This, it was said, was related to the declining militancy of the
working class, particularly once the Labor Party took power in 1983.58
From 1982 to 1984 the IS began to retreat from activity in the
working-class movement, even from the multi-class politics of the
People for Nuclear Disarmament. In 1984 the IS conference formally
accepted the new position of "propagandism", which it stated had been
in place since 1982.
They argued their new position in The Socialist and
in a pamphlet by full-timer Mick Armstrong, titled What is a Propaganda Group?59
This argued that IS influence in the outside world and the working
class was limited, and therefore IS had to act primarily as a
propaganda group in order to win people to socialist ideas in
preparation for the next period of radicalisation; to seek out
socialists and convince them to join the
Until "there is an extreme radicalisation amongst masses of
the IS argued, it will be impossible to take strides towards a mass
revolutionary party in Australia. In the past, they said that
agitational activity was designed to produce sympathisers and influence
in the working class, as a prelude to recruiting workers, but now the
downturn had put an end to such notions and the IS was more realistic.61
Yet the IS had always stood for "revolution from below",
the Australian context means rank-and-file activism, led by socialists
or the Leninist party, in which the workers, by engaging in struggle,
through their experiences gained an understanding of the nature of
class society, their place in it and the need for a revolutionary
struggle against it. Thus, for Marxists, it is not abstract
alternatives or pure propaganda that will accelerate this process, but
the actual praxis of the class engaged in struggle.
Given that the IS agreed that the only class objectively
capable of challenging the capitalist system was the working class,62
the move to propagandism was a move away from this perspective. The
downturn in the class struggle, mechanically equated with strike days
by IS, does not alter the perspective of activity in the class that
must dominate a Marxist party's strategy. The frustration of a
demoralised class and small numbers are understandable, but the turn to
propaganda alone is the adoption of a quite different perspective. The
method at work here has its links with the shibboleth of state
capitalism, because the method is the same: ie impressionism.
Just as the IS proceeds from the surface similarities
capitalism and the Eastern European regimes to deduce they are the
same, so the IS, when faced with a downturn in working-class industrial
activity, impressionistically abandons the working class, as if such a
downturn in workers' militancy was, by its nature, fundamental. In
place of the workers, there was a turn to students. The IS conceded
that groups like students could never substitute for the self-activity of the working class.63
Students and youth, it was said, were more interested in the concepts
of socialism than in specific industrial disputes and, perhaps most
importantly for the IS, they were said to be more rapidly politicised
than workers, and to present a greater opportunity for recruitment.64
There is no doubt that trade union militancy declined once
Prices and Incomes Accord between the Labor government and the ACTU
began to take effect, and that the opportunities for activism declined.
Although it was perhaps isolated, a Marxist party would have remained
in the class organisations with the perspective of laying the
groundwork for a rise in activity as circumstances changed; instead,
the IS adapted to the downturn in militancy (under the banner of
"propagandism"), by turning away from the working class to students.
This meant arguing socialist ideas as a "counter against the prevailing
pessimism", according to Phil Griffith, who seems to share this pessimism.65
This is an understandable mood in reaction to the downturn,
a materialist analysis that is built on the understanding that the
working class has material interests that are hostile to capital and
that in the longer term the increasing polarisation of wealth in
Australia that developed in the 1980s could only make that hostility
more likely. In short, the IS, because of their impressionism, had lost
faith in the Australian working class.
Students and selling its paper became the main areas of IS
In 1990, when the IS reunited with Socialist Action to become the ISO,
they reaffirmed this approach with an emphasis on building the organisation.66
This emphasis on building the organisation and increasing
the paper were the only measure of the success, or otherwise, of the
propaganda group, and demonstrations became the high point of political
activities. The latter included forays on the Melbourne Club and the
Stock Exchange, demonstrations against the AIDEX67
military exhibition, the Bush68
visit, student protest against the tertiary tax, and the most recent
Ausstudy demonstration in 1992, as a result of which five IS members
faced charges. During the Bush visit to Australia, The Socialist
could enthuse: "This was a celebration of rebellion — a rejection of
everything rotten about Keating and
It is also a substitute for activity in the working class.
On page 12 of the same issue, Mick Armstrong, in an article titled Why
Mass Action is Central in Turning Anger into Victory,
argues for the militancy of the anti-AIDEX demonstrations as a key part
of a way forward for "militant mass action that can inspire workers in
their own power to change the world". This is a quite different order
of things to the self-emancipation of the working class, or revolution
from below. The demonstration takes place outside the working class.
For the IS the demonstration becomes a symbolic enactment,
recreation, of the class struggle in society itself. This is not to
deny either the need for Marxists to be involved in such protests, or
in the legitimacy of demonstrations, but the IS sees this related to
the working-class struggle as "inspiration". Inspiration from outside
the working class must, of necessity, have much of a moral stance about
it, a protest against symbols of Australian capitalism, like the sale
of arms or the visit of a US president in a war mood.
In April 1992, the new politics of the IS were confirmed
with an article on students as a catalyst
Just as the IS had impressionistically reacted to the downturn in
working-class militancy by abandoning agitation for propaganda, so it
did when, in the aftertmath of the election of the Kennett Liberal
government in Victoria in October 1992, a rally of 150,000 people was
held in Melbourne on November 10, 1992. The IS response to this upsurge
was revealing. One article, The Return of Class by Sandra Bloodworth,71
hailed the working class as the only force in society capable of
inspiring a fightback, and without irony mocks "most on the left" who,
during the 1980s, had "turned their backs on the concerns of workers to
take up an array of cross-class ideas such as feminism, green politics,
lifestylism"; while Phil Griffiths, in the same issue, seemed totally
surprised: "Who could have imagined the speed and scale of the
turn-around in Melbourne".
A party that had remained with its orientation in the
would have not only imagined it, but been part of its development. That
its influence would have been tiny cannot be doubted, but its members
would have been well-placed to take advantage of any chance for
influence and growth. As it is, IS is condemned to the role of cheer
The history of IS demonstrates the importance of the
method of Marx and Engels. What appears on the surface a semantic
difference on the Soviet Union, underlies a different method of
political analysis, which Trotsky locates as petty bourgeois and which,
like a scratch that turns to gangrene, infects every area of political
Notes to Origins of the ISO
1. The IS began in Melbourne as the
Marxist Workers Group in December 1971. For a detailed history up to
1978 see History of the Socialist Workers Action Group by Phil
Ilton. IS Publications Melbourne, 1984, pp.1-6.
2. The Battler, No 26,
September 29, 1976
3. An international organisation of
workers' parties established by Leon Trotsky in 1938. Its founding
document is the Transitional Program of the Fourth International.
4. The point of the debate between
James Burnham and Max Shachtman was Trotsky's insistence on
unconditional defence of the Soviet Union against imperialism despite
there being a simultaneous need for the working class to politically
overthrow the bureaucracy. Although Burnham and Shachtman were
theoretically bureaucratic collectivists rather than state capitalists,
the difference with Trotsky was the same.
5. See The SWP and Eastern Europe,
by Phil Hearse, Socialist Outlook (UK), No 27, October 1990, p
26. For an IS reply see Labor College Review, No 17, Melbourne,
Victorian Labor College, June 1992. See also State Capitalism
versus Marxism by Dave Windsor, International, No 2, 1974,
6. The Battler, July 1989, No
277, p 12.
7. According to Marx, socialism must
the abolition of commodity production and the gradual disappearance of
money, the abolition of trade in consumer goods at least within the
commune, control of freely associated producers over the product of
their labour and over their conditions, and lastly the control by the
people over the mode of their material relations (which implies the
absence of a repressive state apparatus). In other words, socialism
remains an unattained goal not least in the former Soviet Union. Marx Critique
of the Gotha Program in The First International and After,
London, Harmondsworth, 1974, pp 345-6. See also Power and Money: A
Marxist Theory of the Bureaucracy, Ernest Mandel, Verso, London,
1992, especially chapter 1.
8. Preface to the Critique of
Political Economy, Marx and Engels Selected Works, Moscow,
1950 p 327.
9. See in particular Moshe Lewin, Lenin's
Last Struggle, London, Wildwood House, 1969.
10. The Battler, No 7, June
21, 1975, What About Russia,
by Tom O'Lincoin p 7. Also No 26, September 29, 1976; No 51, May 20,
1978, p 4; No 40, November 22, 1977 and Nos 187, 188, 176, 206.
11. The Socialist No 235,
1990, p 10. There can be no doubt about the representativity of the
Bolsheviks in October 1917, or the scope of the mass movement before,
during, and after the October Revolution. For eyewitness accounts see
John Reed,Ten Days That Shook the World, Penguin; N.N. Sukhanov,
The Russian Revolution, 1917, Vol II, Oxford, 1955,
pp.528 and pp.579-585. Martor-Dan Geschichte der Russisi
Socialdennnmokrate. Berlin, 1926, pp 300-301. Sheila Fitzpatrick, The
Russian Revolution, 1917-32, p 57 and p 60. Deitrich Geyer, The
Bolshevik Insurrection in Petrograd in Revolutionary Russia, edited
by R. Pipes, Harvard, 1968, p.164. Ernest Mandel, October 1917: Coup
d'etat or Socialist Revolution? Notebooks (IIRE No 17-18 , 1992, pp
8-12. Mandel cites many sources.
12. Mandel, Power and Money, op
cit. chapter 1.
13. Engels and Marx remained
to the end, although David McLellan cites some quotations from the late
Marx that suggest Marx did not rule out a peaceful transformation in
the US and UK as a result of universal suffrage. See David McLellan, The
Thought of Karl Marx,
Fontana p 228. Some question whether or not Engels believed in his last
years in the possibility of a peaceful transformation flow from
deletions made to his preface to the 1895 edition of Marx's Class
Struggles in France by the Social Democratic Party of Germany,
against which Engels protested. See for details Engels' Letters to
Kautsky by Leon Trotsky, New York, Merit, July 1969.
14. Yeltsin's appeals today to the
world for capital for the Soviet economy show the lack of free or fixed
capital, which the economy needs to function in the world market. The
IS appears to confuse the accumulation of capital with the accumulation
of things in the USSR, in particular military equipment. See The
Socialist No l76, June 8, 1985, p 8, and No 221, January 1989, p 12.
15. Not only is there a lack of
also a lack of capitalists in Eastern Europe. The dumping of many
Eastern European bureaucrats in 1989-90, which abruptly ended their
"capitalist status" without seizing their property, showed what was
plain to see: that the real landlords and capitalists had been
expropriated decades earlier. The absence of a stock exchange, private
property and company law are problems that free-market investors have
recently had to face.
16. Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, p
describes the capitalist mode of production as "an immense accumulation
of commodities" and elsewhere defines capitalism as generalised
commodity production. Yet the absence of commodities has been the most
glaring failure of USSR-style bureaucratic societies. The periodic
crises of overproduction of commodities that occur under capitalism are
not found in bureaucratic societies. Tony Cliff himself considers that
there is no commodity exchange in the USSR as far as the means of
production is concerned, and goes further in saying that labour power
is not a commodity in the USSR because only one buyer of labour power
exists, namely the state. Further on, Cliff admits that investment is
not determined by the capitalist law of the tendential decline of the
rate of profit. Tony Cliff, State Capitalism in Russia, London,
1955, p 158, pp 172-3.
17. In fact an important consequence of
entry of the free market into these countries is the number of
industries that would become open to the market, but which would
produce little or no profit. In the case of the Soviet Union this could
mean up to 30 million Soviet workers would be sacked and a third of the
East German work force would be dismissed. According to Harvard figures
quoted in The Socialist, No 256, September 1991, p 8, it was
the exclusion of the market that enabled industry to be built in the
first place and that prevented since then any modernisation processes
that would eliminate jobs or cut workers' living standards. Poland has
shown already that this is the result of the entry of the free market
into such economies, and the first casualties have been jobs and living
standards for many workers.
18. Everything Within the Revolution,
Thomas C. Dalton, Oxford, Westview, 1993, p. 136.
19. The Left and Gorbachev,
Robert Bollard. Socialist Review, No 5, Autumn 1992, pp 57-58,
IS Publications, Melbourne.
20. The Socialist, No 214,
July 1988, p 819. See also Tony Cliff, p 161.
21. Cited in The Socialist
No 221 , January 1989, p 12. See also Mandel, Power and Money,
22. Ken Tarbuck has also pointed out
real workers' state may need to produce comparable arms if it is faced
with external attack. Ken Tarbuck, State Capitalism: The Clock
Without a Spring,
International, London, 1970. Would this need then mean that the law of
value of capitalism would be introduced into the workers' state which,
by virtue of this, would become a state capitalist regime? This would
mean that a workers' state would not be possible while one capitalist
state remained intact. Given that all states throughout history have
applied part of their social surplus for military defence, or in the
IS's terms, competed with their rivals, what is there in military
competition that is specifically capitalist? The cost of rearming can
hasten the decline of a system, but it does not define that society.
23. John Minns, The Socialist,
May 1986, p 9. Or when Diane Fields argues: "USSR is capitalist because
workers sell their labour power to those who control the means of
production. (The Socialist , No 255, August 1991, p 13. See also
No 250, April 1991, p 8; No 233, January 1990, p 7; No 248, March 1991,
p 5; No 247, December 15, 1991, p 5). Elsewhere Gorbachev's Perestroika
is said to be similar to Paul Keating's restructuring (The Socialist,
No 214, July 1988, p 8-9). The writer notes, however, that in Australia
unprofitable businesses would be closed down, and that in Russia this
does not happen. The various non-Russian national states in the USSR
are equated with Western colonies despite the quite different economic
relationship involved. (The Socialist, No 214, July 1988, pp
8-9). Again based on similar appearances, the strong accumulation
undertaken by the Stalin regime in the 1930s is equated with the
policies of the Meiji restoration in late 19th century Japan although
the domestic and international political situation of each was quite
different. On the Meiji restoration see Theda Skoepol, States and
Social Revolutions, London, CV Press, 1979, pp 100-104.
24. The author could have also
included Napoleon Bonaparte and the Roman Empire using such a
criterion. See The Socialist, No 221, January 1989, p 12.
25. The Socialist, No 229,
September 1989, p 5.
26. The Socialist, No 252,
June 1991, p 13.
27. The Significance of Gorbachev,
Ernest Mandel, FI Publications, International Marxist Review,
reprinted Labor College Review, No 8, March 1990, Melbourne.
28. Hedrick Smith, The New Russians,
New York, Random House, 1990, pp 433-498.
29. Judy Blatt, The End of Communist
Rule in Eastern Europe. Government and Opposition Vol 26,
No 3, 1991 pp.368-390. Blatt details the limited role played by the
workers in the fall of the bureaucracies.
30. The Socialist, No 248,
March 1, 1991, p 5.
31 The Socialist, No 233,
January 1990, p 6.
32. The Socialist, No 255,
August 23, 1991, p 12. See also 252, July 1991.
33. The Socialist, No 257,
October 1991, p 13.
34. As the IS itself observed, only in
Romania did the dictatorships make any attempt to save themselves. The
Socialist, No 238, July 1990, p 9. See also Judy Blatt, op cit.
35. One need only take the case of
where capital has ruled under a presidential system, under emperors
(the Bonapartes), a fascist government (during World War II) and a wide
range of parliamentary regimes from limited property franchise and a
wide range of parliamentary regimes (during the rule of Louis
Phillippe) to universal franchise. The last century in Germany, Spain
and Italy show a similar diversity in forms of capitalist rule.
36. When the CPSU lost its leading role
Soviet Union in February 1990, the IS saw fit to limit its explanation
of this historic retreat by a reference to a demonstration of 200,000
against the monopoly position of the CP. The Socialist, No 234,
January 1990, p 61.
37. The Socialist, No 227,
38. The Socialist, No 233,
January 1990, p 6.
39. The Socialist, No 255,
August 23, 1991, p 13.
40. The Socialist, No 257,
October 1991, p 13.
41. Cited in The Socialist,
No 256, September 1991, p 8.
42. The Socialist, No 227,
July 1989, p 12.
43. The Socialist, No 237,
June 1990, p 4.
44. The Socialist, No 239,
August 1990, p 15.
45. The Socialist, No 256,
September 1991, p 2.
46. The Socialist, No 255,
August 1991, p 2.
47. The Socialist, No 257,
October 1991, p 14.
48. The Socialist, No 255,
August 1991, p 3.
49. Letter to The Socialist,
No 257, October 1991, p 14.
50. The Socialist,
November 1991, p 11.
51. Letter to The Socialist,
No 259, December 1991, p 11.
52. One might ask did not this burden
contribute to the decline of the US in its competition with rival
imperialist powers? Does it mean that state capitalism was part and
parcel of the US system? And what of indisputably capitalist nations
like Germany or Japan in the period of huge rearmament prior to the
world wars? Did they become state capitalist societies? No longer is
the internal class structure the criterion of the nature of the society
but an arbitrary cut-off point. Armaments may be a factor in the
decline of a nation's power but they are no definition of a social
53. According to full-timer Mick
54. Ilton, op cit, p 54.
55. See also The Battler,
56. The Battler, No 39,
October 1, 1977.
57. The Socialist, No 160,
May 12, 1984.
58. The Socialist, No 191,
January 1987, p 10.
59. IS Publication, 1986, Melbourne.
60. Crisis and the IS Strategy,
The Socialist, No 160, May 12, 1984.
61. Building in a Period of Retreat,
The Socialist, No 191, January 1987, p 10.
62. What Class are Students? The
Socialist, No 224, April 1989, p 4.
63. The Socialist, No 191,
January 1987, p. 10.
64. Rather than judging the
otherwise of the party in terms of its influence on the class in the
actual course of the class struggle, the IS, while recognising that the
students were less significant than the workers in offering a challenge
to the plans of the Labor govemment, saw the students' action in the
fee campaign "as more important to us." (The Socialist, No 216,
August-September, 1988, p 151) because it was easier to intervene in
the fees campaign and "we stand to get more out of it". See also The
Socialist, No 223, January 1990, What is to be Done, by
65. The Socialist, No 219,
November 1988, p 9.
66. The Socialist, No 233,
January 1990. See also The Socialist, No 235, April 1990, p 8.
67. IS tactics at the AIDEX
debated with the SWP/DSP, which objected to the super-militancy of the
IS, but the SWP proposals included the possible arrest of people like
the IS. The Socialist, No 263, April 1992, p 12.
68. The Socialist reported the
anti-Bush demonstration earned the IS nine new members, all between 17
and 22, six of whom were students. The Socialist, No 260,
January 1992, p 3.
69. The Socialist, No 260,
January 1992, p 7.
70. The Socialist, No 263,
April 1992, p 9. Also The Socialist No 265, June 1992, p 9.
71. The Socialist, No 271,
December 1992, p 3.
Part II: The politics of the Democratic Socialist Party
First published in Labor Review, No 19, 1994