The politics of the International Socialist Organisation
By Chris Gaffney
and the Democratic Socialist Party
Part 1. The political method of the International Socialist
Part II. The politics of the
Democratic Socialist Party
The evolution of the Democratic Socialist Party (earlier
Socialist Workers League, and later the Socialist Workers Party), was
curious. It began its life in 1972 in an anti-Stalinist
It was the Australian section of the Fourth International from 1972 to
1985. Beginning in the 1980s, however, the SWP drifted politically from
the internationalism of the Fourth International to support for the
Gorbachev leadership in the USSR. This became a total identification
with a wing of the Soviet bureaucracy, which was seen to be the agent
of a democratic socialist renewal in the USSR. To understand this
dramatic shift in politics, with its disastrous results, we must trace
the development of the SWP's views from its beginnings to the fall of
In the first issue of Direct
in 1970, the SWL view of socialism was given as "the full flowering of
workers' democracy and the elimination of special privileges for the
few", while the bureaucracies that dominated Eastern Europe "must be
renewed before socialism can become a reality". With such
anti-Stalinist origins there was no lack of clarity: "Stalinism is not
a question of narrowness and dogmatism but of subordination of the
interests of the world revolution to the narrow materialist interests
of the Soviet (or Chinese, etc) bureaucracy",3
or again: "We are absolutely and irreconcilably opposed to Stalinism here and abroad".4
As for any possibility of meaningful reform of the Eastern European
bureaucracies, Dave Holmes of the SWL attacks Laurie Aarons of the CPA,
Laurie Aarons seem to look towards some Khrushchev-like reform
of the bureaucracy but this won't eradicate it, only modernise it and
prolong its miserable existence. The bureaucracy has to be smashed
before Soviet society can continue along the revolutionary road on to
which it entered in 1917.5
And, to eliminate any possibility of doubt, Holmes returns two
issues later to add: "the idea that the "the idea that the Soviet
bureaucracy can be reformed is absolutely false and thoroughly reactionary".6
This view was reinforced with numerous feature articles on the
lines by Leon Trotsky and leaders of the FI, particularly Ernest
Mandel, the secretary of the FI and its leading
Alien Myers and Tom Arrowsmith, in their article Does Socialism equal Stalinism?8,
laid out what they feel to be the essential difference between the
Marxist and the Stalinist view.
Firstly, the internationalism of Marx, starting with the
Manifesto slogan, "Workers of the World unite", was contrasted with the
role of the Soviet bureaucracies in Germany 1928-33, Spain 1936, France
1936, the pact with Hitler, their role in the post-war revolutionary
situations, in Egypt, Iran, Indonesia and elsewhere, all cases where
the needs of Soviet diplomacy came first, having disastrous results for
the workers' movements.9
Secondly, Marxism was a struggle for the independence of the
class, whereas the Communist Parties "preach an alliance between the
workers and a section of the capitalists deemed most friendly towards
the Stalinist government".10
Thirdly, it argued that socialism meant the widest possible
democracy, whereas Stalinism was the antithesis
of workers' democracy.11
The shift in political allegiance in the early 1980s to the
the Soviet bureaucracy inevitably turned these propositions of Marxism
on their head. They became what Stalinism had become, a distortion of
Marxism that attempts to use Marxism for the interests, not of the
working class, but for the interests of a hardened bureaucratic layer
that has separated itself from its working-class base.
Steps towards Stalinism
We should note that the drift from total opposition to the
bureaucracy to identification with the dominant reformist wing of that
bureaucracy, began not in 1985 when the Gorbachev regime launched
perestroika and glasnost, but in the late 1970s.
No public explanation of the reasoning behind the 1977 rejection of the FI document,12
Democracy and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat,
was ever given by the SWP. This document laid out explicitly the FI
position that under any socialist system the FI would stand for a free,
An SWP congress initially approved this document, but that decision was
overruled by the national committee, according to ex-SWP members.
Whatever the motivation, it was to prove conducive to the support of
the Gorbachev leadership and indeed all wings of the bureaucracy that
opposed a multi-party system.
Clearly the single-party status of the CPSU was an essential
for bureaucratic rule. Back in 1977 there is no evidence that this was
the model that the SWP had in mind. It argued for the right to belong
to a political tendency within the party and in all other bodies.
Nicaragua and Afghanistan
1979 was a critical year for the SWP, as the SWP acknowledged,
because of the Nicaraguan revolution and the Soviet invasion of
Afghanistan in December.14
To the SWP, the Nicaraguan revolution was a popular worker-peasant
revolution whose leadership was not Stalinist or class
collaborationist. Furthermore, the FI (small in size and with few
resources), did not have the monopoly on making revolution. It had
played no part in Nicaragua and no
FI section existed there.15
The FI had shown solidarity with the Cuban and Nicaraguan
revolutions while maintaining its criticism of cases of bureaucracy and
the limited nature of workers' democratic
The SWP and the US SWP, were not critical at all, but according to SWP
national secretary Jim Percy, the Cuban support for Nicaragua erased
any doubts they may have had about the Cubans' revolutionary
credentials. The SWP support for the "new revolutions" and the "new
revolutionaries", was contrasted with their membership of the FI, which
was seen as an obstacle to developing relations with other
revolutionaries around the world.17
Not only did the SWP feel frustrated by the Fourth
alleged failure to embrace, rather than merely support, the Nicaraguans
and the Cubans, they differed also on the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.18
The US SWP was to reverse its position supporting this invasion in
August 1980, but the view of the Australian SWP was still unchanged in 1990.19
The Soviet invasion was critical. In January 1979, the SWP had
opposed the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia despite what was then known
about the Pol Pot20
regime. They had done so on the basis of the right of Cambodia to
self-determination, a position described in 1990 as "abstentionist".21
A month later, the Chinese invasion of Vietnam was condemned, while noting22
the US backing for the invasion. By the end of the year the line had
The SWP had supported the regime that came to power in
in 1978, but criticised it for its bureaucracy and its privileges, and
for its failure to move against the local bourgeoisie to expropriate
them and establish a workers' state based on the workers and the peasants.23
It described the ruling party, the PDPA, as having "the usual Stalinist
program for underdeveloped countries, an alliance with local
capitalists", but the SWP warned in the words of the Nicaraguan leader
of the 1930s Nicaraguan revolutionary leader, Augusto Cesar Sandino:
"only the workers and peasants will go
all the way".24 The SWP would later
describe this "usual Stalinist program" as Lenin's "two-stage theory".25
The SWP was careful, on the one hand, to distinguish between
for the Afghan revolution and Soviet intervention, and any support for
the Kremlin leaders, on the other. They recognised that any advance of
the revolution would be against the wishes of Moscow which they
described as having an overall strategy of "peaceful coexistence".
It was clear to the SWP that the Soviets were operating in
interests and that support for the Afghan revolution was a by-product,
and not the purpose, of Soviet
The SWP justified the Soviet invasion by arguing that
the motivation of the Soviet Union the "objective character of the
invasion was to protect the interests of the workers and peasants by
blocking the US-sponsored counter-revolution.27
The invasion was said to be "not aimed against the workers, but against
the exploiters and parasites"28
The Soviets were said to fear the downfall of the progressive Afghan
government because a US-backed right-wing regime would probably allow
US military bases on the Soviet border. Thus the concern was the security of the Soviet Union.29
The truth of these propositions is not the issue. It is that the SWP
was viewing the issues at stake not from the long-term interests of the
Afghan workers and peasants, but was giving priority to the needs of
the Soviets in their quest for regional security against the perceived machinations of the US.30
By supporting the "objectively" progressive Soviet invasion,
had taken the first steps towards a political loyalty to that same
force which ensured that the Afghan revolution could progress no
further. The needs of the Afghan workers were thus subsumed into a
world view that sees the world's class struggles as essentially between
the two great superpowers, dubbed the camp of imperialism and in Soviet
terms, the camp of socialism.31
Such a view hands the banner of working-class liberation, not
working class, but to the Soviet leadership. It means the dismissal of
any workers' struggle that the Soviet bureaucracy decides is not in its
interests, not least the struggle of the Eastern European working class
against the bureaucracy.
The SWP, at this stage had not made this connection, but they
well on the way. John Percy, in January 1990, would answer the FI
(Trotskyist) critique of the bureaucracy in the Soviet Union, and the
working-class struggle against the bureaucracy that it involved, in the following terms.32
The second major error central to the Trotskyist view that
correcting the errors and mistakes made in the Soviet Union in the
course of constructing socialism has equal weight in the worldwide
struggle for socialism with the fight against imperialist capitalism.
This was more than five years after the SWP had left the
Fourth International, but Afghanistan was more than a step on the way.
The SWP makes new friends of old enemies
The SWP defence of the Soviet invasion was the same as that of
Socialist Party of Australia, a pro-Moscow split-off from the CPA in
1971. The SWP had earlier described the SPA as "the most slavish
pro-Moscow wing of the CPA" and said it and the CPA followed "the
Stalinist revisions of Marxism".33
The SWP and the SPA also agreed on opposition to the Accord
the ACTU and the incoming Labor government of 1983. Further, they took
the same view that the Soviets stood for peace and should be defended
against US President Ronald Reagan's massive rearmament. The SWP no
longer referred to itself as Trotskyist, a fact that was now acknowledged.34
The collaboration between the two parties continued through
1980s at conferences, meetings, as political allies at the various
fightback campaigns against government economic policies, and as
electoral allies under the banner of a Socialist
As their association continued, the SWP would progressively
political impediments to a common view of the USSR. The SPA gave the
Soviet leadership uncritical support. The SPA, unlike the SWP, retained
influence in trade union leadership circles. They were, at least, of
comparable size and the SPA would allow the SWP access to the world's
Communist Parties that the FI could not. The SWP was clearly keen to
extend its size and influence and it showed all the signs of impatience
at the perceived obstacles to its growth.
Principal among these constraints were the platform and
the Fourth International, whose analysis of the bureaucracy precluded
any possibility that this bureaucracy could be reformed. The Fl argued
that it must be overthrown by the working class, which would
democratise all institutions and entrench democratic control by the working class.36
Furthermore, the political independence of working-class parties was
considered fundamental. While not excluding limited alliances on a
tactical level, the thrust of the FI approach was against class
collaboration, and in particular, working-class support for the parties
of a different class.
During the 1980s, the SWP branched out in all directions. It
the case of the HDP, a Croatian separatist group that was said to be moving to the left,37
a curious support for Jesse Jackson (the decidedly bourgeois US presidential candidate),38
and support for the Nuclear Disarmament Party, particularly around the
1984 federal election. In the late 1980s the SWP made determined
efforts to win over green activists to the SWP. That the SWP should
seek to extend its influence into other areas of activity was
unremarkable, but the readiness of the SWP to play down fundamental
stances like their opposition to the Wages and Income Accords of the
1980s between the ACTU and the Labor government showed signs of
political opportunism. Opposition to the Accord had been part of the
common ground between the SPA and the
All the issues noted above came and went, but what is
from the early to mid-1980s is the increasing drift towards support for
Soviet-style regimes. The SWP was changing its tune. "The Soviet
workers' state is a dynamic and progressive society, whose economy is not a failure".40
An article by Greg McKeown, which was a brief biography of
Lenin, significantly ends in 1917 and omits any reference to his years in power.41
These were the years in which the social bureaucracy began to emerge
and their omission, one suspects, was to avoid any unpleasantness with
the SPA concerning the rise of a bureaucracy during those years.
Another article that describes the Soviet economy as "fundamentally
healthy and vigorous", omits any reference to the bureaucracy at all.42 We
should note that this was before the rise of Gorbachev. A succession of
articles followed, with glowing reports of the Soviet43 and
East Germany economies.44
The break with the Fourth International
By the end of 1984 Trotskyism was attacked for its alleged
the Stalinists were automatically the betrayers of world revolution and
that this view "overlooked many of the positive achievements of the
Communist Parties", and indeed, "that the concept of Stalinism was a
barrier to understanding and relating to the Communist Parties".45
The formal break with the Fourth International came at the FI
Congress in 1985. The FI was now "an obstacle to revolutionaries
actually building a new international revolutionary movement, one with mass influence".46
This was identified as "a mass revolutionary movement that already does
exist and is developing in Latin
They argued that the foundation of the FI without a mass base in 1938,
was a mistake, and that the FI had made a shibboleth of "Stalinism".
Instead, the SWP would seek an identification with, and orientation to,
the big revolutionary events in the world and to the living revolutions
and their revolutionary vanguards". Further, that these revolutions
were not led by Stalinists, so "there is no need to build a political
current separate and distinct from
Jim Percy and Steve Painter cite an FI writer who claims, "(We) are a
historic current that preserves one little thing in particular, an
international view of revolution that, from its origins has represented
an alternative view of Stalinism".
To Jim Percy and Doug Lorimer this represents the FI
counterpoising itself to the new international revolutionary movements.49
And as if to reassure any doubting members of the SWP, Percy and
Lorimer state: this "is not becoming a cheer squad for their
revolutions and their leaderships nor seeking some franchise from
them". It was freedom from the Fl and its program that allowed the SWP
more freely to relate to the Third World revolutions instead of looking
to the working classes of the advanced capitalist countries as the
centre of world class struggle.
In his reply to the SWP's departure from the FI, Ernest Mandel
argues that this represents a loss of faith in the working class of the
advanced capitalist world. It is hard to disagree with this. Mandel
further notes that the liberation of the Third World, to which the SWP
now looks, cannot be achieved without a decisive weakening of Western umperialism.50
More to the point, the Central Americans are not positioned to
the source of world revolutionary leadership, for they are undeveloped
countries surrounded by Western imperialism, in conditions quite unlike
those facing the working classes in the Western world. Furthermore,
they have no forces outside their region and none in the imperialist
world. They are politically and economically constrained in their
ability to extend their revolutions, and their political, but more
importantly economic, links with Eastern Europe make it hard for them
to play an independent political role in the international arena.
Nor have the Cubans or the Nicaraguans ever claimed this
Indeed, it is hard to see how they could develop a superior strategy
for the workers in the imperialist countries to that of the FI, with
militants in some 50 countries and in virtually all the developed
Lastly, as Mandel notes, the SWP really had very little to
Central Americans other than propaganda support and solidarity
activity. The SWP had no economic strength, nor was it a mass party.
All it had was its membership of the FI with its analysis and platform
developed over a 50-year period. Now the SWP no longer had even that,
and having left the FI, it was not surprising that the new
international relationship never really eventuated.
Despite the assurances of Percy and Lorimer that the SWP was
embracing "a more real internationalism" in turning to the Cubans and
the Nicaraguans, the reality was that the SWP was condemned to its
national framework. The Gorbachev leadership would fill this void for
the SWP best, for, as Dave Holmes acknowledged, the preceding few years
had prepared them for their identification with the Gorbachev leadership.51
The SWP now began to legitimise the bureaucracy of which Gorbachev was
clearly a part. Glowing and uncritical reports on the Soviet economy were printed.52
Trotsky was deemed irrelevant for his statement that the bureaucracy
was an unstable formation. On the contrary, argued Martin Mulligan,
"the Soviet economy has not reached the state of development at which
the bureaucracy has become totally
The Fl position on the question of Gorbachev, was described as
dogmatic, because Mandel had argued that Gorbachev did not represent a
fundamentally anti-bureaucratic element, but only the more lucid wing
of the bureaucracy, which recognised the gravity of the crisis into
which bureaucratic mismanagement had plunged the Soviet Union.54
The SWP argued that Gorbachev was different to the existing
bureaucrats because he belonged to a new
political generation,55 which were not
bureaucrats but merely officials56
and that the Trotskyists had been wrong in concluding from the
experiences of 1956-1968 that reform would only come through the
insurrection of the masses in a political revolution.
This was supposedly now out of date because the USSR was now a
richer and more liberal society than in 1956
This is as near to an analysis we have of exactly why Gorbachev, as
head of the Soviet bureaucracy, would have as his goal the restoration
of working-class control of society and the dismantling of the
bureaucratic command system. This is not a problem, however, if one
equates the interests of the ruling elite with those of the working
class, as the SWP increasingly did.
The SWP shot its bolt somewhat when it had lauded the 1983 and
Soviet figures on productivity, as it now had under Gorbachev to detail
the same period and report a long-term decline from 1970 on.58
Occasionally a doubt would be expressed, as Doug Lorimer, did
he observed "that openness doesn't extend to bureaucratic privilege",
for which he cites evidence. But, from mid-1985 until 1990, the line of
the SWP was that of the Gorbachev faction.
The SWP ran reprints from Moscow News and invited Soviet-bloc
embassy figures to speak at dinners, produced Gorbachev T-shirts,
quoted Gorbachev at length without comment and ascribed to the
Gorbachev leadership, "a campaign to seep away the bureaucratic
obstacles slowing the productive
process"59 or in Dick Nichols' words,
"the campaign to create a living socialist democracy in the USSR is
making giant strides despite all
Or again, Dick Nichols: The 19th conference of the CPSU was
tear out the roots of bureaucratic privilege and control" by
democratising the day-to-day administration of the state and economy.61
In August 1985, Margo Condoleon gave a euphoric report of the Moscow Youth Festival,62
and followed it by an even more glowing account of life in Moscow.63
There is a total identification with the Gorbachev leadership,
whom the "world's oppressed" depend, says Renfrey Clarke: "the
interests of the world's oppressed are closely bound up with the
struggle to strengthen the Soviet
and reflecting the wishful thinking of the bureaucracy he asserts,
wishfully perhaps," that the dissident movement has only 10 per cent
support against the Russian CP",65,
and further that the advantages of "socialism have been proved in
practice and that the party has earned the right to continue leading
As the SWP was not arguing the Soviet Union was at this point
workers' democracy, here is a clear case of the party substituting for
the masses in a situation where the masses have no democratic
alternative allowed them. The rights and the independent needs of the
masses have been excluded. They are now only reflections of
perestroika, as can be seen in the SWP response to the huge miners'
strikes in Siberia and elsewhere in June 1989. What surely the largest
expression of independent working-class activity for decades was denied
any independent interest separate from the perestroika and glasnost of Gorbachev.66
It was not only in the Eastern European sphere that the SWP
abrogated the interests of the masses to perestroika. In early 1988 the
USSR agreed to leave Afghanistan, having failed to crush the US-backed
rebel forces. As events would show, neither did it save the Afghan
government. The SWP reaction to the withdrawal is its significance from
the viewpoint of the Gorbachev faction. It cites the "benefits of the
withdrawal for the development of the Soviet economy", and the
political contrasts that would be made between roles of the USSR in
Afghanistan and the US interference in Afghanistan and Central America.67
The wisdom of the invasion in the first place is not discussed.
Gorbachev falters — the SWP retreats
As the late 1980s progressed, the Gorbachev initiatives began
falter, caused by stiff resistance in the bureaucracy to reforms, a
growing desire for independence by the various republics and worsening
economic prospects. Gorbachev's popularity kept declining68,
but the SWP continued to enthuse about the Soviet economy69
and became unable to distinguish between the desires of the Gorbachev
faction and reality.70
In October 1989 the SWP changed its name to Democratic
Party, explaining that it was to reinforce the party's identification
with the Gorbachev reform movement in the USSR and its reflections in
other "socialist states".71
1990 was to confirm the failure of perestroika, but the
invested enormous energy and political capitalism Gorbachev,
identifying the party completely with his plans, or what the SWP took
them to be. Although the December 1990 cover of Direct Action
proclaimed Gorbachev's win strengthens
and the CPSU plenum decision to devolve power from the Central
Committee to the Supreme Soviet was hailed as "more power to the
people, more socialism", the fear of failure begins to make itself
felt. Dick Nichols seems to want to shift responsibility for the
failure of perestroika on to the backs of the working class: "The
Gorbachev leadership has provided the working people with some
additions to their anti-bureaucratic armoury and it's up to them to use them".73
Renfrey Clarke concedes that perestroika has not hit its
that the characteristic form of exchange is still the compulsory state order.74
When Lithuania attempted to secede from the USSR, the SWP supported the
granting of independence on the basis that "it is the least damaging
way out for perestroika".75
In June 1990, the SWP was still supporting Gorbachev, who was
tentatively embracing the market against the Yeltsin-led radicals who
wanted a more rapid transition. Nichols accepts that "for a socialist
market to be entrenched it will be necessary to raise prices". Without
any explanation of what exactly a socialist market would be, Peter
Boyle, the following month76
urged an alliance between the embattled Gorbachev and the leader of the
liberal radicals, Boris Yeltsin, for the purpose of combating the
conservative bureaucracy that was blocking perestroika. To ascribe
socialist democracy to Gorbachev may seem dubious, but to see Yeltsin
as an ally in this is a serious misreading of a man who was about to
launch his plan for a 500-day transition to the market (the Shatalin
Plan).The declining position of Gorbachev was seen in the loss of some
136,600 party members in 1989 alone, but for Peter Boyle a case could
be made that this was not a disintegration but the self-purification of
Presumably only bureaucrats were leaving the party, according
Peter Boyle. As Gorbachev's star waned further, the SWP started to run
for ideological cover. In August 1990, Doug Lorimer led with an article
entitled Still relevant today: Leon
Trotsky's analysis of Stalinism.77
The article states Trotsky's view of the impossibility of reform of the
bureaucracy, which cannot be removed peacefully. Lorimer adds that this
analysis was confirmed in Eastern Europe, with the reservation that it
was wrong where the reform came from within the party as in Bulgaria,
Hungary and the USSR.
As Judy Blatt, in her study,78
shows, this had more to do with the sequence of events rather than a
substantial difference. The reservation is there, one suspects, to
cover the apparent about-face the SWP was attempting with the decline
Renfrey Clarke, so recently optimistic, now writes of the
black market and the bureaucracy creating shortages for speculative purposes79
and that the ``progress of glasnost and democratisation has not yet
been matched by serious reforms in the
Clarke describes the three major factions as the hard line bureaucrats,
the liberals (Yeltsin), and the very weak socialist current. Of course,
in this sketch Gorbachev has disappeared as a viable political
tendency. The Direct Action of November 27, 1990, refers to the
Crisis in bureaucratic
socialism — Stalinism81, which is a
real turnaround from the "socialist democracy" or "socialism'' used
only weeks before.
Gorbachev's attempted blending of the Yeltsin 500-day plan and
conservatives' five to six year transition to the market (in the
so-called Guidelines), was the first occasion for the SWP to criticise
Gorbachev from a working-class viewpoint; here they chastised Gorbachev
for being weakest in the defence of socialism in the USSR, namely in
workers' self-management. Self-management is a conception of socialism
that the SWP had abrogated in favour of a reformist revolution from
above. A report from a 1990 miners' conference in the USSR, reprinted
from an FI source, makes clear the hostility of the miners to the CPSU.82
For the miners, at least, the distinction between bureaucrats and
reformers that the SWP had built its politics upon for some five years
By the end of 1990 it was clear that the SWP had no coherent
the Soviet Union. Gorbachev disappears from view in the paper, and
other than the occasional interview, like Renfrey Clarke's innocuous
piece about youth, there is a striking reduction in coverage of the
Soviet Union, and almost no comment at all. Instead, the SWP begins in
early 1991 to run articles highly critical of Gorbachev and perestroika
by leading Soviet socialist dissenters, like Boris Kagarlitsky83
and Alexander Buzgalin84,
of the Marxist Platform tendency of the CPSU, who was attending the
Fourth International World Congress at the time of publication.
Ernest Mandel is again reprinted, not because of the SWP's reconversion to Trotskyism,85
but because the SWP's politics on Gorbachev and the USSR have left them
nothing to say. The interviews with Kagarlitsky are humiliating affairs
for the SWP, as the Soviet radicals demolishing a few sentences the
ideas of the SWP. Kagarlitsky notes, for example, "that some sections
of the Western left had an idea that perestroika was an attempt to
establish a democratic and prosperous state in Russia. This was never
true, not for a single day".86
He adds that its real aims were to increase the manageability of the
system, which had got out of hand, and to win some respectability in
the West. Whether we accept Kagarlitsky's view or not, it was cold
comfort for the SWP.
Ignoring the previous seven years of SWP politics and
practice, Doug Lorimer, in a September 1992 pamphlet titled The Collapse of Communism in the
attributes the failure of perestroika to Gorbachev's continued reliance
on the CPSU to be the driving force of the democratisation process,
rather than promoting the independent self-organisation of the Soviet
As to why the SWP supported the Gorbachev leadership rather
self-organisation of the Soviet masses as the motor of change was not
answered, and one suspects never will be.
Some conclusions about the DSP and the ISO
We have examined the performance of the SWP and the IS during
period of bureaucratic crisis and fall in the USSR from the viewpoint
of the basic tenets of Marxism.
The IS, despite its turn to the students, stresses in its
an allegiance to the working class and socialism from below. Such
declarations, no matter how sincerely expressed, are no substitute for
a dialectical materialist method.
Dialectical because so much of IS reasoning is based on
black-and-white scenarios. Either the former USSR was socialist or it
was capitalist. That the USSR might bean unfinished revolution with
elements of both capitalism and socialism seems never to have been
considered. The same logic appears in the turn to propagandism, which
may look tactically understandable given the fall in working-class
militancy, but is this the criterion that should be used?
The working class is forced by its condition and situation to
struggle periodically against the demands of capital and that is why
Marxists should attempt at all times to maintain a presence in the
class. For the IS, either the working class was militant, in which case
rank-and-file activism was the response, or it was not militant, in
which case one abandoned the class and turned to the students. This is
not Marxism, nor as the events of 1989-90 showed, was it an adequate
The SWP, on the other hand, did have the basic theory at its
disposal, in part by its membership of a 50-party international, but it
appeared to be guided more by organisational ambitions than any
fidelity to the basics of Marxism. The failure of both parties to pass
the test of Eastern Europe was therefore not a failure of Marxism, but
the abandonment of its central precepts. The opportunism of both
parties, if not corrected, makes the allegiance of ordinary workers
that much less likely. A party that will shift its allegiance in a
period of downturn is not a reliable option, nor is a party that can be
seduced by the perceived opportunities for organisational growth at the
expense of representing the working class.
What is not encouraging for the revival of the socialist
is the complete absence of any public self-criticism of the mistakes
made. Indeed the IS seems unaware of its theoretical and political
impasse. If the political method that is responsible for such mistakes
is not questioned when it proves to be inadequate, then not only will
the IS not gain in understanding, but it will continue to repeat the
same mistakes. In the case of the IS that will mean continuing with its
diet of propaganda and demonstrations, and in the case of the SWP,
looking for the next short-cut opportunity for growth.
Even within the parties, self-criticism will not be possible
organisation does not allow a genuinely open, democratic discussion
within its ranks. Anecdotal evidence suggests that in practice this
does not happen, although confirmation would require access to the
internal records of the parties. It is not only internal self criticism
that is required. If, in the long term, either the IS or the SWP did
manage to establish a real base in the working class, not only must the
party establish lines of communication to the class, it must allow
means by which the class can communicate its concerns and state of
awareness to the party, particularly when the party seems to have lost
its way. How can parties like the SWP and the IS hope to establish a
relationship with militant workers if all the questioning and debate is
restricted to the leadership circles of the party?
Also vital to the future of these parties is the nature of the
internal education offered to new members. The importance of theory for
a Marxist party cannot be overestimated. Does education in Marxist
theory equip members with the ability to apply a Marxist analysis, or
does it simply use them as paper sellers and fund raisers prepared to
accept the current slogan of the day?
Again, until the internal life of these parties is accessible,
are limited to supposition as to current and future practice. Likewise,
only the future will decide if Marxism and working-class struggle have
been fatally wounded by the fall of "Communism".
As for Australia, it is hard to imagine that the working class
abandon whatever means it has to defend its interests, simply because
of the collapse of the USSR. Working-class interests remain the same,
and therefore the inevitability of class struggle remains. It is the
meshing of this class struggle with the achievement of socialist
objectives that has been damaged by the fall of Stalinism in Eastern
Europe, not least in the Soviet Union.
Despite that, it is far too early for Western commentators to
Marxism. Who will be brave enough to predict the absence of class
struggle in the medium term in the former Soviet Union or in the boom
economies of South-East Asia, with their appalling conditions and
growing working class? And when such an upturn in worker militancy
occurs, abroad or in Australia, the validity of Marxism unburdened by
the legacy of Stalinism would again beg for attention. As with every
rise in working-class activity, the class will look for effective
leadership, as it has always done.
One may doubt whether this leadership will include the
present-day SWP or IS.
1. The SWP had its origins in the youth
radicalisation of the early 1960s, in particular the struggle against
Australian involvement in the war in Vietnam, which grew rapidly in
1965, the year the Menzies Government introduced conscription.
Faced with the slow response of the Communist Party of
this radicalisation, the young student activists responded quickly to
the ideas of individual Trotskyists who were also members of the
Vietnam Action Campaign. For more details see John Percy, A History of
the Democratic Socialist Party, DSP Publications, Sydney, January 1990,
Until 1970, when there was a functioning party, the main
the emerging SWP was the youth organisation, Resistance. The Vietnam
war, the example of the Cubans supporting revolutionary movements in
Latin America, and the events of May 1968 in France, all confirmed and
extended the anti-imperialist and international perspective of the
youth movement as well as entrenching a hostility to bureaucracy and
Stalinism. This direction was confirmed by the Soviet suppression of
the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia in 1968.
2. Direct Action, No 1, September
1970, p 8. Direct Action was the paper of the SWP (then the
SWL), until 1991.
3. Dave Holmes in Direct Action No
43, July 5, 1973, p 22.
4. Dave Holmes in Direct Action No
51, November 8, 1973, p 21.
5. Dave Holmes in Direct Action No
53, December 13, 1973 pp 6-7.
6. Dave Holmes in Direct Action No
55, February 9, 1974, p 22.
7. For Trotsky see Direct Action Nos
May 1972; No 54 January 26, 1974; No 78, February 7, 1975; No 92,
August 21, 1975; No 94, September 18, 1975; No 98, November 6, 1975.
For Mandel, see No 3, December 1970; No 8, July 1971; No 11, November
1971; No 16, March 22, 1972; No 21, June 9, 1972; No 38, March 29,
1973); No 48, September 27, 1973; No 69, September 2, 1974; No 121,
June 17, 1976); No 135, September 23, 1976; No 207, May 18, 1978).
8. Direct Action No 189, December 1,
1977, p 6.
9. In place of the internationalism of Marx
Lenin the SWP substituted the sort of internationalism described
earlier in reference to the CPA: "Its internationalism is that it
belongs to the world Stalinist movement". (Direct Action, No 44,
July 19, 1973, p 22) This was not before the SWP declared the Cuban and
Nicaraguan revolutions to be the new international focus for
10. The second point of demarcation
Myers and Arrowsmith, the class independence of the working class,
raises the question of the nature of the class leadership in the Third
The Soviet view, adopted by Communist Parties throughout the
was that there were two stages: the bourgeois democratic stage, in
which the workers' parties would support the local bourgeoisie in
achieving national independence from imperialism, and the sweeping away
of feudal relics, and in which the workers and peasants would not
violate bourgeois property relations. Only at a later stage would the
working-class take power in its own right, when democratic tasks such
as universal franchise, land reform and equality before the law had
been achieved under a capitalist system. This stages theory was first
advanced by the Mensheviks and Lenin in the early 1900s. Two
Tactics of Social Democracy in the Democratic Revolution, by
V.I. Lenin, Moscow). They differed mainly on which class would lead the
This was Lenin's position until April 1917, when he broke with
stages theory and arrived back in Russia with the slogan: "all power to
the Soviets". Letters
from Afar, by V.I. Lenin, The
by V.I. Lenin. This was a call for a revolution led by the working
class, which would not treat the achievement of the democratic tasks
and the building of socialism as separate historical stages. The
democratic tasks noted above were now to be achieved under the rule of
the workers and peasants as part of the process of building socialism.
See E.H. Carr The Bolshevik Revolution, Macmillan, 1950, pp
79-86. Carr cites statements by Stalin repeating the new line, which
Carr sees as an acceptance of Trotsky's thesis of 1906 (In In
Results and Prospects, Leon Trotsky).
It was Stalin who revived the stages theory to support his
alliance with the bourgeois leadership of Chiang Kai Shek, and it was
his directive to the Chinese Communist Party to accept Kuomintang
leadership in achieving the "democratic stage" that led to the
slaughter of thousands of Communists and the loss of the Communist
Party's urban base. (See The Tragedy in China by Harold Isaacs,
One does not have to accept Trotsky's formulation of the
combined, or permanent, revolution to note the absence of stages as
outlined in the theory, in all the successful revolutions that have put
worker and peasant governments in power, whether they be Russia 1917,
Cuba 1959, Nicaragua 1979, Vietnam 1975 and Yugoslavia 1946-7 or China
1949. These last two revolutions proceeded despite Stalin's attempt to
limit their revolutions to the bourgeois stage. For the theory of
permanent revolution see Leon Trotsky, Tasks and Prospects,
1906, in Permanent Revolution, Pathfinder, 1927.
On the other hand, where the stages theory was successfully
on the local revolutionary movement and the revolutionary workers and
peasants were confined to bourgeois limits, unable to attack the
institutions of private property, the result was invariably bloody
defeat. We need only name China 1927, Spain 1936, France 1936, Italy
and France after the Second World War and Indonesia 1965, to make the
point. Apart from Trotsky's own writings on the Chinese, Spanish and
French examples, which may be found in Trotsky's Writings, 1929-40,
Pathfinder Press, New York; see also Stalinism in Britain by
Robert Black, New Park, London, 1974, Defeat in Indonesia,
by Ernest Mandel, on Cuba: The First Congress of the Cuban CP, in 1975,
declared: "There is no insurmountable barrier between the
democratic-popular and anti-imperialist stage. In the era of
imperialism both are part of a single process". Cited in Socialist
Worker, Vol 2, No 2, November 1982, p 28, New Course Publications.
See also, C. Thomas Dalton, op cit, p 26).
Whatever else the theory of permanent revolution may lack in
specifics, its insistence on the political independence of the working
class worldwide is at the heart of Marxism.
The two theories and their practice were incompatible. The SWP
adherence to the theory of permanent revolution was a barrier to any
reconciliation with Stalinism and it was dumped in the early 1980s. The
first step was to drop Trotsky's name from the theory. In a resolution
on Cuba for the January 1983 (Socialist Worker, Vol 2, No 2,
November 1982, p 28) National Conference, the theory was referred to as
"the Marxist-Leninist theory of uninterrupted (permanent) revolution"
and "The Leninist strategy of permanent revolution" no doubt because
the name of Trotsky would be anathema to the SPA which the SWP had
already begun to court. Later accounts arguing for the stages theory
refer to it as Lenin's two-stage theory of revolution. Lenin has thus
been designated as the author of two opposing theories. Jim Percy and
Doug Lorimer, Socialist Worker, Vol 4, No 3, September 1989, p
54. Also, A History
of the Democratic Socialist Party, by John Percy, op cit, p 43.
11. This is of interest because in 1977
bureaucratic rule is seen as the antithesis of workers' democracy. By
1985 this same bureaucratic regime would be seen as the vehicle for the
introduction of that same workers' democracy without "the need to carry
out a political revolution to overthrow the bureaucratic dictatorships"
as expressed by Doug Lorimer in 1978. Direct Action No 237,
December 14, 1978.
Democracy and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat, Fl
13. As late as February 1990 Gorbachev
still resisting the removal of Article Six from the Soviet
Constitution, which gave the CPSU its sole-party status. The Second
Russian Revolution, by Angus Roxburgh, BBC, London, 1990, p 171.
14. Percy, op cit, pp 34-35.
15. Percy, op cit, p 40.
16. See, for example, Livio Maitan, Problems
of the Cuban Workers State, Intercontinental Press, March I5, 1976,
17. Vietnam's Invasion of Kampuchea,
by Allen Myers, Direct Action, No 238, January 25, 1979, p 5.
18. On the Soviet role in Afghanistan see
A. Hyman, Afghanistan Under Soviet Domination, 1964-1991. Third
edition, London, Macmillan, 1972.
19. Percy, op cit, p 35.
20. Hands off Vietnam, SWP
statement, Direct Action, No 242, February 22, 1979, p l.
21. Percy, op cit, p 35.
22. Hands off Vietnam, Allen Myers,
Direct Action No 242 February 22, 1979.
23. Allen Myers in Direct Action No
January 17, 1980, p l. Anthony Hyman op cit, p 120, notes that the PDPA
reforms and public declarations did not prevent abuses of power,
revenge killings and corruption.
24. Direct Action No.308, July 16,
1980 pp 10-11.
25. Percy, op cit, p 43.
26. Direct Action No 308, July 16,
1980, pp 10-11.
27. Allen Myers, Direct Action No
309, July 23, 1980, pp 10-11.
28. Allen Myers, Direct Action No
283, January 17, 1980.
29. SWP 1980 Election Platform, Direct
Action No 284, January 24, 1980, p 3.
30. In such a context the statements of
Myers that the Afghan workers need a mass revolutionary party and that
they should take the Cuban road appears as face-saving, given that the
Soviet invasion ensures that neither piece of advice can possibly be
taken up, much less the right to self-determination, which has been
extinguished with SWP approval. Direct Action No 308, July 16,
1980, pp 10-11).
31. This is the two camps position defined
spokesperson Nita Keig in terms "that one is the imperialist bloc led
by the US and the other is the "worker's states" including the USSR;
this despite the development of a Stalinist bureaucracy in the USSR" (Direct
Action No 284.
32. Percy, op cit, pp 46-47.
33. Direct Action No 189, December
11, 1977, p 6.
34. SWP-SPA collaboration causes flurry
on the left, by Dave Holmes, Direct Action No 464, December
13, 1983, p 14.
35. This is not to suggest that the views
SPA and the SWP were identical. During the rise of Solidarity in Poland
the SPA predictably supported the Polish government while the SWP
supported Solidarity. Other differences concerned the ALP, but more
revealing was the stated differences with the SPA. The SPA saw the US
arms build-up and the threat to the USSR as the real area of
concentration, whereas the SWP argued that the revolutions in Central
America were more significant. This was a difference that, so far as
the SWP was concerned, would soon disappear. Direct Action No
464, p 4 (op cit).
36. See Socialism or Barbarism on the
eve of the Twenty-First Century, Manifesto of the Fourth
International, 1991. Also International Viewpoint, monthly
journal of the F1, Paris.
37. By Geoff Streeton, Direct Action
No 442, July 5, 1983, pp 10-11.
38. Bad News for the Good Weekend,
Dawn McEwan, Direct Action No 662, August 2, 1988, p 12.
39. Direct Action had earlier
CPA for its role in the Prices-Incomes Accord, denouncing it as
class-collaborationist and a sell-out of working-class interests. In
1986 the CPA began to make criticisms of the performance of the Accord
and the Labor government, but with no suggestion of any repudiation of
the Accord itself.
The closer relationship the SWP was now seeking with the CPA
prompted the SWP to run quiet on the Accord, which was de-emphasised. A
Direct Action report on the "important new party
discussions" had no reference at all to the Accord. (Direct Action
No 595, December 10, 1986, p 14.
40. Direct Action No 431, April 12,
1983, p 8.
41. Direct Action No 466, February
8, 1984, p 12-13.
42. Direct Action No 471, March 14,
1984, p 17.
43. See Direct Action No 524,May
29, 1985, Direct Action No 538, September 11, 1985, p 18, pp
44. East Germany, the most hard-line of the
Stalinised states, is praised for its growing economy. This praise is
based on unquestioned East German statistics, while the workers are
said to have had steady wage rises over the years. Almost as a
footnote, the lack of workers' democracy in East Germany is described
as merely "a bad advert" and "a brake on economic development". This
would provide little comfort to the East German workers as it is a view
that embraced the bureaucracy. Direct Action No 494, September
5, 1984, pp 14-15.
45. Direct Action No 500, p 14.
Milner in 1984 (op cit, p 42), refers to the SWP as the most pro-Soviet
wing of the Australian New Left, and an enthusiastic apologist for
Trotsky's murderers. This seems a little harsh but the comparison with
the earlier stance of the SWP is clearly noted.
46. The Socialist Workers' Party and
the Fourth International, by Jim Percy and Doug Lorimer. Pathfinder
Press, September 1985, Chippendale, p 52.
47. Direct Action No 536, August
28, 1985, p 19.
48. Percy and Lorimer, op cit, pp 52-53.
49. Percy and Lorimer, op cit, p 52.
50. In Defence of the Fourth
International against the split of the Australian SWP by Ernest
Mandel, International Viewpoint, supplement to issue No 93,
February 24, 1986, pp 7-10.
51. Direct Action No 550, December
1985, p 17. Part of this preparation was the "campist" position: the
view that the world class struggle is between the camp of imperialism
and the camp of socialism. This led to the SWP reversing its earlier
historical judgments, particularly about the counter-revolutionary role
The bloody repression of the Vietnamese Trotskyists by the
Communist Party in 1945 was justified, although the excesses were
regretted. Allan Myers, The Vietnam Revolution and its Leadership,
Pathfinder Press Australia, 1984, based on a report approved by the SWP
National Committee). The events in Saigon were a social conflict
between a privileged bureaucratic caste and the workers, as the 1984
Australian SWP Congress resolution still acknowledged. Did this mean
that the workers did not have the right to a party that was opposed to,
and independent of, the privileged bureaucracy? Apparently the SWP now
thought not. This was to be the SWP's new internationalism. In December
1986, John Garcia rewrote the history of the Spanish Civil War from the
viewpoint of Stalin in such a blatant manner that it provoked a letter
in the following issue that cites the inconvenient history omitted by
the article. Direct Action No 594, December 3, 1986, pp 8-9).
52. Geoff Streeton in Direct Action
No 524, May 29, 1985, pp 16-17. See also issue 538, September 11, 1985,
53. M. Mulligan in Direct Action No
549, November 27, 1985, p 19.
54. Direct Action No 595, December
10, 1988, p 8.
55. Perestroika: Reform of the Russian
Revolution by Dave Holmes, Pathfinder Press Australia, 1988, p 25.
56. Perestroika, op cit, p 25.
57. Direct Action No 500, p 14.
58. Direct Action No 595, December
10, 1988, p 8.
59. Direct Action No 640, February
10, 1988, p 8.
60. Direct Action No 650, May 4,
1988, p 10.
61. Direct Action No 655, June 8,
1988, pp 8-9.
62. Direct Action August 28, 1985.
63. Direct Action September 11,
64. Renfrey Clarke in Direct Action
No 601, February 25, 1987, pp 89.
65. Renfrey Clarke Direct Action No
597, January 28, 1987.
66. Direct Action buried a short
article on the strikes on page 10; it was short on detail. The article,
titled Soviet Union: Miners, Gorbachev Attack Bureaucrats, Direct
No 705, August 1, 1989, p 10, turned this working-class protest into an
action in support of Gorbachev. It argued that the strikes were not
only concerned about conditions and pay but were "an enormous display
of force in favour of perestroika against bureaucratic bungling,
inertia and corruption". Neither does it square with the professed
hatred of the miners for the Communist Party, considering it to have
"betrayed the interests of the toilers" as reported in Direct Action
later. Direct Action No 766, December 4, 1990, pp 8-9.
67. Direct Action No 648, April 20,
1988, p 3.
68.68. (a) Vladimir Pozner Eyewitness,
New York, Random House, 1992, pp 126-7.
(b) Yegor Ligachev Inside Gorbachev's Kremlin,
Pantheon, New York, 1993, p 312.
(c) Hedrick Smith The New Russians, New York, Random
House, 1990, pp 563-4.
69. See Direct Action No 683, February 14,
684, February 21, 1989; No 678, November 29, 1988; No 663, August 9,
1988; No 653, August 25, 1988.
70. As these statements from Direct
show: No 713, April 26, 1989, "The rise in Soviet living standards is
fact"; No 679, December 6, 1988, "in the Baltic region today only a
minority support secession from the USSR"; No 684, December 21, 1989,
quoting Gorbachev — "Our Cuban brothers can be sure of the unfailing
solidarity of the Soviet Union with the island of freedom. Soviet-Cuban
friendship is indestructible"; No 689, April 9, 1989, "It is worth
noting that in other respects [other than the budget deficit — CG] the
Soviet economy is much more soundly based than the US"; No 663, August
9, 1988, in an article on the Soviet economy Renfrey Clarke claims that
the economy is in the "throes of a considerable consumer boom" although
the same author, 12 months later (No 713, September 26, 1989) is
explaining the long queues for consumer goods as the result of
71. Direct Action No 717, October
31, 1989, p 2.
72. Direct Action No 727, February
73. Direct Action No 727, p 12 (op
74. Direct Action No 730, March 6,
1990, p 10.
75. Dick Nichols in Direct Action
No 736, April 24, 1990, pp 7-11.
76. Direct Action No 745, July 3,
1990, pp 8-9.
77. Direct Action No 752, August
21, 1990, p 9.
78. Judy Blatt, op cit.
79. The Soviet Kleptocracy,
Renfrey Clarke Direct Action No 755, September 11, 1990, p 12.
80. Direct Action No 763, November
13, 1990, p 10.
81. New paper to be launched in February,
by John Percy, Direct Action No 765, January 27, 1990, p 2.
82. Direct Action No 766, December
4, 1990, pp 8-9.
83. Green Left Weekly February 25,
with B. Kagarlitsky, A. Popov and V. Kondratov
with A. Buzgalin, Green Left Weekly, February 18, 1991.
85. Ernest Mandel, For
Democracy and Socialism, Green Left Weekly, April 17,
with B. Kagarlitsky, A. Popov and V. Kondratov, Green Left
Weekly, February 25, 1991.
87. The Collapse of Communism in
the USSR by Doug Lorimer, New Course Publications, Melbourne, 1992.
First published in Labor Review, No 20, 1994