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The further fragmentation of the ISO
A statement by Socialist Alternative

The resignation of 21 members from the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) on 25 May is the latest reflection of the crisis that has wracked the ISO for a decade. Since the last ISO conference in December 2002 almost 50 members have resigned either individually or in groups, leaving the ISO on a generous estimate with an active membership of less than 100. This sharp decline occurred, as the 21 former ISO members point out in their resignation letter, during a period that "saw the emergence of a massive international anti-war movement and the largest anti-war demonstrations in Australia's history. That the ISO failed to grow out of this movement, has no greater political coherence, no larger established periphery and if anything smaller meetings is a serious indictment of the current practice of the group." (Letter of resignation from the International Socialist Organisation)

It is an important step forward that the 21 comrades have faced up to the reality of the political degeneration of the ISO and summoned the courage to split from a moribund group that has little or no prospect of being reformed. The problem is that we don't believe that the comrades have anything like sufficient political clarity on the issues that led to the near collapse of the ISO to enable them to build a viable new organisation. (For a detailed critique of the orientation of the ISO and an alternative perspective for socialists in Australia see Socialist Alternative and the ISO: Perspectives for socialists) Their letter offers next to nothing in the way of explanation for the degeneration of the ISO and provides no clear alternative road forward for building a revolutionary organisation in Australia.

The most glaring weakness of the statement put out by the 21 former ISO members is that it says absolutely nothing about the disastrous perspective of "the 1930s in slow motion" that led to the ISO's degeneration. The comrades point to some of the symptoms of the crisis in the ISO - the failure to build out of the anti-war movement, the depoliticisation of the ISO, the lack of serious internal discussion. But they don't point out the source of these problems which was the wildly over-stated analysis of the political situation that the ISO embraced in the early 1990s and the abandonment of any understanding that the ISO was a propaganda group. Do the comrades reject or still accept the disastrous "1930s in slow motion" perspective? Without some clarity on this vital question there can be no road forward, particularly as some of the comrades who signed this letter were for many years leading advocates of the ISO's perspective and presided over the wrecking of the ISO.

The other key weakness of the resignation statement is that it takes no clear position on the political questions that have been in dispute in the ISO over the last decade - the United Front, the Socialist Alliance, sectarianism, democratic centralism, the role of the British SWP, student work, movementism, the role of a propaganda group. This failure to take a clear stance on these vital issues simply re-inforces our conclusion that it is unlikely that any new revolutionary organisation will come out of this latest split from the ISO and if it does it is unlikely to be viable.

From reading the resignation statement you would think that the crisis in the ISO only emerged during the last two years. In reality the degeneration of the ISO began a decade ago with the adoption of "the 1930s in slow motion" perspective that wildly overstates both the degree of radicalisation in Australia and the possibilities for rapid growth of a small revolutionary group. This schema that "the nineties resemble the 1930s in slow motion" was developed in the early 1990s by the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) and imposed on all the groups in the International Socialist Tendency (IST) of which the Australian ISO is part. (More recently the SWP has further hyped up its analysis, arguing that the crisis "resembles the 1930s in slow motion (but speeding up). Socialist Review, London, June 2002, p 12.) This schema which ludicrously argued that the 1990s were similar to the Great Depression of the 1930s - a time of unparalleled economic and social crisis for world capitalism which saw 30% unemployment in Australia and the USA, the triumph of Nazism in Germany and Stalinism in Russia, a revolution in Spain and so on - massively overstated the pace of political developments and the scale of radicalisation in Australia. It led the ISO to consistently exaggerate the level of anger in society and the willingness of workers to fight back against ruling class attacks and the degree to which workers and students were open to socialist ideas.

This analysis made it extremely difficult for the ISO to relate to the actual opportunities that did exist for socialists to grow. It meant that the ISO's arguments and slogans did not connect with those people who were moving to the left and questioning capitalism. For example in the recent anti-war movement the ISO called for actions that were totally unachievable in the Australian political context - daily mass demonstrations once the war had started, repeated calls for mass civil disobedience and repeated calls for mass strikes to stop the war even after the poor turn out to the union stop work in Melbourne. These calls for action went way beyond the level of political consciousness of the workers and students that were mobilising against the war and totally disregarded the sorry state of union and student organisation. It meant that the ISO was incapable of relating to and building out of the massive demonstrations that did occur against the war, whereas Socialist Alternative was able to grow significantly out of the anti-war movement, in part because we had a more realistic assessment of both the great strengths and the weaknesses of the movement.

For a decade the ISO have been seriously disoriented by their "1930s in slow motion" perspective. They abandoned any realistic assessment of what a small socialist group could achieve. They turned away from an understanding that they were a small socialist propaganda group that was dependent primarily on its political ideas for its growth and healthy political development. The ISO lurched from one failed get rich quick scheme to the next (doorknocking the suburbs, tiny suburban branches, the Action Program, Socialist Alliance) in search of illusory gains. The internal life of the ISO began to degenerate and the group became increasingly depoliticised as new members were given little training in socialist politics.

Internal degeneration

By as early as mid-1993 it was clear that the ISO's over-inflated perspective was not working. The hopes for rapid growth were not fulfilled. However the ISO leadership, egged on by the British SWP, refused to face up to reality. The inevitable consequence of this refusal of the ISO leadership to develop a more realistic perspective was membership disillusionment and the emergence of internal opposition. In 1995 the ISO leadership expelled a group of members who were arguing for a more realistic perspective and they went on to form Socialist Alternative.

Precisely because the ISO's perspective was not rooted in a rigorous assessment of Australian political reality or of what a tiny revolutionary group could hope to achieve the ISO leadership could only continue to impose "the 1930s in slow motion" perspective by arbitrary means. They could not convince members either by the practical success of the perspective or by the logic of their argument. This explains why, as the 21 ex-ISO members point out, it is "impossible for us to discuss our differences with the current perspective and practices of the ISO within the framework of the ISO". (Resignation letter) However this inability of the ISO to have an open and honest discussion of perspectives is not some recent development. It has been a hallmark of the ISO for a decade. The ISO leadership had to undermine the democratic traditions of the group precisely because they refused to abandon a perspective that was increasingly out of kilter with reality.

An alternative perspective

A credible perspective for building a revolutionary organisation needs to be based on two key elements - a realistic assessment of the political environment in which revolutionaries are operating and a frank assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of our own forces. After a long period of setbacks for the left and the working class movement internationally we have begun to see over the last few years some elements of a revival. This trend is most marked in Latin America and parts of Europe, with the waves of strikes in Italy, France and Greece and the emergence of a mass anti-capitalist movement. This has been followed up this year with the largest international anti-war movement in history.

These developments were reflected in Australia in the S11 demonstration at Melbourne's Crown Casino in 2000 and the recent massive anti-war demonstrations. These developments opened up an important new audience for socialists. We can grow significantly if we can orient correctly. Nevertheless we have to be clear that the political situation is far from being one of onwards and upwards. The level of strike action in Australia is the lowest for over a century. The rate of union membership is the lowest in more than seventy years. Student organisation and the student left are in decline. There is no sizeable socialist alternative to the ALP or the Greens. The combination of all these factors means that while there is widespread disillusionment and bitterness amongst workers and students about the relentless attacks by the capitalist class and the failure of the ALP to provide an alternative to the Liberals, there is also a deep cynicism about politics and a lack of confidence about the ability of the mass of workers and students to effectively resist these attacks.

This means that socialist groups can't recruit and hold new members on the basis of hyped up agitational rhetoric. New recruits have to be politically convinced through lengthy political discussions, political branch meetings, reading groups and their own individual reading, combined with ongoing external political activity, if they are to stay involved and be confident to recruit other people.

To cope during this challenging political period socialist groups need to develop an understanding amongst their members that there are very important opportunities for growth (and at times such as the recent anti-war movement decisive opportunities for quite rapid growth) that mean that socialists have to orient outwards and look for opportunities to relate to new struggles and new people. But socialists also have to raise their theoretical level so that they are capable of adapting to the sharp ups and downs of political life without becoming demoralised.

Finally for the small socialist groups that exist in Australia today to operate successfully they need to have a clear understanding that they are not mass parties (or even small parties) that can lead any significant layer of workers in struggle. Instead they have to be clear that they are propaganda groups reliant on their ideas to influence relatively small numbers of people. Often when Socialist Alternative emphasised the need for socialists to face up to the fact that we were only small propaganda groups we were dismissed by the ISO as hopelessly pessimistic and sectarian. But recognising we are a propaganda group does not mean we are passive or content to be small and just want to have a comfortable, closed circle of supporters. Far from it. It is only by facing up to what we actually are that we can hope to break out to wider layers and build on firm foundations. Recognising you are a propaganda group points you in the direction of seeing where your potential audience is today - most importantly political students on the campuses - and pushes you against imposing unrealisable demands on your organisation.

Significantly it has been Socialist Alternative with our supposedly pessimistic orientation that has been able to grow significantly, both quantitatively (to just over 200 members) and qualitatively, over the last three years and established a significant political base on the campuses. Socialist Alternative was the only socialist group that was able to relate effectively to the anti-war movement and build significantly out of it. In contrast the ISO with its supposedly more "optimistic" and "non-sectarian" approach has declined sharply and has been wracked by internal turmoil and splits.


Socialist Alternative believes the latest split from the ISO is a step forward. Inside the ISO there was little prospect of the comrades developing a realistic orientation for building a revolutionary group, let alone putting such a perspective into practice. Freed from the ISO's moribund, factional and depoliticised atmosphere and being able to test in practice their own ideas there is at least some possibility that they will begin to come to grips with the tasks facing revolutionaries today.

Socialist Alternative wants to collaborate with comrades who split from the ISO in campaigns and to debate in a non-sectarian way and test in practice our perspective for building a socialist organisation. We encourage ex-ISO comrades - including all those who have left over the last few years and are still committed to revolutionary politics - and current ISO members to read and discuss with us our documents on perspectives). We also encourage them to read some of our pamphlets: Revolutionary Organisation Today by Mick Armstrong and Lenin and the Party: Debunking the Myths by Sandra Bloodworth, Marc Newman and Mick Armstrong that deal with aspects of the issues at stake.

Over the last eight years Socialist Alternative has begun to build a viable organisation committed to the politics of socialism from below that can make an important contribution to the vital project of building a revolutionary party in Australia. We appeal to former and current ISO members still committed to that project to seriously discuss with us the questions of how socialists can most effectively build. The tragedy of the degeneration of the ISO is that many socialists have dropped out of activity, precisely at a time when there are greater opportunities to build a viable revolutionary organisation than there has been for over twenty years. Socialist Alternative does not claim to have all the answers to the challenges confronting socialists. We don't claim to have been right on every question. We don't demand that ISO members and ex-members agree with the entirety of our perspective to join us but we do believe that they have to seriously address the issues we have raised.

Socialist Alternative National Executive June 2003

This statement is available on the Socialist Alternative website in the Vault.

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Comments welcome. Ozleft Bob Gould

Since June 10, 2003