Recent events on the Australian left will probably stir wide discussion among activists internationally as the news filters out.
A shorter version of this article is in Solidarity 259.
The two Castroite groups in Australia, the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and the Socialist Alliance (SA), are talking about merging into Socialist Alternative, the group there which claims the same tradition as the SWP in Britain but is out of favour with the SWP.
Probably Socialist Alternative will follow up this coup by a new unity offensive on the fourth of the larger left groups in Australia, the SWP-linked Solidarity: it did a previous one in 2010.
I don't expect all this talk of unity to come good. But even the talk is startling.
Socialist Alternative are not preachers of broad live-and-let-live unity. Rather the opposite. Until recently they were generally reviled on the Australian left as the arch-sectarians. They themselves were forthright that their priority was their own "propaganda routine" rather than building broad campaigns. Only in recent years have they become the largest group on the left; a decade ago they were much smaller than the others.
The talk will reverberate internationally because, despite their remoteness, Australia's left groups are well-connected. Solidarity has links with the SWP and SWP-linked groups in other countries, mostly small but including the relatively sizeable SEK in Greece.
Socialist Alternative has links with other groups which claim the same tradition as the SWP but dispute the SWP's claim to international leadership. One is DEA in Greece, the biggest revolutionary socialist faction in Syriza. Another is the ISO in the United States, the biggest revolutionary socialist faction in that country.
The ISO has startled people who previously regarded it as very narrow and rigid by recruiting Paul Le Blanc, a prominent "orthodox Trotskyist" writer with pro-Castro leanings, who now features in the columns of their publications without visible grievance about the ISO editorial line which considers Cuba, like all states on the model of the USSR, as state-capitalist.
The Socialist Alliance sustains many international connections, with a wide range of correspondents for its paper Green Left Weekly and its magazine Links.
Since the collapse of Stalinism in Europe, in 1989-91, we have had twenty years where much of the talk on a dispirited left has centred on rather desperate claims that old arguments and theoretical debates are no longer relevant; we should all huddle together "broadly"; we should "build the movement", or at least build whatever campaigns we can when the labour movement is subdued, without fussing too much about ideas. After twenty years of that, the Australian surprise may jolt the debate.
THE REVOLUTIONARY LEFT IN AUSTRALIA SINCE THE 1970s
Before proceeding to what I think are the basic issues raised here, it will be well to summarise the facts.
Visible political organisation to the left of the Communist Party of Australia and its Maoist offshoots first re-emerged in the early 1970s. There were then, and have been since, two main groups: the Socialist Workers' League/ Resistance, later SWP, later DSP, today Socialist Alliance; and the Socialist Workers' Action Group, later ISO, today Solidarity.
There have been others, some short-lived, others longer-lived like Workers' Liberty Australia (founded as Socialist Fight in 1980). But the SWL-SWP-DSP-SA and SWAG-ISO strands have always been the majority.
The SWL was "orthodox Trotskyist", holding that the Stalinist states were degenerated and deformed workers' states. In the early 1980s it morphed into a soft-Castroite group, still Trotskyist-influenced but disavowing Trotsky's stress on working-class leadership in his theory of permanent revolution.
The SWL-SWP-DSP-SA was from the start and until recently clearly the bigger group, with a steady flow of talented and energetic student recruits from its Resistance youth group, and an attractively open and patient manner in argument.
In 2001 the DSP launched a Socialist Alliance, drawing in the ISO, Workers' Liberty, and most of the groups other than Socialist Alternative. After a while the Socialist Alliance lost momentum, partly because of poor electoral results. The SA became little more than the DSP and a periphery of sympathisers.
A faction in the DSP leadership round Peter Boyle proposed to resolve the problem by merging the DSP into the SA and giving it a broader profile. Most of the older leaders of the DSP - John Percy, Doug Lorimer, and others - objected, and eventually split in 2008 to form the RSP.
The RSP has not prospered. Jorge Jorquera, a former RSP leader, has already joined S Alt. RSP is working closely with S Alt on its forthcoming "Marxism 2012" weekend event, and seems happy about giving up the unequal struggle to maintain its "party" apparatus and merging into a bigger group.
The talks between Socialist Alliance and S Alt, announced after the RSP-S Alt rapprochement became public, may be a different matter - more of a matter of each side wanting to show that it is not the one preventing unity. We shall see.
S Alt originated as a splinter from the ISO in 1995, when the ISO expelled five leading members, including Mick Armstrong and Sandra Bloodworth, for refusing to stop arguing against a "turn" pushed on the ISO by the SWP in Britain. The argument was about tactics. On large policy, as distinct from organisational tactics, S Alt and ISO-Solidarity have remained almost identical.
The ISO was going through one of the turns imposed since the 1980s by the SWP on its co-thinker groups internationally as simple extrapolations of the SWP's tactical choices in Britain.
In Britain, the SWP had decided that the "downturn" of the 1980s was over; we were now in a period like "the 1930s in slow motion"; slogans like "Paris 1968, London 1994" were timely. The SWP demanded that the ISO orient to mass recruitment. In September 2000, when a big protest at the World Economic Forum in Melbourne became something like Australia's "Seattle" moment - the explosion onto the street of a sizeable number of "new anti-capitalist" youth - the ISO would claim to have recruited 300 members (as many as or more than it had already) over that single weekend.
It was fantasy. The ISO lurched into more and more frantic fantasy movement-building, meanwhile losing virtually all its public profile (paper sales and so on). This led to a sharp decline; a large group splitting off in 2003 to form Solidarity; and a chastened recomposition, by the ISO merging itself backwards into Solidarity, in 2008.
HAS SOCIALIST ALTERNATIVE CHANGED?
From very early on writers like Mick Armstrong explicitly rejected some of the bulldozing follies of the SWP - they had learned something through their experience of being evicted - but they also developed their own version of the "propaganda routine" of the 1980s SWP and ISO. Starting from a base in Melbourne University and not much else, S Alt focused relentlessly on maintaining a political presence on campuses by literature sales, stalls, meetings, and occasional stunts.
S Alt's doggedness has eventually paid off. There is talk on the Australian left now of S Alt having changed and become more flexible. There is no real evidence of a change other than S Alt having become larger, more confident, and more willing to spread itself and take risks.
Even at the height of the "propaganda routine", S Alt took part in campaigns, though selectively, and more selectively than other groups. Even then, the writings of its main leader, Mick Armstrong, maintained that a Leninist party should be something more open than the SWP's model. He was not just repeating the 1980s: he wanted to avoid its excesses. (S Alt developed "excesses" of its own, but that is a different matter),
The S Alt constitution, unlike the SWP's, is publicly available, and unlike the SWP's recognises the right to form factions outside pre-conference periods. It also insists that factions or tendencies must disband if they lose the vote at a conference. S Alt's press does not debate openly whatever differences exist in S Alt.
As recently as February 2012, Solidarity and S Alt were exchanging angry open letters, not about political differences, but about claims that S Alt members harassed Solidarity people on a refugee rights demonstration so badly as to damage the demonstration and force the Solidarity people to leave it.
THE REVOLUTIONARY LEFT IN AUSTRALIA NOW
Part of the background to the current unity talk must be that the differences between SA, RSP, and S Alt are, for now, not great in current politics. S Alt has moved along with the SWP to politics which see the struggle as largely one of "anti-imperialist" (meaning anti-US) forces against "imperialism", rather than class against class. When RSP split from the DSP-SA, one of its chief charges was that DSP-SA was downplaying the proper priority of public solidarity with the Chavez regime in Venezuela. We must suppose that the RSP has softened on that. S Alt considers the Chavez regime to be bourgeois, not socialist, but is no more emphatically critical of it than the SWP is in Britain.
S Alt's main recent broad campaign activities have been the campaign for same-sex marriage rights and a "boycott Israel" campaign it helped run through picketing an Israeli-owned chain of chocolate shops, mainly in Melbourne. The pickets got wide national publicity, partly because many picketers were arrested. On the Australian left, only Workers' Liberty (while defending the arrested picketers) pointed out that boycotting Israeli-owned chocolate shops was more likely to encourage anti-semitism, and hinder the necessary links between the international left and the Israeli labour movement and left, than to help Palestinian rights.
The other historic difference between the SWL-SWP-DSP-SA strand and the SWAG-ISO strand was on the Australian Labor Party. SWL-SWP at one time did fraction work in the ALP, but since the late 1980s has moved to a line that the ALP is no longer a bourgeois workers' party. It says the ALP is now a straight bourgeois party, essentially no different from the Liberals (Australian Tories). ISO, Solidarity, and S Alt still consider Labor a bourgeois workers' party, and may for example call for votes for Labor in elections.
The RSP and SA seem to have softened on that. For example, SA, S Alt, and Solidarity have all recently been active in the "Queensland Uncut" movement. When debate came on who to invite to speak at "Queensland Uncut" rallies, S Alt argued for inviting Queensland Labor leader Annastacia Palaczuk on the grounds that it would help draw in and build unity with Labor supporters. ISO concurred; SA remained quiet; it was Workers' Liberty who said that the basis of inviting Palaczuk should be to make demands on her and put her on the spot, and that the rally should also include space for revolutionary-left speakers.
S Alt has not grown through a general radicalisation in Australia. Strike levels have been and remain low. Union density is now lower than in Britain.
S Alt has not grown through catching the wave of some political surge, or by being able to locate itself at the centre of some big new campaign or movement.
S Alt has not grown through being vindicated in some political crisis with a clear, trenchant political line while other groups flounder. Recent political differences on the Australian left have been subdued.
It is not even some special flair to its "propaganda routine" which has helped S Alt.
S Alt has blundered, too. At the 2000 blockade of the World Economic Forum in Melbourne - the largest mobilisation of the Australian left for some time - it distinguished itself by every so often marching round the site, on its own, waving red flags. Maybe that helped consolidate the esprit de corps of some of its young members. Objectively, it was cranky.
Its progress has not been smooth and easy. S Alt has had a large turnover of young recruits, most of whom did not stay long. As late as 2004, it barely had any presence in Sydney (Australia's largest city), and then the organiser whom it had sent from Melbourne to Sydney to sort out the problem quit, decrying S Alt as hopelessly sectarian. In 2005 S Alt's best young activists in Brisbane quit as a body, again complaining that S Alt was sectarian. They formed the Socialist Action Group which then, in 2008, merged with ISO and Solidarity.
And it may be that S Alt's current success will prove shallow. I find its politics fundamentally faulty, and the fact that it has gained a few hundred members does not mean it will deal well with future crises requiring political astuteness and depth.
And yet, and yet, and yet... Gaining a few hundred members, reversing the balance of forces within a small activist left milieu, are small things in the scale of our big historic tasks. They are big things in the day-to-day.
In part it's luck. Openings were made for S Alt by the damage DSP-SA and ISO-Solidarity did themselves by their faction fights and splits. But maybe also S Alt got something right. I think so.
PROPAGANDA ROUTINE AND IDEOLOGICAL STRUGGLE
The term "propaganda routine" is off-putting. In the late 19th century, the most popular summary for socialists of what their activity should be was Wilhelm Liebknecht's: "Study, Propagandise, Organise".
Propagandising, then, just meant spreading socialist ideas. It meant educating, or enlightening, people. Since then the word propaganda has acquired connotations of manipulation and deception.
But there is a core idea in the term "propaganda routine" which is profoundly correct. It is that the pivotal struggle for socialists is on the ideological front. That the first duty of socialists is to learn and understand, and then argue for and spread, socialist ideas.
That can be done only by developing a continuous line of argument, with which we try to grab as many people as realistically possible. We give them an alternative story about current events which they may at first reject but which one twist or another can jolt them into accepting.
For "propaganda routine" read "a visible, consistent activity of socialist advocacy, expressed through sales, bulletins, stalls, speeches, conversations, and so on", and we are describing what should and must be the bedrock of all socialist activity.
On that bedrock, large structures must in time be built. But the constant temptation to suppose that by some trick or guile we can find a short-cut, and build large socialist structures without the bedrock, is deceptive.
Solid socialist organisation cannot be built by manipulation. It cannot be built by deftly inserting socialists into the leadership of broad campaigns, or into high trade-union positions, and then hoping that the personal prestige accruing to those socialists will automatically spill over into persuasive power for the socialist ideas they privately hold.
In our earliest years as a tendency, in the 1960s, we explained that "the ideological tasks of the revolutionary party of the working class" were central. "If all the proletariat needs is an organisation, then the tightly knit revolutionary organisations are just sects, premature and almost certainly irrelevant.
"If what the proletariat needs is only a machine, then it does not need to have its militants labouring for decades in advance of the maturation of the situation where it requires an uprising".
We learned from what James P Cannon had explained about how the American Trotskyist movement built cadres.
"In the first period of the Trotskyist movement of America, when we were an isolated handful against the world, we deliberately restricted ourselves to propaganda work and avoided any kind of pretentious manoeuvres or activities beyond our capacity. Our first task, as we saw it, and correctly, was to build a cadre; only then could we go to the masses..."
In 1976 we had to consolidate our understanding, in a faction-fight with people who held that to describe ourselves as "a fighting propaganda group" (as we did, using the term propaganda in the sense of advocacy, education, enlightenment) was sectarian, and we should instead be broader and more "agitational". The "anti-propagandists", who formed the Workers' Power group, would later become genuine sectarians themselves, but that is another story.
If the working class is not yet aroused, then no amount of organisational and administrative busywork by us will arouse it. We cannot manipulate the working class into militancy by deft backroom work, or by simulating militancy in gimcrack campaigns.
What we can do is arm ourselves, and those we can reach, with ideas which arouse and inspire - that is, socialist ideas. As the French socialist group Lutte Ouvrière explains, our job is not to get people to be active, but to get people to want to be active.
When the working class is aroused we can contribute the essential thing which cannot possibly be improvised in the flux of struggle: not organisational mechanics, but ideas which are thoroughly worked out and based on decades and centuries of theoretical study and learning from experience.
It is primarily through our ideological activity of education and self-education that we can serve the broad working-class struggle - on condition that our ideas are shaped, and constantly reshaped, by the experience and the interests of the working class, which they will be only if we are constantly responsive to the struggles of the working class.
S Alt has, unashamedly, oriented heavily to students. It is regularly on campuses, postering, leafletting, advertising meetings, selling magazines. It presents itself directly to students, rather than operating through the mediation of this or that campaign, and limiting its direct socialist talk to the cognoscenti within the campaign.
There is much sense to that. New socialists have always been, and will always be, recruited mainly among young people. These days the biggest accessible concentrations of young people are on university campuses.
Even the German Communist Party in its early revolutionary days, the biggest revolutionary Marxist party that has yet existed, found it very difficult to win over older trade-unionists from the Social Democratic Party. It could win influence with them. It could turn them against the SPD leaders. Fully winning them over to become CP cadres was a different matter. People won to revolutionary politics as youngsters, rather than people first imbued with trade-union routine and then later won over, were the CP's mainstay.
That was not just because of mistakes the early German Communist Party made. It was because of built-in difficulties. No small revolutionary group, in times of relatively quiet class struggle, can by deft manoeuvre jump the hurdles which the early German CP had still not been able to scale before Stalinism poisoned it politically.
In 1976 the Workers' Power people told us that if only we would be less abstruse, then we could by a snappy "action programme" win over large sections of the "lower local levels" of the trade-union machine. That was fantasy.
So was the more recent speculation by the Socialist Alliance in Australia (based on the sympathy of a couple of prominent trade unionists, Craig Johnston and Chris Cain) that it could swivel itself into a leading position on the trade-union left without the prior work of recruiting, educating, and training a solid corps of young socialists who then win experience and influence in the trade unions.
Socialists build and organise a core of educated and trained activists - and we cannot do that by manipulation and spurious detours - or we are helpless.
There is, sadly, no automatic regulating mechanism which says that socialistic educational efforts are automatically filtered by the public. There is no automatic balance which ensures the clear and accurate being accepted, and the confused rejected. A group with deficient politics, like S Alt, can grow through a well-organised, stubborn ideological routine.
We have to combine public ideological activity (the "propaganda routine") with constant analysis and re-analysis based on attuning ourselves to working-class struggle and long-term working-class interests.