by Davey Heller, 29th December 2020
“The world political situation as a whole is chiefly characterized by a historical crisis of the leadership of the proletariat.”Leon Trotsky 1938
These words are as true today as they were on the eve of World War 2 and this is why understanding the history of the groups laying claim to be the leaders of the working class movement takes on political importance. However, since Trotsky launched the Fourth International it has splintered many times. Then the splinters have often splintered! Everyone of a certain age remembers the “People’s Front of Judea versus the Judean People’s Front” Monty Python sketch and there is no doubt that the plethora of similar sounding names amongst Trotskyists is bewildering! However beyond the joke, real political differences have arisen between Trotskyists based on program and perspective. The Australian Trotskyist movement has been part of this process. So what follows is a short guide to the various Trotskyist groupings and publications in Australia and some information on how they fit into the international context and history.
I have grouped the Trotskyist groups in Australia into the following categories based on their heritage
1) International Socialist Tendency (IST)
Solidarity (formerly the ISO)
2) International Socialist Alternative (ISA)
Socialist Action (formerly the Socialist Party/Militant)
3) Groups linked to the US Socialist Workers Party
Socialist Alliance (formerly the DSP)
Freedom Socialist Party (FSP)
Spartacist League and the Bolshevik-Leninist
4) International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI)
Socialist Equality Party Australia
5) Other Trotskyist publications
1) The International Socialist Tendency (IST)
The International Socialist Tendency (IST) originated in Britain and now has groupings around the world. The IST’s leading figure was Tony Cliff (1917–2000), founder of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in Britain. The SWP was originally known as the International Socialists.
Tony Cliff was originally part of the “The Club” along with Gerald Healy but his supporters were expelled in the 1950 when they adapted the position that the USSR was no longer a degenerated workers state as Trotsky had maintained but was now state capitalist. This was the point at which the IST separated from the Fourth International.
Groups related to the International Socialist Tendency (IST) within Australia
The ISO, Solidarity and Socialist Alternative
The IST groups have at times had relatively large memberships (in the hundreds) particularly on university campuses. Socialist Alternative is now likely the largest grouping in Australia. They have participated in student protests and as part of middle class protest movements on refugees, climate and against the Iraq war. They have a small presence in the trade union movement.
SOLIDARITY (formerly the International Socialist Organisation (ISO)
The Marxist Working Group formed in 1971 changed its name to the Socialist Workers’ Action Group (SWAG), and finally the International Socialists (IS), becoming the official representative of the International Socialist Tendency in Australia. They again changed their name to the ISO in 1990. There were a series of splits amongst the IST in Australia over the decades but all the splits regrouped (except for Socialist Alternative which permanently split in 1995) in 2008 under the name Solidarity
The ISO at its peak had 300 members but has become smaller in recent years. They have branches in Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide.
Socialist Alternative(SA) has existed since 1995. It formed out of a split from the International Socialist Organisation (ISO). The ISO in Australia was a part of the IST (International Socialist Tendency) which means there heritage traces back to Tony Cliff and the Socialist Workers Party in the UK. Likely now the largest grouping in Australia, SA recruits heavily from campuses and has branches in most major cities in Australia. It has a small presence in the Trade Unions including the National Tertiary Education Union (NTEU). Socialist Alternative is now the dominate grouping in the electoral outfit the Victorian Socialists.
Current International Affiliations
Socialist Alternative has links with a number of other groups which were previously part of the IST, such as the now defunct ISO in America, the Internationalist Workers’ Left in Greece, Socialisme International in France, and both Socialist Aotearoa and the International Socialist Organisation in New Zealand. Since 2013, Socialist Alternative has maintained permanent observer status within post-unification Fourth International (Pabloite USEC).
2) The International Socialist Alternative(ISA)
The International Socialist Alternative had its origins also in the British Trotskyist movement. It was a grouping started by Ted Grant in the 1950’s which developed into the Militant Tendency which spent decades within the British Labor Party. The Militant Tendency also founded the international Committee Workers International (CWI) in 1974 as an international when it broke with the Pabloite Fourth International (USEC).
By 1992 , many within Militant and the CWI more broadly thought that the strategy of entryism in the Labor Party was exhausted, largely because most of its members had been expelled from the party throughout the 1980’s.
Ted Grant and Alan Woods, another long time leader of Militant disagreed and wanted to continue the tactic of entryism and therefore were expelled and went on to form the International Marxist Movement (IMT), which now has sections around the world as well and runs the website www.marxism.org
Those who remained in the CWI, after rejecting entryism in the Labor Party went onto form separate Socialist Parties in the UK and elsewhere. The CWI subsequently split even further and the ISA is the result of one of these splits.
The ISA within Australia
Socialist Action (formerly Socialist Party/Militant)
Socialist Action is the representative of the International Socialist Alternative in Australia. It started as a small faction within the Australian Labor Party (ALP) in 1985 called Militant. Mirroring the debates in the UK in the CWI and the UK based Militant, it was decided in the early 1990’s to stop the strategy of entryism within the ALP and instead broke off and formed the Socialist Party (Australia)
The Socialist Party as well has elected local councilors and participated in various left wing campaigns. In October 2019, the Socialist Party renamed itself Socialist Action.
3) Socialist Workers Party (US)
The Socialist Workers Party in the US‘s heritage can be traced all the way back to 1928 when its first members were expelled from the Communist Party of America for following the perspective of Leon Trotsky and the Left Opposition against Stalin. It came into being as the Socialist Workers Party in 1937. A prominent leader in its early decades was the James Cannon. The SWP followed the position of Trotsky that the USSR was a deformed workers state. During World War 2, much of its leadership including Cannon were put on trial and imprisoned under the Smith Act. The SWP (US) rejected the Pabloite moves towards “long term entryism” in the Stalinist and Social Democrat Parties and split from the Fourth International in 1953 (aligning with the ICFI). The SWP however rejoined the Pabloite Fourth International in 1963 forming the United Secretariat (USEC). This was largely based on a shared perspective that the Castro regime in Cuba was not just a deformed but a healthy workers state. Throughout the 1950s and 1960’s many smaller groups continued to splinter from the SWP to form the linage of many groups still in existence today. The party aligned with both black nationalism and worked heavily within the broader campaign against the Vietnam War. In 1978 the leadership sent many of its cadre to work in blue collar industries in its “turn to industry” policy. By the early 1980’s the leadership under Jack Barnes openly broke with Trotskyism. The party continued to splinter and whilst still running its website and the Pathfinder Press is now a small and marginal group on the US left.
Groups whose heritage can be traced to the Socialist Workers Party (US) within Australia
Democratic Socialist Party (DSP)
The DSP started in 1972 as the Trotskyist Socialist Workers League by members of the Socialist Youth Alliance (currently called Resistance) which grew out of the anti-Vietnam War student radicalisation. The SWL affiliated to the reunified Fourth International (the Pabloite USEC), under the influence of the American section, the Socialist Workers Party. It also took the name Socialist Workers Party (SWP).
Following also in the footsteps of the US SWP, in 1986 the SWP broke with Trotskyism and disaffiliated from the Fourth International. The party replaced Trotsky’s theory of permanent revolution with the view that socialist revolution in Third World countries will take place in two connected stages. In the early 1990s it was renamed the Democratic Socialist Party.
Socialist Alliance formed in 2001. It was originally largely an attempted merger between the ISO and the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) and other smaller Trotskyist organisations. After a few years it fell apart as an alliance and the DSP merged itself into the Socialist Alliance. Therefore now it is effectively the new incarnation of the DSP in Australia. Resistance is its youth wing.
Socialist Alliance and the DSP (its forerunner) are smaller now but have been relatively prominent in the past on campuses, protest movements and running electoral campaigns.
Current International Affiliations
Freedom Socialist Party (FSP)
The Freedom Socialist Party is a Trotskyist socialist political party with a revolutionary feminist philosophy based in the United States. It views the struggles of women and minorities as part of the struggle of the working class and like the Spartacists promotes the perspective of layers of “special oppression” within the working class.
It emerged from a split in the United States Socialist Workers Party in 1966 in the fallout of the decision of the SWP to reunite with the Pabloite Fourth International.
The party’s Seattle branch, with support from individuals in other cities, split off from the SWP over what it described as the SWP’s entrenched opportunism and undemocratic methods. The party has branches in the United States, as well as Australia, Canada, England, Germany and New Zealand. The current National Secretary of the FSP is Doug Barnes.
The FSP in Australia
In Australia the FSP has a branch in Melbourne and run a bookshop in Brunswick. The focus of the party on layers of special oppression means the FSP has focussed heavily on indigenous solidarity campaigning, in particular deaths in custody. They have also campaigned heavily on reproductive rights and for rights of the LGBTIQ community
International Spartacist Tendency (ISt)
The history of the International Spartacist Tendency goes back to the early 1960’s when a group of young members of the SWP (US) started to disagree with the leadership’s uncritical stance towards black nationalism , Cuba and its preparations to rejoin the Pabloite Fourth International. Under the leadership of James Robertson, an oppositional tendency within the SWP was formed called the Revolutionary Tendency, which was expelled in 1964. Although initially the Revolutionary Tendency was aligned with Healy in the UK and the ICFI they split politically in 1966 and developed independently into the Spartacist League. The Spartacist League in the US grew substantially to have a national presence by the early seventies and began to develop internationally and eventually had a presence in numerous countries in 1974.
The ISt took a strong position defending deformed workers states, opposing support for supposedly “anti-imperialist” forces such as the Ayatollah Kohmeini in Iran, and argued strongly against support for popular fronts such as with Allende’s party in Chile. The Spartacists also built up a strong presence in a number of unions in the US.
Throughout the 1970s though in a series of splits and purges the Spartacists increasingly came under the complete domination of the leadership of James Robertson. In 1985 an External Tendency was formed which eventually developed in the International Bolshevik Tendency and the Bolshevik Tendency.
By the time of Robertson’s death in 2019 the Spartacists now called the International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist) had degenerated and had very few members.
Groups who can be traced to the International Spartacist Tendency within Australia
International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist) (ICL-FI)
The current website of the Spartacist in Australia is for the International Communist League. It shows little activity reflecting the broader disintegration of the Spartacist League internationally.
Bolshevik Leninist Australia
The Bolshevik-Leninist Australia is new group of individuals who are in their words are trying to “build a Marxist nucleus” in Australia with the ultimate goal of forming a new Marxist Party. Currently they consist of a number of individuals spread across Australia. It started its project in March 2020.
The Bolshevik-Leninists are associated with the Revolutionary Regroupment (RR) organisation in Brazil. The RR originally split from the International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT) and was joined in 2011 by former members of the Coletivo Lenin (CL), another organization that claimed adherence to the historical legacy of the Spartacist League (SL).
4) The International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI)
The International Committee for the Fourth International (ICFI) split from the Fourth International in 1953. The Pabloite strategy of deep entryism within Stalinist Parties was rejected as liquidationist by the US SWP, a section in Britain under Healy, and a section in France. The SWP (US) left the ICFI in 1963 when it reunified with the FI, becoming the United Secretariat of the Fourth International.
IN 1985, the Workers Revolutionary Party still led by Heally was expelled from the ICFI but a new section of the ICFI was started in Britain to replace it. The sections of the ICFI later changed their names to the Socialist Equality Party.
The ICFI hold that trade unions are no longer workers organisations and that therefore workers should break with them and form new rank and file committees in opposition to the trade unions. The ICFI writes extensive criticism of other Marxist groups in particular those who derive from the Pabloite tradition of the USEC which the ICFI broke with in 1953.
Whilst only having a small membership the ICFI started publishing the World Socialist Website in 1998 that its sections collectively write. The website is the most widely read daily source of Marxist news and analysis on the internet and publishes on a wide ranges of subjects.
The ICFI in Australia
Socialitst Equality Party of Australia
The Socialist Equality Party (SEP) is a Trotskyist political party in Australia. The SEP was established in 2010 as the successor party to the Socialist Labour League, which was founded in 1972 as the Australian section of the International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI).
They have small branches in Melbourne, Sydney and Newcastle as well as some branches of its youth wing the International Youth and Students for Social Equality ( IYSEE) on university campuses. .
The Socialist Equality run candidates in Federal and State elections in Australia and contribute articles to the wsws.org on both Australian and international subjects. There senior members are part of the editorial board of the wsws.org.
The perspective of the SEP in Australia is a shared one with the other sections of the ICFI in France, Britain, the US, Sri Lanka, Canada and New Zealand
Groups whose heritage is the ICFI within Australia
Although having no relationship to the ICFI, Classconscious.org was started in 2016 by two socialists with a a previous association with the SEP in Australia. Its editorial team now consists of three people frm Australia and the US.
The website is in agreement with the ICFI in regards to internationalism, opposition to the use identity politics to divide the working class, opposition to the reformist socialist tendencies who continue to try and subordinate the working class to “progressive” elements of the bourgeoisie and the dead end of electoral politics and on the corrosive impacts of post-modernism and the Frankfurt school on class consciousness.
However classconscious.org rejects the ICFI’s abandonment of working within trade unions and the united front tactic, its use of the term pseudo-left to characterize other political tendencies, its Healyite position on Cuba, and its abstention from conducting mass work.
Classconscious.org is not a party, fraction or tendency, but a platform offering socialists a place to develop their own voices free of the constraints imposed on membership within formal parties. We welcome submissions and publish articles that disagree with the editorial line in the interests of promoting Marxist debate
5 ) Other Trotksyist publications in Australia
Trotskyist Platform was started in 2008 and is active in Sydney. They are Classical Trotskyist ‘s with a heavy emphasis on defending deformed and degenerated workers states, labor struggles, indigenous solidarity and anti-racism.
“TP calls for the building in Australia and other imperialist countries of united-front campaigns to defend the workers states (however deformed) in China, Cuba etc against forces pushing for capitalist counterrevolutions. “
Trotskyist Platform recently run a solidarity campaign with Chan Han Choi, a North Korean man charged with breaking the sanctions on North Korea. As well as their website they also produce a journal called “The Spark”
The Workers League started publishing in 2016. On its “About” page, it states “Red Fire is the publication of the Workers League. The Workers League is a socialist organisation which seeks to build Marxist vanguard parties in Australia and internationally.”. The Workes League has at least one active member in Brisbane, Adam Radek.
Note: Whilst claiming to be orthodox Trotskyists in recent time Workers League has condemned all covid lock downs and solidarized itself with the far right in the US such as in this article “US election: Left wing or right wing coup”.
Classconscious.org’s perspective on Australian Trotskyist groups.
Of course Classconscious.org is not neutral in our regards to the actions and perspectives of some of these groups. In particular the larger groupings associated with the IST (ISO, Solidarity, Socialist Alternative), the DSP and Socialist Action groups have for a number of decades been the most prominent socialist organisations in Australia. Despite their claims to act in opposition to the Labor Party, in practice they have fostered illusions in the Labor Party by promoting the idea that building large protests to “pressure” them will be sufficient to push them to the left and act in the interests of the working class. Often their support of the ALP is demonstrated by what they omit as much as what they say. In addition they have fostered illusions in the parasitic trade union bureaucracies by pushing illusions they could be pushed to left as opposed for the need for them to be replaced by a revolutionary socialist leadership. Combined these have helped trap the working class behind the dead end of electoral politics, the ALP and at the cost of building working class movements independent of all factions of the ruling class. In effect they operated as reformist radicals as opposed to as revolutionaries.
Explanatory notes on the history of the Fourth International and its predecessors
Whilst the history of the Fourth International is deserving obviously of its own article, I will just include a few brief notes on the history of the broader Marxist movement internationally.
The First International was formed in 1864-76, it was also called the International Working Mens Association and at its peak had millions of members.
The Second International was formed in 1889 but became politically bankrupt when in 1914 all of its national sections with the exceptions of Russia and Serbia backed their own bourgeoisie and betrayed internatianalism when World War One began.
The Third International or Comitern was formed by Lenin in 1919 in the wake Russian Revolution. Mirroring the degeneration of the USSR under Stalinism, the Comitern became a tool in the hands of the Stalinist bureaucracy to advance their national interests globally via control of the sections around the world. It was wound up by the Stalinist bureaucracy during World War 2 as its alliance with the Allies made it politically inconvenient to even maintain the pretence of promoting international revolution.
The Fourth International was started by Leon Trotsky and a small number of political associates in 1938. Trotsky had made the decision that the Third International could not be reformed after the Stalinist Comintern not directed the German Communist Party to disaster in its failure to stop the rise of fascism in Germany but failed to even analyse the failure. Literally whilst its founding members were falling victim to Stalinist assassins and on the eve of World War 2, the Fourth International was founded in Paris. The Fourth International although battered survived World War 2 and the assignation of Leon Trotsky in 1940 by a Stalinist agent and become the voice of anti-Stalinist Marxism and the defender of the heritage of Russian Revolution.
However the Fourth International has splintered many times since World War 2. A major split occurred in 1953 when under the leadership of a Greek Marxist Michel Pablo, the Fourth International leadership advocated a policy of “long term entry” into the Stalinist dominated Communist Parties and Social Democratic Parties. Some Trotskyists in France, the UK and most prominently the SWP in the US saw this policy as “liquidationist” by compromising the political independence of the Trotskyist movement and split from the Fourth International forming the ICFI. Those who stayed in the Fourth International were therefore labelled “Pabloite” by those who had split. In 1963, the SWP re-joined the Pabloite Fourth International forming what became know as the United Secretariat or USEC. Many other splits from the Fourth International have occurred, reflected not just in the Australian Trotskyist movement but elsewhere around the world too.