History of the DSP Part I: The 1960s and 1970s - Our prehistory and Trotskyism

By John Percy

This is the first of two talks presented to the 13th National Conference of the DSP in January 1990. John Percy is the national president of the DSP.


The Democratic Socialist Party, formerly the Socialist Workers Party, is only a relatively new party, but we have a rich history from which we can draw many valuable political lessons. Having recently changed our name it's timely that we are assessing that history at this conference. It's worthwhile stepping back and having a look at our development at each important turning point in our history, and this change in a sense marks the end of a chapter. It's also necessary, and useful, to review our past because there are so many new, young comrades, who have no experience, and often very little awareness even, of our early history and the many rich lessons associated with it. 

In recent years, with the growth of the party and the recruitment of many new members, we've felt the need for that history to be told. These two talks are a step in that direction. 

With these two talks I hope to be able to draw out both the political lessons and the organisational lessons of our history. Of course, these have often been intertwined. And we recognise that organisational questions, party-building questions, are very much political questions, and are extremely important. In fact, this was one of the early lessons we learned. 

And it's also useful to be able to illustrate our political growth and development through some of the faction fights and political struggles the party has been through. We realise that we learn through struggle, by making mistakes, or by correcting mistakes. Lessons learned this way are embedded well in the collective memory of the party. They are often the most thoroughly learned, real lessons. 

This leads to a key point that's essential to understand when looking at our history. That is, there have been two sources or types of influences that have conditioned our development as we've built our party. 

Firstly, positions, ideas or lessons that we borrowed from other parties in other countries and in other periods. That is, lessons from the class-struggle experiences of the international workers movement that we've learned second hand (And looking back at our history you see that some of these were useful, essential, while some were of dubious value that we had to transcend). 

Secondly, lessons based on experiences that we've gone through ourselves, our own experience in the class struggle here and from our attempt to build a revolutionary party in Australia. 

It's also essential to understand that these two ``influences'' are never separated. In fact, it's a particular case of the dialectical unity of theory and practice. Incidentally, assessing the balance between these two influences is a useful way of understanding the history of the Communist Party of Australia and the Australian communist movement as well. A talk I gave at our conference here last year on CPA history tried to correctly assess this dynamic. It's something that many historians of CPA history have got wrong. 

In the first period of our history, to be covered in this first talk, there was a particular balance between these two factors. It was a growing up period, where the balance would necessarily be more on us trying to learn from others, to catch up, so to speak, overcome our youth and inexperience by drawing from the experience of others. 

In the second period, to be covered in the second talk, we had developed much more self-confidence, and in that sense we were a mature (or more mature) party, and had a fair bit of experience in the class struggle here under our belt, and were more able to make use of our own experiences. There was a different balance between the two influences. We still gratefully made use of lessons we learned second hand, but we were more discriminating, more discerning. We were much more capable now of thinking things through for ourselves, and confident enough to adopt and defend our own political positions, take responsibility for our own tactical and organisational decisions. 

The turning point, the dividing line so to speak, can be put at around 1979-80. The key developments in these years were: 

• The Nicaraguan Revolution, and how that made us reassess some aspects of our political theory, and break with Trotskyism. 

• The beginning of our definitive break with the US SWP, the major influence on our party throughout the 1970s. 

Of course, this division is partly artificial. It's not a hard and fast division into two periods. But it helps to understand our history. There's an overlap in many developments in the two periods. For example, the first period is characterised as the period of our ``Trotskyism.'' But we haven't dumped all we learned, and gained, from our Trotskyist past. There's lots that we retain and value. And similarly, in the 1970s, when we were thoroughly integrated into the world Trotskyist movement, the Fourth International, there were seeds of our independent development evident then too. 

And obviously our inclination today to characterise the 1960s and '70s as our adolescent period and the 1980s as the period of our political maturing is only done from the viewpoint of the present. No doubt as we learn more, and achieve more, in the next five or 10 years, we will want to characterise the 1980s as still part of our growing up period. 

Part I: The 1960s and 1970s — Our prehistory and Trotskyism

The formation of Resistance

Our movement here in Australia really dates from 1965, although the first real organised expression was with the formation of Resistance in 1967. It wasn't until January 1972 that the DSP (at that time, the Socialist Workers League) was actually formed as a party. So the early history of our movement is very much a history of Resistance. Resistance grew out of the worldwide radicalisation of young people that took place in the 1960s, and the mass struggle against the war in Vietnam, which developed in a big way in Australia from 1965 on. 

We began in Sydney when a number of radicalising students joined the Sydney University Labor Club in 1965 and played an increasingly active role in the campaign against the Vietnam war. The Labor Club was run by sons and daughters of CPA members, although many of us didn't know it at the time. But we were soon being influenced by a couple of Trotskyists who played the leading role in setting up the Vietnam Action Campaign — Bob Gould and Ian MacDougall. In the course of that year a number of us were won to Trotskyist positions. 

At the beginning of 1966 we won control of the Labor Club, and I was elected secretary. We soon recognised the need to go beyond campus politics. An article that year in Left Forum, the club magazine, argued ``The need for an off-campus youth organisation.'' So in 1967 we set up Resistance. In August we found premises for our new organisation, initially called SCREW (``Society for the Cultivation of Rebellion EveryWhere'' was one version of what the initials stood for). And in November that year we changed our name to Resistance, after a fight with some anarchists in the organisation who were quite attached to the initial name. 

Those who recruited us to Trotskyism weren't organised as a group, and it was our pushing right from the start that even got some educational classes going for us and got a little roneoed publication going. 

Gould and MacDougall had been part of a small Trotskyist group that had existed in Australia since the 1930s, but which had split in early 1965 following a split in the Fourth International. The people who recruited us were in a minority in the Australian group, although the current they identified with internationally was the main Trotskyist current. But after the split they didn't continue to function as a group, just activists in the anti-war movement (The other current, led by Nick Origlass, one-time mayor of Balmain and Leichhardt, continued as a tiny group for a number of years.). 

We weren't able to get a party group going until 1969, and didn't succeed with a properly functioning one until 1970, so throughout the 1960s the main vehicle for our activity was our youth organisation, Resistance. We also published six issues of a magazine, Socialist Perspective, as the ``Journal of supporters of the Fourth International in Australia,'' but there was no formal group behind it. 

Those early years in the late 1960s were raw, stumbling times. We were learning from scratch, more or less. We were not part of an international movement, so no assistance came from that direction. We were trying to learn from overseas experiences, trying to adapt these to Australian conditions, because we could clearly see that any local organisations were pretty hopeless, such as the CPA and their moribund youth organisation, the Eureka Youth League. 

There was little continuity with any previous political organisations. What continuity there was, with the remnants of the little Trotskyist group, or the CPA, was flawed to say the least. 

We were young, inexperienced comrades learning our politics the hard way, and learning to become leaders the hard way — out of necessity, through fighting for what we believed (But of course, lessons learned this way are learned well). 

Nevertheless, in those early years we established and won some vital lessons, some fundamental political positions. I suppose you could regard them as the basic pillars of our movement that haven't changed, the features that have distinguished our political theory and practice throughout our party's existence. 

Our fundamental traditions

Firstly, of course, is our basic revolutionary perspective. We have carved out our political space in Australia by defending a revolutionary perspective in opposition to the reformist, class collaborationist outlook of the Labor Party and those in the Communist movement who have been infected by this position. 

Secondly, we have a thorough critique of Stalinism. We have continued to defend a vision of socialism as democratic and anti-bureaucratic. 

Thirdly, we are very much an internationalist party. We don't belong to an international organisation today, but we have always had an international political perspective, and put great store by the solidarity we can offer to revolutionaries around the world, and value the lessons we can learn from them. 

Fourthly, we have always had a mass orientation. That is, we know that a successful socialist transformation of Australian society requires the active participation of the vast majority, of workers, farmers, women, and other oppressed layers, and that our party's role is to participate in all the struggles of the oppressed, learn from them, and help lead them. 

Fifthly, we have always been a serious, dedicated activist party, and we don't just dabble with the important goals that we have set ourselves. We try to give 100 per cent commitment and effort to the task in hand. And we've built a team and an organisation that can think independently and flexibly to carry out these tasks. This flows from our understanding of the party question, our clear recognition of its absolute necessity, its centrality in the struggle for socialism. 

Sixthly, we have always had a central orientation to young people, and we've been successful in relating to and winning new layers of radicalising young people to socialist politics. And we've also been willing to give young revolutionaries real responsibility for leading the struggle. 

These are by no means an exhaustive listing of our continuing tradition, of course, but listing them like this puts the changes and improvements in our political positions in the correct perspective. They are not bad acquisitions and achievements for a fledgling movement. 

Origins of our revolutionary internationalist political positions

How did we develop these positions? Why us? Not every new left grouping gets these things correct so early on in their existence. Some never do. 

Partly it was a question of timing. Our origins were in the movement against the Vietnam war. This issue shook up the political scene fundamentally in countries like Australia. It decisively broke through the political apathy and conservatism imposed by the Cold War atmosphere of the 1950s and early '60s. We identified wholeheartedly with the heroic struggle of the Vietnamese liberation fighters. And this came in the aftermath of the Cuban revolution, and Cuban support for other revolutions in Latin America and the Caribbean. 

In 1967 Che Guevara had relinquished his position in the Cuban government to go abroad to continue the revolutionary struggle, to help the guerilla struggle in another country in Latin America. It turned out to be Bolivia, where he was tragically captured and murdered by the CIA. 

So our heroes were Che Guevara and Ho Chi Minh, and the young revolutionary fighters in Vietnam, in Latin America, in Africa. We carried their portraits in demonstrations, we wore their slogans on badges and T-shirts. 

We pledged our solidarity, and whatever support we could give. And in the case of Vietnam, the support in countries like Australia and the US in staying the hand of imperialism was a tangible factor in the success of their struggle. The demonstrations were enormous, the shift in public opinion that was achieved was immense. 

We were fervently anti-imperialist. And it meant that our internationalism was there from the beginning, and strongly ingrained in all our political thinking and outlook. It meant we began with a revolutionary perspective. 

Revolutionary-internationalist politics certainly chimed in with the mood of many radicalising youth in Australia and in nearly all advanced capitalist countries at that time. 

It was certainly a good period in which to be a revolutionary. 

The youth radicalisation of the 1960s

The radicalisation among young people that occurred in the 1960s was a deepgoing rebellion on cultural, social and political issues. It was an international phenomenon, and any new development in that rebellion spread around the world rapidly. It broke through the last vestiges of the stifling, conservative, Cold War atmosphere of the 1950s. 

The radicalisation expressed itself in a rebellion against parental authority, any authority. It was a reaction to capitalist commercialisation, exploitation, and debasement of every human value. It was an attempt to break out of the dreary conformity imposed by capitalism on the majority, in spite of their promotion of a fake ``individualism'' for the few. It was a rebellion that took many wild forms, took many dead ends such as drugs and dropping out. It was a cultural rebellion, on music, on dress, on style. 

It was a tremendous political development. Initially it was out of the control of the bourgeoisie's shapers and moulders. And the rebellion on cultural or social issues very easily flowed on to rebellion on political issues. Young people were fighting in Vietnam, and in other struggles around the world. Links were made, conclusions were drawn. ``One struggle, One fight,'' was a slogan that expressed this consciousness, and cemented the identification. 

It wasn't just a question of a particular style, crazy clothes, different music, or whatever. It was a political break, a crack in the ideological hegemony of the ruling class. They knew it, and were worried. 

This break appeared first among students and young workers. But the enormous popular mobilisation and semi-revolutionary upsurge in May-June '68 in France showed its potential to spread to the working class as a whole, to mobilise and inspire the working class to engage in struggles that had the potential to threaten capitalist class rule. 

It was an ideological break that the capitalist ideologists have been working overtime ever since to firstly, patch up, rein in, and secondly, ensure that it doesn't get repeated. They've essentially been attempting to reverse the verdicts of history, rewrite history to play it down, focus on the purely stylistic questions, make out that it was just a question of the type of clothes you wore. Many people today have been taken in, unfortunately, only having read the capitalist media's tales. But it's important for us not to underestimate the breadth, the impact, and the importance of this radicalisation. 

The period opened up many important additions to our Marxist understanding too. The new social movements that developed or flourished once again re-emphasised that the class struggle was a lot more complex than the simple economist struggle of workers versus bosses (which was always a Stalinist distortion of the Marxist view of the class struggle). We saw a new rise of the women's movement, the gay movement, a heightened interest in environmental concerns (yes, even way back then), new stirrings by Aborigines and all groups of oppressed people. 

We arose in this milieu, we were part of it, we absorbed it all. 

So our origins in that youth radicalisation has been a big advantage. It meant that time and again we've been able to win new layers of revolutionary minded young people to our movement. We came off the university campuses but our most dramatic successes in Sydney in the late 1960s were in organising among high school students. We set up High School Students Against the War in Vietnam and established contacts in 100 Sydney high schools. We've repeatedly been able to draw new, younger layers of activists into the leadership of the party. 

Our anti-Stalinist perspective

The origins of our anti-Stalinist perspective was perhaps a little more accidental, though not completely so. 

Obviously it was an important fact that the founders of our movement were recruited to serious revolutionary politics by a couple of individuals who had been part of the Trotskyist group in the 1950s and early 1960s, and who continued their political activity and were central to the anti-Vietnam War campaign in Sydney. But it also chimed in with the mood of rebellion, the anti-authoritarianism and support for democratic struggles of the 1960s. 

The Maoists benefited from this in a fake way. They built a big following among radical youth in Melbourne in the late 1960s and early 1970s, on the basis of identification with the radical demagogy of Mao's ``Cultural Revolution.'' It was misconstrued as akin to the youth rebellion taking place in capitalist countries, rather than a phoney mobilisation by Mao to oust his factional opponents in the Chinese bureaucracy. 

In Adelaide and Brisbane in this period it was new left, radical liberal tendencies that first took hold, identifying with the Students for Democratic Society in the USA. These were only temporary currents, with their members fairly soon diverging into either the ALP, one of the existing Marxist parties or groups, becoming an anarchist, or dropping out. 

The fact that the CPA and its youth organisation, the Eureka Youth League, looked stodgy, dull, and conservative also encouraged radicalising young people to develop in an anti-Stalinist direction. If the CPA hadn't been so Stalinist in its outlook and methods, they would have reaped more of the benefits of the youth radicalisation. When those of us who founded Resistance first got involved in politics, it was under the aegis of the CPA, who controlled the Sydney University Labor Club. They had the opportunity to change their ways, their image, and their politics, but didn't make any fundamental adjustments quick enough. Piecemeal adjustments, after 1968 in response to the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, and in the 1970s in response to the growth of many of the new social movements, weren't enough to halt the decline in their fortunes. 

Political developments in the 1960s were conducive to the growth of anti-Stalinist tendencies. The drab Brezhnevite conservatism in the Soviet Union contrasted with the revolutionaries in Vietnam who were completing the liberation of their country, and the inspiring Cuban revolutionaries who had recently made the breakthrough of the first socialist revolution in the Western hemisphere. And in 1968 the crushing of the Prague Spring by Stalin's heirs in Moscow made the choices abundantly clear to any radicalising young people. 

A key acquisition for us was our critique of Stalinism combined with a position of defense of the Soviet Union against imperialism. It made it possible to link up with the radicalising youth on the streets demonstrating against the Vietnam War, who were opposed to authoritarianism, but solidarised with the revolutionaries of the National Liberation Front of Vietnam. 

Our mass orientation

The mass orientation that we began with and have maintained throughout our existence was another result of our involvement and origin in the anti-Vietnam war campaign. We've been consistent proponents of tactics that involve the maximum number of people in political action, encouraging actions that help people take democratic control over their own lives and environment, activities that teach them to wrest power away from the minority ruling class. 

Our support for this approach was also helped by our orientation towards the Fourth International, both the US SWP, and the European sections. Even though in the 1960s we hadn't yet established any real contact with the Fourth International, even though we weren't integrated in the Trotskyist movement, we did get their publications and were aware of what they were doing. In both the USA and Europe, the Fourth International groups played a leading role in the campaign against the Vietnam War and pushed an orientation of building mass mobilisations. We were lucky in the particular group that we oriented to. Other groups emerged, and linked up with other international groupings, and were saddled with their peculiar sectarian or opportunist orientations. 

The experiences we looked to from abroad were reinforced by our own experiences in the campaign in Australia. We had a permanent battle with the Communist Party of Australia within the anti-war movement over the course to be followed. The role of the ALP and their hangers on was mostly to try and get the masses off the streets and derail the movement into a lobbying or ``put us into parliament'' orientation. The CP often followed behind this line, with an occasional ultraleft stunt to demonstrate their ``Marxist'' credentials. In Sydney in 1968 and 1969 they succeeded in stalling the calling of mass demonstrations until we went it alone in December 1969 and held a big action without them. 

In late 1969, the CPA leaders attempted to exclude us from the establishment of the Vietnam Moratorium Campaign in Sydney. They also attempted to give it a structure which they could bureaucratically control by making participation in the organising committee open only to representatives of affiliated organisations. However, we were able to convince the majority who attended the founding meeting of the VMC to reject the CPA's proposals. Instead the VMC was established as a non-exclusionary coalition functioning through open meetings of grassroots antiwar activists, and one of our leaders, Jim Percy, was elected to the VMC's initial five-member secretariat. 

In 1970-71 the VMC built the largest antiwar actions ever seen in this country up to that time, through a series of nationally coordinated street marches in all the major state capitals. The largest of these was on September 18, 1970 when about 75,000 people marched against the Vietnam War in Melbourne and 20,000 marched in Sydney (For a more detiled history of the antiwar movement and our role in it see ``The movement against against the Vietnam War — its lessons for today,'' by Doug Lorimer, published in the pamphlet War in the Gulf: A Socialist View [Sydney, 1991].) 

Within the Vietnam antiwar movement we had to wage a continuous political battle to keep the movement focussed on independent mass mobilisations. This involved not only a fight against the ALP and CPA attempts to subordinate the movement to the ALP's electoral interests. We also had to fight against the ultraleftists, principally the Maoists in Melbourne and Adelaide, who claimed that building peaceful mass demonstrations (what they contemptuously called ``peace crawls'') were a less effective means of stopping the war than ``militant actions'' by a radical minority and that such minority actions were the best means of radicalising people. 

The Maoists thought that the way to radicalise people was to shout radical-sounding slogans (like ``Smash US imperialism!'') and to attempt to provoke deliberate physical confrontations with the cops. 

Unlike the ultralefts, we recognised that mass actions were not only the most effective means of forcing the government to withdraw its troops from Vietnam, but also the most effective way to radicalise people. We recognised that such mass actions would deeply affect not only those directly involved in them, but broader layers of the population. 

By mobilising large numbers of people in action against the policies of the government, masses of people, through their own experience would draw the conclusion that the government did not represent their interests, that radical political change would be necessary to win their demands, and that through collective action they could effect that change. 

We also understood that the demand for immediate withdrawal of the imperialist troops from Vietnam was not only the most effective demand around which to build the mass antiwar movement, but also the most radical demand. This demand, which was later compressed into two words — ``Out Now!'' — clearly placed the blame for the war where it belonged — on the imperialist powers that were invading Vietnam — and gave expression to the right of the Vietnamese people to decide their own affairs without foreign interference. It was the most concrete way of expressing the opposition of broad masses of people to the war and their desire to see it ended, and at the same time its thrust was in defence of the Vietnamese revolution. If the imperialists were forced to meet this demand, their attempts to dominate Vietnam would be defeated and the central obstacle to the victory of the Vietnamese revolution, the occupation of southern Vietnam by hundreds of thousands of imperialist troops, would be removed. 

Moreover, ``Out Now!'' was a far more radicalising demand than abstract, radical-sounding slogans like ``Smash US imperialism!'' precisely because it was capable of bringing masses of people into action against US and Australian imperialism. 

Our approach was proven correct in practice. The biggest factor causing the broad youth radicalisation that developed in the late 1960s and early '70s was the combination of growing public opposition to the war — in the last analysis, a result of the mass resistance to US and Australian aggression by the Vietnamese people — and the cumulative experience of protest actions against that war. By contrast, if the antiwar movement had followed the ultraleftists' proposals it would have remained tiny and isolated from the mass of Australian working people and far, far less people would have been radicalised. 

These objectively anti-imperialist mass mobilisations played a crucial role in politically radicalising broad layers of students and young workers. Combined with similar mass antiwar actions in the United States and the mass resistance by the Vietnamese workers and peasants to the imperialist aggression they galvanised and deepened popular opposition to the war in Vietnam. In the US this opposition became so widespread that it penetrated the ranks of the US army, undermining its combat effectiveness. As Col. Robert Heinl, a US marine corp historian, noted in the June 7, 1971 Armed Forces Journal

The morale, discipline and battle-worthiness of the US Armed Forces are, with a few exceptions, lower and worse than at any time in this century and possibly the history of the United States. 

By every conceivable indicator, our Army that now remains in Vietnam is in a state approaching collapse, with individual units avoiding or having refused combat, murdering their officers and non-commissioned officers, drug-ridden, and dispirited where not near mutinous. 

Elsewhere than Vietnam the situation is nearly as serious... 

All the foregoing facts ... point to widespread conditions among American Forces in Vietnam that have only been exceeded in this century by ... the collapse of the Tsarist armies in 1916 and 1917.'' (Quoted in Out Now! A Participants Account of the American Movement Against the Vietnam War, by Fred Halstead [New York, 1978] p. 637)

The mass movement against the war in Vietnam was central to bringing about a turn in the whole political situation in Australia. It discredited the deep-seated anti-communist attitudes which had predominated since the beginning of the Cold War in the late 1940s. The mass antiwar movement popularised the legitimacy of street demonstrations as a means of popular protest against government policies — that is, it popularised the idea that in defending their interests the oppressed should rely on their own collective action, rather on bourgeois politicians — and paved the way for militant actions on an ever-widening range of issues. 

Through our active participation in the movement we were able to expand from a tiny group based in one city into the largest socialist youth organisation in the country. Through our involvement in the antiwar movement we began to change the relationship of forces within the radical left between the reformist and revolutionary currents in favor of the latter. 

Development of our party-building orientation

A continuing feature of our party that friend and foe alike concede is our fierce commitment to our ``party-building orientation.'' Many lessons and experiences are implied by this phrase, but there are two key aspects that stand out. 

Firstly, there's the seriousness, the commitment and dedication that has been a feature of the party. Secondly, there's the understanding of the necessity of the party itself in making a revolution. 

How was it that we developed our committed, serious orientation, and our understanding of the party question? 

Once again, our commitment was partly a result of how and when we arose, and who we looked to, who inspired us. We took our cue from revolutionaries laying down their lives to liberate their country from US imperialism. The heroic feats of the Vietnamese people in defeating the military might of the US inspired us to take our duty of solidarity seriously and to take our task of building a socialist movement in our own country seriously. A famous slogan that we used in our magazine and on a poster to make the point to those on the left here who argued for slowing down our activity was printed above a line of Vietnamese freedom fighters. It said ``Tired of marching? What if they were?'' 

So our serious attitude to the task in hand came easily, naturally, in that political atmosphere, and we haven't lessened up, because the struggle on a world scale is no less intense. And in any case, if you called yourself a socialist, a revolutionary, you only had to sit back and reflect for a minute to realise that you had to take the struggle seriously. The bourgeoisie certainly did. As an aside, we were able to compare our seriousness with that of a few of our contemporaries who called themselves revolutionaries but were obviously only dallying temporarily with a pose. 

But our understanding and firmness on the party question as a whole, the centrality of the role of the party and how it should function, was something that we had to fight for, learn ourselves, from our formation throughout the second half of the 1960s, to a culminating struggle from mid-1969 to mid-1970. 

We developed our party-building orientation through a major internal struggle in Resistance. It was a year-long struggle, but it was this question that provides the key to understanding the previous years as well, because it was a conflict occurring in more diffuse form. It was a fight fought over some very basic questions, seemingly obvious today. But they are vital issues. The fierceness of this fight meant we learned some of these party-building lessons well. They are ingrained in our history, our experience. We built on these experiences later as well. 

We learned to lead. We learned to forge a team in struggle for our ideas. 

That fight in Resistance was over three basic principles, which may seem simple and obvious to us today, but were hard fought for then: 

1. The politics and program of the organisation should be the property of all, that is, it should be democratically decided on by the whole membership. 

2. You needed to elect a leadership, not rely on individuals with the loudest voice, stars, or a self-appointed leading clique. 

3. You have to take the question of organisation itself and the finances for that organisation very seriously. 

These weren't small gains, if you think about it, especially if you compare our practice with that of other organisations, even today. 

The lessons that we borrowed from the history of the US SWP, especially the writings of James P. Cannon, for example, his book The Struggle for a Proletarian Party, helped us a lot in these struggles. But the main thing was that we were fighting for ourselves, learning some of those old lessons anew, going through our own experiences. 

Formation of a party group

From this political fight in 1969-70 we can really date our party history, as opposed to the history of our current of thought. 

I mentioned that those of us who considered ourselves ``supporters of the Fourth International'' published the magazine Socialist Perspective every now and then, but we had no functioning group, let alone a party. But some of us were pushing for a properly functioning group to be established from an early stage, meeting active or passive resistance from those who had been in the old Trotskyist group. 

In early 1969 we got agreement to start a group, but this effort didn't get very far, we couldn't even get to the stage of a name, it was just called Group X! 

Our next effort came in May 1969, when about 30 of the key activists in Resistance and the Vietnam Action Campaign established the International Marxist League. But the different perspectives in the group over the future development of Resistance and the nature of the party group surfaced almost from the start. 

In mid-1969 a serious conflict developed between Jim Percy, myself, and others versus Bob Gould and his supporters. The issues were those outlined above, basic issues of democratic functioning for Resistance, and whether to be serious about building a party, although at the beginning of this intense struggle we had no real inkling of where it would lead to. Undoubtedly there were personality issues involved as well, although this was part of the central political point, whether to allow individuals to continue functioning without democratic control. 

At this time we had our first real contact with the Fourth International. In about July or August, Barry Sheppard, at the time a leader of the US SWP, returned to the US from Europe after the 1969 World Congress of the Fourth International via Asia and Australia. He'd been working in the Fourth International centre in Europe, and they had no idea of what existed here — we didn't write letters! We met him at the airport and both sides started lobbying him right away. We wanted help, how to build a party, what to do? He remained neutral. But he was quite impressed with what we'd gathered together, a strong youth movement, impressive headquarters and bookshop. 

Then in December 1969 the US SWP's youth organisation, the Young Socialist Alliance, invited us to send someone to their convention in Minneapolis. I was selected to go. It was our first experience overseas, and very useful. It certainly firmed up our identification with the US SWP within the Fourth International, which was already quite strong because of the work they were doing in the campaign against the Vietnam War. 

Back in Australia in 1970, the fight escalated. We were accused of trying to make carbon copies of the US SWP and YSA, of trying to turn Resistance into a ``proto-party,'' of being ``too Bolshevik.'' But we pushed ahead with our proposed reforms for Resistance. It was quite a torrid struggle. A key Resistance meeting on February 15 lasted more than seven hours. During the following week there were nightly organising and faction meetings, and the following weekend our perspectives won a decisive majority. 

In the IML, Gould managed an accidental 17-15 majority at its February meeting, and suspended its operation ``for a few months.'' Resistance was of course the organisation that had some reality. It carried out the activity, issued publications, ran the headquarters. The IML was more a grouping of the factions, the main activists in Resistance. It didn't meet again. So we had a situation of cold split until the middle of 1970. Our faction won control of Resistance, Gould emerged retaining control of the Third World bookshop. 

During the course of this struggle we linked up with some of the others from the old Trotskyist group who supported the Fourth International. They had started up a publishing and printing business, initially with political aims, but it's now one of the largest Australian book publishers — Southwood Press. Together with them we published the first issue of a new magazine, Socialist Review, in May 1970, and we began functioning as the Socialist Review Group, the direct precursor of the Socialist Workers League. 

At the end of August 1970 we held the first national conference of Resistance at the University of NSW, attended by 45 comrades, with delegates from Sydney, Canberra, and Adelaide, where we had expanded to in the course of 1970. We adopted a range of documents and reports which codified the political victories we had won in the course of the previous year. We had a functioning national organisation at last, which we renamed the Socialist Youth Alliance, and Jim Percy was elected its first national secretary. We also launched our newspaper Direct Action, borrowing the name of the Industrial Workers of the World's paper during World War I. The first issue appeared in September 1970, as a monthly 12-page newspaper, published by the SYA. 

Founding of the Socialist Workers League, and our affiliation to the Fourth International

We sent some comrades to Melbourne straight after the first issue of DA was published, and had an SYA branch and a Socialist Review Group branch established before the end of the year. We grew rapidly. 

SYA was still the main organisation, publishing DA, our public face, and the organisation new people first joined. But our party group was developing, and during the course of 1971 we consolidated, prepared documents and organised discussions leading to the founding conference of the Socialist Workers League in January 1972 in Sydney. 

One hundred people attended. The SWL conference adopted a program, constitution, documents on other political issues, and we applied to become a section of the Fourth International. Direct Action became a joint paper of SYA and the SWL. 

At the conclusion of the founding conference we fused with members of the Labor Action Group, a group of supporters of the Fourth International in Brisbane whose main leader was John MacCarthy, who had joined the Fourth International section in Britain, the International Marxist Group. 

But almost immediately, in February, a group of 11 comrades around Roger Barnes and the others from the old Fourth International group, the ones with the printshop, resigned from the party, following a dispute over a question of discipline. They had presented counter positions and documents leading up to the founding conference. They wanted a looser group, a less active type of group, not a democratic-centralist party. They also advocated a less critical approach to the ALP and preferred to submerge themselves in it. 

Building on the lessons we'd learned and the political positions we'd developed in the first years of our existence in the 1960s, there were a number of other lessons that we learned and tested out in the early years of the 1970s. 

Firstly, we broadened our horizons and our international contact as a result of linking up with the Fourth International. We travelled overseas more, to conferences and events of other parties and to congresses and executive committee meetings of the Fourth International. We organised speaking tours here for overseas comrades, and frequently had international guests at Resistance and party conferences. 

But we also learned that this stepped up international contact was a two-edged sword, because the international organisation we joined was rent by fierce factional struggles. At times it was a factional jungle. 

Those of us who founded the SWL generally sided with the US SWP in the internal debates in the Fourth International, and were part of the Leninist Trotskyist Faction (LTF). The Brisbane group generally sided with the majority in the Fourth International, including most of the European Fourth International leaders, who were organised as the International Majority Tendency (IMT). The lines of division were still a hangover from the 1950s when the Fourth International was split into two public factions, and even after the reunification in 1963 some of the different alignments and orientations still persisted. These differences came to the surface at the 1969 Fourth International Congress. The fiercest question in dispute was over revolutionary strategy and tactics in Latin America, specifically over what attitude to take to guerrilla warfare. Other questions included the Chinese ``Cultural Revolution'' and party-building tactics in Europe. Many other issues became the bases of fierce political dispute during the 1970s — the revolution in Portugal; Indochina; Iran; Angola; methods of party organisation; the Cuban revolution; the Nicaraguan revolution. In fact, nearly every major political development got tossed into the faction fight. 

Most of our party leadership soon learned that there was also an organisational consequence of being part of an international organisation that was involved in an internal factional struggle. Because we oriented towards one side (and it was not really possible to be agnostic) we were the target of interference by the other. 

In August 1972 there was a serious split in the party as a direct consequence of the factional situation in the Fourth International. Following the fusion with the Brisbane group, sharp differences had developed, mainly over questions of strategy and tactics in the Australian situation — what tactics to pursue in the mass movement, and what attitude to take to the ALP. But it was also influenced by the dispute in the Fourth International on the whole range of international questions, the line-up was the same. And rather than debating the differences out, as we proposed for the second half of 1972 leading to our second party conference in January 1973, at the instigation of some leaders of the Fourth International the supporters of the majority faction in the Fourth International walked out of our party. As a result, about a third of our membership split away to form the Communist League, and the split was not completely healed until 1978. 

A second lesson we learned about internationalism in those years was in regard to what an international organisation should be like, how it should function. And we learned well the converse, how a party should function in relation to an international organisation. We learned that we had to be an independent party, to think and act for ourselves. 

When we first began we attached ourselves to the party-building tradition of James P. Cannon, since there was no comparable Leninist tradition here. And part of that tradition we didn't properly understand until later. 

Firstly, there were the lessons about building an independent team leadership that could think things out, and lead, in its own country. We asked for help, advice, wanted to be told what to do. Secondly, the other side of this question, we got advice, interference, even instructions, when we didn't want it from the Fourth International. 

We started to understand this in the 1970s, and in 1975 Jim Percy delivered a world movement report to our Third National Conference that drummed this in, the need for an independent party. But we didn't fully escape from what we termed ``Cominternist'' methods until we broke with the US SWP and left the Fourth International in the 1980s. 

Party building experiences in the 1970s

In the course of the 1970s there were a number of other party-building lessons that we tested first hand, and compared with the experiences of the US SWP in particular. 

Firstly, early on we established that we're an inclusive party, a party that has a broad leadership team. We're always trying to absorb new leaders and expand the base of that team. This has always been our approach even in the early days of Resistance. 

We tried to build Resistance with activists from all sorts of backgrounds. We tried to link up with the comrades from the old Fourth International group, to pull them in, to include them even though they had some different ideas and traditions. We linked up with the group that became the Communist League in 1972, and five years after the split successfully fused with them, against the trend in the rest of the Fourth International. 

We broadened out our leadership team as new activists joined in new cities, and from different movements. We built a non-exclusive team. And we've made substantial progress in the development of women leaders, more real progress than any other organisation in Australia. 

We also built an organisation that doesn't base itself on carreerism, that doesn't have the idea of ``promotion'' after so many years of service. It's not a question of working your way to the top positions and then that's where you are, unmovable. Leaders in our party are those who lead, and anyone wishing to demonstrate leadership capabilities will never find an opportunity lacking. We select our leaders purely on merit, on their demonstrated capacity to lead our disciplined party team. This flows from what Cannon called a proletarian attitude to the party — not thinking what the party can do for you (which is the outlook of middle-class careerists), but what you can do for the party. And gaining satisfaction from the achievements of our collective efforts. 

A second area where we gained much experience and clear understanding in the 1970s was in relation to party functioning, how a democratic-centralist party should and should not function, what are the wrong ways of doing things, the destructive role played by permanent factions and cliques. Such methods of functioning, based on the view that one has permanent friends and enemies, was the opposite of the inclusive team leadership we were trying to construct, and we had a number of negative experiences and examples to guide us in this period too. 

The old Trotskyist group never understood the questions of party-building as we learned them in the 1970s from Lenin via Cannon. They never had an organisation of professional revolutionaries, i.e., an organisation made up of people who whether they worked full-time for the party or not, were dedicated to building that organisation. They treated the question of party-building as a hobby, an avocation. 

Nor did they have a collectivist approach to party-building. They never had a team leadership. Essentially they had a star system, with a small clique around the unelected ``star'' leader. Many talented individuals joined the group in the 1940s, '50s and '60s, but they tended to emulate that idea of what a leader should be like. 

So the individuals coming out of the old group who recruited us, and the others that we tried to link up with, all suffered from this lack of understanding of the need to build a team leadership, and downplayed the indispensable role of a Leninist party in the socialist revolution. 

The initial leadership of Resistance was an unelected clique of three — Gould and the Percy brothers. We were Gould's lieutenants. When we broke with Gould on political questions in 1969-1970, we broke definitively with those clique and star methods of ``leadership.'' 

Ian MacDougall also parted company with us in 1972 expressing a strange view of how a party should function. He opposed what he described as our pyramidal-type structure and proposed instead a structure of intersecting circles. What it was was a perfect description of a party built of a series of interlocking cliques. 

And the group around Southwood Press was a good example of a clique — a group based on personal affinities, on ``chuminess,'' rather than fundamental political agreement. Although they left on the basis of a range of political differences, what kept them together was their personal ties. 

Faced with some prime examples of clique politics in our own early history, we naturally looked closely at the experience of the US SWP for an analysis of this phenomenon. The classic case was the Abern clique in the 1930s, described in Cannon's History of American Trotskyism and Struggle for a Proletarian Party

Characteristic of cliques is that they are held together by ties of personal friendship, not politics. They put themselves, their friends and ``chums'' first, above the interests of the party as a whole. They rely on gossip, the inside dope, their own channels of information, rather than the structures and procedures of the party. Without principled politics, they are liable to seize on any issue as long as it can be used against the party leadership. They thus are perfect conduits into the party of bourgeois pressures and ideas. 

Combining our own experience of cliques with what we could learn from Cannon and others, we were clear about these questions early on. A key guide for us was to put the interests of the party first, and always think and act politically. We attempted to overcome any personal, subjective considerations, not looking at one's role or place in the party but thinking about what you can do for the party. This included the responsibility for raising any political suggestions and criticisms of the party's course before the whole party, so that the party can work out its ideas and activities collectively, correct any errors and implement good ideas. Cliques, secret factions, and permanent factions are anathema to a Leninist party, because they impair its ability to think and cripple its ability to act. 

The party-building lessons we learned and tested in the 1970s prepared us for the big steps we had to take in the 1980s. They ensured the unity of the party as we broke with the US SWP and the Fourth International and flexibly carried through our tactics of socialist renewal and regroupment; they allowed us to think through collectively the many political changes we had to make, and they guaranteed that we grew, and renewed the party ranks and leadership with new young activists, while other groups declined. 

Our political development in the 1970s

Although I think our biggest acquisition in the 1970s was our understanding of the party question, there were obviously many other political and theoretical areas where we made big advances also, and prepared the political rethinking process that we went through in the 1980s. 

We became a lot more serious about Marxist theory as a whole after our youthful, unbalanced activism of the 1960s. As we grew and became better organised and more experienced, we were able to implement better educational programs in the party and Resistance — classes, study guides, forums, educational conferences. Having joined the Fourth International, some of our educational work was misdirected of course, from the point of view of our current positions. We paid some attention to the classics, but were lopsided towards Trotsky's writings. But overall our educational work improved immensely. And the debate in the Fourth International, though factional, and often misguided, provided us with useful training as well — it undoubtedly taught us the necessity of getting to the heart of a political difference, to seek clarity in any dispute, but it also forced us to read and study in order to defend our positions. 

We also learned many political lessons from our local experiences in the class struggle. 

An understanding of the nature of the Labor Party and what approach to take towards it is essential for socialists in Australia, and we didn't get this right until the 1980s. But a number of experiences and discussions in the 70s did help us along a bit. 

We began with a terrible heritage. The old Trotskyist group had a policy of deep entry into the ALP, burying themselves in it with barely a public face for the group. And they viewed the ALP as the working-class party. All of the individuals who emerged from the old section came with this policy, and none of those we were associated with ever overcame it. 

We began with a similar orientation. But in the 1960s so much was happening outside the ALP that we tended to let our ALP membership lapse. 

When we parted company with Roger Barnes's group in 1972, their main political difference with us was that they wanted to bury themselves in the ALP. With the Communist League, the difference was in the other direction. They opposed the decision of the June 1972 SWL National Committee meeting to give critical support to the ALP in the forthcoming federal election. 

In December 1972 the Whitlam Labor government was elected, with many promises, including ending conscription and withdrawing Australian troops from Vietnam. Big election rallies testified to the depth of support for Labor among workers and others after decades of conservative rule. 

We had a dual policy of promoting a vigorous public profile for the SWL and Resistance, and working inside the ALP as well. In some places we were quite successful with this work. In Victoria we came close to winning control of the Young Labor Association, and the ALP leadership reacted by expelling 34 of us and our supporters in February 1974, but after a vigorous campaign they were forced to reinstate us (much to the disappointment of some comrades!). 

We also learnt from our varied experiences in the broad social movements in the 1970s — the women's liberation movement, the anti-uranium mining movement, the gay liberation movement, and our continuing international solidarity work, with Vietnam, Chile, Palestine, etc. 

These experiences were reflected in resolutions adopted by our party conferences in the late 1970s — for example, the resolution on ``The socialist revolution in the Arab East'' (adopted in January 1977); the resolution on ``A revolutionary strategy for gay liberation'' (adopted in January 1979); and the Fourth International's 1979 resolution on ``The Socialist Revolution and the Struggle for Women's Liberation'' (which we played a part in drafting, and which we published under the title Women and Socialism), 

A period of consolidation, from SWL to SWP

When the Whitlam government was thrown out of office at the end of 1975 by the Fraser-Kerr coup, it concluded a three-year experiment in which the claims of Laborism were fairly thoroughly exposed. The ALP's role as a party of capitalism had been clearly established, though their credentials as a party in some way threatening the status quo got a bit of a boost by the coup. Similarly, the leadership of the unions and the ACTU established that they were responsible too, endorsing the principle of wage restraint and reduction at successive ACTU congresses. 

We stood nine Senate candidates in the December 1975 elections to raise our public profile and ideas. This was the first time we'd fielded candidates in a parliamentary election. And at our Fourth National Conference in January 1976 we changed our name to the Socialist Workers Party, reflecting our growth and increasing intervention in the political process. 

The second half of the 1970s was very much a period of consolidation for our party. We were still following the political developments in the Fourth International, perhaps even more closely, but it was increasingly the case of what we learned and established ourselves, preparing for the 1980s development. 

We had become a much stronger party. We established DA as a regular weekly paper from the beginning of 1976. The SWP had grown, and the Communist League had also grown. We extended ourselves geographically, setting up branches in Perth, Wollongong, Newcastle, Canberra, and Hobart in addition to our original branches in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane. 

We carried out two fusions with the Communist League. The first, in 1976-77, was with a group around John McCarthy that split from the CL to join the SWP. The second, in 1977-78, was with CL as a whole. This was an achievement for us, because it was against the tide in the rest of the Fourth International, where splits weren't healed. It showed our independence, our ability to overcome the factionalism in the Fourth International, and demonstrated once again our intention of building a non-exclusive team leadership. 

In 1978, following the initiative of the US SWP, we took the decision to make a major push to get the majority of our membership jobs as industrial workers. The balance sheet of this experience will be dealt with in the next talk, but we threw ourselves into the ``turn to industry'' and carried it out thoroughly. We gained valuable experience in trade union work, carried out some excellent campaigns such as the Jobs for Women campaign in Wollongong, which is still in the process of having victories. 

Testing the Trotskyist perspective to the full

In the 1970s we tested out the Trotskyist perspective to the fullest. As in everything we did, we went at it enthusiastically and wholeheartedly. For the first time in the history of the Trotskyist movement in Australia, we were actually integrated in the Fourth International. Both the SWL and the CL had been recognised as sympathising organisations, and when we carried out the fusion we automatically became the official section of the Fourth International in Australia. 

We participated in all the debates in the Fourth International, embraced the ideas of Trotskyism, and the Fourth International, but we were also partly responsible for developing them. We were one of the more successful groups in the Fourth International, and one of the more independent thinking, which is why we passed the test in the 1980s when the period of renewal and rethinking came, and we were able to take the overwhelming majority of our party with us. 

In 1974-75 I was working on the Fourth International's English-language magazine Intercontinental Press, published by the US SWP from New York, and Col Maynard was there after me. In 1979 Jim Percy and Nita Keig worked full-time in the Fourth International centre in Paris. Doug Lorimer replaced them in 1979-80. 

Even back in the mid-70s, from that experience in New York, we started to realise the limits of collaboration with the US SWP. We took a further step in understanding why we needed to build an independent party. We were lieutenants of the US SWP, but they didn't trust us or treat us as equals. And this realisation was thoroughly reinforced by our experiences working with their leaders in Paris. 

Lessons from the 1970s

The real significance of the 1970s was that we built our own leadership and our own political organisation. We did many things better than our mentors — our youth work, and our newspaper, for example. Our experience in the Fourth International taught us the importance of building leaderships and parties that could stand on their own. 

In conclusion, I'd just like to recap the political lessons and experiences of the '70s that laid the foundations for our development in the 1980s. 

We had made steps towards a better understanding of the ALP. We had gained a lot more experience in trade union and industrial work and experience in many areas of the mass movement. We had begun our election campaigns, helping towards an understanding of correct electoral tactics. And above all, we had learned and understood well the need for a Leninist revolutionary party. 

Jim Percy gave a report in September 1980 to our National Committee where we launched our project for our own fulltime party school. The report was published in Socialist Worker in December 1982 under the title ``Four Features of Our Revolutionary Party.'' It served partly as a summing up of our party-building experiences of the 1970s. The four features he described were: 

1. We were an inclusive party, based on a team leadership. 

2. We were an independent party. 

3. We were a Leninist party based on democratic centralism. 

4. We were an ambitious party. 

That sums it up well. We became Trotskyists in the 1970s, participated in the Fourth International enthusiastically, thoroughly. But we grew from it as we went through the experience. It wasn't an accidental, unconnected development, but laid the basis for our development in the 1980s, which is the topic of the next talk. 

categories [ ] Array