This document is not going to try to go over the history of the Australian IS and ISO (or the loosely IST groups, Socialist Action and Socialist Alternative that began as splits from the IS and ISO respectively) in any detail. Tom O’Lincoln has produced a useful short history, “Marching down Marx Street” (available here). What I want to do is give an outline of the origins and development of what is now called the propaganda perspective.
The propaganda perspective has been the focus of considerable debate in the Australian IST groups since the late 80s and early 90s. The propaganda perspective that the International Socialists (IS) adopted in the 80s led the group to serious sectarian mistakes. The attempt since then to come to grips with those mistakes and find an appropriate perspective for a propaganda group has been fraught, although instructive if we can discuss the experience through and learn the lessons.
It is impossible to understand the intensity that tends to surround discussions about THE propaganda perspective without understanding the central role that discussion (and implementation) of the propaganda perspective has had in the history of the IST groups.
The group called the International Socialists was founded in 1975 in Melbourne. Then Sydney was colonized in 1976. There were two or three members in Brisbane by late 1976, and a branch by 1977 which grew substantially from involvement in the struggle against the Bjelke-Petersen government for the right to march that began in September that year.
We took the understanding that ideas change in struggle rather literally, and although we sometimes mistook militancy for struggle, the early years of the group was characterised by participation in anything that moved and a series of mostly single issue campaign groups that gave us the opportunity to actively work alongside people in common struggle around those demands — an adaptation of our understanding of the united front; i.e. winning people to socialist ideas in the course of struggle for the demands of the action groups. (In fact “doing things as the IS” was a controversial “innovation” introduced as activism ebbed with the beginning of the downturn in the early 80s and we began to see a separation between building the group and building struggles.)
The head of Queensland’s political police, the Special Branch, paid us a compliment on his retirement, saying that if there were two cats fighting in Queen Street, the International Socialists would be there. We set up/participated in committees for every conceivable thing — Labor Voters for Georges to fight federal intervention in the Queensland ALP in 1979, Women’s Abortion Campaign and Trade Unionists for Abortion as a specific committee to fight for abortion rights, Troops Out of Ireland Committee, Zoonoses Action Committee to campaign around compensation for particular diseases in the meat industry, to name a few.
The group had established itself on the left and had grown through interventions in industrial struggles (the 1977 La Trobe Valley strike, teachers and insurance workers in Victoria, meatworkers in Queensland) and involvement in campaigns (anti-Newport power station, anti-uranium, anti-freeway action in Melbourne and the fight for the right to march in Queensland).
By the late 1970s we were publishing a paper called The Battler and operated on the basis of what we called the rank and file strategy. We saw our audience among the layer of militant shop stewards that clearly existed across many unions and organised workplaces. Although in reality we recruited activists to our arguments about the working class rather than recruiting the industrial militants themselves (although there were important exceptions) — there was nonetheless, a real strength in the strategy. Given our minority status, our theoretical stance on state capitalism, the Labor Party and trade union bureaucracy was most often articulated as critiques of the more significant groups on the left, the Communist Party and the Socialist Workers Party (now the DSP).
The Battler had considerable industrial coverage, and an agitational in-your-face style that gained it a certain respect and a significant readership among industrial militants (including some who bought it for the hard-hitting puns like “Meatworkers give bosses the chop”). Maintaining the level of the industrial coverage meant we chased anything that moved industrially — attending picket lines, mass meetings, talking to delegates, writing the stories (in collaboration with delegates and worker contacts if we could), selling the paper to those involved with the stories and getting those involved to sell or distribute the paper on the job. Workplace sales and strike support work were part of the staple diet of political activity of the International Socialists (the IS, as we were then).
We considered our audience to be in the campaigns and committees in which we were active. That is we sought to recruit people in the course of working in the campaigns. We sold the paper to colleagues and workmates, people we were working alongside in committees (which also meant the coverage of campaigns had a particular quality), and at factory gates. Stalls at universities and street stalls/sales were practically unknown.
Our meetings were essentially business meetings where all the activities of the branch were discussed. The meetings could have ten (sometimes more) items that would include reports from all fractions (there was a fraction around almost every union member to discuss activity in the union, for example) and areas of our work. Educational meetings and public meetings were also unknown. Educational meetings were also a controversial initiative introduced as monthly events in the early 80s.
But the external situation began to change. In Queensland the right to march struggle came to an end (in 1979) as did the struggle for abortion rights which followed hard on its heels. The campaign groups that had also been a staple of the IS political work began to shrink. Troops Out of Ireland meetings, for example, which had attracted tens, and scores of people now shrank to a handful of lefties. Industrial activity also declined as the recession of the early 80s started to bite. The do-it-yourself reformism that characterised the high level of union action and underpinned the consciousness of the shop stewards we related to, began to erode very quickly. Although we lived on the industrial contacts made in those early periods for many years and in some instances still do. It was the beginning of the downturn, a period in general characterised by defensive struggles, a decline in strike levels and industrial militancy and consequently the level and quality of social movements.
In 1982, a few of us authored a document called “Waiting for the Breaks,” which was the first articulated attempt to come to grips with the changing period. “Chasing the breaks,” as we called our earlier strategy of actively seeking strikes and campaigns, was all very well, but that the breaks were getting fewer and fewer. Waiting for the Breaks argued, “The IS needs to adopt some areas of routine external work to build the organisation in periods between struggles.” We thought that we should find some on-going campaign work that would provide some steady involvement while we waited for more substantial struggles to come along.
At first we saw “waiting for the breaks” as a very temporary retreat, but it was clear to some of us that we couldn’t continue to work in the same way. It required a major shift in the way the group had worked and built.
So while we were aware that the political left was in retreat, and that strikes were more frequently defeated and their political level lower, nevertheless the advent [of] the “downturn” in Australia in 1982-83 represented a very significant break in the pattern of our existence, an experience qualitatively different to those which had shaped us.
One indication of the seriousness of the situation came in 1981 when Brisbane branch was rocked by a faction fight that saw many members connected with campaigns and industry leave the group.
It was also at this time that the organizational politics of the leader of the orthodox Trotskyist US SWP, James P Cannon, began to influence the internal politics of the group. One of the features of Cannon was that internal dissidents/oppositions were regarded as representations of hostile class forces that had to be dealt with ruthlessly. It contributed to creating an internal hothouse atmosphere, elevated discussions over perspectives into major issues of principle. It helped to erode the culture of patient discussion and tolerance of divergent opinion that had been a feature of the earlier years of the group and remains a necessary feature of any healthy revolutionary group.
Identifying internal critics as “class enemies” emerged more explicitly, among the majority, at the time of the next major internal upheaval in the group — the Interventionist Faction in 1984 that became Socialist Action in 1985. As before, it contributed to an already overheated internal discussion and gave theoretical rigour to an internal regime intolerant of debate.
What we now know as the propaganda perspective develops from this point initially in response to the low level of industrial struggle and the decline in the social movements. But it develops its own logic and self-fulfilling propositions as the negative features of the downturn were increasingly exaggerated.
While the IS had always been a propaganda group (our size dictated that as we began to understand), the term was not in our vocabulary. From this point on it was to have a particular significance. Chris Harman in “The Crisis of the European Left” (International Socialism 4, 1979) writes, “A downturn in the level of generalised class struggle does not mean that all struggles die away”, but we developed such an overwhelming and monolithic analysis of the downturn that struggles were written off as incapable of providing recruits. Writing about relating to the movements, Harman also writes, “…just as there is a danger of drowning when you go swimming, that is not a reason for not taking part in the activity.” But the IS was determined that no-one would go near the water, let alone go swimming.
The propaganda perspective began to take on a timeless quality. Necessity (as we saw it) became a virtue. Somehow being a propaganda group required a routine with the particular and peculiar features that we had adopted. And not just for the difficult circumstances of the 80s downturn. It became to be seen as the only perspective a propaganda group could have even in significantly improved circumstances.
The seeds of this timeless quality of the propaganda routine can be seen in a resolution carried at the IS 1983 conference: “motion 1 : Given our size, even if there was a high level of struggle or massive and combative social movement, our ability to build a base in the working class would not differ dramatically from today.” “Battler rallies” (i.e. street sales/stalls usually with soap-boxing) were instituted from the 1983 conference.
This timeless quality can be clearly seen in the pamphlet Being a Socialist Today, printed in 1988 (more below), in which it is argued, “But our activity is determined by a clear recognition of our limitations. We are primarily arguing our ideas — selling our paper, holding meetings, talking to individuals — not agitating for mass action.” As if the only alternatives are talking to individuals or agitating for mass action or arguing ideas is limited to selling papers, holding meetings, etc.
The pamphlet pays qualified lip service to the need to relate to struggle: “When there is a layer of people being radicalised around a particular issue or particular struggle, revolutionaries have to relate in a practical (emphasis in original) way to the struggle”, but this is a passing comment. Indeed the central political question of “What do we do next?” is not put in terms of applying Marxist theory and traditions in a practical/concrete way to the struggles in which we are involved, but to identifying an audience!
An article by a perspectives supporter in our internal bulletin, National News January 1984, gives a flavour of how the outlook had developed: “The formulation ‘attracting people on the basis of ideas’ means that we have to go out and look for those people — the small number of activists still around or new to politics who are looking for answers we can provide. This ‘activity’ (whether it be a RTW march, campus talks, reading groups, Battler rallies, leafleting schools or whatever) is a different type of ‘activity’ to moving motions at huge strike meetings or organizing a R&F group, but it is still activity.”
Self-generated activity increasingly dominated the life of the group as if a Battler rally could substitute for involvement in a campaign committee or strike support work.
The internalised quality of the propaganda perspective could be extensively documented — but one quote from Being a Socialist Today will help illustrate the way in which the importance of connecting to real struggle was downplayed: “All sorts of internal factors — the coherence of the group, the clarity of our perspectives, the capabilities and experience of the members — are just as important as the external political environment.”
The dangers of not being involved in struggles far outweighed any danger of being involved and this applied just as much to the campuses to which we now turned as an area less affected by the downturn. Campus work could be about relating to a political milieu (and being part of the political furniture) or it could be about operating on our own agenda.
Our 1989 conference document admitted that the IS had been guilty of major sectarianism between 1986-88. The turn to students was contentious. At first student work was seen as part of the stop-gap measures to be taken while we “waited for the breaks”. Even so, the emphasis was new, and for some this was interpreted as a shift away from our rank and file strategy and our orientation — both theoretical and practical — to the working class.
From being a stop-gap measure, however, we began to understand that students was an area of work that we had historically neglected. It was during this period that we elaborated the features of student work that are now so well understood — that activity can go “up like a rocket, down like a stick”; that students are interested in ideas; that unlike workers in a factory, students don’t require a majority to go on strike, that they were less affected materially (worn-down) by the downturn, that the first signs of political dissidence often appear in the ideological factories of capitalism and can be a portent of workers’ activity, etc.
This understanding was an important development for the IS tendency in Australia. Student work had been sporadic to say the least and our early orientation to blue collar workers had lead to a certain dismissiveness of student activity. However, here too the important early insights turned into caricatures.
Increasingly student work was seen as bookstalls and high profile public meetings (it was here that the strategy of saturation postering was established as an organisational way of seeming to achieve dominance on the Left on campus). This was part of theorizing and fine tuning the mechanics of our student work — operating on our agenda, such as high profile Orientation Week activity, where we would meet scores of new students and then spend the following weeks chasing them up to involve them in our own self-generated activities of stalls and postering, contact visiting etc.
The appreciation that the campuses were places where there was a left milieux to relate to and some elements of resistance to the system receded. The campuses were now seen essentially as places where there was “a concentration of scattered individuals”. Hence the emphasis on the mechanics of a routine and marketing ploys like saturation postering and extended bookstalls that would help us find those individuals. The same approach was adopted with mall and street sales (at one stage we might have three or four card tables or trestle tables) and increasingly it was to the exclusion of other activities because it was among scattered individuals that we would find recruits.
Increasingly the student work became an elaborated mechanism for recruitment and the focus was not on intervention in the student struggles, which continued to punctuate the 80s, but on weekly (or more often) sales/stalls and a high profile public meeting.
It was this practice that the British SWP called a raid when they wrote to the IS in August 1988.
Over time, student work began to be theorized into a political strategy and a necessary stage in the development of the revolutionary party — that a critical mass of students was needed before interventions in other areas of political life was possible. In 1992 an article by Mick Armstrong in The Socialist argued, “Two things are required to establish a base in the working class: a critical mass of student revolutionaries — not tens but thousands — and a generalised ferment within the class itself.”
A re-appraisal of the raid and the critical mass aspect of IS student “theory” was a significant part of the rethinking in the IS that lead to the re-unification with Socialist Action in 1990 (to form the ISO), but was later a feature of the split that created Socialist Alternative in 1995.
New people/ scattered individuals
Another aspect of the 80s propaganda routine was the orientation to “new” people. Again this was a significant shift away from what had been our historical orientation to militant workers and to activists in the various campaigns. In this sense, it was a break (although regarded as a temporary retreat) from the idea that the IS would recruit from activists on the left. As I’ve argued above, a shift in perspective was necessary given the real downturn in struggle, but the propaganda perspective became a caricature.
The orientation to new people was tied up with other features of the downturn perspective — that the outside world was hostile (that is because of the defeats and demoralization suffered by the class, the experience of the outside world did not re-inforce revolutionary arguments about the self-activity and confidence of the working class) and that the left was moving rapidly and further to the right.
It is difficult to adequately describe the dimensions of this mistake, but a few quotes from a draft perspectives document of 1984 will give an indication:
On students: “We need to draw them as quickly as possible to IS events off campus: branch meetings, study groups, educationals, social events or whatever. It is imperative that we break them from a narrow student milieu.”
New people: “For these reasons [the decline of the left and movement politics and the decline in the numbers of leftward moving activists that meant ‘by and large no serious groupings of left activists now exist’] over the last couple of years we have increasingly moved towards looking for ‘new’ people who have not been seriously involved in the left and thus not contaminated by its disgusting (sic) politics.”
The attitude to work in campaigns is also summed up: “We must continue to carefully assess the areas of work we are involved in. Firstly to make sure that we are getting something out of them and secondly, especially when it comes to areas where we are working with the rest of the left, that we are not being dragged to the right by our supposed audience.”
Getting something out of them generally referred to recruiting individuals, although it also included the idea that campaigns could be a training ground for members to make speeches (as opposed to working alongside people). The cavalier attitude to movements (the IS intervention in PND in Melbourne in particular was a major area of concern) is well documented in the Interventionist Faction document of 1984 (available by email).
Propaganda group or propagandism
The practical consequences can be seen in two of the seminal struggles of the downturn. In Melbourne (and Sydney) it was the deregistration of the BLF by the Hawke federal Labor government (with the collaboration of the Victorian state Labor government and union officials). In Queensland it was the SEQEB dispute when, in February 1985, Bjelke-Petersen sacked 1002 SEQEB workers, members of the Electrical Trades Union essentially to smash the ETU in the state run power (generating and distribution) industry.
The qualities — working constructively alongside others in campaigns and committees, playing whatever small role we could, sharing the struggles and defeats — that were such an essential component of the IS and so essential, for any group to maintain connection with the real world, were squeezed out of the IS practice of the 80s.
Members who went on to become Socialist Action rightly argued that we should be involved in these struggles. The majority, of which I was a part in Brisbane, maintained an essentially abstentionist position. This resulted eventually in resolutions being put to the Brisbane branch in July 1985 essentially instructing members to withdraw from the SEQEB campaign. Regardless of one’s views on the actual possibilities of the SEQEB work at this stage, the move was an indication of the one-dimensional way in which the propaganda perspective was understood and the way in which a fascination with being “hard” manifested itself in heavy-handed organisational measures.
Sometime in 1986 we published What is a Propaganda Group (by Mick Armstrong). The pamphlet was regarded as a major intervention in establishing the understanding that the IS was a propaganda group. While the pamphlet is seriously dated, it nonetheless sets out the one-sidedness of the understanding we had of being a propaganda group. The pamphlet was seen as an antidote to the “movementism” of the Interventionist Faction. This too was something that the group subsequently repudiated in the process of approaching Socialist Action to consider rejoining the IS.
The pamphlet was reprinted as Being a Socialist Today in 1988. The pamphlet refined even further the conception of the abstract propagandism that we had adopted in the mid 80s. The pamphlet starts with “The political climate has become more and more right wing.” Later it says “…we understand that the main purpose of our interventions is to educate ourselves.” Recognising that “we are to [sic] small to have any serious impact on struggles that are taking place today” became a rationalisation for not being involved in struggle at all or even being dismissive of it.
“Cadre” is almost totally defined internally: The cadre must understand the mechanics of how to build the organization and be capable of carrying out the concrete responsibilities that entails. (p7 What is a Propaganda Group). “Doing the work” is understood as doing the work of the group — organizing and carrying out routine and not-so-routine propaganda interventions necessary to recruit new forces. No mention of the crucial experience of doing the work/applying the theory in social movements.
There are references to developing a layer of members who are capable of assessing developments in the class struggle and society generally and working out how to intervene to take advantage of them (p7), but the thrust and trajectory is clear. For the rest of the 80s, the IS perspectives constantly considered that the downturn was getting worse, the outside world more hostile. Hence the need to have an internally driven routine to insulate members and integrate new members, etcetc. The pamphlet enshrined the ultra-propagandism of the IS of the mid-late eighties. It was no accident that the pamphlet was never re-published.
One of the themes of the pamphlet is the need for “ideological clarity”. A high political level is the best protection against socialists moving to the right. The pamphlet uses Cliff and the significance of the theoretical work on the permanent arms economy, and state capitalism after World War II and the Trotskyists in the 1930s fighting against Stalinism to illustrate the importance of ideological clarification.
In hindsight, it is astonishing how much it plays down the important task of developing a critique of Australian society (something for which the IS groups have continued to pay dearly). The pamphlet at one point says, “The task of the IS today is a simpler one [than producing pioneering theoretical work]: [it is] to critically study and absorb their [Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky and the other great revolutionaries] conclusions and to train a cadre that can argue these ideas to our audience.” (p5)
But under the influence of such a propagandist view, ideological clarification came to refer not to deepening our understanding of theoretical questions such as Australian nationalism/imperialism, land rights and indigenous struggle, the history of the Labor Party, trade union and labour history, etc, but clarification over “perspectives”.
Finally there is the question of audience. The group increasingly oriented to “new” people because the left was moving further and further to the right. “We don’t even have in Australia at present a defined audience in the narrower sense of a group of people being radicalized around a particular issue or struggle” (p9) and later “because socialists in Australia at present have no specific, clearly definable audience, we have no alternative but to orient to new people, to those who are just being attracted to politics and have little or no understanding of marxism.”
Being A Socialist Today describes our audience even more starkly: “There is a scattered audience of individuals who, for a variety of reasons are questioning capitalist society and looking for an alternative. These people are usually new to politics and have little understanding of marxism.” (p12)
Interestingly the description of the British SWP intervention in the Great Miners Strike of 1985 is portrayed as pounding away as the British Labour Party leaders move to the right and hammering at the need to defend socialists being witch-hunted out of the Labor Party. The description is devoid of the SWP’s role in the strike support groups: a role that gave them the possibility of credibly relating to those mobilized to defend the miners and radicalized by the year-long strike. It was among these people that arguments and discussion raged about mass picketing, democracy and the strike ballot, the trade union bureaucracy, building rank and file solidarity with other sections of the class. The strike was defeated but the SWP came out of it with a lot of respect and a layer of recruits that remain an important part of the membership even today.
The propaganda routine grew out of a very particular analysis of the downturn in Australia. At first the routine was there to be broken (“adapted”), but as (in our view) the downturn became progressively more pervasive of political life, the propaganda routine as elaborated became more and more established as THE propaganda routine as if there could be no other.
The understanding of being a propaganda group (and a consequent routine) was one-sided even for the eighties. It led to a seriously distorted, destructive ultra-propagandist practice and a long and confused period of re-assessment trying to break free of the shackles.
How much less does such an analysis and its associated practice fit now — a period marked by the legacy of the downturn but in transition. While there may not be an organized vanguard there are milieus of politicized students and others to whom we can and should relate not just by pounding away at them.
Towards the end of the eighties as the consequences of this mistaken view became more apparent, there was vigorous discussion in the group about the need to break with the propagandism and its associated practices. Many of the criticisms the Interventionist Faction had made of the IS understanding of the downturn and the internal regime associated with it had been right.
It was out of this radical reappraisal that a majority of the IS national executive took the step of approaching Socialist Action to begin discussions about fusing the two groups — IS and Socialist Action.
The shift was particularly opportune. The none-too-late recognition of our sectarianism coincided with important political developments — the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Soviet Union. And there were developments on the domestic front — the first Gulf War in 1991, the mobilization against the Aidex arms fair in Canberra later that same year (which gave rise to talk of the return of the militant minority), the mass opposition to the Kennett Liberal government in Victoria elected in October, 1992.
Indeed the 90s saw the beginnings of a recovery in social movements — the ANU occupation in 1994, the mass demonstrations against French nuclear testing in 1995. The election of the Howard government in 1996 gave rise to other movements — the demonstrations at Parliament House, the mobilizations against Pauline Hanson and One Nation, the wharfies dispute in 1998, the blockade of the World Economic Forum in 2000 and the campaign to Free the Refugees to name a few.
The election of the Kennett Liberal government was of particular significance in the debate in the ISO about shifting away from the sectarianism of the 80s. The Melbourne branch found itself facing a huge working class upheaval against the anti-union policies and savage cuts in public services. Not surprisingly there were arguments.
It had become part of the folk-lore of the IS that revolutionary groups face internal resistance when changes in the outside world demand shifts in the habits that have been established in an earlier period. It was one of the chief lessons we drew from Cliff’s Lenin Volume 1 and the history of the conservatism of the Bolshevik committee-men that had been the stalwarts of the party in the difficult days before 1905 (the general point is also well made by Trotsky in Lessons of October). The committee-men trained in that difficult period had habits and an outlook that were an obstacle to drawing new layers into the party. We had used the lesson to explain the resistance the leadership faced in implementing the downturn perspective in the early 80s although we also used it to conveniently dismiss the opposition as inevitable and conservative and so avoid dealing with the substance of the debate.
Now when the time came to shift from the excesses of our downturn perspective we confronted all the damaging legacy of our mistakes. We had theoretically understood that a shift would be necessary: “Flexibility is the key. We won’t always be appealing to scattered individuals”, we wrote in Being A Socialist Today, but actually doing it presented real problems. Of course we could not pretend we could lead the struggle against Kennett or that our interventions were going to materially alter the course of events — the trade union bureaucracy and the mass of the working class were far more serious forces. But thousands of people were thrown into political opposition and the ISO had the opportunity to do more than comment from the sidelines.
It was no wonder that we had difficulties. The group had been severely distorted by the ultra-propagandism of the 80s and some of the associated internal and political propositions (e.g. that feminism was the dominant form of reformism we faced on the campuses even though there was a federal Labor government). The shift in the thinking that had brought about the rapprochement between the IS and Socialist Action was not well understood and was in fact opposed by a significant section of the leadership, particularly in Melbourne.
But while What is a Propaganda Group made reference to the need to change quickly if the political situation changes, when the need presented itself (as most of us thought because of the 1991 Gulf War and now the resistance to Kennett in 1992) there was real resistance to making any such change. For some of the Melbourne leadership, the shift was just an opportunity to maintain the propaganda routine on a more elaborate scale.
The Melbourne branch, for example, had pulled out of the occupation to defend Richmond school from closure. The final straw came when, against the arguments of the ISO members attending the meeting, the Richmond school committee decided to apply for a police permit to march from Richmond Town Hall to the school. For those steeped in the ISO’s view of the downturn, this was another example of the conservatism of the campaign to defend the school and confirmation that there was no audience for us. So to stop ourselves being pulled to the right, Melbourne decided to get out.
The occupation had extensive community, teacher and union support and was the centerpiece symbolizing resistance to Kennett, but we pulled out of it — on the same grounds used in the worst of the downturn — there was nothing in it for us. Nothing in it?! The invaluable experience of being part of a campaign that lasted for more than a year, the quality and importance of situating the ISO as part of the resistance to Kennett — these were things that should have been second nature to a revolutionary group. But the echoes of the same thinking that had seen the IS abstain from the BLF campaign and SEQEB was still apparent.
It was impossible to ignore the upsurge around Kennett, but the response in Melbourne was to see it as an opportunity for more general propaganda meetings like “Is Revolution Possible in Australia” that on the one hand had implications that the action against Kennett had revolutionary potential and on the other had little real discussion about building the resistance to Kennett. The campaign was throwing up all sorts of questions about state debt, the trade union bureaucracy, the nature of Labor, etc.
The majority were convinced that we needed to make changes and we tried in other ways to break from the sectarian practices. We produced a very popular pamphlet about Enterprise Bargaining and some branches held quite successful day-long seminars around the issue. In the first conference bulletin 1993, we talked about how we could use enterprise bargaining as a concrete way to discuss Labor’s failure rather than as a question of “reform versus revolution.”
We also made a sensible shift to begin publication of a theoretical journal, Socialist Review, of which we produced five issues.
The period following the election of Kennett was rather confused. While the majority was determined to shift away from the sectishness of the 80s, the shift was often put in terms of the opportunities for growth that would come from such a shift. The necessary shift was not really understood and not argued for politically. The efforts to find ways to break out of the sectarianism that had been inherent in the 80s propagandism did not always bring obvious results.
The opportunities for growth were exaggerated. In the conference bulletin Dec 93, we said at one stage, “There are times when people’s bitterness towards Labor and the system is posed more sharply. In those circumstances socialist organisations can grow in rapid leaps.” The failure for there to be any such growth was seen as proof by some that the period still demanded a propaganda routine of the type implemented in the 80s.
Two people were removed from the National Committee in mid-93, an organisational move that did nothing to add any clarity to the discussion of the changes we needed to make. The 1993/94 conference summarily junked the “student perspective” (but not student work) that had been a central element of the propaganda routine of the 80s, but a lot of people were unconvinced. The internal opposition grew.
In 1995, five people in Melbourne were expelled and a number of people subsequently left to form Socialist Alternative. The expulsions were a triumph of organisational fiat over politics, a serious mistake which confused the political debate even further.
French nuclear testing was resumed in the Pacific in July 1995. The ISO intervened in the mass demonstrations heavily. Hundreds of people were recruited (that is they signed red cards for membership). There was considerable debate about whether these people were real members. Of course one element of this was a dismissive attitude — real members as we had understood them in the 80s had to come to more than a few meetings, agree with the “What We Stand For” column and agree to sell the paper, attend meetings, pay dues.
The other equally mistaken view was to overstate the degree of politicization that was taking place and the extent therefore that these new members would be committed to the kind of propaganda routine that still underpinned the ISO perspectives and could be expected to sustain small suburban branches. The new branches (we set up nine in Sydney) had little support from the centre and there was little attempt to introduce these new people to general politics.
Believing that you can fill the vacuum on the left with optical domination (creating a visual presence with large numbers of placards) and with mass recruitment was a recipe for failure. Nonetheless the nuclear testing gave socialists an increased audience but the ISO had little understanding of how to go about building in a different way.
Unlike the campaign against the first Gulf War, there were no central organising meetings and no campus groups were initiated. Our activity for the “campaign” consisted largely of publicising the next rally as opposed to building the movement.
The branches were really propaganda outposts (the routine — a local campaigning sale, public branch meetings, a sale at the local pictures or TAFE [college], etc, was just transplanted to the suburbs). Perhaps the sensible thing would have been to set up an organising committee and anti-nuclear groups in areas where we had met people and see how that developed. But we talked about a culture of recruitment rather than a culture of intervention. The mass protests fell away quickly and not surprisingly the small branches collapsed.
The experience wasn’t totally lost. There was some re-assessment of just how good the period was and how easy it would be for socialist groups to grow. We re-emphasised the importance of student work and being “part of the furniture” on the campuses. We made another sensible attempt to raise the theoretical level of the group by publishing a few issues of a new Socialist Worker Review. But that initiative was not sustained.
I’m not going to go into the twists and turns since the ISO and Soc Alt separated in 1995. Not surprisingly given the experience of the 80s, the ISO being a propaganda group was inevitably associated with the sectarian propaganda routine, and the term fell from favour and use. Arguably, this contributed to a lack of understanding of the importance of theory and political education which led to other distortions. The over-exaggeration of the opportunities for socialists and de-politicisation of the ISO has been dealt with elsewhere. The rhetoric of involvement was never matched by real political engagement — although sometimes this was obscured by “activity”.
Concern with the declining political level of the ISO and the ISO interventions, led a number of people to put a resolution to the ISO’s 2002 conference restating that the ISO was indeed a propaganda group. The resolution was lost 13-16.
From the outside, Socialist Alternative maintained what seemed to be an unreconstructed commitment to the propaganda routine (propagandism?) of the 80s. Like the old Mortein ad — when you are on a good thing, stick to it. If anything this seemed to get more exaggerated as the political developments of the late 90s and early 2000s unfolded. The Red Blocs begun at the blockade of the World Economic Forum seemed purposely designed to differentiate SA from the blockade (actually there was a divisive quality to the fad of different identity blocs, Orange, Pink, Black, education, etc that became a feature of the so-called anti-capitalist mobilizations in Australia, but this is another discussion). While they could be a way of drawing the diverse strands together they also became a way of maintaining the divisions.
Using the Red Blocs to march away from the blockade of the World Economic Forum to briefly occupy the foyer of the Herald-Sun seemed to be a stunt designed to maximize the profile of SA. It was done in isolation and so was easily seen as being directly counter-posed to the task of maintaining the blockades. On the basis of my limited observations since then, the Red Blocs seem to be an example of the kind of marketing ploys (to give an artificial indication of size or support for the group gives to the particular issue) of the kind the ISO developed in the 1990s.
But the choice is not between an “activist” perspective and a propaganda perspective. Being a propaganda group does not condemn you to the kind of routine developed by the IS in the 80s. Breaking away from propagandism does not mean emphasising activism at the expense of political engagement.
There were important insights that came out of the recognition that the IS was a propaganda group:
1. that education in the history and traditions of the revolutionary movement are indispensible to the development of a revolutionary group;
2. that it was primarily around our ideas, not militancy, that we could recruit. A party can demonstrate its politics and recruit people on the basis of activity and its capacity to deliver material results. A propaganda group even when it is able to provide a lead — leads to the extent that its ideas influence a layer of activists.
3. the importance of students and student work to the long-term work of building a revolutionary workers party
But as we have seen, the IS analysis of the downturn resulted in a seriously flawed, one-sided view of the tasks of a propaganda group. Somewhere along the line the essential quality of intervention and the need to seize those opportunities to be involved in real struggle alongside people was squeezed out of the ISO’s appreciation of what a small group needs to do. The propaganda routine became The Propaganda Routine. The world was never as hostile a place as it was portrayed by our analysis of the downturn. It is certainly far less hostile now.
A propaganda routine and an activist routine should never have been counter-posed the way they were. What was needed — what is needed — is a synthesis of the two. While it is important to understand the difference between propaganda and agitation there is no China Wall between the two. The IS was a propaganda group when we intervened in the Right to March campaign in Queensland. A routine of regular paper sales, campus work, contact visiting and branch meetings would not have fitted the needs of the group to actively intervene in that campaign.
The propaganda routine according to Being A Socialist Today, ” …provides a discipline that can help ward off passivity”. If that was ever true (and as I’ve tried to show, it wasn’t), it is certainly not true today. On the contrary, the danger that we referred to in 1988, that Routine can become routinism is a far greater concern and has had far greater consequences. We shouldn’t choose between action and argument — they need always to be combined.
When we look at the developments of the past period — the refugee campaign, the so-called war on terror, the series of mobilisations around education, the re-emergence of generalised critiques of the system around anti-capitalism, the crisis of social democracy and the rise of The Greens — the need is great. The question of how we build now is intrinsically related to our ability to actively intervene and to develop into a group with the ability and credibility to lead struggles in the future.
Ian Rintoul, 30 June 2004
· Towards a revolutionary socialist party — Hallas in Party and Class, Trotsky Que Faire in the same pamphlet
· Harman: The Crisis of the European Revolutionary Left — International Socialism no 4