From the Great Depression right up until the 1970s, the organised revolutionary left in Australia was tiny. The remnants of the once powerful revolutionary syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) had withered away by the late 1920s, as had the various pre-Communist socialist groups, and it was not until May 1933 that the first very small Trotskyist organisation was formed in Sydney. Even then, the Trotskyists found it very difficult to make headway in the face of the much larger Stalinist forces of the Communist Party of Australia (CPA).
The CPA was never a mass party on the scale of the French or Italian Communist Parties. However in proportion to population it was for much of its history the largest in the English-speaking world. The CPA built a sizeable implantation in the unions and entrenched itself among sections of the trade union bureaucracy. Its Stalinist ideas also had a strong influence on the outlook of the Labor left. From the mid-1930s onwards the CPA’s world view also had a significant impact on middle-class liberal and cultural circles. Broadly speaking, most people who saw themselves as left-wing viewed Russia positively as a genuine socialist society, and had top-down conceptions of social change. All of this meant, when combined with their own political mistakes, that Trotskyist groups throughout this period consisted of tiny isolated circles with a national membership of never more than 40–50 and by the mid- to late 1960s considerably less than that.
So the new revolutionary currents that emerged out of the radicalisation of the late sixties and early seventies were to a large extent starting from scratch. The overwhelmingly young and inexperienced revolutionaries had next to no living Marxist tradition to build on. The connections with the genuinely revolutionary politics of Lenin’s Bolsheviks and the early Communist International had been decisively broken. To the extent that faint echoes of that revolutionary tradition still survived, they were distorted by Stalinist muck that negatively impacted even many of those who saw themselves as rejecting Stalinism. There were of course a few revolutionary books available, such as Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution and Lenin’s State and Revolution. But there was not much else other than the hard to access publications of various small overseas Trotskyist groups. Even these were unreliable: in a number of cases these organisations had degenerated in a sectarian direction due to long years of isolation from the working-class movement and under the weight of Stalinist hegemony on the left.
So the young revolutionaries were faced with the major challenges of laying the basic foundations of new socialist groups at the same time as they were rapidly attempting to clarify their ideas on all the fundamentals of Marxism, and on a series of immediate political questions such as the Vietnam War, party structure and innumerable tactical and strategic issues. All of this in the context of a mass radicalisation that produced a hothouse atmosphere of bitter debates in the student and anti-war movements with rival Stalinist, reformist, pacifist, anarchist and liberal forces.
No wonder then that there were all sorts of mistakes, false starts and dead ends. New revolutionary groups quickly arose and then seemed to disappear overnight. There was no shortage of splits, over-polarised faction fights, sectarianism and bad behaviour. Cynics on the left would even at the time dismiss the various attempts to build small revolutionary organisations as a futile or even counterproductive exercise. I strongly differ.
There are no guarantees in politics, but a start had to be made somewhere to begin to build a clear-cut revolutionary alternative to the ALP, the CPA and the union bureaucracy. Given the minuscule size of the revolutionary left going into the radicalisation, that was never going to be an easy task. But the effort needed to be made. Many of the young revolutionaries undoubtedly were overly impatient, and had grand expectations about their ability to build a mass party virtually overnight. But expectations could only be tempered by actually trying to build. Political ideas and strategies and methods of organisation had to be developed and tested out in practice on the political battlefield. Lessons had to be learnt and experience gained. Debates had to be had out and organisational conclusions drawn. We in Socialist Alternative would like to modestly claim that we have learned much that is positive from those experiences which will help us play a part in laying the basis for a much more serious revolutionary organisation in the future.
Some on the left who disparage the “sectarian debates” of small revolutionary groups would argue that instead of attempting to build straightforward revolutionary organisations, a better alternative would have been to build a broader and looser socialist organisation open to both revolutionaries and reformists. I have made the case elsewhere that broad left parties are not a substitute for a clearly defined revolutionary organisation, as they are simply incapable of offering a fundamental challenge to capitalism. I won’t rehash that argument here except to point out that in Australia in the 1960s and 1970s there were numerous attempts made to build broad left formations of various descriptions, both inside and outside the ALP. Their track record was one of disaster piled upon disaster. They have all collapsed and left no positive legacy. They were wracked, but even more so and with a few added ones thrown in, with all the vices that supposedly only afflict small Trotskyist groups – sectarian wrangling, highly charged walkouts and bitter splits, a serious lack of democracy, grandstanding, authoritarian guru-style leaders, the stacking of meetings, gross political opportunism, get-rich-quick schemes and more than the occasional punch-up between factional opponents.
As I will focus on the emergence of the new Trotskyist currents out of the sixties/seventies radicalisation I need to briefly say something about the period itself. Though not as intense a radicalisation, this was the most prolonged period of mass radicalisation internationally since the immediate aftermath of the 1917 Russian Revolution. In Australia the radicalisation began on the campuses in roughly 1964/65. It quickly became focused around opposition to conscription and the Vietnam War, with the anti-war movement peaking in about 1970 with the inspiring and hugely controversial Moratorium marches. In the intervening years the movement had moved sharply to the left and been polarised politically. The defeat of Labor in the November 1966 elections and its subsequent retreat from its anti-war stance under the new right-wing leadership of Gough Whitlam was an important turning point. Young activists moved to the left, seeing parliamentarism as useless and began, as one account puts it, “to grope for revolutionary alternatives to the time-honoured institutions of the bourgeoisie”.
Anti-war sentiment was not, however, simply confined to the campuses. As early as May 1965, a Gallup opinion poll revealed that 37 percent of the population opposed sending Australian troops to Vietnam, and over the next five years a majority of the population (and an even larger majority of the working class) came to oppose the war. Students played a pivotal role in the vibrant anti-war street protests. But this intersected with and reinforced a working-class industrial rebellion which got seriously underway in 1968 and continued into the mid-1970s. It was not until the late seventies that the political radicalisation had been fully contained – the last throw of the dice being the mass civil liberties campaign in Queensland against the Bjelke Petersen government’s ban on street marches.
Students, both university and high school, played a much greater role in this period of revolt than in previous eras. In part this reflected the massive increase worldwide in student numbers. The students were the shock troops of the anti-war movement, shouldering the bulk of the mass building work. For example in the lead-up to the first Moratorium march in Adelaide, 400 mostly student campaigners leafleted “almost all of the Adelaide metropolitan area and ten country towns. In all, 90% of the state was leafleted and 500,000 leaflets were produced”.
The students brought with them all the virtues and vices of youth and of their specific social location as students – idealism, moral outrage and the capacity to rapidly grab hold of new ideas and move seemingly spontaneously into action. On the other hand they did not have anything like the social power of workers to fundamentally challenge the capitalist system, or even the capacity to maintain stable organisations. Their idealism could at times turn into a rampant moralism and voluntarism that had a destructive political impact.
I will use a broad definition of Trotskyism to include all the currents that saw themselves as revolutionary Marxists in the tradition of Lenin and Trotsky; that defended the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and the early revolutionary years of the Communist International; that opposed the Stalinist counter-revolution in Russia and opposed the parliamentary road to socialism and popular fronts. This definition encompasses both the so-called orthodox Trotskyists who viewed Stalinist Russia as a degenerated workers’ state and those currents that saw Stalinist Russia as dominated by a new bureaucratic ruling class, whether that be state capitalist or bureaucratic collectivist.
The first Australian organisation that called itself Trotskyist – the Workers Party (Left Opposition) of Australia – was formed in May 1933 as a revolutionary rival to the thoroughly Stalinised Communist Party. It was a tiny Sydney-based organisation made up largely of activists from the unemployed movement of the Depression years who had been in or around the CPA. The initial leading figure was former CPA Central Committee member Jack Sylvester, a leader of the Unemployed Workers Movement and the CPA’s small Workers Defence Corps, who had been expelled from the CPA in 1932.
The Workers Party was far from being politically clear, let alone fully Trotskyist, at its formation, having not entirely broken with the CPA’s wildly sectarian Third Period Stalinism. Australian revolutionaries had been largely isolated from developments in the world Communist movement and the emergence of the Left Opposition to Stalinism. The only connection those rebelling against the Stalinist control of the CPA had with the international Trotskyist movement in the early 1930s was the arrival of copies of the US Trotskyist paper the Militant. The lack of political clarity fostered splits and divisions that were sharply accentuated by the failure of the Workers Party (renamed the Communist League of Australia in 1938) to break out and win the mass working-class influence which Sylvester and the other militants who formed it had hoped for. A series of political mistakes – both by the international Trotskyist movement and the Australian comrades – further compounded their isolation.
From the late 1930s through to the mid-1960s the dominant figure in the tiny Trotskyist circles in Australia was Nick Origlass. Origlass was a serious blue-collar working-class militant. Alongside other Trotskyist militants, including Laurie Short, he led an important strike in the ship repair yards of Balmain during World War II in defiance of the pro-war class-collaborationist Stalinist leadership of the Ironworkers Union and established a significant profile in Sydney’s then heavily working-class Balmain. However the Trotskyists were not able to recruit and caderise a significant membership out of the industrial struggles in which they were involved during the war and the immediate post-war industrial upsurge.
At the end of World War II the Trotskyists organised internationally in the Fourth International (FI), founded in 1938, believed that a worldwide revolutionary wave would enable them to sweep aside both the Stalinist Communist Parties and the reformist social democratic parties and win the leadership of the working-class movement. But this overblown perspective failed to eventuate, both in Australia and internationally. In the more right-wing climate that developed as the Cold War between the US and Russia intensified, some of Origlass’s close collaborators, most notably Laurie Short, moved sharply to the right. Short eventually defeated the Communists to become the right-wing leader of the Ironworkers Union in 1952.
By the mid-1950s the Trotskyists were reduced to essentially a loose friendship circle of older blue-collar militants and an occasional lawyer or middle-class intellectual around Nick Origlass. According to Denis Freney, who after leaving the Communist Party joined the Origlass group in 1957, it had a grand total of just 12 members nationwide, with virtually no activity outside Balmain. Its only publication in the mid-1950s was irregularly produced and hard to read, being produced on an ancient roneo machine. It contained a few pieces on Australian politics but mainly consisted of articles written by the Greek leader of the Fourth International, Michel Pablo, that had been badly translated from French by Origlass. They also occasionally produced a small roneoed newsletter for the group’s activities inside the ALP.
All of this severely limited the group’s ability to make any serious gains out of the turmoil in the CPA provoked by the crushing of the 1956 Hungarian workers’ revolution by Russian tanks and new Russian leader Nikita Khrushchev’s secret speech denouncing Stalin. Dissident CPers were not enchanted by meetings consisting of hours-long monologues from Origlass and an organisation whose activity was at best sporadic, with no regular readable paper or magazine. Bob Gould and subsequently Freney were two of the very few ex-CPers who joined the Origlass group in the immediate aftermath of Hungary. A bit later one or two others joined.
In the late 1950s probably more ex-CPers were won to Trotskyism, or at least to the Healyite version of it, by a lone individual, Gavin Kennedy, who was briefly in Australia, than by the Origlass group. Kennedy, a precocious 16-year-old with considerable flair and energy, had been a member of the British Trotskyist group headed by Gerry Healy, which from 1959 was known as the Socialist Labour League (SLL). However according to John Percy this group, which included the future NSW Labor MP George Petersen, “disintegrated, partly as a result of the bureaucratic and authoritarian practices of Healy’s SLL becoming more apparent, and also because Kennedy had returned to Britain”. In 1960 the tiny remnants of the Healyite group united with the Origlass group.
Compounding the various political problems and the lack of growth of the Origlass group (by the 1960s known as the International group) was the impact of long-term entry work in the ALP from 1941. By May 1958 Origlass had become a Labor councillor in Balmain and he was soon joined by his close comrade Issy Wyner. There was a gradual adaption to these reformist circles. Indeed by the 1960s for many Australian Trotskyists (and not just those aligned with Origlass) membership of the ALP had become something of an article of faith. A number of them simply engaged in what was derisively called “resolutionary socialism” – passing worthy left-wing resolutions in ALP branch meetings which were then filed in the appropriate rubbish bin at head office – a practice which masked their failure to actively build a genuinely revolutionary opposition to Laborism.
Origlass proved to be one of the most dedicated supporters of the international Trotskyist current associated with Michel Pablo, loyally following him through all the splits and divisions in the Trotskyist movement. In the early 1950s Pablo, then the Secretary of the Fourth International, had moved sharply to the right, greatly softening his opposition to Stalinism. He argued that Trotskyists had to accept that there would be centuries of Stalinist “worker states”. He called for a liquidationist perspective of burying the Trotskyist forces in long-term entry work, be it in the Stalinist CPs or the social democratic parties or the petty-bourgeois nationalist parties in the global south, whichever was the largest force. This project of entrism sui generis (entrism of a special kind) was not aimed at establishing revolutionary parties in opposition to the Stalinist Communist Parties, but was merely an attempt to influence them in a supposedly progressive direction. Pablo argued that under the growing threat of imperialist war the Stalinists would be forced to turn left.
Despite initially going along with much of Pablo’s program, not all of the orthodox Trotskyists (the current that saw Russia as a degenerated workers’ state) were prepared to go all the way down this thoroughly liquidationist pro-Stalinist road. The supporters of the US Socialist Workers Party (SWP) headed by James P Cannon split away from the International Secretariat of the FI, forming the International Committee of the FI. Cannon was backed by smaller groupings around Gerry Healy in Britain (which previously had buried itself deep inside the Labour Party), Pierre Lambert in France and Nahuel Moreno in Latin America.
However by the early 1960s a number of Pablo’s previous supporters, including the Belgian Trotskyist Ernest Mandel, Pierre Frank in France and Livio Maitan in Italy were moving towards a reunification with the US SWP, then the largest Trotskyist group other than the Sri Lankan Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) which by then had politically collapsed into reformism. Various political differences had opened up among the formerly united Pabloite bloc, including over what attitude to take to the growing dispute in the international communist movement between Khrushchev’s Russia and Mao’s China. Mandel and Maitan were for a period enthusiastic supporters of Mao, while Pablo adopted an increasingly pro-Russian standpoint, even supporting Russian nuclear testing. In Australia Origlass called for critical support for Khrushchev and was increasingly sympathetic to the CPA. By 1965 Pablo was supporting a market economy in a supposedly “self-managed socialist society”. Pablo bitterly opposed the reunification and was eventually expelled from the FI in December 1965. Origlass’s tiny group was one of the very few that stuck with Pablo.
In the early 1960s in Australia a few younger people were attracted to Trotskyism. These new forces, along with some of the former members of the Healyite group, proved to be a problem for Origlass as they threatened his support for Pablo and ongoing control of the group. In 1964 the International group, which then had roughly 30 members, divided pretty much down the middle between Origlass supporters and a disparate opposition bloc. The oppositionists, including Bob Gould and Roger Barnes, were critical of Origlass’s highly personalised style of operation and of some elements of Pablo’s liquidationist politics. However they were neither able nor seriously willing to build a coherent revolutionary organisation with clear political lines of demarcation when it came to membership. Their continuing commitment to fairly conservative long-term entry work in the ALP was but one reflection of their rather swampy centrist politics.
By the late 1960s the Stalinist monolith was fracturing. Rivalry between Russia and China for control of the world Communist movement led to a smallish, largely Melbourne-based Maoist split from the CPA forming in 1964 the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist Leninist) – CPA (ML). The 1968 Russian invasion of Czechoslovakia was to provoke a further split by pro-Moscow loyalists hostile to the CPA’s criticism of the invasion.
Accentuating the CPA’s crisis was the fact that the party was initially sidelined by the youth rebellion sweeping the campuses and high schools and impacting young workers. The dull grey authoritarianism of Stalinist Russia had little appeal to this new radicalising generation. Moreover the CPA and the mainstream peace groups it influenced initially took a conservative stance in the anti-war movement, opposing calls for the unilateral withdrawal of US and Australian troops. The CPA’s slogan was the pathetic “Stop the bombing, negotiate”. This was to the right of the position of the ALP in the November 1966 elections, which under the leadership of Arthur Calwell called for the withdrawal of Australian troops. When, in the wake of its electoral defeat, Labor dumped Calwell for the more right-wing Gough Whitlam, the CPA endorsed their decision to abandon support for the withdrawal of Australian troops. The CPA increasingly came across as fuddy-duddy conservatives to many student radicals. These new activists were influenced by countercultural ideas and the May ’68 revolt in France. Their approach combined militant street protests and campus occupations with often strident moralism and wild ultra-left rhetoric.
This opened up space for a diverse assortment of leftish currents – initially Labor-aligned groups like the Youth Campaign Against Conscription and the Vietnam Day Committee, then a bit later, groups more independent from Labor with liberal libertarian politics – on a number of campuses: Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) inspired by SDS in the United States, in Brisbane the Society for Democratic Action and in Adelaide Students for Democratic Action. As well there emerged young Maoists inspired by the Chinese Cultural Revolution, New Leftists, anarchists and currents influenced by Trotskyism. The traditional Labor Clubs (which were independent from the ALP and had commonly been strongly influenced by the CPA) had an explosion of membership on a few campuses, with new forces emerging from them, the most prominent example being the Maoists at Monash. By the late sixties and early seventies there was a multitude of collectives, organising centres and radical discussion groups with diverse politics.
In Sydney in 1965 Bob Gould, Mairi Gould, Ian Macdougall and a few of the others who had split from Origlass formed the Vietnam Action Committee (VAC). The VAC outflanked the CPA and the peace establishment by organising more radical demonstrations against the war, including against the 1966 tour of US President Lyndon Baines Johnson. It attracted a leftish milieu including Sydney University student John Percy and his younger brother Jim, who were evolving towards Trotskyism. In 1967 Gould and the Percys launched Resistance – a broad socialist youth group to the left of the CPA. Resistance, though influenced by Trotskyism, was also impacted by anarchist, Third Worldist, countercultural and Maoist ideas. The controversial Third World bookshop in Goulburn St became a key organising centre for radical youth activism in Sydney.
The Percys argued for a more organised and explicitly Trotskyist group. In what was to become a common pattern, they had come under the influence of the US Socialist Workers Party. The lack of a serious local Trotskyist tradition and the relative intellectual poverty of the broader Australian left understandably meant that young proto-Trotskyists tended to look for inspiration, a political program and a practical orientation to more established overseas Trotskyist groups, especially those in Britain and the US, and to a lesser extent France. This proved to be something of a mixed blessing. It distorted the development of a number of groups by importing international factional battles that they were ill-prepared to deal with. As well there was a tendency to ape the approach of the larger overseas group on even quite narrow tactical and organisational questions which were not of local relevance or easily generalised.
Despite his formal adherence to Trotskyism, Gould for three years fought the Percys’ push to establish an explicitly Trotskyist organisation. Gould formed an unprincipled alliance with semi-anarchist and countercultural types in an attempt to maintain Resistance as a fairly loose swampy outfit. But by 1970 when Resistance split, the time for broad, politically ill-defined socialist youth groups was passing. The radicalisation had significantly deepened and a layer of young would-be revolutionaries were looking for more coherent politics and organisations. There had been years of increasingly militant struggles on the campuses and on the streets against the Vietnam War and a range of other issues. By the late sixties the working class was beginning to move into action in Australia and internationally – highlighted by the May ’68 revolt in France and the general strikes in Australia in 1969 to free jailed union official Clarrie O’Shea. The US was losing the war in Vietnam and riots were engulfing the Black ghettos of US cities. Politics had become a lot more serious. There was a sense of urgency. For the young radicals, revolution seemed to be on the immediate agenda.
At the same time, the counterculture that initially had helped fuel the youth rebellion against the social and sexual conservatism of the Cold War years was now being co-opted by capitalist commercialism. As the class struggle picked up and politics became more contested and polarised, the counterculture increasingly became an obstacle – organising “down to earth” festivals, getting back to nature on a hippy commune and spending half of your time stoned was directly counterposed to serious political action to challenge capitalism.
In August 1970 the Percy-led majority in Resistance founded the Trotskyist Socialist Youth Alliance (SYA) at a conference attended by 45 comrades predominantly from Sydney. Subsequently in 1972 the “adult” organisation, the Socialist Workers League (SWL), was established, laying the basis for what was to become the Socialist Workers Party, later the Democratic Socialist Party and then Socialist Alliance (though the latter abandoned revolutionary politics and disavowed Trotskyism) and also for the Revolutionary Socialist Party that was later to fuse with Socialist Alternative.
The delay until 1970 in forming an explicitly Trotskyist organisation (other than the remnants of Origlass’s International group) meant that major opportunities to build a serious revolutionary socialist organisation out of the initial years of the radical upsurge had been missed. A personal example: in 1968 I was a 17-year-old from a blue-collar working-class family starting at Melbourne University. I had identified as an anti-Stalinist socialist for some years; had read Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution at school and was further inspired by the May ’68 revolt in France. But there was no Trotskyist organisation in Melbourne I could join. There was no revolutionary socialist newspaper that I could have bought even as late as May 1970 at the massive Moratorium march against the Vietnam War. It was not until September 1970 that the first edition of the Socialist Youth Alliance’s paper Direct Action came out, just in time for the second round of Moratorium marches when it sold extremely well in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide.
The delay in establishing a revolutionary Marxist organisation allowed space for other currents to grow out of the radicalisation. In Melbourne and a bit later Adelaide the main force to the left of the CPA in the late sixties and early seventies was the Maoists. Inspired by the Chinese Cultural Revolution – mistakenly seen as a radical anti-bureaucratic revolt – and Mao Zedong’s proclamation that “It is right to rebel”, young student Maoists waving their Little Red Books built a strong presence on a number of campuses, in particular Monash and La Trobe in Melbourne and Flinders in Adelaide. At its height the Maoist-controlled Worker Student Alliance (WSA) had possibly 800 to 1,000 members nationwide.
However all this changed in the wake of China’s rapprochement with the US in the early 1970s. Chinese foreign policy moved openly in a reactionary direction after US President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, and the subsequent purge of the “Gang of Four” and other supporters of the Cultural Revolution. Ever loyal to Beijing, the Maoists of the CPA (ML) in turn moved sharply to the right, searching for an alliance with the “patriotic bourgeoisie”, glorifying Australian nationalism, and losing much of their appeal to student radicals. The Worker Student Alliance became Students for Australian Independence, abandoned carrying the red flag and became increasingly violent towards their Trotskyist opponents on the left. By the late 1970s the CPA (ML) was supporting US imperialism as a counterweight to Russian imperialism, which they argued was the main threat to Australian “independence”. They effectively backed the right-wing Fraser Liberal government against the ALP which they saw as being soft on “Soviet social-imperialism”.
In Brisbane the libertarian/semi-anarchist Self-Management Group (SMG) headed by the former University of Queensland student radical Brian Laver evolved out of the Society for Democratic Action (SDA). As SDA radicalised it gave birth to the Revolutionary Socialist Student Alliance/Revolutionary Socialist Alliance and then the short-lived Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) which also contained currents sympathetic to Marxism and was moving in a Trotskyist direction. The SMG, however, was strongly influenced by the semi-anarchist ideas of the British group Solidarity and the French group Socialisme Ou Barbarie. On some issues the SMG initially had relatively better positions than much of the left of this era, being much more critical of the Stalinism and Third Worldism then rampant in left-wing circles, as well as what later became known as identity politics.
For a few years the SMG was the largest, most coherent and active far-left force in Brisbane. At its peak it had two to three hundred activists organised in an array of student and workplace cells, and its own small, armed Defence Committee. It built significantly among university and high school students but also recruited a number of blue-collar workers in the meatworks and metal trades, including some prominent former CPA industrial militants, and had a presence at the Evans Deakin shipyards, the most militant workplace in Brisbane.
However the group evolved in a sectarian and abstentionist direction which made it increasingly incapable of intervening effectively in union struggles and the protests against the sacking of the Whitlam government in 1975. It eventually abandoned its support for the Vietnamese struggle against US imperialism, spent an enormous amount of effort attempting to disrupt the activities of the “Marxist left”, and degenerated into a personality cult around Brian Laver. It split in 1977 in three directions. One section around Drew Hutton and Greg George eventually meandered off towards Greens-style politics while another moved in a more fully fledged anarchist direction. More positively, a significant Marxist Tendency also developed. Many of the members of the Marxist Tendency, which included John Minns and Ian Rintoul, went on to join the Brisbane branch of the International Socialists.
The delay in forming a sizeable Trotskyist organisation also allowed space for the CPA to make something of a comeback. Sidelined by the radical youth revolt, a section of the CPA leadership around Laurie Aarons recognised that the party had to shift leftwards and appeal to a rebellious young audience if it was to have any hope of a future. It jettisoned some of its conservative baggage and Aarons pushed through a split with politically conservative Moscow loyalists, who formed the Socialist Party of Australia (SPA) in 1971.
The split with the SPA and the modernising of the party gave the CPA a more radical image, making it more attractive to some New Leftists who were beginning to see the need for party organisation. The CPA’s re-imaging and distancing itself from Stalinism helped enable the party to play a major wrecking role on the left over the next five years. In the process it disoriented and demoralised a layer of impressive working-class militants and numerous young activists. The CPA was a key obstacle that needed to be confronted and overcome if a healthy revolutionary left was to be established.
The CPA initiated the Left Action Conference in April 1969, putting on a leftish face with grandiose talk about workers’ control in an attempt to seduce student and ex-student radicals and undermine opponents to its left. As one of the CPA’s left critics put it:
The Conference was all that the CPA desired. It was one that masqueraded as an attempt to unite the left – it had the very opposite effect. It resulted in the most serious fragmentation that had so far occurred. The CPA staved off a threat to replace it as the main radical force and reasserted its claim to be the party with whom all radicals had first to come to terms. Previously they had been prepared to unite against it; now there were conflicting attitudes.
The Left Action Conference helped kill off the loose Revolutionary Socialist Alliance (RSA), uniting a broad cross-section of the far left, from Maoists to proto-Trotskyists to semi-anarchists, which briefly had seemed to pose a real threat to the CPA. For a short period this constellation of radical forces could work together, united by the glue of hostility to the conservative stance of the CPA in the anti-war and student movements. However this was a fragile and false unity, bound to be torn apart as the immense political differences between these various currents were clarified. The CPA’s feint to the left peeled off sections of the RSA influenced by left reformism and centrism. But the conference also helped clarify that there was no ongoing basis for unity in one organisation between the increasingly hardened Stalin-loving Maoists and revolutionary socialists actually interested in fighting for working-class liberation. There have been many totally unnecessary and irresponsible splits on the left, but this one was vital if there was to be any road forward for the emerging revolutionary forces.
In April the following year the CPA gained its own tame “Trotskyist” in the form of Denis Freney, the chief spokesperson for the RSA. Freney, one of the few remaining active and relatively younger members of Origlass’s International group, joined the party arguing that it had broken with Stalinism in a revolutionary direction. He quickly evolved into a CPA hack and bitter red-baiter of the revolutionary left. Then in 1972 the majority of the Adelaide Revolutionary Marxists, which had evolved out of Students for Democratic Action at Adelaide University, joined the CPA. They took over a CPA state branch severely depleted by the split with the pro-Moscow loyalists and formed the core of the CPA’s Left Tendency. In Melbourne a few New Left former students around one of the better Marxist journals of the period, Intervention, joined the CPA. The Left Tendency also grew in Sydney, where there was also a small coterie of people in the CPA who sold the British International Socialists’ paper Socialist Worker.
Some Left Tendency members were influenced by variants of Trotskyism, in particular the writings of Ernest Mandel, though support for the authoritarian and obscurantist ideas of Louis Althusser was particularly strong at Sydney University. The Left Tendency argued there was no need to build a small revolutionary organisation in opposition to the CPA. Winton Higgins, one of the Left Tendency’s prominent spokespeople, claimed in an article, “Reconstructing Australian Communism”, that the CPA had already broken with Stalinism and was well on the road to being transformed into a genuinely revolutionary party. This was delusional. The CPA may have junked much of its traditional Stalinist baggage, but it was essentially moving in a liberal reformist direction, albeit reflecting the more radical times with a left-wing sounding face. Moreover, the hardened CPA apparatchiks were never going to allow a bunch of radical young upstarts to take over their party. Within a few short years the CPA’s faux leftism had completely vanished. It went back to tailing the ALP and the trade union bureaucracy, playing a key role in pioneering the wage cutting Prices and Incomes Accord of the Hawke/Keating government. The CPA may have turned away from Stalinism, but the liberal politics it embraced in the 1970s proved thoroughly reactionary. The CPA celebrated virtually every passing fad of the liberal middle class and academic left. It abandoned any vestige of Marxist or even class politics in favour of post-modernism, and played a key role in promoting identity politics on the left. The Left Tendency members either dropped out or were co-opted and swallowed up.
The student and anti-war movements peaked with the mass Moratorium marches in 1970 and by the end of 1971 had begun to decline. A number of radicals and individual revolutionaries in search of a political home drifted into the ALP in the lead-up to the December 1972 election of the Whitlam government. This was especially the case in Victoria, where the Whitlam-orchestrated federal ALP intervention in November 1970 to purge the left-leaning state executive had provoked a furious reaction. A new left-wing faction emerged, the Socialist Left, which for a short period got out of control of the old left semi-Stalinist trade union officials who had previously bureaucratically run the Victorian party. This briefly opened up a space for intervention by revolutionary forces. However within a year or two the left union officials had largely regained control and moved to bureaucratise and moderate the Socialist Left. They subsequently reached a grudging accommodation with Whitlam. By 1975 the space for fruitful intervention into the ALP Socialist Left was well and truly over.
Another section of those radicalised by the movement were looking for something more clearly revolutionary to continue their activity and overcome their isolation as the movements sharply subsided. They began to join a variety of revolutionary groups or to form totally new ones. Further impelling them in this direction was the political impact of increased working-class industrial militancy, which made class politics more central to the outlook of a section of the student and ex-student radicals. There were attempts to organise various forms of worker-student alliances, some socialist former students became active in the teachers’ and other white-collar unions and a few even “industrialised” in blue-collar jobs.
As well, a considerable array of socialist discussion groups, campus clubs, radical bookshops, activist collectives, live-in organising centres and reading groups studying Marxist classics like Lenin’s State and Revolution and What Is To Be Done? had developed. Some of these started to link up in broader socialist alliances. These alliances were often quite short-lived, as the clarification of political differences led to splits. It was out of this rather chaotic process that more politically formed Trotskyist groups began to cohere.
One reflection of the trend towards a more serious outlook among sections of the radical milieu was the rapid change in orientation of a number of the semi-anarchist/counterculture types that had blocked with Bob Gould in 1970 to oppose turning Resistance into an explicitly Trotskyist organisation. They flipped over to an ultra-hard but spurious version of “Leninism”, and along with other small grouplets helped establish the local offshoot of the British SLL in late 1971. Ironically, they initially banned Gould from joining until the mid-1970s, when he became a member of their Central Committee.
The SLL, or Healyites, was one of the most sectarian, authoritarian and hysterical Trotskyist currents. The SLL denounced the Socialist Youth Alliance and every other Trotskyist group that ever emerged as reactionary middle-class betrayers of the working class. It spent its time publishing tub-thumping calls to build the revolutionary leadership as the final crisis of capitalism was upon us. Along with its crude workerism, this could appeal to some former student radicals such as Nick Beames, who had been involved with SDS in Hobart precisely because it seemed so, so hard – the real Bolsheviks. In some ways the SLL’s appeal was quite similar to that of the early Maoists.
The SLL may possibly have become the largest Trotskyist group, with a couple of hundred members in the mid-1970s, but it had an extremely rapid membership turnover. It drove its members incredibly hard, demanding a massive commitment of time and money to fund a projected daily paper. Various members who resigned were physically assaulted and had their books stolen. The SLL in Britain and Australia and its other international offshoots inevitably blew themselves apart in a series of crises and purges. Its Australian remnants formed the Socialist Equality Party.
The other main Trotskyist group that briefly emerged in this period was the Communist League (CL). The CL was influenced by the Mandelite wing of the Fourth International and the International Marxist Group (IMG) in Britain, which two of its founding members, John and Sue McCarthy, had been members of while staying there. The Australian Mandelites initially cohered in the Labour Action group in Brisbane and it was only after some hesitation that they joined the Socialist Workers League (SWL) at its founding conference in January 1972. Their reservations about joining the SWL in part reflected the tensions between the Mandelite wing of the FI and the wing of the FI associated with the US SWP, with which the Percy-led SYA/SWL was then aligned. The unity did not last long, with the Mandelites quickly splitting away to the left in August 1972 to form the CL. The CL included not just former Labour Action group members but also various other SYA/SWL members from outside Brisbane who were critical of the SYA/SWL’s political orientation. The CL became for a short period the main Trotskyist group in Brisbane and had a presence in Sydney and a dissident branch in Melbourne.
In their paper Militant the CL furiously denounced the SYA/SWL as centrists, soft on the ALP and focused on “middle class” single-issue protest campaigns rather than orienting to the new working-class vanguard which they claimed had developed in Australia and other Western countries. However in a rather contradictory fashion the CL supported the Mandelite current’s international perspective of promoting guerrilla warfare in Latin America and other countries. To give you a feel for their stance, one of the CL’s favourite chants went:
What’s the word? Johannesburg.
How’s it done? With a gun.
One solution. Revolution.
The CL was an unserious organisation, prone to crisis and politically unstable. It lost the bulk of its Melbourne branch to form the Melbourne Revolutionary Marxists and included in its ranks some members with sectarian, Spartacist-style politics. By the late 1970s its members had become increasingly demoralised. Under pressure from the leadership of the FI the majority of CL members rejoined the SWL in two stages, albeit in the case of a number of members quite reluctantly. The remaining more leftish elements fragmented.
By the mid-1970s there was a plethora of Trotskyist or semi-Trotskyist groups. In the second half of 1975 the Socialist Workers Action Group (SWAG), the precursor organisation to Socialist Alternative, was involved in regroupment discussions initially involving a series of small independent revolutionary groups – the Workers’ League in Hobart, the Labor Power group in Brisbane, a group of students in Canberra and, and in Melbourne – the Melbourne Revolutionary Marxists (a split from the Communist League), The Link (a semi-syndicalist group), plus elements of the CPA Left Tendency. And there were at least four or five other nominally Trotskyist groups, including some ultra-sectarian variants such as the Spartacist League. This fragmentation to a considerable extent reflected the fact that no serious revolutionary organisation had been built in the preceding decade and a half. If by the early sixties an organisation of a few hundred members with an experienced and tactically astute leadership had already existed, many of the rough edges of the newly radicalising forces could have been smoothed over and innumerable needless splits avoided.
SWAG had its origins in the short-lived Tocsin group in Melbourne influenced by Ted Tripp, an old 1930s Trotskyist, who ran Marxism classes at the Victorian Labor College at Trades Hall. In 1971 the Tocsin group split, with one section linking up with the Healyites. Another section went on to form a loose discussion group, the Marxist Workers Group, in which Dave Nadel, a leading student radical at Monash in the sixties was prominent. Nadel, a key organiser of the July 4th 1968 protest and riot against the Vietnam War at the US Consulate in Melbourne, had been around the Maoists in the Monash Labor Club but had evolved from Labor left-style politics towards orthodox Trotskyist views.
Under the influence from 1972 onwards of Tom O’Lincoln and Janey Stone, who had been members of the International Socialists in the US, the Marxist Workers Group gradually clarified its politics, breaking with people influenced by anarchism. It evolved towards explicitly International Socialists-style politics, seeing Stalinist Russia as an exploitative class society that needed to be overthrown by a working-class revolution. The group put a heavy emphasis on the need to build a militant rank-and-file movement in the unions to challenge the reformist stranglehold of the union bureaucracy. It stridently opposed the Australian nationalism then dominant on most of the left and competed with the Maoists in terms of street militancy.
In late 1972 the Marxist Workers Group reorganised as the Socialist Workers Action Group on a more developed political basis and with a formal membership. It put out an initial issue of a paper, The Battler, in the lead-up to the December 1972 elections. But when I joined SWAG in October 1974 it was still a tiny Melbourne-based group with only about 18 members and two small campus clubs at Monash and La Trobe universities – the RevComs. It managed to recruit out of leading a major student occupation at Monash in late 1974 and subsequently from the mass struggle against the 1975 Kerr coup that overthrew the Whitlam Labor government. SWAG changed its name to the International Socialists (IS) at a regroupment conference in December 1975, where it was joined by comrades from the Workers League in Hobart and subsequently some comrades in Canberra. However it still had only a little over 30 members.
By 1975 the economic and political climate had shifted substantially and this posed major new challenges for the working-class movement and the left. The long post-war economic boom that had underpinned rising living standards and industrial militancy around wages had come to an end with the recession of 1974 and a sharp rise in unemployment. The November 1975 Kerr coup that overthrew the Whitlam government had sharply polarised politics along class lines. The IS believed that this deepening social crisis would open up substantial prospects for growth of the revolutionary left and for building a base in the working class. However we seriously over-estimated the ability of our tiny group to take advantage of the changed situation. As well, while we did correctly predict that this sharp change in the political situation would provoke a crisis on the left, we could not and did not foresee the full scale of the abandonment of anything approaching class politics by the bulk of the left over the following decade and a half.
We had to adjust substantially and that inevitably led to tensions and debates. We could not financially sustain for long the fortnightly paper that we had decided to launch at our December 1975 conference. Nor could we sustain our project of “industrialisation” – sending student members into factory jobs, in our case, the metal trades. We subsequently concluded – under the influence of the British IS – that industrialisation was not a politically sensible way of attempting to build a working-class base. Despite these serious mistakes, the IS managed to grow in the course of the 1970s. The group put concerted effort into breaking out of Melbourne and became a national organisation with new branches in Sydney, Brisbane, Adelaide and Canberra. We gradually rebuilt our student work that had been substantially downgraded because of the industrialisation perspective. By 1980 the IS had about 100 members. In early 1990, having overcome a split in our ranks in the mid-1980s and being renamed the International Socialist Organisation (ISO), it was the second largest far-left organisation after the DSP, though with fewer than 200 members it was still far too small.
The sixties and early seventies radicalisation in Australia saw many thousands of students and young workers and more than a few older ones turn to various forms of revolutionary politics. Many more could have been won to an ongoing commitment to socialist politics if there had been a serious anti-Stalinist revolutionary organisation active in the early years of these struggles. But the tragedy was that there was no Marxist organisation with even a couple of hundred members already in existence in 1965. An organisation with clearly defined politics grounded in a solid Marxist theoretical tradition combined with a democratic and level-headed organisational approach could have made a substantial impact during the mass struggles of the following decade and grown substantially. A strong, ideologically coherent organisation could have fast-tracked the clarification of ideas among the new radicals, lessening to some extent the wastefulness of years of disputes and splits. It could have begun the vital task of breaking out of the radical student and ex-student milieu and establishing some initial roots in the working-class movement.
In the absence of such an organisation, the young proto-revolutionaries of the late sixties and early seventies had to thrash out their politics and methods of organisation on the fly in the heat of battle against the entrenched reformist and Stalinist forces active in the anti-war movement. In the prevailing superheated atmosphere it was inevitable that we made a huge number of mistakes and failed to fully seize the opportunities that had opened up. These were incredibly vibrant and exciting times as the radicalisation deepened, shaking up the whole of Australian society. However it was far from plain sailing politically. A huge array of new political currents arose and often complex political questions were posed. Everything seemed up for grabs and it was all too easy to get carried away.
Young student radicals turning to Marxist politics had to break politically with the hyped-up moralism and faux radicalism and penchant for middle-class fads that so deeply infected student politics. While the nature of these fads has changed, the general tendency remains, precisely because of the isolation of students from the political discipline of the working class – the only class that actually had the power to overthrow capitalism and usher in a genuine socialist society. Some of the young radicals were badly impacted by the youth culture of the time, with its swampy semi-anarchist, spontaneist prejudices. Others embraced Third Worldism, the Chinese Cultural Revolution and Maoism – all utter disasters. Some were seduced by the Communist Party’s seeming turn to the left in the late 1960s.
Others, repelled by Stalinism and looking for a genuinely revolutionary working-class alternative were attracted to one or other of the international Trotskyist currents. Unfortunately some of those currents had highly defective politics. The long decades of isolation of the Trotskyist organisations from the working-class movement had bred both sectarian and opportunist tendencies and a penchant to look for get-rich-quick schemes to break out. As well, the long-term corrupting influence of the predominance of Stalinism on the left had impacted even a number of the political currents that saw themselves as hostile to Stalinism, resulting in a tendency towards a top-down approach to politics and undemocratic methods of party organisation. And precisely because no Trotskyist organisation had been built with any serious credibility or influence in the working class and a leadership with a track record of success, there was also a pronounced tendency to fragmentation. No organisation had established the political authority or social weight to prevent splintering – often on highly sectarian lines. So the opportunity for revolutionaries posed by this tremendous period of radicalisation was nowhere near to being fully seized.
There was however one major accomplishment. The mass radicalisation had helped remove a great obstacle to the future advancement of the socialist movement. It had effectively broken the Stalinist CPA that had for decades poisoned the left and undermined working-class struggle, and whose support for the horrors of authoritarian rule in Russia and its bloc had served to discredit the very idea of socialism among the bulk of the Australian working class. But no even moderately sized revolutionary socialist party had been built to replace the CPA: a party that could then go on to continue to draw in more forces even after the high points of struggle had passed.
That remains the ongoing challenge for Socialist Alternative – to play whatever role we can in helping lay the basis for such a revolutionary party. We can’t know when the next great radicalisation will break out and we don’t know the exact form it will take. It definitely will not simply be a repeat of the sixties. But seriously building Socialist Alternative today, both numerically and in terms of experience in intervening in debates, controversies and struggles and of broader Marxist political education, is vital preparation for giving us the best chance of making the most out of future upheavals. We don’t want to miss the moment again.
Armstrong, Mick 2001, 1,2,3, What Are We Fighting For? The Australian student movement from its origins to the 1970s, Socialist Alternative.
Armstrong, Mick 2010, “The origins of Socialist Alternative: summing up the debate”, Marxist Left Review, 1, Spring. https://marxistleftreview.org/articles/the-origins-of-socialist-alternative-summing-up-the-debate/
Armstrong, Mick 2011, “Jim Cairns: the tragedy of relying on parliament for fundamental change”, Marxist Left Review, 3, Spring. https://marxistleftreview.org/articles/jim-cairns-the-tragedy-of-looking-to-parliament-for-fundamental-change/
Armstrong, Mick 2014, “A critique of the writings of Murray Smith on broad left parties”, Marxist Left Review, 7, Summer. https://marxistleftreview.org/articles/a-critique-of-the-writings-of-murray-smith-on-broad-left-parties/
Armstrong, Mick 2018, From Little Things Big Things Grow, 2nd edition, Socialist Alternative. https://www.sa.org.au/node/4002
Birchall, Ian 1974, Workers Against the Monolith. The Communist Parties Since 1943, Pluto Press.
Birchall, Ian 2011, Tony Cliff. A Marxist for His Time, Bookmarks.
Bramble, Tom 2008, Trade Unionism in Australia. A history from flood to ebb tide, Cambridge University Press.
Briedis, Tim 2010, “A map of the world that includes Utopia”: the Self Management Group and the Brisbane libertarians, BA Honours thesis, Sydney University. https://www.academia.edu/16074437/A_map_of_the_world_that_includes_Utopia_the_Self_Management_Group_and_the_Brisbane_libertarians
Ferrier, Carole and Graeme Grassie, 1978/1979, “The struggle for democratic rights in Australia”, International Socialism (2nd series), 3, Winter. https://www.marxists.org/history/etol/newspape/isj2/1978/no2-003/ferrier-grassie.html
Freney, Dennis 1991, A Map of Days. Life on the Left, William Heinemann Australia.
Gollan, Daphne 1972, “The Balmain Ironworkers’ Strike of 1945”, Labor History, 22 and 23.
Greenland, Hall 1988, Red Hot. The Life and Times of Nick Origlass, Wellington Lane Press.
Hallas, Duncan 1969, “Building the leadership”, International Socialism, (1st series), 40, October/November, pp.25–32. https://www.marxists.org/archive/hallas/works/1969/xx/building.htm
Hallas, Duncan 2003, “Fourth International in decline: From Trotskyism to Pabloism, 1944–1953” in Trotsky’s Marxism and other essays, Haymarket. https://www.marxists.org/archive/hallas/works/1973/xx/fidecline.htm
Harman, Chris 1974, Bureaucracy and Revolution in Eastern Europe, Pluto Press.
Harman, Chris 1988, The Fire Last Time: 1968 and After, Bookmarks.
Hastings, Graham 2002, It Can’t Happen Here. A political history of Australian student activism, The Students Association of Flinders University.
Herouvim, John 1982, “An Alien Association”. Australian Maoism and the Communist Party of China, 1971–1977, MA thesis, La Trobe University. https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/australia/alien-association.pdf
Herouvim, John 1983, “Politics of the Revolving Door: The Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist)”, Melbourne Journal of Politics, 15, January.
Higgins, Winton 1974, “Reconstructing Australian Communism”, Socialist Register, Merlin.
Ilton, Phil 1984, A history of the Socialist Workers’ Action Group, International Socialists (Australia).
Lee Ack, Tess 2019, “The SWAG years: Revolutionary organising in 1970s Australia”, Marxist Left Review, 17, Summer. https://marxistleftreview.org/articles/the-swag-years-revolutionary-organising-in-1970s-australia/
Mansell, Ken 1980, The Marxism and Strategic Concepts of the Communist Party of Australia, 1963–1972, Honours thesis, La Trobe University, https://labourhistorymelbourne.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/cpa-thesis-ken-mansell.pdf
Melbourne Revolutionary Marxists, 1975, A Call For The Revolutionary Regroupment Of The Australian Left. https://www.reasoninrevolt.net.au/objects/pdf/d2194.pdf
Oakley, Corey 2012, “The rise and fall of the ALP left in Victoria and NSW”, Marxist Left Review, 4, Winter. https://marxistleftreview.org/articles/the-rise-and-fall-of-the-alp-left-in-victoria-and-nsw/
O’Lincoln, Tom 1985, Into the Mainstream. The decline of Australian Communism, Stained Wattle Press.
Percy, John 2005, A History of the Democratic Socialist Party and Resistance, Vol. 1: 1965–72 Resistance, Resistance Books.
Percy, John 2013, “An international balance sheet of the ‘broad party’ strategy”, Marxist Left Review, 5, Summer. https://marxistleftreview.org/articles/an-international-balance-sheet-of-the-broad-party-strategy/
Russell, Lani 1998, Today the Students, Tomorrow the Workers! Radical Student Politics and the Australian Labour Movement 1960–1972, PhD thesis, University of Technology Sydney. https://www.marxists.org/history/erol/australia/students.pdf
Short, Susanna 1992, Laurie Short: A Political Life, Allen and Unwin.
Wood, Katie 2013, “Fighting anti-union laws: the Clarrie O’Shea strikes”, Marxist Left Review, 5, Summer. https://marxistleftreview.org/articles/fighting-anti-union-laws-the-clarrie-oshea-strikes/
Workers News 1976, The Canberra Coup! A documentary on the sacking of the Labor Government, November 11, 1975.
 See Armstrong 2018 and 2014 and also Percy 2013.
 For an overview of the international revolt see Harman 1988.
 Melbourne Revolutionary Marxists 1975, p.5.
 Hastings 2002, pp.22 and 40.
 For the student revolt see Armstrong 2001, Hastings 2002, Russell 1998 and Percy 2005. For the working-class upsurge see Bramble 2008, Parts 1 and 2.
 For the Queensland civil liberties campaign see Ferrier and Grassie 1978/79.
 Hastings 2002, p.42.
 For a biography of Origlass see Greenland 1998.
 Gollan 1972.
 The political biography of Short by his daughter Susanna is well worth reading. Short 1992.
 Freney 1991, p.92.
 See Birchall 1974 and Harman 1974.
 Percy 2005, p.41. See also Greenland 1998, pp.222–26.
 Hallas 2003.
 Greenland 1998, p.234.
 Freney 1991, p.397.
 Percy 2005, pp.64–66.
 Wood 2013.
 For the rise and decline of the Maoists see Herouvim 1982 and 1983.
 Briedis 2010.
 Mansell 1980. For the reformist degeneration of the CPA see O’Lincoln 1985.
 Melbourne Revolutionary Marxists 1975, p.7.
 Higgins 1974.
 For the ALP left in this period see Oakley 2012 and Armstrong 2011.
 This was very much confirmed from my own experience of ALP entry work as a member of the Socialist Workers Action Group.
 Percy 2005, pp.204–7.
 For a critique of the politics of the British SLL see Hallas 1969. For an insight into the orientation of the SLL in Australia see Workers News 1976.
 For the history of SWAG see Lee Ack 2019 and Ilton 1984. For the subsequent development of the International Socialist current in Australia see Armstrong 2010.
 For the political development of the International Socialist current see Birchall 2011.
 For a discussion about strategies for building revolutionary socialist organisations see Armstrong 2018.