The SWAG years: Revolutionary organising in 1970s Australia

by Tess Lee Ack

The Socialist Workers’ Action Group (SWAG) was one of the key precursor organisations of Socialist Alternative.[1] It existed only in Melbourne, and for only three years, from November/December 1972 until December 1975, when a modest regroupment conference gave birth to a new organisation, formed mainly from SWAG members. This article is an account of SWAG’s origins and history, ending with the founding of the International Socialists in Australia.

The times

The political climate in which SWAG was formed was vastly different from the circumstances in which the far left operates today. In the mid to late sixties, a mass radicalisation took place, especially among young people. While not always ostensibly political, the “youth rebellion” was an important element of a broader radicalisation. It was such a tumultuous time that it wasn’t unreasonable to think, as many of us did, that the revolution was just around the corner.[2]

The post-war boom in the West saw a number of developments that underpinned the period of radicalisation. Workers’ living standards were rising, and so were expectations. In a number of countries, including Australia, there was a significant level of working class militancy and combativity.

Union membership was high,[3] and a number of key unions were led or strongly influenced by socialists of one kind or another, particularly the ALP Socialist Left and the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). The left was particularly strong in Victoria, where 26 left wing “rebel unions” broke away from the Trades Hall Council in 1967. One of the most important victories was the 1969 general strike to free jailed tramways union leader Clarrie O’Shea. This strike wave, which started in Melbourne and spread to other states, made the anti-union penal powers laws a dead letter.

Another factor was the rapid expansion of higher education to meet capitalism’s need for large numbers of educated white collar workers and technocrats. Universities had long been the preserve of the upper and middle classes; now, for the first time, those who were “born to rule” were joined by significant numbers of people from working class backgrounds.

International events had a huge impact. The Vietnam War (along with conscription) gave birth to a mass anti-war movement. But there were other issues and events that radicalised and mobilised growing numbers of people, such as May ’68 in France, the struggle against apartheid in South Africa and the US civil rights movement. Some drew inspiration from the revolutions in China and Cuba and anti-colonial struggles in Asia and Africa.

For those who already identified as socialist, Russia’s invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 fed into increasing disenchantment with the existing left forces that looked to the Soviet Union as a model. The CPA, for so long the dominant left organisation, was fracturing. The Maoists had already split to form the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist-Leninist) (CPA (ML)) in 1964. Now the party was further divided between hard-line Moscow supporters and those moving in a reformist direction under the influence of Eurocommunism, with the hardliners splitting away to form the Socialist Party of Australia (SPA) in 1971.[4]

These developments, plus the growth of a radical student movement, opened up the space for the emergence of new left wing groups.

Origins

The forces that formed SWAG were a student club at Monash University, the Revolutionary Communists (RevComs), and a discussion group called the Marxist Workers’ Group (MWG). The common element was Dave Nadel, a leading figure on the Monash left since the mid-sixties. Initially a member of the ALP and a follower of Labor leftist Jim Cairns, Nadel’s politics had moved sharply to the left. He was a leading light of the 1968 campaign to collect unspecified aid for the National Liberation Front in Vietnam, which scandalised mainstream society and cemented Monash’s reputation as the most radical campus in the country. For a time Nadel was attracted to the Maoists, who were the dominant force at Monash.

The Maoists had built a following based on their militancy and strident opposition to US imperialism. The Cultural Revolution launched by Mao in 1966 was widely misunderstood at the time, but its superficial anti-authoritarianism had a strong appeal to a layer of young people. Events in which the Maoists played a prominent role – like the 4 July 1968 anti-war protest when the US embassy had its windows smashed and there were running battles with police – won the admiration of people who chafed at the conservative approach of much of the anti-war movement. The CPA (ML) also had a reputation for industrial combativeness, based on its leadership of the Victorian branches of a few militant unions, including the Waterside Workers and Builders Labourers Federation. Tramways Union secretary Clarrie O’Shea was also affiliated with the Maoists. The Maoist-led Worker Student Alliance had some hundreds of members in Melbourne.

The CPA (ML) closely followed the line dictated from China, which was essentially the Stalinist “two stage” theory of revolution and a popular front strategy. According to this analysis, Australia was a US colony. The main struggle was therefore not a working class revolution against capitalism; rather it was to win national independence, which required an alliance between Australian workers and “patriotic” bosses against US and multinational companies. Left nationalism has a long and dishonourable history in the labour movement and on the left in Australia; by the 1970s, it was central to Maoist politics.[5]

By the late 1960s, Nadel had fallen out with the Maoists, strongly disagreeing with their nationalism and repelled by their open allegiance to Stalin and the cult of Mao. He was also highly critical of their increasingly cavalier and adventurist approach to student politics. One example of this was in June 1970, when a small group of Maoists occupied the Careers and Appointments Office in the Monash Union building, without any reference to the wider student body. It was intended as an anti-war protest, but when the occupiers were disciplined, and some expelled, it was diverted into a defence campaign, made more difficult by the fact that many students were disinclined to support an action in which they’d had no say.

When I met Nadel, as a new student in early 1970, he was starting to explore Trotskyism. At the time, there were very few avowed Trotskyists in Melbourne. The Socialist Youth Alliance/Socialist Workers Party, aligned with the orthodox Trotskyist Fourth International, was then mainly based in Sydney.[6]

Nadel and his friend Chris Gaffney were influenced by Ted Tripp, one of the few long-term Trotskyists in Melbourne. Tripp had been expelled from the CPA in 1934 as a “Right opportunist”. He subsequently joined various Trotskyist groups in Sydney before moving to Melbourne in 1938. From 1945 he ran Marxism classes through the Victorian Labor College based at Trades Hall, influencing a few generations of trade unionists. In 1971 Nadel and Gaffney were involved in the Tripp-aligned Tocsin group, but soon developed differences with its other members, some of whom went on to form the Socialist Labour League, aligned with Gerry Healy’s British group of the same name.[7]

Meanwhile, Nadel continued to be active at Monash. At the end of 1970, he and I had published a few leaflets under the name of the Independent Communist Caucus – i.e. independent from both the CPA and the Maoists. At the start of 1972 we launched the RevComs and started producing a weekly broadsheet, Hard Lines. We’d recruited another student, Mark Matcott, whose brilliant cartoons and caricatures helped popularise the publication. Our humorous and largely jargon-free writing style, rare in political publications, also helped build an audience. By now a postgraduate student, Nadel was no longer regularly on campus, but was nonetheless the guiding force of the RevComs.

In December 1971, Nadel and Gaffney got together with a small group of left wing friends and associates to form a loose discussion circle, the Marxist Workers’ Group. These were people who identified as socialists or Marxists, but for one reason or another didn’t like any of the other groups on offer. The common ideas were anti-Stalinism and a commitment to the working class as the agent of revolutionary change. But beyond that, there were widely divergent views, most importantly a division between the Nadel-Gaffney Trotskyist tendency and a small anarchist grouping. In early 1972, 20-30 people attended meetings, with a considerable turnover from one meeting to the next. The RevComs were regular attenders, and another was Nadel’s housemate and Melbourne University student Phil Griffiths, who was to become a leading member of SWAG.

The MWG’s leading members hoped the group would develop sufficient political unity to transform itself into an organisation that engaged in agitational activity. Hard Lines had started as a separate project. However, its content was discussed at MWG meetings and the RevComs’ campus activity increasingly was seen as a collective MWG responsibility.

An important turning point came at May Day in 1972, when the MWG distributed a leaflet entitled “Kangaroo Capitalism”. That year, the slogan was “For national independence and socialism”, reflecting the Maoists’ dominance of the May Day Committee. Using quotes from Marx and Lenin, “Kangaroo Capitalism” denounced “reactionary nationalist philistinism” and argued for an internationalist working class perspective.

Whatever other differences existed, this question was a defining one for the MWG, and it was also a regular theme in Hard Lines, as we sought to challenge the political domination of the Maoists at Monash. The other major significance of the leaflet was that it caught the attention of two activists recently arrived from the US, Janey Stone and Tom O’Lincoln.

O’Lincoln was an American, but Stone was an Australian whose political roots were in the CPA. They had met while travelling in Europe and later been members of the US International Socialists. As a result of reading “Kangaroo Capitalism”, they started to attend MWG meetings, where their political knowledge and experience had an immediate impact. Stone also brought her experience of the women’s liberation movement, which started a bit later here than in the US. They both quickly established themselves as leaders of the group.[8]

In mid-1972, the MWG had a major debate about revolutionary organisation. The anarchist-inclined members argued that the concept of a vanguard party was inherently elitist and would lead inevitably to authoritarianism and Stalinism, and argued instead for a loose federation. The Trotskyists, especially Nadel, Stone and O’Lincoln, argued for a disciplined revolutionary party which grouped together the most militant and class conscious workers. They won the argument, and the anarchists departed. A few others including Gaffney also left around this time. This meant the MWG was down to 15-20 regular participants: the price of political clarification. As Ilton notes, “a definite political line was beginning to emerge and with it a general unity within the group”.[9]

O’Lincoln was a teacher, and together with other activists in the secondary teachers’ union (VSTA), produced a rank and file bulletin Teacher Action. In line with the IS’s rank and file strategy, Teacher Action argued for “militant, democratic and socially conscious unionism”. The Teacher Action group was independent, but teacher members of the MWG joined and got a lot of valuable experience.

With a general consensus on the need for a party achieved, O’Lincoln and Stone began a conscious intervention to win the group to IS politics more generally. A key issue was the class nature of the Soviet Union – “the Russian question”. Back then, the ISUS adhered to the theory of bureaucratic collectivism, developed by Max Shachtman.[10] Nadel, the most theoretically developed member of the original group, held the orthodox Trotskyist position that Russia was a degenerated workers’ state. Over time, O’Lincoln convinced him, and the rest of us, that the Soviet Union was a class society. This position, encapsulated in the slogan “Neither Washington nor Moscow but International Socialism”, was a key political stance that distinguished us from the rest of the Australian left.[11]

In the latter part of 1972, O’Lincoln, Stone and Nadel set up a formal faction called Red Inc, which Matcott and I joined. The aim was to win the MWG to more explicitly Leninist politics and organisation. This caused a certain amount of tension in the group. In practice however, the MWG was seeing itself more and more as an activist group, whose members’ political activity should be subject to collective discussion and decision-making.

So when it was suggested that some of the MWG’s white collar workers produce a regular bulletin for clerical workers, there was no question that this would be the responsibility of the group as a whole. Clerk and Dagger was launched in October 1972, featuring a humorous Matcott illustration on the masthead and adopting the same irreverent style that had made Hard Lines so successful. The name was a play on “cloak and dagger”, and was appropriate in two ways. First, to avoid the possibility of victimisation, it was an “underground” leaflet. Some were discreetly handed around members’ workplaces, but most were distributed by student members outside city offices. Second, “dagger”, in conjunction with the illustration (a female clerical worker poised to attack a frightened male boss with a pencil), suggested militancy.

The initial aim of Clerk and Dagger was to flush out union militants. The longer term aim was to establish rank and file groups in particular workplaces, and/or within white collar unions. Clerk and Dagger exposed poor working conditions, attacked the sexist discrimination rife in white collar industries, campaigned for equal pay, argued for militant industrial action to fight for higher wages and against bosses’ attacks, and criticised union leaders’ conservatism. There were also articles on topical political events such as the French nuclear tests in the Pacific.

We distributed 1,000-1,500 copies of Clerk and Dagger roughly fortnightly at a dozen or so offices in the CBD. Where possible, we targeted offices where a member or contact worked. Griffiths was working as an insurance clerk, and he soon became the driving force of Clerk and Dagger.

Before meeting the MWG, Stone had initiated the first women’s liberation group at Melbourne University, where she worked. As a leading activist in the emerging movement, she argued for a working class orientation, as only a socialist revolution could deliver genuine liberation. In the latter half of 1972, she helped set up the Working Women’s Group, which had 10-15 members. The group published a leaflet, Bread and Roses, and ambitiously aimed to organise working women in struggles for equal pay and against sexist discrimination.

So by late 1972, the MWG, with about 15 regular members, was involved in several unions and rank and file groups, and a highly active student club. We were participating in frequent demos and attending numerous campaign meetings as well as our own meetings. And we were producing and distributing a number of regular leaflets, a much more time-consuming and labour intensive process than it is today.

And amid all this frantic activism, we were still sorting out our political ideas and trying to educate ourselves in Marxist politics. To this end, O’Lincoln initiated what he called a “cadre development group”, a reading group where we tried to get to grips with Marxist classics. These sessions took place after the usual lengthy meetings where we discussed our activities and the political issues of the day. MWG meetings would often start at around 6.30pm and end well after 11pm.

So to say we were hyperactive would be a massive understatement. But then we decided to step it up a notch.

SWAG

A federal election was to take place late in 1972, and it was widely anticipated that we would at last see the end of over two decades of Liberal rule. We saw this as a good time to start producing our own paper. It took many weeks to prepare the first issue of The Battler, which appeared in mid-November. The name was suggested by Nadel, and seemingly contradicted our trademark hostility to nationalism. But Nadel argued that it both reflected the “home grown” nature of our group and had a working class, underdog flavour. So we went with it.

The front page headline was:

A VOTE FOR LABOR IS THE FIRST STEP TO

FIGHT THE LABOR LEADERS!

The rationale for this wildly ultraleft headline was that most workers had illusions in Labor – especially since it had been so long since Labor had been in office – so needed to go through the experience of a government that would inevitably sell them out and rule in the interests of capitalism. Workers would therefore need to fight for their class interests. As the editorial put it:

Labor, though it serves capitalism, depends on the working class for its political existence, and can be fought by its rank and file and the Trade Union movement. We can win certain basic demands from the Labor Party, but only if we fight them.[12]

It went on to call for a “mass movement inside and outside the ALP to force the Labor leadership to defend the working class”. We sold the paper at election rallies, where it got a surprisingly favourable response, and at a few militant workplaces; it sold particularly well on the waterfront.

With the launch of The Battler, we decided to change our name to the Socialist Workers Action Group, which had a less studenty and more activist ring to it. And the acronym SWAG went with the name of the paper. It wasn’t just a change of name though. There were important organisational changes in line with the arguments of the Red Inc faction. SWAG became a formal membership group requiring the payment of dues and a commitment to the group’s agitational activities.

But if 1972 ended on a bit of a high, the early months of 1973 brought us down to earth with a thud. We lost a few members, reducing our numbers to 10. We decided we didn’t have either the degree of political unity or the human and financial resources to keep producing The Battler. It was a period of retreat in activist terms, but also of political consolidation and hardening up. The Working Women’s Group was sabotaged by the sectarian Spartacist League and collapsed. A few members, mainly Nadel, were sporadically active in the ALP Socialist Left. But our main areas of activity in 1973 were among white collar workers and at Monash Uni.

In August, SWAG held its first conference. By then we had 12 members, two of whom had joined only a week earlier. Α handful of contacts attended, two of whom joined at the end of the weekend.

Two main issues were debated. First, the nature of our relationship with and work in the ALP. In relation to social democratic parties, sections of the Trotskyist movement had a strategy known as entrism. Various groups at different times had practised either “deep entrism”, where the whole group joined a party in a long-term attempt to “capture” it or at least push it well to the left; or “shallow entrism”, essentially a raiding operation aimed at winning away those elements that could be convinced of revolutionary politics in a short period of time. SWAG adopted a variation argued by Nadel in the so-called “McCrae document”: a medium-term perspective of working within the ALP Socialist Left faction, with the ultimate aim of splitting it away to form a new socialist party.

The other main discussion revolved around organisational questions. The Red Inc faction had won the general argument about the need to build a revolutionary vanguard party. Now it was a question of what specific organisational measures were appropriate for a small group, within the framework of the principles of democratic centralism. In the end, two were adopted. The first was the election of a political leadership, rather than the administrative body we’d had up to that point. Griffiths was not a member of the faction, though by now he was a key leader of SWAG. After a lot of argument, he reluctantly accepted nomination for the new leadership body. He, O’Lincoln and Nadel were elected as our first Political Committee.

The second was a form of political discipline: members were expected to argue for the agreed political positions of the group, or at least not oppose them publicly. Differences between members were to be an internal matter.

With these measures accepted, the Red Inc faction disbanded. The focus returned to our activist work.

Griffiths initiated a small rank and file group in the insurance union called the Militant Insurance Clerks (MIC), which produced a leaflet called MICcy Finn. Unlike Clerk and Dagger, MICcy Finn was distributed openly inside offices and was well received. In 1973 Griffiths was elected to the union’s Victorian executive and initiated a number of well attended members’ meetings on equal pay. A mass lunchtime rally in early October was attended by over 2,000. Despite opposition from the union executive, MIC won a vote for strike action against the employers’ attempts to reclassify jobs to avoid paying women equal wages. Over 1,000 insurance clerks did not return to work that afternoon – the first strike in the union’s history. But a one-day strike the meeting voted for the following week was cancelled by the union executive, and subsequently, both the campaign and the MIC group collapsed.

At the start of 1973, SWAG had three members and a handful of supporters at Monash. In the 1972 student elections, I’d been elected to the Political Affairs Committee of the Monash Association of Students. Hard Lines was far and away the most popular (and only regular) left wing leaflet, and my position on PAC gave us a higher profile and the opportunity to initiate small campaigns. In the 1973 elections I received the highest vote of any left candidate.

We challenged the Maoists to a public debate on “the road to socialism”. Several hundred turned up to what became known as “The Great Debate”. We argued against the Stalinist concept of a “nationalist road” to socialism, class collaboration and popular front strategies, and counterposed an internationalist, working class perspective. Judging by the audience response, we won the debate. The Maoists responded by producing a leaflet called Icepick,[13] which regurgitated all the Stalinist lies about Trotsky being a fascist agent. But they were a spent force, and for the next couple of years we were the leading left force on campus.

In late 1973 SWAG formally took a position on the “Russian question”, narrowly adopted the bureaucratic collectivist analysis. A former member of the British International Socialists argued for the state capitalism position. Many of us were hearing this for the first time, and it received little support. But the high number of abstentions was an indication of our theoretical rawness.

Nadel was not present at the debate, having departed on an overseas trip. Towards the end of the year I took advantage of a study trip to Germany to visit London and was the first SWAG member to come into direct contact with the British IS. Nadel also visited London a bit later. We both returned to Australia in early 1974 highly impressed by the organisation and keen to emulate it, making allowances for the vast difference in our size. Nadel made two proposals: to set up a centre for SWAG, and to resume publication of a newspaper. A major obstacle was that our tiny group had correspondingly meagre financial resources. So our first centre was a house in which some comrades lived, with a room set aside for SWAG, and mainly used for leaflet production. There was considerable trepidation about starting up a paper, given our previous experience, but it was agreed that we’d aim to do so later in the year. In the meantime, we’d get some experience and develop our ideas by publishing a duplicated journal containing analytical and theoretical articles, as opposed to the agitational ones in our leaflets.

In May the first edition of Front Line appeared, and we put out two more issues that year. Its circulation was tiny, probably about 50 copies. But one article in the third issue was to prove influential well outside our ranks – Stone’s critique of radical feminism, which we reprinted more than once.[14]

In Front Line we staked out the ground for the key positions that distinguished us from other left groups: the “Russian question” and hostility to Stalinism in all its forms; the need for rank and file groups to challenge the union bureaucracy; and adherence to Leninist principles of organisation.

At SWAG’s second full conference in August 1974, the main discussion was whether to proceed with plans for a regular paper. Despite some opposition and many reservations, it was decided to go ahead. Nadel was appointed editor, with Griffiths as industrial editor.

Student work was a strong area of activity throughout 1974. In late 1973, we recruited two students at La Trobe University and at the start of 1974, they set up the La Trobe RevComs and began publishing a regular leaflet called Red Ink. Like Hard Lines it quickly found an audience. The La Trobe left was still dominated by the Maoists, so, as at Monash, the La Trobe RevComs had a strong focus on critiquing their politics. Meanwhile, the Monash RevComs had grown to five members and held a series of Marxist education classes, attended by 15-20 students. With this larger periphery, we initiated a campaign to reform assessment methods at a time when three-hour end of year exams were the norm. Assessment Action (AA) regularly attracted 30 or more students to its meetings. And although the initial focus was assessment reform, this developed into a broader critique of the role of universities and education under capitalism. The campaign demands shifted from mere reform to the complete abolition of competitive assessment, to be replaced by a system of “diagnostic” assessment which would allow students to redo work considered unsatisfactory. Further, course content and structure should be democratically decided by students and staff.

That year, as a trainee teacher, I was the student representative on the secondary teachers’ union central committee (and SWAG teacher and trainee teacher members had been active since 1972 through the Teacher Action group). The VSTA[15] was a militant union and had a number of extremely radical educational policies. One of these was for open entry for anyone who wished to attend university. The VSTA regarded the HSC exams that students then sat at the end of Year 12 as a class-biased system that disadvantaged working class students. Many VSTA members, supported by the union, refused to teach Year 12 on that basis. But the most controversial aspect of the open entry policy was known as the “ballot”. In response to objections that there would be insufficient university places, the VSTA argued for increased funding; but while places remained limited, they should be allocated by a ballot which gave everyone an equal opportunity. This policy dovetailed neatly with the assessment campaign at Monash, and I was able to organise for VSTA leaders to address student meetings. The open entry policy was incorporated into the campaign’s demands.

The campaign gathered momentum with a series of forums, student general meetings and small actions. In the face of complete intransigence from the university, a mass meeting in mid-September endorsed the occupation of the administration building proposed by the RevComs and AA. It was the first occupation for several years, and lasted for a week – the longest ever at Monash. SWAG held a meeting in the occupied building, attracting a number of students impressed by the RevComs. The occupation ended when the administration called police and had 74 of us arrested. The Vice-Chancellor offered to drop the charges provided there was no further occupation, and despite most of those arrested opposing the deal, a student general meeting (stacked with right wing engineering students sent by their faculty heads) voted to accept it.

The assessment campaign only won a few minor reforms, but for SWAG it was a massive success. Ten people joined within the space of three weeks, taking our membership from 14 to 24, the largest it had been since the early days of the MWG.

The new recruits were mostly Monash students, but two La Trobe students also joined as a result of the occupation. Along with the La Trobe RevComs, they had organised a two hour solidarity sit-in by about 50 students in the University’s Council Room. One of them was Mick Armstrong, who soon became a leader of SWAG.

Just before the occupation, we’d moved into our first proper centre, with a meeting room and space to produce the relaunched Battler. The second Battler no. 1 appeared on 19 October. We printed 1,000 copies of an eight-page monthly and usually sold about 700. Many sales were at demonstrations, but we also sold it at shopping centres in working class suburbs and outside selected blue collar workplaces: ones with a record of militancy, or where there’d been recent industrial action, or where we had a contact. At a couple of these we had regular sales of between 20 and 30. We also did door-to-door sales in housing commission areas.

SWAG had a handful of members in the Commonwealth Public Service, so decided to initiate a rank and file group in the public service union. The group was called Servants for Action and published a sporadic leaflet called SFA. The group’s meetings sometimes attracted as many as 15 people.

So in late 1974, we had clubs at Monash and La Trobe; produced The Battler monthly and Clerk and Dagger fortnightly; we were involved in the Teacher Action group and SFA, and the Militant Insurance Clerks made a brief revival in response to the Commercial Union Group sacking 250 clerks. We still had low-key involvement in the women’s liberation movement, but Labor Party activity was becoming more sporadic, partly because the Socialist Left was in decline, and partly because most members weren’t seriously committed to entrism.

Every member was usually involved in several of these arenas, so a high level of commitment was required. As Ilton notes:

[The] life of the typical SWAG member was one of frenetic activity: writing/duplicating/distributing various broadsheets, attending demonstrations, producing/selling The Battler, and attending almost constant meetings of one form or another, many of which would go into all hours of the night.[16]

All this hyperactivity meant that “burn out” was a constant danger, and sometimes led to people dropping out.

Towards the end of 1974, Nadel initiated a debate about The Battler. He argued that it should aspire to be the “organiser” of the most militant section of the class: an agitational rather than a propaganda vehicle, oriented to militant blue collar shop stewards.

For a group of 25 this was a totally unrealistic perspective. But while the student movement was in decline, the union movement was still combative. Union membership was rising, and between 1972 and 1974, strike days trebled from 2 to more than 6 million. There was a sense of urgency based on the expectation that huge class confrontations were on the agenda. On that basis, most of us accepted Nadel’s argument.

In January 1975, Griffiths successfully proposed that our tiny group split into three branches: one based on Monash and Doveton; one on La Trobe and West Heidelberg; and one on Sunshine-Braybrook (areas where we sold The Battler door-to-door). The idea was that we would “implant” ourselves in these working class communities, getting involved in local disputes, attending ALP branch meetings and so on. To avoid atomisation, general meetings would be held every three or four weeks.

The core of the Monash RevComs had all graduated at the end of 1974, so the work there went into steep decline, although a couple more activists from the Monash occupation joined SWAG that year. The La Trobe RevComs had to contend with the Maoists’ penchant for physical violence against their opponents. In January they assaulted Armstrong at the national student conference, and in March they went on a rampage and overturned our campus stall. Later that year, there was a strike by maintenance and catering workers. The RevComs took the lead in mobilising students to support the picket and collect money for the strike fund. But overall, in accordance with the “turn” to the blue collar working class, no great effort was put into maintaining the campus clubs.

At its third conference in March 1975, SWAG voted to publish a regular blue collar rank and file broadsheet. We also had another debate about the “Russian question”. The bureaucratic collectivist analysis was reaffirmed, but there was greater support for the state capitalism position, and this time there were few abstentions, indicating a growing level of confidence in tackling theoretical questions.

For some months before the conference, debate had raged over Clerk and Dagger. Many older members were attached to it, but some felt its style was inappropriate for its intended audience, others argued that it spent too much time bashing union officials rather than the bosses, and some that it was “too political” and should limit itself to industrial issues. Even its strongest supporters had to concede that it had failed in its objectives of finding union militants, establishing rank and file groups and recruiting to SWAG. And now that we were producing The Battler, Clerk and Dagger was a drain on our resources. Eventually, the conference decision to drop it was almost unanimous, but the debate was debilitating.

Following the conference, O’Lincoln and Stone went overseas for seven months. This significantly reduced the group’s leadership and resources. We were also experiencing financial difficulties and having problems with printers that disrupted publication of The Battler. So it was hardly surprising that a certain amount of demoralisation set in. A few people dropped out and there began to be doubts about whether the group could survive.

Then, just two weeks after Stone and O’Lincoln had left the country, an internal crisis erupted over discipline. A leading member was feeling overworked and wanted to take leave of absence. That was allowed for in SWAG’s rules, but it was expected that members would not engage in political activity while on leave. But she wanted to continue her work in the public service union and use her freed-up time to build SFA, independently from SWAG. The upshot was that both she and her partner, also a leading member, resigned. This led to the demise of SFA not long after.

Demoralisation deepened. Membership was down to about 20 and activity reduced as a result. Griffiths had quit his job and returned to university. But faced with the crisis in SWAG, he dropped out of uni to become our first (unpaid) full-timer. The time and energy he devoted to SWAG was crucial to our survival. Between them, he and Nadel held the group together.

Regroupment

Then things looked up with the prospect of a fusion of revolutionary groups. Ten people expelled from the Communist League had formed the Melbourne Revolutionary Marxists (MRM) which approached SWAG for “regroupment” discussions. We saw this as a positive step. From January of that year, we were also in regular contact with a socialist in Hobart, Rana Roy, a supporter of the British IS. At the age of 14, he’d joined the ALP and rapidly gained a following among the left. By the age of 16 he was the Hobart branch president. The Labor right eventually forced him out, and in May 1975 he formed the Socialist Labour Club with about a dozen other revolutionaries.

SWAG’s morale also got a boost with the launch in June of the Rank and File Mettle broadsheet, aimed at metalworkers. It was edited by a former Monash RevCom working at a Repco plant known for its militancy. He later became a shop steward there. Like Clerk and Dagger, Rank and File Mettle was mostly distributed outside workplaces by student members. When another ex-student got a job at Ford Trucks in Broadmeadows later that year, we produced a few issues of a broadsheet called On the Line.

At its fifth conference in July 1975, SWAG adopted a more centralised structure. As well as the fact that we now had three branches in Melbourne, this was seen as laying the foundations for the national organisation we hoped would come out of the regroupment discussions. It was agreed that individual branches would not be autonomous, but organising units of the group as a whole. The elected leadership body would have the power to set up or disband branches, set membership dues and discipline members; its decisions could be reviewed and overturned by a general meeting or conference.

In August we threw ourselves into supporting two important strikes – by printers at the Herald and Weekly Times, and by meatworkers in the major slaughtering companies and supermarket chains. We letterboxed the housing commission areas where we sold The Battler with a leaflet calling for support for the printers, and members spent many hours on both picket lines. Α shop steward at the Herald-Sun sold 40 or 50 Battlers on the job for a period after the strike ended. This experience, plus the hopes of regroupment, revitalised the group.

It wasn’t all onwards and upwards though. The La Trobe RevComs club folded when our remaining members there resigned. One of them had taken over running the family business when her father died, and the group felt that being a boss was incompatible with SWAG membership. The other member resigned with her. The loss of the club was a blow, but, like the SFA dispute, it established certain boundaries.

From September, the focus switched to the regroupment discussions involving the MRM and two groups of ex-students and workers who produced a bulletin called The Link in conjunction with local metalworkers’ union branches. Some of the latter group were members of the CPA “left tendency”. Joint meetings of the four groups were attended by 30 to 40 people.

But from the outset, divisions emerged between SWAG and the other groups. The MRM in particular was paranoid about what they saw as SWAG’s “imported IS program”, and insisted on a detailed, worked-out program as the basis for fusion. SWAG opposed this on the grounds that it would take a long time and detract from the group’s activity, and argued for unity on the basis of a few key principles while leaving the finer points to be worked out over time. There were also differences over SWAG’s rank and file strategy in the unions and MRM’s and The Link people’s preference for building shop committees.

It soon became clear to SWAG that there was no realistic possibility of fusion, and discussions ended in October. The other groups folded soon after. Discussions with the Tasmanian group, however, were going well.

By then the group had split, and Roy now led a group called the Workers’ League. It only had about six members, but they were highly active. They sold The Battler at factories, at the University of Tasmania and on the Hobart wharves. Two members got jobs at the Universal Textiles plant, set up a rank and file group with four other workers and published a few issues of a well-received broadsheet, Textile Worker.

SWAG was also in contact with a small group in Canberra, mostly ANU students, who contributed the occasional article to The Battler and sold a few copies of the paper. The Hobart and Canberra groups agreed to attend a regroupment conference in early December.

Meanwhile, still with only 20 members, SWAG got a bigger office and The Battler went to 12 pages. So when Stone and O’Lincoln returned in September, it was to an organisation that had undergone significant changes. Ilton comments that “by now it was much stronger and had a greater sense of purpose”. The group “had now achieved its first serious work with blue collar workers (the printers’ and meatworkers’ strikes), activity was on the increase, and there was a general air of confidence… The Battler…had broadened its contact and sales with blue collar workers… And there was the very real prospect that SWAG was soon to become part of a national organisation – something which had seemed like a distant dream six months before”.[17]

He also notes that the mid-year crisis had tested and developed the leadership capacities of Griffiths and Nadel, so that the group was less dependent on O’Lincoln’s leadership.

But as we were preparing for the regroupment conference, the constitutional crisis erupted and we were engulfed in frenetic activity. There had been a wave of industrial action and mass rallies in response to Liberal leader Fraser’s threat to block supply. The conservative press feared that Fraser wouldn’t be able to govern in the face of this opposition. It looked like he was backing off. So we printed a triumphant issue of The Battler. Set against a photo of the Melbourne rally and a list of strikes, the front page headline declared: “THIS IS HOW WE STOPPED FRASER”. Three days later, the Governor General John Kerr sacked Whitlam. So we had to pulp that issue, and with a superhuman effort got another one out in time for the 4-hour stoppage and mass protest on 14 November, agitating for a general strike. We argued:

We have to organise action to defend ourselves. We cannot rely on anyone to do it for us. The Labor Party certainly can’t; the rules are stacked against it.

We need a general strike to smash Fraser. If the ACTU won’t organise it, we’ll have to build it from the rank and file ourselves.

At the 50,000-strong protest in Melbourne that day, we sold over 600 copies of the new paper and hundreds of badges with our slogan “STRIKE FRASER OUT”.

After a couple of hours of speeches, Communist Party metal union leader John Halfpenny urged the angry crowd to disperse and go home. Instead, thousands of frustrated workers milled around outside the Treasury Building, wanting to do something else, but needing a lead.

As usual, the Maoists called for a march on the US consulate. But Griffiths got hold of a megaphone and urged the crowd to march on the Stock Exchange. Thanks to his agitational skills, we found ourselves at the head of an angry crowd of 15,000 workers surging down Collins Street. A large contingent of police stopped us getting into the building. It was a heady experience. But as Ilton notes, “[f]ew of those people…would have known who SWAG was, or, indeed, that they were being led by a small group of socialists”.[18] Our tiny numbers had absolutely no chance of providing an alternative leadership to the Labor and union leaders, whose calls to “cool it” and “maintain your rage” ultimately prevailed. SWAG was able to use its union contacts to organise a few workplace meetings – including one at a large slaughtering works, thanks to the credibility we’d gained from our support work in the meatworkers’ strike – and The Battler sold very well. But no general strike eventuated, and Whitlam lost the election.

During this period, it was decided to dissolve SWAG’s three branches and revert to weekly general meetings, to take advantage of the heightened political mood and attempt to recruit our periphery. Around 30-40 people attended the meetings, and a number joined.

A week before the election, on 6 December, about 40 people from Melbourne, Canberra and Hobart gathered for the regroupment conference. Discussion on the first day revolved around the immediate strategy for a new organisation proposed by SWAG: the building of militant rank and file groups in workplaces and unions, out of which a cross-industry rank and file movement could grow and eventually lead to the formation of a revolutionary party. There was general consensus on this strategy, despite some reservations on the part of the Canberra group who were “apprehensive that [it] might result in students approaching workers in a heavy handed manner”.[19]

However, a large majority voted to adopt the rank and file strategy as the basis for a new organisation, and 32 of those present signed up. This included none of the Canberra people, though some of them joined the following year. The next day the new organisation convened and after a long debate, adopted the name International Socialists.

We adopted a structure not unlike the one we have in Socialist Alternative today: a National Executive which would meet frequently, take responsibility for day-to-day leadership and oversee the national organisation; a larger National Committee comprised of representatives from the various branches, which met several times a year; and an annual conference as the supreme decision-making body. A National Executive was elected consisting of Griffiths, Nadel, O’Lincoln and Roy. Nadel was re-confirmed as The Battler editor, and Roy appointed national organiser.

The remainder of the conference discussed three key proposals. First, to begin fortnightly publication of The Battler. Second, to build a national organisation. Most of the Hobart members were moving to Melbourne, and establishing a branch in Sydney was considered a priority, so about half a dozen members would move there. Third was a policy which became known as “industrialisation”, i.e. encouraging ex-student members to get blue collar jobs, with the metals industry as the priority. This focus on the blue collar working class would not, however, preclude activity in other areas, such as other unions where we had members, social movements, the campuses, or new campaigns as they arose.

It was to say the least a very ambitious perspective for a group of still just over 30 members, and how it all panned out is a topic for another article.

Conclusion

With hindsight, it’s easy to see a lot of things we got wrong. The biggest problem was that we didn’t understand that we needed to be building a propaganda rather than an agitational group. Our strategic orientation was misconceived, and we were looking to entirely the wrong audience. A lot of that is down to the impatience that’s an occupational hazard of all small groups. But also, we were all very young, and we were building a new political tendency in Australia from scratch.

The urgency of the times was also a factor. No-one foresaw the downturn in struggle on the horizon. Our “workerism” meant that student work was downgraded, despite the successes we’d had. The loss of our student clubs undoubtedly meant missed opportunities for growth. It also meant that our theoretical development proceeded more slowly than it should have.

But there were some pluses. Over the three years of SWAG’s existence, we developed a high level of agreement around a series of key political questions: the basic elements of the “What we stand for” in Red Flag today were more or less worked out back then. And we never contemplated softening our politics to make it easier to recruit.

We also established and maintained a high level of commitment, discipline and activity, necessary if a small group is to survive. Many other small organisations proliferated in those days, but most failed to achieve either political clarity or any form of stable organisation, and fell by the wayside.

When preparing this article, I asked Tom O’Lincoln why he thought SWAG managed to survive. He replied that it was because we were “realistic”. This may seem weird, given the highly unrealistic tasks we set ourselves. But there’s a kernel of truth to it. Through all the ups and downs, we did keep our feet on the ground most of the time. When we bit off more than we could chew, we were able to retreat and consolidate without imploding. We weathered internal crises and tried to learn from our experiences. And we never kidded ourselves that we were more than we were: a small group, albeit one with big ideas.

In subsequent years in the course of arguments and sometimes bitter experience we learned important lessons and our perspectives became more realistic. The issues of voluntarism and impatience would recur more than once. But facing up to these issues formed part of the foundation on which Socialist Alternative was established.[20] Socialist Alternative is the largest organisation on the far left in Australia today, but we are still a small group, and we have no illusions about the magnitude of the challenges that face us. But the lessons and experience from the SWAG years form a valuable part of our journey.

References

Armstrong, Mick 2010, “The Origins of Socialist Alternative: summing up the debate”, Marxist Left Review, 1, Spring.

Bramble, Tom 2008, Trade unionism in Australia. A history from flood to ebb tide, Cambridge University Press.

Ilton, Phil 1984, A history of the Socialist Workers’ Action Group, International Socialists (Australia)[21]

O’Lincoln, Tom 1985, Into the Mainstream, Stained Wattle Press.

O’Lincoln, Tom 2017, The Highway is for Gamblers. A Political Memoir, Interventions.

[1] Tess Lee Ack is a founding member of Socialist Alternative and contributes to Marxist Left Review and Red Flag. This article draws heavily on Ilton 1984, as well as the personal recollections of Mick Armstrong, Tom O’Lincoln and myself, all of whom were members of SWAG, its successors the International Socialists and International Socialist Organisation, and are members of Socialist Alternative today. Thanks to Mick and Tom for their input.

[2] Mick Armstrong recalls being asked by a fellow activist when he thought the revolution would start. When he replied “about five years”, he was derided as a pessimist.

[3] In 1971, union membership stood at 2.5 million (covering more than 50 percent of the workforce). Bramble 2008, pp9-10.

[4] When the CPA dissolved itself in 1991, the SPA reclaimed the name of the Communist Party. For an account of the decline of the CPA in this period, see O’Lincoln 1985, chapters 5-8.

[5] In 1977, the Maoists campaigned against US “cultural imperialism”, protesting against the naming of Mickey Mouse as the king of Melbourne’s Moomba festival, and demanding that he be replaced by an authentic Australian icon, Blinky Bill. See the poster at http://www.communityartworkers.com.au/mickey_moomba.php.

[6] This organisation is now Socialist Alliance (publishers of Green Left Weekly), and no longer Trotskyist.

[7] In Australia this group is now known as the Socialist Equality Party.

[8] See O’Lincoln 2017, pp89-101.

[9] Ilton 1984, p4.

[10] See Max Shachtman, The Nature of the Russian State. Bureaucratic Collectivism and the Marxist Tradition (1947) at https://www.marxists.org/archive/shachtma/1947/04/russianstate.html.

[11] Later (after we became the International Socialists), we adopted the British IS analysis of state capitalism developed by Tony Cliff. See https://www.marxists.org/archive/cliff/works/1955/statecap/index.htm.

[12] The Battler, 17 November 1972.

[13] A Stalinist agent had used an icepick to murder Leon Trotsky in Mexico.

[14] users.comcen.com.au/~marcn/redflag/archive/stone/RadicalFeminism.doc.

[15] At the time there were three unions covering Victorian government schools, with separate organisations for primary, secondary and technical school teachers. All ultimately merged to become the Victorian branch of the Australian Education Union. For an account of the VSTA’s industrial militancy and educational policies, see Bill Hannan, The Best Of Times: The Story Of The Great Secondary Schooling Expansion, Lexis, 2009.

[16] Ilton 1984, p26.

[17] Ilton 1984, p43.

[18] ibid., p47.

[19] Ibid.

[20] For the origins of Socialist Alternative see Armstrong 2010.

[21] Ilton’s history of SWAG was originally written in 1978 as part of a larger academic work tracing the development of International Socialist politics and organisation in Britain, the US and Australia. The section on SWAG was published as a pamphlet by the Australian IS in 1984. Ilton was a member of SWAG/IS from August 1973 until July 1978.