Marching down Marx Street

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Marching down Marx Street

The International Socialists in Australia, 1972-92.

Tom O’Lincoln

This is the “final” version taking account of comments. But you can send additional comments, if constructive and relevant, to: I’ll post them at


his is the history of a small revolutionary current in Australia. I was a leader of it, in one way or another, for the whole twenty years. After 1992 I stepped down from the leadership, and no longer had the same overview, so I have decided to end the story there. Besides, twenty years is a neat timeframe.

During that time the Marxist Workers’ Group gave way to the Socialist Workers’ Action Group; and it in turn gave rise to the International Socialists. A split in 1985 gave birth to Socialist Action, but the two groups merged again five years later to form the International Socialist Organisation. More recently, of course, there has been another split. I’ve put my view of the period from 1992 to 2002 online at:

Writing about your own organisation is full of dangers. You can write a history that shows how the group was always right (except for those mistakes that were triumphantly corrected) or, if you’re a hostile ex-member, you can write one about how it was always wrong.

A favourite hybrid is the one where the author tells you things went along really well until he or she lost the leadership; and after that it was all downhil. As the American socialist Alan Wald puts it: “Surely one of the most tragic features of the history of U.S. Trotskyism is the inability of individuals, who were once comfortable in an organization and then on the ‘outs’ to recognize problems in theory, practice, and organization until ‘one’s own ox is gored.’“ (1) That happens in Australia too. I have tried to avoid these traps.

Have I succeeded? Perhaps not entirely. There was one arch-sectarian phase in the eighties that I sharply opposed, and I still think think it was a disgrace, and I’ve said so. But I have also tried to analyse it as the culmination of a trend in the organisation for which I bear some responsibility myself: the politics of impatience. This is one of two trends that stand out in the history of the international socialists in Australia. The other is the daring, inspiration and flair that distinguished us at our best from much of the left. It’s a fine line between the two.

The group grew dramatically in the seventies and again in the early nineties on the basis of its creativity and daring, for example during the Constitutional Crisis and the 1991 Gulf War. At other times it did itself serious damage and experienced devastating splits, because it tried to force the pace of events, falling victim to its own impatience.

A history like this is also partly memoir. I wondered how much the personality of Tom O’Lincoln should intrude, and in the end decided the answer was “not very much”. A related question was whether this was a suitable opportunity for a bit of healthy self-criticism After all, I have done some pretty dumb things. In the end I decided the world wasn’t that interested in my mea culpas; it was more important to discuss lessons that apply to the left generally. But you can take them as read.

I would like to make special mention of Jeff Goldhar. He wasn’t a leader of political interventions, so he doesn’t appear in the short history that follows, but he was important as a source of legal expertise and general hard work, and also in helping withour finances. When he died in 1997 he left a generous bequest which finances socialist projects.

When the Marxist Workers’ Group (MWG) first formed in Melbourne, it didn’t have I.S. politics. In fact:
When Dave Nadel and Chris Gaffney assembled a small group of their political associates … in December 1971, they had no plans to establish an International Socialist tendency in Australia. Indeed Nadel was probably the only person who had even heard of the I.S. tendency. (2)
Yet within a year, just such a current was emerging. The superficial explanation is that three partisans of the tendency arrived in Australia: Janey Stone and I from the United States and Ross Mackenzie from Britain. (Janey was originally from Melbourne.) Despite whatever powers of persuasion we had, though, our success was only possible due to other factors.

The most important was the dramatic social radicalisation and surge of class struggle that took place in Australia, and internationally, between 1967 and 1974. The May-June 1968 events in France, the great movement against the Vietnam war, the outburst of student radicalism which followed the massive growth of student populations and the emergence of women’s liberation are only some of many sides to this.

At the same time, the monolithic hold of stalinist Communist Parties and reformist Labor and Social Democratic Parties on both the left and the working class was weakening. Partly this was due to high levels of class struggle. In Australia, strike days rose to over a million in 1968, soared past the 3 million mark in 1971 and peaked at 6.3 million in 1974. Workers still voted Labor, and some militants still joined the Communist Party, but they felt far more confident about their own ability to win gains in the field so that their psychological dependency on these parties fell away.

Radical students were contemptuous of the moderate politics of the Communist Party and hostile to the Soviet regime; and while many had thrown themselves into the 1966 Labor election campaign because the ALP was critical of the Vietnam war, after Labor’s defeat in that poll they turned from Laborism to direct action. Within the ALP, specifically in Melbourne where the group first formed, attacks by the right wing federal leadership had given rise to the defiant Socialist Left faction which enjoyed substantial support from union militants.

All these factors helped shaped what became the International Socialists. The high levels of class struggle made our theoretical argument for a working class orientation credible, and presented opportunities for practical interventions in picket lines and mass meetings. The campus radicalisation was where most of our recruits came from. Dissatisfaction with existing parties made it easier to argue for building a new type of political organisation.

We weren’t the only ones, of course. In fact other far-left currents emerged well ahead of us. In Melbourne, a pro-Chinese breakaway from the Communist Party of Australia (CPA) had cashed in on the appeal of Mao’s Red Guards to capture a sizeable proportion of the radical student movement. In Brisbane, the “libertarian” Self Management Group was the biggest force, while in Sydney a number of significant Trotskyist groups took shape. This had all happened around 1969-70. By the time we had the first minimal elements for an organisation, our competitors had national structures and regular publications. We had to play catch-up.

We were terribly young and inexperienced. Unlike the situation in many other countries, the Australian far left had few links to the past. This was one reason that overseas groups, including the Fourth International and, in our case, the British and American International Socialists, had a disproportionate influence.

The MWG was a very loose group. Chris Gaffney supported Ernest Mandel’s Fourth International, and he was soon to depart for Britain where he joined the local FI section. He and Dave Nadel were graduates of a small circle associated with veteran Trotskyist Ted Tripp, who ran the Victorian Labor College. Gaffney and Nadel and Ken Mansell had been briefly involved with the ferocious sectarian-Trotskyist Socialist Labour League. Others in the group identified as anarchists and libertarians, including a young draft resister named Phil Griffiths (“Griff”). On the 1972 May Day march, where Janey and I met them for the first time, MWG circulated a leaflet arguing for a Trotskyist “transitional program” (a set of radical demands adding up to socialism) but that didn’t really represent a consensus. MWG had more general agreement about hostility to Australian nationalism (its May Day propaganda attacked “kangaroo capitalism”) but even here there was no shared theoretical underpinning. This was essentially an open discussion group containing incompatible currents. Janey and I came into it, allied ourselves with those closest to us, and polarised it with our arguments. Others can judge how well we argued, but probably what mattered most was that we were the only ones arguing a really consistent line. This attracted some people and repelled others; and the latter tended to leave

Our closest allies were a group of three students from Monash, who had been involved with the Monash Labor Club (famous for leading struggles at Australia’s leading radical campus) but had broken with Albert Langer’s Maoists and launched the Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Club. The key figure was Dave Nadel. His supporters were Tess Lee Ack and cartoonist Mark Matcott. They published the weekly broadsheet Hard Lines. This appeared reliably on the same day each week; and in contrast to a lot of other left wing propaganda, it was concise, humourous, and popular with students.

Hard Lines became a model for the group’s publications for several years before we were capable of sustaining a newspaper. Initially the RevComs were a separate group, but over time Hard Lines became the responsibility of the whole organisation. After Ross Mackenzie’s arrival, the six of us formed an explicit tendency called “Red Inc”, to argue systematically for a Leninist orientation.

The first sharp polarisation, however, took place around internal sexism. There was one culprit in particular, but the group was generally far too tolerant of sexist behaviour. In the manner of the times, the women formed a separate caucus. It held its first meeting right before one of the weekly branch meetings, so that men arrived to see it in full swing. Some of us also challenged one individual on his racism. After some heated arguments the worst offenders departed. The women’s caucus continued until the early eighties.

Next came an argument about the “role of the party”, with the anarchists led by Jim and Jeannette Rabe advancing arguments based on Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s Obsolete Communism, linking Leninism to Stalinism and arguing for a loose federation rather than a revolutionary workers’ party. We said that the revolutionary party would be a mass organisation based democratically on worker militants, not an elitist project. Since the majority tended to agree with us, the debate led to a second exodus; and MWG was left considerably smaller but a bit more coherent.

In addition to the Monash campus work, we threw ourselves into rank and file organising among white collar workers. I had initiated a small group in the Victorian Secondary Teachers’ Association called Teacher Action. It gave me, and later Tess, some useful experience. More significant was Griff’s work in the insurance industry. In October 1973 we launched Clerk and Dagger, an “underground” broadsheet for clerical workers in the Melbourne CBD – underground in the sense that students handed it out at entrances to about a dozen office buildings, though the content was written by workers, most importantly Griff himself. The broadsheets reflected Griff’s daring and madcap sense of humour, which didn’t stop it making substantial political points. Clerical workers loved it.

Several female members became heavily involved with the Working Women’s Group, which attracted Women’s Liberation activists with a working class orientation. You can see that the MWG was defining itself as worker-oriented, but the reality of its composition (students and tertiary educated workers) meant it had to orient primarily to the white collar sphere. This was a definite positive – for our chances of recruiting blue collar workers to a small left circle would have been virtually nil, but we did recruit a few clerks.

With the 1972 elections approaching, we decided to produce a newspaper. Dave was keen to call it The Battler, which he argued for on the basis of Australian cultural references I couldn’t judge – so I agreed to it. It was an odd name, some people laughed at it, but on balance it didn’t do us any harm and workers felt quite comfortable with it. The main value of the first Battler, however, was to prove to us we weren’t ready to publish a paper. The front page headline was:

A vote for Labor is the first step to

In the midst of the euphoric Whitlam campaign of 1972, this was self-isolating sectarianism. Yes we had to criticise Labor and warn of betrayals to come, but the headline also had to make it clear we were for a change of government. Read from a distance, the paper might have been taken for a conservative publication. Our attempt at a second issue went nowhere, for lack of resources and political clarity; we fell back on a duplicated A4 magazine called Front Line which was actually quite successful.

The Battler tried to be a workers’ paper, but for Front Line there could be no such illusions. It was partly inspired by a conversation Dave Nadel had in London, in which Duncan Hallas told him about using the magazine Socialist Review to visit individuals and argue ideas. We used Front Line for that and also to develop ourselves. To write essays on topics that were reasonably complicated (for us at the time) and subject them to public scrutiny forced us to take our ideas seriously. It was a realistic publication for the type of organisation we were; and it didn’t drive us into hyperactivity. The group matured noticeably after it retreated from trying to bring out a paper and began publishing Front Line.

When the first Battler came out, we had changed our group’s name. Tired of being asked “how many Marxist workers do you have?” we tossed around umpteen other names, finally arriving at Socialist Workers’ Action Group (SWAG). The acronym, along with the Battler name, suggested other Australian terms, such as Jumbooks for our tiny literature service, which sat oddly with our trenchant opposition to Australian nationalism. But once again, it seemed to work OK in practice.

Between the publications and the activity, we were becoming more than the original discussion group. The Red Inc tendency, meanwhile, was gently prodding SWAG towards a Leninist orientation. Red Inc achieved this at the first SWAG Conference (3), which voted to create a Political Committee. The group had previously had an executive committee with modest administrative functions. We argued for a leading body whose main role was to develop the group politically as the name implied. At the same time we argued for a disciplined group in which, if members didn’t agree with a policy, they should at least not oppose it publicly or impede its implementation. It did not mean we thought our group was a “revolutionary vanguard party” – we understood that this meant a mass movement of workers. We did undoubtedly have exaggerated expectations of what we could achieve, relative to our size, but in this regard we were probably no different to other groups that didn’t identify as “Leninist”.

The decision presented a dilemma for Griff, who retained his libertarian views and had opposed the formation of the PC, but was clearly a leader of the group. We asked him to serve on it because whether he liked it or not, he was a leader. Griff accepted the responsibility, but took some time to work through these issues before emerging as a decided Leninist.

We started from the idea that we would win people to revolutionary ideas in struggle. So even before our political program was coherent, we tried to intervene in the struggles around us. This helped us shape our ideas, and while we didn’t recruit out of every intervention, we grew politically.

We found it relatively easy to do union work in the white collar sphere, because we had members there. Peter Ellett was the first of our recruits in the federal public service union ACOA. Griff had established himself in the insurance industry, and now he began to agitate for an equal pay campaign, forming a small group called Militant Insurance Clerks who had a broadsheet named Miccy Finn (we were heavily into broadsheets in those days!)

The time was right: 100-200 people were coming along to union meetings to discuss the issue, culminating in a 2000-strong mass rally in December 1973. MIC moved for a strike, and won the vote against opposition from the leadership. Several thousand workers marched through Melbourne and cheered when solidarity greetings arrived from “Patricia Watson”, the fictional editor of Clerk and Dagger. Conventional wisdom would have expected opposition from male members and indeed the union leaders, influenced by feminism, had tried to hold women-only meetings. Griff argued for involving the men. He wrote in the union journal that the campaign was in men’s interests:
Because the union has not been seen to defend the wages of women … it has not been able to organise women into the union to fight for the interests of all insurance staff … It is a vicious circle and one that has harmed the interests of all insurance workers … low wages continue to give employers a cheap more economic choice when hiring staff ..[and] by dividing men from women workers … employers strengthened their industrial position. (4)
Not all men responded to this logic, but then not all women supported equal pay either. However joint meetings and joint actions by women and men won sizeable gains for female insurance workers. The tiny group around Griff had made an impact, reflecting the explosive militancy of the times. Unfortunately it’s dangerous to win easy victories; we tended to think we could repeat the success in other areas. In reality, our forces were far too small to consistently challenge the union officials, let alone defeat them.

It was easier at Monash, because small forces can often have a big impact in the campus environment. In 1974 SWAG achieved a stunning success at Monash. The RevComs had been slowly building credibility on the campus, while that of the Maoists eroded. At the same time, the Teacher Action group found itself involved in an amazing union campaign. The VSTA leadership had decided to support open admission to universities – that is, anyone should be allowed to enroll. After all, the existing system favoured the rich.

Confronted with arguments about limited resources, the same leadership responded with the radical suggestion that until more resources were forthcoming, universities should select students by ballot, which would level out class backgrounds. This was a very daring proposal – in fact it was controversial even inside SWAG -- and an opposition faction within the union killed it fairly quickly, but in the meantime it gave us an opportunity. I spoke at Monash as a VSTA union rep, and the RevComs established an Assessment Action group to campaign not only for open admissions, but also for an end to competitive assessment. Hard Lines argued that:
a fundamental change in the social role and function [of education] means a corresponding fundamental change in society. But we don’t have to wait for a revolution to do something. Not only can we win important reforms now, but a successful anti-assessment struggle could be a step towards the fundamental social changes we need. (5)
Tess Lee Ack led 150 students in occupying the university administration building for a week. Dave Nadel, a leader of the Labor Club at an earlier stage, returned to Monash in a mentoring role and was also essential for advancing specifically Marxist arguments to push the struggle leftwards (Tess had to concentrate on holding the occupation together).

It was smaller than previous occupations, but more prolonged. This was one of the last major struggles of the student movement which had begun in the late sixties, showing the movement to be in decline but with an activist element demonstrating considerable maturity. SWAG recruited some leading activists. Alec Kahn and Steve Morgan, who were to build our newspaper along with Dave and Griff, didn’t join at this point; but we grew immediately from 15 to 25 members, which made it possible to re-launch The Battler and sustain it as a monthly. One factor in recruiting them was that on our regular SWAG meeting night, we all traveled to Monash and held our meeting in the midst of the occupation, debating contentious questions in front of other activists -- who found this quite attractive.

The other interventions that gave us confidence and coherence were in the area of strike support. The group involved itself in a printers’ strike at the Herald, and a state-wide meatworkers’ strike. Most of our members joined the printers’ picket, and we distributed a leaflet about it in Housing Commission areas where we sold our new paper. In the aftermath, a shop-steward at the Herald was selling 40-plus copies of The Battler on the job. Some members spent nights with the meatworkers, and Griff built a close relationship with them. We were learning to relate to workers in struggle, and these experiences gave greater substance to our ideas about building a rank and file movement in industry, which we had taken over from the British and American I.S.

Unfortunately it also bred illusions. Because its main stock in trade was ideas and it could seldom deliver concrete gains in struggle, a group as small as ours needed to orient first and foremost to the campuses where the interest in ideas for their own sake was highest. Interventions in the working class were really a means to demonstrate the relevance of those ideas to students and the general left. But instead we allowed our student work to run down after the Monash occupation, while devoting endless hours to largely futile attempts to get a toehold in industry and establish the paper in working class neighbourhoods. (With our new recruits, we were just able to sustain The Battler after the Monash occupation as an 8-page monthly.)

For half of 1975, Janey and I were overseas. This left a partial leadership vacuum, but Griff and Dave Nadel filled it. They worked very closely over months, building up their own authority, and there were predictable tensions when we returned, especially as they had overcome serious internal difficulties – indeed crises, using different methods to mine. I was already acquiring a reputation for being cautious and conciliatory; Dave and Griff disliked this “O’Lincoln method”, preferring to fight issues out and take risks.

The distinction wasn’t absolute though. Janey and I came back having seen some of the high points of the Portuguese revolution, having met the American I.S. who were sending ex-students into factories in an attempt to sink roots in the working class, and full of frustration that our group was still so small and seemingly unstable. We thought a program of “industrialising” our members in Australia (sending them into industry) would make us more proletarian, and therefore more stable; and place us strategically to play a role in the crisis and working class upsurge we expected to see in Australia. Most of this was hopelessly naïve; once again, we should have focused far more on the campuses. But the crisis happened all right.

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