The Origins, Politics and Trajectory of the International Socialist Tendency

By Sam King

The following was presented on day two of Red Ant’s Peace and Liberation Conference in August 2022.

In today’s imperialist world, which is starkly polarised between rich and poor societies, revolutionary Internationalism is the most basic principle of Marxist politics.

It is not enough simply to support the struggle of workers in our own country for better lives. Redistribution of wealth within a rich, imperialist country like Australia – if the workers movement is limited to that – is historically a social democratic project.

Because the wealth in Australia is based, in part, on the economic exploitation of the Global South, and sharing in a general imperialist prosperity based on that, a project limited to re-distribution inevitably becomes a national chauvinist, racist project. The history of the Australian Labor Party attests to that.

This is the context in which I want to introduce what might seem, to some, a sectarian topic for this talk – the critique of another socialist tendency.

Most working people, even most socialists, find the idea of one socialist group criticising another to be almost an embarrassing caricature: Can we please just direct our fire at the main enemy – the ruling class?

This widely felt anxiety has, at its root, the very healthy and natural proletarian inclination for class unity against the class enemy.

However, the other part of the anxiety stems from a disinclination or inability to think through and take seriously what are the necessary and unavoidable theoretical tasks and responsibilities of the socialist movement.

“Without revolutionary theory there can be no revolutionary practice” – Lenin is widely quoted as saying. This is because unless our ideas are revolutionary – not just in intention (something that requires real work and study) – then our practice will also be something else.

The majority of the working class, as long as it remains under the oppression of a stable capitalist class rule, will not see the need to attend talks on Sundays on any theoretical question. But organisation of the working class majority is not something that is possible now, or for some time.

The first step in turning around the historical decline in working class organisation in this country, or creating the conditions where it is possible to turn that around, is not to immediately try to organise the whole class, something we have no capacity to do.

Rather, we must begin to organise and bring together those few hundred or few thousand people who have already reached socialist conclusions, or who’s existing level of consciousness allows them to rapidly reach those conclusions when they’re exposed to socialist ideas.

Only when this far smaller section of the class is already far better organised will it be come possible for revolutionary socialists to engage in consistent mass work – because this more conscious section of the class is the only possible force able to carry out mass work among the working class majority.

But to do that mass work effectively, i.e. to do it in a revolutionary manner, requires that this section of the class be trained in revolutionary socialist theory. This part of the class at least, can’t afford to ignore or downplay theoretical controversies and differences as unimportant, embarrassing, or best papered over so that we can supposedly just “get on with” practical work.

In the conditions of capitalist imperialism, and especially in Australia, it is indispensable for the revolutionary leadership of the class to have a consistently internationalist and anti-imperialist perspective.

The International Socialist Tendency

This is where the controversy with the International Socialist Tendency (IST) come in. At first sight the controversy may seem confusing. After all the IST has “international” in its name. Its adherents claim their outlook represents the most consistent and militant form of proletarian internationalism.

Perhaps their most famous historical slogan is: “neither Washington nor Moscow but international socialism”. One contemporary version is: “neither Washington nor Beijing…”.

IST adherents argue that this expresses their consistent proletarian internationalism against all ruling class oppression. Yet, as will be outlined, IST groupings have taken a series of stances on government foreign policies, including over the last decade, that coincide with imperialist foreign policy.  

These include Socialist Alternative’s support for NATO arming of Ukraine, support for the imperialist backed opposition in the Syrian war, hostility to the Cuban and Venezuelan Revolutions and the cover they provide for imperialist aggression again China (and Russia) by insisting that these countries too are “imperialist”.

IST groupings are the dominant organised socialist force in Australia. Here, the IST is made up of two competing groups – Socialist Alternative and Solidarity. It is also the largest tendency on the far left in the United Kingdom. Before the US International Socialist Organisation collapsed in 2019 – it was the largest tendency there too.

Given its prominence and because it self-identifies to workers as the true representatives of revolutionary socialism, it is critical that we clarify how we understand and orient to this important tendency.

So how should Marxists characterise the IST as it exists today? Perhaps most importantly, what does the IST phenomenon represent in class terms?

This talk doesn’t aim to answer that conclusively. Any conclusive understanding is probably only possible through further experience and struggle – especially in periods of heightened class struggle – such as the next time a revolution occurs in our region, Australia joins a major war or some other form of revolutionary crisis develops.

Today’s talk only aims to outline some of the historical background and key questions that we need to keep thinking about.

Before proceeding, I should mention that myself and some other founding members of Red Ant were for a few years members of the of the largest IST group in Australia – Socialist Alternative (SAlt). A group of us joined, with the perspective committed to building that organisation as our own.

So, outlining a critique here is not due to some reluctance to work with IST groups. We tried that, but found we have a fundamentally different political outlook.

The Split with Trotskyism in the United States

The International Socialist Tendency (IST) originated in the Trotskyist movement and formed a tendency through a decisive split from Trotskyism during World War Two.

The IST’s break with classical Trotskyism’s understanding of the USSR is what defined and shaped it as a historical tendency.

Under the intense social and political crises of the Second World War the split occurred in several imperialist countries at similar times – most importantly, in the United States and the United Kingdom.

I’m going to focus on the United States where the US Socialist Workers Party was as that time the largest Trotskyist party in the world with several thousand members across many US cities. It was also the party that Trotsky himself, then in exile in Mexico, was in regular direct contact with.

In the 1930s unemployment had reached 25% in the United States. Millions of people were forced into becoming itinerant workers, lost their houses, farms, went hungry or died. Hitler had come to power in Germany in 1933 and there was a significant fascist movement in the United States (which was ultimately defeated there, though that defeat did not seem so certain at the time). There was a proletarian revolution in Spain 1936, that was only finally defeated in 1939.

In that atmosphere of generalised crisis and upheaval, Trotsky himself – through his writings, as he was prohibited from entering the United States – had considerable influence among the large radicalised intellectual circles of the time, especially in New York City.

A significant number of these intellectuals joined the Socialist Workers Party. Most of them were from relatively privileged, mostly petty bourgeois family backgrounds. Owing to their levels of education and resultant skills as writers, editors, educators and so forth – a number quickly assumed important leadership roles in the party and SWP publications.

As the US capitalist class prepared to enter World War Two, the whole of this radicalised petty bourgeois milieu (in fact all classes) began to be tested politically by the patriotic social hysteria, increased state repression and the looming bloody showdown of the war.

The decisive event that caused a rupture, and then a split, in the SWP was the non-aggression pact signed between the USSR and Hitler’s Germany on August 23, 1939, a few days before the start of World War 2.  The “Stalin Hitler Pact” included the partition of Poland, with German and Soviet armies occupying the Western and Eastern parts.

World public opinion about the Soviet Union had already been soured by the Moscow show trials of Stalin’s opponents in the mid to late 1930s where many of the remaining Bolshevik leaders were purged and executed after making public forced confessions to being secret agents of imperialism etc.

Once the USSR became (for a short time) a treaty ally of Nazi Germany at a time that world public opinion was turning against Hitlerism – the pressure to condemn and distance oneself from the Soviet Union unconditionally because it had made peace with Hitler, to capitulate to the prevailing war propaganda about the evils of the USSR, became immense.

That is precisely what a minority of the SWP did – capitulated. SWP leaders James Burnham and Max Shachtman began to argue (though it took time for their arguments to be made clearly) that the USSR had, under Stalin, ceased to be a worker’s state and for that reason, socialists had no obligation to defend it against attack or counter-revolution – including in the coming imperialist war.

That is the historical origin of the IST and of what eventually became their main slogan “neither Washington nor Moscow”.

In Trotsky’s view, that constituted a decisive break with Marxism.

Classical Trotskyist Critique of the Soviet Union

To understand the split it is necessary to understand the classical Trotskyist analysis of the Soviet Union.

In the view of Trotsky and the early Trotskyists, the Soviet Russia was seen, on the one hand, as continuing to represent the main historical accomplishments of the Russian Revolution: defeat of capitalist state power, establishment of state power by the working class, social ownership of the means of production and organisation of the economy by a conscious plan (abolition of the free market). These all remained in place.

On the other hand, since the late 1920s, after Lenin’s death, the Trotskyists argued a bureaucratic clique headed by Joseph Stalin had consolidated political power within the Soviet Union, crushed workers’ democracy and betrayed the program of worldwide revolution.

Therefore, Trotskyism defended the social system that the Russian revolution had brought into existence, and that still remained in place, but opposed the political leadership of that social system.

Of these two factors, the Trotskyists, being Marxists, considered the character of the social system to be the primary determinant in Soviet Society and the political leadership that had hoisted itself to the top of that social structure to be a secondary factor.

For this reason, they considered the USSR to be worthy of political defence by socialists (for example in the case of military attack by the imperialist powers – as ultimately happened) despite the political crimes of Stalinism. Because if the imperialist armies defeated the Red Army, then they would re-introduce capitalist social relations and capitalist class rule.

One of the concrete examples that Trotsky and the US SWP majority gave to substantiate their view that the social relations of the USSR were decisive, was by looking at what happened when the Soviet Red Army entered Poland (and later other countries in Eastern Europe).

Entry of the Red Army threw the local capitalist class into immediate crisis and stimulated vigorous activity and struggle by the working class and peasants in each case. The invading Soviet authorities also facilitated or even spurred on land reform, workers control of production, the formation of workers organisations and other revolutionary measures – at least initially.

It was not that Stalin, having just overseen the execution of Zinoviev and much of the Bolshevik old guard, suddenly turned over a new leaf. Rather – just as the capitalist ruling class in a capitalist society can only take decisions about what to do within the framework of the needs of that social system – so it was in the Soviet Union.

The Stalinist bureaucracy could only rule within the confines of what was required to continue that social system – social ownership of the means of production as established by the October revolution in 1917.

So, classical Trotskyism had a dual orientation to the Soviet Union politically. On the one hand, it gave unconditional defence of the Soviet Union against imperialism. On the other hand, it politically opposed the Stalinist political rulers of the Soviet Union, who Trotskyists maintained needed to be replaced by the soviet working class in a political revolution that would re-establish workers democracy. (A political revolution is one which replaces the political rule of one section of a social class with a different section of that same social class. A social revolution is what which replaces the rule of one social class with another class).

This theoretical understanding is summarised by the characterisation of the USSR as a “bureaucratically degenerated workers state”.

Soviet Imperialism?

The debate with the SWP minority started out with a question that is in some ways very similar to one of our main points of contention with the IST today – whether the USSR’s military annexation of part of Poland could be characterised as “imperialist” in the Marxist sense.

The SWP minority, who ultimately saw the USSR as no longer a socialist society, said its actions were “imperialist”. In doing so, they also abandoned the classical Leninist definition of imperialism – as the domination of the world by the finance capital of the advanced capitalist countries

Instead, they essentially adopted the general, bourgeois liberal or dictionary definition of imperialism – any act of aggression by any state.

That remains the IST definition of imperialism today. It is identical in essence to any bourgeois liberal definition. Accordingly, contemporary IST groups view Russia, China, even Iran (and presumably India too – if they are consistent) as “imperialist”.

Such a definition is obviously of benefit to Washington, because its enemies are viewed, in a certain sense, as equally as bad US capitalism – in essence, if not degree.  This is a very useful “left” for Washington (and Canberra) to have around.

As imperialism’s propagandists go about their daily work of demonising the official enemies of US imperialism, the IST chimes in agreement, “yes, all imperialism’s enemies are indeed imperialist too – take it from us, we are revolutionary Marxists and internationalists”.

A Petty Bourgeois Opposition

The split in the SWP led to a significant minority leaving the party – perhaps a third or more of the active membership. This included a disproportionately high number of party intellectuals and a lower numbers of workers.

The often well-to-do class background of the minority and its leadership, as well as the political content of their differences – i.e. their capitulation to the pressure of imperialist anti-communist and war propaganda – led Trotsky and the SWP majority to characterise the minority as a “petty bourgeois” opposition.

I’m not going to elaborate the various theoretical justifications given by the different sections of what become the IST internationally for their common view that the Soviet State had ceased to be a worker’s state and no longer should be defended by socialists.

I’ll only briefly mention the different justifications.

The Americans, led by Max Shachtman, said that the Soviet Union was neither capitalist nor socialist but a new type of class formation hitherto unknown to history. They called this new class society “Bureaucratic Collectivism”.

Tony Cliff in the UK argued that in fact the Soviet Union was a type of capitalism – “State capitalism”.

Against these, Classical Trotskyism characterised the Soviet Union as a “bureaucratically degenerated workers’ state”.

The key US leader of the SWP split, James Burnham, moved rapidly and far to the right. He soon resigned from the new group he’d helped to establish – the Worker’s Party – and quickly became a right-wing anti-communist hawk and editor of the outright conservative National Review Magazine from 1955 until his death in 1987.

The other key leader – Max Shachtman – developed what is perhaps closer to anti-communist social democratic politics. He remained the key leader of the Workers Party until 1958 when it was dissolved into the US Socialist Party. There, Shachtman advocated the Socialist Party adopt an orientation towards the Democratic Party.

In 1961, Shachtman refused to condemn the Bay of Pigs Invasion of Cuba launched from the United states. During the Vietnam War did not call for a unilateral US withdrawal instead calling for a “negotiated settlement” – consistent with his view that both sides are at fault.

Perhaps due to this rightward trajectory of the main historical leaders in the US, and also the relative strength of the US-SWP, the IS tendency in the United States failed to build a large, organised presence there.

The UK and Australia

While I’ve outlined some of the key developments of the origin of the IST in the US, there was also a parallel phenomenon in the United Kingdom led by Tony Cliff in what later became known (confusingly) as the UK-based Socialist Workers Party.

Cliff’s UK group became easily the most successful and largest of the IST groups in any country, claiming 3000 members by 1977. It also established itself as the directing centre of IST groupings internationally – the “mother party” in an international formed around London.

Arguably, the fact that similar tendencies emerged independently, in different parts of the world, suggests the IST phenomenon was not, and perhaps is not, a chance product borne of some obscure historical factors or personalities – but rather a political manifestation of real social forces that exist in post-war capitalist imperialism.

A group was established in Australia in 1971 after Tom O’Lincoln migrated to Melbourne to set one up. He had been active in the 1960s on the Berkley campus of the University of California.

Talking about the early days of the Australian group, Mick Armstrong later told me, “We were Shachtmanites”. Though, soon the Australian group came to be called the International Socialists (later ISO) and became the Australian section affiliated to the UK international led by Tony Cliff.

While there were various splits and mergers in Australia, the two current Australian groups Socialist Alternative and Solidarity split apart in 1995. Their split was one of several that occurred among IST groups internationally in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The Tony Cliff leadership in London viewed the Soviet Union as “capitalist” and therefore, one of the two major props of the capitalist system. With the Soviet collapse, they thought one of the major props of world capitalism had collapsed, undermining its stability.

Rather than anticipating a long down-turn in working class struggle – as in-fact occurred –the London leadership anticipated a major working-class radicalisation would ensue and began pressuring the various groupings internationally to prepare for a major influx of new members and other gains.

Attempting to emphasise the seriousness of the crisis he perceived, Cliff characterised the early 1990s as the 1930s in slow motion – the trajectory in other words, was towards fascism and war.

Comrades who were around during the split describe being directed by the leadership to go door knocking in the suburbs of Melbourne with their newspaper Socialist Worker to find the newly radicalising workers of Cliff’s imagination.

In Australia, a faction fight opened-up over this orientation from 1993 and ended with a group being expelled in Melbourne in 1995 – who then formed Socialist Alternative.

The remnant ISO group went through various other splits and mergers but eventually became what is today called Solidarity, which today remains the Australian group affiliated to the London-based international.

Socialist Alternative were far closer to the US-ISO until it collapsed entirely in 2019 – voting to dissolve itself. Before that, the US-ISO had been probably the largest group outside of the UK and, for quite a few years, the largest far-left group in the United States.

Even now, Socialist Alternative seem more oriented to US-based individuals (even though they don’t have a national group), such as their recent publication of Joel Geier in their journal Marxist Left Review. This US orientation of Socialist Alternative, compared with the UK SWP orientation of Solidarity, in my opinion might partly explain why Socialist Alternative tend to have worse and more extreme positions on international questions.

Contemporary Pro-imperialist Positions

This talk started with the origins of the IS tendency as a product of the class struggle internationally in the imperialist system.

In this second section, I want to show the positions taken by IST groups in relation to imperialism’s drive to exploit and oppress the Global South, and how this remains, perhaps, the key defining feature of the tendency. For this, I’ll look mostly at Australian examples.

Over the last 10 years, there has been a series political positions adopted on major international conflicts, that put IST groups on the same side as the imperialist governments. Of course, they give a different, socialist, instead of democratic imperialist rationale – but still give political support to the same groups.

However – particularly in the case of wars or regime change operations, where the winner of a conflict takes all – the side that you choose in the conflict is more important than the rationale you give. You also need to deal with the outcome.

Since 2011, Socialist Alternative has given support for the same opposition groups that have been backed by US imperialism (and NATO allies) in Libya, Syria and now the Ukraine as well. In addition (like all IST groups), they have politically opposed the leaderships in both Cuba and Venezuela – also opposed by imperialism.

If we look at Libya, Syria and Ukraine the basic justification is the same in each case. Their line runs like this (paraphrasing):

‘Yes, US imperialism also supports and arms the side we are backing, but that is not so important because US imperialism does so for its own reasons. We do it for different reasons. We can see that these are genuine revolutionary movements and so, if successful, they will have a positive impact on the world revolution despite imperialism’s intentions.

US imperialism only supplies weapons to the side that we also back because of:

(a.) Its rivalry with other imperialist powers like Russia; and

(b.) Imperialism uses its supply of arms to try to direct and co-opt the leadership of these revolutions and push it in a non-revolutionary direction.

It is a right, in principle, that revolutionaries may accept arms from wherever they can get them, including from imperialist states, just as it was not wrong for the Irish Republicans to accept arms from German imperialism before World War Two.’

[they use this particular example in every instance – apparently unable to find a post-war example – but imperialism has changed since the first half of the 20th century when the imperialist states were at war with each other].

‘In any case [they argue] Russia (and Iran in the case of Syria) are backing the other side, so the idea that we should only oppose US / NATO imperialist intervention shows that you, not us, have an incorrect conception of imperialism. Your view is influenced by the legacy of Stalinism because Russia (also Iran and China) are imperialist states too – something that it is absurd not to admit given their obviously aggressive actions.

Regimes such as that of Bashar al Assad, Muammar Gaddafi, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping are especially odious. That you suggest any sort of critical defence of such regimes shows that you too are odious. Your politics are tainted with their crimes.

Consistent anti-imperialists, like us, refuse to back any side in inter-imperialist conflict. We support neither Washington, nor Moscow but international socialism from below.’

That formula is essentially all a SAlt cadre need to memorise to argue their line either on Libya in 2011, Syria 2011-16 or Ukraine in 2022. It also has the effect of stifling discussion by claiming anyone who takes a different view is somehow a supporter of capitalist regimes.

The reason it’s possible to apply this formula to three different countries at three different times is because it’s so abstract, it has nothing specific to say about any country.

This lack of interest in actual, concrete conditions in the Global South is, in my view, an enormously revealing feature of the IS tendency.

I challenge anyone to try to find any sort of consistent, detailed information about the political situation in any of those countries, or any country in the Global South, in any IST publication anywhere in the world. Blindness to the global South is of course not specific to the IST, it also characterises the capitalist press in the imperialist states.

Syria and Libya

Socialist Alternative’s position was in support of what they called the “Syrian Revolution” which consisted of the same groups also supported by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.

They went further, saying support for the Syrian opposition had become the key dividing line between revolutionaries and non-revolutionaries of the day – i.e. if you didn’t support the Syrian opposition, you are not a revolutionary.

Mick Armstrong was literally banging the table and basically yelling this out at Marxism 2014, flanked by Gilbert Achcar and Mike Karadjis. The same claim was repeated over and over in many forums and articles. This went on for years.

But what made them so sure?

They never once brought any Syrian revolutionary to Australia to speak, nor did they try to. They never sent a single member to Syria or Turkey to investigate, report for Red Flag or make links with the revolutionary masses. There was no organised push or encouragement to learn Arabic.

They published almost nothing on Syria in their paper or journal. I counted something like eight articles in Red Flag in 3 years through the height of the war. The major ones did not attempt to substantiate their positions with evidence from Syria, but were extended round ups arguing in abstract doctrinal terms (as above) why all the other groups on the left internationally were wrong and they were right.

Really, there was nothing much there about Syria itself. By far their main source of analysis, Joseph Daher, was not even based in Syria, but was completing his PhD in Switzerland.

If the situation had really been a popular revolution or a pre-revolutionary situation, wouldn’t a group that recognises that want to do everything possible to support and build it? Wouldn’t they at least be interested to really know what was happening, to learn?

On Libya, Socialist Alternative had basically the same line: support for the NATO backed opposition. They also used the same approach: condemning their left opponents, with little interest in what was really going on. As Corey Oakley put it in a 2011 article, Confronting the Stalinist Legacy (Marxist Left Review no.2):

“That sections of the left were prepared to mount a semi-open defence of Gaddafi as he attempted to drown an inspiring democratic revolt in blood… is a searing indictment of their claims to stand for human liberation, and a demonstration that the cancer of Stalinism has not yet been exorcised. Ridding the left of its foul influence is a vitally important task.”

Ukraine

Looking at Ukraine today, the Socialist Alternative line can be summarised as follows:

‘While NATO and Russian imperialism are equally bad, Russia is the aggressor in the case of Ukraine.

The most important characteristic of the war – that which defines how socialists should respond – is not the conflict between Russia and NATO. Rather its dominant characteristic is a war of national liberation by the Ukrainian people against Russian imperialist occupation.

Therefore Socialists should positively support a Ukrainian victory in the war. Consistent with support for Ukrainian victory we support NATO arms shipments to Zelensky.’

I’m not inferring any of this, Socialist Alternative are explicit. In his article in Red Flag on 27 March, Tom Bramble wrote:  

“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine… is not… a direct consequence of NATO expansion. There was no immediate Western threat to Russia in February: NATO was not about to invade Russia and nor was NATO about to let Ukraine join… It is really about Russia’s desire to recover its status as a world power, and Ukraine is a stepping stone in that project…Like any imperialist power, [Russia] is trying to extend its geopolitical reach.”

On July 22nd Bramble wrote:

“The Ukrainian population overall remains committed to repelling the Russian invasion, which they see, rightly, as a war of national defence against imperialist aggression…

While NATO and Russia are contesting for influence in Ukraine, the dominant element of the war is a fight for national self-determination on Ukraine’s part, something socialists should support…

The right of national self-determination of oppressed nations is a basic democratic demand, like the right to vote in elections…

The war for national self-determination has not been converted into an inter-imperialist war by virtue of the West supplying Ukraine with arms.

There is nothing new about oppressed countries or national liberation movements taking weapons from another imperialist power as they battle imperialist aggression…

Irish republicans who took weapons from Germany in the early twentieth century, the Greek and Italian resistance movements in World War II [were] supplied weapons by Britain, and Vietnam in the 1960s [was] armed by Russia and China…

As for Ukraine, there is no indication that NATO is now directing the struggle, nor any sign that the population has given up. Nor is the war being prolonged artificially by the Ukrainian government for NATO’s benefit.”

Bramble, Tom; Ukraine war: Russia out, no to NATO, Red Flag, July 22, 2022

Bramble makes no attempt to substantiate any of that, instead he simply repeats as true –without evidence –NATO war propaganda spread throughout the imperialist mass media:

“Every day brings new reports of atrocities. Whole towns have been levelled. Untold numbers of civilians have been shot in the streets… Ukrainian prosecutors charged with investigating human rights abuses are incapable of keeping track of the sheer number of rapes, assaults and murders committed by the Russian military.”

Therefore, “Socialists must support the victory of Ukraine in this war as a basic act of anti-imperialist solidarity”.

So there you have it. Socialist Alternative’s line on what should happen in Ukraine is identical to that of NATO: arm the Zelensky regime to victory. Socialist Alternative and NATO’s accounts both:

1.  Rely on the mass media anti-Russian war hysteria.

2.  Do not mention reports of the Zelensky government and their fascist allies banning, jailing, murdering, or disappearing their Ukrainian political opponents and closing down opposition media.

3. Do not mention the civil war dynamic / aspect of the conflict.

4. Do not mention or play down long-term NATO military aid to Ukraine (e.g. training of 10,000 Ukrainian troops annually since 2014).

5. Talk about the 2014 coup without mentioning either imperialism’s role in it, or that of the fascists that led it.

It has to be emphasised that support for NATO arming of Zelensky is a very, very right-wing position. So much so that it poses the question of why they adopt it and what it says about their politics and trajectory.

We could add that Socialist Alternative also support the same things as imperialist foreign policy in relation to China. Both wholeheartedly supported the anti-integration protests in Hong Kong. Socialist Alternative add their voice to the imperialist propaganda campaign against repression of the Uyghur community in Xinjiang and they also strongly support the (unofficial) US position of independence for Taiwan. Of course, both have a position of hostility to the CCP.

From their recent positions on both Cuba and Hong Kong, it seems clear that Socialist Alternative will support almost any movement that arises against the CCP – no matter how cravenly pro-imperialist it is.

As Josh Bergeron points out, ostensive “socialist”, left or progressive support for empire plays an important ideological role. When openly right-wing forces support imperialism’s actions – they can have little impact on public opinion among leftist or progressive minded people. But when socialists do, it can confuse or demoralise the very constituencies that are natural opponents of empire.

The clearest recent example of this was the disgusting role of Global North Leftist intellectuals, especially academics, in response to the small protests in Cuba in July 2021. We documented this in some detail on red-ant.org. The protest letter campaign against the Cuban Government was principally led and organised by Alex Callinicos – the ideological leader, since Tony Cliff’s death, of the UK-SWP.

Before examining in more detail the question of why IST support for empire is occurring today, I should add that Callinicos and the UK-SWP, and therefore Solidarity in Australia (who largely adopt the same positions as London), have a different and much better line on Ukraine than Socialist Alternative. The Solidarity website reads:

“The US and NATO are waging an increasingly open, long-term proxy war against Russia in Ukraine…

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was wrong but the US response makes it clear that this is essentially a war between the US and European imperialists and Russian imperialism on the other.”

On this basis (despite falsely viewing Russia, a Global South country, as “imperialist”) Solidarity, like Red Ant, oppose NATO arms to Ukraine. Therefore we can and will seek to work with them in opposing further Australian involvement.

Where is the IST going?

The question of where the IST is going is, in this country, posed most sharply by Socialist Alternative. It is posed by that group firstly because, for the moment at least, it remains the largest socialist group in Australia.

Socialist Alternative was also closest with the former ISO group in the US. While the ISO dissolved as a group in 2019, it still exists as a loose tendency of individuals and various small-scale projects. So, I think analysing Socialist Alternative has an importance in understanding that broader milieu also.

Secondly, Socialist Alternative’s very right-wing foreign policy positions pose the question of where they are going very sharply – especially in the context of sharpening imperialist aggression against the Global South today.

Under the pretext of political independence from all capitalist politics, in practice Socialist Alternative are supporting the foreign policies of the rich, imperialist powers.

Even if one were to accept the IST theoretical framework – that basically all countries with any sort of strength are imperialist – their foreign policy stances still pose a very slippery question for them. Why is it that they support the same side as NATO and the US in almost every instance? Can such a consistent pattern really be coincidence? How is it to be explained?

If the foreign policy of the most powerful imperialist countries get things right so consistently and often, wouldn’t that fact indicate that capitalist imperialism is not a reactionary system but a basically progressive or benign system?

There is a name for that outlook – liberalism. Liberalism in the imperialist countries ignores the economic subjugation and exploitation of most of the world by imperialism. The liberal historical view also ignores the difference in the social systems between capitalism and societies with social property relations – just like the IST – and focuses exclusively on so called rights and democracy in the narrow bourgeois sense.

To survive, the capitalist regimes in the imperialist countries, owing to their greater economic resources, usually do not need to carry out the same degree of social repression as capitalist regimes in poor countries. Liberals, looking only at repression and democratic rights but ignoring the underlying social context, conclude that the imperialist “democracies” are relatively benign and deserving of some degree of support over supposedly more repressive regimes such as in China and Russia or even Venezuela.

Ignoring all context, liberals imagine that with the right ideas, or perhaps encouragement from imperialism, it would be possible to establish across the Global South, governments that resemble parliamentary democracies in the Global North.

In practice, it is difficult to see the difference between Socialist Alternative’s version of internationalism and this liberal imperialist internationalism. Of course, they will say some things that are different to liberals and to Biden’s words – such as ‘we support workers uprising from below against the CCP’.

But in the real world, when no such uprising exists at the moment, that is meaningless hot air – hot air that does not reach China but is instead blown across their local audiences. It’s a statement about themselves, not about China – which I’m not sure they know very much about.

At a time when all the real-world campaigns against the CCP are imperialist backed and pro-imperialist – such as in Hong Kong – how is falling in behind these campaigns different from liberal imperialist internationalism in practice (besides that they advocate the same measures to a different, left, audience and therefor use left phrases to justify the same stance)?

Socialist Alternative’s political trajectory seems to be in line with the original embryonic IST in the US during World War Two. If Socialist Alternative takes further or more open rightward steps in the future, it would be in the footsteps of Max Shachtman.

As mentioned above, Shachtman ended up with politics that might be described as anti-communist social democratic – going so far to right he blamed both sides for the Vietnam war and even refused to condemn the Bay of Pigs! I think there are clear parallels.

But in order to understand the tendency properly today it is necessary to do more than point out some things that are wrong with it or some historical precedents. The fundamental question is why such a tendency exists? In particular, what is its class basis?

As mentioned, Tony Cliff falsely anticipated that the collapse of Soviet “State Capitalism” would bring about a weakening and destabilisation of the capitalist system and a new upturn in working class struggle on that basis. This afternoon we will discuss just how misconceived that idea turned out to be. The opposite has been true. Instead of an upturn we got a twenty-five-year downturn – one of the most significant downturns in working class struggle in capitalist history.

Cliff’s position in 1991 had a certain internal consistency. If it had been true that the Soviet state was one of the major imperialist, capitalist states, it’s collapse could reasonably be expected to weaken capitalist imperialism globally and strengthen the working class.

If this had been a purely theoretical error, IST groups could have been expected to re-think their theory of state capitalism after 1991, given the actual course of subsequent events where contrary to their expectations. The fact that no-rethink occurred – as far as I know – in any major group further suggests that the theory is not merely poorly thought out or formulated ideas. It suggests the theory exists to serve the true social, that is class, basis of the tendency – which I’ll come to.

It seems that Socialist Alternative and other IST groups today have a similar misplaced optimism to 1991 – today that buttresses their anti-China and anti-Russia positions.

As mentioned, all IST groups think contemporary China and Russia are “imperialist” states despite those societies having income levels around one fifth of the USA. They certainly are major, important states – as was the Soviet Union. If it were true that today’s Russia and China are “imperialist”, then their defeat or collapse would remove major state supports of the imperialist system globally. Just as in 1991, this could be expected to radically weaken global imperialism.

I think it is obvious that Socialist Alternative in particular do view the defeat or collapse of the CCP or the Russian government as potentially major openings. It is obvious from the enthusiasm with which they support imperialism’s practical efforts to achieve this. This view flows from their inability or unwillingness to see the primary division in the world being that between rich and poor nations – something they refuse to admit as important.

Of course all major developments – such as, for example, the collapse of Vladimir Putin’s government in Russia in some kind of chaotic circumstances – might open up opportunities for working class advance. But it is utterly irresponsible to support a policy of imperialism just because an opening is merely possible.

The election of Donald Trump in 2024 for example might open up space for an advance. On the other hand, it might be disastrous and is a real danger. It would be utterly irresponsible to support Trump’s election just because he may be destabilising, even when it is not likely to our advantage and we know the negative consequences will be huge.

It is just as irresponsible to support imperialist adventures in the Global South on that basis – including in Ukraine and against Russia. Perhaps support for intervention in the Global South is worse, because time and again imperialism in the Global South brings about enormous destruction and killing. That, of course, was also the result of the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was also a policy objective of imperialism that the IST cheered on.

The view that I think we should develop is the opposite. This stems from our understanding of Russia and China as major Global South oppressed states (even though we don’t politically support the governments – except when they act against imperialist encroachment on their country). It seems the defeat of those governments and their replacement with regimes more willing to do the bidding of imperialism would – most likely – strengthen not weaken the world imperialist system.

In all likelihood, such an outcome, if orchestrated by imperialist intervention and war, would also be disastrous for working people in those countries – setting back, not advancing, class struggles there.

The IST and the Labour Aristocracy theory

A big part of the IST outlook in this regard seems to be related to what is perhaps the other defining aspect of their doctrine that needs to be included in this analysis – their rejection of the Marxist theory of the labour aristocracy.

I’m not going much into that here because Nick gave a talk on it this morning. That makes my presentation quite one sided actually – focusing mostly on the foreign policy aspect. So, I want to state briefly what I think the connection is. That is how we can best understand the class basis of the IS tendency.

We’ve heard that Trotsky and his US supporters – in my view convincingly – characterised the SWP minority led by Burnham and Shachtman as a “petty-bourgeois opposition” in the 1940s. But what about Socialist Alternative and the IST now?

As Nick emphasised this morning, there have been no successful revolutions in present day imperialist states so far. The only exception to this would be the defeated Spanish revolution (1936-1939). Since World War Two, even pre-revolutionary situations inside imperialist states are very rare.

Working class failure, so far, to take political power inside the imperialist core is the single most important political fact in modern society. Revolutionary socialists need to be able to clearly explain why it is the case. However, the IST reject the Marxist theory that explains the social basis for this – the theory of the Labour Aristocracy.

As Nick outlined, the real reason any of the present day imperialist states have not been overthrown by the working class yet is that imperialist exploitation of the Global South has enabled the imperialist country ruling classes to buy off, to some extent, working people inside the imperialist societies.

This is the real social basis for why we haven’t won already – globally. It is how we can understand and explain the contradiction that capitalism survives past its used-by-date, despite its obvious bankruptcy.

What explanation can the IST give? They are unable to answer the question in the simple class terms above. They cannot explain the social basis. Instead, they can only give a political explanation – i.e. that revolutions haven’t occurred in the imperialist states because there has always been the wrong political leadership.

But that can’t be an adequate explanation because it simply poses the class question in a new form. Why did the working class continuously fail to find adequate leadership, time after time, all around the world, for a whole historical epoch? Such a consistent phenomenon cannot be a chance occurrence. It must have an underlying social basis. The social basis is imperialism, it’s super-profits and their use to create a labour aristocracy that has a conservatizing effect in the working class – but the IST reject this. Why?

In my view, there are clear parallels between the Shachtman / SWP minority in the 1940s (labelled a “petty bourgeois tendency in the workers movement”), and the contemporary IST’s view, contrary to the labour aristocracy theory, that no section of the working class can ever be described as “privileged.

Arguably, this position essentially amounts to a political defence of the interests of the stratum of the working class that receives that privilege, that constitutes the labour aristocracy today, or a portion of it. In that sense, it could be argued the class characterisation of the IST would be that it is a tendency representing the radicalised, aristocratic section of the working class. In other words, a radicalised, “socialist” section of the labour aristocracy.

This is something that requires more thinking through and, in my opinion, will likely only be fully clarified through engaging in political struggle around contemporary political issues – such as the Ukraine war – rather than purely through historical and theoretical analysis like this one.

The history and theory put forward in this talk, as well as its hypothesis: that the IST is a radical wing of the labour aristocracy, is really to help us formulate and advance our own ideas when engaging in that political struggle.

Interestingly, Lenin at times defines the labour aristocracy partly as a petty bourgeois stratum. For example, in Lenin’s Letter to the Workers of Europe and America (1918), he said:

“In all the…advanced countries the bourgeoisie rob—either by colonial oppression or by financially extracting “gain” from formally independent weak countries—they rob a population many times larger than that of ‘their own’ country. This is the economic factor that enables the imperialist bourgeoisie to obtain super profits, part of which is used to bribe the top section of the proletariat and convert it into a reformist, opportunist petty bourgeoisie that fears revolution”.

That is an example of the side of Lenin’s work that IST groups must avoid. Not only does is refer to a privileged section of the working class but also systematic exploitation of the Global South – both taboo topics. This is tricky contradiction for a tendency that presents itself as in the tradition of Lenin and the Russian revolution.

As a member of Socialist Alternative, I observed how they deal with it. They study only those Lenin works which don’t deal with or emphasise the labour aristocracy. Most notable they study Lenin’s State and Revolution but not Imperialism: The highest Stage of Capitalism. In place of Lenin’s theory of imperialism, Socialist Alternative reference (though don’t really study) Nikolai Bukharin’s book Imperialism and World Economy. This is safer because, while Bukharin also subscribes to the theory of the labour aristocracy, he only writes about this in the final chapter of the book (which was written later) and, unlike Lenin, does not emphasise it throughout. I’ve written a detailed critique of the essentially incoherent IST imperialist theory here and here.

 Social Democracy and the Labour Aristocracy

The main political instrument of the labour aristocracy historically is not the IST, but social democracy. It is natural that the labour aristocracy, as a beneficiary of imperialism, adopts an outlook that rejects anti-imperialism.

Social democracy, throughout the imperialist era, has always been an imperial project. “Social Imperialism” as Lenin came to call it (socialist in name imperialist in practice) was and is a project for the gradual, reformist re-distribution of wealth inside the imperialist countries in favour of the working class.

But much of the wealth in the imperialist countries comes from exploitation of the oppressed societies and social democracy does not oppose this but instead supports it. Social democracy is a project for the use of the proceeds of imperial exploitation to cushion the exploitation of that section of the global working class living inside the imperialist state borders.

Of this section of the global working class living inside imperialist borders Social Democracy allows one part to enjoy a relative privilege vis-à-vis the other part. At the same time it grants the whole of the working class inside its borders a massive privilege compared to the situation of the Global South working class. So it is a project for the re-distribution from some sections of the working class to another.

However, in the neoliberal period social democracy took a sharp rightward turn becoming more openly pro-business than in the immediate post-war era when the welfare state was being expanded.

In this context, it stands to reason that sections of the labour aristocracy which have been radicalised either by the right-turn of Social Democracy or another aspect of capitalism – would feel compelled to break with social democracy. Though the low level of political struggle has forestalled any mass break or any decisive break with the outlook of the labour aristocracy.

The neoliberal period is also the period of decline of national-liberation movements against imperialism in the Global South. This decline underlies a striking parallel decline in anti-imperialist consciousness inside the imperialist societies. This is particularly clear in academia – especially among “Marxist” academics such as David Harvey, Alex Callinicos and Tom Bramble.

It might be the case that academia forms the core intelligentsia of today’s labour aristocracy in the imperialist societies – where the majority of the working class are no longer engaged in manual labour. But this too is something that requires more careful analysis.

The decline of national liberation struggles, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the capitalist reforms in China – all these contributed to a powerful downturn in working class struggle from the 1980s and 1990s onwards. But this downturn is the period of the IST’s rise in the US and Australia.

Aware that social democratic reformism has failed, the IST loudly proclaim in favour of a re-distribution. They say this should happen by revolutionary, not reformist, methods. But just like Social Democracy, the re-distribution that the IST envisage also does not occur between rich and poor countries, but only within the already rich countries.

IST theorists openly reject that exploitation between countries is an important feature of capitalist imperialism. This too is a key plank of their tendency inseparable from their rejection of the notion of working class privilege and the existence of a labour aristocracy.

The IST seems like a modern, cosmopolitan, radical, national chauvinist project. National chauvinist in the sense of defending the privilege of the imperialist nations and cosmopolitan in the sense that they do not favour one imperialist nation over another.

Their lack of interest in what happens in the Global South – the place where most of humanity lives and toils – reflects a deep anti-humanism. Like any good, modern liberal they are therein strongly anti-racist, but in a superficial sense.

But national chauvinism is a form of what Lenin called “opportunism” – that is, putting the temporary and narrow interests of one section of the working class above the revolutionary interests of the class as a whole. Revolution – which the IST claims to support – above all else requires rejection of opportunism and all forms of class collaboration.

What we do not need inside the imperialist societies are socialist groups that practically support imperialist policies against the Global South. What we do need are revolutionary socialist groups that practically support revolutionary movements, social movements and other social forces – North and South – that push back against imperialist domination and that train working people inside the imperialist societies in that spirit.

One comment

  1. Sam, I’ve just gotten around to read this. Thanks, for the introduction of topics that require more discussion, but also, as you say, what happens in the struggle against (real) imperialism. BTW, Cliff didn’t adopt state capitalism until 1948 and broke with the FI.  On a different topic, after I sent you my criticism of a part of the PSL, concerning the statement’s weakness on the depth of racism in the white working and middle class, it occurred to me that this was a departure from Marcy. Marcy supported Lenin on the nature of Black oppression in the U.S. as the oppression of a nationality, which was transmitted to the SWP at its founding. This helped us when Black nationalism rose in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s, with Malcolm X, then the Black Panther Party as examples, but there were others, including the turn of SNCC to “Black Power” in 1966. Both Workers World and the SWP supported Robert Williams in his arming of Blacks in Monroe, North Carolina, and in the defense effort after this movement was violently suppressed. Unfortunately, WW and the SWP couldn’t unite in a single defense committee, so there were two. When Malcolm X broke with the Nation of Islam, at his rallies and speeches, the socialist newspapers WW and the Militant were present. We sold The Militant, and WW was distributed free. Because of our long history with Malcolm, going back to the Black nationalism of the Nation and defense of its democratic rights against ruling class attacks, and then our close relation with him after the split, he would always tells his largely Black audience to buy The Militant. Also, Marcy was always strong against popular frontism, which in the U.S. meant support to the Democratic Party. Both the PSL and WW began to wobble on the question when Sanders ran for the DP nomination. Barry

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