Socialist Equality Party (Australia)
The Historical and International Foundations of the Socialist Equality Party (Australia)

The founding of the Socialist Labour League

171. The Australian section of the ICFI did not emerge from a faction within an existing organisation. It was, nevertheless, the defence of the program and principles of Trotskyism against Pabloite revisionism, contained in the Open Letter and the 1961–63 documents of the British SLL, in particular Opportunism and Empiricism, that attracted those forces that were to found the Socialist Labour League in Australia in April 1972. Of critical importance was the emphasis placed by the British Trotskyists on the role of the subjective factor—the necessity to resolve the crisis of revolutionary leadership—in opposition to the objectivism that characterised the Pabloite perspective.

172. In late 1969 a number of young people in Sydney had formed a group in opposition to the radical and Stalinist milieu that dominated the growing anti-war movement. Its aim was to undertake a serious study of Marxism, with a view to founding a revolutionary organisation. Later called Workers Action, it established connections with like-minded groups that had developed in other cities. Leading figures within these groups had obtained copies of ICFI documents.

173. In September 1971, less than a month after the breakdown of the Bretton Woods monetary system, Workers Action published the first edition of the fortnightly Labour Press, which featured reprints of articles from the British SLL’s daily Workers Press.

174. Neither Workers Action nor the other groups, however, were politically homogeneous, and, following the publication of Labour Press, a conflict erupted. While ostensibly over support for the newspaper, the essential content of the differences was the clash of two opposed class orientations: one directed towards the ICFI and the working class, the other back to the middle-class radical milieu and “left” sections of the Labor and trade union bureaucracy. By the end of 1971 the differences had coalesced around the central issue: for or against affiliation to the ICFI. Those in favour, led by Jim Mulgrew, who was supported by Nick Beams, insisted that the only basis for amalgamation of the groups was acceptance of the program of the ICFI. Those opposed wanted a national-based organisation that would, at times, pay lip-service to internationalism and the ICFI, but, above all, would retain its freedom to carry out syndicalist work within the trade unions and the national sphere.

175. The internationalists prevailed and the founding conference of the SLL resolved to send two delegates to the Fourth Congress of the ICFI, held in May 1972, to seek affiliation. Following a visit to Australia in June 1972 by Cliff Slaughter, the secretary of the ICFI, the SLL was informed on November 11, 1972 that it had been accepted as the Australian section.

176. The establishment of the Australian section of the ICFI, 18 years after the Origlass group’s repudiation of Cannon’s Open Letter, was an event of historic significance for the international and Australian working class. Under conditions of sharpening class tensions and a radicalisation of workers and youth, amid the break-up of the post-war capitalist boom, the program of Trotskyism, defended and advanced under difficult conditions against the ravages of Pabloism, had found adherents to fight for it in the Australian workers’ movement. The SLL was founded on principled, not conjunctural or pragmatic considerations: Trotsky’s Theory of Permanent Revolution; the Lenin-Trotsky theory of the party; the nature of the imperialist epoch and the tasks flowing from it; the revolutionary role of the working class and the necessity of fighting for its political independence from the Labor and trade union bureaucracy, as well as from the various middle-class radical tendencies, who substituted identity politics, including feminism and black nationalism, for a class perspective as they adapted to the Stalinists and Labor “lefts”.

177. However, at the very point where their principled defence of Trotskyism and its proletarian orientation was attracting new adherents to the ICFI, the British Trotskyists began to turn away from the international struggle against Pabloism as the axis of the party’s political work. The pressures bearing down on them were immense. The OCI, the only other long-standing section of the ICFI, had moved towards centrism and the Pabloites were mounting an international campaign of slander and provocation against the British SLL. At the same time there was an upsurge of the working class and a radicalisation of youth in Britain. In 1966 these pressures found expression in Gerry Healy’s Problems of the Fourth International, where he argued that the central task of the British section was to build a strong revolutionary party in Britain, which would “inspire” revolutionists to do likewise in other parts of the world. Behind this position was a fundamental shift away from the internationalist conceptions upon which the Fourth International had been established, and which placed central emphasis on the struggle against all forms of national opportunism.

178. The split between the SLL and the OCI was carried out without a clarification of the political issues. In fact, despite the emergence of crucial questions of strategy and tactics, especially as a result of the May–June 1968 events in France—the most significant political struggle of the post-war period and one of the largest strike movements in history—the SLL declared that the split was not over tactics, organisation or political positions but centred on “Marxist theory.” According to the SLL, it had learned from “the experience of building the party in Britain that a thorough-going and difficult struggle against idealist ways of thinking was necessary which went much deeper than questions of agreement on program and policy.” Advanced by Cliff Slaughter, this position directly contradicted Trotsky, who had insisted that “the significance of the program is the significance of the party” and that the program consisted of “a common understanding of events, of the tasks.” The central task of the ICFI Fourth Congress in May 1972 was to make a thoroughgoing assessment of the significance of the split with the OCI, and to review the lessons of the defeat of the May–June upsurge. This required an examination of the policies of the Stalinists and Pabloites, which had led to the defeat, as well as those of the OCI. But there was virtually no discussion on either issue. The failure to clarify such fundamental questions within the international movement had a significant impact on the newly-established sections of the ICFI. Right at the point where the crisis of world capitalism and the upsurge of the working class required, above all, programmatic clarity, the SLL leadership was turning away from this task.

179. The shift in the political axis of the British Trotskyists profoundly affected the development of the SLL in Australia. The party was accepted as a section without being required to produce any documents establishing its analysis of the historical struggles of the ICFI or its political assessment of the struggles through which it had passed in order to affiliate to the IC. In fact, during his visit to Australia in June 1972, rather than encouraging such political analysis, Slaughter insisted that the differences that had emerged—and remained—within the party be set aside. The effect was to leave key issues associated with the history of petty-bourgeois radicalism in Australia unclarified and unresolved.

180. Nevertheless in the course of his visit, Slaughter did make an important contribution to the political education of the young SLL leadership. Pointing to the growing crisis of the Liberal government and the movement to install a Labor government, he insisted, against a pronounced tendency to make the party’s central focus the encouragement of militancy in the trade unions, that the SLL develop its political analysis and take responsibility for the political preparation of the working class for an incoming Labor government.

181. In the lead-up to the December 1972 election, the SLL initiated a campaign based on the tactical orientation developed by the British Trotskyists—the fight to bring a Labor government to power pledged to socialist policies. This tactic, which was derived from the Transitional Program, was aimed at exposing the real role of the Labor Party and winning the most politically-conscious workers to the revolutionary party. After more than two decades of continuous conservative rule, large sections of the working class had powerful illusions in and loyalty to the ALP. While some were quite hostile to Whitlam, who was widely recognised as a right-winger, socialist-minded workers still believed that the road to socialism would pass through the ALP. The SLL’s tactic, along with the party’s ongoing historical and political analysis, was aimed at clarifying the class character of the ALP and Laborism, breaking workers from them and winning the most class conscious layers to Trotskyism.

182. The orientation of the Pabloites of the Socialist Workers League (forerunners of the Democratic Socialist Party) on the contrary, was to insist that the Labor Party had a “dual character”—bourgeois and proletarian at the same time—and that it could be pressured to the left. Above all, they insisted it was “absurd” to advance the building of an alternative to the Labor leadership while remaining outside the Labor Party. Amid all the twists, turns and reinventions undertaken by that organisation since the early 1970s, there has been one constant: opposition to the fight for the political independence of the working class from the Labor and trade union bureaucracy.

183. The hostility evoked by the political line of the SLL within the Labor and trade union apparatus was articulated by the “left” MP George Petersen, who, after a brief association with the ICFI in the 1950s, had joined the Labor Party via a sojourn in the ranks of the Australian Pabloites. Petersen expressed his agreement with the necessity for “transitional demands which pose the question of working class power” but went on to make clear, in a letter to Labour Press, that such demands required no actual struggle against the current leadership of the working class but should be reserved for “holiday speechifying.” Summing up the nationalist hostility to Marxism that is the hallmark of Laborism, he wrote: “One of the prime curses of the Labor movement in Australia has been the blind acceptance of sectarian groups of policies derived from overseas models without any reference to the concrete conditions of Australian society”.[1] In reality, the peculiarities of the Australian workers’ movement—the so-called “concrete conditions”—could only be understood as an “original combination of the basic features of the world process” (Trotsky). The working class could only advance to the extent that it was grounded on the strategic experiences of the international workers’ movement, extracted by the Marxist movement in its struggles against national opportunism.


Labour Press, July 21, 1972.