Was it asking for trouble?

Submitted by martin on 7 March, 2016 - 4:27 Author: Tom O'Lincoln

Tom O’Lincoln, a longstanding activist in the Australian socialist movement, and before that a member of the Independent Socialist Clubs in the USA, reflects on his evolution as a Trotskyist, in his response to The Two Trotskyisms confront Stalinism.



Arriving in West Germany on an exchange program, where I could do what I liked, away from unsuspecting parents, I had immediately joined the most radical left organization I could find. This turned out to be the Socialist German Student League, the SDS. They were planning an anti-war rally. It was 1967.

The obvious next step was to set about building the rally from amongst the hundred or so Americans in town for the exchange program, and feeling pleased with my myself when we succeeded in drawing surprising numbers of US students. But the next day the flak began to fly. Someone had burnt an American flag at the rally, and Tom was extremely unpopular among his compatriots. It was a stinging first experience of the need for international perspectives.

The SDS was theoretically diverse. Its cadres had been expelled from the SPD (Social Democratic Party of Germany) and displayed varied degrees of sympathy for Chairman Mao, the East German or Yugoslav regimes, and/or the emerging Prague spring. Someone from Sydney writing in Tribune, the Eurocommunist weekly of the Communist Party of Australia, waxed lyrical about events in Prague. But I took no notice. I had no plans to visit Australia.

I don’t recall any Trotskyists. I guess they were absorbed in the social democratic parties with Ernest Mandel’s French turn. If so that was an awkward place for them to be, given the popular SDS slogan Wer hat uns verraten? Sozial Demokraten! Who has betrayed us? The Social Democrats!

Germany was holiday distances from several drab Stalinist or semi-Stalinist regimes. You could hire a room overnight and listen to a Bulgarian local Communist explain that, while American companies had top quality machines, in Sofya, tout le monde travaillee. You could book yourself into a youth labour camp near Zagreb, building a dam, where I flogged myself to earn a shock worker badge. Yes that was the term udarnik meant shock worker. It was supposedly building a dam. The real goal was national unity. As we know now it didn’t succeed.

In addition there was, of course, the Berlin Wall. This monstrosity prevented any chance of me embracing the “workers’ and peasants’ state” that built it.

Before the German in interlude in 1968 I had been at Berkeley, where I met the Independent Socialists.

They set up lit tables (bookstalls) in the heart of the Berkeley campus. So did lots of others, but few were so interesting, let alone entertaining.

The SDS had taught me Marxism. Now here I was planning to teach all the Berkeley radicals about it, but they were way ahead of me. They had read Lenin, even Trotsky, and the Independent Socialists were putting out the most original writings. The latter’s intellectual leader was Hal Draper. I seldom met him, yet he set the tone. A cantankerous tone, some might say. He had many writings to his name, but one stood out. It was the sort of thing you read more than once. It bore a title drawn from Goethe’s Faust Two Souls of Socialism. The on-the-ground leader was Joel Geier.

The core message was to contrast authoritarian versions of socialism (the USSR, China) with the original Boilshiviik tradition. Later in 1994 when two Australian socialists set about publishing a newsletter for Indonesians, our first issue was called was called Dua Jiwa Sosialisme - Two souls of socialism.

The expression had traveled to the antipodes in 1971 with Janey Stone and me. Some theoretical concepts were harder to transplant. This was the body of ideas known as “Shachtmanism”. The small group of Australians who by 1975 began calling themselves the International Socialists were more impressed with the outlook of the British organisation of the same name.
Among the Australian rank file there was a social and political pattern whereby the longer-established Melbourne cadre tended to stick to their Shachtman while newer recruits were more attracted to the prestige and sophistication of Tony Cliff and the British organisation. They were of course repulsed by the “state department socialist” fate of the Max guy himself.

I had again set out to educate people of another land in Shachtmanism, with little success. It now seemed to be a purely American phenomenon. This was now a one-way flow. Nobody from the British group ever abandoned “Cliffism” to become an Australian Shachtmanite. The 1950s rapprochement between the Cliff group and Shachtmanites went unremarked, as it does in this book.

I personally might have been expected to stick with Shachtmanism but in fact I drifted steadily into the SWP’s theoretical orbit. The key influence on me was the writings of Nigel Harris. Unlike Cliff, whose work was often formulaic, Harris built his work around a sense of the dynamic character of capitalism.
This was embodied in a number of books and essays which can only be called brilliant, including the seminal essay on the origins of Stalinism, Marxism’s journey east, and a sustained and ferocious critique of Third Worldism. “Isn’t he wonderfully articulate” grumped a rival paper seller one Melbourne day.

Nigel also posed an organisational challenge. We were absorbed with sending students into industry – the policy known as “industrialisation”. Nigel tore this policy to shreds as ”substitutionism”. A later influence was Duncan Hallas.

One good thing about such a big fat book is that everyone will find something in it for them. I was quietly pleased to find a discussion of Zinovievism. These days the term is used to mean hackish party-building. The leading figures on the Marxism List seem to think they invented it. Not so. I heard it back in Berkeley.

Follow the endnotes and you will know all the details on Zinovievites, not to mention Lovestonites and Fosterites. More importantly, you will find such left literary gems as Max Shactman’s debate with Earl Browder, with its thrilling ending - and his dissection of Isaac Deutscher.

True, there is an underlying partisanship on the editor’s part. But that’s half the charm. Can you imagine what this book would be like if it was rigorously neutral? Come to think of it, the other half of the charm lies in its obscurity. It’s no good Sean Matgamna lamenting that the book is called “sectariana”. That reflects the realities and will remain so until some Trotskyist force embodies its ideas in a mass movement.


Tom O'Lincoln was a member of the Independent Socialist Club initiated by Hal Draper and others in Berkeley in the 1960s. Moving to Australia, he became a leading figure in the socialist current here represented by the Socialist Workers' Action Group and then the International Socialists. He is currently a member of one of the groups coming from that current, Socialist Alternative. He is also the author of several books, including "Into the Mainstream: The Decline of Australian Communism" and "Years of Rage: Social Conflicts in the Fraser Era".

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