By Ray Fulcher
MELBOURNE — An internal struggle in the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) culminated last week in a wholesale purge by the ISO National Committee of its Melbourne branch.
The expelled were members of an opposition current which had the support of about 30% of the membership at the ISO's April conference, and a majority of the Melbourne branch. In spite of efforts at the conference to patch up the differences, no members of the opposition were placed on the National Committee.
The split is unlikely to be confined to Melbourne. ISO branches and prominent members in Sydney and Canberra have angrily condemned the undemocratic expulsions. A meeting in Sydney on August 2, attended by 25 current and former members, condemned the Melbourne purge, and most present indicated their intention of resigning from the organisation.
The first round of expulsions came with a form letter from Ian Rintoul on behalf of the ISO National Committee dated July 24 to five of the leaders of the Melbourne opposition — Mick Armstrong, Sandra Bloodworth, Jill Sparrow, Jeff Sparrow and Tony Hartin. Armstrong and Bloodworth were long-term leaders of the organisation until being removed from the National Committee in 1993. The five were informed that their membership had been "terminated".
The letter made allegations of factional activity, which have been described as "totally spurious" by many outraged members. The letter accuses them of being "anti-leadership" and "ultra-democratic". But there was no specific charge, and no opportunity to defend themselves. They were informed they could appeal to the next conference, but until then they were barred from ISO events, including public forums.
In less than a week, another 11 members were expelled, this time by telephone. Included in this round were leading campus activists Jerome Small, Linda Memery, Asok Rao and Fleur Taylor. These members were directed to make loyalty oaths or face expulsion.
An ISO NC member in Melbourne admitted that seven members had also resigned. This figure is probably larger by now. Sources in the ISO told Green Left Weekly that the result will be "the gutting of the Melbourne ISO, with the majority being either expelled or leaving".
As one ex-member put it, "They have expelled the activists and the youth". This has been reflected in the ISO struggling to maintain regular Melbourne selling venues for its paper, Socialist Worker. Campus clubs are also severely affected, some campuses losing their "Socialist Worker Student Club" virtually overnight, and activity on those campuses where they still exist drastically limited.
The Melbourne purge was preceded by the expulsion a month earlier of a Sydney opposition member, Natalie Gould, who was handed a similar "termination of membership" letter. It alleged "undisciplined and disloyal behaviour", terminated her membership and banned her from ISO meetings.
The expelled members in Melbourne are meeting on August 10 to discuss setting up a rival organisation. Plans for a 4-8 page monthly newspaper are being explored. A leaflet signed by 13 of the expelled advertising the meeting asks, "Why is the NC acting like this?" and goes on:
"The basic problem is the leadership's failure to face up to the difficulties the ISO is encountering nationally, and its desire to deflect the blame by scapegoating the comrades in Melbourne. The NC has not delivered the real growth it has been promising and it needs someone to take the fall for it ...
"That is, the policies of the past year have created a situation where the vast majority of the membership is passive and demoralised, and the organisation is run by a small number of people, who are increasingly divorced from (and suspicious of) the rank and file ...
"After destroying the group in Melbourne, the leadership will feel compelled to demonstrate the correctness of their line, and so will press on with it, regardless of the consequences, and with the precedent of mass expulsions of dissidents, who could possibly challenge them ..."
In a letter to the ISO NC, prominent ISO member Tom O'Lincoln slams the expulsions as "represent[ing] a grotesque failure of leadership". While criticising both sides for bearing some responsibility "for the tragedy in Melbourne", he labels the NC's reasons for expulsions a "farrago of contradictions".
O'Lincoln is also critical of the role played by the British Socialist Workers Party, the parent organisation of the ISO: "Two years in a row, key NC members have flown back from London with a mandate to provoke conflict. Two years in a row, British CC members have flown out here ... not to tour the country building the group, as they once did, but purely to lend spurious authority to an NC that was clearly out of its depth."
The British SWP's wishes are clearly spelled out in a May 2 letter to the ISO NC from Chris Bambery, who had attended the April conference as the SWP representative. He criticises the ISO for allowing "a section of the organisation to operate autonomously" in Melbourne and warns against repeating that mistake. He states that in the event of any recurrence of "factional organisation" that "I am in favour of taking swift action". Swift action certainly followed his letter.