By Tim Anderson
7th of July, 2014 

In the western world, when it comes to relations with independent peoples, there has been a great convergence between the imperial brutes, the humanitarian liberals and the small ultra-left groups. The first group wants to bomb them, the second pretends to save them and the third, feigning solidarity, will usually betray them.

Open aggression is transparent. Fake western solidarity deserves a bit more attention. The common thread is a similar set of assumptions, rooted in modernist, imperial culture, which has never appreciated the post-colonial principle of self-determination.

Much of this western ‘solidarity’ rejects the integrity of peoples and their life choices, and seeks to impose a western image of what is good for them. Liberals and ultra-leftists alike share poor recognition of the fact that independent peoples might not want western ‘saviours’, nor western models for their societies, let alone ‘humanitarian intervention’ (see Anderson 2014).

This essay illustrates the problem of western ultra-leftism through Socialist Alternative (SAlt) an Australian group which preaches internationalism and solidarity, but which regularly betrays those it claims to support.

A breakaway group from the UK-based international socialists, SAlt specialises in recruiting university students. Every year the group attracts some new members, because it appears as one of the few with energy and a strong critical perspective in an otherwise reactionary and heartless capitalist world. Yet SAlt’s new members leave almost as fast as they join. Many discover that the group belongs to a sectarian and abusive tradition.

They may also have discovered that the group and its predecessors and splinters have attacked Aboriginal self-determination, the Cuban Revolution, progressive states in Latin America (e.g. Allende’s Chile and Chavez-led Venezuela) and independent Arab states (e.g. Libya, Syria). Their great wish to prove their ultra-left credentials means they somehow always end up on Washington’s side.

This is seen most clearly in the current proxy wars of the Middle East. Never mind that NATO-backed al Qaeda groups led the armed attacks on Libya and Syria, SAlt maintains that the real (un-named) revolutionaries are back there somewhere. Never mind that NATO-backed fascists led the ‘Maidan Revolution’ in the Ukraine, the real (un-named) revolutionaries are also back there somewhere. These ‘international socialists’ are not short of advice for Venezuela’s progressive government when it too was subject to US-backed fascist violence.

The mercenary al Qaeda styled fanatics – mostly hired by US petro-monarchy allies the Saudis and Qatar – are portrayed as ‘radical’ Muslim heroes, rising up against the dictatorships of the region (Oakley 2014).  There seems little curiosity as to why these vicious sectarian groups have never lifted a finger against the common enemy of the Arab and Muslim peoples, Apartheid Israel. Nor do they try to explain why the Zionist regime supports and treats the ‘Syrian rebel’ wounded in Israeli hospitals (Israel Today 2014).

SAlt shares the reactionary character of many western liberals and most ultra-leftists towards self-determination movements. In this great tradition, Gilbert Achar (special guest at SAlt’s ‘Marxism 2014’ conference) remains unrepentant over his support for the NATO-backed ‘revolutions’ in Libya and Syria, including the NATO bombing of Libya (Ruder 2014).

This betrayal is, of course, part of a wider phenomenon. Ajamu Baraka, veteran activist and editor of the US online magazine Black Agenda, writing of ‘Left-wing support for imperialism and white supremacy’, observes: ‘A chasm has been created separating the Western left from its counterparts in much of the Global South’. He is speaking of a ‘left imperialism’, whether dressed in liberal ‘humanitarian’ clothing or pseudo-Marxist rhetoric, which now stalks each new ‘regime change’ war.

Fanatical denunciations come easily to those from the Trotskyist tradition, who long ago set up the old Soviet Union as the moral equivalent of western imperialism. Any independent people who had relations with the USSR were denounced as ‘Stalinists’. Yet the USSR (and to some extent Russia after it) was virtually the only source of economic and military support for those (e.g. the Angolans, Namibia and many others) fighting colonial regimes and apartheid in Africa, over decades. Soviet weapons also backed the independent states of the Middle East, against western aggression and Zionist colonisation. Western Trotskyists never armed the Palestinians, to defend themselves against Zionist aggression; the Soviet ‘Stalinists’, as did Iran and Syria.

Similar denunciations became a standard form of personal abuse in SAlt. Simple disagreements lead to accusations of being a ‘Stalinist’ (i.e. a mass murderer); with the fiercest denunciations often reserved for groups who appeared to be competitors. Such tactics seem to help them assert, and feel, a type of moral superiority, in almost every circumstance.

The intense competition SAlt displays towards other small left groups, its extreme sectarianism and the use of abuse as ‘radical politics’ would be funny, almost a mirror image of Monty Python’s ‘Life of Brian’, were it not so deceptive and reactionary. Young people are fooled into believing that this sort of abusive, sectarian politics is ‘radical’ and cool.

SAlt is an offshoot of the now defunct International Socialist Organisation (ISO), an Australian group which was tightly linked to the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP). They were all influenced by Trotskyist Tony Cliff’s simple idea of ‘state capitalism’ and ‘international socialism’, where capitalism is seen as a world system, un-changed by any national ‘revolution’.

Without world revolution, they say, there is no socialist revolution. Therefore no ‘revolution’ has occurred and no ‘regime’ – even those which have built substantial achievements and which have defended them with much blood – is worth defending. For this reason ‘international socialism’ has remained implacably opposed to progressive states.

This has created a type of anarcho-syndicalism, against state power and for abstract ‘workers struggles’ (see Anderson 2013). Actual achievements by independent states are almost always denounced as ‘sell outs’. Everything can be ripped down (including those things that only states can provide, such as public health and education systems) so that ‘the workers’ can build it all again.

In their zeal to ‘build the party’ they engage with a selection of popular issues, attempt to appropriate or dominate each cause then, when that fails, act to divide the movement.

The ISO used to call itself ‘Leninist’, but this was mainly because they vainly saw themselves as a ‘vanguard’, leading the broader left and working class. Unsurprisingly, neither the ISO nor any of its splinters achieved any positions of leadership in any Australian working class organisation, after more than 40 years. Lenin, in fact, wrote that revolutionaries had to struggle against both the compromisers and this ‘infantile’ left, which would betray the progressive forces through its undisciplined and immature attacks.

Comments in a similar vein, on this style of ultra-leftism, were made by veteran communist leader Josep Tito, during the Spanish Civil War. The Trotskyists in Spain, he said, had proven themselves traitors and quasi-fascists. ‘In Spain, the Trotskyists were the soul of the Fifth Column, they caused mutinies in the rear of the Republican People’s Army whenever Franco faced dangers on the front … The first thing they do is camouflage themselves with revolutionary phraseology.’ Their actions branded them as ‘fascist agents’, Tito said.

We saw a similar pattern of attacks on the Popular Unity government led by the late Salvador Allende of Chile, in the early 1970s. To this day the ‘International Communist League (Fourth International)’ (2009) is proud of having ‘denounced [back in 1970] any political support to the Allende coalition as class treason’.

Washington had been fomenting social unrest in Chile and, when Allende was murdered in a US-backed military coup and replaced by a vicious right-wing dictatorship, that same Trotskyist group blamed Allende, as his ‘Popular Front [had] paved [the] way for Pinochet Terror’, they claimed.

The SWP/ISO/SAlt did not exist back then, but their magazine repeated a similar denunciation, years later: ‘Allende undertook constant efforts to win over sectors of the national bourgeoisie to the UP [Popular Unity] government – at the expense of the working class’ (ISR 2003). Allende was the traitor of the Chilean people, it seems, not western Trotskyists.

That same magazine denounces Revolutionary Cuba, the beacon of the left in Latin America, especially after it came under renewed attack from Washington in the 1990s. After the collapse of Cuba’s trade relations with the Soviet Union (the only trade partner which could provide Cuba with oil), the little country experienced a deep economic recession. The US happily added extra sanctions, in an attempt to crush the rebel island. Still celebrating the collapse of the old Soviet Union, the SWP/ISO magazine claimed that Cuba’s problems were nothing more than a part of ‘the general crisis of state capitalism’ (Reyes 2000). No solidarity there.

According to ‘international socialist’ ideology, no revolution occurred in Cuba. One of the most profound social transformations of the twentieth century was said to be just another case of ‘state capitalism’, and so not worth defending. The website of Australia’s ‘Solidarity’ group [another ISO offshoot] toes the same line, with Mark Gillespie (2010) denouncing Cuban socialism, and Mike Gonzalez (2011) of the SWP denouncing Evo Morales in Bolivia. Young British scholar Helen Yaffe has described this approach to Cuba as ‘counter-revolutionary nonsense’ (Yaffe 2004).

When the Australian ISO began to collapse in the early 1990s, several fragments emerged of which SAlt remains the largest. Another small group, ‘Solidarity’, now in competition with SAlt, maintains a similar mindset. This group managed to split an emerging Aboriginal Rights Coalition (ARC), in 2008. A key focus of that group was opposition to a racist policy applied to Aboriginal communities called the ‘Northern Territory Intervention’.

Initially, there was significant Aboriginal participation in the Sydney-based ARC. However there was also rivalry between ‘Solidarity’ and another neo-Trotskyist group, the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP, now Socialist Alliance). ‘Solidarity’, opposing the well-established principle of ‘Aboriginal Control of Aboriginal Affairs’, split the group, forming the Stop the Intervention Collective (STIC) (see Bainbridge 2008). When ‘Solidarity’ and STIC later claimed credit for this indigenous solidarity work, an observer pointed out that ‘STIC was not ‘built’ by Solidarity’, but was created as a cynically manufactured split from the earlier ARC (Wombo 2010). Most experienced Aboriginal activists, seeing the fight between non-Aboriginal Trotskyist groups, left in disgust. The pattern was: engage, appropriate, divide. The ISO fragment had betrayed the self-determination aims of Aboriginal people.

SAlt seems sympathetic to the Aboriginal cause, when Aboriginal peoples are seen as victims and when mining companies and governments are trampling on their rights. However any advances in Aboriginal rights are portrayed in old industrial capitalism terms, as the product of non-Aboriginal trade union and working class efforts (e.g. Fieldes 1995). This leaves little room for Aboriginal voices.

The group has (and shares with much of the western left, it must be added) a profound disinterest in the actual historical, political and philosophical contributions of indigenous cultures. For this reason they pay little attention to the great conflicts which rage around traditional land-based communities in Papua New Guinea – a country of seven million, Australia’s closest neighbour and former colony.

In its current form, SAlt is a fragment expelled from the ISO over 1993-1995. The ISO had gained some members in demonstrations against the first Gulf War (1990-91), and in campaigns against a Labor Government’s planned abolition of student allowances (Austudy). But they had also reacted to British SWP control of Australian ISO affairs. This internal tension was behind that particular split.

SAlt ideology and methods, however, seem not to have changed much. In 2004, six former SAlt members in Sydney explained the reasons for their resignations:

‘The group [SAlt] has slid further and further, under the leadership of Mick, Sandra and Diane [former ISO leaders, who shared the old ISO’s] unjustified hostility to the left, and suspicion of members who are integrated into the [broader] left socially and politically … [they use] a gossip network to demonise critical members … [and call other members] ‘wreckers, right wingers, swamp dwellers, disgusting, degenerate, anti-Leninist, ex-revolutionaries, movementists, liquidationists, economists, dishonest, gutless’ … [they] have proven themselves to be completely incapable of developing an organisation that can ever rise above the level of a sect.’ (Marc N et al 2004).

Abuse of their own members is consistent with SAlt political tactics, which include personal abuse of government members, in an attempt to prove their ultra-left credentials. Abuse equals ‘radical’, it seems. ‘F**k Tony Abbott’ say their t-shirts. This infantile approach never attracts wider support; it just reinforces their abusive character.

Worse, this style of politics feeds reaction. In the current Middle East proxy wars the brute imperialists, humanitarian liberals and the ultra-left all, by different means, back western ‘regime change’ plans. For example, the NATO-backed, sectarian-Islamist ‘Syrian Revolution’, which has almost no support within Syria, is religiously backed by SAlt.

The need to eject colonial rulers; forge new national institutions; face war with the Zionist state; and defend the country against sectarian attacks from the foreign-backed Muslim Brotherhood all helped make Syria authoritarian. But none of this should obscure the fact that Syria remains the most genuinely pluralist state in the region, maintaining free health, education and social support for all its citizens. Ultra-leftists apparently see none of this.

Instead, the SAlt logic is very close to that of the North American elite. As two former US intelligence agents observed: ‘Most of America’s political class and the mainstream media all jumped on, and have stayed with, a fantastical narrative about cadres of Syrian democrats ready, if just given the tools, to take down a brutal dictator lacking any vestige of legitimacy’ (Leverett and Leverett 2014).

The fact that the Syrian President received a very strong mandate in the June 2014 elections (with participation rates far higher than those of any US presidential election) makes little difference to Washington or the ultra-left. Neither is concerned about what Syrian people want. What mainly distinguishes the ‘imperial left’ here is a thin layer of pseudo-Marxist rhetoric.

Looking at the SAlt reaction to the recent ISIS advances in Iraq we see the pattern: first, a critical response to imperial intervention, second an apocalyptic absolutism (‘The border between Iraq and Syria no longer exists’), based on western media reports, third a sectarian analysis (‘this is not simply a rebellion by … ISIS, but a broad-based Sunni rebellion’), also adopted from western governments and media (Oakley 2014).

In fact, most Sunni leaders condemn ISIS, al Nusra and al Qaeda (e.g. ABNA 2014); and most people killed by these western-backed proxy armies are Sunni Muslims (e.g. al Mulla 2014).

The SAlt revolutionary fervour misses the well documented fact (though hidden by western media) that ISIS, like al Qaeda and al Nusra, is not a ‘Sunni’ (i.e. majority Muslim) phenomenon but a mercenary force purchased by Washington’s gulf monarchy allies. Missing that key fact it is not possible to properly understand the long-standing US antagonism to Prime Minister Maliki (see Hersh 2007), which more recently has most to do with the constructive relations Maliki has built with both Iran and Syria, including blocking the flow of ISIS arms across the Syrian border. SAlt has shown little interest in the actual history of these conflicts (see Draitser 2014), preferring their pre-packaged ideological story. SAlt refused to defend the Iraqi state, as with Syria, and thus undermined western anti-war efforts.  

The colonisation of left language by the big powers (‘revolutions’, ‘activists’) seems to have worked well on those in the SAlt mines. To them, actual popular histories do not matter. Like a biblical apocalypse, the ‘revolution’ against all ‘state capitalist dictators’ is apparently just around the corner. ‘The workers’ can rip everything all down and start again. If a worse system is born, no problem: ‘the revolution’ has just been betrayed. This peculiarly western illusion must give great comfort to western ‘regime change’ agents everywhere.


ABNA (2014) ‘Pakistani Sunni leaders condemn ISIL terrorism saying they are Takfiri terrorists’, 22 June, online:

Al Mulla, Khalid (2014) ‘Iraq Sunni Mufti: ISIS and Al Qaeda Slaughtered 300 Sunni Clerics’, 2 July, YouTube:

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Gonzales, Mike (2014) ‘Contradictions of the Venezuelan revolution’, Red Flag, 3 March, online:

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Monty Python (1979) ‘We should be united against the common enemy – the Judean People’s Front!’ online:

Oakley, Corey (2014) ‘Old certainties turned upside down in Middle East’, Red Flag, 1 July, online:

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