Socialist Alliance: through the looking class

by

Ian Rintoul

There is now three years experience of the Socialist Alliance on which we can reflect to assess the progress and prospects of the novel experiment. The project was always an ambitious one, and in retrospect, perhaps the prospects of the eight small founding socialist groups combining to fill the perceived gap to the left of Labor was always overly ambitious.

This is not the place to evaluate every element of the process that led to the formation of the Alliance in Australia. The particular conjunctural elements can be broadly summed up:

  • (i) the experience of the international anti-capitalist movement and its expected manifestation in Australia specifically following experience of the Melbourne World Economic Forum demonstration in 2000;
  • (ii) the crisis of social democracy manifested here in a Beazley-led, right-wing Labor Party unable to pose any opposition the Liberals. There had also been the success of some left tickets in a small number of unions (AMWU, CFMEU, TCFUA) in Victoria that indicated some political (and to some extent industrial) reawakening in the working class.For the ISO, which had strongly rejected the idea of regroupment, the recently formed British Socialist Alliance provided a political model for an electoral alliance of the Left that had none of the problems posed by regroupment. The idea was to form a group that could be a bridge for those breaking from Labor, to the left — an electoral united front of revolutionaries in the existing socialist groups and those who subsequently voted and joined the Alliance.
  • Central to the Australian decision (at least for the ISO. Electoral activity had always been a component of the DSP’s political practice) was the expectation that a Labor government would be elected at the end of 2001. Then it was expected the Socialist Alliance would come into its own as a right wing Labor government progressively alienated more and more of its constituency. Although estimates of the honeymoon varied, it was instructive that it was some elements of the ISO that had the most optimistic estimates of the number of votes that the Alliance would attract. The DSP on more than one occasion cautioned against such over-optimism — but this went hand in hand with the DSP’s essentially propagandist view of the Alliance and elections as an opportunity for the Alliance (as it had been for the DSP) to fly the socialist flag.

    In the event, Labor came to grief on the rocks of the Tampa. Howard was returned to office and the disaffected Labor voters, of which there were many, voted Green.

    Three years on, and we face another federal election in somewhat similar circumstances. A Labor government seems more likely than it has for the last three years. Although the expectation of a Labor victory is tempered by the experience of 2001, the on-going crisis associated with the invasion and occupation of Iraq is a reason for optimism.

    In other respects a lot has changed. For one thing, The Greens have become more established, a third force in electoral politics, thereby squeezing the electoral space for the Alliance (more later).

    More significantly perhaps has been the transformation of the Alliance. The goodwill that accompanied the foundation of the Alliance heralding an era of co-operation between the Left has been replaced by manoeuvrings that have created a multi-tendency party in name but an Alliance persona that has made it an incarnation of its major affiliated organisation, the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP).

    Rather than three years of collective experience and open discussion and debate, the political life of the Alliance has been dominated by internal machinations to establish what couldn’t and wouldn’t be agreed to in the founding discussions ie that the Alliance is now an exercise in left regroupment not primarily an electoral alliance.

    Simply put, the Socialist Alliance of 2004 is not the Socialist Alliance of 2001.

    Since 2003, it is now a multi-tendency party and the DSP have become the Democratic Socialist Perspective, an internal tendency of the Alliance. Despite the rhetoric of growth there is no significant independent membership. Indeed the claim to have a 1000 members hides the fact that the Alliance is smaller than it was after the first round of registrations. There are only a handful of individual independents who play any real role in the political life of the group. A number of ex-lefties did join in the early days of the Alliance, but it is no longer the case that people are joining the Alliance because “they see the left uniting and the 80 per cent of common agreement creates hope” (ISO internal bulletin, March 2004). It would be useful for the convenors to produce a breakdown of Alliance recruitment and their subsequent involvement in the group.

    With the DSP becoming an internal tendency, the blurry distinction between the DSP and the Alliance has become even blurrier. Anecdotal reports from both city and regional branches indicate that any new people in the Alliance branches are unaware of the distinction and those that do stay for any period usually become members of the DSP or are drawn into DSP activities such as selling the GLW.

    Adding to this problematic development of the Alliance is the fact that the structures of the Alliance, established to run an alliance with a limited agreed platform, are ill-equipped to deal with the reality of a multi-tendency party. The autonomy of the branches means that there is little review or overview of political initiatives or responses – a situation which mitigates against the kind of discussion that is needed to allow for the independent development of the Alliance beyond the rehearsed position of the affiliated groups. The flip side of this is that what discussion that does take place at the national executive level is rarely translated into systematic discussion in the branches.

    A report of the discussion over the proposal for the Green Left Weekly to become the paper of the Alliance (Alliance Voices, Feb 2004), give a snapshot of the branches and confirms that there is still no significant independent membership and almost no active role of independents in the branch life of the Alliance. The reports shows the following attendance (where recorded, the number of independents is shown in brackets): Bankstown 14 (5), Bris West 8 (3), Geelong 16 (11), Hobart 9 (4), Melb Central 8 (1), Melb Sth East 10, Melb West 22 (1), Northern Rivers 11, Perth 34, Sydney Central 11, Sydney Northside 7.

    The snapshot highlights two things: (i) the generally small size of the meetings, and (ii) the numbers of independents in the meetings (and by inference the extent to which the meetings are dominated by the DSP. There are perhaps three or four branches in the country that are not dominated by the DSP.

    It is also an indication of the lack of development of the Alliance that the numbers of people mobilized on election days in NSW has not increased since 2001, and in fact at times has been considerably less.

    It is also revealing that at many booths at the NSW Local Council elections this year the Socialist Alliance canvasser was selling GLW, sometimes asking people to buy the paper before handing out the how to vote card.

    In sum, three years on, the Alliance has little more than the membership of the affiliated groups but with none of the prospects of the original formation. The dominance of the DSP and the decision for the Alliance to become a multi-tendency party means that the development of the Alliance is already constrained. The kind of group the DSP wants to build will simply not be able to attract the left-looking audience of ex-Labor (or Green) voters on which the success of the Alliance depends.

    The Alliance project has always been surrounded with optimistic estimates of its potential growth, but a recent article in Socialist Worker referring to “the million or so people who are potentially open to a broader left project like Socialist Alliance,” is the kind of over-statement that stifles any real analysis.

    It is clear that the Alliance will be electorally overshadowed by The Greens for a considerable time to come. A point often acknowledged even in some of the more sobre assessments of the ISO. Being confined to the electoral margins may not mater for a small group primarily concerned with small propaganda gains, but is something of a problem given that much of the hope for the future on the Alliance rests on the prognosis that it will achieve an electoral breakthrough sometime soon.

    The claim in the ISO internal bulletin (March 2004) that “we are co-founders and co-leaders of this project, able to shape the new party and relate to it on our freely chosen terms,” is a rhetorical flourish without substance. It is not a mistake that there is no assessment of the successes of the ISO in shaping the new party. The hopes of some of the smaller founding groups that the ISO would be a foil to the DSP have not been borne out.

    Not one of the proposals the ISO put forward last year came to fruition. What happened to the Budget campaign where it was argued by the ISO leadership that “(it) can potentially put the Alliance in the middle of genuine networks of people concerned about the fate of public services and hostile to the war?” (ISO internal bulletin No 2 April 2003). Despite claims that the independents share the ISO view of the Alliance, the experience last year on the question of the multi-tendency party and now the fate of GLW indicate that the independents vote with the DSP or indeed want to push the Alliance even more quickly into being the united socialist party that both favours, and is favoured by, the DSP.

    The idea that “the decision [to become a multi-tendency party] last year did not substantially change the SA” (ISO internal bulletin 2004) might be true, but only because the character of the Alliance had already been set in practice by the DSP. There is no doubt that many of the decisions of the ISO, before and since, represent an accommodation to the DSP’s push to formally establish the Alliance as a regrouped socialist party.

    At least one element of the ISO’s rationale for remaining in the Alliance is that the party that is now the Alliance “can become a significant player in the unions and movements while strengthening the socialist current in Australian society” (ISO internal bulletin 2004). Given the criticisms the ISO has of the multi-tendency party, it would seem that the involvement of the ISO rests on the prospect of intervening in this speculative view of the Alliance, even as its influence and that of the smaller affiliates, declines.

    That this attempt at a left alliance has been still born does not mean that it hasn’t been a worthwhile experience. But the time has come to draw a line under it.

    It is worth noting the point Alex Callinicos of the British Socialist Workers Party (SWP) makes in the Regroupment and the Socialist Left Today (IST Discussion Bulletin no 2 Jan 2003, published also in Links) – that the project of building an electoral alliance only has a meaning for revolutionaries to the extent that it aids “the construction of a mass revolutionary party.”

    The DSP has already indicated that from its perspective they would be satisfied if the Alliance delivers 1000 or 2000 members to its party project.But for the IS Tendency as Alex Callinicos puts it in the “Regroupment, Re-alignment and the Revolutionary Left”, “Organising on the basis of a broader and more ambiguous programmatic basis may sometimes be necessary in the process of building a mass revolutionary party, but a looser party is no substitute for the real thing.” Perhaps the tension between these two views meant that the Alliance “marriage” was fraught from the outset. (The clash of opinion over the future of the GLW is the latest manifestation.) But the couple(s) remain married in the hope that future children will redeem the unhappy union.

    Both the DSP and the ISO are looking for short-cuts. For their part, the DSP hope that the Alliance can emulate the (electoral) success of the Scottish Socialist Party. For the ISO, although they recognize the Alliance will be “a broad party, not a revolutionary party”, they hope that the Alliance will become a “substantial party” in which they can become “a bigger fish in a bigger pond.”

    These counter-views on the Australian Alliance echo the debate and experience of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) that is discussed below (see The International Experience). Suffice to say here that the Australian Alliance arises in a very different context to the SSP. Let’s now look more specifically at the last three years and make some assessments.

    The electoral experience

    Notwithstanding the frequent rosy assessments, the votes of the Alliance are not historically high. In a recent ISO document, their national executive refers to results of 2.9 per cent and 2.8 per cent in Inala and South Brisbane respectively as an indication of the Alliance being “able to get a hearing,” but this kind of vote is about what the far left has achieved over the past couple of decades.

    Likewise it presents results of 5.5 and 6.5 per cent in Brunswick and Sunshine in Victoria as a portent of the Alliance’s future significance, but the Socialist Party got 12.02 per cent in the 1999 Victorian state elections.

    The electoral achievements of the Alliance raise many unanswered questions. They are generally reported uncritically and as successes without any serious analysis of the Alliance’s intervention and vote. Commenting on the NSW Local Council elections (March 2004) Socialist Worker, noted the state-wide vote of 3000 was in part a result of running in many areas for the first time. But SW was silent on why the vote was down on the 2003 state election result in areas where the Alliance had previously run. In 2003, the Alliance got 2000 votes in two electorates (Bankstown 963 and Marrickville 1061). In 2004 Local Council elections in both Bankstown and Marrickville the vote was down compared to that in the state elections. There is no serious attempt to critically assess what is actually happening with the Alliance vote.

    The ISO’s perspective on the Alliance rests on the prospect of it achieving an electoral critical mass (somewhat arbitrarily determined to be 4 per cent) that will herald a political breakthrough at which the Alliance will be considered a credible alternative. The hope as it was in 2001 is that the Alliance will take off after the election of a Labor (this time a Latham) government. This tends to go along with telescoping the prospect of divisions opening up in The Greens.

    It seems the ISO’s strategy of intervention in the Alliance has been reduced to occasionally putting forward the view that the Alliance should be an electoral united front, even though this would now require completely reversing Alliance history.

    What is absent is the kind of political debate that had been assumed would be a concomitant of the Left working together and a necessity if a higher level of unity was going to be achieved. But there is little ideological debate on, for example, the nature of labourism, trade union leaders, the relation between party and movement or the SSP and the limitations of a strategically de-limited party.

    By attempting to prove its Alliance credential by showcasing successful electoral interventions, there is a practical convergence between the ISO and the DSP’s view of the Alliance. There is an inexorable logic to the drive to get the 4 per cent take off figure – it pushes the Alliance to more and more emphasise electoral interventions such as the latest NSW and local council elections.

    At the same time, in order to differentiate itself, the electoral squeeze placed on the Alliance by The Greens pushes the Alliance in the direction of being an activist revolutionary party. To use just one example, DSP Melbourne organizer, Graham Matthews, responds to John Tully’s concerns that the Alliance platform for the state election and its relationship to The Greens (Discussion Bulletin, Vol 3, No 1) “The Greens have a parliamentary strategy…Socialist Alliance on the other hand has a socialist vision which rests on the extra-parliamentary strength of working people.”

    He quotes the Victorian election leaflet – “We believe that socialism will be won by the masses on the streets and in the workplaces.”

    The point is not lost on the ISO. Recognising that the rise of The Greens will make it “difficult for the Alliance to get a hearing at a national or state level” their 2003 conference bulletin says, “The Socialist Alliance plays a role in the hard slog of the anti-war campaign that The Greens cannot match. We need to make sure people know about this.”

    The pressure pushes the ISO precisely in the direction that it says it does not want to go stressing the abstract socialist qualities of the Alliance (an internationalist position on the occupation of Iraq and Palestine”, “calling for open borders for refugees”, etc.) vis a vis The Greens as opposed to a more concrete action platform.

    Unable to compete electorally, and impatient for its historical due, it is the “activism” of the Alliance that is stressed in order to differentiate from The Greens.

    In September 2003 the national executive of the Alliance decided to approach members to put up their dues to fund the national office – another move that would have established membership norms more like that of a revolutionary organization. Interestingly except for existing members of revolutionary groups, there were few takers.

    The International Experience

    Much has been made of the significance of the international situation as regards revolutionary regroupment — in particular the rise of the anti-capitalist movement and political developments across Europe such as the success of revolutionary candidates in the French elections 2002, the left shift by Partito della Rifondazione Communista (PRC).

    Alex Callinicos from the British SWP examines some of the general trends in “Regroupment and the Socialist Left Today” (IST discussion bulletin No 2, also published in Links). It would pay comrades to re-read this article. In particular it puts the process of left re-alignment and regroupment in the context of the anti-capitalist and the anti-war movement.

    “The electoral interventions that the different formations make, either at the national or on a European-wide scale, need to be judged by this criterion [ie can they relate effectively to the movements] rather than seen as an end in themselves…..Electoral campaigns are simply one means by which the radical left can shape their radicalization, not (as they seem sometimes to be conceived) as the privileged form of political intervention.” The article among other things has a substantial critique of the SSP model of regroupment — the model that seems to be informing the devolution of the Socialist Alliance in Australia.

    Callinicos defends only one model of regroupment — revolutionary regroupment, and uses the experience of the LCR and the British Socialist Workers Party, (representative of the orthodox Trotskyism of the Fourth International and the IST) as an example. The LCR and SWP(GB) are much closer politically than the ISO and the DSP are in Australia. Nevertheless Callinicos makes much of the importance of theoretical discussion combined with practical experience.

    In “Regroupment, Realignment and the Revolutionary Left” (International Socialist Tendency Discussion Bulletin No 1) he refers to the way that practical experience can contribute to the process of re-assessment of historical positions and so also to practical convergence. He uses the decision of the French LCR to adopt “open recruiting” after the presidential elections in April 2002 as one example.

    There is no indication that such a process of reappraisal of historical views is underway in Australia. On the contrary.

    Elsewhere Callinicos discusses the divergence in theory and perspective between the FI and the SWP /IST on the relations between party and movement building, insisting, “Much hangs on whether these divergences are overcome in practice.”

    The political context that applies to Australia is quite different from that in France, or the UK and there is a price to be paid for the failure to examine the particular circumstances that apply in any particular country.

    However, the political conception of the Socialist Alliance, as an electoral united front, is closest to that in Britain, although the constellation of forces is/was quite different. In particular the fact that New Labor had been in government for two years (Blair was elected in 1997 and the British Socialist Alliance was formed in 1999) seemed to hold the possibility of connecting with Labor members and voters increasingly disaffected with a very right-wing Labor government.

    In Australia the expectation that the Alliance project would be dealing with the political fallout from a Labor government elected at the end of 2001 didn’t eventuate. This, coupled with the fact that there has been little in the way of any recovery in working class self-activity has meant that there is not the same level of union discontent directed at Labor – even the state Labor governments. The level of discussion in Britain over the political fund is way beyond anything that has happened in regard to its political equivalent here, affiliation of unions with the ALP. Compare, for example, the actual affiliation of RMT branches with Socialist Alliance with the largely token gesture of the NSW firefighters to suspend affiliation with the NSW ALP.

    Given the extent of positive comparison that is often made between the British and Australian Alliance projects, it is worth noting the SWP’s most recent assessment of the British experience.

    Paul Foot writing in the SWP’s, Socialist Review (Dec 2003) had this to say:”When a collection of socialist organisations formed the Socialist Alliance in 1999, the main object was to present a united front of organisations whose members were no longer prepared to devote their time and energy to attacking one another. The alliance has had a lot of success in quite a short time. But it has failed to make the breakthrough many of us hoped for … If we are to make any headway in the vital business of transforming the mass opposition into a fighting socialist force we need to look again at the organisation and structure of the British left.”

    In a feature article in Socialist Review in February 2004, John Molyneux writes: “The Socialist Alliance is not linked in people’s minds with opposition to the war and is not distinguishable on the ballot paper except to a small minority from any sect that afford a deposit.”

    Despite the resources and political capital the SWP had invested in the Socialist Alliance, the SWP has been prepared to honestly review the Socialist Alliance in response to the emergence of significant forces associated with the anti-war movement in Britain. The SWP is now a major force behind the formation of Respect that will contest the European Elections in June.

    The situation in Scotland where the SWP joined the Scottish Socialist Party was quite different. The SSP was already a well established electoral party (with one very well-known MP, Tommy Sheridan) and the assessment was that the much smaller Scottish section of the SWP risked marginalisation if it hadn’t considered joining. Notwithstanding its membership of the SSP, the SWP maintains a high level of ideological critique of the SSP as a model of “strategically non-delimited” party building. (See various issues of international discussion bulletin, ISJ 97 and further contributions to the debate in ISJ 100.)

    The imperative that led the SWP to join the Scottish Socialist Party does not exist in Australia. The Socialist Alliance is in no way such an established entity with any significant public recognition, following or membership.

    Rather the ISO finds itself in the invidious position of investing political energy trying gain limited profile for, to give some credibility to a political group they have no hope of influencing. It is one thing to make a virtue out of necessity but an act of considerable misjudgement when there is no virtue and no necessity.

    Even more than the participation of the other small affiliated groups in the “Alliance”, the participation of the ISO allows the DSP to maintain the fiction that there is a genuine alliance.

    The situation for the IST in France (Socialism Pas En Bas, SPEB) is more like that which pertained for the SWP in Scotland, but with healthier prospects. There are a number of influences affecting the political dynamic in France – the significance of ATTAC, the polarization that put the National Front into the second round of the 2002 presidential elections. In particular there have be en sustained levels of sometimes spectacular strike action (although most often defeated) dating back to 1995.

    In what can be described as a political generalisation (although maybe not upturn), thousands of people have joined the LCR since the elections in April 2002, creating a milieu that it is very sensible for the small IST group to consider relating to. (The LCR has recently decided to allow SPEB to join as a political current.)

    It is worth mentioning the Greek experience for it shows that the connection between political and industrial struggle and electoral politics is not straightforward. The SEK, a much larger organization, and a more significant force on the Greek left in comparison with either the DSP or the ISO, took its time before embarking on an electoral adventure of any kind. The Anti-Capitalist Alliance was only formed in December 2003, after significant mobilisations of the Genoa 2001 group.

    In Greece, the SEK (an International Socialist tendency group) played a major role in forming the Anti-Capitalist Alliance (see International Discussion Bulletin Jan 2004) for the purpose of contesting the elections in March. The level of political mobilisation in both the anti-capitalist and anti-war contexts has been impressive.

    More that 90 per cent of the Greek population was opposed to both the war on Serbia and the invasion of Iraq. There have been significant mobilisations from Greece including significant union contingents to Genoa and the European Summit.

    The March 2003 election however returned a conservative government and while the left vote did not decline, it didn’t increase either. Most of the votes on the left did not go to the Anti-capitalist Alliance, but to the Communist Party (from 5.5 to 5.9 per cent) and to an electoral group called Synaspismos (3.5 per cent). The Anti-Capitalist Coalition got 8500 votes nationally and now says it is looking to the European elections in June.

    The international experience highlights the need for maximum tactical flexibility and the need to look concretely (critically and creatively) at the particular circumstances before placing precious eggs in a basket such as the Australian Alliance.

    The British SWP were quick to discard the Alliance as circumstances changed and experience showed it “was not up to the task”. There is every indication that the Australian Alliance is not up to the task either.

    From electoral alliance to multi-tendency party and the decline of goodwill

    It was commonplace at the beginning of the Alliance to note how much of the experiment relied on “goodwill”. While there was a recognition of the need to stress the common ground between the political groups, it was also recognised that the significant political differences over issues from NATO’s bombing of Serbia and the invasion of East Timor, to free speech to Pauline Hanson, to the Labor Party and work in trade unions, would require patience and discussion in the context of working together.

    None of these things are any more resolved today than they were three years ago. In the early days of the Alliance the DSP leadership stated that they recognised that there was a problem with sectarianism towards to Labor among their rank and file and they were committed to dealing with it. But what has come of that? There has been no discernible shift in the pages of Green Left Weekly or the tone of various interventions in elections, trade union work or anything else.

    The structures of the Alliance are not equipped to deal with a multi-tendency party. Given the high degree of branch autonomy, it is quite possible for the Alliance to have divergent positions on the same issue.

    There is little real scope for the Alliance to discuss issues through. The existence of Alliance Voices allows for some statement of views, but the “debates” rarely enter the real life of the Alliance. In any case the debates have a certain rarefied quality because no-one really believes that the views expressed have a real affect on position adopted by the membership. The expectation that there would be a process of organic development of the “membership” has been circumscribed by the shift to become a multi-tendency party.

    What effort is there to deal with issues as part of the organic development of the Alliance? The mutual admiration society means that no-one is willing to declare that the emperor has no clothes and results in a tacit agreement to effectively avoid contentious questions The debate over support for Clover Moore in the NSW local council elections has concretely posed the question of relating to reformism and whether a break with the so-called two-party system is progressive in itself.

    The shift to the multi-tendency party meant that the membership of the DSP essentially became the membership of the Alliance. The few branches in Australia that are not dominated by the DSP is largely a matter of DSP sufferance.

    (It would be a mistake to make too much of that sufferance. In the pre-selection of candidates for the upcoming federal election, the DSP stacked a meeting of Marrickville branch in a bid to have a DSP member pre-selected for the electorate. “Stacked” is how some DSP members themselves described the sudden increase in DSP members at the meeting. This was despite the fact that ISO member Sue Johnson had been the Alliance candidate in every election in Marrickville since the Alliance was founded and was at the time the only ISO member pre-selected in NSW electorate. The vote was 11-10 for Sue.)

    The upshot of all this is that increasingly the public face of the Alliance is that of the DSP. The decision of the ISO to recruit to the Alliance means that the ISO will have less and less opportunity to influence the development of those members as they attend branches, or are involved in an organisation dominated by the DSP.

    The DSP has a very different future in mind for the Alliance. For them it is a site of regroupment, hence the efforts to develop the Alliance with the norms usually associate with that of the activist revolutionary left groups — level of dues, attendance at meetings, paper selling, activity in campaigns etc.

    The ISO at once recognises this — hence the article in Socialist Worker (selectively quoted in internal bulletin, April 2004) and its present campaign against the proposal for the Green Left to formally become the paper of the Alliance. At the same time, the ISO discounts the significance of the move saying that it does not want to focus on organizational moves – as if the proposal to adopt GLW is an organisational move.

    Although it should be said that the proposal is largely a formality. Given that the DSP forms the bulk of the membership of the Alliance branches and that the DSP sells the Green Left, and that Green Left only recruits to the Alliance, there is already considerable recognition that the Green Left is the paper of the Alliance. The DSP can afford to postpone the formality of the Alliance adopting the GLW, because in practice the GLW already is the paper of the Alliance (Interestingly Seeing Red carries a very large advertisement for GLW. Did other affiliates decline to advertise?). At the very least the transitional arrangement between the Alliance and GLW is set to continue.

    The confusion over the nature of the Alliance

    The fact that the electoral space for the Alliance aspired has been occupied by The Greens has also contributed to the confusion about the nature of the Alliance. The temptation is for the Alliance to differentiate from The Greens (and the Labor Party) on the basis of being an activist group — a response which pushes the Alliance to pose more as an activist revolutionary group than a bridge to those looking to the left of Labor.

    This confusion can be seen in the designated Alliance columns in the Green Left. There is no consistent attempt to situate the Alliance as an electoral alternative to Labor. All, bar one or two, of the articles attack the Labor Party and put a general case for socialism rather than elaborate the constructive elements and relevance of the Alliance platform and emphasise its willingness to work alongside everyone, including Labor supporters, to advance the platform.

    The same sectarian quality can be seen at work in a number of the Alliance initiatives. There was the now infamous press release (1 December, 2003) offering condolences to Labor Party members at the time of the Latham Labor leadership election. This has been widely criticized but as yet there is no public admission that this was a mistake. An admission that could help educate Socialist Alliance members on how to constructively relate to Labor members and supporters.

    This could be dismissed as a one-off example of over-exuberance, but it is not. It is an approach evident in much of the Alliance’s work and is just the kind of “difference” that concerned the ISO and was explicitly raised in the founding discussions and subsequently.

    The same kind of approach was still there in the Open Letter to the Labor Party Conference (27 Jan, 2004) that makes no attempt to find common ground with those who might be willing to fight with Alliance and trade union members to get rid of the Howard government. And where is the connection with the refugee issue that was at the center of the debate at the Labor conference?

    The fact that there is are state Labor governments poses concrete questions of how to address the failures of the governments in ways that allow you to constructively address its former supporters. Was there discussion about the tactical sense of the eviction stunt at Labor deputy premier (and a leader of the parliamentary left), Anna Bligh’s, office in the recent Queensland election campaign? How many disaffected Labor voters/members would have been happy to be involved in such a stunt? Might it not have been better to occupy an empty house or real estate or landlord’s office and ask Anna to join the protest? Or was gaining publicity the only concern?

    The “Block the Budget” initiatives last year were ultimatist declarations that not only didn’t connect in a propagandist sense, but provided no way of actively working with anyone. It was, as in many other instances, more concerned about picking up publicity. As such they did not connect to the practical concerns of those that were concerned about aspects of the Budget eg the committees to defend Medicare.

    The nature of Socialist Alliance trade union caucuses also seems to be unresolved. Shouldn’t the aim be to initiate wider open worker caucuses to conduct systematic work, rather than party-political formations to act as a ginger group for largely propagandistic interventions.

    These are the things that should be the bread and butter of patient discussion in the context of joint political work. It is the kind of discussion that can build confidence that the expressed goodwill could break down old divisions and allow a process of free development of political positions among the Alliance membership.

    But there is little political discussion in the Alliance. Indeed political discussion has in some quarters been quite deliberately avoided. Following the Alliance conference decision in May to become a multi-tendency party, the Socialist Alliance National Executive wrote to the DSP and the ISO for “suggestions on how the Alliance can progress toward publishing a national newspaper.”

    The ISO reply was typically ambivalent. On the one hand it said the Left can’t go forward by sweeping every political discussion under the carpet or “substituting organization discussions for the important political discussions that we need to have.” But there was no political discussion of the “united paper” proposal or anything else. The ISO reply went on “If we are confident that the Alliance will get 4 per cent next year we might be able to afford the luxury of a long internal discussion about whether we have a united paper or not.” (My emphasis).

    The same “strategy” is being adopted by the ISO over the proposal for the ISO to follow the DSP and become an internal tendency. On the one hand the ISO considered the move to a multi-tendency party to dramatically alter the way the possibilities of the Alliance. This what was written in 2003: This means we are hostile to using the Alliance as a site of revolutionary regroupment. At the same time, and contrary to what may appear common sense, we do not think that a shift to a “multi-tendency socialist party” would broaden the appeal and effectiveness of the Alliance, but rather would narrow it.

    The thousands of erstwhile Labor supporters now looking to left-wing alternatives at the ballot box are less likely to be drawn around or into the Alliance if it is recast as yet another small left activist party, even if it is larger than both of our organisations combined (Socialist Alliance discussion bulletin, April 2003).

    But regardless of this view, the ISO considers that the important debate at the coming May conference is not the proposal for the Green Left Weekly to become the Alliance paper (a move that will entrench the political devolution of the Alliance towards an “ill-defined quasi-revolutionary party”) but is the federal election. (ISO internal bulletin 2004).

    However, as the ISO recognised in April 2003, the capacity to relate to this federal election (and subsequent developments) is being determined by the Alliance becoming a multi-tendency party and the proposal to adopt the Green Left Weekly as its paper — together moves that have decisively “recast the Alliance “as yet another small left activist party”.

    History, it’s said, repeats itself secondly as farce. Having gone along with the multi-tendency party decision in 2002, the ISO is set to go along with the GLW proposal. At its 2003 conference, ISO declared, “We want the nature of reformism — not the future of GLW — to be the main controversy at [the May 2004] Alliance conference.”

    Yet the move to a multi-tendency party and adopting GLW are two sides of the same coin that presupposes a certain analysis of the nature of reformism (and the view that it is in terminal decline) but there is no indication that the ISO is willing or able to turn the debate over GLW into the debate over reformism that it says is needed.

    This highlights the irony of the Alliance three years on. It faces a federal election with the possibility of a Labor government being returned, just as we did three years ago, but this time the Alliance has been transformed, from an electoral party that at least had the form of an alliance to a re-badged DSP less able to relate to the expected growing numbers disaffected with Labor. This is not DSP-phobia as it is sometimes portrayed. It is a question of the character of the Alliance and its ability or otherwise to relate to those breaking with Labor.

    It is sometimes argued that notwithstanding the limitations of the Alliance it remains the only vehicle for the Left to intervene in the crisis of social democracy but this is not so. In any case it is no substitute for involvement in the movements — refugees, anti-war, against the Nelson review, to defend public education etc. Labor for Refugees provided a great opportunity to relate both to the refugee movement and to the crisis of social democracy as it was specifically posed in the Labor Party. In regard to union work, it is instructive that Members First in the CPSU existed long before Socialist Alliance and was more vibrant.

    The Alliance experience has been a useful one and it is possible the basis of a more collaborative left to can grow out of it. This will require serious review and reflection on what has happened over the last three years and some creative discussion about how to go forward. It’s time for a new beginning.

    Ian Rintoul was a national convenor of Socialist Alliance from 2001 to 2003 and a member of the ISO national executive until resigning in May 2003.

    Note on regroupment

    Three years ago when representatives of eight groups came together to form the Socialist Alliance one of the first things that came up was the question of whether the Alliance was an exercise in regrouping the left or it was primarily to be an electoral alliance.

    At the time the ISO was insistent that it was not interested in regroupment and at one point threatened to terminate the discussions on this very issue.

    This is not the place to discuss the issues associated with regroupment. Suffice to say that one question is associated with the illusion of being bigger. Of course when you are 100 or 200 people doubling in size can seem a significant thing. Compared to the task of actually building even a small mass party, however, the difference between 100 and 200 is not so significant. When you are so small, the question of laying the basis for future growth is a qualitative one (ie how you build cadre) rather a question of numbers. It is quite possible to a sect to grow. And then there is the issue of ideological clarity. As Trotsky argued better a small sharp, sharp axe than a large blunt one. John Rees from the SWP (GB) makes the same point in rebutting Murray Smith’s arguments in favour of the Scottish Socialist Party as a model for socialist regroupment (ISJ 97 and ISJ 100).

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