Greg Adler, former national executive member of the Australian Socialist Alliance, looks at the dispute within Democratic Socialist Perspective, the dominant SA group
(Rehosted from Weekly Worker, December 1, 2005)
In my recent open letter resigning from the Socialist Alliance, I wrote: “It is with great relief that I leave the demoralised, Democratic Socialist Perspective-dominated wreckage that now parades under the name of the Socialist Alliance.” I further said that there was no reason to “remain within the Socialist Alliance unless you share the delusion of the DSP that the building of its sect is the only way forward for the building of socialism”.
I had come to that point on the basis of my experience of trying to work in the SA for a period of time, including a two-year stint as an affiliate representative (of the former-Morenoite Workers League) on the national executive. I also attended as a national executive delegate at the 2004 and 2005 SA national conferences. The way the DSP acted in the SA generally and in its leading bodies in particular brought me to the conclusion that I set out in my resignation.
Now that has found overwhelming justification in the discussion recorded in the DSP’s internal bulletin, The Activist. If anyone thought that my take on the DSP’s role in the SA was too cynical, measure it against the words of DSP national secretary, John Percy:
“Remember what was the actual initiating event that prompted us to think about this tactic? The decision by the British Socialist Workers Party to contemplate election work after two decades of abstaining totally from it. We thought, here’s an opportunity to make an approach to the local International Socialist Organisation, for joint work, joint election campaigns and a regrouping of the left. They either had to respond positively, or suffer a political blow and organisational losses.“In that respect, our tactic worked: they’re certainly a lot weaker than they were in 2001, suffering splits and attrition. And at their Marxism conference in September, they had half the attendance of recent years, with just 40 at their final session. We’ve suffered also, but not as much as them.” (J. Percy, Party-building report to October 2005 DSP national committee on behalf of national executive minority, The Activist, Vol 15, No12, October 2005).
The “tactic” of setting up the SA was successful because of damage to the ISO. Now I leave it to the ISO to say what they think about whether they are as damaged as Percy says, but, whatever the reality, that is the perception that Percy is so self-congratulatory about.
Before going any further, let me just place these extraordinary comments in context. I have quoted from a report on party-building given by John Percy on behalf of the national executive minority to the national committee of the DSP at its plenum held over the weekend of October 15-16, 2005. A report on behalf of the national executive majority was given by Peter Boyle, one of the DSP’s leading figures. His most notable contribution to discussion on the left of late has been to race-bait socialist opponents as “whitey”.
In the vote of full members of the national committee plenum on the opposing reports, Boyle triumphed by 22 to five, with three abstentions. Democratic Socialist Perspective, of course, was previously the Democratic Socialist Party, and that is an issue in the battle within the DSP. Should it revert to terming itself “party”? For the moment it is Boyle and his fantasist followers that maintain a greater faith in their capacity to milk benefit from the SA, but they are equally as cynical as Percy.
It is somewhat remarkable that this should be the case, particularly with Percy’s position being in such a minority. In his recent book Resistance: a history of the Democratic Socialist Party and Resistance, 1965-72, Percy says:
“Our political current began in Sydney. [At] Sydney University, I was one of a number of newly radicalising students who had joined the Sydney University Labor Club in orientation week in 1965 and began to play an increasingly active role in the campaign against the Vietnam War.” (p58).
So John Percy, who has been a leader of the DSP current for 40 years, is faced with the triumph within his organisation by the Boyle-led group, whom he clearly regards as a bunch of liquidationists. That gives a poignancy to his comment, “we’ve suffered also”.
But my point here is not to deal with the internal problems of the DSP. That’s a bed they’ve made and they are entirely welcome to lie in it. I will go now to some further comments in previous editions of The Activist, which reveal the real approach of the DSP to the SA.
Take Iggy Kim, a Sydney branch member of the DSP and an eventual abstainer at the national committee vote on the Percy versus Boyle positions. He says:
“Freeing ourselves from the need to prop up the SA as a party will not only preserve, but allow us to better concentrate, on those areas of SA collaboration that are real and living, in Geelong, Perth, etc.” (The Activist, Vol 15, No10).
“In other words, why not work with the Cains and the Johnstons [independent SA members and militant trade unionists] in a much more flexible way, that’s free of feeling that we have to keep up appearances in SA for their sake, of falsely inflating their hopes? Why should the winning of these comrades hinge so singularly on a partyist conception of SA?”
So there you have it. Appearances have been kept up, in Kim’s view, by the DSP for the sake of militant union leaders, falsely inflating their hopes. In straightforward language this suggests that the DSP has sold its propped-up facade of the SA as a substandard bill of goods to “falsely inflate” the hopes, and attract the support, of militant unionists. I will shortly give a couple more quotes that show the profound cynicism of some leading DSPers to the much-vaunted “militant current” in the union movement and its relationship to the SA.
Before going to that, let me quote DSP member Jim McIlroy:
“In any hard-headed analysis of the situation, if we are not going to put some continuing degree of effort and resources into SA, then we should [emphasis in original] propose to close it down. We most definitely don’t want just an organisational shell, with a whole lot of administrative work hanging over our necks, but no real gains being made, either in terms of building the SA or assisting the reconstruction of the DSP.” (The Activist, Vol 15, No9, p28)
McIlroy is a very longstanding member of the DSP and a person who is well respected in the wider left and socialist movement. But even he apparently sees the SA as something entirely at the disposal of the DSP and to be closed down if it doesn’t serve DSP purposes. The phrase “assisting the reconstruction of the DSP” adds to the poignancy of Percy’s “we’ve suffered also” comment. I didn’t find anyone who took part in this internal DSP discussion who suggested it was not within the power and ability of the DSP to close down the SA.
Now I turn to some comments in the discussion from the DSP’s leading theoretician and party educator, Doug Lorimer. He refers to “the mistaken and failed perspective that we adopted at the last party congress of seeking to transform [the SA] into a new socialist party; a perspective that in many cases has in practice turned the SA into little more than a DSP front”. (The Activist, Vol 15, No10, p12)
At the end of his contribution, responding to comments made elsewhere in the discussion, Lorimer says:
“Well, if you can get Martin Kingham [Victorian state secretary of the CFMEU construction union] and Kevin Reynolds [Western Australia state secretary of the CFMEU] to resign from the Labor Party and have their respective branches of the CFMEU issue a call for a mass workers’ party, I’ll happily subscribe to the Fightback network [DSP union activist front organisation] taking on a much more broadly political dimension”. Best of luck, mate!”
There is much more that I could quote, but I will close on some brief matters arising from John Percy’s contribution. In his party-building report Percy comments on what he refers to as a “second stage” of the DSP’s work in the SA. And of this he says there are two parts:
“Where our hopes were [pinned] on the large influx of independent members [into] the Socialist Alliance. We hoped there would be many more non-aligned activists than actually existed. We relied on the perspectives and the assistance of the Non-Aligned Caucus leaders to give some reality to SA as a new party. There’s not much positive left from that NAC current.“Where our hopes reverted almost entirely to the militant trade union current. We relied on [this] current to revive our hopes at each of the last three SA national conferences, where we were disappointed by our NAC allies, this last time totally. But in terms of actual activists in the structures of the SA itself, the militant trade union current doesn’t amount to much; most of the militant trade unionists in the SA are DSP members.”
Later Percy, in the course of attacking Boyle, says:
“Craig Johnston [jailed and since released former secretary of the AMWU manufacturing workers union] and Chris Cain [West Australia state secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia] don’t come to SA branch meetings. Craig is in the SA national executive; I think he has come to half a meeting since the conference. The way we relate to them is through our own union leaders and militants, through our national trade union director or our DSP branch secretaries.”
It couldn’t be expressed more clearly. The whole claim of a special relationship between the SA and militant trade union leaders is a facade based at best on “falsely inflated hopes” and at worst on fraud – although I personally sympathise with the reluctance of Craig and Chris to attend SA meetings.
I offer a final quote from Percy. In this he makes a reference to me, which I accept as a badge of honour. Percy says:
“In election campaigns, as in Marrickville, it was the DSP deciding (against the opposition of the ISO and Greg Adler, and there were no independents involved in the decision); and us doing the work. (There are fewer non-DSPers involved than in most previous campaigns.)” (Weekly Worker, September 22).
I opposed the so-called SA election campaign as a farce politically and as a fraud. Percy doesn’t agree with my farce assessment but he does back up my assessment of it being a fraud. It was an SA campaign in name only. From start to finish it was a DSP operation with virtually no participation by any other SA members. There is a touch of poignancy in Percy’s comments on this, given that I recall seeing him all alone at a major polling booth on election day giving out SA voting cards and attempting to sell his paper with a very down-hearted look. I didn’t know at the time that he held such an isolated position in his party as well.
The discussion within the DSP reveals a deep cynicism towards the SA and to other political groupings and independents that tried sincerely to work within it. These forces did not accept that the only way of uniting the left and socialist forces was by subordinating all interests to those of the DSP. The claims of building a multi-tendency socialist party and of a special relationship with a militant trade union current have been used in the most cynical way by the DSP. They have attempted to attract allies in opposition to those they see as their opponents at any particular time, only to cast them aside if those allies are perceived to act as anything other than mouthpieces for the DSP. “There’s not much positive left from that non-aligned current,” Percy says.
DSPers may claim that I have been selective in quoting from their discussion and therefore misrepresented it. I would say that I have in fact been fair and could have brought forward many more examples to argue my case. However, they have a remedy. Let them publish the whole of the discussion. I call on anyone still within the SA for genuine reasons to demand, at the very least, that the discussion be made available to SA members in its entirety. This is not merely a set of internal documents. They set out clearly that the real history, practice and potential future of the SA has been and remains totally at the disposal of the DSP, whichever faction finally dominates that crisis-ridden group. If anyone still thinks there is something positive and progressive to be gained for the left and socialist movement from the SA, let me join with Doug Lorimer and say, “best of luck, mate!”