What sort of socialist alliance?


What’s needed for the new millennium? A broadly based and inclusive socialist alliance and socialist discussion, or a restrictive socialist electoral and propaganda alliance that by definition excludes socialist Laborites, socialist Greens, and anarcho-syndicalists?

Bob Gould

In January 2001, the leadership of the International Socialists (ISO) took a decision to agree to a long-standing invitation from the leadership of the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP), to join them in a socialist electoral alliance, directed at the upcoming federal elections. These are the two largest groups on the non-Labor socialist left. This agreement between groups known in the past for their mutual acrimony is fairly significant. Since then a number of smaller socialist groups have joined this electoral alliance.

Anything that transforms the cycle of unlistening polemic between socialist groups is welcome. The ground rules of this electoral alliance assert that the participants are now on their best behaviour, and that necessary political debates will be conducted in a civilised way. If this can be achieved in practice, even just between the formal participants, that is no small thing!

The political context in 2001

As Lenin was rather fond of insisting, revolutionary politics is the science of perspective. In considering this new electoral project, it is important to look at the international and national context. Internationally the capitalist system is entering fairly stormy waters. The coincidence of a recession in the United States and Japan, and continuing economic instability in Asia, combine with intensifying international trade competition on a global scale to produce a rather uneasy economic prospect for the capitalist system internationally.

The strong possibility exists that at any time in the immediate future the deepening economic and political crisis in Japan may sharply intensify the trade imbalance between Japan and the United States, and accelerate the tendency of the United States to suck in all the spare money in the world. At any point in the near future, some accidental conjunctural economic or social event could possibly spark off a dramatic global recession.

It would be reckless to predict such a recession in a mindless, apocalyptic way, but nevertheless the new set of economic circumstances will sharply test the capacity of the capitalist system to avoid a global crisis. It is hard to imagine the eventual outcome of the imbalance between the United States and Japan without some sort of rather spectacular global recession.

In Australia, the effect of these international fluctuations has been to force down the value of the Australian dollar, making imports much more expensive, but increasing the price of Australian primary products on the world market, except for mining commodities locked into long-term contracts.

The major immediate economic factor in Australia is the effect on the economy of the introduction of the goods and services tax (GST). The Liberals introduced the GST to benefit the highest income earners and corporations by transferring the fiscal cost of running the country to people on lower and middle incomes. The political compromise with the Democrats to achieve the GST made the tax extremely complicated and caused a spectacular escalation of the cost and time involved for the petty bourgeoisie, who are forced to do the paperwork and pay the tax to the government.

Accidental factors such as the 2000 Olympic Games sucked money out of the economy, and a very hot summer depressed retailing, as did the additional cost of the GST itself. Nearly two million GST numbers were issued, many more than the 1.2 million expected, so that probably three to four million Australians out of the 12 million who will vote have some involvement in the preparation of four complicated Business Activity Statements (BASs) per year, and the collection of the tax.

The combined effect of adverse international economic conditions, excessive GST compliance costs and depressed economic circumstances has produced a nightmarish cash flow crisis for almost the whole of the Australian petty bourgeoisie. This cash flow crisis is likely to continue, at least to the Federal elections, and probably quite a long time after. The electoral effect of the GST is the main explanation for the seismic shift to Labor demonstrated in the recent Western Australian and Queensland state electoins and the Ryan by-election.

The main elements in this shift are an enormous swing to the Laborites, and a secondary swing to the Greens on the left. In rural and provincial areas, there is also a secondary swing to One Nation. This swing to One Nation, however, has declined relative to a couple of years ago, and has been overshadowed by the direct swing to the Laborites.

The dimensions of this swing to the Laborites and the Greens are quite unprecedented in Australian electoral politics. The 10 per cent swing to Labor in Ryan, the most affluent and privileged electorate in Queensland, highlights this development. There are really two distinct forces at work in this dramatic electoral change. The more obvious factor is the impact of the GST on the petty bourgeoisie, but the other factor, which is not often noticed, and is even more significant in the long term, is fundamental changes in the demographic mix of the Australian population.

These demographic factors are the rising educational level of the population and the continuously increasing social, cultural and economic weight of non-British migrants.

All objective indicators suggest that the electoral swing to the Laborites in the federal election will be at least as large as the swings in WA, Queensland and Ryan. In fact, they are likely to get even larger because the underlying demographic changes are ongoing and the cash flow crisis of the petty bourgeoisie will increase between now and the election. This prospect is the opposite of the conventional wisdom of “normal” bourgeois political scientists and journalistic commentators, who expect an electoral swing back to the Liberals.

Such a reversion to “normal” politics is unlikely. The much more likely development in the coming federal elections is the reduction of the Liberal/Nationals to a rump of about 20 seats, with three or four independents and 120 Laborites, and in the Senate, Labor winning three seats in every state and the Greens winning one in about four states. This will give the Laborites 37 out of 76 in the Senate, and the Greens the potential balance of power with four. What I am predicting here may seem incredible to many people, but it is the most likely result of the election, and it will be a quite extraordinary change in the contours of Australian politics.

The crisis of Laborism

The striking feature of this scenario is a historical parallel with 1929, when the Scullin Labor Government was elected at the start of the Great Depression and proved completely inadequate to taking the socialist measures necessary in that crisis. The Labor government likely to be swept into power in the coming elections will be rather right wing.

The official Labor Left, which will be part of this government, has in recent years been totally quiescent. The existing Left shows little sign of putting forward an alternative socialist policy. Nevertheless, the enormous incoming Labor Caucus will have a very large “tail”, including a large number of left wingers: Labor candidates in what were considered safe Liberal seats.

Many of these newly elected left-wingers will not initially have been domesticated into the dreary path of conservative Labor electoral politics in the same way as the leaders of the left have been. In addition to this, the Greens, who will have great influence in the Senate, are well to the left of the leadership of the Labor Left on many questions. In the Senate, the Green “pixies” will be at the top, rather than at the bottom of the garden!

Prospects for the “socialist electoral alliance” in the 2001 elections

Unfortunately for its participants, the electoral possibilities of the “socialist electoral alliance” are minimal. In 2001, DSP and Militant candidates ran in the WA and Queensland elections, and DSP candidates ran in the last federal elections in 1998. In every case they got much less than 1 per cent of the vote, except where they were at the top of the ballot paper, and therefore got the “donkey” vote.

In the upcoming elections, the polarisation between the Liberals, One Nation and the Democrats on the one hand, and the Laborites and Greens on the other, will leave little space for the “socialist electoral alliance”, and its electoral impact will be infinitesimal!

In 1998, Dean Jaensch and David Matheson published a book, A Plague on Both Your Houses: Minor Parties in Australia (Allen and Unwin). This very useful volume contains a detailed account of the electoral experiences of third parties, independents, and alternative socialist electoral groupings since Federation.

Some alternative socialist electoral ventures have done reasonably well. All of these relatively successful socialist electoral alternatives, except two, have been breakaways from the official Labor Party. These were the North Queensland Labor Party of Tom Aikens in the 1940s and 1950s; the Blackburn Mutton Labor Party in Coburg, Victoria, in the 1940s and 1950s; Percy Brookfield, the socialist labour member for Broken Hill in the 1920s, and the electorally successful Lang Labor breakaway in NSW and South Australia in the 1930s and the early 1940s.

One successful exception to this pattern of Labor breakaways, was the Communist Fred Paterson, who was elected to the Queensland Parliament, from north Queensland, where the Communist Party had built up electoral support in remote working class and farming communities by intensive mass work for 15 years. Paterson was elected to Parliament in 1944, at the height of the alliance with the Soviet Union in the Second World War.

The other exception was the temporary election of local football hero Phil Cleary, who happened to be a socialist, following Bob Hawke’s departure from the electorate of Wills in Melbourne’s inner northern suburbs.

The other relatively successful electoral developments on the left, detailed in the Jaensch-Matheson book, were the meteoric rise of the Nuclear Disarmament Party in the 1980s, and the rise of the Greens in the recent period.

The details in A Plague on Both Your Houses, remind us that the DSP (and the SWP before it) has, on two occasions made a major federal electoral campaign the centre of its activities. The first occasion was in 1983, when it ran 38 candidates in all states, and got a grand total of 46,080 votes, including many “donkey” votes, which represented an average vote in the lower house of half of 1 per cent.

In the Senate, in which they ran 10 candidates in five states, they got a tiny vote of 8475 over the five states. In 1990, they conducted another major electoral push, running 29 candidates in the House of Representatives. Their vote was proportionately worse than 1983, and they got 20,668 votes which, including “donkey” votes, worked out at about a third of 1 per cent.

There is no reason to believe that the new socialist electoral alliance will do any better. It will probably do significantly worse because of the way it is squeezed by the electoral appeal of the Greens. It is pretty certain that the electoral impact of this new far-left electoral alliance will be minimal!

The DSP’s 2001 electoral strategy: a pale caricature of the Communist Party’s Third Period strategy of exposing Labor in the 1929 federal elections

Politically, the DSP is the dominant group in the new socialist electoral alliance. The model for this formation is, in the first instance, a mechanical transfer of British and Scottish experience to very different Australian conditions.

In Britain, the extremely right-wing New Labour Party of Blair has been in government for four years. Socialists in the Labour Party have been marginalised and the electoral revolt against Blair that took place in the London elections, in which Labor breakaway Ken Livingstone was elected mayor as an independent and the London Socialist Alliance won about 3 per cent in the boroughs.

In the Scottish Assembly, which is elected by proportional representation, one Scottish Socialist Alliance candidate, Tommy Sheridan. A peculiarly leftist electoral atmosphere prevails in Scotland, where no Conservative candidates at all were elected in the last British elections. In Britain, the Greens are not the stable electoral formation appealing to the left vote that they have become in Australia.

The dominant partner in the English Socialist Alliance is the Socialist Workers Party, the British equivalent of the International Socialists. They promote this electoral alliance vigorously, and they highlight the defection of disillusioned leftists from the Labor Party to the Alliance. Nevertheless, they still do not entirely write off a united front with Leftists in the Labor Party, and placing demands on the Labor Party.

Indeed, in their popular magazine a recent article on perspectives for the British Socialist Alliance, presented as their governmental aim the election of some Socialist Alliance MPs, who would then combine with leftist Labor Party members in the Parliament for political objectives. While this perspective of the British SWP is ambitious and hopeful, it is a good deal more realistic and strategic than the perspective of replacing the Labor Party by a simple process of exposure being proposed in Australia by the DSP.

The DSP’s simple-minded, all-purpose exposure of Laborism strategy

For about the first 15 years of its activity, the DSP operated a general strategy roughly summarised as building a class struggle left wing in the Australian labour movement. This strategy drew on the better traditions of Marxism and the Trotskyist movement in Australia and at least presented the perspective of both independent socialist activity and intervention in the broader labour movement, as possibilities arose.

The DSP’s activity in its early period sometimes contradicted this proclaimed strategy, one early example being when it made a successful bid for hegemony in the NSW ALP Socialist Left in 1971, and then promptly liquidated that Socialist Left and moved out of the Labor Party.

Despite occasional aberrations like this, the notion of building a class-struggle left wing in the Australian labour movement wasn’t a bad general strategy, and it had the distinct advantage of attempting to locate the DSP as a significant Marxist formation in the framework of the existing labour movement, in an oppositional way.

This strategy also recognised the interlocking features of the traditional relationship between the ALP, politically, and the trade unions. In 1985, the DSP effectively ditched this strategy in favour of what can reasonably be described as the “expose Laborism and Laborites and all their works” politics and strategy, practiced belligerently ever since. This rather simple-minded approach has had some useful features from their point of view.

In a period of general decline and retreat of the left, they have managed to hold together a significant cadre organisation, mainly of young people, by energetic recruiting every year in orientation week in universities, and by periodic agitation in high schools. While their organisation has contracted somewhat, despite all this activity, and has retreated a bit to the fringes of society, their decline has been much less than that of the bulk of the Left, in a period which has seen the collapse of the Communist Party, the dramatic retrenchment of the Labor Left, and even the sharp numerical decline of trade unionism.

In this context, the DSPs holding operation, maintaining a substantial grouping and even improving its newspaper, Green Left Weekly, to the point that it is now by far technically the best socialist weekly newspaper ever produced in Australia, is no small thing.

The negative side of the DSP’s activity has been an excessively authoritarian internal regime. A number of dissident groups have been forced out, or left, over the past 30 years, and an extreme preoccupation with maintaining the DSP as an organisation and apparatus has produced a rather unusual situation, in which a steadily declining group of people, who have mostly been dedicated, poorly paid, full-time political workers since they started out as young radicals in the 1970s, run an extremely centralised organisation with quite considerable resources, and a younger membership that turns over pretty rapidly. (As I write this, I am very conscious of the fact that in terms of the history of revolutionary organisations, this is a pretty unusual phenomenon. The period since the foundation of the DSP in 1971 is a rather unprecedented 30 years, 20 years of which have been a period, since the 1982 ALP-ACTU Prices and Incomes Accord, of very limited opportunities for revolutionary activity.

For instance, this is equivalent, in time terms, to the whole period between the Russian Revolution and the end of the Second World War, with all the enormous global fluctuations and changes in strategy and tactics for socialist revolutionaries, that those years required. For this whole period, the DSP has been frozen in its exposure of Laborism strategy, empirically adopted, partly as a result of the persuasive power of Jim Percy in the early years of the Accord. The DSP hasn’t had a fundamental strategic change since those years. Both the historical circumstances and the kind of organisation the DSP has become are rather unprecedented in the history of the Australian labour movement.

In pursuit of their narrow focus on their small party, the DSP leaders have attached themselves, in a relatively uncritical way, to the surviving deformed “socialist regimes” in the Third World, particularly Cuba and Vietnam. Pursuing a laudable attempt at collaboration with emerging socialist organisations, mainly in the Asian region and Latin America, they have tended to adopt a rather uncritical stance to the rather mixed, and sometimes semi-Stalinist politics of these organisations, making simple common cause with them around generalised rhetoric about revolution and party building, which is potentially a very unstable orientation.

Nevertheless the journal, Links, that the DSP produces and subsidises, is a useful clearing house for socialist discussion amongst leftist organisations, and no mean achievement for a relatively small outfit like the DSP.

The DSP has for several years had an energetic publishing program, reprinting a number of the basic texts of the Marxist movement in sensible print runs of 1200 or so, at realistic retail prices. In its internal party education the DSP often takes these texts a bit out of context, as Talmudic backing for its bizarre, frozen political strategy. Nevertheless, the publishing program, keeping a number of the basic Marxist texts accessible in Australia, is extremely useful for the socialist movement in the new circumstances, when access to the cheap, subsidised editions of the socialist classics from Russia and China no longer exists.

Part of a sensible balancesheet of the DSPs activity must include the very useful and effective work it has conducted in solidarity with revolutionary forces and the movement for democracy in Indonesia, East Timor and the Phillipines. This activity has been extremely important.

These countries are, after all, in our immediate region. For a number of years the DSP has stubbornly conducted unglamorous organising work in solidarity with the struggle in these three countries, and through that work has developed close relations with young revolutionary organisations there. This work has been assisted by the accidental fact that a young Australian diplomat in Indonesia, Max Lane was ideologically converted to socialism and the DSP a few years ago, and he has thrown his knowledge of the region into this campaign for 10 years or so.

This longstanding and unspectacular activity of Lane and a number of other DSP full-timers over a long period became extremely important at the moment of the fall of the Soeharto regime and the East Timor referendum on independence.

The DSP’s solidarity organisation with Indonesia and Timor, ASIET, became the central organising focus, along with the nuns of the Catholic Mary McKillop Institute, in the mass demonstrations in support of the East Timorese people, demanding Australian military intervention, which reached a peak of 30,000 people in major Australian cities.

The DSP took the necessary and correct strategic stand in this situation, influenced solidly by Lenin’s attitude to such matters, of limited critical support for the Australian military intervention. The consequent desirable outcome — limited national independence and democratic rights achieved so far by the Timorese — demonstrates the correctness of the stand taken on this occasion by the DSP and other socialists who supported the Timor intervention.

Another aspect of the DSPs activities in relation to Indonesia, East Timor and the Phillipines is great circumspection in its political arguments with the newly emerging revolutionary organisations in these countries. Quite correctly, the DSP conducts its political arguments with these groupings very carefully. In this sphere, which is obviously very important to the DSP’s international activity, it steers well clear of activity such as the demagogic exposure of Laborism and the Greens propoganda that is part of its normal routine in Australia.

All arguments with the very mixed politics of the newly emerging revolutionary organisations in these countries is conducted in a way that is in stark contrast with the excesses of the DSP’s polemical assaults on most of the left of the labour movement in Australia.

New Zealand

Some years ago the New Labor Party split from the Labor Party in New Zealand. As the Alliance of left parties in New Zealand, initiated by the NLP, developed in opposition to laborism , the DSP took up this New Zealand Alliance model with considerable enthusiasm, as applicable to Australia.

It developed close relationships with a number of personalities in the New Labor Party, mostly activists of a Trotskyist background, and it arranged a number of Australian tours for leaders of the New Zealand Alliance.

When the New Labor Party and the New Zealand Alliance entered a coalition government with the Labour Party in New Zealand, shifting the New Zealand Labour Party mildly to the left in that process, all went quiet on the DSP’s New Zealand front.

Obviously this development was extremely difficult for the DSP to grapple with in the context of its crude exposure of Laborism strategy in Australia. On the one hand you had the longstanding, comfortable relationship with the New Zealand Alliance figures, and on the other hand you had the sharp conflict with the DSP’s Australian strategy. Too difficult! As a result, over the past three years the DSP has been almost totally silent about New Zealand developments.

The DSP’s difficult life on the Australian left

In Australian left politics, the narrow and organisationally focussed emphasis on its own outfit has produced a considerable antagonism to the DSP among other left formations.

The DSP’s past attempts at regroupment, such as the Socialist Alliance with the SPA, and its attempt to join the remnants of the Communist Party of Australia in a New Left Party, were both stillborn. Its entry work in the Nuclear Disarmament Party collided spectacularly with the electoral ambitions of some of the charismatic personalities who set up the NDP, and the collision between these personalities and the DSP destroyed the NDP.

The DSP’s initial attempt at entry work in the Greens culminated in its systematic exclusion from the Greens. Its opponents and enemies on the left ascribe these conflicts to the DSP’s alleged manipulative characteristics and its alleged total emphasis on the narrow interests of the DSP.

It is hardly necessary to point out that these assorted groupings, (the SPA, the remnants of the CPA and the NDP personalities that collided with the DSP), are not angels themselves, also having authoritarian internal regimes and instincts. (From this point of view, the good mutual behaviour clauses in the founding documents of the new electoral alliance give some hope for healthier things in the future, but this has still to be tested in practice).

The rise of the Greens to the left of Labor, and their considerable electoral importance

The way the emerging Green Party is designed structurally, to hold out socialist cadre groups with other orientations than the ones held by those socialist personalities who are significant in the Green organisation, is a bit unfair and unreasonable. Nevertheless, it is an accomplished fact, and it hasn’t stopped the Greens’ rapid emergence as the major electoral alternative to the ALP at a time when many people on the left of society are disillusioned with Laborism.

The subjective factor in the rise of the Greens has been the capable political leadership of personalities generally on the left, such as Bob Brown in Tasmania, Dee Margetts in WA and Lee Rhiannon in NSW, backed up by a secondary cadre of younger left-wingers, who have proved in practice to be politically competent.

There are some political problems in the politics of the Green Party. For instance, some Greens are opposed to migration on “environmental” grounds and some Greens have a rather hostile attitude to trade unionism. Nevertheless taken as a whole the Greens are well to the left of Labor.

Blind Freddy can see that for the next period the electoral space to the left of Labor will be occupied by the Greens, by a margin of at least 15 to 1, over any new socialist electoral alliance. In addition to this, the Greens show every sign of consolidating, as a medium-sized, fairly substantial political organisation, with a few thousand supporters in every state, almost all young.

In these conditions, it seems to me that it would be much more sensible for Marxist socialists to conduct a united front strategy towards the newly emerging Green political organisation, despite the sectarianism of some of the Green leaders towards socialists. In terms of parliamentary politics, for some time to come the Greens are going to be the major force to the left of Labor in the Senate.

From the point of view of practical socialist politics, it will be much more realistic to place socialist political demands on the Greens than to engage in simple-minded exposure of them. Unfortunately, in pursuit of carving out a space for the socialist electoral alliance against the Greens in the elections, the last couple of issues of Green Left Weekly strongly suggest that the DSP leadership has decided to extend its exposure of Laborism, to exposure of the Greens.

This strategy of simple exposure of the Greens has built in self-destruct genes even before it properly commences. In this context, it is worth carefully contemplating the electoral reality that the Greens now have the balance of power in the WA upper house. After the coming federal elections, the four or five Green senators who will be elected, will, in combination with the Labor senators, be a majority in the Senate, without the Democrats, although there will probably be more Democrat Senators than Greens.

This will be of critical importance for many things of great significance to serious Marxists, a good instance of which is industrial relations policy. In this very important area the trade unions, and anyone with half a brain on the left, will be placing political demands, both on the Labor majority, and on the Greens, for practical legislation getting rid of individual contracts, restoring awards, etc. The sharp necessities of real industrial life, from a socialist point of view, will dictate a realistic politics of demand and pressure on Labor and the Greens in government to achieve necessary ends, rather than the dopey strategy of exposure.

Trade union work, student work, Aboriginal affairs, multiculturalism and migration. For the DSP exposure of Laborism is the critical political and strategic question in every sphere of social life and political activity

The DSP has a very chequered history in trade union affairs. When it turns up in trade union rank and file groupings, it frequently makes a bid for organisational hegemony in the very short term, and such bids are usually associated with rhetoric about exposing Laborism.

The classic experience of this sort was the so-called Militant Action Campaign in the Wollongong ironworkers’ union in the early 1980s. In this push, the DSP concentrated on an extraordinary assault on the independent leftist leadership of the Wollongong branch of the Ironworkers, now the AWU, rather than the right-wing national leadership of the union.

When this bid for power in the Wollongong branch proved to be unsuccessful (the DSP candidates got a disastrous 20 per cent of the vote in the branch ballot against the incumbent independent leftists), the DSP members, almost all, left the industry straight away. An important feature of DSP industrial work has been to move into areas of leftist trade union rebellion, try to assert DSP hegemony, and to try to dragoon such trade union rebellion into the exposure of the Laborites schema, independently of any serious consideration of the specifics of the particular industrial situation.

Another feature of this is the DSP’s tendency to rapidly move people arbitrarily around from one industrial situation to another, and in and out of industrial settings, often back to full-time work for the DSP. Over the past five or six years, the DSP put concentrated effort into an industrial intervention in the federal public servants’ union (CPSU) in Canberra, where a group of independent leftists had successfully challenged the official left’s national dominance in the union.

The DSP asserted itself strongly in this rank and file leftist caucus. One DSP member was elected CPSU assistant secretary in the ACT in a union ballot, but after a relatively short time he resigned from this elected position. Several DSP members were appointed full-time CPSU organisers by the rank and file left majority on the ACT CPSU executive, but they did not stay in those positions for any great length of time.

One DSP supporter emerged as the leader of the rank and file in Canberra section of the CPSU, but he too resigned to become the secretary of a Labor Council in provincial Victoria. The net effect of all this turmoil, along with other factors, was that the national CPSU bureaucracy was successful in reasserting its hegemony over the union and pushing back the rank and file grouping in the ACT.

You rarely get from the DSP any kind of balancesheet of such industrial experiences, just a continuance of its exposure of Laborism rhetoric. Another characteristic of the DSP in the industrial sphere is sterile polemics with this exposure of Laborism emphasis. The strangest recent example of this is the ill-conceived, out-of-context, literary assault against the essentially defensive activities of the Maritime Union of Australia leadership in the waterfront dispute. This bizarre polemic really had little to do with the concrete industrial circumstances of the waterfront dispute, and everything to do with the literary exposure of Laborism.

Another characteristic of the DSP’s industrial orientation is a constant agitation for unions to dissaffiliate from the Labor Party. This campaign has totally reactionary implications.

In Britain, Tony Blair has successfully removed the trade unions from their previous direct control over the Labour Party. In WA, Blair’s mate, the new Labor Premier Geoff Gallop, is trying to reduce trade union control over the WA Labor Party, with proposals for the reduction of trade union structural influence. “Get rid of the trade union predominance” is a recurrent theme of many parliamentary ALP right-wingers.

The DSP’s campaign to dissaffiliate unions from the ALP to “expose Laborism”, is objectively right-wing. It’s worth noting that in the current battle with the right-wing Labor government in NSW over workers compensation, the bureaucracy of the NSW Labor Council has been forced to threaten the use of the institutional power of the right-wing unions in the ALP state executive to force minister John Della Bosca and the government to back down. These circumstances highlight the reactionary character of the exposure of Laborism strategy when carried over by the DSP into trying to sever union links with the Labor Party.

One rare ongoing intervention in an important industrial situation in the history of the DSP was the work of one very capable, dedicated and charismatic member who settled in the mining area in western Tasmania. He led several strikes, battles in the union, and local agitations over a period of 10 years. This activity was only terminated when the normal evolution of family affairs led the main organiser to move to another state. This very useful experience is almost unique in the industrial history of the DSP, in contrast with the history of the CPA, in which, despite the awful albatross of High Stalinism for 30 years or so, there were literally dozens of examples of such long-term industrial agitations.

A while back, Norm Dixon published a very useful article in Links about the Aboriginal question, in which he argued, by reference to the work of Lenin on the national question, that it was incorrect to characterise Aboriginal Australians as a seperate nationality. I found his arguments completely persuasive, methodologically, but I noted that Malik Miah, a black ally of the DSP who lives in the United States, who knows the DSP well, sounded a sharp note of caution about the danger that the DSP would use this ideological formulation to launch a wholesale attack on Aboriginal activists in Australia who hold the seperate-nation views that the DSP disagrees with.

The penny dropped for me when the DSP did indeed commence a substantial polemical attack on most sections of the Aboriginal leadership, using the important Norm Dixon formulation for this purpose, and to once again buttress the DSPs exposure of Laborism obsession. In a series of articles, most sections of the Aboriginal leadership were denounced for their incorrect formulation of the national question, which apparently, according to the DSP, leads them to make rotten deals with the Laborites rather than strictly following the simple mass demonstration strategy recommended to them by the DSP. This indictment of the Aboriginal movement, the most oppressed section of Australian society, for not practicing the DSP’s exposure of Laborism strategy, is repellent and bizzare! The use of Norm Dixon’s valuable work on the national question for this crude tactical purpose is very sad.

Iggy Kim’s work on the origins of racism and multiculturalism, is a much more straightforward example of the tendency of the DSP to approach all questions from the exposure of Laborism angle. The whole practical point of Kim’s over-the-top assault on official multiculturalism, and the leaders of migrant organisations, is that, according to Kim, official multiculturalism leads to a rotten bloc with the Laborites, when the real task should be the exposure of Laborism.

The same considerations apply to the DSP’s intervention in the student movement. The Left Alliance and Love and Rage groupings, substantial far-left student organisations, have recently moved some distance away from ultraleftism, towards the strategy of a united front with the Labor left in the student movement, and even in some circumstances, with the Labor right. This sensible strategic reorientation of the two larger far-left groupings in the student movement threw the DSP into a frenzy at the recent national student union conference. The DSP split from the broad left caucus in the student movement, in opposition to this united front with the Laborites. The exposure of Laborism strategy the DSP’s preoccupation in every sphere.

I have concentrated in the above analysis on the political strategy of the DSP in relation to the Socialist Alliance. I have done this because it is clear to me that the politics and strategy of the DSP are so far the dominant influence in the emergence of this alliance.

The kind of Socialist Alliance and socialist discussion that’s required in current conditions

Serious socialists are looking down the barrel of a very unusual set of social circumstances. The accelerating Australian and international economic problems are going to propel into power a Labor government with a large majority, and a substantial Green influence in the Senate.

This new Labor government will be very right wing, and will face unprecedented economic problems. One striking question will be whether or not to abolish the GST. Labor leader Kim Beazley says he won’t, but the GST will continue to devastate the petty bourgeoisie and rob the workers, pensioners and all the exploited. The real ideological task facing socialists right now is to prepare ourselves for the kind of demands that will have to be placed on this government, and for the kind of broadly based Labor movement and social movement agitation that will be necessary to back up these demands.

What is really required is a serious discussion of the real possibilities and problems for the socialist, workers and progressive movements in these new conditions. This political discussion should include all sections of the Marxist left, the left in the Labor Party, the Greens and the whole of the trade union movement and the social movements.

To paraphrase Scottish Socialist Party leader Tommy Sheridan, “Just imagine” or Martin Luther King “I have a dream!” Just imagine that the DSP could break sufficiently from its current sectarian approach to open up, say, one third of their technically accomplished and rather beautiful Green Left Weekly to a wide-ranging socialist discussion, from which no-one is excluded, including left-wing Laborites, Greens and others, in which no condition is imposed on the participants to desert their existing organisational or electoral allegiances.

Imagine such a serious political discussion on the left starting, say, on May Day and continuing until after the federal elections. What healthy foundations such a discussion would lay for the necessary united front strategy that life will impose on serious socialists in the conditions that are emerging. As Trotsky once said, in discussing the atrocious propaganda of Third Period Stalinism in the 1930s: “Paper is long-suffering and will reproduce any madness that is imposed on it in the form of ink.”

My current reading of Green Left doesn’t suggest that the leadership of the DSP and the new Socialist Alliance are exactly breaking their necks, yet, to take up the proposition that what is required is a united front of the whole of the left of the labour movement, including Laborites and Greens, and a discussion between all sections of the left without preconditions.

Nevertheless, facts and circumstances are stubborn things. If the Marxist left doesn’t reorient itself to such a perspective now, before the elections, it will be forced by crisis circumstances after the elections to reorient itself. Because of the unprecedented new environment we are entering, we haven’t got a lot of time.

Further considerations raised by issues discussed at the Sydney and Melbourne Socialist Alliance launches

Several problems inherent in the DSP’s primary emphasis on the electoral aspect of the proposed alliance emerged at both the Sydney and Melbourne meetings to launch the new formation.

At the Sydney meeting, responding to criticism that their orientation smacked of electoralism, several DSP speakers developed the novel idea that their campaign would be totally “anti-electoralist”.

This line of argument seems to me rhetorical demagogy, designed to blur over the limited propaganda quality of this electoral exercise, and of the fact that it will very probably have little electoral impact. During a previous electoral push by the DSP, Maurice Sibelle wrote a small pamphlet outlining his conception of Marxist electoral campaigning, drawing heavily on the small book by Badaev The Bolsheviks in the Tsarist Duma.

In this pamphlet, Sibelle spells out Lenin’s emphasis on the importance of taking electoral campaigns seriously and campaigning in such a way to make Bolshevik electoral candidates tribunes of all the social demands and interests of the people, asserting that this was not just a question of printed programs but of concentrated ongoing activity in particular areas.

Light-minded rhetoric about “anti-election” election campaigns is in rather sharp contrast to the general ideas about elections expounded by Lenin and described in Sibelle’s pamphlet.

After the Sydney meeting, one old hand from the CPA, who now supports activities of the DSP, approached me and made the general point that, in his experience DSP electoral campaigns descend rapidly on an area and engage in a bit of abstract propaganda presented in a short-term and extremely urgent way, which often has very limited results.

He said this was in contrast to his experiences in the CPA, which in some circumstances concentrated on certain electoral activities in a comprehensive way over a very long period. He cited the example of Tom Wright and Ron Maxwell, trade union leaders who were elected to the Sydney City Council as a result of their mass prestige and popularity as trade union leaders, in combination with the protracted and intense local activity of the CPA in the Sydney City area over many years. He also made the point that when elected to Sydney City Council, Wright and Maxwell performed their duties as aldermen conscientiously, and were effective tribunes of the people on all local issues.

At the Melbourne meeting, Steve Jolly indicated the reluctance of his organisation, Militant, to join the Socialist Electoral Alliance. The core of his argument was that his group had staked out the right to run in the federal electorate covering Richmond, by four or five years of very public activity in that area. He used as evidence to justify his ultimatum that his group had got a relatively large vote in the equivalent area in the state elections as a result of its local activity.

The national body of the Progressive Labor Party was also reluctant to join the Socialist Alliance for a slightly different reason. Despite the fairly minimal activity of the PLP Group, it got nearly 40,000 votes in the NSW upper house in the last state elections.

It’s absolutely clear that the reason for the PLP’s vote lies in the attractive power of their name, which also underlines another difficulty facing a Socialist Electoral Alliance in a Senate or upper house election campaign. An organisation with Labor in the name is likely to get a far higher vote than something called socialist.

At this moment, which won’t last forever, the word socialist in the name of an organisation has little electoral appeal in most countries because of the negative connotations of the word from the long and awful history of Stalinism in the 20th century.

The curious example of the rather large vote for Progressive Labor Party in the NSW upper house indicates that leftward-moving voters disillusioned with Laborism still tend to operate within the ambit of Laborism electorally. No examples that I can advance from history and current circumstances will influence the participants in this electoral alliance in the short term. They will proceed with this project, and they will together acquire a set of experiences in this sphere of independent electoral activity.

The best of Irish luck to them! For my part, I will proceed in this electoral campaign to support the ALP electorally, while continuing to campaign inside the ALP and the broader labour movement for a socialist policy.

A broader socialist alliance is still needed

At the Sydney meeting I advanced the idea, which I now submit in a formal way to the organisations making up the Socialist Electoral Alliance.

I propose that they initiate a second strand to a Socialist Alliance, which can be joined by socialists who have strategic orientations different to the electoral thrust of the other part of the Alliance, that is, socialists who are involved electorally in the Labor Party, the Greens and also anarcho-syndicalists who are opposed to participation in elections.

I also propose to the DSP that it open up its newspaper, and for the next period produce a 12-page supplement with a representative editorial board from participating groups, devoted to a comprehensive, civilised discussion of all the issues confronting socialist in the 21st century.

This discussion supplement could also be sold separately, and could be distributed by all the groups and individuals involved, along with their own publications. Appropriate financial arrangements could be made between all participants in such a project.

There are historical precedents for such journalistic activity. In the late 1920s, before the imposition of Stalinism closed down all public discussion in the CPA, the Workers Weekly used to have an open political discussion in its columns each year, in the months before the then annual conference of the CPA.

Forty years later, as Stalinism began to unwind in Australia, the CPA broke, for a period, out of the Stalinist mould, and conducted a public discussion in elaborate internal bulletins before congresses. From time to time it even held public discussions in the weekly CPA newspaper, Tribune. Such formal public discussion has never been a major feature of Green Left Weekly and Direct Action before it.

Discussion in Direct Action and Green Left Weekly has usually consisted of long and often complex polemical arguments with other currents, solely from the DSP’s point of view.

Socialist Worker, the journal of the International Socialists, has been pretty similar in this respect. Members of the various socialist groups rarely buy the press of the rival groups. I have often been amused in my shop watching members of one group or another glance through the press of other groups to scoff, but they have in the past rarely bought the rival publications.

All this has made serious discussion between the members of the various groups rather difficult. Political discussion in the past has usually consisted of polemic against other socialist groups, directed mainly externally. If the new spirit of alliance could result in a serious discussion bulletin, contributed to, financially supported and read by most serious socialists, such a development would be a definite step forward for the socialist movement in Australia!

April 2001

Tags: , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: