Unions and the Socialist Alliance


The DSP’s extraordinary proposal that the national conference of the Socialist Alliance should commit to campaigning for union disaffiliation from the ALP

A sinister proposal that should be opposed by all members of the Socialist Alliance and other socialists

Bob Gould

This proposal must be examined in the context of current circumstances in the Australian labour movement and historical experience and precedents.

Over the past month Green Left Weekly has been conducting an energetic literary campaign for the disaffiliation of unions from the Labor Party and now, approximately three weeks before the national conference of the new Socialist Alliance, the DSP has proposed to that conference that the Alliance commit itself to a campaign for union disaffiliation from the ALP and for affiliation of unions to the Socialist Alliance.

I have discussed this question from a number of angles in another essay, and there is historical material on this question in my long overview of the history of the Communist Party in Australian life, but the concrete proposal from the DSP and the form in which it is presented raises a number of other questions.

It is important to examine the historical context in which the affiliation of the major blue collar unions to the Labor Party took place. In every state the unions actually took the initiative for the formation of the Labor Party and the Labor Party was perceived, from its inception, as the political expression of the interests of trade unions.

Trade union affiliation was integral to the whole Labor project right from the start, and the project was perceived as a parliamentary political project by the trade unions, and by the various groups of socialists who were involved at the commencement and in the early years.

The DSP now rewrites history to say that there should have been formed at that time a modern revolutionary Marxist organisation of the type that it now aspires to be itself, but this approach to the formation of the Labor Party is abstract historical nonsense. The DSP now treats the formation of the Labor Party in the form that it took as a kind of step backwards for the working class, and this is also historical nonsense of a dangerous sort from the point of view of Marxism.

The formation of an independent Labor Party with, in due course, trade union dominance, was a very considerable leap forward for the working class, despite its reformist limitations, and at that time there was no other possibility for a mass party than the development of the Labor Party with these reformist limitations.

For instance, the powerful and at some historical points, well organised, US trade unions and labour movement was never able to form an independent, trade-union-based labour party. Through most of the 20th century, US revolutionary socialists have always fought for the creation of an independent trade-union-based labour party, despite the reformist limitations it would inevitably have at the point of its formation.

Does the DSP now believe that the Stalinists, who opposed such a development on a number of occasions in the US, were right?

A proposal for union disaffiliation from the ALP and affiliation to the Socialist Alliance is essentially a tactical proposal from the Marxist point of view. The DSP has been at great pains to say the program of the Socialist Alliance is not a full socialist program, but only an electoral program, which reveals a problem at the core of the whole Socialist Alliance project.

If it were simply a matter of proclaiming good demands to get an audience, why would it not be better to have the whole program of the socialist revolution written into the fighting program of the Socialist Alliance? The fact that the DSP doesn’t do that is a shamefaced admission of the tactical problems facing small groups of revolutionary socialists trying to get a mass audience.

Yet, they seriously propose to the organised working class a major structural and organisational break from a mass Labor Party to an untried propaganda group called the Socialist Alliance, and they manage to keep a straight face! To the overwhelming majority of organised, class-conscious workers that seemingly simple organisational proposal is, in fact, more extraordinary and unlikely to be accepted than support for the whole program of the socialist revolution in the program of the Socialist Alliance.

The last time such a disaffiliate-from-the-ALP-and-affiliate-to-us strategy was attempted in Australia was when the Communist Party tried it in 1949 and 1950 during the political crisis of the coal strike and its consequences. One aspect the strategy at that time was CPA delusions of grandeur that it could carry its still considerable influence in the working class into such a project.

At the time that it launched that campaign, the Communist Party was a very powerful nationwide organisation with a membership of 8000-9000 in an Australia that had half the population it has today – that is, about 9.5 million, compared with 19 million.

The Communist Party at that time had major influence in about 40 per cent of Australian unions and more than half the major blue collar industrial unions. In 1950 the number of full-time union officials who were members of the Communist Party numbered 700-800, and they had powerful direct political influence on another 1000 or so full-time union officials. About a third of the 9000 CP members were job delegates or shop stewards in industry, and there were maybe another 6000 or 7000 shop stewards or delegates under their direct influence. The Communist Party was a major physical and ideological influence deeply implanted throughout the labour movement.

Despite this relatively massive implantation in the workers movement, the CP failed in its bid to have unions disaffiliate from Labor and affiliate to it. No unions ever affiliated to the Communist Party.

The Seamens Union started the process for such an affiliation, but the fact that it was completely dead in the water everywhere else led the union’s leaders to draw back from the project before the point of affiliation was reached.

In the early 1950s, starting in 1952, the still large and influential CPA conducted an internal discussion of this question and decided the strategy had been mistaken, and its rethinking took the form of a recognition that while unionists often elected Communists at every level because they recognised the value of their activities on the unionists’ behalf, this did not extend into the political sphere.

In electoral politics, the same unionists who elected Communist officials saw the affiliation of the union to the ALP as something that could possibly be used to influence Labor governments in favour of union interests. In reality most active unionists, even in the unions with Communist officials and shop stewards, were at the political level Labor voters.

From this very sensible re-evaluation in the Stalinist movement flowed the strategy of the subsequent period, which involved a practical recognition of this hegemony of the Laborites, and the CP for most of its subsequent existence tried to balance what it called the leading role of the Party with a realistic recognition of the political hegemony of Laborism, which was still almost total over the organised working class.

This gave rise to the CP’s development of unity tickets between Communists and Laborites in militant unions, and all through the 1950s, 1960s and the 1970s, the left of the labour movement in which the CP was still a substantial force, organised sometimes desultory but fairly constant campaigns for a multitude of incremental improvements for the working class.

These campaigns were often developed and waged through the peak union bodies in each state and ALP state conferences, which exerted pressure on Labor governments for these incremental improvements.

This set of circumstances embodied a practical recognition of the obvious reality that the bulk of the organised working class was still in the orbit of Laborism. As the progressive layer of the middle class emerged towards the end of this period it became apparent that the majority of them also were in the orbit of Laborism, politically speaking.That set of circumstances has continued to this day, despite the disillusionment of some sectors with Laborism, which the DSP for its own sectarian purposes continually exagerates, the overwhelming majority of the organised working class and a less overwhelming majority of the progressive middle class, still operate politically within the electoral orbit of Laborism.

A comparison of the relationship of forces between the far left and Laborism in 2001 and 1951

In 1951 the relationship of forces between the Communist Party and the tiny group of Trotskyists to their left, and the Labor Party, was the one which I have described above. If the fact that the population was half today is taken into account, in todays terms the Far Left almost entirely composed of the Communist Party and a small group of Trotskyists, was the equivalent of nudging 20,000 people, overwhelmingly blue collar proletarians and their wives, deeply implanted in the industrial organisations of the working class, the trade unions and throughout industry, but also with a considerable network of allies amongst the intelligentsia and the middle class.

Unhappily for us, the national membership of the organisations of the far left in Australia in 2001 is, including organisations such as the Socialist Party, the Communist Party, the CPA-ML, the Socialist Equality Party and the Progressive Labor Party, none of which are in the Socialist Alliance, and the 700 or so members of the Socialist Alliance who are in the nine affiliated organisations, at its utmost top end, about 1200-1500.

This is about one fifteenth of the size of the far left in 1951. In addition to this, the social composition of the far left is about a third students, a third middle class and a third members of white collar and public service unions. The far left is extremely thin on the ground in blue collar unions, the unions traditionally affiliated to the ALP.

In terms of shop stewards or job delegates, the whole far left would probably have about 100, if that, mostly in public service unions. There are probably about 20 union officials who are members of far left organisations, and most of those would be members of residual Stalinist organisations, not the Socialist Alliance.

The reality is that the far left in Australia in 2001 consists almost entirely of small propaganda groups, including the DSP, the biggest group, which is a largish small propaganda group. These propaganda groups suffer from a certain preoccupation with the inner life of the group at the expense of serious implantation in the working class, and that is their occupational hazard.

They do many useful things, but the notion that a federation of smallish propaganda groups known as the Socialist Alliance should launch a substantial campaign for the disaffiliation of unions from the ALP has a certain surreal quality. Even so, its implications are very dangerous.

One has only to enumerate, as I have, this comparison of the relationship of forces then and now, to underline the great likelihood that the DSP’s disaffiliation agitation can only have a literary impact. This also underlines the general point that this literary impact can only take place if it meshes with the general propaganda of the Liberals and the extreme parliamentary right in the ALP against union affiliation to the ALP.

The agitation of Dick Nichols and Green Left Weekly won’t have anything like the impact of the agitation of the Liberals and the ALP parliamentary right, but it might help this agitation along a bit, which is why my characterisation of this agitation as sinister is carefully considered.

The DSP’s resolution to the conference of the Socialist Alliance stresses the notion that the Alliance should campaign to get unions to affiliate to it in the future, as the political expression and representative of the unions.

The very way that this proposition is formulated underlines the philosophically idealist and dangerously metaphysical character of this proposal. Such a development might indeed be desirable, as is the socialist revolution, but the proclamation of it as an objective has very little to do with current objective realities in the labour movement and the working class.

As the Communist Party found in 1949, in the heat of a Labor betrayal in the Coal Strike, it was possible to get some unions to disaffiliate from the ALP, but it proved quite impossible to get them to affiliate to a new organisation, even one as relatively influential in the working class as the Communist Party was then.

The new affiliation to the Socialist Alliance will, of course, remain a dead letter, but the outcome if the DSP’s agitation tips the scale in favour of bigger forces who favour disaffiliation in any union, is the withdrawal of that union from the weight bearing down on Labor governments in the battles to come. Also, such disaffiliation would actually contribute to passivity and depoliticisation in the face of the extreme unliklihood of any alternative affiliation appealing to the membership of any union.

For practical purposes, the alternatives are ALP affiliation combined, from a socialist point of view, with agitation for working class interests in the ALP, or no affiliation at all and no politics in the union.

The DSP is so obsessed with its exposure of Laborism perspective that it prefers depoliticisation to ALP affiliation, because it has some vague idea that in the distant future, due to a process of disillusionment, unions may affiliating to it.

This whole approach is poisonous metaphysics with, ultimately, profoundly right wing implications.

While we are making comparisons, it is worth comparing the Australian far left and the Australian Socialist Alliance with their counterparts in the UK, and it is worth comparing Victoria with Scotland.

Both Victoria and Scotland have about the same population and roughly the same proportion of country to city dwellers, and each has a major dominant city, the Glasgow connurbation and the Melbourne connurbation.

The far left in Scotland, the Scottish Socialist Party, based mainly in Glasgow, has 3000-4000 members and gets 3-4 per cent of the vote in parliamentary elections.

The Victorian far left has a membership about 10 per cent that size, and got 0.4 per cent in the Aston by-election and will get less than 1 per cent in most seats in the next federal elections. The Victorian far left is far weaker in real terms than the Scottish far left. This may be an unfair comparison because the Scottish Far Left is in fact the most influential part of the British far left.

If you compare, to make it fairer, England and Wales together, to the whole of Australia, which is comparing a country of about 50 million to a country of about 20 million, the British far left has perhaps 15,000 members at most, and gets an average of between 2 per cent and 3 per cent in elections. Taking two fifths of those 15,000 members of the British far left, that would be about 9000 members, say, for the whole of Australia. But the Australian far left has, at most, about 1500 members, which is about a sixth of the British far left and it will get less than 1 per cent in the coming federal elections.

Despite its relative greater influence, the British far left is still hesitant about calling on unions to disaffiliate from the British Labour Party, yet the DSP rushes in with its essentially right-wing disaffiliation project.

Another feature of this project is the way the DSP has introduced its proposition very late in the piece, only a couple of weeks before the founding national conference of the Socialist Alliance. It is trying to have this proposal adopted with a minimum of debate in the socialist left.

The members of the different organisations mostly do not read the press of rival organisations, so the DSP have had a reasonable time to thump into their own ranks the disaffiliation story but many members, for instance, of the ISO and Socialist Alternative, for instance, are unaware of the weight that the DSP gives this question. This gives the DSP’s modest but effective machine a great weight in the preparations leading up to the conference, where the danger is the DSP’s line may be adopted because of the limited character of the preceding discussion.

As an interested critical outsider, and a long-standing left-wing socialist, I proposed to the DSP that it at least have a debate on this question in Sydney, but as might be expected in these circumstances, that seems to be the last thing they want. This presents a problem for organisations such as the ISO and the Socialist Alternative, which appear to oppose the disaffiliation proposal, but seem reluctant to engage in a wide discussion of the question in the far left, which is, in fact, the only way the DSP’s proposal on this matter can be defeated.

I propose a public debate on this question of union affiliation to the ALP, to be held in every city as soon as possible.

July 22, 2001


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