Prospects for Socialist Alliance


A contribution to discussion

Socialist Democracy

1. As supporters of the Fourth International, mindful of both strengths and weaknesses of regroupment processes in other countries, we support in principle the evolution of the Socialist Alliance into a broad socialist, pluralist, democratic, multi-tendency party. Where successful, regroupments have been genuinely broad and based on vibrant currents in the mass movements. But given the fragile and fragmented state of the socialist groups in Australia, and our disconnection with the labour and social movements, this process requires care, time, discussion and reflection. Above all, in the context of the global capitalist offensive, and the acute current challenges posed by the invasion and occupation of Iraq, an effective Socialist Alliance requires a thorough re-examination of the politics, methods, instincts and behaviours that have led socialist groups to be so marginalised from the wider labour and social movements. We do not see SA as building on our strengths so much as being necessitated by our weakness.

2. The proposal by the DSP, as the largest left current in Australia, justifiably proud of Green Left Weekly and its branches and offices in each state, to suspend operations as a party and become a tendency within the SA, remains problematic, since it would further actualise their dominance within the SA, and narrow its reach.

3. The DSP argues that more resources are needed for the SA to build on current opportunities, and that is obviously so, since the momentum and enthusiasm of the early days of the SA has flagged. Indeed activity levels are falling, and membership in the largest affiliates is dropping. But the limitations we face are not simply mechanical, they are political.

4. It is true that the current situation is confusing for DSP and non-DSP members of SA. People who chose not to be members of the DSP, who volunteer to work for SA at rallies or at election stalls, are asked to distribute GLW, as if it were the newspaper of the Alliance. SA branch meetings are poorly attended, have little vibrant political debate, replicate some of style of the dominant group, and give the impression that decisions are made by DSP cadres beforehand. It is hard for members when we refer to “our position” or “our intervention” to remember whether we are referring to a policy actually voted on by SA, or whether it is the policy of the affiliate we adhere to. This confusion cannot be clarified by a rapid but superficial transition to a multi-tendency party with a “Leninist”-party-turned tendency which is overwhelmingly dominant and remains strictly disciplined.

5. The belief remains, among some within and outside the Alliance, that the DSP’s objective is to split what has recently been it’s most significant rival, the ISO, and dissolve, marginalise, co-opt or hegemonise the tiny groups. There is a justifiably widespread distrust of the long history of sectarian and anti-democratic practices amongst the left in Australia. In our opinion these methods stem in the main from Stalinism, but are by no means restricted to currents deriving from Stalinism or adapting to Stalinist politics, as the DSP chose to do in the early 1980s. By sectarianism we mean, not factional disputes, but the substitution of the immediate needs of a socialist group’s leaders for the real needs of the whole movement. That is we judge success, not by a real-world victory of the working class, but by whether we have recruited, collected donations, or sold papers.

6. After thirty years of activity, how is it that the socialist groups have so few members in elected positions in trade unions, so little respect, and so little influence among workers? The solution is not to establish caucuses of those trade union members who support SA, as is alluded to in the trade union resolution, but to assess which forces in each union best defend workers rights and which could contribute to building a class-struggle militant left in the labour movement, to link with these militants where they exist and learn from them. Given the very narrow and evanescent support for SA thus far among militant unionists, it is likely the militants SA comrades should work with currently vote Labor or Green.

7. Where revolutionary socialists have developed strong bases in the labour movement or in social movements, this has been the result of long term commitments, respect for militants of other political persuasions, and learning from both successes and mistakes. Too often socialist groups in Australia have replaced this long-term orientation with factional discipline which elevates short term campaign gains, attention to external priorities, and recruitment at the expense of what could result in a real advance in working class confidence and power. Comrades successfully winning respect through their ability to communicate with other workers and their political ideas and work have been too often moved to new political assignments, lest they develop trajectories inconvenient for the socialist organisations’ leaderships. Sectarian practices in the labour movement are justified by ultra-left theory, which sees the
existing left within the Labor Party and trade unions the main enemy, the worst betrayers and the central obstacles to the growth of socialist organisations.

8. Though we often profess how well SA can work alongside the Greens, too often we voice immature sectarian dismissals of what is a complex and dynamic movement. It is not good enough to simply cast our weakness as a product of the current (transient?) upsurge of the Greens as inheritors of the space to the left of Labor. Nor can we credibly cast all currents in the Greens as likely to betray the struggle. We simply don’t have the credibility.

9. This was evident in the NSW elections, where the SA came last out of all the upper house tickets, with approximately 0.14%, beaten not only by all the right-wing groups, but even by the Arabic communities’ Anti-Privatisation Peoples Party. Energy for serious SA campaign work was very inconsistent, and very little policy development was done. At all stages the election campaign was subordinated to the anti-war movement. Our demands were hard to differentiate from the Greens (against the war, for public education, public health, union rights), particularly since our materials were much less readable than theirs, and we had failed to mark ourselves out as a clear working class or mass action alternative to them. Apparently after the NSW elections, the Greens adopted contradictory resolutions: to make special efforts to increase their support in non-inner city and non-Anglo working class areas, and to reject donations from unions.

10. If SA is our big opportunity to break out of increasing isolation, we have to change our thinking and our approaches. For too long socialist groups have been looking for the big break and for immediate gains: first there was the anti-Vietnam war youth radicalisation, then the “turn to the working class”, to the unemployed workers movement, the Greens, the NDP, CPA, NLP, SPA, PLP, the anti-gobalisation movement, and now SA. We sought the big breaks overseas: from the 70s guerrillaism in Latin America to the Sandinistas, Grenadans and Salvadorans, from Fidel to Gorbachev, to the PDS (Germany), the SACP (South Africa), the PRD (Indonesia), PST (East Timor), LS (Philippines) and PLP (Pakistan). After each bout of optimism, we quietly and quickly moved on, and moved our cadres out of unproductive campaigns, without publicly analysing lessons learned. This short attention span loses any respect we win through hard work, and renders our work routinist and somewhat apolitical. Each time we indulged in triumphalism, in unrealistic perspectives, and now we overestimate and over-congratulate the role played by the Alliance in the anti-war movement, whose largest mobilisations would have taken place without our interventions (not that most of the anti-war work was done as SA; most was done as independents or as affiliated groups, and the DSP and Resistance leaders were clearly and publicly named as the decision-makers of Books not Bombs).

11. Apart from the need for SA to supercede all the sectarian methods we have carried from the past into the present, there are key questions that need to be clarified about the proposed transitioning of the DSP from a “Leninist” party to a tendency within SA, without a more thought-out comprehensive up-to-date socialist policy base for SA, without thorough educative debate, without a tendency-based delegate conference, and without clarity about the platform of the DS as an internal tendency of SA — surely not the existing program, which is that of a “Leninist” party? Nor the basic common platform of SA. What will be the core political stances the DS will recruit to as a tendency within the SA. The messages from the DSP leadership are conflicting. If there really are very few relevant political differences among the socialist groups, why does the DSP leadership proclaim that factional, political, organisational and financial discipline needs to be tightened for the transition from party to tendency? Why re-emphasise the education program culminating in Cannon? That doesn’t reflect the openness to learning new insights and methods that would characterise a genuine regroupment process. The Peter Boyle document, only placed on the DSP website after it was leaked, set off alarms for many in the SA.

12. How exactly would the assets of the DSP be controlled — and not just the real estate? How would they be deployed for the benefit of SA without dependency or conditionality? SA must have a level of financial democracy, transparency and accountability unlike those of its affiliates. The DSP must come clean on the so-called “Bronstein Society” — the inner circle which controls the monies and property, completely outside party control.

13. But also how would GLW be transformed from a party publication (notwithstanding its launch more than a decade back as a broad publication with non-DSP shareholders) to one that candidly reflects the critical debates we need to have? Which taboos will be broken, and how can a broad editorial team effectively reflect the diversity that should be evident in the SA?

14. How would Resistance change from being a theoretically independent youth group (whose leadership is integrated into that of the DSP) supporting the Alliance into a genuinely broad thoroughly democratic non-sectarian socialist youth group?

15. How can SA develop a genuinely broad, pluralistic and contemporary education program for it’s supporters? Not by retailing the existing training courses the larger tendencies use to inculcate their own particular heritages to new members.

16. How could the DSP’s organisations, such as ASAP and CISLAC, be transformed into broadly based solidarity movements? This would require that key personnel and decisions cease to be subordinated to DSP structures, and that the objectives cease to be to narrowly support the DSP’s international comrades such as the PST in East Timor and the PRD in Indonesia, or indeed the Cuban Communist Party, but more broadly the movements of workers and the oppressed in the Pacific, Latin America and Asia. SA should not replicate the fraction-based interventions of some of the affiliates in various social movements, when immediate recruiting has been the only performance indicator as to whether to commit cadre to medium or long term work. Work in social movements, (eg, environment, indigenous peoples, international solidarity, refugees and antiracism, women, lesbians/gay men, disabled, prisoners) even when those movements may be politically weak, should be based not on exercising leadership, but on respect for the autonomy of the movement and on continuing to learn how these struggles can enrich socialism. Recent experience, where we have seen the DSP set up its own separate peace and pro-refugee organisations, is certainly not the way forward.

17. The answer is not simply the relocating of SA and it’s non-DSP members into DSP premises and organisations; what is required for the left groups to break out of our ghetto is a complete and fearless analysis of our weaknesses over the last three decades. The risk of continuing on the current trajectory is the alienation of the diverse currents that can give life to the SA. SA will lose participation and become a shell, a broader face or label for DSP, which will remain isolated from workers, youth and the oppressed. The far-reaching renewal the left needs will be precluded. For the SA to be successful, dynamic and sustainable, we need to evolve an open internal and external political culture of the SA, independent of the sectarian and undemocratic political cultures of most of the left groups in Australia. The Alliance can be the basis of a thorough-going socialist renewal, but only if the affiliates take a giant leap away from our sectarian methods, ditch our caricature Leninist arrogance, and ground ourselves deeply in the existing labour and social movements. If SA fails, and constricts into a periphery of dis-empowered supporters of an unreconstructed and still-isolated DSP, this will be a set-back for the whole left in Australia for a long time to come.

An open letter from Socialist Democracy to the DSP

John Tully for Socialist Democracy

John Percy,
National Secretary,
Democratic Socialist Party.
10 November 2002

Dear John,

There is virtually no support outside of the DSP for the DSP leadership’s proposal to “dissolve” into the Socialist Alliance. Even inside the DSP, there is opposition to the proposal as it stands. However, the proposal now has the weight of the DSP’s national committee behind it. This is an enormous error. We are writing to urge you, to plead with you, to shelve the proposal at this stage.

If the DSP goes ahead with the proposal and the ISO carries out its threat to leave, the Alliance will collapse. Thus, we might well squander the best chance for left wing unity in a whole generation. More than that, we will be condemned to eke out our political lives like hamsters on a treadmill, expending plenty of energy but never going beyond the confines of an iron cage.

The Left is now probably weaker than it was 100 years ago. The affiliates of the Alliance trace their most direct roots to “the generation of 1968”. For most of the thirty-odd years since then, we have been at loggerheads. At times the antipathy has gone beyond rudeness to physical violence.

We have come a long way towards breaking down the old sectarianism, but if the Alliance implodes now, it will take much longer than thirty years to put the pieces back together. To invert the old cliché, nothing fails like failure, and there will be little enthusiasm for a re-run. Not in this generation, anyway.

If nothing else, the proposal has been useful in demonstrating the great differences that exist within the Alliance. Each of the affiliates has a different viewpoint on how to proceed. We need to work these out and the process cannot be forced. Far better for us to consolidate our joint work, and to consider other ways to bring about greater unity and to bring in broader layers outside of the existing left milieux.

It is precisely because we agree that there has never been a greater need for a united left party that we are asking you to apply the brakes. Let us have the discussions and debates we need to have, but without time lines and without unilateral actions. Please listen very carefully to what the ISO and the other affiliates are saying. There is still time for a change of course.


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