August 25, 2004
There is an unacknowledged crisis in Socialist Alternative. The entire Brisbane branch, with only a handful of exceptions, have left the organisation. This comes at the end of a long process of bureaucratic and political harassment, which should be of concern to all members. The immediate causes of tonight’s events are only one of the most recent. The NE recently declared Emma T unfinancial, with scheduled branch committee elections two weeks overdue, on the pretext that the branch owed the national organisation $470 (which had been used to help pay for transport to the NUS Education Conference in Sydney). This was a blatantly factional attack by the NE on a vocal critical member. This has brought Brisbane members to the end of their tether. It is regrettable that good comrades have been forced to the point of resignation by the political errors and bureaucratic manoeuvres of the NE.
The organisation has slid further and further, under the leadership of Mick, Sandra and Diane, into abstract propagandism. Our interventions (or lack thereof), magazine and branch meetings more and more bear the stamp of this propagandist approach. And as a result of this underlying political error, the group has become increasingly internalised. This has negative consequences both for the approach to developing members, and in terms of internal democracy. The reality is comrades, that despite the forms, there is no democracy in SA. One recent example was the factional ambush in Sydney by the BC in which Sydney Uni students were given no opportunity to discuss the approach to the elections on campus before the BC ram-rodded through a motion preselecting two SA organisers (one of whom had not even been active on campus!) for positions, without any kind of notice or announcement. This kind of behaviour would make even an ALP bureaucrat blush, but it is all in stride for the NE’s loyal supporters.
The group has entered into a political state reminiscent of the extreme sectarianism of the 1980s ‘Gung-ho’ period of the International Socialists. Abstract propgandism & ‘hyperorganisation’ (with accompanying internalisation) were the norm and turned the group into an authoritarian sect. By hyperorganisation we mean a detailed control of many areas of members political activity and lives. This period is currently being repeated in its political essentials. The sectarian assessment of, and approach to; the campus left, the over-emphasis on routine (or perhaps we should say ‘routinism’); the attempts to drive out dissidents; and the numerous clashes that comrades in Sydney and Brisbane have had with the leadership all testify to the degeneration of the organisation. Not surprisingly, key leaders of the Gung-ho madness first time around are now the key part of the leadership of Socialist Alternative. It appears that they have not felt the need to learn any new tricks, the old ones have worked perfectly. A comparison of the documents produced by some of the critical comrades in SA, with the documents of the old IS ‘interventionist faction’ will illustrate the underlying continuity of approach of the 1980s IS leadership, centrally including Mick, Sandra and Diane, with that of current leadership of SA, in which the same trio are central.
The underlying argument in the 1980s addressed what flowed from a downturn in the class struggle. The dominant part of the IS argued that the group needed to batten down the hatches because the world, and the left, were shifting rightwards. The Interventionist Faction argued that while the struggle had receded, there were still important openings that were essential for developing a healthy revolutionary organisation. As the group got crazier, the IS leadership conducted an unremitting war against leading oppositionists, which ultimately resulted in a split and the formation of Socialist Action in 1986. In hindsight, while it is possible to criticise Socialist Action, they were unquestionably right on the main issues.
Today, the organisation notionally recognises the improved political situation, but does not draw conclusions in terms of organisational routine and political approach. Today, the batten down the hatches approach is justified because we are a small group. Sandra has even advanced the idea that we would relate in an upturn just as we do now, because our size is the determinant of our activity, not our political analysis and strategy.
The list of common symptoms of this approach from the 1980s and today is uncanny: an unjustified hostility to the left, and suspicion of members who are integrated into the left socially and politically; leading members ‘coordinating’ discussions at social gatherings; manipulation of internal democracy, shifting caucuses, and not inviting some members, ambushes, denying oppositional representation in delegations to the NC; the use of a gossip network to demonise critical members, placing moral pressure on members not to associate with parts of the left or critical members, right down to tailing members to stop them meeting with other members; the practice of ‘intervening’ whenever a suspect member talks to other members, especially newer people; a highly internalised approach to development, where members are set on others as a way of ‘developing cadre’, development is seen as a matter of reading groups and book learning, but not experience as activists in campaigns; a sectarian approach to the campaign work we do; and the list could go on.
By not fully clarifying and rejecting the underlying political approach when the Gung-ho period was ditched the first time, the group laid the basis for its subsequent re-emergence.
The problem is that a sectarian-propagandist group cannot grow beyond a certain, small, size. The fact that the leadership has worked systematically to marginalise and force out their critics indicates that the leadership requires a monolithic cadre, a fact incompatible with getting more than a few hundred people together. One instance of a self-perpetuating, but utterly dead-end political approach would be the DSP, who have been a sect of more or less the same size for twenty years.
The sectarian-propagandism thus becomes an eternal loop – we can’t drop it until we’ve grown, but we can’t grow because of it. Revolutionaries have a duty to find a better road. The other road does not provide a guarantee of numerical growth (but then, neither does sectarian-propagandism). What it does open up is the possibility of a group learning the qualitative lessons that are necessary to go forward politically.
The reality is that today, the political situation, while obviously far from a 1960s style upturn, is significantly improved even on six years ago. The political residue of the struggles around the MUA, S11, Refugees and War have had an impact on the shape of mass consciousness. Old certainties on the left have been thrown into question — with the emergence of the Greens on the electoral arena, the crisis in the student left, and the debates taking place there, and the limited emergence of a layer of labor and social movement activists, all of whom constitute a potential audience for serious Marxists. The bunkered, sectarian approach of the 1980s IS and of Socialist Alternative today makes it impossible for a group to take seriously these openings.
Nowhere is this so clear as in the student movement. The graduation or withdrawal from activity of a whole layer of old leaders of the independent left has left a hole. That gap poses problems but also opportunities for socialists. Instead of a patient and comradely approach of seeking to win sections of the independent left, the SA leadership has sought to antagonise and terrorise them into accepting SA’s positions. This has only served to drive some parts of the independents into the arms of a handful of anarcho-sectarians among the independent left. We cannot continue to allow this to go on without actively resisting it.
The organisation has made it clear that we are far from welcome, and we have been placed in a kind of ‘internal exile’, by instructing members in Sydney not to talk to leading critics like Shannon and Marc. The NE has proven in its complete lack of interest in conducting a comradely debate with those of us who are critical of the problems in the group, and has preferred to resort to demonisation — wreckers, right wingers, swamp dwellers, disgusting, degenerate, anti-Leninist, ex-revolutionaries, movementists, liquidationists, economists, dishonest, gutless, etc. At the same time singling out and cornering sympathising comrades, trying to intimidate them into agreement with the NE line, or simply to get them to shut up. At no stage during the long rows in the group has the NE sought sincerely to have a discussion with any of the most prominent people in opposition, individually or collectively. Internal meetings to discuss these matters, to the extent that they have occurred in Sydney and Melbourne, have not been genuine members’ meetings, but rather thinly disguised kangaroo courts, and have been few and far between. The only attempts made by the NE to ‘open up a dialogue’ with the opposition have been in the last week. None of the NE’s documents or manoeuvres have actually been aimed at achieving political clarity in fact, but rather at making an intelligent debate of the differences impossible by declaring the arguments of the opposition out-of-bounds at the start.
The Socialist Alternative NE have proven themselves to be completely incapable of developing an organisation that can ever rise above the level of a sect. The leadership has moreover made certain that some members in Sydney and Brisbane are unable to function as Socialist Alternative members. In Sydney therefore, some of us feel unable to accept this situation, or the politics that underlie it, and therefore feel compelled to resign our membership in Socialist Alternative.
We reaffirm our commitment to revolutionary Marxism, and to the task of constructing a revolutionary organisation, but are forced to pursue this project outside SA. We will work to promote the reunification of the healthy, realistic, interventionist, working class-oriented, and revolutionary parts of the left, as members of Solidarity. We recognise that in their struggles in the ISO they raised many similar themes, and have a similar political approach to student work (in terms of political method), to ourselves. Our task is to build a more cohesive Solidarity, and play a role in reorganising the revolutionary left in Australia today.
We retain considerable respect and warm feeling towards the rank-and-file membership of SA, and look forward to working constructively with SA members in the future. We urge comrades who are critical of the fact that the group has forced out some of its most talented members in the last 12 months, of the sectarianism which has become SA’s hallmark in the student movement, or by the bureaucratic manoeuvres and lies of the leadership, to get in contact with us and maintain relations, despite the fact that the sectarian-propagandism of the leadership now places an organisational barrier between us.
Yours for the Revolution
Marc N, Shannon P, Tony B, Belgin K, Trudy McQ, Sophie B
Tags: Socialist Alternative