Workers Power resigns from Australian Socialist Alliance


Carlene Wilson

The Socialist Alliance: a failed experiement

The Socialist Alliance formed in the summer of 2001, it was unprecedented, particularly in its early stages because it brought together most of the major left organisations in Australia under a single banner. It was certainly prompted by some of the early successes of the UK Socialist Alliance and by a general feeling among many on the left in Australia that the events of S11 were the beginning of a new period of opening opportunities for class struggle and organisation.

Workers Power were involved from the earliest meetings and could see the potential for the organisation to tap into what was at the time a growing anti-capitalist and workers movement increasingly frustrated with an ALP that was hard to distinguish from the Coalition.

During its first months and at its founding conference, Workers Power argued that the Socialist Alliance should found itself on a revolutionary programme — after all, we almost all claimed to be revolutionaries. We made the argument that the last thing the Australian working class needs is another reformist party and that a clear and honest argument for why revolution was what was needed.

We also wanted the debate to be about the kind of politics any new formation in Australia would need rather than about organisational structures. Most importantly, from the beginning we saw the need to be building a new party, hopefully one that could draw to it a mass base.

For that reason we argued for the need from the very beginning to actively seek support from and if possible affiliate unions to the Socialist Alliance. We were told this was impossible and the reasons for this express much about the various views of the potential for a new organisation. We were told that unions couldn’t affiliate because Socialist Alliance could offer them nothing, no political voice. And more worryingly, that union affiliation would see us all as revolutionaries outnumbered by union members!

Both arguments show considerable fear of the organised working class. As revolutionaries seeking to build a new organisation of our class, Workers Power could think of nothing better than having a new organisation, filled with the most militant and class-conscious workers; where the real debates about how to move forward in building a real new workers party could have been had. And besides, we could see no way that any new political organisation could grow to have the numbers and strength to politically and industrially support its trade union members, unless it grew by recruiting them en masse!

As the project of building the Socialist Alliance continued, Workers Power adjusted our own way of viewing it. We learned from the experience and came to the next conference with a more solid proposal for the Socialist Alliance, which was clearly not a new party itself, to play a leading role in initiating and building a new workers party.

We were told that this was pre-emptive and even sectarian! We were accused of trying to force a particular model and set of politics on such a party. Whereas our actual resolution we put to the conference was clear – nothing should be decided beforehand; to be successful, a campaign to build a new workers party (which was what we suggested Socialist Alliance initiate) would have to call meetings, and conferences where as much of our class as possible could debate out the various possibilities and draw its own conclusions about what was necessary.

This in reality is a much more democratic proposal than what the Socialist Alliance was by then coalescing into.

Having lost the argument for a revolutionary transitional programme at the first conference, we had watched instead the Socialist Alliance build itself around a programme that was a series of left social democratic demands. None of the demands were bad in themselves and much of the propaganda the Socialist Alliance produced had reasonable content. But the programme of the SA was always a compromise — it could go no further than the positions that all the affiliates could agree on and could have no position at all on a series of issues where the political differences were too great.

On top of this, here was an Alliance of revolutionary organisations building a group on a left reformist programme. There were few, if any, actual reformists on the floor of the conferences in those early days to disagree with more radical demands. Instead some of the revolutionaries themselves argued the toss for the reformists. The ISO was to the fore in this respect, arguing that there should be nothing in the programme that would put off the “man or woman in the street”.

Of course our proposal for building a new workers party was massively defeated.

Outside of the internal debates going on in the Socialist Alliance, it was definitely true that it was having some modest success. There were a layer of new activists joining it and a number of branches were building and lively. There were some small electoral gains where local candidates were able to tap into existing networks and though there was never much chance of even gaining council seats, it was clear that in some areas people were beginning to associate the name of the Socialist Alliance with people who had a better vision than the ALP or the Greens for what was possible.

It was also clear that the newfound ability of the far left to actually cooperate in campaigning, outside of election work, was a real positive step forward. And this perception of a new degree of left unity was drawing older disillusioned activists back into struggle as well as encouraging a few newer, younger people.
But there were mistakes as well. The Socialist Alliance while attracting small handfuls of activists was not able to make the breakthrough into the organised working class. This in part was because of the aforementioned policy of not allowing affiliations but it was also because it has not had a clear policy towards either the Greens or the ALP.

In fact the two largest affiliates — the ISO and the DSP have very different approaches to these parties. The ISO see the ALP as still a bourgeois workers party – a party with roots in the organisations of the working class but which carries out the demands of the bosses once in power. Because they recognise that the ALP still has its base in the working class they have tried to have had an orientation towards those who see themselves on the left of the party. The DSP on the other hand think there is no difference between the ALP and the Coalition and that therefore there is little point in aiming at discussion with the left of the party.

Both the DSP and the ISO though have had a similar attitude to the Greens, even if it comes from a slightly different analysis of what the Greens are as a political formulation. They see many of its policies and members as being well to the left of the ALP and thus have made many proposals for joint work and have also swapped preferences in electoral situations. Workers Power have maintained that while it might be fine to work with the Greens, particularly with individual activists, in campaigns, any kind of electoral block with a party which has no connection to the working class, is not principled.

This lack of understanding of the true nature of the Greens as a political formation really disoriented the Socialist Alliance. By seeing the Greens as the SA’s closest allies, made it much harder for there to be a real critique of their policies and explanation of why, despite left-sounding positions on some questions, they are no real choice for the working class.

This disorientation was because rather than look at where the Greens have come from; most affiliates in the SA looked only at a few of their policies and the radical rhetoric of some of their members. They forgot that the reason that revolutionaries have oriented to the ALP over the years has been because we recognise that its base is in the organised working class and that there remain direct links between the party and our class.
No such links have ever existed with the Greens and in fact the Greens have actively discouraged them.

This lack of ability to understand the nature of these other important parties was not the only mistake the SA made. In its orientation to the anti-war movement, first with Afghanistan and then with Iraq, the compromise and essentially reformist programme of the SA prevented it from taking the most consistent anti-imperialist line. Though the SA has been solid in opposing invasion and occupation, it was never able to make a clear statement that it was for the defeat of the US/UK/Australian forces. Instead it was often left with the inoffensive but bland “Bring the Troops Home” slogan — a political message which can just as easily express a nationalist sentiment such as the one Latham used before the election that we need to the troops in our own region.

This was combined with the fact that it was unable to make a clear statement in support of the resistance inside Iraq. Instead it has made generalised calls for the re-building of the Iraqi workers movement. While this is not a bad thing in itself, it is not the clear anti-imperialist line necessary to separate pacifists and nationalists concerned only with saving “our” troops from those who actually support the right of the Iraqi people to defend themselves against imperialist attack.

But it is in the area of the attacks on trade union rights via the work choices legislation where the SA has been the least able to give a lead, the most strangled by its compromise politics and by a passive following of the “militant current” in the Victorian unions in particular. The Socialist Alliance has been timid in its criticisms of the ACTU, tailing the more progressive officials and arguing for nothing that would not be accepted by this layer. While Socialist Alliance has played a positive role in encouraging the days of action that have occurred, they have held back from arguing for anything more than this.

The SA leaflet for the first day of action in July 2005 was grossly inadequate. Though it called for further action it was hazy about what this should be and refused outright to call for the only action that will be able to stop these laws — an indefinite general strike across the country. This is in large part because the DSP in particular have a history of tailing the left of the trade union officials and hoping they might take some action. They put their focus on trying to pressure these officials into taking a lead rather than trying to build the rank and file strength that could really make this happen.

This is not to disparage the hard work that many people in SA and elsewhere did to push for the days of action that have occurred or even the work that has been done since to collect thousands of signatures on a petition to the ACTU calling for a one day stoppage. The problem is that all this hard work has called for only the most minimal action. It has been a case of calling for what might be winnable in the short term rather than what is actually necessary to actually win against Howard.

The Socialist Alliance organised Trade Union conference of July 2005 was a perfect example of this. While the conference was positive in itself, its politics did not reflect the fact that it was lead and organised by supposed revolutionaries. The statement that came out of it on fighting the IR laws argued for a series of disparate actions rather than making a clear statement for the only action that could actually win — a general strike. Workers Power made an amendment at the time, to argue for a general strike in a way that was not counter posed to other actions that had been planned but which would show a way forward. This was overwhelmingly defeated because the DSP in particular tried to paint it as ultra-left or unrealistic. Unfortunately if it is unrealistic to think that our class can organise a general strike against this massive class-wide attack – then it is unrealistic to think it can be defeated at all.

Of course all of these political errors in the external life of the SA have come as part of the internal struggle around the nature of the SA as such.

It had become very clear by 2003 when the DSP changed from being the Democratic Socialist Party to the Democratic Socialist Perspective and effectively dissolved their public face into the SA that they had one vision for the future of the organisation. By this point they were clear that they wanted to build the SA as a new party, along the lines of the Scottish Socialist Party. This would mean other left organisations also dissolving their public faces and doing all their political work as internal tendencies of the SA. But the rest of the left refused to play ball.

And for good reason. The lash-up would have been a purely organisational one, not one of increased political agreement. The compromised reformist programme of the SA had changed little since its founding conference and no progress at all had been made on the differences that still divided the various groups. With it’s vastly greater numerical size the DSP had clear political control of where the SA was going and what it was saying publicly. The rest of the affiliates quite reasonably felt they needed to retain their own open political independence.

But there were other reasons for rejecting the DSP model. The ISO for example had from the beginning developed their theory of a united front of a special kind – in this case an electoral united front.

They saw the SA as a united front of left groups and some individuals for the main purpose of standing in elections and having a broad political platform for socialist ideas. They agreed that it should campaign outside of electoral periods too, but the focus of this campaigning would be to build local support so that when the elections came round next the candidates would be recognised as community activists.

The problem again though was that the SA’s programme did not allow for any real testing of socialist ideas among the class — it remained little better than left reformism – a kind of old ALP programme with a few socialist trimmings.

Throughout these discussions Workers Power remained clear. We agreed that electoral work was useful – it tested out the idea of an alternative to the ALP among the most militant layers of the class. It also could have been put to much greater use in showing the Greens up for the middle class and politically inconsistent organisation they are.

But we knew that the working class in Australia needed more than a long term united front — it needed a new organisation — though not the kind that the DSP were trying to turn the SA into.

That was why we continued to raise resolutions for building a new workers party, for the SA to use its resources, the good name it was getting among some militants and the modest successes it had already had to call meetings and conferences where a much broader range of our class could debate the possibilities for a way forward.

Such conferences may have come to little more than the recent RMT called conference in the UK. It may have only stimulated discussion, set in place a series of further meetings, raised some questions. Though it might also have tapped into a real current of dissatisfaction with the ALP and recognition that the Greens are no alternative. It might have seen the first steps in the building of a new and much broader political formation, possibly even one that could have seen a real break of the ALP left and the unions still tied into the ALP.

Certainly such a new party may well have build itself on a left reformist programme, at least initially but at least it would have given revolutionaries a chance to argue for a genuinely revolutionary programme in a mass arena and to then be able to continue that struggle as such a new party faced the challenges of building and broadening further through the tests of the actual class struggle.

It is opportunities like this — to really forward the class struggle in Australia — that we feel Socialist Alliance has squandered.

Workers Power won’t be engaging in a series of recriminations about who did what and when. We do think that the latest DSP national congress has shown clearly that there are many people within that organisation who have severe doubts about how the Socialist Alliance was built and what it was, and is, able to achieve. It’s equally clear from the outside that the experience of the Socialist Alliance and its failure has created something of a crisis for the ISO.

We take no pleasure in either of these events and in fact are saddened that a project that had so much potential for both uniting the left and for strengthening working class struggle in Australia, has been allowed to fail.

Nevertheless we see little point in remaining part of an organisation which is now, even by the admission of at least the minority of the DSP (and probably much of the majority too!) merely a front for their organisation.

We certainly wish to continue to work closely with all the individuals and groups that the experience of the SA has given us closer relations with and we do not preclude the possibility of joining a similar attempt to build a new organisation in the future. But right now we think that the interests of the working class here are best served by calling a dead duck just that and making an honest balance sheet of why it failed and what lessons need to be drawn from that.

The regroupment project of the DSP or the united front of a special kind that the ISO and others favoured has not succeeded in drawing in new forces. It is these methods of building that have failed, not the necessity of building a new party of the working class in Australia — this party is needed now more than ever. That’s the challenge we set down for all of those who have been involved in the SA with us for the last five years and for those who honestly believe that the working class in Australia needs its own, revolutionary, political organisation.

Carlene Wilson for Workers Power Australia

April 2006




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