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Submitted by martin on Thu, 12/09/2002 - 10:42

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Article by Martin Thomas for Workers' Liberty Australia, September 2002

Workers' Liberty welcomes the Democratic Socialist Party's move towards "a radically bigger commitment towards left unity within the Socialist Alliance".

We wrote in WL24: "The Socialist Alliance needs to develop towards being a united and democratic socialist party, with a much fuller, more comprehensive programme, campaigning cohesively on many more fronts than election campaigns and propaganda events, and with a regular publication. This cannot be achieved in one big jump - for an united Socialist Alliance revolutionary party now! - but has to be worked towards.

"Among the tasks on this road are: increasing the role for SA in co-ordinating interventions (and discussing tactical differences) in campaigns; increasing the level of political debate and discussion; common activities/clubs on campuses, etc.; building a profile of regular activity in local campaigns; a regular Socialist Alliance paper. These are necessary to attract the many independent leftists who are holding back, waiting to see if SA is more than a sectarian bearpit.

"It also requires a change in priorities for many of the affiliates. SA is just one among many priorities at the moment and it shows. (This is not a jibe at the International Socialist Organisation or Democratic Socialist Party. Workers' Liberty has great problem in allocating our meagre resources). If the participating groups organised more of their activism through the Socialist Alliance, instead of separately, this could be resolved". We are willing to reorganise ourselves so that we operate as a Workers' Liberty tendency within the Socialist Alliance, rather than an independent organisation, and we hope other groups will do likewise.

Why unity?

To emancipate itself, the working class must reorganise itself and reorient itself intellectually. The working class does that through mass struggles. But it cannot do it just by improvisation. It requires the initiating and educative contribution of a working-class socialist party - a body of activists who organise consistently over time even prior to the mass struggles, who are "the memory of the class", and who, over time, develop a coherent socialist world-view and strategy.

The existing diverse small socialist groups make some initiating and educative contribution. But the full contribution necessary cannot be made by a scattering of small groups. It requires a strong party, uniting at least the majority of the most committed political activists.

The big political differences between the groups, rooted in the troubled 20th century history of socialism and Stalinism, are important. No working-class socialist party with the necessary clarity and incisiveness can be built without resolving or transcending those differences. That can be done only through intense debate, coupled of course with experience.

The divisions and conflicts between the groups therefore have a real basis. To try to transcend them simply by declaring unity, administratively, and making an administrative decision to deal with those differences by blurring them over or by snap majority vote, is impossible, and would achieve nothing solid if by some quirk it became possible.

The differences are real, the different views are passionately held. If we, as socialists, are not passionate and even quarrelsome about our ideas, we can achieve nothing. Any such administrative unity of small groups can command little weight or authority with activists compared to the chance to take their passionate convictions to the wider working-class public.

Administrative unity cannot take us forward; nor can continued division. Competing small groups seek and develop different milieus, styles, and activities which allow each of them to find a niche. The big political differences become overlaid by differences of habit and idiom, clan loyalties, and secondary tactical disputes. Possibilities for collaboration where differences are only small are lost. Serious debate on the big differences withers because it lacks the common culture, the common framework of respect created by practical collaboration, which can make possible.

The way out is a common drive for maximum collaboration where there is agreement; willingness to compromise on secondary issues for the sake of that collaboration; and clear and patient debate on the important differences.

Always to seek maximum unity and dialogue; never just to "agree to disagree", but always to strive to clarify the big issues among the activist left; always to reassess alignments as changing events create new opportunities and put old differences in a new light, with the onus of proof always on those who want to maintain division and separation - those are the rules we propose.

That is why we came in to the Socialist Alliance. And, now, the Socialist Alliance cannot continue as just an electoral coalition. Elections are not the be-all and end-all of politics. To run in elections with no greater aim than to scrape a few votes is pointless. But, without some broader and more active unity, what follow-up can we propose to those who are convinced by the ideas that we argue at election time and want to act on them?


Thus we welcome the DSP's move, and agree with some of their reasoning. The Socialist Alliance should move towards more unity, and more activity. We need to discuss how that is done.

In "Left-Wing Communism", Lenin wrote:

"Would it not be better if the salutations addressed to the Soviets and the Bolsheviks were more frequently accompanied by a profound analysis of the reasons why the Bolsheviks have been able to build up the discipline needed by the revolutionary proletariat? "As a current of political thought and as a political party, Bolshevism has existed since 1903. Only the history of Bolshevism during the entire period of its existence can satisfactorily explain why it has been able to build up and maintain, under most difficult conditions, the iron discipline needed for the victory of the proletariat.

"The first questions to arise are: how is the discipline of the proletariat's revolutionary party maintained? How is it tested? How is it reinforced?

"First, by the class-consciousness of the proletarian vanguard and by its devotion to the revolution, by its tenacity, self-sacrifice and heroism. Second, by its ability to link up, maintain the closest contact, and - if you wish - merge, in certain measure, with the broadest masses of the working people - primarily with the proletariat, but also with the non-proletarian masses of working people. Third, by the correctness of the political leadership exercised by this vanguard, by the correctness of its political strategy and tactics, provided the broad masses have seen, from their own experience, that they are correct.

"Without these conditions, discipline in a revolutionary party really capable of being the party of the advanced class, whose mission it is to overthrow the bourgeoisie and transform the whole of society, cannot be achieved. Without these conditions, all attempts to establish discipline inevitably fall flat and end up in phrasemongering and clowning.

"On the other hand, these conditions cannot emerge at once. They are created only by prolonged effort and hard-won experience. Their creation is facilitated by a correct revolutionary theory, which, in its turn, is not a dogma, but assumes final shape only in close connection with the practical activity of a truly mass and truly revolutionary movement."

Of course Lenin did not mean that no socialist organisation could be disciplined until it became a mass party; but his essential point, relevant to us, was that real party discipline, not sectish "phrasemongering and clowning", can be developed only in line with an organisation's growing activity, debate, and political life. It is not an administrative matter.

The "iron discipline" he wrote of meant something different to him and the Bolsheviks from what it may seem to mean to us, who read his words through the lens of 70-odd years' experience of Stalinism. The Bolsheviks were "iron-disciplined" by comparison with the old social-democratic parties where parliamentarians, editors, and trade-union leaders could easily flout the wishes of the working-class rank-and-file, or by comparison with some early Communist Parties where anarchistic ideas were influential, but they were radically democratic. According to Lenin in 1907, "The principle of democratic centralism and autonomy for local Party organisations implies universal and free freedom to criticise, so long as this does not disturb the unity of a definite action... Criticism within the basis of the principles of the party programme must be quite free... not only at party meetings but also at public meetings". Even under the duress of civil war, dissidents within the Bolshevik Party took it for granted that they had the right to argue their views vigorously and publicly.

That is the sort of regime we operate among ourselves in Workers' Liberty. Over the decades since Lenin wrote, however, Stalinist notions of "Leninism" have seeped even into the anti-Stalinist left. The conventional cod-Leninist regime is one where all party members are obliged to pretend in public that they agree with the majority, or leadership, line, whether they do or not; where party members can challenge the leadership's views only internally and, often, only in prescribed preconference discussion periods; and, often also, members of the leading committees are obliged to pretend before the rank and file that they agree with the committee majority even when they do not.

The DSP has that sort of regime. Green Left Weekly, to its credit, allows space for debate with socialists outside the DSP; but differences within the DSP, which must exist, are never argued out in its columns.

To extend that cod-Leninist regime to the Socialist Alliance would bring not unity but disruption. Even when the Socialist Alliance has become a fully-fledged party, it should provide for public debate and dissent, within the framework of "unity of definite actions". The Alliance can become a fully-fledged party, with a collective leadership which has over time earned authority and trust, only through a process of political growth, not by administrative decree. In the next period, therefore, the Alliance should not adopt even a liberal "democratic centralism", but a more flexible form of coordination which allows tendencies and groups within it to act autonomously where they find it necessary so long as they do not obstruct actions decided by the majority.


John Percy's letter on behalf of the DSP states that the Alliance has already developed, in fact if not formally, "a consensus around a principled class-struggle approach to international and Australian politics".

We have no wish to undervalue the real advances in left unity made by the Alliance. John's claim, however, radically overestimates what has already been achieved, and therefore radically underestimates what we still have to do.

The Socialist Alliance has had a consensus sufficient for the sort of loose, low-temperature operation we have had so far, but not for a more vigorous, ambitious operation.

For example, John mentions Palestine as a point of consensus. Not really. Workers' Liberty is for the right to national self-determination of both Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews ("two states") as part of a programme for a socialist united states of the Middle East. We condemn the Hamas suicide bombings of Israeli civilians. The ISO desires "no compromise with Zionism", i.e. it wants Israel ("the hijack state", "America's watchdog in the Middle East") destroyed - notionally to be replaced by a "secular democratic" Arab state covering the territory of former British Mandate Palestine, though in fact no state resulting from an Arab conquest of Israel would conceivably be democratic. It prides itself on not condemning the Hamas suicide bombers. The DSP supports "two states" as an interim measure towards creating a single "secular democratic" state in the territory of former British Mandate Palestine. The broad sympathy for the Palestinians which all these positions do of course have in common is adequate "consensus" only for very limited, low-temperature activity on the Palestine issue. And union disaffiliation from the Labor Party? That was a major point of dispute before our first Socialist Alliance conference. Workers' Liberty is against disaffiliation; in the current structure and relation of forces in the labour movement, it amounts to more militant unions hiving off from broad working-class politics. The ISO agrees, with some nuances of difference. The DSP completely disagrees, arguing that the unions' link to the ALP is the fount and origin of their servility and sluggishness in class struggle.

At that first Socialist Alliance conference a sort of "consensus" was reached by the DSP withdrawing its motion in favour of disaffiliation. We appreciate the responsible attitude shown by the DSP then. But the DSP has not changed its views; nor should it until it is convinced. We do not have consensus. All we have so far is, in effect, an agreement to tag that issue for further discussion. In the run-up to the first Socialist Alliance there was debate about the need for the Alliance to explain what it means by socialism. We argued that the Alliance should expound a positive, democratic, libertarian concept of socialism, distinguishing it sharply and explicitly from the old "actually existing socialism". We do not have consensus on that.

The DSP believes that Cuba is an imperfect but nonetheless real model of socialism; we, and others, believe that Cuba is an exploitative class society, its regime certainly less vicious than the old USSR but nonetheless one in which the working class is deprived of all rights to organise and express itself collectively and independently. No consensus there yet.

And then there are the current differences within the Alliance on refugee campaigning. We believe that consensus is possible in this area, given serious discussion, and have made proposals to that end; but the consensus does not exist yet.

As the Alliance moves on to a higher level of united activity, differences which can be skated over now will becoming hot, controversial issues. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Intellectual progress is rarely made without some conflict and anger. But we should not think we can just surf onto the beach of unity by riding the wave of a consensus already established.

We need first a deliberate, planned raising of the level of political life and discussion in the Socialist Alliance; secondly, an ongoing process of selecting issues which can be thrashed out towards a majority vote.

Of course we do not need unity on all issues for a united party. In principle we, Workers' Liberty, would be willing to live as a minority tendency in a party which had taken majority decisions contrary to our ideas on Palestine, on disaffiliation, on Cuba, on refugee campaigning, and several other issues too. We might be a rather stroppy and un-docile minority tendency, but not so much so that the majority could not live with us, either.

That sort of cooperation-with-conflict, though, presupposes more than just a general agreement that unity is desirable. To make it possible a party has to develop a sense of solidarity, common cause, and common pride in the party's record and achievements, shaped in many struggles; a wide confidence in the membership about its democratic guarantees; and an open collective leadership which enjoys authority and trust. None of those preconditions can be decreed. They must be developed and won in political struggles, over time. What we have done in the Alliance so far towards developing those preconditions is good, but very limited.

Our conclusion, in brief: the good and positive process of moving the Alliance towards a higher level of unity and activity will be aborted if it is done administratively. The DSP comrades obviously have a right to push their views on all the disputed questions at the next Socialist Alliance conference, to mobilise their numbers for that conference, and to try to win. Where the rest of us disagree with them, our main answer must be to mobilise our resources for the debate, rather than pleading with them to hold off. But the Alliance must also insist that the vote-taking on disputed questions should not outrun the discussion. If it does - if there is too administrative a push to unity - then we will get not unity but disruption.

If the DSP dissolves itself as a party, the DSP comrades will have a natural desire to reconstruct what they have lost - the advantages of a full "party" organisation as compared to just a politico-ideological tendency - at the level of the Alliance. Fair enough. But resistance from the non-DSP is fair enough, too. The Alliance can and must mount fierce resistance to any attempts to "DSP-ise" the Alliance administratively by pushing for too-quick vote-outs on not-sufficiently-debated certain issues; it must tell the DSP that there will still be certain of their purposes that it can pursue only as a tendency, and not by bending the structures of the Alliance to those purposes.

Positive steps

We suggest:

Immediate moves towards much more extensive collective trade-union work by the Socialist Alliance, as in proposals we have already made.

A programme of discussions about extending common Socialist Alliance work to other areas, refugee campaigning for one.

An immediate increase in the level of political discussion in the Alliance. Local Alliances should organise educationals and day schools as well as meetings about current topics. The different schools of thought in the Alliance should map out now the big political issues they want to put up for debate at the next Alliance conference, and start discussion on them.

Discussions on a constitution for a more unified Alliance. This constitution should explicitly entrench the right for tendencies or platforms to operate within the Alliance, to publish their views and - at this stage, at least - their right to act autonomously where there is not sufficient consensus, so long as they do not obstruct the Alliance's majority-decided actions.

Discussions on common Socialist Alliance publications. We are for a common Socialist Alliance paper. Alongside it, the Alliance should allow for the circulation of tendency magazines and bulletins - just as in and around the Scottish Socialist Party Workers' Liberty, Solidarity, Socialism Today, Socialist Review, Weekly Worker, Republican Communist and Frontline circulate as well as the SSP paper Scottish Socialist Voice.

It will be a great help to the Alliance if the DSP is willing to put the large assets of Green Left Weekly into such a paper. It cannot, however, just be a matter of GLW being declared to be the paper of the Alliance. That would be administrative unity.

The Alliance must have its own paper, with its own name and its own way of operating, its own editorial board, and its own rules which establish both the right to controversy inside the paper and the obligation to focus the paper's front-page agitation on themes and policies where there is large consensus.

The Alliance needs a paper with much more "weight" than Scottish Socialist Voice (which is deliberately designed as a "mass" paper, with very short articles, short sentences, short words, and therefore, extremely limited room for debate among socialists). We may also need an Alliance discussion magazine.

Two final points

The ISO. Workers' Liberty is willing to reorganise as a tendency inside the Socialist Alliance. We hope the ISO will be willing to do that too. For them, however, with a larger "party" apparatus than ours, that is a more difficult decision. The ISO should not be steamrollered or given ultimatums. To push the Alliance to greater "unity" at the cost of excluding the ISO would more haste, less speed. DSP assets. John Percy's letter talks about taking the "political and organisational assets" of the DSP into the Alliance. The DSP has other assets too, of course: real estate, funds, a team of full-time employees. It will be good if those can be brought into the Alliance. However, the only way that can be done - unless the Alliance is to be "DSP-ised" very quickly and administratively, or the DSP comrades go for a degree of self-abnegation which none of us can realistically ask of them - is step by step, by consultation and agreement, with, probably, a large part of those assets remaining the property of the Democratic Socialist tendency rather than the Alliance for a good long while to come.

We need to avoid a Yugoslavia. The first Yugoslav state, created after World War 1, originated with a genuine desire by representative Croatian nationalists to have a unified South-Slav state together with the Serbs. The Croats had ideas and ambitions - but no "apparatus". The "apparatus" of the unified state was entirely that of the already-established Serbian monarchy. For the average Croat, "unity" meant only the Serbian army and the Serbian tax-collector. The idea of south-Slav unity quickly soured.

A "united" Alliance whose "apparatus" is almostly entirely a DSP one will not work. Us "Croats of the Alliance" must insist on large federal-type guarantees for the Alliance - just as such guarantees were necessary for any democratic south-Slav-unity policy.

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