The Australian Socialist Alliance is abuzz

Submitted by martin on 12 September, 2002 - 10:31

The Australian Socialist Alliance is abuzz with discussion on a radically new turn.
The Democratic Socialist Party, the biggest of the organised groups within the Alliance, sent out a letter on 3 September saying that it planned to "cease to operate as a public organising and begin to operate as an internal tendency in the Socialist Alliance from January 2003.
The letter is available online; so is the text of a speech by leading DSP member Dick Nichols, expounding the DSP's views at an ISO weekend school in Melbourne onn 6-8 September.
"Our members will be recruiting to the Socialist Alliance rather than to the DSP. We will commence negotiations with the Socialist Alliance about taking as much of the political and organisational assets we have built up through the DSP into the Socialist Alliance as is possible".
Workers' Liberty Australia has welcomed this move. In fact, it had already made a call for the Socialist Alliance to become "a united, democratic socialist party", with the existing groups operating as tendencies within it with full rights of self-expression, in the June issue of its bulletin. WL is now emphasising the need for a working-class and trade-union focus, full and serious political debate, and proper democratic guarantees for continued rights of debate, as the Alliance moves towards a higher level of unity and activity.
The DSP is a Castroist (ex-Trotskyist) group, and there are many issues on which weurge the Alliance to reject DSP policies. Heightened debate and conflict within the Allliance, coupled with unity in action, is however a better way forward than lots of small socialist groups being active, each in their own niche, with only perfunctory collaboration and dialogue.
Other groups in the Alliance are more hesitant. The biggest discussion so far has been at a weekend school called by the International Socialist Organisation (sister-group of the British SWP) in Melbourne on 6-8 September.
From the ISO, Sue Johnson said that the Alliance "is a long-term project and will improve", but was essentially "an electoral front". The model of the multi-tendency Scottish Socialist Party could not be translated to Australia. David Glanz said that the ISO was flexible, but would certainly "not be dissolving in a broad formation, as it sees the need to maintain a revolutionary tendency". Jonathan Sherlock said that the Alliance should be "developing joint work in unions and campaigns", but was nevertheless not a party but "a unique formation, like a united front, but not on a single issue".
Alison Thorne of the Freedom Socialist Party said that she was for "revolutionary regroupment", but the Alliance's development should not be "rushed" by the DSP. Carlene Wilson of Workers' Power said she was "agnostic" on the debate.
The Australian Socialist Alliance has about 2600 signed-up members, most of them outside the organised groups (DSP, about 300; ISO, about 100; other groups, all less than 20). The unaffiliated members have yet to give their verdict on the DSP's move.
On the arithmetic of membership figures, the Australian Socialist Alliance is four or five times stronger, in proportion to population, than the Socialist Alliance in England (1600 paid-up). This is misleading. The Australian Socialist Alliance is electorally weaker (not much more than 1% anywhere in last year's federal elections, though better scores have been got in local elections), and the superior membership figure is mainly down to more energy in getting supporters formally signed up.
However, the Australian Alliance is unquestionably an important regroupment of the left. One of the DSP's motives seems to be the thought that the Alliance, if it lifts its act, can attract some important trade union activists. In Victoria (around Melbourne), especially, there is a group of militant and left-wing unions currently locked in fierce battle with the government and with the union bureaucracies. One key figure there, Craig Johnstone, former secretary of the metal workers, has already joined the Alliance.
Secondarily the DSP probably sees a chance to copper-fasten its hegemony in the Australian activist left as against the ISO. The ISO is, by all appearances, in bad shape at present, and already publicly divided on the Alliance. (Many of its members want none of it).
The broader background is that the Australian Socialist Alliance, like the Alliance in England, now faces a fairly long period without any major elections. If it tries to stand still, at the level of "electoral coalition plus the odd bit of non-electoral campaigning", then it will sag and dwindle. Unless it is to lose what has already been gained, it has to move itself up a notch. The same broad lesson applies in England.

Comments

Submitted by martin on Thu, 12/09/2002 - 10:40

Workers' Liberty has been arguing that the Socialist Alliance needs to become much more than an electoral alliance if it is to succeed at enlarging and mobilising support for working class socialist politics. From its very founding we argued for a platform for the Socialist Alliance that is far more than a set of dot points derived from current political campaigns. We have argued for the Socialist Alliance to commit itself to socialism as nothing like the socialism of the old USSR, but to socialism based on production publicly owned and democratically managed by workers and the community. We have argued for the Socialist Alliance to be a voice for working class struggle, the struggle out of which socialism can be created. During the formation of the Alliance we argued for a democratic Alliance which would encourage open discussion of ideas about socialism, in the pages of its own websites, email discussions, and broadsheet. More recently we have put the case for the Socialist Alliance to work towards deeper left unity, and specifically we have made concrete proposals for mobilising the membership to build rank and file militant caucuses in unions and a serious attitude to union work.

Now the DSP leadership has announced its intention to propose to the DSP conference in December that the DSP should operate as an internal tendency of the Socialist Alliance and negotiate for the SA to take "as much of the political and organisational assets we have built up through the DSP into the Socialist Alliance as is possible". Workers' Liberty welcomes the DSP's new allocation of resources to the Socialist Alliance. This opens up new possibilities which could see the Alliance make great strides forward. Our proposals for the Alliance now gain greater immediate relevance.

We propose that at its May Conference the Alliance should commit itself to:

a more comprehensive class struggle platform,

a publication that can support the Alliance to become a party rather than a federation,

developing joint work at least in unions, campaigns and on campus, and

a new Constitution to support moves from an electoral alliance to a working class socialist party, and to guarantee free and unfettered discussion of political issues.

Platform

We take political agreement seriously, and the political basis for left unity very seriously. The DSP argue that more substantial political agreement than currently exists as per the SA platform has been demonstrated in practice. This agreement "in practice" falls a long way short of being a basis for a cohesive and consciously committed SA membership. A clear conscious political agreement MUST be the basis for unity, not an organisational swamping that might force out other left groups without political clarity.

Workers' Liberty will be renewing proposals for a more comprehensive and explicitly working class and socialist platform for the SA, to be debated up to and at the May 2003 SA Conference. We propose that the platform of the SA as a party should include:

A commitment to socialism as the creation of the working class, self-organised in struggle, overthrowing the power of capital, and democratically managing production.

Linking our aim of socialism to the present by basing ourselves on support for working class struggle.

A platform that translates into perspectives for the SA to put forward for how the union movement and campaigns can win reforms and demands, and that moves the SA beyond the rituals of protest politics.

Publication

We propose that the Alliance will need a publication that is both agitational and has space to address deeper theoretical issues. It must guarantee space for all points of view within the Alliance and the editorial board composition must reflect the variety of the opinions in the Alliance. We are for the Alliance to commence its own weekly publication from the May Conference onwards, once there has been time to consider and discuss the editorial policy and nature of the weekly publication.

Campaigning and branches

We propose that the SA should proceed to immediately discuss the only concrete proposals for developing a unified approach to trade union work that have been put forward - the trade union work proposal of Workers' Liberty comrades.

We are also concerned that the DSP (and some others in the Alliance) take a sectarian attitude to the labour movement, especially the ALP, seeking unnecessary organisational splits from the ALP rather than organising support for a socialist platform throughout the labour movement.

We also propose that SA branches should be encouraged to shift their emphasis from organisational details to political discussion and education.

Constitution

We propose that the Constitution of the SA should provide for increased accountability of elected bodies, rights of recall, guaranteed representation on elected bodies for minority viewpoints and methods for making constitutional changes. All tendencies within the Alliance are currently guaranteed the right to organise as caucuses. Additional provision should be made for guaranteeing caucuses or tendencies within the Alliance, the right to publish and distribute their own material.

The DSP's motives

Whatever the DSP's motives, the Alliance has to date operated on a comradely and democratic basis, and DSP comrades have carried a significant workload in the Alliance. There are hundreds of non-aligned members, many of whom are relatively inactive, but many of whom could be mobilised and enthused at the prospect of the Alliance becoming a more effective political force. We look forward to the immediate opening of a vigourous discussion on the way forward for left unity and the development of working class socialist politics, and to the May 2003 Socialist Alliance Conference taking some bold steps towards these goals.

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

In reply to by martin

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?

How?

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.

Politics

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.

Submitted by martin on Thu, 12/09/2002 - 10:43

In reply to by martin

Report by Melissa White

On 3 September, the Brisbane branch of the Socialist Alliance held its monthly meeting. The DSP used that opportunity to publicly announce its intentions to argue for the Socialist Alliance becoming an united party, in which the DSP would cease to be one affiliate amongst others and become an internal tendency within the Alliance. As part of outlining the practicalities of the next step in doing this, Jim McIlroy, speaking on behalf of the DSP, read from the DSP's letter of public announcement, emphasising the plan to dissolve DSP assets and turn over the Green Left Weekly to the Socialist Alliance by January if this proposal of the DSP's political committee is accepted by the broader membership at the DSP's conference in late December (which it very likely will be).

Far from being opposed to the general proposal of transforming the Socialist Alliance into a national socialist party, we were disturbed by one comment in particular that Jim made. Namely, that the DSP would seriously reconsider its commitment to the Socialist Alliance if the Socialist Alliance rejected its party proposal at conference in May.

Whilst this might have been an exaggerated or incautious statement of the DSP's intentions, we can't help but think that such an announcement does not get us off on the right foot for long-term political cooperation, and is not at all conducive to a free and unfettered discussion at the May conference. The groom shouldn't already be waiting at the altar, looking at his watch, before he's even proposed to his brides. To the moment, the DSP has offered (significant) organisational concessions, and the left needs to see some of that goodwill also extend to the political arena from the largest group amongst our ranks.

Isn't the point to reach a more substantive political agreement than currently exists as per the SA platform by genuine consensus? I would like to think this was the DSP's way forward now, but there is evidence to the contrary to suppose it not to be. We want a unified working-class fightback that flows from Marxist politics and socialist activism, not from administrative guile.

Submitted by martin on Thu, 12/09/2002 - 10:46

In reply to by martin

Riki Lane reports from Melbourne

Socialist Alliance (SA) members held a lively and frank discussion on the future of SA at the International Socialist Organisation's Marxism conference. One theme that almost all participants agreed on was the need to develop joint work in unions and campaigns.

Dick Nichols, from the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) outlined the DSP's proposals and why they raised them now. This is because:

1 SA is underperforming in relation to its potential;

2 The DSP needs to have a proper discussion amongst its members - despite

popular cliches, the DSP is not a top down organisation where the members do

what they are told;

3 We need a thorough clarifying debate in the lead up to the May conference. Issues like the constitution and asset transfers need to be worked out

He argued that socialists usually say that the best way to build the socialist cause is to strengthen our own organisations, but that is not the case now. There are possibilities to connect with possibly hundreds of working class militants sick of the ALP and thousands of anti-capitalist activists.

Workers' Liberty sees this quite differently. We think that building the working class movement is primary for socialists and that building our own organisations has to serve that goal. The common obsession with "building the party" as the solution to all questions has been a major problem. We welcome this shift by the DSP, but it is not just a question of special circumstances now.

Dick stressed that this is not a DSP takeover, not are they trying to capitalise on divisions in other affiliates.

In summing up Dick welcomed that the debate was off and running. He made four points:

1 There is no fait accompli, and the DSP are not rushing. The DSP only has 4/5 people on SA NE. SA has to make decisions through its processes.

2 Program - the DSP will make a proposal for a platform that is written in accessible language to make explicit the real basis of political agreement

3 What is a revolutionary program - it cannot be decided in advance of construction of an organisation that can lead struggles

4 DSP will support proposals for joint work. Differences should be openly discussed in SA, on the website etc.

Alison Thorne, from the Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women (FSP/RW), stressed the need to celebrate, and start from, what SA has already achieved.

There is a need for a vibrant socialist electoral alternative, which the Greens cannot provide because they are not anti-capitalist.

We live in dangerous times, where democratic rights are being eroded. Leadership of the struggle to defend democratic rights needs at least equal priority in SA to election campaigning.

FSP/RW are for revolutionary regroupment. Programmatic matters are very important. FSP/RW are revolutionary socialist feminists, and do not want to be part of a radical labourite party.

SA is not a revolutionary organisation. Its development should not be rushed by the DSP.

She welcomed the discussion, which had clarified the issues.

Sue Johnson spoke for the ISO.

Her experience as candidate for Grayndler showed her that SA fills a political need. For the ISO, SA is as an electoral front.

There have been problems with SA. It has failed to make real roots in working class communities and unions. It has been good on propaganda, poor on participation in grassroots local campaigns. It is a long term project and will improve. It represents a step forward for left.

The nature of the period demands examination of organisational forms. However, she agreed with Alex Callinicos that the differences between left groups now are not so much about theory, but how they respond to concrete political events.

The DSP proposal states how much agreement there, so why do we have split campaigns in refugee and anti-war work in Sydney?

The Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) model, as referred to by the DSP and Workers' Liberty (WL), has been successful, but cannot automatically be transposed elsewhere. The specific circumstances in the Scottish labour movement made it possible.

The DSP letter poses a fait accompli. It is not for the DSP to decide when the transition period to a party starts.

WL agrees with Sue that the SA is weak in its participation in grassroots campaigns, and that this needs to be a priority. We also agree that the existence of two refugee campaigns in Sydney is a major problem that needs to be resolved.

We disagree with Callinicos. It is true that the disputes over practical issues - eg how to respond to Islamic fundamentalist dominated rallies in support of Palestinians - have the greatest potential to divide the left. But different approaches to concrete events are rooted in different theoretical approaches that have to be debated through.

While the SSP model cannot just be adopted, it offers a useful example of how to have various tendencies working together with freedom to publish their own views.

David Glanz (ISO) welcomed the debate and offered the pages of Socialist Worker for the discussion. The discussion needs to continue - e.g. at the upcoming Resistance conference.

The International Socialist Tendency (IST) has shown flexibility about organisational forms - e.g. in Zimbabwe they have worked in the bourgeois dominated -Movement for Democratic Change, in Germany - in the Socialist Youth, in Scotland in the SSP.

In discussions the IST has had with the Fourth International (FI), the FI have argued for broad based workers parties, while the IST want mass revolutionary parties of the Bolshevik type.

The ISO will not be dissolving into a broad formation as it sees the need to maintain a revolutionary tendency.

Jonathan Sherlock (ISO) argued that the ISO & DSP disagree on what SA is. It is not a revolutionary party. It is a unique formation, like a united front, but not on a single issue. It is like Trotsky's idea of transitional demands

He supported SA developing joint work in unions and campaigns - it needs to do more than electoral work.

Other ISO members argued that SA and rev groups have different functions - SA is like a public outreach branch, or that SA should aim to be a small mass centrist party.

WL thinks that the ISO approach of keeping the SA program to an essentially reformist minimum in order to maintain the support of reformist class-struggle activists is mistaken.

We need to flesh out a clear class struggle program, taking up the issues of all those oppressed under capitalism, which points out the need to get rid of the whole rotten system. This does not have to alienate serious class struggle militants who do not yet see the need, or possibility, of taking on capital as a whole.

Riki Lane (WL) said that WL welcomed the DSP's proposal and the discussion.

WL has supported SA being an activist party on a more extensive program from the start. A vital question is what will be the nature of this party - a revolutionary regroupment, or a class struggle working class party with a multi-nucleated revolutionary core?

We need to discuss the political basis for this party, including:

1 What is the vision of socialism - nothing to do with Stalinism or seeing Cuba as a model;

2 How we relate to the ALP and the unions. This is the central question for in the Australian labour movement and there is no agreement;

3 Following on from that is the centrality of a working class orientation - giving priority to rank and file union organising and having a working class not cross class approach in campaigns.

We need to build political unity in theory and practice, not administrative unity.

The best way to proceed in building this party is to do it carefully and properly. Discuss the political program and develop joint work, especially in unions, on campus, in campaigns.

Carlene from Workers Power (WP) said that as a member of one of the smaller groups she was agnostic and felt as if she had a front row seat watching the blood flow.

She found worrying that any of the groups think they are THE revolutionary nucleus from which a revolutionary party will grow.

WP does not want to build a halfway house, between reform and revolution - the working class needs a revolutionary party.

Submitted by martin on Thu, 12/09/2002 - 11:03

In reply to by martin

This extended comment is from Bob Gould, a veteran of the Australian Trotskyist movement who now runs a bookshop in Sydney and is active in the Australian Labor Party.

Download text file.

Submitted by martin on Mon, 16/09/2002 - 16:13

In reply to by martin

Response to the DSP by Sue Johnson of the ISO can be downloaded from here.

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