Australian Socialist Alliance
peterb at dsp.org.au
Mon Dec 16 16:17:05 MST 2002
The following open letter to the International Socialist
Organisation has been published by Workers Liberty, one of
the socialist groups affiliated to the Socialist Alliance in
Stay in the Socialist Alliance!
An open letter to the ISO
According to your letter to the DSP of 29 September 2002:
"In the space of just 18 months, [the Socialist Alliance]
has begun to establish itself among hundreds of non-aligned
working-class activists, and has contributed to a much more
comradely atmosphere among affiliates".
Now, however, you are actively considering pulling out from
the Alliance. Your conference on 7-8 December resolved to
open a discussion on this option and to decide after the New
South Wales state elections.
We urge you to stay in the Alliance and to join with us in
fighting to develop the Alliance into a core for a genuine
working-class political party.
In the 20th century, after 1917, the chances for
working-class socialist revolution were aborted, essentially
by the effects of Stalinism (including its rebound effect in
extending the hold of social democracy over the working
class in many countries). Socialists at the start of the
21st century have a more open field before us. But much of
the very language of our movement has suffered through being
annexed for so long by Stalinism. For example, many young
activists today describe themselves as "anti-capitalist",
but shy away from the words "communist" or even "socialist".
We need to rebuild a socialist political culture, remedying
the deformations imposed even on anti- Stalinists by the
decades of Stalinist domination of the left, and at the same
time coming to terms with a radically changed world
capitalist system and world working class. That work
requires intense selfeducation, discussion and debate among
alreadycommitted socialists. At the same time we have to
For decades our comrades, the revolutionary socialist
opponents of both capitalism and Stalinism, addressed
themselves to, and moved among, primarily workers and youth
who had already come to identify as "socialist" in a broad
sense by reference to a culture sustained primarily by the
Stalinist and social-democratic parties. That culture has
not vanished, and will not vanish tomorrow. We share your
concern to have the Alliance appeal to people who identify
as "old Labor", although we disagree with your idea that the
Alliance can best do that by pretending, implausibly, to be
"old Labor" (a rather diluted variety of "old Labor")
itself. Nevertheless, that culture is waning. More and more
today we have the opportunity, and the task, to "make
socialists" among young people whose only notion and
knowledge of socialism will be what we can take to them.
With the decline of the old Stalinist and socialdemocratic
political labour movements, we can, and we must, address
ourselves to a wider and more diffuse audience, with fewer
fixed points of reference.
The Socialist Alliance is valuable because it allows us to
work together; to establish a basis of common activity which
can make our debates more fruitful; to pursue those debates
and discussions; and, by combining our forces, to reach out
to broad, raw audiences in election work (the main area, in
bourgeois democracies, where such large audiences can be
reached) on a much bigger scale than we could do if we all
worked separately. We do not exaggerate what the Alliance
has achieved so far; but to quit it now would be to move not
forwards but backwards, to the stage we were at before we
launched the Alliance.
Your doubts about continuing the Alliance have been prompted
mainly by the DSP's suggestion that they would dissolve as a
party and organise instead as a "Democratic Socialist
Tendency" inside the Alliance. You saw that as a move to
force the development of the Alliance and to convert it
essentially into an annexe of the DSP, with yourselves as a
trapped minority. The DSP has shelved its suggestion for
now, but you still see it as a threat.
No doubt the DSP does want to win hegemony in the Alliance,
and would strive to use its "dissolution" as a step towards
converting the Alliance into an enlarged and renamed version
of the DSP. The outcome, however, will depend, on political
struggle. It will depend on that in any case. The Alliance
cannot continue for ever as a diplomatic link-up. Life will
pose issues on which the Alliance will have to define
itself. You should be part of the struggle, not opt out of
You seem to see the Alliance too much as a diplomatic
arrangement between yourselves and the DSP, and one which is
now breaking down because the DSP is being too pushy. We
urge you to see it instead as a framework for thrashing out
politics, by argument and debate, among many hundreds of
socialists. Do not run away from the DSP and leave the
Alliance's hundreds of unaffiliated members in the pocket of
the DSP. Do not regard the DSP members and periphery as just
automatic transmission mechanisms for some fixed set of
politics. Join with us in a battle to get more politics, and
more political debate and self-education, in the Alliance.
We know that political struggles are not conducted like
dispassionate, even-handed debates in the Forum of ancient
Athens. We do not underestimate the weight of the DSP's
considerable resources in material assets and staff. We know
it is possible to win a debate yet lose the vote. Even then
it is much better to take part in the struggle, and to face
exclusion, if it comes to that, together with others we have
convinced in the struggle, than to opt out in advance. At
the very least we learn more.
As Trotsky put it: "Revolutionists are tempered not only
during strikes and street battles but, first of all, during
struggles for the correct policies of their own party".
Either revert to the old pattern in which the left operates
as an archipelago of small groups, each with its own circle
of campaigns, meetings, and contacts, with the seas between
the islands almost impassable, and the dialect spoken on one
island scarcely comprehensible to the inhabitants of the
next one. Or, push on, through experiences like the
Socialist Alliance, to a revival and recomposition of
working-class politics in the years and decades ahead, and
the maximum intervention of Marxist ideas and debates into
The first option makes sense only if we believe that one of
the small groups has, through some peculiar inspiration,
already acquired for itself all the essential political and
theoretical ideas needed to make a Marxist party, and needs
only to be clever and energetic enough in popularising
itself. (And in that case, why wouldn't it have achieved
absolute dominance on the left already?)
You complain that the DSP proposal could collapse the
Alliance into a "revolutionary party", or alternatively into
a "broad party", not revolutionary enough, whereas it should
be sustained as an "electoral united front". But it is
politically false to see Chinese walls separating those
three categories, "electoral united front", "broad party",
and "revolutionary party".
Electoral agitation, which is aimed at the broadest audience
and should therefore be limited to a few, simple, clear-cut
ideas, is properly a lot simpler and cruder than the general
writing and speaking of a socialist organisation, much of
which is aimed at narrower audiences (active trade
unionists; trade unionists in struggle; campaign activists;
etc.) One-off "electoral united fronts" may be possible with
all sorts of people.
But, fundamentally, consistent socialists cannot have one
set of politics for the activists, and another for the
broader working-class electorate. If we put one set of
politics to the voters, then, to be true to ourselves, we
must be active for those politics outside election time too.
Unless we are to appear as, and be, ordinary
bourgeois-electoralist hypocrites, then the politics of our
activity outside election times must be defended by us at
election time too. A consistent "electoral united front",
maintained over a solid stretch of time during which it must
define itself in relation to wars, strikes, and political
crises, can only be a party. You want the Alliance to be a
"home for those looking for a left alternative to Labor"?
Excellent. What sort of home? One where the housemates
discuss the issues freely and equally, and progressively
acquire clearer collective politics? Or one where the new
residents, the disillusioned Laborites, are allowed into the
kitchen only on special (electoral?) occasions, and
otherwise have to stay in their rooms and entertain
themselves while the real "revolutionaries" run things?
About a "broad party", you write that "because [our
emphasis] such a party should not, and would not, be a
revolutionary party, it would need to afford clear and
permanent platform rights for revolutionary currents such as
ourselves". By what logic can we say a broad party should
not be revolutionary? Of what class-struggle test can we say
that the party should fail it? That we would not even try to
convince the broad party to take a independent working-class
stand? Which war would we want the "broad party" not to
oppose, which workers' struggle would we want it not to
support, which socialist principle would we want it to
flout? Of course the struggle to make such a "broad party"
revolutionary should be waged not by futile administrative
coups (packing the appropriate meetings and voting through a
decision to be "revolutionary" over the heads of the
uncomprehending or aggrieved members) but by convincing the
members in broad and open debate. But it should be waged.
Of course that struggle requires democracy, including
platform rights for different factions. But democracy is not
something wanted just "because the party is not
revolutionary". A party, or group, cannot dispense with the
need for democracy just by declaring itself "revolutionary".
How can it remain "revolutionary" in response to new
challenges? What is its mechanism for getting back on course
if its leadership, previously "revolutionary", proves
less-than-revolutionary in some new situation?
A revolutionary party is defined as revolutionary not by a
desire (however sincere) to lead a revolution at some
unknown time in the future, nor indeed by any one-off
decision. It is defined as revolutionary by its constant
striving to respond in a revolutionary way - that is,
according to the logic of the class struggle, with the
maximum of active, independent, workingclass initiative - to
daily politics. Any real socialist organisation is
"revolutionary" not as a fixed state of being, but only as a
measure of some success in that striving.
And the revolutionary organisation reaches the level of
being a party, a real party, only when it gets beyond the
stage of being an ideological grouping (which we are all at
now) and organises a decisive contingent of the most
militant workers, the leaders of struggle in the workplaces
and the communities. To be a real party it must be "broad"
as well as "revolutionary".
Underpinning your feelings here, it seems, is the assumption
that the normal and natural condition on the left is to have
a small "revolutionary party" ("revolutionary" by fixed
self-proclamation, and therefore not needing to allow any
"platform rights" or large space for dispute inside its
ranks) on one side, and various "broad" groupings and
"united fronts" on the other with which the "revolutionary
party" may or may not involve itself depending on its
assessment of "moods" and the "gate receipts" to be got. It
is an assumption which impoverishes your politics.
Explaining your turn to the Socialist Alliance at your
"Marxism 2001" weekend school, David Glanz recalled Engels'
idea of the class struggle being on three fronts, economic,
ideological, and political. The ISO, he said, had long been
active on the economic and ideological fronts. By turning to
the Socialist Alliance it was taking up the political front,
too. Essentially he was right. To turn back the old pre-
Alliance ways would be to impoverish your activity - to
reduce it to a combination of immediate strugglecheering
("smash" this, "stop" that, etc.) and abstract preaching
("one solution, revolution").
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