fresh developments in Australian 'unity' debates

NIBS nibs at
Wed Nov 6 01:14:53 MST 2002

I had been happy to allow the discussion about the Australian Socialist
Alliance drop, on the basis that Ben and I had reached in our exchange the
point of diminishing returns. However, it seems to me that the letter below
confirms everything I argued about how 'left unity' without some shift in
either the political situation or the audience for socialist ideas simply
entails the far left turning inwards for renewed squabbles.

The document is from the ISO NE to the DSP. The article the ISO leadership
refers to is an internal DSP publication now circulating widely on the
Internet, an article which argues, inter alia, that 'in a real sense the
Democratic Socialist Tendency will have to become even more centralised
than the DSP.'

Marxism readers can make up their own minds about how relations on the left
are likely to end up now.

Jeff Sparrow


November 3, 2002

 From the ISO national executive to the
Democratic Socialist Party political committee

Dear comrades,

Thank you for your reply, dated October 22, to our previous letter. I think
we can safely say that a number of questions can now be regarded as
settled: that the Socialist Alliance will continue to offer tendency rights
to those groupings who choose to exercise them, that the DSP shares with us
the aim of building a revolutionary party, and that we all welcome further
discussion and debate. These can now be put to one side.

However, there remain a range of questions which are most decidedly not
settled. Foremost among these is what the Socialist Alliance project is
about. This relates in turn to our organisations' different understandings
of reformism and of the task of building the revolutionary party.

This is how we understand your position, briefly put (we are drawing here
not just on your published documents, but on John Percy and Peter Boyle's
documents in the October edition of your internal bulletin, The Activist).

The Labor Party is a pro-capitalist party; it cannot be described as a
capitalist workers' party. Furthermore, the ALP is the representation of
reformism in Australia and, consequently, people who break from Labor are
breaking from reformism. That being the case, those turning their backs on
Labor and joining the Socialist Alliance are on a trajectory towards
revolutionary politics. This makes the Alliance taking a public position
for or against revolution redundant. All that is needed is for conscious
revolutionaries to provide leadership to ensure that the trajectory is
maintained. On this basis, the Alliance can be transformed within a fairly
short period into a party characterised by a "revolutionary activist
culture" (Boyle, p16), as a stepping stone to a full-blown revolutionary
regroupment  the growing over of the Alliance into a revolutionary party.
The proposal to your conference in January is just a first step: It opens
the real political struggle for left regroupment in the SA, one that will
stretch over months or perhaps even years. (Boyle, p13, his emphasis.)

In fact, your timetable seems to be even shorter. The draft Socialist
Alliance platform circulated for discussion certainly indicates that. We
acknowledge that it is not a DSP document, but one drawn up in the name of
Dick Nichols. But Dick is a leading member of the DSP national executive
and we have to assume his thinking reflects that of his colleagues. In that
draft platform, the case is clearly put that:

As popular struggles intensify and socialist ideas become more influential,
the struggle for and against socialism will move to the centre of national
politics. At this point of rising class polarization the need for a
radically different sort of government "one that puts the needs of working
people first" will become unavoidable.

This is the sort of government Socialist Alliance is fighting for: a
socialist republic, based on democratic common ownership and control of the
key sectors of the economy and supported by working class organizations and
the mass movements. It will come into being as a result of the rising
struggle and self-organisation of the mass of working people.

Under such a government working people would rapidly expand their power to
make the big economic and social decisions that are presently the property
of corporations and government bureaucracies.
The question would then be posed: if the present "rights" of capital "to
sack, to send money out of the country, to decide if and what to produce"
were seriously challenged, would corporate Australia resign itself to the
loss of its powers?

The Alliance would prefer to achieve its socialist goal by means of
peaceful mass struggle and the use and expansion of democracy. However, all
history suggests that the corporate minority would resist the loss of its
economic and political power with all the resources at its command.

That would mean that working people too would have to be prepared to defend
their rights and gains and defeat the resistance of the capitalist elites.

There is no mention of the R word but this nonetheless remains a statement
of revolutionary intent. It is one that the ISO shares but it one that we
think is totally inappropriate for the Socialist Alliance to adopt. Your
intention is that such a platform should be adopted in May.

Our starting point is quite different. We understand reformism as an
expression of the material reality of working class life under capitalism.
On the one hand, workers know only too well that life is far too often an
unfair grind, that the boss is a bastard and that the rich get away with
murder. On the other hand, workers feel either powerless or, at best,
capable of winning partial and temporary gains through collective action.
The idea that they could overthrow the system and take power collectively
and democratically into their own hands seems either mad or utopian.
Workers look to others to win gains for them. This day-to-day experience
finds political reflection in trade union activity and, in some countries,
in labour or social-democratic parties. These parties are pro-capitalist,
but carry and need to at least partially reflect workers' aspirations for a
better life: they are capitalist workers' parties.

Understood like this, there are two conclusions to be drawn about
reformism. One is that it exists everywhere the working class exists,
regardless of the political history of that class or its particular
circumstances. So when the Portuguese military dictatorship was overthrown
in 1974, and in the midst of revolutionary situation thousands of working
class people gravitated to revolutionary organisations, tens if not
hundreds of thousands more supported the newly refounded social democrats.
Even with armed workers on the streets, many workers looked first to their
traditional leaders as they emerged from underground or exile. Similarly in
the US, reformist consciousness exists despite there being no social
democratic party.

In other words, the ALP is not the guarantor of reformism, it is the
creation of reformism (albeit one that reinforces reformist consciousness).
People breaking from Labor in disgust, or unions disaffiliating for similar
reasons, are not breaking from reformism. They are rejecting its
politically corrupt form, but not necessarily its content. While this
process is undoubtedly a healthy and positive occurrence (and is set to
increase, given the longterm decline in organised social democracy), it is
only a first step.

The second conclusion is that only a minority, at times a tiny minority, of
those disgusted with Labor will draw revolutionary conclusions quickly. The
hold of reformism means that revolutionaries need to see their task, in
Lenin's words, as patiently explaining. Revolutionaries are best placed to
do this while engaging in struggle alongside others. We need to earn the
right to be heard, let alone agreed with.

Our position has implications for the Socialist Alliance project. First, we
see the Alliance as an attempt to provide an organised, political home for
those taking the first step away from Labor. It is in this sense that we
have talked of the Alliance standing for "old Labor values", the values
that the ALP is no longer capable of systematically holding. It has never
been our conception that the Alliance should be confined to these "old
Labor values"  we need also to relate to the rise of anti-capitalism and a
general radicalisation around questions of refugees and war  but that these
should provide a starting point.

Second, although like you we want to build the forces of the revolutionary
left in Australia, we understand that winning new Alliance members to
revolutionary positions is not an easy process. Indeed, many excellent
Alliance members and future members will never agree with revolutionary
politics despite working closely with revolutionaries (think of the
parallel situation in workplace or union politics). That means the Alliance
cannot be force-marched over a matter of mere months "or even years" into
being a "united revolutionary party". In that sense, the Alliance is a
long-term project which can complement and strengthen the work of
revolutionary socialists but not subsume it.

If we understand the Alliance this way, it also helps explain why a very
large proportion of non-affiliated members are not regularly active in it.
For most Alliance members, politics still remains primarily a matter for
the electoral arena. We already know that there is a sharp rise in Alliance
participation around election times: this is an indication that the
Alliance has already gained the support and even the affection of some
hundreds of working class socialists, but it is also an indication that
they remain in the orbit of reformism politically. Clearly, we seek to
shift some of those members into greater activity and responsibility  but
this is not a question of resources, as your members so often put it, but
of patient political development.

Does this mean the ISO is saying that the Alliance can never, ever change
its composition? No, that would be foolish and simplistic. The road to
building mass revolutionary organisation can be a twisted and surprising
one. The Alliance may provide the basis for revolutionary regroupment, it
may split at some point between revolutionaries and non-revolutionaries, it
may succeed in its own terms and yet do neither  it is pointless to
speculate. Either way, we are talking about a process that will be played
out over a lengthy period, unless a sharp rise in class struggle and
consciousness speed the process up.

In short then, the ISO has a problem with the DSP's conception of where the
Alliance should go. We think that you are confusing two quite different
processes  revolutionary regroupment and the building of a large,
multi-tendency socialist party.

Revolutionary regroupment depends on genuine and deep-seated clarification
of organisations' theory and practice. We are in a period where regroupment
is on the agenda, and that is a good thing. Discussion and collaboration is
taking place between the two major international tendencies, the Fourth
International and the International Socialist Tendency, of which we are a
part. But even here, where the various parties share much from the
Trotskyist tradition (in particular the theory of permanent revolution, or
as Percy labels it, "dogmas and sectarianism", p9), and much in terms of
orientation towards the new anti-capitalist movement, expectations must be
measured and sober. When it comes to political differences between the DSP
and the ISO, the list becomes very substantial  the nature of reformism,
orientation towards Labor, the role of the union bureaucracy, permanent
revolution and the tasks of the working class in the Third World, free
speech for Nazis, the nature of the anti-capitalist movement, etc. In
short, we are divided by competing visions of socialism from above or below.

This rules out for the foreseeable future regroupment, if regroupment is
understood as a process of fusion, as Boyle would seem to be suggesting. It
does not, of course, rule out comradely collaboration in many struggles and
in Alliance building. We continue to argue that moving the Alliance to a
multi-tendency socialist party is out of step with the reality of the
Alliance  at best an enthusiastic telescoping of a process, at worst, a
forced march into a crisis. We do not rule out in principle the idea that
such a multi-tendency party could be a healthy and useful development for
the Australian working class movement. But for it to have any chance of
functioning, it has to be approached by revolutionaries in a genuine spirit
of long-term work, with an understanding that a broad multi-tendency party
is a project that has to be built in its own right, not as a "months or
even years" stepping stone to a larger version of one of the affiliates.

We have to say honestly that the more we understand how the DSP is
approaching the Socialist Alliance project, the more our fears grow. We
have a conference in early December and our members will need to make a
number of decisions about our relationship with the Alliance. The most
important will be how to respond if the DSP goes ahead with its proposal to
become a tendency within the Alliance from January. Many of us have put a
great deal of work into the Alliance and can see its potential. But the ISO
national executive feels it has no choice but to recommend to our
conference to terminate our affiliation if the DSP congress votes to
implement the proposal. We will not be used as fodder in a revolutionary
regroupment exercise which has not been publicly articulated nor
collectively decided, but which will be carried by the weight of the DSP's
numbers and is likely to result in no more than a rebadged DSP.

These are blunt words, but we feel it is necessary to say them, given your
insistence on the January deadline and the nature of Dick Nichols' draft
program. On the other hand, we are pleased with the small steps forward the
Alliance has taken. While many members remain passive, it is also clear
that many now see the Alliance as their party, to be funded and supported
above all around election time. In the Victorian state elections, for
example, we can expect 20-25 non-affiliated members or more to help with
the Brunswick campaign, with similarly good figures in other seats. The
Alliance had an excellent intervention and profile at the 10,000-strong
rally in Melbourne in defence of Martin Kingham, with our leaflet widely
read and our placards making a splash. Workers First booked seats at the
Melbourne fundraiser dinner as a show of support. Comrades in the NTEU
report that the Socialist Alliance caucus at the union's national
conference was a real success, helping pull the agenda to the left and
giving the Alliance's profile and credibility as the main left force in the
union a real boost. The Alliance has taken good initiatives around refugees
and war, with its trade union seminars and other union caucuses.

This is the modest but real record that we think we should all be building
on. We call on the DSP to desist from its frantic dash towards
organisational solutions to political problems. Instead, the ISO proposes:

# An open-ended discussion about the nature of the Alliance, and around key
political questions like the nature of reformism, the nature of the trade
union bureaucracy, etc. This process should lead up to the annual
conference in May, but not end there.

# A further strengthening of union collaboration. What has been achieved to
date in the NTEU could be replicated in the CPSU, another union where the
Alliance has a relatively large membership. We should investigate in which
other unions, from state to state, caucuses would be useful. We should also
encourage cross-union committees like the Alliance solidarity committee in
Melbourne. We should organise another round of union seminars across the

# Raising the Alliance profile by campaigning under its banner where we
can, for instance, the Alliance is an excellent vehicle for initiating or
building protests against the recent ASIO raids on Muslim families.

# Raising the Alliance profile more regularly and thoroughly on all rallies
and at other public events, using placards, leaflets, etc. The ISO
understands that this would involve us making greater resources available
than at present.

# Holding Alliance public meetings on key topics as broad platforms of the
left, and organising debate across the left on contentious issues.

We know that our bluntness risks causing offence, and if it has done so, we
apologise. But we also believe that the Alliance project is too important
to risk losing. We believe that if the DSP pulls back from its current
course, we can unite to build a stronger, more effective Alliance in 2003.

David Glanz
for the ISO national executive

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