DSP on Socialist Alternative: 'containment and rollback'

NIBS nibs at nibs.org.au
Sun Nov 17 21:22:57 MST 2002

In the context of the recent discussion of the Australian Socialist
Alliance, in which sundry DSP members have assured me that no significant
differences exist between the various Marxist groups on the Australian
left, it's enlightening to read the DSP/Resistance attitude to my own
organisation, as expressed in a recent (internal, I guess) DSP publication.

The argument itself (a bizarre coupling of sneers at our ''ultraleftism'
with exhortations to the hapless Resistance kids to emulate us) is less
interesting than what it reveals about the DSP's real attitude to rivals.
DSP mouthpieces on this list deride those who won't participate in their
regroupment as hopelessly sectarian. In private, however, they discuss how
to achieve 'containment' and 'rollback' of other tendencies.

With all due respect, an Alliance founded on such attitudes reminds me most
of a nest of vipers regrouping in a sack!

Jeff Sparrow

Who's afraid of Socialist Alternative?
By Graham Matthews, Melbourne North-East branch
There has been some considerable discussion about the group Socialist
Alternative (Salt) and the impact they are having on Melbourne politics,
particularly in the youth sector. Certainly it is a fact that this group is
growing among youth, particularly among a layer new to activity, notably
among Melbourne University students. They have been described (in my
opinion correctly) as Resistance's main competitor for joining newly
radicalising young people.
It would be wrong to think that Salt are sweeping all before them however,
that they have some secret lactic for joining and integrating young people
that we have overlooked, or that they pose a serious challenge to the
position held by the DSP in broader politics. Nevertheless, their success
cannot be lightly dismissed. We must seriously analyse the nature of this
group, their strengths and their weaknesses, and devise tactics for their
containment and roll-back.
Who is Socialist Alternative?
The core of Salt is a relatively small number of former International
Socialist Organisation (ISO) members who split (or were expelled) from that
organisation in 1995. While they were scattered across the eastern states,
their key leadership lives in Melbourne, and this is where Salt remains
strongest Attached to this historical leadership are numerous young members
of Salt While the organisation has latterly attempted to recruit from a
wider variety of areas (most notably disaffected ISO members), their main
recruiting ground remains Melbourne University students, where by dint of
concentration, they remain by far the largest left organisation.
It is an open question of how Salt recruit and consolidate their largely
(tertiary) student base. Their magazine is a small A4 publication. Partly
by dint of its monthly format (and partly by choice of the Salt leadership)
the magazine has a very general and agitational format. It has no depth of
analysis, nor can it respond to political developments in a timely way.
Anecdotal evidence would suggest that while sales of the magazine are not
negligible, nor are they significant. The majority of Salt members while
holding the magazine at stalls and rallies are in reality spending their
time distributing leaflets rather than actively selling. Very few of the
Salt membership (outside of the historical leadership) have the confidence
to actively approach people at a rally to sell their magazine. Rather they
remain concentrated around their stalls, in permanent contingent.
We could safely conclude that Salt do not recruit new members (at the
expense of Resistance) on the basis of the appeal of their publication
ahead of GLW. Even at Melbourne University, GLW has a significant number of
regular/casual readers. On a "good" week, over 80 papers can be sold at
Melbourne University. Most stalls manage to distribute in excess of 20
papers. Certainly the domination of Salt has not dimmed GLW's light. Yet
this popularity of the paper has not translated into recruits (certainly
few serious recruits) for Resistance.
Salt have a well-developed propaganda formula that they effectively use at
Melbourne University to attract recruits. They organise at least one and
sometimes two forums every week at the university, on a diverse range of
topics, usually responding to the latest development and turn of politics -
war on Iraq, refugees or whatever. These forums are little more than
exercises in "putting the line", and drawing recruits. They do not advance
political discussion, in fact they do the opposite. They present a
pre-digested form of politics that is easily assimilated by a layer
immediately radicalised and new to politics.
Combined with their forums. Salt have a well-deserved reputation for
activity. They quickly and effectively involve new recruits in activity -
building a forum, doing a paste-up, doing duty on a stall, or blockading a
meeting or occupying the Vice-Chancellor's office. The nature of the
activity is largely irrelevant As Salt outline in the manifesto they
presented to ISO members (see The Activist Volume 12, Number 11), they
believe that to have a real impact on politics, a socialist organisation
must have tens of thousands of members. To be smaller than this is to be a
propaganda organisation (notably they have no strategy for the
transformation of a propaganda organisation into a mass party).
The term propaganda organisation has been twisted in a certain way by the
Salt leadership, to justify sectarianism. They dismiss any serious attempts
at united fronts for instance because of the small size of their
organisation (and the left as a whole they argue). The role of a socialist
organisation in this period is solely to recruit on the basis of ideas,
they argue. It is irrelevant that these ideas (such as attempting to force
a confrontation with police in a vain attempt to break refugees from
Maribyrnong detention centre) have the effect of narrowing or even
splitting a movement What matters is that they attract new people to them
in particular. Salt argue that their actions at/in the lead-up to the
Maribyrnong detention centre demonstration in June this year (where they
built what turned out being a fairly small action on the basis of breaching
the fences at the detention centre  an attempt that ultimately failed
dismally) were justified by the fact that they "drew a few people around them".
Salt's actions at the April 2001 Melbourne University occupation (where
they led a trashing of the Vice-Chancellor's office, after using a
blockbuster to break in to the admin building), had the effect of stunting
the development of any education campaign on that campus. At the S11 2000
mobilisation, they led groups away from the blockade (to occupy the offices
of the Herald Sun on one occasion), to look for better action, not because
they believed that it was best for the movement, but on the narrow
calculation of differentiating themselves from the rest of the movement
(and the left) and garnering some recruits.
Salt's organisation building, tactics have a certain appeal to a particular
layer  those who crave simple solutions to the world's ills, and don't seek
to read deeply. They would seem to build the organisation on a
friendship/clique basis more than comradely relations. To their credit,
their student leaders have an easy manner of encouraging involvement at a
variety of levels, no matter how limited. The other side of this friendship
organisation however is that even small disagreements or deviations can not
easily be dealt with. It is significant that none of the (few) former
Resistance members that Salt have recruited in Melbourne over the last
couple of years have gone on to be consistent activists in their
organisation. In fact most would seem to have drifted away from politics
relatively quickly.
Salt has also had rather little success in integrating former ISO members
into the organisation. While some (perhaps three to five) have joined, none
other than Liz R, seem to have been successfully integrated at the level of
consistent organisation-building activity. At least one other has recently
resigned, less than a year after joining. We also have word of at least one
Salt member walking out of their conference during a speech given by Sandra
Bloodworth. He quit Salt and joined SA.
How do we meet the challenge of Salt?
While it is easy to critique Salt at a theoretical level, we have to
acknowledge their relative success at recruiting youth. We should take this
seriously - whereas Salt may recruit from a relatively narrow field at this
stage, they have the potential to grow and spread (which they have already
begun, with some success particularly in Brisbane) to other areas.
In combating Salt we should be most mindful of our strengths. First among
them is our newspaper and education resources. We are more able to provide
comprehensive answers to political questions than any other left
organisation through GLW. We have a developed conception of strategy and
tactics, which goes beyond the next rally or the next occupation. We have
huge resources that we can call on in almost every branch to give timely
forums (on campus and off), as well as follow-up education. Our Resistance
meetings are generally accessible and inclusive. We are also (not
insignificantly) committed to building the movements, not simply recruiting
from them in a more or less parasitic fashion.
That being said, we are perhaps a little too sanguine of our strengths, and
a little too expecting of people to come to choose us, because of our
(rather hidden) attributes.
We have to be more ready to "show-off" our strengths in a more public way.
Salt for instance, organise weekly (or more frequently) educational forums.
While it is true that these are largely glib affairs, they are a regular
event that Salt hold to attract new members, and to galvanise existing
activists. We (both Resistance and the party) organise far fewer public
events (at the level of forums) than we have done in some time. In part we
have deferred to Socialist Alliance (SA) for these events. In part they
have simply been swamped by an otherwise hectic schedule of movement work
and so forth-In my opinion we should mobilise our educational resources in
a far more public fashion, particularly on campus, where we should aim at
fortnightly Marxist forums, at least. We should not be deterred by a small
attendance at first. We should look at using a mix of party and Resistance
leaders for these forums, and be flexible at where we build these forums
(at particular lectures for instance) rather than just through
posters/contacting  although both these methods are indispensable. We might
also be wise to return to the monthly GLW forums at our city centres. These
were quite successful when we ran them, and again in the context of working
through SA would give profile to our particular viewpoint- There would be
no contradiction in recruiting to the Alliance at these events, in the same
way GLW itself will recruit directly to the SA rather than the Democratic
Socialist Tendency from next year.
I think the Resistance "manifesto" will also have an important role to play
here. A concise statement of Resistance's world outlook at the moment is
missing from other propaganda. We should be careful that this document does
not ossify. It should for instance contain a clear statement on the bombing
on October 12 for instance. Resistance statement; events should supplement
it also. While they would not differ greatly in content from DSP/SA
statements, they may have a more relaxed style, or indeed take up youth
specific issues. Together these two pieces of propaganda would help to
begin to fill-out Resistance's profile, which has certainly slipped since
the heady days of the late 1990s.
The other side of the equation I believe is a willingness to bold. I fear
that we too often deride bold tactics as "ultra-leftism" and therefore
leave the terrain of sit-ins/occupations Salt (or the ISO in an earlier
period). In my opinion, we do not use the organisational independence of
Resistance enough to our advantage as a tendency. This will be ever more
important in environment of the DSP acting solely within SA from 2003.
More organisationally independent Resistance
I believe that we should encourage Resistance leaders develop an
independent profile for the organisation. Resistance has the depth of
leadership, the general political skill and experience to organise
effective stunts that would attract layer of young people, without
jeopardising the development of movements (a sit-in at a military
recruiting centre for instance against an Iraq war, in the lead-up to a
mass demo). This I believe was the essence of the success of the
high-school walkout lactic in the mid-to-late 1990s. We should be flexible
to continue to use such tactics to our advantage.
A small recent example is the fact that Melbourne Resistance has begun to
develop its own "red-bloc", similar to Salt, but with red flags adorned by
images of Che Guevara. Comrades have also effectively used a decorated ute
at rallies as the heart of a contingent - a contingent that is successful
in attracting new youth. At some recent rallies this has been successfully
combined with "in the field" introductions to Resistance at the end of
rallies, which can also help to galvanise some of the newly radicalising
layer. Generally however these tactics have been used too sparingly, and
sometimes even in a routinist manner (such as me over use of high school
walkouts a couple of years ago).
This is not to say however that we can afford to have Resistance let slip
any aspect of its practical leadership development and training work. I
believe it is increasingly apparent that long-term leadership renewal will
only come from this area. Although we may recruit some older activists when
the movement is at a high point (such as after S11 2000), these layers are
no substitute for the regular supply of young revolutionaries trained by
Resistance. In other words I believe that we need to expect even more from
our Resistance leadership than we do now. And this will require concrete
back up, particularly at the level of education, but also in effective
allocation of resources, time and so on from party leaders.
The greater part of the challenge here is not just to the current
Resistance leadership therefore, but to the party leadership as a whole.
While the party cannot substitute for the youth leadership in carrying out
tactics directed at recruiting youth (and it would create problems for both
organisations should we try), it is beholden on the party leaderships to
think through applicable tactics, and help Resistance leaderships bring
them to fruition  by making suggestions, encouraging confidence and leading
their time for work on campus, particularly as educators.
Recent political history, notably the three days of S11 to S13 2000, shows
us that where we are bold, we reap the rewards. On that occasion it was the
party's strengths that put us in such a strong recruiting position for the
months that followed. The gains of that intervention are still being
measured in the Melbourne context (vis a vis the ISO, whose 300 plus
recruits soon evaporated). Our SA initiative is also a bold one, albeit in
a different way. We should re-extend this bold creativity to our youth work
We have sees the kind of organisation embodied by Salt on numerous
occasions. The mix of action, pre-digested politics and cliquishness
combining in an apparent radicalism, was evinced by the ISO during parts of
the 1990s, and perhaps the Maoists or others before them. They are not a
threat to the position that we have won in the broader movements (albeit
still small), nor do they aim to be. They are however a significant
challenge for us in the recruitment and integration of newly radicalising
youth, and one that we must meet and contend with, not just for the health
of Resistance but for the tendency as a whole.

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