Some comments on revolutionary unity

Philip Ferguson plf13 at
Tue Nov 19 14:34:22 MST 2002

In his most recent post, Bob Gould repeats his argument that political
discussion/clarification and some settling of differences is needed
*before* the Australian revolutionary left unite.  Jeff Sparrow, whose
viewpoint is fairly representative of Socialist Alternative, argues that
the differences haven't really changed and they are of such an order
that precludes unity.

I think both these are mistaken.

Firstly, to take Jeff's arguments.  I sympathise with his point that
unity proposals sound warm and fuzzy but what's the basis for them,
really.  I think this has often been true in the past and that there
have been unifications and attempts at unification, including by the DSP
in Australia, that were either unreal (eg the DSP trying to fuse with
the pro-Moscow SPA) or opportunist (many of the fusions that FI groups
engaged in or tried to do in the 70s, 80s and 90s.

However, I don't see that this makes all attempts at revolutionary
questionable.  The point has been made by a number of people that the
organisational separation of revolutionaries actually leads to the
maintenance of differences that may have been rendered historical by
events themselves - eg 'the Russian question' may have been important in
1930-40 during the fight between Cannon and the opposition in the US SWP
- but now that the Soviet bloc is gone, it is more an historical
question.  Yet the division of organisations along state-cap and
degenerated workers state lines is maintained, as if nothing has changed
in the wider world.  Thus the organisational division itself outlasts
the political question that led to the division and becomes an end in itself.

Jeff suggests that if there were earth-shattering events and a big
upsurge in the left then maybe unity would be on the agenda.  But
earth-shattering events have actually happened.  The Soviet bloc is
gone, the working class in the West suffered major defeats in the 80s
and early 1990s, the left has been pushed back to the lowest ebb in a
century.  How people respond to these events is surely what is decisive
*now*.  I would say that people who have been through these events and
still maintained a desire to stay active as revolutionaries and continue
to fight for socialism actually, just by dint of that, now have a great
deal in common.  In recent years, for instance, I have found myself
talking to people on the left whom I wouldn't have bothered with ten or
fifteen years ago, and I'm certainly not the soft, warm, fuzzy type of
traditional unity-monger.  And when I do talk to other people on the
left, I quite often find that we are coming up with similar views about
what's happening now, certainly on the big political issues of the day.

This means that the divisions between *revolutionary* groups are
increasingly artificial.  They force revolutionaries to maintain - and
even create or blow up - differences.

I don't conclude from this that the *left* should unite.  I've not the
slightest desire to be in a party with left-reformists and all kinds of
weird and whacky people.  I'm talking about the
*revolutionary left*.

And here's where an important distinction comes in between different
ideas of unity.  I would say Jeff's point is relevant in relation to the
kind of unity that the FI/USec is engaged in, where you unite with all
kinds of leftists into a party which, resultingly, does not and cannot
have a revolutionary programme.  However, other people, such as the
CPGB/Weekly Worker have argued - and this seems to be also argued by the
DSP and the Workers Liberty people in Australia, that a united party be
a revolutionary party.

As against this is the British SWP (and Aussie ISO) argument that the
Socialist Alliance in Britain and Australia should be essentially left
electoral blocs with a limited programme that is quite 'Old Labour' and
geared to picking up the votes of disillusioned Labour voters.  This, it
seems to me, is a fundamentally reformist project.

Brian Cahill might be able to clarify this, but from a series of email
exchanges with a young CWI supporter in the last few weeks, I also
gather that the CWI perspective is to argue for the creation of new
left-reformist mass parties in which revolutionaries (namely, those
aligned with the CWI) would function as factions.  This also seems a
poor alternative to attempting the unification of revolutionary forces.

In relation to Bob Gould, while I liked his post about bees and ants,
and it certainly struck some chords with me, I think he needs to be
rather careful if he doesn't want to be seen as primarily a spoiler,
someone who is so obsessed with the DSP - and/or with protecting the
Labor Party - that he is prepared to do his damnedest to disrupt the
unification of the Australian revolutionary groups.  For instance, he
continually implies that this is really all a bit of a scam on the DSP's
part.  Yet, from what I can see, no-one else in the Socialist Alliance
is making this charge.  Even the least enthusiastic group in terms of an
SA fusion - namely, the ISO - does not charge the DSP with being engaged
in a cynical manoeuvre.  Everyone seems to accept that this is a genuine
effort on their part to create something new.  Given that the DSP would
be a *minority* within a fused revolutionary organisation and that they
would be handing over their resources - which are substantially larger
than those of all the other groups put together - it seems to me
somewhat unlikely that this is merely a DSP leadership scam.  Even if it
was, their bluff could be called quite easily by going forward and
seeing whether they really were going to dissolve their assets/resources
into the SA.  In such a situation, the big loser would be the DSP, coz
they'd lose their assets while none of the other groups have much in the
way of assets to risk.

Lastly, Bob's call for an open discussion of political differences is
fair enough.  But how is this open discussion to take place and why
can't it take place in a fused revolutionary current?  If revolutionary
unity is not possible before all differences have been settled, or at
least 'clarified' (and how long is that process supposed to go on?),
then revolutionary unity itself is a non-starter.

Philip Ferguson

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