Dick Nichols on SA and DSP

benj benj at CONNEXUS.NET.AU
Tue Sep 10 06:31:44 MDT 2002

[staircase fixed ]

This talk was delivered by DSP National Executive and Socialist
Alliance Political Committee member Dick Nichols to a workshop at the
International Socialist Organisation's annual 'Marxism' educational
conference/event which was held over 6-8 September in
Melbourne. Hopefully it will flesh out some of the debate that has
been reflected not just here but even more of course among DSP members
and the broader left in Australia.

Ben Courtice

 Talk to Marxism 2002 on DSP perspectives on Socialist Alliance
 by Dick Nichols

Dear comrades,

First of all many thanks to the International Socialist Organisation
for your invitation to address Marxism 2002.

Second, my apologies for the cold and flu I have brought with me.  If
I break down in fits of coughing you can blame Melbourne.

This talk is basically a commentary on the September 7 letter that
Democratic Socialist Party's National Secretary John Percy has written
to the National Executive of the Socialist Alliance on behalf of the
DSP National Executive. Copies of the letter are available here.

(Before I start there's a mistake in the letter for which I am
responsible and which needs correcting. Where the letter states that
the Socialist Alliance has achieved "around 1.4 per cent at best in
contests with the Greens" it neglects Socialist Alliance results at
the municipal level. There we have achieved, as in Moreland, over 5.5
per cent.)


Each and every time a revolutionary socialist organisation like the
DSP or the ISO meets a question always hangs over the gathering, a
question so obvious that there's hardly ever any need to pronounce
it--how best can we strengthen the socialist, the Marxist cause in the
coming period?

Ninety nine times out of 100 the answer to that question is simple and
automatic--by strengthening ourselves. Discussion then passes onto
improving revolutionary work in the movements, the unions and the
communities, to sales of the press and to the distribution of
propaganda, and to educating ourselves better for revolutionary work.

But there are rare times when that semi-automatic, natural enough
answer--"by building ourselves"--isn't the right answer to the
question. Or when we have to ask what "building ourselves" really
means, when unearthing the right answer requires more thought, more
investigation. Who is "ourselves", after all?

This is especially the case when there is a rise in interest in
socialism, or a vaguer search by sections of workers and students and
other parts of society in general for an alternative to standard
capitalist politics. Then it's our responsibility to ask what impact
the answer we give will have on them--those curious but still sceptical
human beings with which our socialist cause will be built or it won't
be built at all.

More specifically, what impact will that answer have on our ability as
socialists and Marxists to link up with the natural leaders of working
class, community and movement struggles, to convince them that the
Marxist viewpoint is necessary and valid and, by strengthening this
connection--this vital link--help us build a broader social and
political base for socialism?

This is the case in Australia today. There are scores, if not
hundreds, of working-class militants who are disgusted with the ALP,
and we have to be sure that we have lost no opportunity to help them
pass permanently out of the camp of labourist politics and into that
of socialism.

There are hundreds if not 1000s of opponents of capitalism, who
appreciate left unity and who would think more about joining if the
socialist pole could be strengthened. Many of these are already
members, if largely still passive members, of Socialist Alliance.

Now the National Executive of the DSP, basing itself on an analysis of
the present political conjuncture in Australia and on the experience
of participating in the building of Socialist Alliance--and after quite
a deal of agonizing--is convinced that we cannot, if we are to serve
the socialist cause as well as we possibly can, just give the same old
answer to the question "How to strengthen the socialist cause today?"

If we are to "capture" as many of the potential recruits to socialism
that are out there as we possibly can, we can only do it by
strengthening our best recruiting instrument--that's Socialist

So for us the answer to the question "what is to be done?" certainly
cannot be:

(1) "Build the DSP!" dropping the Socialist Alliance. That is
discounted from the outset and would be a criminally sectarian error
which would toss away the many of the invaluable gains that have been
achieved. But nor can it be:

(2) "Carry on building the DSP together with the Socialist Alliance"
because our experience of the last 18 months is that neither job can
be done properly. We are convinced that it has to be:

(3) "Use the accumulated resources and strength of the DSP to help
strengthen the Socialist Alliance as the primary organization for
socialism in this country."

That's the essential political meaning of the letter from the DSP NE
to the SA NE. The DSP National Executive is convinced--and we hope to
convince DSP members who will submit this proposal to vote at out 20th
Congress in December-January--that through ceasing to build the DSP as
a public organisation we can help construct the Socialist Alliance as
a bigger, more powerful alternative for socialism in this country.

Now that it's out in the light of day, it's clear--and confirmed by the
overwhelmingly positive reaction it has received--that this is a step
that has been crying out to be taken. And we hope our example will
lead other affiliates to review their own relation to the Socialist
Alliance project.

What will happen if the DSP NE proposal is accepted, first, by our
October NC and then by our 20th Congress? I quote from the letter:

If a majority of our members accept our proposal the DSP will cease to
operate as a public organisation and begin to operate as an internal
tendency in the Socialist Alliance from January 2003. Our members
will, from that point, be building and recruiting to the Socialist
Alliance rather than the DSP.

We will then 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
[primarily a relationship Green Left Weekly]. We undertake to pursue
this process within the democratic framework of the Socialist Alliance
and in a thoroughly open, consultative and inclusive manner.

The objective of our tendency will be to pursue the transition while
ensuring that the gains of our three decades of work as a party will
not be lost to the left as a whole.

We are confident that this will be a big step forward for left
regroupment in Australia and that we will be able to agree, in stages,
on concrete steps forward for the Socialist Alliance.  This is based
on the substantial political consensus and comradely collaboration
achieved since the founding of the Alliance.

What would be the purpose of the Democratic Socialist tendency?  We do
not envisage it as a permanent faction, to which we would be seeking
to recruit people from within the Socialist Alliance.  Rather:

Our proposal would make the Socialist Alliance and its bodies the
political framework governing the work of former DSP members and the
organisation that they would work to build.  Within this framework the
goal of the Democratic Socialist tendency would be to make itself
redundant in step with the further development of the Alliance.

In short, the tendency would be a construction tool for the Socialist
Alliance and not a permanent repository of historical DSP positions.

Now I would like to explain why the DSP NE thinks this "shock move" of
ours is practicable, why we have made this proposal now and how we
think the process of strengthening the Alliance can best proceed.

 1.Why is this move practicable?

The first question that must occur to anyone who is acquainted with
the DSP and the Socialist Alliance is: "The DSP aspires to be a
revolutionary socialist organization. Yet how can you possibly dream
that this Alliance, whose platform is just a series of immediate
demands, can possibly be transformed into a revolutionary
organization, supplanting the DSP?"

Let me begin my answer to this question with a question. How will the
socialist cause in this country achieve most rapid increase in
relevance and political profile?

It certainly won't be by building the left of the ALP, or of the
Greens (although socialists will always seek to collaborate as closely
as possible with good people in those organisations).

And it won't be by the growth of any one of the affiliates within the
Alliance at the expense of any other affiliate. Already the Alliance
enjoys greater visibility and presence than any of the affiliates. It
is the face of socialist unity that has given it this status.

This is the first part of the answer: the natural growth path for the
socialist cause in this country is to strengthen what we've already
got, to build on what we've already built.

But what about its political basis? Here we have to grasp the real,
operational foundation of the Alliance, as opposed to its formal basis
as adopted at its founding conference.

I can do no better than quoting the DSP NE letter on this point:

> Our collective experience in building the Socialist Alliance has
> revealed its actual political basis. There is a significant amount
> of shared socialist program among the Socialist Alliance
> affiliates. While this is not formally outlined as a program of the
> Socialist Alliance, the founding documents refer to the fact there
> is more common ground than that sketched out in the initial
> Socialist Alliance platform.

> This has been confirmed in practice by the actual experience of
> having to take a stand on such testing issues as the "war on
> terrorism", Palestine and the current attacks on the most militant
> union leaderships in Australia.

This last, particularly the offensive by National AMWU secretary Doug
Camer0n against the elected Victorian leadership, was a particularly
important test for the Alliance. We could easily have taken refuge in
that old coward's formula that parties don't interfere in "internal
union business", but that would have destroyed our credibility with
some of the best working class fighters in this country at a stroke.

Our experience has also shown that, while the Alliance doesn't have an
in-principle position is favour or against the disaffiliation of
unions from the ALP, we have been able to relate concretely to union
politics and can be confident of finding a correct case-by-case
orientation, based on the most important principle of all, union
democracy and the reclaiming of the unions by the membership.

The level of collaboration achieved has only been possible because of
implicit shared programme. Had the Progressive Labor Party, for
example, joined the Alliance that would have become even clearer,
because it is highly likely that the PLP would have been on the other
side of the fence on many of the issues we have had to face.

As soon as we can manage the DSP will draft a popularly written
socialist perspectives document, which we believe would make explicit
the real, operating basis of the Socialist Alliance. We will submit it
for discussion and adoption by the May 2003 Second National

This document will make clear that we are looking to build the
Alliance as a revolutionary socialist and not left-social democratic
organization. But it will be written in the language of ordinary life
and struggle and not in "Cominternese".

Nor will it be a "complete revolutionary program"--whatever that is. As
the DSP NE letter says:

> Our experience in working together surely confirms that left
> regroupment and unity will come about, and can only come about, on
> the basis of our rising to the objective challenges that are being
> posed by an intensifying class struggle and movement of
> anti-capitalist resistance. It will be our success in meeting these
> challenges--including the challenge of giving concrete and credible
> form to the socialist alternative at every turn--that will provide
> and strengthen the programmatic basis of the Alliance.

This process will also set existing differences in the right

In this context, existing differences among affiliates will have
increasingly less weight and the grounds for the maintenance of the
existing minimalist organisational form of the Socialist Alliance
increasingly less operative. How important our existing differences
really are and what organisational form they really justify should be
tested out by serious debate in the context of ongoing joint work
within the framework of the Alliance.

Behind this analysis lies our conviction that the political core of
the Alliance is a revolutionary core, a working class core, an
internationalist core. The affiliates certainly don't agree on
everything, we certainly need to discuss thoroughly and in an informed
way--and not as an exercise in set-piece battles--many of our
differences, but these discussions will be set in the existing context
of rising class confrontation and greater opportunities for our side,
opportunities which we must gear ourselves up to meet.

 2.Why now?

The answer to this question comes in three parts:

Firstly, because Socialist Alliance is falling increasingly short of
its potential. There is, for example, a weird contradiction between
how well known Socialist Alliance is and the joke of a "national
apparatus" with which we have to do its work .  Examples of untapped
potential abound, especially in rural and regional Australia. We have
200 members "at large" in NSW alone. Some ten days ago I received a
call from a comrade in Castlemaine who wants to help organise for the
Alliance in the Castlemaine-Bendigo region. We don't have a basic
literature on a whole range of issues. Our policy development process
is slow, at the same time as interested people are not getting
organised to participate. What things are done well usually have to be
done as emergency operations (witness the Victorian electoral
registration campaign).The longer this goes on, the worse it will
get. Then we will not be even be able to make se of our electoral
potential, because that is increasingly linked to the work Socialist
Alliance does in the sphere of campaigns and protests, the sphere
where we are most failing.

Secondly, because there has to be a thorough discussion and debate on
the DSP NE proposal within the DSP itself. Contrary to the view of an
autocratic, hierarchical top-down DSP peddled by some, the DSP NE
proposal has to be thoroughly discussed by our party and a lot of DSP
comrades will have questions, doubts and even counterpositions. They
will, for example, ask: Are we, the DSP, about to throw 30 years of
accumulated effort away on a piece of wishful thinking? What's the
guarantee that the strengthening of left unity we're envisaging won't
fail like the attempts at left regroupment we were involved with in
the 1980s?

Thirdly, because what we propose cannot possible work without a
thorough, clarifying debate involving all Socialist Alliance
members. We will need until the May 2003 conference (and beyond) for
relevant documents, amendments to constitutions and practical
questions around asset transfer to be worked out.  Moreover, this time
is also necessary because everyone has to be convinced from their own
reflection that what is envisaged is a real turn to strengthen the
socialist cause and neither a "DSP takeover", as some bizarrely refer
to it (when the DSP has between 4 and 6 on a Socialist Alliance
National Executive of 17), nor an attempt to capitalise on real or
imaginary divisions in other organizations (when we want every last
socialist and left-winger to participate in the Socialist
Alliance). In short, for the restructuring of a bigger common home to
take place, as many as possible will have to feel secure that they
have a space.

 3.What way forward?

Where should we go from here?  Firstly, let's construct a real,
serious debate on the entire left, and not just among Socialist
Alliance affiliate organisations and members. Green Left Weekly will
open its pages to this debate. We will propose to carry it on the
Socialist Alliance web site.  We would also hope that Socialist
Alternative, the Socialist Party and the CPA engage in the debate.

Secondly, let's all put much more effort into giving Socialist
Alliance profile, including covering its (often underreported) success
stories, such as the Western Australian trade union forum and the
public meeting done jointly with the Skilled Six Committee last week.

Thirdly, we need boosted effort in forthcoming election campaigns,
even in the knowledge that the first port of call for most disaffected
voters will remain the Greens in the short term.  However, the
Tasmanian election campaign showed us how election campaigns are
invaluable to opening the road to the expansion of Alliance as a truly
national organization, with a presence beyond the capital cities to
which the left has traditionally been confined.

Lastly, let's see more joint work by Socialist Alliance affiliates and
members. The DSP will argue for greater use of Socialist Alliance
caucuses in the unions and in the movements. These , of course, can't
be imposed on anyone and their decisions can't be binding. Nor, in
many cases, should they replace broader left caucuses. The important
point is for us all to strive to carry out joint work and to achieve a
united approach. The DSP NE is convinced that with this approach 80
per cent of existing differences will disappear: where they don't
we'll just have to agree to disagree and await the test of experience.


Comrades, Australian left politics isn't like European left politics,
marked by general strikes and millions in the streets. But our
discussion here is common to all the revolutionary left in the
advanced capitalist world. Everyone is discussing forms of
regroupment. That opening exists here too, not in the form of a
collapse of mass working-class support for the ALP but in that of a
break of important and precious sections of the working class anguard
from the ALP, combined with the growth of an important layer of
anti-capitalist activists who like and appreciate left unity.

In this context we should be wary of the argument that left
regroupment requires a certain predetermined level of mass movement
activity and break from Social Democracy. While this is true in the
sense that a rise in revolt and political disaffection is a
precondition for reviewing old positions and tactics, it's not true to
say that we can only seriously talk about left regroupment once the
class struggle has reached required level x+7 of intensity.

More likely, indeed, the truth is the other way around. The missing
link in driving the class struggle and the mass movement forward in
this country is the existence of a sufficiently strong, sufficiently
unified revolutionary socialist organization with real--if still
minority--implantation in the unions, the movements and the
communities and with the capacity and authority to provide leadership
and support to those in struggle.

The DSP NE believes we have a chance, through channelling our
resources into radically strengthening Socialist Alliance as the site
of left unity, to help build just such an organization. We fervently
hope that we can persuade as many as possible to join us in that

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