[Marxism] Further on Left Unity, from Australia this time
sherrife at gmail.com
Thu Apr 11 20:00:25 MDT 2013
As Left Unity becomes an increasing topic of discussion globally, this
contribution from former Rjurik Davidson is both thought provoking and
encapsulates much of the essence of our perspective for regrouping the
revolutionary left. Rjurik's political origins lie in the Democratic
Socialist Party, Australia's largest Orthodox Trotskyist tendency that was
forged by John and Jim Percy in Australia in the 1960s (John has since
joined Socialist Alternative as part of the fusion between the RSP and SA).
He is now the Associated Editor of Overland Journal, the main radical
literary journal in the country.
Why I’m joining Socialist Alternative
The last two decades have not been kind to the radical left in the West. A
little over twenty years ago, the collapse of the Eastern Bloc led to a
capitalist triumphalism of unprecedented scale. Not only was there an
intense ideological attack on the traditional political principles of the
left, but the space opened up a wave of intensified neoliberal politics
aimed at the destruction of the post war gains of social democracy:
education, health, welfare more generally. Then, just as it appeared the
radical left might be reviving in the West, in the form of the
anti-corporate globalisation movement – begun most obviously in Seattle in
1999 but quickly skipping from city to city – the 9/11 attack on the World
Trade Center allowed the right a new pretext for attacks on civil liberties
and the reconstitution of neoliberalism, an ideology that was grounded in
nationalism and racism.
In this context, the Western left has not so much found itself wandering
over hostile terrain as off the map altogether. The pressure on socialist
organisations has led to a series of disintegrations and degenerations. The
Communist Party of Australia willed itself out of existence in the late
eighties; the Socialist Party of Australia disintegrated slowly afterwards.
That the Trotskyist and post-Trotskyist left found itself at the centre of
radical politics was not so much due to its greater strategic clarity as
the fact that they were the last ones standing. It was a de-facto victory,
not something to be dismissive of for these years have been profoundly
difficult, and yet at the same time much less than many of us had hoped for.
In recent years, the configuration of these groups has also radically
altered. By far the largest and healthiest of the groups is now Socialist
Alternative, a vibrant group of young Marxists who predominate on the
campuses – the key place for recruiting and training socialists today – but
also have an increasing implantation in unions. At the moment, the best
young activists are to be found in Socialist Alternative.
More importantly, Socialist Alternative’s rise has meant a decisive shift
in its outlook. When an organisation becomes the largest and most dynamic
group on the left, it finds itself facing new challenges. No longer is it
on the flanks of other larger groups; no longer must it define itself *
against* those groups in order to hold itself together; no longer must it
maintain a relative isolation. The group suddenly must now take greater
responsibility for the few social movements. The questions asked of it are
new and different. How do they reach the next stage of organisation (from a
few hundred members to a thousand, say)? How do they relate to the other –
now smaller or weaker or perhaps equivalent – groups on *our *flanks? Are
there opportunities for unity with them?
Becoming a dominant force on the far left provides an opportunity for an
opening up. It is just such an opening up which the Democratic Socialist
Party underwent in the early 1980s, as it entered a number of regroupment
processes. Indeed, separated by thirty years, the trajectories of the two
organisations in many ways correlate. The DSP of the early eighties was of
similar size and composition to Socialist Alternative today. As the CPA was
already entering into its successive crises, the DSP found itself the
organisation with the bulk of young activists.
The recent regroupment between SA and the Revolutionary Socialist Party –
together with other socialist individuals – is testament to the openness of
Socialist Alternative. The new document of principles indicates the basis
on which the unity took place: a platform of agreement about the basic
tasks for socialists in Australia today. Theoretical and historical
questions (the social nature of the Soviet Union, analysis of the trade
union bureaucracy and so on) or international questions with no direct
relevance to Australian socialists today (the nature of the processes in
Latin America) were wisely omitted from the document.
The most important question for Australian socialists is their attitude
towards the policies and institutions of Australian capital: the major
parties, mass media, parliament and other institutions of elite rule. On
all other questions, Socialist Alternative has shown itself to be open to
other points of view, prepared for friendly discussion and debate, prepared
to reassess – which does not mean a suppressing its own theories and
positions. For this unity to succeed a new culture of discussion – still in
its infancy, growing in fits and starts – is being developed which seeks to
go beyond the old stereotyping that has characterised the left for too
long. We must learn to focus on those things that unite us as much as those
things that divide us.
The open fashion in which Socialist Alternative has continued unity
discussions with the Socialist Alliance is another indication of the
group’s maturity and its preparedness to continue this process. Socialist
Alliance’s response will be a test of its own commitment to unity.
It is entirely possible that at some point old differences might arise –
about attitude towards the ALP or strategy and tactics in emerging
movements – and that the regroupment processes fail. But this is not the
point. We can’t base our actions on hypothetical events that may or may not
occur in the future. It is just as likely that within any new organisation,
new alignments and divisions will develop over time. Organisations are
always in a constant process of dissolution and reconstitution. An
organisation is a process as much as it is a thing.
The next immediate period is an opportunity for the socialist left to
significantly improve its position. The actions we take may seem small
today, but the repercussions will be felt over time. How different the
landscape would be now if the unity processes of the 1980s had succeeded,
if the Nuclear Disarmament Party hadn’t imploded, if the CPA had gone
through a process of de-Stalinisation rather than dissolution. The
“objective situation” is simply the accrued results of millions of previous
For these reasons I’m joining Socialist Alternative.
For over a decade I was a member of the Democratic Socialist Party. For
many years that organisation had much to offer. It had a proud – if uneven
– history of struggle, a history that deserves to be remembered. Still,
over time I began to lose confidence in the direction of that party. I felt
that it clung to too narrow a tradition (one descended primarily from the
US SWP) and that this narrowness was expressed in the organisation
theoretically. The DSP never dealt with differences well, and the 90s and
early 2000s saw a series of minorities driven out of the organisation. I
began to feel that one particular *type* of member tended to be promoted to
leadership bodies. When I proposed a number of changes – a widening of the
theoretical tradition, a less belligerent attitude towards those with
differences, a more formal election of organisers, a return to building
bases in movements and on campus – they were interpreted not as attempts to
improve the organisation but as threats to it. For this reason, my
membership became untenable.
I left the organisation and pursued other important political projects, in
particular as a member of the editorial team of Australia’s most
significant journal of radical culture and politics, *Overland*
a member or the RSP or any other group, I have taken my own path to
Now that there is an opportunity to build an open, democratic socialist
group open to multiple “currents” and capable of having differences without
driving out minorities, it is important that I participate. I hope my
joining will help, in whatever small way, to push forward the unity
discussions between Socialist Alternative and Socialist Alliance. It would
be an abrogation of responsibility for the groups not to merge in the near
future. There are no essential barriers to such unity. Yes, there will be
those who seek to artificially raise points of “principle” as barriers to
unity. They may gesture to the theoretical or historic points of difference
mentioned before: theories about the former Soviet Union; points of
political theory; attitude towards this or that international struggle.
Others may raise questions like Socialist Alternative’s attitude to women’s
liberation or the environment movements.
These are not compelling arguments.
There are of course important differences on many of these questions.
Socialist Alternative is not a perfect organisation. It is not difficult to
pick out problems with its political outlook and culture. I have my own
critiques of these, some of which stem from its origins as a propagandistic
organisation, some of which are a result of its political tradition (the
IST), and others which stem from its small and limited social composition.
But as long as the organisation is open and democratic, as long as a
culture of healthy debate can be developed, these differences can be worked
out in the context of a united organisation. It is our responsibility to
make that happen.
For left wing news and analysis, plus updates on all the campaigns that
matter, check out:* www.sa.org.au*
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