ISO: 'We will terminate our affiliation to the alliance'



[The following is the text of a letter sent on November 3 on behalf of the national executive of the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) to the national executive of the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP).]

Thank you for your reply, dated October 22 [see GLW #515], 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, p. 16), 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, p. 13.)

Draft platform

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 polarisation 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 organisations 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 is 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 a 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 long-term 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.

Left regroupment

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 speeds 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”, p. 9), 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 country.

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.

From Green Left Weekly, November 13, 2002.
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