Where is the Socialist Alliance going?

November 27, 2002

Over the past two months,
life in the Socialist Alliance has been stormy. The International Socialist
Organisation (ISO) threatened to disaffiliate if the Democratic Socialist
Party went ahead with a proposal to its December congress to convert the
DSP into an internal current in the alliance.

With the DSP's November 11 decision to put its proposal on hold,
the Socialist Alliance waters have settled for the time being. Green
Left Weekly
asked Socialist Alliance national co-convener and DSP national
executive member DICK NICHOLS for comments.

Why did the DSP leadership withdraw its proposal?

Because the alliance is too valuable to put at risk. Obviously, if the
ISO felt so strongly about our move that it would threaten to leave the
alliance, we in the DSP had to take the issue seriously.

We are still firmly convinced that the basic idea behind the proposal
is right — that the alliance should become a united multi-tendency socialist
organisation. But if alliance members are uncomfortable about this, then
it is best to slow down and give them space to consider what it might mean
and where they think the alliance needs to go.

The DSP still wants to take this step. We see it as vital, but we don't
want to lose people because of any misunderstanding.

Don't the alliance's problems go deeper? Look at its results in the
Cunningham by-election, just 0.6% of the vote.

The alliance's 400 votes in Cunningham meant more than this low score
suggests. First, nearly everyone who was sick of Labor — including many
socialists — were always going to vote Green or for Peter Wilson (the union-backed
community candidate) to make sure that the ALP lost.

Second, the alliance campaign against the looming war on Iraq helped
push the election's politics to the left. The spin doctors all rushed to
tell us that Cunningham was decided on (admittedly important) local issues
but the Greens opposition to Australian involvement in a war on Iraq was
central to their win. Wilson went from conditional to unconditional opposition
on the strength of the anti-war feeling.

Thirdly, the Socialist Alliance didn't flinch at the “tricky” issues
that nearly everyone else thought it best to be a bit fuzzy and evasive
about — like refugees’ rights and the need to renationalise privatised
public assets.

We were respected for our firm stance, especially by the most committed
Green militants. So along with 400 votes for socialism, the Socialist Alliance
finished this campaign with more members and much more profile and respect.

But with the Greens on a roll, the Socialist Alliance isn’t going
to survive if it keeps getting less than 1%, is it?

Sure, the rise of the Greens squeezes Socialist Alliance's access to
all those people who are disgusted with Labor for its betrayals and crimes.
The Greens are now the first port of call for this vote. As long as this
phase lasts, a vote for the Socialist Alliance will nearly always be a
consciously socialist one.

That's also because the Greens, especially in NSW, currently present
a left and pro-working class face, unlike the German Greens. The Greens
are winning support here, that in France or Italy would go to the far left.
The alliance's 0.5-1.5% is the vote for socialism at this stage in Australian
politics, there is nothing we can do about that except recognise it and
build on it.

We could always try to attract more votes from those disillusioned with
Labor by working the still-rich vein of “little Aussie” populism. But that
would just make us part of the problem. The point is to fight racism and
nationalism, not surrender to them.

This dramatises the choices facing the alliance today. We should, of
course, continue to run the liveliest possible election campaigns but we
have to do much, much more.

If the Greens are standing to the left, why does the Socialist Alliance
need to exist?

It is certainly good that the Greens are progressive on most issues.
Because of the Greens, Labor betrayals, like Premier Bob Carr’s offensive
on civil liberties, get attacked in parliament and reverberate more loudly.

However, there are three main shortcomings to the Greens, even at their
most left. First, they don't put their main emphasis on the basic issues
affecting the life of working people: working harder and longer to stay
afloat, endless “restructuring” and insecurity at work, families (and women
within them) increasingly stuck with the burden of child and aged care.

The Greens have usually taken the correct position on particular issues
like workers’ compensation, but they don't focus on the underlying imperative
that Labor's total surrender to economic rationalism has created. That's
the need to rebuild working-class organisation and representation from
the ground up, in the unions and the political arena. That's the heart
of the Socialist Alliance project.

Second, although the Greens are getting more involved in the movements
and Green MPs are a welcome relief from Liberal and Labor hacks-in-suits,
the Green approach still tends to feed the great illusion of Australian
politics, that social progress comes from bumping the right people into

Third, despite the Greens' denunciation of many social and environmental
evils, they baulk at pointing the finger at their root cause. Liberal and
Labor are tools in the hands of our corporate and financial elites and
can, if necessary, be replaced by other tools, including the Greens if
they ever went down the German Greens' road.

These shortcomings all flow from the fact that most Greens think they
can make capitalism work sustainably. They don't yet really grasp that
it's the profit system, which puts corporate gain ahead of ordinary working
people and the environment, that is the root cause of the problem.

So it's vital that the Socialist Alliance exists. No other force is
going to provide a clear, anti-system point of view and consistently build
the struggle against economic rationalism.

How can the alliance grow? Some people would argue that the last
period indicates that different affiliate groups, especially the ISO and
the DSP, are operating with different political road maps.

Let's not exaggerate. The alliance as a whole agrees on the need to
step up work in the unions and in building the struggle for union rights,
in the anti-war movement and in the fight against increased police powers
and “anti-terrorism” laws. That agreement, along with a Socialist Alliance
presence in community struggles and in elections, gives it a solid foundation
for growth.

The point the DSP stresses is that the alliance could be doing a whole
lot more and that it's only the alliance, as the left acting together,
that can do it. Time and again we get evidence of what is possible when
socialists really do collaborate; whether it is building a public meeting
in defence of democratic, militant unionism in Victoria or forging united
campaigns against US President George Bush's impending war on Iraq.

If the Socialist Alliance had access to more organisers, offices, literature
and a newspaper, the socialist movement would rapidly take a big step forward
in this country. This is the key issue for the Australian left to understand
today. It's why the DSP made its proposal to stop building our own separate
party and to focus on building the alliance. We would still like to do
it and we would like to see the other organisations in the alliance do
the same.

But that's the heart of the problem. The ISO says that the DSP approach
confuses two processes, collaboration inside the Socialist Alliance and
“revolutionary regroupment”. The ISO says regroupment is ruled out by strong
differences among the affiliates and can only be achieved by “deep-seated
clarification of organisational theory and practice”.

We in the DSP think this is a mistaken view of how socialist unity is
achieved, and can actually frustrate its growth. Socialist regroupment,
simply a term for increasing practical and theoretical collaboration leading
to eventual unification, hardly ever comes about as a result of discussion
of the historic reasons for our separate existence.

If we approach regroupment with the idea that we have to start with
a big debate aimed at “clarification”, focusing inevitably on what we disagree
on, we will just get the sort of debates that have already gone on between
our separate organisations for years. Interesting to some, perhaps, but
what will be the impact on the people who aren't interested in these debates,
who want to get on with building the alliance?

Moreover, on which of our differences do we have to have agreement before
we can move forward? On Cuba? On Trotsky's theory of permanent revolution
in underdeveloped countries? With that approach, hundreds of Socialist
Alliance members would desert in disappointment and the organised left
would return to the divided state it was in before the Socialist Alliance.

What about our differences on issues that are closer to home, like the
nature of the trade union and ALP bureaucracy? Here we don't need to settle
on an agreed theoretical conception of what ALP leader Simon Crean and
Australian Manufacturing Workers Union national secretary Doug Cameron
represent. We need to find the tactics to advance the struggle for working-class
politics against the Creans and the Camerons.

Greater unity will only result from trying to meet the real challenges
of the struggle, drawing a balance sheet of the results of our effort and
moving forward on the basis of growing experience and joint correction
of mistakes, that is, by applying a trial-and-error approach together.

This does not mean that theory and past differences are unimportant.
It's a recognition of the truth of Karl Marx's old saying, “A step forward
in the real movement is worth ten programs”.

There's a big challenge here. We all have to be mature enough to put
the best interests of the socialist movement ahead of our specific viewpoints,
agreeing to put them to the test of united action and public debate. None
of us will get things all our own way, we all have to accept that, but
let's agree to accept the judgment of practice.

So how can these differences be resolved? Is the alliance at a deadlock?

With the conversion of the DSP into a current within the alliance now
set aside, there's no reason why we can't get down to discussing the way
forward. The DSP is convinced that most members, affiliated and non-affiliated,
are in favour of changing the Socialist Alliance into a more unified organisation.
The alliance discussion will reveal if we are judging the mood correctly,
and what specific shape members want the organisation to take.

To help discussion along, I've drafted a sort of “vision statement”
or manifesto for the Socialist Alliance and invited everyone to comment
on it. The ISO is opposed to its adoption as a Socialist Alliance document
because it touches on the issue of revolution, which the ISO feels will
turn off potential members.

I would be surprised if any of the present affiliates disagreed with
the general line of this manifesto. It is, after all, an attempt to draw
out the real basis of our successful collaboration above and beyond our
founding platform. I think the debate will centre not on the statement
as such, but on whether it would help the building of the Socialist Alliance.
Do we need it, or should we just stick with our founding platform, or do
we need some document that's somewhere in between?

The ISO has agreed to draft its own statement and this will advance
debate a lot. With two drafts to compare, the discussion will become more
real for many alliance members. It should also stir unaffiliated alliance
members into having their own say.

This is the most important step that our discussion needs to take now.
The more alliance members grapple with the issues, and the more they take
their little bit of responsibility for its future, the better our next
national conference in May 2003 will be.

From Green Left Weekly, November 27, 2002.

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