Steps toward greater left unity in Australia

By Peter Boyle

In September 2, 2002, the Democratic Socialist Party [DSP] national executive adopted the perspective of making the Socialist Alliance the party its members build by transforming the DSP into an internal tendency within the Socialist Alliance. The sole purpose of the Democratic Socialist tendency (DST), as it was to be called, would be to complete the process of left regroupment while preserving for the Socialist Alliance our main political gains (such as a popular weekly newspaper, our nationwide network of activist centres, and a politically educated cadre). Apart from carrying out this transition, the DST would not seek to be a permanent political tendency.

The national executive decided to conduct a thorough DSP membership discussion on this proposal, leading up to the party's Twentieth Congress (December 28, 2002-January 1, 2003) while arguing the case for this new step in left regroupment in the Socialist Alliance and facilitating a broader discussion in Green Left Weekly.

If the DSP congress adopted this perspective, it was envisaged that from the beginning of 2003, we would begin negotiations with the Socialist Alliance over the transfer of our branch offices and apparatus. We would also begin negotiations over broader political involvement in Green Left Weekly. We would propose that the paper keep its name and its character as an independent newspaper for the progressive movements. An independent newspaper that supports the Socialist Alliance would be far more effective than a formal organ of the Socialist Alliance because it would command a wider readership and support base, including the substantial readership already won by Green Left Weekly.

We would establish other independent institutions that guarantee the promotion of Marxist-Leninist education and literature.

The DSP would urge Resistance, an independent but associated youth organisation, to continue to operate as an independent socialist youth organisation while expressly supporting the Socialist Alliance in its constitution. Resistance should develop a socialist unity process of its own with other left groups operating among youth.

Leninist approach

What we proposed was not an abandonment of Leninism but a tactic to build a bigger revolutionary vanguard in this country. Over the course of our thirty-plus years of collective experience, we have learned that Leninism is a political approach, not an organisational formula. The process of collecting, educating and centralising such a vanguard is not a straight line. As Lenin argued in `Left-Wing' Communism, discipline can be built up only politically through the class-consciousness of the vanguard of the working class, its ability to link up with the broadest masses and ability to exercise political leadership over the masses. "Without these conditions, all attempts to establish discipline inevitably fall flat and end up in phrasemongering and clowning. On the other hand, these conditions cannot emerge at once. They are created only by prolonged effort and hard-won experience."

The current political situation is creating new openings to collect a bigger revolutionary vanguard in Australia, and the proposal is a response to new conditions.

The upsurge of global protest after Seattle 1999 was an expression of a severe crisis of legitimacy of neo-liberal globalisation. After a quarter of a century of social and ecological vandalism, the free-market rhetoric and the promises of "globalisation" had worn thin around the world. The imperialist ruling class feared the potential influence of the new movement on the working class.

In Australia, the turning point in the cycle of struggle was 1998, when two outbreaks of discontent with economic neo-liberalism broke out: Hansonism on the racist-populist right and the campaign of solidarity with the Maritime Union of Australia (mua) under attack from the balaclava-clad thugs hired by Patrick Stevedoring, backed by the Howard government.

Hansonism shocked broad layers of democratic and liberal-minded people while sparking popular discussion of politics not seen for years. Whether you were on a bus, a train or in a shop, there was someone talking about Pauline Hanson and what she stood for. There was something exciting if foreboding in that.

But then the explosion of working-class and broader community solidarity with the mua made even bigger waves. There were people everywhere who supported the picket lines, but the unions that distinguished themselves were the Amalgamated Metal Workers Union and Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union in Victoria. In the end, the mua took serious losses, partly because its leadership (and the actu) was not really up for the fight, but there was a broader political victory for the working class. The ruling class in Australia was forced to recognise that such direct attacks on unions risked wider class resistance than it expected.

However, by and large, the working class in the imperialist countries is still in retreat. Further, after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the usa, the imperialists launched a new, racist "anti-terrorist" war drive aimed at driving a wedge between the workers in the imperialist countries and the masses in the semi-colonial countries.

A layer of newly radicalised activists has joined re-inspired older activists in a new cycle of protest. These radicalised layers are very interested in real steps towards left regroupment and unity. Our estimate is that, by making the Socialist Alliance the party we build today, we will gather more of the class-conscious vanguard of the working class and increase its ability to link up with the broadest masses.

Already, several times more than the combined membership of the organised revolutionary groups in this country have joined the Socialist Alliance. Moreover, among those who joined were some natural leaders of the working class who had distinguished themselves in a series of working-class struggles since 1998. As attacks on the militant union minorities escalated in 2002, the number of such people turning to the Socialist Alliance grew.

The true Leninist course would be to try to work as closely as possible with this working-class vanguard. We have not been brought into such a close working relationship with such a significant layer of natural leaders of the working class ever before in our party's history. We have worked closely with these forces in union election campaigns and in the 20,000-strong September 11, 2000 [S11], blockade of the World Economic Forum summit in Melbourne and the last two May Days. The official union movement had abandoned May 1 as a day of militant protest, but after S11, the radical left relaunched this tradition. The militant union leaderships have mobilised thousands of workers, time and again, against the wishes and interest of the conservative Laborite union bureaucracy.

Of course these militant union leaderships may be beaten down or demoralised in the course of the very difficult struggles they lead. But the Bolshevik approach, we decided, was to fight side by side with them and not stick to the safety of the sidelines.

Politics of the Socialist Alliance

Our intention is not to dissolve into some broader, radical social democratic formation, but to build the Socialist Alliance into a bigger and more influential revolutionary organisation in Australia.

While we didn't see the adoption by Socialist Alliance of a fully elaborated revolutionary socialist program as a precondition of beginning this move, our openly declared intention is to win other members of the Socialist Alliance to such a program over time. We cannot set a timetable for this process, but by relocating the regular work of the existing left within the framework of a united organisation, we would go a long way towards establishing a revolutionary program in practice in the Socialist Alliance.

This process of carrying over as much as possible of our regular political work would be done in a thoroughly open, democratic and inclusive manner. We are confident that this will be a big step forward for left regroupment in Australia and that we should be able to agree, in stages, on concrete steps forward for the Socialist Alliance. This confidence was based on the substantial political consensus and comradely collaboration achieved since the founding of the Alliance.

There is a significant amount of shared socialist program supported by the left groups affiliated to the Socialist Alliance. The founding documents refer to the fact that there is more common ground than sketched out by the initial Socialist Alliance platform. This was recognised by all the founding groups when Socialist Alliance was set up, and it was reaffirmed by the 2001 national conference.

Of course, there are still historical differences and possibly some bad sectarian habits to overcome. The most immediate area of programmatic difference between some of the founding groups was on the Australian Labor Party [alp] but the Socialist Alliance already has adopted in practice a common orientation to the alp.

A program for a united socialist left will be best developed in stages, in line with the transformation of the real work of the Socialist Alliance rather than through an abstract programmatic debate before we deepen our collective work.

However, we also decided to propose a statement of socialist perspective for consideration at the May 2003 Socialist Alliance national conference. This would be a short, transitionally worded socialist program, and not a social democratic program. It could be used as a guide to writing various platforms, editorials, basic education, pamphlets etc. It would seek to express the real socialist consensus in the Alliance but not be a fully elaborated revolutionary program. Our purpose with this was to begin a discussion of the Socialist Alliance program while allowing the time and space for the program-in-practice to broaden and develop.

ISO ultimatum

The DSP national executive advised the Socialist Alliance national executive of its proposals [see letter, page 12] and a broad discussion opened up within the Alliance and in the pages of Green Left Weekly. All the written contributions to this discussion can be accessed on the Socialist Alliance web site, <>.

In the midst of this discussion, the International Socialist Organisation [ISO] (the second biggest affiliate of the Alliance, after the DSP) threatened to leave the Alliance if the DSP proceeded with its proposal to cease operating as a party at its Twentieth Congress.

The ISO national executive's letter to the DSP, dated November 3, warned:

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.

The ISO argued that the dsp's proposal confused "two quite different processes—revolutionary regroupment and the building of a large, multi-tendency socialist party". It said that revolutionary regroupment depends on genuine and deep-seated clarification of organisations' theory and practice, and that such a level of programmatic agreement did not exist between the ISO and the DSP.

Given the stance of the ISO national executive, the DSP decided to withdraw its recommendation to the dsp's Twentieth Congress that the DSP cease to operate as a public organisation. Instead, the DSP leadership would propose to the congress that it empower the incoming DSP national committee to decide on the timing of the implementation of the proposal that the DSP cease to function as a public organisation. This perspective was adopted by the congress [see page 17].

The DSP took this decision in order to allow more discussion in the Alliance without the threat of ultimatums and a breakdown in relations because the "Socialist Alliance represents too valuable a political gain with too large a potential to risk such a breakdown".

The December ISO national conference was unable to agree on its organisation's perspectives on the Socialist Alliance and reopened its internal discussion until a national committee meeting to be held after the March 2003 New South Wales election, which would review their participation.

The DSP still has the perspective of building the Socialist Alliance as a united socialist organisation. However, we are prepared to wait until we win more support in the Socialist Alliance for this move. Our assessment is that the great majority of Socialist Alliance members who do not belong to the affiliated socialist groups would like to see all these groups work within a single united socialist organisation.

At the DSP Twentieth Congress, we registered a new stage in the struggle for greater unity: first, by the presence of key working-class militants from the Socialist Alliance, and second, by the commitment expressed by leading trade union militants Craig Johnston, Chris Cain and Ian Bolas (members of the Socialist Alliance who do not belong to affiliated socialist groups) to carry on building the Socialist Alliance as a new united left organisation even if some of the present affiliates oppose this course. In particular, Johnston and Cain agree that if the ISO still wants to block this move in May, they would support us proceeding to make the Socialist Alliance the party we build.

Lessons from previous regroupment attempts

In the 1980s the DSP devoted a lot of energy to left regroupment efforts that failed despite our best efforts. We came out better than the other left tendencies who entered those processes, such as the Communist Party of Australia and the Socialist Party of Australia. Nevertheless, we lost some of our national leadership in the wake of these failures. So we know that there is a risk with such regroupments. The biggest risk is for those parties that don't take left unity seriously, but there are risks for all parties in such a process. So in considering this new initiative for left unity we asked ourselves: should we take this risk again?

First, we sought to understand the differences between this and previous regroupment attempts.

The main reason that previous regroupment attempts failed was because the movements were in retreat. This influenced the subjective roles of the different parties, particular in the rightward drift of most of the CPA leadership. While the CPA leadership and the movements were in retreat, the CPA still enjoyed a dominant position on the left and in the progressive social movements.

The political conditions in which we approach this new attempt at left regroupment are quite different:

  • There is a bigger audience for socialism/anti-capitalism today.
  • We have more activist members than we did then.
  • We have won considerably more authority within the social movements for our initiative and leadership over the last few years and are the strongest organised force within the left since the collapse of the old CPA.

Second, we had learned an important lesson from the past regroupment processes. As we go into such a process, our members, and in particular those on leading bodies, must be clearer about what we are trying to do. We must be absolutely clear that we have no interest in liquidating into some sort of radical social democratic formation (if we wanted to do that, we could join the Greens). We are seeking to build a bigger and more influential revolutionary socialist project.

The proposed regroupment tactic through Socialist Alliance has significant differences with the tactic of working within much larger leftward moving sections of social democratic or Communist Party forces, such as the Party of Communist Refoundation in Italy. The main dangers in those regroupments are liquidationism and opportunism. In the Socialist Alliance almost all the organised forces have a Trotskyist background, and our main challenge will be working to avoid sectarian errors.

The closest comparison is with the Scottish Socialist Party, and we have to learn as much as we can from the comrades leading that regroupment process. But even here there are some significant differences. We don’t have individuals like Tommy Sheridan who have built up significant mass authority through previous mass campaigns, the social crisis is less developed in Australia than in Scotland, and we don’t have the same roots in traditional working-class communities (these are much more atomised in Australia). On the other hand, the DSP is bigger and better resourced than was Scottish Militant Labour before it formed the SSP together with the other forces in the Socialist Alliance. We have an apparatus several times larger, a bigger and more widely distributed paper and an established independent youth organisation. These are real assets we can contribute to a united socialist organisation. So we should be as confident as the Scottish Militant Labour leadership were in taking this initiative for left regroupment.

Peter Boyle is a member of the National Executive of the Democratic Socialist Party.