By Ian Rintoul
Through the looking class
There is now three years experience of the Socialist Alliance on which
we can reflect to assess the progress and prospects of the novel
experiment. The project was always an ambitious one, and in retrospect,
perhaps the prospects of the eight small founding socialist groups
combining to fill the perceived gap to the left of Labor was always
This is not the place to evaluate every element of the process that led
to the formation of the Alliance in Australia. The particular
conjunctural elements can be broadly summed up:
(i) the experience of the international anti-capitalist
and its expected manifestation in Australia specifically following
experience of the Melbourne World Economic Forum demonstration in 2000;
(ii) the crisis of social democracy manifested here in a
Beazley-led, right-wing Labor Party unable to pose any opposition the
Liberals. There had also been the success of some left tickets in a
small number of unions (AMWU, CFMEU, TCFUA) in Victoria that indicated
some political (and to some extent industrial) re-awakening in the
For the ISO, which had strongly rejected the idea of regroupment, the
recently formed British Socialist Alliance provided a political model
for an electoral alliance of the Left that had none of the problems
posed by regroupment. The idea was to form a group that could be a
bridge for those breaking from Labor, to the left – an electoral united
front of revolutionaries in the existing socialist groups and those who
subsequently voted and joined the Alliance.
Central to the Australian decision (at least for the ISO. Electoral
activity had always been a component of the DSP's political practice)
was the expectation that a Labor government would be elected at the end
of 2001. Then it was expected the Socialist Alliance would come into
its own as a right wing Labor government progressively alienated more
and more of its constituency. Although estimates of the honeymoon
varied, it was instructive that it was some elements of the ISO that
had the most optimistic estimates of the number of votes that the
Alliance would attract. The DSP on more than one occasion cautioned
against such over-optimism – but this went hand in hand with the DSP's
essentially propagandist view of the Alliance and elections as an
opportunity for the Alliance (as it had been for the DSP) to fly the
In the event, Labor came to grief on the rocks of the Tampa. Howard was
returned to office and the disaffected Labor voters, of which there
were many, voted Green.
Three years on, and we face another federal election in somewhat
similar circumstances. A Labor government seems more likely than it has
for the last three years. Although the expectation of a Labor victory
is tempered by the experience of 2001, the on-going crisis associated
with the invasion and occupation of Iraq is a reason for optimism.
In other respects a lot has changed. For one thing, The Greens have
become more established, a third force in electoral politics, thereby
squeezing the electoral space for the Alliance (more later).
More significantly perhaps has been the transformation of the Alliance.
The goodwill that accompanied the foundation of the Alliance heralding
an era of co-operation between the Left has been replaced by
manoeuvrings that have created a multi-tendency party in name but an
Alliance persona that has made it an incarnation of its major
affiliated organisation, the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP).
Rather than three years of collective experience and open discussion
and debate, the political life of the Alliance has been dominated by
internal machinations to establish what couldn't and wouldn't be agreed
to in the founding discussions ie that the Alliance is now an exercise
in left regroupment not primarily an electoral alliance.
Simply put, the Socialist Alliance of 2004 is not the Socialist
Alliance of 2001.
Since 2003, it is now a multi-tendency party and the DSP have become
the Democratic Socialist Perspective, an internal tendency of the
Alliance. Despite the rhetoric of growth there is no significant
independent membership. Indeed the claim to have a 1000 members hides
the fact that the Alliance is smaller than it was after the first round
of registrations. There are only a handful of individual independents
who play any real role in the political life of the group. A number of
ex-lefties did join in the early days of the Alliance, but it is no
longer the case that people are joining the Alliance because "they see
the left uniting and the 80 per cent of common agreement creates hope”
(ISO internal bulletin, March 2004). It would be useful for the
convenors to produce a breakdown of Alliance recruitment and their
subsequent involvement in the group.
With the DSP becoming an internal tendency, the blurry distinction
between the DSP and the Alliance has become even blurrier. Anecdotal
reports from both city and regional branches indicate that any new
people in the Alliance branches are unaware of the distinction and
those that do stay for any period usually become members of the DSP or
are drawn into DSP activities such as selling the GLW.
Adding to this problematic development of the Alliance is the fact that
the structures of the Alliance, established to run an alliance with a
limited agreed platform, are ill-equipped to deal with the reality of a
multi-tendency party. The autonomy of the branches means that there is
little review or overview of political initiatives or responses – a
situation which mitigates against the kind of discussion that is needed
to allow for the independent development of the Alliance beyond the
rehearsed position of the affiliated groups. The flip side of this is
that what discussion that does take place at the national executive
level is rarely translated into systematic discussion in the branches.
A report of the discussion over the proposal for the Green Left Weekly
to become the paper of the Alliance (Alliance Voices, Feb 2004), give a
snapshot of the branches and confirms that there is still no
significant independent membership and almost no active role of
independents in the branch life of the Alliance. The reports shows the
following attendance (where recorded, the number of independents is
shown in brackets): Bankstown 14 (5), Bris West 8 (3), Geelong 16 (11),
Hobart 9 (4), Melb Central 8 (1), Melb Sth East 10, Melb West 22 (1),
Northern Rivers 11, Perth 34, Sydney Central 11, Sydney Northside 7.
The snapshot highlights two things: (i) the generally small size of the
meetings, and (ii) the numbers of independents in the meetings (and by
inference the extent to which the meetings are dominated by the DSP.
There are perhaps three or four branches in the country that are not
dominated by the DSP.
It is also an indication of the lack of development of the Alliance
that the numbers of people mobilized on election days in NSW has not
increased since 2001, and in fact at times has been considerably less.
It is also revealing that at many booths at the NSW Local Council
elections this year the Socialist Alliance canvasser was selling GLW,
sometimes asking people to buy the paper before handing out the how to
In sum, three years on, the Alliance has little more than the
membership of the affiliated groups but with none of the prospects of
the original formation. The dominance of the DSP and the decision for
the Alliance to become a multi-tendency party means that the
development of the Alliance is already constrained. The kind of group
the DSP wants to build will simply not be able to attract the
left-looking audience of ex-Labor (or Green) voters on which the
success of the Alliance depends.
The Alliance project has always been surrounded with optimistic
estimates of its potential growth, but a recent article in Socialist
Worker referring to "the million or so people who are potentially open
to a broader left project like Socialist Alliance," is the kind of
over-statement that stifles any real analysis.
It is clear that the Alliance will be electorally overshadowed by The
Greens for a considerable time to come. A point often acknowledged even
in some of the more sobre assessments of the ISO. Being confined to the
electoral margins may not mater for a small group primarily concerned
with small propaganda gains, but is something of a problem given that
much of the hope for the future on the Alliance rests on the prognosis
that it will achieve an electoral breakthrough sometime soon.
The claim in the ISO internal bulletin (March 2004) that "we are
co-founders and co-leaders of this project, able to shape the new party
and relate to it on our freely chosen terms," is a rhetorical flourish
without substance. It is not a mistake that there is no assessment of
the successes of the ISO in shaping the new party. The hopes of some of
the smaller founding groups that the ISO would be a foil to the DSP
have not been borne out.
Not one of the proposals the ISO put forward last year came to
fruition. What happened to the Budget campaign where it was argued by
the ISO leadership that "(it) can potentially put the Alliance in the
middle of genuine networks of people concerned about the fate of public
services and hostile to the war?" (ISO Internal bulletin No 2 April
2003). Despite claims that the independents share the ISO view of the
Alliance, the experience last year on the question of the
multi-tendency party and now the fate of GLW indicate that the
independents vote with the DSP or indeed want to push the Alliance even
more quickly into being the united socialist party that both favours,
and is favoured by, the DSP.
The idea that "the decision [to become a multi-tendency party] last
year did not substantially change the SA” (ISO internal bulletin 2004)
might be true, but only because the character of the Alliance had
already been set in practice by the DSP. There is no doubt that many of
the decisions of the ISO, before and since, represent an accommodation
to the DSP's push to formally establish the Alliance as a regrouped
At least one element of the ISO's rationale for remaining in the
Alliance is that the party that is now the Alliance "can become a
significant player in the unions and movements while strengthening the
socialist current in Australian society” (ISO internal bulletin 2004).
Given the criticisms the ISO has of the multi-tendency party, it would
seem that the involvement of the ISO rests on the prospect of
intervening in this speculative view of the Alliance, even as its
influence and that of the smaller affiliates, declines.
That this attempt at a left alliance has been still born does not mean
that it hasn't been a worthwhile experience. But the time has come to
draw a line under it.
It is worth noting the point Alex Callinicos of the British Socialist
Workers Party (SWP) makes in the Regroupment and the Socialist Left
Today (IST Discussion Bulletin no 2 Jan 2003, published also in Links)
– that the project of building an electoral alliance only has a meaning
for revolutionaries to the extent that it aids "the construction of a
mass revolutionary party."
The DSP has already indicated that from its perspective they would be
satisfied if the Alliance delivers 1000 or 2000 members to its party
project.But for the IS Tendency as Alex Callinicos puts it in the
"Regroupment, Re-alignment and the Revolutionary Left”, "Organising on
the basis of a broader and more ambiguous programmatic basis may
sometimes be necessary in the process of building a mass revolutionary
party, but a looser party is no substitute for the real thing." Perhaps
the tension between these two views meant that the Alliance "marriage”
was fraught from the outset. (The clash of opinion over the future of
the GLW is the latest manifestation.) But the couple(s) remain married
in the hope that future children will redeem the unhappy union.
Both the DSP and the ISO are looking for short-cuts. For their part,
the DSP hope that the Alliance can emulate the (electoral) success of
the Scottish Socialist Party. For the ISO, although they recognize the
Alliance will be "a broad party, not a revolutionary party”, they hope
that the Alliance will become a "substantial party” in which they can
become "a bigger fish in a bigger pond."
These counter-views on the Australian Alliance echo the debate and
experience of the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP) that is discussed
below (see The International Experience). Suffice to say here that the
Australian Alliance arises in a very different context to the SSP.
Let's now look more specifically at the last three years and make some
The electoral experience
Notwithstanding the frequent rosy
assessments, the votes of the Alliance are not historically high. In a
recent ISO document, their national executive refers to results of 2.9
per cent and 2.8 per cent in Inala and South Brisbane respectively as
an indication of the Alliance being "able to get a hearing," but this
kind of vote is about what the far left has achieved over the past
couple of decades.
Likewise it presents results of 5.5 and 6.5 per cent in Brunswick and
Sunshine in Victoria as a portent of the Alliance's future
significance, but the Socialist Party got 12.02 per cent in the 1999
Victorian state elections.
The electoral achievements of the Alliance raise many unanswered
questions. They are generally reported uncritically and as successes
without any serious analysis of the Alliance's intervention and vote.
Commenting on the NSW Local Council elections (March 2004) Socialist
Worker, noted the state-wide vote of 3000 was in part a result of
running in many areas for the first time. But SW was silent on why the
vote was down on the 2003 state election result in areas where the
Alliance had previously run. In 2003, the Alliance got 2000 votes in
two electorates (Bankstown 963 and Marrickville 1061). In 2004 Local
Council elections in both Bankstown and Marrickville the vote was down
compared to that in the state elections. There is no serious attempt to
critically assess what is actually happening with the Alliance vote.
The ISO's perspective on the Alliance rests on the prospect of it
achieving an electoral critical mass (somewhat arbitrarily determined
to be 4 per cent) that will herald a political breakthrough at which
the Alliance will be considered a credible alternative. The hope as it
was in 2001 is that the Alliance will take off after the election of a
Labor (this time a Latham) government. This tends to go along with
telescoping the prospect of divisions opening up in The Greens.
It seems the ISO's strategy of intervention in the Alliance has been
reduced to occasionally putting forward the view that the Alliance
should be an electoral united front, even though this would now require
completely reversing Alliance history.
What is absent is the kind of political debate that had been assumed
would be a concomitant of the Left working together and a necessity if
a higher level of unity was going to be achieved. But there is little
ideological debate on, for example, the nature of labourism, trade
union leaders, the relation between party and movement or the SSP and
the limitations of a strategically de-limited party.
By attempting to prove its Alliance credential by showcasing successful
electoral interventions, there is a practical convergence between the
ISO and the DSP's view of the Alliance. There is an inexorable logic to
the drive to get the 4 per cent take off figure - it pushes the
Alliance to more and more emphasise electoral interventions such as the
latest NSW and local council elections.
At the same time, in order to differentiate itself, the electoral
squeeze placed on the Alliance by The Greens pushes the Alliance in the
direction of being an activist revolutionary party. To use just one
example, DSP Melbourne organizer, Graham Matthews, responds to John
Tully's concerns that the Alliance platform for the state election and
its relationship to The Greens (Discussion Bulletin, Vol 3, No 1) “The
Greens have a parliamentary strategy…Socialist Alliance on the other
hand has a socialist vision which rests on the extra-parliamentary
strength of working people."
He quotes the Victorian election leaflet – "We believe that socialism
will be won by the masses on the streets and in the workplaces."
The point is not lost on the ISO. Recognising that the rise of The
Greens will make it "difficult for the Alliance to get a hearing at a
national or state level” their 2003 conference bulletin says, “The
Socialist Alliance plays a role in the hard slog of the anti-war
campaign that The Greens cannot match. We need to make sure people know
The pressure pushes the ISO precisely in the direction that it says it
does not want to go stressing the abstract socialist qualities of the
Alliance (an internationalist position on the occupation of Iraq and
Palestine”, "calling for open borders for refugees”, etc.) vis a vis
The Greens as opposed to a more concrete action platform.
Unable to compete electorally, and impatient for its historical due, it
is the "activism” of the Alliance that is stressed in order to
differentiate from The Greens.
In September 2003 the national executive of the Alliance decided to
approach members to put up their dues to fund the national office –
another move that would have established membership norms more like
that of a revolutionary organization. Interestingly except for existing
members of revolutionary groups, there were few takers.
The International Experience
Much has been made of the
significance of the international situation as regards revolutionary
regroupment – in particular the rise of the anti-capitalist movement
and political developments across Europe such as the success of
revolutionary candidates in the French elections 2002, the left shift
by Partito della Rifondazione Communista (PRC).
Alex Callinicos from the British SWP examines some of the general
trends in "Regroupment and the Socialist Left Today” (IST discussion
bulletin No 2, also published in Links). It would pay comrades to
re-read this article. In particular it puts the process of left
re-alignment and regroupment in the context of the anti-capitalist and
the anti-war movement.
“The electoral interventions that the different formations make, either
at the national or on a European-wide scale, need to be judged by this
criterion [ie can they relate effectively to the movements] rather than
seen as an end in themselves…..Electoral campaigns are simply one means
by which the radical left can shape their radicalization, not (as they
seem sometimes to be conceived) as the privileged form of political
intervention." The article among other things has a substantial
critique of the SSP model of regroupment – the model that seems to be
informing the devolution of the Socialist Alliance in Australia.
Callinicos defends only one model of regroupment – revolutionary
regroupment, and uses the experience of the LCR and the British
Socialist Workers Party, (representative of the orthodox Trotskyism of
the Fourth International and the IST) as an example. The LCR and
SWP(GB) are much closer politically than the ISO and the DSP are in
Australia. Nevertheless Callinicos makes much of the importance of
theoretical discussion combined with practical experience.
In "Regroupment, Realignment and the Revolutionary Left” (International
Socialist Tendency Discussion Bulletin No 1) he refers to the way that
practical experience can contribute to the process of re-assessment of
historical positions and so also to practical convergence. He uses the
decision of the French LCR to adopt "open recruiting” after the
presidential elections in April 2002 as one example.
There is no indication that such a process of re-appraisal of
historical views is underway in Australia. On the contrary.
Elsewhere Callinicos discusses the divergence in theory and perspective
between the FI and the SWP /IST on the relations between party and
movement building, insisting, “Much hangs on whether these divergences
are overcome in practice."
The political context that applies to Australia is quite different from
that in France, or the UK and there is a price to be paid for the
failure to examine the particular circumstances that apply in any
However, the political conception of the Socialist Alliance, as an
electoral united front, is closest to that in Britain, although the
constellation of forces is/was quite different. In particular the fact
that New Labor had been in government for two years (Blair was elected
in 1997 and the British Socialist Alliance was formed in 1999) seemed
to hold the possibility of connecting with Labor members and voters
increasingly disaffected with a very right-wing Labor government.
In Australia the expectation that the Alliance project would be dealing
with the political fallout from a Labor government elected at the end
of 2001 didn't eventuate. This, coupled with the fact that there has
been little in the way of any recovery in working class self-activity
has meant that there is not the same level of union discontent directed
at Labor – even the state Labor governments. The level of discussion in
Britain over the political fund is way beyond anything that has
happened in regard to its political equivalent here, affiliation of
unions with the ALP. Compare, for example, the actual affiliation of
RMT branches with Socialist Alliance with the largely token gesture of
the NSW firefighters to suspend affiliation with the NSW ALP.
Given the extent of positive comparison that is often made between the
British and Australian Alliance projects, it is worth noting the SWP's
most recent assessment of the British experience.
Paul Foot writing in the SWP's, Socialist Review (Dec 2003) had this to
say:"When a collection of socialist organisations formed the Socialist
Alliance in 1999, the main object was to present a united front of
organisations whose members were no longer prepared to devote their
time and energy to attacking one another. The alliance has had a lot of
success in quite a short time. But it has failed to make the
breakthrough many of us hoped for… If we are to make any headway in the
vital business of transforming the mass opposition into a fighting
socialist force we need to look again at the organisation and structure
of the British left."
In a feature article in Socialist Review in February 2004, John
Molyneux writes: “The Socialist Alliance is not linked in people's
minds with opposition to the war and is not distinguishable on the
ballot paper except to a small minority from any sect that afford a
Despite the resources and political capital the SWP had invested in the
Socialist Alliance, the SWP has been prepared to honestly review the
Socialist Alliance in response to the emergence of significant forces
associated with the anti-war movement in Britain. The SWP is now a
major force behind the formation of Respect that will contest the
European Elections in June.
The situation in Scotland where the SWP joined the Scottish Socialist
Party was quite different. The SSP was already a well established
electoral party (with one very well-known MP, Tommy Sheridan) and the
assessment was that the much smaller Scottish section of the SWP risked
marginalisation if it hadn't considered joining. Notwithstanding its
membership of the SSP, the SWP maintains a high level of ideological
critique of the SSP as a model of "strategically non-delimited” party
building. (See various issues of International Discussion bulletin, ISJ
97 and further contributions to the debate in ISJ 100.)
The imperative that led the SWP to join the Scottish Socialist Party
does not exist in Australia. The Socialist Alliance is in no way such
an established entity with any significant public recognition,
following or membership.
Rather the ISO finds itself in the invidious position of investing
political energy trying gain limited profile for, to give some
credibility to a political group they have no hope of influencing. It
is one thing to make a virtue out of necessity but an act of
considerable misjudgement when there is no virtue and no necessity.
Even more than the participation of the other small affiliated groups
in the "Alliance”, the participation of the ISO allows the DSP to
maintain the fiction that there is a genuine alliance.
The situation for the IST in France (Socialism Pas En Bas, SPEB) is
more like that which pertained for the SWP in Scotland, but with
healthier prospects. There are a number of influences affecting the
political dynamic in France – the significance of ATTAC, the
polarization that put the National Front into the second round of the
2002 presidential elections. In particular there have be en sustained
levels of sometimes spectacular strike action (although most often
defeated) dating back to 1995.
In what can be described as a political generalisation (although maybe
not upturn), thousands of people have joined the LCR since the
elections in April 2002, creating a milieu that it is very sensible for
the small IST group to consider relating to. (The LCR has recently
decided to allow SPEB to join as a political current.)
It is worth mentioning the Greek experience for it shows that the
connection between political and industrial struggle and electoral
politics is not straightforward. The SEK, a much larger organization,
and a more significant force on the Greek left in comparison with
either the DSP or the ISO, took its time before embarking on an
electoral adventure of any kind. The Anti-Capitalist Alliance was only
formed in December 2003, after significant mobilisations of the Genoa
In Greece, the SEK (an International Socialist tendency group) played a
major role in forming the Anti-Capitalist Alliance (see International
Discussion Bulletin Jan 2004) for the purpose of contesting the
elections in March. The level of political mobilisation in both the
anti-capitalist and anti-war contexts has been impressive.
More that 90 per cent of the Greek population was opposed to both the
war on Serbia and the invasion of Iraq. There have been significant
mobilisations from Greece including significant union contingents to
Genoa and the European Summit.
The March 2003 election however returned a conservative government and
while the left vote did not decline, it didn't increase either. Most of
the votes on the left did not go to the Anti-capitalist Alliance, but
to the Communist Party (from 5.5 to 5.9 per cent) and to an electoral
group called Synaspismos (3.5 per cent). The Anti-Capitalist Coalition
got 8500 votes nationally and now says it is looking to the European
elections in June.
The international experience highlights the need for maximum tactical
flexibility and the need to look concretely (critically and creatively)
at the particular circumstances before placing precious eggs in a
basket such as the Australian Alliance.
The British SWP were quick to discard the Alliance as circumstances
changed and experience showed it "was not up to the task”. There is
every indication that the Australian Alliance is not up to the task
From electoral alliance to multi-tendency party and the
decline of goodwill
was commonplace at the beginning of the Alliance to note how much of
the experiment relied on "goodwill”. While there was a recognition of
the need to stress the common ground between the political groups, it
was also recognised that the significant political differences over
issues from NATO's bombing of Serbia and the invasion of East Timor, to
free speech to Pauline Hanson, to the Labor Party and work in trade
unions, would require patience and discussion in the context of working
None of these things are any more resolved today than they were three
years ago. In the early days of the Alliance the DSP leadership stated
that they recognised that there was a problem with sectarianism towards
to Labor among their rank and file and they were committed to dealing
with it. But what has come of that? There has been no discernible shift
in the pages of Green Left Weekly or the tone of various interventions
in elections, trade union work or anything else.
The structures of the Alliance are not equipped to deal with a
multi-tendency party. Given the high degree of branch autonomy, it is
quite possible for the Alliance to have divergent positions on the same
There is little real scope for the Alliance to discuss issues through.
The existence of Alliance Voices allows for some statement of views,
but the "debates” rarely enter the real life of the Alliance. In any
case the debates have a certain rarefied quality because no-one really
believes that the views expressed have a real affect on position
adopted by the membership. The expectation that there would be a
process of organic development of the "membership” has been
circumscribed by the shift to become a multi-tendency party.
What effort is there to deal with issues as part of the organic
development of the Alliance? The mutual admiration society means that
no-one is willing to declare that the emperor has no clothes and
results in a tacit agreement to effectively avoid contentious questions
The debate over support for Clover Moore in the NSW local council
elections has concretely posed the question of relating to reformism
and whether a break with the so-called two-party system is progressive
The shift to the multi-tendency party meant that the membership of the
DSP essentially became the membership of the Alliance. The few branches
in Australia that are not dominated by the DSP is largely a matter of
(It would be a mistake to make too much of that sufferance. In the
pre-selection of candidates for the upcoming federal election, the DSP
stacked a meeting of Marrickville branch in a bid to have a DSP member
pre-selected for the electorate. “Stacked” is how some DSP members
themselves described the sudden increase in DSP members at the meeting.
This was despite the fact that ISO member Sue Johnson had been the
Alliance candidate in every election in Marrickville since the Alliance
was founded and was at the time the only ISO member pre-selected in NSW
electorate. The vote was 11-10 for Sue.)
The upshot of all this is that increasingly the public face of the
Alliance is that of the DSP. The decision of the ISO to recruit to the
Alliance means that the ISO will have less and less opportunity to
influence the development of those members as they attend branches, or
are involved in an organisation dominated by the DSP.
The DSP has a very different future in mind for the Alliance. For them
it is a site of regroupment, hence the efforts to develop the Alliance
with the norms usually associate with that of the activist
revolutionary left groups – level of dues, attendance at meetings,
paper selling, activity in campaigns etc.
The ISO at once recognises this – hence the article in Socialist Worker
(selectively quoted in internal bulletin, April 2004) and its present
campaign against the proposal for the Green Left to formally become the
paper of the Alliance. At the same time, the ISO discounts the
significance of the move saying that it does not want to focus on
organizational moves – as if the proposal to adopt GLW is an
Although it should be said that the proposal is largely a formality.
Given that the DSP forms the bulk of the membership of the Alliance
branches and that the DSP sells the Green Left, and that Green Left
only recruits to the Alliance, there is already considerable
recognition that the Green Left is the paper of the Alliance. The DSP
can afford to postpone the formality of the Alliance adopting the GLW,
because in practice the GLW already is the paper of the Alliance
(Interestingly Seeing Red carries a very large advertisement for GLW.
Did other affiliates decline to advertise?). At the very least the
transitional arrangement between the Alliance and GLW is set to
The confusion over the nature of the Alliance
The fact that
the electoral space for the Alliance aspired has been occupied by The
Greens has also contributed to the confusion about the nature of the
Alliance. The temptation is for the Alliance to differentiate from The
Greens (and the Labor Party) on the basis of being an activist group –
a response which pushes the Alliance to pose more as an activist
revolutionary group than a bridge to those looking to the left of Labor.
This confusion can be seen in the designated Alliance columns in the
Green Left. There is no consistent attempt to situate the Alliance as
an electoral alternative to Labor. All, bar one or two, of the articles
attack the Labor Party and put a general case for socialism rather than
elaborate the constructive elements and relevance of the Alliance
platform and emphasise its willingness to work alongside everyone,
including Labor supporters, to advance the platform.
The same sectarian quality can be seen at work in a number of the
Alliance initiatives. There was the now infamous press release (1
December, 2003) offering condolences to Labor Party members at the time
of the Latham Labor leadership election. This has been widely
criticized but as yet there is no public admission that this was a
mistake. An admission that could help educate Socialist Alliance
members on how to constructively relate to Labor members and supporters.
This could be dismissed as a one-off example of over-exuberance, but it
is not. It is an approach evident in much of the Alliance's work and is
just the kind of "difference” that concerned the ISO and was explicitly
raised in the founding discussions and subsequently.
The same kind of approach was still there in the Open Letter to the
Labor Party Conference (27 Jan, 2004) that makes no attempt to find
common ground with those who might be willing to fight with Alliance
and trade union members to get rid of the Howard government. And where
is the connection with the refugee issue that was at the center of the
debate at the Labor conference?
The fact that there is are state Labor governments poses concrete
questions of how to address the failures of the governments in ways
that allow you to constructively address its former supporters. Was
there discussion about the tactical sense of the eviction stunt at
Labor deputy premier (and a leader of the parliamentary left), Anna
Bligh's, office in the recent Queensland election campaign? How many
disaffected Labor voters/members would have been happy to be involved
in such a stunt? Might it not have been better to occupy an empty house
or real estate or landlord's office and ask Anna to join the protest?
Or was gaining publicity the only concern?
The "Block the Budget” initiatives last year were ultimatist
declarations that not only didn't connect in a propagandist sense, but
provided no way of actively working with anyone. It was, as in many
other instances, more concerned about picking up publicity. As such
they did not connect to the practical concerns of those that were
concerned about aspects of the Budget eg the committees to defend
The nature of Socialist Alliance trade union caucuses also seems to be
unresolved. Shouldn't the aim be to initiate wider open worker caucuses
to conduct systematic work, rather than party-political formations to
act as a ginger group for largely propagandistic interventions.
These are the things that should be the bread and butter of patient
discussion in the context of joint political work. It is the kind of
discussion that can build confidence that the expressed goodwill could
break down old divisions and allow a process of free development of
political positions among the Alliance membership.
But there is little political discussion in the Alliance. Indeed
political discussion has in some quarters been quite deliberately
avoided. Following the Alliance conference decision in May to become a
multi-tendency party, the Socialist Alliance National Executive wrote
to the DSP and the ISO for "suggestions on how the Alliance can
progress toward publishing a national newspaper."
The ISO reply was typically ambivalent. On the one hand it said the
Left can't go forward by sweeping every political discussion under the
carpet or "substituting organization discussions for the important
political discussions that we need to have." But there was no political
discussion of the "united paper” proposal or anything else. The ISO
reply went on "If we are confident that the Alliance will get 4 per
cent next year we might be able to afford the luxury of a long internal
discussion about whether we have a united paper or not." (My emphasis).
The same "strategy” is being adopted by the ISO over the proposal for
the ISO to follow the DSP and become an internal tendency. On the one
hand the ISO considered the move to a multi-tendency party to
dramatically alter the way the possibilities of the Alliance. This what
was written in 2003: This means we are hostile to using the Alliance as
a site of revolutionary regroupment. At the same time, and contrary to
what may appear common sense, we do not think that a shift to a
"multi-tendency socialist party” would broaden the appeal and
effectiveness of the Alliance, but rather would narrow it.
The thousands of erstwhile Labor supporters now looking to left-wing
alternatives at the ballot box are less likely to be drawn around or
into the Alliance if it is recast as yet another small left activist
party, even if it is larger than both of our organisations combined
(Socialist Alliance discussion bulletin, April 2003).
But regardless of this view, the ISO considers that the important
debate at the coming May conference is not the proposal for the Green
Left Weekly to become the Alliance paper (a move that will entrench the
political devolution of the Alliance towards an "ill-defined
quasi-revolutionary party”) but is the federal election. (ISO internal
However as the ISO recognised in April 2003, the capacity to relate to
this federal election (and subsequent developments) is being determined
by the Alliance becoming a multi-tendency party and the proposal to
adopt the Green Left Weekly as its paper – together moves that have
decisively "recast the Alliance "as yet another small left activist
History, it's said, repeats itself secondly as farce. Having gone along
with the multi-tendency party decision in 2002, the ISO is set to go
along with the GLW proposal. At its 2003 conference, ISO declared, “We
want the nature of reformism – not the future of GLW - to be the main
controversy at [the May 2004] Alliance conference."
Yet the move to a multi-tendency party and adopting GLW are two sides
of the same coin that presupposes a certain analysis of the nature of
reformism (and the view that it is in terminal decline) but there is no
indication that the ISO is willing or able to turn the debate over GLW
into the debate over reformism that it says is needed.
This highlights the irony of the Alliance three years on. It faces a
federal election with the possibility of a Labor government being
returned, just as we did three years ago, but this time the Alliance
has been transformed, from an electoral party that at least had the
form of an alliance to a re-badged DSP less able to relate to the
expected growing numbers disaffected with Labor. This is not DSP-phobia
as it is sometimes portrayed. It is a question of the character of the
Alliance and its ability or otherwise to relate to those breaking with
It is sometimes argued that notwithstanding the limitations of the
Alliance it remains the only vehicle for the Left to intervene in the
crisis of social democracy but this is not so. In any case it is no
substitute for involvement in the movements – refugees, anti-war,
against the Nelson review, to defend public education etc. Labor for
Refugees provided a great opportunity to relate both to the refugee
movement and to the crisis of social democracy as it was specifically
posed in the Labor Party. In regard to union work, it is instructive
that Members First in the CPSU existed long before Socialist Alliance
and was more vibrant.
The Alliance experience has been a useful one and it is possible the
basis of a more collaborative left to can grow out of it. This will
require serious review and reflection on what has happened over the
last three years and some creative discussion about how to go forward.
It's time for a new beginning.
Ian Rintoul was a national convenor of Socialist Alliance
to 2003 and a member of the ISO national executive until resigning in
Note on regroupment
Three years ago when representatives of eight groups came together to
form the Socialist Alliance one of the first things that came up was
the question of whether the Alliance was an exercise in regrouping the
left or was it primarily to be an electoral alliance.
At the time the ISO was insistent that it was not interested in
regroupment and at one point threatened to terminate the discussions on
this very issue.
This is not the place to discuss the issues associated with
regroupment. Suffice to say that one question is associated with the
illusion of being bigger. Of course when you are 100 or 200 people
doubling in size can seem a significant thing. Compared to the task of
actually building even a small mass party, however, the difference
between 100 and 200 is not so significant. When you are so small, the
question of laying the basis for future growth is a qualitative one (ie
how you build cadre) rather a question of numbers. It is quite possible
to a sect to grow. And then there is the issue of ideological clarity.
As Trotsky argued better a small sharp, sharp axe than a large blunt
one. John Rees from the SWP (GB) makes the same point in rebutting
Murray Smith's arguments in favour of the Scottish Socialist Party as a
model for socialist regroupment (ISJ 97 and ISJ 100).