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Australian socialists: from alliance to party

By Ken Davis

The second conference of the Australian Socialist Alliance, held in May in Melbourne, voted by a large majority to advance rapidly towards a single, pluralist, multi-tendency, broad socialist party. This perspective was championed by a caucus of 150 "non-aligned" members and by the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP), which last year announced it wishes to become a tendency within the Alliance.

This unprecedented regroupment, including half of the small socialist groups and several hundred socialists not currently members of affiliates, opens up new possibilities for the Australian left, where few have any experience in democratic multi-tendency organisations, and where factionalism and sectarianism have strong pedigrees.

Socialist Democracy (SD) supported in principle the move towards socialist renewal and a democratic multi-tendency pluralist party, but questioned why the pace of regroupment should be forced, ahead of developing deeper political agreement, and challenged the larger affiliates on how they planned to transform their political cultures from that of tight cadre parties to open tendencies within a broad socialist party — a party that respects, builds and learns from the independent campaigns, autonomous social movements and from the history of the Australian and international workers' movement.

The second largest group in the Alliance, the International Socialist Organisation (ISO), along with other affiliated groups argued for a continuation of the Alliance as a united front formation for elections and key activist campaigns, independent and "not simply replicating the work of the existing revolutionary left". The ISO and other affiliates warned that without a genuine and open renewal of socialist education and politics, the Socialist Alliance will be restricted to a hollow "re-badging" of the existing DSP's political culture. Although the Alliance majority voted to require "a commitment from affiliates to building the Alliance through greater integration… to be demonstrated in word and deed", it also "recognizes the organizational and programmatic integrity of affiliate organisations". The ISO and some of the other affiliates will continue to function within the Alliance as autonomous parties. Unfortunately, soon after the conference, a large group of members left the ISO, including a former national convenor of the Alliance, Ian Rintoul.

The plan to build a united socialist voice is a response to an unrelenting and sustained ruling class offensive, marked by xenophobia, military involvement in the invasion of Iraq, roll-backs of democratic, trade union and indigenous peoples' rights, and a rapid polarisation of incomes and living standards. There is a strong feeling for unity in action against Australian capitalism and imperialism, a heartfelt need to transcend the fragmentation and isolation of the spectrum of a score of small Marxist groups, and to build on what is positive in the history of the left in Australia. The Alliance enables the socialist movement to have a geographic spread across the country unprecedented since the post-WWII defeats of the then 50,000-member Communist Party.

The Australian process is informed by precedents in Brazil, Scotland, Italy, Turkey, Quebec, England/Wales, USA, France, Philippines and other countries, but unlike some other instances, it does not grow organically out of leadership of upsurges in the workers', youth or social movements.

Delegates represented over 900 financial members, a majority of whom are not current members of the eight socialist groups that founded the Alliance, and a third of whom are DSP members. By a large majority, a slate of candidates proposed by the Non-Aligned Caucus took all eleven elected positions on the 21-member National Executive.

The conference voted to seek ways to collaborate with the Greens, and in particular with the large number of socialists active in the Greens. The Alliance is re-issuing its call to the eight socialist groups — supporters of various international currents — which decided not to participate.

Alliance members have not agreed on an analysis of the Labor Party, or on its linkages with the trade unions, but resolved to engage in some united front activities, particularly with "dissident members" and "those still in Labor's orbit" "to channel dissatisfaction with Labor in an anti-capitalist, pro-working class and explicitly socialist direction".

Three leading militant trade union activists took part in the conference, from construction, maritime and manufacturing workers in Victoria and Western Australia. Over half the Alliance conference delegates are members of trade unions, and the conference adopted a strategy resolution on building militant trade unionism and decided to form networks of SA members in each union. Similarly, the Alliance voted for united "interventions" into the social movements.

The conference was organized in the wake of Australia's largest street demonstrations, including the march of 300,000-500,000 against the Iraq war in Sydney. All members of the Alliance helped build the mobilizations, but the role of the Alliance was not decisive, and instead of recruiting, the Alliance and its larger affiliates lost members in the early half of 2003. The conference also came soon after elections in the largest state, NSW, which saw a strong Labor victory, and a rise of the Green vote to almost 9%. The Alliance gained only 5,428 votes out of 3.9 million (0.14%), less than the DSP achieved in the last election.

The Alliance voted against publishing its own monthly magazine and deferred decisions to the elected executive. At the first meeting after the conference it voted by majority to require all stalls promoting the Alliance to sell the publications of affiliate groups. The only affiliate with a viable national publication is the DSP, whose Green Left Weekly circulates about 4,000 per week. The DSP is reasserting GLW as an independent publication, supporting, but not to be under the control of the Alliance. There is a parallel repositioning of the youth group, Resistance.

The Alliance does not identify as a revolutionary or Marxist party, nor does it have structures of democratic centralist discipline. The minimal policy platform, adopted at the foundation conference in 2001 has been partly elaborated, but most issues have been deferred for discussion by a score of email caucuses around particular issues. Due to time constraints, and a need to maintain comradely consensus, there was a curtailing and avoidance of political debates, and the voting down or withdrawal of controversial details, particularly in relation to international questions, such as Cuba, Iraq and Palestine.

The Alliance agreed to appoint a small committee to draft a book explaining socialism, as an urgent recruiting weapon. The majority of delegates are confident there is already clear agreement on basic ideology, and there is some resistance to a broad, open, democratic, educative process to reveal the rich variety of contemporary meanings shared within the Alliance of "socialism", "revolution", "class", "globalisation" and "imperialism", or how to answer workers' questions about China or the former Soviet countries.

The DSP sees sectarianism as a problem of the Trotskyist past it left in the early 1980s, and since its newspaper is the best known in Australia and its membership the largest, it sees itself as playing a leading role in a socialist regroupment, where the main challenge is not finding new ways to develop socialist politics, but of accumulating additional resources for activism and party-building around the existing program and experienced leadership. The DSP has been supporting the Alliance by providing funding, staff, facilities and the offices where most Alliance branches meet. Socialist Democracy put forward the view that "the answer is not simply the relocating of SA and its non-DSP members into DSP premises and organisations; what is required for the left groups to break out of our ghetto is a complete and fearless analysis of our weaknesses over the last three decades."

The successful transformation of the Alliance from a united front of cadre organisations into a single but pluralist party requires a revolution in how socialists in Australia think and work: a challenging of old assumptions, learning through respectful engagement with the labour, social and youth movements, the development of an open and vibrant culture of debate, discussion and education, new methods of campaigning, and thorough-going critique of the sectarian instincts, politics and practices that isolate Marxists from the working class and oppressed. Failure to genuinely transform into a broad socialist party would represent a major set-back for the whole left in Australia.

Ken Davis is a member of the Socialist Alliance national executive from Socialist Democracy, a group supporting the Fourth International

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