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Socialist Democracy and regroupment

By Michael Schembri
for Socialist Democracy

As supporters of the Fourth International, we in SD seek to participate in the process of regroupment and rebuilding within the left in Australia through the Socialist Alliance initiative. We support moves to build a broad, democratic, pluralist, multi-tendency, socialist party. Having stated the principle, however, we need to look at all the real conditions necessary for such a regroupment to work.

A revolutionary party? The Socialist Alliance hopes to draw in a wider layer of members and supporters from the working class movement and radical social movements. Emphasis on a revolutionary regroupment might result in a membership made up almost exclusively from the current memberships of the affiliate groups. It may also lead to a significant number of individual members of the Socialist Alliance walking away. We need to understand that many workers moving away from the ALP do so because they do not see it winning reforms, not necessarily because they have become revolutionary socialists. These people should be able to see the SA as their organisation.

Therefore we think that the SA, while taking a position for socialism, through democratic and transitional demands, should not proclaim itself revolutionary. Organisations within the SA will have ample space for presenting revolutionary platforms. We should not make a shibboleth of what marks us from the working class and the progressive social movements -- a point Marx and Engels made 150 years ago. We should avoid ultra-left rhetoric about "reform vs revolution." It is what we do that is important, not what we write in simon-pure documents.

It is also true that, in this period, even struggles for reform by necessity take us beyond reforms. Some comrades point to the Progressive Labour Party (PLP) experience as a lesson in what will happen to organisations that do not proclaim themselves revolutionary. This is a misreading of what happened. The PLP platform proclaimed the party's intention to become a broad organisation of "the working class in all its diversity." However, control passed into the hands of a clique which put its own narrow sectional interests before this aim. The clique centralised all power in its hands and proceeded to destroy every vestige of pluralism. The real lesson of the PLP experience is that democracy, transparency and accountability are not luxuries, but the lifeblood of the movement.

In a broader sense, that is one of the central lessons of the workers' movement in the 20th century. As things stand now, the SA and its affiliate groups do not have any significant implantation in the trade unions, the environmental movement, Aboriginal, refugee and migrant communities, the gay and lesbian movement or even the feminist movement. Our priority should be to be involved in the grass roots campaigns precisely to achieve that kind of implantation.


Sectarianism has been the left's biggest failing. We need to learn to work better not only among ourselves but also within the social movements in a way that we help build those movements, rather than view them only as areas for recruitment. This, unfortunately, has been the dominant tendency of most of the left in Australia. The SD comrades' approach to the social movements is based on the FI's principle of respect for the social movements' autonomy.

They must be autonomous from all political, including the left, organisations, not only from the "big" parties, as DSP comrades often tend to say. We have also, historically, been more intent on fighting each other than the common enemy, capitalism. The SA, therefore, can be a major breakthrough for all of us. After decades of often outright hostility, not only have we started talking to each other and co-operating with each other, but we're actually doing so within a single body.

Having said that, there remain persistent problems in this regard. As the ISO has pointed out, how can talk of regroupment be taken seriously when the DSP has a separate network for refugee work when there already exists RAC? Why have there been multiple anti-war coalitions instead of one? The excuse that it is good to have diversity doesn't hold any water. It would be true if it were a community initiative. But coming from a socialist group it is pure sectarianism. Problems of sectarian practice in the Australian left in the most part derive directly or indirectly from the heritage of Stalinist methodologies. Fault may lie on several sides, but as Socialist Alliance we need to reflect on the problems in our own histories.

Internal democracy

One of the key contributions that the SD caucus brings to the SA is the Fourth International's documents on, and practice of, democracy. We welcome a genuine process of regroupment based on the understanding that certain factors are necessary for a genuinely democratic formation.

These include:

  • that a future party would have to be broad, pluralist and democratic;
  • that there be thoroughly democratic structures and practices instead of the established top-down, super-centralist, "Leninist" practice of most of the left;
  • that there be tendency and faction rights;
  • that there be the right for tendencies to maintain their own international orientations, be they the SD's support for the Fourth International, the ISO's link to the International Socialist Tendency, FSP's link to the Freedom Socialist Party in North America.

  • Joint work/caucuses

    We do not necessarily think that the SA should have its own caucuses in unions and social movement organisations. In the Fourth International, those sections who have done the best work in unions and in political movements have not relied on party "fractions", but on long-term respect for, learning from, and collaboration with, comrades who do not always identify as revolutionary socialists.

    Certainly, as SA members, we should work together as much is possible. But we should also be able to work with wider layers with which we find agreement. Any structures decided on (eg. rank and file groups) should be premised on the alliances on the ground, rather than on in-principle SA caucuses.

    This way we would ensure avoiding being sectarian within the social movements. Apart from this the fact remains that within SA itself there remain significant differences. Obvious cases are attitudes towards the ALP and the Greens, towards work in the unions and the unions' relation to the ALP, towards international solidarity, and towards student work. Much more political discussion is needed to work out common approaches before the SA can go further in its regroupment process.

    Regroupment and Tendencies

    Put succinctly, the DSP unilateral proposal for regroupment and for its dissolution as a party to become a dominating current inside the SA seems premature. While it might be possible to agree that the external conditions are ripe, internally we think we have much further to go, as the above discussion shows. Left unity cannot be rushed.

    Whether the unease of many individuals and groups is justifiable or not, the fact that it exists simply cannot be wished away. Much more thoroughgoing debate and intensified joint work are needed. It has to be asked: is the unease unjustified? Many organisations and individuals have been around too long to take each others' assertions at face value. Trust has to be won. This is a simple plain fact that has to be acknowledged.

    How does this apply to the DSP's proposal? The proposal leaves a number of questions unanswered. The first is whether it is now willing to work in joint campaigns -- as shown above it has already shown itself otherwise in refugee and anti-war work.

    The second is what will its relation be to its organisations: Resistance, ASAP, CISLAC and so on? Can it exist as a tendency without relinquishing its hold on them? Can their objectives and methods be broadened to be more inclusive of youth and solidarity activists?

    The third is the relationship of the rest of the SA to the resources and intellectual capital of the DSP. This is obviously not a criticism of the DSP having resources, but it is obviously something that needs to be discussed within the SA.

    Summing up

    We accept that the DSP has the right for its own members to debate its proposal to work only within the SA. However, we also assert that, should the bulk of the non-DSP members and affiliate groups of the SA think this is a bad idea, or that it is premature, then the DSP should slow down the implementation of its decisions. To do otherwise would be to put into question the very existence of the SA. If the SA were to collapse, the left would end up weaker than ever before precisely at a time when it is most desperately needed.

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    Since October 17, 2003

    Created on November 16, 2002