The Socialist Alliance: What went wrong?

By Kerry Vernon

When the Socialist Alliance was proposed by the Democratic Socialist Party (now the Democratic Socialist Perspective) in 2001, it was intended as a step forward for left unity.

The SA national website states, in part: “The Socialist Alliance was formed on February 17, 2001, by eight socialist groups and parties that saw an urgent need for greater left unity in Australia”.

The SA however is now not an alliance of socialist groups or parties and has not been for some time. Today, only one of those affiliates, the DSP, remains. Also gone are most of the independent activists who joined SA in its early years. Not only have the main independent trade union activists in the Sydney central SA group — Bea and Raul Bassi — resigned, so too has Chris Cain, secretary of the Western Australian branch of the Maritime Union of Australia.

SA today is the DSP, plus a mostly inactive independent membership (said by the DSP to be about 500). Only a small fraction of these members attend SA branch meetings when these occur, which is rarely. Except in one or two regional cities, independent SA members who are politically active are not organised through SA branches.

Most SA decisions are made by DSP members, whose political activity is publicly presented as SA activity. For example, the SA was publicly credited with much of the success of the 2007 anti-APEC march and rally, but in reality the “SA” role was organised and directed by the DSP. Only two weeks before the protest, after months of it being organised, did the DSP get around to calling an “SA strategy meeting”.

At the January 2008 DSP congress, reports given by the DSP leadership hyped up the SA to cover for the DSP’s failure to come to grips with the failure of the SA as a left unity project. In presenting a greatly exaggerated report on SA’s membership and activity, the DSP leadership avoided analysing what went wrong and discouraged a badly needed discussion of its mistakes. Instead, the leadership demonised and scapegoated a minority faction within the DSP in preparation for expelling it. How did the promising start of SA lead to such disappointing results?

`Broad left party’

From 2001 to early 2003, the SA achieved modest success in facilitating greater collaboration and constructive dialogue among its socialist group affiliates and unaffiliated members. Militant trade union leaders such as Craig Johnston and Chris Cain were attracted by the SA’s left unity dynamic, as were a number of independents. But in 2003, the DSP decided to try to change the SA from an alliance into a “broad left” party. This move rested heavily upon an expectation of a sustained rise in working-class struggle, which did not eventuate. Without the expected inflow of union militants and people inspired by them, there were too few activists to transform the SA into a broad left party.

The DSP placed much hope on an upsurge in militant trade union activity against the Howard government’s Work Choices amendments to its 1996 Workplace Relations Act to revive the SA as a broad left party project. But these expectations were disappointed by reality. The ACTU’s subservience to the ALP stopped the union’s anti-Work Choices campaign from becoming a mass industrial campaign. It was overwhelmingly focussed on gathering votes for the ALP. This lack of an industrial campaign is what gave the Rudd Labor government leeway to leave substantial parts of Work Choices intact.

Despite the DSP’s efforts and resources, the SA was unable to develop into a real party. The other affiliates were opposed to the DSP’s course and withdrew or drifted away from the SA. Few leaders emerged from the SA independents; most members were not active. This stagnation had a demoralising effect on both SA and DSP members.

Substitution

The Socialist Alliance remained heavily dependent on the DSP’s political and organising efforts and fundraising. Green Left Weekly continued to be distributed and funded by the DSP and its supporters. But both GLW and the DSP suffered because of the preoccupation with propping up the SA and the DSP’s consequent lack of a public profile. With DSP leaders presenting the activities of DSP members as “SA” activities, DSP members began to see themselves as SA members first, publicly presenting only SA’s non-revolutionary “broad left” politics.

For most of SA’s independent members, activity became confined to voting for the SA at the ballot box, attending an occasional forum or film night, donating money and handing out the odd SA leaflet at major events. The DSP spent considerable time and energy attempting to activate the declining SA membership, and this took still more attention away not only from the DSP, but also from Resistance — the DSP-led youth organisation, which had also affiliated to the SA.

In May 2005, the DSP formally decided that it could not continue integrating its resources into the SA without a change in political conditions that would generate new forces willing to participate in building the SA. The DSP recognised its substitution for the SA as “unsustainable” because of the strain it put on the DSP. This was evident from a DSP financial crisis, declining circulation of GLW, an erosion of DSP membership and a weakening of Resistance.

But a majority of the DSP proved unable really to give up the dream of the SA as a “broad party in formation”, despite all the evidence that the SA had become dead as a left unity project. And despite retaining its federal and state electoral registration, the SA has not made any real progress — its electoral campaigns do not attract significantly more participation or votes than the DSP used to do on its own.

Mistake compounded

The DSP’s decision to attempt to turn the Socialist Alliance into a broad left party, despite the opposition of the other affiliates, was a mistake that set back socialist collaboration. The decision of the 2006 DSP congress to continue trying to build the SA as such a party compounded the original error.

In opposing this mistaken course, the DSP minority that became the Leninist Party Faction (LPF) in January 2006 proposed that the DSP resurface as a public revolutionary party. It argued that the DSP was at risk of liquidating its revolutionary politics as it lied to itself about the SA. It opposed the DSP’s unprincipled substitution for the SA. The LPF argued that it was necessary to admit the truth about the SA and the DSP’s role in destroying what had been a promising beginning. If the SA could continue to exist at all, it could possibly become a socialist electoral vehicle, but this could happen only if the DSP was honest about its mistakes.

The call to resurface the DSP meant openly presenting and explaining revolutionary socialist politics in forums, meetings, actions, GLW, conferences and a range of other ways, and taking part in genuine united front formations, including solidarity campaigns with revolutionary Venezuela and socialist Cuba. This was the only principled way for revolutionary socialists to regain what had been weakened or lost by the DSP over the previous years as an internal tendency of the SA. But what had been a tactic had become a permanent state of affairs, a permanent strategy, that left the DSP unable to change its course.
The appeals by the LPF for the DSP to change course were met, not with reasoned factual argument, but by a campaign of vilification, with DSP national secretary Peter Boyle denouncing the LPF as hidebound sectarians like the Spartacists. At the DSP’s 2008 congress, while the LPF had the support of one-fifth of the delegates, the DSP leadership argued for only including three LPF leaders on the DSP’s 52-member national committee. After a campaign to stop LPF members engaging in public political activity, including Palestine and Venezuela solidarity work, the DSP national executive expelled the LPF “as a whole” on May 13.

The expelled minority has now joined with others, who had left the DSP two years earlier, to form the Revolutionary Socialist Party. The RSP will seek to build on the best traditions of the DSP before the process of political liquidation set in under the dream of the SA. We aim to build an activist-based party, taking up the political issues of the day and working with a range of progressive individuals and organisations. At the outset, we aim to defend and build independent broad-based campaigns of political solidarity with revolutionary Cuba and Venezuela.

In other circumstances, when political conditions are move favourable, revolutionary socialists may again seek to form a broad left party as a stage in progress towards a mass revolutionary party. At that time, it will be important to keep in mind the lessons from the Socialist Alliance experience — both the early positive experiences and the later negative ones. Among the most important of those lessons is the danger of allowing revolutionary politics to be hidden as the price of “broadness”. Another is the necessity to be realistic and honest about what we have and haven’t achieved, and not to try to fool the working-class public, or ourselves.

[Kerry Vernon, a member of the DSP for 25 years, was convener of the Newcastle branch of the Socialist Alliance in 2004. She is a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party in Sydney.]