What has happened to Socialist Alliance? An open letter to DSP members

[This open letter to members of the Democratic Socialist Perspective (DSP) concerns the Socialist Alliance (SA), an organisation controlled by the DSP which it promotes as Australia’s largest socialist group.]

Dear Comrades,

Almost a year ago, your national executive voted to expel all the members of the Leninist Party Faction (LPF), which had been been formed to advocate a change in the DSP’s position on the Socialist Alliance. We who were in the minority believed that events had long before shown the DSP’s course regarding the SA to be mistaken. Your leaders, on the other hand, argued that the political line of building the SA had not really been tested yet. Since then, the DSP has had nearly 12 months to carry out that line without internal opposition. What does the experience show?

In December, the SA held a national conference, its first in two years. Dick Nichols, in his report on the SA to the DSP national committee plenum in January, decided to “weigh up what the conference said about the state of the Socialist Alliance”. Although the conference was “well made” and “successful”, Nichols had to admit that it was — “to a degree” — a “Potemkin conference”: “Resolutions? Not one branch put forward a resolution. Pre-conference discussion? There was no pre-conference discussion, that I know [of], that actually happened (correct me if I am wrong).” Here, the report in the DSP’s Activist bulletin interrupted with a footnote stating that a single SA branch in Sydney had held a pre-conference discussion meeting. Nichols continued: “The conference resolutions turned up at the very last minute, so that although they were discussed there and the discussion was real, there was very little sense in which this was a discussion coming out of the concerns and work of the branches.”

And so it went on. The aim of the first, public, day of the conference was met “only very partially”. The first part of the second day, when delegates had a “real” discussion of resolutions they hadn’t seen before, must have been the location of the conference’s “success”, because by the final session most people had gone home, and their absence was, in Nichols’ words, “probably a blessing in disguise”. This description comes from a national convener of the SA, one of the DSP’s most fervent believers in the SA, who is trying to put the best possible face on things.

Shrinking membership

Putting a positive face on the SA these days is not easy. Nichols mentions as a “positive advance” the fact that “lazy hack journalists” sometimes report that the SA is the organiser of events that in fact it hasn’t organised. Despite this help from the commercial media, he has to admit that the SA’s membership has “shrunk quite seriously”. He reported that its membership during 2008 dropped by 282 — not counting whatever the decline may have been in Western Australia, which apparently couldn’t be bothered to send statistics to Nichols.

More telling than any numbers is the message from a DSP comrade in Perth, which Nichols quotes: “I don’t invite people to join Socialist Alliance now, because what can we offer them?” Nichols elaborates the meaning of the Perth comment: “You give us money, and we won’t ring you, we won’t organise you, we won’t keep you up to date with our activity”.


Nichols admits, belatedly, that the DSP’s preoccupation with the SA has opened the field for Socialist Alternative (SAlt) to gain a hearing from radicalising young people. When the DSP minority pointed that out in 2005 and later, we were accused of wanting to imitate SAlt’s sectarianism. This section of Nichols’ report, bearing the subhead “The costs of building the Socialist Alliance”, makes some devastating confessions. SAlt, says Nichols, can go to a Gaza demo, distribute leaflets on the “socialist view” of what is happening, get five people to come to a discussion and recruit one of them. As for DSP-SA? “Our tendency has not been able to match that, and Socialist Alternative will continue to grow while we fail to do so.” The “broad” SA can’t recruit even one would-be socialist out of a pro-Palestinian demonstration. Did the old “narrow” DSP find this such an obstacle?

The subhead about this being a cost of “building” the SA is inaccurate, because it hasn’t been built. The actual text of the report is less exaggerated: It says that SAlt’s growth is “part of the price we’re paying for committing to maintaining Socialist Alliance”. But this is still not accurate, since the SA isn’t even being maintained. Elsewhere in the report, Nichols notes that the SA’s financial membership is down to 460. In 2008, the SA’s financial membership declined by more than a third. Nichols flirts dangerously with reality when he says, “we can’t repeat 2008 in 2009 and expect the Alliance to survive”. The costs are being paid in exchange for nothing.

Erosion of DSP

In the same context, Nichols notes a retreat into inactivity of a layer of older DSP members. This is not unusual in a revolutionary organisation, but it is sad that Nichols can’t say that this loss is made up for by the youth coming into the DSP; evidently they are few and far between. Instead, Nichols finds a bright side to the inactivity of members: “... it also aids us, because it helps us get our tone, propaganda and language right for the broader working-class and radical audiences whose attention and interest we try to engage”. DSP members’ becoming inactive is a boon because it teaches the DSP how to talk to the non-revolutionaries it is trying to relate to through the SA!

Nichols continues that it’s not only the older comrades who are becoming demoralised: “And we’ve also seen a slipping [of] our revolutionary morale, zest and discipline”. This is also, he acknowledges, a product of the “build the SA” line’s “tendency to dilute the political culture” of the DSP. It’s true that the LPF also pointed to this, but Nichols is not worried by that — when the LPF said it, they were trying to flee the contradiction by accusing the majority of liquidationism; when the DSP national executive (NE) says it, they are confronting reality by finding ways to speak to dissident ALPers and dissident Greens.

The January plenum’s report on the DSP itself confirmed what Nichols said about the DSP’s decline. You can read it yourself in the Activist, so here we will summarise only one point — the continuing decline of Green Left Weekly’s circulation. At the May 2005 DSP national committee meeting that launched the “reality check” on the SA line, Peter Boyle’s report noted some disturbing statistics, which were summarised under the subheading “Green Left Weekly under threat”: “Average weekly sales so far this year [to mid-May 2005] are 1322 papers — 166 less than last year.” In 2008, according to the report given to the January NC meeting, average weekly sales were “just under” 1100. In early 2005, hours selling GLW by DSP members averaged 390 per week, down from 417 hours in 2004. In 2008, the average was down to 292 hours per week. The average number of GLW sellers in early 2005 was 139 per week. In 2008, it was 110. If the “build the SA” line is a “success”, what would a failure look like?

‘More energy and time’

If a repeat of 2008 would mean the end of the SA, how this to be avoided? Nichols answers: “And the ‘magic answer’ is ... I don’t know. I don’t have a magic answer, but we have to try to work this out together.” There’s leadership for you!

However, Nichols was not being straight with his audience. He thinks he does have an answer — maybe not a magic one, but surely a preferred one, because he keeps returning to it. Nichols’ answer is that DSP members have to work harder: “ ... the Socialist Alliance is not, in general, being built properly ... members are not being looked after ... people who could be recruited are not being recruited and attention to them and the possible contribution they could make is not being made …

“The DSP’s main task for the Socialist Alliance in 2009 has got to be to try to help it overcome this condition as much as possible, at the same time as we do all the other things we’ve got to do ... There is no way to address the situation without putting more energy and time into relaunching the Socialist Alliance in those branches where membership and activity has declined most, and to then maintaining a consistent minimum …

“We have to find some way to create more total energy for the overall task-load and make the expenditure of that political energy more efficient. In particular, we have to try to inspire comrades to become involved in building the Socialist Alliance, in expanding and re-energising the Socialist Alliance membership … the next thing the DSP branches are going to have to discuss is how to ensure the proper functioning of Socialist Alliance membership systems ... we separate out Socialist Alliance contacting as one more goddam thing that harassed and overworked DSP organisers can’t find a comrade to do ... when there’s no reason that it can’t be included in the general contacting effort … I feel confident about the possibilities for the Socialist Alliance, simply on the basis of the successes we’ve had when we’ve put in the energy ...”

But don’t worry: you don’t really have to pay any attention to that, because the DSP NC didn’t vote on Nichols’ report. However, it did approve a list of tasks for the first four months of the year, which included:

  • an SA membership campaign
  • stabilising SA state/territory databases and “ensuring prompt attention to membership inquiries and suggestions”
  • regular monthly production of Alliance Voices
  • “relaunch” of SA branches
  • SA intervention into the January 31-February Canberra Climate Action Summit
  • local SA “branch relaunch conferences”
  • elections to and meetings of state executives
  • “meetings to develop links and activities with Arabic-speaking communities”
  • a large SA “input and presence” at the DSP’s “World at a Crossroads” conference.

Ask yourself how much of this happened. And then, if any of them did happen to some extent, ask how much was contributed by people who were not DSP members. And remember that, if things weren’t done, then Nichols knows it’s because DSP members were slacking.

Divisions in the NE

Nichols’ exhortations for everyone to work harder are not formally binding on DSP members because there was no NC vote on his report. There were differences on the national executive about how the DSP and SA “should interrelate, about the interface between the two organisations”. The only thing the NE could agree on was the tasks list, and that is all that was presented for a vote.

This is an unusual procedure. Normally in a democratic centralist organisation, differences are discussed and then the relevant body votes on what course will be followed. In this case the NE didn’t vote, so there is no decision, no NE position. Further, the NC was not presented with majority and minority views and asked to decide between them, so it also has no position. If a DSP branch is faced with a choice between making the DSP-SA “interface” a bit closer or a bit more distant, what is it to do?

Of course, these differences are hardly new. During the discussion prior to the 2006 DSP congress, the minority pointed out that there were three distinct views within the majority. A group of minority comrades from Melbourne wrote in the Activist in December 2005: “It is clear now ... that the majority actually represents at least three distinct tendencies. The minimalist interpretation integrates into its perspective those elements of the resolution that emphasise the practical importance of rebuilding the DSP ... The maximalist tendency can’t let go of the earlier hopes we had for SA. It has no practical perspectives for how to move forward but a complete reluctance to accept the conclusions ... about the conditions that would be necessary for us to re-launch SA as a new party project. At its best this tendency is banking on a major upswing in the mass movement ... to provide a new basis for building SA as a new left party. At its worst, this tendency errs toward SA as a permanent tactic ...”

“The third tendency in the majority is a pragmatic one, represented by the report given to the [October 2005] NC itself, and fundamentally concerned with keeping the SA experiment going. This is why the report consisted of an emphasis on specific measures to keep the DSP afloat, and left the development of SA priorities to the pragmatism of the branches ...”

Thus we see that the current glossing over of NE differences, the leaving it up to the branches to work out how to implement the “build the SA” line, goes back more than three years. The January NC plenum has gone a step further by acknowledging and formalising the earlier de facto arrangement.

Where next?

Nichols’ report in the Activist does not specify the NE’s disagreements, but there are sufficient hints that they involve the same three trends. Nichols himself is clearly the leading spokesperson for the maximalists. He even confirms what the Melbourne minority comrades said three years ago about making the SA “tactic” permanent: “Of course, it [SA] is a tactic. Not that I like that term because ‘a tactic’ carries the implication that you could drop it tomorrow, and turn to something new next week. Whereas the Socialist Alliance is a serious, ongoing attempt to build a broader organisation of socialists ...” Could there be a clearer explanation of a “permanent tactic”?

Nichols is also leading the charge for further dissolving the DSP into the SA. While he denies Peter Boyle’s characterisation that he is proposing “making the Socialist Alliance the primary, overarching structure for our politics”, in fact he is proposing doing that piecemeal. Nichols calls for a “specific discussion issue by issue” on the topic: “What things that are presently being done through the DSP can we transfer — and does it help to transfer — into the Socialist Alliance?” This needs to be read in conjunction with Nichols’ statement earlier in the report that doing things through SA’s structures is “our preferred default setting”.

In fact, nearly all of the DSP public political activity is already done in the name of the Socialist Alliance, so Nichols is only being consistent when he argues for having SA organisational structures supersede those of the DSP. In his view, the agreed proposal to make the SA’s Alliance Voices bulletin monthly should be complemented by turning the DSP’s weekly National Newsletter into a monthly email bulletin (a move which other NE members consider “premature” — i.e., one to be taken up later) and then making AV fortnightly and then seeing if it’s possible to turn it into a print publication. At that point, what would you need a DSP National Newsletter for?

Indeed, why would you need a DSP? In his summary, Nichols complains: “I don’t see why comrades in the DSP who are not doing much have to be catered to with DSP-only meetings about, say, the economic crisis, when they could come to a Socialist Alliance meeting on the same topic.” In the old days (pre-2005), when the DSP had a Marxist analysis of capitalist crises and what to do about them, and the SA didn’t, it seemed reasonable to have occasional separate SA and DSP discussions. Since then, has the SA adopted a Marxist program?

Another of the undisclosed disagreements on the DSP NE is about trying to create real SA state executives. This is phrased in terms of having elections for state executives in “multi-branch” states — a description that even the usual DSP hype about the SA’s “successes” can’t extend beyond Victoria and NSW. The difference seems to be, not whether SA state executives would be desirable in the abstract, but whether it is possible to create them.

Predictably, Nichols is in favour of DSP members making the effort, although his argument is framed more in terms of how nice it would be to have real executives than in terms of it being possible: “... there’s a need to at least have a perspective of having state executives, or state working groups, i.e., a group of people who meet to discuss what the Socialist Alliance is doing ... in state politics.”

At first glance, substituting unelected working groups for an elected leadership executive might seem to violate the rights of the ranks in the SA branches. But that would be true only if there were significant ranks to be led, and Nichols points out that this is not the case: “... as soon as branches are functioning to some degree or other and issues present themselves ... then we have to have some sort of state structure through which to operate, even if the main job of such structures is to carry out and maintain the registration work ...” To paraphrase only slightly: If we can create something that resembles a real branch even slightly, let’s push any activists in it into “state” administrative tasks, under whatever title is necessary.

What are the prospects of the pragmatists and minimalists in the NE restraining Nichols’ dreams of exhausting the remaining DSP activists in the pursuit of SA castles in the air? Strangely and sadly, not very good. While it would be easy enough to debunk Nichols’ fantasies by pointing to reality, the DSP’s leaders dare not attempt it in any serious way. They themselves are already too much on the record in denial of reality, too much identified with past hype of SA “success”. The most likely course is that they will continue endorsing tasks and goals for the DSP to accomplish in and through the SA, and then ignoring them in reality.

And so the DSP will stagger on, wasting its energies maintaining a fiction, at a time when the international economic crisis is opening new opportunities to gain a hearing for revolutionary socialist politics. Isn’t it well past time for DSP members to change course?

[From the Revolutionary Socialist Party, founded by members of the former minority faction in the DSP.]