DSP to 'merge' with its own shadow

By John Percy

The Democratic Socialist Perspective (DSP) has decided to press ahead with the final stage of liquidating itself into the Socialist Alliance (SA), which claims to be the largest socialist organisation in Australia. On June 7 the DSP national committee (NC) adopted a report by national secretary Peter Boyle that the DSP would dissolve at a DSP congress in January, and members would from then on operate just as members of the SA. Boyle’s report is available on the DSP website.

When a minority in the DSP from 2005 to 2008 (expelled in May 2008 and now organised as the Revolutionary Socialist Party) raised the danger that the DSP’s continued functioning as an “internal tendency” of the SA was leading to the DSP’s political liquidation into the left-reformist SA, we were met with indignant howls from the majority: “how dare you call it liquidating”; “it’s not liquidation”. But the June NC decision fully confirms our fears as to where the SA tactic was taking the DSP majority. The program, policies and traditions of the DSP will be thrown away at the projected congress in January.

Boyle displayed some frustration in his report: “We’ve been held back by the hesitations of former Alliance affiliates and a former minority in the DSP for too long already. That’s behind us now and it is time we moved forward.” In fact, what he proposed is a move backward, and was justified with no logical analysis of the objective conditions and no justification from experience in the Marxist movement. Instead, Boyle tried to compare it with the situation in France, where the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire (LCR) has dissolved and established the NPA (New Anti-capitalist Party). Boyle took up a fifth of his report with quotes from LCR leader Francois Sabado explaining the LCR’s decision.

Boyle tried to pre-empt objections: “Some might counter any reference to the French  example with the cry: ‘But Australia is not France! The class struggle is more advanced in France than in Australia.’ And, of course, that is true.” But this was only a token recognition; Boyle then moved on, making no case for why the LCR’s move might be of any relevance to conditions in Australia. His only argument? Now we have a Labor government: “Now the potential exists for mass disillusionment with Labor and therefore greater openness to left alternatives. This was closed in the previous period of SA building under Howard.”

What Boyle of course ignored is not only the much higher numbers involved in  militant protests and strikes in France in the last few years compared with the relative quiescence in Australia, but the fact that the LCR was able to bring around itself thousands of previously unorganised militant activists. This is totally unlike the situation of the SA, in which only a handful of non-DSP SA members could be described as “party activists”, while even the SA’s paper membership has shrunk dramatically over the last few years. Contrary to Boyle’s assertion, there was a “greater openness to left alternatives” in Australia 10 years ago, under Howard — the times of the MUA dispute, the campaign for East Timor’s independence, the S11 blockade of the World Economic Forum, the refugee rights movement — than there is now. Furthermore, the NPA is being built on a platform that is explicitly for a revolutionary road to socialism (see the article “France: The New Anti-capitalist Party, a promising birth” in Direct Action #11), while the SA’s platform is a non-revolutionary series of reforms to the existing capitalist system.

DSP dilemmas

So why did the DSP leaders think this was an opportune time to “merge” the DSP into the SA? They were obviously at an impasse. They’d gotten rid of the minority faction in the DSP and still there was no magic advance of the SA; activity and activists continued to decline. So what to do? There was no other gimmick on the horizon to keep justifying the failed SA project. To reaffirm building the DSP would be to admit the DSP minority was right, so the only course was to end the pretence that the SA has a life distinct from the DSP and dissolve the DSP into the SA.

The motivations of the leadership may be different from those of many of the DSP members. And there would have been different motives within the leadership. Some were already totally committed to a “broad”, non-revolutionary party; some in trade union positions are no doubt happy with getting rid of the embarrassment of membership of an ostensibly revolutionary organisation; some, like Boyle, clearly see no alternative to the “merger”, because they don’t see anything else to do at this time and need to present a new dramatic step to be able to claim that the SA project is advancing.

Boyle’s report projected some concrete steps before the final liquidation in January. Apart from transforming the DSP weekly newsletter into an SA weekly newsletter, he proposed phasing out DSP branch meetings and branch executives, replacing them with SA branch meetings and executives. This in itself will pose problems — it’s the umpteenth time that SA branches have been “relaunched”. But there are further problems ahead for the DSP dissolution.

Which program?

The biggest political problem for the DSP-SA “merger” is what political program will it have? The DSP had a well worked out, well articulated revolutionary socialist program. It had been refined through our own experience within the DSP (called the Socialist Workers Party in the 1970s and ’80s), but also incorporating the experience of other revolutionary socialist parties before it from other countries. But in recent years the DSP program has become a dead letter. The leadership was a bit embarrassed by it, wanted it to slip away, and it had mostly been written out of the DSP constitution. Now, with the final liquidation of the DSP, this program will be junked.

The post-“merger” SA will have a very limited program, certainly not a revolutionary socialist one. Boyle describes his idea for the SA program as “a developing class-struggle program”. It will have stands on a number of issues, and a platform for election campaigns. It will be enough to join people up on a left reformist basis. Or it will be argued the SA’s non-revolutionary “program” allows for a diversity of positions on how socialism can be achieved.

The current DSP leadership wasn’t able to allow for the differences expressed by any of the other eight socialist groups that initially joined the SA, and it wasn’t able to tolerate the different view defended by the minority faction in the DSP. So only certain types of “differences” will be acceptable in the “merged” DSP-SA. Organised opposition to the key projects of the DSP-dominated SA central leadership or any organised attempt to have the SA promote consistently revolutionary socialist politics will not.

The current DSP leadership’s biggest problem will be that they won’t be able to recruit, train and educate revolutionary socialist cadres. The “merged” organisation’s activity will be living off the accumulated cadre of the old DSP. It’s very hard to educate revolutionary socialists in an organisation with non-revolutionary politics. The DSP’s youth organisation, Resistance, is a shell of its old self. The few young people who sign up will not be educated as revolutionaries.

The DSP leadership would be conscious of this criticism. How will they respond? Apart from platitudes about “doing, not talking” — a traditional reformist riposte to Marxists who assert the unity of theory and practice — how will the DSP try to plug this gap? There’ll be repeated exhortations to have educational classes within the framework of the “new” SA, no doubt. Although that just raises another question: What will these classes be about? What theory, what political program? And who educates the educators?

This dilemma might prompt the DSP leadership to establish a “DSP Educational Association”, using the DSP money, and the DSP stock of published Marxist books, to do classes. But that just raises further questions. How will this educational association be run? Who will control it? How will the content of its classes be decided on?

Who will control the money?

The “new”, “merged” SA will have substantial assets. The DSP owns its large, well-located national office building in Sydney and four other offices in Melbourne, Hobart, Newcastle and Perth. They would be worth many millions of dollars. In addition, the “merged” SA would have most of a $400,000 donation given by a minority comrade shortly before he was expelled from the DSP.

Who will now control the assets and that money? Will it be democratically controlled by the SA membership, soon to be the ex-DSP’s “only party”? Not likely. Will it be controlled by the existing DSP members at the time of the DSP’s dissolution? A special historical collegiate? That’s not likely either. Will it be controlled by a small leadership group around the current DSP national secretary, Peter Boyle? That’s the more likely option. In fact it’s shaping up to become a situation similar to the millions of dollars socked away in the defunct Communist Party of Australia’s Search Foundation.

The “merged” SA will not be short of money, and will be able to survive for many years on the assets built up by generations of DSP cadres. It will be able to continue to pay for a large number of full-time organisers. They will be able to continue to fund largish public conferences and meetings. It will be able to continue to publish a weekly paper, Green Left Weekly (although the dwindling sales will increasingly put this into question). But new SA members will feel no political desire or obligation to pledge large amounts of money each week, as members did in the old DSP. Nominal quarterly or yearly dues will more likely be the norm. So there will be a slow squeeze on the dwindling income as the assets are eaten into, and questions are sure to arise about control of the money.

Nearly all the current leaders of the SA are DSP members. The SA national executive, for example, sometimes meets with no non-DSP members in attendance. Sometimes there’s only a single token SA “independent”. No doubt in the “merged” SA, efforts will be made to increase the participation, certainly the profile, of non-DSP members, as has happened for many years. But no matter how much window dressing is added, the new SA leadership will be basically DSP members.

Eliminating the “two-party problem” — which has bedevilled the SA and DSP for the last six years — will no doubt give an initial boost to the tiring members of the DSP. But they’ve eliminated the problem with the totally wrong solution, and will soon be suffering from the political and organisational consequences.

Not unity, not regroupment, not an alliance

The DSP leadership claims that the SA is a form of left unity, a regroupment of socialists into a single organisation, but it is a very peculiar form of regroupment. It consists of one group — the DSP — that is regrouping with … itself! Almost all the decision-making bodies of SA consist of DSP members. All the other socialist groups have left. Most of the independents have left, with paper membership down from 2000 at its peak in 2002-03 to a bit over 400 now. The prominent trade union activists, such as Chris Cain and Craig Johnston, have left. By May 2008, the DSP leadership had expelled or forced out a quarter of the DSP membership (about a third of the active membership). So the membership of the DSP itself had shrunk by a third. And the DSP claim that they want to build SA as an inclusive organisation!

I can partly understand some of the thinking of long-time DSP members. Recent years have been slow politically in Australia. In most developed capitalist countries, the class struggle has been at a low ebb. DSP members feel the pressure of this (although the DSP leadership, in initiating the SA in 2001 and then deciding to function as an “internal tendency” in SA in 2003, predicated its decisions on an expectation that there were “significant leftward moving forces” that would cause the SA to grow significantly.)

Many DSP members have put in years or decades of committed struggle and sacrifice, and the struggle has been tiring and often frustrating. The SA “merger” option can be seen as bringing an easier life, even if the initially promised quick fixes haven’t occurred. And for some members it probably boils down to “What else can we do? There’s no alternative, we’ve tried the hard yakka of building a revolutionary socialist party, and this is all we can do now.”

It’s probably the case that many DSP members have adjusted to these lower expectations gradually. Over the past seven years they’ve adjusted to these different political perspectives bit by bit, and come to think it’s normal that the number of DSP activists keeps declining. It has been a gradual process of decline, and many haven’t stepped back to view the objective reality. Many believed the factional nonsense of the DSP leadership that the SA was on track, it was the only one possible course, the nay-sayers were just sectarians, and all was well in the best of all possible worlds.

But the facts are very clear: DSP membership has declined from a peak of 362 just after the beginning of the SA process in 2001 to around 230 today. DSP supporters and sympathisers are no more numerous today than they were before the launch of the SA. Green Left Weekly sales are about half what they were at the start of the SA process, and the number selling GLW each week is fewer than 90 (still nearly all DSP members), nearly half the number before the start of the SA project. The broad conferences that the DSP organised in the 1990s attracted nearly twice as many participants as did the DSP’s broad conference at Easter this year. SA election results are still tiny, no different from when the DSP stood for elections in its own name or as the Democratic Socialist Electoral League. Resistance is a hollow shell of its old self, no longer a vibrant, recruiting, active youth organisation.

Yet Boyle’s NC report still tries to portray the move to finally liquidate the DSP as a step forward, as though they were growing, and still tosses off phrases about a “union fight-back” in the face of the political reality of a near complete capitulation of the union officialdom to Rudd Labor’s pro-capitalist agenda.

In exchange for a declining DSP activist membership, and in exchange for junking the DSP program, what are DSP members offered? Just the will of the wisp hope that the Socialist Alliance by itself as a “broad” non-revolutionary party can somehow grow, which it hasn’t for the last six years, and magically transform into a real factor in Australian politics with those once-were-Marxists inside it pulling the strings. That’s a forlorn hope.

[John Percy was a founder of the DSP in 1972 and its national secretary 1991-2005. He was expelled from the DSP in 2008 and is now national secretary of the Revolutionary Socialist Party.]