Why are there so many socialist groups?

“Why can’t the left get together? Why are there so many different socialist groups?” Sometimes these questions are just an attempt to belittle the socialist left by right-wingers (who nevertheless think it perfectly normal that there should be many pro-capitalist parties). But it is also a serious question from unaffiliated leftists.

The fundamental reason that there are many socialist organisations is that there are many different ideas about how to achieve socialism. At first glance, it might seem a reasonable idea that everyone who shares the goal of socialism should unite in a single organisation. But what could such an organisation do in a united way? Some members would think that socialism only requires electing a majority of socialists to parliament while others might think that socialists should run in parliamentary elections only to propagandise their ideas of the need for socialist revolution. Some members would consider the ACTU and other union chiefs potential allies; other members would regard them as part of the problem. Such an organisation would contain all sorts of ideas even about what the organisation itself should try to be — does it seek to build a leadership for the working class, or is its aim only to unite various existing struggles as much as it can?

So “left unity”, if it’s that general, is too vague to mean much. But left unity to support a strike: that’s possible. Or left unity to build an anti-war demonstration can usually be achieved with a bit of effort and a willingness to compromise (because there may be different ideas of what the demands should be or where the demo should be held). If a campaign is ongoing, an organisation (campaign committee) may be formed as the vehicle for that instance of left unity. That is, if it is to be more than a pious wish, left unity has to be specific. This is important for revolutionary socialists because a general “left unity” is necessarily limited to the lowest common denominator. All the members of a “left unity” party might agree that socialist candidates should be supported ahead of the ALP or Greens in elections, but they won’t agree on what the candidate should say (or do, if he/she is elected).

The left of the “united” party may agree with the reformist demands of the right (although regarding them as inadequate as a solution to fundamental problems facing working people), but the right will refuse to agree to anything too radical. This is how “broad” parties can become traps that subordinate the left to the right. Anything too radical endangers “unity”. Another way to put it is that any left unity that is really useful will be unity in action. A “unity” of people who don’t agree on how to get where they want to go will tend to prevent action rather than assist it.

The question of left unity has arisen recently because on April 2 the Victorian Socialist Alliance (SA) began circulating a leaflet on the topic, the apparent intent being to encourage cooperation among socialist organisations in relating to the coming state elections and the federal election contest in Victoria. This is no doubt a desirable aim, but unfortunately the SA sought to advance it with mistaken arguments for “left unity” in general, which may do more harm than good.

Why is the left weak?

The SA leaflet points to the undoubted reality that the socialist left in Australia is far weaker than we all would like. However, it goes on to declare, without a hint of evidence, that the “key” reason for this weakness is that the left is “deeply divided and disunited”. The argument is that the left could be much larger and more effective merely by being more united. This is a rather lopsided view of the world.

The Australian political situation is determined by far more influential factors than the supposed failures of left parties. For at least three decades, since the ALP-ACTU Accord, there has been a steady retreat of the Australian union movement, with only occasional and partial attempts at resistance, which were smashed by the capitalist state (BLF, airline pilots). As a result, union membership is at the lowest level in a century and the working class has suffered setback after setback. Meanwhile, Australian capitalism has enjoyed unprecedented prosperity, based largely on the export of coal and iron ore to China and Japan. From the end of the 1991 recession until 2008, Australian capitalism underwent only one, relatively mild, recession. In the global crisis that erupted in 2008, Australia has been one of the least affected of the developed capitalist countries.

To these specific causes of political quiescence among working people we should add the more general factors that are common in imperialist countries: the existence of a privileged layer of workers, made possible by corporate super-profits; the division of the working class on sexual, racial, ethnic etc. lines; the prevalence of nationalism, with the accompanying idea that Australian bosses and workers share interests in common as against the workers of other nations, particularly the oppressed nations of the Third World.

In short, there are a host of objective circumstances that cause the socialist movement to be small in Australia today. Of course, the left can make the situation worse or less bad by behaving stupidly or cleverly. But it is pure pie in the sky to declare that “left unity” — or any other shibboleth — can bring a qualitative difference in socialist influence. The task for socialists today is not to pursue imagined short cuts to mass influence, but to gather the cadres and political resources that will be needed when objective circumstances push masses of working people into struggle. As history has shown repeatedly, such upsurges can occur very quickly.

Lessons of experience

Of course, if three or four socialist groups in a city unite to build a demonstration, it will usually be bigger than if only one group builds it. But everyday experience teaches that unity is no magic wand with which to conjure up mass support. For example, the Stop the War Coalition is a united action group involving most or all of the socialist organisations. Its demonstration on the seventh anniversary of the invasion of Iraq in March was certainly a worthwhile action. But it drew only 100 people in Sydney. The STWC action in Brisbane attracted only 30.

And there has been another, much more extensive, test of the idea that the kind of unity advocated by the SA can overcome the marginalisation of the left. That test is the SA itself. It was established by eight socialist groups in 2001 to run united socialist election campaigns. While it stuck with that objective, it won a greater hearing for socialist ideas, although it certainly did not achieve a mass following. However, even these limited gains were destroyed when the Democratic Socialist Party (later Democratic Socialist Perspective) in late 2003 decided to push the SA into becoming a single multi-tendency party. There was not sufficient agreement among the affiliated groups to make a united party realistic, and the result was not growth but the shrinking of the SA into the DSP and a few people it influenced. After nine years, the SA involves fewer active socialists than were in the DSP alone when the SA was established.

The DSP, which in January officially dissolved into the SA while maintaining its existence as a “non-caucusing tendency”, tries to avoid acknowledging this reality. Thus the SA website still describes the SA as being founded by eight socialist groups, and the Victorian leaflet declares: “As its name suggests, it is a coalition of socialists from a range of political backgrounds and traditions”. But neither the website nor the leaflet tells readers that seven of those founding groups pulled out of the SA years ago. The SA is no more a step towards left unity than any of the other socialist groups, and pretending that it is doesn’t aid real left unity.


According to the Victorian leaflet, the SA believes that “the differences which do exist [among socialist groups] can be contained within a single organisation”. This ignores reality. For example, the Socialist Alternative (SAlt) group while formally opposed to US threats against Cuba, considers Cuba to be a capitalist state and advocates a mass armed uprising to overthrow the Cuban government. The SA has policy of solidarity with Cuba against US threats, but it hasn’t adopted a position on supporting Cuba’s socialist revolution. Perhaps, therefore, the SA could co-exist with SAlt in a united organisation in regard to its policy toward Cuba. But how could the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), which regards the Cuban Revolution as an inspiring example to the working people of the world of socialist politics in action, get along in the same party with socialists who advocate the overthrow of the Cuban government?

Since the SA doesn’t have a program that explains how it thinks we can win socialism, perhaps it has no objection to unity with people who advocate the Communist Party of Australia program, which says that the road to socialism passes through a broad “people’s front” made up of socialists and nationalists (“patriots”) whose electoral victory will cause “parliaments and councils … [to] be transformed into institutions which take decisions and adopt laws expressing the will of the overwhelming majority of the people”. But how could those views be “contained” in the same party with the view that socialism can only be achieved through the revolutionary overthrow of the capitalist state, not an attempt to capture it through elections?

And socialists who believe that there are no “national” or cross-class solutions to capitalist economic crises would certainly not want to have as their spokesperson the SA’s Tim Gooden, the secretary of the Geelong and Region Trades and Labour Council. Gooden, with the evident approval of SA’s leaders, endorsed the “good programs” of the Geelong Manufacturing Council.The GMC is an employer-dominated body set up by the Australian Chamber of Manufactures (now the Australian Industry Group), the Geelong Development Board and the City of Greater Geelong. Gooden also called for “a single office front that can support all workers and businesses that are going through transition”.

Furthermore, at its seventh national conference, in January, the SA officially endorsed a cross-class business project, Hepburn Wind Co-operative Ltd, whose chairperson, Simon Holmes a Court (of the multi-millionaire Holmes a Court family) explained to ABC Radio’s AM program in 2008, “Like any business, we will, after we take our revenue in, we will pay out our expenses and what’s left over is profit … the majority of the profits will go to the individuals who invest in our co-operative”. With financial support from the Victorian Labor government and loans from the Bendigo and Adelaide banks, in February Hepburn Wind contracted to purchase two wind turbines from the German-based REpower Systems corporation, which in 2009 made a gross profit of 238 million. REpower Systems will also be contracted to provide the maintenance and service workers for the Hepburn wind farm.

If fundamentally different viewpoints on how to solve the climate change problem or any of the other problems generated by the capitalist profit system actually existed in a single organisation, it would create far more disunity than exists at present, as members of the one party publicly argued for competing and contradictory positions. Either that, or one of the viewpoints would have to decide not to propagate its views. Since the Victorian leaflet proclaims that the SA has “policy positions” but “is not an ‘ideological’ grouping”, perhaps that is what it has in mind.