Reflections on starting ‘anew’: some experiences from the Australian left

By Max Lane — It has been almost five years since I was expelled in 2008 with 35 others from the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) or “Perspective”, as it had become by then. (And I think there were another dozen or so who had to leave in other ways.) It was a sad, angry and frustrating moment. I joined the DSP in 1981. Of the 27 years I was a member, I spent more than 13 years in full-time political activity, organising and writing, and helping put out a newspaper.

All of us in the DSP, more than 300 of us by 2007, had built a small but still substantial activist left group, for most of the time grounded in a revolutionary political outlook, at least until 2005. While I had been involved in several different kinds of activities, as a party branch activist, party newspaper person and a national leader, most of my energies had been related to international solidarity, especially with the progressive and left movements in Indonesia, the Philippines and East Timor as well as the national liberation movement in East Timor.  This work, and a lot of work by other comrades, enabled us to help build some good campaigns in solidarity with East Timor and the Indonesian democratic movement against Suharto, as well as organize some great international conferences in Sydney in 1998, 2001, 2002 and 2005 — the Asia Pacific International Solidarity Conferences.

But in 2008, the 35 plus of us were out of the DSP, a party we had helped build, and starting again with our experience as our only resource. We had fought a five-year struggle against a trend heading towards liquidation of the party, but lost that battle. In January 2010, less than two years after we were expelled, the DSP dissolved itself into the Socialist Alliance, an organisation very different from the DSP, among other things, no longer basing itself on prioritising the public defence of revolutionary politics. Trying to build that new (from 2001) organisation became the activity of our former comrades. We had the task of starting “anew” on our own project.

Range of experience

I put “anew” in quotation marks for a number of reasons. As I mention above, I had been active for 27 years, concentrating on solidarity activity with East Timor, Indonesia and the Philippines. But among our 35 plus — soon boosted to more than 50 when others who had left the DSP in frustration earlier joined us — was a much broader range of experience. There were central leaders, even founders of the DSP, who had been active back in the ’60s, leaders in the anti-Vietnam War movement as well as in trade union struggles, all the time building the DSP. There were those who had been leaders of the party in their branches for decades as well as younger comrades who had been at the forefront of important campaigns and protests throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

So we started with a substantial base of experience; we weren’t building “anew” in that sense. In hindsight — pity that there are no time travel machines to accompany hindsight — we should have made more of that continuity. After a fairly spirited debate between supporters of two proposed names — “Socialist Renewal Group” and “Revolutionary Socialist Party” — RSP won by a slim margin. If we could go back and start over again, I think I would propose Democratic Socialist Party (Renewal). Such a decision might have helped us focus more on building on what we had already built and which had been forfeited in the liquidation of the DSP.

But in other respects we were starting from scratch. We had no financial resources to speak of. We had no political institutions or media that had any pre-existing authority. We would be up against Green Left Weekly, a newspaper whose authority we had helped win as writers and sellers between 1990 and 2008. We were fewer in number than the DSP before it dissolved or than Socialist Alternative, an organisation coming out of the International Socialist Tendency tradition of revolutionary politics.

During the period that the DSP had got caught in the trajectory towards dissolution into Socialist Alliance, it had neglected the work of building its long-term youth organisation, Resistance. Organizing on the campuses was all but abandoned and Socialist Alternative comrades rapidly filled the space, building themselves as the largest revolutionary left group by 2012, or even earlier. We weren’t starting anew under favourable conditions. And then there were other issues.

Search for a new perspective

I have no doubt whatsoever that the line of march we had been proposing for the DSP during the three years of internal struggle was correct and that had we been able to convince the majority of members of that perspective and re-launched the DSP on that basis, the organisation would be going well today, as a small but dynamic revolutionary group in the current desert that is Australian politics. However, a perspective of building something anew with 50 people and no resources or institutions would need to be different to that needed to continue building a party that had resources, profile, authority and more than 300 cadre. We struggled to come to grips with the new situation and to identify that new perspective. We had losses (of members) and setbacks, but managed to keep going, putting our viewpoint via a newspaper and website and with most of our members still involved in various kinds of political activity.

Our first attempt to generate some momentum and intervention on campus was to continue the work that had been started before 2008 of building solidarity with the Venezuelan socialist revolution, under the leadership of Hugo Chavez. International solidarity with the Sandinista revolutionaries in Nicaragua and with Indonesian and East Timorese progressive and national liberation movements had been an important part of our past experience and had helped attract people to the DSP’s previously revolutionary politics. Many DSP members had found the DSP as a result of that work.

A new revolution, as we could see was happening in Venezuela, would, we assessed, also attract interest from radical-minded young people in Australia and it would be a bridge to the RSP, as well as an activity worthy in its own right. But the Venezuelan revolution has not generated the same profile in Australia as the Sandinistas, nor has it involved Australian imperialism becoming directly involved in a high-profile way, as it was in the Indonesian and East Timorese cases. Interest is there, for sure, but not developing spontaneously on a scale such as that with East Timor, nor even the more modest scales of solidarity with the Sandinistas or the Indonesian left.

It would be a separate article to discuss the course of the Venezuelan revolution. I still agree with the analysis adopted by the DSP before its dissolution and by the RSP afterwards, that a revolutionary process had occurred in Venezuela establishing a revolutionary state power. I regard Hugo Chavez as a remarkable revolutionary leader. The course of the Venezuelan revolution has been unique, I think, compared with the socialist revolutions that have gone before it. It did not develop into a conventional war and thus has not resulted in the physical smashing of the capitalist class or its old civil service.

It was a military war in Russia as well as in Cuba that meant the revolution not only defeated the capitalist class, but also destroyed it. In the wake of that destruction, the dictatorship of the proletariat was a strong dictatorship over the remnant capitalists. No such transformation into all-out military confrontation has occurred in Venezuela. Neither does it appear that either side in the class struggle wants to bring one on, and I think both sides have good reason not to want to do so. So Venezuela is a revolutionary workers state, but a weak one, able to defeat (take all initiative away from) the capitalist class, but not destroy it. And, of course, there is no “revolutionary Germany” or even a Stalinist super-power, to assist — only tiny Cuba.

This thesis can be elaborated in another article; the relevance here is that the revolutionary process in Venezuela is a slow and gruelling one as are all the steps there in building socialism, empowering the working masses and improving the material conditions of life.  A gruelling slow paced revolution, in a far off country not yet directly involving Australian imperialism, has less of a radicalizing impact here, despite the very large and inspiring mobilisations of popular support for Chavez and the revolution.

We tried concentrating our efforts in this area, and it didn’t work. Perhaps we could have worked harder, mobilized more of our resources, but I think it was the situation I outlined above that was the fundamental problem. There was a debate over how to assess all of this. We lost some great comrades, mostly in Sydney, who disagreed with a re-assessment, who had done good work in the RSP, not to mention in the DSP before that.

We had always assessed that the level of class struggle politics — and therefore general spontaneous radicalisation (even politicisation generally) — was also very low, and between 2008 and 2011 that seemed to worsen. Strikes, even union membership, have dropped. Rallies and mobilisations are smaller and not sustained. The ruling class is having its way for the moment.

Attrition

For a very small group, starting “anew” in such a situation — where there were no significant developing campaigns and movements — the starting point for political activity of members became: do it where you can, where you are at. The main nationally coordinated political activity that we carried out was the publication and distribution of our newspaper, Direct Action, and the distribution of its articles via the internet. Members did what they could at the city level, coordinating where they had a few people involved in the same area of work.

For myself, I concentrated on writing and, where possible, trying to intervene in campus intellectual life, introducing progressive perspectives through seminar series and public lectures, inviting socialist and progressive speakers. Other comrades have played leading roles in Palestinian solidarity work, in the unions — especially in West Australia — in environmental work, in solidarity with the Cuban and Vietnamese revolutions, in refugee work and so on. RSP comrades, where possible, have related also to the brief flare-ups, such as with Occupy protests that happened in Australian cities after Occupy Wall Street in New York.

Still, it was only the newspaper and website that constituted a nationally coordinated activity. It was frustrating for all of us to lack the capacity for collective concentration of effort and intervention, especially as we had all experienced it and appreciated it from our time in the DSP. We lost some more good comrades, mostly based in Brisbane, who, I think, thought we were floundering too much. Our newspaper and media work was disrupted at this time also.

But by August this year, we were on track to get the newspaper and website publishing again. All the frustrations were still there and we were all exercising our minds vigorously how to push things forward. There were about 30 of us at this point.

Opportunities

As frustrating as some of our experiences had been, and as arid as the Australian political landscape appeared, it was clear there was still a lot a small group could do. In some respects, the political desert meant there would be those thirsting for an oasis, looking for ideas that could help find the solutions to the crap situation faced by a majority of people in Australia, not to mention the horrors faced by almost 3 billion people in the underdeveloped, former colonial world and the tens of millions shoved to the bottom of the heap in the failed rich economies of North America and Europe.

The RSP comrades had a lot of work they could do (and still must do) in creating those oases of ideas, while, where some of us can, helping build campaigns and actions, or rebuilding activist membership of unions. The RSP scheduled a congress to facilitate re-thinking of how to carry out this work. There was a lot of thinking and re-thinking going on, including chatting with others outside the organisation, including members of other groups.

Sometimes the twists and turns of politics surprise you. Sometimes it is a bitter surprise: I would never have thought I would have to fight so hard against people who had been comrades and friends in the DSP and that I would have to leave an organisation I had dedicated 27 years to build. Neither would I have predicted that it would have been rejection of a central tenet of Leninism — as a doctrinaire “ism” — that could have opened a new possibility for furthering the development of a revolutionary socialist party in Australia.

Conversations with Socialist Alternative

For various reasons — the urgings of a former RSP member as well as friendly approaches by members of Socialist Alternative — there were conversations between RSP members and Socialist Alternative members, including early on when an RSP member raised it with Socialist Alternative members at the time of the Max Brenner occupations. Socialist Alternative had grown to at least 200-300 people while we had struggled to start anew. They came from a different socialist tradition and had a different style to us. We had many theoretical differences on quite important issues, as they relate to both Australian politics and international politics. We had been rivals, sometimes caustic rivals, in the past, and the differences we had meant that there would probably be important debates in the future.

I had thought that unity with them would never work. Marxist groups espouse democratic centralism, which meant that what we had to say that was different would never be heard outside, if we merged. However, it turned out, that Socialist Alternative held the view that small groups, still at an embryonic stage, should not enforce strict democratic centralism. This is what their comrades said, and when I checked, it was what was in their constitution and some of their other documents.

Individual members could express differences with the majority publicly. For myself, this made a big difference in thinking through any possible merger, which is now the process that is underway. And not just because I and others would be able to express publicly those differences we had, when it was necessary. It reflected, as far as I could tell from all the exchanges that followed, a democratic attitude towards the handling of differences, of comradely respect, based on a clear shared goal, both immediate and long term.

Shared goal

Sharing a “long-term” (as Lenin learned after 1914, long-term can shorten quickly) goal — e.g. socialism — is easy. The immediate goal is the key thing and the immediate goal that was clearly shared was the creating, as quickly as conditions allowed, of a revolutionary Marxist cadre party prioritizing winning people to its politics, by publicly presenting those politics in the here and now — and by doing that wherever possible in conjunction with intervening in and helping build campaigns.

Of course, the project that a merger proposes will be complicated. Never mind: what isn’t complicated? No doubt exploring and understanding that aspect will come later. And the merger is still yet to be consummated.

The key things are the many revolutionary oases that are needed, and their nature. They have to be created pretty much from scratch also, though there is an incredibly rich heritage and history to draw on. In some respects, the whole left is starting anew, with a heritage from the past as its main resource. But all the oases must be revolutionary.

A part of the defeats and setbacks that the revolutionary left has experienced over the last 100 years have meant a process of decline — wherein various ideas that have become specific to traditions have tended towards becoming fossilized (despite the short time involved). Hostilities between organized currents in a period of rising class struggle, as strong revolutionary, centrist and reformist leaderships emerge and clash, are different than the hostilities that emerge in a period of decline, retreats and setbacks.

It can be desperately necessary to defeat a misleadership in a period of rising class combat. Often, hostilities between currents trying to defeat each other in a period of decline are counter-productive. It is not that wrong ideas stop needing to be defeated or corrected, but that that process needs to be separated from intent to defeat (i.e. politically eliminate or marginalize) rival alternative currents among those trying to build revolutionary organisations. Such an approach produces oases full of stagnant water; what is needed urgently now are oases bursting with flowing, sparkling water. (And tepid brackish water is no better than stagnant water here either.)

At this point in our situation, comradely and serious debate and exchange of ideas in an effort to understand how to restart more substantially the extremely difficult task of building a revolutionary party is what will be needed for those fresh waters to spring forth. And that, combined with activity and youth, is what will attract more people thirsting for such.

Slavoj Zizek was right, I think, to write his piece “How To Begin From The Beginning” drawing on “Lenin’s Notes of a Publicist” article. The spirit in this sentence from Lenin — “Communists who have no illusions, who do not give way to despondency, and who preserve their strength and flexibility ‘to begin from the beginning’ over and over again in approaching an extremely difficult task, are not doomed (and in all probability will not perish)” — is the spirit we need today.

These short reflections don’t go anywhere near capturing all that needs to be said about 2008-2012, or 1981-2012 — so more later, I hope. (These notes are written as an individual. They may, or may not, express views the same as other members of the RSP.)

Direct Action — October 14, 2012