The Australian Socialist Alliance meets for its second national conference on 9-11 May in Melbourne. The Australian Alliance was founded in July 2001. Its main components are the activist left groups: Democratic Socialist Party (DSP, Castroite), International Socialist Organisation (ISO, linked to SWP in Britain), Workers' Liberty and others.
It has done a bit better than the English Alliance at recruiting unaffiliated socialists and establishing democratic structures, but its electoral scores have been poor.
The May conference convenes among flux and crisis. A significant group of "independent" members has made a call for the Alliance to move from being a primarily electoral front to being a "multi-tendency socialist party". Workers' Liberty and the DSP have long been in favour of such a move, though with differences on the details.
The ISO, however, vehemently opposes the move, and has indicated that it may pull out if the conference votes for it.
Janet Burstall of Workers' Liberty has written an Open Letter to the ISO. Excerpts below:
The ISO is seriously considering pulling out of the Socialist Alliance. The advantages they expected are not there. There have not been hundreds, let alone thousands of independents ready and willing to be activated in a broader left "electoral united front". This did not happen in the 2001 Federal election, and has not changed substantially during the subsequent state elections in NSW, Victoria and Tasmania.
The post-mortem on electoral weakness is not helped by the DSP's dogged Pollyanna insistence that the SA is making great gains when it gets at best just over two per cent of the vote, and often less than one per cent.
The DSP's organisational machine is far more efficient and effective than the ISO's; the DSP's commitment to the SA has enabled it to mobilise DSPers behind and within the Alliance. Saturday morning DSP stalls, selling [the DSP paper] Green Left Weekly have been renamed SA stalls, without any real change in who staffs them or their operation...
Does the DSP respect the difference between itself and the Alliance? No. Does the DSP sometimes claim to speak on behalf of the Alliance when really it is speaking for the DSP? Yes!
Has the ISO in the Alliance complained about the DSP's blurring of the boundaries? Yes. Has the ISO presented an overall alternative more democratic mode of operation? No. Has the ISO challenged the DSP's taken for granted politics by proposing alternative policies, and addressed these to the ranks of the Alliance? No.
If the ISO quits the Alliance by the end of May... this will not solve the ISO's stagnation and impotence that has dogged it within the Alliance. It will be quitting without a conscious and clear battle for its own politics having been fought with the rest of the SA membership including the DSP, or for a more constructive alternative for the left and the Alliance.
The ISO does not really believe in reformist electoral politics, and if the ISO leaves the SA in order to insist that the SA limits itself to electoral reformism, then the ISO is selling its members and its ideas short. Perhaps the problem, though is that if anyone in the ISO has any worked out perspective for what they think is right for the Socialist Alliance (rather than to reject any other proposals to develop the Alliance), no one outside the ISO seems to know what it is.
The ISO's claimed perspective for the SA - "an electoral united front" - is ill conceived for at least two reasons.
- It has been to treat voting in parliamentary elections as if it were an action campaign, seeking to win particular demands or changes. But the politics of government is not like that - it is programmatic, all-encompassing, not at all like typical... single or limited issue campaigns.
- Even if thousands of new, non-affiliated, dissatisfied ex-Labor voters flocked to the Alliance, on the basis of a terrific list of reforms, how would the Alliance then be equipped to educate, organise and cohere them? What would then constitute a project that was going somewhere, that would not be just more of the same?
What does the ISO think is the role of ideas in the struggle for socialism? The ISO seems to wish that it could just be activist, as militantly as possible as the mood of the period allows, without having to mess around wasting time with the rest of the left. Indeed when it was possible in the early 1980s to organise rank and file leftists in the ALP the ISO didn't want to do that either. And the ISO's willingness to work with rank and file groups in unions has often been conditional on there being no electoral challenges for union office. All in all, it adds up to a picture of the ISO being shy to really pursue its ideas in any forum where they could be forcefully or intelligently challenged. This is... sectarianism in the sense of refusing to engage with the real movement. The ISO generally prefers the word "sectarian" to mean smaller than the ISO, and also the insistence on debating ideas.
Unfortunately this also means that where the ISO tradition has had the weight (especially its fraternal organisation in Britain) it hasn't hesitated to throw that weight around, in much the same manner as the ISO feels that the DSP is doing in the SA.
We would like to be able to ally with the ISO in some debates in the Socialist Alliance - on an insistence that socialism comes from below; that socialism can only be made by the organised workers; that Stalinism, even in its Cuban variant, represented no kind of socialism; that we must orient patiently towards the mass labour movement, not thinking we can bypass it by means of this or that radical current on the streets.
Workers' Liberty urges ISO members to hold off on disaffiliation from the Alliance and to give serious consideration to:
- what commitments would a party of and for working class struggle need to make in Australia today?
- what is the ISO's alternative perspective for contributing to creating such a party...
- what are the underlying issues and differences between the ISO and the other Alliance affiliates, and what programme of discussion could help to clarify and resolve these?
- what organisational conditions and structure for the Alliance would make it possible to continue to work together, whilst allowing both the Alliance and affiliates to continue to make progress and promote their own ideas?