Australian left in crisis

Submitted by cathy n on 11 January, 2006 - 4:34

The largest activist group on the Australian left, the Democratic Socialist Party, is in crisis over its policy towards the Socialist Alliance.
At the DSP congress, in the first week of January, its long-time leader, John Percy, and its longstanding chief theorist, Doug Lorimer, were ousted from key positions, defeated by the supporters of Peter Boyle, who argues that the DSP can build the Socialist Alliance, and a network of trade unionists more or less sympathetic to it, into a big force in the Australian labour movement.
According to Bob Gould, a hostile but often well-informed observer, the DSP saw "a veritable political explosion... frantic factional activity... more than 100 new contributions submitted to the DSP internal bulletin" in the few weeks before its congress. The DSP, a broadly Castroite grouping, has previously run a relatively "tight ship", with disputes and splinters confined to small minorities.
Boyle's claims read like a less crude version of what the SWP in Britain used to claim for the Socialist Alliance in England, or (minus the Galloway factor) what it claims for Respect.
Percy and Lorimer reply that in fact the Socialist Alliance amounts to little more than the DSP and a scattering of unaffiliated activists close to it, and meanwhile the DSP and its once fairly successful youth group Resistance are sagging. They call for "re-cadre-isation" of the DSP.
The Australian Socialist Alliance was launched in 2001, on the initiative of the DSP and with the participation of almost all other groups on the activist left in Australia. So far as one can tell, the DSP saw the example of the Socialist Alliance in England (then at its peak) as one it could seize in order to hegemonise the whole Australian left, including the ISO (the "official" Australian offshoot of the SWP) which was then the DSP's main rival in attracting young revolutionaries.
Much has been made in recent comments on the Australian left about the DSP's alleged bureaucratism in the Socialist Alliance. In recent times especially, entrenched DSP majorities in local Socialist Alliance branches have flatly blocked suggestions from non-DSPers seen to be somehow not on the overall DSP/SA "line".
In general, however, the DSP has the same right as any other tendency - and indeed the duty, if it takes its ideas seriously - to try to hegemonise the left. Also, all things considered, the DSP has been much more liberal and open in its approach than the SWP ever was in the British Socialist Alliance. The problems are more fundamental.
In essence, the DSP's strength over the last couple of decades has been its ability to recruit a steady stream of high school and university students and retain and train a significant proportion of them to create a well-functioning "party machine". It acquired the skills and organisation for running DSP election campaigns, though as modest affairs, geared more to publicising the DSP among left-minded people than to addressing the whole electorate. Those strengths are not to be sneered at.
Trouble is, the DSP has tried to transpose those skills and techniques directly into a different project - building and promoting the SA as a supposed "broad left" of the Australian labour movement. The DSP has played not to its own strengths, but to its weaknesses. If the DSP thought that the Iraq anti-war movement showed that it could make the qualitative leap forward into becoming that broad working-class left, then it was trading on illusions, probably generated by the inadequacies of its own international perspectives.
The Australian Socialist Alliance's electoral results have been almost uniformly bad. Scores of less than one per cent are normal, despite Australia having a preference-voting system which allows people to vote for a minority party number one and a bigger party number two. The SA has done worse, for example, than the much smaller Australian Socialist Party (an offshoot of the Socialist Party in England). Since the SA was originally promoted as an electoral alliance, such scores have reduced its attractive power. The SA election campaigns have been dominated by the DSP, and run much as DSP election campaigns have been, for the obvious reason that the DSP is the force in the SA with the organisation and the established techniques to do election work.
By contrast, the Scottish Socialist Party, promoted by the DSP as a model of what might be achieved by the SA ("new mass workers' party"), has owed much of its growth to effective election campaigns, starting from a pretty good base.
The result has been a vicious circle, where the smaller groups in the SA become increasingly disenchanted, and the DSP becomes increasingly impatient about deferring to allies which are not only much smaller than it but also visibly less and less enthusiastic about the SA. The SA has become a blurred second edition of the DSP, unattractive to anyone who is not already close to the DSP. The DSP - despite saying it wants the SA to become a "multi-tendency socialist party", and changing its name to "Democratic Socialist Perspective" (supposedly it is now only a "tendency in the Socialist Alliance", not a "party") - has not been able to do with the SA what Scottish Militant Labour (now renamed ISM) did with the Scottish Socialist Party, i.e. hegemonise the activist left and reinvent itself as the core of a broader movement.
The ISO was initially a substantial counterweight to the DSP within the SA. For its own reasons, it has declined a lot since 2001. It now does little inside the Socialist Alliance, and not much outside it either. Three "unofficial" pro-SWP groups exist in Australia, none of which are active in the SA. One of them, Socialist Alternative, has become much bigger than the ISO, by a relentless early-1990s-SWP-style focus on "party-building".
Although the SSP lacks systematic trade-union work, it does have many prominent trade unionists who are active members. The Australian Socialist Alliance, by contrast, operates alongside a fairly substantial trade-union left in Australia which is still closely tied to the Australian Labor Party. The DSP has some respected trade union activists of its own, and one prominent non-DSP trade unionist, Craig Johnston of the AMWU, has supported the Socialist Alliance (without actively participating in it); but that's about all.
The DSP's notion that the Australian Labor Party is dead for working-class politics, fundamentally no different from the Liberals (Tories), was developed around the time of the emergence of the Nuclear Disarmament Party in 1984-5, continued through the years when it looked like some large "new left party" might emerge from the wreckage of the old Communist Party of Australia, and has "stuck" ever since, despite all evidence to the contrary. That has been a major factor in the DSP's and the SA's inability to construct rational perspectives.
Martin Thomas

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