[Tim Anderson has written some thoughts on the prospects for unity on the Australian left. I thought I may as well republish it here as it's of spotterly interest. See also : Left Unity (You Are My Destiny) [Trot Guide December 2012 Update], December 19, 2012.]
‘Left Unity’ or reshuffling the deck? a critical review in light of the history of Socialist Alternative and the Socialist Alliance
‘Left unity’ is a great idea, but we need some critical history to appreciate just who is ‘talking the talk’ and what might be possible.
The latest proposal for ‘left unity’ in Australia follows the absorption of the tiny Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) by the Socialist Alternative (SAlt) group, with the Socialist Alliance (SA) waiting in the wings, contemplating joining in.
These three groups (and several other fragments) come from two currents which began in the late 1960s and early 1970s: (i) the International Socialist Organisation (ISO), of which SAlt is the largest remaining fragment, and (ii) the Socialist Alliance, formerly the Democratic Socialist Party (from which the RSP came), and which back in the 1970s and 1980s was called the Socialist Workers Party (SWP). Both Marxist currents have self-identified, at different times, as Trotskyist and ‘Leninist’. There are several other tiny Trotskyist parties in Australia, but these two have been the largest of the Marxist groupings, outside the older Communist parties. Both have their own histories of splits and reformations.
In the last decade alone the two groups have claimed to be engaged in three distinct ‘left unity’ processes. First was a failed attempt by the DSP-dominated Socialist Alliance to swallow up the fragments of the ISO, as the latter collapsed. Next there was the 2008 absorption into ‘Solidarity’ of three fragments of the ISO: Solidarity, Socialist Action and what remained of the ISO. A decade on, the tables were turned and the SA (DSP) had less members than SAlt. This latest ‘left unity’ claim, in 2013, is an attempt by SAlt (the largest remaining fragment of the ISO) to absorb both the RSP and all or part of the SA.
Let me make a personal declaration here. I was never a member of either group, but have worked with them both, over more than 30 years. I wrote a column from prison for the ISO paper in the late 1970s, worked alongside the SWP/DSP in various solidarity campaigns in the 1980s, but also backed the ISO in their Austudy Five campaign, in the early 1990s. I have worked for three decades with the SWP/DSP/SA on solidarity with the progressive Latin American peoples and governments (particularly Nicaragua, Cuba and Venezuela). I worked with both groups in anti-war campaigns, but recently fell out with both after they (in my view, stupidly and tragically) backed the war on Syria, by repeating the claim that, behind the coalition of imperial powers and reactionary local forces (i.e. the sectarian Muslim Brotherhood): (i) a genuine ‘revolution’ is taking place in Syria and (ii) implicitly, the Syrian nation is not worth defending. To me, this was a terrible betrayal of the Syrian people who, to this day, mostly back a unified and secular nation.
The ISO grew out of anti-Vietnam war activists in the early 1970s, as the ‘Marxist Workers Group’ and soon after the International Socialists (IS). There were US but also British Trotskyist influences, with some links to the Trotskyist Fourth International. This meant the group was strongly opposed to the Soviet Union, but (according to one of the founders, Tom O’Lincoln) adopted the ‘Leninist’ idea of a ‘disciplined’ and ‘revolutionary vanguard’ party – i.e. a small group that would lead others, as had Lenin’s Bolsheviks.
O’Lincoln admits some elements of ‘self-isolating sectarianism’, and a failed ‘industrialisation’ strategy, where the IS tried to gain influence in the unions. The group became influenced by British Trotskyist (and founder of the British SWP, not to be confused with the US or Australian SWPs) Tony Cliff’s idea of ‘state capitalism’, where capitalism remains even if industry is state owned. This in turn links to the idea of capitalism as a global system which cannot be defeated in any particular country – hence an ‘international socialism’ which is against nationalist reforms and which sees socialist revolution as a global project. The significance of this is that the ISO ideology has remained implacably against any progressive state, from Revolutionary Cuba (the ISO claims there was no revolution in Cuba, or China) Allende’s Chile or Venezuela led by Hugo Chavez. The idea has created a type of anarcho-syndicalism, against state power and for abstract ‘workers struggles’.
The DSP/Socialist Alliance, for its part, also came from anti-war activists in the 1960s, but was influenced more by the US Trotskyists. As the Australian Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the group was part of the Trotskyist Fourth International until 1986, running a paper called Direct Action. The SWP never gained significant influence in any Australian trade union because, like the ISO, they were seen as sectarian – committed to secret caucusing in attempts to take over new and popular campaigns, and so build their own party. This is a significant failure for any Marxist group, which pretends to be leading working class struggles. The group was headed by Jim Percy until his premature death in 1992, when his brother John took over.
Like many other Trotskyist parties the Australian SWP had opposed the Allende Government in Chile, when it was under attack from the CIA and reactionary forces at home. The CIA plans had included backing transport workers strikes against Allende, to give the impression of widespread revolt against this democratic and radical government. Reflection on the bloody dictatorship that followed Allende in Chile must have been an important factor in the SWP eventually (in 1986) leaving the Fourth International and committing itself to support for struggles in ‘third world’ countries, where (it was recognised) there might be distinct processes of change to those anticipated by western Marxists (see Riddell 2013). The SWP (as also the Communist Party of Australia, and others) began to support the Sandinista Revolutionary Government in Nicaragua, and other progressive struggles in Latin America. The group looked to recruit in the growing green movement, renaming its paper Green Left Weekly. In the early 1990s the group was renamed the Democratic Socialist Party.
These two currents had always competed for members, but began some talks in the late 1990s, as the ISO was breaking up. This led to the formation of the ‘Socialist Alliance’ in 2001. The ISO had gained new members during protests against the first Gulf War (1990-91) and during the Austudy Five campaign (early 1990s), where five ISO members had been singled out for prosecution after a student rally in Melbourne. Yet all these gains fell away when Australian members rallied against directives from their parent group, the British SWP. Between 1993 and 1995 a fairly large group of ISO members were expelled; many formed a new group, Socialist Alternative. Yet this break was more to do with tactics and organisation, and did not represent a rejection of the principles of international socialism, nor of the doctrine of ‘state capitalism’.
The SAlt way of operating, however, seems not to have changed much. A decade later, considerable numbers of members in Brisbane and Sydney resigned from Socialist Alternative. The following resignation letter from six Sydney members is worth quoting at some length, for the continuity it suggests with the practices of old ISO:
‘The group has slid further and further, under the leadership of Mick [Armstrong], Sandra [Bloodworth] and Diane [Fieldes – all three former ISO leaders] into abstract propagandism … a political state reminiscent of the extreme sectarianism of the 1980s ‘gung-ho’ period of the International Socialists … The list of common symptoms of this approach from the 1980s and today is uncanny: an unjustified hostility to the left, and suspicion of members who are integrated into the left socially and politically .. manipulation of internal democracy … the use of a gossip network to demonise critical members, right down to tailing members to stop them meeting with other members … the NE [National Executive] has proven [a] compete lack of interest in conducting a comradely debate … and has preferred to resort to demonization: [calling other members] wreckers, right wingers, swamp dwellers, disgusting, degenerate, anti-Leninist, ex-revolutionaries, movementists, liquidationists, economists, dishonest, gutless … The Socialist Alternative NE have proven themselves to be completely incapable of developing an organisation that can ever rise above the level of a sect.’ (Marc N et al 2004).
Members continued to leave the old ISO. A group of 21 resigned in 2003, criticising the ISO for ‘heavy handed organisational measures’, allowing only ‘limited discussions’, and having inflated ideas about ‘leading the movement’. However the group held to ‘the fundamental politics that distinguishes the International Socialist tendency (Emilie Awbery et al 2003). Some of these (notably Ian Rintoul, Mark Goudkamp and Jean Parker) formed a small group called Solidarity, while others were attracted to the DSP proposal in 2001 for a ‘Socialist Alliance’ (SA). However most of these ex-ISO members had left the SA by 2004 or 2005, citing ‘DSP hegemony’ (e.g. Michael Thomson in 2004, David Lockwood in 2005). The Solidarity group did not form a party, but carried on activities in support of refugees, over student issues on campus (the traditional recruiting ground for the ISO) and amongst some anarchists. In 2008, in a claimed show of ‘left unity’, some of the remnants of the defunct ISO and Socialist Action joined Solidarity.
Meantime there had been defections, and a significant split was looming, in the DSP. This group eventually reamed itself the Socialist Alliance, even though the ‘alliance’ lost almost all its non-DSP members. Sean Healy, a DSP activist for 15 years, resigned in 2003 citing a lack of space for ‘principled difference’ within the party. He said ‘the price of the party’s ‘high degree of political homogeneity and centralisation is an intellectual culture of conformity … real dialogue … is simply impossible’ (Healy 2003). He received responses from National Secretary John Percy and DSP leader Peter Boyle. A few years later John Percy would lead a group out of a Peter Boyle-led DSP. This sub-group had formed a caucus within the DSP and the members were subsequently expelled for breach of party discipline. Differences centred around the issue of maintaining a ‘Socialist Alliance’ which had lost almost all its non-DSP members, but probably also a style of rapidly jumping on new issues, as a means of chasing new recruiting grounds. The DSP had become a ‘perspective’ instead of a ‘party’, in deference to the new and supposedly wider ‘Alliance’, and eventually morphed totally into the Socialist Alliance (SA). The SA ran candidates for election, with generally poor results; although they did get one local councillor elected in WA and one in Victoria.
Nevertheless, in 2008 John Percy and a fair number of the DSP’s old guard, along with some other relatively experienced activists, formed the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP). The RSP decide to focus on solidarity with the Latin American revolutions of Cuba and Venezuela and, to that extent, remained engaged with the Socialist Alliance. The RSP also resurrected the old SWP newspaper Direct Action. However interest in the party flagged rapidly and in 2012 it began a process of merging with Socialist Alternative.
That brings us back to the ‘left unity’ claims of 2013. The earlier ‘unity’ attempts left their imprint on the groups. For example, those who look closely will see that the Socialist Alliance policy on Cuba supports that country’s sovereignty and opposes US attacks, but does not support or defend the Cuban Revolution (SA c2013). This is significantly weaker than the practice of many SA activists, some of whom express enthusiastic support for Cuba. There is a reason for that difference. The SA was created to attract others from the Trotskyist tradition who accept the theory of ‘state capitalism’, and claim that no socialist revolution occurred in Cuba. A weaker policy (most conservative governments also oppose the US blockade of Cuba, voting in favour of a Cuban motion at the UN every year) would not alienate these potential new party members. Yet those same people had already abandoned the Socialist Alliance.
On the Socialist Alternative side, their yearly intake of new student members (most of whom do not last very long) had given them the upper hand in ‘merger’ talks. They were seen as winning a numbers game, as the SA declined. They saw a need to ‘hold off’ their ‘state capitalism’ attacks, so as not to alienate potential new members who had supported Venezuela and Cuba. They did not change their ‘international socialist’ view, but at the SAlt conference of December 2012 they decided: ‘that a vote on this question [that ‘all countries’ are capitalist] not be taken as it could only be read as a signal that the organisation was hostile to people joining who did not agree with us on these questions’ (SAlt 2012). The context was the absorption of the tiny RSP group, and ongoing talks with the DSP/Socialist Alliance. Yet the old guard of the SAlt has held its ‘state capitalist’ views for more than 30 years – why would they change, particularly when they feel they have ‘the upper hand’?!
This article has provided some background to the latest ‘left unity’ scenario, especially for those who have not observed the various splits and the sectarianism over the years. As an internationalist I have preferred to work with the DSP current (despite their ‘build the party’ caucusing and obsessiveness) because it opened up the possibility of genuine solidarity with actual international struggles, and the defence of post-colonial achievements. ‘Social democracy’ carries some baggage amongst western Marxists, from debates a century ago; but it is precisely the possibilities of social democracy (including the basics, like accessing a decent education and health care) that matter to ordinary people. The breakthroughs, actual achievements and new ideas coming from Venezuela, for example, are of far greater significance and appeal than the millenarian ideas of fundamentalist Marxists. Yet a ‘lowest common denominator’ ultra-left politics has destroyed support for Syria just as it undermined it for Cuba and would likely undermine it for Venezuela, were there to be a Socialist Alternative – Socialist Alliance merger.
Based on the above history, I venture two propositions: (i) it seems unlikely that any lasting ‘unity’ can result from a merger of the fragments of previous splits, with such a history of competitive and at times fanatical party sectarianism; (ii) while there is some common ground between the groups in terms of Marxist rhetoric, the ideological clash between those who support the theory of ‘state capitalism’ (an intransigent global system which must be ‘smashed’) versus the idea of working in solidarity with independent and diverse nation-states (created by former colonies) has no real resolution. The question of who holds ‘the correct line’, along with some more practical sympathies, seem sure to get in the way. In any case, the ‘left’ is a much larger creature than either of these two small, competitive groups. We should not lose sight of that basic fact.
Emilie Awbery and 20 others (2003) ‘Letter of resignation from the International Socialist Organisation (Australia)’, May 25, online: http://members.optushome.com.au/spainter/ISOresignations.html
John Percy (2005) Resistance: a history of the Democratic Socialist Party and Resistance: 1965-72, Resistance Books
John Ridell (2013) ‘Salvador Allende, Cuba and internationalism, 1970–73’, Links, January 6, online: http://links.org.au/node/3175
Marc N and five others (2004) ‘Letter of resignation from the Socialist Alternative, August 25, 2004’, online: http://members.optushome.com.au/spainter/Saltresignation.html
Sean Healy (2003) ‘Sean Healy’s resignation letter’, January, online: http://members.optushome.com.au/spainter/resignations.html
SA (c2013) Policy on solidarity with Cuba, online: http://www.socialist-alliance.org/page.php?page=215
SAlt (2013) ‘Conference votes to push forward with uniting revolutionary left’, 15 Dec, online: http://www.sa.org.au/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=7610:conference-votes-to-push-forward-with-uniting-revolutionary-left&Itemid=546
Tom O’Lincoln (c2002) ‘Marching Down Marx Street, the International Socialists in Australia, 1972-1992’, online: redsites.alphalink.com.au/marching.rtf