An on going debate has been taking place in the workers movement as to which is the best way forward towards building a new workers party. The Democratic Socialist Perspective (DSP) in particular have had lengthy debates about the future of the Socialist Alliance project. The Socialist Party has produced this document as a contribution to that debate.
There is a discussion inside the Democratic Socialist Perspective (DSP) about the Socialist Alliance (SA). Workers and youth who are desperately hoping for some real leftwing alternative to the ALP can learn many political lessons from a study of this debate.
Just as a tradespersons’ work is only as good as their tools, so also in politics ideological clarity and a study of the historic experiences of our movement is as vital to success as commitment and organisation.
This Socialist Party (SP) statement is aimed at achieving a clearer view of how workers can best create a new workers’ party, based on the experiences of Socialist Alliance.
Prior to the public release of the January 2006 DSP Conference Resolution, ‘DSP – SA relations’, it seemed that there were two clear factions inside this party. There was a minority, led by the now deposed National Secretary John Percy, who argued that the SA experiment was seriously undermining DSP strength.
Percy wrote recently: “Resistance (DSP’s youth wing) is probably now the weakest in our history … We can’t put the blame on objective circumstances. Idiots like SAlt have been able to grow … We’ve just had the smallest Resistance conference since our founding national conference in 1970…We’re almost back to the level, just over 1000 sales, that Direct Action was in the late’80s, when we made the switch to GLW (it was just under 1000). The average number of sellers is falling.”
Percy drew the empirical conclusion that the DSP should pull out of SA and concentrate on building their own party. It initially seemed that the DSP majority, led by Peter Boyle, simply wanted to keep on with the SA experiment, with an optimistic perspective that SA would grow and make electoral breakthroughs as the ALP and Greens politically exposed themselves in the period ahead.
However the resolution (which was passed unanimously; the minority lost 3 to 1 an amendment to change the party’s name back to Party instead of Perspective) shows that even the majority have now decided to greatly reduce their work in SA.
In words, they continue to genuflect before the idea of SA strength. Peter Boyle’s letter to the SA National Executive states: “Congress assessed that the SA is well placed to advance (campaigns) and that continuing to champion left unity through SA and beyond is vital to improving the chances of turning the tide in favour of the working class and building a strong anti-capitalist movement in Australia.”
However the DSP resolution clearly points to the opposite conclusions. The key points in the resolution are:
1.”…despite our best efforts, over the past two years we have not been able to build the Socialist Alliance into an effective new party “.
2.”While the Socialist Alliance has fielded candidates in state, local and federal elections, the votes obtained have generally been lower than that previously obtained by Democratic Socialist Electoral League and other socialist candidates. This generally poor result, combined with Howard’s re-election, has resulted in a drop in participation and activity in most Socialist Alliance branches since late 2004.”
3.”Our December 2003 resolution to integrate as much of the resources of the Democratic Socialist Party into the Socialist Alliance as possible was based on an over-estimation of the political conditions. This attempt at integration failed because the conditions to build the Socialist Alliance into a new party did not exist.”
4.” the DSP has to continue to take urgent steps to replenish its cadre base and maintain the political, organisational and financial viability of its own structures…In short, the DSP has not been able, and cannot afford, to operate as a purely internal tendency in the SA.”
Why has SA not worked for the DSP?
After the successful S11 protests in 2001 the DSP felt they were entering a more favourable political environment and purchased or rented new offices in city suburbs, took on extra full timers, and moved to establish SA.
Influenced by the Scottish Socialist Party, they believed a broad left formation, led by themselves, would put them in a key position in the workers’ movement. They believed the tactic of proposing membership of SA to other left parties would either trap these groups inside a DSP-led SA or expose them to accusations of sectarianism (like they tried on SP at the time).
This has been admitted by John Percy himself: “Remember what was the actual initiating event that prompted us to think about this tactic?…We thought, ‘Here’s an opportunity to make an approach to the local International Socialist Organisation, for joint work, joint election campaigns and a regrouping of the left.’ They either had to respond positively, or suffer a political blow and organisational losses. In that respect, our tactic worked: they’re certainly a lot weaker than they were in 2001, suffering splits and attrition…We’ve suffered also, but not as much as them” (J Percy, ‘Party-building report to October 2005 DSP national committee on behalf of national executive minority’, The Activist Vol 15, No12, October 2005).”
One can only imagine the demoralising effect these cynical comments would have on the majority of rank and file SA members who worked hard to build the organisation. They had the view that SA was the best way to build an alternative for workers and genuinely worked to build on these ideas. The comments of John Percy, so different to the public comments by DSP leaders in the past as to what SA was all about, say more about him and his colleagues in the DSP leadership than they do about most ordinary and genuine SA members.
At the time SP argued that a coming together of far left groups did not equal a new workers’ party – in fact it would inevitably lead to infighting and disaster for all who got involved. The DSP bitterly attack their erstwhile allies in their resolution: “While the smaller affiliates have remained opposed to, obstructed, or abstained from most collective political activity in the SA, too few leaders and activists have so far emerged from the majority of SA members who are not in any affiliate group.”
A real new workers’ party must include (or have a realistic possibility of soon including) much wider forces than existing left wing parties. For example, forces such as left wing unions, community organisations, and the many leftwing-thinking individuals who are searching for alternatives.
The overall strategic aim of SP is to build a mass, revolutionary party capable of leading the working class in the struggle to change society. But this does not happen instantly or in a straightforward way. The mass of the working class will look to ‘broader’ formations and test them out, again and again, in the process of coming to revolutionary conclusions.
The creation of new formations and new, broad mass parties of the working class represents a stage in mass consciousness. We call for new, fighting, mass parties of the working class, which are open, democratic and federal in structure. Where possible, we go beyond making this general propaganda and we campaign energetically for new parties.
But, of course, the creation of new, viable parties depends on the class struggle and the combatively and confidence of the working class and youth. Since the collapse of Stalinism and the shift to the right by the social democratic parties, the working class in most countries is left without a mass party.
The process of the establishment of new parties has proven slow and complicated, including some false starts. However, in Germany, Brazil, and some other examples, new formations are playing an important role. The CWI is active in these new formations and has an important influence in some cases.
When, for a considerable time, CWI sections did ‘entry’ work in the labour and social democratic parties, in the post-war period, we had access to many thousands of advanced workers and youth. Often entry work entailed making some tactical concessions, particularly when we were under attack from the right wing. But we never sacrificed our ideas and programme. Our successes in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s are a good example of this flexible and principled approach.
But, today, the DSP lower their banner (and do all the work and pay all the bills for the SA) to work in an organisation that is, essentially, mainly themselves. This reflects the DSP leaders’ reformist and opportunist approach. However, this opportunism has not brought the gains the DSP leaders thought possible.
We stated bluntly in a February 2001 letter to SA: “No such forces exist as a basis for this proposed alliance. It would be a fundamental error to be under the illusion that a new viable party will be created by the gathering together of the already-existing small left parties and a very thin layer of non-aligned individuals. This layer, in addition to being small, is also overwhelmingly made up of long-standing activists, rather than of fresh layers just moving into struggle. We are in favour of a new mass party for the working class. This will not develop immediately but over a period and this process cannot be viewed in isolation from the class struggle and the situation in the workers’ movement. Any attempt to declare a new party of the working class before the forces necessary to make such a formation real have congregated, will end up the same way as the Progressive Labour Party.”
Now, five years later, the DSP is forced to echo our arguments in their resolution: “This attempt at integration failed because the conditions to build the SA into a new party did not exist. To persist with such an integration plan would have jeopardised real gains of the socialist movement in this country “.
Why has the SA not made an electoral breakthrough?
The DSP answer to this is: “The main reason for the SA’s poor votes is the electoral rise of the Greens, who now capture most of the broad left vote…However, as elected Greens candidates at various levels of government are politically tested, the space for candidates to the left of the Greens will open up – as was demonstrated by the election of Socialist Party member Steve Jolly to the Yarra Council.”
However the inevitable disillusionment with the Greens will not automatically led to a growth in socialist votes or support. Yes, in Yarra, the Green/ALP-run Council from 2002-2004 opened up potential space for the Socialist Party. But it was our ability to link with the concrete concerns of ordinary people in the area, articulate those concerns, and organise or co-organise their resistance to the Council and State government that meant enough voters trusted us to make a small electoral breakthrough.
This type of approach is undertaken by all healthy, non-sectarian socialist parties and is the reason the CWI has had comrades elected to Councils/Parliaments etc in Ireland, England, Sweden, Germany etc. This approach is however light years away from the approach of all the main foundation affiliates of SA: the DSP, International Socialist Organisation and Socialist Alternative.
The SSP initially made electoral gains, but this was partly due to previous campaigning work by the CWI in Scotland (which was the main force behind the SSP), in the 1980s and 1990s, including leading mass struggles against the Poll Tax and other struggles.
Successful revolutionary parties cannot merely relate to the class via posters, selling their paper and organising meetings. These, of course, are vital for every revolutionary party, but should be a means to the end not an end in themselves. Methods like these mean that these parties can never gain real influence in the movement and thereby objectively waste the talents and energies of their members. The real tragedy of SA is that a layer of activists will now drop out of politics as a result of their experiences.
Doug Jordon, who is a socialist and a member of the Greens, wrote recently about this discussion: “The DSP is also unable to acknowledge to any great extent the achievements of other socialist groups that stand outside the SA. While it mentioned the election of Steve Jolly to the Yarra Council, Green Left Weekly has seldom given much coverage to some of the campaigns he has been involved in. While it claims Jolly’s victory is due to the failure of the Greens to live up to promises, it is almost certainly has as much to do with the grassroots campaigning the Socialist Party has carried out in the area for many years. Unlike nearly all the other self-proclaimed vanguard parties, the Socialist Party actually engages in campaigns that address issues of concern to people. These may not be the big issues that the vanguard parties decide are the crucial ones, but they do provide a bridge and open up the possibility of a wider hearing for radical ideas. Sneering references to the size of the Socialist Party outside Melbourne cannot cover up the fact that it has achieved something that no socialist group has achieved for about 40 years – the election of a socialist to local government in a major urban area.”
A new workers’ party
From declaring that they would be or already were the ‘new workers’ party’, the DSP have had to face up to reality. Now the DSP seem to be supporting our call for a ‘new workers’ party’. This is at least partially influenced by the small and early steps forward we have made in raising this idea in Victoria with the November 15th public meeting at the Comrades Bar and the upcoming debate during our summer school.
The DSP claim the idea came from Craig Johnston, at their National Fight back Conference in 2005. In fact Craig argued against SP members at this conference who put forward the idea of uniting to build a new workers’ party along the lines outlined earlier in this statement. He came out loudly against this idea, with a remark, which earned great applause from DSP members: “I’m already in one, it’s called Socialist Alliance”. Now, only a few months later, reality has forced the DSP to change their position and “champion” the need for a new workers’ party.
We will continue to work with progressive community groups, leftwing unions, and leftwing leaning individuals to build support for a new workers’ party. The fact that the DSP now grudgingly shares this perspective reflects the growing support for this idea in our class.
One example of the lack of independent working class politics in Australia was shown with the fawning eulogies for Kerry Packer by politicians of all major parties – including the ALP. This world class tax-dodging billionaire was feted as a hero upon his death, while unemployed people accused of rorting a few hundred dollars are attacked nightly on ‘Today Tonight’ and ‘A Current Affair’.
A mass workers’ party would highlight these inconsistencies and give a socialist, working class alternative explanation (and solution) to daily political events. This would lift the level of political understanding of millions and undermine the ideas of racism and disunity. In Germany the growth of new semi-mass working class parties like the WASG has been a major boost for our movement.
SP appeals to the SA members who are genuine in their commitment to build a new party to join us in this task. We have a great deal of respect for many of their members who have consistently worked in workers organisations. Let’s do all we can to further this call inside the trade unions, and the broader layers of the working class.