Karl Marx famously said that the past weighs like a nightmare on the minds of the living. This is how one fellow ex-member explained to me why he was so happy the DSP (Democratic Socialist Perspective) was winding up its organisation in favour of the Socialist Alliance of which it was a founder.
After 17 years of DSP membership I share the sentiment. I don’t regret having been a member, but nor do I regret no longer being one. If there’s one thing I do regret, the DSP didn’t fully merge its activity into the Socialist Alliance much earlier, a direction I have been arguing for some time.
The conference of the Alliance that I just attended was a positive, politically charged event. There were inspiring guests such as Robert Downs (pictured speaking, photo by Alex Bainbridge), representing the Ampilatwatja walk-off. But the debate on the conference resolutions was directly engaging in the sense that it brought to our attention the multitude of struggles that are occurring. What appeared to be motions over policy and campaign directions in fact reflected the membership who are battling to advance progressive ideas and campaigns, and the potential for the Alliance to grow as a part of these campaigns.
Apart from the Marx quote, my other most memorable voxpop on the conference was from a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party, who I bumped into at a bar the evening after the conference closed. He suggested that our focused debate around policy and campaign motions would have “made it easier for non-socialists to participate.” The RSP’s concurrent conference, he said, only had 30 or 40 at it in, contrast to the 220 or so at the SA's.
Leaving aside whether or not non-socialist participation may be a good thing, it's hardly the point! This conference of the SA, beginning after the DSP wound up its organisation, illustrated a strength that such sectarianism is incapable of understanding. For years, possibly decades, the time has been ripe for socialists to campaign among the broad ranks of the working class for socialist ideas and to initiate (and lead) the struggles that emerge from the working class’ needs and experiences. Whether that’s on the shop floor or in response to climate change.
This was reflected in the 1980s as the left haemorrhaged from the Labor Party, first flowing into the Nuclear Disarmament Party, later into the Greens. Then the early 1990s saw socialists take a beating: the Communist party disbanded, just as many had their hopes in Gorbachev and/or Nicaragua dashed. Then, hardline neo-liberals like Jeff Kennett and Paul Keating took over from Australia’s pioneering neoliberal (“economic rationalist”) Labor PM Bob Hawke. Workers who had previously voted instinctively for Labor became increasingly dissatisfied and open to alternatives.
To its credit, the DSP could see what was happening and was involved in both the NDP and the Greens. Conservatives hunted us out of both, and amid recriminations from both sides, the DSP launched its greatest success, the newspaper Green Left Weekly, as a way to continue participating in the broad green movement. For their part, the Greens were as weakened by the conservative political climate as the left were, and also the faction fight they were founded on. They did not benefit (in growing votes or membership) from Labor’s charge to the right until the Tampa affair and Beazley standing “shoulder to shoulder” with neocon PM John Howard.
In the meantime, the far left continued business-as-usual, intervening in struggles as they arose, but often failing to get very far, in no small part due to the various little groups’ competition with each other. The most interesting chance to break out of this occurred between the small Trotskyist group Militant (now called Socialist Party) and the DSP. Based on a similar approach to constructively engaging in broader struggles within the unions and elsewhere, a tentative discussion about unity between the two occurred around 1997-98.
The sticking point was Militant’s allegiance to an international current based in the UK. The DSP leadership demanded that Militant would have to operate under the discipline of the DSP if they joined, essentially demanding they dissolve themselves rather than any two-way process of alliance building. Militant declined, not completely unreasonably, although a couple of their members subsequently joined the DSP. Militant, however went on to merge with two other equally small Trotskyist groups, and the combined three quickly grew to a (claimed) membership of around 100 in Melbourne, many times their original membership (of which almost none lived outside of Melbourne). Such is the power of open alliance-building.
The merger did not last long. No group emerged from this process strengthened, as far as I could tell. A successful alliance with the DSP would no doubt have had it’s problems, too, but the growth of the small Trotskyist merger, and the subsequent experience of the SA, has shown what could have been achieved had a more open and constructive unity been on offer. Sadly, Militant/SP denounced the SA as a pawn of the DSP and ISO (the other large group, now called Solidarity) right at SA’s foundation in 2000 and have not come near it since.
But, after all these (too many) years, I think the SA is now finding the right path. When the left are engaged in common struggle, the issue of unity is inevitable. When we are all attending the same protests, with the same slogans and demands, it only discredits us to be seen in 5 competing brands vying for paper sales and stall space in the one rally. Disagreements about Trotsky, or the class nature of the Cuban state, or other historical and international issues should not preclude unity here and now; indeed, they could enrich the discussion and learning in a united group.
By focusing on resolutions of practical struggle and how to advance the cause of socialism in Australia, SA has laid the foundation for a non-sectarian party of struggle that can grow and lead. At the same time there is a commitment to internal and public political education. This will be taking over from the DSP to start with, but I hope it broadens out as I fear the DSP’s internal education was too narrow in its readings and references.
I hope the other Australian left groups are not so blinkered as the unfortunate RSP member I met, as they observe the SA in months and years to come. I personally at least would welcome a re-engagement in left unity from other socialist groups. I think the SA is now much closer to being on a course that can inspire further such unity and a growth in the left overall.