Saturday, June 12, 2010

Fighting and uniting

The road that led to the Socialist Alliance

The Socialist Alliance was founded in 2001 when six smaller socialist groups joined with the International Socialist Organisation and the Democratic Socialist Party and a significant number of individuals from none of the organised groups and grouplets.

The way that this remarkable unity came about was somewhat odd and symptomatic of the rivalry that existed between the small socialist groups. A leaked document from the ISO (see first appendix) suggested that they were going to drop their traditional support for the ALP at election times. They intended instead to explore left electoral alliances, like the Socialist Alliance in the UK.

This was something that the DSP had long been in favour of, at least in theory. According to one story I heard, the ISO was not originally intending to make an overture to the DSP, but rather to develop more locally centred alliances with other, independent left activists. The DSP had in recent years adopted a position of only building itself and no longer actively calling for any such alliances (see second appendix).

Nevertheless, the DSP quickly pitched to ISO the idea of launching an a broader and nationally organised alliance, the ISO agreed, and the process rapidly developed its own momentum.

This sudden outbreak of unity did not come from nowhere. Several years of participation side by side in militant struggles had created a certain amount of good will, not simply between the various little groups but mediated through much broader networks of activists.

The revolt against neoliberalism and imperialism 1996-2000
The early years of the Federal Liberal government of John Howard saw a widespread dissent in Australia that frequently broke out in rebellion. Victoria was the epicentre of these rebellions, particularly based on the militant union current based there.

In 1996, following the election of the Howard government , a mass rally of unionists (many Victorians) and indigenous protesters notoriously stormed parliament house in Canberra (and, most colourfully, managed to invade the souvenir shop). The tame-cat ACTU recoiled after this from organising protests, lest they get out of hand and tarnish its (and the ALP's) image.

Also elected in 1996 was racist populist Pauline Hanson. She went on a speaking tour around the country to promote her far-right One Nation party. Everywhere she went, large crowds of anti-racist protesters gathered. In several cities – Hobart and Geelong spring to mind – large protests spontaneously blockaded and prevented One Nation meetings from taking place. The DSP-affiliated youth organisation Resistance led large protests of high school students in walkouts from school to protest racism.

In 1998, the Howard government and Patrick Stevedores attempted to smash the Maritime Union (wharfies) with scab labour. After months of stalemate, Melbourne unions escalated the struggle (which I've written about here). A serious picket line was constructed at East Swanston Dock, and about 3000 union and community activists blockaded all night on April 17. As dawn broke, with a similar number of police facing off against the weary picketers, thousands of construction workers appeared behind the police, who beat a hasty retreat. Soon the government’s assault on the union was in tatters. 

The union leadership didn’t wring any great advances from the victory, and working conditions continued to be eroded on the waterfront, but the union did survive. The example of that struggle was a powerful inspiration, too, in years to come.

In 1999, the long struggle of the East Timorese people came to a head as they voted for independence in a UN referendum – voting against their occupiers, the Australian-backed Indonesian army. When Indonesian-organised gangs went on a rampage of murder and destruction, the Howard government refused to send Australian troops (who were mobilised and ready to go) to defend the result of the referendum. Mass rallies were on the streets to protest within days, and construction workers at Melbourne airport spontaneously blockaded Indonesian airline Garuda. East Timor is still a neo-colony of Australia, although that was the probably outcome of any possible scenario anyway, but the left and independence movement were not massacred. A small victory over Australian imperialism’s long alliance with Suharto’s military dictatorship. In this case, the Melbourne unions led the charge again – but the big rally in Sydney was directly led by DSP members.

This series of outbreaks of rebellion was not just a coincidence. This is demonstrated by the election of the Workers First team to the Victorian leadership of the Australian Manufacturing Workers’ Union. This team won the biggest branch of one of the country’s biggest unions, traditionally a left union but in political and organisational decline since the 1980s. They set about a serious campaign for industry-wide improvements in pay and conditions and didn’t baulk at serious strike action. At the S11 protests, and other community protest events, the AMWU was the first and often the only union sponsor. Workers First leader Craig Johnston was publiically known as a member first of the Progressive Labour Party, then later the Socialist Alliance.

It was not surprising to see the World Economic Forum in Melbourne in September 2000 was resolutely blockaded by thousands of activists acting in the spirit of the earlier Seattle protests, the "S11" protest. It took another 7 years to kick John Howard out, but the revolt against neoliberalism was real.

Our S11 – 11 September 2000
S11 was the pinnacle of this half decade of rebellion. It was not just a Seattle-copycat event: it built on the preceding successes of mass campaigns in Australia already discussed here (and others I’ve missed here, such as the Jabiluka anti-uranium campaign).

S11 is a story in its own right, but it is worth noting some important aspects. Firstly, the radical grassroots protesters numbered in the thousands, from across Australia but of course mainly Melbourne. Up to ten thousand blockaded the World Economic Forum at Crown Casino over three days. The blockades were well organised but very diverse. Most of the socialist left co-operated well through the S11 Alliance: DSP, ISO, Militant and Socialist Alternative.

Some groups’ tactics at the protest (Socialist Alternative in particular, and some smaller anarchist networks) departed into ultraleft stunts (with little success or notability). However, the alliance of the left was crucial for the event’s success. The anarchist and autonomist left organised separately for the most part, in AWOL (Autonomous Web of Liberation) which is a story I don’t have time to go into here.

A march of unionists joined the protest. While they were not officially supposed to be joining the blockade, I guided a contingent of workers led by AMWU leader Craig Johnston out of the rally and around the blockades that ringed the Casino, eventually joining one picket line that had been badly attacked by the police earlier. The AMWU had endorsed the S11 protests, and the CFMEU (construction union) provided material and logistical support to the protests. This was despite the ostensibly left wing Trades Hall leadership (headed by Leigh Hubbard) writing to unions asking them not to support.

More than many of the other international protests, S11 was a very effective blockade of the WEF event. Despite quite brutal police attacks on protesters, it was an overwhelmingly inspiring event for the participants. Delegates to the WEF forum really were blocked from entering because the pickets around the large perimeter were determined and inspired.

S11 was followed by M1, a similar protest outside the Stock Exchange, called to mark May Day. This, too was accompanied by a rally of unions, which the blockaders joined up with – unions rallying on May 1 itself (instead of the next Sunday) was a radical event in itself. But in the meantime, the long delayed process of left unity on the Australian left had kicked off.

Unity in the dark
The ISO noted in their 2001 conference documents, “there is both a widespread anger with the Liberals, and frustration with Labor. Although Labor is in opposition, some of its supporters will want to register a protest vote. Preferential voting means they can do this without letting in the Liberals. There is a widespread thirst for the “old Labor” values which [Labor leader] Beazley and Co. are seen to have abandoned – and frustration that Labor won’t take the fight to the Liberals… This creates a space for a socialist campaign.”

Just before S11, at the DSP’s June 11 2000 National Committee meeting, the NC reporter recounted that “Dave Riley (from Brisbane branch) suggested that perhaps we should try and copy the London Socialist Alliance and make that a major project. The same idea appealed to the leading Melbourne comrades for a while. But we don’t think it is an initiative we should take today (though we are going to check out if the ISO has changed its approach to running in parliamentary elections in Australia).”

The report identified the main priority as taking initiatives in building extra-parliamentary mass actions (such as the upcoming S11). The comment about the ISO also indicates the remaining principled approach to uniting the left that the DSP retained. However, even at this late stage the DSP was not launching any initiatives so much as waiting to see what would pop up. Certainly the tone was more positive than in 1998, uplifted by several years of working with other leftists on serious political campaigns. But there is no apparent change from the underlying attitude to left unity expressed in 1998 – “various manoevres that may take us closer towards building a broader left party formation”.

The launch of Socialist Alliance by the DSP leadership’s approach to the ISO can be seen in this light, partly: a manoevre by one left organisation toward another. As a move to test the ISO’s real commitment to left unity, I would not describe it as cynical: left unity is a worthy goal. But as a manoevre it does retain the mentality of “us” against “them” which runs the risk of turning the “unity” exercise into rivalry within the one left organisation, instead of in separate organisations.

In a future post in this mini-series I’m going to look at how this us-and-them mentality played out despite the best of intentions, and the confusion it caused in the Socialist Alliance.

Appendix 1: ISO document, 2001

Socialists and Elections
Excerpt from ISO National Committee document for the ISO’s 2001 conference (as reprinted in DSP members’ bulletin)

What kind of election campaign?
We could simply stand our own candidates, run our own campaigns and tot up the number of papers sold or the number of recruits gained. This kind of propaganda campaign is … what others on the Left have done for years.

But in the circumstances outlined above this would fall far short of what is needed.

We want to use the elections to build a socialist current in working class communities and work places. We want to mobilise a much wider range of activists than those already committed to revolutionary socialism.

That is why, ideally, we want to intervene in the election by building a Socialist Alliance.

The rising movement rightly puts a premium on unity. The impact of an alliance of socialist groups and activists would be much greater than what the ISO could achieve alone.

We are setting ourselves the aim of transforming the organisation, putting it at the centre of the movement and making every ISO branch a campaigning branch. Electoral work needs to fit within this schema.

Most important, though, is the quality of the campaign. Rather than a propaganda exercise, the kind of campaign we want draws more on the experience of the united front.

We want a Socialist Alliance that includes shop stewards and delegates, refugee, S11 and student activists and so on.

The basis of the Alliance, i.e. the campaign grouping, is not the alliance between existing socialist groups but the numbers of people mobilised to actively support a socialist candidate.

Appendix 2: DSP document, 1998

Excerpt from report “The Australian Political Situation and the Coming Federal Election” at DSP June 6-8 1998 NC plenum as printed in DSP members’ bulletin

The position that we have put for some time in our propaganda – electoral and general – that we are in favour of building a mass independent party of the working class, and the regroupment tactics we tried out in the late 1980s and early 1990s mustn’t confuse us about the basic reality that the critical step that needs to be taken today towards building such a mass party is to build our party, the DSP.

We are not trying to build two parties, our cadre party and some other, totally abstract, broader left party. We have a paper called Green Left Weekly but we are not building some abstract Green-Left alliance or a new Green Left Party.

The National Executive is of the opinion that there is still confusion on this issue in the party and this shows up in our election campaigning and propaganda. It also showed up in some confusion around the Progressive Labour Party. To clear up any confusion on this issue we will not refer to the need for a “mass party of the working class” in the coming federal election campaign. Abstract references to this idea, without substantial qualification and explanation, has too much potential to disorient our members and supporters.

Now, this does not mean that we are not open to engaging in various manoevres that may take us closer towards building a broader left party formation. We are still prepared to engage in regroupments, making appropriate concessions where necessary, but only when the opportunity exists for using such tactics to further our obgective of building a bigger revolutionary workers’ party.

The term new “mass party of the working class” suggests a particular variant of regroupment which involves a concession to class-struggle reformism in the area of program. It points to a possible future scenario where we might want to enter into a new bigger party with significant leftward moving forces but where a condition of such regroupment is that we accept, for a time, a more limited program of immediate and transitional demands for a new party, one that’s not explicitly revolutionary or Marxist. That’s one possible tactic for building the revolutionary Marxist party that may have to be used sometime in the future. But it is something that’s not on the cards today.


  1. Again, as I suggested in regard to your earlier installment -- you miss the international context -- esp the significance of the impact of the Scottish Socialist Alliance (formed: 1997) and the English Socialist Alliance (1999).

    You also don't consider the fact that left electoral alliances had existed previously, in the eighties and again in 1991 for the Brisbane City council elections. Nor do you point out that the DSP at least had spent the nineties contributing actively to a few Greens -- or Greens precursor -- election campaigns.

    So to narrow you narrative to the one road misses that longer term & broader epidemiology. What was novel was the fact that a group like the ISO was not only interested in exploring electoral politics but also going into coalition to do so. That was the change in the local weather.

    No socialist group outside the DSP -- other than the Peter Symon led SP (now CPA)-- from 1983 until the early 1990s -- had shown any interest in exploring left unity with other outfits. (Although I note your Vic based Militant example).

    The window soon closed after Respect was formed in the UK in 2004, and a 'coalition of the existing left' was no longer the order of IST business.

    So "The road that led to the Socialist Alliance" began in Glasgow & Edinburgh outside the organised Marxist left except primarily for a feral group of CWIers -- most of Scottish Militant -- who led the process.

    That example prompted a lot of what followed.

    As for the DSP's part -- I think it had been ruled by a sort of Kiwi-fied regroupment perspective for most of the nineties, but could never muster the sort of aggregation to foster a local version into existence.

    An adaption of the Kiwi example ruled the PLP attempt for instance. A similar approach had been pursued as the Aaron's CPA liquidated into the New Left Party (1990)-- a formation that didn't have electoral pretensions primarily because it was designed as a sort of left cheer squad for Laborism and the Accord.

    The Scottish template, I think, came out of left field, and its successes shook up a lot of comrades on the far left. Inasmuch as I was watching, I thought we could replicate the experiences of these UK socialist alliances here.

    However, my view then had been a sort of build it and they will come attitude -- that, like the Scottish Socialist Alliance, if such an initiative was launched maybe it would succeed.

    Since I dropped out of politics about the same time, I was not too excited about the formation of the Socialist Alliance because it promised to be a electoral coalition like any of the others -- dead after each polling day --and in the face of increasing Greens electoral traction.

    That didn't interest me much at all.

  2. The international context is interesting, and the SSP was a real inspiration for the DSP at the time. I suppose I could write a whole piece on that, although I hadn't planned to. I am skeptical about how much the DSP in the 1990s focused on international left networking: it seemed a bit of a surrogate for doing something here in Australia. Our successes at making international friends were not matched at home. At times it also seemed a bit like trying to build a Sydney-centric International. I could certainly write a few comments about that when I have time.

    But the limitations of the DSP's tactics at the time (summed up IMHO by the failure to make anything of the opportunity with Militant in 1997) are what I'm criticising here. The limitations of this approach also in my view carried on into some of the mistakes that I think the DSP made in Socialist Alliance, culminating in the split within the DSP itself. But that's still to come!

    Further, as I have already said, by the late 1990s the talk about those left alliances you mention (Brisbane and the Green Alliances) had just become rhetoric, and was then quashed by the NC report which I have quoted above. The previous good record is all the more reason not to excuse later mistakes.

  3. I'm not sure if I have to write anything on the Greens now...

    Tad Tietze's essay on the Greens from Overland is a very well thought out description of what the Greens mean.

    There was also a lot of discussion on the Larvatus Prodeo blog, sparked by Tad's essay (and including comments by himself)

  4. Ben, thanks for your kind comment on my Overland essay.

    I was an ISO member at the time of the formation of the Socialist Alliance, and I think that you are on the mark in relating the move much more to local than international factors (here being factors emanating from international far-left electoral alliance-making, not international politics more generally—Seattle was clearly a big international influence). Contrary to Shane H's comments about "orders from London" leading the ISO along this path, it was actually something that came from the Melbourne leadership of the ISO.

    You can see the merit of the idea in hindsight: the anti-capitalist mood meant that the disappointment with the ALP at the time created a space for a Left alternative based on hope for change rather than merely cynicism.

    The proof that there was a vacuum on the Left was the rapid rise of the Greens vote, achieved on the back of a wave of mass protests from the end of the last century.

    It was the Greens' ability to almost completely fill that space which rapidly heightened tensions within the Alliance project, especially as the ISO saw it much more in terms of making a serious mark on electoral politics while the DSP saw it more in terms of a far Left unity project. When the votes didn't come, the ISO's raison d'etre for being in the Alliance evaporated. But for a long time that didn't lead the ISO to reconsider, having made such a massive commitment to the project and distracted by its own factional issues.

    By the time I left the ISO in 2002, the continued obsession with being inside the Alliance among both sides of the internal strife was an important (though secondary) reason for my departure. I wrote at the time that the fervour with which ISO members were waging fights inside the Alliance could come down to "fighting for the soul of an irrelevancy". That's how it played out for the ISO, first with a split (Solidarity) and then exhaustion of the remaining cadres after years of crisis.

    Was the ISO wrong to try in the first place? I think there is an argument to be made in retrospect, but clearly it cannot be based around the rise of the Greens as that development caught everyone by surprise.

    I think there is an argument to be made that the DSP, larger and better organised than the ISO and with a radically different view of what the project was about, was always going to overwhelm the ISO. Perhaps that is right. I am not convinced, but also not confident. Perhaps electoral success would have changed the balance of forces inside the Alliance, drawing in some of the people who have ended up being drawn into the Greens.

    That would have created its own problems, but perhaps they would have been "better" problems for a relatively isolated far Left to have to contend with and learn from.

    As I argue in Overland, the Left needs to take the Greens seriously if it is to understand "what to do". I think it is weird that my article is the first serious "scholarly" (as in: I actually did research!) analysis of the Greens from the radical Left in the last 10 years. Yet almost everyone on the far Left has a very strong opinion about the Greens.

    I'm not sure whether my analysis of the Greens is totally right, but at least now we can all have a debate on some sensible basis.

  5. I remember the ISO in Wills electorate making huge efforts to realise the big left vote that they thought possible. The good results for the left in the 1999 Victorian elecion probably gave them false hope: that was when the Greens were too small to run in those seats. The DSP had a lot more experience working around the Greens and was used to all the progressive vote going to them instead of the socialist candidates. So getting high votes was probably never something the DSP really expected I think. On the other hand, both DSP and ISO realised that the lefties departing the Labor Party, and all the lefties and Greens who had done so long since, were a potential membership and support base for SA. I think the ISO was far too narrow in its conception, only talking about Labor members leaving in my memory.

    I also think the DSP took the unity thing too far by pushing stuff like Green Left harder than the other affiliates were comfortable with. I don't think anything was gained by doing that other than hastening the departure of many others from SA.

    However, the idea of SA just being a left electoral alliance was plainly never going to work. What were all those people breaking from Labour going to do? Were we to tell them they had to choose between the affiliates if they really wanted to be an active socialist? Left unity can't work as simply a collective pool for various ideological tendencies to recruit out of, it inevitably will develop an independent dynamic.

    As to the Greens now: undoubtedly they have captured the left vote in Australia by and large. It doesn't follow on however that socialists should all go and join the Greens. Like the CPA had a real impact on Labour from being outside it, socialists can have an impact on the Greens (among other things we do) in giving them some pull to their left to counter the rightward pull of mainstream politics.

    I think I've got 2 or 3 more posts to come in this series... thanks for reading so far!


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