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, 2001Socialists 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, 1998Excerpt 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.