to subscribe by email visit socialistvoice.ca

June 6, 2009

Uniting the Socialist Left: the Australian Experience

An interview with Peter Boyle. Peter Boyle is National Secretary of the Democratic Socialist Perspective (DSP), a Marxist tendency in the Socialist Alliance in Australia. He was interviewed by Socialist Voice co-editor Roger Annis.

SV: The Australian left founded a project of left unity and activism in 2001. Can you describe the early years of that project and what it achieved?

PB: The Socialist Alliance was formed in 2001 on the back of great optimism about the prospects for left revival in the wake of the rise of a movement at that time against capitalist globalization. Some 20,000 people had participated in a three-day long blockade of a summit of the World Economic Forum in Melbourne the previous year. That was Australia’s “Seattle” [1] and it was followed up on May 1, 2001 with mass blockades of the stock exchanges in all the capital cities of the country.

The formation of the Socialist Alliance was just one of a number of initiatives at the time to take this political momentum forward. While it has not had a smooth road since then, the Socialist Alliance is the only one of these initiatives surviving today in Australia. Regroupment projects inspired by anarchist ideology and attempts to create local social forums all proved short-lived.

The Socialist Alliance experience has been shaped by the ebbs and flows of the social movements. It became clear after the forward momentum of the post-Seattle anti-capitalist movement was cut off – after the failure of the global mass movements to stop the 2003 invasion of Iraq – that we were overoptimistic in 2001. We have seen movement retreats since then. But there have been some advances, too.

We should also see the connections between the global wave of anti-capitalist sentiment a decade ago and the new rise of anti-capitalist sentiment today: one builds on the other.

SV: What political forces initiated Socialist Alliance, and what new forces have been won to it?

PB: The Socialist Alliance was initiated by the Democratic Socialist Party (the predecessor to the Democratic Socialist Perspective of today) and the International Socialist Organisation. A handful of smaller left groups joined in. Other left groups, such as the Communist Party of Australia and Socialist Alternative, were invited but declined to join the Alliance.

The groups that did join the Alliance agreed on a common political platform focused on immediate class struggle responses to neo-liberalism. It was also explicitly socialist. We agreed not to make the historical and theoretical differences between the groups a barrier to working together around what we agreed on. At the same time, the Socialist Alliance created forums for ongoing public discussion and debate.

The basic idea was that we didn’t have to have resolve all the ideological and historical disputes that divided the various factions of the left before agreeing to organize together on a fighting program against capitalist attacks and for socialist solutions to the urgent problems society faces today. Indeed, we were more likely to resolve these differences after we had gone through an extended experience of working together around what we agreed on – which was substantial.

Stress on inclusivity

We agreed on a basic structure and constitution which put the emphasis on inclusivity. As the biggest of the groups that founded the Alliance, the DSP made concessions which restricted itself to a minority vote on leadership bodies and in conferences. We saw this as an interim confidence-building measure.

The unprecedented unity of these left groups, which until then had spent lots of energy criticizing each other, made a significant impact on the much broader layer of left activists who had not joined any of the pre-existing socialist groups. Hundreds of them joined the Socialist Alliance, quickly becoming the majority of its members. Among those who joined were a number of militant trade unionists.

These included shop-floor delegates as well as a few elected leaders of militant unions. One of these leaders was Craig Johnston, the former Victorian state secretary of the powerful manufacturing workers union. Craig was later jailed for several months [2] for leading militant industrial action and lost his old leadership position. He remains an active delegate in the construction industry and is still a proud member of the Alliance.

The formation of the Socialist Alliance was preceded by a sequence of political collaborations of the militant trade unions with the radical left between 1998 to 2001. These occurred in the state of Victoria in particular, but also in the state of Western Australia. They included militant mass picketing against the Liberal-National government’s failed attempt to destroy the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA) in the late 1990s, and the anti-globalization protests mentioned above.

These were political collaborations that extended outside industrial struggles. They posed the challenge of building a common political party.

Every national conference of the Socialist Alliance since its formation has been attended by leading militant leaders in the trade union movement, some of whom are Alliance members and others are still in the Labor party or not in any party. A number of these conferences have had their venues paid for by militant unions, and the Alliance also received the first public donations by unions to a socialist organization in decades.

Indigenous Struggle

Sam Watson, a respected and militant leader in the Aboriginal community also joined the Alliance, and remains its spokesperson on Indigenous affairs. He has stood as a Socialist Alliance candidate in state and national parliamentary elections. Since then several other leading Aboriginal activists have also joined the Alliance.

The Indigenous struggle is very important in Australian politics because the social legacy of the colonial dispossession of the Aboriginal people is horrible. Aboriginal people suffer racism, extreme economic marginalization and Third World health and housing conditions. This in a one of the richest countries in the world. The indigenous struggle has massive moral weight and points to an alternative way of living based on sharing and working with nature.

Solidarity with the aboriginal rights struggle has an added urgency ever since the adoption by the federal government in 2007 of “emergency” legislation, known as the “Intervention,” which authorizes police and social agencies to intervene with draconian powers against the political, social and communal rights of Indigenous people in the Northern Territory. This attack continues under the newly elected Labor Party government and is being extended into other states in the country.

Apart from movement leaders, a number of left-wing intellectuals also joined the Alliance. These included one of Australia’s most prolific Marxist historians, Humphrey McQueen.

A number of former Labor party members, former Communist Party members and a few former Greens members, including one former state secretary of the Greens, also joined the Socialist Alliance.

Test for left groupings

This was an important opening for the left in Australia, which was (and remains) small and relatively isolated in the labour movement. Would the left seize this as a chance to build a multi-tendency socialist party with a significant connection to the labour movement and other key social movements? This was clearly the wish of the large majority of Alliance members who were not members of any of the founding affiliate groups, and the DSP agreed with them. However, all the other affiliated revolutionary socialist groups disagreed. Each thought their own “correct” programs would be liquidated if they built the Alliance as our common party. They could conceive of the Alliance only as a site for their “real” revolutionary parties to intervene in or, at best, as a “united front of a special kind.”

This view, which is sectarian because it spurned a chance to unite politically with a broader layer of left leadership in the movements, was rejected by the majority of Alliance members in at least three national conferences in a row (in a situation where the DSP restricted its representation in both delegates and elected leadership bodies).

SV: Some groups and individuals who were a part of the founding of the Socialist Alliance or of its early years then departed. Were their departures justified, and did they end the project?

PB: Their departures were not justified and these departures did not kill off the Socialist Alliance.

By the Socialist Alliance’s May 2005 national conference, it was clear that all the other revolutionary groups affiliated to the Alliance were opposed to taking the Alliance forward. At most they were willing to participate in the Alliance as a loose electoral front in which a minority retained veto powers by right of their group affiliate status. They began to pull back even the relatively modest resources they put into the Alliance. By 2007, all the founding affiliates aside from the DSP and Resistance, a youth organization allied to the DSP, had formally left the Alliance.

Also in 2005, a minority emerged in the DSP which essentially agreed with the sectarian approach of other affiliates who opposed building the Socialist Alliance as a new multi-tendency socialist party.

The DSP majority decided that it was be wrong to abandon the Socialist Alliance, arguing that the large majority of people who had joined and were not members of the founding affiliate groups still saw the Alliance as their party and that the Alliance had won a modest but significant broader recognition and respect in the labour movement.

The DSP then underwent a protracted three-year-long internal faction fight, which took significant energy away from building the Socialist Alliance. But through all this the majority of the non-affiliate group membership of the Socialist Alliance continued to see the Alliance as their party. Craig Johnson and Sam Watson are still members, as are most of the militant trade union shop-floor delegates and social movement activists.

Others have joined the Socialist Alliance since. A group of Sudanese communists affiliated to the Alliance last year. They produce Green Left Weekly‘s Arabic-language supplement (a significant gain, as Arabic is one of the major minority language groups in Australia today).[3] A prominent Sinhalese public defender of Tamil rights in Sri Lanka has joined, as have some Salvadoran community supporters of the FMLN. And there is a small but steady stream of former Labor party members.

Continued growth

The majority of the members of the Socialist Alliance are still not members of any affiliate group. So the confidence of the DSP majority in the need to keep building the Socialist Alliance has been confirmed. The Alliance is the biggest socialist organization in the country, and it is continuing to regroup the left in a modest but nevertheless significant degree.

The groups that left the Alliance did so despite being able to agree on a common political platform and despite years of common experience working effectively together in the trade union and other social movements. This is the amazing part of our experience, and it should not be missed. Between 2001 and 2005, the Alliance proved that the fractious left could work together and that in doing so it could become more effective.

But it also showed us that the political will to do so has to be there as well. The various left groups that walked out of the Socialist Alliance can work together in the future if they have the will to do so. Everyone in the left has to confront the following questions sooner or later. Are you serious about your socialism? And what is more important – preserving many micro-parties, each defending its programmatic shibboleths and the ordained leadership role this is supposed to give them, or struggling to win real leadership authority in a bigger, broader and more effective party of left regroupment?

By and large, the Australian Greens party still claim most of the progressive vote in this country. This has discouraged smaller socialist groups from staying in the Socialist Alliance, at least to participate in elections. The fact is that the Socialist Alliance has usually struggled to get more than 1.5% in elections, though in local elections in NSW and Victoria last year, Alliance candidates received votes from 4.5% to as high as 18.9%.

Under increasingly draconian/exclusive electoral registration regulations, the relative breadth of the Socialist Alliance made it possible to get the word “socialist” onto ballot papers in most states/territories and nationally for the first time in decades. Our modest election campaigns also raised the profile of socialism.

Each one of the alphabet soup of small socialist groups say they’ll be in a new left party if what is on offer is a new mass party. They’d be in such a party even if its politics was reformist or liberal. The Socialist Alliance is not a mass party, but it is an opportunity to build a bigger party around a class struggle program, like that of the New Anti-Capitalist Party in France [4]. I don’t think the left should pass up on what we have achieved to date.

SV: What role did the Alliance play in last year’s federal election that saw the Labor Party returned to power?

PB: A major reason why the Alliance continues to hold the loyalty of forces broader than the smaller socialist groups is that it played an active role in building a mass fightback against a set of draconian anti-union and anti-worker laws introduced by the former Liberal-National federal government. These were laws that threatened to smash rights won by the labour movement over the last century and it was clear that the previous government had the will and the numbers in parliament to push them through.

The left had two choices at that point. It could retreat, circle the wagons around the revolutionary program (or rather their umpteen variations of it) and survive as little socialist groups living off a few idealistic youth recruits from the campuses. Or it could try and build the best possible mass fightback in the labour movement and continue with left regroupment.

We had this discussion in the DSP and in the Socialist Alliance, and a majority of members were in favour of fighting for the best mass resistance possible. Even if a fight could not stop these laws from being passed, a workers’ movement that put up a mass fightback would come out with the greatest strength to fight again another day.

In May 2005, alongside the Socialist Alliance national conference, we initiated a broader gathering of militant trade unionists called the Fightback Conference. [5] It was a powerful gathering, as all the affiliate groups at the time acknowledged.

The militant section was a minority in the trade union movement at that time, as it is now, but it resolved to fight. First, it won mass support among union delegates in the state of Victoria, initially for a mass response to the anti-worker laws which were outrageously named “Work Choices” by the Liberal-National government.

Mass actions for union rights

The first mass action against Work Choices took place in June, 2005. Some 350,000 workers mobilized around the country and did so against the wishes of the top trade union leadership, the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU). The ACTU leadership had decided that industrial and street action would put off voters and so the trade unions should wage the fight through multi-million dollar television advertisements instead.

But after trade unions in Victoria, Queensland, and Western Australia decided to break from this approach, the ACTU began to crumble. In the state of New South Wales, a panicked union leadership called mass delegate meetings to try and ram through the ACTU’s “clever tactics” advertising perspective. But to their horror, the delegates voted for mass action. The Socialist Alliance was blamed for taking over these meetings. We wish we had had the strength to do that. In fact, this was a largely spontaneous expression of rank-and-file wishes.

The second national mobilization took place in November 2005. This time the ACTU backed the call-out and regained control of most of the platforms, though militant unionists still featured in some cities and led the platforms in a couple of regional cities. About 650,000 workers mobilized in what was the biggest single workers’ movement mobilization in Australian history.

There were more mass mobilizations in the next two years, and although the anti-worker laws were passed into law in March 2006, the Liberal-National’s Prime Minister John Howard became a widely reviled figure. Finally, Howard (who lost his own seat in a blue-ribbon Liberal district!) and the Liberal-National government was swept out in the November 2007 elections.

Since then, we’ve had a chance to test the theory that putting up a fight against the anti-union laws preserves the strength of the labour movement (and other social movements). We’ve done so in the more difficult context of the new, Labor Party federal government that remains very popular, in part because of the memory of the anti-worker actions of the previous government.

The Labor government is trying to preserve as much of the neo-liberal measures implemented by previous governments (both Liberal-National and Labor) while appearing to stand for change. Labor PM Kevin Rudd is like an Obama without the charisma!

It is very clear already that on the fronts of workers’ rights, Indigenous rights, climate change, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Rudd Labor government is betraying its promises to the people who swept it into government. It is working hard to minimize opposition to its betrayals. It retains a huge influence over most trade union officials as well as the loyalty of a conservative top leadership of the environmental movement and influential but conservative Aboriginal figures. We are seeing growing dissent on all these fronts, and Socialist Alliance continues to be among the activists in each of these struggles. However, most of the left outside the Alliance is still in the mode of retreat and abstention.

On April 28, some 15,000 workers in the construction industry took to the streets in Melbourne to protest Labor’s failure to remove anti-worker laws dating from the Work Choices era that specifically target unions in this industry. These workers are in the forefront of workers’ struggles today and they are an example of the future coming toward us. The most militant sections of this struggle is in the state of Victoria again, because this is where the militant section of the trade unions is strongest. They have a strong base at the shop-floor level in several industries. This is in part a legacy of the struggle of an earlier generation of socialists, led by militants influenced by Maoism the 1970s. But Socialist Alliance is now part of that section of militant unionists.

Another significant victory this year was at a national meeting of climate change groups in Canberra in February where the radical platform supported by Socialist Alliance and a number of other environmentalists, including a section in the Greens Party, was adopted. The first round of national mass mobilizations initiated through this process will take place in June to mark World Environment Day. Climate change is a critical political issue which the left needs to prioritize today.

SV: Your party has been reporting favorably on new parties of left regroupment and expansion in the Philippines, Indonesia, Venezuela and other countries. Are you encouraged by developments there, and are there lessons for the peoples of other countries?

PB: Australia is a rich imperialist country that is relatively isolated from the rest of the world. So in the DSP we have always attached great importance to staying in touch with struggles overseas. We seek to learn from these struggles as well as to make a modest contribution to the popularization of all struggles of resistance and progressive change – particularly in the Asia-Pacific region. Our international collaboration has kept us inspired and also as open Marxists – Marxists who take seriously Marx’s own warning not to treat his powerful ideas as a religion.

The Venezuelan revolution is shaping the movement for socialism in the 21st century. Every real step forward for the socialist movement is worth more than a thousand paper manifestos. We are determined to learn from the experiences of the revolutions today. That is why we have DSP comrades in Venezuela and in Nepal, making links and facilitating deeper study of the revolutionary experiences there. That is why our comrades play a major role in leading brigades to Venezuela twice a year since 2005.

I recently traveled to the Philippines in order to learn about and report on the new, mass party of the left that has been formed there, called the “Party of the Masses.” We maintain fraternal ties with it and with parties and activists in Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan, India and many other countries.

Party-building perspectives

Over the next six months, in the lead-up to a DSP congress scheduled for January 2010, members of the DSP are going to have a serious discussion about party-building perspectives. How do we best build on the gains we have made through the DSP and the gains made through the Socialist Alliance? We’ll be involving Socialist Alliance members who are not members of the DSP in this discussion. It will be public.

My personal opinion is that it is time for the DSP to make a decisive turn towards building the Socialist Alliance as our new party. We’ve been held back by the hesitations of former Alliance affiliates and a former minority in the DSP for too long already. That’s behind us now and it is time we moved forward. This opinion has been strengthened through many discussions with a broad range of our international collaborators who participated in the recent World at a Crossroads Conference in Sydney.[6] The DSP’s broad international work allows us to think more creatively about what we can do to build a bigger and stronger socialist movement in our country.

SV: Could you explain what are some of the next steps that you might take in this direction?

PB: The DSP is serious about left regroupment and we are serious about revolutionary socialism. We don’t have the infantile delusion that the DSP is the vanguard party of the revolution. A real revolutionary vanguard has to be built through a process of regroupment/s and accumulation of political experience and actual political authority in the labour movement. What we have done in our tendency over the last four decades is but one small part of this process. This is not to minimize what we’ve done since our beginning as a party project in the early 1970s, but rather to have a sense of the true proportion of the work we have done and what has yet to be done.

We confront the challenge of left regroupment in a time of severe, triple crisis of capitalism. First, the climate change crisis, which threatens human survival on a global level; second, the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression (though it is hitting Australia later than countries); and third, the widespread crisis of legitimacy of capitalist neo-liberalism. The legitimacy crisis of capitalist neo-liberalism is not a new phenomenon. It has been mounting up for more than a decade and underpins the revolutionary advances in Latin America and elsewhere, as well as wave of anti-capitalist globalization at the turn of the century.

The left in Australia is too small to force the pace of the movements needed to fight the capitalist “solutions” to these crises that are being prepared and beginning to be imposed. We have to be in the growing resistance to these capitalist “solutions.” Any left group that is content to just shout from the sidelines “Capitalism has failed, embrace socialism!” is doomed to become ever more sectarian.

Discussion on popular power

That said, there is also an expanded room for political discussions about capitalism and socialism. If the left does this well, it will strengthen the forces that are building resistance movements to the triple crisis. So we need to put our minds to this challenge. Coming out of the World at a Crossroads Conference, we had some informal discussion about what to build in Australia as a next major international conference of socialist discussion, debate and collaboration. Michael Lebowitz, one of our guest speakers, suggested that we hold a conference next year about historical experiences in popular power and participatory democracy that takes in experiences (contemporary and historical) from around the world.

We’ve forged growing links with the comrades leading the communal councils/commune process in Venezuela, which seeks to become a new base institution of popular power. We’ve got links with numerous socialists who have studied the real experiences of the Soviet system, the Cuban democratic system, and other such historical experiences of popular power. We’ve got links with socialists involved in workers’ management or who have done real studies in previous such experiments.

We have links with militant trade unionists in Australia with years of real experience in militant shop-floor and delegate organizing. We have links with local government activists who have explored participatory democracy at that level, and so on. Can we bring all these comrades together in a common discussion? Well, we are discussing this and other ideas with a broad range of collaborators. History has shown that the biggest problem for the world’s oppressed majority is not coming to an awareness of the failures and injustices of the capitalist system but developing the confidence that the majority can exercise its democratic power in a participatory and sustainable way. It remains the key ideological question upon which turns the prospects for the transformation of socialism into a mass movement in the 21st century.

References:

[1] The politics of the new movement for global solidarity

[2] Craig Johnston, welcome back to the struggle!

[3] The Flame, Arabic supplement to Green Left Weekly

[4] France’s New Anti-Capitalist Party: An exchange between Alex Callinicos (British SWP) and François Sabado (LCR)

[5] Union leaders: ‘Defy Howard’s laws!’

[6] Left activists discuss solutions at World at a Crossroads international socialism conference.
Also see http://www.cpiml.org/liberation/year_2009/may_09/reports.html

11 Comments »

11 Responses to “Uniting the Socialist Left: the Australian Experience”

  1. Ben Reid on 07 Jun 2009 at 6:36 am #

    This article is lazy hack journalism: there is not even pretense of consideration given to the criticisms of what the Australian SA has become.

    Yes SA is a peculiar form of regroupment indeed. It consists of one group – the Democratic Socialist Perspective – that is regrouping with… itself! Only gullible foreigners could possibly swallow this nonsense. It is a dishonest and sectarian farce.

    Almost all the decision-making bodies of SA consist of DSP members. There are no other substantive forces involved. It is the DSP masquerading behind a non-revolutionary program.

    To pretend that it has anything in common with formations such the NPA is ridiculous. Revolutionary groups like the LCR decided to form the NPA because it had already achieved some level of mass support for its presidential candidate. The Australian SA has nothing like this base of support. It has even less of base that the DSP did 10 years ago.

    These facts are confirmed by the DSP’s own internal discussions (and divisions) about what to do about SA’s future.
    See: http://www.dsp.org.au/node/220

    There are positive examples of Left regroupment that the Canadian and international left can learn from. Sadly, the Australian SA is not one of them.

    Ben Reid

  2. Roger Annis on 07 Jun 2009 at 9:39 pm #

    Commentator Ben Reid writes with a particular vehemence against my interview with the National Secretary of the Democratic Socialist Perspective. His contribution suggests an intimate knowledge of the Socialist Alliance and its membership, but his only reference is selected quotations from reports to members of the DSP. Does he reside in Australia, and is he a member of the DSP or Socialist Alliance with proper access to these reports? No, I am informed.

    There is nothing “hack” about my interview with Peter Boyle. I have traveled twice in the past 18 months to Australia, attending conferences and other events in which the DSP and Socialist Alliance were involved in Melbourne and Sydney. I was deeply impressed each time with the commitment and leading role of members of both organizations in a wide range of contemporary struggles–confronting the climate change emergency, solidarity with Latin America, trade union fightback against the John Howard government, opposing Australia’s colonial subjugation of the Aboriginal peoples, and the list goes on. That’s why I thought it important to interview Peter Boyle and bring these issues to the attention of the left in Canada, if not internationally.

    Many of the trade union activist-members of the Socialist Alliance who I have had the privilege to meet impress me as battle-hardened activists, certainly in comparison to the situation we confront in Canada. Union activists in Canada and the United States, at least, will do well to learn from their experiences.

  3. David Jeffries on 08 Jun 2009 at 1:32 am #

    This is dishonest reporting. The Socialist Alliance is now several hundred members, down from 2000. The DSP refuses to give precise figures, which it has never done before. The “minority” was expelled – representing 20% of membership and about 30% of active membership. All of this is public information, yet ignored in the article.

    The half a dozen other groups and hundreds of independent members left because the DSP used its numbers on leadership bodies to force through motions that the majority did not want. People just gave up and walked away.

  4. Kerry Vernon on 08 Jun 2009 at 4:11 pm #

    Anyone who reads this interview needs to have a great deal of scepticism. There is plenty of information available for a critical analysis of the information here.
    Perhaps one reason that Peter Boyle and the DSP is now thinking of dissolving completely and becoming Socialist Alliance is they have been unable to make it work beyond the DSP and those few dozen who the DSP has still been deceiving about the reality of SA. That way you don’t have to pretend anymore. No need to worry then about the shrinking number of active DSP members being too exhausted pretending SA is real and the DSP is a revolutionary perspective. Since the politics of the DSP under the SA umbrella has melted away which has meant that Resistance, DSP’s (or is it SA) youth organisation, has been gutted, and is now eclipsed by Socialist Alternative on many university campus, you can ignore that and go on your merry and deluded way to pretending SA is a broad left party.
    Kerry Vernon (living in Australia, expelled by the DSP after 25 years and now in the Revolutionary Socialist Party).

  5. Kim Bullimore on 10 Jun 2009 at 4:10 am #

    Re Roger Annis comment on Ben Reid:

    Ben Reid was a longtime member of the DSP. He was also member of the Leninist Party Faction and was expelled along with the rest of the LPF in 2008 by the Boyleite majority.

    As a member of the DSP, Ben had access to all the internal discussion documents of the DSP regarding Socialist Alliance and the DSP projectons for SA, up until the time he was expelled.

    In addition, at the 2008 DSP congress, the majority of the DSP voted to support making their internal bulletin’s public. However, since that time it was done only intimittenly – on the whole the Boyleite DSP has not publish them. They did, its seems after some reluctance tho, eventually publish their January 2009 NC reports. The Jan NC reports, which Ben links to, are simply an addendum to the SA debate and merely confirm in spades everything the LPF said about the Socialist Alliance.

    Therefore, as a long time former member of the DSP, he would be, without a doubt, will be better well informed than Roger Annis, who was not a member of the DSP or SA and who was not engaged in the faction debate in the DSP which focused around the Socialist Alliance tactic.

    Kim Bullimore (living in Australia, expelled after 10 years in the DSP for being a member of the LPF. Now a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party).

  6. Kim Bullimore on 10 Jun 2009 at 5:20 am #

    Some comments on Roger’s actual interview/article with Peter Boyle:

    Under the section “Continued growth”, Peter Boyle states that despite all the original affiliates to the Socialist Alliance bar the DSP (and Resistance) walking away from the Socialist Alliance is growing.

    Well not according to the DSP’s own internal report at their January 2009 NC: http://www.dsp.org.au/node/220

    The report given by Dick Nichols, a member of the DSP National Committee and one of the Socialist Alliance National Convenors states: “… Socialist Alliance as an organisation has shrunk, and shrunk quite seriously. If you look at the financial membership statistics at mid-December 2008 (which still lack Western Australian data) the financial membership for Australia declined over 2008 by 282, a big fall.” Nichol notes that the membership of SA dropped from 750 to 460 financial members.

    The current membership of the DSP is probably around 210 – 225 members, so the number of “independents’ only just outstrip the DSP. In addition, the majority of these independents are in fact “paper members”, that is they are not active activists (Nichols notes this later in the report, that they are recruiting very few activists).

    In the report, Nichols describes the last SA conference as a “Potemkin Conference”, pointing out that there was no preconference discussion, no resolution put forward during the pre-conference period (when all members can write anything they want for discussion at conference), there was no pre-conference discussion in the branches and there was no time to discuss constitutional amendments or election of the leadership.

    Nichol’s states in the report that “comrades in the Socialist Alliance sending us letters saying that we haven’t done anything. They write that they are just being left out in the cold. “We used to have a little group here that used to meet. Now, nothing happens. So, we’re joining the Greens, or we have become active around local issues.”

    He goes onto quote one of the DSP convenors of SA in Western Australia saying: “Comrade Annolies in Perth says: ‘I don’t invite people to join the Socialist Alliance now, because what can we offer them?” You give us money, and we won’t ring you, we won’t organise you, we won’t keep you up to date with our activity. Obviously, that’s connected to the state of our DSP organising, but it’s the beginning of the end for Socialist Alliance organisation unless turned around’ ”.

    Of course the Boyleite DSP like to blame those DSP members in the LPF who they expelled for this (as Boyle does in the interview with Roger Annis).

    However, the reality is that the current objective conditions in Australia there are no “significant left ward moving forces” which would see SA grow significantly.

    During the faction fight in the DSP, Peter Boyle and his supporters argued at the 2006 Congress that that they key reason to keep adhering to the Socialist Alliance tactic was that there WERE real “significant leftward moving forces”.

    When during the pre-congress discussion in the lead up to the 2008 DSP congress, the LPF pressed the majority to provide evidence that there was in fact “significant leftward moving forces” as Peter Boyle had argued at the 2006 Congress, we were met with complete and resounding silence.

    This was primarily because the Boyleite majority knew that there were no “significant left ward moving forces” and therefore as a result their whole argument for the SA tactic was in tatters. Instead, they just hoped if they ignored this inconvenient fact they could keep up going with the charade that was SA.

    In the report by Nichol’s, however, finally admits that there are no left ward moving forces, instead he states the “core problem” that they (the DSP) face is that “even while there is a broad disenchantment with existing bourgeois politics, the vast majority of disenchanted people are passive (“Good on you, you’re doing a good job!”). The discontent is generating only a small layer of activists (including people we have managed to make active) yet we have given ourselves as the DSP the job of trying to organise and energise a bigger leadership to strengthen and give direction to that disenchantment. That’s the key problem. That’s the root source of the stress we all feel”.

    This is bascially what the LPF was arguing but we were continually howled down and vilfied as being demoralised and defeatist for pointing this reality out.

    Re the Trade Union leaders that Roger notes: Yes, there are a handful non-DSP trade union leaders remain in SA – such as Craig Johnson, who is not a member of the DSP (or at least wasn’t in the past). There are also a couple of others, but not many. The majority of trade union leaders in SA, however, are actually long time DSP members, who simply operate under the SA title. Also it should be noted that a number of high profile “independent” SA trade union leaders left Socialist Alliance in disgust when the DSP majority expelled the LPF in 2008.

    Re Peter Boyle’s comments that the DSP will be discussing their party building perspectives in relation to SA in the lead up to the DSP congress in 2010 and that according to him: “My personal opinion is that it is time for the DSP to make a decisive turn towards building the Socialist Alliance as our new party. We’ve been held back by the hesitations of former Alliance affiliates and a former minority in the DSP for too long already. That’s behind us now and it is time we moved forward”

    Does this mean that the Boyleite DSP will be now finally completing their liquidation into Socialist Alliance? That they will fully liquidate from being a Marxist revolutionary Leninist cadre party into a broad reformist party? And that this will be in the words of Peter Boyle, the DSP’s “new party”?

    Kim Bullimore (Expelled in 2008 after being a member of the DSP for 10 years. Now a member of the Revolutionary Socialist Party http://www.rsp.org.au )

  7. Ben Reid on 12 Jun 2009 at 6:36 am #

    Annis writes:

    “Commentator Ben Reid writes with a particular vehemence against my interview with the National Secretary of the Democratic Socialist Perspective. His contribution suggests an intimate knowledge of the Socialist Alliance and its membership, but his only reference is selected quotations from reports to members of the DSP. Does he reside in Australia, and is he a member of the DSP or Socialist Alliance with proper access to these reports? No, I am informed.”

    Annis is misinformed. The same people who are bullshitting him about SA are doing the same about me.

    I am resident in the UK, but I was a member of the DSP for almost 20 years before my expulsion with the rest of the minority in 2008.

    I base my assessment on activity in SA before 2005 and the full access to documents and debate over the last 4 years. I was sympathetic to the minority when it emerged in 2005. I joined it in June 2006 when it became clear that there was little substantive participation by non-DSP members in the leadership structures of SA. I also became convinced that the majority leadership had degenerated when the DSP national committee excused the hacking of a female comrade’s private email account in order to spy on the DSP minority’s discussion.

    I also base my assessment on direct experience with regroupment in two countries and across Europe. SA is a farce even in comparison with mess of the UK left. At least formations like Respect have real input from a (narrow) range of activists from outside the established left. Even then I would not be so grandiose about the prospects here as Boyle is about Australia.

    Does Annis seriously think that two short trips and carefully chauffeured access to handful of contacts can excuse this kind of one-sided nonsense? I would have thought your experience with Jack Barnes would have made you more sceptical of this kind of chicanery. Perhaps it is hard to break from old habits?

    Again: read the DSP’s own report on the state of SA from Januray (See http://www.dsp.org.au/node/220): outside of Geelong (the geographical and political equivalent of Winnipeg) there are few if any trade union activists with any kind of ongoing involvement in SA.

    Apart from revealing that SA’s membership had shrunk to 400 odd, it is worth quoting at length:

    “We already have warning signs here, comrades in the Socialist Alliance sending us letters saying that we haven’t done anything. They write that they are just being left out in the cold. “We used to have a little group here that used to meet. Now, nothing happens. So, we’re joining the Greens, or we have become active around local issues”…

    “Comrade A in Perth says: “I don’t invite people to join the Socialist Alliance now, because what can we offer them?” You give us money, and we won’t ring you, we won’t organise you, we won’t keep you up to date with our activity…”

    “This state of affairs was epitomised at the Socialist Alliance’s Sixth National Conference. … it was a “Potemkin conference”.

    “Resolutions? Not one branch put forward a resolution. Pre-conference discussion? There was no pre-conference discussion, that I know, that actually happened (correct me if I am wrong). The conference resolutions turned up at the very last minute, so that although they were discussed there and the discussion was real, there was very little sense in which this was a discussion coming out of the concerns and work of the branches.”

    “the idea was to present the multiple environmental crises … to an audience of worker-militants, especially worker-militants from Geelong, and spark discussion about where we are and where we are going in the construction of a red-green political political axis for sustainability. That really didn’t happen.”

    “Finally, the last session was something through which we would not want to go again. By the time most people had gone—probably a blessing in disguise…”

    In other words: there was no real participation outside the DSP. Branches didn’t report because they don’t exist. The discussion that did happen at the conference was like something from an asylum.

    What’s happening now is Peter Boyle’s “exit strategy” with SA. In January the DSP national committee could not agree on what resources to allocate to SA. Despite acknowledging that there almost no active SA branches and membership had shrunk to 400 odd, a pro-SA ‘senilista’ current (with no grasp of reality) led by Dick Nichols wanted even more allocated. This included a weekly publication at a time when circulation of Green Left weekly had collapsed. Boyle baulked at the issue.

    Confronted with the reality that SA is the DSP plus 150 or so mostly paper members (and that this will not change) they are now confronted with 2 options. Either than can revert to the DSP and let SA go (but this would mean admitting the minority was right) or they can dissolve fully into SA (and look farcical to the rest of the Australian left). Boyle appears to have accepted the second (no prizes for guessing why), proposing that the fiction that the DSP is a separate entity to SA can come to an end.

    I say”great”! Stop pretending you are still a revolutionary group and formalise the reality that you only promote the class-struggle and left-reformist SA program. Go ahead and dissolve the DSP.

    But please don’t claim this has anything to do with “uniting the socialist left”. What will emerge is a rebadged DSP with a few long-term allies as ornamental independents.

    Two more things:
    1. The most revealing and offensive aspect of Boyle’s article is his claim that it was the existence of a minority faction in the DSP that prevented or was somehow a distraction from building SA. Surely in a situation when it is clear that SA was in decline one would expect the formation of a minority faction precisely to make these elementary points? Well we did and Boyle’s majority ostracised and eventually expelled us. And the DSP claim that they want to build SA as an inclusive organisation! They couldn’t even tolerate a minority in the DSP.

    2. If the DSP is serious that it wants a new party broader than the DSP and to involve others in discussion how about some ground rules? Why not mandate that at least 50% of contributions should come from non-DSP members? How about making a rule that at least 50% of members in the new SA have to have not been members of the DSP?

    The LCR made rules like this with the NPA: one of two committee reps had to be a non LCR member, for instance. They did this because they wanted to show that the NPA was going to be more than a re-badged LCR.

    Will the DSP make the same kind of commitments? Not likely. Formal SA membership is probably about 30-40% non-DSP. Active membership is maybe 5-10%. I would estimate that about 90% of contributions to discussion will come from DSP members.

  8. Spiro Markaris on 13 Jun 2009 at 8:48 pm #

    It should also be mentioned that the only Socialists who have actually had any success in Australia is the Socialist Party – who the DSP and Boyle shout down as ‘sectarian’. They are the only Socialists to have elected reps in Australia and have a significant campaign in UNITE.

  9. Stewart Sinclair on 17 Jun 2009 at 1:04 pm #

    As I read this series of comments it sounds a lot like a re-run of the Canadian movement in the early 70′s or perhaps a re-write of “Our Differences with the Carpenterites”.

    When are the lot of you going to face the fact that you (Marxist movements of various stripes) still don’t amount to a hill of beans after all these years and get real. The fact is that Marxism was never a science never had a realist perspective on social struggles and, since Lenin and the Russian Revolution, the movement that takes that name has never had a program or practice that was dedicated to the struggle for power – state power that is. Always resistance and “fight backs” of some sort but never the struggle for power.

    From 1899, when Lenin first started to present his ideas on the needs of the struggle for power, to 1917 was less than 20 years but more importantly by the aftermath of the 1905 revolution the Bolshevik organization was a coherent small mass party. The defeat of the Autocracy in war precipitated the revolution – before the Bolsheviks were really ready for of course – but by 1914 the Bolsheviks were a significant factor in Russian politics. They had over 10,000 members, a daily paper and several deputies in the Duma (the Tsarist parliament).

    Even if we write off the Stalin years and the early part of the cold war (though the movement should have started to significantly recover after the Khrushchev revelations in 1956) we still have an incredibly dismal record for this movement in the 40 plus years since the onset of the youth radicalization around 1965.

    Cuba was the only real break in the pattern of defeat and splintering and that process did not in any realistic way fit the Marx’s theoretical perspective. Nor was it anticipated by the movement at the time. It’s not much of a theory when the original central tenets have to be continually ignored or rewritten.

    So what does it take to put an end to this never ending ‘he did’, ‘she did’, chicken shit and build a serious contender for power?

    “Practice is higher than theory.” as one wise Russian said, and the practice here is manifestly dismal. Just pretend for a moment that you don’t know any of the details being discussed and that you coming to this whole thing as an outsider who wants to get something done. Where would you go? If there seemed to be no alternative, sensible people would probably start from scratch.

    Lotsa luck. You’re going to need it at this rate.

  10. Shane H on 21 Dec 2009 at 7:35 am #

    I think it all goes astray with the title: “Uniting the Socialist Left: the Australian Experience”

    How about:

    “Failing to unite the Socialist Left: the Australian Experience” or

    “The Socialist Left in Australia: More divided than ever”

    as the comments amply demonstrate.

  11. Zane on 10 Jan 2010 at 7:39 pm #

    It is good that the RSP have taken the opportunity to engage fully in that most important of revolutionary tasks: posting longwinded rants on foreign socialist organisation’s sites accusing the author of being a ‘lazy hack journalist’.

    History will remember that as climate changed engulfed the planet, the truly realest of the real revolutionaries were valiantly ensuring everyone was fully aware of the treacherous extent to which the sectarian liquidationists had sold out and thus committed the ultimate crime.


Socialist Voice (www.socialistvoice.ca) is a forum for discussion of today’s struggles of the workers and oppressed from the standpoint of revolutionary Marxism. Readers are encouraged to distribute Socialist Voice as widely as possible. For a free email subscription, go to http://www.socialistvoice.ca/?page_id=244