The way forward for left regroupment
Dave Riley interviewed Peter Boyle, a member of the
national executives of both the DSP and the Socialist Alliance:
Qtn: What has the Socialist Alliance
achieved in its four years of existence?
The Socialist Alliance is probably the only left regroupment project in a
wealthy country to take off without an electoral break.
The rise of the Greens
as the major parliamentary party to the left of the ALP has placed such a break
out of our reach for the moment. Yet SA has made some real gains. The Socialist
Alliance has 1,200 paid-up members and 32 branches -- more than any socialist
group in this country has had for decades. It has begun organizing in areas
where the organized left never reached or had long abandoned, and our trade
union activists are working closely with militant trade unionists to build a
campaign of mass community and industrial action against the Howard governments
impending new wave of attacks on unions.
On June 11 trade
unionist leaders and rank and file activists from around the country will be
gathering at the National Union Fightback Conference (see <http://www.socialist-alliance.org/page.php?page=415>)
in Melbourne. This is the latest successful SA initiative.
SA is widely seen as
the party most responsible for the anti-war movement. And by initiating Seeing
Red, the magazine of social, political and cultural dissent (see <
it has begun to draw left-wing writers, thinkers and artists in a common
If SA can persist and
develop in strength and political effectiveness, its real activist leadership in
Australia will find an electoral expression. Stephen Jolly's election as a
councillor in the inner-suburban Melbourne shows this may not be far off.
Qtn: After two
and a half years of moving in a partyish direction the Socialist Alliance seems
to have reached a watershed in its development. Do you agree that that is the
The 2003 and 2004 Socialist Alliance national conferences voted by large
majorities to begin transforming the Socialist Alliance into a multi-tendency
socialist party (MTSP).
DSP members threw their
weight into trying to build the Socialist Alliance as the new united party of
the left. We hoped these measures would help build the Alliance into a new
united party of the left that could intervene more effectively in the trade
union and other social movements, as well as participate in elections.
However, all the
smaller founding socialist affiliate groups have remained implacably opposed to
the MTSP perspective. And while they are a small minority in SA as a whole this
opposition presents a bigger image of disunity in the left activist milieus in
the bigger cities.
At the last two
national conferences the main political debate was between the pro-MTSP majority
and the minority opposing this perspective. But now we have another division.
The three national convenors who don't belong to any affiliate group, Louise
Walker, Lalitha Chelliah and Raul Bassi have declared a "third way".
They argue that the
International Socialist Organization and other smaller affiliates want SA to be
an electoral united front, like Respect in England, while the DSP is trying to
force SA to follow the Scottish Socialist Party model.
the SSP "model" as one "where small socialist groups of highly politically
developed activists of various strands, including individual active socialists,
group together at the centre of the organisation and steer it, while other
socialists who are not highly politically developed activists or who do not wish
to commit to steering such an organisation with other socialists, again have
certainty of little more in the way of a political home that they can influence
the direction of, that broadly reflects their political ideas, and can be
integrated into their lives..."
But this misrepresents
both the SSP regroupment and the DSP's approach to building the Alliance.
SSP members democratically elect the people they have confidence to lead the
party. Proportional representation guarantees minority representation and it has
adopted measures to ensure gender balance in leadership bodies. If many of its
leaders are revolutionary socialists they were elected by and have the
confidence of the broader membership
Many SA members have
drawn great inspiration from the SSP. It is a great example of left regroupment.
However, not for a moment have we seen it as some sort of model that can be
replicated in Australia.
We don't have the
strong historical socialist tradition that exists in Scotland. We don't face the
same national question and we didn't have the poll tax campaign and Tommy
Sheridan. We don't have the same electoral openings.
But we did have the
1998 MUA struggle and there was the rise of a new militant minority in the trade
union movement after that, mainly in the industrial heartlands of Victoria. Some
of this militant minority's best known leaders, including former AMWU Victorian
secretary Craig Johnston (who has been jailed for leading industrial action),
are proud members of SA.
Other SA union
activists have won leadership positions. Chris Cain was elected WA secretary of
the MUA and Tim Gooden was recently elected secretary of the Geelong Trades and
I'd say the DSP's
approach to left regroupment has been built around the real openings in
Australia and is not some attempt to copy an "SSP model". At all levels, SA has
experimented with organizational forms and continues to do so.
The "third way"
proponents seem to be arguing that SA cannot become a truly broad socialist
party unless we keep the factional deal-based leadership system which was
adopted last year. This formula decrees a "non-affiliate" majority for national
While any group of SA
members has the freedom to organize themselves in tendencies, factions or
caucuses, the "third way" envisages a special status for one such grouping. The
Non-Aligned Caucus (consisting of all non-affiliated members of NE and SA
national political committees, working groups, caucuses and boards), is to be
"structurally located as a central leadership wing within the national
organisation of the Alliance".
This leadership formula
has been tested this year and it has failed to provide an effective national
executive. It has failed to bring forward new leadership. What it has done is
promote greater disunity in SA and alienated its leadership bodies from the real
SA work at the base. And most disturbingly, it promotes a "red- baiting"
atmosphere in the form of an institutionalized suspicion of SA members who
belong to revolutionary socialist affiliates or are even seen to support such
We will be supporting
proposals for a democratically elected leadership, with provisions to ensure
minority representation and a guaranteed voice from all states. I think SA's big
challenge is to face up to the real openings for left regroupment in this
country and to break from the unhealthy inter-factional suspicion that has too
long dogged the left. This will be an important step in that direction that the
conference should support.
Qtn: How will
you describe the current internal politics of the SA?
It is almost as if there are two SA's. There are the bulk of SA members who are
getting on with the job, whether it is in a local branch, a trade union caucus,
an anti-war caucus or a working group around a project like Seeing Red or SA-GLW
integration. Then there is this highly factionalised national leadership that
seems to be focused on internal processes, making rules and sometimes even
trying to censor the working bodies of SA.
Our general experience
in SA is that where comrades from different political backgrounds actually
attempt to work together on a project, mutual trust and respect is built. And
there is no problem finding political projects where we are in broad agreement.
Indeed, there have been no major disagreements about our political platform or
our work in the trade unions or in the other social movements.
So it will be a great
shame if this latest round of factionalism ends up destroying the significant
gains made through the Socialist Alliance. And this could happen. If the
proponents of the Third Way unite with the smaller affiliates to attack the DSP,
the affiliate that has and continues to put the most effort into building SA
(and this is not a boast but a fact that can be easily proved) then we are
looking at a lot of destructive potential. It is always easier to smash what it
has built up.
Qtn: Some SA
members may say that the DSP is its own worst enemy. No one asked the DSP to
underwrite the SA process. So why have you persisted with this course despite
its sacrifices and the continuing disdain and opposition from some of your SA
Perhaps we have made a rod for our own back by being such enthusiastic builders
When other affiliate groups abstain or pull back from this or that SA project,
DSP members and non-affiliate members who have worked alongside them end up
minding the store. Then we are accused to turning SA into a "rebadged DSP". The
other SA members minding the store with us are accused by some of being "DSP
tools" or "dupes".
This is not just an
insult to SA members but is also not true. SA is not the "DSP rebadged". It is a
much looser and broader organization than the DSP and it is united on a more
limited program than that which unites DSP members.
Ironically, in large
part due to the great load the DSP carries in the work of Socialist Alliance,
the DSP is now facing a severe financial crisis for the second year in a row.
The Green Left Weekly project, our biggest responsibility will be jeopardized if
we carry on like this. This is too big an asset for the left and progressive
movement sin this country to risk. So we have written to the SA national
executive to tell them that the DSP simply cannot meet this and sustain its
current level of resource commitment to Socialist Alliance. Others will have to
take more of this strain.
We know the
responsibility we have in SA. Without the DSP there will not be Seeing Red,
Alliance Voices, SA's trade union initiatives. Any SA without the DSP will not
be more a than a loose electoral alliance between small socialist groups
concentrated in Sydney and Melbourne. It is a heavy responsibility and we will
seek to deal with this the best we can.
Qtn: Is the
DSP still committed to that new party perspective?
We think that there is a urgent need and a real space in this country for a new
left party that brings together all the forces prepared to stand up to the
continuing neo-liberal attacks from the capitalist class and its governments. We
don't think the Greens fill all that space, in fact we know they are leaving big
gaps, especially in the trade union movement.
We are prepared to
commit to any project that seriously tries to fill that gap. And that challenge,
as we see it, is not just to unite the existing socialist groups but to regroup
with broader leftward moving forces in society. While the Socialist Alliance has
made a good start in that direction, we think the process has now stalled.
But others need to show
the will and commitment to make this real. The DSP cannot do it on its own. Over
the next few months we will be studying how far this project has come and the
obstacles it faces to further progress. We will be re-evaluating our January
2004 decision to transform the DSP into an internal tendency in SA at a January
2006 DSP congress.
This discussion in the
DSP is just a part of a broader re-evaluation of where our collective project is
going, and how united resistance to Howard and left and socialist regroupment
can be best advanced under current conditions.
We all need to examine
not just the problems encountered with the current state of affairs in SA but
also possible new openings. The potential advances in the campaign for a mass
trade union resistance to the Howard government, and the strong advance of
Respect in the UK general elections are just two new developments to take into
consideration. Hopefully a clearer idea of the way forward for left regroupment
will come out of that broader discussion.