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Where to next for the Australian Socialist Alliance?

David Glanz is a Socialist Alliance national co-convenor and a leading member of the International Socialist Organisation, one of the founding affiliates of the alliance.


What do you consider to be the major gains of the Socialist Alliance project so far?
The outstanding gain has been to demonstrate that the left can unite around a common project and begin to build a meaningful alternative to a Labor Party that is increasingly moving to the right.

The alliance works when the founding groups and the many individuals who have joined since 2001 focus on what we hold in common - opposition to Howard's war on workers, the poor and the oppressed, and to his war on Iraq. We need to continue with that spirit of unity, at the same time maintaining a tolerant and pluralistic alliance culture where the differences that do exist are respected.

Working together means we have been able to be stronger than the sum of our parts when it comes to playing a role in the anti-war movement, in defending our unions, in defending Indigenous rights or abortion rights.

There is a thirst among tens of thousands of people around the country for a principled and positive alternative to neoliberalism, not least at election time. In such a situation, the non-Labor left must take itself seriously. We haven't become that alternative yet, but we've at least begun the process and gained some valuable experience.

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 case?

The Socialist Alliance project has stalled. That doesn't mean there aren't some important achievements, like the work of our union members, the upcoming union fight-back conference, which the alliance initiated, our role in the Indigenous community in south-east Queensland, our council election results in Melbourne, and new branches in regional Victoria, NSW and Queensland.

But the alliance has not broken through. There are some reasons for this outside of our control, principally Labor's defeat in the federal election and the electoral credibility of the Greens. But the ISO believes that there are also factors of the alliance's own making.

There is a clear division within the alliance, with the ISO on one side and the Democratic Socialist Perspective (DSP) on the other, over what kind of alliance we need.

In your estimation what are the major problems confronting the SA at this time?
I think the biggest problem is the drive to turn the alliance, which is still a smallish organisation dominated by activists from revolutionary affiliates, into an activist and centralised party similar in many ways to the existing hard left.

In the ISO's opinion, the core audience for the alliance is not the existing hard left, either groups or individuals, but those thousands of workers, students and claimants who have traditionally looked to Labor for representation but who feel betrayed by Labor's charge to the right. After all, Kim Beazley is now deliberately to the right of some Liberal MPs on the question of refugees!

To win over and organise even a fraction of that audience, the alliance has to:

    • take elections seriously (because disaffected Labor supporters do - that's "real" politics to most people);

    • relate to local issues and put down roots in the community (which includes taking up the big issues of war and union-bashing and linking them to local organising); and

    • have a relaxed and informal atmosphere, which is welcoming to people new to organised politics and who have family, work or study commitments.

Instead, the DSP perspective has led to the opposite: a frantic branch life; an emphasis on members supporting the Green Left Weekly; a downgrading of electoral work, especially at the valuable lower-house or council level; an over-the-top focus on events in Venezuela; and a shift towards an apparatus which is out of step with the alliance's real stage of development and which can be sustained only through a constant round of branch fund-raising, tiring members even more.

Is it any wonder that an increasing number of alliance members have voted with their feet and many branches are going backwards?

Ironically, the DSP's perspective for the alliance has been sold by pointing to the achievements (which are real) of the Scottish Socialist Party and denigrating the strategy of Respect in England for being too electoralist. I think the election of George Galloway for Respect, which has had a global impact given his trouncing of the US senate, puts that debate in a different light.

Are the problems surmountable?
Of course, but at the coming conference we need a certain humility and willingness to look reality in the face. It is also vital that we reject any notion of "winner takes all". Unity within the Alliance has to be built by common struggles and experiences; it cannot be imposed. I think the conference has to reconsider a few important things.

We must junk the current one-sided hostility to Labor, which is cutting us off from many disaffected Labor types - we need a united front with those people, not a stand-off.

We need to dump the trial relationship with Green Left Weekly (which I'm confident will continue to support the alliance in any case) and commit to producing publications (leaflets, broadsheets, charters, Seeing Red, etc.), which grow organically from the alliance's work and which can be supported from current funding.

We need to ensure that our branches are funded to do the local work and election campaigning that will grow the alliance.

In other words, we need to learn something from the methodology of Respect's success in England. We can't replicate such an organisation here, but we can adopt and adapt its approach to united front work with Muslims and disenchanted Labor supporters, and its organic growth out of real campaigns, principally but not exclusively against the war in Iraq.

What are your views on the idea that the Socialist Alliance should transform itself into a "multi-tendency socialist party"?

The alliance is a party and it has multiple tendencies. What's the fuss? Those who repeat the initials MTSP in the alliance like a mantra have to answer the question: what do we do? I think we build the alliance as a broad, pluralistic party that fights elections, that campaigns in between, and that builds links with those in and around both the Greens and Labor.

Out of that might come a really valuable regroupment of the broadest left, which would shift the Australian political landscape and give real hope to those who see only a world of greed, poverty, environmental disaster and war.


June 2005

This article is reproduced from Green Left Weekly and is part of a wider discussion on the future of Australia's Socialist movement in preparation for their annual conference.
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