The Socialist Unity Network

Socialist Unity wants to hear from you.
Got a comment?

Why not email us with your thoughts?

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?

Ans: 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 <>) 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 project.

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 case?

Ans: 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.

Walker characterised 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 Labour Council.

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 leadership bodies.

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 affiliates.

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?

Ans: 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 partners?

Ans: Perhaps we have made a rod for our own back by being such enthusiastic builders of SA.
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?

Ans: 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.


June 2005


For Socialist Unity ~ For Internationalism ~ For Peace ~ For Justice ~ For Unity ~ For Socialism