Re: Socialist Alliance in Australia
- The Boyle-Riley Potemkin village. A letter to Andy Newman
By Bob Gould
Just recently you've put up on your website a bland interview with
Dave Riley about the Australian Socialist Alliance. Within a few days
of that, a rather sharp exchange between the ISO and the DSP about the
alliance erupted into the public domain via exchanges in the alliance
internal bulletin and an article in the Weekly Worker commenting on
You also sailed in from a considerable distance vehemently defending
the DSP point of view on this exchange, using rather extravagant
language attacking the author of the Weekly Worker article. In doing
so, you load on to a real person an article written under a pseudonym,
which is a pretty unfriendly act, to say the least.
You argue that the Weekly Worker article quoted a private letter, but
that document was actually circulated at leadership level in the
Socialist Alliance, and just about everyone on the Australian far left
has seen it.
I'm fascinated that you seem so confident that the DSP is so correct
on the questions in dispute on the Australian left.
I appreciate that as someone who has parted company with the British
SWP relatively recently you may have a jaundiced view of the
Australian ISO, which is linked to the SWP, but I would put to you
that the general proposition, the enemy of my enemy is my friend,
while sometimes useful tactically in the very short term is generally
a rather poor guide in serious discussions of major tactical and
strategic questions in the labour movement.
You sail in with the fact that the Australian Labor Party and the
Prices-Incomes Accord were models for the Blair project in Britain,
but you completly ignore the important political difference that the
Australian Labor Party as a whole opposed the recent Iraq invasion and
voted against it in the Australian parliament.
More recently it opposed the commitment of more troops to Iraq. Surely
there's an important difference between a mass Labor Party that,
despite its reformism and right-wing trajectory, opposed the Iraq
adventure, and the Blair Labor government, which was a central
initiator of the Iraq war.
I understand that you may not be clearly aware of this distinction if
you've relied in the recent past on Green Left Weekly for information
about Australian political developments. GLW played down the Labor
opposition to the Iraq military commitment and even argued that it
wasn't really opposition. You'd be wise to use other sources as well
as GLW for an overview of Australian politics.
I'd submit to you that the bland Riley-Boyle account of the
DSP-Socialist Alliance is a classic Potemkin Village. The DSP
leadership gets very cranky when I argue the point with them about
their chronic Third Period posture in relation to Labor, and recently
Boyle and Ben Courtice have repeated the mantra about the considerable
influence of the DSP on some left-wing union officials, despite the
fact that "they're still in the Labor Party". Ben Courtice asserts
that they privately say they have little commitment to the Labor
Party, whatever he means by that.
There are several problems with this DSP organisational megalomania.
Firstly, Australia is a federation of states, which are at
considerable distance from each other and have independent political
The Socialist Alliance is centred in the state of NSW in the city of
Sydney, and about 25-30 of the 35-40 DSP full-timers, out of a
membership of about 270, are located in Sydney, in the DSP
headquarters in Chippendale.
In NSW and Sydney, despite its centre and those full-timers being
there, the DSP has no influence in the labour movement, and is in a
constant, almost self-chosen, antagonistic posture towards the whole
left of the labour movement.
The situation is similar in the smaller states: Tasmania, South
Australia, Queensland, the ACT and the Northern Territory. The small
DSP-Socialist Alliance group is extremely antagonistic towards the
left of the labour movement in those regions.
In Queensland there is one small exception: the secretary of the
Transport Workers Union, a principled old former member of the
Communist Party, who is now in the Labor Party, is quite courteous to
the DSP and gives interviews occasionally to GLW.
In the smallish state of West Australia, which is almost a country in
its own right -- it costs more to fly from Sydney to Perth than it
does to fly to Auckland, in New Zealand -- the DSP has a friendly
relationship with someone who organised a rank and file group in the
Maritime Union and eventually won office at state level. The DSP is
also in a rather opportunist political relationship with some Labor
lefts in the Electrical Trades Union, who won office in a closely
fought battle against another left-winger, and the DSP also has a kind
of alliance with the officials of the building workers union, who run
their own centre-right operation in the Labor Party.
Despite this, the results for the Socialist Alliance in the recent
state elections -- which resulted in a big swing to Labor, and the
Greens holding their own -- were so low as to be off the electoral radar.
In Victoria, the second largest Australian state, and the city of
Melbourne, there is a recognisable left current in the trade union
movement, which has the leadership -- more or less -- of the Victorian
Trades Hall Council.
Most of the main personalities in this recognisably leftist trade
union current are members of the Labor Party and play a substantial
role in the affairs of the Labor left in Victoria. They go as
delegates to Labor conferences, state and federal, and they play a
considerable role in these events.
Some of them give interviews to GLW sometimes, and a couple of them
put free bundles of GLW in their union office reception area. By and
large, they are good people, certainly the best bunch in the trade
union movement Australia-wide. Nevertheless they are mostly indigenous
left Laborites of the better sort.
Boyle and Ben Courtice use self-serving rhetoric implying that these
people might leave the Labor Party sometime soon, and the DSP
leadership repeatedly says that these people say in private that Labor
is no good, but anyone with any experience of the labour movement in
any English-speaking country takes the DSP self-serving rhetoric on
these questsions with the proverbial grain of salt.
In particular, the proposition that these militant trade union
Laborites, who are a distinct and relatively healthy labour movement
current, are about to merge with the DSP-Socialist Alliance anytime
soon is pure moonshine.
Rather than deluding themselves with the kind of chronic bullshit that
they go on with on these questions, the DSP leadership would be better
served by asking themselves why these serious left-wing Labor trade
unionists quietly ignore DSP calls to leave the "rotten second party
of capitalism" and merrily continue in the normal activities in the
Labor Party and trade unions.
The answer to that question is obvious: that from the point of view of
serious trade unionists of the left, and of serious Marxists for that
matter, work in the Labor Party and the trade unions is one of the
daily necessities of the class struggle. Serious activists in the
trade union movement are mostly unwilling to abandon it, despite
constant entreaties from the DSP leadership, because it is from time
to time useful in prosecuting the class struggle.
Some leftist officials of white collar unions are also activists in
the Greens, which flows from the fact that the Greens are an important
part of the stream of political life on the left-labour movement side
of Australian politics.
No amount of DSP ultraleft rhetoric about Labor betrayals, and about
likely future Green betrayals, has much effect on serious activists in
the labour movement. The day to day activities of these labour
movement activists are generally influenced by broader considerations
than the self-interested organisational pretensions of small socialist
ISSUES IN DISPUTE IN THE SOCIALIST ALLIANCE
A number of the issues in dispute in the Socialist Alliance flow
directly from the above tactical problems. At the very start of the
alliance the ISO and the other non-DSP affiliates agreed to the
proposition of a limited electoral alliance.
Very quickly the DSP leadership pushed for what amounts to a
regroupment -- a new, homogeneous organisation -- on DSP terms, which
would have the alliance name but for practical purposes would be a
kind of DSP mark II.
The immediate instrument for this push for the alliance as a rebadged
DSP was the organisation of a group of ostensible independents in the
alliance. From the beginning the dominant influence in this
independent group were DSP "non-party Bolsheviks", who essentially
agreed with the political line of the DSP.
As other independents who didn't agree on all questions with the DSP
dropped out, this independent caucus has been reorganised several times.
The focus of the pressure from the DSP and its allied independent
caucus has been for the alliance to adopt GLW, the rather
well-produced DSP paper, as the paper of the alliance, and for all
alliance members and supporters to sell it.
A certain amount of rhetoric is used about GLW being open to other
points of view, but in practice the DSP leadership uses its mechanical
majority to, in broad terms, confine GLW to the political line of the
DSP. (Although in the face of the current crisis just this week GLW
has published two sharply opposed articles on the crisis in the
Socialist Alliance, which is a kind of first for what might have been
institutionalised discussion in GLW if the DSP leadership had been
serious about a multi-tendency paper. As the saying goes, you can lead
a horse to water but you can't make it drink).
It's hard to see what mechanism the DSP leadership can find to
persuade the ISO and other affiliates to sell a paper the broad
political line of which they generally don't agree with.
The cutting edge of this dispute between the DSP leadership and the
ISO and many of the other affiliates is obviously the differences in
strategy towards the Labor Party and the Greens.
In the short term, the point has been reached at which the Socialist
Alliance resembles a badly dysfunctional marriage. It's hard to tell
whether there'll be a short-term divorce or the DSP and, in particular
the ISO, will stumble on for a bit longer in the way dysfunctional
marriages stumble along "for the sake of the children".
The half-smart rhetoric of Nick Fredman on the GLW discussion list
attacking the ISO for holding back the Socialist Alliance process as
the DSP sees it, is unlikely to solve any of these problems.
Despite the bland Boyle-Riley Potemkin village story, there's a real
crisis in the Socialist Alliance over these strategic questions and
this crisis has led to the emergence of two caves in the DSP
leadership which have been battling with each other for some months,
but that's another story. Watch this space for future developments.