Tuesday, 1 April 2008

SAlt and the Socialist Party find a common cause in disunity.

The Australian satellite of the Committee for a Workers' International (CWI), the largely Melbourne-based Socialist Party (SP), held it's Socialism 2008 conference on March 14 and 15, in Melbourne's Trades Hall. By their own accounts it was a "great success", with just over 50 people over the course of the whole weekend!

Now, the wombats do not want to appear to niggle or snipe (the left in Australia can do without more of that, and the colour of the kettle often resembles that of the pot). Perhaps 50 (including international guests) is a laudable acheivement for the SP. But for an organisation with pretensions of being a vanguard for the working class, that continuously makes calls for a "New Workers' Party", and which is almost entirely limited in spread to Melbourne, fifty people is not a lot.

Of course, noone that is familiar with the SP would have expected a massive turnout, even in this post-WorkChoices climate. But, as scientific socialists (both the wombats and the SP, and, we presume, some of our readers) we must look at this closely, and in context.

The exact membership of the SP is not widely known, but it wouldn't be above the same number - 50 - if that, but probably not all members whould have been able to make it. By comparison, an organisation with a sectarian outlook on the world (and of course the rest of the left) - Socialist Alternative (SAlt) - has around 200 members, and got an estimated 250-300 to their Marxism 2008 conference, also held in Melbourne. So perhaps the ratio of members to conference turnout is the same. Or perhaps not.

What's more important, however, is what they do with their time (and members). Alone amongst the left, the SP has managed to get one their members elected - Steve Jolly on Yarra Council - and expends a fair bit of effort in that area alone, while also orienting fairly firmly towards workers. SAlt, on the other hand, doesn't run in elections, and has a rather bizarre approach to recruitment, preferring students to workers (they actually have a rationale for this, printed in their handbook, which fits nicely with their fixation on propaganda), a factor which no doubt explains a fair bit of their size, as well as the high turnover they experience.

Politically, however, they come from quite different strands of "Trotskyism", the SP of the more orthodox kind of the CWI, while SAlt's politics are of the IST "State Capitalist" flavour.

So, it might seem somewhat surprising to discover that the two organisations recently had a "debate" on the topic of "strategies for building revolutionary organsiations" - which also attracted 50 people. But the content of the SP report on the evening explains a lot more than it thinks.

While the SP's Anthony Main was right in criticising the isolationist propagandising of SAlt (as captured in the recently-published and pretty theoretically distorted book by leading SAlt member Mick Armstrong, From Little Things, Big Things Grow), the impression you get (both from up here in Sydney, as well as from reports that the wombats have had from people who were at the meeting) is that the whole thing was an excercise in rhetoricising.

Both groups took comfort from the fact that neither was really challenging the other - SAlt don't run in elections (although I don't know how many of them hang out in Yarra) and have no pretensions to any "new workers' party" bar themselves - one day; and the SP (while they do try to recruit some students) is too small to really worry SAlt, so they can carry on recruiting students until the cows come home.

Amazingly they found that they agreed on most things! Socialists. Agreeing.

Unfortunately, however, one of the things that united them was a common enemy - the Socialist Alliance. Nothing like sectarianism to bring some groups together. The SP - the supposed "champion" of a new workers' party, continues to ignore anyone who takes the first steps towards building it. In his address, Main criticised the Socialist Alliance because it began (and in his mind still is) merely an alliance of left groups. Aside from being a mischaracterisation, one wonders how Main imagines convincing the unions, community groups and perhaps the left of the ALP to split and join with socialists in the struggle for a "new workers' party" unless you've already got some credibility, and political weight, under your belt. And how you're going to get that unless you start building the kernel of that new party.

At the Socialist Alliance-initiated Trade Union Fightback conference in Melbourne in 2005, the SP's Steve Jolly got up and repeated the call for a
"new workers' party". Craig Johnston, Socialist Alliance member, and former Victorian AMWU state secretary, responded that he agreed with the idea, and "that's why I joined the Socialist Alliance".

Of course, noone but the most delusional thinks that the Socialist Alliance is a new mass workers' party, however. Around a thousand members isn't a "mass" anything. But it's a start, and a start which doesn't fit the SP's schema.
And they've put so much energy into deriding it and attacking it, that they couldn't possibly think it mught be a good idea. Could they?

As for Socialist Alternative, well, Socialist Alliance does threaten them. One affiliate of the Socialist Alliance, Resistance, the socialist youth organisation closely linked to the Democratic Socialist Perspective (DSP), recruits, as you might tell from the name, young people, especially on campuses. The DSP itself, a revolutionary marxist affiliate of the Socialist Alliance, is bigger than SAlt, and produces Australia's main left-wing newspaper, Green Left Weekly.

Add to this several hundred non-alligned members, in various campaigns, and unions, with branches in places many SAlt has never even been, and Socialist Alliance looks like a pretty viable option, if the rest of the already organised left wanted to get (back) involved.

The problem is that they apparently don't. Even the sudden burst of unity amongst the other 3 IST groups in Australia, fusing in February to form Solidarity (website still under construction), doesn't appear to extend to the idea of a broader left (no matter how excited they get over Die Linke or other, successful, broad left projects).

Compared to the votes that the Greens get (over a million), and the members they have (around 8,000), this all seems like small bikkies, but socialists have an ability to punch well above our weight, whereas the Greens are a bit all over the place most of the time, not to mention the lack of anything resembling a proper analysis of both society, or the causes of the problems facing the planet. Could (would?) the Greens pull off something like this, for example?

It is because of what socialists can acheive - even when we are so ridiculously disunited - that we need to honestly, and very, very, quickly, return to the table of unity. There are more opportunities for socialist ideas now than there have been for a very long time (in some ways, more than in the anti-capitalist globalisation struggle, if of a different tone), and the need for a coherent alternative that can prevent runaway global warming demands that those who claim to see the long view of history through a clear window pane, turn their gaze to the future with a similar urgency.

"No ideologically pure propaganda groups on a dead planet!" is one tongue-in-cheek slogan that springs to mind.


Unknown said...

The alleged "high turnover" of Socialist Alternative membership - asserted repeatedly on this blog without any reference to actual facts - would be more credible if you could point to examples of other approaches that are having great success in winning and holding people to socialism.

Perhaps i have not been looking hard enough, but i fail to see any other group bringing substantial numbers of new people into socialist politics, let alone convincing them to commit to the socialist movement in the long term over the last few years.

The ISO twisted itself in similar knots about SAs growth a few years ago. First it argued that SA was irrelevant, then it argued that growth was not in itself proof that SA was on the right track (fair enough, though its not a bad start), then it decided that growth was in fact positive proof of what a nasty sectarian outfit SA was.

By this logic, of course, the ISO continued onwards and upwards away from both sectarianism and members until it was so unsectarian that its remaining dozen or so members had to go crawling back to Ian Rintoul so as not to disappear altogether.

Why some in the DSP think the same logic will work for them is beyond me.

Red Wombat said...

Joel, short my being able to provide the ID, address and mothers' maiden-names of everyone that's first joined and then left SAlt, I'm going to assume your first point to be a strawman.

I have heard apocryphal accounts of people trying to leave SAlt who were followed to their workplace, on a number of occasions, and interrogated about why they were leaving.

I know people that have left SAlt, or whose friends have done so, and usually under quite horrid conditions. But I didn't raise those in my post because I'm trying to avoid ad hominem attacks.

The high turnover of SAlt is not so dissimilar to the high turnover of Resistance, another socialist group that recruits primarily from among students. At no point did I suggest that because there was a high turnover, therefore the whole thing was a dismal failure.

But you're right - you haven't been looking hard enough. If you can't see "any other group bringing substantial numbers of new people into socialist politics" then you are clearly going about life with blinkers on.

Firstly, Resistance manages to do pretty well for itself, although in competition with SAlt. Secondly, you plainly exist in denial of the existence of the Socialist Alliance, which, even if you take out the DSP component, has a FINANCIAL membership of at least 2-3 times that of SAlt.

This is not counting non-financial members, supporters, fellow-travellers, GLW subscribers, etc etc etc, which would take us well into the thousands.

Yes, SAlt has quite a few members, whom they have won to a form of socialism. But no, SAlt is not alone in this, not by a mile.

So much for your first point.

As for your rather convoluted and par-boiled attempt to conflate the ISO's mistakes in the Socialist Alliance (which even some of their members admitted could and should have been avoided, to the benefit of all) with the DSP's genuine commitment to building a broad socialist organisation...

Well, I'd say nice try, but to really get at someone in the way you're trying, you actually need to engage with reality first.

The "logic" of the ISO's tortious involvement in the Socialist Alliance bears no resemblance to that of the DSP, as anyone who was involved in it would know.

But then I guess you don't, do you?