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Socialist Alliance: Five Months Later

My short article from April this year, 'Another Generation Lost?', was initially distributed on the Leftlinks mailing list, the Australian Socialist Youth mailing list, several international usenet groups, made its way to Workers Online (the news website of the NSW Trades and Labour Council), was distributed around Victorian left Labor email lists and a few hundred even made it into existence as physical handbills.

Dick Nichols of the DSP, in the role of acting convenor of the Socialist Alliance, saw fit to respond to it in Green Left Weekly, albeit by erroneously questioning the motives rather than dealing with the substance. To clarify the matter, if there could be any doubt, the motive behind the article was one of warning, backed by the very real historical experiences and theoretical basis of the far left.

Five months down the track, with the Socialist Alliance holding its first national conference and its first election campaigns, it is opportune to take stock of the initial concerns: (i) the sectarian behaviour of the far left, (ii) their lack of electoral success and (iii) their political ineffectiveness.

Leftist Sectarianism

In the far left, people have been expelled for not supporting a particular political line, people have been expelled for associating with those expelled, people have been physically removed from meetings or shouted down when they try to put a point. Alternative political parties have been seen as recruiting grounds at best or opportunities for a take over.

All of this is all quite ridiculous and is part of the reason why we have nine socialist parties within the Alliance and at least another half dozen outside it. The political theory of these groups becomes seriously weird due to their isolation - effectively, they have a number of good activists, but if they're going to be sitting in the same room talking to the same people for twenty years, they'll end up convincing themselves that the Soviet Union didn't have a socialist economy. This is what has happened.

In theoretical terms, the constituent parties of the Socialist Alliance still follow their own particular brands of Marxian - and only Marxian - dogma. No noticeable attempt has been made within the parties themselves to seek a reconstruction of their own political lines in the interest of political unity, or for that matter the serious theoretical challenges to orthodox Marxism. So in this sense the nine separate and opposing political sects have become a nine separate but allied political sects.

There is still a noticeable degree of antipathy between the some Alliance partners (and more so in the British equivalent) and certainly with non-Alliance left organisations and individuals, such as the Greens or the left of the ALP (particularly from the DSP). In the other side of the equation, parts of the Melbourne SA has worked with non-Alliance members, noticeably Socialist Party and the ISO has been particularly effective in their new strategy of working with reformists for common objectives.

Electoral Success

The electoral success of the Socialist Alliance still leaves a lot to be desired. Their electoral foray into the suburban hinterlands for the Aston House of Representatives by-election was an evident waste of resources.

The Alliance received just three hundred and fifty votes out of ninety thousand, despite organising eighty campaign workers and having one hundred and fifty volunteers on election day. The Alliance was outpolled by informal votes by a ratio of 12 to 1, came twelfth out of fifteen and had a best booth result of a mere 1.1 percent (i.e., 13 votes out of 1195).

Despite this result the public statements by Socialist Alliance were strangely positive. "This represents an excellent start for the alliance", claimed the Aston campaign coordinator. Green Left Weekly announced the result with the headline "Socialist Alliance Passes first test". Well, no actually; the first test is to receive more votes than informal - then the Alliance will be on the electoral radar.

Other results for the Socialist Alliance have only been marginally better. In the Melbourne City Council elections, they received some 250 votes (out of thirty five thousand), although they were also competing with other left-wing tickets.

The results in the Northern Territory elections are the best to date, with the three Alliance candidates picking up 4.1%, 3.8% and 2.9% in Nightcliff, Fannie Bay and Wanguri respectively. Of course, the official Alliance propaganda machine is still orbiting somewhere just outside Pluto with the claim on their website - and get this - "Socialist Alliance claims victory in the Northern Territory election"! In reality, on a per candidate basis, the Alliance was outpolled by the Territory Alliance, the Democrats and One Nation and the average vote for other Independents. In Fannie Bay and Wanguri the SA candidates were the only alternatives to the CLP and Labor.

Nonetheless, in Nightcliff there was one other candidate, who polled less than the SA candidate. In Nightcliff and Fannie Bay the Socialist Alliance candidates received more than the informal vote. This effectively does put Socialist Alliance on the electoral map, albeit in the Northern Territory and there only as the most minor of political organisations.

Whilst some members of Socialist Alliance would rather that the organisation not have anything to do with parliamentary democracy they are reminded that this is an advanced form of democracy and it does them no credit to claim superiority to it without majority support. Learning how to not just gain votes but also win elections will be a critically important task if the Alliance is going to break out of accusations of infantile ultraleftism.

Political Effectiveness

As a pressure group of activists the relative success of the Alliance is much better. In the Northern Territory, the Alliance successfully promoted a commitment from the now-governing ALP to repeal mandatory sentencing. In Victoria, ACT and New South Wales, Alliance leaders in the Refugee Action Collective have successfully formed united organisations with a diverse range of political orientations with a very real prospect of success. Likewise in the long-running protest against Nike.

The recent Socialist Alliance national conference adopted a set of 'priority pledges' that can easily fit into any left ALP or Green political statement along with a variety of pragmatic political solutions on a range of issues. However the overall platform of the Alliance is quite reformist - sections of the ALP are even more socialist than this!

Noticeably the preamble - the only section of the platform that refers to workers control - seems to have returned to their website.

As a political strategy in the left it is to be expected that the Socialist Alliance, as an activist group with an extra-parliamentary orientation, will take serious leadership roles. However by the same
token, it is also expected that prior co-ordination and campaign liaison occur between the Alliance and other progressives if the objectives are to be successful and certainly the Alliance partners need to seriously consider what sort of on-the-ground political tactics they use in order to popularise their demands - not everything is, or should be, a blockade. This has yet to be cemented as a formal process with current reliance on personal contacts and goodwill.


It is still far too early to determine whether the warnings of impending internecine warfare and electoral indifference will affect the Socialist Alliance, with both positive and negative orientations evident. Something however that I have been convinced of, however, is the personal and political dedication of the new radicals and those who are in the Alliance, but not part of any constituent organisation. Whilst the elder statespeople of the various organisations may still be stuck in the mode of consciousness that classifies entire regimes in an absolutist manner, most of the new radicals seem relatively free from such dogma.

The post-Soviet generation, rather than viewing the entire world historical process in a 'good side' vs. 'bad side' orientation, seems more interested in concrete political reality of whether people have personal freedom and social democracy, regardless of the nation-state in question or what it claims its ideology is. If this remains the central feature of the new radicals - and even with requisite stubbornness when the leaders of the SA organisations demand a political orientation contrary to these features (as they surely will) - then one can be quietly optimistic about the future of progressives in Australia, regardless of the specific political future of the Socialist Alliance.

Who's Who In The Alphabet Soup?

For anyone who is not an animal in the zoo, or hasn't been a watcher of the far left of Australian politics over the past twenty years the sheer diversity of names must already be confusing. It's certainly confusing enough for those who are actually involved in such organisations. Because as sure as night follows day, over every decade the organisations of far left will be involved in a multitude of splits, alliances, regroupments, theoretical and practical changes of orientation and re-interpretations of world historical events. Given the temporary nature of providing an truthful account of these political organisations, a brief attempt is made to provide a description of each of the players mentioned. Use this codex with the judgement of Kronos: The half-life of an extreme left group in Australia is roughly ten years.

The Democratic Socialist Party: The Democratic Socialist Party was formed in 1972 as the Socialist Workers' League, following successful attempts by its leaders in marginalising anarchists and other Trotskyites in precursor organisations. During the 1970s and most of the 1980s the Party was the Australian section of the United Secretariat of the Fourth International.

The Fourth International, it should be pointed out at this time, was the organisation founded by Leon Trotsky and his supporters in 1938 when they decided that Comintern, the Third International, was completely dominated by Stalinism and could not be reformed. During the sixty plus years of the Fourth International it has undergone an extraordinary array of splits and regroupments. At last count, there are currently twenty-five international groupings who claim lineage from the original Fourth International. Not to mention the sixty or so organisations who haven't found another foreign ally to become yet another "international". [1]

In the mid-1980s the Democratic Socialist Party dropped its commitment to Trotskyism, particularly the theory of permanent revolution and interpretation of state socialist regimes. This provided the Party some degree of independence and it made several attempts to build electoral alliances or a new left party. The DSP even gained some media coverage after its ill-fated intervention into the Nuclear Disarmament Party, a standing tactic whereby multiple party memberships (eg., ALP, NDP, Greens) are seen as a tactic for building the DSP. The DSP is the mainstay behind the publication of Green Left Weekly and the youth group Resistance. Their membership is within the realm of few hundred.

The International Socialist Organisation: As part of the International Socialist Tendancy, another variant of the Fourth International, the ISO is characterised by the claim that the Soviet, Chinese and Cuban governments are actually "state capitalist" and not socialist at all on any level. The theory of state capitalism is the main theoretical beacon which separates the International Socialists from the rest of the 'orthodox Trostkyists', as they call others. They should pay more
attention to the fact that no-one else seems to support this evaluation except for a handful of anarchists and fascists.

Established in Australia in the early 1980s and with a long affiliation with the British Socialist Workers' Party (which has recently split from the International Socialist Tendency), the ISO has been characterised in this country with substantial levels of activism coupled with theoretical impoverishment and political sectarianism. The combination of the three has often meant that others consider the ISO to be a party of ultraleft stunts. Like the DSP, the ISO is a large political party by the standards of the far left. Their membership is of a similar size, however their turnover is significantly greater.

Socialist Alternative: In the early 1990s a number of activists within the International Socialist Organisation initiated complaints about the non-democratic and sectarian nature of their leadership (or at least, that's what they say). However, like the ISO, their general perspective is that the Soviet and PRC regimes were state capitalist rather than socialist. Even more so than the ISO they have a particularly strong committment to extra-parliamentary activism. In recent times, as the ISO has minimised its "direct action" approach, the SA has taken it up. Their membership is less than one hundred.

Workers Liberty: Formed in 1980 with links to the British Alliance for Workers Liberty this is yet another Trotskyite group. They are opposed to what they see as moves towards "Stalinism" by the DSP or away from the labour movement (eg., the Greens) and equally opposed to the ISO whom they consider to be opportunist and shallow in their conception of a "revolutionary party". Workers Liberty is not opposed to intervention in the Australian Labor Party. Their membership is less than twenty.

Workers Power: Originally arising from Workers Power of Britian, this body became international in 1989 with the formation of League for a Revolutionary Communist International. Despite building some rapport with British miners in the 1980s the group almost fell apart in the 1990s over the character of the changes in the Russian political and economic system.

Strangely enough it was in the midst of this internal struggle that an Australian section was formed in 1996. Their membership is less than twenty.

Freedom Socialist Party: The Freedom Socialist Party is aligned with equivalent groups in the United States and Canada. Again a Trotskyist Party, they describe themselves as a "revolutionary socialist feminist" organisation. They were formed following a split in the American
Socialist Workers Party in the 1960s over commitments towards feminism and civil rights work. More than other parties of the Trotskyist orthdoxy, the FSP appear to give stronger committments to the "new politics" of gay/lesbian rights, women's liberation and cultural self-determination. Their membership is less than twenty.

Socialist Democracy: A split from the Progressive Labor Party, Socialist Democracy has not been present long enough to make an accurate asssement of their politics. From initial statements they treat policy development and involvement in the electoral process more seriously than other groups involved in the Socialist Alliance. Their membership is probably less than twenty.

Worker-Communist Party of Iraq (in exile): Founded in 1993 the WCP Iraq gained particular strength in the north where it formed significant workers alliances between Iraqi and Kurds. The WCPI claims "thousands" of members inside Iraq and abroad in the European countries, North America, and Australia. Their chief theoretical difference with other parties of the left, both within and outside of Iraq, is that they perceive them as being "bourgeois communist" rather than "worker communist".

Workers League: Another group with Trotskyist origins, this time the International Workers League (Fourth International), a group whose most significant forces are in Latin American nations. Their membership is less than ten.

Outside of this Socialist Alliance a brief description of the Progressive Labour Party, Communist Party of Australia, the Socialist Party, the Socialist Equality Party, Sparticist League is also warranted.

Progressive Labour Party: The Progressive Labour Party officially claims that it stands for a left, if not radical left or far left, unified party outside of the Australian Labor Party. Substantially influenced by Marxist Initiative (consisting mostly of former members of the Association for Communist Unity) and includes many members of the ill-fated New Left Party from the late 1980s.

Communist Party of Australia: The current manifestation of the Communist Party of Australia is derived from a name-change of the Socialist Party of Australia in 1996. The SPA itself was formed as a split from the CPA following its decision to oppose the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia in 1968. Mostly consisted of older communists, the CPA has good links with trade union leaders but lacks an active youth wing. Their membership however is still significant, being of a similar size large as the DSP and the ISO.

Socialist Party: Yet another Trotskyist party, this time belonging to the "Committee for a Workers' International" and formerly known as the Militant Socialist Organisation. In Britian they had a very successful "entry" campaign in the British Labour Party, controlling the youth wing for some fifteen years and electing three members to Parliament as well initiating important public campaigns (eg., against the Poll Tax). They have remained outside of the Socialist Alliance because they see it as being dominated by the DSP and the ISO. The Australian section only has prominence in Melbourne, with a membership under fifty.

Socialist Equality Party: Formerly the Socialist Labour League, this group was a renowned sectarian Trotskyist organisation for many years but a major part of the International Committee of the Fourth International. Convinced that the Democratic Socialist Party was full of police spies and the assassination of Leon Trotsky was actually caused by members of the American Socialist Workers Party this group spent much more energy on defeating fellow Trotskyists rather than competing against the ideals of pro-capitalist or for that matter social democratic organisations. When the ICFI split in the mid-80s, the Australian section followed the line of David North against that of former long-term leader Gerald Healy. Their membership is less than thirty.

Sparticists: The Australian section of the Trotskyite International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist), which has several international groups. The Sparticists claim that they (and only they) are the party of the Russian revolution. They are prominent at meetings of the left, but always from the outside as they shun discussions with such "revisionists". With a presence only in Sydney and Melbourne, their membership is less than twenty.

[1] The current multinational versions of the Fourth International operating include: Bolshevik Current for the Fourth International (BCFI), Committee for a Workers International (CWI), Communist Organization for the Fourth International (COFI), Coordination Committee for the Construction of the International Workers Party (Koorkom), International Bolshevik Tendency (IBT), International Center of Orthodox Trotskyism (Centro Internacional del Trotskismo Ortodoxo - IV Internacional, CITO), International Committee of the Fourth International [1] (ICFI[1]), International Committee of the Fourth International [2] (ICFI[2]), International Communist League (Fourth Internationalist) (ICL(FI)), International Liaison Committee for a Workers' International (Entente Internationale des Travailleurs), International Secretariat of the Fourth International (Secrtariat International de la Quatrime Internationale), International Socialist Forum (ISF), International Socialists (IS), International Trotskyist Committee for the Political Regeneration of the Fourth International (ITC), International Trotskyist Opposition (ITO), International Workers' Committee (IWC), International Workers League (Fourth International) (Liga Internacional de los Trabajadores (Quarta Internacional), LIT-CI), International Workers' Unity (Fourth International) (Unidad Internacional de los Trabajadores (Quarta Internacional), UIT), Internationalist Communist Union (Union Communiste Internationaliste, UCI), League for a Revolutionary Communist International (LRCI), League for the Fourth International, Liaison Committee for the Reconstruction of the Fourth International (Comit de Enlace por la Reconstrucin de la IV Internacional, CERCI), Liaison Committee of Militants for a Revolutionary Communist International (LCMRCI), Leninist-Trotskyist Tendency (LTT), Partido Obrero Tendency, Revolutionary Workers Foment (Fomento Obrero Revolucionario, FOR), Socialist Appeal Tendency, Socialist Workers Party Tendency, Trotskyist Faction (Estrategia Internacional) (Fraccin Trotskista (Estrategia Internacional), FT(EI)), and the United Secretariat of the Fourth International (USFI).

Thanks must go to Nico Biver who actually manages to keep track of these