An unexplained interpretation, a dodge, a shock and an unacceptable dichotomy
The Activist - Volume 15, Number 10 – October 2005
By Doug Lorimer, Sydney branch
In the last issue of The Activist (Vol. 15, No. 9), a number of NC comrades made contributions which do little to clarify the debate on the relations between the DSP and the Socialist Alliance because they do not take up the actual issues that are in dispute – I refer in particular to those by comrades Nikki Ulasowski, Jim McIlroy, Sue Bull and Graham Matthews.
Comrade Nikki Ulasowski’s ‘interpretation’
In her PCD article, "DSP, SA – Some experiences from Perth", Comrade Ulasowski argues that "SA is not the sort of organisation that can be put away and then dusted off when we need it. This perspective would act to turn SA into a DSP front. I do not believe it was ever our intention to make this process a simple DSP re-badging exercise." Who has argued for a perspective that we should "put away" the SA and "then dust it off when we need it", or for rebadging the DSP as the SA? This has certainly not been the perspective that Comrade John Percy and I argued for in the lead up to the August 15 NE meeting or since. We have argued for the DSP having a perspective for building the SA as a campaigning alliance that advocates a mass workers’ party, rather than continuing with the mistaken and failed perspective that we adopted at the last party congress of seeking to transform it into a new socialist party – a perspective that in many cases has in practice turned the SA into little more than a DSP front.
She goes on to argue that the proposed amendment to the NE’s draft resolution on "The DSP and the Socialist Alliance" that comrades Max Lane, John Percy and I put forward for vote at the September 26 NE meeting to delete the last sentence of paragraph 23 (which implies that DSP members will seek to organise all their public political intervention through the structures of the SA) and to add to the first bullet point of paragraph 34 the sentence "DSP members will seek to work with other Socialist Alliance members through those structures of the alliance (trade-union and other caucuses, branches, working groups, etc) that are effective in enabling it to build itself as such a campaigning alliance", can only be interpreted as an "intention to withdraw the DSP’s political leadership in SA and hence our political responsibility in this project". Why she "interprets" the proposal this way she does not tell us. Does she expect everyone else in the party to simply accept her interpretation without any explanation, without any reasoned argumentation, but simply on her say-so, as an article of faith?
Perhaps Comrade Ulasowski thinks that removal of the words "continue to help politically organise" would leave the NE’s draft resolution without any stated commitment for the DSP to provide "political leadership in SA". If so, she has forgotten or overlooked the fact that the last sentence of paragraph 25 states: "Therefore, this resolution proposes that the DSP function as a public revolutionary socialist organisation, while continuing to be affiliated to the Socialist Alliance, to build it and to seek to provide political leadership to it." (emphasis added) This sentence was actually one of the amendments that Comrade Percy and I put forward on August 13 to Comrade Peter Boyle’s second draft of the resolution, and which he incorporated into his third draft, adopted unanimously by the August 15 NE meeting. In his second draft, the last sentence of paragraph 25 stated: "Therefore this resolution redefines the DSP as a public revolutionary socialist organization that is one of several political tendencies in the Socialist Alliance." It did not commit the DSP to seek to provide political leadership to the SA. Indeed, nowhere in his second draft did it state any such commitment. If our intention is to "withdraw the DSP’s political leadership in SA", as Comrade Ulasowski alleges, why would we have proposed an amendment that affirms that the DSP should "seek to provide political leadership" to the SA?
Comrade Jim McIlroy’s dodge
In his PCD article, "For a careful, balanced approach to our party-building perspectives", Comrade McIlroy argues that "If we allow SA to gradually die out through benign neglect, we will lose much of the positive gains of the past several years’ work, in terms of reach-out to the union militants and progressive-minded independents" and that "if we are not going to put some continuing degree of effort and resources into SA, then we SHOULD propose to close it down". While he does not tell us who he is polemicising against, the implication is that this is how he "interprets" the arguments that the NE minority has made for us not to continue with the failed perspective of trying to turn the SA into an activist party by trying to cajole non-DSP members of the SA who do not want to attend SA branch meetings to do so.
Comrade McIlroy says that he wonders "if comrades who are reporting negatively on the state of the SA branches around the country have realistically tackled the task of talking to, socialising with, and encouraging the hundreds of so-called ‘paper’ members of SA out there". A little later in his PCD article he relates the experience of the Central-Northern Brisbane branch of the SA, telling us that "Now, we like many other branches, have a drop off in attendance" at the branch meetings. He adds, "But I believe this is partly a self-fulfilling prophesy: as the DSP has reduced its resources and effort put into building the SA branches – a quite legitimate and correct result of the turn to direct DSP party-building tasks initiated at the May NC – the SA branches have become less active." So the drop off in attendance at the Central-Northern Brisbane SA meetings are a result of the "legitimate and correct" decisions taken at the DSP’s May NC plenum, but Comrade McIlroy "wonders" if the drop off in attendance at other SA branches around the country is the result of the failure of the "comrades who are reporting negatively on the state of the SA branches around the country" to " realistically tackle[d] the task of talking to, socialising with, and encouraging the hundreds of so-called ‘paper’ members of SA out there", rather than their application of the decisions of the May NC plenum.
The May NC plenum, it should be remembered, decided that "whatever happens at the Socialist Alliance won’t change the fact that our attempt at ‘integration’ of the DSP in the Socialist Alliance is stalled" (see "DSP and Socialist Alliance – An urgent reality check on our party building perspectives", The Activist, Vol. 15, No. 2). The party-building report adopted by the May NC plenum went on to point out that, "This integration cannot be resume without new political developments – developments that unleash new forces and greater political confidence in SA. Not with just an isolated victory here or there but at least a new step forward of a significant enough militant minority in the working class that can re-invigorate broader sections of the movement with a stronger will to struggle.
"The class struggle as a whole need not shift onto the offensive, but there has to be enough militant minority action to inject significant new forces into any broad left regroupment project.
"The current level of substitution involved in our work in SA is unsustainable and so we are being forced to steadily increase the organisation of the DSP at the branch and other levels....
"Over the last couple of years we’ve begun to do more and more with fewer and fewer cadre.
"But we cannot keep doing this. We will begin to wear the most active comrades down and eventually exacerbate our cadre problem."
After outlining eight emergency measures "to reverse our party building crisis", the report argued that "this reprioritisation is unavoidably going to be at the expense of the resources that we can allocate to building the Socialist Alliance.
"However, we have invested a lot of comrade energy and resources into Socialist Alliance and for this reason alone we cannot just drop our responsibilities there. Because we have the biggest leadership role in the Socialist Alliance, we will pay a big political cost if we just walk away.
"Therefore, we have to work out a more realistic engagement and vision for Socialist Alliance in the present political conditions.
"So a major challenge in the second half of the year is to clarify what might be a reasonable perspective for DSP and Socialist Alliance in the next period. If SA cannot become our new party – without external political developments – what can it be? What must the DSP be?"
That was what the NE secretariat began discussing after the June SA national conference, working up a new resolution on DSP-SA relations to present in the party-wide discussion as a draft for voting on at the next DSP congress in January 2006. The result was the draft resolution unanimously adopted by the NE at its August 15 meeting, which incorporated into Comrade Boyle’s second draft of the resolution the main amendments that Comrade Percy and I circulated to NE members on August 13, and which Comrade Boyle argued at the beginning of his report to the August 15 NE meeting "express the main things we need to change in our perspective" for building the SA.
The NE’s draft resolution set as the DSP’s objectives to "continue to take urgent steps to replenish its cadre base and maintain the political, organisational and financial viability of its own structures" and to "recruit to the DSP from within and outside the Socialist Alliance and, primarily through Resistance, win, educate and develop a new generation of revolutionary cadre". It recognised that "the DSP has not been able to and cannot afford to operate as an internal tendency in the Socialist Alliance", because the political "conditions to build the Socialist Alliance into a new party did not exist" over the last two years and are unlikely to come into existence in the foreseeable future. The draft resolution therefore proposed that from its next congress "the DSP function as a public revolutionary socialist organisation, while continuing to be affiliated to the Socialist Alliance, to build it and to seek to provide political leadership to it" – though not as a multi-tendency socialist party in formation, but as "a campaigning alliance in the social movements (particularly in the trade union movement) that seeks to build a new mass workers party".
However, the agreement that appeared to exist within the NE on these objectives was called into question by the last part of Comrade Boyle’s report on the draft resolution, in which he affirmed that the political conditions we (mistakenly) thought had existed in both September 2002 and December 2003 to make the SA, rather than the DSP, "the party we built today", continued to exist and that the "turn" to implement such a perspective had given us "SA as our second party", and he rejected the proposition that the DSP (the only actually existing party we have) is "the party we build" – an argument he repeats almost word for word in his draft NC report.
Comrade McIlroy states that he is "in general support" of the draft resolution, but says nothing about the actual issue that is in dispute. He writes: "In practice, whichever way the vote went on the questions under debate at the upcoming National Congress, we would be faced with the central question, what amount of resources and effort are we going to put into the SA next year?" But doesn’t that depend on what perspective we have for building the SA – whether we continue to attempt to make the SA into our new party, "our second party" (as the last part of Comrade Boyle’s draft NC report affirms) or whether we build the DSP as our party and the SA as a campaigning alliance that advocates a mass workers’ party (as the NE’s draft resolution suggests and Comrade Percy’s draft NC report explicitly affirms)? Comrade McIlroy’s PCD article simply dodges giving any definite answer to this concrete question.
Comrade Sue Bull’s ‘shock’
In her PCD article "Why we should maintain our present course within Socialist Alliance", Comrade Bull openly affirms that we should continue on the course we adopted at the last party congress of progressing the SA into a new party. Consistent with this view, she opposes the proposal in Comrade Percy’s draft NC report that we regard our work in the SA as an "auxiliary tactic for DSP party building", i.e., she rejects recognising it as only one of the tactics we use to build the DSP into a stronger party and not the main tactic to build a stronger socialist party to which all other tactics are subordinated.
This, she writes, "sounds essentially like putting the SA on hold", adding: "I’m not entirely clear on what exactly is being put forward and I hope I am not misrepresenting comrades." Well, no, Comrade Bull, you’re not misrepresenting the position of the NE minority. Recognising that our work in the SA should be seen as an "‘auxiliary tactic" in the DSP’s party-building tactical arsenal does mean putting building the SA as a new party "on hold"; it means, as the NE’s draft resolution on "The DSP and the Socialist Alliance" states, recognising that the political "conditions to build the Socialist Alliance into a new party did not exist" over the last two years and will not come into existence without the emergence of "broader left forces that are generated by a new upturn of resistance to the capitalist neoliberal ‘reforms"’, and that, in the meantime, we should build the SA as a "campaigning alliance in the social movements (particularly the trade union movement) that seeks to build a new mass workers’ party".
Comrade Bull states that from her "reading of the debate, I think the NE minority is saying that in the current political climate SA can’t progress as a new party and therefore we must prioritise building the DSP and sharply reduce the level of our SA activity". Once again, Comrade Bull, you’ve got it right. That’s exactly what we are saying. It’s also the conclusion that the entire NC reached in May this year.
Where Comrade Bull does completely misrepresent what we’re saying is in her claim that in proposing that we build SA as a campaigning alliance, this will mean that we would rarely "speak in SA’s name", that we "revert to DSP or GLW placards at rallies, put out DSP press releases and forums, hold DSP and GLW stalls, etc", and that "the public profile of the SA be reduced and eroded". Where she got these total misconceptions of what we are proposing, she doesn’t say. She certainly couldn’t have got them from Comrade Percy’s draft NC report. It stated that "We can use the Socialist Alliance for our demonstration contingents, and other active interventions, but add in DSP and Resistance to increase our identification as the main components of SA". Adding in some DSP and Resistance placards to indicate that the DSP and Resistance are "the main components of SA" does not mean reverting exclusively or mainly to DSP placards.
The draft report specifically stated that "We can have Socialist Alliance stalls, but recognise that they’re primarily GLW stalls", i.e., the main thing we do from them is distribute GLW." As for holding regular GLW forums, that was proposed in Comrade Boyle’s May NC report, which Comrade Bull voted for. Perhaps she’s changed her mind on this.
The NE’s draft resolution proposes that from the next DSP congress in January 2006 the DSP again become a public organisation. It should surely have more of a public profile than simply a website (as it does now). It should come out of the SA closet, and have some visible public profile. In particular, where DSP comrades present the DSP’s political positions, rather than the commonly agreed on political positions of the SA, they should do so openly as DSP members. Otherwise, we are "rebadging the DSP" and its politics as the SA and its politics; we are using the SA as a DSP front, rather than trying to build it as a campaigning alliance with people who do not share our revolutionary Marxist views.
Bizarrely, Comrade Bull states that "the haste with which we’ve been propelled into this debate really shocks me. So many unresolved issues are being played out at the moment – not the least being the Industrial Relations issue – that I would have thought that it would be more prudent to continue with our position as adjusted at the May NC before we radically re-define our input into the SA further". Has Comrade Bull forgotten that the May NC party-building report, which she voted for, set as "a major challenge in the second half of the year" the need for us "to clarify what might be a reasonable perspective for DSP and Socialist Alliance in the next period. If SA cannot become our new party – without external political developments – what can it be? What must the DSP be?"
Comrade Bull tells us that the experience of building the SA "in Geelong has been terrific", adding "Previously, we had been having real problems recruiting to the DSP and Resistance was floundering". But the experience of trying to build the SA as a "new party" in Geelong has enabled us to ... recruit to the DSP and revive the Resistance branch? Well, no – we haven’t recruited anyone to the DSP in Geelong or revived the Resistance branch. But as apparent compensation, we’ve "built an effective SA branch in Geelong". What’s the evidence for this? Besides the eight DSP members, there are "30-40 other financial (most of the time) SA members and at least half of these are militant unionists", "almost none" of whom "come to branch meetings, they rarely attend our public meetings or forums", but "arrange a piss up" and "they’ll be there and they’ll do a whip around if we need the cash, no matter whether it’s for SA, GLW or the Venezuela Brigade".
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking this aspect of what the comrades are doing in Geelong. Arranging "a piss up" at which we can get financial contributions from the SA’s "paper" members sounds like a much better way to maintain direct contact with them than Comrade Sue Bolton’s insistence that we must try to cajole them to come along to monthly SA branch meetings.
While Comrade Bull acknowledges that our inability to interest these union militants in being active participants with us in building the SA as a new party is largely due to the "political climate" that exists today in Australia, she affirms that the "political basis" exists to "progress SA into a new party", blithely ignoring not only the conclusions drawn by the NC in May, or in the NE’s draft resolution, but even the actual experiences she recounts we’ve had in Geelong.
Hopefully, when Comrade Bull has overcome her "shock" that the party is actually trying to carry out the challenge that the May NC party-building report set the DSP in the second half of 2005, she will give more time to reflecting on these experiences and recognise that they confirm the conclusion in the NE’s draft resolution that the political conditions do not exist today in Australia to build the SA as a new party, but that this does not at all mean that we should shut it down, "turn it into an empty shell’, use it simply as a DSP front, or any of the other things she accuses the NE minority of proposing. She might even recognise that there is an alternative, i.e., the one proposed in the NE’s draft resolution.
Comrade Graham Matthews’ ‘unacceptable dichotomy’
In his PCD article, "Is the glass half full or half empty – which way for our intervention in Socialist Alliance", Comrade Graham Matthews affirms his support for the general line of the NE’s draft resolution, posing the question "How should Socialist Alliance ‘champion’ the building of a ‘new mass workers’ party’ in this period?" He then cites the following from Comrade Boyle’s draft NC report: "A weakness in section 21 of the resolution may be the phrase ‘championing the need for a broadly based anti-capitalist party or a ‘new mass workers’ party’ might suggest that the Socialist Alliance should just advocate rather than try to organise what steps towards such a new party may be feasible. It should take any such steps."
Referring to my PCD article in The Activist Vol. 15, No. 8, he claims that "Comrade Doug Lorimer makes this difference explicit", adding:. "Referring to the political space provided by [the] increasing crisis of Labor, and the testing of the Greens with their winning of control over some local councils, Doug argues: ‘These developments undoubtedly give us more openings to argue – to carry out propaganda work – for an alternative political vehicle for the working class, a mass workers’ party, but they do not fulfil the political conditions set out in the NE’s draft resolution to continue with our attempt to transform the SA into a new socialist party’."
Comrade Matthews then states: "In my opinion, Doug presents us with two equally unsatisfying courses of action. Either we carry out ‘propaganda work’ around the need for a new workers’ party, or else we ‘continue with our attempt to transform the SA into a new socialist party’. Doug presents us with an unacceptable dichotomy.
"If we were to reduce Socialist Alliance’s activity to ‘propaganda work – for an alternative political vehicle for the working class’..." Hang on a minute! Where did I argue that we should reduce the Socialist Alliance’s activity topropaganda work for an alternative political vehicle for the working class? Comrade Matthews has done a sleight of hand here – yanking a sentence completely out of context so as to attempt to attribute to me the view that we should reduce all of the SA’s activities to propaganda work for a mass workers’ party.
The context of the sentence that Comrade Matthews seized upon to attribute to me an "unacceptable dichotomy" – either "we continue with our attempt to transform the SA into a new socialist party" or we "reduce the Socialist Alliance’s activity to propaganda work" for a mass workers’ party – was a comment on Comrade Boyle’s claim in his draft NC report that the "opening we were responding to back in 2002", i.e., when we first proposed to convert the DSP into an internal tendency of the SA so as to progress its transformation into a united, multi-tendency socialist party, "has not closed", but "In some ways it is still opening up as Labor’s political crisis deepens and the Greens are tested as they win control of a few local councils". In opposition to this claim, I argued:
These developments undoubtedly give us more openings to argue – to carry out propaganda work – for an alternative political vehicle for the working class, a mass workers’ party, but they do not fulfil the political conditions set out in the NE’s draft resolution to continue with our attempt to transform the SA into a new socialist party.
The NE’s draft resolution argues that this will require the harnessing by the SA of "broader left forces that are generated by a new upsurge of resistance to the capitalist neoliberal ‘reforms’" Does Comrade Boyle no longer think that this assessment is part of the "general line" of the NE’s draft resolution that should be defended – that the deepening political crisis for the ALP (most recently accelerated by Mark Latham’s revelations) and the testing out of the Greens "as they win control of a few local councils" will generate the "broader left forces" that the SA needs to harness in order "to take a significant step to creating a new socialist party"? If he agrees with the assessment made in the NE’s draft resolution that the broader left forces that are needed to advance the Socialist Alliance from a new left party project (an alliance that aims to form a new party) to an actual new party will only be "generated by a new upsurge of resistance to the capitalist neoliberal ‘reforms’" (and not simply by a further exposure of the ALP’s political bankruptcy), what purpose is served by asserting that the "opening" that we mistakenly thought existed to transform the SA into a new party, or our "second party", not only continues to exist but is "still opening up"?
That is, the argument related to whether or not the objective conditions exist to transform the SA into a new socialist party. The NE’s draft resolution says these conditions didn’t exist when we embarked on the "turn" to make the SA "the party we build" and won’t come into existence without the emergence of "broader left forces that are generated by a new upturn of resistance to the capitalist neoliberal ‘reforms’". Flowing from this, it argues that the SA will have to go through a "more extended period of united campaigning", and sets as the DSP’s perspective for work in the SA building it as "a campaigning alliance in the social movements (particularly the trade union movement) that seeks to build a new mass workers’ party".
Building the SA as a campaigning alliance obviously involves more than simply carrying out propaganda work for a mass workers’ party. It involves carrying out agitation and action (street protests, rallies, pickets, etc) on specific issues, e.g., in defence of particular unions or groups of workers who come under attack from the bosses and/or the government’s new anti-union laws, while at the same time conducting propaganda (mainly through GLW) for an alternative political vehicle for the working class, a mass workers’ party. But in the absence of broader left forces that are actually willing to be organised into a mass workers’ party, it would be a voluntarist adventure on our part to try to use the SA as an instrument to actually attempt to organise a mass workers’ party, e.g., to convene meetings to try to set up such a party or to put out leaflets with the agitational slogan "Build a mass workers’ party now!" If Comrade Matthews thinks otherwise, then there’s a very "unacceptable dichotomy" between his political judgement about what to do next and the objective political conditions we face today, including his judgement about what the militant tendency in the unions is willing to do.
Comrade Matthews asks "Should we abandon any idea of the Fightback network taking on a more broadly political dimension?" What "more broadly political dimension" do you have in mind, Graham, beyond what was decided at the Fightback conference in Melbourne in June? Issuing a call for the building of a mass workers’ party? Well, if you can get Martin Kingham and Kevin Reynolds to resign from the ALP and have their respective branches of the CFMEU issue a call for a mass workers’ party, I’ll happily subscribe to the Fightback network "taking on" such "a more broadly political dimension". Best of luck mate!