Australian Socialist Alliance beginning to transcend limits of traditional left
Interview with Dave Riley
What positions do
you hold in the SA?
I am a member of the
Socialist Alliance National Executive. I am also one of three SA co-convenors
for the state of Queensland as well as a member of the Socialist Alliance/Green
Left Weekly Editorial Board
Can you describe
your own political background, and how you came to join the Socialist Alliance?
I became politically
active in 1969 when I joined the Australian Communist Party here after it
distanced itself from the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. I went on to help
form the Socialist Workers League in 1972 - which later became the Democratic
Socialist Party - before dropping out of politics for the rest of the seventies.
I then came back into activity by first joining the Australian Labor Party in
the early 1980s - and from there rejoining the DSP only to later drop out
in the late 1990s after a succession of regroupment projects failed to bare
fruit and ill health impacted on my activity. When the Socialist Alliance began
life as an electoral coalition I wasn't very interested in the project then as
there had been several similar electoral enterprises in the past that went no
where special. I guess I signed up as a gesture of solidarity. That changed
for me late in 2002 when the momentum grew to form out of the Alliance a new
broad socialist party. Since then I've been a keen proponent of that trajectory.
To what degree is the Australian SA
successful in uniting the left?
Formally we can point
to the foundation of the Alliance as an electoral coalition by the Democratic
Socialist Party and the International Socialist Organisation, with the support
of eight left groups and parties in 2001. But that's not the main dynamic of the
project. That was primarily a catalyst, a vessel. The irony was that this unity
packaging also drew to the Alliance a large number of non aligned members so
that by the end of 2002 almost 70 percent of the Alliance's membership was made
up of people who did not belong to any of the founding organisations. So in
this sense it is a mistake to call this a "unity" project as I think it is
primarily a regroupment one as the initial coalescence generated a much more
robust dynamic that inspired people to come on board. In that sense, I like to
describe the Alliance as having three pillars: (i) the left groups who are
affiliated to it (ii) ex-members of various outfits - such as myself - as well
as long term left activists who did not join any of the existing socialist
formations (iii) people new to socialist politics.
So the SA has primarily
served as a pole of attraction on a left here that has fractured, just like in
Britain, into an exotic miscellanea of competing closed caucuses which, in
reality, not many people joined. I think its achievement in that regard is self
evident such that now the Alliance can boast that it has bought together not
only Marxist outfits, but also left wing academics, militant trade unionists,
some important indigenous leaders, migrant activists, and the like into a
viable new formation the likes of which Australia has not seen since the demise
of the old Communist Party. Currently the Alliance has 1200-1500 members. That
figure is the actual paid up membership and does not include all the members of the
affiliated groups nor the two migrant organisations which have joined during the last
So there's that very
real quantitive growth in an organised left presence here that has meant that
people are beginning to identify the socialist left with the Alliance. However,
this does not mean that all left groups have signed on with the SA. The start up
here proceeded in the wake of events in Great Britain and after a series of
various failed unity endeavours. So there are a few new left groupuscules who
have staid outside the Alliance as the Communist Party has done.
However, that's not the
main divide as you cannot consider the state of the left here in or outside of
the Socialist Alliance without considering the rise of the Greens. With 7,000
members, the Greens have soaked up a lot of the electoral disenchantment with
the Australian Labor Party so that for the moment they present a competing pole
of attraction to the socialist advocacy of the Alliance. This means that any
future progress towards unity must be located on a left/green axis.
Do you think there
is evidence that left unity gives us greater influence?
This has been my
experience. The Alliance has moved the socialist left away from the margins and
extended its reach. This is particularly the case among a significant layer of
militant trade unionists in Victoria who have been greatly encouraged by the new
signs of unity. The Labor Party here - the model on which Blair based New Labour
in Britain - has soured its traditional working class constituency and among a
small sector there is the beginning of a break from Laborism. I don't want to
exaggerate this - but in terms of what the socialist left has experienced these
last thirty years in way of isolation from working class struggles this is a bit
of a breakthrough.
The existence of the
Alliance has also enabled a greater coordination of campaign work nationally in
trade unions, within the anti-war movement and so forth, so that now in a
country the size of Australia we can expect a certain confident reach and
influence that wasn't there before. Similarly, for the first time in a long
time our kind of politics has moved out of the inner city left ghettoes and has
begun to colonise suburban fringes and regional centres in an organised way.
Given that the most some of our affiliates could boast was a miniscule presence
in two or three state capitals, this expansion to around 30 branches nationwide
for the Alliance is an extraordinary achievement in the space of just four
years of political convergence.
The DSP have
committed themselves to the SA as a unity project, would you describe that
process as successful?
The growth of the Alliance during its first two years changed the nature of the
project and raised expectations. Activists were joining the Alliance assuming it
would function as their political home. But many of the affiliates were trying
to obscure that outlook and reduce the activities of the SA to a strictly
limited charter. After all, if it was a party project people wanted, the
Alliance could offer eight affiliated varieties to choose from.
In late 2002 when the
largest affiliate - the Democratic Socialist Party - moved to integrate itself
completely into the Alliance, all the others vehemently opposed the initiative.
One - the International Socialist Organisation (the second largest SA affiliate
and sister party to the British SWP) threatened to leave if the DSP proceeded.
The DSP withdrew its offer in the face of this ultimatum and the project
Because of its relative
size and ongoing commitment, the DSP had been a major underwriter of the
Alliance from its inception. By 2002 the DSP membership was basically running
two organisations side by side - its own party project and this hybrid formation
that was supposed to be an electoral coalition with approved add-ons. But the
add-ons were becoming more significant in the day-to-day life of the SA.
Something had to give.
attitude of the other affiliates was adamant: the Alliance was to stay as it is
and not become a focus for regrouping the left. That was supposed to be for a
later stage and during a different far off period.
Caught up in their own
schematic view, these affiliates completely missed the real dynamic that was
unfolding in front of their noses. They were content to have a dispute among
themselves, but, when the non-aligned membership became actively involved in
this discussion during March of 2003, most of the affiliates were not prepared
for it. It did not seem to have entered their heads that this could happen. With
an activated non-aligned membership, the fulcrum of the debate shifted. Instead
of being muddied by allegations that the DSP was trying to take over the
Alliance, the debate turned very quickly to the key political issue: do we want
to create a Multi-Tendency Socialist Party (MTSP) or not?
At this and the
subsequent national conference the Alliance affirmed by some 70-75 percent,
that trajectory such that the last two years have been one of piloting the
Alliance toward a MTSP perspective.
significant success in that regard has been engineered in the face of determined
opposition from all the other socialist affiliates who have chosen instead to
try to slow down or obstruct the MTSP trajectory, regardless of the overwhelming
membership endorsement of that position.
This has fostered the
existence of two Alliances where seemingly only one exists. There is a divide
that festers in the SA which tends to determine the format of our debates. The
affiliates are preoccupied with wedge bogey man politics - focused on the DSP -
rather than address the tasks to hand. You have to realise that the DSP has
currently only one position among six National Convenors and on the National
Executive is limited to six votes in a body with over 30 members. In both
leadership bodies the majority of members are non aligned members of the
Green Left Weekly is very successful,
certainly in terms of its internet readership, it seems to be the best read
English language left paper - how do you explain that?
Green Left is the most
popular political website in Australia and its web figures are still rising. As
well as this its hard copy readership hovers between two and three thousand per
issue. So Green Left has a unique presence here that probably makes it the
greatest asset on the Australian left. What is not so often recognised is that
while GLW is published by the DSP (and a lot of its readers don't even realise
that) it began life in 1991 as a regroupment project as it was a conscious
attempt to create a journal that would transcend the separate line papers we
usually associate with socialist propaganda groups and actively engage other
layers within a very broad ambit. So from the start it was a very open project
which tried to incorporate perspectives and individuals who weren't franchised
by DSP membership. Today there's quite a range of people who contribute to
Green Left Weekly. Members of the Greens write for the paper for instance and
its stature is such that journalists like John Pilger endorse the venture and
will allow Green Left to publish his articles in the same way that he will speak
at very large meetings organised by the paper when he visits Australia. That's
the sort of mutual relationship the paper has been able to establish over the
past 14 years with many of its contributors.
Green Left is also part
of the MTSP package negotiated by the Alliance and we have entered a trial
partnership with Green Left Weekly. The protocols governing that relationship
may be of interest to your readers as it is a good indication of the journal's
publishing philosophy and how the MTSP transition is being engineered:
The Green party seem to have made a
significant impact on Australian politics, how should the left react?
The thread that later
became the Australian Greens goes back to 1972 with the formation of the United
Tasmania Group. In the eighties this formation began to enjoy a level of
electoral success in Tasmania - the small island state off the southern coast of
the Australian continent which employed a more democratic franchise than the
rest of the country. The Greens as a national body came together during the
early nineties. Despite significant electoral success up to then the Greens had
only 500 members nationally by 1997. Since then the picture has changed.
Continuing disillusionment with the Labor Party has coincided with a shift in
the Greens focus from purely environmental concerns to issues of social justice,
so that at the federal election in October last year the Greens presented an
electoral platform not much different from that being offered by the Socialist
Presently the Greens
are averaging an electoral return of around 7 percent nationally and unevenly
throughout the country have secured representation at a few levels of
government. Until the most recent federal election, the Greens along with the
Democrats controlled the balance of power in the Senate.
But the Greens are not
a unity project as they were formed with a proscription clause aimed at left
groups. This has meant that the Greens function overwhelmingly with an
electoralist perspective. While the Greens undoubtedly dominate the electoral
space to the left of the ALP, the Socialist Alliance's potential, which it has
sometimes delivered upon, rests in the extra parliamentary sphere. We try to
draw the Greens into campaign activities and sponsor joint platforms where we
can so we have an active orientation to them. Presently we are working for the
Greens candidate in an upcoming federal by election of Weriwa (the site of the
recent youth riots over police involvement in the deaths of two teenagers).
We are finding that
there is a section of the electorate who will preference the Greens ahead of
us because they know that the Greens stand a chance of being elected when they
think we don't - so their ballot card runs Greens first then the SA. In some
inner city areas the Greens are polling up to 25 or 30 percent but we are still
wallowing below 3% of the primary vote. I don't expect that particular relation
to change significantly until such time that the electorate finds the Greens
To some degree the
recent election of a Socialist Party (non SA/affiliated to the CWI) councillor
in Melbourne was a product of the failure of the incumbent Greens to stand up to
the free market agenda there.
Over the last five to
seven years as the Greens momentum has stepped up, there has been a marked
gravitation of formally socialist activists - primarily ex members of various
left groups - into the Greens, who have been attracted by their sudden electoral
relevance and growth. This remains primarily a disparate thread which has shown
no inclination to consolidate into a viable left current. The fact that this
happens indicates the very real regroupment potential which in part is being
taken up by the Greens by default - even if they are "the last hesitation to
And that's the primary
rub, the key tactical question: is there space on the left in the face of the
Greens success for a bona fide socialist formation? This has been a key debate
in the Alliance over what sort of advocacy the SA should sign on with. Some
have argued that the SA's platform should be left social democratic. But that
pitch has been bespoken already by the Greens and if the SA were to remain
simply an electoral coalition on that basis alone it would surely flounder.
The Socialist Alliance have had some
reasonable and some poor electoral performances, how has that impacted on the
debate within the SA?
Within the Alliance there is a range of opinions on electoralism. The super
electoralist perspective is advocated by the ISO who see the SA as an electoral
coalition in line with the perspective advanced by the SWP for Respect in
Britain. Then there are members like Humphrey McQueen, the historian, who
disparages the Alliance's electoral pretensions as parliamentary cretinism.
So the political
significance of our electoral performance will depend a lot on what role you
want to the Alliance to fulfil. If you want the SA to function primarily as an
electoral coalition then the poor returns are going to frustrate your plans and
even demoralise you. If you garner a good return, as we did recently in the
Melbourne council elections, then you are going to read into that a harbinger
for the SA's electoral future.
However, there is an
attempt to concertina the MTSP debate along this axis by suggesting that the way
forward for the Alliance electorally is to focus on community level
campaigning instead of tackling the broader political issues such as the Iraq
war, a trade union fightback, refugees, etc or build the SA more consciously as
a national organisation. Essentially this is an argument designed to locate
joint work at the neighborhood level of the Alliance and no where else.
To what extent has the SA become more than
an electoral coalition?
We have decided to
become "more than an electoral coalition" at the last two national conferences.
That's what the MTSP trajectory is all about. This has meant that we campaign
more broadly especially around the Iraq occupation, around trade union rights,
and over feminist issues, etc. We are also active in some localities more than
others around aspects of indigenous rights and against racism. So we are no
longer just a parliamentarist coalition. Our primary activity is day to day
outside the parameters of election campaigns.
Despite the endorsement
of that perspective by overwhelming conference vote there is a section of the
Alliance concentrated amongst the affiliates who don't want the Alliance to
proceed on this path. But they get caught up in their own ambiguities.
Alex Callinicos, who head's the British
SWP's international organisation, the IST, has said that he doesn't necessarily
regard Respect as a model, but are there comrades in Australia who favour the
I've studied the
exchanges between Murray Smith and the British SWP and I think Callinicos is
throwing us all a red herring. What he means is that he doesn't want the
Scottish Socialist Party to be a model either. We are supposed to pretend that
the Scottish example doesn't exist and that the Respect approach has not been
engineered, in part, as an alternative to it.
That way Callinicos
tries to obscure the differences between the two examples as the ISO does here.
The ISO talks up the Respect approach primarily as an electoral package and as
a means sometimes to roll back the socialistic content of our program. While
Respect 'succeeds' - at least electorally and preferably better than the SA -
then they have some ready ammunition to throw at those who would think
otherwise. So while the debate is confined to elections and poll returns and
not about activity outside that envelope, the discussion is somewhat rarefied
and separated from the very real challenges thrown up by the Scottish experience
and the everyday struggle here. In a very real way the myth of Respect is
counterposed to the MTSP trajectory as though we should all reconsider and put
the Australian Socialist Alliance into reverse mode. No thank you.
What impact has the demise of the
English Socialist Alliance had on the debate in Australia?
It's too early to tell.
The debate here tends not to be focused on British events. Most members of the
SA would not know that the English SA existed as no one here has actively
profiled it after it was put in mothballs. The Scottish experience on the other
hand is often reported on especially in the pages of Green Left Weekly and we
toured Colin Fox nationally during 2003. GLW also carried reports on Respect's
recent electoral successes.
Are you optimistic
about the future for the left in Australia?
Generally the left
confronts a still widening political space to the left of the ALP. The Greens
take up most of the electoral part of that space at present but don't occupy all
the political space. The Alliance is better placed in non-parliamentary politics
than the Greens are.
To give you some idea
of where we seem to be at, the Alliance is very well-positioned in two movements
at the present time. In the anti-war movement SA activists lead and initiate
pretty much all the active coalitions around the country. Secondly, Alliance
members are part of and work closely with the militant section of the trade
union movement. While this is a minority current and primarily concentrated in
Victoria and Western Australia, we are well-placed and generate most of the
initiatives in that class struggle milieu.
A big showdown with the
federal government is looming. The obvious intention is to radically weaken
trade union rights which have already been rolled back significantly by Labor
and Liberal governments. A major fight is brewing and how this goes will affect
the left's standing.
Another feature I'm
very optimistic about is Seeing Red, a magazine initiated by the SA (its third
edition has only just come out) which has begun to regroup progressive thinkers,
writers and activists in a vehicle for broad public discussion. Seeing Red has
marked out some real space.
The last two years have
been hard going in the Alliance. This enterprise doesn't come with a DIY manual
and its history is littered with any number of failed schemas. Despite these
tribulations, the Socialist Alliance is fulfilling its promise as it begins to
transcend the very real limitations of a left traditionally dedicated to a
culture of competing closed caucuses.