Broad Socialist Parties and the Cadre Question

Andy Newman

 

In September 2005, Marcus Ström wrote an article in the Weekly Worker arguing that a low first preference vote for the Australian Socialist Alliance (1.5%) proved the terminal decline of the organisation (Read it here ). This was appended to an account from Greg Adler, a former member of the SA national executive that blamed the alleged crisis in the SA on the "sect behaviour" of the DSP.

Now clearly I am not in Australia, and much of the detail of the situation is unknown to me. However it is not self evidentially true that just because the SA got a small vote that the project is bankrupt. From this distance it is also impossible to assess whether the decision to stand was justified or not, but many election campaigns from minor parties attract few votes, but sow the seeds for future success.

Even if we accept Greg Adler's contention that the decision to stand, and which candidate to stand, was won by the DSP having a majority of votes at the selection meeting, it doesn't necessarily follow that there is anything improper in this. It is the nature of politics expressed through organisations that caucuses arise, this is no less true of the British Labour Party, or the US Republican Party than it is of the parties of the left. Indeed it is a healthy part of a functioning democracy. The DSP are as entitled as anyone else to discuss among themselves the most desirable outcomes, and organise to achieve their aims, provided they also respect the rights of others to do the same and are prepared to accept the norms of the democratic process.

The problems with the account from Marcus/Greg are fourfold.

Firstly, it doesn't locate the criticism of the SA in any overall political context. Whether or not it is possible to create a broad socialist party in Australia that unites socialists from different traditions around class struggle politics is a historically specific question. It is also very multi-faceted. The context includes a Tory government, so for example Labour leader Kim Beazley has opposed the proposed anti-union laws. There is also a strong electoral challenge from the Greens which squeezes and alternative vote (but Germany proves that the left can overtake an established Green electoral presence). The context also involves a paradigm shift in the revolutionary left, with the English model of Grant/Cliff/Healy inspired organisations in international crisis, and the full implications of the Venezuelan experience not yet fully apparent. And there is an international crisis of working class representation that provides enormous potential to exploit the tension between the trade unions and the traditional social democratic parties. Marcus Ström is silent on his assessment of these factors: instead he (in common with his CPGB comrades in Britain) focuses on the internal dynamics of organisations and only selectively refers to the outside world (for example a poor election result here or there) where it confirms his preconceived thesis.

 

Secondly, Marcus and Greg both completely fail to mention the specific context of the massive national demonstrations against the proposed anti-trade union laws planned for 15th November, and the work of the SA in building what became the largest demonstration in Australian labour history. The work of the SA in the Fight-back campaigns against these anti-trade union laws are far more important than the election, and their success or failure in this field will probably determine whether or not the SA project in Australia prevails or not.

 

Thirdly, the criticism is based exclusively on electoral success. But the SA can demonstrate real achievement in the trade unions. Socialist Alliance member Chris Cain was elected West

Australian secretary of the Maritime Union of Australia, Chris Spindler was elected Victorian president of the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union (AMWU) and Tim Gooden was elected first assistant secretary and more recently secretary of Geelong Trades and Labour Council. One of Tim's first achievements in the latter post was to lead a 10,000-strong

trade union march against anti-union laws in this regional city on June 30. The Socialist Alliance's best known trade union leader is Craig Johnston, former Victorian state secretary of the AMWU who has been deposed from his position by conservative union bureaucrats and jailed for six months for leading a struggle for to defend workers' jobs. Craig is a nationally known figure, and is now a delegate on a construction site in Geelong and a powerful part of the militant trade union leadership in that city.

 

Fourthly, Marcus/Greg collapse the developmental process, so that having identified some particular tendencies (the predominance of the DSP within the SA, and current lack of electoral success) they project that as having only one inevitable historical outcome. They discount other possible countervailing tendencies: for example, that the DSP could consciously work to build trust with other socialists, that there may be an influx of militants due to the trade union Fight-back campaign, that Labour may win an election in the future, that the Greens may discredit themselves in coalition, etc. As the historical outcome is not predetermined the activity of individual members of the SA (and the DSP) can still influence events. In fact, the pessimism of Marcus Ström is self serving as he has hitched his own fortunes to the virtually non-existent left of the Australian Labour Party.

Most significantly, the approach that Marcus/Greg take is dismissive of an important issue: the role that the revolutionary groups play in the cadre development and retention necessary for the sustaining of the broad parties. What is more, the existing left groups cannot simply be wished out of existence - even were that desirable - the challenge is for us to find ways of working together, however difficult that may be.

The experience in Britain has been very polarised, following very different trajectories in Scotland and England.

In Scotland, the turn made by the ISM has been towards effectively dissolving themselves into the SSP, which although an important (and perhaps necessary) historical experiment has not been unproblematic. The Sheridan resignation crisis, and the demands of supporting 6 MSPs on the back of a small activist base have revealed that the SSP have not yet solved the problem of how to develop an organic cadre at branch level, and the SSP's presence at the G8 protests last June was smaller than might have been expected. Other than the regular publication of Frontline, and regular meetings in Glasgow, the ISM has little public life, and it is not clear how it contributes to the development of grass roots leadership outside Glasgow. This may prove to be a considerable challenge for the SSP, particularly if they suffer electoral setbacks in the future (votes go down as well as up!)

In England the situation has proved disastrous. The transition from the Socialist Alliance to Respect has been exploited by the SWP in pursuit of its organisational self interest to exclude all alternative voices, except their own and Galloway's. (Ironically, the SWP seem to have little control of their own destiny either - as they have been seemingly bounced into a reactionary position supporting the religious hatred bill - see Alan Thornett's arguments against the bill: Read it here ). The activist membership of the SA was consciously disarticulated and dispersed by the SWP. The ISG and its allies played a contradictory role of arguing that Respect should seek the engagement of these former SA comrades, while in practice actively supporting the SWP in demoralising and demobilising them. In so doing, I believe a historical opportunity has been lost that cannot now be recovered. A layer of former activists, arguably some several thousands, who could have been attracted to the SA have been lost. The small but real trade union roots of the SA have been thrown away. All for the myth that it is possible to bypass the actually existing activists in favour of new people - radicalised by an anti-war movement that was itself three years ago! The established activists who have been lost will not easily be won back to active politics. This deliberate dispersal of cadre by the SWP to eliminate political opposition using organisational means was an act of crass sectarianism that may have set the left in England back 10 years, it may well allow the Labour party to rejuvenate itself as there is no credible alternative for the left to join.

The DSP have been completely open in Australia that they consider their cadre a very strategic asset. What is more the process of the DSP growing over into full incorporation into the SA is a very complicated one of integration and asset infusion. For the process to prosper the SA had to grow faster than it has. National Secretary of the DSP John Percy wrote a letter to the SA national executive in the lead up to the recent conference where the DSP were quite open about the conflicting pressures they are under. (Read it here).

Percy very eloquently refutes the type of arguments that were put by Marcus Ström and Greg Adler: "While there have been some solid advances in regional and some smaller capital city branches in the last one and a half years and the Alliance has registered strong gains in its work in the union movement as well as in various local campaigns and specific projects like Seeing Red, it has proved much harder to progress the Socialist Alliance in the direction of becoming a new party. In our opinion, this process has stalled.

This course has faced the persistent opposition from nearly all the smaller affiliates who remain opposed to the [multi-tendency socialist party] MTSP perspective. Their basic stance has been to drop Alliance activity in favour of building their own organisations. In one Alliance committee, the SA-Green Left Weekly editorial board, a large amount of time and energy has been wasted fending off attempts to effectively roll back the majority perspective.

This problem is now being exacerbated by the false analysis of those who seek to find an explanation for our relative lack of progress towards consolidating the Alliance as an MTSP not in the difficulties of the political period and the stance of those Alliance members still opposed to the MTSP perspective but in the political attitude and work of the DSP itself. Yet it has been the DSP that has brought into the Socialist Alliance the bulk of the activists and resources such as offices, finances, and the tremendous asset of Green Left Weekly. And it is the DSP which has played the major role in joining non-affiliated members to Socialist Alliance.

Ironically, in large part due to the great load the DSP carries in the work of Socialist Alliance, our organisation is now facing a severe financial crisis for the second year in a row. As a result the DSP simply cannot meet this and sustain its current level of resource commitment to Socialist Alliance. Others will have to take more of this strain."

Based upon its current membership and influence in the workers' movement the SA is probably incapable of independent cadre development. The Marxist groups such as the DSP (and the smaller affiliates should they choose to accept the responsibility) therefore remains critical. This was a key question of debate last year over the future of Resistance (the DSP's youth group)  through which most of the DSP's  members have been recruited and developed. The debate turned on whether the DSP should create a broad socialist youth group for the SA or should Resistance stay a strictly Marxist organisation as before? They decided that in the present circumstances it was prudent to retain Resistance as a separate organisation. But these concrete and practical problems are treated with arrogant disdain by Marcus Ström and Greg Adler.

Whether or not the SA can prosper in Australia or not depends upon specific historical factors, that do need to be analysed, and tested in practice. The current dynamic has been very well explained by leading DSP member Peter Boyle in an article for the New Zealand Socialist Worker paper, Unite: "The Socialist Alliance will probably have to go through a more extended period of united campaigning and regroupment with broader left forces that are generated by a new upturn of resistance to the capitalist neo-liberal "reforms" before it can harness the leadership resources and political confidence to take a significant step to creating an effective new socialist party..." New political formations are not created overnight, and a period of cooperative working around concrete issues and shared aims is a necessary process to overcome the historical legacy of the fragmented left.

Marcus and Greg play an intellectual sleight of hand by arguing that as DSP are the biggest components of the SA, therefore any failings of the SA must be the fault of the DSP. As the SWP have recently demonstrated by their antics at Respect's second conference, it is quite possible for a left group to squander a historical opportunity. But as the success of Die Linke show in Germany it is equally possible for the left to succeed. The Australian SA must decide its own fate, but the comrades have little to learn from Marcus Ström and his counsels of doom.