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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 twelve months.

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 stalled.

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.

Unfortunately the 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.

Unfortunately, our 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 Alliance.

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 Alliance.

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 wanting.

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 socialism".

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 Respect approach?

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.



March 2005


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