Australian Socialist Alliance moves forward
Interview with Dave Riley
Dave Riley is a member of the new National Executive of the Australian Socialist Alliance . He was interviewed by SUN soon after the Alliance’s national conference.
SUN; The recent Socialist Alliance national conference took place in the context of planned government attacks on trade union rights, how well has the SA responded to that challenge?
DR; It has been a major campaign focus of ours for some time as we have tried to ginger key unions and the national trade union federation-- the ACTU -- into a more direct and more aggressive response to the impending legislation than they had heretofore signalled. In some areas we have been very effective in encouraging a broader and more active response especially in our push to concentrate national trade union actions on June 30th as a first shot in much longer campaign.
SUN; The day before the SA conference there was a National Fightback conference to discuss the trade union response. What was the composition of that conference? Was it successful in bringing together trade unionists who support the ALP, alongside SA supporters?
DR; The Fightback conference was a key element in our response. We were able to draw together a very significant group of trade unionists who were serious about fighting the government’s attacks. While there was an attempt by officialdom of some trade unions to stifle participation by their members, we were nonetheless very successful in securing support and participation from among the more militant trade unionists. While the Alliance’s success in this regard is grounded in our networking day to day and on own key trade union leaders such as Chris Cain, Craig Johnston and Tim Gooden, the conference also bought together leading trade union figures who are members of the Labor Party (ALP) as well a significant Greens presence with the participation of Greens’ senator Kerry Nettle. This was a grand beginning to the much broader and ongoing fightback campaign that’s needed to kill the bill.
SUN; One of the criticisms that is consistently raised by the ISO - SWP's sister organisation in Australia - is that the SA exhibits a: "one-sided hostility to Labor, which is cutting us off from many disaffected Labor types - we need a united front with those people, not a stand-off." I know this is difficult to judge from afar, but the tone of Green Left Weekly seems little different from the British Socialist Worker on the issue of the Labour party. Is there substance to this accusation from the ISO?
DR; The recent national conference of the Alliance re-affirmed its attitude to the ALP in the following words:
The Socialist Alliance rejects any idea that it is ultra-left or sectarian to criticise the ALP. Given that the principle aim of the Socialist Alliance project is to build an alternative to the left of Labor, the Alliance must, if it is to win over those who are starting to break to the left from the ALP, confidently and consistently present an honest and accurate analysis of Labor Party policies and practices from a socialist perspective, even if at times this requires a blunt statement of facts. To not do this would mean conceding crucial political space for building the left in general and the Socialist Alliance in particular. We recognised in the resolution adopted at our last national conference that, in order to build a left alternative to the ALP, it is not enough to restrict ourselves to simply denouncing Labor. The Alliance will always look for ways to draw ALP members and bodies into any struggle in defence of working-class and democratic rights and against war, but we do this in the knowledge that it will not be possible to build a left alternative without publicly criticising Labor's anti-working class positions.
This states our perspective clearly and I think it would be carping to suggest that this has not been our practice all along. However, the ISO tried to amend that very clear and self evident position along the lines you suggest. It has been employed as a handy shibboleth on the left and among the small SA affiliates as a stick to beat the SA with. Given the massive traditional weight of Laborism that bears down on the socialist left in this country, accusing the Alliance of sectarianism towards the ALP is always guaranteed a baying chorus among those who are hostile to our project. That’s to be expected. Unfortunately the ISO is pandering to that sentiment.
If there was any substance in the ISO’s reading of our activity in this regard then the recent Fightback conference would have been impossible.
SUN; The other accusation made by leading ISO member David Glanz is that the SA has "a frantic branch life; an emphasis on members supporting the Green Left Weekly; a downgrading of electoral work, especially at the valuable lower-house or council level; an over-the-top focus on events in Venezuela; and a shift towards an apparatus which is out of step with the alliance's real stage of development and which can be sustained only through a constant round of branch fund-raising, tiring members even more." If it is true that the SA requires a high level of commitment from all members then that would be a serious impediment to it sinking solid roots in the working class. What do you think about this?
DR; This gross caricature of 31 out of the 32 branches of the Alliance angered many SA members. This accusation, unfortunately, is yet another reflection of the ISO’s fixation with the role of the DSP in the Alliance and its own lack of implantation in the SA outside a few inner city locales. The ISO has this very crude schema on what the Alliance should be doing which it has imported unexpurgated from the British SWP.
At our recent conference, the ISO even asked delegates to vote on the lessons of the Respect victory! The Alliance decided two years ago that it was not simply an electoral coalition but a formation with a partyish perspective and still, the ISO prevails upon the Alliance to revert to its old mode as though we haven’t decided otherwise.
One of the major thrusts at our recent conference was to engineer a multi layered approach that gave SA members more options in relating to this enterprise. This isn’t an activist organisation we are building but one that relates to people where they are at and what they feel comfortable about. So now we are experimenting with various networking initiatives because we have relied previously on branch meetings as the major organising unit for the SA. Most members don’t come to branch meetings so we are exploring other ways of involving them. But the reality is that most members tend to be supporters rather than active members anyway. That’s fine. So it’s up to the Alliance to find ways to service this layer and generate a sense of belonging and ownership.
While we are committed to doing that we also need to draw out and harness the skills of all those SA members who want to be actively involved in our work..
SUN; I understand that most of the SA members who are also members of affiliated organisations are in one branch (Wills branch), is that correct? This branch has been raised as a model by the ISO, but how does it compare with the other branches in practice, and what sort of home would it offer to a non-aligned SA member?
DR; In Melbourne most of the small affiliate membership is concentrated in one inner city branch(Wills) and a similar process has been pursued by the ISO elsewhere. Here in Brisbane the ISO has compacted its SA activity into the Inala/South West branch but are now trying to close it down despite our pleas for them not to do so. So Wills is a standalone “model” as the example has not been replicated elsewhere.
There are many varieties of branch life and activity among the Alliance’s 32 branches and it is presumptuous to suggest that any one of these is an absolute model for the rest. In Wills the political perspective more closely approximates that of a locality based united electoral coalition rather than a formation proceeding in a partyish direction and campaigning more widely as part of a national organisation. If adopted more generally, the Wills model would mean that the SA would need to restrict itself to a few inner urban localities where electoral activity was a primary focus and marker of success.
The Alliance has decided otherwise and Wills is a throwback to a modus operandi we have decided to transcend. That doesn’t mean that Wills has not been successful in the context of electoral politics as our most successful local government results have been recorded there. But the Wills model if applied more generally in the Alliance would require us to concentrate our efforts into electoral activity in very few localities around the country. It’s a very different process than what we have decided upon.
SUN; After I last interviewed you, almost the following week there was an article in the British publication Weekly Worker, saying that the SA project in Australia was effectively on the rocks due to tensions between the ISO and the DSP. The Weekly Worker article had a dramatically different understanding of the dynamic in the SA from your interview. Do you think the truth lay somewhere in between?
DR; No I don’t. The history of the Alliance these past two and a half years has been warped by a culture of factionalism that has been played out in its national leadership bodies as the small affiliates tried to thwart the broad democratic wish of the SA membership to proceed aggressively in the direction of forming a new party. I don’t mean to make light of this as the whole experience has been very embittering and has taken its toll among some keen activists who have stepped back from active participation.
But the Alliance wasn’t just about that. Despite this festering affliction, the SA did prosper and did grow with very little credit to these oppositional elements. In reality there were two Alliances -- one that was caught up in this left argy-bargying and another that did the work, reached out, campaigned and consolidated the networks in the name of the SA. Our National Executive for instance existed on another planet from the day to day work of the Alliance because so much of its agenda was warped by this factional myopia.
Well, at this conference just gone, the chickens have come home to roost and the small affiliates suffered big time for their pains. If anything marks this conference it is the Alliance’s broad desire to transcend the culture of factionalism and take collective responsibility for the huge tasks we have set ourselves. Furthermore, the conciliatory habit of making formal concessions to these same affiliates regardless of what they bring to the table has also been junked.
SUN; Immediately before the SA conference started, a non-aligned caucus published a number of documents proposing a "third way". Do you think they reflected a genuine frustration of non-aligned comrades?
DR; Well the “third way” was referred to by one delegate as “a road to nowhere” and I’d agree with that assessment. It was a crude attempt to counter-pose the SWP’s electoral united front “model” to a caricature of the SSP by accommodating the worst features of our recent history and sentencing the SA to forever being a combination of "x" number of certified factions separate from one another regardless of political viewpoint. As I characterised it in our pre-conference discussion the “third way” embraced “a rigid warring camp model for the SA by seeding all our future deliberations with the politics of distrust then formulating that as a constitutional leadership requisite. An apartheid like system of political segregation rather than integration would become the guiding precept governing all affiliate activity in the SA “
While it is true that the genesis of the “third way” was a response to the fact that the SA’s partyish trajectory had stalled in the wake of the October 2004 federal election ( this result also fostered a more generalised retreat on the left here) it also reflects the outlook of those who seek to promote “non alignment” for its own apolitical sake. This unfortunate take is a direct result of the festering factionalism in the SA that I referred to earlier. This “third way” was a symptom of that.
But like the perspective of the small affiliates the “third way” failed to register much support from the conference floor.
SUN; Did the SA conference manage to transcend these internal tensions and look outwards at the bigger picture, of the union fight-back for example?
DR; We didn’t know it when we first planned the Fightback conference a year ago that our scheduling would be so serendipitous. Not only was the conference programmed at the right moment to galvanize such a portentous coming together, but two weeks before the conference Craig Johnston was released from jail on the very day that the federal government broadcast its industrial agenda.
So with the Fightback conference being held the day before our own deliberations this set the context for our discussions. We had to look outwards to the bigger picture because just the day before, the SA had proven in practice how viable our project was.
So those who sought to insulate the conference and force it to be inward looking lost out because delegates responded to this real promise which excited them. Consequently, this was a very outward looking conference that seized on every opportunity to reboot the project by embracing the potential that seemed to be unfolding with this Fightback option against the impending industrial relations bill.
SUN; Conference effectively backed the position of the DSP in the SA. Was that because the DSP packed the conference?
DR; The DSP made no secret of its weight on the conference floor as it comprised around 50% of conference delegates. If the votes for the main resolutions were just in line with that percentile then you could say that the DSP carried the conference by dint of its block of votes alone.
But the main resolutions were carried by some 70-80% of conference delegates so it is disingenuous to suggest that this was a stack. The major leadership role the DSP plays in the Alliance at branch and district level is reflected in that sort of level of delegate representation. In contrast half of the small affiliates represented at conference had voice and vote primarily because they were members of the outgoing National Executive and not because they were voted in by branch members.
It is also worth noting that major affirmative votes in the SA, to mean anything, do need to be overwhelming as the project would not work if it was ruled by simple majorities. There is an underlying political process here that needs to be recognised and flagged. What you refer to as the “position” of the DSP isn’t so much a statement of ownership because the core conference resolutions were generated in the actual living experience of the Alliance and that’s the way it has always been.
The resolutions on the GLW project were worked up by the outgoing SA/GLW board and while I presented the new leadership proposals to conference they had been developed though ongoing exchanges between myself, members of the DSP leadership and others in the lead up to conference . We then altered them further after receiving feedback from the SA membership once the draft had been circulated. That’s the sort of democratic culture that enables the SA to prosper as a regroupment exercise.
So the supporters of these resolutions not only won the conference votes but we also won the debate. To do it on any other basis would have put the project at risk.
SUN; Many comrades believe that a significant factor in the success of the Scottish Socialist Party has been the willingness of the International Socialist Movement (ISM) platform to relax and let the SSP have its own life. Although most of the leading SSP comrades are in the ISM, it no longer acts as a democratic centralist organisation. The DSP however still operate with "party" discipline within the SA, do you see that as a potential problem?
DR; I don’t know how the ISM organises but if you say it is no longer “democratically centralised” I really don’t know what you mean. I get wary of such a term being employed so liberally to the Marxist left because it has so many patented meanings. What I think you mean to suggest is that the ISM no longer functions as a “closed caucus”. In effect most Marxian groups function as closed caucuses to some varying degree or another but that doesn’t preclude other factions, with very different political attributes than them, operating along exact similar lines. So referring to it as a problem with “democratic centralism” or limiting it Marxist currents is hardly to the point.
But I guess you also mean that the ISM does not impose discipline on its caucus members not just that it is an open caucus. I think it is true that many Marxist outfits function as disciplined caucuses, and make no secret of that. But how is such "discipline" imposed in reality? Most disciplined revolutionary socialist groupings in capitalist democracies rely on political persuasion rather that administrative sanction to get their members to act in concert. Voluntary groups operating in broader, open formations really don't have that option. To the extent that these outfits succeed in imposing "discipline" on their members in their interventions, they can only do so because they persuaded their members of the political value of that intervention. So this issue isn’t as problematical as you seem to suggest.
But let’s assume, for the sake of my preferred cant, that the ISM no longer functions within the SSP as a “closed disciplined caucus”. But I can’t see how you can dovetail that notion with the assertion that somehow the ISM platform is willing “to relax and let the SSP have its own life”. Why must there be a trade off? I cannot see where the “independent life” of the SSP should be at loggerheads with the way the ISM does or does not organise. Surely this is a question of the SSP’s democracy and not of anything else?
This point brings me back to the experience of the Alliance here.
When the Socialist Alliance decided in 2003 to advance towards becoming a “multi tendency socialist party” that perspective was premised on our collective commitment that no obstacle would be placed in the path of the DSP integrating into the Alliance. That was the route we decided upon.
The pace at which that integration proceeds is dependent on many political variables and it is true that leading into this recent conference that dynamic had stalled. That wasn’t due to a sudden reticence on the DSP’s part -- but a combination of relentless internal SA factionalism and the impact the changing political climate had on that process.
While it is hoped that the fallout from this recent conference will reboot integration no one can shortcut this by insisting that the DSP should suddenly cease to operate as it currently does. That’s how the DSP organises day to day and the DSP is the organisational backbone of this project. --so it would be arrogant to insist that it should cease doing what it does, because there is a supposed to be a suddenly perceived problem with it.
Obviously, it does come down to a question of trust and mutual respect -- and these issues were confronted at our recent conference. Leading up to this conference there was a run of DSP baiting engineered from among the small affiliates and by some supporters of the “third way”. That the DSP operates along “party” lines was exploited by these comrades as an excuse to obscure some of the issues being discussed.
But what we soon got to debate under this heading was how we can make the Alliance more democratic and its leadership more accountable than was presently the case. Those who were fixated with the DSP question weren’t interested in such matters as they wanted to persevere with the factional status quo engineered around segregated warring camps which, by default, precluded integration
This soon enough came down to a debate over one vote/one value for the election of the SA’s national leadership and that’s what the conference endorsed -- an open Single Transferable Vote system with a clause limiting any one affiliate, tendency or organised political current to 40% of the national leadership body elected from conference. This means that candidates for national leadership positions go before conference as individuals with credentials of their own making regardless of their allegiances.
That doesn’t absolutely solve the “problem” I think you are referring to because at some stage I hope we can look forward to integration being completed -- but we aren’t there yet. The past factionalism in the SA has not been conducive to a situation where caucusing can be set aside. As the DSP devolves more of its activity and assets into the SA the less, I’m sure, they will require parallel structures.
SUN; Mike Treen of the New Zealand Unite union, and Grant Morgan of NZ Socialist Worker attended both the Fight-back conference and the SA conference. Would you say there was a difference in emphasis between the NZ and Australian IST comrades?
This was Mike Treen’s second SA conference and Grant Morgan had also been part of a New Zealand delegation that addressed the Asia Pacific Solidarity Conference which was held in Sydney at Easter this year. Following on from our conference the New Zealand Socialist Worker comrades have decided on formal fraternal relations with the Socialist Alliance.
In an article to be published in the next edition of their paper, Morgan writes of the SA conference:
The Socialist Alliance was reorganised. The old leadership structure, a clunky and unworkable compromise between factions, was thrown out. Its place was taken by a more democratic and streamlined leadership intent on mobilising against the government's attacks. A parallel reorganisation cemented the partnership between the Socialist Alliance and Green Left Weekly, Australia's premier socialist paper. The intention is to boost the paper's capacity to educate and organise the workers whose mass actions alone can "kill the bill". Driving these initiatives were the Socialist Alliance's three key constituencies: militant unionists, social justice activists and the Democratic Socialist Perspective. In my opinion, the decisions of both conferences should be welcomed by all serious leftists. They carry into practice the best traditions of militant unionism and non-sectarian socialism.
I very much doubt that the ISO
-- the Australian section of the IST -- would share that view.
SUN; You have been accused of being a "DSP stooge". Are you?
The poisonous result of the factional fixation with the DSP in the Alliance has been this ongoing attempt to turn the DSP into a pariah and any one who collaborates with them into bona fide stooges. It’s all pretty McCarthyist and reflects poorly on the maturity of the organised Australian socialist left.
Rather than debate out the real issues in dispute, DSP baiting has standardly been employed to frighten keen SA activists into keeping their distance from the nasty bogeymen and bogeywomen of the DSP.
Frankly I’m well past caring about this. Either what I say or do stands on its own merits or it doesn’t. I go by no label except my passionate commitment to this Alliance project.
I think we’ll be hearing much less of accusations like these primarily because those that trade in them were so soundly defeated on the conference floor.
SUN; What are the prospects for the Alliance now?
This impending struggle over the new industrial laws will have a major impact on socialist politics in this country. I don’t have a crystal ball and cannot offer suggestions on how this will pan out. But this struggle— win or loose -- will lead to the creation of a very different left in this country and a very different Socialist Alliance. We know that and we are trying to find ways to relate to that pressing issue as best we can.