Bob Gould, 2004

The Democratic Socialist Party’s perspectives
Unrealistic plans for the Socialist Alliance

Source: Ozleft, January 8, 2004
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

Perspectives documents have an important history in the revolutionary socialist movement. Different currents and traditions have different styles and ways of approaching them. For instance, the Militant Group in Australia, now the Socialist Party, for several years used to follow the Ted Grant tradition, and its mildly charismatic Australian leader, Steve, would every year or two labour mightily to produce a perspectives document, which in the Ted Grant style would start with an overview of the Australian and world economy, of an empirical sort, and then make some economic predictions, within which framework the political perspectives would then be located.

Steve’s empirical analysis was usually useful, but his predictions were often wrong, and he wasn’t Robinson Crusoe in that, because the tendency of Marxists is to look for evidence of the impending collapse of the capitalist economy. We have all done that to some degree, and our predictions have usually been wrong.

This way of framing perspectives, basing them on the world economy and the local economy, followed by an attempted balance sheet of world and local class forces, while traditional in the Marxist movement, at least obliges those elaborating a perspective to make some attempt to locate that perspective in developments in the material world.

The DSP isn’t too specific as to what role this curious document, The Democratic Socialist Perspective and the Socialist Alliance, is meant to play. It is made to sound like a perspectives document, with repeated use of the word “perspectives”, the name of the organisation is to be changed from Democratic Socialist Party to Democratic Socialist Perspective, but there is no explanation as to whether this is the main perspectives document.

Unless there are other, major documents associated with this document, this one hangs in mid-air, with the observation and analysis on which it is based only implied. In addition, this document is made to sound ever so self-important by a long string of numbers, the function of which isn’t entirely clear.

This is a curious habit that we’ve all done a bit, at different times, but it’s usually a device for making a proposition sound more impressive than it actually is.

The lack of any serious economic or social investigation is possibly deliberate, because at the political level the document sails into a proposition about the nature of the period, which is obviously overoptimistic to the point of being totally wrong.

The document starts with the organisational proposals that are at the centre of it, so in that sense it’s relatively frank: that it’s driven by the organisational interests and desires of the DSP. In fact, it seems to me that this is almost the only reason for this perspectives document. It’s an ideological buttress aimed at persuading DSP members that there is some possibility of their political activity being effective in the framework outlined.

A. Introduction

When the May 2003 Second National Conference of the Socialist Alliance voted to adopt the perspective of transforming itself into a single, multi-tendency socialist party and to “accept and welcome a strong revolutionary socialist stream as an integral part of our vision of a broad socialist party”, the door was open for the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) to become an internal tendency within the Alliance. In adopting the following resolution the 21st Congress of the DSP votes to become an internal tendency in the Socialist Alliance, renames itself the Democratic Socialist Perspective with the following aims and objectives.

This is the DSP leadership’s way of describing its organisational activities and intentions. An alternative description would be that the DSP leadership wishes to construct a slightly different type of political organisation than it has had in the past, which will have less demanding norms of political activity and will therefore be able to draw back, or draw in for the first time, people who don’t wish to engage in the intense political activity of small socialist cadre groups. This is not an unreasonable desire.

However, the DSP leadership also intends to present this new organisation as an alliance, and to hold as far as possible those members of other affiliated groups who will acquiesce to the DSP’s politics.

These ends are achieved by maintaining a transitional arrangement with the DSP, constructed more or less as it has always been constructed, running the show, with the internal life of the dominant DSP faction proceeding according to the DSP’s traditional pyramid structure, from the leadership down, with the leadership totally dominant and the members obliged to carry out leadership directives.

This is strengthened by making Green Left Weekly the official paper of the Socialist Alliance.

The whole process is driven by the DSP leadership’s perception of the organisational interests of the DSP, despite the rhetoric about alliance politics, which is entirely tactical.

B. Socialist unity — the preconditions and the gains to date.

1. The founding affiliate groups of the Socialist Alliance agreed from May 2001 that there was a special opening for socialists in this period, arising out of the neo-liberal offensive, the growing resistance to that offensive and resulting mass disillusionment with the Australian Labor Party (ALP).

2. The opening for the Socialist Alliance was very concrete. It was a response to the beginning of a new cycle of working-class and anti-capitalist struggle following two decades of working class retreat. Those who formed the Alliance welcomed the new militancy demonstrated in:

We recognised that some sort of left unity project, like the Socialist Alliance, was essential if socialists were to get a broader hearing from the working class in these new circumstances. This perspective has been strongly reinforced by imperialism’s global offensive and the huge antiwar movement that erupted before the invasion of Iraq.

This whole section is extremely apocalyptic. It’s also wrong by any serious standard of objective inquiry and analysis. It reads very like the perspectives of the international leadership of the IS Tendency over the past couple of years. (It may be that this rhetoric is a bit of a gesture to the IS Tendency leadership, internationally and in Australia, to soften the blow of the DSP’s ruthless seizure of the political and organisational initiative in the Australian Socialist Alliance.) It’s the kind of apocalyptic perspective that has caused a large number of individuals and groups to revolt against the IS Tendency leadership on this question, internationally and in Australia.

It’s not clear from this document whether an apocalyptic economic perspective is assumed or built in. If an apocalyptic economic expectation doesn’t underlie the document, the proposition that the beginnings of a major reversal of the balance of class forces started in 1998 is, on the face of it, so inaccurate as to lead one to question the ability of the authors to understand reality.

As the objectors to this kind of apocalyptic perspective in the IS current have continuously pointed out, strike statistics in most advanced capitalist countries have for the past five or six years been continuously at their lowest ebb for 50 years.

Trade union membership and density has also been at historic lows for the past five or six years, although the decline seems to have stopped. Taken as a whole, union bureaucracies, left, right and centre, are more entrenched, and union democracy and activity is a relatively low level, with a few exceptions.

It is true that all the favourable things mentioned in this document did happen, and it’s also true that there’s a certain revival of activity in the union framework, but at this point it is almost entirely proceeding in very traditional trade union channels. The major new political development is the growth of the Greens mass electoral party to the left of Labor.

To some extent this Green Party is filling the same electoral and social niche as the Democrats did, although happily it’s a good deal more leftist in its political outlines. The notion, however, of mass disillusionment with the Laborites going in a specifically militant or socialist direction is so delusional as to be dangerous to the mental health of those holding that view.

As Trotsky said in the 1930s, “paper (and now the World Wide Web) is patient, and will tolerate anything that’s written on it”. Serious socialist politics, however, requires investigation and observation, not just eccentric assertion.

Anyone who believes that these sections are an accurate statement of the relationship of class forces really is living in an alternative political reality manufactured in their own head.

3. The Socialist Alliance has fielded candidates in state and federal elections, has begun to organise its members and supporters in the trade unions and has built campaigns around the demands of its action platform. In all these endeavours, our united campaigning has been more effective than the individual efforts of any single socialist group.

4. The greater left unity that the formation of the Socialist Alliance represented has already given socialists a broader hearing in the working class. In several cities, Socialist Alliance members are respected leaders of the militant trade union minority, enjoying the support of thousands of militant workers. The Alliance’s influence has also grown in the antiwar movement and among the left intelligentsia.

5. The class-collaborationist leadership of the trade union movement certainly has taken notice of this development. They warn of the growing threat of Socialist Alliance-influenced militants and seek to red-bait and slander us as “extremists trying to take over the unions”. We have also seen the conservative Laborites’ paranoia about Socialist Alliance, which led them to split the Sydney antiwar coalition.

All this is self-important to the point of also being delusional. The Socialist Alliance candidates in federal and state elections have averaged less than 0.5 per cent of the vote. The electoral response has, in fact, been minimal in a period when the Greens have consolidated as the left electoral alternative to Labor, averaging 7-11 per cent.

In the trade union sphere, one member of the Socialist Alliance has been elected secretary of the 1100-member Maritime Union in Western Australia, a couple of Socialist Alliance candidates in a recent Commonwealth public servants election went up to the 40 per cent achieved by other opposition candidates a few years ago, and a DSP bloke on the Sydney waterfront has got up to roughly the same percentage achieved by opposition candidates on the Sydney waterfront a few years ago (although the workforce on the Sydney waterfront union is now way down on the past).

Other militant union leaderships that conduct a vigorous, although necessarily defensive policy, continue to operate in a quite entrenched way within the traditional ALP-trade union context, and several union leaders that the DSP looks to are Socialist Left delegates to the coming ALP federal conference.

In the real world, the DSP-Socialist Alliance is a very modest force, despite its huffing and puffing. Being a modest force in the trade unions isn’t necessarily always its fault, or a great political crime, but it’s extremely dangerous politically to delude yourself about the extent of your influence.

This kind of delusional approach usually ends up producing either adventures or opportunism. At the trade union level the DSP’s political rhetoric about exposing and replacing Laborism is an extremely volatile and rather dangerous posture, because it cuts across, in an unnecessarily provocative way, the practical day-to-day needs of serious oppositional trade union activity.

The sharpest expression of this problem is the DSP’s occasional vindictive rhetoric about disaffiliating unions from the ALP.

6. Having led the working class into retreat and having championed the neoliberal offensive against the social gains of previous working class struggles, the ALP is facing a serious political crisis. Labor’s ever more explicit shift to the right — whether in government or in opposition — has opened up a space to its left that all serious socialists know we have to contend for. A growing section of the working class and other oppressed and victimised sections of society are looking for a political alternative to the major parties.

7. As the ALP stands increasingly exposed, the Greens are winning a growing hearing, particularly among young people. Their principled political stance on many issues, widely publicised through their parliamentary positions, has led many to believe that they offer a program of genuine progressive environmental and social reform. However, the Greens do not offer lasting or effective solutions to the crises caused by capitalism. The party is unclear about whether its aims can be achieved under capitalism or not. This leads the Greens to underestimate the importance of independent working-class mobilisation and organisation in favour of parliamentary activities. While there are some socialists and other grassroots activists within the Greens, there is a rightward pressure exerted on the party by its wealthier supporters and by its parliamentary focus. As these strategic limitations become clearer, the Socialist Alliance can convince left-wing Greens activists to join a working-class party with an effective strategy for social change and ecological sustainability. The Democratic Socialist Perspective supports close collaboration between the Socialist Alliance and the Greens in community, social, environment and electoral campaigns.

These are the door-is-closed-and-the-horse-has-bolted paragraphs. There clearly is electoral space to the left of Labor, and it is well and truly occupied by the Greens for the foreseeable future. The business about the Socialist Alliance being able to convince left-wing Green activists to join it is a really cynical statement of an obviously vain hope attempting to triumph over brutal experience.

The notion of leftist Greens activists moving from the Greens to the Socialist Alliance is a fantasy, and everybody knows it, so why say it? If anything, the traffic and trade is all in the opposite direction. (As an aside, I’m a bit curious as to who the DSP authors means when they talk about the Greens’ wealthier supporters. I haven’t struck anyone like that. Maybe this is a distorted reference to the brutal political fact that having got a large number of votes the Greens get the electoral funding that goes with that number of votes. The DSP leadership may be a bit jealous of that, but there’s no way to do anything about it, except to get more votes, which is, in the nature of the situation, very unlikely.)

C. Strengthening our base of support in the working class

8. However, winning the working class away from its traditional Labor misleadership requires a lot more than exposing the ALP’s betrayals. Indeed, today socialists are hard-pressed to keep up with the ALP politicians’ relentless self-exposure! However, if disillusioned-in-Labor workers are to rise above despair, cynicism, and apathy they have to see a viable alternative political vehicle, or at least one in construction.

9. To create this vehicle it is simply not enough for revolutionary socialists to hold up their political program and call for the support from these workers breaking from the ALP. Rather, our challenge is to unite with the actual leaders of the working class resistance, fighting alongside them in a common effort to reverse the cycle of defeat and reinvigorate the movement. In this way we can win over more of their ranks to the socialist movement. In short, our priority in the Socialist Alliance is to unite with these leading forces.

10. Socialist Alliance will be able to win over more militant trade union leaders and work more closely with a wider layer of working class militants — winning their respect and confidence — if we are organised as a united socialist party. The sooner we move to implement the perspective adopted at the second national conference of the Socialist Alliance, the greater the chance of winning valuable working-class leaders to our ranks and to socialism. This also holds for activists from other arenas of social and environmental struggle.

These three paragraphs are a delusional, overly optimistic way of addressing the central problem facing the DSP and the Socialist Alliance, which is the extreme isolation from the labour movement and the working class of the DSP, the Socialist Alliance and all other revolutionary socialist groups.

Because of the special organisational interest in its own existence that has developed in the DSP, the problem is posed in a fantastic way. Instead of elaborating some flexible tactic or tactics directed at solving the crisis of leadership in the labour movement and the working class, these paragraphs spell out a schema in which the activists in the labour movement are required to ditch their existing organisational allegiances and join the DSP’s Socialist Alliance venture. This is what is meant by fusion with the leaders of struggles.

The underlying implication is that workers coming forward in struggle will take on board the DSP’s special ideological baggage, and in practice the ultimatum is posed that these workers have to adapt themselves to the DSP methods of organisation.

The DSP and other groups like it have been proposing this for a very long time and there’s no sign of any significant layer of militants in the working class being in a mood to do this.

The DSP is haunted by the past experience of the Communist Party, which was sporadically successful in fusing with sections of working-class militants, but the circumstances were different, and for most of this time the CP’s approach was a bit different.

The political culture of High Stalinism was pretty exotic, but for much of the CP’s existence there was obvious capitalist crisis in the West and a fantasised Soviet Union appeared superior. This kind of thing reached its peak during World War II. The USSR was a military ally, and Uncle Joe (Stalin) became an almost benign figure.

In addition to this, the CP, for most of its existence was much more realistic and flexible in recognising the obvious fact of the enduring grip of Laborism on the proletarian vanguard in Australian conditions.

For much of this time, socialism was seen as viable option by a large section of the working class and middle class. The current problem is that, although the overthrow of Stalinism globally has at least removed a major obstacle to socialism and the class struggle, for the moment the notion of socialism is less popular in the working class and middle class in most advanced capitalist countries than it has been for about 120 years.

In the face of these material circumstances, which are to some extent objective circumstances, the notion that major sections of working class militants who come forward in struggle fusing with any small socialist group, particularly the DSP, is a forlorn hope.

In fact, this notion is utopian, driven by the perception of the DSP leaders that the primary task is to preserve the DSP as an organisation. To this end they have changed the name (while retaining the initials) but there’s no evidence that they’re trying to change the sectarian political style of the organisation.

11. Three-quarters of the delegates at the May 2003 Socialist Alliance National Conference, including nearly all those delegates who did not belong to a revolutionary socialist organisation, voted to “progress towards a single, multi-tendency socialist party” and to “accept and welcome a strong revolutionary socialist stream as an integral part of our vision of a broad socialist party”. The Democratic Socialist Perspective agrees with this resolution and advocates that the affiliate groups in the Socialist Alliance pool their resources and experience and build the Socialist Alliance as the new multi-tendency party for socialism in Australia. We seek to lead this process through example.

12. Building a united socialist party with as much of the socialist working-class vanguard as possible is a greater priority today than resolving the historical and theoretical differences that continue to exist among the revolutionary socialist affiliates of the Socialist Alliance. Many of these differences are only going to be resolved with a certain test in practice combined with democratic discussion and decision-making. The Socialist Alliance is already this vehicle for comradely and democratic debate. The Democratic Socialist Perspective will continue to defend this feature of the Socialist Alliance.

This section is thoroughly mealy-mouthed. The reality is that the Socialist Alliance project has been, in part, an operation directed at removing from the DSP’s path such “obstacles” — that is other groups — as it can get at by roping them into the Socialist Alliance.

This operation has been directed partly at the smaller groups also, but mainly at the International Socialist Organisation, which the DSP leadership perceived as the largest “obstacle” among the groups in the Alliance.

The largest “obstacle” of all, the Socialist Alternative, and another significant “obstacle” the Socialist Party, have, wisely from their own point of view, refused to play the DSP’s game.

The operation against the ISO has been reasonably successful in the sense that the Alliance experience sharpened up the tensions in the ISO, which culminated in a split, and the inexorable, constant initiatives by the DSP to shape the Alliance in its own interest have so far proved difficult for the ISO to resist or successfully cope with.

The very context in which this resolution was adopted underlines this. It was adopted at the DSP’s Christmas conference, the second decision-making conference in two years, from which all the DSP’s ostensible Alliance associates that did not accept the DSP’s perspectives were excluded.

The discussion in the DSP was strictly internal, and in the usual way the DSP leadership acted as a closed caucus, imposing its will on the DSP membership, who are now obliged to carry out in the Alliance the DSP’s perspectives and to respond immediately to day-to-day tactical initiatives by the DSP leadership.

Obviously, in this situation, the smaller groups in the Alliance, and even the ISO, have very limited possibilities for affecting the direction of the Alliance.

The DSP leadership is in a bit of a quandary about serious public political discussion. It doesn’t really want it, as is stated outright in this section, but it will be tolerated within certain limits: including that DSP members are obliged to defend the existing line of the DSP on all matters in public.

In practice, they allow such discussion as is generated by the odd oppositionist, such as myself and others associated with Ozleft, and one or two others on the Green Left Weekly website.

But the DSP leadership is comfortable in the knowledge that most of the groups in the Alliance that have sharply divergent view, such as Workers Liberty, aren’t keen on public discussion either, and neither are the leaders of the ISO, or for that matter the ISO opposition, or the leadership of Socialist Alternative.

Serious cross-group discussion of perspectives, politics, unresolved issues has difficulty getting going in Australia, as it does in most countries, and this suits the DSP leadership just fine.

D. Socialist Alliance, revolutionary socialism and the Democratic Socialist Perspective

13. The Democratic Socialist Perspective is a revolutionary socialist, Marxist, organisation. This means that the Democratic Socialist Perspective is convinced that the socialist society for which the Alliance fights cannot be built unless the working class — which comprises the overwhelming majority in society today — conquers the power to make the decisions which are presently made by the corporate elites and those who govern for them. Only then will it be possible put an end to inequality, injustice, poverty and oppression through the systematic and democratically decided restructuring of all social relations.

14. For this transformation to take place, the vast majority of working people have to become conscious socialists — conscious of their own power as the productive majority of society and convinced, too, that the socialist alternative represents their interests and remains viable despite the perversions and crimes that Stalinism committed in its name. Such consciousness can only arise through working people participating in struggles to defend their own immediate interests and in solidarity with working people in struggle elsewhere.

15. But socialist consciousness cannot grow in the absence of socialist organisation — a mass revolutionary socialist party based in the working class. This is because socialist consciousness does not develop spontaneously. It has to be struggled for in the face of a capitalist class with immense and highly centralised military, financial, political and ideological power.

This, also, is rather utopian noise, and most of it is cynical left talk, coming from the DSP leadership.

The underlying outlook of the DSP leadership, which it asserts in other contexts, is that programmatic questions are no longer very important, and what really matters in most situations is the trajectory of movement. The DSP leadership has, however, suddenly at this conference wheeled out a very radically framed socialist and Marxist programmatic statement.

Some of what is said here is real nonsense, but the sort of nonsense that gives a hint of the kind of crude organisational preoccupations that drive the DSP leaders. When they say: “For this transformation to take place, the vast majority of working people have to become conscious socialists,” etc, they’re breaking completely with any notion of making a juncture with workers influenced by Social Democratic reformism, and with any Leninist realism. No “peace, land and bread” for the DSP leadership, in its new, born-again ultimatist pseudo-Marxism.

This formulation is strikingly derivative of the formulations of the old, successful sectarians of the Socialist Party of Great Britain, who’ve managed to preserve a political organisation somewhat outside the working class on the basis of such formulations.

The kind of approach expressed in these paragraphs is appropriate to preserving the apparatus and very separate internal life of a self-important and puffed-up sect.

Like a number of the other paragraphs in this document, it begs one of the really serious questions for revolutionary socialists in this period: that of the stark necessity of some new theoretical analysis and development of the basic ideas of revolutionary socialism.

The cruel reality is that we revolutionary socialists are a tiny minority on the planet now, because of a number of factors, mainly the betrayals of Stalinism and Social Democracy, but also the failure of the development of any Marxist theory, so far, to construct a credible socialist alternative, ideologically speaking, in current conditions.

What is critically needed now, among many other things, is a serious international discussion of what a transition to socialism would actually look like, in contrast with Stalinism and Social Democracy.

Until we’ve made at least some development in that direction, revolutionary socialism is hardly likely to break out of its current ghetto.

16. The experience of all mass working-class and popular struggle to overthrow capitalism and establish a socialist society — beginning with the Russian Revolution — confirms the following key lessons of the pioneering Bolshevik experience in this regard:

17. However, neither in Australia nor anywhere can these features be decreed or conjured up. The revolutionary program, organisation and leadership have to be developed and tested in a real struggle to provide leadership to Australian workers in all the battles — economic, political and ideological — that they will face.

To sum up, this DSP perspectives document is not driven by a sober appraisal of the world economy, and of the balance of global and Australian class forces.

It does not attempt to locate a perspective for the activity of revolutionary socialists in that kind of framework. It’s a document of a rather different sort. Its starting point is the preservation of the DSP as an organisation. In this framework the notion of the DSP or its successor body as primarily an open and public political alternative to the mass political parties is a given, in fact the only given.

The external material world is mentally reshaped in this document to fit this given.

An alternative reality is created in this document, and the alternative reality relates to the given: the public entity of the DSP or its successor as an alternative party.

The Mohammed of the DSP, won’t go to the mountains of the ALP-trade union continuum and the Greens, and it’s implied in this document that the mountains must come to the DSP.

But socialist politics is not religion, and this perspective is a program for further vegetation and problems because it collides in such an extreme way with Australian and world objective conditions.

Another kind of perspective is clearly needed, and I’m sure a serious discussion of perspectives will develop over the next few months among revolutionary socialists.