Forward together

Marcus Larsen reports on developments in Australia

The Socialist Alliance in Australia is enjoying some of the joys and many pitfalls of a relatively rapid development. Formed just a few months ago from scratch after an agreement between Australia?s two largest revolutionary groups, the Democratic Socialist Party and the International Socialist Organisation, the Socialist Alliance is now gearing up for its first national conference which will launch its campaign for the forthcoming federal election, expected in December.

The alliance now unites nine revolutionary organisations: Democratic Socialist Party, Freedom Socialist Party, International Socialist Organisation, Socialist Alternative, Socialist Democracy, Worker-Communist Party of Iraq (in Australia), Workers Power, Workers League and Workers Liberty. The Taaffeite Socialist Party has not joined the alliance, revealing its true colours.

The two-day national conference will be held in Melbourne on August 4 and 5. Its main job will be to ratify the draft platform and constitution, and to plan the federal election campaign. There is already a minimal draft platform, drawn up by the eight founding affiliate organisations.

In the three weeks I recently spent in Australia, I spoke on behalf of the Socialist Alliance (England) at four meetings of the Socialist Alliance (Australia) and met with the two national co-convenors of the Australian alliance. Representing the CPGB, I also had extensive discussions with Workers Liberty (Australia) and the Democratic Socialist Party.

It took eight years from the formation of the first Socialist Alliance in Britain for there to be a national contest at the general election. The Socialist Alliance in Australia has taken only eight months. This shows the advantage of basing a project for unity on what has been a relatively positive experience in Britain - although some of the weaknesses of the alliance are also present in Australia.

On the surface, the alliance in Australia is to the left of the SA (England). This is down to two factors: one objective, the other subjective. First, the tempo of the economic struggle in Australia is higher than in Britain. Unions are more militant. There are cross-sectional disputes. The working class in Australia has suffered no equivalent of the strategic defeat of the miner?s Great Strike of 1984-85.

The subjective factor arises from the fact that the main hegemonic group in the Socialist Alliance in Australia, the Democratic Socialist Party, explicitly calls for the alliance to eventually develop into a revolutionary party. To this end, the DSP does not suffer from the split personality of the Socialist Workers Party when it comes to the electoral tactic and the developing anti-capitalist sentiment. In Britain, the SWP tries to be old Labour in elections. Low-level, deeply patronising, reformist politics for the mass of the working class. Anarchist sloganeering for the anti-capitalist youth and students. There is no programmatic bridge between fighting for reforms and the ?Fuck capitalism? slogan. Indeed, the only organisational link is the SWP sect itself.

This division of labour is repeated in Australia, albeit at a lower level. The SWP?s sister organisation, the ISO, is suffering from the fact that some sections of its membership are openly boycotting alliance work. But, whereas we should be winning electoral support to build a revolutionary movement, for the pro-election-turn ISO activists the Socialist Alliance is definitely a movement just to win votes.

The DSP at least tries to envisage the Socialist Alliance project as the electoral expression of anti-capitalism. Although it shares the economism of most of the left, its longer-term perspective for the alliance has laid a more fertile seed bed for a more leftwing, pro-party culture to develop. How it will reconcile this multi-tendency approach with its obsessive pro-Cannon, sect-building internal practice is a contradiction to be resolved in the future.

Yet there are definite weaknesses. Firstly, the isolation of the revolutionary left is even more pronounced in Australia than in Britain. This is less the case in Melbourne than in Sydney, but, for example, the self-assigned role of the Australian left in relation to the trade unions is to throw brickbats at the bureaucrats, while cheering on any action they lead. Given the relative militancy of sections of the unions and the left?s ineffectiveness in relation to it, the cheerleading role (particularly of the ISO) is palpable. Cringe-conducing even. Even the language of activists is decidedly petty bourgeois, talking about ?the workers? as other.

The key weaknesses of the alliance draft platform, to be amended at the August conference, are its economism and Laborism. A familiar story. The key slogan pushed by the SA is ?Tax the rich?. Again, familiar territory. Issues of the nature of the state, its form and the way the working class in Australia is ruled are relegated to secondary issues at best. Militant republicanism is seen as a diversion.

The other key political weakness is the call for the formation of a Labor government - such a demand would now appear shocking in Britain. The fact that the Labor Party is in opposition in Australia is no grounds to call for it to be voted in. On the contrary. The opposition in the Australian parliament is just as committed to imperialism and chauvinism as the Liberal-National coalition. The unconditional call for a Labor government should not form part of our programme. It will, after all, be an anti-working class government?a fact widely recognised.

The attitude to the Australian Labor Party as a whole must, though, be different, and an interventionist attitude to the Labor left is vital. Given the electoral system, negotiations at electorate level for preference-swapping provide an excellent opportunity to engage with the working class base of the Labor Party. Preferences to the ALP ought not to be automatic and should be withheld from ALP candidates unprepared to support certain minimum demands.

The conditions for developing the alliance are fairly positive. The traditional non-Trotskyist left, however, remains aloof. The Communist Party of Australia, the Progressive Labor Party and remnants of the former Eurocommunist leadership of the old CPA are having none of it. This is a pity, though not a reason for gloom.

While I was in Australia, the New South Wales Labor Council attempted to blockade parliament to prevent the passing of legislation on workers? compensation by the state Labor government. The NSW Fire Brigade Union disaffiliated from the ALP. These developments, often parallel to those in the UK, are grounds for optimism.

The immediate challenge for the Socialist Alliance comes in the form of the Alston by-election in Victoria. With 15 candidates already declared, the SA is unlikely to make a big splash. But it is good learning territory for activists who have rarely done election work. Then there is the SA conference, with its opportunity to air differences and make united organisational decisions. What structure, what sort of SA paper and, crucially, what sort of politics?

There are burning issues that need the attention of the Australian left: Aboriginal rights (including drawing up a treaty), the fight for a centralist republic, opposition to the anti-democratic and royalist federal constitution, opposing immigration controls and official multi-culturalism, championing democratic assimilation, abolishing the senate, democratisation of the trade unions.

In order to meet the challenge represented by these and other questions the revolutionary left must ditch its economism and use its new-found unity to break out of its political and organisational isolation.