ISO ultimatum stalls left unity

The Socialist Alliance in Australia, while formed later than its counterparts in Britain, has been quicker to move in a partyist direction - apart, that is, from the obvious case of Scotland, where the Scottish Socialist Party has also developed in a nationalist direction. Whereas the 'party question' in the SA in England and Wales is treated with disdain by many - not least the largest component, the Socialist Workers Party, in Australia it is the debate. On September 2, the Democratic Socialist Party national executive proposed to its membership that the organisation should cease its public existence and invest all resources into the SA, where it would form an internal tendency. This has triggered a wide-ranging discussion throughout the Socialist Alliance that puts the level of political debate in the SA (England) to shame (contributions to this debate can be read at www.socialist-alliance.org/debate.shtml). Credit for this step forward largely goes to the DSP - the biggest of the groupings in the alliance. A former fragment of the Mandelite 'Fourth International', the DSP has had the courage to attempt 'do a Scotland', whereas the SWP in Britain remains coy about, if not downright hostile to, the idea of acting as a catalyst for the SA to become a political party. The International Socialist Organisation - the SWP's clone in Australia - seems to have been thrown off guard by the DSP's bold proposal - which effectively aimed to put the SA at the centre of a party project for the entire left. Regarded as slightly odd even by leading members of the SWP in London, the ISO tends to reflect in an extreme form the anarcho-bureaucratism of its British parent - albeit as parody. In fact, the ISO seemed split over the very question of involvement in the SA to begin with, with one wing effectively instituting a boycott. Some inside observers have argued that the DSP is making a play for hegemony over the rest of the left - particularly the ISO which is somewhat directionless. But what is wrong with the advanced element seeking to lead the backward? In fact that is just what is needed and it is in the interests of the entire left to unite as long as that unity is coupled with thorough-going democracy and open debate in front of the class. The ISO eventually replied to the DSP initiative by claiming that the time is not right for taking unity to a higher plane. Worse, the ISO goes on to say that if the DSP went ahead with its plans to transform itself into an internal SA tendency, it would leave the alliance. The DSP proposals must be rejected because they amount to a platform of revolutionary intent. This aim, says the ISO, "is one that the ISO shares - but it one that we think is totally inappropriate for the Socialist Alliance to adopt. Your intention is that such a platform should be adopted in May" (ISO, 'We will terminate our affiliation to the alliance', November 3). The ISO's formula has a familiar ring to it for readers in Britain - it is claimed that the Socialist Alliance is a united front which is supposed to put under one roof hordes of defectors from Labourism and a putative revolutionary minority. That the SAs actually unite revolutionaries is seen as an unfortunate accident, a blip, which will soon be corrected, once reality catches up with the leadership's latest perspectives documents. Anyway the ISO continues: "We think that you are confusing two quite different processes - revolutionary regroupment and the building of a large, multi-tendency socialist party." For some reason, regroupment of the revolutionary left and the formation of a multi-tendency party are mutually exclusive and separate processes. But of course at the heart of this perspective is the desire to maintain sect purity and the unfounded belief that in all workers' DNA is the need to find a home in yet another reformist party. After this ultimatum from the ISO - stay apart or we quit - the DSP has responded in a mature and measured fashion: "That, given the stance of the ISO national executive, the DSP political committee will withdraw its recommendation to the DSP's 20th Congress that the DSP cease to operate as a public organisation before the May 2003 Socialist Alliance national conference. "That the DSP political committee will propose to the congress that it authorise the incoming DSP national committee to decide on the timing of the implementation of the proposal that the DSP cease to function as a public organisation. "The DSP political committee has adopted this stance in order to allow more discussion in the alliance without the threat of ultimatums and a breakdown in relations. For us the Socialist Alliance represents too valuable a political gain with too large a potential to risk such a breakdown" (DSP, 'Socialist Alliance too valuable to risk such a breakdown', November 11). It is more than a shame that the ISO - along with its parent organisation in Britain - is constituting itself as the main obstacle to the partyist logic of the Socialist Alliance project. In Britain, as the largest faction, it is doing this by cynically moulding the SA into yet another of its united front transmission belts for recruitment into "the party". It is the same in Australia, except that the ISO is behaving like the Socialist Party in England and Wales: in other words as the petulant junior partner. Either way, the International Socialist Tendency is working according to the discredited spirit of sectarianism, not looking to forge unity at the highest level objective circumstances allow. Martin Blum