DSP: Socialist Alliance is ‘at a turning point’

Green Left Weekly #515 – November 6, 2002
By John Percy

[The following letter was sent on October 22 by Democratic Socialist Party national secretary John Percy on behalf of the DSP political committee to the national executive of the International Socialist Organisation. It was in response to the ISO NE’s letter of September 29 to the DSP NE, reprinted in GLW #513.]

Dear comrades, thank you for your letter outlining some of your worries and the issues you think should be flagged following the DSP national executive’s letter announcing the proposals we were presenting to our membership regarding the Socialist Alliance, namely that next year the DSP cease to build itself publicly and instead put all its efforts into publicly building and strengthening the Socialist Alliance.

Our NE proposals were unanimously endorsed at a meeting of the DSP national committee October 5-7, so the discussion continues amongst our members in the branches leading up to our congress on December 28-January 1, where a decision will be made.

Of course, the discussion is continuing in a wider arena too, both in the Socialist Alliance itself, and in the rest of the left in Australia and among some of the left internationally, and this is enriching the process.

Thus we welcome your participation in that discussion, and also welcome the tone and the approach of your comrades, both in the letter from your national executive and in the contributions of your comrades who have participated so far in the various public forums discussing the issues.

We also appreciate and accept your suggestion for leadership-to-leadership meetings between our organisations at the local level.

The ability to discuss in a comradely and constructive way, and the increasing joint activity we are able to organise, itself reflects the progress already made through the Socialist Alliance in changing the shape and the atmosphere of the left in Australia.

As the discussion continues, I think we’re finding that there’s increasing clarity and greater agreement on many points, not just between the DSP and ISO, but also among all the initial affiliates of the Socialist Alliance, and the activists who’ve joined but who don’t belong to one of the existing groups.

This letter will try to make an initial response to some of the concerns raised in your letter, but of course, this discussion is very much an ongoing process, as is the process of building a stronger socialist alternative itself.

Nevertheless, the DSP feels that this discussion is becoming increasingly urgent, even more so in the wake of the Greens victory in the Cunningham by-election.

We are now at a turning point. Our proposals, which were based on a realistic assessment of the political situation, become even more relevant, and it’s up to all of us to ask, what next for the Socialist Alliance? Does the alliance have a future as primarily a narrow electoral project? Is there actually any relevant alternative to the perspective of strengthening and building the alliance as a left regroupment process?


Firstly, I think there’s increasing agreement that any new regroupment, any new party, should be a socialist party. And, although it shouldn’t need to be said after all that’s happened, it needs to be a party outside, built as an alternative, to the ALP here, and social-democratic formations around the world.

There are many issues to be discussed and debated about how to do it, but that will be a debate within a socialist framework, a framework of building an alternative.

Of course, we will always look to engage in united work with the Greens and the ALP left on specific issues but the precondition for drawing these and similar forces into any stable, ongoing alliance favourable to socialism is a strengthening of the independent socialist pole itself.

Perhaps we’ll be able to link up with them at future stages of the struggle, but comrades who are wedded to a tactic of staying within the ALP, or who think that we should all join the Greens, have very different projects, and thus are engaging in very different debates.

New alliances and regroupments around the world are building not only on positive experiences, and the potential seen in the new movements, but also on the basis of negative experiences, failures. Here we’ve seen the failure of the Progressive Labour Party, and other purely real Labour? attempts.

In New Zealand the Alliance included major non-socialist components, and the issue of socialism wasn’t pushed, and they were also weighed down with a largely electoralist perspective, so although some wanted it to go further, they never succeeded in developing that and it has now collapsed.

The positive experiences we are all looking to ? in Scotland, England, Italy, France, Denmark, Portugal, for example ? have all been clearly socialist alliances or regroupments.


Secondly, we’re also for a revolutionary organisation. We are still for, most emphatically, the building of a mass revolutionary socialist party in the Bolshevik tradition as a prerequisite for a successful seizure of power by the working class?, as the ISO letter to the DSP affirms. It’s easy to agree with the ISO on that. Our proposal is not a retreat from a revolutionary perspective by us in any way.

But how to build that party? What is the best way to get there? It’s not an even, simple, linear process. It requires flexibility, and we can expect leaps, and have to grasp opportunities when they come ? they don’t stay for ever. Alex Callinicos recognises this in his article Regroupment, realignment, and the revolutionary left when he states that the history of the workers’ movement shows very clearly that mass revolutionary parties do not develop through a linear process in which a small Marxist group gradually grows bigger and bigger by recruiting more and more members. Like history more generally, the development of revolutionary parties involves qualitative leaps and sharp breaks.

Your letter insists that the Socialist Alliance is not, and should not, be transformed into a revolutionary party?. Certainly, we’re not proposing that, and not proposing that the Socialist Alliance immediately work at drafting a revolutionary Marxist program or declaration, and certainly there’ll be no attempt to adopt the program of any of the revolutionary groups that came together initially to form the alliance.

But at the same time, there is sufficient agreement, among the groups, and most of the members of the Socialist Alliance, for a stronger vision statement, a step forward from the specific platform of demands and policy positions we already have. There is widespread agreement that another world is possible?, indeed that a fundamental social change is necessary.

So we would be opposed to any affirmation that the SA is just a reformist, left Labour party. It is socialist, a Socialist Alliance. And we should not declare it doesn’t have a revolutionary outlook.

Certainly there are many members of the alliance who do not see themselves as revolutionaries and for whom socialism expresses an ideal or aspiration more than a consciously articulated historical project based on a revolutionary strategy. But over the past 18 months the alliance membership as a whole has stood, with hardly any exception, on the right side of the class divide when confronted with the concrete challenges of politics.

That is, there has been nothing reformist or centrist about the practice of the alliance and nobody within the alliance membership has complained that it has been too radical or extreme. Some collapse into reformism or opportunism is indeed hard to envisage at this stage.

We in the DSP say that it is this fact that makes higher levels of unity both possible and necessary. A real opportunity to strengthen the socialist pole exists and must be seized.

Of course, how a qualitatively stronger revolutionary party develops beyond this promising point of departure will be a process, and none of us have the road map right now. It will develop through leaps and take different forms, but we’re confident that building a stronger Socialist Alliance is a step in the right direction.

Moreover, we agree with you that real struggles in future will bring discussions about reform or revolution to the fore, but it’s most beneficial if they take place within a stronger organisation increasingly united in real activity against the system.

A key advance, which I think we are moving toward, would be for all the affiliated groups to recognise openly that we all have a revolutionary perspective, even though there are political differences. All the groups that came together in early 2001 to launch the Socialist Alliance state that they have a revolutionary perspective.

The DSP recognises the revolutionary perspectives of our partner affiliates in the Socialist Alliance. When all the other affiliates make a similar recognition it will register the progress we’ve made in moving away from the sectarian past when all the Marxist groups asserted that only they had the one true revolutionary program?, and everyone else was centrist, reformist or Stalinist.

Nature of the Socialist Alliance

Thirdly, the Socialist Alliance is not just an electoral united front. We can have a useful discussion about exactly how we should use the concept of united front.

The DSP would not restrict it to the original usage of Lenin and Trotsky, who advocated it as a tactic for a communist party with a certain mass base in approaching a reformist party with a larger base among the working class, with the purpose of winning the working class ranks while engaging in a common struggle against the class enemy. (For example, as elaborated at the Fourth Congress of the Communist International.)

The term has developed a more general application, as unity in action that can unite varied forces, parties, unions, other organisations and individual activists, in action for a common objective, for example building an action against war.

Be that as it may, from the start the Socialist Alliance has had more of the attributes of a party than of a united front. Most people would regard the act of standing in elections as being a key function and distinguishing feature of a party. (Some would see it as the only function, and of course all of us in the Socialist Alliance reject that type of party.)

Our structure reflects both the origins of the Socialist Alliance as an alliance of the initial affiliates, and its ongoing development as a membership organisation, where the members democratically discuss and decide policy and activity, and elect leadership bodies.

Moreover, there was agreement at the initial meetings, from all comrades, that building and intervening in the campaigns and the struggles was also part of the alliance’s role. We are not just parliamentarist was a frequent affirmation by all of us. There was no dissent from that.

Within this context, the Socialist Alliance platform retains all its importance, as a summary of shared policy and as a guide to action on the political issues of the day. It should be strengthened in the light of the challenges with which these confront the alliance and made as appealing as possible to all those who come across the alliance. There’s no argument there.

There’s also agreement, I’m sure, that the Socialist Alliance should educate, proselytise for socialism, and recruit people to the Socialist Alliance on the basis of socialist ideas and our vision for a better future.

From the start ours was not just a platform that substantially embraced the best of ‘old Labor values’.

Furthermore, we’re not just looking to win those disillusioned with Labor. From the start there was full agreement that a key part of our potential constituency were the newly radicalising young people active in the movement against neo-liberal globalisation, and now in the refugee and anti-war campaigns.

The best of old Labor values was not enough to win them, and would be seen as not enough. We’re building a left alternative to Labor, but a socialist alternative to Labor, and the Greens as well. Isn’t this need effectively acknowledged in your letter when you stress that you are not rejecting discussions about a broad left party out of hand?

Of course, while insisting on the necessity of a socialist alternative, we also have to learn a popular, effective way to present our ideas, a way of convincing people in today’s movements, using a language that doesn’t exclude new activists. We think there’s been a common appreciation of this need among all of us in the Socialist Alliance.

We have to learn to use common events and experiences to explain deeper truths about the running of capitalism, avoiding jargon and rigid sounding explanations. However, it should not be a dumbing down so that we vacate the space of fundamental social change, feel embarrassed for presenting a socialist perspective, while reformists and utopians of all stripes aggressively spout nonsense as though it’s something new or sensible.

We need a clear alternative, both in the Socialist Alliance and our regroupment efforts, as well as when we participate in gatherings such as the social forums. After all, hundreds of thousands of young activists around the world have been motivated to act and insist that another world is possible?. And we as socialists have some initial understanding of what that other world must consist of, and some lessons and experiences to apply to the very difficult struggle to reach that goal.


Your letter characterises our proposal as a unilateral act by our party.

However, we should be very clear that there are two separate processes here, even though the discussion as a whole about strengthening the Socialist Alliance is very much intertwined.

Firstly, the decision about what the DSP does, whether it functions publicly as a party or not, is a decision for our members, for the DSP, for our congress discussion and vote.

Then, anything after that would be within the democratic framework and structure of the Socialist Alliance. DSP members in the Socialist Alliance have functioned, and will continue to function, according to the democratic decisions of the Socialist Alliance. There will not be anything unilateral about that.

When all options are considered, it couldn’t be any other way. Consider, for example, the democratic rights of DSP members. They are deciding on the future functioning of the DSP, a party in which they have invested their lives. Should we be an open party, or just function as a tendency inside the Socialist Alliance?

We have also been open and frank about our proposal, letting the rest of the Socialist Alliance know what we were thinking about at the very earliest stage of our discussion process. How else should it have been done? Have secret top level discussions with the leadership of one or more of the affiliated groups? How would the DSP members feel? How would the rest of the members of the Socialist Alliance feel?

Nor do we in the DSP agree with your characterisation of our proposal as constituting a forced march?. That suggests we’re going to be compelling other members and affiliates within the alliance to do our bidding ? in some inexplicable way. However, if adopted, the only compulsion involved will be the pressure on ourselves as DSP members to carry out the congress decision ? to strengthen the alliance, strictly in line with its platform, constitution and democratic culture.

Of course, we hope our new initiative will be followed by other groups.

Then it wouldn’t be regarded as unilateral?, but as a pioneering, generous move by the DSP in the interests of building a stronger socialist movement.

We don’t deny that this move, if agreed to by DSP members, will put pressure on other groups in the Socialist Alliance to follow suit, but only because it would be seen as a logical step and a useful advance for building the Socialist Alliance. However, it would only be moral pressure.

The members of other groups will of course have to make those decisions for themselves.

We would also stress again that the role we envisage for our tendency within the alliance would be as an alliance-building tool, and certainly not as a caucus which would meet automatically to discuss each and every question in the alliance’s political life. In this way we will strive to set an example of how a tendency can be a loyal and committed builder of the alliance while still promoting debate on specific questions as needed and generating proposals on any issues that demand them.


The answer outlined here also holds against the accusation that we are presenting an ultimatum to the Socialist Alliance, made both in your letter and in other discussions with your comrades. This word sounds sinister, given that ultimatum is defined in the Oxford dictionary as a final proposal or statement of terms, rejection of which by opposite party may lead to end of harmonious relations, declaration of war etc. But again, the proposal is being put before DSP members for decision; it’s not something at this point for the Socialist Alliance to accept or reject, where rejection would bring some sort of retaliation/action by the DSP.

It would be an ultimatum if the DSP had presented a list of proposals for policy or action within the Socialist Alliance and threatened some action ? withdrawal from the alliance, for example ? if our proposals were rejected. But there are no demands or ultimatums presented to the Socialist Alliance at all.

What is the DSP proposal? Simply that we stop functioning publicly as the DSP and put all our resources into building the Socialist Alliance.

What could be the counter-proposal from our critics? Don’t stop building the DSP publicly, and don’t put extra resources into building the Socialist Alliance?

That would be rather odd, especially given the strident opposition to our proposal from outside the Socialist Alliance by critics totally wedded, for example, to the ALP. Their response only gives us encouragement that the proposal has merit, and that the Socialist Alliance does indeed have the threatening potential to develop into a strong, socialist alternative to the ALP.

Rather than the DSP’s proposal being in any way an ultimatum?, the danger is that opposition to our stepped-up activity in the Socialist Alliance might be backed with ultimatums ? pull back to a minimalist Socialist Alliance, or we pull out.

But we hope to convince all the participants in the Socialist Alliance that any such course would just play into the hands of our class enemies, and give the right-wingers in the ALP, consciously anti-socialist currents within the Greens and those left organisations who persist in viewing the strengthening of the socialist movement simply as their own self-expansion just what they want. It would squander the opportunity to make a qualitative advance for the socialist movement.


We take it for granted of course that any party we are in ? certainly a revolutionary party, an anti-capitalist party, or a party in the process of moving in that direction ? would respect the right of tendency, the right for different views to organise and argue for their positions. That’s the case now in the Socialist Alliance.

So your worries on that score are really without foundation. The DSP is the largest tendency in the Socialist Alliance presently, and contributes the largest number of energetic activists, and I don’t think anyone could argue that any of the affiliating groups have been restricted in their representation or voice in the structures of the alliance. In fact all other groups have greater proportional representation on the alliance national executive than the DSP.

In the alliance next year we would imagine such a situation would continue, although we are confident of seeing greater activity and participation from the many independent activists as a result of a stronger Socialist Alliance.

We also could imagine a blurring of the initial political line-ups, as comrades debate and discuss and act on the basis of how best to build the Socialist Alliance today and provide leadership for the social movements, rather than voting according to their initial factional adherence which might have been determined by past historical differences, less relevant to the tasks before us today.

We welcome the positive approach of your letter when you state: We look forward to a genuine and open debate about the suggestions raised in your proposal. We will seek to facilitate that in our publications and our forums, as well as in the forums of the Socialist Alliance itself.

We think the ongoing debate has already been constructive and moving in the right direction. The debate within the framework of the Socialist Alliance can be both clarifying and educational, as well as being very attractive to many more activists who will be encouraged to join an organisation where perspectives are discussed out in a comradely, democratic and serious manner.

We’d be most happy to provide speakers at any ISO forums or branch meetings to discuss our proposals and jointly work out the best way to build the Socialist Alliance and the socialist movement in Australia. We also appreciate your offer for comradely debate in your publications, and will make use of this opportunity whenever appropriate.

Of course, as we’ve stated we have made the pages of Green Left Weekly available for a broad debate on these issues, and would also encourage ISO comrades, as well as all members of the Socialist Alliance, to make use of Green Left Weekly for both reporting on the increasingly vital campaigns that we’re all involved in, and for comradely discussion on a range of other issues.

We likewise look forward to continuing discussions, and are confident this process is leading in the direction of a stronger, more unified socialist movement in Australia.

Source: https://www.greenleft.org.au/content/dsp-socialist-alliance-turning-point