DSP response to letter from the International Socialist Organisation

The Activist – Volume 12, Number 17, November 2002
By John Percy, National Executive

David Glanz, National Executive

November 7, 2002

Dear comrades,

We were extremely disappointed to receive your November 3 letter threatening to “terminate” the ISO’s affiliation to the Socialist Alliance (SA) if the DSP goes ahead with our proposal to stop building ourselves publicly and just become a tendency in the SA.

The DSP National Executive discussed your position on November 4. We think your departure would be a tragic mistake and totally unjustified by the DSP proposal, which is aimed purely and simply at strengthening the Alliance.

We have contacted you by phone and sent off a letter requesting an emergency meeting between the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) and DSP national leaderships to avoid a breakdown in relations within the Alliance and to remove any possibilities for misunderstanding. We hope that meeting succeeds in resolving any issues that could jeopardise the unity of the Alliance.

However, we obviously do need to respond directly to your letter to again clarify our proposals and allay concerns about their impact on the SA. The other issues that you flag as the main questions “which are most decidedly not settled” – such as the question of reformism and the task of building a revolutionary party – need more thorough discussions than is possible in this exchange of letters. SA itself is, of course, the best place to continue such discussions.

Your ultimatum

Firstly, we were surprised that your letter, after acknowledging receipt of our response to your first letter, hardly attempts to respond to the arguments in it. Instead of repeating these we would just urge comrades to read it again (in GLW Issue Number 515) along with the original letter outlining the proposals being discussed by the DSP membership leading up to our December 28 – January 1 Congress (GLW Issue Number 508) and other contributions DSP comrades have made to the debate.

Secondly, you state that your “bluntness risks causing offence”. None is taken. Let’s have a frank and clear debate on the best way forward for the SA, and all of us in the SA will benefit.

But for you to threaten “to recommend to our conference to terminate our affiliation if the DSP congress votes to implement the proposal” is to present an ultimatum, not just to us but at the SA as a whole.

We urge you to draw back. Let’s have the discussion about how we can preserve the unity already achieved and build a more united, stronger and more activist SA. Your letter states that it’s “settled” that we’re both agreed on welcoming further discussion and debate. But unfortunately, to “terminate your affiliation” to the Alliance would put an end to a real developing discussion. What matters, especially to non-affiliated Alliance members, is not discussion in the abstract (we’ve had that for years, with heavy polemics at 20 paces) but a discussion aimed at strengthening unity in a framework of joint activity that tests out the Alliance’s political line in practice.

What happens to SA after the DSP Congress?

What will the impact of the DSP National Committee’s proposals be if they are adopted by our Congress? Your letter says that “the more we understand how the DSP is approaching the SA project, the more our fears grow”. Individual ISO comrades have expressed their concern that the DSP just doesn’t understand – or want to understand – those fears.

What exactly are they? Your letter summarises them in the sentence: “We will not be used as fodder in a revolutionary regroupment exercise which has not been publicly articulated nor collectively decided, but which will be carried by the weight of the DSP’s numbers and is likely to result in no more than a rebadged DSP.”

This fear is groundless. Firstly, as we’ve said in previous letters, and in the public discussions, the DSP decision being discussed means nothing organisationally for the SA. There is no “January deadline” for the SA. There’s merely a DSP January Congress at which DSP members will decide whether they want to put more of their energy into building the SA, and stop building the DSP publicly.

It is a logical step for us to propose to DSP members. We’ve already stopped running in elections in our name so that we can support the SA election campaigns. We’ve already stopped organising demonstrations and pickets in our name, helping the SA to organise actions like this. It’s a small step for us to say that all the rest of our public activities should be organised within the framework of the SA.

So what would acceptance of our proposal by our Congress mean for the Alliance? What, concretely, would there be to fear if the DSP becomes the Democratic Socialist Tendency (DST) within the Alliance?

Would the DST start using GLW to propagate its own views as if they were those of the Alliance? Absolutely not. That would destroy the Alliance at a stroke. The DSP has been scrupulous (as have all affiliates) in demarcating its specific positions from those of the Alliance. That won’t change.

Would GLW suddenly be transformed into, or present itself as, the paper of the Alliance? Any relationship between the Alliance and GLW (or the ISO’s newspaper Socialist Worker, for that matter) can only develop if and when the Alliance’s elected leadership decides that it wants to negotiate such a relationship. The DSP simply does not have “the weight of numbers” on that leadership to impose such a course.

Would GLW become the de facto voice of the Alliance? GLW is already seen by many as one of the voices for the Alliance for the simple reason that it reports and promotes as much Alliance activity as it can manage, and because it carries the Alliance debate in a completely open and unrestricted way. That coverage is a good thing, should increase and would be a strange thing to fear.

Would Socialist Worker be somehow squeezed out as part of a future paper of the Alliance? If the ISO decided to make Socialist Worker available to the Alliance – which we in the DSP would heartily applaud – then we would be enthusiastic supporters of the idea of creating a joint paper for the Alliance out of the existing resources of Socialist Worker and GLW.

Would the DST start setting up new Alliance branches all over Australia in order to “get the numbers” at the next Alliance conference in May? The SA has operated on a cooperative, democratic and inclusive basis up to now and despite the fact that the DSP is already the affiliate group with the most members of the Alliance, we have not used this weight to force anything on anybody. If the extra DST energy released after the proposed DSP Congress decision in January were to succeed in helping make the Alliance bigger, more active and more involving of the membership, it will have the result of reducing the relative weight of the DSP – and of all affiliates. The Alliance would increasingly be the property of the unaffiliated membership and that new balance would be reflected at the next National Conference. Isn’t that what we all want?

Obviously the DSP proposal puts some moral pressure on all affiliates to reconsider their relationship to the Alliance. It dramatises the question we all have to address: what is the way forward? If not the approach we have proposed, what?

We make no apology for that, because the political situation demands that it be addressed, urgently and seriously. SA has been starved of attention, and resources, by the affiliated groups. We all acknowledge that’s natural – it’s hard building two organisations at once. And this lack of resources limits the Alliance politically. What the DSP is proposing is a generous step to help solve the situation and we hope others can follow.

A revolutionary party by May 2003?

Next, are there any grounds for your specific fear that the ISO (and the Alliance as a whole) is being rushed into “a revolutionary regroupment exercise, which has not been publicly articulated nor collectively decided”?

What most seems to have provoked this reaction is Peter Boyle’s report to our recent National Committee plenum (The Activist, Volume 12, Number 14), which has come into your hands, and Dick Nichols’ draft perspectives and principles manifesto (“vision statement”) produced for discussion within the Alliance (The Activist, Volume 12, Number 15).

There is nothing in either of these documents that should in the least come as a surprise or a shock. Right from the outset we in the DSP made clear that we saw the Alliance as the site of socialist regroupment in this country and that our goal was to take steps along this road as the unfolding of real experiences and debate allowed. We have never set a deadline for this process – it is not in our power and even if it were it would be stupid – and Peter Boyle’s statement that our January conference “opens the real political struggle for left regroupment in the SA, one that will stretch over months or perhaps over years” is simply a recognition of the facts.

That’s because different Alliance affiliates have different views of what the Alliance is and how it should develop. Its actual development will depend on the debate (“real political struggle”) between these viewpoints within the Alliance itself and which positions succeed in persuading the Alliance membership.

That’s where the draft “vision statement” (not platform, as you call it) comes in. It’s an attempt, done by Dick Nichols in his own name, to make explicit the actual operating basis of the Alliance, above and beyond its founding platform. The idea is also to see if a “credo” with which the mass of the Alliance members would identify could be written. In my initial letter to the Alliance National Executive I indicated such a draft would be produced.

The document involves a “statement of revolutionary intent” as you describe it, and that is based on the understanding that if we are going to talk about socialism then it’s impossible not to talk – in real content if not in so many words – about revolution. But whether or not such a statement accurately captures the viewpoint of the mass of SA members is up to them – and the debate – to determine.

The ISO says that it doesn’t (and shouldn’t). But instead of threatening to walk out, why not produce a draft statement of your own which you think better captures where Alliance members are at?

The DSP has no intention of trying to ram through any “vision statement” of this sort if the discussion reveals widespread reluctance and doubts within the minds of the Alliance membership. Such a situation would simply reveal the need for the Alliance as a whole to pass through more experience of struggle and more discussion about the political meaning of that experience.

In summary, there are no deadlines at all for the SA and your picture of a DSP bent on force-marching the Alliance into adopting a revolutionary program by the May Alliance conference really is false. Perhaps the May conference might take important decisions. Perhaps only minor advances for the Alliance will be agreed on, and further discussion scheduled. Let’s see.

Why not return to your initial position?

Given that there is nothing new in what the DSP has been saying about the Alliance in the recent period, we simply don’t understand why you have had to change the position outlined in the document presented by your National Executive for your December 7-8 national conference (The Socialist Alliance Challenge, which appears in your first conference discussion bulletin, see The Activist, Volume 12, Number 15).

We were looking forward to developing the discussion, especially after reading the conclusion of that document, which states:

We need to avoid three mistakes. One is to reject the DSP’s proposal out of hand because of cynicism about their record past and present. The proposal is gaining a hearing among a layer of non-affiliated SA members for positive reasons…

The second mistake is to believe that we should endorse the DSP’s document because it would make life easier, or because it would be a short-cut to more resources or influence….

Instead we need to grab the debate with both hands. The worst mistake is to be passive….

Transforming the SA into an [Scottish Socialist Party] SSP-style party is not our preference. We need to defend our original conception of the Alliance. We need to acknowledge the steps forward SA has taken, without endorsing the DSP’s attempt to force march its progress.

But because the DSP’s proposal reflects a partial reality – the way SA has won members and respect among a layer of working class activists – we also need to put down markers for the kind of Alliance we want if the DSP goes ahead with its plan. That means insisting that SA does not become a quasi-revolutionary party by the back door, that it is open to collaboration with those on Labor’s left as well as with those who have broken from Labor, and that revolutionaries who participate in a “new” Alliance have guaranteed platform rights…

In summary, we need to engage with the debate in a firm but comradely fashion. By doing so we can try to:

a) deflect or deter the DSP from its crash through or crash course, which endangers SA’s very existence;

b) win a layer of non-affiliated SA members around us; and

c) ensure that if we are left with no choice but to negotiate a role in an SSP-style party, it can be on the healthiest terms.

We don’t understand what’s changed since that document was adopted, but if you were to return to it, then both our organisations and everyone else in the Alliance would be free to continue the existing discussion on the substantive issues in debate without a sword hanging over our heads.

These are important. That’s because, irrespective of what the DSP January Congress decides, the Alliance will have to decide whether or not (and how far and how fast) it wants to move beyond its founding platform. And debate on this question is, of course, tied up with our differing judgments on such issues as how working people break from the ALP, of what the natural constituency of the Alliance is and what it political character should be.


In conclusion let me repeat our urgent request not to proceed with your proposal to disaffiliate from the Alliance in case the DSP Congress votes to become a tendency within the SA. There is nothing in what we propose, have done or will do to justify such a destructive course. Think what a demoralising impact it could have on Alliance members.

Even if you are not convinced by our arguments at least reserve judgment and decision until you have seen the actual impact of our proposal. If it can be shown to have damaged the Alliance – which it will not – you will be able to demonstrate this to the delegates to the May National Conference.

Further, we remain open to any proposals for a more effective way forward for left unity through the SA. We will seriously consider the responses and suggestions of the ISO and all other affiliates and individual members of the SA before making any decisions at the coming DSP Congress.

We can be certain that building the Alliance will involve us in strong debates and even sharp differences. But let’s all agree to leave the threats where they belong – outside our common socialist home.

Comradely greetings

John Percy,
National Secretary
for the DSP National Executive

The Activist was as the internal discussion bulletin of the Democratic Socialist Party