24th Congress: 'It's time for the DSP to merge into the Socialist Alliance'
This report and summary, presented by Peter Boyle on behalf of the DSP National Executive was adopted, by the 24th DSP Congress on January 2, 2010.
We are proposing to take an important step forward in our party building effort, an effort that has now spanned some four decades. We propose, at this 24th Congress, to merge the Democratic Socialist Perspective into the Socialist Alliance, to take everything we have learned and built over these years of political struggle (organised through the DSP) into a broader political organisation, and organisation which has a majority of members who don't come from the DSP.
We see this as the next best step to advance our objective of building a mass revolutionary socialist party that is capable of organising the Australian working class to bring into being a socialist society through replacing the political rule of the capitalist class with a working people's government.
Over the last few months the detailed terms for such a merger have been negotiated with Socialist Alliance leadership bodies, and the DSP National Executive is satisfied that these terms will allow all the gains we have made to be preserved and used to build the Socialist Alliance. Comrades can read the transition proposals in Alliance Voices Vol 9, Nos. 6, 7 & 8.
If delegates adopt the general line of this report, the new draft DSP Constitution, and the resolution that defines the DSP as a non-caucusing tendency of opinion in the Socialist Alliance, we will be deciding to make the Socialist Alliance our sole party project.
If we make this decision, we will no longer organise our political work through the DSP. The DSP will no longer operate (except for dealing with any necessary transitional matters relating to the merger) unless the trigger to reconsider this decision, provided for in the proposed new DSP constitution, is activated.
The new constitution will oblige the DSP members to meet (at least briefly – perhaps around a future Socialist Alliance conference) within two years and then decide to wind up the DSP or continue to exist in some form.
If you adopt the line of this report and the draft new Constitution, the DSP will no longer collect dues but it will be a requirement that DSP members are financial in the Socialist Alliance and financially support the Green Left Weekly project through a solidarity subscription. Further, DSP members should maintain (if not increase) their level of financial commitment within the new party framework. This can serve as a positive encouragement and example to others in the Socialist Alliance who we hope will take on greater financial responsibility for our common project.
While Resistance continues to organise as an independent socialist youth organisation affiliated to the Socialist Alliance, its political collaboration will be with the Socialist Alliance not the DSP. We should be optimistic about this new relationship because already in branches where youth recruitment is strongest, for example in Wollongong, we find young people are being attracted as much through Socialist Alliance as through Resistance.
The DSP National Executive does not envision that the trigger to reconstitute will ever need to be used but it is there – just in case. We don't even envisage the DSP a likely basis for a revolutionary or Marxist caucus in Socialist Alliance – should one become necessary in the future – because any such caucus should include many non-DSP members in the Socialist Alliance. That is the reality of the Socialist Alliance today.
In the present relationship of forces in the Socialist Alliance, the reconstitution of a separate organisation of DSP members would block the process of building the new party. It would cheat us of new synergies within the Socialist Alliance. It would create unnecessary divisions within the Socialist Alliance. It would hold back the development of a new collectivity we are forging in the Socialist Alliance between socialists from different traditions.
Over the past decades in the DSP, we've always sought to build an inclusive party, a party that has a broad leadership team, that is always trying to absorb new leaders and expand the base of that team. This has always been our approach. And we want to take this approach into Socialist Alliance without reference to who was in the DSP and who was not.
If significant political differences and alignments develop in the Socialist Alliance in future, such differences should be based on our new collective political experience in the Socialist Alliance and not on our former political attachments.
It flows from this that, if the proposals in this report are adopted, from now on we won't be recruiting to the DSP – instead we'll be recruiting to the Socialist Alliance. Nominally, the proposed DSP National Steering Committee could decide to accept a new member to the DSP but it is unlikely that this provision will be used. In addition to the new Constitution, this report proposes that Congress adopts the following motion:
First of all, I want to acknowledge the constructive character of the minority platform in this Congress. The comrades who supported the minority position have demonstrated that it is possible to be a loyal minority in the DSP. We've always accepted constructive criticisms and the right to be a loyal dissenting minority in the DSP and the DSP National Executive has made every effort to ensure that minority platforms are presented to the membership. Indeed, in the three years to 2008, the DSP also demonstrated its incredible tolerance of a factionally-destructive and disloyal minority. Comrades from many collaborating parties have expressed their amazement at our endurance! But the conduct of the minority platform at this Congress has been a sharp contrast to the conduct of the minority platforms in the two previous DSP Congresses.
The minority platform presented to this Congress argues that the DSP should continue to organise separately to carry out Marxist education. The minority platform argues that the rest of our political work, including our intervention in the movements, can be organised through Socialist Alliance.
If Marxist education was some sort of exotic ideology than perhaps only an explicitly “Marxist” organisation can be trusted with carrying out Marxist education. But this is not the case, as Marx and Engels argued over and over again. Marx and Engels practiced and promoted a scientific approach to understanding social reality in order to transform it. Marxism is not a religion. It can be and is taught by institutions other than declared “Marxist” parties. Meanwhile many so-called “Marxist” parties teach a severely distorted Marxism.
Further, as I argued in DSP pre-congress discussion, keeping political theory the preserve of a “Marxist” tendency in the Alliance separates political theory from political practice in the new party – and that eventually leads to bad theory, in particular to sectarian distortions.
We see many examples of this in the left today. There are socialist sects that abstain from all movement work and just try to promote their own little “party”. Each of these groups has made a shibboleth of some political difference that separates them off from all other socialists. We also see the academic socialist individuals whose political practice is confined to lecturing others (often on internet lists) about what others are doing wrong while their own theories are never put to the test of practice.
We need to keep theory together with action in the party we build.
But can we effectively take the DSP’s theoretical heritage into the Socialist Alliance without narrowing the Alliance? That's the second concern, voiced by the minority platform.
This is a practical challenge and prospects of doing this look pretty good. The ten points of consensus in the transition proposals on socialist ideas and education (published in Alliance Voices, Vol 19, No 6) are:
Why have we been able to reach this significant consensus in Socialist Alliance on socialist ideas and education? First, the DSP has always been open and upfront with its politics in the Socialist Alliance. Second, we’ve worked together with others in the Socialist Alliance for nearly a decade now, so our political ideas are not alien or threatening to non-DSP members. Third, the DSP has stuck with the Socialist Alliance through good and bad times and it has won a lot of respect and authority for this.
Other Socialist Alliance members don't want the theoretical positions of the DSP forced upon the Alliance but they welcome discussion of our ideas. Why? Because they realise that we have a lot of experience and ideas to share and that the Socialist Alliance is continually forced to develop its policies and political positions as it intervenes in the political struggle.
Because of the basic healthy and anti-dogmatic approach of the DSP to political theory, our ideas have been influential in the Socialist Alliance and over the years the programmatic gap between the DSP and SA has narrowed.
Is this a problem? Does this narrow the Socialist Alliance too much? We don’t think so. Indeed, the question that is posed to the supporters of the minority platform is: what sort of socialist education would you have the Socialist Alliance carry out?
At the beginning of the Socialist Alliance we argued against the approach (then put forward by comrades from the International Socialist Organisation) that would have kept the Socialist Alliance to a more social-democratic or reformist platform. We argued instead for a transitional platform that could develop over time through the actual experience of SA members from their collective intervention in the class struggle. The Socialist Alliance adopted this approach from its first national conference in 2002.
Over the years, the Socialist Alliance has developed its policies and political positions. The Socialist Alliance has developed a platform/program that is explicitly anti-capitalist and therefore implicitly revolutionary.
So there is no contradiction between the DSP’s explicitly revolutionary socialist politics and those of Socialist Alliance, and therefore it would be wrong for us to keep organising separately as the DSP.
Further we should not exaggerate the political gap between DSP members and others in the Socialist Alliance. They have all decided to join an explicitly socialist and anti-capitalist party – and one with nearly a decade of political history. These people aren’t members of Socialist Alliance just because they support us on this or that movement campaign (no more than this is the case in the DSP).
A concern about the loss of the DSP's democratic centralism is raised by the minority platform. When the development of theory is combined with political practice you also have a process that builds a political basis for greater unity in action. That’s what Lenin reminded his comrades from other countries about very sharply in Leftwing Communism. Democratic centralism is not some organisational fix that can automatically give us a disciplined party: it is based on the development and accumulation of real political authority by a party engaged in effective struggle.
It is true that you need the structures for democratic discussion and decision-making. These are basically in place in the Socialist Alliance and will be improved and developed especially once DSP members are fully focused on building just Socialist Alliance as our common party.
This is how the current Socialist Alliance constitution puts it:
There's is a healthy combination of democracy and unity and action in this approach, one that has probably more in common with the actual Bolshevik practice than the many distorted versions of “democratic centralism” commonly practiced in small revolutionary socialist groups today which call themselves “Leninist”.
We must never forget that the real basis for strong unity in action in a socialist party is political. In the far-too-theoretical and schematic way that most of us have first come to the political legacy of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, it once might have seemed to us that formal and detailed theoretical agreement on explicitly Marxist doctrine was the basis for the “Leninist” discipline of the DSP members. But that's not the case. And we saw in the past how quickly discipline was broken by certain former DSP members who still proclaim loyalty to the DSP program.
Over the next few years, the political confidence, political unity and political loyalty of the members of the Socialist Alliance in the organisation will grow. I am confident that it will soon rival that achieved by the DSP through its four decades of existence. When the class struggle escalates – and provided SA keeps offering the political leadership (including its leadership in left regroupment) needed – the unity in action of Socialist Alliance members will then eclipse that achieved by the DSP.
I think there are many comrades here who are wondering why it has taken us so long to get to this point? Perhaps more comrades are wondering more about this than they are about why we are finally proposing this step today. But I am going to spend sometime on answering both these questions, because the answers to these two questions are interrelated.
So why has it taken us so long?
It wasn't just the faction fight that broke out in the DSP in 2005 that is the reason why it has taken us this long. It's because, through the process of building the Socialist Alliance, we've come up a against a persistent trend in all small revolutionary socialist groups to want to hang on to the idea that you can only build a genuine socialist party if it has complete or near complete programmatic agreement. We've come up against this false idea that you have to agree not just on how to move forward in the class struggle today but also on how you see every twist and turn in the Russian Revolution, how exactly you understand the roles of Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, Stalin, Mao, Fidel, the Soviet Union, China, Cuba, Venezuela, etc, etc. In the end, the faction fight in the DSP was the just the last in a string of expressions of this approach that we came up against in the Socialist Alliance.
After the Socialist Alliance was initiated by the DSP and the International Socialist Organisation in 2001, a handful of smaller left groups joined in. Other left groups, such as the Communist Party of Australia and Socialist Alternative, were invited but declined to join the Alliance.
The groups that did join the Alliance agreed on a common political platform focused on immediate class-struggle responses to neo-liberalism. It was platform that was explicitly socialist but we agreed not to make the historical and theoretical differences between the groups a barrier to working together around what we agreed on. At the same time, the Socialist Alliance created forums for ongoing public discussion and debate.
The basic idea was that we didn’t have to have all the ideological and historical disputes that divided the various factions of the left resolved before agreeing to organise together on a fighting program against capitalist attacks and for socialist solutions to the urgent problems society faces today. Indeed, we were more likely to resolve these differences after we had gone through an extended experience of working together around what we agreed on – which was substantial.
We agreed on a basic structure and constitution which put the emphasis on inclusivity. As the biggest of the groups that founded the Alliance, the DSP made concessions which restricted itself to a minority vote on leadership bodies and in conferences. We saw this as an interim confidence-building measure.
The unprecedented coming together of these left groups, groups which until then had spent lots of energy criticising each other, made a significant impact on the much broader layer of left activists who had not joined any of the pre-existing socialist groups. Hundreds of them joined the Socialist Alliance, quickly becoming the majority of its members. Among those who joined were a number of militant trade unionists (shop-floor delegates as well as a few elected leaders of militant unions) and leaders of other social movements, including the prominent socialist Indigenous leader Sam Watson. These people also gave the Socialist Alliance a more significant hearing among a broader layer of trade union and other movement leaders and activists.
This was an important opening for the left in Australia, which was (and remains) small and relatively isolated in the labour movement. Would the left seize this as a chance to build a multi-tendency socialist party with a significant connection to the labour movement and other key social movements? This was the clearly expressed the wish of the large majority of Socialist Alliance members who were not members of any of the founding affiliate groups, and the DSP agreed with them. However, all the other affiliated revolutionary socialist groups disagreed. Each thought their own “correct” programs would be liquidated if they built the Alliance as our common party. They could conceive of the Alliance only as a site for their “real” revolutionary parties to intervene in or, at best, as a “united front of a special kind.”
This view, which is sectarian because it spurned a chance to unite politically with a broader layer of left leadership in the movements, was rejected by the majority of Alliance members in at least three Socialist Alliance national conferences in a row (in a situation where the DSP restricted its representation in both delegates and elected leadership bodies).
By the Socialist Alliance’s May 2005 national conference, it was clear that all the other revolutionary socialist groups affiliated to the Socialist Alliance were opposed to taking the Alliance forward. At most they were willing to participate in the Socialist Alliance as a loose electoral front in which a minority retained veto powers by right of their group affiliate status. They began to pull back even the relatively modest resources they put into the Socialist Alliance. By 2007, all the founding affiliates aside from the DSP and Resistance, the youth organisation allied to the DSP, had left the Alliance.
Then in 2005, a minority emerged in the DSP which essentially agreed with the approach of these former affiliates.
The DSP majority decided that it would be wrong to abandon the Socialist Alliance, arguing that the large majority of people who had joined and were not members of the founding affiliate groups still saw the Alliance as their party and that the Alliance had won a modest but significant broader recognition and respect in the labour movement.
The DSP then underwent a protracted three-year-long internal faction fight, which took significant energy away from building the Socialist Alliance. We were forced to divert a lot of time and energy into this fight, which was a fight not just for the Socialist Alliance but also a fight to defend the real political heritage of the DSP.
Amazingly, through all this protracted hesitation, the majority of the non-affiliate group membership of the Socialist Alliance continued to see the Alliance as their party. Most of the militant trade union shop-floor delegates and social movement activists who joined the Socialist Alliance are still proud members. This is a lesson about working class values of perseverance and loyalty which contrast with the characteristic middle class traits of vacillation and faint-heartedness.
Since then other leading Indigenous activists have joined the Socialist Alliance. Since then several longstanding branch builders have left the Australian Labor Party to join the Socialist Alliance.
Since then, the Sudanese comrades who produce The Flame, the Arabic supplement to Green Left Weekly, have come into the Socialist Alliance.
Since then, the Socialist Alliance won its first local council position in Fremantle.
Since then, two large and successful international socialist ideas conferences, Climate Change|Social Change (in 2008) and World At A Crossroads (2009) have been held.
Since then, Green Left Weekly has been strengthened with a Spanish-language supplement, thanks to the comrades in the Latin America Social Forum in Sydney.
When we emerged from the faction fight in the DSP (with an overwhelming 80% victory in 2008) we had decisively to confront the challenge of Socialist Alliance once again. And over this year, with the encouragement of others in the Socialist Alliance, the DSP has moved to make a decisive turn which comes to head in this 24th Congress of the DSP. And we should do so with great confidence in Socialist Alliance as the new party we build.
This is not just a long answer to the question “Why we took so long” but it also answers the question “Why we have to take this turn”.
All comrades who have lived through this protracted struggle must understand what we experienced and draw the lessons from this experience.
One of the most important lessons we should learn is that for socialists party building is a permanent struggle to bring together and unite the actually existing leadership of the working class struggles and the struggles of other oppressed groups. Marx and Engels taught us that socialism is not just a set of good ideas about how society should be run. If socialism is going to more than just another utopia people dream about, it has to become a movement of the social forces that can put an end to capitalism. It has to be a movement of the working class and other oppressed groups.
Today we are still in the low foothills of the struggle to build such a socialist movement this country. So all small socialist groups, including the DSP and including the Socialist Alliance need to understand that our party-building challenge is to unite with the actual leadership or (to use an old word) the “vanguard” of the working class and oppressed groups that emerge in real struggle against capitalism.
This has been the DSP's understanding since the 1980s – though some of our erstwhile comrades retreated from this approach more recently.
This is how our approach was summed by the late comrade Jim Percy in a talk “What Politics for A New Party” in January 1987 (published in Building the Revolutionary Party: Selected Writings 1980-87):
The reason why we must commit fully to building the Socialist Alliance today is because it brings more – though far from all – of that “vanguard” into a common party.
Of course, we realise that the struggle to bring together the class leadership that can win a socialist future does not end with the Socialist Alliance. There are still many other genuine leaders of this class we have to unite with outside the Socialist Alliance. Some are in the Greens and some are still in the ALP. Others are in no party at all. We work with the others the best we can. Comrades see this in our movement work and you saw it in the successful campaign in Fremantle Council in which comrade Sam Wainwright won through a campaign in collaboration with activists in the left of the Greens and the ALP. We know that in this ongoing process of regroupment there may be other political formations that will have to be built in the future. But right now, we also recognise that we can take a small but significant step in that process by building the Socialist Alliance.
One of the excuses that has been made by the former DSP members who split off to form the Revolutionary Socialist Party is that the Socialist Alliance is not a mass party. We know that. Everybody knows that. But that is totally beside the point. The RSP, along with many of the small socialist groups, say they’ll be in a new left party if what is on offer is a new mass party. Indeed, they’d be in such a party even if its politics was reformist or liberal. The Socialist Alliance is not a mass party (and neither is it reformist!), but it is a concrete opportunity to build a bigger and more effective and influential socialist party around a class struggle program, like that of the New Anti-Capitalist Party in France
The late Jim Percy answered this sort of hesitation, two decades ago, in a report to the October 1987 DSP National Committee (also published in Building the Revolutionary Party: Selected Writings 1980-87):
Implicit is this approach has to be our openness to regroup with not just new forces but also to regroup with any of the groups that were previously in the Socialist Alliance. Remember the groups that left the Alliance did so despite being able to agree on a common political platform and despite years of common experience working effectively together in the trade union and other social movements. This is an amazing part of our experience in Socialist Alliance, and it should not be missed. Between 2001 and 2005, the Alliance proved that the notoriously fractious left could work together and that in doing so it could become more effective.
But it also showed us that the political will to do so has to be there as well. The various left groups that walked out of the Socialist Alliance could work together in the future if they have the will to do so. Come the day when any of those groups find the will to work together, we'll be willing partners. The doors will be open.
However, this does not mean that the Socialist Alliance cannot continue to regroup the left until the former affiliates come back in. Altogether, those groups comprise a very small section of the left in this country, the biggest proportion of which does not belong to any socialist party. Our approach at each stage of the struggle has to be to unite with those who are willing to work together at the time.
We confront the challenge of left regroupment in a time of severe, multiple crisis of capitalism. First, the climate change crisis, which threatens human survival on a global level; second, the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression (though Australia appears to have got off much more lightly than countries, it is unlikely to be all over); and third, the widespread crisis of legitimacy of capitalist neo-liberalism. The legitimacy crisis of capitalist neo-liberalism is not a new phenomenon. It has been mounting up for decades and underpins the revolutionary advances in Latin America today.
The left in Australia is too small to force the pace of the movements needed to fight the capitalist “solutions” to these crises that are being prepared and beginning to be imposed. We have to be in the growing resistance to these capitalist “solutions”. We know that any left group that is content to just shout from the sidelines “Capitalism has failed, embrace socialism!” is doomed to become ever more sectarian.
That's why we need to merge the DSP into the Socialist Alliance, and turn the page on the near decade of hesitation.
I want to end with another quote from Jim Percy's Building the Revolutionary Party: Selected Writings 1980-87, from the chapter “What Politics For A New Party”:
Comrades, this is the spirit we need to take into the Socialist Alliance conference that starts tonight. We must say goodbye to the DSP that has helped us get this far, and we must embrace the Socialist Alliance which will get the socialist movement, further ahead in its struggle for fundamental social change.
We've had a rich and frank discussion today. A wide range of comrades have spoken up. And they demonstrated in their contributions that they have a good grasp of the political methodology bequeathed to the socialist movement by Marx and Engels.
Comrades spanning different generations have demonstrated today that they have all grappled with the meaning of our collective political experiences – collective experiences that for some time now have involved comrades beyond the DSP and even beyond the broader of the Socialist Alliance. These collective experiences have involved a greater and more sustained engagement in working class struggles.
The cross-generation interventions in this discussion are especially significant because one aspect of the three-year faction fight we came out of in 2008 was a failure by a section of the old central leadership of the DSP to face up to generational leadership change.
Perhaps this is the silver lining to the near decade of struggling with the organised left's protracted hesitation in the face of a real opportunity for left regroupment.
But we don't need to dwell on the past. The real challenge now is to build a new and broad leadership team in the Socialist Alliance. One of the important proposals that we will be discussing in the Socialist Alliance national conference is the establishment of a national council, a broad leadership forum that can develop the sort of broad and inclusive leadership team that we found so valuable in the DSP. That broad leadership team built the DSP and also allowed us to decisively defeat the destructive and sectarian factional challenge to our regroupment perspectives.
We know that there was an objective basis to the development of the sectarian view of revolutionary politics as the defence of a timeless “sacred flame” in the Trotskyist movement's response to the rise of Stalinism. But we also know there are now powerful objective international developments that are breaking up this sectarian approach – the rise of the new revolutionary forces and governments in Latin America, among them.
There's a dialectic between the hopes and trepidation comrades feel as we complete this turn to building a new party. Comrade Stuart Munckton put it very clearly. This will be resolved if this turn results in more people throwing their lot in with the Socialist Alliance, if more comrades gain in confidence and deepen their commitment to the project.
In this turn, we are not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We've won strong support for all the key strengths and gains we bring from the DSP, including:
We are fighting for a effective revolutionary democratic centralist party but not for democratic-centralism-in-a-bottle. The famous ship-in-a-bottle is just for the mantle piece. We're interested in a ship that sails, in a democratic centralism that grows out of real struggle and that is earned not decreed.
We are also fighting for a revolutionary program – but we know that such a program for this country is not yet developed. Any socialist group in Australia today which thinks it has an impeccable or true revolutionary program is suffering from an arrogant delusion.
The socialist movement in this country is in its very early stages and therefore its political program has a lot of development to go through. Many programs will be advanced in the process. In the next period we will have a rich experience in developing the program of the Socialist Alliance, an experience in which we will learn much from others in the Alliance and make an important contribution ourselves. It is an exciting time ahead.
We must not let nostalgia for the DSP form get in the way of what needs to be done to move the struggle forward. We all value the gains and lessons from our decades in the DSP but because we value those things, we must not be nostalgic for the old party forms. The new party is both a break from past forms and yet, in its content, has grown in a significant way out of our experiences in the DSP.
We would not have got here without the DSP, but now it is time to build on that rich past and move on to a new stage. Today we are not here to bury the party project but to make the decisions we need to make to build a stronger party for socialism.