Triumph of the ideologues? Some lessons

Recent events on the Australian left will probably stir wide discussion among activists internationally as the news filters out.


A shorter version of this article is in Solidarity 259.

The two Castroite groups in Australia, the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) and the Socialist Alliance (SA), are talking about merging into Socialist Alternative, the group there which claims the same tradition as the SWP in Britain but is out of favour with the SWP.

Probably Socialist Alternative will follow up this coup by a new unity offensive on the fourth of the larger left groups in Australia, the SWP-linked Solidarity: it did a previous one in 2010.

I don't expect all this talk of unity to come good. But even the talk is startling.

Socialist Alternative are not preachers of broad live-and-let-live unity. Rather the opposite. Until recently they were generally reviled on the Australian left as the arch-sectarians. They themselves were forthright that their priority was their own "propaganda routine" rather than building broad campaigns. Only in recent years have they become the largest group on the left; a decade ago they were much smaller than the others.

The talk will reverberate internationally because, despite their remoteness, Australia's left groups are well-connected. Solidarity has links with the SWP and SWP-linked groups in other countries, mostly small but including the relatively sizeable SEK in Greece.

Socialist Alternative has links with other groups which claim the same tradition as the SWP but dispute the SWP's claim to international leadership. One is DEA in Greece, the biggest revolutionary socialist faction in Syriza. Another is the ISO in the United States, the biggest revolutionary socialist faction in that country.

The ISO has startled people who previously regarded it as very narrow and rigid by recruiting Paul Le Blanc, a prominent "orthodox Trotskyist" writer with pro-Castro leanings, who now features in the columns of their publications without visible grievance about the ISO editorial line which considers Cuba, like all states on the model of the USSR, as state-capitalist.

The Socialist Alliance sustains many international connections, with a wide range of correspondents for its paper Green Left Weekly and its magazine Links.

Since the collapse of Stalinism in Europe, in 1989-91, we have had twenty years where much of the talk on a dispirited left has centred on rather desperate claims that old arguments and theoretical debates are no longer relevant; we should all huddle together "broadly"; we should "build the movement", or at least build whatever campaigns we can when the labour movement is subdued, without fussing too much about ideas. After twenty years of that, the Australian surprise may jolt the debate.

THE REVOLUTIONARY LEFT IN AUSTRALIA SINCE THE 1970s

Before proceeding to what I think are the basic issues raised here, it will be well to summarise the facts.

Visible political organisation to the left of the Communist Party of Australia and its Maoist offshoots first re-emerged in the early 1970s. There were then, and have been since, two main groups: the Socialist Workers' League/ Resistance, later SWP, later DSP, today Socialist Alliance; and the Socialist Workers' Action Group, later ISO, today Solidarity.

There have been others, some short-lived, others longer-lived like Workers' Liberty Australia (founded as Socialist Fight in 1980). But the SWL-SWP-DSP-SA and SWAG-ISO strands have always been the majority.

The SWL was "orthodox Trotskyist", holding that the Stalinist states were degenerated and deformed workers' states. In the early 1980s it morphed into a soft-Castroite group, still Trotskyist-influenced but disavowing Trotsky's stress on working-class leadership in his theory of permanent revolution.

The SWL-SWP-DSP-SA was from the start and until recently clearly the bigger group, with a steady flow of talented and energetic student recruits from its Resistance youth group, and an attractively open and patient manner in argument.

In 2001 the DSP launched a Socialist Alliance, drawing in the ISO, Workers' Liberty, and most of the groups other than Socialist Alternative. After a while the Socialist Alliance lost momentum, partly because of poor electoral results. The SA became little more than the DSP and a periphery of sympathisers.

A faction in the DSP leadership round Peter Boyle proposed to resolve the problem by merging the DSP into the SA and giving it a broader profile. Most of the older leaders of the DSP - John Percy, Doug Lorimer, and others - objected, and eventually split in 2008 to form the RSP.

The RSP has not prospered. Jorge Jorquera, a former RSP leader, has already joined S Alt. RSP is working closely with S Alt on its forthcoming "Marxism 2012" weekend event, and seems happy about giving up the unequal struggle to maintain its "party" apparatus and merging into a bigger group.

The talks between Socialist Alliance and S Alt, announced after the RSP-S Alt rapprochement became public, may be a different matter - more of a matter of each side wanting to show that it is not the one preventing unity. We shall see.

S Alt originated as a splinter from the ISO in 1995, when the ISO expelled five leading members, including Mick Armstrong and Sandra Bloodworth, for refusing to stop arguing against a "turn" pushed on the ISO by the SWP in Britain. The argument was about tactics. On large policy, as distinct from organisational tactics, S Alt and ISO-Solidarity have remained almost identical.

The ISO was going through one of the turns imposed since the 1980s by the SWP on its co-thinker groups internationally as simple extrapolations of the SWP's tactical choices in Britain.

In Britain, the SWP had decided that the "downturn" of the 1980s was over; we were now in a period like "the 1930s in slow motion"; slogans like "Paris 1968, London 1994" were timely. The SWP demanded that the ISO orient to mass recruitment. In September 2000, when a big protest at the World Economic Forum in Melbourne became something like Australia's "Seattle" moment - the explosion onto the street of a sizeable number of "new anti-capitalist" youth - the ISO would claim to have recruited 300 members (as many as or more than it had already) over that single weekend.

It was fantasy. The ISO lurched into more and more frantic fantasy movement-building, meanwhile losing virtually all its public profile (paper sales and so on). This led to a sharp decline; a large group splitting off in 2003 to form Solidarity; and a chastened recomposition, by the ISO merging itself backwards into Solidarity, in 2008.

HAS SOCIALIST ALTERNATIVE CHANGED?

From very early on writers like Mick Armstrong explicitly rejected some of the bulldozing follies of the SWP - they had learned something through their experience of being evicted - but they also developed their own version of the "propaganda routine" of the 1980s SWP and ISO. Starting from a base in Melbourne University and not much else, S Alt focused relentlessly on maintaining a political presence on campuses by literature sales, stalls, meetings, and occasional stunts.

S Alt's doggedness has eventually paid off. There is talk on the Australian left now of S Alt having changed and become more flexible. There is no real evidence of a change other than S Alt having become larger, more confident, and more willing to spread itself and take risks.

Even at the height of the "propaganda routine", S Alt took part in campaigns, though selectively, and more selectively than other groups. Even then, the writings of its main leader, Mick Armstrong, maintained that a Leninist party should be something more open than the SWP's model. He was not just repeating the 1980s: he wanted to avoid its excesses. (S Alt developed "excesses" of its own, but that is a different matter),

The S Alt constitution, unlike the SWP's, is publicly available, and unlike the SWP's recognises the right to form factions outside pre-conference periods. It also insists that factions or tendencies must disband if they lose the vote at a conference. S Alt's press does not debate openly whatever differences exist in S Alt.

As recently as February 2012, Solidarity and S Alt were exchanging angry open letters, not about political differences, but about claims that S Alt members harassed Solidarity people on a refugee rights demonstration so badly as to damage the demonstration and force the Solidarity people to leave it.

THE REVOLUTIONARY LEFT IN AUSTRALIA NOW

Part of the background to the current unity talk must be that the differences between SA, RSP, and S Alt are, for now, not great in current politics. S Alt has moved along with the SWP to politics which see the struggle as largely one of "anti-imperialist" (meaning anti-US) forces against "imperialism", rather than class against class. When RSP split from the DSP-SA, one of its chief charges was that DSP-SA was downplaying the proper priority of public solidarity with the Chavez regime in Venezuela. We must suppose that the RSP has softened on that. S Alt considers the Chavez regime to be bourgeois, not socialist, but is no more emphatically critical of it than the SWP is in Britain.

S Alt's main recent broad campaign activities have been the campaign for same-sex marriage rights and a "boycott Israel" campaign it helped run through picketing an Israeli-owned chain of chocolate shops, mainly in Melbourne. The pickets got wide national publicity, partly because many picketers were arrested. On the Australian left, only Workers' Liberty (while defending the arrested picketers) pointed out that boycotting Israeli-owned chocolate shops was more likely to encourage anti-semitism, and hinder the necessary links between the international left and the Israeli labour movement and left, than to help Palestinian rights.

The other historic difference between the SWL-SWP-DSP-SA strand and the SWAG-ISO strand was on the Australian Labor Party. SWL-SWP at one time did fraction work in the ALP, but since the late 1980s has moved to a line that the ALP is no longer a bourgeois workers' party. It says the ALP is now a straight bourgeois party, essentially no different from the Liberals (Australian Tories). ISO, Solidarity, and S Alt still consider Labor a bourgeois workers' party, and may for example call for votes for Labor in elections.

The RSP and SA seem to have softened on that. For example, SA, S Alt, and Solidarity have all recently been active in the "Queensland Uncut" movement. When debate came on who to invite to speak at "Queensland Uncut" rallies, S Alt argued for inviting Queensland Labor leader Annastacia Palaczuk on the grounds that it would help draw in and build unity with Labor supporters. ISO concurred; SA remained quiet; it was Workers' Liberty who said that the basis of inviting Palaczuk should be to make demands on her and put her on the spot, and that the rally should also include space for revolutionary-left speakers.

S Alt has not grown through a general radicalisation in Australia. Strike levels have been and remain low. Union density is now lower than in Britain.

S Alt has not grown through catching the wave of some political surge, or by being able to locate itself at the centre of some big new campaign or movement.

S Alt has not grown through being vindicated in some political crisis with a clear, trenchant political line while other groups flounder. Recent political differences on the Australian left have been subdued.

It is not even some special flair to its "propaganda routine" which has helped S Alt.

S Alt has blundered, too. At the 2000 blockade of the World Economic Forum in Melbourne - the largest mobilisation of the Australian left for some time - it distinguished itself by every so often marching round the site, on its own, waving red flags. Maybe that helped consolidate the esprit de corps of some of its young members. Objectively, it was cranky.

Its progress has not been smooth and easy. S Alt has had a large turnover of young recruits, most of whom did not stay long. As late as 2004, it barely had any presence in Sydney (Australia's largest city), and then the organiser whom it had sent from Melbourne to Sydney to sort out the problem quit, decrying S Alt as hopelessly sectarian. In 2005 S Alt's best young activists in Brisbane quit as a body, again complaining that S Alt was sectarian. They formed the Socialist Action Group which then, in 2008, merged with ISO and Solidarity.

And it may be that S Alt's current success will prove shallow. I find its politics fundamentally faulty, and the fact that it has gained a few hundred members does not mean it will deal well with future crises requiring political astuteness and depth.

And yet, and yet, and yet... Gaining a few hundred members, reversing the balance of forces within a small activist left milieu, are small things in the scale of our big historic tasks. They are big things in the day-to-day.

In part it's luck. Openings were made for S Alt by the damage DSP-SA and ISO-Solidarity did themselves by their faction fights and splits. But maybe also S Alt got something right. I think so.

PROPAGANDA ROUTINE AND IDEOLOGICAL STRUGGLE

The term "propaganda routine" is off-putting. In the late 19th century, the most popular summary for socialists of what their activity should be was Wilhelm Liebknecht's: "Study, Propagandise, Organise".

Propagandising, then, just meant spreading socialist ideas. It meant educating, or enlightening, people. Since then the word propaganda has acquired connotations of manipulation and deception.

But there is a core idea in the term "propaganda routine" which is profoundly correct. It is that the pivotal struggle for socialists is on the ideological front. That the first duty of socialists is to learn and understand, and then argue for and spread, socialist ideas.

That can be done only by developing a continuous line of argument, with which we try to grab as many people as realistically possible. We give them an alternative story about current events which they may at first reject but which one twist or another can jolt them into accepting.

For "propaganda routine" read "a visible, consistent activity of socialist advocacy, expressed through sales, bulletins, stalls, speeches, conversations, and so on", and we are describing what should and must be the bedrock of all socialist activity.

On that bedrock, large structures must in time be built. But the constant temptation to suppose that by some trick or guile we can find a short-cut, and build large socialist structures without the bedrock, is deceptive.

Solid socialist organisation cannot be built by manipulation. It cannot be built by deftly inserting socialists into the leadership of broad campaigns, or into high trade-union positions, and then hoping that the personal prestige accruing to those socialists will automatically spill over into persuasive power for the socialist ideas they privately hold.

AWL HISTORY

In our earliest years as a tendency, in the 1960s, we explained that "the ideological tasks of the revolutionary party of the working class" were central. "If all the proletariat needs is an organisation, then the tightly knit revolutionary organisations are just sects, premature and almost certainly irrelevant.

"If what the proletariat needs is only a machine, then it does not need to have its militants labouring for decades in advance of the maturation of the situation where it requires an uprising".

We learned from what James P Cannon had explained about how the American Trotskyist movement built cadres.

"In the first period of the Trotskyist movement of America, when we were an isolated handful against the world, we deliberately restricted ourselves to propaganda work and avoided any kind of pretentious manoeuvres or activities beyond our capacity. Our first task, as we saw it, and correctly, was to build a cadre; only then could we go to the masses..."

In 1976 we had to consolidate our understanding, in a faction-fight with people who held that to describe ourselves as "a fighting propaganda group" (as we did, using the term propaganda in the sense of advocacy, education, enlightenment) was sectarian, and we should instead be broader and more "agitational". The "anti-propagandists", who formed the Workers' Power group, would later become genuine sectarians themselves, but that is another story.

If the working class is not yet aroused, then no amount of organisational and administrative busywork by us will arouse it. We cannot manipulate the working class into militancy by deft backroom work, or by simulating militancy in gimcrack campaigns.

What we can do is arm ourselves, and those we can reach, with ideas which arouse and inspire - that is, socialist ideas. As the French socialist group Lutte Ouvrière explains, our job is not to get people to be active, but to get people to want to be active.

When the working class is aroused we can contribute the essential thing which cannot possibly be improvised in the flux of struggle: not organisational mechanics, but ideas which are thoroughly worked out and based on decades and centuries of theoretical study and learning from experience.

It is primarily through our ideological activity of education and self-education that we can serve the broad working-class struggle - on condition that our ideas are shaped, and constantly reshaped, by the experience and the interests of the working class, which they will be only if we are constantly responsive to the struggles of the working class.

STUDENTS

S Alt has, unashamedly, oriented heavily to students. It is regularly on campuses, postering, leafletting, advertising meetings, selling magazines. It presents itself directly to students, rather than operating through the mediation of this or that campaign, and limiting its direct socialist talk to the cognoscenti within the campaign.

There is much sense to that. New socialists have always been, and will always be, recruited mainly among young people. These days the biggest accessible concentrations of young people are on university campuses.

Even the German Communist Party in its early revolutionary days, the biggest revolutionary Marxist party that has yet existed, found it very difficult to win over older trade-unionists from the Social Democratic Party. It could win influence with them. It could turn them against the SPD leaders. Fully winning them over to become CP cadres was a different matter. People won to revolutionary politics as youngsters, rather than people first imbued with trade-union routine and then later won over, were the CP's mainstay.

That was not just because of mistakes the early German Communist Party made. It was because of built-in difficulties. No small revolutionary group, in times of relatively quiet class struggle, can by deft manoeuvre jump the hurdles which the early German CP had still not been able to scale before Stalinism poisoned it politically.

In 1976 the Workers' Power people told us that if only we would be less abstruse, then we could by a snappy "action programme" win over large sections of the "lower local levels" of the trade-union machine. That was fantasy.

So was the more recent speculation by the Socialist Alliance in Australia (based on the sympathy of a couple of prominent trade unionists, Craig Johnston and Chris Cain) that it could swivel itself into a leading position on the trade-union left without the prior work of recruiting, educating, and training a solid corps of young socialists who then win experience and influence in the trade unions.

Socialists build and organise a core of educated and trained activists - and we cannot do that by manipulation and spurious detours - or we are helpless.

CONCLUSION

There is, sadly, no automatic regulating mechanism which says that socialistic educational efforts are automatically filtered by the public. There is no automatic balance which ensures the clear and accurate being accepted, and the confused rejected. A group with deficient politics, like S Alt, can grow through a well-organised, stubborn ideological routine.

We have to combine public ideological activity (the "propaganda routine") with constant analysis and re-analysis based on attuning ourselves to working-class struggle and long-term working-class interests.

Comments

Comment from Riki Lane

While you spell out the benefits of the "propaganda routine", I think you are too soft on its downside in SAlt's case - e.g. their overall neglect until recently of working-class struggle in the unions etc. This, their tendency to cut themselves off as a self-sustaining sect (or cult at times) has always been my central critique of their activity (not just their political problems in terms of communal and democratic struggles, anti-imperialism, etc).

Until recently, they have not been able to maintain their members when they stop being students and become workers. For some reason they have managed that with the most recent cohort of students. Why?

I don't know, but it may be influenced by the the changing nature of university education. Perhaps they have changed their approach to that transition period. I know that in the past they gave very little support or recognition to their members who did organise in unions. This seems to have changed, and they are now organising fractions in a number of unions.

It would be useful perhaps to restate our overall approach to revolutionary regroupment of being for building multi-tendency parties, open debate etc. Also, to argue more strongly that recent developments show how SAlt have shifted towards an implicitly "soft-stalinist" anti-imperialism - they can forget their old programmatic differences on the basis of a shared approach to opposing the US etc.

Australia's RSP and Socialist Alternative in Unity Talks

RSP is looking to join with Socialist Alternative, not Socialist Alliance.
RSP and Socialist Alternative are both marxist organisations, Socialist Alliance includes both Marxists, and non marxists.
All 3 groups support the right of people of Cuba to determine its own form government, free from pressures from abroad - whether they pressures from Washington, or even socialists abroad.
None of these three groups necessarily see Cuba as a model for a future socialist Australia, but all have the greatest respect for the revolutionaries there.

Leon Trotsky spent many years seeking to unite people in a common struggle first against the Tsar, then against Stalin and Nazism. Socialists everywhere, must work together to fight against US Imperialism, Ultranationalism and Corporate exploitation. As with LD, I would urge all socialists to work together in building Socialism for the future.

Comments on comments, from Martin Thomas

Thanks for the comments. Since S Alt was for quite a while overwhelmingly a Melbourne group, you'll have a clearer picture than I have, and it may be that I'm not critical enough of S Alt in some respects.

As regards S Alt and the unions - Tom Bramble (and that was about all S Alt in Brisbane comprised at the time) turned up for the support group for the wharfies' dispute in 1998. It just didn't turn up for other campaigns.

Tom Bramble's error in the wharfies' dispute was not sectarianism but rather the opposite: he insisted, in the pamphlet he wrote on behalf of the support group at the end of the dispute, on describing the outcome as a victory. (I argued against him, but he got his way).

No doubt there were many working-class struggles S Alt couldn't and didn't do much about practically. The same is true for us. But they covered struggles in their magazine, no? We might question their tactical judgement about which campaigns or struggles they chose to mobilise for, but the idea that a small group cannot mobilise for everything, and can be useful only by selectiveness on what it mobilises for, is sound.

Maybe this issue looks different from Melbourne, where they would have had the resources to do more from early on.

It used to be said by ISO-Solidarity that S Alt's methods would make them forever unable to intervene constructively in workers' struggles. I think that was always myth. Round the QCH dispute, S Alt have done basic support activity competently (which SA and Solidarity haven't).

However, that S Alt is now able, or maybe has been able for some while, to turn to and support working-class struggles does not necessarily make them good politically.

It all depends on what politics they bring to those struggles.

I think they have always had, and still have, the basic SWP attitude that workers' struggles are something to be celebrated as good examples of militancy, but not something to think about strategically and politically.

I covered this in my recent article on "Why socialists do what we do". S Alt's idea that the role of the revolutionary socialist organisation is to promote militancy as against conservative caution may seem all right when the revolutionary socialists are outside or marginal to working-class struggles, but it is utterly useless if the organisation aspires to play any serious strategic and political role.

You're leading a militant dispute, or have the ear of the leadership. What's the political input you give? "Be militant!" But the workers are being militant already...

Compare the SWP at Vestas. SWP were active around the dispute, and that included doing some very good work. In many ways they were at their best there.

But it was increasingly clear that on strategy for the dispute, they didn't really have different ideas from us. They had no ideas at all. You could never get them to discuss strategically beyond the next big bit of "militancy" - "national day of action" or whatever - that they were pushing.

I've seen that with the SWP in many other struggles. It's a longstanding thing, built into the DNA of SWP-ism I think.

Is it really that previous cohorts of S Alt students dropped out when they finished uni, but a recent cohort didn't?

It seems more likely to me that their number of ex-students who have stuck has grown gradually and has now reached some critical mass. Presumably they will have become better able to hold ex-students as they became bigger.

S Alt's line on international questions is not separable from their cult of militancy in on-their-doorstep politics. Hamas, Hezbollah, the Salafists who demonstrated across the world recently on the occasion of the cranky anti-Muslim YouTube video - they celebrate all these precisely because they embody "militancy" against the big established capitalist power.

S Alt statement on unity with RSP

http://sa.org.au

In a very positive development for the revolutionary left in Australia, Socialist Alternative is engaged in unity discussions with the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP). The initial discussions have been highly productive and have been conducted in a comradely and constructive manner.

The Socialist Alternative National Committee which met on 7-8 October resolved: “That the National Committee views favourably the moves towards unity with the RSP and authorises the National Executive to take further steps to facilitate the process.” If all goes well we hope to complete the unity process around the time of next Easter’s Marxism 2013 conference, which both organisations will be building.

Unity is possible between our two organisations because we agree on the fundamental question of the necessity of building a clear cut revolutionary organisation in the here and now. We can’t wait for some dramatic upsurge in the class struggle to begin to lay the basis for a revolutionary party that can challenge the rule of the capitalist class in Australia and of the mainstream political parties that serve their interests.

Both our organisations have resisted the drift to the right away from class struggle politics of so much of the left over the last two decades. We share a similar assessment of the political situation in Australia and see the need to construct a revolutionary alternative to all the mainstream parties – the Liberals, Labor and the Greens. We both see the need for rebuilding the union movement on a fighting class struggle basis that challenges the stultifying reformism of the ACTU leadership. We both share hostility to Australian imperialism and nationalism.

The RSP and Socialist Alternative have very similar views on the type of organisation we need to build today. We also broadly agree on the tasks. We are for an organisation of activists involved in the struggles of the day arguing for socialist politics, not a party of passive paper members oriented on parliamentary elections. Without an active, committed membership a socialist organisation cannot even aspire to be genuinely democratic. We are for an organisation that strives to educate its members in Marxism and aims to train a cadre that can intervene creatively in political debates, controversies and struggles to defend socialist politics and strengthen working class organisation. We are for building an organisation with a lively and democratic internal life where serious political debates can be conducted in a comradely spirit.

Neither organisation claims to have got everything right or to have all the answers as to the way forward for the socialist movement. However both organisations have a series of committed longstanding members who have learned important lessons from the mistakes and successes of the socialist movement in Australia over the last 30 or more years. That experience combined with a whole layer of younger, enthusiastic members is a promising basis on which to go forward.

Socialist Alternative and the RSP come from different ideological traditions. We have significantly different assessments of the class nature of the Stalinist regime in the old USSR and of countries like Cuba and Vietnam today. Our differences on these questions are not immaterial and unity between our two organisations is not based on comrades from either group disavowing their opinions on these questions – or – on any other question for that matter. However in a democratic, open and serious revolutionary organisation we believe it is possible to discuss these and other important political issues as they arise in a constructive manner that strengthens and raises the political level of the membership as a whole. Far from weakening the organisation we believe that an atmosphere of comradely debate can strengthen the unity of the organisation. The organisation will decide its policies and orientation collectively and democratically but all members will have the right to publicly express their individual opinions.

Socialist Alternative has grown considerably over the last decade and has gained valuable political experience in a series of campaigns and struggles. We have built a base on a number of university campuses and have established a layer of worker members active in more than a dozen different unions. But we remain a small organisation and in terms of the tasks we have set ourselves of helping to lay the basis for a mass revolutionary workers party we have a very long way to go.

In terms of what we can hope to achieve today, uniting the existing revolutionary socialist forces in Australia in one organisation around a commonly agreed revolutionary programme would be a real advance. A successful merger between Socialist Alternative and the RSP would be a not insignificant step on that road. It would show that revolutionaries with different heritages and traditions can come together to collectively build a serious and determined organisation. We strongly encourage other revolutionaries, both young people new to the class struggle and older comrades who have not given up the fight against the horrors of capitalism, to seriously consider involving themselves in this vital project...

I take this as code for...

The call for revolutionary unity, and the recognition that a revolutionary organisation must be able to cope with internal differences, are good.

However, key passages read to me as code for S Alt saying.... we can unite with RSP because they are in favour of stridency. Not with Socialist Alliance or Solidarity because, although we, S Alt, want unity, they, SA and Solidarity, have drifted to the right.

What RSP would like to be strident about, and what it defines as left-wing, is focused on Castro and Chavez as the beacons of 21st century socialism. That's glossed over, but RSP is accredited as unity-worthy because it has resisted "the drift to the right away from class struggle politics of so much of the left over the last two decades".

By "much of the left", I take it that S Alt mean Socialist Alliance and Solidarity.

Some facts and figures

Max Lane - formerly the DSP/SA's Indonesia expert, and now an RSP member - has written on the RSP/ S Alt talks.

RSP: "by August this year, we were on track to get the newspaper and website publishing again.. there were about 30 of us at this point" (compared to 50 in 2008).

S Alt: "SocAlt had grown to at least 200-300 people while we had struggled to start anew. They came from a different socialist tradition and had a different style to us... it turned out, that SocAlt held the view that small groups still at an embryonic stage, should not enforce strict democratic centralism. This is what their comrades said, and when I checked, it was what was in their constitution and some of their other documents.

"Individual members could express differences with the majority publicly".

A DSP/SA member has responded: "The financial membership of Socialist Alliance is 700 with another 150 or so likely to renew their memberships".

The paper-membership figures may well be accurate, but I think it's incontestable that S Alt has a bigger effective membership than the SA. No-one denies that S Alt could get over 900 to its "Marxism" event at Easter 2012. The DSP/SA used to be able to get those numbers, but can't any longer.

Democratic centralism?

Established readers of AWL literature will know that it is our view and our practice that minorities in a revolutionary socialist organisation should be able to express their views publicly, in conversation, in meetings, and usually in the organisation's press.

The provisos are (a) in practice they cooperate with, and do not obstruct, implementation of the majority policy (b) they explain what the majority view is, loyally and to the best of their ability.

Similar rules apply to minorities within the leading committees of a revolutionary organisation, in relation to the broader membership. The committees do not operate with bourgeois "cabinet responsibility", but are open about their internal disputes.

Not only should minorities have the right to express themselves. They positively should express their own views publicly, because the core of being a revolutionary socialist is conscientiously working out your political ideas and arguing for them against the odds. Pretending public unanimity when in fact you dissent cannot but cut across that.

These ideas apply equally to small groups and to large parties. We see no logical reason why they should apply only to "small groups still at an embryonic stage".

Saying that those minority rights apply only to "small groups still at an embryonic stage" is worrying, because it leaves the road open to an incumbent leadership, at a stage of its choosing, to declare that the organisation has now got beyond the small group stage, things are serious, and minorities should shut up.

In fact with a large party it is unworkable, just as a matter of practical administration, for internal differences of any scope not also to become public.

For example, when the first British Trotskyist group was formed in 1932, from a dissident group of Communist Party members, their dissident document was published and replied to in the CP's Daily Worker. That happened even though the CP was then quite highly Stalinised.

Public dissent was routine in the Bolshevik Party and in the Communist Parties of the Lenin-Trotsky era. It was repressed, and the idea that "democratic centralism" meant a compulsory public pretence of unanimity was installed, only with high Stalinism.

The "multi-tendency party"?

An "understanding of the line of march, the conditions, and the ultimate general results of the proletarian movement", the essential thing which (in Marx's words) a socialist political organisation can contribute to class struggle, does not fall from the sky, or get generated automatically by militant working-class instinct.

It cannot be won once for all. Insightful theory and clear programme remain insightful and clear only if they are constantly reviewed, adjusted, and concretised in line with events and their lessons,

The understanding can be developed only by study, activity, and debate, i.e., through a process of successive approximations which involves interchange between different views. Thus democracy is a political necessity for a revolutionary organisation.

It is democracy regulated by a practical purpose: deciding on and carrying through clear-cut politics, and learning from experience. Unlike with discussion circles, debates are organised to reach a clear decision and mobilise the organisation to carry it through collectively and in a disciplined way. The time for debate before a decision is made should vary according to the issue. Some issues are and should be dealt with by an immediate decision by an elected leading committee; others may require long and wide discussion before a decision.

After the decision, a minority which disagrees should go slow for a while on the debate. It should wait for experience to provide new data on which to re-raise the debate. But it should not be obliged to disband, or to cease organising. It can and should continue to discuss its distinctive ideas so long as it does that in a way which does not damage the collective mobilisation to carry through the majority decision.

"Revolutionary ardour in the struggle for socialism is inseparable from intellectual ardour in the struggle for truth", as Trotsky explained. Thus the life of a revolutionary organisation includes the right and in fact the duty of individual activists always to be honest about their ideas. They should cooperate with the majority line in public activity, but they should not pretend to agree with it where they don't. They should not hide their true views. As a general rule debates should be carried in our public press as well as internally, though the organisation as a whole, and its committees, must have the right to decide how and when the debates will appear in the press, sometimes to decide that a particular debate must be kept internal, and to structure internal debates for clarity.

The model, too common today, in which the leadership constitutes a permanent faction, renewing itself through selective co-option, and standing over the membership as a pretendedly unanimous authority, cannot serve the basic purpose of a revolutionary socialist organisation.

In that sense, a revolutionary socialist organisation should always contain different strands and tendencies.

With a more civilised, democratic, and open regime, the fragmentation of the revolutionary socialist left today could be seriously reduced, though scarcely abolished altogether. Different strands of opinion could interact in debate, each one having enough space to breathe, rather than existing as walled-off units each of which develops its own jargon, psychology, and patch of activity, communicating with the others only to compete and score points.

This concept of an open, democratic revolutionary socialist organisation with multifarious intellectual life is, however, different from ideas sometimes advocated or a "broad left", "multi-tendency", or "all-inclusive" party.

There, you have an idea of a party which in permanence would be a composite of, or compromise between, different tendencies - a sort of revolutionary version of the Australian Labor Party's regime of constantly adjusted balance between "Left" and "Right" factions.

A genuinely revolutionary socialist organisation would have, at any given time, different strands of opinion within it, but it would also have intense and lively debate to work out a clear common understanding. Some internal differences, notably on theoretical issues relatively distanced from day-to-day action, might continue for long periods, but the basic regulator of differences would be debate (linked to the lessons of practical activity), not "agreeing to disagree".

The institutionalised-compromise version cannot, by definition, develop a culture of the "intellectual ardour in the struggle for truth" which Trotsky rightly considered inseparable from "revolutionary ardour in the struggle for socialism".

It will inevitably tend towards blurred "left consensus" politics, heavily shaped by the pressures of the society around it.

If small, it may exist with that sort of "left consensus" politics for a long period, and still be broadly revolutionary in outlook, although not very effective.

But if the organisation is larger, and has more weight in society and in struggles, an institutionalised-compromise regime will inevitably drift towards reformism.

Rifondazione comunista in Italy, the SSP in Scotland, Solidarity in the USA, the old Socialist Party in the USA before World War 1 - all those organisations, at their best, have had many virtues. All, though, have also provided evidence of the shortcomings of the "institutionalised-compromise" model.

S Alt/ RSP unity on track, S Alt/ SA not

At its conference in Melbourne (15-16 December 2012), Socialist Alternative has confirmed plans to go ahead with a merger with the Revolutionary Socialist Party at Easter 2013.

Socialist Alternative is a splinter from the international network around the SWP in Britain; it has been out of favour with the SWP since 1995; it is now considerably stronger than the "official" SWP-linked group in Australia, Solidarity; it has international links with the ISO in the USA and DEA in Greece.

The RSP is a splinter from a Castroite current in Australia, formerly organised as the Democratic Socialist Party, and now as Socialist Alliance. According to the Socialist Alliance, and other accounts are in the same ballpark, S Alt now has about 250 members and RSP about 25.

S Alt reports that its conference decided to "endorse a new Constitution and statement of General Principles, which will shortly be available on our website.

"Our previous constitution was written when the group was formed in 1995, immediately after we had been expelled from the International Socialist Organisation. At that time we were a much smaller and more loosely organised group – the rewrite of the Constitution was in order to bring it up to date to reflect the real practice and nature of the organisation today..."

As we understand it, however, the revision of the constitution will have included, for example, deletion of a previous proviso that opposition grouping within S Alt must dissolve if defeated in a vote at an S Alt conference.

S Alt also reports an agreement with the Socialist Alliance for SA speakers to take part in S Alt's showcase event, "Marxism 2013", in Melbourne at Easter.

As of now, however, any fuller unity between SA and S Alt looks unlikely.

SA leader Peter Boyle recently wrote citing "differences in approach to the environment, women's rights and trade union movements, and about taking part in elections" as barriers to unity.

Boyle does not explain further about the trade union question, and really it looks to me as if he has put that in primarily to maintain SA's claim to command authority on trade-union issues as well as others.

"In the trade union movement", he writes, "the Socialist Alliance has also won significant respect and some leadership. Several left groups work together (alongside others) in progressive rank-and-file groups in several trade unions, one of which recently won leadership of the Public Service Association, the second biggest union in NSW".

However, S Alt also takes part in PPSA, the left grouping which won the leadership of PSA, and, of course, Workers' Liberty member Leon Parissi was the PPSA candidate for PSA president.

Boyle's real grievance against S Alt is more this: "abstaining from the environment and women's rights movements, for instance, or from taking part in election campaigns... is a mistake a united left could not afford to take on".

Mick Armstrong has responded for S Alt. Reasonably enough, he writes: "Given the small size of all the socialist groups in Australia there is no way that any of them could be seriously involved in every progressive campaign". And: "given the small size of the socialist left in Australia, we don’t believe that standing candidates in elections should be a priority for socialists today".

"The position that Socialist Alternative advocates in this discussion", writes Armstrong, "is quite straightforward. We are for unity around a clear cut revolutionary program".

Fair enough, except that it begs the big question which Marxists have been grappling with since forever: what is "a clear cut revolutionary program"? As Armstrong himself explains well enough, a general "revolutionary" statement about favouring a big social change in the future is not enough to organise effective activity here and now.

Boyle called for everyone to "to get beyond a false argument within the left about who is really 'revolutionary' and who is not, and start discussing, in a constructive way, how best a united left can engage in the struggles against the ills of capitalism... All these left organisations are united in their aim replacing the capitalist system with a system based on one in which society's main resources and assets are socially owned and controlled through a democratic system of popular power..."

The scare-quotes around the word "revolutionary" suggest an approach which defines the basis of socialist organisation by immediate tactical choices and priorities, rather than by the fundamental touchstone of independent working-class politics and unconditional commitment to the logic of working-class struggle.

There would be difficulties in merging SA and S Alt anyway, since SA has a bigger paper membership than S Alt (it claims about 700), but on most accounts S Alt has bigger activist resources.

Workers' Liberty Australia sees no immediate political basis for merger with S Alt, but is keen to work with S Alt more closely where we can, for example in the defence campaign for our comrade Bob Carnegie. Bob Carnegie spoke at an end-of-year unity event organised by S Alt in Brisbane, and will be speaking at "Marxism 2013".