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Australian Left unites

Australian Left unites

BY SEAN HEALY, February 28, 2001

The word is out. The Australian left is on a roll. Fresh from the inspiration of S11, when tens of thousands
confronted the world's power brokers at Melbourne's Crown Casino, and with plans well underway for mass blockades of stock exchanges and financial districts on May 1, eight radical left organisations have united to form the Socialist Alliance, a combined electoral front to contest this year's federal election.

Meeting in Sydney on February 17, the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP), the International Socialist Organisation (ISO), the Freedom Socialist Party, the Workers League, the Worker-Communist Party of Iraq (Australian branch), Workers Power and Workers Liberty agreed to form the alliance. Socialist Democracy has also agreed to join.

Others also are likely to get on board. The Melbourne branch of the Progressive Labour Party has recommended to the rest of the party that it too join the Socialist Alliance and leading PLP members in Canberra and Sydney have expressed enthusiasm for doing so. The Communist Party (formerly the SPA), Socialist Alternative and the Socialist Party (formerly Militant) are discussing whether they will join the alliance.


The Socialist Alliance is an unprecedented step forward for the Australian socialist left – and enthusiasm for it is total.

``This is a tremendously exciting development'', the International Socialist Organisation's Ian Rintoul told Green Left Weekly, summing up the mood of all the alliance's participants.

Rintoul argues that the alliance couldn't come at a better time: ``All political indications from the Western Australian and Queensland elections are that the Socialist Alliance will strike a chord with a large number of people who are looking for an alternative to economic rationalism - that was also the message of S11''.

The Democratic Socialist Party's Peter Boyle agrees. ``The context for this initiative is the revival of radicalism following Seattle'', he said, referring to the massive protests against the World Trade Organisation in the US west-coast city in November 1999, which kicked off the burgeoning anti-corporate movement in the industrialised countries.

``That has brought a renewed confidence to the radical left, particularly after S11, which was a very big mobilisation of the forces to the left of Labor and which was organised by the left. There's a huge pent-up frustration expressed in society against the almost-common neo-liberal agendas of the major parties. S11 has given us the extra confidence to feel we can reach that frustration and channel it leftward''.

Alison Thorne, of the Freedom Socialist Party, says the prospect of more effectively challenging Labor is the alliance's biggest potential strength.

``A lot of people are jubilant at the Coalition going down the gurgler, and rightly so. But Labor provided no sharply defined alternative in WA, did they? They continued to support mandatory sentencing, for example, which is absolutely disgraceful. So it's critically important that we popularise socialist ideas; it's crucial that socialists work to build an alternative to the Labor Party'', she told Green Left Weekly.

`Hansonism phase two'

Thorne also raises another reason why she's keen on the Socialist Alliance, a reason which weighs heavily on the minds of all the alliance partners: ``Hansonism phase two'', One Nation's attempt to ``pose as an anti-globalisation protest vote'' and the ``crucial need for the left to provide an alternative movement to globalisation which is not economic nationalist''.

The way Boyle puts it is that while S11 has given the radical left the confidence to form the Socialist Alliance, the
re-emergence of One Nation has provided the ``urgency'', adding ``If the left isn't able to present as the radical opposition to the major party consensus, then some of that dissent will go to the far right''.

Rintoul sees it similarly, but believes the alliance can be a very effective counter to One Nation.

``Hanson does represent the danger of pulling the whole anti-globalisation sentiment to the right'', he noted. ``But the election results aren't so much an indicator of that yet; they show rather that people are looking to the left. In terms of a popular critique of economic rationalism and globalisation, the Socialist Alliance can be tremendously important.''

Lisa Farrance, of Workers Power, also sees the WA and Queensland results as a sign of a ``significant shift leftwards'' in the working class' views, adding that ``at the same time, people don't have full illusions that Labor will deliver''.

``That frustration amongst working-class people is a big part of what's forcing us to be unified, to provide the alternative that's needed'', she said.

She believes the growing anti-corporate movement is an obvious part of the alliance's core target audience. ``The movement is a little more left here than elsewhere and a lot more unified in a number of ways; it's a lot less hostile to the idea of unity than in countries where more anarchist forces are dominant. There's a huge political opportunity with the anti-corporate movement for the alliance to draw towards it significant numbers of forces, especially given the ALP is so hostile to the movement.''

But Farrance also thinks the Socialist Alliance can play a ``key role'' in ``joining forces from a number of areas, joining them into a common struggle'', listing especially industrial disputes, such as that in Victoria's Yallourn Valley, and indigenous struggles. ``We could be the only political organisation nationally that really campaigns for land rights'', she stated.

Positive pole of attraction

The Socialist Alliance provides a chance to do more than take advantage of immediate opportunities, though, its participants say: it's also a chance for the left to find some much-needed common ground and common purpose.

Socialist Democracy's John Tully told Green Left Weekly, ``For longer than any of us care to remember, the left has been split into a plethora of small groups, and it hasn't been helpful.''

``We can't keep blaming `the objective situation' for our failure to grow'', he said. ``The objective situation surely must favour a genuine alternative to the present system. There is a crying need for an organisation that gets stuck in there and attacks everything that is wrong about this system.''

``The left's lack of unity has not helped. None of us have been innocent of wanting hegemony for our own small group'', he said, adding, ``We have been hegemonists in our thinking when we should be pluralists''.

The Socialist Alliance provides an opportunity to change that for the better, Tully believes. ``The alliance should provide a positive pole of attraction and enable us to intervene much more effectively in the political process than we've been able to do before.''

Boyle believes that it is ``very significant'' that there is a ``greater degree of political unity of the forces coming into this alliance'' than in some other attempts at left regroupment in the past.

``For a start, these are all radical groups, they all have revolutionary politics as their basic ideas'', he said. ``Any
differences are specific to how to implement those ideas.''

In contrast, most past attempts to regroup the left have been ``based on a liberal, rather than a radical, opening, with unity with left-reformist forces, like the Greens or the old Communist Party'', Boyle argued. ``This attempt is very different.''

``From the point of view of the DSP, the one factor which has made the Socialist Alliance feasible is the willingness of the second major socialist organisation, the ISO, to participate in it'', he added.

Ian Rintoul said that there were two major developments which led the ISO to take a closer look at electoral openings and the possibility of a left electoral alliance: ``First, there was the whole development of the anti-capitalist movement, which demonstrated that there's a whole layer of people in Australia looking for a radical alternative.''

``Along with that, there's the tremendous crisis in social-democracy, in reformism'', he added. ``The Labor Party has
moved rightwards and disaffected many of the working-class people who in the past looked to it. We can appeal to them now to support us.''

S11 legacy

Rintoul and Boyle both say that international efforts at socialist electoral alliances, particularly in Western Europe,
have had a big impact on their respective organisation's thinking.

``The experience of Britain [where the ISO's sister party, the Socialist Workers Party, is a leading force in a network of socialist alliances] has been important, giving us another look at how electoral activity can be used'', Rintoul said.

``Our experience, and that of the left, has been that elections are treated primarily as propaganda exercises. The Socialist Alliance experience in Britain has shown us that it's an opportunity for more, for building an active membership organisation, which can mobilise on the issues and which isn't about electoralism.''

Boyle adds the examples of Scotland, ``where the regroupment of the radical left has gone even further, into a new party, the Scottish Socialist Party'', and that of France, where an electoral alliance between the two largest socialist parties, the Ligue Communiste Revolutionnaire and Lutte Ouvriere, won five seats in the 1999 European parliament, ``an unprecedented electoral victory for the radical left in a rich country''.

Boyle also believes that the decision to make the Socialist Alliance a membership organisation, rather than just a pact between parties, is an important one and a ``recognition of the legacy of S11''.

``What S11 showed was that there are people coming to radical conclusions in this country far greater in number than the collective organisational reach of the existing left'', he said. ``So there's a recognition now that for us to get to that bigger community of radicals, we have to be united - there's a common desire to break out of marginalisation.''

``The decision to make it a membership organisation shows an ambition to grow'', Boyle stated.

The next steps for the alliance include discussion on a summary document on its process, structure and politics and the consolidation of groups in all major cities. The stage will then be set for big public launches of the Socialist Alliance.

The upshot of the Socialist Alliance's formation is hard to underestimate: the days of a weak, divided, ghettoised left
appear to be ending, amid a rise of massive, new protest movements and a new sense that revolutionary socialists can unite to popularise their message and again become an important force in Australian politics.

Visit the DSP web site at


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