For a better organised and activist membership

Urgent appeal. Socialist Alliance needs to submit an updated list of over 1500 members to the Australian Electoral Commission to maintain our electoral registration and appear on the ballot at the next federal election. We're asking all existing members and those interested in joining to confirm your willingness to support our electoral enrolment by filling in this form.

Socialist Alliance did not begin its life just as a convergence of small socialist groups. From very early it attracted a number of independent socialists — from various political backgrounds. Because of  this beginning, the Alliance started as a looser type of organisation.

Socialist Alliance was never a united front of a special kind, or just an electoral alliance. This question was debated at several of its early conferences, and significant majorities voted to build a new, multi-tendency, socialist party.

What such a process involves is developing both the political program of the new party as well as its organisational form.

However, 12 years down the track, we know that the Alliance has to get better organised and because the area of political agreement in SA has grown organically since its origin, there is a political basis for a higher level of organisation.

We certainly need to be better organised to meet the challenges of a possible Abbott Liberal-National government leading a new capitalist offensive in 2013.

So Liam, Ben and Emma's contribution aimed at tackling some party-building issues is welcome.

While I agree with their conclusions about needing to  continue to find ways to get our members more active — and for branch leaderships to continue to try and find the ways to better involve all members in activity and decision-making, their contribution is somewhat contradictory about whether we should motivate comrades to be active, and is confused about the differences between norms and rules.

While rules can be enforced, norms — or expectations — need to be systematically encouraged/promoted if they are to mean anything.

The second constitutional amendment proposed by these comrades, which I support, sets an expectation of activism for Socialist Alliance members:

New 5.2A: Socialist Alliance member is someone who is actively involved in their union, community, and/or the social movements, and who understands the need to build a movement towards a socialist Australia. A member is someone who will help to build the Alliance, its projects and priorities and participate in its democratic structures to the best of their ability.

This sets a constitutional expectation (or “norm” as it is commonly called) of what membership means that then needs to be translated into action if it is to be more than a paper declaration.

This expectation/norm is a broad one which, correctly in my opinion, allows for members to be active to the “best of their ability” but the expectation is that the member's activity is not just in the movements but also in building the Alliance.

Of course such motivation needs to be political and we also need to help comrades develop the skill and confidence to be effective activists. I will come back to this later. But none of this can be done if we shy away fromsystematically asking comrades to pitch in with the work.

Opportunities and challenges

So far, we've managed to achieve a lot with a pretty loose organisation: we have around 700  financial members who receive a weekly summary of our campaign work and party building campaigns, and who support us financially at various levels according to their ability.

We're involved in a number of state and federal unions, with members active at various levels of those unions. Some of our members have a good deal of respect in the union movement, including in the CFMEU, NTEU,  RBTU, ASU, AEU, ANF, various other state-based teacher unions and the NSW PSA (where we were part of the successful progressive ticket that recently won in NSW).

We've also had some small, but significant, electoral successes with Sue Bolton  joining Sam Wainwright as our second elected local councilor.

We are not counting on more electoral breakthroughs, however, even if that space is opening up due to the growing disillusionment with neoliberal major parties combined with the beginnings of frustration with a rightward pull within the Greens. While the Greens still occupy most of the electoral space to the left of the major parties, as they still do, we know that it will remain difficult for the Alliance to break through electorally.

Further, electoral interventions are not the most important part of the Alliance's work. We spend much more time and energy in building the movement in the street. Our initial electoral wins have only been possible because Alliance members have been actively engaged in the union and social movements, and many of our members have won political authority in the broader movements.

In the next period, we would like to make the most of these two council positions, learning what we can from the experience of other socialist councilors like the Socialist Party's Steve Jolly and the Communist Party of Australia's recently elected Tony Oldfield (Auburn Council, NSW). We want to show that these positions can be used to build progressive movements and to win more people to the socialist cause. However, we need more activists to do this.

Electoral interventions also give us an effective platform for our socialist ideas and perspectives. It gives us a broader hearing.

In the recent election for Geelong Mayor, Sue Bull received more than 10,000 first-preference votes — a record number of votes for the Alliance in a local election.

In every election intervention we do reach out with our ideas to thousands of people. However, in the current political conditions, our socialist election campaigns seem to be getting a better reception.

By putting forward some bold but popular ideas – such as the call to nationalise the mining and banking industries — we hope to make our 2013 federal election campaign an even more effective platform. But an effective federal election campaign also needs more activists.

We support and are supported by the most popular independent newspaper on the left — Green Left Weekly — but while this paper has a significant, loyal and reasonably stable subscriber base, sales of individual copies is falling due to smaller numbers of regular distributors. We've helped build Green Left TV this year, which has increased our web audience and also involved new activists as well as drawn some of our members into greater activity.

It also remains a challenge to increase the regular financial commitment of our membership to our political work. We need to encourage more members to make regular and serious pledges to their local Activist Centres and to theGreen Left Weekly Fighting Fund, on top of their SA dues.

Eight suggestions to tackle our core challenge

Our core challenge is to develop a more active membership. So we urgently need to work out at this conference some steps to encourage and help more members to get more active.

We will be holding a workshop at the coming conference about this and hopefully a more developed position can come out of that.

But here are some ideas to start with:

  1. By studying and implementing the basic democratic rules outlined in the Constitution, branch coordinating committees can make branch meetings better decision-making places about campaign priorities and branch building priorities. It would also involve the branch in getting to know all new members who can join online but whose memberships still have to be accepted by the branch.
  2. Our branch meetings must be the places members have to come to get the information and make the decisions: that means they have to be well-planned, and members have to be informed. Given the hectic pace at which we run, we have to consciously set aside enough time for properly thought through branch meeting reports and motions, co-ordination meetings to do the planning and, when useful, caucuses of members involved in particular areas of work.
  3. We also have to spend the time to get to know our new members, find out what their interests are and what they'd like to get involved in, and encourage them to start a class series on socialism, Marxism or some other topic connected to our work.  It's fair enough to approach new members with a question about what they'd like to help out with. This is a basic expectation for anyone joining a party such as ours.
  4. There's always a pull to do more in the union and social movements — as our members are among the most constructive and often carry a lot of the load. Finding the balance between the movement work and party work is often tricky. One of the ways of doing that is to ensure that the branch coordinating bodies are consulted and kept up to date with our work in the movements.
  5. We cannot afford to shrink from, or be hesitant about ,asking members to do things. The only way to develop a party of conscious committed activists is to encourage people to get active, and to do that someone has to ask first.Bourgeois culture discourages political activism. Most people find it hard to figure out just how to become active. When new members join the Alliance, our talks with them should always include a conversation about our work and where some of the gaps are. Obviously everyone has a different set of circumstances in their lives that can either help or hinder their ability to be active (and this can also change).But to not even ask members to help carry out some of the party's work would be a big mistake. It would also send a signal to the new member that they were perhaps not to be trusted.I'm not sure what “artificial inducements” Liam, Emma and Ben argue should not used to promote activity (and who uses them in the Alliance). But what we do need is political encouragement to greater political activity.
  6. The internal culture we need is one that is thoroughly political, not a clique-like environment (typical of bureaucratic student and union politics) and it also means working as teams, rather than deferring to “stars” or self-proclaimed “leaders”. We have to actively encourage an environment of inclusivity — something that generally goes against the dominant form of politics we see and experience around us.
  7. Inclusivity, by the way, does not mean a lowering of political dialogue to a shallow populist level. It simply means we need to explain what we mean, and not resort to the “special language” that is a form of elitism and in which still too many leftists in the First World like to indulge. 
  8. Finally, I think it would be a mistake to mix up the concept of “routinism” with “regular party activity”. We need routines. We need regular party activity. We need regular commitments from members. We need all these things to survive and push forward. We also need this routine commitment to help GLW survive.Because GLW is the independent weekly newspaper that supports SA, there's a natural rhythm involved in getting the paper out. Just like all the other routines in our work and study lives, there has to be a commitment to a regularity around GLW if it's going to achieve its purpose – to have a broader dialogue with, report on and influence communities in struggle.

Reviewing and improving our practice on these eight things would go a long way to encouraging people to devote more of their time and energy to party-building and in so doing becoming more conscious and committed activists.

Left unity

Despite some set-backs and its modest progress, Socialist Alliance is testament to the fact that left unity projects can and do work. We do unite a broader section of the left today in the Alliance — including comrades from various migrant socialist and communist parties, and from different left traditions in Australia — in a revolutionary socialist party.

Part of the challenge of organising more effectively in the Alliance comes from the fact of this regroupment process.

Green Left Weekly was a sort of left regroupment project in its own right when it was first launched in 1991, involving ecologists and independent leftists in its editorial board.  It was the sort of regroupment that was available back then when the sort of organisational regroupment that is being discussed between Socialist Alliance and Socialist Alternative now was not on the cards.

The Alliance has had other learning experiences in regroupments — by playing a big role in Left Unity in Adelaide and Community Voice in Wollongong .

We hope to be able to bring some of our experiences of these efforts to bear in the discussions over how to more closely collaborate with the Socialist Alternative and the Communist Party of Australia.

But while we are committed to this path of left unity, it has to be taken seriously and with care not to sacrifice any real gains for the socialist movement as a whole in the process.

While we can agree to disagree on historical questions, we have yet to find out if we can reach agreement with Socialist Alternative over a program of action for a united socialist organisation in Australia today.

Another gain we should strive to preserve is that of a democratic and inclusive political culture that we have in the Alliance. We have fostered an attitude that political persuasion, experience and authority/leadership is won in the struggle (and not decreed). Ultimately, this helps create an environment in which comrades decide to devote a long-term and stronger commitment to the struggle.