In defense of the Alliance

In defense of the Alliance

While the 21st Century Socialism tendency left before their views had a chance to be debated, some of the issues they raised are worth further consideration, and the response to them also. I started writing this prior to their departure and have rewritten it.

Unfortunately I got the feeling that rather than using the debate to reach greater clarity over differences, let alone resolve them, two sides put up barriers as if to wage factional war. The unfortunate ending of this episode does not absolve us from learning the lessons. The Alliance is a tiny force in Australian politics, despite being a large group (perhaps still the largest) on the far-left. We do not have the luxury of dismissing criticism from members (or even from outside).

A lot of people over recent years have left the Alliance, including in particular a lot of young, activist members, due to impatience at their concerns or ideas not being addressed or lack of confidence in the political project. Sadly the leadership as a whole have yet to address this problem or (apparently) even acknowledge it. Many of the departures were individuals, often  without fanfare or a reason for leaving. Individual departures are routinely psychologised to put the blame on the individual (demoralisation, egotism, ambition or whatever) which may or may not be relevant to individuals, but only obscures the larger picture: this keeps happening. Other trivial dismissals might put it down to “the difficult political period” or “psychological bullets of the bourgeoisie” but you might as well blame the weather.  

As a voluntary organisation, it can be expected that people who don't like the way the Alliance works might leave rather than spend their energy on something they don't agree with. But being small, we can't afford to let that be the default route for dissent. As an organisation that aspires to be both broad and democratic, it's concerning that many people have not even felt it is worthwhile to argue their views before leaving. A strong leadership should be able to engage with divergent views and concerns and build a stronger consensus, or constructive diversity, in the organisation. I almost wrote “address divergent views” there, but that has a very different connotation. We don't  have to resolve every disagreement or answer every question, only those necessary for our collective action. More important is to keep the Alliance as an engaging project for the many possible views on the far left.

It is a problem with many sides, and not a lot of the sides are showing much patience, from my view of what's been happening lately.

Impatience begets hostility

A lot of (often young) people who have joined the organisation, worked hard have been frustrated that there was not more recognition and respect for their work and ideas. Given the officially technocratic ideology of the times, people who have some professional aspirations often want some sense of a career path, at least unconsciously. This may partly reflect a sense of entitlement, but it's also from the lack of growth in the organisation as a whole.  Impatience can be difficult, but also can be a source of creativity that ought to be encouraged.

On the other hand, a lot of members recognise (rightly enough in many ways) that the limitations for the growth of the Alliance are external impositions that we can't directly change, and simply work hard to maintain the organisation as is and build it in the current form: let's not change it for the sake of change. And so a kind of organisational conservatism (beginning as practically conserving our organisation) forms another mood in the organisation, favouring stasis and perhaps inadvertently stagnation. What seemed to unite a number of angry people in both these camps (in the discussion over the most recent group that has left) is that they are all indignant that their hard work and sacrifice and opinion is being ignored or dismissed by the other side.

The problem with the supporters of the status quo in the Alliance is in fact a lack of political accountability. I don't mean financial, or democratic, or moral accountability. I mean procedural accountability: the priorities we adopt need to be justified and defended, repeatedly if they are ongoing and liable to be taken for granted. Questioning some of these assumptions was a positive aspect of the Tendency's documents, whatever you think of their eclectic proposed alternatives. The defense so far, that I have seen, has been insufficient and unconvincing.

Assessing our limitations objectively

Jim McIlroy, apart from polishing the good old “scaffolding” quote, offered some anecdotal evidence that GLW is still bought by young people. If he had a serious case, I imagine he would have had more than personal anecdote to make his case. I don't think most street sales of the paper are a useful prioritisation of members' time. Time would often be better spent writing more and better articles, promoting them online, training new writers, or finding campaigns to get involved in and making ourselves useful to them. And upgrading our clunky old website to highlight the latest content more effectively.

Not that all street reachout (including selling papers) is bad, and not doing any would probably be a worse problem. But there is an opportunity cost for the hours of running stalls that sell a scant handful of papers. Unfortunately, we don't seem to have any real accounting of either the benefits or the opportunity cost of this kind of effort.

Our electoral work is another thing we persist at without a strong analysis (that I've seen) of how we have gone, or how it may change. The latest Federal election results were given an upbeat report in Green Left, but our vote is so small that it is hard to distinguish a change in it from statistical noise. Perhaps a proper statistical analysis of the changes in our vote over the years would be worthwhile to give some more confidence to our pronunciations.

Regardless of whether our vote went up or down, our election campaigns remain tiny. The Greens have recruited most of the people moving left from the ALP ever since the Alliance was founded, more or less, and most young people interested in progressive politics too. The space we have carved (two council seats in the whole country) is tiny and fragile. We're struggling to mount much more than an empty bucket campaign in most seats in most elections, and it's unclear what a handful of votes for a socialist candidate (such as our Senate campaigns) achieves outside of base-building areas (where we have councillors, or an active branch).

The limitations on our electoral work are real and external to us; an objective fact. There are no clearly posed alternatives to consider like there is for the question of Green Left street sales — not running candidates has its own set of problems. But I see little attempt to understand the limitations. We simply persist doing the same thing each time. We can't change the objective circumstances, but perhaps if we take a more  critical look at our own activity we will identify new approaches to try. The Tendency's suggestion to refocus on local elections was at least worth thinking through, whether or not it is the best idea.

Build the Alliance, not The Party

I keep reading (and hearing) the Alliance referred to as “the party” in discussion. “The Party” is often shorthand amongst the far left for the pure Marxist/working class vanguard — which is too often conflated with the rather small organisation one happens to be a member of. This isn't helpful. We are not the party of the class, or the instrument of the class. Probably when most members use that shorthand it's just habit, but it would be clearer to refer to the Alliance as the Alliance not the Party (capitalised or otherwise).

One of the worst exacerbating factors of the limitations we currently face is that like all left groups there is a pressure to turn inward, to focus on “building The Party” or on simply maintaining and conserving our current institutions. It's certainly easier to think this way. There is any amount of theory about the best way to do it, and plenty groups who claim to be better than all others based on their correct recipe for “building the party”.

Building up the political organisation you are in is something that should be self evident. Obviously we want to do it professionally and democratically and I'm not arguing there is no method to it. It's just that the method is (mostly) not particularly remarkable. Any organisation that persists must build itself. In some ways we don't want Socialist Alliance to persist in its current, small and limited form, so it would be better not to spend too much effort theorising how the current form works (or doesn't). Where the method is more unusual in the revolutionary left revolves around attitudes to participatory democracy. I don't understand the dispute around online voting in Resistance that precipitated the Tendency's split, but these kind of debates should be taken seriously — and constructively — by all sides. I haven't seen an explanation of what that was all about, yet.

Build-the-party formulas also lend themselves to timeless truisms. Like the analogy of the party newspaper operating like a scaffolding, an analogy so polished from a century of use that there is little to disagree with, little to argue, and little specifically useful to current choices we may face about how to build either the press or the organisation. We should distrust “wisdom” that is timeless, because anything we do has to be done in the specific time and circumstances of now. Don't take my word for it. Here's Levins and Lewontin with more clarity and detail than I could hope for:

If it is to give a satisfactory explanation of a wide range of events in the world in a wide variety of circumstances, a theory necessarily must contain some logically very powerful element that is flexible enough to be applicable in so many situations. Yet the very logical power of such a system is also its greatest weakness, for a theory that can explain everything explains nothing. It ceases to be a theory of the contingent world and becomes instead a vacuous metaphysic that generates not only all possible worlds, but all conceivable ones. The narrow line that separates a genuinely fruitful and powerful theory from its sterile caricature is crossed over and over again by vulgarizers who seize upon the powerful explanatory element and, by using it indiscriminately, destroy its usefulness.  (The Dialectical Biologist, Harvard 1985)

I think the Alliance program embodies the same problem. It's not broad and detailed enough to be much of an educational tool, yet it's not specific enough to determine what we do at an particular conjuncture. If it were the latter, it would require updating so often as to be pointless. It's a kind of well-intentioned nothing. The DSP had a much more detailed program, used in some educationals, and substantial consensus over it, but still blew apart when something new and complex (the Alliance) came up. We would do better working to keep our policies up to date. Consider the debate over electoral reform recently: our policy had lots of great stuff, but nothing specifically about optional-preferential voting, and we — including me — published quite divergent views in GLW as a result.

What is the alliance?

I think the "unity of left sects" angle has been tried. The  Alliance was founded on it; and it reached the end of its usefulness some time ago, likely well before the tentative unity discussion between the Alliance and Socialist Alternative a couple of years ago. That's not to rule out all future organisational mergers. But the challenge now (generally) is not to find more left sects to merge with, but to de-sectify ourselves. We have to find ways for the Alliance, and membership of it, to become a useful force in the struggle generally, and for other activists in the struggle. We happily manage the former often enough, but the latter not so much. Solve this problem, and the Alliance can reach out to the larger left forces that matter, in the unions, Greens, perhaps even some of the Labor left (?!); all much more likely sources of far-left growth than the existing, tiny far-left groups.

One of the positive features of the Alliance is that it is open to affiliates, who do not have to share the exact priorities of the Alliance. In fact forming an affiliate might have been a more productive way for the faction to handle their disagreement with Alliance priority, rather than an outright split, if they had been more patient. Recognising that “unity of left sects” isn't a very useful way forward in itself does not rule out any particular group joining if they want to.

Likewise, we need to keep our public pluralism. While traditional far-left groups ask that members always defend the party line in public, we benefit from allowing members to disagree with it in public. No-one respects a person who supports their party line even when they can't defend it, let alone when they don't agree with it. Look at the social media warriors of Labor and the Greens battling it out with each other, each side spouting the line handed down by their PR managers as though it were their personal opinion. As an outsider to their spat (albeit more often on the Greens' side) it makes them all look bad to me. It's the kind of loyalty that is understandable for a football team, but politics demands something different.

Having said all that, the fact that we are opposed to needless division on the left is not in itself a sustainable basis for left unity. We don't want to be the Baha'i analog of the left — caricatured thus: “we recognize all groups have something positive to contribute, that's why we're the greatest and you must join us”. For  a militant who wants to change the world, what does joining the Alliance give them that they didn't get elsewhere? Affixing labels like “revolutionary” and “unity” might make us feel better, but achieves little. What does our membership offer in the way of training for activists? Collaboration between militants? What kind of public platform and support do we provide for our members' struggles? I am not proposing to answer these questions in this article but we do need to provide answers to them.


In summing up, I would be happy to see progress on the following in the Alliance.

1. more quantitative and systematic analysis of the limits of current activities, especially those that might be routine or taken for granted, with an open presentation of alternative options. Engage a statistician if necessary!

2. Leadership of the Alliance needs to build consensus in key areas, and recognise a healthy diversity where consensus is either not achievable, or not necessary. Impatience and organisational conservatism are destructive and we have to overcome them.

3. What is it about the Alliance that makes it useful to the working class, or even just to particular campaigns? We need to have a convincing answer to this question and demonstrate it in our practice.

4. What is it about being a member of the Alliance at present that makes it attractive to an activist? We need to have something tangible to offer, or we will continue to churn activist members without growing or even stabilising our organisation's active membership.