Socialist Alliance was founded as an alliance of socialist parties in 2001. Central to the new alliance was the thesis that a new militant left-wing break in the trade union movement was emerging — a political break from the class-collaborationist unionism of the ALP. The leadership of Australia’s largest socialist party, the “Democratic Socialist Party” (DSP), predicted that the handful of small breaks that had already taken place presaged a new wave of breaks. This was occurring in the context of a burgeoning anti-neoliberal globalisation movement which had hit Australian shores with the mass blockade of the World Economic Forum in 2000. The fractious socialist left in Australia was unable to provide a realistic political home for militants breaking from the “Australian Labor Party” (ALP) hegemony in the trade union movement, however a new left unity project could. The DSP and the “International Socialist Organisation” (ISO), as Australia’s two largest socialist parties, formed the nucleus of the new Socialist Alliance which also attracted the bulk of the remaining small socialist parties.
The DSP, along with the majority of “non-aligned” members (those in Socialist Alliance who were not members of any of the original affiliate organisations), later sought to transform Socialist Alliance into what was termed a “Multi-Tendency Socialist Party” (MTSP). The next largest affiliate, the ISO, opposed the idea, and later left the Alliance. Over the course of the first few years of its existence all other affiliates departed Socialist Alliance, leaving the DSP and a significant number of “non-aligned” members.
The significant militant break in the trade union movement — the original political basis for the Socialist Alliance — never reached critical mass. Later, with the departure of all but one of the original affiliate organisations (for reasons too detailed to elaborate here), the Socialist Alliance as a genuine unity project of the socialist left in Australia was no more. However it was clear that what remained was a new kind of socialist party — an organisation that had thrown off many (but not all) of the sectarian distortions and sect-like organisational norms that dominated the rest of the socialist left in Australia, and indeed the DSP.
The departure of the affiliates left an underdeveloped Socialist Alliance in a situation whereby the only remaining affiliate — the DSP — became almost totally responsible for maintaining the organisational apparatus of two parties, with much overlap of course. This was a massive strain on a limited base of DSP cadre who were trained and experienced in party organising, but the cadre “capital” the DSP had built up over decades allowed the situation to persist for some time, until the DSP took the step of dissolving itself into Socialist Alliance. It should be no surprise then that the organisational structure of Socialist Alliance today roughly mimics that of the DSP, though the function does not.
Significant changes occurred in how the DSP core of the Socialist Alliance organised, primarily the abandonment of organisational norms associated with self-described “Leninist party in the Bolshevik tradition” that had been the DSP: highly-disciplined organisational methods; demanding a very high level of commitment and personal sacrifice of members; a highly-centralised structure with an explicit and heavy focus on achieving “ideological homogeneity”.
Beyond the eschewing of many of these organisational forms, however, less conscious organisational changes occurred. The focus on youth came to be redirected. The new Socialist Alliance, particularly post the departure of the affiliates, put its primary party-building focus on an ill-defined “broad” political milieu. Organisational focus came to bear on building large public events and presenting a public face that might attract — again ill-defined — “leftward-moving” forces. The public profile of the Alliance became a primary focus, often divorced from political practise. This is linked to a long-term tendency towards “hyper activism” — sometimes-superficial interventions in social movements, rally-hopping, an overt focus on getting the name of the party “out there”. Attracting and maintaining a large paper membership in was prioritised in many cases over building a sustainable activist base. The “broad” event often replaced systematic party building with an overwhelming focus on “bums on seats” style, passive events requiring activist resources to pull off while providing minimal gains for the party or movement(s) in general.
The party also developed an overwhelming focus on providing opportunities for inactive or semi-active members to engage with the party in any way no matter how minimal, while neglecting the needs of more active and committed party activists. This approach put great pressure on branch organisers and executives and naturally did not contribute to the training of activists. The practical outcome of this approach became a kind of “two-tier” membership that reflected the new political approach that necessarily required a small activist/organiser core to engage in an increasingly superficial way a larger peripheral membership. This peripheral membership were subject to little to none of the expectations of political commitment and conscious activism that were necessarily placed on the activist core of the party.
One outcome of this approach has been the entrenchment of party organisers who keep basic party functions turning over, while the development of collective leadership is neglected. This has meant that when a organiser transfers from a branch, branches all but collapse. We have also seen the unhealthy phenomenon of long-term material dependence on the party for some. On the other hand we have seen a de-politicisation of the party: the loss of a culture of thorough and consistent internal discussion; a party with ill-defined organisational principles and methods; a party for whom the politics of the day bears little relationship to the way we organise; a party that struggles to define realistic goals and formulate realistic approaches to achieving them. As a result we have developed a general inability to work out key organisational priorities that are the product of a collective critical analysis of the politics of the day and a flexible and creative organisational approach.
Often, organisers, activists in the party, in many ways came to have their roles defined in practice as event organisers and administrators much more than they are defined as political actors working towards concrete political goals in a political organisation, and as trainers of growing layers of socialist activists.
With the benefit of hindsight it can be said that the trend outlined here describes a pursuit of seeking the appearance of a broad party at the expense of building our organisational strength to contribute to a future broad socialist party. We spent years representing ourselves as a broad party in the absence of broader political forces becoming part of Socialist Alliance — a “fake it ‘til you make it” formula. We approached real discussions for left unity without reflecting on our approach to organisation, or how it might change. This is the antithesis of a concrete, materialist approach to party building whereby organisation is a function of the tasks we set before us. This organisational idealism necessitates short-sightedness in leadership — a distinctive inability to set realistic short, medium and long-term goals and devise and implement strategies for achieving them.
De-politicisation of the party has left us ill-equipped to build a growing and competent activist base, and as such has hamstrung our ability to lead social movements. It is a party building approach defined by its lack of strategy, its lack of politics, by the inability of its proponents to coherently express its nature or its purpose. It has left us with an organisation that lacks coherent strategy and vision, and operates on many levels in a manner abstracted from the concrete politics of the day. This has been a central obstacle to the growth of the party and its ability to both attract leaders from the social movements, and organically grow our leadership base in any serious way. Party building methodologies that are not subject to ongoing examination and evaluation in any systematic way have been pervasive for many years, and persist to this day.
Here we need to ask the obvious question: why has the necessary examination and evaluation of how we operate as a party not taken place sufficiently to address core failures and clear core obstacles to growth? Why have the minimal turns to party building basics in recent years been so piecemeal, so sporadically implemented, and taken so long to occur? Perhaps one responsibility of leadership is to initiate debate around these questions, but the party should not be reliant on leadership to do this. Rather, the party’s organisational structures and methods should facilitate the growth of a culture where such debate is commonplace, where members are encouraged to think through these issues and are empowered to contribute in a meaningful way to raising and resolving organisational and political questions. Noting that we lack this in Socialist Alliance his is not a personal attack on individuals but a political critique of organisational failure. The numerous incidences of leading members raising serious concerns should have been each a flag for the need to initiate a broader discussion. Instead, many of those who have had concerns have left the party. Concerns and differences have been written off as the product of “demoralisation”; resignations psychologised as being for “personal reasons”. Which built-in organisational and/or political failures allow for individuals who have such a commitment to the party that they attempt to tackle fundamental questions — for them to come to the tough decision to leave a party they’ve put vast energies into, made major personal sacrifices for?
The need for a thorough discussion of these and other questions is glaring. The party needs answers if we are to chart a path forward in trying times for the left. So why do we need a tendency in order to have such a discussion?
Since at least 2012, a handful of Socialist Alliance members, mostly youth leaders, have raised critiques of the long-term orientation of Socialist Alliance that has seen major declines in our leadership base and organisational capacity. They have sought to lay the foundations of a long-overdue discussion of what kind of a party Socialist Alliance is, and needs to be.
It has been a quiet tragedy that these comrades in many cases have been met with suspicion, hostility, and with political and organisational undermining, from a national leadership core. Most have now left the party. Some who remain saw the formation of a tendency as the only alternative to resigning. In a period when we needed to be rebuilding from the ground up, talented leaders have found themselves utterly alienated from the party, treated with paranoid levels of suspicion and distrust after raising critiques. Isolated, most have left or stepped back from activity. Complainants have been attacked, complaints about how they have been treated labelled “slander”. Victim-blaming has taken place. This approach to complaints and complainants has been systematic and occurred in multiple cases. The resignation of an outgoing RYSA national co-convenor from the NE just prior to the last national conference is the most recent example. The bizarre, quiet distribution of the “NE Reply” to her resignation letter at the end of the 2015 national conference must have left some comrades scratching their heads. This comrade fought for transparent democratic process regarding the election of the incoming NE. That fight was lost, and the latest in a string of youth leaders stepped back from leadership.
In a time of growing disquiet over the direction of the party, instead of leading an open discussion of the way forward, instead of seeing the desperate need for an honest stocktake of how we got to where we are, instead of embracing new leadership as it emerges, we have a national leadership core who has pursued the narrowing of national leadership. The undermining of numerous youth leaders has been part of this; another example was the stripping of state representation from the National Executive and the loss of accountability this entailed.
What have been some concrete consequences of this narrowing approach to leadership in the party, and this factional and suspicious treatment of criticism and concerns raised in good faith? Primarily it has meant the stifling and loss of a layer of leadership — leaders whose time, commitment and talent is now being applied outside the party. The numerical loss of activists has been severe. It has meant that the work and the potential of national leadership has been hampered and limited, because the tasks required of national leadership are stretched between a very small group of comrades.
How do we measure the state of the party today? Without putting the spotlight on any individual branch, we know some things about the state of the party:
These are only what we know from experience and national reports. What is generally left out of party building reports on a national level is an honest political picture of the actual state of the party, the relative strength of branches and their functionality, and so on. Lacking from national reports is an honest appraisal of the position of the party relative to, say, a year ago, or two or three or five years ago. Lacking is any serious appraisal of our ability to achieve our goals, or if we achieved goals that were set, or why we were unable to. Lacking is an honest explanation or analysis of how it is that our financial situation is in a downward spiral. Are branches having regular branch meetings? We don’t know. What led to a number of branches no longer really functioning? We don’t know. Beyond Green Left Weekly sales figures - which while perhaps some vague indication of the health of a branch still leave most pertinent questions unanswered - little attempt is made to enlighten the membership of exactly how we’re going nationally in any serious detail.
It is our hope that the formation of this tendency will spark the kind of honest national assessment we need, and the kind of information-sharing between branches and the analysis of that information that the party needs.
The current NE comprises National Officeholders plus 12 directly elected members, plus RYSA representatives, according to the minutes of the last National Conference. This may have changed since.
The amendment to the constitution that added the 12 members directly elected by Conference (passed by the 2010 National Conference) coincided with the merger of the DSP into Socialist Alliance. Prior to this, the NE comprise National Officeholders, one representative for each affiliate organisation, and state and territory representatives. While enlarging of the NE reflected the reality that much of the national leadership work of Socialist Alliance was being carried out by the DSP, it was an amendment that enshrined an unaccountable and undemocratic leadership selection process in the constitution. This conference also passed the formation of the Socialist Alliance National Council, another import from the DSP’s organisational structure.
Comrade David White (now resigned) submitted a dissenting article criticising a number of the constitutional amendments passed at that conference. In relation to the NE composition amendments, he said:
“There has been no clear and specific justification for the election of 12 new members to the national executive. These members would effectively be accountable to no one, as they are not directly accountable to the branches, or to any of the working groups. The conference would not expressly give them any specific role, as I understand the present proposal. Their tasks would be allocated by the NE, and if they caucused together, the power that these 12 members could yield would be almost unlimited. With the election of these new members, the NE would have a total membership of 28 — an impossibly large number, as against the present number of 19.”
The take-home point of David’s critique is the lack of accountability that comes with a largely directly elected NE. With no specific tasks or roles, with no formal link to branches or working groups, these NE members are not accountable to the membership, or branches, or anybody with formal representation from branches. As such they can only be accountable to themselves, or else leadership higher up on the “pyramid”.
The problem of an oversized NE was formally addressed at the 2014 National Conference, but in a way that degraded party democracy further. The proposal put to that conference (passed) by the then outgoing NE removed this section, effectively stripped branches of direct representation on the NE:
“State and Territory representatives. The State and Territory representatives shall be Queensland 2, New South Wales 4, Victoria 3, Western Australia 2 and 1 each from the other States and Territories, those representatives to be selected by the relevant State executive or State committee.”
This amendment was cynically rationalised as increasing the accountability of the NE. It is patently absurd to suggest that stripping formal representation from branches — the real grassroots units of the party — would increase accountability. What this amendment did was remove the only truly constitutionally-accountable part of the NE (excluding RYSA reps who are elected by the RYSA leadership body). What we were left with was a NE composed of National Officeholders, 12 directly elected members, and RYSA reps.
Here it is important to note that the 12 directly elected members of the NE are not simply directly elected. In fact the outgoing NE proposes its own list of who it says should comprise those 12 — a slate by any other name. It should be obvious that a slate proposed by the incumbents puts a barrier to the organisation correcting errors and being accountable. Serious concerns have been raised at the last two conferences about this process, with no viable defence being put in response. A conflict on the outgoing NE over this very matter saw the resignation of an outgoing RYSA Convenor from that body. What actually occurred was the National Co-Convenors formulating a list and presenting it to the outgoing NE for endorsement just 3 days before Conference. The list is formulated by the National Convenor(s), and presented to the outgoing NE, within no particular timeframe. Instead of any formal consultation with branch leaderships, selection of candidates is conducted via informal discussions — some comrades are simply asked if they would be willing to run without any discussion of the actual leadership in their branch, or the role they themselves are playing. This process leaves the party wide open to self-perpetuating and permanent leadership.
Even if one considered acceptable this process whereby convenors alone are tasked with formulating a draft list of names, a slate for all intents and purposes, for an incoming NE, then surely one would expect that, once formulated, this list would be subject to thorough discussion, reformulation and amendment by the outgoing NE. This is patently not the case, as demonstrated by the fact that the 2015 conference list only saw the light of an NE meeting three days prior to that conference. Even if one considered this supra-constitutional process acceptable, surely it is not acceptable for such inadequate consideration of the list by the outgoing NE.
It is indisputable that such a list holds huge weight — much more weight than individual counter-proposals could hope to have. This process, which takes place with no constitutional backing, inherently favours incumbency and leaves the NE wide open to “permanent leadership”, clique-formation, secret caucuses and secret factions taking effective control of the NE, and by extension, the direction of Socialist Alliance. In the experience of comrades who have raised criticisms of the direction of the party in recent years, some of these risks have materialised. It also effectively gives co-convenors the power to hand-pick the incoming leadership, with a necessarily limited discussion on conference floor giving little chance for anyone outside the NE to seriously think through national leadership and make a truly informed decision. In practice this has proven the case — for the last two years, the list proposed by the outgoing NE has been elected with little or no amendment.
The Socialist Alliance’s “National Secretariat” (NatSec) is another import from the DSP’s organisational structures, the formation of which was also part of the 2010 Constitutional amendments. This also was an acknowledgement of the fact that key national work of the party was being carried out by the DSP prior to its merger into SA, and the fact that National Convenor(s) alone could not manage the workload of day-to-day national work.
In composition and in practice, the NatSec is a deeply unaccountable and opaque body. Appointed by the incoming NE, according to the minutes of the last National Conference, this year’s NatSec comprises 13 comrades. It meets weekly and is the most active national “working body” whose assignment, according to the constitution, is “to implement decisions of the National Executive and to prepare National Executive meetings”. In practice, according to a number of comrades who have served on it, the actual relationship between the NE and the NatSec is the inverse. Similar reports indicate that the NE often plays a rubber-stamp role for decisions already made by the NatSec. The NatSec is an undemocratic body that operates, in practice, as the true “highest” decision-making body of the party; a body whose decisions are neither communicated nor accessible to the membership.
The Socialist Alliance constitution states that:
The assets and income of the Alliance shall be applied solely in furtherance of its objectives and no portion shall be distributed directly or indirectly to the members of the organisation except as bona fide compensation for services rendered or expenses incurred on behalf of the organisation.
It also states that:
The National Officeholders and National Executive shall be responsible for the running of the organisation and for finance, membership, arrangements of meetings, communications with local groups and individuals, national bulletin production and distribution, liaison with other groups and organisations, and arrangements for seeking and enabling electoral registration and compliance with electoral laws; and any other matters delegated to them by the Alliance as a whole.
However, again based on the experience of a number of comrades who have served on the NE and NatSec, it is the case in Socialist Alliance that key organisational decisions as to how the party’s finances are deployed are made outside of any elected body. The decision makers behind the allocation of the party’s finances are almost entirely unaccountable to the membership. Key questions as to who receives “bona fide compensation”, what is considered fair compensation, where it would be useful for the organisation to direct such compensation; these questions rarely see the light of an NE meeting or a NatSec meeting, nor do they make it to reports at National Conference or National Council meetings. There is no transparency at all around who is a party organiser or by what criteria decisions are made as to who gets to be compensated for their time, and to what degree.
Finances reports to NCs and National Conferences give broad statistics on expenditure, but no details as to where the money goes, how expenditure priorities are set or by whom, or what those priorities are. These are questions the membership needs to know, and it is not acceptable for delegated and elected decision making bodies to be kept in the dark about such questions. Does any elected body actually have effective control over the party’s finances or assets? Where are the transparent processes for organisational bodies and individuals to apply for financial support? The answers to most of these questions cannot be found in any written material, in our constitution or elsewhere. Is this an acceptable situation?
We need to democratise our finances, for example, the Finances Committee taking proposals to the NE for discussion and voting — not acting as it does now: as an unelected decision-making body with extensive power over the allocation of the party’s finances. Those empowered to make decisions about the party’s finances need to be thoroughly accountable to the membership, and their activities transparent. If there are security questions that require some information to be kept in the private domain, then decisions as to what qualifies as too sensitive for publication need to be made by accountable elected bodies. Particular traditions around “security” are no justification for denying today’s membership the right to decide on what they are allowed to know about their own party’s internal operations. Such information should be open to the membership who should be trusted with the ability to exercise discretion where discretion is due.
As national leadership has become less democratic and more centralised, we have seen a concurrent disintegration of the connection between that national leadership and branches. This has been exacerbated with the loss of formal representation for states on the NE. Branches who were not lucky enough to make the outgoing NE’s list of hand-picked candidates for the incoming NE typically have very little contact with national leadership. Recent efforts by national convenors to visit branches belie a long-term trend of confused priorities in relation to national leadership, for example, co-convenors being seconded by branches to run in election campaigns, particularly at times when their work is needed most on a national level.
So we have the contradiction of an increasingly-centralised leadership, but a membership that is increasingly disconnected from it. Insufficient democracy in the party has led to alienation of the rank and file and a lack of creative responses to new challenges. The practical outcome of this is that branches feel increasingly disengaged with the party, and the party as a whole has lost confidence. We have lost many of the capabilities of a conscious, fighting class-struggle organisation consisting of well-functioning local and national teams.
Here it must be emphasised that above all other bodies, our branches are the most important units of the party. They are the grassroots, the feet on the ground. They are our connection with our class. We must never forget that national leadership exists for the branches — not the other way around. When we reach a situation in which branches have little to no connection to national leadership, we must ask for what purpose, for whose purpose, national leadership exists.
Is all this an argument for a highly-centralised leadership that issues frequent “lines” for members to articulate in their day to day work? No. Such an organisation has major limitations and is bound to fall into sectarian errors. Is it an argument for “federalism”, an abandonment of any form of centralised or united political action and organisation? No. This word has been bandied about for years, but it is a caricature of arguments that are actually calls for greater accountability in leadership.
The thrust of this document is an argument for a systematic broadening of leadership via a thorough examination of the roles of leadership bodies and the weaknesses in our organisational structure. It is an argument for a thorough and self-critical analysis of our current structures, and for a fundamental reorganisation of Socialist Alliance. This will require a “flattening” of leadership in the party from the over-centralised pyramid structure we have arrived at today. It will require democratisation of leadership bodies, and an organisational restructure of the party along more transparent and democratic lines. It is an argument for branches to have formal and direct input into the day to day functioning of the party.
What does a “flattening” of leadership mean in practical terms? It means upending the inherited model of leadership that still dominates in Socialist Alliance nationally, and no doubt in some branches. It’s a model in which a small group of leaders (or even a single leader/organiser/convenor) does the bulk of the thinking, formulating proposals to take to the larger group which discusses the proposals, perhaps with some minor tweaking, then almost invariably vote for it. Rarely is the proposal itself challenged, nor are members of the larger group challenged to independently bring proposals to bear. This is a centralism perhaps appropriate for underground parties facing major state repression, but entirely inappropriate and stifling for Socialist Alliance today. At its worst, this model sucks the life out of an organisation. Decision making meetings become less about empowering members to participate and own decisions, less about debating the politics of this or that question. The real political discussion takes place before the meeting, outside the larger decision making body. Such a structure actively denies members real opportunities to participate in decision-making, to be a part of determining the direction of the party. It’s a deadly, disempowering and deadening formula.
In its most stagnant incarnation, this model sees branches and other elected or delegated bodies acting largely as a rubber stamp for proposals put to these bodies by the executive or organiser/convenor. A culture develops whereby the so-called “professional revolutionaries” of old, the party organisers, the experts, do the real strategising behind the scenes. From this model, a schism develops between those who have less time and those who have the most time, and from this flows an organisational division between the intellectual labour carried out by the “professional revolutionaries” and the manual and administrative labour carried out by the rest.
One problem with this model, which is most evident on a national level in Socialist Alliance, is that it takes the onus off the membership and indeed the members of elected and delegated bodies to really think through and debate strategic and tactical questions. When key strategic and tactical questions are almost exclusively the purview of the “leaders” (read the organisers gathered around the National Office on a national level), then what need is there for vibrant internal discussion and debate? On a local level this leads to branch meetings that deal largely with how pre-made political decisions are to be implemented and an overwhelming emphasis on administrative matters, paper sales figures and so on. On a national level it leads to dull, predictable meetings where political debate takes a back seat. It’s a pyramid model of leadership that disempowers members and fails the party since it fails to harness the creative energy of the membership.
This model of leadership must end. It must be flipped on its head. The pyramid must be inverted. Leadership must not be about bringing all the ideas to the table. It must be about bringing out the ideas in the membership; facilitating and coordinating the political discussions and debates from which ideas and proposals emerge. Leadership should not be about a small core being the repository of all wisdom but about bringing the best out of leadership teams and the broader membership.
It is unacceptable that members be expected to place faith in individuals in the absence of adequate democratic structures. Party democracy cannot be left to the will of individuals to practice it. Party democracy must be embodied in transparent, democratic structures and processes that ensure accountability and exist under the genuine ownership of the membership.
For many comrades reading, much of this will be new information. The lack of discussion over organisational questions in the party is not new. In many ways this itself is an import from the DSP — a party built on fostering a high level of “political agreement”, but one with an unhealthy culture of almost unquestioning trust in national leadership. This is a cultural hangover we must break in Socialist Alliance. No leadership is infallible, no leadership grouping should be relied upon for all the answers. Structures that leave national leadership open to undemocratic distortions, cliquism and “permanent leadership” need to be changed. Trust is no substitute for genuine democracy, transparency and accountability. These are not esoteric questions. They relate directly to the ability of the party to respond to politics, to grow, to build new layers of leadership, to build a genuine connection to the working class, to stay relevant to young people.
Structures that may have worked in a party that prided itself on its “ideological homogeneity” — however real or false that may have been — and the high level of agreement on any and every organisational and political question are entirely inappropriate and inadequate for a party like Socialist Alliance. Transplanted into the very different party that Socialist Alliance is, they have distorted and led to opaque, dangerously centralised and unaccountable national leadership, a core of which locks out critical voices and therefore seems incapable of charting a political direction for the party today, for it has tended to be the most committed and promising leaders who have been utterly alienated by the behaviour described.
A modern, non-sectarian socialist party that has as its aim a mass party of the working class needs to comprehensively break from all of the failed traditions of the international left, not just some of them. Socialist Alliance has come a considerable way along this path, but if we fail to tackle the organisational problems that are hangovers from a failed, century-long project, we will lose the gains we’ve made and the wisdom we’ve accumulated through our experimentation so far. We need to walk the talk of the broad, non-sectarian party.
This tendency does not purport to have an immediate solution or a blueprint for an alternative organisational structure, but it does seek to identify core failures — some of which have been outlined in this document — and fight for change in the party that comprehensively addresses those failures. This is not a permanent faction. It will exist so long as it needs to in order to resolve the contradictions that are holding the party back. To achieve this we will need comrades who find themselves in general agreement with what we are saying, who wish to actively participate in helping to resolve those contradictions, to join us.
Murray T, Sarah O, Ewan S, Feargal McG, Sian C, Angus McA, Leela F, Lucinda D, Daniel E, Stephanie G, Evan V, Stuart H, Ben K, Rhys A, Brodie C, Sean B, Emma F, Bronwyn D, Kirk N, Jayden O, Nicol B, Jack B