I have read the discussion on the general direction and nature of Socialist Alliance with interest. While I have not had time to study all the contributions and or to make a detailed response, some general thoughts will serve as a background to this proposal
Comrade Adam Baker makes some serious charges about the organization. I think I understand his concerns and think they relate to issues which need to be taken and responded to seriously even if Adam is not correct in his analysis or prescriptions.
Many of us involved in the DSP for some time before its merger into Socialist Alliance, apart from accepting that the DSP had the best politics on offer in the crowded socialist marketplace, strongly valued the sense of unity and purpose, the esprit de corps, the remarkable organisational firepower for such a small group. This was so even when we called for and strove for a party on a broader basis than the detailed program that the DSP held, with its strictures on historical and theoretical questions and all the rest. We correctly saw that a larger organisation would inevitably be a broader basis, but also that unity would have to start somewhere rather than expecting an instant mass party. We also recognised that any such broader organisation would have different methods and “norms” than a tight-knit revolutionary group build on a very specific model, as such a model, as well as a very detailed program, is a barrier to the involvement of many.
Given all that it's right then to question and objectively assess whether in the merger some of the positive features of the DSP might be lost or diluted, whatever the advantages of the merger.
Given my level of participation in recent years I'm not in a good position to definitively judge this, particularly on a national level. I've noted, been at and occasionally played a modest role in a number of good successes nationally and here in Melbourne, however better organised things might have been, and I agree with other comrades who have noted that Adam's criticisms seem on the whole highly extravagant and based on very flimsy evidence.
However, the rational kernel in Adam's arguments is that, as I gather from my impression and from contributions here, Socialist Alliance could do with more coherence and more attention to the recruitment and training of activists. In this regard the Towards a Socialist Australia document and the discussion around it seems very timely, and Adam and other comrades of similar mind might do better making concrete suggestions for a better overall platform and specific proposals for action for the organisation.
In regard to the document itself I think it strikes a good balance between broadness and a coherent framework clearly informed by Marxism, as in my opinion the only coherent alternative to social democracy in the workers' movement, and a revolutionary perspective -- and calling for a new social system to be won by class struggle means is the meaningful content of a revolutionary perspective.
In my opinion, by the way, it wouldn't hurt to explicitly call ourselves revolutionaries (are there any current members or those who we want to attract who don't want to\p be revolutionaries) and, if asked, I think we should respond by saying we are and explain what that means as outlined in this document. I think this would be a good thing in attracting people inspired by for example explicitly revolutionary movements in Latin America and the Arab world. But as, for example, Hillary Clinton has been effusive in support of the “Egyptian revolution”, a coherent revolutionary perspective is more important than explicit written adherence to any particular word.
Another area I think is important in terms of coherence and the recruitment and training of activists is in education in, discussion of and debate around Marxist and socialist ideas. I think there has been a number of good events and conferences of varied forms in recent years, but given our great needs and limited resources we might want to think of cohering our efforts and perhaps creating a new and much-needed institution on the left by organising a regular educational and discussion conference at the same time each year.
I agree with Chris Slee's summary of the strengths and weaknesses of Socialist Alternative. While comrades in this group and the International Socialist tradition from which it sprang have a tendency to simplification and schematic thinking and practice (leaving aside sectarianism), their Marxism conferences appears to have become a useful institution for the left. Barring unity with them in the foreseeable future, I think both us and the broader movement would benefit from our forging of a better institution, better because of our generally better politics and specifically because of our long-standing and serious engagement with environment questions which SAlt quite outrageously abstain from.
This could help serve the needs that both we and the broader movement have for serious ongoing education, discussion and debate. It could also efficiently serve our needs for annual or bi-annual broad national meetings by tacking on a day or more of decision making conference as necessary after two or three days of more public and discussion-oriented sessions.
I think something of an annual formula, without being too formulaic, could serve our needs perhaps better than the “big bang” conferences every two or more years, which have been excellent but perhaps fail to maintain momentum after a big effort and perhaps involve some wheel-reinvention each time. An annual conference should I think aim to have a few “big names” and international guests and a good range of speakers from among ourselves and others from across the left, without needed to cover all bases as some things could wait until the following year. As just one of the uses of such a conference series, those in the academic game such as myself should see this as a opportunity to better cohere the scattered forces of Marxism and socialism operating in this arena.
The “socialist summer school” tag seems good as, I understand, a previous institution of the Communist Party of Australia, and as a proposal to Socialist Alliance by the DSP in 2003 which unfortunately wasn't followed through, as other proposals at the time such as a general book on socialism weren't.
Of course it needn't be in summer, but time slots are difficult, and one of the better one, Easter, would mean going head-to-head with SAlt's Marxism, which I don't think is generally the best thing to do (we should aim to attend it in a comradely spirit, for one thing). Apart from the pleasing alliteration of the name and its history, January, when educational institutional are mostly closed and many workers find it easier to take holidays, is probably best.
So I propose that the incoming national executive makes a serious examination of the possibility of holding a Socialist Summer School in January 2013 as the next major focus for our educational, discussion and outreach work, with a view to this becoming an annual event.