Socialist Alliance and organising

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.

It's been really great for me to see some really robust and interesting debate come up in Alliance Voices in the lead up to the Socialist Alliance national conference in January. Good work comrades!

But for me, I think, it would be remiss of us to not have a bit of a discussion of the politics and practice of organising. Organisational questions are something that I think is being discussed nationally (it has been in my experience in the last couple of years organising in Sydney/Perth and is reflected in PCD submissions so far as well). This contribution is not as comprehensive as I first hoped (for I've run out of time) and it leaves out big sections of our organisational practice, such as education, but I hope this can still be a contribution to our organisational practice.

The Socialist Alliance as an organisation has been around about decade, which is a comparatively short time. However, there is an enormous amount of experience that we already have to digest and to synthesise around how we go forward from here. SA has gone through different stages, from an electoral focused alliance of existing socialist groups, to a broader party with tendencies that still organised separately. Now we don't so much have tendencies, and are building SA as a party in its own right (although in a new way). The role of SA and how it has organised has differed and evolved over time, and we need to take stock of that and build on it.

Today we are seeking to build the Socialist Alliance into a campaigning organisation — and this is the road we need to continue down. Without the tendencies and organised affiliates that had previously existed, there aren't existing or outside organisational structures that we can fall back on. Even if we could, it wouldn't be desirable to do so, as SA will need to stand on its own two feet in the tests of the future if we are serious about the party being a vehicle for social change in Australia.

We are trying to do this in a new way. We are not trying to bring people around a narrow program, but build an organisation of activists around the ideals of socialism, and together build a force that is capable of engineering change in Australia.

In doing so, we need to be consciously looking at the way we are organising, and how we are building our organisation. A lot of us come from a political back ground of being in the Democratic Socialist Party, which was nominally a very tight political unit. In the beginning the SA project was a very loose grouping. Neither will fit for our ongoing project today.

Organising

Our organisation naturally flows from our politics. Our political project in Socialist Alliance is very important, and very different to projects of the past.

Socialist Alliance is not an ideologically-bound organisation: we have made a conscious effort to try to make an organisation where political differences can be tolerated, especially if they can be accommodated within our practical work on the ground in movements, unions and communities.

We are attempting to begin to draw the line under the splits and divisions that have haunted the modern left, and provide a home for people who instead of far left polemics, are more interested in building an organisation to fight for an anti-capitalist Australia, and seek to lead those struggles.

In being a broader and more open organisation, we will (and do) attract a wide range of people, from workers, students, unionists, unemployed inner-city latte sippers and suburban mums. This diversity cannot and will not be easy to bring under the umbrella of one organisation.

A healthy branch in SA is thus unlikely to fit to a formula. There will be movement/union fractions and branch meetings. There may be local committees etc. The challenge will be to make use of all the people we do have around, and get their input into our politics. We can't limit ourselves ourselves to certain campuses, or move comrades around to fit our political projections as much as we did in the past.

Instead, the challenge will be to engage with all those willing in the best ways we can. Here are some ideas about how best to achieve this:

Meetings

Meetings of members need to be the basic unit of our organisational structure.

Meetings need to be accessible, at a time and place convenient to members, but also with content that's relevant, engaging and understandable.

Meeting content should include something educational (possibly on a topical political issue, but not necessarily).

Importantly, branch meetings should discuss and guide the political work of the branch. Issues that we are working on should be discussed by the membership wherever possible, and should use that input to set our tasks and perspectives. Organisers and fractions should report in (where possible) to get input from others in the branch. People should come away from a branch meeting feeling like they've had input and have ownership over our political work.

A big problem for SA today is engaging with members who can't make it to branch meetings. We should still try and engage these members. We need to try and find ways to involve these people in our political project.

What other ways can we engage this broader membership? Can we make better use of fractions for people? Could we organise a suburban/local committee to involve people that can't easily make the branch meetings? Can we make skype available for meetings (although this could be a dangerous game)? Can we make better use of branch newsletters? Could more regular branch conferences be held? Can your branch circulate minutes via email, or encourage members who can't easily make meetings to submit motions or written reports in advance?

Caucus/fractions/working groups

A caucus, fractions, working groups etc are important parts of our political work and organisation. Bringing comrades together who share areas of work (such as union work, environmental or anti-war). Caucusing strengthens our organisation and our members in several ways. It allows us to bring together everyone's experience and ideas, and to co-ordinate our response to debates in a movement. It also allows us to make sure that we are all aware of things that may become an issue in a meeting or a group, or that we are all conscious of ensuring that certain concrete proposals get through or get discussed.

This doesn't mean that we try to stitch up meetings before they happen. We don't seek to artificially lay out a line and tie our members to that position it in a meeting. We rightly disagree with other groups that caucus to an extreme, and it looks horrible when people from a group get up, use the same sound grabs, and vote en block at the beck and call of a “leader”.

If we over caucus, it can be alienating for independents (and potential recruits) if the decisions for a meeting is all figured out before hand, and thus limits their input.

What we seek to do is make sure all our members are informed of what we are doing. If we are all informed and have heard people's ideas for taking the movement forward, then in general we will come to an agreement. If we keep our members informed that give them the ability to engage in the debate as it evolves, not need to take the lead from another individual.

When our caucus is about sharing information to work out a common approach on those areas it is useful to do so, we give our members the tools they need to engage with and build a movement and our organisation.

Involving our membership

We are only as strong as our membership, and everything we do we should be geared towards involving our membership as much as possible. It is important that this isn't done in tokenistic ways, but involve our members in real ways where they have input into not just our activities but setting our political direction.

In organising and involving people, we cannot be proscriptive. There is not a one size fits all policy for involving people. We will be joining different people, with different levels of political experience and understanding, different constraints and limitations on their time. We need to be conscious of this and tailor our involvement for people to suit them, so as we get the most out of the members of our organisation, and they get the most out of us.

A really good example of finding ways to fit our organisation to our people was the Socialist Parents group that Perth branch was experimenting with when I was in WA. Comrades with small children, for obvious reasons, have real limitations to what they can make it too and the ways they can be involved, branch meetings at night are a difficult for those with kids to regularly attend. A parents group was a really good way of engaging some of our members and periphery in a regular political discussion, and we were able to involve more people as a result.

What we need to be doing is adjusting our organising to our people where they are at. Some people we join will be able to immediately fall into organising roles, but the overwhelming majority won't (even if they would like too, people need to be trained up into these roles — no one is born a bolshie). Sometimes, particularly in branches in big cities where we are under enormous pressure to cover events and relate to everything, we can slip into a mechanical form of organising where we overload and overwhelm new keen members, and end up losing them when the pressure becomes too much.

We can't continue to do this. It is infinitely more important to train and educate someone properly, and give them the skills to become a free thinking and lifelong revolutionary then it is to hit the special spot for the paper.

Role of organisers

The role of the organiser thus is to facilitate the many threads and facets of our organisation.

An organiser must of course be pretty politically cluey, and be informed of various happenings in politics locally/nationally/internationally, but the organisers' role is not to provide the political line or do the thinking through for a branch. Of course an organiser as a full time revolutionary has more time to devote to thinking through these questions, and plays an important role in helping inform a branch with all the information needed to make a call on where the branch should prioritise.

As much as possible, we should seek to involve as many members as possible in setting our political task and directions. If we are not doing so, we are robbing ourselves of further input which strengthens our political positions.

If we are not engaging our broader membership within a branch in meaningful ways, then this can have real negative consequences for a branch. As well as leading to weaker politics, this can undermine the activist culture in a branch, as people are less likely to be involved in projects that they don't feel consulted on or don't feel ownership over them. If an organiser takes too much initiative under their own authority, this robs branch meetings of a decision-making function. This can take the life out of meetings which makes for less engaging meetings.

Where possible it might be worth looking into having organisers reports occasionally at branch meetings — or specifically electing our organisers as part of our branch committee elections.

Youth organising

Youth work is a very important part of our political work in Socialist Alliance. Especially now with the proposed changes to streamline some organisational overlap between Resistance and Socialist Alliance, we have to be consciously thinking through how it is we are organising young people.

In this new organisational reality we will need to be even more vigilant in the way we organise youth, and specifically in making sure we create and foster independent spaces for young people to be organising within our organisation.

We need to create spaces where young people have the opportunity to take initiatives and engage in revolutionary politics in a real sense. This is change depending on branch, in some places Resistance will be able to constitute separate meetings and educationals, and might take responsibility for an area of movement work. In other places, Resistance members might meet as part of SA meetings, and take responsibility for a specific task in the branch — say film screenings or organising a fund raiser. (Being frank, and saying this in a comradely way, there can be a tendency from some of our older members to override ideas by Resistance members or to give them tasks that are menial and limiting and don't give much space for people to engage politically.)

Youth members will welcome and benefit from the experience of older comrades, but we have to be conscious of the way that we offer that advice. We need to make sure that we are giving youth members tasks that give them the space to be able to creatively engage with politics and be learning their own lessons in collaboration with comrades.

If you disagree with a decision that a younger comrade has come too, maybe ask them how they came to that decision. That way you'll understand what their thinking, and then you can help feed in ideas in a more informed way. Inform comrades of things you've experienced, and let them weigh it up. Don't just try and override young comrades — even if you think your idea is better. Be prepared to let Resistance members make their own minds and take their own initiatives, even when it differs from your own ideas, unless it's something of critical importance, or could have serious negative consequences.

Theory and reality

A lot of what has been said here won't be new, and be things that a lot of people would in theory agree with. I would like to say however that it is important that we are actually practising what we preach. It is imperative that organisers are constantly assessing themselves, and the organising team around the branch, to look for ways in which we can make ourselves stronger. Likewise branch members should make sure they are trying to be involved in the life of the branch if they can.

We all have the privilege of being part of this organisation, but it comes with the responsibility to make sure that it is the best that it can be.