Party building report (October 2009 DSP National Committee plenum)

1. Politics of the new party

I wanted to start by showing you this picture of the spontaneous mass rally that greeted the coup-ousted President Manuel Zelaya of Honduras upon his recent return. This is Fidel Castro's reflection on the tumultuous process in Honduras since the coup:

"We have seen a new awareness emerge in the Honduran people. An entire legion of social fighters has been hardened in that battle. Zelaya fulfilled his promise to return... New and admirable cadres are standing out among the combative social movements... A revolution is being born there."

This is another reminder that we live in revolutionary times and this reality frames our political perspectives, including the perspective to merge the DSP into the Socialist Alliance.

The general line of this report, presented by Peter Boyle on behalf of the DSPNational Executive, was adopted on October 4, 2009 by the DSP National Committee.

This reality of revolution in our time must be up front in our minds. Remember, in the 1990s the widely accepted "wisdom" was that socialism was finished for good and that capitalism was the "end of history". That capitalist triumphalism is foundering as the example of the Cuban and Venezuelan revolutions is picked up in more and more countries in Latin America, and as all around the world people in struggle look to these revolutions for inspirations and political lessons.

We do the same here. We study — in as much detail as possible — the revolutionary advances in our times, and are constantly reviewing the lessons we have drawn from earlier revolutions and other experiences of the socialist movement. And one important lesson we can learn from these current revolutionary processes is that it is possible to bridge that gap we have discussed under earlier reports between the huge contradictions of 21st century capitalism and the still weak state of the working-class mass organisations and left parties.

But to do this we have to reach out to those new forces coming into struggle. And we need to advance new fighting programs and platforms to facilitate this. We need to constantly re-assess what an effective party for socialism in the 21st century needs to agree on at each stage in order to advance. And all this needs to be done in the concrete context we confront in each country. This is how the Venezuelan revolution is advancing and this is the basis on which a new party for socialism is being constructed there.

By merging the DSP into the Socialist Alliance we are seeking to learn from the living revolutions. In this process we are not giving up our revolutionary socialist politics — we are finding the best road to taking that politics to a bigger audience. This is not just a paper declaration. We have proved it with everything we have done over the last months. Actions speak louder than words. We have carried on taking our politics into the various social movements and we have campaigned for socialist ideas through Green Left, other publications, through local political education classes and seminars, and through a very successful World At A Crossroads conference. All this proves that we have not in any way "liquidated" our political heritage. The membership of the Socialist Alliance sees this. Our local and international collaborators see this. Even our class enemies see this. Only minds hopelessly blinded by factionalism refuse acknowledge this reality. And the sad truth is that those who slander us most loudly as "liquidationists" are themselves in practice liquidating revolutionary socialist politics by retreating ever more into sectarian dogmatism, sterile debating games and abstention from the real struggles of the working class.

II. Experiences and decisions since last NC

We have implemented the proposals adopted by the last DSP national committee to begin the merger process. And these have been successful. We have won agreement on the process in the Socialist Alliance leadership bodies at all levels and, at the local level, the new Socialist Alliance organising committees have basically taken over all the work previously carried out by DSP branch executives (barring the conduct of DSP pre-congress discussion).

We have invited non-DSP Socialist Alliance members to DSP pre-congress discussions, we have held a joint DSP-SA national executive meeting (and foreshadowed more in the period leading up to the January conferences), and we have invited members of the Socialist Alliance national executive and local organising committees as observers to this national committee meeting.

This open and inclusive approach has been welcomed by non-DSP Socialist Alliance members.

We've moved to weekly Socialist Alliance national newsletters and stopped producing a DSP national newsletter. This has allowed the Socialist Alliance membership to be more informed and involved.

But midway through this process, the DSP national executive made the judgement that we needed to make a bit of a leap in the process. We took into account the broad consensus that was emerging in the DSP membership about the merger, as well as the need to begin 2010 on a fighting footing and, on this basis, proposed that we shorten the DSP congress to a single day and offer Socialist Alliance the next three (January 3-5) to hold its national conference.

The Socialist Alliance national executive agreed to this and the organisation of the two side by side conferences is now under way. This report proposes the DSP national committee endorse this decision and amend the DSP congress call accordingly.

III. Leadership team formation & Socialist Alliance structures

The immediate challenge in this merger process is the formation of new leadership teams that are capable of taking Socialist Alliance forward and taking on the responsibilities that have previously been carried by DSP bodies.

Our approach is to foster spaces where such leadership teams can emerge and be democratically accountable. We tried this out with the local organising committees and they have all succeeded to a one degree or another in bringing together new local leadership teams. We need to bend the stick in the direction of inclusivity so that new broader leadership teams can be built.

The next challenge for the local organising committees is to set up effective working groups and committees, not just to organise the Socialist Alliance's interventions in the various social movements (which had already begun before we embarked on this merger process), but also to organise the party building tasks like recruiting, Green Left Weekly distribution and copy gathering, fundraising, education, etc.

The same approach also needs to take place with Socialist Alliance national bodies.

So we have to work on proposals for changes to Socialist Alliance's leadership structure and constitution to enable this process to occur at the national level. These are some principles that we want to take into this discussion — which will take place within Socialist Alliance bodies.

Socialist Alliance needs a broader national leadership body which, like the DSP national committee, can have a detailed discussion and take a collective assessment of the political conditions and the Socialist Alliance's work in between national conferences. This is a very important institution. We know in the DSP the strength of a broad national leadership team. Our work without this body would be a lot less effective and our ability to stand up to challenges (such as the destructive factionalism and assault on party democracy that we recently experienced in the DSP) would be much weaker. But the Socialist Alliance will not be in a position to effectively select such a leadership body in its January election. Instead we will be looking, at least for a transitionary period, at some formula that combines locally selected leaderships and national leadership bodies and officers to meet in a sort of national council.

We also need a secretariat or administration unit to implement Socialist Alliance national executive decisions and to help prepare national executives — especially as these will have to be conducted within a couple of hours in an evening. At present the Socialist Alliance national conveners try to fill this role, but this is really too much work for them. Of course, we will also need to have national working groups to cover areas like education, finances, international relations, youth work, etc.

Finally we will have to look at what national office bearers the Socialist Alliance needs, especially in the light of the former two suggestions.

All this indicates the importance of leadership to effective functioning and internal democracy in a party. We cannot do without it and any idea that we could dispense with leadership bodies at the local or national level is simply mistaken. It would be less democratic for a branch not to have an elected, accountable and recallable leadership body. Indeed, all our experience of such supposedly "flat" structures is that they result in unofficial and unaccountable de facto leaderships emerging. Further, proper leadership structures allow the party to fight off challenges to party democracy, as we have recently relearned through experiences in the DSP. If anyone starts to behave like they have some permanent right to leadership, democratic leadership structures can soon bring him or her to account.

IV. Youth work

One of the major concerns in the merger process is that the work of winning young people to the socialist movement must be given a high priority. This concern is all the sharper because this process takes place in the context of the retreat of youth and student radical movements all around the world over the last two decades. Even at the height of the anti-corporate globalisation movement in this country — the S11, three-day blockade of the World Economic Forum in Melbourne — the weakness of the student movement was apparent. While thousands of young people joined the blockade, not a single Student Representative Council or student union organised its members to participate. And since then the student movement has become weaker, especially as so-called "Voluntary Student Unionism" has been imposed by Liberal and Labor governments alike.

In Resistance and in the DSP, there is the beginning of a discussion about youth radicalisation in the 21st century. This is just the beginning of a discussion. It includes an assessment of the state of the youth political organisations, including Resistance (which we recognise is still in a rebuilding phase), but also looks to the breaks, including the involvement of youth activists in the still embryonic climate change action movement. It also recognises the role of youth in the revolutions of our time.

The youth report went into what we are doing about this and the perspectives of Resistance. But I want to focus on a couple of key directions we've supported as a tendency in the last period:

The significant commitment of our youth activists as builders of the developing climate change action movement. This is already bearing fruit for the movement and winning new youth activists to the socialist movement.

Preparations of a new What Resistance Stands For booklet that will relaunch Resistance as a revolutionary ecosocialist youth organisation by presenting our socialist ideas in the context of the issues that are most pressing to youth activists in this country today. The new document still points to the example of the revolutionary advances in Latin America, but it will, for instance, seek to integrate the ecosocialist vision of Evo Morales more into the argument.

Finally, we are working on the closer integration of Resistance leaders into the leadership bodies of Socialist Alliance. This will have to replace the close collaboration between Resistance and the DSP that has been an important strength in the past. It is the experience of Resistance today that it is growing fastest in members and influence where there is greater integration of Resistance work within the Socialist Alliance. At the same time, Resistance will remain an independent youth organisation, allowing the faster development and testing of youth leadership that has been critical to ongoing youth recruitment.

V. Political education

Another important concern is political education. Will organisation through the Socialist Alliance with its less comprehensive political program mean that systematic education in the accumulated lessons of the socialist movement will be abandoned? That the classes, seminars and conferences that we have organised for decades around the revolutionary theory inspired by Karl Marx will not longer be organised? Will the DSP have to continue to exist as a separate entity to the Socialist Alliance to organise this political education?

After discussion with non-DSP Socialist Alliance members in leadership bodies at the national and local levels we have broad agreement that the sort of political education that the DSP has been organising can be taken into the Socialist Alliance and organised through national and local socialist education committees. These committees should seek to draw upon the broader human resources of the Socialist Alliance — the non-DSP socialist writers and teachers in the Alliance.

Socialist education can continue effectively without all the readings and arguments discussed in these education programs being official Socialist Alliance "doctrine". The DSP national executive agrees that this is possible — indeed, this more open approach to Marxist education and discussion is what we have followed in the Climate Change | Social Change and World At A Crossroads conferences. And in fact this is the spirit in which the DSP's full-time schools were initiated. We did not see them as conveying fixed and rigid doctrine, but as a space and framework for serious socialist activists to study, research and mine the rich lessons of the socialist movement.

So our approach to socialist education in the post-merger period can be summed up in three principles:

  1. We don't throw anything out and we build on what we have. We keep the Introduction To Marxism classes going, and even the discussions around the DSP Program should continue until such time as a new programmatic framework for this detailed discussion about what socialists stand for is developed by the Socialist Alliance. The planned full-time Marxism schools post-conference and mid-year should continue, under the auspices of Socialist Alliance.
  2. We don't need to rush to repackage every class — though we should over time and develop new, better and supplementary class formats to the basic reading list/discussion format we currently use most of the time. The experiences of Wollongong comrades in moving away from this format need to be taken into account by the new education committees of Socialist Alliance.
  3. We can use this aspect of the merger to set the Socialist Alliance on a more aggressive footing in the "battle for ideas" from the beginning of next year. Our socialist education classes, forums, seminars and conferences should be more professionally publicised and more popularly presented.

VI. International relations

The DSP's now longstanding open and networking approach to international relations with other socialist groups sets us up very well for this aspect of the DSP's work to be merged into the Socialist Alliance. We have long rejected the "mini-cominternism" practiced by the various "internationals" as we saw their dynamic as fundamentally sectarian in today's context because of their sectarian approach to the living revolutions and their systematic elevation of historical ideological difference over effective solidarity and regroupment. At the same time we have welcomed the initiatives by the revolutionary government of Venezuela to facilitate international left discussions and conferences.

Most importantly, we have stood fiercely for the independence of parties. We've fought hard for this over the years of our existence. While we are always open to suggestions or criticisms from our international collaborators, we don't take orders from any other party. By the same token we do not give orders to our international collaborators and we are very careful not to meddle in their internal party life. We have vigorously defended this approach in our party recently.

This is an approach to international relations that fits very well with the regroupment politics of the Socialist Alliance.

What about the question of our relations with the Venezuelan, Cuban and Vietnamese ruling parties? There should be no problem with taking this over to the Socialist Alliance. We have explained our approach to the Socialist Alliance to these parties and they understand the great importance of left unity, especially in Australia where the left is so small. Our relationship to these parties is based on solidarity and independence. It is not uncritical support and indeed the DSP has been quite open about its political differences with these parties on a number of issues. Socialist Alliance should have the same independent approach.

Of course, there will be comrades in the Socialist Alliance with varying assessments of these parties and these revolutions, but that should not be a problem. We need to be careful that we don't force the DSP's assessments of these parties on the Socialist Alliance. We don't want to make agreement with the DSP's positions on Cuba, Venezuela or Vietnam (or indeed China and the former Soviet Union) a condition of unity in the Socialist Alliance. There is great value in treating these questions as matters of ongoing research and discussion in the left. But none of this should hold any comrades back from carrying out the deepest analysis of these questions and our publications should support such endeavors.

VII. Importance of Green Left Weekly

At this stage in our development, Green Left Weekly remains the biggest and most significant part of our political work. Certainly it takes the lion's share of our resources, but it also brings in the biggest share of the broader respect and support in this country and overseas. There is no doubt that the activity of our members in the various social movements complements and enriches Green Left Weekly, but a lot less people are connected in the social movements these days and for many Green Left Weekly is their main ongoing connection with those movements.

No other left publication in this country can match the reach or the political depth of Green Left Weekly and several respected international collaborators are on the public record describing Green Left as the best English-language left paper in the world.

Well, now we also have a regular Arabic supplement The Flame), thanks to Soubhi Iskander and other Sudanese comrades in the Socialist Alliance, and soon we will have a Spanish-language supplement as well, thanks to our friends in the Latin American communities here. So Green Left is also a frontline in the left regroupment process, not least because it is the main regular media platform for the Socialist Alliance's message of left unity.

All these are reasons why Green Left is central to the work of the Socialist Alliance.

Therefore, a central concern for us in leading this merger process is to ensure the continued health of Green Left. Despite all the talk of an end to the audience for printed newspapers, the incredible resilience of the Green Left subscription base indicates that we retain a strong and committed readership of our printed and online versions. The subscription base (now being supplemented by more e-subscriptions — people who pay the Australian subscription rate for a emailed digest of links to the contents of each issue) — is also a powerful organising tool. These people include regular donors to the Fighting Fund, people who come to our fundraising and other political events, and they now include a more substantial proportion of the Socialist Alliance membership than ever before. Hence Green Left has become a key organising tool for the Socialist Alliance.

Our last subscription drive was a success largely thanks the subscriptions sold or given away to friends and relatives by existing subscribers. Again, proof of the ownership they feel for the project.

However, we have yet to turn around the single hardcopy sales decline since 2001. The figures show that on average we will probably have flattened out, at best, by this year's end. The absence of large, nationwide, mass mobilisations since the campaign against the bombing of Gaza is partly what accounts for this, but it also reflects the ongoing struggle to win over greater commitment from members of Resistance, DSP and the Socialist Alliance to regularly distributing the paper.

So our interest in turning this trend around is more than a desire to win more readers for Green Left — it is our concern with "cadre formation" and the fostering of a socialist activist and party-building culture in the Socialist Alliance. The DSP national executive has made the assessment that it is possible to have such an activist culture within the Socialist Alliance without narrowing its reach out. Of course, this means a shift to political motivation and less reliance on organisation imperatives (though when have we ever strictly enforced norms of activity in the DSP?).

A key to winning the battle for a stronger activist culture is good work with youth activists, through Resistance but also in the broader Socialist Alliance. At the high point of Green Left Weekly sales, Resistance activists sold more than half the bundle on average. Most probably, to get back to that high point we will have to move back in that direction. But as discussed in the earlier report on youth work, this cannot be seen only as a Resistance responsibility. The Green Left committees of the Socialist Alliance will have to support and encourage the younger comrades, who still on average struggle with lower hourly rates of Green Left distribution. And these committees need to be creative in this effort, finding the most efficient ways and spots for distribution. Nothing makes a good Green Left distributor more than good distributing experiences.

The systematic organisation and mobilisation of our modest Green Left and party full-time and part-time apparatus to help strategically boost our Green Left distribution effort will be essential. Getting out there with Green Left has to be seen as "part of the job". This critical interaction with the Green Left audience is also essential intelligence for effective political organisers. We have to stay on the pulse of the responses of the public to various issues and to our arguments and perspectives.

This report motivates the proposals distributed, but in particular the following:

  • a last issue in 2009 sales blitz;
  • campaign to involve more Socialist Alliance members in GLW distribution;
  • produce the first Spanish-language supplement in November;
  • push on getting more solidarity subscriptions ($240 for 12 months);
  • push on GLW distribution to end of year; and
  • push for more e-subscriptions.

VIII. Finances

Comrades can see from the detailed figures circulated that we have to do a bit of work to close a significant running deficit at this stage of the year. Basically, we have an income shortfall, primarily in branch sustainer payments to the national office. Our expenditure is on budget and our Fighting Fund is in a better state than it was this time last year. This reflects the strong respect that Green Left Weekly continues to enjoy. About half the branches are pretty up to date with their finances, but half have fallen behind. So we need to reverse a backlog of pledges owed to these branches and send the sustainer owed to the national office.

We need to end this year in the black, or as close to as possible, so we are set up well for the merger. Comrades understand that we are passing full financial responsibility and accountability over. We are proposing that there will be no reserving of any finances or assets by the DSP. We will begin reporting on the details of our proposals regarding the merger of DSP finances to Socialist Alliance leadership bodies as soon as we make a decision on the proposals put forward by the DSP national executive, which are as follows:

DSP dues will be converted into Solidarity Subscriptions to Green Left Weekly. Other Socialist Alliance members and Green Left Weekly supporters will be invited and encouraged to take out Solidarity Subscriptions as well. This drive should start this year to offset any fall-off in the transition. Already some non-DSP Socialist Alliance members have agreed to take out Solidarity Subscriptions.

Green Left Weekly Fighting Fund pledges will continue and next year's Fighting Fund appeal will be launched at a rally that is part of the Socialist Alliance national conference. We hope this will expand the Fighting Fund's base of regular donors.

Branch pledges will be converted into pledges to local activist centres and other Socialist Alliance members will be invited to join in supporting these critical institutions.

We will propose that the DSP national finance committee be merged into a Socialist Alliance finance committee. The new Socialist Alliance committee will work on a budget for 2010.

At the local level, as foreshadowed earlier in this report, local Socialist Alliance organising committees should try to set up finances and fundraising subcommittees.

IX. What will become of the DSP after January 2010

The DSP national executive is proposing that we convert the DSP into a non-caucusing tendency of opinion with the same aims and objectives as in the current constitution. It would be a tendency committed to furthering those objectives, to promoting the political ideas and traditions of the DSP as a contribution to socialist education and praxis in Socialist Alliance. But its members would be organising within the structures of Socialist Alliance and under the day-to-day leadership of Socialist Alliance bodies.

Our objective is to forge a new collectivity within SA but, at this stage, the national executive believes we still have to allow for the possibility of resuscitating the DSP as a disciplined, regularly caucusing and dues-collecting organisation at some later stage, only if it becomes necessary.

With the national committee's agreement, the DSP national executive will begin working out an amended constitution that neither mandates nor prohibits the DSP from resuming operating at a future stage as a disciplined and regularly caucusing organisation. However, the DSP congress in January should adopt a policy of not regularly caucusing and elect a national steering committee tasked with implementing the merger into the Socialist Alliance.

The proposed new DSP constitution would have a simple structure comprising a national steering committee (with the right to admit/exclude members on basis of agreement with objectives and tasked with carrying out the merger into the Socialist Alliance) elected by an assembly of members/conference (to be held at least every two years or on petition by 30% or more of DSP members).

No DSP dues will be mandated but all DSP members have to have Solidarity Subscriptions to Green Left Weekly (or ordinary subscriptions as a concessionary rate) and be financial members of the Socialist Alliance.

Three co-conveners to be elected by the national steering committee with the power and duty to convene steering committee meetings when necessary or when demanded by 30% or more of steering committee members.

Members shall have single (no proxy) vote in an assembly/conference.

The power to change the DSP constitution to be vested in the assembly of members/conference. The national steering committee to facilitate circulation of proposals for constitutional or policy change.

The DSP national executive does not anticipate that there will be a need to go back to organising the DSP in its current form. We are confident that the merger process will succeed and in less than a year comrades will be confident that we have a new party to be confident and proud of. But we are signalling that our bottom line is to do the job needed and if for some reason that we do not anticipate at present we have to pull back from organising wholly through the Socialist Alliance then we will be prepared to do that.

But the DSP national executive's perspective is to focus on a powerful and exciting future building the Socialist Alliance as our party.

X. Looking to the future

We anticipate that the Socialist Alliance national conference will launch an ambitious recruitment drive. It will probably begin at the conference itself, I expect.

This will help us prepare for a possible early federal election campaign. While Rudd Labor should easily win such an election, given the polls and the Liberals' leadership mess, the ALP number crunchers are worried about an increase in the minority vote for the Greens, and hopefully the Socialist Alliance and other progressive tickets and candidates.

In the new year we can also look forward to a more systematic local "battle for socialist ideas". We should have in place an effective mix of regular Socialist Alliance forums, seminars and education classes. And to bring it all together we are going to propose that Green Left Weekly and the Socialist Alliance organise, in the second half of 2010, a sequel to the Climate Change | Social Change conference we had in 2008: Climate Change | Social Change II. Building also on the success of the World At A Crossroads conference this year, we can bring together a large number of exciting international speakers and shape it to capitalise on all the links we've forged in the environment movement and in the trade unions.