An Outline History of a Chameleon Party
A History of the Democratic Socialist Party of Australia

Alvaro Recoba

The history of the Democratic Socialist Party of Australia (DSP) can be traced back to the anti-war movement in Australia in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was formed in 1972 out of a youth organization called ‘Resistance’ and was originally called the Socialist Workers’ Party of Australia (SWP). From its very beginning it proclaimed itself a Trotskyist organization (just as ‘Resistance’) and it affiliated to the 4th International until its disaffiliation in the late 1980s. Its disaffiliation has more to do with intra-Trotskyist sects’ struggles, as it still promotes and practices the policies and writings of James P. Cannon, an American Trotskyist.

It is interesting to study the origins of the DSP. It goes back to the history of the American Communist Party, as it was then known, and James P. Cannon was a Trotskyist follower in it. Within the American Communist Party of the 1920s and 1930s, a grouping calling itself ‘Communist League of America – Left Opposition of the Communist Party’, came into existence. These people were expelled from the American Communist Party for Trotskyist activities in 1928. The book ‘History of American Trotskyism’ which contains transcripts of a series of lectures by James P. Cannon is a good starting point for anyone wanting to come to grips with the subject. This covers the period of left opposition up until the formation of the Socialist Workers Party in 1938 and throws some light on what the term ‘fusion’ means in practice.

‘Fusion’ is a practice still followed by the DSP today. Cannon writes that ‘we (the Trotskyists) are a dagger pointed at the heart of Stalinism’. In relation to party building and alliances, he states that the problem is not of building a revolutionary party but of clearing obstacles from its path. Every other party is such an obstacle. Every other party is a rival. This last boastful quote was made in the aftermath of the foray into the Workers’ Party and then the Socialist Party in the United States.

Cannon and his followers have a history of working to undermine and destroy all and any rivals, continually labelling any opponents as Stalinist. A case in point was the SWP’s attempt to ‘fuse’ with the Socialist Party of Australia (SPA) in the 1980s. It began as a response to the Australian federal Labour government which came to power in 1982 on the basis of class collaborationist policies, which were popularly known as ‘The Accord’. Among the architects of these policies were renegades from the then Communist Party of Australia (which had by the 1980s been taken over by a combination of ‘Eurocommunists’ and ‘Trotskyists’), some right opportunists who had joined but were later expelled from the Socialist Party of Australia and some leading trade union personalities. With the Communist Party of Australia well on the road to liquidation, many ‘leftists’ including the leadership of the Socialist Workers’ Party began discussions with the aim of establishing a ‘broad based’ new left party. At the time the SWP and the SPA, each of which opposed ‘The Accord’, were cooperating in exposing the class collaborationist nature of it and in building opposition to it.

The Socialist Workers’ Party announced their withdrawal from the Fourth International and the cutting of ties with their U.S. counterparts and declared themselves to be a party of Lenin. The SWP strongly supported Solidarnosc and Walesa in Poland, welcomed the Gorbachev leadership of the CPSU and continued singing the praises of James P. Cannon. They were apparently convinced that these developments would lead to the SPA abandoning its ‘Stalinist’ outlook. The SWP’s view was that socialism was being restored in the USSR and that it was Stalinism which was being destroyed. Despite this they went on to support Yeltsin. It was on this basis that the SWP proposed to the SPA that unity discussions should commence at a leadership level, progress to a state level and eventually lead to a merger of the two parties. The SWP termed this process ‘fusion’, as per the writings of Cannon. Out of this process a ‘Socialist Alliance’ was born, its purpose was to run candidates in parliamentary elections. This was done, but with rather unsuccessful results. This alliance, based as it was on opportunism, inevitably collapsed.

It became clear to the SPA that perestroika and glasnost were opposed to Marxism-Leninism and were in fact leading to counter-revolution. At this time the SWP, having not abandoned their Trotskyist methods, recommenced discussions, unbeknown to the SPA, on forming a new left party once again. It was around this time, in the late 1980s, that the SWP changed its name to the DSP, attempting to cash in on the popularity of the concept of ‘democratic socialism’.

It also attempted to embrace the environmental movement by closing down its own newspaper ‘Direct Action’ in favour of a broader paper for all called ‘Green Left Weekly’, but in reality it remains to this day the official organ of the DSP. Practicing the Trotskyist method of fusion or infiltration, the DSP has constantly moved its cadre force into and out of issues and movements as it judges the worth of that particular issue or movement to the benefit of the DSP.

There are numerous examples, one being their attempts to take over the Nuclear Disarmament Party of Australia (NDP), which whilst being unsuccessful, lead to the complete loss of confidence in the NDP by the Australian people and its quick demise as a force for change. More recently they attempted to infiltrate the Greens Party, but again were unsuccessful and in response the Greens movement adopted a resolution banning members of the DSP from membership of the Greens.

The DSP continues to involve itself in many issues and close examination finds it takes many particularly strange positions. As previously mentioned, they supported Solidarity in Poland and Gorbachev in the USSR in the 1980s. They continue to support any dissident group in any communist party around the world, recent examples being the Trotskyist minority in the South African Communist Party, and the Committee of Correspondence grouping in the CPUSA. They have supported the Ustashi separatists in Yugoslavia, the break-up of Yugoslavia, uncritically supported the Chechen Islamic separatists in the Russian Federation, and the counter-revolutionaries in China in the late 1980s. Most recently the DSP has given support to the anti-Mugabe forces in Zimbabwe. Their support of the MDC and their imperialist backers is in direct opposition to the land distribution being undertaken in Zimbabwe. It is just the most recent example that follows a distinctive pattern. On all issues, when you strip away the DSP’s leftist rhetoric, they end up in a position close to that of US imperialism.

The DSP also operates behind a myriad of front organizations set up to promote specific issues and causes, but while they appear to be independent, they are in reality nothing more than fronts for and agents of the DSP. These include, ASIET (Action in Solidarity with Indonesia and East Timor), CISLAC (Committee in Solidarity with Latin America and the Caribbean), ‘Resistance’ their youth organization, and more associated with issues such as Colombia, Argentina and the World Social Forum in Brazil. There are many more examples, for whenever a new issue arises the DSP will set up an organization to try and divert people to furthering the DSP’s aims.

In the Indian subcontinent they have been closely collaborating with CPI ML (Liberation) in India and the Trotskyist Labour Party in Pakistan. Their work methods are disruptive, and deceptive, and cause many more problems and friction. Recently in the resurgent peace movement in Australia they were so disruptive that no other grouping centred around the anti-war movement would work with them. Similarly with elections in mind they have, along with several other Trotskyist groups, set up another (!) ‘Socialist Alliance’ to stand candidates in elections for all levels of government. So far this alliance has not been able to attract anyone other than Trotskyists, and has been unpopular at the polls, recording very low levels of voter support.

From this brief outline, it becomes clear that the DSP tends to focus on issues that do not require any support or involvement from the trade union movement in Australia. They have little or no support there, and tend to spend much time criticising the trade unions in a negative way. Similarly the DSP has a very small membership, mostly students, except for a handful of members who have been in the leading positions for many years.

The DSP is very intriguing in one aspect at least, and that is that for a party with so few members, it seems to have unlimited funds which it can spend on many issues and campaigns at the same time. It is a question that has never been adequately answered, but one that deserves to be given much closer scrutiny.

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