Is there trouble at that most lefty of Left organisations, the Socialist Alternative?
It is the best of times, it is the worst of times for the Socialist Alternative, (SAlt), the far leftist group responsible for the rambunctious demonstrations a few weeks back in which leading federal politicians were jostled — jostled, I tell you — in the line of duty, thus necessitating bodyguards for several cabinet members.
The actions got the usual groans from other student protesters, both the genuine ones and the Joe Hockeys of the future, but it served its purpose, which was both to sharpen the resistance against proposed fees free-for-alls and to recruit a few extra members. It’s what SAlt has been doing for a couple of decades since it was formed out of a faction expelled from the International Socialists, then the dominant far-Left (sometimes called Trotskyist) group. But the IS collapsed in the mid 2000s, and SAlt emerged supreme — especially on campuses, where its uncompromising language and views drew in activists more interested in getting things done than in endlessly checking their privilege.
But those years also brought the departure of a number of experienced members — such as Overland editor Jeff Sparrow — and a “vase-like” structure, with lots of young members at the bottom, very few in their 30 or middle age, and at the top, a group of senior members, now heading towards their 60s and 70s, who joined when the Australian Trot movement got going in the Vietnam era.
Such a membership structure — where people do a tour of duty, and then become Greens, or hipsters or Paul Howes — has huge churn, and demands constant recruitment. In their pursuit of a new generation, SAlt has increasingly taken on tactics more commonly used by anarchists. Slogans that were forthright but had content have now been replaced by the catch-all “Fuck Tony Abbott”, and strong manifestation replaced by the full push forward, for messy confrontation.
This has gained some recruits, but further alienated older supporters. One such is John Passant, who blogs politically — and very well — as En Passant and was an IS-er and then in SAlt until about 18 months ago. The proximate cause of his departure was SAlt’s taking in a small groupuscule called the Revolutionary Socialist Party, which Passant describes as “Stalinist” (a far-Left phrase meaning “more organised than we are”), and the resultant shift in politics. But more pertinent was his belief that in spruiking the “Fuck/Hang Tony Abbott” slogan, SAlt was succumbing to desperation.
Others go further, calling the organisation a “cult” run by leaders Mick Armstrong and the wonderfully named Sandra Bloodworth. They argue that the leadership has more or less run rival senior members from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s out of the organisation, and that their new more extreme tactics are a result of career-end desperation, rather than clear thinking. They are far less keen on defending or supporting the group than they were years ago.
Phonebooth politics? Maybe, but a little goes a long way. Abbott’s budget didn’t really come across as not merely rotten but illegitimate until the campus protests and the Q&A protest came along. So we watch with interest, whether it’s the triumph or the tumbrel …