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SAlt of the Earth

Astha Rajvanshi and Tom Gardner investigate the meteoric rise of Socialist Alternative at USyd and beyond.

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Photograph by Jay Ng.

“Would you like to sign our petition against the education cuts?”

Student activists wearing ‘Fuck Tony Abbott’ shirts often approach the average student frequenting Fisher library with this friendly request. They usually set up a stall on Eastern Avenue with a hand-painted banner hanging off the edge of the table. Copies of the fortnightly newspaper The Red Flag are sold alongside a wide collection of books, newspapers and pamphlets on Marxism.

These are members of Sydney University branch of Socialist Alternative (SAlt), a revolutionary Australian socialist organisation.

They hold strong anti-capitalist views that identify with Trotskyism and the Marxist tradition of “socialism from below”. They believe in changing the world not through running in elections, but rather by empowering people to “get out on the streets to fight for themselves”.

On campus, they regularly organise protests, campaigns, and weekly discussion groups around the history and theory of revolutionary socialism. Following the Abbott government’s recent cuts to Australian tertiary education, they’ve sought to revive the old ways of activism that defined the sixties and seventies.

Most SAlt members are Marxists who are strongly disillusioned by the current political system. “I found [SAlt’s] analysis of the world –that capitalism is a system that privileges profits over people– as the only analysis … that explains to me entirely what is wrong with the world and how to overcome these problems,” said third year Arts student and SAlt member Anna Sanders-Robinson.

Formed in 1995, SAlt has branches set up across Australia with an active membership from the far left of the political spectrum. They regularly advocate for issues including same-sex marriage rights, refugee rights and Palestinian liberation. Last March, SAlt merged with the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP) on a national level, leading to a surge in their membership.

SAlt, in its current form, was revived on campus at the beginning of last year, allegedly by siblings Omar and Ridah Hassan. Omar Hassan, who joined Socialist Alternative in late 2007, said, “I was considering joining the anarchists, but was turned off by their lifestylism and cliquey behaviour”.

Many speculate that the siblings were “parachuted in” from Monash University, as directed by an internal hierarchy within SAlt’s National Council, to recruit and expand the membership.

The two have since been heavily involved in the Education Action Group (EAG), a cross-factional education activism collective. They, among others, were active participants in last year’s NTEU strikes against staff cuts. At the end of 2013, SAlt occupied the education portfolio of the National Union of Students (NUS) across the country. SAlt member Sarah Garnham was elected to the position of National Education Officer, Chloe Rafferty to NSW Education Officer, and Ridah Hassan and Eleanor Morley (who was recruited later) to Education Officers at the Sydney University Student Representative Council (SRC).

By all accounts, this “direct and intentional strategy” for SAlt’s revival has been a success. They have gained 20 or so members at Sydney University in the last year, and when compared to Grassroots, an alternative far-left political group on campus that has had a membership of 70 in the last three years, these numbers reflect SAlt’s fast and steady growth.

John Passant, a former SAlt member who resigned last year, comments that the current political climate gives people the impetus to join the political faction. “There is an angry mood among much of the population. They want action to bust the budget,” he said.

“What Socialist Alternative was able to do, with many others, was mobilise students against the budget attacks in their thousands and show to many students they represented their interests and could get people on to the streets.”

However, Passant’s resignation also reflects a darker side that lies beneath the surface of SAlt’s theoretical Marxist exploration, political action and grassroots organising.

“Their perpetual lefter-than-thou mentality … makes it difficult for non-members to relate to some members in student political contexts,” said Mariana Podestá-Diverio, a former SAlt member.

It seems that SAlt’s commitment to vanguardism comes with a militant and authoritarian attitude that often alienates the rest of their left allies. Podestá-Diverio explains that many individuals are politically engaged and motivated to work with SAlt for common activist goals however, “they must radically reconceive their approach to broad left unity, starting with their rigid and sanctimonious political modus operandi”.

In fact, when members of other political groups on campus were asked for comment, many were hesitant to respond or wished to stay anonymous out of “fear of retribution”.

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A protester at the National Day of Action. Photograph by Jay Ng.

This fear can be partly attributed to a broader militant approach that another former SAlt member, Peter Zacharatos, described as “openly aggressive to other political currents, even those that have similar beliefs and sometimes identical beliefs to the organisation”.

Most notably, their sectarian squabbling with alternative socialist group Solidarity ends up putting most people off either organisation. “After hearing about this you have to think, ‘why on earth am I wasting my time hating on a group of people that have the same philosophy as our group?’” Zacharatos commented.

SAlt’s internal operations have been described by some as “cultish”.

One anonymous Grassroots member accused them of predatory recruitment.  “They prey on the vulnerable by finding people who have social anxiety … making them feel really welcome. They switch between super charming and super nasty and aggressive”.

After initial recruitment, SAlt allegedly proceeds by isolating members from their friends by accusing them of being counter-revolutionary, and by exploiting their labour through postering and encouraging further recruitment. “They have a system of abuse [against] anyone who doesn’t stand by what they say,” the anonymous Grassroots member said.

Cam Petrie, another former member of SAlt, was weary of their strict internal hierarchy and top-down approach. “I think that’s weird for a Socialist organisation,” he said. He commented that during his time in SAlt, “their methods were violent. They were almost cult-like, enforcing ideological orthodoxy in the party. There was no diversity of opinions, none of that. They want a movement without dissenting opinion”.

On the contrary, Omar Hassan believes that SAlt is “pretty patient” with those interested in joining the party. “We encourage people to read some basic Marxist texts, have a few conversations with us about the theory and history of our group, and help us out in promoting upcoming rallies and distributing Red Flag. If they dig the theory and can see the point in being activists, they can then join when they’re ready,” he contested.

SAlt are proud of their militant tactics including loud chanting, sit-ins, and conflicts with the police. This willingness to engage in confrontations goes to the heart of the criticism hurled at SAlt not only by other activists, but also by the broader community and mass media.

Petrie described SAlt’s activism as “total crap”.

“Their tactic is to drown out debate, both literally and figuratively. They’ll try and shut down debate even if they don’t shout it down. They’re just making the rest of the student body look bad,” he commented.

In fact, a leaked email alleged to be an internal SAlt missive expresses similar concerns about SAlt’s activism on Sydney’s campus. “I can’t help but see the early and worrying signs of a divergence in political practice between the branches. No doubt we’ve all been encouraged by the growth of the Sydney branch, but now we’re seeing clear indications that they’re becoming somewhat adventurist in their activism, if not occasionally indulging in ultra-left gestures,” it said.

“At the time, it was explained to me that they operate the way they do in order to get in the media and to get their message out. To be honest I think it can put people off causes and alienate those less radical people,” Zacharatos explained.

However, Morley disagrees with the criticisms against SAlt’s current measures for protest. “There is nothing ‘aggressive’ about the right to protest. If you want aggression, look at the attacks on people’s lives in the budget,” she argued.

These justifications are consistent throughout SAlt’s responses. Hassan explained, “sometimes there’s a mood for more radical direct action which can inspire new people to get involved, like the Q&A protest. We make decisions about tactics on the basis of what can help the campaign grow, gain attention and support”.

Despite assertions that SAlt engages in actions like these to increase its visibility and drive recruitment, it’s undeniable such tactics have contributed to success of recent protests.

Even Zacharatos admitted “SAlt dominate most campaign groups and do some of the key heavy lifting when it comes to rallies”.

For now, SAlt’s vanguard revolutionaries are not interested in pluralism, but still manage to achieve success on the far left. Whether it’s building up a brand, controlling rallies, or aggressively recruiting at a university level, these efforts are not going unnoticed in the present political climate.

Although other political activists have attempted to distance themselves from the seemingly indoctrinating philosophy espoused by SAlt, little fuss is kicked up in working together. After all, most campaigns require people to work with each other to achieve any more than marginal success.

Ultimately, Morley envisions SAlt creating a “radically different society, where the majority of wealth is not concentrated in the hands of a few, in a world which is free of the exploitation and oppression inherent to capitalism”.

When Hassan was asked how long he planned to stay at university to work towards this vision, he responded: “Better people than me have spent their whole lives fighting for human liberation, so that seems like a reasonable thing to aspire to”.