Another year, another attack on Socialist Alternative in Honi Soit. It’s a cycle as predictable as the earth’s orbit around the sun, as welcome as a summer cockroach infestation. Every year students are subjected to would-be Honi editors campaigning on a platform of making the newspaper more relevant to students, and each year they quickly revert to inane gossip about the various student factions.
The most recent effort, an article by Liam Donohoe, is the dullest yet. Liam’s qualification for writing such a scandalous expose is that he was a member of Socialist Alternative for all of three weeks, most of which included the Christmas break. He attended no more than two branch meetings, approximately 2 hours of the NUS conference, and an end of year BBQ. His resignation letter cited a tearful mother eager for him to succeed in the corporate world. It was all a bit of a non-event, privileged private school boys like him come and go all the time.
In this article Liam essentially accuses Socialist Alternative of doing two things; educating our members in the rich tradition of Marxism, and trying to recruit people to our organisation. I would suggest that neither of these activities are particularly sinister, or would be surprising to anyone who had explored SA even at the most superficial level.
Regarding the first accusation, that we try to ‘brainwash’ people. Like any organisation, Socialist Alternative has a program, a set of principles. Like any organisation, we try to convince people of that program, which in our case is revolutionary marxism. In particular, we’re Trotskyists, which reflects the fact that we opposed the authoritarian regimes that called themselves ‘Communist’ in the 20th century – we believe in socialism from below, direct democracy, etc.
We are honest and upfront with people (evidently an approach Liam is unfamiliar with). We don’t hide any of our political views, unlike the many student politicians who use front clubs (the arts society, revues, etc) to recruit unwitting new students. The introduction to Marxism discussion series that he denounces so passionately is explicitly structured as an opportunity for new people to explore the ideas of Marxism, and decide whether or not they agree with them. Given that Liam completed less than half this course, which in reality is just the beginning of one’s education in Marxist literature, he is in no real position to judge the intellectual level of the group or the series at all. If he had continued, he would have learnt our analysis of the origins of women’s oppression and how to fight it, the nature of imperialism in the 21st century, the rise and fall of the russian revolution, and more. From then he could have explored debates in Marxist philosophy, the key revolutions of the 20th century, strategy and tactics for the international left today, and much more. The sessions are like university tutorials, but with people who actually know what they’re talking about, and are trying to understand the world in order to change it.
In a related criticism, Liam suggests that the purpose of these discussions is to force members into ideological unanimity. Once again, he’s astoundingly wrong. As a Marxist organisation, we take pride in our theoretical sophistication. We organise the largest radical conference in Australia that attracts around 1000 attendees annually, and with over 100 sessions on everything imaginable. We publish the only Marxist journal in Australia – the Marxist Left Review, as well as the widest selling socialist newspaper in the country. Nowhere in any of this is there a need for total agreement to a ‘line’. In fact, the last two editions of our newspaper contain a debate about Bernie Sanders, with more to come. Previous editions of our journal included a lengthy discussion about the nature of Imperialism, and at the Marxism conference one member is presenting an introduction defending the revolutionary credentials of the Cuban state, a position which the majority of SA rejects.
The reason for this is that Socialist Alternative is proud to be the only socialist organisation in Australia that is the product of a successful merger between two separate socialist groups from different traditions. As a result we have an internal culture that facilitates open discussion of political differences in a respectful and democratic manner. Members know that if they agree about the core principles of revolutionary politics, there is plenty of room for disagreement at the level of tactics, theory and philosophy – in fact it is healthy.
On the other accusation, that Socialist Alternative wants to recruit new members, and convince them to do information stalls and postering – we are guilty as charged. These and other activities are vital both in promoting left wing events and engaging in conversations with political people around the campus. Such activities have been crucial to building every mass movement in history.
It is at this point that Liam accuses the organisation of having a bizarre sort of hierarchy, with ‘footsoldiers’ doing most of the stalls while the ‘intelligentsia’ do the thinking. Anyone who’s spent more than 5 minutes at USyd will know that it is Ridah, Omar and others associated with our club leadership that are perpetually on eastern avenue with a clipboard.
There are many other lies in the article that are not worth responding to. It’s more or less typical of the gratuitous red-baiting that Honi Soit has become known for.
But I’m not going to rebut each point, which would make this article as long and boring as Liam’s original. I want to end by saying that I’m extremely proud of our organisation. We’ve done some amazing things. It is Roz Ward, a member of ours in Melbourne, who was the brains behind the Safe Schools coalition, currently under a barrage of homophobic abuse in the Murdoch press. Kahlani Pyrah, the woman who famously fought to get a huge pay rise for Grill’d workers everywhere, is also a member of ours. The highly successful student campaign that defeated deregulation and got rid of Chris Pyne was coordinated and led by our organisation at a national and campus level, and we’re active around refugees, anti-fascism, marriage equality, women’s rights, the list goes on. And just last week a member of ours helped organise a successful snap strike on a construction site in Western Sydney.
To students tempted to take seriously the umpteenth article attacking Socialist Alternative in Honi Soit, take Liam’s advice and think critically. We’re the largest and most vibrant organisation on the left for a reason. Check us out, you might like what you see.
To those who decide not to get involved in the revolutionary politics, we appreciate an honest explanation, and are always happy to collaborate where we have points of agreement. Don’t use your brief flirtation with the left to cynically launch your career as a wannabe journalist. Please. Not only is it sectarian and divisive, it’s genuinely pathetic.