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Australia: How should a united socialist party work?

[This is a slightly edited text of a presentation made by Dave Holmes at the “Organising for 21st century socialism” seminar, held in Sydney, June 9, 2013 (pictured above, photo by Alex Bainbridge). Holmes is a leading member of the Socialist Alliance in Melbourne.]

By Dave Holmes

Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Today I want to talk about how socialists need to work to win mass influence and how that relates to the unity process between Socialist Alliance and Socialist Alternative.

On May 21, 2013, in Melbourne we held a very well-attended joint forum where our two organisations presented their views on the unity process. There is a report of the meeting in the May 29 issue of Green Left Weekly.[1]

I want to expand on some points touched on there and to raise some others. Hopefully most of what I say is uncontroversial but in any case I want to be clear and unambiguous on what I consider some key questions of socialist activity.

World in crisis

Our world has clearly entered what is arguably its deepest ever crisis.

In the developed First World countries the capitalist class is engaged in the demolition of all the gains won by working people over the last 150 years or so. Everywhere the welfare state is being dismantled as rapidly as our rulers think they can get away with it.

And in the Third World — with some exceptions, especially in Latin America — the dismantling of what protections ordinary people enjoyed (state subsidies, a relatively strong public sector in some countries) is going full steam ahead.

Combined with this, of course, is the looming catastrophe of global warming and climate change. This crisis, if unchecked, threatens most of the world’s population by the end of the century. Global warming stems from the same cause as the social and economic crisis — profit-crazed capitalism, determined to take every possible opportunity to generate profit, even if it means destroying the ecosystem on which all life on our planet depends.

Climate change is impacting on us right now and it will only get worse. Hurricane Sandy, which wrecked several working-class parts of New York, and the Oklahoma City tornado, which completely shredded several suburbs, are unfortunately a taste of things to come in this regard

Need for left unity

The only way out of the combined social and ecological crisis brought about by the capitalist system is to fight to build a movement that will ultimately get rid of capitalism and proceed to build a rational society — a socialist society.

However, despite the severe crisis of the system, it remains hard going for the left to rally major forces to fight against what is happening, let alone to challenge the whole system. In some countries — Greece, Spain, Portugal and France — the left has made some encouraging advances but there is still a very long way to go.

In Australia the socialist left is hardly on the radar. On some issues — such as equal marriage rights — we are part of a larger movement, but we barely register electorally. That space is still occupied by the Greens. We need to seriously bulk up — to amplify our voice, to stand on a higher vantage point — so that we can be heard by a lot more people.

This is where the unity process embarked upon by the two largest socialist organisations in Australia — Socialist Alliance and Socialist Alternative — fits in. If it succeeds in the next one to two years, it will be a significant advance. We will still be small — under 1000 members — but if it works, the stage will be set for further growth and an increase in our influence.

Toward a united socialist party

I like to think of the party we are working towards as the “United Socialist Party”. Obviously, it is still very early days and we have a long way to go, and the end result is by no means guaranteed, but that’s my suggestion for a name! The United Socialist Party will be a new party. Socialist Alliance will not be joining Socialist Alternative and we don’t expect them to join us. A new organisation will be established and we will both have to accept changes — exactly what these changes are, the process itself will determine.

Unity inspires and attracts. If we succeed in uniting our organisations, we will need to take advantage of the launch of a new organisation and make a strong appeal to other socialists and left-wing people out there to join with us. We will have a real chance to make an impact and should take every opportunity to do so.

Who is our potential constituency?

In his article in Marxist Left Review, Socialist Alternative’s Corey Oakley denies that there is a significant layer of people out there beyond the organised socialist left that we could attract. Furthermore, he assumes that if there were, we would have to soften our politics to pull them in. Here is the passage (it’s in his concluding section):

Of course it is true, as many before us have pointed out, that the road towards the mass revolutionary party we need will not be straight: there will be many jags and bends, at some times we will have to take great detours that are painful but unavoidable, at others there may be a chance to make substantial advances that we could not make by ploughing on straight ahead. But if you want to argue for a detour, you have to provide a compelling reason. In Australia today, there isn’t one. There is no section of workers or political layer outside the revolutionary left that we can aim to draw into our ranks by tacking to the right for a time, or softening our views with a perspective of future clarification. All those paths have proven, for now, to be blind alleys. So in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, the most sensible policy is to head directly towards where we want to go.[2]

I don’t agree with either of the basic contentions here.

1. For some time there has been a relatively large layer of people who could potentially be drawn into a new socialist party: ex-members of left groups, disillusioned members/supporters of the Australian Labor Party (ALP), disillusioned Greens members/supporters, movement activists looking for a political organisation, thoughtful people completely repelled by the horrible direction neoliberal capitalism is taking society here and around the world.

But these people are repelled by the division and sectarianism on the left. Many do not want to choose one group over another even if they lean towards one. Such people could potentially be drawn into the orbit of a united socialist party.

2. I don’t think that this means “tacking to the right” or “softening our views”. But it does mean that we need to explain our positions carefully, without jargon, using a transitional method and showing in action our bona fides — in the transitional way we put out our message, in the constructive and non-sectarian way we work in the movements, and in our open and democratic internal life.

A revolutionary organisation?

Socialist Alternative puts a lot of emphasis on the new organisation being explicitly revolutionary. Personally, I think there is way too much emphasis on this question. But we do not want this issue to be an obstacle to socialist unity. As comrades know, Socialist Alliance made some changes at our January conference in just that direction. We would argue that Socialist Alliance has always been objectively revolutionary. Now it is stated openly in key documents.

Our constitution now has a simple but clear socialist objective that states that the Socialist Alliance aims to replace capitalism with a system in which our economic infrastructure is under popular ownership and control:

3.1 The aim of the Socialist Alliance is to replace the capitalist system with one in which the fundamental elements of the economy are socially owned and controlled and democratic systems of popular power established. Only these radical measures will enable us to deal with the economic, ecological and social crises of the 21st century.[3]

Our draft document Towards a Socialist Australia says the same thing. It also makes it clear that only mass struggles can bring this about and that the resistance and the sabotage of the capitalists against the advance of the popular forces will have to be fought by the people.[4]

So the united socialist party will be explicitly revolutionary. But the matter doesn’t stop there. We don’t want abstract rhetoric about revolution but a careful explanation of the whole question.

Our essential message is that the social and ecological crises demand a sharp change of direction in how our society is run. The current thirst for profit by the capitalist oligarchy — logical from their standpoint but completely insane from a human perspective — will bring on a catastrophe. We need to replace capitalism with a society that has as its main aims: first, tackling global warming (and more generally the repair and maintenance of the environment); and, second, the welfare of the great mass of the people, a society where everyone will be looked after and no one will be abandoned.

What is revolutionary leadership?

At this point we might ask: What is revolutionary leadership? What does it actually mean to be revolutionary? It is not enough to simply believe in the need for radical social change. After all, all manner of complete sectarians claim that they too are revolutionary.

A famous 1967 speech by Fidel Castro (against the leadership of the Venezuelan Communist Party, which had betrayed the guerrilla struggle) is called “Those who are not revolutionary fighters cannot be called communists”.[5] Being revolutionary imposes a permanent obligation on us. We need to be constantly concerned with finding a path to the masses. This is an enormous ongoing challenge and responsibility. There is no roadmap to chart our course. We have to work it out for ourselves.

Despite our small size we need to be constantly trying to provide leadership where we can and promote the general struggle in all its diversity.

This can lead to all sorts of pressures. For instance, in a work situation, if you open your mouth, talk to your workmates and get a reputation as a political person, and then your colleagues push you to be a union delegate, it is hard to say: “No, sorry, I’m too busy with other things.”

Of course, we try to maintain some balance between external and internal work (trying to build our organisation). But at the end of the day, the party that is needed will only be built out of the struggle.

How do we present ourselves to the public?

In my opinion, the main public projection should not be that we are revolutionary but that we are socialists who want fundamental changes to create a “people before profit” society: the main elements of the economy should be in public hands and controlled democratically.

The “people before profit” slogan really sums it up. In his MLR article Corey praises Peter Camejo’s 1969 talk on “How to Make a Revolution in the United States”.[6] It is certainly a great speech. Camejo concludes with a discussion of the May-June 1968 upsurge in France the previous year and how it might have triumphed and ended capitalism in that country. He stresses that the whole development he outlines does not mention the word “socialism” but is based on democracy and what is needed to bring the great working-class majority to power.

General propaganda for socialism certainly has its place but the key task before us is find the ways in practice to move the struggle forward at a particular time and place and the demands, slogans and watchwords which best suit that task.

How we should work

Between the maximum program of socialism and the here-and-now there must necessarily be a great many intermediate steps. Unless we develop these intermediate steps a future united socialist party will not be able to build its influence beyond a very narrow base. I want to mention some elements of this approach which I think we should follow.

1. We need to take ourselves seriously — very seriously. It is not a question of exaggerating our size or influence — we are very well aware of just how small we are — but, rather, being aware of our responsibility to the struggle and the need to constantly try to reach out to people with our ideas. This means trying to connect with them at their level of consciousness, involve ourselves in their struggles and help lead them forward.

2. Socialist Alliance devotes a lot of effort to producing policies on various issues. These indicate what we think should be done right now — what we call for — and what a future socialist government pledges to do.

3. We also put a lot of effort and resources into producing leaflets for meetings and rallies, explaining how we see the problem and outlining what measures we call for. In Melbourne, for instance, this year we have distributed leaflets outlining our position on hospital funding cuts, the TAFE cuts, 457 visa workers, CCTV cameras in Moreland, occupational health and safety (following the fatal collapse of a wall on a Grocon site), legalising cannabis, on the Gonski proposals, and so on.

4. In the same vein, we also produce nationally a whole stream of attractive, bold, coloured A3 posters around various issues and themes featuring demands and slogans for use on stalls, on placards at protests, and so on.

How will the revolution come about?

In his Marxist Left Review article Corey says that:

The system of world capitalism that we confront today cannot be overturned by any means short of mass insurrection, a thoroughgoing revolution on an international scale that systematically dismantles the huge apparatus of capitalist class rule and replaces it with new institutions of workers’ power and popular control.[7]

Perhaps the term “mass insurrection” is just a throwaway phrase, but I think it is wrong and misleading. Toppling capitalism in this country or that may involve an armed uprising if a dictatorship leaves people with no choice but it certainly doesn’t have to happen like that.

For instance, in France in the almost-revolution of May-June 1968 there was nothing of the sort — the strikes spread everywhere and the government of Charles De Gaulle was simply left suspended in a void. Had the revolutionary forces been larger, and had they overcome the anti-revolutionary line of the Communist Party, as Camejo points out, the issue could have been settled very easily.

Today, in the concrete situation we face in Australia, abstract talk of “mass insurrection” can only appear to people as coming from another planet — quite apart from miseducating our comrades. It is sufficient for us to point out that the ruling class — the 1%, the capitalist oligarchy — will resist the advance of the people and we will have to be prepared and determined to overcome this opposition.

For instance, in Greece, if SYRIZA is elected — and doesn’t buckle — it will have to organise the people for an all-out struggle against the furious onslaught of neoliberal reaction — the capitalists, the EU, the media, the Golden Dawn fascists, and so on. The situation then might well develop in a revolutionary direction.

Murray Smith’s opinion

In a recent article in Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, “The real European left stands up”, well-known Marxist Murray Smith takes up the question of the road to revolution in the advanced capitalist countries:

… there has never been a socialist revolution in an advanced capitalist country with a more or less long tradition of bourgeois democracy. Never, nowhere. The strategy and tactics for making one will have to be developed in the course of the struggle and they will be very different from Russia in 1917, not to mention China, Vietnam, Cuba, Yugoslavia. They will certainly involve a combination of mass mobilisations and battles on the electoral terrain and in parliamentary institutions. That will involve in particular winning a majority in elections based on universal suffrage, and not only once. In fact it is difficult to see a revolutionary process that does not involve a left alliance winning an election.

All of that will be the subject of debates based on experience, and no one has a blueprint. Rather than establishing an a priori cleavage between reformists and revolutionaries it is better to look at what anticapitalist measures a left government should take and how, how to mobilise support for them, how to counter economic sabotage and political pressures from the right, etc. Not to mention what kind of a post-capitalist society we envisage.[8]

Importance of electoral work

I think Murray Smith is right on the money here. Of course, we are a long way from any prospect of a left government in Australia. But even when we are small, electoral work is extremely important for a socialist organisation. There are several considerations here.

1. This is where people’s heads are at and we have no choice but to relate to this. Electoral work gives us an invaluable opportunity to gain a wider hearing for our ideas. In the Geelong mayoral contest last year Sue Bull received 10,000 votes. There is simply no other activity that could give us this sort of impact and reach.

2. Electoral work allows us to experiment with various ways of getting our message across. We are forced to be transitional in our presentation. For instance, in this year’s federal election campaign our overarching slogan is “Take back the wealth” — nationalise the mining and energy sector and the banks. We don’t intend to play games with Gina Reinhart, Clive Palmer or Twiggy Forrest [three of Australia’s richest minimg magnates] et al but propose to take back their ill-gotten loot — lock, stock and barrel. These resources are needed to make the “big switch” to a sustainable economy and to tackle pressing social problems.

We will make every effort to popularise this idea in radical and progressive circles, especially among Greens supporters and in the climate movement. And down the road, if we are ever in government, this policy is exactly what we will carry out.

3. Standing in elections allows us to measure our strength and estimate how much support we have out there. It is not simply the vote, important as that is, but also the number of people we are able to involve, the number of people we recruit, the money we raise, and so on.

4. We are not electoralists. We understand very clearly that building the mass struggle on the ground is decisive and any electoral or parliamentary work that ignores this can only lead to disaster. But this caution can in no way be used to support abstaining from this critical area of work. Electoral activity and work aimed at building the mass movement have to be seen as dialectically related.

Work around basic issues

Subject to its human and other resources, a socialist organisation has to be as active as possible in building the various campaigns against capitalist policies and in solidarity with popular struggles overseas.

Socialist Alliance and Socialist Alternative are both active, to one degree or another, in the movements for refugee rights, Tamil solidarity, Palestine solidarity and equal marriage rights. At various times we have both had some involvement in support of the Aboriginal movement.

Socialist Alliance is involved in the feminist movement but a sharp disagreement developed last year with Socialist Alternative over the annual Reclaim the Night events.

Socialist Alliance is involved in the climate change and general environment movements, quite heavily in some places (I’ll say more on this shortly).

We are both involved in trade union work and in several instances we collaborate closely, such as in the teachers’ union in Melbourne.

A big challenge for the socialist movement is to become more involved in campaigns around basic issues that impact on the lives of ordinary people. For example, we need to be active in campaigns in defence of public housing, for rational development policies in the suburbs, around transport issues (for better public transport, against the roads madness, and so on), a better deal for pensioners and welfare recipients, or whatever.

The capitalist lie machine works overtime attempting — with some success — to convince a significant number of working people that their problems are due, not to the capitalist system and the profit-crazed corporations, but to various groups of other ordinary people — refugees, Muslims, migrants, supposed “welfare cheats”, petty criminals, and so on. To most effectively combat this poison we have to develop effective campaigns that target the real culprits and point a way forward.

Developing this work most effectively needs a lot more resources (and socialist unity is the big thing here), working constructively with a broad range of forces, the direct involvement of comrades, electoral work, the newspaper and our general media, and spreading out across the suburbs in the big cities.

Climate change

At this point I want to say something about global warming and climate change.

This is not an add-on issue or something at the margins of political life. Global warming and climate change is real and immediate and deadly serious. Unless the people can force a sharp change of direction on their governments, most of the world’s people will perish over the rest of the century.

Huge storms, floods, droughts, heat waves, rising sea levels, bushfires — all these will start to disrupt more and more severely the pattern of human activity, place society under severe stress and dislocate the food supply leading in time to mass starvation and the decimation of populations.

However, for the capitalist class in its profit-focused unreality bubble it is simply business as usual; it is all just a minor perturbation — or even a business opportunity (witness the mad corporate salivating over the riches being opened up by the ice melting in the North-West Passage and in Greenland).

Socialists need to be out in front on this issue right now. We need to be involved in the movement as best we can, at many levels. We need to relate to the issue, develop and put forward our arguments, report on what is happening, relate to the various struggles and help to build them.

Green Left Weekly has been a key tool for Socialist Alliance in this effort. We have debated with the populationists, we have reported on the movement and helped to build it. We have argued that we need to forget useless market solutions but instead concentrate on large-scale government intervention, including nationalisations, to rapidly make the “big switch” to renewable energy.

We stood our ground against the ALP-Green push on the carbon tax but sought to present our arguments in a way which would make it hard for our opponents to isolate us or read us out of the movement.

A weekly newspaper

As I understand it, both Socialist Alliance and Socialist Alternative are agreed on the necessity of the new organisation having a weekly newspaper. I think this is absolutely correct. Our whole experience with Green Left Weekly (GLW) is that having the newspaper tremendously amplifies our voice, and as the class struggle becomes more stormy this will be even more the case.

Of course, there is another issue here. GLW is not directly a party newspaper — and in my opinion is all the more effective (in present conditions) because of that. However, this is something we can discuss down the road.

GLW fulfils a number of functions.

It is an invaluable source of information and perspective on a whole number of issues.

It publicises various movement campaigns and helps to build them. Even if the forces we can devote to a particular campaign are modest (or even nonexistent) we can relate to it through GLW. And through the paper we can discuss various questions of strategy or tactics.

As a “broad left” paper, GLW seeks to encourage discussion and debate and will often present a range of views on questions. But its political centre of gravity is firmly on the socialist left and the paper has always pushed a mass action line.

Green Left Weekly also presents the views of Socialist Alliance.

Sustaining the Green Left Weekly project over 23 years, for almost 1000 issues, has been an enormous ongoing struggle. But we have trained ourselves in socialist journalism and in all the facets of newspaper production. We have grappled with the problems of distributing the paper (including having to repeatedly defend our very right to sell it on the streets).

A particular challenge we face right now is to win a new generation of comrades to participation in this effort. This is way more than a mere administrative question but above all comes down to giving comrades the confidence to engage with readers and potential readers in an effective and political way.

And, of course, each year we have to raise prodigious amounts of money to keep everything going. There is a permanent schedule of fundraising activities around the country.

Three examples of socialist journalism

I wanted to mention several stories that illustrate what GLW does and show the value of the paper. They are maybe a bit eclectic but they appeal strongly to me.

1. In August last year intrepid Green Left Weekly reporter Daryl Davies climbed 60 metres up a giant tree in a Tasmanian forest to interview anti-logging activist Miranda Gibson on her treetop perch (she ended up spending 457 days there). What an epic scoop! It was one small but very determined protest and it deserved to be reported.[9]

2. The May 22, 2013, issue of GLW contains a full-page interview by Tony Iltis with Jock Palfreeman, the Australian leftist railroaded to a 20-year prison sentence in Bulgaria by a corrupt and racist judicial system.[10] It’s a great interview with a remarkable person whose progressive human values have shone through from the start — and which actually landed him in the very tough spot he is now in. We are doing what we can — and Tony’s interview is a part of this effort — to help build the campaign for Jock’s return to Australia.

3. At the other end of the scale is our call — through articles and editorials and reporting the Socialist Alliance federal election campaign in GLW — to nationalise the entire resource-energy sector and the banks. We are trying to both educate people and popularise this idea. I for one think the slogan ‘Take back the wealth!’ has a great ring to it!

Spread across the big cities

If we succeed in creating the United Socialist Party, while we will still be small in the overall scheme of things, we will have relatively significant forces in some places. How should these forces be disposed geographically?

Take Melbourne, for instance, where we could end up with several hundred or more comrades. I think it will be an absolute priority to move beyond the inner city and establish a number of viable suburban branches. The city has more than 4.25 million inhabitants. In the Australian manner it is geographically enormous. A serious party needs to aim at establishing branches in the west, out towards the Dandenong ranges, in Dandenong and so on. Of course, exactly where we go would have to follow serious study and some experimentation but it will have to be done.

Establishing viable branches in the suburbs will pose a whole number of challenges but we will simply have to make a start in this regard if we are serious about wanting to reach the mass of people.

Suburban work would involve some combination of newspaper distribution, general propaganda and education (through meetings, video screenings, etc.), activity around local issues (in most areas there are already plenty of things in train) and promoting big central city actions in the area. In some cases the branch would be associated with a campus unit or have comrades involved in work on their local campus.

Where we achieve a real implantation and a solid branch we could weigh up running in elections (council or even state and federal).

Of course, things are different in each city and in some cases Socialist Alliance already has more than one branch (in Perth and in Sydney).

We will also have to consider strengthening our work in regional centres such as Canberra and Newcastle or establishing new branches.

Conclusion

OK, comrades, these are my thoughts on what I consider are some key questions of the activity of a future united socialist party. We can discuss all of these points and more in the next period but I definitely think we will need some agreement or consensus on the main ones for any unity project to be successful.

Notes

1. See http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/54152.

2. Corey Oakley, “What kind of organisation do socialists need?”, Marxist Left Review #5, pp. 16-17 (emphasis added). See http://marxistleftreview.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=84%3Awhat-kind-of-organisation-do-socialists-need&catid=42%3Anumber-5-summer-2013&Itemid=81.

3. See http://www.socialist-alliance.org/page.php?page=1257.

4. See http://socialist-australia.blogspot.com.au/p/about.html.

5. See http://lanic.utexas.edu/project/castro/db/1967/19670314.html.

6. See http://links.org.au/node/606.

7. Oakley, ibid., p. 9 (emphasis added).

8. Murray Smith, “The real European left stands up”, http://links.org.au/node/3350.

9. See http://www.greenleft.org.au/taxonomy/term/2150.

10. Tony Iltis, “Jock Palfreeman: ‘I’m in Villawood!’”, http://www.greenleft.org.au/node/54087.

 

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