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In defence of Socialist Alliance’s strategy of mass action: a response to Socialist Alternative

For more on the transitional method, click HERE.

By Dave Holmes

[Text of a talk given to the Geelong branch of Socialist Alliance on December 3, 2013.]

December 4, 2013 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- The unity discussions between Socialist Alliance and Socialist Alternative have come to an end. In a November 3, 2013, letter on behalf of the Socialist Alternative national executive, Mick Armstrong wrote: “The overall political projects of both organisations are not sufficiently similar to carry through a sustained and productive unity that could advance the cause of the revolutionary left in Australia and the broader class struggle.”[1]

The Socialist Alternative letter lists four major political differences:

1. Socialist Alliance stresses the need for a “so-called transitional method”.

2. Socialist Alliance places a strong emphasis on the “centrality of electoral work”.

3. Socialist Alliance argues against the “classic Marxist position that a mass insurrection is necessary to overthrow capitalism”.

4. Socialist Alliance’s focus is “not on relating to the radical minorities that do want to take a stand or fight back but on more conservative forces in campaign groups and the like”.

We could have talked about all these and other differences (feminism and the importance of work around climate change). The truth is that the Socialist Alternative leadership didn’t want to. Originally they proposed all-in membership meetings to discuss three issues on which we clearly differed, namely, electoral work, feminism and work around climate change. This was a good suggestion but when we approached their Sydney leadership for just such a discussion on our election campaign we were told bluntly that they were not interested. That was as close as we got.

Ultraleftism and relating to ‘radical minorities’

Socialist Alliance’s political line and concrete work on any question is based on our mass action strategy. There are two criteria here. First, we attempt to address the real problems facing ordinary people. Second, we try to help develop campaigns that mobilise the largest possible number of people, as only this approach can win against the capitalist neoliberal juggernaut.

In a recent Facebook exchange, Socialist Alternative leader Corey Oakley said that he didn’t know anyone who was against mass action. But this claim is contradicted by his organisation’s actual practice.

Socialist Alternative’s activity is aimed at relating to “radical minorities”, i.e., maximising their own recruitment possibilities — not at building stronger, broader movements. Hence their ultraleftism and sectarianism on numerous occasions this year. This may have played well with some new and prospective recruits but overall these actions damaged the movement. Here are two examples:

1. In the pre-election period Rudd’s announcement of his PNG gulag plan for asylum seekers galvanised the refugee movement. But in Melbourne, rather than try to chart a path forward in collaboration with other activists to strengthen the Refugee Action Collective, the central activist organisation, we saw Socialist Alternative try to sideline RAC and undemocratically call actions over its head. This course of action was all the more reprehensible as the regular weekly RAC meetings began to attract a lot more interested people.

Furthermore, a key slogan of Socialist Alternative at these refugee protests was the call to burn down the detention centres. If desperate refugees are driven to riot and set fire to their tropical prisons, we will defend them and sheet the blame back to the government’s cruel and inhuman policies. However, this is completely different to refugee activists advocating it. This slogan is just ultraleft rhetoric that gets in the way of trying to reach out to broader layers of people.

(We might also ask: Who is to do the burning? The detainees? Activists in the movement outside? If an attempt were made to actually carry out this line, police provocateurs would have a field day and there would be a fresh crop of victims. It would do nothing to build a big, broad movement which alone can force the government to make concessions.)

2. The October 12 abortion rights action in Melbourne was marred by egg throwing and placard burning at a clash with anti-abortion protesters that Socialist Alternative engineered. These actions will make it more difficult to build future pro-choice actions. They will make it more difficult for progressive forces to defend our right to free speech.

The “radical minority” line is dead wrong and socialists should reject it. Socialist Alliance does not have a separate approach to the “radical minority”. When we talk to radicalising elements (i.e., those people coming to an awareness that the overall system is the problem and needs changing) we try to convince them of the correctness of what we are doing, especially of the need for a mass action approach.

Does Socialist Alliance orient to “more conservative forces”? No. On any question we try to build the biggest, broadest, most effective campaigns because this approach has the best chance of actually winning our demands. This means working with diverse forces — some more radical, some less so. And in the course of an actual struggle many people may well come to more radical conclusions, even socialist ones.

We need a transitional approach

Socialist Alternative disagrees with our transitional method. It claims that this leads to a “watering down of socialist politics” and means we can’t “attract and educate” radicalising workers and students.

But socialists need a transitional approach. It is really quite a simple idea. We have to reach out to people by relating to their immediate concerns and problems and from there try to lead them towards an understanding that the whole system needs to be radically changed.

In other words, we need to find the political bridges that enable people to move from their current consciousness to the understanding that it is necessary to create a new kind of society.

Our socialist program as a whole is a combination of three types of demands. There are immediate demands (e.g., decent pay and conditions, stop the closure of the local hospital, stop the sell-off of public housing, raise the age pension) and democratic demands (e.g., marriage equality now, US and Australian troops get out of Afghanistan, defend the right to strike).

Then there are transitional demands proper. These can appear reasonable but have an anti-capitalist dynamic that points towards a rational (i.e., socialist) society. These demands may be won under capitalism, but only in particular circumstances and by way of exception.

For instance, the call for a sliding scale of wages (i.e., regular automatic wage increases to compensate workers for inflation) is a transitional demand. It is obviously anathema to capitalism as it removes a key wage-cutting mechanism. But this demand was actually won in Italy in the 1970s. The battle then shifted to the frequency of increases and who controlled the cost-of-living index (the government or the unions).

Nationalisation of particular sectors of the economy is also a transitional demand and one which Socialist Alliance has sought to use in various forms.

It should be noted that no particular type of demand is inherently superior to another in its mobilising power. Which demands are most appropriate depends on the situation. For example, the whole movement against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and ’70s was organised around the democratic demand of self-determination for the Vietnamese people (“US out now”).

Socialists have no alternative other than to use this method, and at all times. We can’t simply lecture people about socialism in the abstract. And if we don’t attempt to build political bridges between the here and now and the socialist goal, it will remain just pie in the sky.

Electoral work

Electoral work is a key means by which we advance our transitional program. Building campaigns on the ground and contesting elections are complementary. Running in elections gives us an opportunity and a platform to popularise our policies and tie them together in a broad theme (“people before profit”, “community need not developer greed”).

Socialist Alliance’s recent federal election campaign was built around the slogans of “Take back the wealth. Nationalise the banks and the mining and energy sector” — in order to deal with climate change and pressing social problems. In what way does this represent a “watering down of socialist politics”? Why does this mean we can’t “attract and educate” radicalising elements?

Yes, it is not the full socialist program. But it certainly is in no way in contradiction with it and is in fact a step toward it. Our electoral platform was formulated to have the best chance of winning a hearing. Obviously everything we do is experimental and subject to review. But all feedback shows we did well. (There are specific reasons for our modest vote but there is no reason to think a more abstract presentation of a fuller socialist program would have improved our vote in any way. Most likely it would have reduced it.)

Socialist Alliance’s whole strategy is based on trying to work with whoever is willing to build the broadest campaigns against neoliberal austerity, war, injustice and oppression. Only out of this process will it be possible to build a big socialist party of struggle that can start to realistically pose a way out of the madness of capitalism.

Socialist Alternative has a very different approach. Socialist Alternative’s fundamental strategy is to build its organisation by a relentless attention to recruitment. For this task you don’t need a transitional method because the focus is on attracting “radical minorities” by stunts and ultraleft posturing and asking just about everyone in sight to join.

Likewise, Socialist Alternative doesn’t run in elections because to make any impact in this arena you have to descend from the realm of general socialist propaganda and formulate a more concrete and convincing message that can actually strike a chord with people’s consciousness.

‘Mass insurrection’

Finally, we come to the charge that Socialist Alliance rejects the “classic Marxist position that a mass insurrection is necessary to overthrow capitalism”.

For Marxists “insurrection” means an armed uprising against a regime. Quite simply it is not the “classic Marxist position” that a “mass insurrection” is necessary to overthrow capitalism. If we had had a proper discussion the Socialist Alternative comrades could have tried to substantiate this claim. I don’t think they could. The “classic position” is formulated in our ongoing draft document Towards a Socialist Australia as follows:

How will fundamental social change come about? There is no map or blueprint, but long experience shows that we will get nothing unless we fight for it. The involvement of the majority of people will ensure that real change can be achieved and defended.

The capitalist oligarchy — “the 1%” — and its supporters will fight to the end to defend its privilege and wealth. Only the power of the organised and mobilised working-class majority can introduce the economic democracy needed to begin to resolve the problems facing the 99% …

Even if popular forces committed to fundamental change win an electoral victory, we will have to mobilise in the streets, workplaces, schools, campuses and neighbourhoods to defend any progressive moves made against the power of the corporate rich.[2]

Today, what more do we need to say? If the situation changes we can say more (e.g., if ultrarightist street violence develops we would call for big counter-mobilisations, popular self-defence groups, and so on).

Talking about “mass insurrection” wrongfoots us on so many levels.

It will come across to ordinary people — and just about any serious radical — as simply off the planet.

Is this really the line of division we need right now — for or against “mass insurrection”? Surely the key task for socialists today is to find the most effective ways to mobilise the greatest possible popular force against neoliberal austerity and the scapegoating policies that go with it. That’s what Socialist Alliance is attempting to do all the time, albeit with our modest forces.

The “mass insurrection” line puts us in a bad position to resist state attacks. The state can more easily picture us as conspirators plotting an armed revolt, not caring about winning majority democratic support, and so on.

Many variants of development

If, in a given country, the ruling capitalist class establishes an outright dictatorship that allows no meaningful legal political activity and crushes all dissent then the popular forces may be forced to prepare an armed uprising. This is what happened, for example, in Iran in 1979, when millions of people rose up and overthrew the brutal US-backed regime of Shah Reza Pahlavi.

But this is not the situation we face in the developed capitalist countries today. We have no illusions in the peaceful nature of the capitalist ruling class or in its commitment to democracy, but we should orient to what is in front of us. There are many possible variants of development of the political situation.

What if a left party or alliance were to win an electoral majority on a radical program? As it attempted to implement this program it would face some sort of “pro-slavery rebellion” by the ruling class and its supporters. The popular government would have to mobilise its supporters to crush the reactionaries. The capitalists would be the ones trying to carry out an insurrection and the people would have to defeat it!

Is this an impossible scenario? Who is to say it can’t happen in an imperialist country at some time in the future. Karl Marx certainly thought it possible in England in the second half of the 1800s. Here is Frederick Engels in his 1886 preface to the English edition of volume 1 of Capital.

Free Trade has exhausted its resources; even Manchester doubts this its quondam economic gospel. Foreign industry, rapidly developing, stares English production in the face everywhere, not only in protected, but also in neutral markets, and even on this side of the Channel. While the productive power increases in a geometric, the extension of markets proceeds at best in an arithmetic ratio. The decennial cycle of stagnation, prosperity, overproduction and crisis, ever recurrent from 1825 to 1867, seems indeed to have run its course; but only to land us in the slough of despond of a permanent and chronic depression. The sighed for period of prosperity will not come; as often as we seem to perceive its heralding symptoms, so often do they again vanish into air.

Meanwhile, each succeeding winter brings up afresh the great question, “what to do with the unemployed"; but while the number of the unemployed keeps swelling from year to year, there is nobody to answer that question; and we can almost calculate the moment when the unemployed losing patience will take their own fate into their own hands. Surely, at such a moment, the voice ought to be heard of a man whose whole theory is the result of a lifelong study of the economic history and condition of England, and whom that study led to the conclusion that, at least in Europe, England is the only country where the inevitable social revolution might be effected entirely by peaceful and legal means. He certainly never forgot to add that he hardly expected the English ruling classes to submit, without a “pro-slavery rebellion,” to this peaceful and legal revolution.[3]

We should also read James P. Cannon’s Socialism on Trial. This is a powerful example of how to put our ideas defensively. Cannon, the national secretary of the Socialist Workers Party, was one of 18 people charged with sedition by the United States government because of the SWP’s anti-war line and activity. The trial took place in Minneapolis in 1941. Cannon had to develop his responses on the spot. Here is how he answered the prosecutor in one exchange:

Prosecutor: So your party looks forward to an inevitable civil war brought about by the difference between your views and those of the capitalists?

Cannon: If you will permit me, I would like to say we don’t look forward to it in the sense of wanting it.

Prosecutor: I understand you, yes.

Cannon: And we don’t consider it inevitable. A variation of historical processes is possible.

But we say the overwhelming weight of possibility, based upon historical experience, is that the ruling class of this country will attempt to resolve the conflict with the workers by fascist violence before we gain a majority in Congress. Or if it should come to the point where we gain a majority in a democratic election, the ruling class would stage a slaveholders’ rebellion against it. And we will undertake to put down that rebellion as decisively as possible.[4]

Left unity an inescapable idea

Some leftists have questioned why Socialist Alliance ever contemplated unity with Socialist Alternative, given the latter’s politics and record. But exploring the possibility of unity between our two organisations was a worthy and necessary project. The potential gains of successfully uniting the two largest socialist organisations in the country were self-evident.

In accepting (in 2012) that differences of historical interpretation or differences of theory should not be obstacles to unity, Socialist Alternative took an important step forward. That had been the view of Socialist Alliance since its inception. As an avowed unity project itself, Socialist Alliance had to respond to this development and so we approached Socialist Alternative for talks.

The high point of the process was Socialist Alternative’s Marxism 2013 conference, where an enthusiasm for unity was very noticeable, even if not everyone was convinced. But Socialist Alliance was also quite clear that there was a considerable political gap to bridge in terms of how each organisation saw socialist political activity today.

In the end, the Socialist Alternative leadership opted for sticking with its very narrow, propagandist view of socialist politics and pulled away from the whole process.

This particular attempt at left unity has come to an end, but the idea will keep presenting itself. There is simply no way around it. We don’t know who will eventually come on board but we have to keep searching for ways to bring the maximum progressive forces together to build an effective political vehicle that can lead a real challenge to this terminally sick system.

[Dave Holmes is a leader of Socialist Alliance in Melbourne. He writes at Arguing for Socialism.]

Notes

1. For the correspondence between the two organisations see http://alliancevoices.blogspot.com.au/2013/11/dossier-on-unity-talks-between.html.

2. See http://socialist-australia.blogspot.com.au/2012/05/how-will-we-get-there.html.

3. See http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/p6.htm (emphasis added).

4. See http://www.marxists.org/archive/cannon/works/1941/socialism/ch01.htm (emphasis added).

Comments

Deja Vu

Dave Holmes presentation of Socialist Alternative movement tactics draws me back to the period of the Vietnam War and the ultra left posturings of the Maoists of the (primarily Melbourne based) Worker Student Alliance.

[Maybe the analogies run deeper and Socialist Alternative would do well to study Maoism's 'new left' trajectory in Australia because it soon ran its course.]

But the difference are interesting nonetheless. While the Maoists were keen on occupying the far left of the anti war movement there was a certain 'militancy' logic in their advocacy of strident anti imperialist slogans -- such as 'Smash Imperialism!" -- and street fighting preferences. They still wanted to build a movement whereas the Socialist Alternative approach seems a negation of movement building, as though it is a theatre show, a happening, performed for the engagement of those who prefer their politics via front row seats.

I realise that Socialist Alternative don't actually believe that they are anti-movement building but let's just say that the Melbourne Maoists had a lot more going for themselves than Socialist Alternative does today in way of "radical minorities" to orient towards-- given the then contemporary buoyancy of the campus revolt.

It also warrants pointing out that a mass movement against the war was built despite the Maoists' strident objections to its protocols. Does anyone today want to argue that 'withdrawing the troops' was a mistaken tactic? Or that if only we learnt some way to 'smash imperialism' (how? where? with whom?) we could have built the movement bigger and secured a much earlier withdrawal?

'Tis all a bit empty is it not?

["Shit! All we got was troops out when I really really wanted the end of imperialism!"]

I know that Socialist Alternative will argue sotto voce that none of the movements today are large enough to have much of an impact on capitalism so it behoves the Marxist left to get into anything that moves (assuming it passes a credentialing test) and plunder it for its share of anything that's bolshevisable.

But I have to say -- and this is the real tragedy I think -- that despite all their Stalinist arrogance and militant shibboleths, the WSA did strive to build 'a' movement (albeit one of their preference), whereas Socialist Alternative seems caught up in a contradiction where any movement must function to serve their party building aims. That really, all we can hope for today is a bigger Socialist Alternative that coheres the 'radicals'.

'Radicals' who obviously exclude the membership of the Socialist Alliance...or for that matter, any 'radical' who disagrees with their movement tactics.

Thats' true, isn't it? We're not talking about any radical minority nor any socialist or Marxist but one that fulfils certain strict Socialist Alternative criteria.

So what's happened over the last 12 months or so, is that the goal posts were moved forward ... then they were moved back -- despite the opening outwards flagged by all of Socialist Alternative talk about left unity.

Left

There was an argument that the transitional method war relevant only for times ripe with revolution. Now the obvious question is how do socialists mobilise working class people with various levels of consciousness ? A purely "socialist revolution" in the abstract is never going to happen. People will mobilise on matters of concern to them and with political, organizational leadership, progress to an understanding of the connection between their immediate situation and the general social system.

If there is a more "socialist" way of mobilizing people, it should be tried in practice and one of the best methods of testing politics is in elections. And the question of appealing to a militant minority is spurious at best. There will be a militant minority and a less militant group, and it is necessary for the majority of the workers to move together to tilt the balance of forces. This cannot be achieved by having a separate strategy for the militant minority.

That is over and done with.

That is over and done with. Personally, I felt the unity process was dead after the meetings with Paul Le Blanc in Sydney and Melbourne. I cannot recall even a single meeting to debate the three main issues of difference. It is not surprising the process was still born. At least Socialist Alternative announced it did not wish to go further with the non-existent process. Time to move on.

Move on?

I think Mohan misses something.

The differences are here-and-now tactical differences that are played out in successive campaigns. That's
the complication that cannot be moved on from.

That discussion was thwarted -- that, in fact,it was very soon a non existent process -- underscores a major problem with the unity rhetoric Socialist Alternative allowed itself. Despite that, I'm sure the Alliance membership appreciates the clarity this 'non existent process' offered.

That's the irony. I think the Socialist Alliance collectively got a lot out of the episode...and in a very real sense, is still exploring its meaning by trying to clarify further its own perspectives.

Nonetheless, it warrants pointing out, that this process began life as a hopeful exercise in unity with Socialist Alternative initially advocating a quick smart merger, seemingly without recourse to much discussion about differences.

"Socialist Alternative is very serious about unity. We want to see a unity that lasts, not something that tears itself apart two years down the track. We want a unity that is a real advance for the revolutionary left. We want a unity that not only unites our two organisations but draws in newly radicalising forces that want to see a militant fightback. We have seen some of the benefits that unity can bring in our fusion earlier this year with the Revolutionary Socialist Party. For all these reasons we need a well prepared unity. We are not for artificially forcing the pace of the unity process.

"However, having said all that, it is also very important to seize the time. To drag out unity negotiations too long will mean we lose momentum and it can lead to a certain cynicism developing amongst those outside our ranks who are following the unity process and who might be inspired to join a new united organisation which would be easily the largest organisation of socialist activists in Australia for quite a number of years."

Socialist Alternative to Socialist Alliance July 6, 2013
http://alliancevoices.blogspot.com.au/2013/11/2-recent-correspondence.ht...

Correction

My mistake. The 'quick' merger was not an initial proposal but one that was flagged just 4 months before the process was thwarted by Socialist Alternative.

What happened in between? If the 'differences' existed from the getgo, they existed in July too. So why should the two orgs be "not sufficiently similar to carry through a sustained and productive unity " by November 3rd?

Socialist Alternative warns of the threat "of a certain cynicism developing" and they went right ahead and encouraged it.

But just because you flag a few differences and walk away from the table doesn't mean that those differences go sleepy bye byes. This is the discussion that needs to be had, if not in a united organisation, then more broadly because it impacts on here and now politics.

Transitional demands not enough

The schematic of demand categories put forward in Trotsky's rather ambitiously titled "Death agony of capitalism and the tasks of the Fourth International", aka the "Transitional Program" is useful to understand.

But it's not enough just to understand it and to categorise demands and so on.

None of them really make much sense in the abstract. What puts them into context is engaging with struggles that occur. It doesn't matter how much the class struggle overall is at a "low ebb" as I have heard Socialist Alternative talks explaining for about a decade now. There are always some struggles going on around us, large or small, regardless.

Socialists should support any such progressive struggles they can, and particularly identify those that might be able to win their demands or defend something important, and seek to find the strategies and tactics to realise those aims. And then get to work, not waste everyone's time talking about how great socialism is.

"Demands" in such a situation are just one (important) ingredient in the struggle. For those whose engagement with politics is mainly in talks and written articles, on the other hand, the demands are the main thing. For Trotsky, writing while exiled in Mexico, they were probably the most tangible thing too.

It's true that different kinds of demands have different implications for the conduct of the struggle. There's other ways of categorising them too. In Andre Gorz' terms, there are “reformist reforms” that prop up the system, with “non-reformist reforms” whose attainment would make the system weaker. I think that a valuable distinction to try and understand, and easier in many ways than Trotsky's schema.

When many of the struggles we engage with are simply defensive, or led by reformist forces much stronger than the far left, this “transitional method” and transitional demands themselves might remain quite abstract. But if the left can engage with struggles, use its anti-capitalist insights to strengthen those struggles and maybe win some, it will put the left on a stronger footing to actually push our own, “non-reformist” reforms.

I really think the left has to throw itself into campaigns for reforms. We have to be better reformists than the reformists! Not because reform is our ultimate aim, or because the struggle is more important than its aims as Bernstein would have it, but because fighting for reform is a basic first step.

Socialist Alternative are not at that first step, seeming to consciously reject taking it, based on their analysis of what to do when the class struggle is at “a low ebb” and workers are on the defensive. So their tactics fall back on whatever it takes to recruit small numbers of people to their own group, rather than what's needed to build campaigns to win.

I attended the opening of a Socialist Alternative seminar on trade union activism recently and it appears that in their members' work in the unions, they are perhaps attempting to show actual leadership to real struggles. It struck me as unusual compared to their attitude in other areas.

Dave Holmes’ article is

Dave Holmes’ article is characterised throughout by a total failure to distinguish between the different tasks that confront socialists today and those that will confront the mass revolutionary party that we would all like to bring about. This failure is mirrored by a frequent conflation of propaganda and agitation.
For example: “... we try to help develop campaigns that mobilise the largest possible number of people, as only this approach can win against the capitalist neoliberal juggernaut”.
It is true that only massive campaigns will block, or even slow, the capitalist offensive. But that doesn’t mean that Socialist Alliance, or Socialist Alliance plus Socialist Alternative plus the rest of the left are able to bring about such a campaign. The fact is that none of us, even if we were to combine, has enough of an audience at present.
Holmes’ version of “transitional method” is offered as a way to overcome this unfortunate reality. But it’s false. It’s the idealist notion that, if we just get the program exactly right, it will transform objective reality. That is not the way the real world functions. It would require a mass revolutionary party to “develop” the desired campaigns if they were not developing spontaneously.
Campaigns massive enough to defeat the capitalist juggernaut (and not just the neoliberal version, but all the forms of that juggernaut) can’t be summoned into existence by a clever program. Yes, revolutionaries who have their heads screwed on properly can help campaigns to become bigger and to avoid some of the traps that capitalism puts in their way. But if the right program could solve everything, capitalism would have ended shortly after the publication of the Communist Manifesto.
This relates to Holmes’ carry-on about the phrase “radical minorities” in the Socialist Alternative letter to Socialist Alliance. At first – or even second – read, Holmes’ point is more than a little obscure: Socialist Alternative relates to “radical minorities”, while Socialist Alliance relates to “radicalising elements”. What???
Suppose that the Socialist Alternative letter, instead of saying, “... your focus is not on relating to the radical minorities that do want to take a stand or fight back but on more conservative forces in campaign groups and the like”, had said “... your focus is not on relating to the radicalising elements that do want to take a stand or fight back but on more conservative forces in campaign groups and the like”. Would anyone have thought that gave a different meaning to the point being made?
So what is going on here? I think it is a difference, not about who we talk to, but what we say to them. Yes, we should tell the “radicalising elements” (who are certainly a minority in Australia at present) that it will take massive numbers of working people in struggle to bring about socialism, or even to win substantial reforms under capitalism; if Holmes thinks that this rather obvious point is what distinguishes Socialist Alliance from the rest of the left, he is seriously mistaken. Where Socialist Alternative and Socialist Alliance diverge is in regard to what else we tell them. Socialist Alternative explains that, to get to where we want to go, we are going to need a mass revolution that destroys the capitalist state, that we are going to need a mass Marxist party to lead that revolution, and that we should be working on trying to build that kind of party now, neither waiting for some more favourable circumstances nor looking around for short cuts. Socialist Alliance tells them to keep building “mass actions” even if they happen to be quite small.
This understanding of what Holmes is saying is supported by his words: “Socialist Alternative’s activity is aimed at relating to ‛radical minorities’, i.e., maximising their own recruitment possibilities — not at building stronger, broader movements.” He makes it sound as though there is something reprehensible about winning people to the goal of building a revolutionary party. To do that, he poses building a party and building movements as mutually exclusive alternatives. That is a traditional argument of red-baiters trying to exclude socialists from movement campaigns. I know that, in a previous life as a member of the Democratic Socialist Party, Holmes would often have countered that false argument. It would be interesting to know what has caused him to change his mind.
Holmes creates another straw man when he says that the only alternative to his version of “the transitional method” is to “lecture people about socialism in the abstract”. There is no reason that propaganda on the need for revolution and a revolutionary party has to be abstract. If Holmes cares to take a look at the Socialist Alternative newspaper Red Flag, he will find that it explains socialism in relation to the specific issues and struggles that working people are engaged in.
He asserts that arguments for socialism are “more concrete and convincing” when advanced in an electoral context, but he advances no justification for this assertion, and it is hard to imagine how he could. Does he consider it a general truth of Marxism that people are more susceptible to socialist propaganda in the context of a bourgeois election campaign than they are in the context of a strike or a campaign for democratic rights or the defence of refugees?
In fact, winning working people to revolutionary socialism doesn’t seem a very big priority in Holmes’ explanation of Socialist Alliance election strategy: “Our electoral platform was formulated to have the best chance of winning a hearing. Obviously everything we do is experimental and subject to review. But all feedback shows we did well. (There are specific reasons for our modest vote but there is no reason to think a more abstract presentation of a fuller socialist program would have improved our vote in any way. Most likely it would have reduced it.)” The aim of “winning a hearing”, it seems, is not to persuade listeners of Marxist ideas but to “improve our vote”.
Furthermore, not all socialist election campaigns are as concrete and convincing as they might be. At the risk of being accused of parody, I would summarise the theme of Socialist Alliance election campaigning as: “The capitalist parliament that I would like to be elected to should implement the following socialist measures ...”. That is worse than abstract; it completely misrepresents capitalist reality. If the aim is to convince working people of the truth rather than illusions, electoral campaigning needs to emphasise something like: “What we really need is not socialists in a capitalist parliament, but a totally different system in which working people control what happens. Then we could really carry out the following measures (instead of having them sabotaged even if we had a parliamentary majority) ...”
Naturally, the importance of that kind of explanation specifically in an election campaign will tend to vary inversely with the amount of such propaganda that the socialist organisation presents in other forums. If the group’s public meetings and campaign interventions regularly and systematically explain why capitalist democracy is not a vehicle that can carry us to socialism and why some form of workers democracy based on workers councils will be necessary, and people attracted to the election campaign are introduced to these fundamental Marxist ideas, whether or not they are raised in any particular electoral leaflet or forum is a tactical question. But the Socialist Alliance doesn’t systematically present such ideas. Its draft program implicitly contradicts them, and Holmes more explicitly contradicts them, in this article and in earlier ones. This is clearest in his discussion of “mass insurrection”.
Holmes, who says he is worried about frame-ups by the capitalist state, nevertheless declares, “For Marxists ‛insurrection’ means an armed uprising …” My book shelf doesn’t have a volume with the title Marxist Dictionary, and if Holmes has such a volume, I urge him to discard its definition of “insurrection” for the one in the Macquarie Dictionary (3rd edition): “the act of rising in arms or open resistance against civil or established authority”. That is, insurrection may involve arms or some other form of open opposition to the government. When the workers and urban poor of Caracas rose up and helped to defeat the coup against Hugo Chavez, few of them were armed, but they were carrying out an insurrection.
Of course it is extremely likely that mass insurrection to overthrow capitalism in Australia will involve arms, because it is as close to certainty as anything in politics can be that the capitalists will use arms to oppose the will of the majority. Marxists have recognised this since Marx and Engels, but Holmes tries to turn the founders of Marxism into agnostics on this question. He claims that the “classic” Marxist position is that a peaceful and legal transition to socialism can “happen in an imperialist country” – a claim he bases on something Marx said about ONE country BEFORE the modern imperialist system existed.
Holmes writes, “Talking about ‛mass insurrection’ wrongfoots us on so many levels”. This assertion falls apart as soon as you consider what is meant by “talking about” – whether you are talking about propaganda or agitation. Yes, if socialists were to put a call for insurrection on the front cover of their newspaper in today’s political climate, they would look like loonies. But that does not preclude “talking about” the eventual need for mass insurrection to radicalising elements or radical minorities who wonder how socialists propose to get past the obstacle of the capitalist state. And the letter did not criticise Socialist Alliance for not “talking about” insurrection in inappropriate contexts. It criticised them for “arguing against” that Marxist position. That is what is done by the Socialist Alliance draft program Towards a Socialist Australia that Holmes quotes.
Yes, it says we we will have to “fight” the capitalists in order to get “real change”. But the only specific form of “fighting” suggested in the passage that Holmes calls the “classic position” of Marxism is “mobilising” to defend a “progressive” government created by a capitalist parliament. There is no suggestion by either Holmes or Towards a Socialist Australia that an insurrectionary mobilisation might arise in any other circumstances whatsoever.
And is such a mobilisation likely to require physical violence, even arms? Today, Holmes informs us, we don’t need to answer that question. “If ultrarightist street violence develops”, then of course Holmes would be in favour of “calling for” mass resistance. But, who knows? Maybe ultraright violence won’t “develop” (because the capitalists who normally organise such things aren’t sufficiently alert?). So there’s no need to disturb anyone now by warning about what might “develop”. Of course, if something like that should happen, the masses will respond immediately to our call even though we have done nothing previously to alert them about the possibility of this occurring.
Holmes writes, “We have no illusions in the peaceful nature of the capitalist ruling class or in its commitment to democracy, but we should orient to what is in front of us.” That is only partially true. Of course it is a mistake to get so excited by future prospects (or nostalgic for past successes) that you don’t relate to the current reality. But relating to current reality is only part of the task. We also have to prepare as many people as possible for what our Marxist understanding tells us is likely to happen. Anyone following the line of Holmes’ article won’t do that. They will wait to see whether armed capitalist resistance “develops”.
I will not deal here with Holmes and the Socialist Alliance’s “transitional method”. My comments on that topic are contained in an article in the forthcoming issue of Marxist Left Review.

"insurrection" - a terminological debate

I think that the differences between Dave Holmes and Allen Myers over "insurrection" are largely a matter of terminology.

Dave Holmes says that while there are "many possible variants of development of the political situation", a likely scenario is that an elected left government will face a "pro-slavery rebellion". He said that in such a case, the "popular government would have to mobilise its supporters to crush the reactionaries".

Although Dave does not mention it, a "pro-slavery rebellion" occurred in Venezuela in April 2002, when the elected Chavez government was overthrown by a short-lived military coup. The coup was defeated by the mobilisation of the masses, with the support of the pro-Chavez section of the army.

This example supports Dave's argument. But Allen Myers cites the anti-coup mobilisation as an example of "insurrection".

Fine. Allen can call it an "insurrection", while Dave can call it an example of mass mobilisation to defeat a "pro-slavery rebellion". I think it is a difference of terminology rather than real difference.

Incidentally, is there general agreement within Socialist Alternative that what occurred in Venezuela in April 2002 was an insurrection?

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