Australia: History, strategy and revolutionary unity

Photo by Alex Bainbridge.

The following talk by Socialist Alternative member Jorge Jorquera was presented on June 9, 2013, part of the panel on “Socialism in practice: Bridging socialist theory and social movement struggles” with Socialist Alliance’s Dave Holmes. It was a session of the “Organising for 21st century socialism” seminar organised by Socialist Alliance and held in Sydney on June 8-9. The seminar also featured US socialist Paul Le Blanc. See also Dave Holme's contribution, "How should a united socialist party work?"

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By Jorge Jorquera

Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal -- Invariably some comment on the current period is a good place to start any conversation on the left. Both Socialist Alternative and Socialist Alliance generally concur on the basic contours of the Australian political situation.

I think it’s worth reflecting, however, on some of the features of the larger context, that period of neoliberal hegemony and retreat of our class which has characterised the last three decades.

The barely Marxist but sometimes interesting philosopher Fredric Jameson has characterised this era as de-historicising of the subject and consequently producing depthlessness in analysis and discussion. Neoliberalism of course more than once declared the “end of history”.

The left hasn’t done enough to consider the impact of this on our own ranks. Sure, we have discussed the “ideological crisis” at least since 1989, but rightfully excited about some of the breaks in the contemporary political situation we have probably somewhat neglected history.

The discussion of Latin American politics, which has been one feature of this seminar and an important contributor to left debates for over a decade, is a good example of why our analysis needs to be firmly historical, if it is not to become depthless or impressionistic.

It would be a mistake to interpret the advances of the Latin American left through the prism of electoral tactics or strategy. At first impression, we may only notice the pattern of electoral victories for the left and centre-left forces in the continent, but a historical analysis sheds much more light on what lessons we can draw.

The multiple electoral victories in both Bolivia and Ecuador are the result not simply of well-conceived left tactics, but much more so and in fact fundamentally because of over a decade of mass struggle and accumulation of (class) forces. We mustn’t forget that in January 2000 Ecuador’s streets were occupied by the Parlamentos Populares who overthrew the national government and briefly established a three-person National Salvation Committee. Or that Evo Morales came to office on a prolonged and deep wave of mass struggle that managed to topple more than one head of state before him.

It is also instructive to note that in at least two important situations, electoral victories provided the vehicle for a conservatisation of the left and breathing space for neoliberalism: Brazil and Uruguay.

The electoral victories of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela were of course preceded by important rebellions, including that within the military; which in fact dated back to developments in the 1970s. It is also important to note that not insignificant forces on the left in Venezuela, such as many around Causa R, in fact slowly and in part through the electoral prism, liquidated their politics and in some cases moved substantially to the right in the period preceding Chavez.

History is not an intellectual exercise. It impinges concretely on what is possible, where and when.

Any suggestion that the left and centre-left electoral victories in Latin America since 1998 have closed the book on all other than electoral tactics would be very short-sighted.

In any case, you cannot understand much at all in this framework. Venezuela is the most obvious example of just how much can’t be decided by elections. Chavez was kept in power principally because of the ongoing and often times critical mass struggles. Most key battles are being decided on the street (and in the military) and not at the ballot box. The future in Venezuela only holds more of this truth.

This is why it is not very useful to consider revolutionary strategy today as somehow shelved between electoral and insurrectional strategy. Revolutionary strategy never was and is no more now about making this choice. Insurrection is but a moment in the struggle for power; the latter being the strategic compass for all revolutionary strategy.

The struggle for class power is still at the heart of all the processes in Latin America. The current “electoral moment” is just that; and needs to be understood as both the result of victories and of defeats. Let us not forget how much of the revolutionary left in Latin America was destroyed and demobilised by the period of military rule that covered so much of the continent over the two decades preceding the electoral revival (it has happened before) of the left.

These reflections are not exclusive to one continent. It is perhaps the most common attribute of the revolutionary left globally that, after 30 years of “depthlessness”, we are too keen to find a quick break; as if our tactics can exist outside of the accumulation of class forces.

One aspect of this, which we have had some opportunity to discuss in the workshops at this seminar, is the elevation of small campaigns to the same mantle as mass struggles.

Understandably, we on the left are acutely aware of our own small size and isolation and keen to find or rediscover the agency of the class. In this discussion, I think we are right -- as most contributors at this seminar have said -- to emphasise not only that there is no contradiction between class and party but that in fact we can say quite confidently that the former comes first. This is self-evident when we speak in historical terms but is also true when we are thinking in terms of revolutionary strategy. The problem is that this is easily lost in translation; especially so when we are still so small and isolated.

Right now in our context here in Australia, there are lots of small campaigns we are part of, a couple a bit larger, but we are not in a position to speak of a period of accumulated mass struggle. So our engagement is necessarily a bit tentative, which is not to say that we can’t achieve some things; as a number of campaigns that our groups have been part of definitely have.

What we want to avoid, however, is grandiose statements about revolutionary strategy and tactics. We simply have not got the experience behind us to back such statements.

We can discuss the basic pillars of revolutionary strategy -- the centrality of mass action, the place of different tactics -- but we should be careful to guard for proportion.

I think we can agree that Socialist Alliance and Socialist Alternative both understand and put priority on the importance of mass struggle and the mass mobilisation and organisation of the class. Such mobilisation is not equivalent to our tactics but includes them.

This leads me to Dave Holme’s use of the Fidel Castro quote. I think Dave has somewhat missed the key point of the quote. Fidel’s emphasis here is not, as Dave suggests, on “finding the path to the masses”, as much as it is on reaching the “revolutionary fighters”. Not that these are mutually exclusive, on the contrary. Fidel’s point, as was emphasised in so many of Guevara’s interventions and reflected in the establishment of such forums as the Tricontinental, is that to reach the masses you have to reach the revolutionary fighters.

This is a useful contribution to this discussion, and though not too many Socialist Alternative comrades might be inclined to quote Fidel Castro, I am quite happy to. Fidel is here intervening against the popular front approach of the Latin American Communist parties: making the point that struggle comes from the masses and through our deep work among the class, not through engagement with the centrist forces that might have some of the loyalties of sections of workers at different moments. This is not to exclude the united front tactic but simply to put it in its rightful place and understand its basic purpose; to break those loyalties of the class to reformist and centrist forces.

So mass work is not, in essence at least, about talking to the organised forces “to your right”, as if they may provide a bridge to the mass. Fundamentally, mass work is about winning the confidence of workers for revolutionary solutions and in revolutionary leadership.

I think that we could learn from the different experiences of Socialist Alliance and Socialist Alternative. A united organisation would be a better organisation. I have been especially impressed, as someone who has been a member of both tendencies, by the campaigning approach of Socialist Alternative; not narrowly organisation-centric but rather conceiving of the party organisation and its role politically. Having come from the Cannonist tradition, I can confidently say that I have learnt a lot from the IST comrades in terms of defining and elaborating the party in thoroughly political terms.

This is also something we should keep in mind. We have an important commonality. I don’t think we would be involved in these unity discussions if not for our Trotskyist heritage. Not now anyway. It’s not like we got here on the back of a wave of mass struggle, urging the unity of revolutionary forces. Indeed it is quite conceivable that such a wave might, in the first instance at least, breed disunity, as each organisation tries to carve out some influence. No, we are here together in part because of the lack of such a mass break or upturn in the political situation. But we have sufficient in common historically and in spirit that we can genuinely consider the possibility of revolutionary unity.

This is why I think it is also not just some sort of “signing of the cross” to refer to this process as one of revolutionary unity. The term denotes exactly what we are trying to do. We are not in a Greek or Venezuelan situation; where the mass movement has opened the road to tactics which include not just the revolutionary left but other forces willing more or less to put up a fight. Of course there are hundreds of people -- all sorts of new and old activists who might join a united revolutionary organisation -- but as yet we can’t expect to be leading significant sections of the class in struggle.

By way of a final note, I wanted to say something about the formulation “dual crisis”. Personally, I am not sure I would put a multiple of two on it. Sure there is a growing economic crisis and an ecological crisis with consequences for human survival, but I can think of a number of other crises of significance to humanity as a whole. Not least of which is the depth of alienation that humankind has reached.

One of the contributors in the discussion mentioned the value of Capital volume 1 for understanding the ecological crisis. I would add also the value of volume 1 for shedding light on death by commodity asphyxiation, which is a central characteristic of late monopoly capitalism. What is more, this crisis is felt daily, in every suburb, every school and every home. For me it is a defining feature of the system and a growing impetus for mobilisation of young people especially, against capitalism.


Sorry. But what exactly is the writer (speaker) proposing ? I had a hard time finding concrete proposals for left unity in Australia in the article (speech). Is he rejecting Dave Holmes concept of transitional method of working ? What exactly is the programme laid out for unity and the movement ?