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.


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.


1. See

2. Corey Oakley, “What kind of organisation do socialists need?”, Marxist Left Review #5, pp. 16-17 (emphasis added). See

3. See

4. See

5. See

6. See

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

8. Murray Smith, “The real European left stands up”,

9. See

10. Tony Iltis, “Jock Palfreeman: ‘I’m in Villawood!’”,


Dave is a beguiling writer, wonderfully skilled in lending explosive ideas an aura of sweet reasonableness. But with his articles as with everyone's, we have to call a halt from time to time and reflect on what a particular sentence or phrase actually says, and on whether that's what we ought to be telling people.

De Gaulle in May-June 1968 was suspended in a void? No, De Gaulle as President of France was commander-in-chief of the armed forces, whose discipline remained intact throughout. The French state was in a condition of extreme crisis, but there's no reason to suppose that the capitalists wouldn't have sought to use their armed forces ruthlessly to defend their class rule. That would have been De Gaulle's next move, if the PCF and the trade union bureaucracies hadn't sold the masses down the Seine.

Corey's formulation ("mass insurrection") would have been better phrased defensively, making the point that the source of violence in a class society lies with the ruling rich. But what he says has the virtue of making clear the need for the masses to prepare for a fundamental contest of raw class power.


There was a speech by Socialist Alternative speaker Jorge Jorquera (If I remember correctly). Links should publish it as well so that readers can discuss the substance of that stand.

I tend to agree with Dave (not because we are in the same group). First regarding the layer of people that can be involved in a socialist organisation - there are disillusioned Labour and Green supporters that can be part of such an organisation. And second, the potential for the group growing bigger exists as the occupy and various protest movements show. The task is to reach out to them and help expand their struggles without imposing an apriori agenda on them but work with them and demonstrate in practice that socialists are the only consistent supporters of their struggles - the Palestinian, Tamil, Aboriginal, GLBT, environmental, industrial struggles we have seen in recent times spring to mind.

Third, the one evident fact about our society is the marked disparity in consciousness, which is a refelction of the disparities in the situations of the various groups and classes - inner city tertiary educated professionals to immigrants in insecure employment without citizenship and little knowledge of English to people juggling multiple jobs and family responsibilities and in outer suburbs with little public transport and services. And lastly people agitating on the issues of immediate concern - desal, single parents, trains etc, etc.

There is no conveyer belt to draw these people into theoretical classes and propaganda.

Nor is there a guarantee that all those involved in these will become socialits activists, but the way forward is to begin with their immediate demands, show them in the course of struggle the connection between their issues and the general nature of capitalism and the state and thus demonstrate the need for immediate struggles to dovetail into political struggles. Admittedly the support from individuals will vary some will become steeled cadres some occasional helpers and the lite but most will be drawn into the political orbit of socialism.

We have to remember that such influence will be fluid and subject to ebb and flow. The important thing is to rally sufficient forces at decisive moments.

The alternative is to leave things to a small advanced group and repose faith in spontaneity. This is what I have learnt from the losses and painful experiences of over 30 years in the struggle. Critics are welcome to disprove this.


As a member of Socialist Alternative I find this discussion really engaging and worthwhile, so let me offer my thoughts.

For me the question of insurrection is the most important question I have found between our groups so far, since we began discussions with each other that is.

On violence: The insurrection of October 1917 was fairly remarkable for how little violence it involved. It was made all the less violent for having won the mass of workers to support the Bolsheviks, and the fact that workers already exercised power in the form of the Soviets. Violence even in insurrection remains a circumstantial question, although realistically its always going to present itself.

The state today is a thousand times stronger, I don't think we should deal with the question by putting it to the back of our minds and hoping it won't be too hard. Dave says that the talk of insurrection would appear to people as coming from another planet. But to which people? Our cadres should be trained to treat this question seriously. Of course it's not a main propaganda point, but where has it been overstated? It seems the point is that it shouldn't be talked about at all. Although of course he disagrees with the point, so the questions have to go together.

"But the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes." So we can't take over the state machinery, but we can't ignore it either if we want to keep our heads. It has to be smashed.

Workers can create revolutions themselves - many times they have formed workers councils of their own initiative and not because of the presence of a socialist party. What a revolutionary organisation aims to do is to carry this forward to its most radical extreme - to the taking of power. It is the only way to overcome the revolutionary situation of dual power, where workers power exists alongside capitalist power structures. Dual power is an untenable situation, it has to be resolved in one side's favour only. Too often it is resolved in favour of capitalism, because of the disorganisation of the masses in ridding themselves of the remains of capitalist power. Insurrection is therefore our whole reason for existing as a revolutionary organisation.

I like Renfrey's comments by the way. Insurrection can be posed defensively. Slave rebellions are pictured as defensive for example. People in chains are by their nature bound to attempt to burst out of them. History doesn't judge them for the violence that act contains, they are driven to it. Workers are slaves under capitalism, and taking of power is something they will be driven through desperation to do. It is an act to defend our existence. Violence is not our aim or our hope.

Side note: I think that Corey's quote has been misread. Not being Corey myself he'd have to say himself, but I read it as saying that there is no audience that we can attract by tacking to the right *not* there is no audience and if there was we'd have to tack right. I agree with Corey's formulation - that broadness as a virtue of itself is not necessarily a shortcut to growth. Actually the truth is we are already finding an audience amongst the socialist left with the unity discussions and through merging with the RSP, I could only imagine this to be greater if we united.

Even Wikipedia addresses this question re May/June 1968.(not a bad discussion overall).…
"The movement was largely centered around the Paris metropolitan area, and not elsewhere. Had the rebellion occupied key public buildings in Paris, the government would have had to use force to retake them. The resulting casualties could have incited a revolution, with the military moving from the provinces to retake Paris as in 1871. Minister of Defence Pierre Messmer and Chief of the Defence Staff Michel Fourquet prepared for such an action, and Pompidou had ordered tanks to Issy-les-Moulineaux.[4] While the military was free of revolutionary sentiment, using an army mostly of conscripts the same age as the revolutionaries would have been very dangerous for the government.[2][6]:198-199 A survey taken immediately after the crisis found that 20% of Frenchmen would have supported a revolution, 23% would have opposed it, and 57% would have avoided physical participation in the conflict. 33% would have fought a military intervention, while only 5% would have supported it and a majority of the country would have avoided any action." --
[ Referenced to: Dogan, Mattei (1984). "How Civil War Was Avoided in France". International Political Science Review / Revue internationale de science politique 5 (3): 245–277.]

I Find this talk of "taking to the right" disingenuous. The need to address immediate concerns and link the immediate struggle to political demands is leading from the particular to the universal. If agitation (or transition) is taking to the right, the alternative is for a small group of activists to act on their own relying on spontaneity of the masses. And Insurrection ( I presume they always involve the mass) is by no means the only way transformation is possible. Why should other means or a combination of means be ruled out ? Are there any logical grounds for maintaining that insurrection is a blueprint for revolution in Australia ?

The October insurrection was bloodless not the civil war that followed.

How does one mobilise the masses at crucial times to act consciously unless there are strong roots of the organisation among them and how does the organisation build such a base ? Without basing itself on the demands people are moving on and drawing them into political struggle cadres cannot be built from a diverse range of people with extremely uneven consciousness.


May-June 1968 upsurge in France

In my talk I used the example of the May-June 1968 events in France to make a point. This dramatic upsurge is a side issue in our discussion of left unity in Australia in 2013, but it will always have an abiding interest for revolutionaries, especially in the imperialist countries.

The French revolt was not successful, that is, it did not overturn capitalism in that country. Could the upsurge have led to a socialist France? Clearly it turned out the way it did for weighty reasons — above all, the weakness of the revolutionary forces compared to the Stalinist French Communist Party which actively conspired to sabotage the revolt.

In the face of the massive spreading strikes and demonstrations De Gaulle certainly wasn’t about to give up. As part of his efforts to rally the right-wing forces he pardoned a number of OAS killers (including their leader Raoul Salan) and they were released from jail. He went to Germany to talk to commanders of the French army there. However, with unprecedented numbers of workers on strike and a tremendous radical ferment in the country, he faced a huge problem.

Obviously, my remarks were historical speculation but I don’t think my description of the De Gaulle government appearing at one point (toward the end of May) to be suspended in a void was incorrect. Here is how Peter Camejo (then a leader of the US Socialist Workers Party) described the situation in his talk a year later (see note 6 above):

French example

Now, how exactly can the American revolution come about? What kind of movements and strategy will allow us to take power? To make this clear, let me tell you what happened in France in May-June of 1968. I said that you need two things to make a revolution — a vanguard and an objective situation in which there is a crisis and a mass radicalisation. Well, in France you had that objective situation — but you had no revolutionary vanguard. Let me show you how, if there had been a strong vanguard, revolutionaries in France would have led a struggle to take power from the ruling class.

In France you had 10 million workers on strike. You had another two million farmers supporting them. Plus the 600,000 students. Now, since the total population of the country is 50 million, this means that the overwhelming majority of families had at least one if not two people involved in the strike. It was clear that the majority of the people in France were out on strike, making certain demands. You had a majority. There was no need to negotiate with anyone.

What would a Marxist vanguard do in such a situation? First of all, we would fight for the formation of a strike council of the whole country which could simply say: “Well, it’s clear we have a majority, so we are going to have free elections to decide all the questions under demand here. And these elections are going to be run by the strike council because the government has shown itself to be undemocratic.”

Remember, at the time of the crisis, De Gaulle had no real power, except in the sense that there was a vacuum which he filled. Do you know that when De Gaulle wanted to hold a referendum during the strike, it was so unpopular that he couldn’t get any workers in all of France to print the ballots? He had to go to Belgium, to ask the Belgian workers to print the ballots, and they refused too! He had no strength.

One might ask what about the army? But he had no army with him. Maybe the officers, but the soldiers — who were the soldiers in France? They were the sons and brothers of the strikers.

The first thing a strike council would do would be to immediately hold elections in the army barracks for new officers, and any officer that didn’t accept this would be thrown out. And then you would go to the barracks and ask the soldiers to share their guns. The guns would be used to help form militias of the people. Then you would dissolve the police force and have the workers out on the streets patrolling. That could have been done in a number of days under the conditions that existed in France. Just to start with, you had hundreds of thousands of students who would have been immediately willing to participate in the militias and to arm themselves.

Then elections would be held in the factories, and other institutions, and delegates representing the rank-and-file workers in the factories, the students, the soldiers in the army and people in all the various institutions would come together in a central council. And you would put on the floor of this body, which would be the most democratically chosen body in the history of the country, the motion that all industries are nationalised. We would simply pass that, along with other programs which would meet the people’s needs.

When you stop to think about it, what would the ruling class have done? Bombed their own cities?

When you think about it, every step I’ve outlined, every demand, is based on democratic ideas. The word “socialist” hasn’t even been used. Because what socialism means is not simply that socialists come to power, but that a class — the masses of the working people — come to power. That could have happened in France. The objective conditions were there, the radicalisation among the masses. What was missing? There was no sufficiently strong Marxist vanguard. The working class in France was led by a party which supports capitalism, called the Communist Party. So the big problem in France, in order to make a revolution, is to depose the Communist Party from the leadership of the working class.

Revolution & insurrection

Some posts on Facebook and Comrade Cat’s comments here seem to take my remarks on ‘mass insurrection’ as a rejection of the idea of revolution. I think if comrades read carefully what I said there is simply no basis for any such interpretation.

There is no argument that the capitalist class will stop at nothing to defend its rule, commit any crime and shed any amount of blood. That is the historical record. If Corey had simply said this in his MLR article I wouldn’t have said anything but he put an equals sign between ‘mass insurrection’ and revolution. And I don’t agree with that.

My disagreement is not about the likelihood of the capitalist class fighting to the end to defend its rule but what forms a revolution might assume. In the Third World we have seen mass insurrections topple dictatorial pro-US regimes — as in Nicaragua in 1979 and in Iran in the same year. But the 1959 Cuban Revolution took a different form — a guerrilla struggle in the countryside with active mass support in the cities.

And is it really inconceivable that in some First World country in the future a determined left coalition might win office and then, as the legitimate government trying to carry out its program, be faced with a ‘pro-slavery rebellion’ (as Marx termed it)? The struggle to defend this government and crush the capitalist slaveholders might then lead to a socialist revolution (expropriation of the bosses and so on).

Furthermore, we should always be extremely careful how we present things (even more so in the present climate). We should always take great care to formulate things in a defensive manner. This is not some ploy but corresponds to reality: the violence always comes from the bosses and their agents. In their struggle for a better life the people will always attempt to struggle peacefully. But we have a right to defend ourselves from the violence of the bosses and their state. That is precisely why I put things this way:

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.

In his MLR article Corey referred positively to James P. Cannon’s Socialism on Trial. I would urge comrades to look over the Resistance Books edition which includes not only Cannon’s 1941 courtroom testimony but also some very important supplementary material (especially Cannon’s defence of his testimony). It is extremely relevant to the discussion above. Copies are available from the Socialist Alliance offices around the country; it is also online at

The quoted passage from Camejo, describing how May '68 might have turned out, describes a revolutionary workers' state being formed in factory and soldier's soviets, which distributes weapons to workers' militias to defend the new workers' state against the old bourgeois one. This is basically the definition of an insurrection. It is also precisely the opposite of Murray Smith's call to implement socialism by repeatedly forming government in bourgeois parliaments.