Australia: Revolutionary unity to meet the capitalist crisis -- Socialist Alliance responds to Socialist Alternative

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Socialist Alliance national convenor Peter Boyle speaks at Socialist Alternative's Marxism 2013.

[A response from Socialist Alliance to "What kind of organisation do socialists need?", published in the Summer 2013 issue of Socialist Alternative's Marxist Left Review. This article first appeared in Marxist Left Review, Winter 2013 and is posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission.]

By Nick Fredman, Pip Hinman and Susan Price

June 28, 2013 -- Over the past two decades the fall-out of the collapse of most of the former Stalinist regimes and the decline of social democracy have been the backdrop to a semi-permanent discussion about how socialists should organise. More recently this discussion has been sharpened by an acute economic crisis and in some countries by specific developments among the far left, from the deep crisis and splits within the UK Socialist Workers Party to prospects for greater unity of the left in Europe and the UK.

In Australia, a clarification by Socialist Alternative in early September of 2012 that its members did not have to agree with all historical political assessments (for example the character of the former Soviet Union) and contemporary political assessments (for example processes in Cuba and Venezuela), prompted the Socialist Alliance to write to Socialist Alternative to ask for leadership talks about prospects for unity. The recent merger of the Revolutionary Socialist Party into Socialist Alternative has also placed prospects for a new socialist organisation uniting the two biggest socialist parties on the agenda.

Along with Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal,[1] Marxist Left Review is now a site of the Australian discussion. We welcome the opening up of MLR that took place this year, and its new role “in clarifying the basis on which a new, larger, united revolutionary organisation could be built in Australia”[2] and the opportunity to contribute to the discussion of socialist organisation here. While the views expressed are our own, they are consistent with the positions of the Socialist Alliance, particularly as developed in the last three years. In an immediate sense this article is a response to Corey Oakley’s recent article.[3] But we broadly agree with the kind of organisation Oakley is putting forward: a revolutionary socialist party – one that seeks to unite all those who want to fight to end capitalism and that strives to win mass support through its involvement in all the day to day struggles of the exploited and oppressed[4] – as the shared (or common) aim of the Australian far left.

This article is an effort to clarify our views on the party question, and related questions of program, perspectives and tactics, today. Efforts at clarification and mutual understanding are an important part of any unity effort between socialists from differing traditions.

The dual crises and the urgency for revolutionaries to organise

The deep malaise global capitalism has entered since the 2008 financial crisis, sparked by capital’s attempts to stave off a long-term decline in the rate of profit by a casino-like financialisation of the economy, has engendered austerity politics and a smouldering social crisis across much of the globe, particularly in Europe and the US. Social democracy has long since abandoned any significant differences it had with conservative forces, easier to project in better economic times, although it should be recognised that there are remnants of “traditional” social democracy in some union, Green and broad left party currents, which have some popular support. Mass Communist parties have withered, with some exceptions. In this context, revolutionaries face big opportunities but also very big challenges when much of the institutional strength and historical memory of the workers’ movement has declined.

Oakley’s article covers capitalism’s economic crisis and the urgency it places in forging unity among revolutionaries to help build the fightback and a real political alternative for working people. But the economic crisis is combined with a severe ecological crisis caused by unplanned and distorted growth, most sharply reflected in the increasingly likely possibilities of catastrophic climate change, threatening the very existence of life on the planet. This is a significant omission from Oakley’s presentation of the urgent need for a serious and combative socialist organisation.

Serious socialist organisations today need to recognise and campaign on the dual nature of the crisis – economic and ecological – caused by capitalism, not only to critique capitalism, but to find the ways to link the workers’ movement with the ecological movement. This would have an immediate, positive impact in the campaigns against unconventional gas, uranium and coal mining, for example. It would also increase the likelihood of a speedy and just transition away from the reliance on mining fossil fuels and ensure a switch to renewable energy sources.

In the immediate future, famine, rising sea levels, flood inundation, access to safe drinking water, rising food costs and more frequent extreme weather events will continue to be felt disproportionately by the working class and the most marginalised peoples, unless an ecological and socialist political alternative can be built.

Towards a revolutionary party

The most important aspect of the immediate discussion is the overarching agreement between the Socialist Alliance and Socialist Alternative on the strategic goal of socialists today: to work towards the building of a mass revolutionary party which has as its ultimate goal the replacement of capitalism with a profoundly democratic, humane and ecologically sustainable system – socialism.

While all paths to socialism will be different, we can generalise somewhat from successful overthrows of capitalism such as in Russia and Cuba, defeats of attempted revolutions such as in Algeria in the mid-1960s, and contemporary class battles for power such as in Venezuela and Bolivia, where socialists are in government and have mobilised mass support but face entrenched capitalist power in the economy and the state. What is needed is a political force that has a strategic perspective of leading a mass movement to break capitalist power and in the process construct a new and more democratic state, and is capable of winning the active support of millions to do this.

The possible contemporary forms of a revolutionary process in a country like Australia, or how to best express the necessity of such a process, is an ongoing discussion. Oakley, for example, suggests that capitalism “cannot” be overthrown without an “insurrection”, a term usually denoting an armed revolt (perhaps Oakley did not mean this). We’d prefer to adapt the slogan of the nineteenth century Chartist movement: “peaceably if we can, forcibly if we must”. Our preferred tactics should be general strikes and massive mobilisations, being built by and further building new forms of organisation of workers and the oppressed, such as nearly caused the collapse of capitalist state power in France in 1968 and Portugal in 1974, even if we need to prepare for possible violence by the capitalists and their supporters. But, as Greece today shows, tactics such as strikes alone cannot substitute for the need for all serious revolutionaries to build a political alternative which has the confidence of the masses and which is prepared to take political power back from the capitalist class.

The key strategic agreement we share is that capitalist power needs to be confronted with a mass movement and a political alternative and that new and participatory institutions need to be built to be able to move toward socialist economic and social relations. The necessarily international nature of any successful struggle against capitalism is also easy to agree on, even if there is ongoing discussion about the attitude of revolutionaries towards the taking of political or governmental power in the context of an existing bourgeois state.

In any case we are far from such heady days here and, as Oakley emphasises, our current party forces are tiny. To get to a situation of mass support with a high level of political consciousness will surely require a complex series of tactics and interventions.

Recomposition of the left and ‘broad’ parties

The path to building a mass socialist party is less than obvious, and within advanced capitalist countries (the broad context we are focusing on here), social democracy, Communist parties and unions have generally declined, although in quite different ways. In this context varied forms of regroupments and “broad left” party efforts have been attempted. We should recognise that efforts to reach masses of people on less than a full socialist program are important steps and that the form that this will take, and the opportunities and challenges in doing this, will be different in different countries.

We agree, for example, on the big opportunities thrown up by the rise of SYRIZA in Greece and the revolutionary process in Venezuela (and also the fact that the socialist movements in these two countries have very “classic” problems of capitalist economic and state power to confront). We should also recognise that there are other experiences of mass parties, mass movements and significant victories involving “incomplete” programs that we can usefully learn from, and that there are organisations with more “complete” programs which play a sectarian role and don’t offer useful lessons. There isn’t a strict dichotomy, based on program, between on the one hand “revolutionary organisations”, and on the other “broad left” parties that are fatally flawed. We could be mindful that recent scholarship on the Russian Social Democratic Labour Party suggests a more complex relation between the different factions than many of us were schooled in, although opinions such as those of Paul Le Blanc and Lars Lih differ on this.[5]

We should concretely analyse the different experiences of SYRIZA, the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), the French Left Front, the newer Scandinavian left parties, the Portuguese Left Bloc and so on. Such discussions on the international left can be a source of lively and educational debate and shouldn’t be a point of agreement for any new organisation here. In Australia there doesn’t seem to be any immediate prospect for a “broad left” party, besides the Greens, which plays something of this role. There may, of course, be left breaks from the unions, the ALP or the Greens and/or radicalising forces that will pose the question of a new left/socialist party in varied ways. However, the concrete question here and now is whether revolutionaries can agree on a strategic framework with which to better intervene in current struggles and to assess and respond to new challenges as they arise.

The party as a process

A recent article by US socialist Paul Le Blanc examines the debates between Rosa Luxemburg and Lenin on a number of questions – one of them the party question. Le Blanc wrote: “While [in the heat of argument over organisation] Lenin was dismissive of Luxemburg’s approach – tagging it ‘the whole notorious organisation-as-process theory’ – an examination of his own account of the evolution of Bolshevism in 1907 and again in 1920 show his own keen awareness, after some years of experience, that the development of a revolutionary party is indeed a process.”[6]

Understanding that party-building is a process – that there is a dialectical relationship between the party and the social and political forces – is essential if we are to regroup forces from different traditions and unite with broader radicalising layers.

Unfortunately, in the past few decades, too many revolutionary groups have paid lip service to the need to unite with broader forces while in practice maintaining a sectarian approach to other socialist organisations. Claims of being the true inheritors of best-practice Bolshevism are absurd, especially as it is increasingly clear that the Communist International of the 1920s included a regular clash of trends and ideas with realignments based on practical steps forward in concrete conditions.[7]

Some revolutionary groups in Anglophone countries of the recent past (particularly those coming from a Trotskyist tradition) have been defined by highly elaborated and narrow programs, on historical and theoretical questions as well as general strategy and perspectives. They necessarily declared all others weren’t really revolutionary, or at least were highly suspect.[8] Unity was preconditioned on a high degree of theoretical agreement, which could safely be left to a future unspecified level of class struggle that would impel the other groups to see the true light.

While such a development can be understood in the context of the relative isolation of revolutionary forces fighting the dominant influence of social democracy and Stalinism, this narrow sectarian or at best semi-sectarian model has led to a dead-end of competing tiny groups.

The need to break from sectarianism

Our experience in building the Socialist Alliance over 12 years has been guided by the pressing need for revolutionary groups to break out of relative isolation but also importantly to develop a political practice that breaks with the sectarianism of the past.

Oakley has focused on the problems associated with attempts to build a “broad party”. He identifies real problems and issues, even if his association of these with the Socialist Alliance is, to a considerable extent, mistaken. We must in any case also be concerned about the major problem associated with the far left in the advanced capitalist countries in recent decades – that of sectarianism.

The struggle against sectarianism that has plagued socialist organisations remains a critical factor in our thinking about how best to organise and connect better with working-class forces moving into action against the capitalist system. The problem of sectarianism is largely driven by the far left’s small size and its isolation from the working-class movement: that’s a challenge we continue to face.

A good outline of the problem is presented by Duncan Hallas, a leader of the International Socialist Tendency, writing in the context of the British Socialist Workers Party struggling to break out of its isolation in the early 1970s.

Hallas summed up some of his party’s sectarian traits thus:

The negative consequences of this [sectarianism] include the tendency to exacerbate secondary differences, the transformation of tactical differences into ones of principle, and the semi-religious fanaticism which can give a group considerable survival power in adverse conditions at the cost of stunting its potentiality for real development… Th[is] will be overcome when and only when a serious penetration and fusion of layers of workers and students outside sectarian circles has been achieved.[9]

One of the negative features of the Stalinist period is the assumption that the answers to all questions are known in advance – that they are contained in the “program” which is “definitive” and “final”. Hallas argues convincingly against those who fetishise the program, while also making clear that the party does need to have a program or statement about what it stands for.[10]

He makes a few acute observations about some of the less than useful “truisms” that his organisation (among others) was trying to break from, including that a program written in the 1930s would unlikely be useful for socialists trying to construct a program in the 1970s.

He says this about the development of a program:

As a matter of fact the development of a programme, in the sense of a detailed statement of partial and transitional aims and tactics in all important fields, is inseparable from the development of the movement itself. It presupposes the participation of a large number of people who are themselves actively engaged in those fields. The job of socialists is to connect their theory and aims with the problems and experiences of militants in such a way as to achieve a synthesis that is both a practical guide to action and a springboard for further advance. Such a synthesis is meaningful to the extent that it actually guides the activities of participants and is modified in the light of practice and that changes in circumstances which it itself produces. This is the real meaning of the “struggle for a programme” that is so often turned into a fetish. [Emphasis added.][11]

This is certainly a more difficult method than sectarianism because there are no certainties – except in the method! However, it’s our connectedness to the class struggle – warts and all – that has to inform the approach of a socialist organisation.

Another of the Socialist Alliance’s distinguishing characteristics is that it doesn’t just appeal to tradition. It has focused on developing its theoretical base by having a critical engagement in, and analysis of, the political process as it unfolds.

We should agree with Lenin’s party-building method, which was based on the premise that to understand the struggle, you had to engage in it. The program and organisation of a revolutionary socialist party have to be directly tied to the mass movement. Jim Percy, a founding member of the Democratic Socialist Party, put it this way: “Revolutionaries are tied to the living struggles of the working class and its allies. That’s the way the program of a party is developed.” [12]

The development of the Socialist Alliance

The Socialist Alliance has developed a range of programmatic material that connects our theory of the need for a socialist revolution with the problems and experiences of people in struggle today. Our program is not located in one single booklet: it’s in a range of our policy positions, our perspectives resolutions, and our constitution. This method means that we are continually developing our program, such as successive drafts of the Towards a Socialist Australia document, which could become more of a programmatic document.[13]

The Socialist Alliance has been one attempt to better connect with those in struggle today and unite socialists from different traditions on the basis of unity in action, rather than by putting program first. It is worth recounting some of the history of the Socialist Alliance (which differs from the account Oakley gives, although his is a lot more objective than that of a number of other critics).

Since 2001, the Socialist Alliance has been through a number of key stages in the process of developing as an organisation, and this continues. There have certainly been ups and downs but we disagree with Oakley’s assessment that Socialist Alliance has been a “disaster”.

In 2001 various organisations and non-aligned socialists came together to found the Socialist Alliance, with over 1000 people attending founding public meetings. The process was spurred by a number of developments: the collapse of most Stalinist regimes had made many differences outmoded; the decline of social democracy and the former Communist Party had left a vacuum on the left; and there was a new spirit of activism, resistance and unity in the variously named “anti-corporate “or “anti-capitalist” movements and mobilisations.

The organisation initially came together around a class struggle platform. From the beginning there was debate about how to conceive of the Socialist Alliance, which forces might be drawn to it, what the nature of its platform should be and how much and how quickly thus platform could develop. On one side, as Oakley correctly notes, there was the International Socialist Organisation (and a very small number of others). The ISO argued that the Socialist Alliance’s platform should be based on “old Labor values” and that the Socialist Alliance should seek to limit itself to being a party of reforms with its social support base mainly made up of disaffected ALP voters and with its main focus on elections.

On the other side of this debate were those affiliates and members who argued against a limited, reformist or electoralist party. Within this camp were those who wanted the Socialist Alliance to embark on a lengthy process of discussing and agreeing on a “full” revolutionary program, including historical and theoretical questions, before it could unite much further. Most in the “pro-party” camp however agreed with the perspective of building a united socialist party with a revolutionary program, but argued that this should come about through a process of engaging in joint action, building maximum agreement as the process unfolded and further developing our platform as we went.

Dick Nichols, as acting national convenor in 2001, addressed the early debate within the Socialist Alliance about its early platform this way: “While our platform is electoral, it certainly doesn’t mean that the Alliance is electoralist – none of us think that our body of demands can be won by winning seats in parliament. We’re not parliamentary reformists and an integral part of our message is that mass struggle is the fundamental method for winning social change.”[14] Since then, the platform has organically evolved into something far more approaching a program (as we explain below).

As discussion and activity continued, the desire to take the next step to build a multi-tendency socialist party was clearly expressed by the large majority of Socialist Alliance members who were not members of any of the founding affiliate groups, along with the largest affiliate – the Democratic Socialist Party (from late 2003 the Democratic Socialist Perspective). For three conferences in a row (2003, 2004 and 2005), a very large majority of delegates reaffirmed that they were committed to taking the process forward.

Oakley recognises the contours of these debates to some extent correctly, but then wrongly insists that the pro-party majority were stuck on a static “broad party” model. On the contrary, once initial agreement on a class struggle platform was reached and a range of activities began to be undertaken, further development became quite logical and agreement on this with most members easy to achieve. The progress within a year of the 2001 founding conference is in fact well reflected in a complaint by the ISO that the DSP was putting forward a “revolutionary” program for the organisation, along with the completely misguided (and subsequently repeatedly disproved) view that a regroupment process would be repellent to the membership.[15]

For the majority of Socialist Alliance members (including its biggest affiliate, the DSP), it was extremely important that the new party develop its political program as well as its organisational form, but that it do this democratically and organically. That way, it would be in a better position to relate to the struggles of the day, win greater agreement and cohesion from the membership, and break from the more sectarian practices and bad habits of the left.

It is true that by the Socialist Alliance’s May 2005 national conference it was clear that all bar one of the revolutionary socialist groups (the DSP) were in their different ways opposed to taking the Socialist Alliance forward to a more united party, and they left the Socialist Alliance over the next two years. It might be thought then that the model was therefore flawed from the beginning by including those who were only interested in a limited front, and those who insisted on unity around their own historically and theoretically detailed program.

But it was not predetermined that both forms of opposition would continue within a positively developing organisation. Significantly the ISO appeared to consider the possibilities of regroupment around 2003-04. But a major, if not the major, block to this development was the detailed direction of the ISO’s perspectives by the UK Socialist Workers Party, which veered away from the English Socialist Alliance through 2004 towards the Respect Party. Narrowly defined international relationships can be problematic for any unity process, including those that are as “revolutionary” from inception as you could insist on.

The Socialist Alliance as “disaster” narrative does not fit with the facts when one looks beyond the set-piece conference and discussion bulletin battles of formerly affiliated tendencies. While debate was heated in 2003-05 the organisation continued to set up new branches, including in regional Australia, attract movement leaders and recruit strongly through this period, peaking at over 1100 members in mid-2005.

Whereas subsequent disaffiliations and a bitter three-year factional struggle inside the DSP led to losses thereafter, the Socialist Alliance has rebuilt itself with several hundred members. It continues to unite socialists from well beyond the capital cities, and from a variety of backgrounds, as well as revolutionaries from the Latin American diaspora, the African diaspora, from the Middle East, students, workers of all types – from miners to teachers to farmers, from boilermakers to artists, unionists, including leaders of the labour movement, rank and file activists, those from Communist Party, Greens or ALP backgrounds. Importantly, development of organisational and programmatic perspectives have continued since 2005, and particularly since 2010 when the DSP decided to merge into the Socialist Alliance because it believed that there was enough agreement inside the organisation on a revolutionary perspective.

The Socialist Alliance further developed its organisational and programmatic perspectives at our January 2013 conference, following months of thorough and public discussion and debate. While one of the Socialist Alliance’s shortcomings is its reduced base on campus, we have recruited some serious young activists in recent years. A welcome aspect of the recent discussion and conference was the sharp intervention by a number of young leaders who campaigned for a more activist organisation with more clear and developed politics – and towards a clear recognition of the need for a serious unity effort as the next step in developing the socialist movement in Australia.

An activist and democratic organisation needed

Socialist Alternative and the Socialist Alliance have, we think, converged in the recent past in our respective thinking on how an organisation of revolutionaries today needs to be both united, activist and interventionist, and to have a broad tolerance for open discussion and debate. We outline our current thinking here.

One of the changes we adopted at our recent conference was a constitutional recognition that membership involves activism. In discussion we also recognised that to translate such an expectation into practice, we have to more than simply declare it to be so. We recognise that we have to find ways of involving a greater number of our members in the regular work of the organisation and the movements it is involved in. While we have recruited some experienced activists, being a confident socialist activist today takes education, confidence building (practice) and the development of new skills.

We think that because the basis of political agreement in the Socialist Alliance has grown since it was formed, there is the political basis for a higher level of organisation.

We don’t expect members to agree on all issues: the Socialist Alliance was originally set up as a multi-tendency socialist party – and that remains the case today even though the tendencies that do exist today are more tendencies of opinion rather than formal factions organised as separate affiliates.

And while it’s not named as such, our constitution gives the Socialist Alliance a democratic centralist character. That means that while we encourage the fullest democratic expression of different ideas and strategies, a majority view will determine the organisation’s course of action and position. Unity in action and democracy are tied together. You cannot have democracy without unity in action, because otherwise the democratic decisions of the majority cannot, or will not, be tested out fully.

We also believe that unless discussion (and debate) is encouraged, the self-education of militants and the self-confidence in revolutionary ideas will not come about. Certainly, a stifling of debate, or an atmosphere where “the line” prevails doesn’t advance political consciousness. Differences must be able to be freely and openly argued.

Democracy is not mostly about factional struggles: it’s about the organisation assisting the exploration of ideas and strategies, and the encouragement rather than discouragement of debate – without, of course, becoming a permanent debating club.

A thorough party democracy also requires efforts to raise the political level of all members to enable their full participation in discussion, debate and decision making, thereby removing the bourgeois distinction between “intellectuals” and “activists”. From the beginning, the Socialist Alliance welcomed the existence of a strong Marxist current in the organisation, and today Marxist education is an integral part of our activity.

We believe that membership of a revolutionary organisation has to be defined by a serious commitment to the ultimate objective: the democratic control of the economy by the working class and the oppressed. But within these boundaries, there can be a variety of views on the strategy and tactics needed to advance that goal.

In this light we welcome Socialist Alternative’s recent moves towards a less narrowly defined programmatic basis for agreement and unity with others, its acceptance of public open debate, and the change to an ongoing internal discussion forum for members.

Their media and ours

In the battle of ideas between our side and the capitalist class, the corporate media are the key organising and propaganda tools of our enemies. It is essential for us to develop our own media to effectively fight this battle. Green Left Weekly (a “broad” paper which is not exclusively the Socialist Alliance’s) has been a central tool for the organisation. We place a high priority on providing the resources for it and in maintaining it as a well-read weekly newspaper, and associated website – increasingly multimedia in form and more frequent in publication. Here we set out our thinking of the importance of media for a socialist organisation today.

In Lenin’s time, the party newspaper played an indispensable role in building the Bolshevik party – so much so that he used a construction term: the paper was the scaffolding. It was the essential tool the Bolsheviks used to raise their ideas with advanced workers who they wanted to influence and involve in the party.

The paper was a recruitment tool. It was also an agitator and an organiser: it organised members to relate to the struggles of the day; it trained members to write up reports and make analyses of the issues of immediate concern to the working-class movement, as well as the broader issues affecting the class and oppressed groups. Writing is a discipline: it forces logic in argumentation, a clarifying of ideas, and honing the skills of persuasion. The paper was used to test out slogans and demands. It was the vehicle where debates could be had with political tendencies, no matter how transitory.

However, in our opinion it’s nonsense to state that revolutionary parties must have party newspapers – or that broader papers will inevitably pull the organisation towards reformism, or confusion. Revolutionaries such as Karl Marx (Neue Rheinische Zeitung), the Bolsheviks and the International Marxist Group in the UK in the 1960s and 1970s[16] have participated in “broad” papers when these were useful in getting the message out and in mass organising. A broad paper can draw in supporters and house useful debates.

Today Green Left Weekly plays a critical role in both building the Socialist Alliance as well as building the left and progressive struggles. Our multimedia efforts have recently become more systematised through a regular Green Left TV report with broad involvement and high production values – a big step forward for socialist media in our view.

While the long-term trend may be towards the potential of web platforms to deliver varied media, we think a frequent print publication will be essential for the foreseeable future. We need to reach people in regional and remote areas, on the campuses, on the streets, in workplaces, at protests and other events. While such a publication requires a considerable effort (not least in fundraising), properly done this should reinforce rather than distract from outreach, recruitment, education and movement work.

In terms of an ongoing discussion about what kind of media a socialist organisation needs to build today, we welcome Socialist Alternative’s recently announced move to a fortnightly print publication with more of a focus on discussion and debate than its previous magazine.

Transitional methods, transitional language and transitional demands

Oakley suggests there is a problem with some socialist unity efforts – namely the Socialist Alliance – of watering down its program in an effort to achieve broader membership and support.

The Socialist Alliance is not aiming to unite revolutionaries and reformists within its ranks, as Oakley implies. Nor do we agree with his statement that “There are times when it might be necessary or advantageous for revolutionaries to put forward less than their full position, to fudge important political questions, or to a greater or lesser extent dissolve into a broader formation.”

Some of the criticism along these lines is due to a misunderstanding of our development and political practice.

We agree with Oakley’s argument that a clear and precise program is not at all incompatible with popular language when warranted.

Some recent informal online discussion has focused on what is seen as the problematic nature of the use of “broad” or “transitional” language, and, in a somewhat related way, the alleged problematic nature of the concept of transitional demands as developed by Leon Trotsky and the Fourth International. In an exchange of views on social media, for example, the argument is put forward that transitional demands are not applicable outside of revolutionary periods and that they confuse a necessary distinction between the immediate demands, necessary for united fronts to organise mass movements, and the maximum program of socialist revolution.[17]

We can readily agree that a clear program is compatible with popular expression. But Oakley is in fact a bit unclear on this. He writes at one point of “the language of Marxism” (emphasis added) and at another of “popular and accessible language”, presumably a different language.

But the point surely is that Marxists need to be able to speak different languages, and know which is appropriate at what time and place, all the while speaking Marxist politics. That’s exactly what we mean by the term “transitional method”. By this we mean that we seek to engage people on the basis of their real needs and from there seek to lead them toward an understanding of the need to change the whole system, that is, to replace capitalism with socialism. Most people develop their ideas chiefly on the basis of their experience. Socialists have to join them where they are at, engage in struggle with them, help them draw lessons from those experiences and on that basis educate them about the need for a systematic change in our social relations and economy.

We think programmatic statements and platforms, while they should be clear, must also strive to be accessible and contemporary in language, to both summarise the membership’s agreed positions, and to be attractive to people interested in socialism. There is in fact no necessary equivalence between traditional Marxist language and clarity, nor between accessible language and lack of clarity.

For example, Socialist Alternative’s recently adopted Statement of Principles[18] contains a section on Stalinism that, in describing Stalinism as politically much like fascism, appears to be lightly paraphrased from Trotsky’s Transitional Program. While it is commendable that this statement doesn’t require any agreement on a particular analysis on what the former Stalinist regimes were (“state capitalist” or “degenerated/deformed workers states”), and the key point is of course the need for socialist democracy, this section doesn’t explain anything about why Stalinism went horribly wrong or what this might mean for the future.

The section in the Socialist Alliance’s publication, Towards a Socialist Australia, making a more general point about the dangers of bureaucratisation, is both accessible and puts forward more of a materialist explanation of past regimes and future challenges, also without requiring a position on the relevant past disputes among the far left.[19]

We also think there are still very useful lessons from the discussion of different types of demands – immediate, democratic and transitional – in Trotsky’s Transitional Program,[20] even if it is no recipe book.

It is probably uncontroversial to think of immediate demands as concerning the day to day defence of the interests of the mass of working people. Some examples are demands for better wages and conditions, or opposition to neoliberal cutbacks and privatisation. Nor is it controversial to discuss democratic demands given capitalism’s constant tendency to restrict democratic space on every level. Demands for free speech and against government snooping, for women’s right to abortion, opposition to imperialist wars (US and Australian troops out of Afghanistan; let the Afghans determine their own destiny) – all these are examples of democratic demands.

But we also think it’s useful to raise, when appropriate, transitional demands understood as broader demands that, while relating to specific issues and struggles, more directly challenge the inability of capitalism to meet peoples’ needs and more directly point to an alternative to capitalism as a whole. Examples of transitional demands are: a sliding scale of hours (with no loss of pay) – to combat unemployment; a sliding scale of wages – to combat inflation eroding the living standards of the workers; nationalisation of particular industries or economic sectors (under workers’ control) – to allow us to grapple with pressing issues; and an end to business secrets – to enable us to plan the economy. They may not all be on the agitational agenda in Australia today, but then neither is the maximum program of socialist revolution. But like the maximum program or socialist goal, understanding the concept and its use in past struggles, and applying it when appropriate in more propagandistic work such as Socialist Alliance’s electoral slogans to “nationalise the mining [or banking] industry under community control”, can help keep our more day to day work on a consistent class struggle track and help win people to more general ideas of socialism.

We understand there’s a range of views on these issues within Socialist Alternative, as there no doubt is within the Socialist Alliance. We note for example that through his blog and Socialist Alternative magazine articles John Passant energetically promotes demands such as taxing the rich and nationalisation of companies that sack workers, rather than restricting himself to immediate movement demands and the maximum program.[21]

We don’t think these issues are barriers to unity, but rather see this as an ongoing discussion about the continuing development of an appropriate socialist program, perspectives and tactics for Australian conditions.

The role of bourgeois elections

We think that one important area for raising a range of demands and reaching large numbers of people with clear socialist politics in a popular form and language is through participation in bourgeois elections. Socialist Alternative members have said they are not opposed to this in principle, but see little utility in the present context and in relation to other political priorities.

We think it somewhat incongruous that it is seen as uniformly inopportune for socialists to undertake electoral work in Australia in the present period. A decade ago there were no socialists elected into office, and there are now four socialist local councillors.[22] The Socialist Alliance’s Sue Bull received 8 per cent or 10,000 votes for the Geelong mayoralty race last October, and Steve Jolly (Socialist Party) received nearly 10 per cent for the Victorian seat of Richmond in 2010. It’s not at all clear to us what Socialist Alternative believes the threshold in possible votes or level of class struggle should be for some electoral effort. By contrast we have substantial experience of electoral work reinforcing campaigning and organisation-building activity, and are sure this mutually reinforcing effect would be enhanced in a bigger, united organisation.

A basis for this is the understanding that one of the greatest obstacles to winning working people to the perspective of a revolutionary transformation is the widespread and deeply ingrained illusion – constantly reinforced by the capitalist media and all ideological institutions – that through bourgeois democracy, and particularly the parliament, working people can defend and advance their interests.

Historical experience has shown that socialists cannot destroy this widely held illusion simply by arguing against it. On the contrary, workers and the oppressed can only be convinced that parliament is an instrument of capitalist rule when this argument is backed up by their own experience. That is, working people will have to go through the practical experience of struggles in which they can test the limits that the parliamentary system places on their activity before they can be convinced of the necessity of overthrowing this system and replacing it institutions of socialist democracy.

In such perspectives, including the usefulness of some electoral interventions without much prospect of victory or even a large vote, we think we are simply following the revolutionary tradition. Marx and Frederick Engels argued in an 1850 address to the Communist League that “Even where there is no prospect whatever of their being elected, the workers must put up their own candidates in order to preserve their independence, to count their forces and to lay before the public their revolutionary attitude and party standpoint”.[23]

Lenin always argued for the energetic intervention in the tsarist Duma (parliament), despite the highly limited nature of the body and the rigged nature of the elections. He wrote in 1911: “The elections for the fourth Duma are due to be held next year. The Social Democratic Party must launch its election campaign at once… Intensified propaganda, agitation, and organisation are the order of the day, and the forthcoming elections provide a natural, inevitable, topical ‘pretext’ for such work.”[24]

In the second volume of his memoir, Barry Sheppard describes the 1976 campaign of the US Socialist Workers Party presidential ticket of Peter Camejo and Mae Reid. Despite the probability of an insignificant vote nationally, and the substantial resources required (including needing 100,000 signatures to get on the ballot in some states), the campaign was not at all a distraction from involvement in mass struggles or building a revolutionary current, but in fact opened many opportunities for the party to build and get a hearing in the mass movement and access the corporate media. At that time the SWP was also centrally involved in many important struggles, including leading the historic struggle against segregated schooling in Boston, and reached a high point in strength, with over 3000 members of either the SWP or the Young Socialist Alliance.[25] The election manifesto is also an exemplary transitional revolutionary platform.[26]

In this article we have sought to put forward our views on the nature of revolutionary socialist organisation today and some related questions of program, perspectives and tactics as these relate to the present discussion between the Socialist Alliance and Socialist Alternative. We’ve highlighted some areas of agreement and areas of difference, believing that for any serious unity discussion this sort of approach is vital. Apart from the leadership discussions, the joint meetings and other initiatives – such as the Fightback contingents on May Day and the decision by Socialist Alternative to support Socialist Alliance’s election campaign – also assist in our organisations getting a better understanding of each other.

We look forward to further developing this discussion and collaboration – the goal being a new united revolutionary socialist organisation. If we can unite in a way that builds on each other’s strengths while establishing the democratic institutions for the two groups to enrich each other’s political understanding, political culture and political practice, there will be a significant advance for the socialist cause in Australia. There will also be positive international reverberations.


[1] Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal is available at

[2] Sandra Bloodworth, “A note to our readers”, Marxist Left Review, 5, Summer 2013,

[3] Corey Oakley, “What kind of organisation do socialists need?” Marxist Left Review, 5, Summer 2013.

[4] Socialist Alliance, Towards a Socialist Australia, 2012, p.14,

[5] See for example the range of articles tagged “Lenin” at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal,

[6] Paul Le Blanc, “Lenin and Luxemburg through each other’s eyes”, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, 3 January 2012,

[7] John Riddell, “Party democracy in Lenin’s Comintern – and small Marxist groups today”, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, 20 February 2013,

[8] Riddell, “Party democracy”.

[9] Party and Class. Essays by Tony Cliff, Duncan Hallas, Chris Harman and Leon Trotsky, Haymarket Books, 1996 (1971), p.55.

[10] Party and Class, p.47.

[11] Party and Class, p.47.

[12] Jim Percy and Doug Lorimer, The SWP and the Fourth International, pp.26-27,

[13] Socialist Alliance, Towards a Socialist Australia.

[14] Socialist Alliance Pre-Conference Discussion Bulletin,

[15] David Glanz, “ISO: ‘We will terminate our affiliation to the alliance’”, Green Left Weekly, 2 November 2002,

[16] That is, the Black Dwarf and Red Mole which were quite successful efforts under the editorship of Tariq Ali.

[17] For example the Facebook note, Omar Hassan, “Revolutionary, reformist or transitional program” 14 December 2012,

[19] Socialist Alliance, “The problem of bureaucracy”,

[20] Leon Trotsky, The Transitional Program and the Struggle for Socialism, Resistance Books, Chippendale, 1999.

[21] John Passant, “Tax the rich till their pips squeak – notes for a talk at Marxism 2013”, 24 March 2013,; John Passant, “Want a surplus and decent public services? Tax the rich”, Socialist Alternative, 24 December 2012,;view=item&id=7617:want-a-surplus-and-decent-public-services?-tax-the-rich&Itemid=393.

[22] Socialist Alliance’s Sam Wainwright in Fremantle and Sue Bolton in Moreland, the Socialist Party’s Steve Jolly in Yarra, the Communist Party’s Tony Oldfield in Auburn.

[23] Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League, London, March 1850, works/1847/communist-league/1850-ad1.htm.

[24] V.I. Lenin, “The Election Campaign and the Election Platform”, Sotsial-Demokrat, No. 24, 18 (31) October, 1911,

[25] Barry Sheppard, The Party: The Socialist Workers Party 1960-1982, 2: Interregnum, decline and collapse, Resistance Books, London, 2012, pp.73-91,

[26] Socialist Workers Party, “A Bill of Rights for Working People”, 1976,