Dave Holmes: Strengthening the socialist movement today
Building effective campaigns and coalitions is extremely important. Socialist Alliance members at the Sydney national day of action on climate change, November 17. Photo by Peter Boyle.
By Dave Holmes
[The following talk was presented at the Socialist Ideas Conference held in Melbourne, November 2, 2013, organised by the Socialist Alliance.]
November 18, 2013 -- Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal/Arguing for Socialism -- In Australia, as in all the imperialist countries, the capitalist class is carrying out a massive assault on all the gains won by working people in more than 150 years. Every TV news bulletin these days features reports of cutbacks, selloffs and outsourcing, attacks on workers' rights and attacks on civil liberties — as well as wars and massive misery abroad.
With social democracy firmly in the neoliberal camp and the left marginalised, the capitalist class sees its chance and is pressing home the attack as vigorously as possible.
Combined with this is the looming catastrophe of global warming and its resultant climate change. If this is not dealt with effectively — and there is no sign that our rulers intend to do anything meaningful about it any time soon — human life on Planet Earth will shrink to a small remnant population by the end of the century or thereabouts.
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 climatic conditions which are the preconditions for all life on our planet.
Climate change is impacting on us right now and it will only get worse. Extreme weather events are happening more and more frequently around the world — bushfires, heatwaves, hurricanes and super storms, severe water shortages, floods, melting ice, unprecedented cold freezes and rising sea levels.
If we're not worried by all this, we're not thinking!
In fact, fewer and fewer ordinary people have any confidence about the future — how could they? The problem is they don’t know what to do about it, where to turn or have any confidence that anything can resist the neoliberal juggernaut. As someone has said, people can more readily envisage the end of the world than they can the end of capitalism.
And all the while the all-pervasive ruling-class propaganda machine is ceaselessly promoting scapegoats in an effort to divide ordinary people and forestall or weaken any effective resistance. Refugees, Muslims, motorcycle gangs, single mothers on welfare, public housing tennants with a "spare" bedroom, petty criminals — all are pressed into service by the media and the politicians to distract ordinary people and displace their anger away from the corporate criminals who are destroying our lives.
A very big part of the problem is that the socialist left remains very small and hopelessly scattered and divided. How are we ever going to move forward from this impasse? How can we turn things around?
How are we ever going to get a pro-people government and eventually a pro-people society — that is, put society firmly on the road of a transition away from capitalism towards socialism?
What is needed is a big militant socialist party that will be able to lead serious struggles and contend for governmental power. That would transform the situation. But such an organisation is nowhere in sight in Australia and, at the moment, such a development seems like an impossible dream.
Nonetheless, the capitalist system also has its problems and they are truly massive. All the things that have kept the social peace in the West in the post-war period have gone or are under severe strain. The system can't offer anything except more pain to the mass of people. So our basic message — that society needs to make a sharp change of course away from corporate greed — is one that can gain increasing traction in the period ahead.
How should we work today to strengthen the position of the genuine left and progressive forces and increase our support? That's what I want to discuss and make some general points.
Our basic approach
We can identify a number of elements of our general approach to socialist political activity today.
1. We must support and help to build on the ground all movements fighting against neoliberal savagery, for a better deal for ordinary people. We support struggles against austerity, racism and discrimination; for action on climate change, for equality, workers' rights, women's rights, the rights of sexual minorities, democratic rights and international solidarity.
2. We must strive to avoid dead ends such as sectarianism and ultraleftism which destroy people's confidence and reduce our ability to reach out and mobilise the largest possible forces.
3. We must use a transitional approach. While some people will respond to general propaganda for socialism we can't ask the mass of people to swallow it whole. That is completely unrealistic. We have to formulate various intermediate or transitional political slogans and objectives that can gain more traction and which, objectively, point towards a society without capitalism.
4. Electoral work and electoral initiatives are very important. We have to participate and use them to mobilise our supporters, reach out to broader layers with our transitional message, and show people that there is an alternative.
5. We must always be oriented towards trying to develop and foster the greatest possible unity of left and progressive forces.
Building effective campaigns and coalitions around various issues is extremely important. Some campaigns are very small (e.g., in defence of public housing), others are very big (e.g., the Your Rights at Work campaign in the later years of John Howard's government) and there is everything in between (e.g., the current campaign against the East-West Tunnel in Melbourne, which is now developing).
Obviously, to build any sustained campaign or movement we have to work with diverse forces. Exactly who depends on the actual campaign, the context and so on.
Some campaigns can have a real effect on the political situation. In the April 29, 2013, Green Left Weekly, Dick Nichols — our Barcelona-based European correspondent — reported on Spain's Platform of Mortgage Victims (PAH). In a situation of acute social crisis, with 400,000 evictions since 2007 and millions of empty apartments, this is a huge issue and PAH has served it up to the government. In one 10-month period PAH gathered 1.4 million signatures on a petition demanding a progressive reform of the country's harsh mortgage laws. The group has stopped evictions with mass protests and picketed the homes of leading politicians responsible for the housing misery. With its wide support, the group is a big problem for Spain's neoliberal government.
One of the biggest problems on the left, and a permanent lurking danger for any group, is sectarianism. This is not a question of the size of an organisation but of its stance in relation to other forces and to the struggle. Every group attempts to build itself but the question is how and to what end? A small socialist organisation should see itself, not as the "essential nucleus" of the big future socialist party that is needed, but as a lever to help build it.
James P. Cannon, the long-time leader of the US Socialist Workers Party, put it this way in a 1955 letter:
... sectarianism — in one form or another — is an ever-present danger to any small organization of revolutionists condemned to isolation by circumstances beyond their control, regardless of their original wishes and intentions. The moment such an organization ceases to think of itself as a part of the working class, which can realise its aims only with and through the working class, and to conduct itself accordingly, it is done for.
The key to Engels's thought is his striking expression that the conscious socialists should act as a "leaven" in the instinctive and spontaneous movement of the working class. Those are winged words that every party member should memorize. The leaven can help the dough to rise and eventually become a loaf of bread, but can never be a loaf of bread itself.
Every tendency, direct or indirect, of a small revolutionary party to construct a world of its own, outside and apart from the real movement of the workers in the class struggle, is sectarian. Such tendencies can take many forms, and we should not delude ourselves that the well-known illustrations exhaust the possibilities.
Problems in the refugee movement
An recent example of how sectarianism can play out is provided by the refugee movement. In Australia, the most prominent activist group in defence of refugees is the Refugee Action Collective (RAC), which exists in most capital cities. Obviously, it is not without its problems but it does have a broad authority and brings together a range of forces. We want to strengthen RAC, help to broaden it even more and promote its activities.
In the pre-election period the announcement of Labor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's Papua New Guinea gulag plan for asylum seekers galvanised pro-refugee forces and there was an upsurge of the movement. But in Melbourne we saw Socialist Alternative try to sideline RAC and undemocratically call actions over its head rather than try to chart a path forward in collaboration with other activists. This course of action was all the more reprehensible as the regular weekly RAC meetings began to attract a lot more interested people.
Why did Socialist Alternative do this? When we raised our concerns directly in a national leadership meeting, the Socialist Alternative comrades put several arguments to us: RAC has no authority; Socialist Alternative is the biggest left group around and doesn't have to defer to RAC; and finally, Socialist Alternative did not think it was possible to build a mass movement around refugees. I think all these arguments are dead wrong and Socialist Alternative's conduct was sectarian and detrimental to the movement.
It seems to me that Socialist Alternative wanted weekly actions above all to impress its new members and help gather fresh recruits. Broadening the campaign and helping it reach out to more people simply wasn't on its agenda.
Recruitment to one's group is legitimate but it can't be the primary reason for one's presence or activity in a campaign. We can't see them as fronts or simply a means to gather recruits. Socialists have to have some respect for the people we work with and some commitment to working collectively and democratically with others to determine what the campaign should do. (Of course, this assumes the political basis for collaboration is there.)
Our capitalist rulers do what they do because of the imperatives of the profit-driven corporate economy. They won't change their collective behaviour unless the political consequences start to threaten the continuation of the system.
Only the involvement of huge numbers of ordinary people in struggle can halt the offensive of the ruling class and eventually move society onto the road of fundamental social change. All our tactics must be designed to promote the greatest involvement of the masses. Anything which runs counter to this mass action approach has to be discarded as harmful and counterproductive.
We have to be completely cold blooded and scientific about this. We are not interested in small groups of radicals feeling good but rather in using tactics which help draw larger forces into the struggle. We don't a priori rule out any particular tactic (lobbying, media stunts, heckling a Lib-Lab politician at a meeting, civil disobedience, occupations, public meetings, suburban actions, big city demonstrations, industrial action, etc., etc.). Those tactics that help draw more people into the struggle are good, those which make it harder to draw more people into the campaign are bad.
A second feature of our work is our transitional method. We have to formulate the demands and slogans we advance in such away that they appear reasonable, but in their totality point to a different sort of society.
The bottom line here is that we can't restrict ourselves to making propaganda for socialism or for revolutionary change in the abstract. There is a place for general arguments for socialism and we are far from denying it. But socialist propaganda will be most effective when it is linked to deeply felt issues in society and formulated accordingly.
Furthermore, the sort of demands and measures, the sort of society we want to see has to be expressed in relation to real struggles and concerns. That's what we tried to do in our recent federal election campaign with its slogans of "People before profit" and "Take back the wealth: nationalise the banks and mining and energy sector". This tapped into a widespread dislike of the banks and the mining billionaires and advanced measures that are objectively necessary to tackle both urgent social problems and climate change.
We think that was appropriate for an election campaign and obviously much more effective than simply saying "Get rid of capitalism" and "socialist revolution now".
And a future left government resolutely pushing forward to actually take over the banking and mining-energy sector would provoke a capitalist reaction that would have to be decisively countered. The popular mobilisation necessary to defeat the right would unleash a revolutionary dynamic, which could develop into a socialist revolution.
Let’s look back at the 1917 Russian Revolution. This was not made under the banner of socialism but around the slogans of "Land, peace, bread" — and the soviets (popular committees) taking power. The conscious socialists were a small minority. But a soviet government giving definite, concrete effect to these slogans put society firmly on the road to a socialist transformation.
Lenin: No ‘pure’ social revolution
Some of these ideas are taken up by Lenin in his 1916 article, "The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up". In it he defends the Irish Easter uprising in Dublin against those who called it a "putsch". Then he goes on, and I think his remarks have some applicability to our approach today:
So one army lines up in one place and says, "We are for socialism", and another, somewhere else and says, "We are for imperialism", and that will be a social revolution!
Whoever expects a "pure" social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is ...
The socialist revolution in Europe cannot be anything other than an outburst of mass struggle on the part of all and sundry oppressed and discontented elements. Inevitably, sections of the petty bourgeoisie and of the backward workers will participate in it — without such participation, mass struggle is impossible, without it no revolution is possible — and just as inevitably will they bring into the movement their prejudices, their reactionary fantasies, their weaknesses and errors. But objectively they will attack capital, and the class-conscious vanguard of the revolution, the advanced proletariat, expressing this objective truth of a variegated and discordant, motley and outwardly fragmented, mass struggle, will be able to unite and direct it, capture power, seize the banks, expropriate the trusts which all hate (though for different reasons!), and introduce other dictatorial measures which in their totality will amount to the overthrow of the bourgeoisie and the victory of socialism, which, however, will by no means immediately "purge" itself of petty-bourgeois slag.
Right now it is a question of trying to build and support basic struggles and tie them together in a vision of something different (basically a "people before profit" society, however we might formulate it in a given context).
Electoral work — standing in governmental elections on whatever level — has a big role to play in our struggle for a new society. We can't abstain.
Of course, what resources we can devote to the campaign will determine how much we can do and occasionally a smaller Socialist Alliance branch will decide not to run. But as a general rule we will participate wherever we can with our own candidates. (Although these days, with council elections we have to be careful: there is a much greater chance that we might actually win! We have to be prepared to follow through — if we're not, we shouldn't stand.)
It is simply a fact that at election time there is a lot more interest in politics (this is true even with the growing abstention rate and the relatively high informal vote). Elections provide us with an invaluable opportunity to talk to people and, moreover, work out how to do this in the most transitional and effective way.
Electoral participation enables people to see us in relation to the other parties and measure us up. In particular, people get a chance to compare and contrast what we advocate with what the left-of-centre Greens and other "alternative" formations are offering.
We know that "parliamentary cretinism" — making parliament the overriding focus of your attention and activity — is something to be avoided at all costs. But "anti-parliamentary cretinism" — rejecting electoral work altogether — is also a big mistake for a socialist group. The grassroots struggles on the ground are decisive but this stricture can't be taken as an excuse for avoiding electoral involvement.
In fact, electoral work is dialectically related to struggles on the ground. We can't restrict ourselves to involvement in various campaigns. At election time we present our key demands but also sum them all up and point towards some formulation of a "people before profit" society.
Electoral work also gives us a chance to mobilise our members and supporters and measure our strength in the electorate, to find out where our greatest support lies.
Murray Smith on elections and socialist strategy
Earlier this year Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal carried an article by the well-known socialist Murray Smith (currently based in Luxemburg). He has some very interesting things to say about the development of the struggle.
... 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 anti-capitalist 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.
Note carefully that Smith says that the path to a socialist revolution in the West "involves" winning a majority in a bourgeois election — he doesn't say that is all there is. Anyway, from where we stand today, I think this is the correct general perspective.
Mike Marqusee: 'an arena that cannot be bypassed'
The British socialist Mike Marqusee also stresses the importance of contesting the electoral arena:
One response [of people to the crisis] is to abstain from the whole [electoral] process, and large numbers will do just that. The problem is that a rejection of the electoral process as an empty charade is indistinguishable — in the eyes of elites — from the rejection of all forms of political engagement. Abstention is a message our rulers can live with.
An electoral organisation that is only an electoral organisation, only a seeker of votes, will never succeed in filling the gap to the left of Labour. It has to be an active part of a broad social movement. At the same time, in the absence of an electoral alternative, social movements lack a vital lever. In Latin America, social movements found or created political vehicles to contest and win elections, and went on to form governments that broke with the neoliberal consensus to deliver real improvements in the lives of millions.
Is there really a scenario for radical change in this country in which the electoral process will not play a critical role? This is an arena that cannot be bypassed.
I think we have to agree with this broad perspective.
Following on from this, one possible scenario for the future is the electoral victory of a left party or left alliance with a radical program — say, to nationalise the banks and the mining-energy sector. As it takes office and moves determinedly to give legislative effect to its program it comes up hard against the resistance and sabotage of the capitalists. Unless the government mobilises its supporters — on the streets, in the neighbourhoods, in the workplaces, schools and campuses — it is finished and the counter-revolution will press forward. But if the government and its supporters remain resolute the whole process can develop into a full-fledged socialist revolution.
Of course, it may not happen this way. We may see a 21st century version of what Jack London sketched in his 1908 novel The Iron Heel — a terrifying totalitarian dictatorship that survives for centuries, ruthlessly crushing all opposition and revolt before it is finally overthrown. London’s Iron Heel was a prophetic prefiguration of fascism and Nazism.
Another scenario we can envisage is that climate change escalates and wrecks human civilisation and everything sinks into chaos, misery and barbarism (probably with the Iron Heel as well). But before this happens I think the left will have its chance, albeit against an increasingly grim social and climatic backdrop.
OK, there is a lot of speculation here. But one thing is clear: for a serious socialist organisation today, electoral activity is an essential complement to our campaign and movement work and will only become more so in the future.
Cannon: 'the alternatives will be truly terrible'
Here is how James P. Cannon sketched the general perspective in a 1953 lecture. With climate change and everything associated with that thrown in, I think this is the general future we are looking at.
American capitalism [Cannon explained] is not in love with democracy. It's no principle of American capitalism that we must maintain all the democratic forms — free speech, free press, free rights to organise, and all the rest. The only principle the American capitalists have is the exploitation of labour, the extraction of profits, and the enrichment of themselves at the expense of the workers. That's their principle. If they can do it in an easy and smooth and quiet and peaceful way under political democracy, OK. That's the cheapest way. But when that doesn't work any longer, our wonderful democratic capitalists will turn, with the savage fury of the German and Italian capitalists, to the bloody violence of fascism. They will finance and equip a fascist movement, and check it straight up to the labour movement: "What are you going to do about it? There are going to be no more debates with you, it’s going to be fight."
It will be a fight to the finish, and it will be fought on all fronts, from election campaigns to strikes and fights with fascist gangsters in the streets ...
The alternatives in this struggle will be truly terrible: Either a workers' government to expropriate the capitalists, or a fascist government to enslave the workers ... 
Unity of left and progressive forces
The final element in our approach that I want to stress is the question of trying to achieve the maximum unity of left and progressive forces. Disunity discourages, demoralises and prevents the socialist movement from playing the role that is needed.
On the other hand, every step towards real unity inspires and enthuses progressive-minded people. And if we can eventually form a reasonably-sized united socialist or left party in Australia, that will be huge step forward and increase the socialist weight in future developments.
There are certainly no guarantees as to the role that existing socialist organisations will play in this process. That depends on many things. All we say is that for our part, when openings present themselves we should vigorously explore them. It was in this spirit that we approached Socialist Alternative last year for discussions to explore the prospects of greater cooperation and left unity.
At the moment it looks like this process has run into an impasse and things don't look very hopeful. In my view, once it became clear to the Socialist Alternative leadership that a fusion with the Socialist Alliance would be far different to the process with the small Revolutionary Socialist Party, and it became clear that they would have to have a serious discussion with us, they backed away.
One could go farther and question what the Socialist Alternative leadership intended right from the start. Why, for example, did Socialist Alternative decide to put big resources into launching its own fortnightly newspaper at the very moment when it was supposedly engaging in a serious exploration of unity with another group that already had a well-established weekly newspaper? At least they could have waited for, say, six months while we got down to discussing what was possible.
In a number of European countries the social crisis has become particularly acute. Progressive forces are searching for greater unity in Greece, France, Spain and Belgium (on this last country, see the fascinating article in Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal: "Belgium: Class trade unionism seeks political expression"). A look at any of the countries mentioned shows achieving effective unity is certainly not going to be plain sailing.
And in Britain the Left Unity project is holding a national conference this November 30. (Our comrade Jody will be attending). If all goes well the organisation will adopt a platform and so far three proposals have been put forward. It will also adopt a constitution. Already, prominent figures (such as Kate Hudson) have argued strongly for one member one vote, that is, there would be no privileged position for existing left organisations. The British Socialist Workers Party contributed greatly to wrecking two previous left unity attempts (the Socialist Alliance and then Respect) and people don't want to repeat the experience.
- Cannon, "Engels on the American Question" (Letter, January 14, 1955) in Holmes et al, Building the Revolutionary Party: An Introduction to James P. Cannon (Resistance Books: Sydney, 1997), p. 79 (emphasis added).
- Lenin, "The Discussion on Self-Determination Summed Up", Collected Works, vol. 22, pp. 355-356.
- Murray Smith, "The real European left stands up" (emphasis added).
- See "Britain: Mike Marqusee on Left Unity — 'A party to dream of'".
- Cannon, "The Coming Struggle for Power" (1953), in America's Road to Socialism (Pathfinder Press: New York, 1975), pp. 68-69.
- See http://links.org.au/node/3562.