The socialist revolution and the mass revolutionary party

Lenin: "In its struggle for power the proletariat has no other weapon but organisation".

By Dave Holmes

Today humanity faces a global crisis stemming from the incredible rapacity of the capitalist system. In the first place, there is catastrophic climate change which threatens to end life on our planet, then there is endemic war and conflict, mass poverty in the Third World and neoliberalism's ever more ruthless assault on working people everywhere.

Capitalism will destroy the human race. It is absolutely clear that the bourgeoisie will continue to put the drive for corporate profit ahead of everything, even our own future as a species. It is incapable of changing. Even when it recognises the danger it cannot stop doing what it does. If capitalism is not overthrown, humanity is most likely doomed.

The only way out is the abolition of capitalism and its replacement by socialism. And the only means to do this is anti-imperialist revolutions in the Third World and proletarian socialist revolutions in the advanced capitalist countries.

We reject in advance any argument that the crisis of global warming and climate change is so critical that it stands above politics or that there is no time to build a mass socialist party or that we can’t wait for socialism to replace capitalism. We don't propose waiting for anything — we are campaigning all the time and are trying to drive the struggle forward right now. But the basic point still stands: the capitalist class is leading humanity to absolute disaster and its class position means it cannot and will not do anything else. What is necessary is to assemble and organise the forces capable of prising its mad grip from the steering wheel and carrying out a drastic change of course.

Beyond utopianism

Can this be done? Is the working class — on which Marxist socialism places such hopes — up to the challenge?

Ever since class society came into existence it has faced the resistance of the oppressed. There have been an endless series of revolts and uprisings — whether by slaves, peasants, artisans or modern proletarians. The dream of a society where there is no inequality, no division into rich and poor — i.e., of a classless society — is a persistent one.

But before Marxism, socialism was utopian and could only be utopian. It lacked a clear analysis of the problem and it lacked a realistic path to get to the promised land. At bottom, this was due to the immaturity of social conditions. The development of modern industrial capitalism and the emergence of the modern working class made it possible for socialism to go beyond utopianism.

Toward the end of the 1840s, in the midst of the industrial revolution which was transforming Europe, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels laid the foundation stones of scientific socialism. In the Communist Manifesto they explain that ever since the end of primitive communist society, "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles." They showed that capitalist society and economy is inherently rent by fundamental contradictions which make it potentially unstable and susceptible to revolution.

On the one hand, humanity's productive forces have objectively been socialised — a common economic infrastructure has been created for all humanity. This is the material basis for a society without social antagonisms and everything that goes with that — classes, the oppression of women, the state, commodity production and money. But because it rests on private ownership of the means of production, the whole operation of this great edifice depends on the wishes of a handful of capitalist magnates who are motivated solely by their own insatiable thirst for profit.

But capitalism is always shadowed by its nemesis — its gravedigger — in the form of the modern working class. Bourgeoisie and proletariat — the two always go together. The working class is essential for the operation of the social means of production but itself owns none of it. Its conditions of life make it cooperative and collectivist in outlook. Its objective interest is to collectively appropriate these means of production and establish a classless society. This makes it revolutionary — at least potentially. It is the sole authentically revolutionary class. It has no interest in setting up a new system of class oppression but can only end its alienation by destroying the whole edifice of class domination. (The "dictatorship of the proletariat" established by the working class after it takes power is a transitory phenomenon which will give way to the classless, communist society of the future.)

Is the working class up to it?

Ever since its birth these basic ideas of Marxism have come under attack. Reformists have denied the need for revolution and instead held out the fantasy of the gradual civilising of capitalism. (The actual development, of course, has gone 100% the other way.) Other critics have argued that a socialist revolution is impossible or undesirable or that it will only lead to a Stalinist police state.

On the other hand, some revolutionaries have denied that the working class is capable of fulfilling the role assigned to it by Marx and Engels. They have argued that it is too integrated into the system, that it is corrupted by high living standards and so on. They have looked to various other social groups (students, the lumpenproletariat, Third World peasants and so on) to play the role of revolutionary agent.

During the height of the long postwar boom (which only ended in 1975), such views were quite common. The working class had supposedly been corrupted by the good times. Such pessimistic analyses were decisively refuted by the tremendous 1968 revolt of the French students and workers. But for the want of a sufficiently large revolutionary leadership, this upsurge clearly had the power to overthrow the capitalist system in France.

Now, as the good times are long gone for most, as neoliberal austerity and "labour market reform" bite ever more deeply, as casualisation and outsourcing change the face of the workplace, some people have concluded that it’s impossible for workers to organise to fight for their interests. These arguments are as false and one-sided as the others.

Stan Goff rejects Marxism

In the United States, the well-known leftist Stan Goff — he was the keynote speaker at the 2005 Asia-Pacific International Solidarity Conference in Sydney — has recently caused a minor stir by announcing his "definitive rejection of Marxism in its current organisational forms, be they called Marxist-Leninist or Trotskyist or Maoist". It's not quite clear what he means by this. But the following argumentation is clear enough:

The last thing [he says] a metropolitan industrial working class is going to do is embrace a project that threatens the only stability it knows. Boeing workers are not going to oppose the military-industrial complex. Prison guards are not going to oppose prisons. Agribusiness workers are not going to oppose processed foods. Auto workers are not going to oppose cars.[1]

The implicit assumption Goff makes here is that short-term, immediate interests — to keep one's job and be able to feed oneself and one's family — will always override long-term objective interests — to end one's oppression and alienation by establishing a classless society. Although it is undeniable that there is a real-life tension between the two, this assumption is completely false. Every time workers go on strike they are sacrificing something immediate for something more long-term. And when we consider great struggles like the May-June 1968 days in France, the falsity of Goff's argument becomes even more apparent.

As for his argument that, for instance, "Agribusiness workers are not going to oppose processed foods", this is completely false also. Who says the struggle is going to be posed in that way? For a start, most of the field workers are migrants and guest workers (so-called "illegal aliens"). And they can certainly be interested in a struggle for better and safer conditions in the fields and the plants. And when a struggle develops for the overthrow of the whole rotten system, who says they will not be attracted to it?

Goff continues:

Our experience is that this class in the US, with occasional exceptions, fights for its privileges within that class — male, national, and white. Moreover, the collapse of the current system faces this working class with catastrophe, beginning with the fact that it is thoroughly dependent on military spending to hold back that catastrophe. I can only conclude that an imperial working class is not and never will be the midwife of anything except reaction.[2]

One could have a whole discussion on this but here are a few initial comments. First, this analysis is at odds with the often stormy and heroic history of labour in the United States — white male workers included (just think of the rise of the Congress of Industrial Organizations in the 1930s). Second, the US working class today encompasses a lot more than white male workers. In fact, some of the most militant and successful struggles in recent years have involved low-paid migrant workers (in southern California in particular). Third, it is always a big mistake to make hasty conclusions based on a very specific period, especially at a time when the contradictions of the world capitalist system are becoming truly explosive. The working class has been shaken out of passivity before and it would seem premature to say it will never happen again.

At bottom, doubts about the revolutionary potential of the working class stem from the enormous difficulties and protracted nature of the revolutionary process. We have no desire to minimise the problems facing the socialist project or to project an easy and unconvincing optimism. However, with the collapse of the Stalinist system in the Soviet Union and the ever-deepening neoliberal attack on the working class, so many of the things which enabled the ruling class — at least in the West — to reconcile the bulk of the working class to the system are disappearing or being eroded (anti-communism, the welfare state and rising living standards, and a sense of security and optimism about the future). In their place insecurity, discontent and anger are growing. Apprehension about climate change is a new and potentially explosive element here.

We should hold on to our basic ideas. They will be more relevant than ever in the period into which we are entering. The objective conditions are being created in which the socialist movement can grow and attract a significant working-class following and position itself to mount a serious challenge to the system as the crisis deepens.

Peculiarities of the socialist revolution

I want to briefly look at some of the key Marxist ideas about the socialist revolution and the role of the working class. The socialist revolution is unlike anything ever before seen in history.

When the rising bourgeoisie fought for dominance against the feudal-absolutist system, it was already a wealthy possessing class. It owned substantial means of production and exploited wage labour. It had its own intellectuals and control of universities and municipalities. It was the dominant force in parliament (as in England in 1640 or France in 1789).

But for all the drama of the struggle in many countries (England, France and the United States) and as historically important as the bourgeois revolutions were — especially when the necessary mobilisation of the masses radicalised the whole process — the gap between the contending classes was infinitely less than that between working class and capitalists.

In the period of the bourgeois revolutions, two sections of the possessing classes fought for mastery. The object of the struggle was state power which would ensure the supremacy of the capitalist mode of production and the capitalist way of exploiting the subordinate classes. In many cases, former feudalists would become capitalists. And in many countries there was no revolution — the whole thing was settled from above, by compromise (as in Germany).

But the working-class revolution is something radically different. The oppressed class — the class at the very bottom of the social heap — struggles for state power in order to construct a socialist society where all forms of oppression and exploitation are eliminated. The victory of the socialist revolution means the start of a process of transition which will eliminate the whole miserable system where a tiny minority of bourgeois plutocrats own society's means of production and use this to keep the vast toiling majority in bondage.

While the socialist revolution sets up a dictatorship of the working class, this will be a temporary phenomenon and in time classes and all the junk that goes with it — the state and all violence and money-commodity economy — will wither away. As Engels put it, as society reaches full communism, the real history of humanity can begin — a history of free, highly cultured human beings living in a collectivist and solidaristic society.

One final point here: the realities of the socialist revolution put a tremendous premium on consciousness. The capitalist class and its enormous apparatus of material and ideological control means that the masses will have to be much more aware of what they are fighting for than ever before. Today it's simply not possible to accidentally stumble across the finishing line.

Furthermore, the revolutionary victory will not end the struggle. After the bourgeoisie triumphed over feudalism and established its own regime, the market spread more or less automatically into every corner of the country and every part of the economy. But a socialist society and economy will have to be built consciously — and for a long time. There will be real dangers of backsliding and the regeneration of bureaucracy and privilege. (We need only look at the vicissitudes of the Cuban Revolution to see how all these things play out.) Of course, the weight of these dangers will vary in the different countries.

'No other weapon but organisation'

Under capitalism, the working class owns only its petty, personal property (clothes, a car, perhaps a house, etc.). It doesn’t own any part of the economy — the mines, factories, offices, supermarkets, banks etc. — these belong to the capitalists — so in order to live workers have to go and work for the bosses and pay tribute to them (the famous "surplus value" discovered by Marx).

Their labour is "free" only compared to the past (i.e., to slavery and serfdom). Workers can choose their employer but they cannot avoid working for one or another member of the capitalist class. In the essence of the matter they are slaves of the capitalist class as a whole. This is why Marx termed capitalism a system of "wage slavery". The great mass of workers can never escape their proletarian, propertyless condition. Only by making a socialist revolution can the workers collectively become owners of the means of production which they operate.

Under capitalism, the working class is a ground-down, deeply divided mass — it is simply fodder for exploitation by the bosses in the workplace. Workers are forced to compete against each other for jobs. They are divided by nationality, ethnic background or skin colour; by skill and type of work (blue collar, white collar, etc.); by their wage and general conditions of work; and by age and gender. These divisions are skilfully exploited by the capitalist class to keep the workers disunited and turned in on each other.

And, of course, through the all-pervasive mass media workers are constantly inundated with petty-bourgeois consumerist propaganda, a fantasy view of what is actually desirable and possible for them.

The only antidote to this extreme heterogeneity is a conscious struggle for organisation and unity in order to fight for a new society. And the highest form of this unity is a mass revolutionary Marxist party.

Here is how Lenin put it in his famous 1904 polemic One Step Foward, Two Steps Back:

In its struggle for power the proletariat has no other weapon but organisation. Disunited by the rule of anarchic competition in the bourgeois world, ground down by forced labour for capital, constantly thrust back to the "lower depths" of utter destitution, savagery, and degeneration, the proletariat can, and inevitably will, become an invincible force only through its ideological unification on the principles of Marxism being reinforced by the material unity of organisation, which welds millions of toilers into an army of the working class.[3]

(As an aside, there are probably not many comrades here who remember May Days in Melbourne and Sydney in the 1970s. We used to carry huge red-and-black portraits in the march. They were absolutely enormous, about eight feet high and each one was mounted on horizontal poles with guy ropes and carried by four comrades — pharaoh like — on their shoulders. The overall effect was extremely impressive. Anyway, one of these displays consisted of a picture of Lenin above this quote: "In its struggle for power the proletariat has no other weapon but organisation." I don't know what the bystanders made of this but it always did it for me.)

From a class in itself to a class for itself

Trotsky makes similar points to Lenin in his 1932 article "What Next", a sustained attack on the policies of the Stalinised German Communist Party in the face of the rise of Nazism.

The interests of the class cannot be formulated otherwise than in the shape of a program; the program cannot be defended otherwise than by creating the party.

The class, taken by itself, is only material for exploitation. The proletariat assumes an independent role only at that moment when from a social class in itself it becomes a political class for itself. This cannot take place otherwise than through the medium of a party. The party is that historical organ by means of which the class becomes class conscious …

The progress of a class toward class consciousness, that is, the building of a revolutionary party which leads the proletariat is a complex and a contradictory process. The class itself is not homogeneous. Its different sections arrive at class consciousness by different paths and at different times. The bourgeoisie participates actively in this process. Within the working class, it creates its own institutions, or utilises those already existing, in order to oppose certain strata of workers to others. Within the proletariat several parties are active at the same time. Therefore, for the greater part of its historical journey, it remains split politically. The problem of the united front — which arises during certain periods most sharply — originates therein.

The historical interests of the proletariat find their expression in the Communist Party — when its policies are correct. The task of the Communist Party consists in winning over the majority of the proletariat; and only thus is the socialist revolution made possible.[4]

The party is the brain of the class

In a 1921 article written for the French communists, Trotsky looked at the lessons of the Paris Commune of 1871. "We can thumb the whole history of the Commune, page by page", he wrote, "and we will find in it one single lesson: a strong party leadership is needed".[5]

The workers' party — the real one — is not a machine for parliamentary manoeuvres; it is the accumulated and organised experience of the proletariat. It is only with the aid of the party, which rests upon the whole history of its past, which foresees theoretically the path of development, all its stages, and which extracts from it the necessary formula of action, that the proletariat frees itself of always recommencing its history: its hesitations, its lack of decision, its mistakes.

The proletariat of Paris did not have such a party …

… If the centralised party of revolutionary action had been found at the head of the proletariat of France in September 1970 [when the regime of Napoleon III collapsed], the whole history of France and with it the whole history of humanity would have taken another direction.[6]

When the Paris Commune was proclaimed on March 18, 1871, it was not because the masses had seized power. Rather, its enemies had abandoned the city and fled down the road to Versailles. At this moment, the forces of the bourgeoisie could have been crushed quite easily. Its main leaders could have been arrested; the ranks of the army retreating out of Paris were already disaffected with their officers and could have been disintegrated by agitation. But none of this was done. As Trotsky explains: "There was no organisation of a centralised party, having a rounded view of things and special organs for realising its decisions."[7]

And so it went on at every critical point in the brief history of the Paris Commune. The contrast with the ruthless struggle for victory waged by the Bolsheviks in Russia half a century later could not be clearer.

Leadership: theirs and ours

In regard to leadership, things stand very differently for the capitalist class. Relatively, it has a great depth of possibilities. It usually has not one but several political parties which can look after its interests— [in Australia] just look at the Liberal-National Party Coalition and the Australian Labor Party (ALP), both completely dedicated to ensuring that the wheels of capitalist exploitation turn smoothly and that any rumblings from below are held in check. It has business associations (like the Business Council of Australia), it has the military, intelligence and police chiefs and whole echelons of officials and advisers in the state bureaucracy. There are even wealthy establishment families that specialise in providing political advisers to the bourgeoisie over many generations.

Of course, even the capitalist class can have its crises when it is divided or none of its various leadership teams can see a clear way forward.

But the working class is in a fundamentally different situation. For a start, most ordinary working people are preoccupied with simply surviving — working around eight hours a day (if not actually more), travelling to and from work, looking after their families, etc. It is very hard for them to be politically active on any sustained basis. Moreover, talented individuals are constantly being sucked out of the class — into the ranks of the middle-class professions, into the ALP and reformist trade union bureaucracy (even into the Coalition parties) and into various forms of service to the ruling class.

That is the reason why we attach so much importance to the question of building a Marxist political party. This is the only way the inherent disadvantages of the proletarian situation can be overcome. Working-class leadership is at an absolute premium. There is no possibility of having an A team and a B team; there will only be one revolutionary leadership of the class. The challenge is to build it. As Trotsky points out, this is an immensely difficult task but we know from history that it is not impossible. Furthermore, capitalism itself creates the conditions under which this problem can be resolved.

What is needed is a mass socialist workers' party

When we say that a mass socialist party is necessary to lead a revolution, what do we mean? At the end of World War II the Communist Party of Australia had some 16,000 members. (This was already a sharp drop from its 1943 peak of around 23,000.) In Melbourne, one would imagine, it probably had 3000-5000 members. Compared to our small size today it would have been simply enormous! Its cadre would have been everywhere throughout the union movement, on the campuses, in the communities, in cultural circles, etc.

When I'm selling at Barkly Square in Melbourne on Saturday mornings, one of my occasional customers is an old leftie, a former wharfie who was close to the Communist Party (but not a member). He is now in his late 70s or early 80s. His constant lament to me is how much the left movement has declined. He always tells me how in the 1940s and ’50s you could not go into a pub in Brunswick or the inner city without being asked to buy the CPA paper Tribune. All I can say to him is that we are still struggling, the capitalist system has some unprecedented problems and that we are confident that the socialist movement will again grow into a mass force.

But even this impressive level of development of the CPA was nowhere near enough (let’s put aside the party's Stalinist politics). The ALP was undoubtedly many, many times larger and still had the bulk of the working class in its grip. It seems to me that a party capable of successfully leading a revolutionary process in this country would need scores of thousands and probably several hundred thousand members. Perhaps, as in Russia in 1917, it will only acquire a truly mass base in the course of the decisive revolutionary crisis itself.

But even to do this, it is necessary to have an initial cadre base qualitatively greater than what we have at present, otherwise any crisis will simply wash over us. (This is what happened in France during the May-June 1968 revolt despite the heroic efforts of the Trotskyist Ligue Communiste — they were simply too small.)

From one point of view, our whole history has been a struggle to assemble an initial cadre force and get to a point where we can get into large-scale politics and put some real flesh on our revolutionary skeleton. Today, we are a few hundred strong, the next step is get to (say) 500 members, then to double in size and then to become a few thousand and so on. We would still be very small but qualitatively new possibilities would open before us …

A complicated and tortuous process

The struggle to build an independent working-class political party in a given country is an extremely complicated and tortuous process. There is no general formula applicable in all cases. A brief look at the history of the international labour movement makes this very clear.

Communist League

At the very beginning of the birth of modern scientific socialism, the Communist Manifesto was the result of the efforts of Marx and Engels to gather an international grouping around these ideas. They won over a number of leaders of the League of the Just and got agreement to transform this formerly conspiratorial society into an open political party with a clear program and democratic rules. On this basis they then joined the organisation. As a result of its "extreme makeover", at its second congress in November 1847 the Communist League (as it was now called) commissioned Marx and Engels to draw up a manifesto for the organisation and the result has entered into history — the most influential political document ever written.

The Communist League was not an association of national political parties. Rather, it brought together small groups of revolutionaries in a number of Western European countries. And when the Europe-wide revolutionary storm of 1848-49 broke, the Communist League didn't really function as a cohesive organisation, even in Germany (although its members there — especially Marx and Engels — exercised a great influence). The organisation did not long survive the defeat of the revolution.

First International

The next big step in international working-class organisation was the formation of the International Working Men's Association (the First International). As Ernest Mandel explains in his Introduction to Marxism:

After the years of reaction which followed the defeat of the 1848 revolution, it was mainly trade union and mutual aid organisations of the working class which developed in most countries, with the exception of Germany, where the agitation for universal suffrage enabled Lassalle to constitute a workers political party: the General Association of German Workers [in 1863].

It was through the founding of the First International in 1864 that Marx and his little group of followers really fused with the elementary workers movement of the epoch, and prepared the establishment of socialist parties in most European countries. However paradoxical it may seem, it was not national workers parties that assembled together to constitute the First International. It was the constitution of the First International that allowed the grouping on a national level of local and syndicalist groups adhering to the First International.

When the International broke up after the defeat of the Paris Commune, the vanguard workers remained conscious of the need for organisation on a national level. After a few early defeats, the socialist parties based on the elementary workers movement of the period were definitively constituted in the 1870s and '80s. The only important exceptions were Great Britain and the USA, where the socialist parties at this time remained marginal to the already strong trade union movement.[8]

Second International

In 1889 the Second International was founded. It became the accepted international organisation of the working-class vanguard. At its congresses the main problems facing the workers movement were debated and decisions codified in resolutions. During the period from its inception to the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the European socialist parties and trade unions grew significantly in size and influence.

However, with the development of imperialism, revisionism and opportunism also began to develop in the social-democratic parties. The social basis for this was the trade union bureaucracy and the full-time apparatus of the parties who had long since adapted in practice to the capitalist system. Things came to a head when the leaderships of almost all the parties supported their respective governments in the war. It was left to small left-wing minorities to uphold the principles of revolutionary socialism.

Third International

Following the Russian Revolution, the Communist International (also known as the Comintern or Third International) was founded. It brought together the main revolutionary parties and groups that had opposed the war and which supported the new Soviet regime.

The process was begun of clarifying key questions facing the movement and educating the new communist parties that were being established in the various countries. The first four congresses of the Comintern between 1919 and 1922 played a tremendous role in this regard. The Second Congress, for instance, adopted the famous 21 conditions which set out the necessary political conditions for admission of parties to the Comintern. This was an attempt to exclude reformist and centrist forces and drive them out of the CPs. And the Third Congress adopted a united-front policy in regard to the still powerful social-democratic and centrist parties in the various countries.

The CPs were built by a process of splits and fusions in the various countries over a number of years. In some cases the left-wing forces split from social-democracy (in France the whole party came over after expelling its right wing); in others (like Britain) small socialist groups unified and there were other variants.

The communist parties were organised very differently to the old socialist formations. Here is how James P. Cannon describes the early US Communist Party:

It was composed of thousands of courageous and devoted revolutionists willing to make sacrifices and take risks for the movement. In spite of all their mistakes, they built a party the like of which had never been seen in this country before; that is, a party founded on a Marxist program, with a professional leadership and disciplined ranks …

They learned to take program seriously. They learned to do away forever with the idea that a revolutionary movement, aiming at power, can be led by people who practice socialism as an avocation. The leader typical of the old Socialist Party was a lawyer practising law, or a preacher practising preaching, or a writer, or a professional man of one kind or another, who condescended to come around and make a speech once in a while. The full-time functionaries were merely hacks who did the dirty work and had no real influence in the party. The gap between the rank and file workers, with their revolutionary impulses and desires, and the petty-bourgeois dabblers at the top was tremendous. The early Communist Party broke away from all that, and was able to do it easily because not one of the old type leaders came over wholeheartedly to the support of the Russian Revolution. The party had to throw up new leaders out of the ranks, and from the very beginning the principle was laid down that these leaders must be professional workers for the party, must put their whole time and their whole lives at the disposal of the party. If one is thinking of a party that aims to lead the workers in a real struggle for power, then no other type of leadership is worth considering.[9]

You can also get a real sense of the differences between the old social-democratic parties and the new CPs by looking at the theses adopted in 1921 by the Third Congress of the Comintern on "The Organisational Structure of the Communist Parties, the Methods and Content of Their Work". (We have published this resolution in a photocopied pamphlet edition.) In fact, these theses are very much a manual on how to gradually transform those parties which had come from the old tradition into parties with a much more active, involved and politically educated membership. (This process, of course, was quite different to the later "Bolshevisation" campaigns which really served to stifle the independent life of the CPs and subordinate them to the developing Soviet bureaucracy.)

Trotskyist movement

While Trotsky's project of a Fourth International never assumed mass form, the various Trotskyist organisations did amass some rich and varied experiences (both positive and negative) in trying to build themselves from small nuclei into larger formations.

Of course, the most instructive are those of the US Trotskyists under the leadership of James P. Cannon, whose early years are chronicled so brilliantly and instructively in his wonderful History of American Trotskyism. The heroic initial accumulation of cadres, the fusion with another militant proletarian organisation, the successful entry into the Socialist Party, then the split with the revisionist Burnham-Shachtman group — all these episodes (and there are many more) illustrate different tactics for building the revolutionary party in particular conditions.

In Australia …

In Australia our party-building situation is quite specific. If you date it from the 1970 split with Bob Gould in the original Resistance and the formation of the Socialist Youth Alliance, our current has existed for 36 years. Over this time our numbers have never exceeded 350 members but gradually — through constant and unflagging effort — our strategic position has strengthened considerably. Over the years, others have fallen away — the Communist Party and the most of the smaller Trotskyist groups.

The establishment in 1991 of Green Left Weekly — a non-party paper underwritten by the Democratic Socialist Perspective — has been absolutely vital. It has proven to be an ideal transitional vehicle which has enabled us to greatly magnify our message, win widespread respect and attract a significant layer of people around us. And generally we have been able to successfully work around any limitations that its independent form imposes on us.

Socialist Alliance has played a similar role as a transitional vehicle and is ideally suited to exploit the growing disillusion with the ALP and the general progressive discontent looking for a left expression.

The burning problem for us remains that of growing, of putting flesh on our bones, recruiting new comrades and giving younger comrades the experiences and training to enable them to assume key positions of responsibility in the party (especially as organisers and branch secretaries and on the national leadership) and in the broader movement. We have to ensure our survival as well as further strengthen our influence on the left. As I said before, we simply remain too small. In our current situation, another 50 active, politically integrated comrades would make an enormous difference, let alone a further 100.

Our tradition

We have always been an outward-looking movement seeking to link up with others whenever there was a basis for it. This was especially evident in the 1980s. This was the period in which we moved away from Trotskyism and revised our line on the Labor Party. We explored every possibility of linking up with other socialists — the Communist Party in 1986-87 when they moved away from their previous line of complete support for the ALP-ACTU wage-freeze accord, and the Socialist Party of Australia in 1988-89. And when the precursor movement to today’s Greens started up in the early 1990s, we attempted to be part of it.

For various reasons, nothing concrete came of all these efforts. However, we gained valuable experience and showed that we, at least, were dead serious about working realistically for unity of the left and progressive forces.

The Socialist Alliance project is wholly in the spirit of these earlier efforts. Of course, the project has gone through a real evolution since its formation in 2001. Apart from ourselves, all the other left groups who originally affiliated have now left or withdrawn from any meaningful involvement. But, as the October 2007 conference in Geelong demonstrated, Socialist Alliance remains an indispensable vehicle for our collaboration with some key industrial militants and some important Indigenous activists. It also provides a home for a layer of leftists disgusted with the neoliberal evolution of the ALP and for whom the middle-class Greens cannot be a real alternative.

The general point to grasp here is that the transitional vehicle of a broad but militant socialist organisation is essential for us to attempt to relate to the large numbers of people turning away from social democracy as the capitalist crisis bites deeper and deeper. Under its own banner, the DSP directly cannot intercept more than a handful of these people. Potentially, at least, Socialist Alliance can attract thousands. That is the difference.

And through Socialist Alliance, we can interest many more people in Marxist ideas. That is the clear record so far.

A particle of the fate of humanity

Being a socialist in Australia today remains a grind. There is a constant pressure to fall in a heap. The unending neoliberal vileness coming from all bourgeois rostrums and the ceaseless consumerist message being pumped out by the media seems to numb so many people and it can certainly affect our morale. We can come to feel that it's all hopeless, that we are irrelevant, that we’ll never make the sort of progress we need and so on and so on.

The necessary antidotes to this permanent ideological pressure on us are no mystery — Marxist theoretical conviction, historical perspective, a clear analysis of what is going on and why, avoiding impressionism and panic, and activity and collaboration with others in the framework of the party.

Actually, this is a good time to be an active socialist. We are necessary, perhaps as never before. However grim things look, the future of the human race is not preordained. It will be determined in the course of the struggle. What we do — what all those around the world who think like us do — will decide what happens.

If you're upset about the way things are going — then do something. Get active in the socialist movement, get involved — or get more involved. You'll feel better and — far more importantly — what you do will make a difference.

Of course, the revolutionary movement is not for those who want an easy and stress-free life. On the contrary, there is an endless amount of work to be done and far too few comrades to do it. But, on the other hand, nothing in this world is more worthwhile or more satisfying than participating in the struggle for the communist future of humanity.

Tensions are inevitable whenever people work together under pressure but the amazing thing, really, is not the occasional frictions but how harmoniously we all work together most of the time. We are lucky: we get to see people at their very best, freely collaborating to advance a great emancipatory project.

For millions of people around the world, Venezuela's leader Hugo Chavez is rehabilitating the idea of socialism as the only answer to the madness into which capitalism and imperialism are plunging the planet. We fully understand the need to connect with this. But what this should mean for us — above everything else — is that here, in Australia, we need to re-dedicate ourselves to the struggle and persevere with our efforts to build the socialist movement in this country.

I'd like to conclude with a passage from James P. Cannon. He wrote these words on November 26, 1944 from Sandstone Prison in Minnesota. He was one of 18 leaders and militants of the Socialist Workers Party who were jailed for their unyielding opposition to the imperialist war being waged by the US rulers.

People cannot live without perspectives, without hope for the future. Those who hope to organise a great movement of the masses must never forget this, never fail to inspire them with confidence that the future will be better than the present if only they strive to make it so.

The greatest power of Marxism derives from the fact that it gives a rational basis to the impulse of the masses to make a better world, a scientific assurance that the irresistible laws of social evolution are working on their side; that the idea of socialism, of the good society of the free and equal, is not a utopian fantasy but the projection of future reality. When this idea takes hold of the people it will truly be the greatest power in the world.

It seems to me somewhat undignified, somewhat lacking in the sense of proportion, for one who has grasped this idea to be deterred or turned aside by such trifles as concern for one's personal fate. No importa, as they say in Spanish — "it does not matter". What matters, as [Trotsky] expressed it, is "the consciousness that one participates in the building of a better future, that one carries on [one's] shoulders a particle of the fate of [humanity], and that one’s life will not have been lived in vain".

… Much of the propaganda of the past has been too matter-of-fact; the conception of the role of the party too limited; the self-assumed obligations of the individual too paltry, too narrowly calculated. The world will be changed by people who believe in the boundless power of the ideas of the party and who set no limits to the demands which the party may make upon them.[10]

[Dave Holmes is a leader of the Socialist Alliance in Melbourne. This is the text of a talk presented to the January 2007 Marxist Summer School organised by the Democratic Socialist Perspective. It is also available at Dave Holmes' blog, Arguing for Socialism.]


  2. Ibid.
  3. Lenin, Collected Works, Vol. 7 (Progress publishers: Moscow, 1977), p. 412.
  4. Trotsky, The Struggle Against Fascism in Germany (Pathfinder Press: New York, 1971), p. 163.
  5. Trotsky, Leon Trotsky on the Paris Commune (Pathfinder Press: New York, 1970), p. 61.
  6. Ibid., p. 53.
  7. Ibid., p. 54.
  8. Mandel, Introduction to Marxism (Pluto Press: London, 1982), pp. 81-82.
  9. Cannon, History of American Trotskyism (Pioneer Publishers: New York, 1944), Ch. I, pp. 13-14.
  10. Cannon, Letters from Prison (Merit Publishers: New York, 1968), Letter 136, p. 236.

I am somewhat shocked, not so much by this article itself as by its republication in Links. I have had the impression that Links was oriented toward the re-invention of the global Left, not the preservation of its archaic remnants.

This piece could - occasional contemporary references aside - have been published any time in the last century. It is a fundamentalist statement in the sense of being a declaration of faith, one which is impervious to either evidence or argument.

I come from the same tradition as the author. Indeed, I worked twice in the international Communist movement, once for its student international (1950s), once for its trade union international (1960s). Tradition, however, is one thing, faith another. I have never concealed my Communist background and never denied my Marxist one. I have, however, like thousands of others, felt obliged to closely re-examine both, to preserve elements from both very selectively, and to abandon others.

I am not going to get into a theological argument with the author concerning the texts he cites. I can produce a half dozen that point in other directions. But these could hardly impact on a mind and spirit closed to the economic, social, technological and cultural revolution WITHIN capitalism, with its consequent implications for any contemporary anti-capitalist movement.

I do, however, feel obliged to state that his argument does a profound disservice to the past, present and future of an emancipatory labour movement. Or, to rephrase this, to the past, present and - particularly - future contribution of the labour movement to emancipation from capitalism.

Subordinating living workers and actually-existing labour movements to any theoretical schemas - Marxist, Leninist, Trotskyist, Whateverist - is to instrumentalise them. And, if of any (highly unlikely) impact, to condemn them to repeat past failures.

Life, for a 21st century and emancipatory labour movement, is elsewhere. To start with at the US Social Forum that just took place in Detroit. I hope to see reports on this on Links. And would love to see such on the labour workshops that took place there.

A couple of us are also busy trying to develop a site on which discussion of a 21st century labour movement could take place:

Links readers living in the 21st Century might be interested to check it out.

Peter Waterman