Assessing revolutionary priorities

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I have been reading the different contributions to pre-conference discussion with great enthusiasm, and for me it's been a great process in clarifying some key organisational questions and invigorating our collective project in the coming year. I wanted to make a contribution regarding the theoretical underpinnings to some questions that have been discussed, as well as my assessment of the Alliance's movement work and what our priorities should be in 2013.


Does the Socialist Alliance stand for revolution? I think we do, although not simply because it's timely for our discussions with Socialist Alternative. I'd like to support the arguments of Peter Boyle and Nick Fredman and respectfully disagree with comrade Graham Matthews arguing against using the word in Towards a Socialist Australia. Just because we need to “look left and right”, as Graham argues in his latest contribution, doesn't mean we should shy away from stating our fundamental goal is to replace this society with one based on human need.

Indeed, if we aren't explicit enough about how we see real change being implemented, how will we ever convince good activists to leave the Greens (or Labor) and join our ranks? We would simply stand as a fellow party of social justice and struggle, without the parliamentary success of the Greens.

I do agree with Peter and Nick that we should be including explicit statements that our ultimate goal is working-class revolution in one of our chief propaganda tools, the Towards A Socialist Australia document (and perhaps in the Alliance constitution in the future). But Graham is right that the key thing to do today is win more to socialism, not convince other socialists of the correct path, and that requires we throw at least some of our energy into the struggles at the grassroots today, particularly aiming for demands that can strip the emperor's clothes from Rinehart, Palmer and the whole capitalist system, if we want to educate and unite class-conscious workers into a force that can take advantage of real revolutionary opportunities on the horizon.

Mass action

In this relatively low ebb of working-class struggle, it's of crucial important that we focus our attention on the immediate tasks to regrow a pole of class struggle today. It's heartening to see the Socialist Alternative turn to the rhetoric of unity and agree that we should unite on “a socialist program for Australia today”. But is that program to win more ones and twos to Marxism and an explicitly revolutionary party, or is it to build class struggle, strengthen our class as a whole and win a whole generation of activists? As a Marxist in the Alliance, my perspective is certainly that the latter should be our overarching aim. The process of recent discussion in the Alliance has been an important one in clarifying exactly what our perspective on this question is. 

Peter, in his contribution, references and draws on Peter Camejo, whose work I think needs to be included in this discussion, particularly Liberalism, Ultraleftism & Mass Action. We should clarify that the perspective of the Socialist Alliance is not only a revolutionary one, but a perspective of revolutionary mass action and Camejo is indispensable for understanding how we should realise that perspective in the here and now.

Liam Flenady, in his piece on the Resistance website summarises this perspective by saying:

'The central tenet of the perspective of mass action is simply that we must further the radicalisation of the working class - its political consciousness, its awareness of its own power, its understanding of the structural impasse of the capitalist system, its ability to organise independently of the ruling class. Everything we do must be geared towards that end.'


'Camejo outlines a general approach that could characterise this perspective. He says that, first of all, we must get as many people moving as possible. He points [out] that the way people radicalise is not through reading radical literature, it is through being out on the street, coming to know their own power, and their collective solidarity with others.'

History has shown that victories in certain key social movements can lead to a wave of increased class struggle on a whole variety of fronts - from the success of civil rights and Indigenous rights movements in the US and Australia helping to catalyse the upsurge of the '60s and '70s; to the overthrow of Ben Ali and Mubarak empowering already rampant trade union struggle, civil rights struggles by minorities, the women's movement or those of the shanty towns in Tunisia and Egypt today.

Strengthening our own organisation is part of this perspective, of course, but we cannot build a revolutionary sect alone and consider movements and tactical debates within them as only opportunities to recruit to our ranks. We must always remain interventionist, and seek to win political leadership of the struggles we are involved in.

Transitional program

Some debates on social media have also referenced Trotsky's Transitional Program, and whether it should have bearing on this discussion. I think it's initially worth noting the following quote from Doug Lorimer in his introduction to the Transitional Program published by Resistance Books:

'Under certain circumstances, agitation around any of these different types of demands can serve to mobilise working people in mass anti-capitalist struggles. It is the mobilising potential of any of these types of demands at any particular conjuncture in the class struggle that is of primary interest to revolutionists. It is a basic fact of political life that people who are united with others in struggle are more open to radical ideas and new forms of action than those who are atomised and quiescent.'

Without going into great theoretical depth, we can use the concept of transitional demands to approach struggles for reforms today in a strategic way. We can think about which campaigns will help develop the power of the working class and do actually connect struggles for “minimum” demands today to a broader strategic vision for a socialist society. It is a useful concept to apply to consider how our work today will develop momentum for social struggle more broadly, win recognition, and actually begin to solve the question of leadership by drawing the broadest possible forces into radical struggle to further radicalise them.

Revolutionary unity

This perspective isn't a shortcut to revolution, as others on the left argue; it's a perspective that putting our shoulder to the wheel in struggles today and making them as successful as possible, not only propagandising about the dictatorship of the proletariat from the sidelines, is the best method of convincing people of the need for a revolution and winning them to a revolutionary party. This is how most of us were convinced of the need to take up the struggle for a better world; indeed, most good Marxist activists I have met, in the Alliance or other organisations, didn't come to Marxism purely from the realm of ideas, but through the above process of radicalisation. 

This seems to be a concretely different tactical perspective for socialists in Australia today to the one being advanced by Socialist Alternative; a different approach to the question that's been raised - what role should the party play in making the revolution? And what does this mean for our activism today? I think this question is shaping the above Alliance Voices debates, as much as underlying the question of Socialist Alternative's call for unity.

Until we've honestly discussed, confronted and sought to resolve this difference in perspective, a fusion of Socialist Alliance and Socialist Alternative would be an ultimately negative thing.

Assessing revolutionary priorities

Which areas of work we chose to involve ourselves in is a tactical question and shouldn't be generalised too much outside of the specific contexts, but we should assess our priorities, demands and areas of work based on their actual power to mobilise the masses, not simply seek as a party to open every door and hope to stumble on the right one. On this I wholeheartedly agree with Liam's PCD, “'Having a go' or political thinking?”, in which he says we must invest in “patient work building up our forces, and building up particular movements and struggles that are where we believe our work to be best suited”.

Trying to do everything, or too many things, to “give it a go” and show our moral support for an issue or movement does a disservice to ourselves for not leaving time to build our own organisation into a more effective fighting force. It also does a disservice to every single movement or area of work we relate to for not leaving time to take our work in that area seriously, research and educate ourselves to provide a clear and nuanced understanding in the movement groups or to those we are seeking to convince, and cohere our membership into a focused force. We cannot “support the organisation of the working class, for their own interests, as an end in itself”, as comrade Ben Courtice describes it, if we are not working in the most effective and coordinated way possible.

This isn't an absolute problem in the Alliance and varies from branch to branch, but I feel that in some branches and nationally we have not been effective enough in this kind of sober-minded assessment and prioritising. Comrade Dave Riley has clarified through informal discussion that the point he was making was the Alliance doesn't boycott particular movements in the way other socialists do. This is certainly true, and I can't imagine Alliance comrades ever falling back on calling a movement “right wing” in order to justify such an abstention as other socialists have. However, Liam makes a case that I agree with that the Alliance needs to get better at not doing things if we want to get better at doing things.

Does this mean prohibiting or attempting to block our members from participating in movements? Of course not. Not only is simply giving members instructions like this a top-down approach but it's also not the best way to engage with members who have passions for particular issues. Regularly going through a real and thorough process of discussing the politics and potential of different movements, involving the whole branch, or national organisation, and coming up with a broad picture of our priorities, is the only way people can actually feel ownership over our priorities and decisions, and be convinced of the need to commit at least some their activist energy to the common project.

Points 1 and 2 in the contribution “For a better organised and activist membership” by Comrade Pip Hinman, which identifies that real work must be invested into our democratic structures to make the most out of them, are essential for this process. Hopefully taking such steps will help us to reinvigorate our culture of honest, patient and comradely discussion, where ideas advanced by less experienced members aren't shot down or responded to with lectures by those who have been in the struggle for longer. My experience of different left groups is that this culture is one of the Alliance's real points of differentiation and real strengths over others, but we must constantly reaffirm and reapply it.

Our priorities

We should assess the campaigns of today with this perspective in mind; we shouldn't consider how we support or involve ourselves in social movements based only on the allies or recruits we can win, or material we have opportunities to distribute, but how our involvement can steer a movement in the right direction toward involving the masses. And in certain movements in recent years such as the Equal Marriage or Stop Coal Seam Gas (CSG) campaigns our comrades, where they have been involved, have played a key part in doing this. There are plenty of opportunities for the Alliance to relate to these two movements that aren't being fully explored.

In his contribution “Climate is still the issue”, Ben Courtice has identified the climate movement as an area which the Alliance should prioritise in 2013. This seems supported by comrade Peter Boyle's argument in the Our Common Cause piece published in Green Left Weekly on December 8, in which he argues that “a united left needs to take this seriously and take a lead in building the mass movements that are needed to confront this crisis”. At this conference we should carefully consider and discuss the implications of this.

I do not agree with some of Ben's conclusions, although his assessment of the diversity and ongoing energy in the environmental movement is valid. However, I argue that we have to see climate activism as a distinct strand in the environment movement, even if climate is a motivation for campaigners in other areas. We certainly work with individuals who don't stand for climate justice in other campaigns like those against destructive resource extraction and processing; we are right to do so, but we must acknowledge their level of consciousness.

Climate justice is one the most radical and transitional demands for today; there is no way to fully redress the imbalance in human development between the First and Third World and restructure our economy to stop cost-avoiding behaviours, without challenging the nature of the economic system as a whole. This is radical in a way that individual demands to change Australia's energy mix are not, even if those campaigns are strategically aimed to challenge Australian capital.

In the last term of government climate justice has been totally sidelined. One the one hand, the forces Ben identified, for whatever reasons, blocked effective Climate Action Group (CAG) co-ordination behind clear demands. On the other, the Greens and Get-Up co-opted groups, forces and individuals into the “Say Yes” campaign for uncritical support of a fixed-price ETS that will deliver no reduction in coal fired power by 2035 at the earliest and, with allowances for REDD style offshore offsets, is totally against the spirit of climate justice. It is correct to say that this situation demobilised the grassroots climate justice movement, and I oppose the amendment Ben has put forward, removing this from our Perspectives Resolution.

There is certainly a moral argument to re-prioritise climate activism. This horror summer may shock many into action for climate justice and John Rice from Left Unity has issued a call for “marches for survival” in the month of March that we should look at seriously. And there is an argument to be made that reinvigorating our climate campaigning would compliment our work in other areas like renewables or CSG.

Yet we must consider the fact that the active barriers and divisions in the movement which killed off the CAGs still exist; although wounds may have healed over with some former opponents who are now allies in the CSG or renewables movement, to argue for movement bodies or CAGs to take up the radical demand of climate justice in an election year against potentially active barriers would require all our activists to pitch in, at least a little. We must be clear exactly who we want to partner with, which groups we'd look to for endorsement for such rallies, how we see such a turn relating to the broader environment movement and our work in it, in any discussion of raising climate campaigning as a priority.

Resistance has also in the last year been discussing this question; one aspect of the environment movement Ben doesn't mention is the retreat, demise, or weakening of the student climate movement, which has occurred to some degree across the country. The Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC), which Ben identifies as the largest group in the movement at present, is home to many good and vital activists, and is happy to push for more renewables, but has been an active barrier to real climate justice campaigning by supporting the ETS. Over the past five to eight years some of Resistance's strongest successes in movement work and in winning youth to socialism have been in campus environment collectives and various campaigns coming out of them. Yet in past one to two years, this has not been the case, and coming to terms with this has been part of the process of reassessing the project of Resistance in 2012.

Should we lessen our efforts in other vital areas of movement work like CSG or equal marriage, or forget about the campaign to nationalise mining existing beyond an electoral demand, to raise the demand of climate justice? We need to frankly ask ourselves these questions at this conference, and perhaps make some hard decisions about our national priorities. To decide on a priority without thinking through our strength as an organisation, what forces we have and to what degree we want to concentrate and coordinate them, would be a mistake.

I think there are other areas and campaigns we could consider prioritising:

Nationalise mining campaign. Every branch should test out actions, meetings, etc on this topic. We have started to get feedback on this front and started to develop great resources to abandon this campaign or simply use it as placard propaganda or an electoral demand would effectively mean abandoning the decision we made to launch it.

Campaigns against Liberal cuts. These are taking place unevenly at the state level now, and may come down on the federal level in 2013 if Abbott is elected. In NSW there are no independent bodies or mobilisation to campaign around the cuts outside of those controlled by Labor, who channel anger into the demand “in four years time we'll vote you out”, yet unions have mobilised thousands at the drop of a hat, often being pushed by rank and file activists from within to do so. The victory of progressives in the NSW PSA opens up the possibility of a genuine mass campaign here; we are well positioned to seek political leadership of this fight.

Feminist politics. Abstention by Socialist Alternative from the Reclaim the Night mobilisations has earned them ridicule by broader forces (which we might consider to be sectarian at times, although grounded in genuine criticism of activist practice), while our perspective has been to critically and in a comradely way take up the arguments of Alternative comrades, and support and radicalise such mobilisations. We have strong recognition amongst grassroots activists in doing so. The ALP are firmly entrenched in some organisational collectives in the women's movement, but there are nonetheless big avenues for us to explore, and the resonance of Gillard's (hypocritical) smack down and massive energy for RTN shows we could certainly relate to a mass audience.

I can see the argument for reinvigorating climate movement as a priority this year, but I'm not convinced it would do more for the independent power of the working class, or the Socialist Alliance, than any of these other possibilities.