About 18 months ago, I was talking to a friend who is a member of the Greens. We were talking about the Socialist Alliance, and she came out with “The Socialist Alliance now is where the Greens were in the mid-1990s”. At the time I was indignant, she has misunderstood what the Socialist Alliance is about, I thought. SA is a revolutionary party which seeks the overthrow of capitalism, isn’t it?
Fast forward to today, and I can now see that my friend was right on the money. She was having difficulties with some of the current conservative trends in the Greens, and her desire was for the Greens to return to what she understood as their radical roots, when they were starting out during the early to mid-90s. Extrapolating on the basis of an anecdote is always risky, but nevertheless the example seems to be instructive. Here was someone who had never been a socialist, had never been involved in any socialist organisation, and yet from the outside of the Marxist left, she could clearly see that the Socialist Alliance was not an explicitly revolutionary organisation, nor an implicitly revolutionary organisation. The overwhelming majority of the working class in this country are not Marxists (or not yet!), and do not have a complete understanding of scientific socialism. Yet from their rudimentary observations, the working class very quickly get a grasp of which parties and organisations are working within the system, and which parties and organisations are fighting to overthrow the system. If there is any possibility that SA can be seen by the working class to be working within the capitalist system, then this should sound alarms, and indicates that we need to seriously address how we project our politics.
To broad party advocates, however, being mistaken for a reformist party is of no real concern. The argument goes that until a revolutionary situation actually arrives, no one really knows who is and who is not a revolutionary. Only the test of practice, i.e. revolution itself, can decisively determine the revolutionary credentials of parties and individuals. Thus, presumably it does not matter what type of party we are building in the lead up to revolution. A revolutionary party would be nice, but if that’s not on the agenda, then a non-revolutionary reformist party will suffice in the meantime. Presumably the non-revolutionary reformist party will be instantly transformed into a revolutionary party on the eve of the revolution. How does this theory, though, stack up against history?
To be fair, there are some parts of this argument that we must concede to the broad party operatives. Revolution is the ultimate test of a party which claims revolutionary ambitions. In a revolutionary situation, revolutionary parties really have to put their money where their mouth is. This much is true. But Lenin would have been aghast at the suggestion that in the lead up to revolution, simply being involved in political campaigns is all we have to do to prepare for revolution. This seems to be the discourse within SA. The ALP and the Greens are often “involved in campaigns”, but they are certainly not preparing for revolution. Being “involved in campaigns” is one aspect, but what revolutionaries must also do is patiently and persistently build and assemble a Marxist vanguard party — a cadre force. Cadre — now there is a word which has not been heard in SA for an inordinate period of time, to my knowledge. Do we seek to build cadre in SA, or is “cadre” one of those terms which can’t be mentioned due to a perceived conflict of interest with the broad party project?
In fact, there are cadre and there are cadres. We could say that the ALP and the Greens have cadre — those most committed to their parties, and most committed to carrying out their aims and positions. What we need in SA are socialist cadre — those most committed to implementing the aims and goals of socialism. But as socialism can’t be cordoned off from Marxism, what we are really saying here is that we need Marxist cadre. But there’s the rub — Marxism is not a position or a priority for the Socialist Alliance, for this would jeopardise the broad party outlook. So we don’t make an effort to produce Marxist or any type of cadre. SA’s current approach is not to produce cadre, it is to produce campaign builders. In my view, we cannot classify campaign builders as cadre. This is because movement and campaign builders only have one focus — the campaign, whatever that may be. Cadre, on the other hand, are all round builders and defenders of the entire cause of their organisation. Marxist cadre are committed to the implementation of the ideas of scientific socialism, and are trained in all aspects of Marxist theory and practice. Campaign builders need only be concerned about the particular issues relevant to their campaign. It need not go any further.
There is nothing wrong with building campaigns per se. This needs to happen in order for campaigns to win. Just building campaigns in the abstract though, is not building socialism, and does not build a socialist party. Anyone can participate in building campaigns, and anyone can lead campaigns, irrespective of what politics you have. A socialist building a campaign, however, also seeks to link the campaign to other aspects of capitalist injustice, seeks to join others in that campaign to a socialist party, seeks to win people to socialist (and therefore Marxist) ideology. Socialist Alliance campaign builders, on the other hand, are not permitted to do this, because to do so would undermine the broad party project. So we just become campaign builders, and leave it at that.
Consider this quote:
What about the interaction between revolutionaries and wider movements of resistance? A sectarian stands apart from partial struggles — such struggles don't go far enough, or involvement in them requires 'diluting' political purity. The opposite is also a danger: becoming absorbed in specific struggles without any bigger picture of the need to smash capitalism altogether and build a different kind of society. (Lenin and us: Building the Revolitionary Organisation Today)
I believe that SA is certainly in no danger of practising a sectarian standing apart from partial struggles, and this is to SA’s credit. However, it seems we are deeply enmeshed in the opposite error — losing sight of “the need to smash capitalism altogether and build a different kind of society”.
An example of this approach appears to be contained in the contribution to Alliance Voices by Comrades Rachel Evans, Karl Hand and Farida Iqbal — “Marriage Rights Campaign Needs Final Push for Victory”. Let me stress that this is not a critique of these comrades themselves. I haven’t met Karl, but I can appreciate the enormous input he has had into the campaign, and SA. Rachel’s and Farida’s commitment to this campaign and to socialism is unquestionable. Without these comrades, SA would certainly be suffering. However, the contribution seems to exhibit an approach of “the movement is everything, the end goal nothing”. I’m sure this is not the intent of the comrades, but the broad party strategy has a tendency of overriding individual comrade’s good intentions, whether we agree with it or not. The victory referred to here is the winning of equal marriage rights. Were this to be achieved, this would indeed be a victory — for this particular campaign. If equal marriage rights were attained, the movement would wind up and activists could go home. The movement need only be re-opened if there was a new encroachment on these rights by a future capitalist government.
For socialists, though, individual campaign victories should not be regarded as final victories. They are in essence just one step forward on the ladder towards a classless society. While we may indeed join in the celebrations, we can’t get carried away. In fact, socialists should take a very sober approach during such celebrations, and in fact where possible we should remind our fellow campaigners that even this victory is not a permanently won right. Any movement “victory” can be taken away at the drop of a hat, if the capitalists find themselves in a position where the balance of class forces favours them. To eliminate homophobia and transphobia forever requires nothing less than the abolition of its source — private property. This requires the liquidation of capitalism, and the establishment of socialism. All of this is contained in our Marxist ABCs. Unfortunately, the loose party strategy means that we rarely discuss our ABCs, and the unbalanced focus on liberal campaign building continues to white-ant the still existing shreds of Marxism.
Broad party converts could object, at this point. Just a minute, they may say, we hold classes on Marxism, and we have a party school, which is based on Marxism. So that means that Marxism is a part of SA, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, this is not the case. Marxism is theory and practice combined. SA attempts to preserve its tenuous links to Marxism by maintaining its educational program. The day to day practice of SA, however, is not Marxist. A study of Marxism while not practising it becomes a purely academic exercise. We may as well send SA members to the local fee-charging private university to do Marxist classes. The Marxism studied in the ivory towers of the bourgeois Universities remains academic, as it is not discussed, let alone practiced, outside the tutorial rooms. In a similar way, the Marxism discussed in SA educational classes is not permitted to be practised or applied in the day to day work of the Socialist Alliance, lest it undermine the broad party project. There may be a patronising sympathy displayed towards SA members who try to express their Marxist convictions, which is a step forward from a corporatised University. Marxism? Oh yes of course we agree with you, we used to believe that too, in our younger days. Using this faux empathy, the broad party project conveys its message to the membership. SA members are permitted to entertain a dalliance with Marxism, just so long as they understand what the real task is — the integration of SA into mainstream politics.
This cannot be, unsuspecting SA members may say. We have some SA members who have been active revolutionary socialists for over 40 years, so there is no chance of us losing our Marxism. I deeply wish this was the case. Marxism and revolutionary politics, however, must be sustained at all times. Even a temporary abandonment of Marxism can lead to a permanent abandonment in no time at all. Politics, like nature, abhors a vacuum. And where there is a vacuum, nature and politics will first take the line of least resistance. The most basic of all questions for socialists is that of reform or revolution. Any move to hedge our bets between reform and revolution will result in reform winning out every single time. This is what we are currently experiencing in the Socialist Alliance.
One of the most startling effects of the creeping influence of reform in SA is the process of decadreisation. As previously mentioned, our take on Marxism remains on an academic level, as it is not permitted to be put into practice. This not only means that we cannot create cadre; it also means that the Marxist cadre we do have become decadreised. Even those cadre with decades of experience can begin to lose sight of what they have been doing for decades. What we used to refer to as the primitive accumulation of cadre, becomes, in the hands of the broad party project, a decadreisation into political primitivism.
Take this recent example. Comrade Chris Williams reports on the year of SA activity in Wollongong in his contribution “2011: An intense year! (In Illawarra)” I trust that Comrade Williams will understand that this is not an accusation against him personally — no one’s commitment to socialism could be any greater than his. Despite Chris’ years of dedication to the cause, however, the process whereby the broad party approach eats away at a previously impregnable Marxist outlook appears to be set in. Towards the end of his contribution, we find this truly extraordinary sentence; “In solidarity with the democracy movement in Libya, our members helped organise actions in February and March”.
Here we have one of the most senior members within the leadership of SA, openly describing an ultra-violent coup, composed of the most right wing forces within Libya, including pro-Western monarchists, the most reactionary of Islamic fundamentalists, US flag waving pro-imperialists and more, as a “democracy movement” !! It beggars belief. The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt at the beginning of 2011 were clearly left wing movements, which lead to a revolution, or at least the first stage of one. These movements involved virtually all sectors of the working class, were backed by large portions of the trade union movements, and were backed by communist and socialist parties throughout their respective countries. None of these factors were present in the “uprising” against Colonel Gaddafi in Libya. SA, however, gripped by creeping liberalism as a result of the broad party project, could not see what was plain to anyone with even a modicum of socialist understanding. Comrade Williams is not to blame though. At fault is a party building strategy which strips all comrades of the ability to approach any political issue using the theoretical tool of Marxism, or indeed any theory at all. Attempting to navigate international politics without a Marxist approach, as is demonstrated by the dreadful debacle of SA’s line on Libya, leads to unmitigated disaster. In this case, it led to effective support for Western imperialism.
The decadreisation process can infect SA’s prominent movement leaders as well. Comrade Elena Garcia, in her contribution to Alliance Voices “Pre-conference discussion on CSG policy”, argues that Comrade Jess Moore has not submitted an adequate position on Coal Seam Gas mining. Jess’ first and amended submission only refers to a moratorium on CSG mining, not its abolition. Elena submits some substantial amendments, yet her amendments also include a moratorium. Surely the point is to have a position which includes a total ban on Coal Seam Gas? A moratorium, or even a Royal Commission, does not go even halfway towards addressing the seriousness of the environmental and social destruction that will occur through CSG mining. The broad party approach means that the Socialist Alliance, no matter how many radical books we may sell through our bookshops, must always adopt the most moderate position possible. Hence, the meek call for a moratorium on CSG instead of a total ban.
Again I trust Comrade Jess Moore will understand this is not a personal criticism. Jess Moore has done far more work for this campaign than I have, and probably more than just about anyone. Yet here we have another senior leader of the Socialist Alliance, attempting to ensure that SA adopts the most moderate, and the most “acceptable” policy, which can safely be enacted within the framework of the capitalist system. It is true that we have in the past called for Royal Commissions, or moratoriums, on particular issues as a transitional demand. I would contend that CSG mining, however, is a far more serious, and indeed, too serious an issue to be mucking around with demands for Royal Commissions and moratoriums, or, as Elena points out, a “democratic decision about mining processes”. Elena rightly alludes to the fact that a “democratic decision” can hardly be taken where capital remains in power.
Some broad party acolytes have stated that SA really does want to stop all Coal Seam Gas mining, but the movement is calling for a moratorium, therefore we have to go along with this for tactical reasons. If this is “tactical”, then it seems like a tactical blunder. Shouldn’t we be trying to offer a lead to the movements, rather than just following movements? The movement may have a position of a moratorium, but shouldn’t our party have a position which is more realistic — such as a total ban on all existing and new coal seam gas mining? Why do we have to have the same (inadequate) position as the movements? This state of affairs only makes sense once we understand how the broad party strategy affects the day to day operations of SA. The broad party strategy means that SA must just build movements, become a part of movements, and leave it at that. It cannot attempt to develop the politics of the movement, and it certainly cannot attempt to develop the politics of the movement towards socialist politics. This means adapting to the existing politics of the movement, even if the politics of the movement are liberal, conservative, green or a combination of these trends and others. Hence, a moratorium is “where people are at”, so that’s what SA adapts. A ban on Coal Seam Gas is not even countenanced, let alone discussed. What matters is not what the working class and the environment drastically need. What matters is that SA is seen to be builders and leaders of a movement — even if the politics of that movement is liberal, or indeed conservative.
How does the process of decadreisation occur? How can revolutionary Marxists with decades of activist experience devolve into liberalism? I think largely it has to do with the process where practice eventually becomes belief. Or perhaps more specifically, practice becomes habit, and habit becomes belief. The concept of social being determining consciousness in one of the most fundamental Marxist tenets — in fact one could argue it is the central one. As Allen Myers notes “…..Marxists understand that being determines consciousness: directly or indirectly, what we do determines what we think” * How we act, in the long run, determines what we believe to be true. If one goes to church every Sunday for 20 years, sooner or later, one will tend to believe in the existence of God. Practice becomes habit, and habit becomes belief. In the context of SA, if we act as liberals (as we must if we are to sustain the broad party project), or practice no more than what liberals practice, sooner or later, that will be our mind-set, that will be what we defend, and that will be what we believe. If we prioritise working with the ALP, our habit will be working with the ALP, and sooner or later we will come to believe that ALP members are really very nice people after all. Similarly, if we practice emphasising the good policies of the Greens, our habit will be focusing on these aspects, and inevitably we will come to believe that the Greens really are doing their best, and thus it would be sectarian to criticise them too much.
If our practice is to regard all political theories as valid, that will be our habit, and that will become our belief. Socialism, anarchism, autonomism, libertarianism, liberalism — these are all essentially the same, as none of them are correct or incorrect. Throw them all into the catch-all party, that will make us even more broad. The fact that these theories are all mutually antagonistic does not matter — our practice has led to our belief that any idea about politics must be accepted.
If we discuss and debate policy on the floor of the Socialist Alliance National Conference, as we have done for a number of years now, our focus will become our policies. We will put them forward while campaigning, we will defend them against any critics. We will eventually believe in our own policies. Practice becomes habit, and habit becomes belief. Never mind that policy development and defence is a practice of bourgeois capitalist parties that have nothing in common with socialism, and which actively combat socialism. Never mind that the average member of the working class will very soon be bored stiff with a conversation discussing the differences between ALP, LNP, Greens and SA policy. We have virtually given up trying to inspire the working class — all we offer instead is bland and boring electoral reform.
The entire party building approach of SA is wrong. This is demonstrated in several key areas, but none more so than in the inability to create Marxist cadre, as well as the process of the atrophy of existing cadre. Each day that the broad party project remains in place means another day where we mistrain and miseducate ourselves and the sections of the working class we come into contact with. The corrosion of cadre is manifest, and getting worse. The broad party project, in its current form, must be discarded before the damage becomes irreparable.
*Myers, Allen; 2009, Origins of the Revolutionary Socialist Party, RSP Books.