Building the Socialist Alliance

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The purpose of this report is to recommend adoption by this conference of the Socialist Alliance Perspectives Resolution.

In turn, the purpose of the resolution is to set down in writing, as best as we can at the moment, a summary of the perspectives and ideas that guide the work of Socialist Alliance branches throughout the year.

Of course it is impossible for us at a national conference to make an informed assessment of the detailed decisions about priorities that every branch will need to make throughout the year. Therefore the resolution is necessarily limited to the broad brush strokes, the framework of our perspectives.

At the outset, it is worth mentioning that the draft Perspectives Resolution before conference has been significantly extended since the first draft was circulated in AllianceVoices in November.

It is also worth reiterating that only the resolution itself will be put to a vote, not the rationale which has been circulated with the resolution, nor this report.

The context

The most important thing to note about any decisions about what we’re going to do now is the context in which we're operating.

One important aspect of the current context is the powerful explosion of rebellion against the status quo which was unleashed in the last year.

These political developments of the last twelve months include the “Arab Spring”, the Indignados movement in Spain, anti-austerity campaigns in Greece, Britain, other parts of Europe and the global Occupy movement which was sparked by Occupy Wall Street.

While there may be additional factors, all these developments are related, directly or indirectly, to the global economic crisis which hasn’t gone away. The rationale notes that the “global political consequences [of the economic crisis] are still emerging”.

When we think back to realise that Occupy Wall Street is less than five months old, and that the October 15 international day of action that spread the Occupy movement around the world took place barely three months ago, it is clear that we need to be alert to the ongoing developments that are literally still unfolding before our eyes.

The resolution commits the Alliance to: “building the Occupy movement and all other mass democratic expressions of the new wave of struggle and ... [to] work consistently to broaden the base of these movements and deepen its democracy and unity in action”. [1b] Obviously, we'll need ongoing assessments about the character and unfolding of this struggle against the tyranny of the 1% and our involvement in it.

Equally, the resolution points out these developments create an “expanded political opening” which puts the onus on us to “win many more people to socialism” (not just to engage in building the movement). [1d] This has several aspects – reach-out with Green Left Weekly and other means, socialist education, organising well-prepared political events, etc – many of which deal with building the Socialist Alliance to be a stronger, more effective organisation. I'll return to this later in the report.

Left unity

The resolution notes that: “A united socialist movement would mean greater success in responding to this challenge [of attracting more people to socialism]”. [1d]

This leads directly to the second section of the resolution which deals explicitly with the question of building a united and active socialist movement.

The resolution notes that: our efforts to unite with “anyone who supports the replacement of the capitalist system with a socialist system” [2a] are ongoing. In other words, from our point of view, the door is always open to unity (or even practical proposals for greater collaboration) with others on the left. We put our money where our mouth is by welcoming the election of Anthony Main from the Socialist Party to Yarra Council since our last conference and by welcoming the actual local alliances that have emerged in the last period: that is Community Voice in Wollongong; and Left Unity in Adelaide. Further, we pledge our support to the Communist Party's election campaign in South Australia this month.

When you spend more than a few moments out in the fresh air, unpolluted by the sectarian notions that one socialist group has a decisively superior political position than the others, the arguments for left unity are plain and obvious:

(It is not for nothing that the workers’ movement has long promoted the struggle slogan: “United we stand, divided we fall”.)

Unity is inspiring, disunity is demoralising. Our own experience in Socialist Alliance bears both these points out.

Dick Nichol's presentation on Friday night made a compelling case that unity on the left in several European countries would make an immediate, and critical difference to the practical outcome of high stakes struggles against austerity, and that disunity could directly lead to defeats; and

Most importantly, we should remember that socialism can only be achieved by the self-liberaton of workers and oppressed people through struggle. If defending a particular nuanced version of Marxist theory against other versions is a barrier to success in the practical struggles of workers – which it is – then “Marxist theory” is transformed from what it is meant to be (a guide to action) to its opposite.

It is for this reason that the section of the resolution dealing with left unity also emphasises that: “The Socialist Alliance continues to encourage and organise its members to be active in a wide range of social movements” and that: “The Socialist Alliance, as a campaigning organisation, should continue to consistently give voice to all struggles against attacks from the capitalist class and its governments.” [2b and  2c]

That is: practical engagement in the class struggle helps “build these movements” and helps those we work with “develop socialist consciousness”. [2c]

At this point, it is worth considering a potential objection to this approach in favour of left unity. A lot of people look around at all of the competing left groups and think: Is unity even possible? Or is it possible now?

Well of course unity is possible. But unity is a political perspective. And like other political perspectives, it has to be fought for.

Some people in effect say: “Left unity sounds like a good idea in theory but it will never work in practice”. How far would we get if we got discouraged by sentiments like that?

We’re serious about uniting with the other left groups if that is possible. However it is also worth remembering that there are large numbers of independent leftists that are currently not organised in any socialist party. There is a big scope to draw in many of these people into Socialist Alliance's left-unity project. Many of these people are part of the migrant left. The resolution welcomes the stronger ties we have built with left wing sections of the Latin American, Congolese and Nepalese communities since our last conference. We seek to continue this process.

Of course, it is also important to reach out to newly radicalising people and young people interested in socialist ideas as well.


One issue that has been raised in our pre-conference discussion, notably by comrade Adam Baker, is the question of Marxism. This has been posed in direct contrast to the notion of building a broad left wing party.

Adam writes: “It would appear that the broad party strategy has led us into an impasse. The principle of left-unity is something that all socialists must at all times strive towards, where possible. However, our attempt at left unity appears now to have led to disturbing trends. ”

I don’t have time here to take up the details but will simply say that most of these supposed “disturbing trends” don’t appear anywhere near as “disturbing”, when examined closely.

Instead I want to make some comments about the general approach that Adam is advocating.

It is significant to note that despite making several contributions to the pre-conference discussion, Adam makes no actual proposals for the Alliance’s work. Instead of explicit proposals, there is an implication that we need a renewed focus on Marxism and an abandonment of any kind of broad party strategy.

There are three points that I want to make in response.

First, there is nothing magical about the label “Marxism”, nor any other label.

You can put the label “Marxism” onto a party but it does not guarantee you anything in terms of correctness of political strategy, education or political level of your membership, commitment levels of your membership, let alone recruitment potential. There are many examples of parties, individuals, even states, that have called themselves “Marxist” but that don't really have much, if anything, to do with Marxism.

It would be better, and is in fact the perspective of the Socialist Alliance leadership, to solve the political challenges that we face on their own terms rather than to get hung up on labels.

A lot of people make the mistake of thinking that revolutionary politics is about proclaiming support for revolution.

Instead, revolutionary politics is about assembling the forces that can make revolution possible. It is not about your declarations, it is about what you do. Of course “assembling forces” includes not only recruiting members, it also includes political training and experience and encouraging commitment. But it is not primarily about the label.

From this standpoint, it can be argued that the Socialist Alliance (which does not describe itself as “Marxist” or “revolutionary”) is actually more Marxist and more revolutionary than many other parties that choose to use those labels.

We do have problems and challenges (more on these later). However, the solutions have to be found elsewhere than sticking a different label on the party. (Nor is a “Marxist” label a precondition to addressing these issues.)

Secondly, many of the claims that Adam has made in his contributions are simply incorrect.

These include that in Socialist Alliance:

  • “Non-socialist ideas are then endowed as having equal, or even superior, status vis-a-vis Marxism.”
  • “Any political theory is valid, according to SA.”
  • “Remember the general rule within SA: no theory, just practice.”
  • “all political theories have equal weight”
  • “Marxist theory cannot be permitted to be a priority”; and
  • “the use of all of these terms [dictatorship of the proletariat, etc] is expressly forbidden for the purposes of discussion, description, or analysis”.

All of these claims ignore the fact that there is only one political theory that is systematically taught in our national and branch education programs, namely: Marxism.

More importantly, it is this theory that is the guiding political perspective that informs our articles in Green Left Weekly and in our political work more generally. That said, we don't have a view of Marxism that it is the repository of all knowledge, nor that there is nothing we can learn from people who subscribe to other ideas. Also, people who support theories other than Marxism (or no particular theory) are welcome to join Socialist Alliance if they are prepared to work in a constructive way towards socialism.

Instead, our approach is that we need to find and utilise the political theory that helps us achieve our goal: socialism. It is the seriousness with which we take the goal of replacing capitalism with socialism that leads us towards the theory that helps us to achieve that end.

Thirdly, a narrow conception of “Marxism” would be counter-productive to our work.

Adam professes to support the idea of left unity, but then advocates a form of Marxism that would take the work of people like British Marxist Tariq Ali with “a pinch of salt”. Further, Adam seems to imply that to be an authentic Marxist, one has to agree with his particular takes on issues such as support for the former Gadaffi regime in Libya and his opposition to the concept of eco-socialism.

This adds up to an especially narrow conception of Marxism. Not only would it be impossible to unite the left around such a narrow set of politics, it is inconceivable (perhaps we should say almost inconceivable) that you could build a movement capable of successfully leading a struggle for socialism with such a narrow theoretical framework.

I think it is useful to bear in mind one of the points made by late US socialist Peter Camejo in the concluding chapter of his inspiring and useful memoir North Star. Peter Camejo wrote: “The goal of people fighting for social change is to succeed, not to win a theoretical argument or to sound more radical than someone else. Empty rhetoric is a form of capitulation.”

That last point - “Empty rhetoric is a form of capitulation” - should ring in our ears.

There are many people on the left who take great comfort from hearing the radical sound of their own voice. But this is a very different thing from actually mobilising the social forces that can advance the interests of working class people.

The perspectives resolution takes a diametrically opposite approach to that of the “empty rhetoric” form of capitulation. Instead, our tasks are framed in the context of our role in the class struggle.

Socialist Alliance, Labor and the Greens

The third section of the resolution deals with our relations with the ALP and the Greens. It carves out our independent approach of building an independent socialist party against the pro-capitalist ALP governments. Of course we recognise that there are many good people in the Labor Party and we're more than willing to work in a non-sectarian way with them. However, the socialist movement has to have a principled opposition to the pro-capitalist course pursued by the ALP in government.

The resolution recognises that the Green’s claim most of the electoral space to the left of Labor and seeks collaborative relations with them. We support collaboration with the Greens party and the formation when possible of a broader “red-green coalition”.

However, at the same time, we've recognised that we need to provide a clear alternative to the Greens: “when the Greens support the ALP's neo-liberal attacks (Tasmania), when the Greens tail the fake ALP response to the climate change crisis (carbon “price”) or when the Greens retreat under the pressure from its own right-wing (e.g. the NSW Greens' retreat on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign again Israeli Apartheid)”.

Perspectives and challenges for Socialist Alliance

The last two sections of the resolution deal with things we want to do over the next year.

Section 4 of the resolution is titled “Engaging in the battle of ideas”. It “notes the success of the the Climate Change Social Change conference in Melbourne” and “commits to organising a series of well-publicised and nationally built Socialist Ideas state conferences in 2012, to facilitate a wide-ranging discussion of socialist ideas”. This is one initiative that is part of a broader education program of Socialist Alliance that includes classes in branches and also our ongoing use of Green Left Weekly and Links as means of promoting socialist ideas.

It is difficult to underestimate the importance of working to ensure that our members have a well-rounded and ongoing process of socialist education in order to be effective activists. The recent national school has by all accounts been very successful and I know in Perth branch, a recent improvement in our education program has had positive results.

Also, the resolution “welcomes and endorses the national Right To Strike Campaign, which was initiated out of the first Union and Community Summer School in Melbourne in December, 2010”. This is undoubtedly an important issue for the workers movement if we are to seriously challenge the erosion of wages and conditions that continues in many sectors. The right to withdraw their labour is the most important right that workers have and is the basis of union power. The next national step in this campaign will be the national gathering of unionists and activists on May 14 – the eve of the next ACTU congress – in Sydney. This is supported by the resolution.

The final point in section 4 deals with the new resolution on socialism:Towards a Socialist Australia. This draft resolution has been through three stages of drafting.

We’re proposing to put the socialism resolution up for adoption as a “public draft”. This would mean that the resolution would be published and that we would encourage further discussion about its contents. In particular, the perspectives resolution calls for branches to organise public discussions and consultations about the document which would serve two purposes.

Firstly it will help to thoroughly discuss out the issue of “What do we mean by socialism?” and “How do we articulate it to the public?” among our own membership. This is part of the ongoing process for Socialist Alliance to cohere and develop among the diverse membership of the Alliance our collective view of socialism.

Secondly, there is a potential opening for us to involve others in this discussion. The Occupy movement has opened a broad discussion about what it means to combat the power of the 1 per cent and what are the social alternatives to their system. This creates a broader audience of people who could potentially be part of this discussion. Holding this public discussion could help to draw people around the Socialist Alliance. There is a lot of room for branches to think creatively about how to organise and draw people in to this public discussion about socialism.

Strengthening Socialist Alliance

The final section of the resolution deals with strengthening Socialist Alliance. I think it is fair to say that we do face challenges in this area. We have seen our average number of Green Left campaigners decrease over the last few years and we didn't succeed in our campaign to build our membership up to 1000 by the time of this conference.

Nevertheless, we remain the socialist group with the largest number of members, the most lively and widely distributed left wing publication and a strong activist culture.

The resolution commits us to: holding our next national conference in twelve months (rather than the two years permitted in the constitution); to renew our campaign for 1000 members by the time of our next conference; to increase from 50% to 60% the percentage of our membership that subscribe to GLW; to campaign for a 20% increase in the average number of Green Left distributors in the next year; and to a $250,000 GLW fighting fund target.

These are all modest and achievable targets but also would constitute a significant advance if we are able to achieve them.

In supporting these targets, we need to make sure our membership understand that there is an important strategic link between building a socialist party and the struggle for socialism. While we are quite familiar with involvement in a wide range of campaigns, we do have a challenge before us to strengthen our “party building basics” such as Green Left Weekly distribution, education programs, contacting and recruiting. These things that are taken up in the final section of the resolution.

How can we achieve these targets? No resolution by itself can solve our problems for us. In order to advance in these areas, we need to wage targeted, party-building campaigns at the branch level. That is, these things require work to achieve. Also, branch leaderships need to identify and push for and organise to achieve these goals. These things won't fall out of the sky.

Individually and collectively, we need to make these plans and set targets in proportion to how much we want the Socialist Alliance to achieve.