Critical notes on identity

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What drives a person to join a socialist party or socialist organisation? In the context in which we operate — a first world country — there would be many factors that lead to people seeking out socialist organisations. It could be their personal background, it could be a sense that they need to take part in activism, concern about inequality, being moved by a particularly gross case of injustice, or other factors. I think one common driver though, would be a search for answers — which is also in a sense a search for an identity. In a world which has long gone completely mad, working class people look for some rational explanation of the horrors occurring on a daily basis. There are no answers coming from our supposed leaders — politicians, business operatives or employers. Naturally, working class people do not want to accept that all of the horrors of capitalist rule are normal or natural, no matter how much the corporate media may imply otherwise. The main identity we are given is that of nationality, which is handy for the ruling class, as it binds the workers closer into the integration of their system. But this identity quickly breaks down for those individuals who have a natural inclination towards real social justice. So begins a search for another identity, another set of beliefs, another set of values, opposed to that which supplies a panoply of accumulated injustices.

As socialists, we can offer those seeking a better world an identity. It is in this sense that I take issue with the thrust of Comrade Peter Boyle's contribution to Alliance Voices, "Let's focus on what we do, not on identity". In my view, the best thing that we can do for those seeking a better world is to give them an identity. There are millions of working class people, and especially young people, utterly disillusioned with the capitalist system, crying out for something to identify with. If we can offer the identity of a socialist, the struggle for the attainment of a classless society, then I would say this is the best thing we can possibly do for them. Granted, we understand that it takes years for someone to fully assimilate historical materialism, and commit to building a Marxist vanguard party. Nonetheless, this is what we try to offer, and we urge as many people as possible to find this path, not for our own sake, but for their sake and the sake of the future of all.

No doubt many comrades would agree with this aspect of the people finding an individual identity after stepping into a socialist organisation and joining the struggle for a better world. Many non-socialist movement activists have "found themselves" after joining the movements for social change. But the identity of a socialist in the movements is qualitatively different to non-socialist activists in the movements. Largely, this is due to the individual identity of a socialist being inextricably intertwined with the collective identity. Being a socialist individually also means building a socialist party collectively. For decades, we have been arguing that there is no contradiction between building the party and building the movements. We must continue to argue this, against those who have an anti-party prejudice, and those who have a suspicion that socialists are just joining the movements for an ulterior motive, as if somehow socialists don't actually want to see the movements win their aims. What others in the movement see as a "build the party mania", socialists see as a vitally important political task that accompanies participation in the movements.

Socialists cannot offer the individual identity of being a socialist without the collective identity of building a socialist party. We don't accept the idea of individuals being "independent Marxists" or "non-party Marxists". Building the mass revolutionary workers' party is such an integral part of the body of Marxism that it cannot be cordoned off, without debasing Marxism itself. In the Socialist Alliance, however, are we building the "mass revolutionary workers' party"? Are we building a step towards the mass revolutionary workers' party, as we often claim? Instead we are building the broad left party project, which does not have a Marxist identity. But can there be a socialist identity, while eschewing a Marxist identity?

It seems that in SA we are trying to build a socialist party while leaving Marxism only as an option. Leninism seems to be regarded as even further disconnected from socialism, which is another problem. But is it possible to offer socialism without Marxism or Leninism? This must be logically incongruous. How can we offer a Marxist free socialism? Marxism is the whole theoretical basis for socialism, to talk about socialism is to talk about Marxism, as well as Leninism. Yet in SA we tend to set up a wall between socialism and Marxism/Leninism, in order to maintain the broad party project. This is impossible to maintain — theoretically and practically. We need to offer an identity as socialists to those joining SA, yet the socialist identity is truncated, as the party as a whole does not identify as Marxist. We try then to offer a non-Marxist socialist identity — but as this is not logical, the identity we offer is extremely vague.

Members of SA who defend the broad party project point out that there is Marxism contained within SA, even if SA is not explicitly Marxist, so there is no need to be concerned. Using this criterion, we could claim that we are not concerned about the tens of thousands of books that justify capitalism in the local council library, because the council library also contains one or two books on Marxism. Yes, there are Marxist books on the shelf of our Resistance bookshops, but if we are not going to apply Marxism in our day to day political practice, Marxism remains in those books, almost in the sense of being viewed as a kind of quaint historical oddity.

Recruitment

I contend that a socialist, and therefore Marxist and Leninist, identity is vital for our work. This identity needs to be on the basis of the individual as well as the party. We need to know who we are, and where we are going. Sue Bolton writes in her contribution to Alliance Voices (Socialist Alliance campaigning in Melbourne in 2011), "Our main weakness in Melbourne has been not having enough focus on recruiting and winning new activists to Socialist Alliance.......we need to increase our attention to recruitment and development of new Socialist Alliance activists." In my view, this difficulty can be partially attributed to the broad party project. Yes, there are objective social and political circumstances in Australia in 2011 which make recruiting to a socialist organisation very difficult. However, we make this task even more onerous by taking on the persona of the broad party. In order for us to be able to recruit people, we need to win people to a clearly defined set of ideas, a clearly defined set of principles, and a clear outlook. SA as a broad party does not have this, and I fear will not have this, while we remain in the broad party format.

Despite the objective difficulties, which socialist organisation does not appear to encounter the recruitment issues that we have? Socialist Alternative. SAlt recruits very strongly, drawing in dozens of new young activists on a regular basis. Currently, we can't compete with them in this field. This is no doubt due to the situation where SAlt basically runs left student politics in this country. If you are a student, on campus or elsewhere, and you want to get involved in socialist political activity, SAlt is the organisation you need. Let us assign credit where credit is due.

How have SAlt done this? I think one factor which helps them greatly is the fact that their identity is iron clad. They openly campaign on the basis of being socialists and Marxists, or indeed THE Marxists. They do not shy away from also identifying as Leninists. SA certainly has some disagreements with them over particular aspects of their interpretation of socialism. But this does not deter them, indeed, they seem to use disagreement with SA as a further spur to their own recruitment. As far as SAlt is concerned, they are 100% convinced that they are carrying out Marxist and Leninist practice, preparing for revolution. This conviction gives them a strong identity, a very solid base from which to work. This strong identity also leads to political confidence, which they project into the movements and campaign areas they inhabit. Some of the results include drawing around 1000 people annually to their Marxism conference. There is no ambiguity about what this conference contains, and it appears to work very well for them.

I don't believe we can say that the same level of identity, the same level of conviction, and the corresponding level of political confidence exists in SA. A single identity does not exist, and cannot while we juggle the broad party concept. Psychologically this is difficult to sustain for a prolonged period of time. We strive towards Marxism, but we can't quite get there, restrained by the fetters of the broad party. It is in this context that the draft resolution "Towards a Socialist Australia" should be read. This is a document which is straining at the leash, straining every muscle, striving to reach the finish line of Marxism. Alas, like the dog that is tethered to a stake in the back yard, the dog can only run so far, it can't reach the back door of the house. In a similar way, our draft resolution bolts towards the homestead of Marxism, but is cut short before it can enter.

The working class needs answers

There is one particularly disturbing trend within SA which seems to indicate a general lack of political confidence. This is the trend which states "we don't have all the answers". This is repeated quite often, and almost becomes a mantra. Now of course, on the surface, all members can agree with a general statement saying that we don't have all answers to every single question that arises in the life of humanity. But no one is claiming that the Socialist Alliance, or the future mass revolutionary workers' party, should have answers to all conceivable questions in the universe. But the way in which it we state this within SA is very concerning. It is almost like an apology, offered in advance. It seems we are saying, "This is our position on such and such, but we don't have all the answers". It is not reassuring, to say the least.

Imagine if your motor car was making a weird noise, and you could not determine the source of the noise. You take your car to the local garage, and seek help. You describe the noise to the mechanic, who then says, "we can book your car in, but we don't have all the answers". Would you leave your car there? Not likely. In a similar way, if you go to a doctor with a mysterious ailment, a doctor will not say to a patient — "we can run some tests on you, but we don't have all the answers". If the doctor or the specialists do not know what the problem is, they will do everything they can to find out. They will find an answer that accords with the specific level of knowledge attained in that area to the most current update of medical science. The point is that we are supposed to be experts in the political field, which is the area where we claim to be specialists. If we cannot offer answers on questions relating to politics, what use are we? Political solutions for political problems — that should be our stock in trade.

Are we supposed to use this phrase while campaigning? If we state to the working class "we don't have all the answers", we may as well be saying we don't have a clue. Indeed, if we say to workers "we don't have all the answers", why should they believe ANY of our answers? We just appear to be political agnostics. All of our positions then appear to be stabs in the dark. We may as well be saying to the working class, we have no solutions for you, we suggest you try the Greens, they are just across the road.

Such defeatist rhetoric was never utilised by the old DSP. The old DSP was confident in providing answers for the working class for its political problems, while also seeking to learn from the working class itself. "The educator must himself be educated" as the quote from Marx goes. The old DSP had a single ideology, a single guiding theory, a single strategy. It did not have all the answers, but it did not leave the working class to fight its political battles on its own. If we don't stand for anything in particular, then it logically follows that we don't have anything particular to say, and we don't have anything in particular to offer. If we genuinely believe in SA that "we don't have all the answers" to the political problems facing the working class, then we should dismantle SA, and leave politics altogether.

I believe we can ascertain the rationale behind this political agnosticism. It justifies the broad party project. It validates the assimilation of non-socialist political theories into the Socialist Alliance. Yet our experience has showed that if Marxism sits alongside anarchism, liberalism, libertarianism and the rest, what this really means is the downgrading of Marxism to junk status. Is there something from anarchism we can learn from? Certainly, but only in relation to the way anarchism attempts to criticise Marxism. Similarly with autonomism, and perhaps even libertarianism. Marxism is objective scientific truth, the progeny of the historical process itself. If we disagree with this, then not only can we not claim to be Marxists, we really should pack it in and join the Greens.

What type of left unity?

Comrade Chris Slee's contribution to Alliance Voices "Marx and Engels on program and left unity", contains the following: "We need to unite the left.......We need to focus on what we have in common.....persuading the members of other left groups of this is not easy, but it is something we should aim to do". I absolutely and whole heartedly agree with this. Left unity is something we should constantly be striving towards. Left unity and left regroupment is vital, and it would be most advantageous to unite 95% of the left in Australia, as indeed the Scottish Socialist Party was able to do in its early years. Nothing I have written previously should be taken as support for a separate, competing and divided left. The type of left unity we should be seeking, however, is the unity of socialists, and this inevitably means the unity of the various socialist organisations in Australia today. A unity of socialists with other individuals or organisations who may or may not yet identify as socialists, is not "left unity". A unity of socialists with anarchists, liberals, libertarians, autonomists etc, is even less of a type of "left unity". It is more like an opportunist tailing of non-socialists.

The type of left unity we need is, to state things plainly, left unity. That is, LEFT unity. Unity of the left, i.e. of socialists. We know that the CPA, RSP, Socialist Alternative, Solidarity etc, are not currently ready or open to left unity. Yet as Chris Slee writes, it is something we should still try to bring about. Indeed, the invitation to these other socialist organisation to join SA, as parties or as individuals, is still open. This is something that should be maintained, and something for which SA deserves credit. In the meantime, however, SA continues to seek out unity with individuals who just have a vague identification with socialism, or sometimes only a begrudging agreement with general policies that exhibit social justice. It would be a different scenario if SA was trying to draw such people into the party, and then seek to win them to socialist positions. But this does not happen, to maintain the broad party project. Non-socialist ideas are then endowed as having equal, or even superior, status vis-a-vis Marxism. The seeds are then sown for ideological, theoretical and political decay.

No one in the Socialist Alliance should be blamed for this situation. If we are making errors while trying to unite the left, then I agree that this is a much greater step forward than those socialist organisations that have played little or no part in attempts to unite the left. Yet, in making these attempts towards left unity, we have conceded far too much to the non-socialist trends within SA, even if these trends are numerically insignificant. We have made so many concessions that we have ended up diluting the socialism we claim to stand for. Accordingly, we have adapted our theories to this concessionary format. Any political theory is valid, according to SA. In this sense, SA has adopted a type of post-modernist approach to political theory. No one can claim to speak for anyone else, and no one can claim anyone else's viewpoint is correct or incorrect. Hence, an anarchist is neither correct nor incorrect; it is just one person's opinion. A liberal may be right or wrong, but no one has the right to state that their views are right or wrong. Marxists may make some statements that are true for some strata of the working class, but it cannot be applied universally. Variants of this type of post-modernist claptrap are now the norm in SA, not by design, but by default.

Green Left

What happens when the broad party project demands a deprioritisation of Marxism? One consequence is a deleterious effect on the party press. Yes, we know that Green Left is not exclusively a party paper; it is a paper for the movements and so on and so forth. The editorship is still controlled by SA though, which I don't dispute, and indeed would say is necessary. However, the content of Green Left in recent times just seems to be less and less radical, and thus less and less inspiring. Members of SA who defend the broad party project claim that there is Marxism contained within Green Left, even if Green Left is not overtly Marxist, so there is no need to be concerned. I remain nonplussed by this argument. In the same vein, we might also say that we are not concerned about the 2010 Federal Elections, because there were some Marxists who ran as candidates in that election. There certainly were Marxists who ran as candidates in that election, there is no doubt. But overall, it was a standard bourgeois election, where the main outcome was almost identical pro-capitalist parties conducting a very drowsy affair, with very little discussion of real political issues. Gillard and Abbott were particularly dud options for a working class desperately seeking some relief from deteriorating living and working conditions.

Moreover, it seems that the socialist content in Green Left is becoming smaller and smaller, and the non-socialist content is becoming larger and larger. Take some of the writers featured by Green Left in recent times: Tariq Ali, Naomi Klein, Arundhati Roy, Joel Kovel and Derek Wall. There is not one socialist among them. Is there any Marxism amongst any of them? Tariq Ali was a former Marxist, but has long since severed his ties with the organised left. Hence, his writing exhibits cynicism towards the organised left, and a condescending attitude towards the ability of the working class to rise to its historical challenge. Naomi Klein — a good activist who makes a large contribution to the global justice movement, but certainly not Marxist. Arundhati Roy — very fine writer and activist, particularly on issues relating to India, but no Marxist. Joel Kovel and Derek Wall are ecosocialists, which I contend is a liberal fantasy. This is not to say that Green Left should not reproduce articles by these writers. But to feature these writers, without context and without comment, implies that the work of these writers should be taken as good coin. In reality, as Marxists we should be taking their work with a pinch of salt.

Broad party protagonists would say, these writers are nearly Marxists, and they are activists in the movements, so it doesn't really matter. Comrades, it does matter. Yes we should be listening to prominent activists in the movements — no one is suggesting otherwise. But as non-Marxists they are not going to be able to provide any solutions for the global working class — principally, the taking of state power by the workers, using whatever means necessary. Certainly they will be able to provide incisive commentary on the social movements, but at the end of the day, the only solution they will be able to suggest will be to build the movements larger. Any liberal can provide that advice. The advice that we should be providing is that the working class needs to form a party of its own, and lead the mass of the people to overthrow capitalism and institute socialism via the mechanism of state power. Now there are ways and means of saying this, and if we repeat it in the same format every time, the workers may get bored and stop listening to us. But being innovative and creative in the manner in which we disperse this message does not mean that we should utilise non-Marxists to do our talking for us.

Yet this practice is a concomitant circumstance of the SA as broad party strategy. It is in accordance with the downgrading of theory and the distorted emphasis on practice (movement building). Repeated exhortations to "just do it" are what the membership are subjected to. This is not because the SA leadership are authoritarians, or because we have a tactic of "rally-hopping". In my view, the overblown emphasis on movement building occurs for two main reasons. Firstly, the drift towards liberalism means that we have to adopt the main means of struggle that liberals are accustomed to — exercising our rights such as they have been attained under the conditions of bourgeois democracy. Secondly, theory must be downplayed or even disregarded. Remember the general rule within SA: no theory, just practice. Just do it. Never you mind what we are doing, just do it. If we did focus on theory, we would have to focus on Marxism, or, Marxist theory would quickly display it's superiority over other political theories as far as a guide to action goes. Yet, the conditioning that SA members receive while SA is in broad party mode is that all political theories have equal weight. Thus, Marxist theory cannot be permitted to be a priority, as it would seriously undermine the broad party project. Needless to say, the result is a thorough miseducation of SA members, which in turn exacerbates identity erosion.

Self-censorship

One of the manifestations of this process of miseducation is the practice of self-censorship. There is no malicious intent with this practice, it comes from trying to do the right thing — in this case, trying to take account of all the various backgrounds and differing levels of political development of all SA members. But as we can't go "too high" and overshoot SA members who have not yet, or may never, arrive at Marxist conclusions, we end up shooting "too low", and accommodate ourselves to the least radical trends within the party. Consider the following list: dictatorship of the proletariat, state power, state planning, centralisation, the transition period, Leninism, Trotskyism, Maoism, the armed struggle, guerrilla methods, Kronstadt, James P Cannon, materialism, idealism, Marxist philosophy, communism, vanguard party, professional revolutionary, the labour aristocracy, class analysis, Bolshevism, the Soviet Union, democratic centralism and proletarian revolution.

This list, which is by no means exhaustive, contains words, names and phrases that should form part of the day to day vernacular of any party professing to be socialist. However in SA, the use of all of these terms is expressly forbidden for the purposes of discussion, description, or analysis. If any of these terms are used, it's usually in the pejorative, or in the form of a deprecatory joke. Ha ha ha, the joke runs, we don't use those terms anymore, they are from the dim and distant past, only arrant sectarians talk about such things. The inability to use such fundamental key markers of a Marxist identity actively corrodes our collective identity, and the miseducation of SA members continues.

Conferences

What effect has the deprioritisation of theory, especially Marxist theory, had on the outcome of the large conferences organised by SA? If the Climate Change Social Change conference held in Melbourne in September/October 2011 is anything to go by, we must say it has had a dramatic effect. With some notable exceptions, such as John Bellamy Foster, the overall picture of the Climate Change Social Change conference was that of a liberal talk-fest. This is not to downplay the tremendous efforts of many SA members who toiled for countless hours to prepare and coordinate the conference. The efforts of these comrades should be applauded loudly. Yet these comrades' sterling efforts could not overcome the shackles that the broad party project imposes. Ironically, instead of the broad party strategy allowing a broader discussion of issues facing the movement against global warming, it has the effect of narrowing discussion onto one path — that of liberalism. As we know from painful experience, e.g. the carbon tax, the path of liberalism has literally no hope of even beginning to seriously address global warming.

Two examples may illustrate this tendency. I recall sitting and listening to Comrade Trent Hawkins talk about the need for sustainable housing. Now I don't doubt Trent's qualifications both as an engineer and an experienced activist. I'm sure everything that Trent said was totally correct — I don't claim to have any technical expertise. But what kind of message are we projecting? That the movement against global warming should focus on forcing governments to build sustainable housing? Or should the movement demand that construction corporations build sustainable housing? No matter how tangentially I try to conceive of this concept, I can't even remotely imagine how this can be part of a socialist intervention into the movement against global warming. This even has overtones of Al Gore's "solutions" which he displayed at the conclusion of his film "An Inconvenient Truth". In amongst these solutions was a recommendation for people to buy more efficient household appliances. Is this part of a Marxist strategy to combat global warming?

Another workshop I attended was one on the topic of the responsibility of engineers and the movement against global warming. On the panel were three engineers and/or university lecturers, and again I am not questioning their qualifications or knowledge or experience of engineering. One of the panel was Comrade Greg Adamson, who did answer my questions relating to how trade unionists can work with engineers in the workplace. However, one guest from New Zealand was particularly shocked to discover that we were trying to address the topic without mentioning the fact that it is capitalist corporations who deliver the work for engineers. "Corporation" or "capitalism" was not mentioned at all. Perhaps this workshop was one of the academic streams for which the conference had originally planned. But what stage have we arrived at, when in our campaign work for one of the most crucial issues of our time, we can't even mention corporations, let alone any criticism of corporations?

The Climate Change Social Change conference appeared to mirror the political situation within SA itself. Sure, there were some Marxist elements scattered in amongst the dozens of plenums and workshops organised. Many comrades worked tirelessly to put it together. But the general message from the conference was not that socialism is a part of the solution to global warming. The impression given was that socialism may play a part in the climate justice movement, but not a large part, and certainly not the dominant part. It seems to be the same within the Socialist Alliance. Socialism is part of the mix in SA, but it's not the only thing, and certainly not the main thing. The overall trend is to just build movements, occasionally using some socialist ideas, but not being too insistent on that sort of stuff. Nothing could be more damaging for our identity. We are to carry the name socialist, but we are not to insist on it. We are to use some Marxist ideas, but we can't announce that we are Marxists. We are to prepare for revolution, but we must not be Leninist. We are to produce and distribute a newspaper in the tradition of socialist parties, yet Marxist content is only allowed in small doses. Psychologically, we have to somehow maintain this split personality complex. If nothing else, these trends surely indicate some kind of an identity crisis.

Ideology and identity

As socialists working under the conditions of the First World, our struggle is almost solely an ideological one. We are not yet at the stage of underground organising, where socialism has been outlawed. We are able, to a limited extent, take part in the discussion of political ideas amongst the working class and their allies in this country. Ideology plays a crucial, underpinning role in virtually all of these discussions. It is also strongly linked to identity. Even our right wing opponents identify in one particular way or another, even if it is just as an anti-socialist. Yet, it is in the field of ideology where SA stumbles. The SA as broad party project imparts a scattergun approach to ideology. Any ideology will do, as long as they contain some criticisms of the capitalist status quo.

Here, though, there is criticism and there is criticism. An anarchist will criticise capitalism, but their criticism is extremely hollow, for an anarchist will criticise socialism will equal vigour. A libertarian will criticise capitalism for its extensive use of the state, but this is selective, as most libertarians oppose the use of the state for social welfare purposes, but are silent when it comes to corporate welfare. A liberal will criticise capitalism, and often will kick and scream against its excesses, but will only call for “more regulation” of capitalism. An autonomist will criticise capitalism, but only when capitalism encroaches into their own locale, company or community.

The only ideology can counter capitalist ideology from a historical and scientific standpoint is Marxist ideology. No other ideology can offer permanent solutions to the ongoing crises now spreading like wildfire across the planet. We would do well to remember that the multiple capitalist crises are not just on the environmental and economic plane — indeed we know that these two crises ultimately have the same source. A crisis that is just as large, and just as difficult to overcome for the capitalists, is the ideological crisis. The idea that we just have to work hard, and we will have a better life for us and our children, the idea that corporations have the right to make profit as they supply jobs for all, the idea that banks should be able to capitalise on our savings deposits, the idea that those in authority always know best and have a plan to fix things — all of these ideas and more are now virtually destroyed. The ruling class must come up with an alternative ideology that is capable of winning mass support. For them though, this is incompatible with the operation of their system.

Socialist ideology, on the other hand, is capable of winning mass support amongst the people. But socialist ideology is linked with iron chains to Marxism and Leninism. Such is the passage of history; this cannot be wished away, not even by a broad party project. In order to be able to offer Marxist ideology as an antidote, we have to stand on the basis of a Marxist identity. In colour terms, we need to be offering a red ideology and a red identity. SA is attempting to mix red with green, pink, black and even blue-tinged. Despite our best intentions, it has become quite a mess.

Program — positions — ideology — identity. These items logically flow after one another, yet in SA we are trying to establish identity without the building blocks of a coherent program, positions and ideology. It is like building a house on sand. Identifying as a Marxist party does not necessarily mean that it's stated program and positions are laden with Marxist verbiage cut and pasted from a glossary of Marxist terminology. The use of Marxist language is not the same as Marxist identification. The discussion should be about how to express our Marxism. If SA continues along the path it has for the last three years, however, I fear the discussion will turn to whether Marxism is relevant at all.