The debate about program we need

The debate about program we need

What is the draft platform of the Socialist Alliance? It’s a series of “dot points” on matters on which the nine founding affiliates agree. These outline a principled socialist stance on most of the issues of the day in Australian politics, being basically driven by the idea “let the rich pay” or “people before profit”.

Yet this is just a starting point, the foundations of the house we are looking to build together. The question that immediately arises is: how should we conceive of our draft platform politically? Is it “reformist” or “revolutionary”?

Some comrades say or infer that the platform should be viewed as a summary of the positions that the ALP or its left wing used to put forward — demands for reforms that the dictates of global capitalist competition now make unrealistic for any party contending for government.

According to this viewpoint the platform should be seen as the basis for a mass party of reforms with its social support base mainly made up of disaffected ALP voters and with its main focus on elections.

Other comrades agree that such indeed is the “genetic code” implicit in the Alliance’s draft platform, and for that very reason insist that we need to add in more advanced demands to ensure that it is unambiguously revolutionary.

I think that both these approaches are mistaken and both could impede the Socialist Alliance from fulfilling its potential as an all-round weapon of resistance against economic rationalism and as a voice for socialism.

Just an election platform?

Maybe the first point we need to get clear is that, while our platform is electoral, it certainly doesn’t mean that the Alliance is electoralist — none of us think that our body of demands can be won by winning seats in parliament. We’re not parliamentary reformists and an integral part of our message is that mass struggle is the fundamental method for winning social change.

Secondly, while the Socialist Alliance has been founded to stand in elections it won’t even succeed as a vote-winning operation if it sees it role exclusively as representing our side in the class struggle at election time.

Why, for starters, should the vast pool of people who are fed up with Labor and generally progressive-minded vote Socialist Alliance and not Green (or PLP)? The Greens, especially their “social left” variant in the NSW Legislative Council, are adept at giving what parliamentary support they can to the causes of the day. Their parliamentarians make a point of appearing at every protest, picket-line and progressive meeting going. They do media-stunt “protests” at election time. Moreover, their program on paper is with some exceptions just as progressive — and certainly a lot more elaborated — than our draft platform.

Nor should we have any illusions that calling ourselves “socialist” is a big plus over the Greens in electoral terms. We will probably get the votes of that still small group which identifies as socialist but for many more who hate Labor and Liberal (and identify with the rising anti-corporate sentiment) “socialism” if it means anything still conjures up gulags, inefficiency and bureaucratic state domination.

The unmatchable advantage of the Green tag in this field is its ambiguity — all sorts of people whose real social interests are contradictory can call themselves “green”. That’s the underlying social reason why the Greens can always oscillate on preference policy.

The Alliance has to embody not just a better electoral platform but a different type of politics. This can only mean doing more of what we have already started to do — taking the initiatives of resistance (like our successful national day of protest against the GST) and pointing out the way forward for all the struggles that erupt. Our limited intervention in the NSW workers’ compensation dispute gave us an idea of what can be achieved—rank-and-file unionists, firefighters, electricians and others, got in touch with us as a result of reading our leaflet and model motion.

In short, to win influence at the electoral level the Socialist Alliance has to be seen to be leading the fightback in practice. The Alliance has to continue and strengthen the increased left unity achieved at S11, M1 and initiatives like theMelbourne Nike picket. We have to look toward building Socialist Alliance as the left, anti-corporate vehicle on campus and in the unions.

This is all the more true because a quick electoral success for the Alliance is unlikely and converting disillusionment with Labor into active support for the Alliance will be a long and winding road.

Indeed, if we persist with this false expectation we will be setting ourselves up for electoral disappointment at the same time as underrating the real gains possible in terms of consolidating a clearly socialist pole of attraction in Australian politics.

What this all implies for our platform is that we have to see it as an action program — it mustn’t just tell the voter where we stand, it must show working people and other “social actors” where and how we and they should fight.

Not revolutionary enough?

Others—including certain ex-socialist wise heads from within the Greens and the ALP left—remark how little of the “full” socialist program our platform encompasses. Shouldn’t we take out insurance against a reformist interpretation of our “dot points” by adding in some unequivocally revolutionary demands?

This reaction also mistakes the platform’s purpose. Its point is not to provide a shortened version of the full revolutionary program—a Communist Manifesto in miniature. Rather it presents an outline of the socialist answer to the capitalist offensive and capitalist social values in every concrete case.

It is based on the understanding that to have the Socialist Alliance platform “come off the page” requires two things above all:

  1. getting a hearing from the victims of the capitalist offensive and
  2. convincing them that we are proposing a feasible plan of resistance.

Let’s not forget that the potential audiences for the Socialist Alliance inevitably come to us with heads full of all sorts of prejudices and illusions in simple solutions and quick fixes. We are competing with a gamut of political shysters — including One Nation — each with a panacea for the moment and a flash line in “anti-globalisation” fakery.

Such is the real political universe created for us by capitalist restructuring in a small imperialist power where anti-socialist prejudice still runs pretty deep. In that context revolutionary phraseology and “advanced demands” set down to reassure ourselves of our own revolutionary bona fides more often than not provide free kicks to the enemy.

The great American revolutionist James P. Cannon confronted these sorts of concerns at the First Workers Party Convention in 1921, and his words are still relevant:

I have talked to comrades who have fears of reformist tendencies. They are afraid we did not put enough revolutionary words in our program. Comrades, there is no danger of reformism in a party that is organised and led by class-conscious fighters. Reformism comes only from those who do not want to fight, and the guarantee that our organisation will not be reformistic is not alone in our program, but in the composition of the delegates who have fought consistently and determinedly on the basis of the class struggle in the past, and that is the guarantee of our activity in the future.

(Speeches for Socialism, Pathfinder Press, p. 27, emphasis added)

Given this conception of our platform, how should we then apply it? Surely our message must always have the following four elements:

  1. Victims of economic rationalist policies can’t defeat attacks on their livelihood without organised resistance and struggle. (For example, the GST can be beaten but it will require building a big anti-GST movement);
  2. To win a struggle we have to know (a) what we are fighting for and (b) who our potential allies are;
  3. Any positions won or held through the struggle will always be at risk while the levers of power remain in the hands of the major parties;
  4. That’s why we need to build the global political alternative (which can’t be anything but socialist).

Starting from plans of resistance and “sectoral” responses to capitalist attacks doesn’t mean that we don’t want to talk about the “maximum programme” of socialism. Quite the reverse. Our message always has to make clear that the gains of any struggle can only be consolidated if the working people and not the corporate elite become the masters of society.

However, this message cannot be our starting point. That’s what the platform is for — it provides the immediate demands and proposals that give us the best chance of rousing people’s will to resist and of strengthening their confidence that the battle can we won.

What discussion on program?

The very fact of the formation of the Socialist Alliance as a united, stronger voice for socialism in this country promises to change the balance of political forces in this country. By that very token it also starts to make “the socialist program” a less propagandistic matter and should force a change of gears from all of us in our thinking about program. But do we thereby conclude that the existing draft platform is pretty much all the Socialist Alliance needs?

That too would be wrong. We definitely need to work at improving and elaborating our platform, but always keeping in mind its purpose. This requires us to avoid a number of traps.

The main one is what we can call the PLP or Rainbow Alliance trap — endless policy elaboration in the abstract. We can get lured into this cul-de-sac if we look at the detailed programs of opponents like the Greens and start to feel nervous about covering our embarrassing policy nakedness. As the election heats up our opponents will certainly be scoffing about our lack of a detailed position on all “issues of government”, as if we can’t possibly be serious without a fat document on, say, tariff rates in the shipbuilding industry.

Developing that degree of policy detail would, of course, require setting up policy committees, squander a vast amount of effort and run the risk of generating endless and fruitless polemic, as happened in the PLP.

We can avoid this trap if we keep in mind that our platform is not a governmental program. We don’t offer those who will listen to us a list of things we would do if elected, but rather a “line of march” for working-class and popular resistance.

At the same time, however, we already feel the pressure to elaborate our policy in those areas where the Alliance is engaged in struggle and initiative, for example, against the GST. Because of our national day of protest we have already been asked hundreds of times: “What would you people do about the GST?” or “How would you replace a GST?”

Our response has been to apply in a more-or-less detailed way the principle that the rich and the corporate elite can and should pay more. This has been summarised in the fact sheet produced by comrade Rebecca LeMay and a “Repeal the GST Open Letter” directed at the ALP that has been drafted by comrade Janet Burstall on the basis of an ACT TLC resolution. It’s our next shot in the GST war.

What the Socialist Alliance is presenting here is not “our policy” in the sense of what we would do if government were miraculously handed to us tomorrow and we had to find $150 billion a year in tax revenue. It is, however, “our policy” for reversing the shift in the tax burden from the mass of working people. That is, it’s a policy whose parameters and degree of detail are set by the needs of this particular struggle. Those parameters, that degree of detail and the specific demands that need highlighting will change as the struggle develops.

This will be the case, sooner or later, in all the “policy areas” covered by our platform. And it tells us how we need to approach the job of elaborating it. We need to have an ongoing policy discussion, we need to draw on all the expertise, interest and passion of Alliance members, but we also need our discussion to be real and not idly speculative or scholastic.

I suggest the following general method to achieve this goal:

  1. To have an ongoing policy discussion in all areas. It can be leisurely and conducted through the discussion bulletin.
  2. The results of these discussions to take the form of concrete proposals that go to the incoming National Executive and the next National Conference.
  3. The incoming National Executive to be empowered to adopt interim policy positions as needed, drawing on the collective expertise of Alliance members and in full consultation with local and regional groups.

In this way we can have the best of both worlds. We can rapidly attack the issues around which the political developments will require us to have more detailed policy. We can also maintain the background ferment of debate and policy elaboration, which will help the Alliance refine its own stance and prevent us from just repeating old formulae.

Nor need our policy discussion and development be some semi-secret internal process. Indeed, since we are also permanently engaged in the battle of ideas against all brands of capitalist ideology our “policy development process” — carried out in appropriate forums — can also help shine the light of publicity on the general socialist cause.

Here one idea that has emerged within the DSP is that of holding public Socialist Alliance policy seminars or forums. These would be a useful prelude to our election campaign and an occasion for filling out and discussing our “dot points”. Each major city could specialise in a particular theme that best exploits the political openings and expertise of local Alliance members and supporters. For example, Canberra could handle foreign policy, Sydney globalisation and economic policy, Melbourne environment and Brisbane indigenous rights and so forth.

Surely the point to most keep in mind is the need to link policy debate to the needs of building the Alliance on a solid and principled socialist basis at every turn in the social struggle. If that’s our touchstone we shall not, despite inevitable and necessary debate and divergence, go too far wrong.

[Dick Nichols is an Acting National Convenor of the Socialist Alliance and a member of the National Executive of the democratic Socialist Party.]