Marxism and Socialist Alliance

Marxism and Socialist Alliance

In his article Critical notes on identity, Adam Baker says: “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? ...

“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.”

This is not a good analogy. A council library should have a diverse range of books, including Marxist ones, but also many others.

More importantly, Marxist politics predominates in Socialist Alliance. Many of its leaders and active members are Marxists. They generally set the tone for SA's practical campaigning activity and the content of its propaganda and education. Whether SA calls itself a “Marxist party” is secondary question.

Marxist and Leninist politics can be expressed through different organisational forms. The July 26 Movement in Cuba was not a Marxist party, but its leadership included Marxists such as Fidel Castro, Raul Castro and Che Guevara. The July 26 Movement led the anti-dictatorship struggle, whereas the supposedly Marxist Popular Socialist Party was slow to join in. (See Cuba — How the workers and peasants made the revolution.)

Adam says: “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.”

I agree that political clarity is important. But many left groups interpret this to mean that members have to agree on every significant political question. This helps perpetuate the division of the left into a multitude of small groups.

With the draft document Towards a Socialist Australia, we are trying to be as clear as possible, without excluding diverse socialist views.

Adam says: “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 ...

“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 ... 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.”

Actually, attendance at the 2011 SAlt Marxism conference was about 700. Many of these were attracted by outside speakers such as John Pilger. Pilger does not, so far as I am aware, publicly claim to be a Marxist, so Adam would probably disapprove of him being a high profile speaker at such a conference.

It is true that SAlt is, by the modest standards of the Australian left, a relatively successful organisation. Is this because they are explicitly Marxist? The problem with this explanation is that other groups which are explicitly Marxist have had much less success.

Part of the reason for Salt's success is that their over-simplified thinking. For example, the argument “Cuba has faults, therefore Cuba is not socialist, therefore Cuba is capitalist” appeals to a significant number of people.

However, I don't want to be one-sidedly negative about SAlt. I have attended several of their Marxism conferences, and many of the talks were genuinely interesting. Their magazine explains their ideas in a popular style. I am not against learning from SAlt, but we should not exaggerate either their success or our own shortcomings.

Adam says: “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' … 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.”

Actually, doctors get tests done or refer patients to specialists precisely because they “don't have all the answers”. You don't want a doctor who thinks he/she knows the nature of your illness despite having insufficient information to make such a judgement, and doesn't bother referring you to a specialist or getting pathology tests done when this is necessary.

(SAlt is a bit like this. They claim to know things that are actually not true — e.g. that the Cuban revolution was made by a few hundred guerrillas, or that Cuba today is still homophobic.)

Adam says: “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.”

This kind of all-or-nothing thinking is reminiscent of Socialist Alternative. SAlt says that if Cuba is not a perfect example of workers' democracy it must be capitalist. Adam says that if Socialist Alliance does not have all the answers it must be clueless. Reality is not so simple.

Adam says: “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.”

If we don't have all the answers, then we try to find out the answers. This may take time, and may involve learning from others.

Adam says: “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.”

I agree we should aim for this. But a major obstacle is the belief of other left groups, such as Salt, that they “have all the answers”, and that their supposedly infallible politics would be watered down if they were to unite with those who disagree with them on issues such as Cuba.

This kind of attitude seems similar to what Adam is advocating. If we think we have all the answers and SAlt thinks they have all the answers, the two groups are unlikely to unite.