Marxist vacuums: the rise and rise of Socialist Alternative

Urgent appeal. Socialist Alliance needs to submit an updated list of over 1500 members to the Australian Electoral Commission to maintain our electoral registration and appear on the ballot at the next federal election. We're asking all existing members and those interested in joining to confirm your willingness to support our electoral enrolment by filling in this form.

The state of the left in Australia in 2012 looks quite different to what it was at the turn of the century. In 2000, the socialist left comprised two large (for the standards of the left in an advanced capitalist country) parties or organisations, and perhaps half a dozen or more other smaller groups. The two largest were the International Socialist Organisation (ISO) and the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP) alongside its youth organisation Resistance. These two organisations had a similar size in terms of active members. There was the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), Socialist Alternative, Workers Liberty, Workers Power, Freedom Socialist Party, the Spartacist League and no doubt some others that don’t immediately come to mind. But the dynamic was clear — the DSP and the ISO had the most active members on the ground involved in party building and movement work, while the others did the same, but necessarily on a smaller scale.

Fast forward to 2012. We now have the situation where Socialist Alternative (SAlt) has advanced in leaps and bounds to a position of unequalled dominance on the left, at least in terms of where it matters most — active members on the ground. SAlt has shot past all comers in the left in the last ten years. They publish a regular Marxist journal, organise annual “Marxism 20…” conferences in Melbourne which attract in the vicinity of 800 people each year and I would hazard a guess that they have around 350 regularly active members with a possible total membership of 400. (These are only guesses) From what I can tell, they dominate political life on most University campuses around the country, with the exception of perhaps Hobart and Adelaide, and perhaps Perth. They draw most of their considerable activist energy from their student base. SAlt have huge influence in the equal marriage rights campaign, and substantial influence in anti-war and refugee rights activism.

Compare this to our Socialist Alliance (SA). We have an active membership of perhaps 100, but we do have a large paper membership, extending to some 750 odd members. Sales of the newspaper Green Left Weekly probably exceed SAlt’s Magazine. We are involved in many campaigns, including trade union campaigns, against coal seam gas and global warming, anti-war and refugee rights to name only a few. But we do this with relatively few activists on the ground. SAlt, on the other hand, seem to have no difficulty in outmobilising us for rallies, meetings and party building activities, often by a ratio of 5 to 1. That is, where SAlt seem to have little difficulty in mobilising 25 activists for a standard demonstration; we in SA will stretch ourselves to mobilise 5 comrades. This is not to disparage our efforts, it is simply recognising the reality.

How has this situation come about? What factors have lead to the explosion of SAlt, while we in SA struggle to bring up the rear, alongside the other smaller left organisations? We seem to sit back and wonder about how SAlt are able to achieve these things. SAlt shouldn’t be able to be so successful, because they sometimes appear to have a very harsh and confrontational approach to the rest of the left. SAlt shouldn’t be so successful if they have a generally sectarian approach. SAlt shouldn’t be so successful if they don’t recognise the socialist achievements of countries such as Cuba or Vietnam or China or Venezuela. SAlt shouldn’t be so successful if they appear to abstain in general from environmental campaigns. So why are they out in front in terms of socialist politics in this country? We in SA need to make a sober assessment of this fact. In my view, the rise of SAlt over the last ten years, and particularly in the last five years, is a result of two main political developments.

The demise of the ISO

One of these is the implosion of the former ISO, and the other is the political direction of both the former DSP and, soon after, our SA. The ISO in the late nineties and early 2000s were a formidable outfit. Despite their sometimes over the top militant approach, and despite what most of us in SA would regard as a handicap of the theory of state capitalism, the ISO had activists on the ground in most major cities, a considerable campus base, and a number of older and more experienced leaders. Then, their UK sister or mother party, the UK Socialist Workers Party (SWP), took part in the initial Socialist Alliance project there. This led the former DSP to propose to the ISO a similar socialist alliance in Australia. The ISO agreed, and our SA was founded, initially alongside six or seven other socialist organisations. Our SA started with a bang, as it was able to include individuals who agreed with socialism but were not part of any of the founding affiliates.

Over time, however, the ISO’s participation in our SA caused them significant internal problems. I don’t pretend to know the ins and outs of these problems, but it seems the ISO had difficulty in directing their members to work directly with other socialists, perhaps calling into question the need to build the ISO itself. Whatever the reason, the ISO suffered what appeared to be mass resignations and several splits, effectively withdrew from our SA around 2003 and I think formally withdrew around 2005. Those ISO members who remained formed Solidarity, which started off small, but is now rebuilding, I believe significantly in Sydney and Melbourne.

What was it that the ISO balked at? Did they hesitate to form a new socialist party with the rest of our SA? Were they concerned about the preservation of their interpretation of Marxism if they continued in SA? We can only guess the real reasons. But what we can say is that the largest beneficiary from the decline of the ISO, was SAlt itself. I remember Dick Nichols once referring to SAlt as the ISO’s political doppelganger. This was a most apt description. SAlt originated as a split from the ISO in 1995, the reasons for which I again can only speculate. I believe it had something to do with a major disagreement over how to approach campus work. Nevertheless, SAlt remained relatively small in terms of active members from its founding in 1995 until around 2005. Then it took off, eclipsing the remnants of the ISO to be found in Solidarity, as well as our SA and the rest of the left combined.

There is a certain constituency for Tony Cliff inspired, state capitalist politics in Australia. In my view this was proved by the success of the ISO in the 1990s, and now the success of SAlt for the last ten years. The ease with which one can build a socialist organisation if it has a black and white approach to the dialectically complex process of the transition from capitalism to socialism, is a contributing factor. Cuba, Vietnam, China? Nothing to do with socialism. Leadership of a trade union? All sell-outs. We need socialism “from below”, not the top down — leading to a certain dismissal of attempts to build a post capitalist state, or a fighting union under a capitalist system. This is not to write off their politics totally, as they are involved in as much honest activist work as anyone on the left. But the fact is there is a certain space for it, which appeals to some students, some workers and some academics. And once the ISO went into freefall, SAlt capitalised on this mini-vacuum almost immediately, and was able to continue to do so for several years. It’s dominance of the state capitalist influenced milieu has only been challenged in the last couple of years by the rebuilding of Solidarity in Sydney and Melbourne.

Our contribution to the vacuum

The more significant contribution to the rise of SAlt, in my view, has been the direction of our SA. Our direction, since the departure of the other socialist affiliates, and especially since the end of the DSP’s internal factional struggle with the comrades who became the Revolutionary Socialist Party (RSP), has been one which positively embraces broader and broader progressive politics — whether or not this includes Marxism. In fact, adherence to Marxism in our SA is seen as somewhat of a hindrance to being politically broad, so it is not insisted on. Rather, it is an option that SA members can investigate if they wish. There are even some theoretical educational classes remaining in SA which members can seek out. But these classes effectively remain exercises in academic thought, as the theory cannot be applied in the context of our SA, as we are officially not a Marxist organisation.

As I have tried to demonstrate elsewhere, the relegation of Marxism to simply one of many political theories in practice means that we in SA downgrade its importance, and constantly search for non-Marxist, but generally progressive political theories to align ourselves with. This process needs to be elaborated more expansively in further discussion. But the essential point is that we in SA do not organise on a Marxist basis, and consequently we do not advertise or promote Marxism in the context of Australian politics. SAlt certainly do this — they openly campaign on the basis of being Marxists, supporting Marxism, promoting Marxism and practising Marxism at all times while participating in Australian politics. The Marxist vacuum created by our practical abstention from Marxism means that SAlt cash in time and time and time again. In my view, we will never be able to catch up to SAlt while we are not able to challenge their interpretation of Marxism head on. We only have one foot in the Marxist circle — until we have two, we will always be playing second fiddle to those who are openly Marxist.

An objection could be raised at this point to the contention. There are other parties and organisations who do campaign openly on the basis of being Marxists, but they have not been able to grow as exponentially as SAlt. After all, the RSP, CPA, Solidarity, Freedom Socialist Party, the Spartacist League and others all campaign with their interpretation of Marxism up front. Why haven’t they been able to expand, when SAlt has, if all you need to do is campaign openly for Marxist politics? The answer is that a vacuum first flows into the line of least resistance. Or, should we say, the hole of least resistance. Suppose that a bomb explodes in a passenger airliner mid-flight, and rips a two metre hole in the side of the aircraft. A vacuum is created, and air threatens to pull the passengers out into the atmosphere. The explosion has caused a small hole on the other side of the aircraft to the largest hole. A vacuum is created at this hole as well, but overall it is no match for the two metre wide hole. The vacuum effect is at its strongest at the largest hole.

A similar process seems to have taken place with regards to Marxist politics in Australia. We in SA have steadily exited the political space as far as open campaigning for Marxism goes. The next largest organisation that the Marxist mantle fell to was SAlt. This process began around 2005, just as the factional struggle broke out inside the former DSP, with the comrades that became the RSP. That factional struggle was a bitter, but necessary struggle. I now believe that the role I played in this struggle was not helpful, and may have even been incorrect overall. But while we in the former DSP had a factional fight, ironically over Marxism, we were largely disarmed, and this flowed through to SA. While we in the former DSP fought over what Marxism was and how to apply it, SAlt eagerly grasped the free kick we handed to it. They have used this to their benefit since that time, but the process is most marked now, since the dissolution of the former DSP into SA in January 2010. Since that time, there have been no Marxist currents operating within our SA, and SA as a whole has been explicit about not being a Marxist organisation. This move, perhaps unbeknownst to us, not only hands SAlt a free kick, it virtually awards them the entire game. SAlt can say, we are the Marxists in this patch — the next largest left org is not strong on Marxism, and the others may be Marxist but are too small to have an impact. This largely means that young workers or students, or those new to socialist politics who have a desire to radicalise around Marxist ideas, and who wish to join a substantially sized organisation, have only one choice — to join SAlt.

The Greens vortex

There is an additional factor, related to the Marxist card, which further boosts the stocks of SAlt. This is how to relate to the rise of the Greens over the last decade. Our SA has chosen to relate to the rise of the Greens by seeking to align ourselves with the progressive policies the Greens put forward. This has gone so far as SA adopting a policy which now states that SA “seeks the greatest possible political collaboration with the Greens”. Ostensibly, the aim of this policy is to try to influence the “left wing” Greens, perhaps joining some of them to SA, but overall hoping to influence the Greens to tack left. I don’t think this has been the effect. What this policy has done, and is doing in my view, is that in practice our SA helps boost the Greens politically, while simultaneously corroding our socialist positions, and dragging our politics in a centrist direction. A related effect is that we politically support capitalist parliaments, the entering of which is the main aim of the Greens. Unwittingly, we are drawn into the parliamentary vortex.

More essentially, our policy of seeking collaboration with the Greens in practice means that we are not able to sufficiently critique the Greens when they take conservative positions. When the Greens pass an austerity budget in Tasmania, as they are doing now — with the effect of closing some schools and running down hospitals, we in SA put forward our criticisms. But due to the fact that we are seeking to work closely with the Greens, the nature of our criticism is only in the sense of saying “The Greens should not have done this”. We in SA are not able to say why the Greens did this. Why did they help in the closing of schools? Ultimately the Greens serve capitalism and seek to extend its lifespan. We in SA can’t say this publicly, as it would jeopardise our chances of more political work with the Greens. So in turn we are not able to explain to the working class why ultimately we need to go much further than Greens politics, and in the direction of socialism, especially in an era of environmental and economic capitalist meltdown. Saying, “the Greens should not have done this” is not an adequate explanation of why the Greens turn their backs on the things that they say they stand for, and it does not help us nor the working masses understand what politics are most needed.

Now consider SAlt’s approach to the rise of the Greens. SAlt have no such policy or practice of seeking political collaboration with the Greens. SAlt offer a fairly precise critique of the class basis of the Greens politics. They characterise the Greens as one which represents the views and outlook of the quite comfortable middle classes. Even if the Greens represent the most politically progressive section of the middle classes, this still means they fall a long way short of being anti-capitalist.

Socialist Alternative’s Ben Hillier wrote a very useful piece for the inaugural edition of Marxist Left Review, titled “A Marxist Critique of the Australian Greens”, released a couple of years ago. In it, he lays out some evidence describing both the middle class ideological basis of the Greens, as well as some evidence indicating that much of the voting support for the Greens also emanates from the middle class. He writes:

“The middle class is particularly fragmented as it has several distinct relationships to the means of production. As such it is more accurate to talk of the middle classes: sections of the state bureaucracy, lawyers, doctors, middle/high-grade professionals, professors and senior academic staff, middle managers and small business owners. The middle classes shade into both the capitalist class at one end and the working class at the other. In the middle classes the interests of the two [other] classes are simultaneously mutually blunted. The middle classes therefore imagine themselves elevated above class antagonism generally”. (1)

The Greens generally, and most Greens supporters, therefore tend to share the Greens ahistorical non-class outlook. They tend to view themselves as above class struggle, as indeed the middle classes do not take a direct part in the class struggle between the working class and the capitalist class. The middle class lawyers, doctors, professionals, middle managers and so on, view their achievements as part of their own personal hard work. In a sense this is partially true, but their privileged positions exist via the existence of the two big classes involved in mass production — the bourgeoisie and the proletariat. Hence they tend to believe that societal problems can be solved just by people being educated into thinking enlightened thoughts. So while the Greens do not openly declare themselves to be pro-capitalist, they certainly have more illusions in the capitalist system than even the bourgeoisie itself.

The Green’s illusions in the capitalist system tend to be reflected in its view towards bourgeois parliaments. The Greens are super serious in their orientation to these parliaments because they actually believe the system works. And for the educated middle classes, in general, the system does work — for them. The working class suffers terribly, but no matter. Even the openly pro-capitalist Labor and Liberal parties sometimes display their cynicism towards parliament, although not openly, as deep down they realise the system is a set up. Even the political comedy satirists The Chaser, recognise the middle class basis of the Greens. Their skit “Vote for the Greens — and relieve your middle class guilt” being a case in point.

The middle class are not opposed to capitalism per se, they just have a few issues with the manner in which capitalism is run. If capitalism can be run with a few of the rough edges knocked off, then the middle class don’t really have a beef with the system itself. Similarly, the Greens are not interested in seeing capitalism replaced — after all, if that was to occur their comfortable seats in parliament from where they can calmly do deals with other representatives of the capitalist class would not exist. If capitalism could operate while preserving the environment, humanely treating refugees, and saving the whales, the Greens could live with this situation quite easily. It is not in the material interests of the Greens to oppose capitalism. The middle class, and the Greens as a representative of this class, thus support the capitalist class in practice, even if they may protest loudly about its indiscretions at times.

Consider the advantages a SAlt like orientation to the Greens is for a socialist organisation. Each time the Greens “betray” the left (in reality they are only serving the interests of their core constituency), SAlt wins out, and we in SA lose out. Each time the Greens take a right wing position, SAlt can calmly explain the middle class origins and nature of the Greens, the Greens effective support for capitalism regardless of their complaints, and so on. However, we in SA have to solemnly shake our heads, as if we are apologising to our supporters for raising their hopes, only to have their hopes dashed. SAlt can rationally explain that what we actually need is socialism, guided by Marxism, and if you want to help build it – please join us. We in SA, on the other hand, can only say that we are disappointed that the Greens have done this, and we sincerely hope that it never happens again. We can say, join SA, and from there we can pressure the Greens to be more left wing. But even this is ineffective, as the Greens are not bound by any of our protestations, as there is no formal agreement between SA and the Greens. What tends to occur is that we in SA fervently wish for a formal alliance with the Greens, but the Greens, with their fear and hatred of communism simmering beneath the surface, have no intention of formally joining with the socialist movement. The dynamics seem to be clear — when the Greens take the wrong stance on the carbon tax, the Tasmanian budget, the war on Libya and numerous other issues, SAlt cash in, and we in SA are undermined. In these instances, SAlt can grow larger, whereas we in SA can, and often will, suffer further losses.

Have we been trapped?

I think there is a tendency for us in SA to scratch our head and wonder how and why it is that SAlt outnumber us on the ground by a ratio of around 5 to 1. This baffled me for some time. However, I think we can largely account for this trend by recognising this: SAlt are growing because we are helping them to grow. To reiterate, we in SA do this unintentionally via two practices. Firstly, the practice of essentially vacating the Marxist political space, such as it exists, in Australia today. This allows SAlt, as the largest openly identifying Marxist tendency, to almost entirely fill this vacuum. Secondly, we assist the growth of SAlt via our policy of seeking close political collaboration with the Greens. This associates us with the Greens to our detriment when the Greens take right wing positions. When this occurs, which is occurring with increasing frequency due to the crisis of capitalism and the Greens’ strong ties to the system, SAlt again are able to draw in a massive proportion of the socialist constituency in this country.

This trend occurs despite what we would assume to be SAlt’s idiosyncratic interpretation of Marxism. I am not an advocate for SAlt’s interpretation of Marxism, and I share the majority of my SA comrades’ views on SAlt as sometimes being confrontational, dismissive or sectarian towards us and other left parties. I agree that some of SAlt’s Marxism is distorted, particularly with relation to existing and former workers’ states. However, even a distorted Marxism such as the one practiced by SAlt is an advance on general social justice, environmental and human rights advocacy such as we tend to offer in SA. The Marxist constituency in Australia presently is not large, admittedly. Nevertheless, some radicalising workers and students do want to know what the “Marxists” — whoever they are — are saying. If we in SA are not able to step up to the plate and say that we are a Marxist party and here is our Marxist analysis, then these workers and students must go to SAlt. Some of the most politically aware workers and students may look further than SAlt if they are not satisfied with SAlt brand Marxism. But these highly politically aware workers and students are quite rare.

In my view, we in SA will continue to be caught in this trap as long as we remain on our present trajectory. In order to further prevent our direction causing considerable assistance to SAlt, we need to both drop our policy of “seeking the closest political collaboration with the Greens” and we need to form and build Marxist currents within SA. The RET is one such current, but we need to form, build and consolidate many more, hopefully to get to a stage where the dominant discussion and debate within SA is that between the various Marxist currents. If we can get to this stage, we will be on a level pegging with SAlt, and we will be able to offer a Marxism (or Marxisms) that can be a genuine challenge to SAlt’s Marxism. If there are better ways in which to challenge SAlt, I am very interested in hearing about them. But we must act now, otherwise SAlt’s Marxism will stand as “Marxism” in Australia, simply by virtue of their sheer size. We need to pinch a hole in the vacuum, and the sooner the better.

Hillier, B, et al, 2010, Marxist Left Review, Socialist Alternative, p.10.