SA and ideology

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.

What is ideology? Is ideology a good or a bad thing? What attitude should socialists take towards ideology? Should socialists engage with ideology, take part in an ideological struggle, or abstain from it?

The Oxford Compact Dictionary describes ideology as follows:

“1. Scheme of ideas at basis of political etc. theory or system. 2. Characteristic thinking of class etc.” (1)

Even a dictionary put together by those who are consciously or unconsciously in the pay of the capitalist class recognise the class nature of ideology. Ideology is a system of ideas which ultimately defends the interests of a particular class.

A Marxist Glossary and Philosophical dictionary describes the class nature of ideology in more precise terms:

“The ideas and outlooks — economic theory, politics, law, ethics, religion, art, philosophy etc — expressing the interests of a class. In modern society, there are only two basic ideologies — the capitalist and the working class; a viewpoint that professes to be “neutral” or “above classes” objectively expresses in the last analysis the ideology i.e. the interests, of the capitalists. Hence the vital significance of the ideological struggle — which also has to be fought within Communism against bourgeois ideas and outlooks which inevitably penetrate its ranks” (2)

As socialists we cannot deny ideological struggle, as we engage in it each and every day. One could argue that almost the entire struggle for socialism is an ideological struggle. It is a struggle for the interests of the working class as opposed to that of the capitalist class. As socialists then we don't say that all ideology is inherently bad — for we are struggling for our ideology to become dominant, in order for the working class to liberate itself from capitalism. Any attempt to deny the ideological struggle, or claim that socialists are non-ideological, is thus not only not socialist — in practice it actively assists the capitalist class. Just as any article written in any newspaper about an imperialist war either supports the war or is opposed to it, so too any political activity which expressly denies it is ideological automatically cedes power to the class which holds power.

Socialists are not just activists who take part in social movements. Socialists have a task which has been placed on their shoulders by the progressive movement of history. This is the task of preparing the proletariat, the lowest social class, for the task of overthrowing capitalism via revolution, constituting itself as the ruling class, and establishing the conditions for the eventual withering away of the state and all social classes. Perhaps the key aspect of this gargantuan task is the forging together of a party of the proletariat, to lead the toiling masses in the long struggle for emancipation. And not just any party.

The scientific and theoretical basis for socialism is Marxism, and the best practical exponent of Marxism in history thus far was Lenin and the Bolsheviks in Russia in the years leading up to 1917. So Leninism is connected to Marxism by a thousand threads. The cardinal aspect of the party that Leninism added to Marxism was the concept of a vanguard party. This vanguard can be interpreted in a number of ways, but the fact remains that the vanguard party, and a Marxist vanguard party, is part and parcel of the entire body of Marxist theory. Thus all socialists are joined to Marxism and Leninism and the concept of a vanguard party, whether or not this is recognised by those who join the ranks of the socialists. And the vanguard party plays a critical role in the ideological struggle of the working class. I think all socialists can agree with these basic tenets, even if there are disagreements about how to apply them.

How well equipped is the Socialist Alliance (SA) then, to engage in the ideological struggle? Does SA attempt to actively win its members, and the working class in general, to the clearly defined ideology that is necessary for the working class to take state power? Does it attempt to win its members, and the broader working class, to the concept of the need to assemble a Marxist vanguard party? Does it attempt to construct Marxist cadre, who are the most schooled in socialist ideology?

It seems we have to say that unfortunately, SA is currently not well equipped and dangerously underprepared for the ideological struggle for socialism. This is no fault of any SA member, many of whom are devoting limitless hours to building the struggle for socialism. Rather, it is the current structure of SA which does not allow SA to sufficiently engage and win ideological battles. The current structure of SA is one which is a broad non-Marxist coalition, with no Marxist currents operating within (putting aside the RET for the sake of argument). SA openly declares it is not a Marxist party. If we are not a Marxist party, and there are no Marxist currents operating within the broad party, where then do we obtain our Marxism? How can we claim to be practising Marxism when we are building a party where Marxism is an opt-in, opt-out basis? SA members have a right to learn about Marxism, but we are denied this right due to the structure of the broad coalition.

SA members are charged with an impossible task. We are to try to win people to socialism, but we have to do this without reference to Marxism. It is an ideological non-sequitur, yet SA members have to attempt the impossible in their day to day work for SA. It is like trying to make a loaf of bread without any flour. To those we seek to join to SA who have objections to Marxism, we say we are not Marxists. To those we seek to join to SA who disagree with a vanguard party, we say we are not building a vanguard party. To those we seek to join to SA who believe that socialism is inherently environmentally destructive, we say we agree, and that is why we have “ecosocialism”. To those we seek to join to SA who are influenced by anarchism, we say we agree with anarchism on many issues. To those we seek to join to SA who are influenced by libertarianism, we say we agree with the freedom of the individual. And on and on it goes. At each point the structure of SA as a broad coalition which includes several different, and conflicting, ideologies presents a barrier to winning people to the single ideology of Marxism — the advance towards socialism via the construction of a revolutionary vanguard party.

The presence of conflicting ideologies also presents barriers in attempts to win people to essential elements of Marxist ideology, including Leninism. The keys are accommodation and adaption. SA attempts to be all things to all people at all times, hence it cannot hold to set ideas of ideology, politics, the vanguard party, economics, philosophy and so on. We need to be flexible, we are repeatedly told by the SA leadership. We certainly have been doing this, and the result is that now we are so flexible that SA's politics resembles kindergarten play-dough. Any member can mould and shape SA's politics into anything they feel like. If every member can have their own interpretation of what SA stands for, why have a political party at all? Isn't the purpose of a party a grouping of people who agree on a set amount of political postions? It's true that Lenin did try many different means of constructing a vanguard party under the conditions of Tsarist Russia. But what he would think of constructing a socialist party which accommodates to each and every kind of non-socialist ideology one can scarcely imagine.

SA leaders claim that we don't need to worry about the retention of Marxism, because there are Marxists operating within SA. This is like claiming that a take away deep fried pizza, saturated in oil and grease, is actually a healthy and nutritional meal due to the presence on the pizza of small vegetables. The vegetables can hardly deliver their unquestioned nutritional value due to the overwhelming presence of other unhealthy substances. The presentation of the pizza as a whole drowns out what decent nutritional value the vegetables in and of themselves can offer. In a similar fashion, the healthy Marxism that may exist within SA is often overpowered by the non-socialist ideologies within SA. This occurs not because non-socialist ideologies are more correct or more scientific than Marxism — this is an impossibility. It occurs due to the accommodation to non-socialist ideologies which follows as a corollary of building a broad non-Marxist party with zero Marxist currents within.

How does this accommodation to non-socialist ideologies play out in practice? A dramatic example was discovered at a recent Resistance forum on Marxism held in Brisbane, called “REVitalising REVolution”. Let me stress that in no way am I criticising any member of Resistance in relation to this forum. Several Resistance members toiled for many hours in building and preparation. The forum was successful in drawing in a reasonable number of new and younger people, who stayed for the entire day. The Resistance members should be heartily congratulated for their efforts. Despite this, the content of the forum contained graphic examples of the ideological decomposition we are now familiar with as it is passed down from the broad coalition politics of SA.

Part of the introductory blurb to the forum went like this: “Join us in a broad discussion looking at what Marxism has to offer us and what other radical movements have to offer Marxism”. I'm usually not one to nit-pick about exact word formulations, but this example is extremely concerning. It is a reflection of what seems to be SA's current view of Marxism — i.e. Marxism is a useful theory for some things, but it is not the only theory going around, and anyway it has some inherent flaws which need to corrected by other theories. This is preposterous. If SA believes that Marxism has inherent flaws, that it is not an adequate theory that socialists can use to assist and guide the working class in its struggle for socialism, that other non-Marxist theories on political change are superior to Marxism on some issues, then the claim that SA believes in Marxism is rather precarious, to say the least. At best, it is keeping an open mind on possible additions to the body of Marxism with advances in science. At worst, it is an anti-socialist position, which is indistinguishable from a common or garden variety bourgeois academic assault on Marxism.

One of the sessions included a discussion on Marxism and psychoanalysis. Freud, Fromm and Laccan were each presented as psychoanalysts who made important contributions to Marxism. The Frankfurt School was referenced, and lauded as if it was a school which somehow had been overlooked up until now by those struggling to build revolutionary movements. It should be noted that the SA branch leadership was split, with one SA branch leader arguing against wasting the precious time of activists attempting to learn from psychoanalysts, when we should be learning from real revolutionaries such as Che Guevara. In discussion, I made the point that while we may be able to learn something about psychology as it exists under capitalism from psychoanalysis, we certainly cannot learn about building Marxist parties, ideological struggle or preparing the working class for revolution from psychoanalysis. And since SA and Resistance is in the business of activism, we need to be learning from Marxists who have spent their lives building revolutions, building Marxist vanguard parties, practically and theoretically. It may seem therefore, that it is “narrow” to always come back to Lenin, Marx, Engels, Trotsky, James P Cannon and Co, but that is where our field of activity lies. If SA believes that this is a “narrow” approach to Marxism, then presumably SA must believe that Marxism and socialism itself is narrow.

The blame for this situation should not be laid at the feet of the unsuspecting Resistance activists, who are doing their level best in trying circumstances. Rather, the accountability should lay with the SA leadership, who it seems are unintentionally steering SA away from socialism. We then encounter situations on the ground level where SA and Resistance promotes the idea that anyone who has written about Marxism, or has written books criticising aspects of Marxism, are then regarded as bona fide Marxists. Hence, Freud, Fromm and Laccan all become Marxists from which SA and Resistance activists need to learn. Never mind the fact that none of them have ever joined a Marxist party, ever attempted to build a Marxist party, ever supported a revolution, and that they largely disagree with huge chunks of Marxism. The apparent theoretical discord only makes sense once we acknowledge that we are building SA as a non-Marxist party. For a non-Marxist party, naturally, it's theoretical and ideological underpinnings must be sought from non-Marxist theorists. Freud, Fromm and Laccan are about as non-Marxist as can be, but this in turn makes them ideal candidates for SA ideologists.

Granted, the comrades presenting this session were not arguing that Freud, Fromm and Laccan should replace Marx, Engels and Lenin whollus bollus. They were arguing though, that Marxism needs to learn from these leading lights of psychoanalysis. No matter how respectfully this is put forward, if we as socialists claim that Marxism “needs to learn” from distinctly non-Marxist or anti-Marxist theories, then that implies that we don't believe Marxism is adequate as a tool with which to understand the world. It seems then, that what SA really means when it says that “we don't have all the answers” is “we don't believe Marxism has all the answers”. This last statement could be made by the most liberal anti-Marxists on the planet. How then are we meant to conduct an ideological struggle for socialism, if we express serious doubts about Marxism?

The situation at the REVitalising REVolution then appeared to stray even further from Marxism, when it came to the session on party building. The session was billed as “The Party in the time of Occupy”. This is a fantastic way of putting the party building question, with a particularly contemporary reference. This should have been a perfect platform from which SA would put forward its case for the need to build a Marxist-Leninist vanguard party. But this is not at all what occurred. Instead, on the panel was Dave Eden. Dave is well known in Brisbane for being an anti-party, anti-ideology and anti-Lenin “Marxist”. Certainly Dave is well versed in some aspects of Marxist theory, especially around Marxist economics. Dave's anarcho-communist views are not even accepted by anarchists, and it seems he is not able to organise with them. The notion that one can be anti-party, anti-ideology and anti-Lenin and still be a Marxist should be seen as being impossible. However, this is what he claims and he is a part of the left movement in Brisbane, so there is no objection with him attending, or even being on the panel of a left unity discussion.

However, when Dave put forward his basic postulates that Leninist parties are useless, or worse than useless, and that ideology is a barrier to the construction of a worker's movement, the SA branch leadership at no point attempted to argue against these stridently anti-Marxist ideas. What the SA leadership did was to try to accommodate Dave's arguments at every step. When Dave claimed that the workers' movement should not struggle for any kind of ideology, the SA leadership agreed and said that we are not doing this. When Dave claimed that parties are an obstacle to the workers realising their own needs, the SA leadership appeased him by claiming we are not building a party which does this. At no point did the SA leadership attempt to defend Leninism against the most anti-Leninist attack imaginable. At each point the SA leadership attempted to mould its “Marxism” into the anti-Marxism of its critics. I was horrified, but again, it is a natural consequence of building a party which tries to be all things to everyone on the left, and hence all previously existing theories, ideologies and political views have to be turned inside out. A strategy where SA members do not attempt to hold the line on the most fundamental of Marxist principles, is a strategy that I struggle to categorise as Marxist. I am not pointing the finger at any individual SA leader. These SA leaders are simply carrying out what appears to be a mistaken line.

All who call themselves socialists need to win the working class and potential allies to an ideological position — that socialism is a historical necessity, that we need to do it ourselves, and that the most important step in this task is the creation of a Marxist vanguard party. If we in SA are not building a Marxist vanguard party, or preparing for one to be built, then we are ill-equipped for the ideological struggle that is a vital necessity for the proletariat in the time of what could be a terminal crisis of capitalism. If we in SA do not attempt to win people to Marxism, then our ideological struggle is finished before we even start. We in SA will not be able to win people to socialism if we stop short of winning them to Marxism, or if we accommodate and adapt to non-Marxist ideologies. Ultimately, there are only two ideologies — socialist and capitalist. SA must decide where it stands.