SA and its modernist illuminati

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Most political organisations, especially socialist parties, hold up and look to certain past or present leaders, writers, activists and other builders of the socialist movement. They point to their writings, their work and their activity which they carried out, often in very difficult circumstances, as they put into practice their interpretation of how the struggle for socialism should be fought, or how it was best fought in their particular situation and at a particular point in history. Each political tendency holds up a certain illuminati, those whose advice is constantly sought, even if they have long passed on, in which case their writings are consulted.

Hence, the anarchists look to Bakunin, Kropotkin, Bookchin, and Chomsky. For all socialist parties, Marx and Lenin are constants. The Maoists, such as the Communist Party of Australia-Marxist-Leninist (CPA-ML), not surprisingly, look to Mao. The Socialist Party of Australia (SPA), which is now the Communist Party of Australia (CPA), looks to Stalin, amongst others. Socialist Alternative and Solidarity, emanating as they have from the state capitalist tradition, look to Tony Cliff and Trotsky, but as we know they hold that they are not orthodox Trotskyists. The Spartacist League and Trotskyist Platform look first to Trotsky and Lenin, then also to Luxemburg and Liebknecht, with later references to James P Cannon. The former Socialist Workers Party (SWP) looked to Trotsky, Cannon, Ernest Mandel, Ho Chi Minh, Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. After the break from the Fourth International, Lenin succeeded Trotsky in importance, and this remained the case through its evolution into the Democratic Socialist Party (DSP). This is not an exhaustive list, more of a general outline.

Now that the Socialist Alliance (SA) is in the mode of broad coalition building, just who are our illuminati, according to the SA leadership? To which historical figures do we now trace our line of continuity? Marx? No, he has some useful things to say, but his central conclusion - that the proletariat must form itself into a party - is at odds with SA's current practice of not building a Marxist party. So Marx is out. Lenin? No - Lenin also has some interesting contributions, but the type of party he advocates - a strongly centralised party of disciplined cadre well versed in Marxist theory and ideology - is in conflict with the building of a broad reach out organisation, such as SA. So Lenin is out. Trotsky? No - Trotsky tended to emphasise programmatic integrity, and since SA has no program, this doesn't fit either. So Trotsky is out. We can keep going, but it will be in vain. There is no figure from the history of Marxist practice who advises a strategy which is in line with SA's current party building orientation. SA's strategy says, we must only build a broad left coalition, without even worrying about the formation or maintenance of Marxist currents or tendencies within. To build Marxist parties, or even to build Marxist currents within a broad formation, is regarded as being sectarian, and is sometimes described as “left-sectarianism” or even “idealist-sectarianism”. How Marxism is maintained or promoted, or transmitted to new members, in a party which claims that building Marxist parties or Marxist currents is sectarian, is anyone's guess.

My guess is that the strategy of the SA leadership is twofold vis-à-vis Marxism. On the one hand, the SA leadership seeks to inculcate its members with the “We are not a Marxist party” mantra. On several occasions SA members have headed home after a branch meeting with this phrase reverberating between their ears, due to its thunderous repetition by SA leaders. Yet there remains a lingering doubt in the mind of the unsuspecting SA member, despite the tub-thumping. If we are not a Marxist party, why do we call ourselves a socialist outfit? Isn't Marxist theory simply the scientific basis for the movement towards socialism? Here is where the second phase kicks in. To these queries, the SA leadership then says - but what we are doing is Marxist, or at least, it is not in contradiction to Marxism. The two sides of this approach can be used against SA members who have a Marxist background, and also those who do not have a Marxist background. It can even be used against the same individual who raises both questions. It is with this two-sided approach that the SA leadership deals with members who raise lingering doubts about the party building path we are treading. Heads we win, tails you lose. The flummoxed SA member walks away, the questions in his or her mind unresolved.

On the side of the “what we are doing is Marxist” approach, what is occurring is nothing less than an attempt to redefine Marxism, to redefine Marxist theory and practice. There have been many attempts to refashion Marxism into something which suits the particular politics of those advocating such a path, from the revisionists to the vulgarisers. Such pseudo-Marxists cherry pick elements of Marxism that is palatable, but reject that which is unpalatable. Yet Marxism is a single body of scientific theory, to junk one part of it is to junk the entire theory itself. Cherry picking from Marxism, alas, is a method that the SA leadership seemingly uses to justify building the broad reach out coalition building organisation. Hence, the SA leadership takes from Marxism the need for revolutionaries to fight alongside non-revolutionaries in the struggle for reforms. No Marxist disagrees with the need to be involved in this type of work, but Marxist practice cannot be reduced solely to this. Yet for the SA leadership, being involved in social movement building for reforms is, in itself, proof positive that we are dyed in the wool Marxists. The fact that we are simultaneously not building a Marxist party, or any Marxist current, is not accepted as evidence that our Marxist credentials need verifying. We can't agree with one or two per cent of Marxism, disagree with the other 98%, and still claim to be Marxist. Yet this appears to be the current scenario which confronts SA members.

The movement for scientific socialism is generally taken to be the issuing of the Communist Manifesto in 1848. In the days of the old DSP, we could trace our line of continuity right back until 1848. First with Marx and Engels in the First International, which involved the struggle against the anarchists around Bakunin and the misnamed Alliance for Social Democracy. Then with the Second International, including the then impressive German Social Democratic Party, with large Marxist influence. The Second International came to grief when it voted to support the First World War, and into its place came the Third International, with the Bolsheviks and Lenin leading the way. Stalin buried the Third International, and as a consequence the Fourth International was formed, with Trotsky the leading light. Following the Fourth International, the former Socialist Workers Party (SWP) worked with the US SWP, even after the passing of James P Cannon. Later the SWP broke with the Fourth International, and returned to Lenin, and Leninist practice as its guidepost. This remained until the DSP merged into SA, and later became the Democratic Socialist Perspective. Marx, Engels, Lenin, Trotsky, Cannon and back to Lenin - the line of continuity was clearly defined and known by all.

But then the DSP dissolved into SA. There was no other Marxist current that would replace the DSP, and SA as a whole was certainly not Marxist. What had happened to this line of continuity, which many comrades had held in high esteem? The line of continuity had vanished, or more precisely, had been extinguished. We were now on our own, groping our way in the dark, attempting to understand the world without the grand narrative that the entire socialist movement had been both observing and preserving since 1848. New theories, new theorists and new torch bearers were needed. Who were such personnel? Where would they arise? What would their backgrounds be? In the end it was a simple choice - for an ex-Marxist party, ex-Marxists were required.

In her contribution to Alliance Voices, “The Transitional Method” (1), Comrade Pip Hinman rediscovers Peter Camejo. I must stress here that I don't wish to disrespect those who have passed on. Peter Camejo deserves respect for the enormous contribution he made while a member of the US Socialist Workers Party. We can respect and pay tribute to this work, however, at the same time as discussing and debating his later pathways. Comrade Hinman, however, appears to whitewash the devolution of Camejo. She writes “…(Peter, who was a leader of the SWP, later broke with it when it went off the rails. He remained a socialist, even while joining the US Greens and running for Vice-President with Ralph Nader as the presidential candidate)…” (1) These words “remained a socialist” struck me as odd at the time, but as I admit to not having read Camejo's biography, this took a while to sink in. Then the penny dropped. Camejo not only broke with the US SWP, he also broke with the Australian SWP. There was some correspondence between Camejo and the Australian SWP, but this must have been at the time he was breaking with socialism. He broke with socialism to become - wait for it - a stock broker for Merrill Lynch!

I believe he also campaigned for the US Presidential Democratic candidate Walter Mondale in the 1984 US presidential elections. He also broke with long term former US SWP comrade Barry Shepherd. I remember Barry Shepherd writing about how he came across Camejo while he was campaigning in 1984 for the capitalist Walter Mondale. Barry Shepherd, who to this day has certainly not broken with socialism, and as far as I know remains a member of Solidarity in the US, said something like, Peter, what in the hell are you doing? Some time after finishing his work as a swindling capitalist stock broker, he joined the Greens and indeed did run for vice president as a running mate with Ralph Nader. By this time his break with socialism and Marxism was nearly 30 years old.

I'm happy to discuss the ins and outs of Camejo's trajectory, as I don't know all the details. The point, however, is this. SA members, who are apparently looking for socialist role models, are supposed to look towards a Merrill Lynch stock broker? We are supposed to look towards a member of the US Greens? If this is socialism, then this will just about do me. Why don't we just declare all stock brokers as socialists, and rush down to the stock exchange to do some recruiting? Why don't we declare all members of the Australian Greens to be socialists, and join them up straight away? We can observe here, an example of how our exclusive focus on the broad coalition reach out party building model wreaks havoc with our political analysis. Or, it is an example of how the SA leadership is redefining what socialism is, and who socialists are, to dovetail into SA's current application of the broad party tactic. According to this redefinition, someone who has broken with socialism, around 30 years ago, to become a capitalist, is actually still a socialist. Capitalism = Socialism. Voila!

Yet it doesn't stop there. There is apparently more advice we as socialists can learn from the stock broking maestro. Comrade Alex Bainbridge also quotes Cameo in the Socialist Alliance Building Report, given to the 8th National Conference. He quotes Cameo…”the goal of people fighting for social change is to succeed, not to win a theoretical argument or to sound more radical than someone else. Empty rhetoric is a form of capitulation” (2) We can agree with every word here, but coming from Camejo, well after his break with the US SWP, we should be aware of where he is coming from. This is an extreme example of the highlighting of pragmatism over theory, ideology and politics. Camejo “succeeded” by becoming a capitalist. That sounds like a form of capitulation to me. Is it possible to argue that he advanced the struggle by building a pro-capitalist party and running as a vice presidential candidate for a pro-capitalist party? If we agree that this is what these actions meant, why don't we immediately pack it in here and join the Australian Greens? That will advance the struggle much more than wasting empty rhetoric building the Socialist Alliance.

Comrade Bainbridge also unearths a second leading light. In the same report, Alex refers to “British Marxist Tariq Ali”. Marxist? As far as I know, Tariq Ali was last a member of a Marxist organisation in the 1970s, and hasn't bothered trying to build a socialist or Marxist organisation since that time. This legacy has meant that he does indeed have some keen insights, but he is also very cynical around the idea of the working class being able to take state power. He also trash talks many socialist parties who are attempting to build revolutionary parties, but are not yet large enough to have mass influence. What is clear is that Ali once was a Marxist, and this was around 40 years ago, a longer period since Peter Camejo's break with Marxism. Yet, in the eyes of the SA leadership the fact that these two have broken with Marxism make them prime candidates for SA illuminati. We too, have broken from Marxism, or building Marxist parties, so we too must take our lead from others who have worn the same path. After all, if you can't “win” with Marxism, junk it and try something else. Change your politics comrades, it doesn't matter. That word socialist in our party name is just nominal; we don't actually intend that anyone should take it seriously. In fact, it will be all the better, because then we can be sure we are “non-dogmatic”.

It isn't necessary for you to be a cynical septuagenarian who has broken with Marxism three or four decades ago, in order to qualify for the SA leadership's socialist hero register. No, all you have to do is generally agree with SA's current throw everything in bar the kitchen sink party building model. For example, Pham Binh. Comrade Mel Barnes quotes Binh approvingly, in the International Political Situation Report, delivered to the 8th National Conference. I agree that Pham Binh can certainly write very well, but his reports on the Occupy movement are coloured with his lamentations that the left should just “get together” and offer a united socialist voice. Despite the best efforts of everyone concerned during the Russian revolution, the Bolsheviks, Mensheviks and SRs could never magically get it together, because it was a question of on which politics to unite. Binh's demands for the left to just unite regardless of politics, emphasising practical work above politics, mirrors SA's current approach, hence he is put forward as a spokesperson. Binh's sweeping dismissal of North Korea indicates something about his politics though. (4)

Which Marxist political organisation is Binh currently building? It doesn't seem that he is building any at all, after it seems he was thrown out of the US ISO. He concentrates on the Occupy movement, because this is something practical. Like the SA leadership, he tends to think that practical movements are more Marxist than any party building the various left organisations have done in the last 100 years. Like the SA leadership, he seems prepared to toss aside politics in order to achieve a “unity”. I'm open to be corrected on Binh's current membership status, but the fact that he does not seem to be currently building a Marxist organisation does indeed make him one of SA's kindred spirits, as SA also regards the building of a Marxist organisation as irrelevant.

The evidence is compelling. Three separate SA leaders lauding three separate figures as our new leading lights. All three of these alleged luminaries are not currently building a Marxist organisation, and two of them broke with socialism and finalised their accounts with Marxism over 30 years ago. Let us call a spade a spade. A socialist cannot be separated from a Marxist, and a Marxist must strive to build a Marxist organisation. The form of that Marxist party or organisation will change, depending on objective circumstances. The RET seeks to have SA recognise and learn from those Marxists who have in the past, and/or are currently, making a contribution to the socialist movement by building Marxist parties, organisations, or currents. SA should not be attempting to redefine what socialism and Marxism is to suit its current party building model. It should be the other way around. SA should be using the party model which best suits the struggle for socialism, not the model which best suits the building of social movements.