SA-Building report

SA-Building report

The Socialism for the 21st Century Conference was less than a month ago. This was a major undertaking for our party, in association with Green Left Weekly and Links. The decision to hold a large, public conference was made last June at our national conference, aiming to “promote the Socialist Alliance, to amplify the case for socialist change in Australia and to create a forum for political education of our membership and the broader radical public.”

The conference was a political success, bringing together activists and revolutionary thinkers from Canada, Spain, Malaysia, The Philippines, Pakistan, India, New Caledonia, East Timor, Rojava and Australia, including Aboriginal leaders.

Financially it has probably made a small loss, but this is equivalent to the cost of sending one comrade overseas. This was money well spent and the party as a whole has gained from this event.

It certainly raised our profile, and was built on the longstanding international reputation of GLW, Links and Socialist Alliance. Comrades engaged in a discussion about revolutionary strategy, learning from the experiences of the Latin American processes and the struggles for socialism across the Asia-Pacific and Australia.

The tour by Ian Angus in the lead up to the conference was useful for those branches he visited. Ian gave talks on and off campus in seven cities in just over two weeks, including Perth, Adelaide, Hobart, Brisbane, Cairns, Newcastle and Sydney.

The survey of SA members about the conference has produced some useful feedback. Marta Harnecker and Ian Angus rated highest in the favourite speakers/sessions category, followed by Mike Lebowitz and the Aboriginal activists speaking at the conference. Suggestions for improvements for next time included having a single venue, less options in the multiple choice sessions, more time for discussion, more comrades organised to help out on rosters, healthier food options, and suggestions for more of a focus on rural issues and on strategy in the Australian context today. In terms of timing for future conferences, the feedback is roughly: one third in favour of having it during the winter months; one-third in favour of the Dec-Jan period; and one-third who don't mind either way.

Edited video content is being uploaded to Green Left TV as it is ready. Marta Harnecker’s talk has already had 673 views and Ian Angus’ talk has had 370 views. Dave Riley has now edited 22 audio files from the workshop sessions, and these will be uploaded on the conference website after the NC. So we have a wealth of resources from the conference for branches to use, to multiply its impact and enhance our education program.

The immediate feedback from the conference was very positive (comrades should read Radhika Menon’s report in the latest issue of Liberation) and comrades came away from the conference saying, 'When can we have another one?' This report is not proposing a date, but we should start a discussion soon about planning for the next Socialism for the 21st Century conference – and not leave it too long between these events.

The content and framework of this conference “Moving beyond capitalism: learning from global struggles”, compares well to other conferences on the left in Australia, (which have a lot of political theory and history but little to no discussion of strategy) and reflects our open and non sectarian approach and our practice of international collaboration based on mutual respect and non interference.

The other aspect of the conference was that it attempted to draw in some social movement activists for a discussion about strategy, but not starting from the premise that we have all the answers, or something to teach everyone else, but that we’re serious about the necessity to build the social forces for the struggles ahead. We’re not looking for headline acts, but serious collaborators and co-thinkers in this process.

We want to contribute to the construction of a mass socialist party (the 'political instrument', as Marta Harnecker refers to it) that can educate, organise and mobilise the Australian working class and other oppressed groups (in other words - a broad project to unite the 99%), to replace the power of the capitalists with popular power.

But we also understand that to advance this aim we need to build a serious socialist organisation now and deepen its connection to and authority among working people through our active involvement in the movements, our electoral work, our local government work, trade union campaigning, our media and our party-building activities.

And we are open to uniting with all those prepared to join us in this aim, and to be part of any political formation than can advance towards this.

An example of this approach is our work with Ken Canning in the Federal election campaign in New South Wales.

While a lot of our resources have been taken up with planning and organising the conference this year, we also managed to hold an Organising School and organise an exposure tour to Malaysia in January. We relaunched onto campus in February, and are in the middle of Federal election campaigns in NSW, WA and Victoria.

We have also been focussed on the possibilities arising from the break that occurred in February this year when Rob Pyne, the former ALP member for Cairns decided to resign from the ALP while in office. Rob made no secret of his disillusionment with the ALP's stance on mining, refugees, etc.  and has worked with Socialist Alliance members in Cairns for nearly a decade on campaigns.

Rob's preparedness to vote against the Adani Coal mine approvals, and for refugee rights and to move a Private Member's Bill to get abortion off the Criminal Code in Qld – against the will of the ALP, LNP and the Katter Party – shows a political seriousness and courage of his convictions.

Rob attended and spoke at the Socialism for the 21st C conference – and faced off attempts to disrupt his speech by some ALP-aligned unionists from Queensland.

There is great potential for the Qld Pro Choice campaign to mobilise people across the state. A major campaign is needed to get the bill up. We have members leading this campaign in Cairns, who have a lot of respect in the community and we will work alongside Rob and help build the extra-parliamentary movement needed.

The next half of 2016 will be busy for us, not least because we should expect an escalation of attacks on the working class under a re-elected LNP government and at best a continuation of the neoliberal agenda under an ALP government.

Immediately after this meeting, branches will be back into the Federal election campaigning in NSW, Vic and WA in the lead up to Polling Day on July 2.

Over the campus break, some branches will be conducting educational classes, the Students of Sustainability Conference will be happening in Brisbane, and we will be relaunching back onto campus for Semester 2.

The Moreland City Council election will be held on Saturday October 22 and we will be defending Sue Bolton’s council position. The attacks on Sue arising from the Moreland Says No to Racism rally campaign from the far right, the shock jocks, the Murdoch media, councillors, including the Greens mayor, the cops, and sections of the far left, has brought Sue's role as a Socialist councillor into the spotlight. There will be a campaign by some of these forces to get Sue off council and we want to pull out all stops to prevent this if we can.

Sue’s role, along with that of Sam Wainwright are exemplary of the way in which socialists can use their role in elected positions to expose dirty deals and developer greed, to work alongside communities standing up for their rights, and to campaign around issues that reverberate beyond the local area, like climate change and refugees.

Having won these positions on the back of the years of campaigning and profile, we don’t want to give them up and we need all comrades on deck to help with this campaign.

Our next decision-making conference will be held in Victoria from January 20-22, and with it the next Radical Ideas conference.

The state of SA branches is uneven and some have had a good year and others a difficult year so far.

Our approach to overcoming this unevenness and building Branch capacity, has been to recruit, develop and train activist/organisers in those branches where we are finding this easier, and then to free up this capacity to help organise in other branches. This is a long and painstaking process, but there's no easy way around this. Developing cadre/serious activists takes time. We made a conscious decision a number of conferences ago to tighten up, if we become a looser organisation, we’re at risk of reversing on this front.

As our last conference resolution reflected, finances and fundraising continues to be a big challenge for us. We resolved to commence a process of closer work with branches, to professionalise our finances and to encourage the one-to-one discussions needed with members.

Green Left Weekly

As mentioned earlier, part of the success of the Socialism for the 21st Century conference was that it built on the long-term reputation of GLW. Supporting Green Left Weekly remains a key project of ours, which is reflected in the resolutions from our last national conference:

  • The Green Left Weekly project (including hard-copy paper, website, GLTV, social media presence, etc) remains the most important means for us to get our ideas out to wide layers of progressive minded people. Campaigning with Green Left Weekly is a critical means of training our activists and the project as a whole is instrumental in reaching out to and drawing new people in to our movement.
  • The hard copy publication is the foundation of the Green Left Weekly project upon which other elements are built.
  • This conference places a high priority on organising a campaign to increase the participation of Socialist Alliance members in distributing the paper in street campaign stalls, on campus, within the social movements and among individual contacts. The campaign will include a public case within the paper and online about the importance of the GLW project and a political and organisational campaign within branches to increase members' participation in GLW distribution as well as boosting the overall total sold. (June 2015)

As a new member commented recently about GLW, print media is “a way for the party to engage on a physical level within the community by actually selling papers and having conversations… the internet is good for people who need a leftist source online as well. Print media is still very important.”

But we need to train up new GLW campaigners. We've been making some progress with this. How are we going with training new and younger comrades to campaign with GLW?

GLW’s strength is its mix of activist news reporting on the attacks by the ruling class, protests and responses of our class (if you don’t read about them in GLW you’re not going to read about them in the bourgeois media), analysis, agitation, theory and history, plus culture. We know we can't 'compete' for news with the mainstream media, but we can use our online presence better to get out articles and stories in a more timely way (which we are doing more and more) and by training our members to be activist-journalists – the amount of self-publishing by our members on platforms like Facebook actually makes this task easier.

We also recognise that online and social media are key platforms for communication. GLW was one of the first papers to publish online in Australia, and was ahead of its time. But it is true to say that online media has taken leaps in the last two decades that we haven't been able to keep up with, and we've been trying to close this gap for well over a year now, drawing on the resources and knowledge of comrades. We’ve been selling a small number of digital subscriptions over the past couple of years, but digital subscriptions can only expand as GLW’s website improves.

To rapidly get GLW to where it needs to be in its look and functioning is going to take more than our in-house skills – which means GLW will have to spend some serious money on making this happen, through sourcing the skills and expertise outside. We are all impatient for GLW to take that next step in its online presence. It would be a mistake and a political loss to withdraw support for GLW and Links.

The US online site Jacobin has a quarterly, hard copy magazine with over 15,000 subscribers in addition to its web audience of 700,000 per month. They see a role for both hard copy and online presence.

Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal was initiated by the DSP (Democratic Socialist Party) and first appeared as a hard copy publication in April 1994, at the time of the International Green Left Conference. It had an editorial advisory board and was published a few times per year. From 2008, Links was published as an online-only journal and has continued to play an important role in providing a platform for discussion and debate amongst the international left and for the education of Socialist Alliance members. The recent Socialism for the21st Century conference was co-hosted by Links, which widely publicised the conference. Links will continue to publish the conference talks as they are available.

Links has potential to expand as a collaborative space, potentially involving a number of the international participants at the Socialism for the 21st Century conference, for example. It has an exchange promotion with Monthly Review and Democracy Now! – could these relationships be enhanced, or others established? How can the website be improved and upgraded? These are all topics needing discussion.

The Socialist Alliance website is looking more professional, with the addition of sliders on home page and a clean look and feel. Work will start after this NC on revamping the policy page, to group policies together and we will continue to improve it as we go.

Elections

The report on Australian Politics and the Federal election generated a lot of useful discussion about our electoral work. There are written reports from WA, NSW and Vic comrades about our election campaigns that were circulated ahead of the NC meeting, so I won't go into them here. Comrades can fill in more details during discussion.

Why are elections so important for our project?

This section will partly respond to some of the alternatives put forward by the tendency. There is also a resolution that we will consider at the end of discussion.

Firstly, to recap on the June 2015 national conference resolution on elections:

  • Socialist Alliance continues to see participation in elections as an important arena in the class struggle and an important part of our work. Contesting elections is one means of getting a hearing for our ideas and is an important means of contrasting socialist solutions to the policies of the ALP, the Greens and the populist right.
  • This conference resolves to participate in the forthcoming federal elections under a banner of taxing the corporate rich to fund social services, renewable energy and other environmental measures. Conference encourages branches and state organisations to preselect lower house and senate candidates respectively where we have the resources to run campaigns.
  • Our most significant electoral successes to date have been at local government level. Participation in local government in Moreland and Fremantle has been a valuable experience for the Socialist Alliance, encouraging community activism and raising the profile and policies of the Alliance. Conference resolves to defend and extend our involvement in local government.

The Alliance has always maintained a tactical flexibility on the question of running in elections ourselves, electoral alliances and support for other progressive candidates. One example of this flexibility is the involvement in our NSW election campaign of Aboriginal leader Ken Canning on our ticket. Ken is not a member of Socialist Alliance, but is driving this campaign with his energy and inspiration. Ken chose to run on our platform after considering whether to run as an independent.

Decisions on local, state and federal elections are local ones – for branches to make. But as the conference resolution states, elections are an important part of our work. Whether to run on our own ticket or whether to enter into alliances or coalitions is based on local openings and opportunities, as well as resources. We can’t have a ‘forced march’ approach to elections. We are open to working with other forces, but the question of potential partners or broader tickets is considered on a case-by-case basis.

For example, we explored such an alliance in Cairns earlier this year, which didn’t come off. In 2011, we were part of a community ticket called Community Voice in the Wollongong City Council election. In the last Council election in Sydney, we ran on a Housing Action ticket with members of the CPA.

In regard to the tendency's point on whether or not to run against a strong left-wing Green, here we shouldn't try to elevate a tactical question into a principle. These decisions are for branches to make. It is often the case that areas where the Greens have strong support are areas where we also have strong support and do regular work – so we may still want to run. It is a fact that the Greens do occupy the electoral space, but working class people don't necessarily see the Greens as an alternative and are attracted to a socialist candidate. So we don't want to abandon the field entirely.

Would the proposal by the tendency mean that SA never runs in local, state or federal election if a progressive stands? If so, it would mean abandoning raising Socialist Alliance candidates. It would also be a mistake to abandon State and Federal elections in favour of running in local elections only. Federal elections give us the opportunity to raise our election platform on national issues. What's more, the forced amalgamations of councils in NSW meant that local elections were cancelled this year.

We made a decision not to run against Jim Casey in Grayndler, deciding to stand in the Seat of Sydney - against another left-Green, Sylvie Ellsmore. Our decision was based on the fact that we have an office in the Seat of Sydney and have done good campaigning work in Redfern, Glebe, Erskineville and Newtown over the years.

Our election platform is a good example of how we can propagandise for immediate, and far-reaching, socialist solutions and oppose the ruling class attacks in a popular and accessible way. I think this embodies what we mean by a transitional approach to politics.

Here is an example from our current Federal election platform, which I think does this:

Australia is a wealthy country with the resources to provide everyone with a decent, comfortable life and to provide aid to our regional neighbours. But the reality is that 60% of that wealth is in the hands of the richest 20%, while the poorest 20% own virtually nothing.

We need a radically different future: one that provides for human development, meets community need, protects our environment and guarantees a safe climate; one where our economy operates to ensure social and ecological need; one where participatory democracy means people make the decisions in society; one that promotes cooperation, solidarity and justice for all — an eco-socialist future.

Then our platform is set out, including:

Tax the corporations and the rich — no GST

  • Scrap the GST;
  • For a progressive tax system where the wealthy pay their share;
  • Introduce a wealth tax for the super rich;
  • An immediate rise in company tax to 49%;
  • Tax the big polluters;
  • End the billions in public subsidies to mining corporations banks and energy companies; and
  • End rampant tax evasion by multinationals.

We can always improve on our language, our delivery, the design of our platforms and our use of media. If comrades have particular suggestions on this front, that would be useful. Video is becoming a more common communication tool on social media – more likely to be shared than text posts or links to websites, for example. If there are ways in which we can connect our political platform with people more effectively, we certainly should, and we want to make more quality audio-visual weapons in this battle for ideas. If there are comrades who can help, let's work together on developing them.

While we may not need to survey the public to know that the GST is a bad thing, that's not to say that surveys per se are a bad idea, and could be used to good effect on stalls and with doorknocking (as can petitions) to start a conversation, do some research, etc. I understand that the Workers Party in Belgium uses such surveys to good effect in their campaigning work.

In regard to the tendency’s alternatives taken up in the section on the movement and the commons in their document: The role for Socialists is to respond to all acts of oppression, and this will involve campaigns and different methods of struggle on a whole range of issues. For example, in 2011 our branches in Sydney, Brisbane, Perth and Melbourne participated in the Occupy movement – and played leading roles in this. Right now comrades in Melbourne have been supporting the occupation by the homeless of houses in Melbourne that were requisitioned by the East West Link, and left empty. SA members have supported the blockade at Bentley against Metgasco, the Piliga protests, etc.

We understand that the social forces challenging corporate power come from a variety of places, not just the factory floor (for example, the mining boom has seen communities rise up and alliances formed between farmers, environmentalists and city-based activists). But we also understand that it is only by building united action of our class that we’re going to bring about fundamental social change.

The weakness of the trade unions is a serious problem in Australia, the result of decades of class collaboration by some leaders of the unions, but we understand that class struggle isn’t just limited to the union movement or union members. France is crippled by protests, yet trade union membership in France is actually quite low at 8% compared to 25% in the rest of Europe. But class forces are out there all the same.

We want to look for resistance to oppression and attacks wherever it is and relate to it, support it and influence it with socialist ideas. In order to do that most effectively, we need a party. There are a lot of great individual activists out there, but we are more effective organised collectively.

As Marta said in her talk at the conference, Our objective is not to service the movements, but to bring together all the different momentums in the movements into a common struggle for fundamental social change.

As mentioned at the start of this report:

We want to contribute to the construction of a mass socialist party (the political instrument) that can educate, organise and mobilise the Australian working class and other oppressed groups  (ie a broad project to unite the 99%) to replace the power of the capitalists with popular power.

But we also understand that to advance this aim we need to build a serious socialist organisation now and deepen its connection to and authority among working people

The perspective of the tendency risks disappearing the party entirely and dissolving ourselves into the movements.

To respond to the proposals from the tendency on branches and branch democracy: Organisation follows politics. The type of organisation we want to build – at the national and local level - should be based on our political perspectives and strategic aim.

Branch meetings are the basic democratic forums of our party at the local level. We don’t want branch execs or coordinating committee meetings to replace these or suck the life out of them so they become rubber stamps. We want to involve more comrades in the life of the branch, and to encourage them to attend branch meetings and take ownership of our project. Key decisions should be made by a branch (for example, whether or not to run in an election, major fundraiser, campaign priorities, etc).

The role of the BCC is to prepare these meetings and ensure that their decisions are carried out, to have a division of labour – in other words, these are working bodies, elected by and accountable to the branch.

Some smaller branches have open execs, others have no BCC but a de facto coordinating group of a couple of experienced comrades - obviously we want to grow and this will make it necessary to function in a different way.

We want structures that gear us for growth in our membership, but that enable us to operate democratically and maximise our united action.

Working groups enable us to better carry out our movement and party-building work in a united and effective way. In the Socialist Alliance we don’t organise our political work by identity, but by political priorities discussed and voted on by branches and the party as a whole. Comrades from an oppressed group have the right to form a caucus under our constitution, but the proposal by the tendency for multiple, permanent autonomous caucuses as a structural feature of our party is a clear departure from the kind of party we are building. Areas of work are the responsibility of the party as a whole, not hived off to a caucus. This risks de-prioritising areas of work and taking important discussion outside the branches and the party as a whole.

In our branches there is direct election of branch leadership bodies and adoption of our division of labour for working groups and priority campaign areas. There is a danger of de facto leaderships in caucuses undermining the elected leadership bodies in the Alliance.

How would caucuses maximise our unity of action? What impact would they have on our democratic decision-making?

In Socialist Alliance, when we want to do something, we discuss it and decide on it. If agreed, we then test it out in practice with the maximum unity in action. If we test it out and it was the wrong decision, then we go back, re-assess and decide on a different course of action, then test that out together. Labels are usually not helpful, but this is the concept of 'democratic centralism' we practice in Socialist Alliance.

To take up the point about whether Socialist Alliance is (or should be) a Multi Tendency Socialist Party (MTSP) in 2016, which has been raised by members of the tendency. Firstly, the MTSP was a transitional proposal for the Socialist Alliance, during the period where we had multiple affiliates and this was proposed as a step towards a potential, future united party. This was the desire of the non-aligned members and those of us in the DSP who had already voted to become a tendency within the Socialist Alliance.

To talk about an MTSP today is to look backwards. Socialist Alliance is politically pluralistic, but today we are more of a united and consolidated party, after having taken conscious steps in this direction over a number of conferences since 2010.

Expanding an education and literature program has been a challenge for us, mainly due to lack of comrade time to devote to production of material. The Feminism and Socialism booklet is being written now that the research is complete. The Kurdish pamphlet was a great addition, Women of Steel has made inroads into union and feminist networks, and the new anti racism pamphlet is a good educational tool for branches to use. We should commission John to write more such materials.

We want to continue to upgrade our collection of our internal educational materials, the Introduction to Marxism booklet has been slow in coming because some sections have needed reworking. After this NC, we’ll have a full report on our education and literature program. The idea for a review of our material is not a bad one and we have already undertaken a review and established priority lists for literature – for example, we need to get a refugee pamphlet out (which could be based on a series of articles), as well as the ITM booklet and Feminism and Socialism booklet. The challenge is time for writing and editing.

Our conferences and branch seminars are an important part of our education program, along with branch classes and reading circles. We also want to project to run more organiser schools and Marxism schools, and branches should be planning educational activities over the winter semester break.

Regarding our youth and campus work - this is demonstrably a central priority for Socialist Alliance and has been reaffirmed at national conferences and NCs. We devote serious party resources to it.

The ten alternatives put forward by comrades in the tendency can be divided into two groups – those which have as their starting-point the frustrations we all share in the pace of progress on some fronts, and those which point fundamentally to a different kind of organisation to our party.

For us to act effectively as a united party it simply isn't possible to have two separate lines of march, and so we need to resolve this difference politically and democratically.

The national executive invited the comrades from the 21st C Socialism tendency to present a counter report to this meeting, in recognition of the fact that they are proposing a different project and a different direction for the Alliance, and hopefully their report will clarify the alternatives they are putting forward, so we can have a useful discussion.